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Altruism and Sex

My genome is healthy.

My genome is healthy.

Altruism is traditionally defined as: “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” So here’s a simple question: why would anyone be altruistic?

One answer has to do with our relatives. Sociobiology suggests that all living creatures share one fundamental goal: to propagate our genes into future generations. Of course, the most direct way to propagate our genes is to reproduce.

But we can also propagate our genes by supporting our genetic relatives. So I might behave altruistically toward my sister because she shares much of my genome. If she reproduces successfully (and her children do as well), then some of my genetic heritage is passed on to future generations. So it pays to be nice to my sister. (It took me a long time to figure this out).

But why would anyone be altruistic toward someone who is not a genetic relative? According to Steven Arnocky’s recent paper in the British Journal of Psychology it has to do with another fundamental human drive: sex.

You may recall that competition for sex is a key element in maintaining the overall health of a species. When there is a fair amount of competition among males, females are remarkably good at picking out the best mates. What does “best” mean in this sense? The best men for producing healthy offspring who can in turn produce healthy offspring of their own.

So how do females know which males will produce the best offspring? Some of it is physical. For instance, females strongly prefer males who are symmetric rather than asymmetric. Being symmetric is, apparently, a good marker of genetic health.

Behavior also plays a role. We know, for instance, that creativity plays a strong role in mate selection – for both men and women. Ornamental creativity is especially attractive. Strictly speaking, ornamental creativity is not essential to survival. So those who display this trait are effectively advertising “I have more than enough to survive plus some left over for ornamentation. I have an abundance of what you want.”

According to Arnocky’s paper, non-kin altruism plays a similar role to creativity. It’s a behavior that is desirable to the opposite sex. The study used two different methods to measure altruism and then correlated the degree of altruism with sexual activity. Those who scored higher on altruism, “…reported having more sex partners, more casual sex partners, and having sex more often within relationships.” The correlation was stronger for men than women, suggesting that altruism is more important for women selecting men than for men selecting women.

In an interview, Arnocky summed up the results by noting that, “”It appears that altruism evolved in our species, in part, because it serves as a signal of other underlying desirable qualities, which helps individuals reproduce.”

Based on Arnocky’s findings, we may have been defining altruism improperly. The classic definition says that altruism doesn’t benefit the individual but does benefit the species. But Arnocky’s paper points out a very direct benefit to the individual – better mates and more of them. Given this, we need to re-phrase our initial question. It probably should be: why wouldn’t everyone be altruistic?

(Less technical summaries of Arnocky’s paper are here and here).

Another Reason For Female Executives

Which gender norms should we adopt?

Which gender norms should we adopt?

Want to get stuff done? You may need to compromise occasionally. Who’s better at that? Who do you think?

A recent study in the Journal Of Consumer Research (abstract here; pdf here) suggests that men working with men tend not to compromise. By contrast, men working with women or women working with women are more likely to find the middle ground.

The article, by Hristina Nikolova and Cait Lamberton – professors at Boston College and the University of Pittsburgh respectively — focuses on consumer behavior and is probably most relevant to marketing strategists. But I wonder if it doesn’t have much broader implications as well.

The study revolves around the compromise effect, which is well understood in marketing circles. Let’s say that you want to buy a car and you have two decision criteria: efficiency and prestige. Car X is clearly better on efficiency and OK on prestige. Car Y is clearly better on prestige and OK on efficiency. Car Y is also more expensive than Car X.

Which one do you buy? It’s a tough choice. So the salesperson introduces the even more expensive Car Z, which is even better on prestige than Car Y. Now Car Y is the compromise choice – it’s OK on efficiency and pretty good on prestige. With three choices available, Car Y is not the top of the line on either criterion but it’s acceptable on both criteria. The compromise effect suggests that you’ll buy Car Y.

The compromise effect has been demonstrated in any number of studies. Indeed, it’s why restaurants often add a very high-priced item to their menus. The item probably doesn’t sell very often but it makes everything else look more reasonable.

But what if you’re making the decision with another person? This hasn’t been studied before and Nikolova and Lamberton focus their attention on decisions made by two people acting together (also known as dyads). The authors looked at three different dyads:

  • Male/male
  • Female/male
  • Female/female

Under five different conditions, Nikolova and Lamberton found essentially the same results. First, the compromise effect seems to work “normally” with female/female and female/male dyads. Second, the compromise effect has much less impact on male/male dyads. Such dyads tend to move toward one of the extremes – either Car X or Car Z in our example.

Why would this be? The authors suggest that it has to do with gender norms coupled with the act of being observed. They write, “Normative beliefs about women’s behavior suggest that women should be balanced, compassionate, conciliatory, accommodating, and willing to compromise….” Male gender norms, on the other hand require, “…men in social situations to be maximizers, assertive, dominant, active, and self-confident; their decisions should show leadership, … high levels of commitment … and decisiveness….”

For both genders, being observed influences the degree to which an individual adheres to the gender norms. If you know you’re being observed – and/or that you will need to defend your choice later – you’re more likely to behave according to your gender norm. Interestingly, men working with women tend to adopt more of the female gender norms.

Nikolova and Lamberton focus exclusively on consumer choice but I wonder if the same dynamic doesn’t apply in many other decision-making situations as well. Men may be willing to compromise but they don’t want to be seen as compromisers. If you need to compromise to get something done, it helps to add a woman into the mix.

Indeed, I was struck by the fact that the same day I discovered the Nikolova-Lamberton article, I also read about Tim Huelskamp, a Republican congressman from western Kansas. According to the New York Times, Huelskamp is a “hardline conservative member of the Freedom Caucus” who “quickly earned a reputation for frustrating Republican leaders…” after he was elected in 2010. Yesterday, a more moderate challenger defeated Huelskamp in the Republican primary. As one voter noted, ““I don’t mind [Huelskamp’s] independent voice, but you’ve got to figure out how to work with people.” Perhaps the good people of Kansas should elect a woman to replace him.

Jevons Paradox and The Future of Employment

My new teaching assistant.

My new teaching assistant.

Four years ago, I wrote a somewhat pessimistic article about Jevons paradox. A 19th-century British economist, William Jevons, noted that as energy-efficient innovations are developed and deployed, energy consumption goes up rather than down. The reason: as energy grows cheaper, we use more of it. We find more and more places to apply energy-consuming devices.

Three years ago, I wrote a somewhat pessimistic article about the future of employment. I argued that smart machines would either: 1) augment knowledge workers, making them much more productive, or; 2) replace knowledge workers altogether. Either way, we would need far fewer knowledge workers.

What if you combine these two rather pessimistic ideas? Oddly enough, the result is a rather optimistic idea.

Here’s an example drawn a recent issue of The Economist. The process of discovery is often invoked in legal disputes between companies or between companies and government agencies. Each side has the right to inspect the other side’s documents, including e-mails, correspondence, web content, and so on. In complex cases, each side may need to inspect massive numbers of documents to decide which documents are germane and which are not. The actual inspecting and sorting has traditionally been done by highly trained paralegals – lots of them.

As you can imagine, the process is time-consuming and error-prone. It’s also fairly easy to automate through deep learning. Artificial neural networks (ANNs) can study the examples of which documents are germane and which are not and learn how to distinguish between the two. Just turn suitably trained ANNs loose on boxes and boxes of documents and you’ll have them sorted in no time, with fewer errors than humans would make.

In other words, artificial neural networks can do a better job than humans at lower cost and in less time. So this should be bad news for paralegal employment, right? The number of paralegals must be plummeting, correct? Actually no. The Economist tells us that paralegal employment has actually risen since ANNs were first deployed for discovery processes.

Why would that be? Jevons paradox. The use of ANNs has dramatically lowered the obstacles to using the discovery process. Hence, the discovery process is used in many more situations. Each discovery process uses fewer paralegals but there are many more discovery processes. The net effect is greater – not lesser – demand for paralegals.

I think of this as good news. As the cost of a useful process drops, the process itself – spam filtering, document editing, image identification, quality control, etc. – can be deployed to many more activities. That’s useful in and of itself. It also drives employment. As costs drops, demand rises. We deploy the process more widely. Each human is more productive but more humans are ultimately required because the process is far more widespread.

As a teacher, this concept makes me rather optimistic. Artificial intelligence can augment my skills, make me more productive, and help me reach more students. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll need fewer teachers. Rather, it means that we can educate many, many more students. That’s a good thing – for both students and teachers.

Corporate Culture: Counting The Uncountable

Stand by me.

You can’t measure love.

I was in a meeting not long ago with a client whose organization is undergoing a significant transformation. We were discussing what needed to change and how we might promote the appropriate change efforts. A senior executive spoke up to say, “Well, you get what you measure.” Nobody challenged the assumption behind the thought and we began to focus on how to measure change in the organization.

I had, of course, heard similar statements many times before. Business schools emphasize measurement as a key ingredient of management. As a leader, you point the way, establish some key measurements, and then harvest the results. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

But think about the things that we don’t bother to measure – or that we don’t know how to measure. These include love, respect, hope, initiative, creativity, open-mindedness, ability to resolve conflicts, receptiveness to new ideas, focus, drive, and resilience. Do we really not care about these things?

We tell managers that the most important thing they can do is build a positive, engaging organizational culture. (See here and here). We also tell them they can only get what they measure. Yet many of the components of culture are simply not measureable. I have yet to hear a manager say, “In the third quarter, we increased corporate resilience by 3.2% compared with the same quarter in the previous year.”

So, how do we help managers build a positive culture even when they can’t measure it? Here are some thoughts:

  • The answer is not a number on a piece of paper. It’s OK to look at numbers but we need to remember that a number is an abstraction of a measurement that is an abstraction of reality. Looking only at numbers is like driving your car by looking only at the speedometer.
  • Trust is an unrecognized but important ingredient. We focus on measurement partially because we don’t trust our eyes, and ears, and subordinates. A measurement is supposed to give us an “objective” view of the organization. But a measurement is only as objective as the person taking the measurement – which is to say, not very. If we can create a culture built on trust, we can learn more about our organization than a measurement will ever tell us. (In this regard, it’s useful to review Edwards Deming’s 14 points of management and his red bead experiment).
  • Learning to observe is more important than learning to measure. We forget that measurement is just one form of observation. Management by walking around still works. Taking groups of employees out to dinner will teach you more than a spreadsheet will. Practice being naïve – ask questions that a rookie would ask. You may think you don’t need to ask certain questions because you already know the answer. But you’re probably wrong.
  • A good conversation is more important than a staff meeting. Staff meetings can be useful but they’re also very structured. You get the information that the structure permits. A good conversation is much more open-ended. You can wander about until you touch on the really important issues.
  • Questions are more important than answers. A number from a measurement purports to give us an answer. But it only answers the question you asked – and the answer may not be accurate. Learn how to ask probing questions that get rich and unexpected answers. Tip: a good course on critical thinking will help.

I think we obsess about measurement because we have a bad case of physics envy. We want our organization to behave like a physics experiment. If we apply Force X, we get Result Y. It doesn’t work that way and never will. Time to get over the measurement mania.

Is Critical Thinking The Ultimate Job Skill?

Interesting syllogism. But the premise is unsound. That's why I get the big bucks.

Interesting syllogism. But the premise is unsound. That’s why I get the big bucks.

When I went off to college, my mother told me, “Now remember … you’re going to college to learn how to think. Don’t miss that lesson.”

I wonder what she would say if she were sending me off to college today. It might be more along the lines of, “Now remember … you’re going to college to get a good job. Don’t blow it.”

We can only judge programs and processes based on their goals. If the goal of government is to provide good services at a reasonable cost, we might give it a fairly low grade. However, if the goal of government is to increase employment, then we might evaluate it more positively. The same is true of higher education. So what is the goal of higher education? Is it to teach students how to think? Or is it to provide them skills to get a job?

I would argue that the goal of higher education – indeed of any education – is to improve the students’ ability to think. Good thinking can certainly help you get a job. In fact, it may be the ultimate job skill. But good thinking can take you much farther than a good job. Here’s my thinking on the issue:

1) Thinking is foundational — the essence of running a business (or a government) is to make decisions about the future. To make effective decisions, we need to understand how we think, how our thinking can be biased, and how to evaluate evidence and arguments. If we know everything about finance, for instance, but don’t know how to think effectively, we will make decisions based on faulty evidence, weak arguments, and unconscious biases. By chance, we might still make some good decisions. But we should remember Louis Pasteur’s thought, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

2) The future is unknowable — our niece, Amelia, will graduate from college next May. If she works until she’s 65, she’ll retire in the year 2060. What skills will employers need in 2060? Who knows? As I reflect on my own education, the content I learned in college is largely useless today. The processes I learned, however, are still very relevant. Thinking is the ultimate process. Amelia will still need to think effectively in 2060.

3) Thinking promotes freedom – if we can’t think for ourselves, we will forever be buffeted by other people’s agendas, desires, ambitions, and rhetorical excesses. Critical thinking allows us to assess ideas and social movements and make effective decisions on our own. We can frame our thinking as we wish and not allow others to create frames for us. We can identify the truth rather than relying on others to tell us what is true. Critical thinking, allows us to take control of our own destiny, which is the essence of freedom. I don’t know of any other discipline that can make the same claim.

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