Human beings are storytelling animals. There is no other species that spends large amounts of time watching the lives of others - fictitious or real - through the stories we read or watch. Stories do not just relate to the entertainment we consume, but are also central to the news we read or the companies that we resonate with. One of my favorite personality psychology theories concerns how our entire lives can be thought of as a set of narratives that bring coherence to our goals, desires, values, dispositions, and experiences.
I've recently been working with Zenzi, a communications company based in San Diego, that is attempting to leverage research on values to, among other things, better inform how companies can better engage with consumers. A good marketing campaign is one which doesn't feel like someone is trying to sell something to you, but rather where there are shared goals between the company and consumer that are highlighted. Whereas these goals can be mundane (e.g. trading money for food), they are increasingly becoming more value driven. As such, a key communications strategy for the post-modern world is learning to tell a company story that resonates with one's clients deeper motivations. How can research on values help you do that?
One of the central tenets of the research we do is that values are not monolithic. Different people value different things and these values predict the kinds of stories that one enjoys. I recently conducted some research on yourmorals.org, where I examined the kinds of stories that different value types prefer. The below graph shows the correlations between dimensions of the Schwartz Values scale and questions concerning story type preferences, specifically relating to whether a person likes stories that provide an escape (e.g. I like stories that provide an escape from my real life) or stories that people can identify with (e.g. I like stories about situations that I can relate to). Note that it is entirely possible to enjoy both kinds of stories and most people do. Still, there is an inherent tension between giving people an escape and giving people stories they can relate to, and the below graph suggests how one might resolve that tension differently, depending on the values of one's target audience.
People who value Power, Achievement, Spirituality, Tradition, Conformity, and Security seem to prefer stories that are closer to them, which they can relate to. In contrast, individuals who value Universalism, Self-Direction, Stiumulation, and Hedonism report a greater preference for stories that provide more of an escape from their everyday existence.
Whether you are a journalist considering how to frame a story, a screenwriter considering a plot twist, a marketer considering how to position a brand, or a novelist considering one's next book, it helps to know your target audience's values when considering the kind of story you want to tell.
- Ravi Iyer
At Ranker, we keep track of talk about the “interest graph” as we have our own parallel graph of relationships between objects in our system, that we call an “opinion graph”. I was recently sent this video concerning the power of the interest graph to drive personalization.
The points made in the video are very good, about how the interest graph is more predictive than the social graph, as far as personalization goes. I love my friends, but the kinds of things they read and the kinds of things I read are very different and while there is often overlap, there is also a lot of diversity. For example, trying to personalize my movie recommendations based on my wife’s tastes would not be a satisfying experience. Collaborative filtering using people who have common interests with me is a step in the right direction and the interest graph is certainly an important part of that.
However, you can predict more about a person with an opinion graph versus an interest graph. The difference is that while many companies can infer from web behavior what people are interested in, perhaps by looking at the kinds of articles and websites they consume, a graph of opinions actually knows what people think about the things they are reading about. Anyone who works with data knows that the more specific a data point is, the more you can predict, as the amount of “error” in your measurement is reduced. Reduced measurement error is far more important for prediction than sample size, which is a point that gets lost in the drive toward bigger and bigger data sets. Nate Silver often makes this point in talks and in his book.
For example, if you know someone reads articles about Slumdog Millionare, then you can serve them content about Slumdog Millionare. That would be a typical use case for interest graph data. Using collaborative filtering, you can find out what other Slumdog Millionare fans like and serve them appropriate content. With opinion graph data, of the type we collect at Ranker, you might be able to differentiate between a person who thinks that Slumdog Millionare is simply a great movie versus someone who thinks the soundtrack was one of the best ever. If you liked the movie, we would predict that you would also like Fight Club. But if you liked the soundtrack, you might instead be interested in other music by A.R. Rahman.
Simply put, the opinion graph can predict more about people than the interest graph can.
- Ravi Iyer
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I've been meaning to write this post for awhile, not just in response to the recent tragedy in Connecticut, but anytime I read an article about homelessness or people who are mentally disturbed. Many people wonder what we can do to address the mentally ill, whether it is to prevent them from engaging in violence or prevent them from lapsing into homelessness. Medical professionals have many tools to help those with chemical imbalances, but the reality that the medical model of mental illness fails to capture, is that many (though not all) mental illnesses are qualitatively different than many physical illnesses. Mental illnesses are often matters of degree rather than of the categorical presence or absence of a condition, despite the categorical nature of mental health diagnoses. You either have AIDS or Malaria or you don't, whereas many of us have some degree of anxiety, depression, mania, addiction, hyperactivity and other conditions, rather than being clearly normal or ill. Because we often think of mental illness using this medical model, we often think two things that are often untrue:
1. We believe that we can't do anything about mental illness and only experts can help.
2. We believe that the mentally ill are "others" and that the people we know are categorically different.
Sometimes people break. All types of people break, but you can help. On occasion, I have spent some time at Dorothy's Place, a shelter in Salinas where they care for a lot of the local homeless and the director would often tell visiting students about how people break. Imagine being a teenager who is dropped off at the shelter because your parents don't want you any more. Imagine spending day after day in Iraq, looking around corners for snipers and explosives, one of which happened to kill several of your friends, and then trying to enter normal society without retaining the vestiges of that experience. Some mentally ill individuals certainly have brain chemistry issues, but others are people who would otherwise live relatively normal lives, save for an experience or series of experiences that break them.
What are these stressful life experiences? Below is a common, though perhaps outdated (from 1967!) ranked list of common life stressors that psychologists sometimes use to diagnose how much life stress people are undergoing, based on which of these events have been experienced recently.
How can you prevent mental illness? Many of your friends have the potential for mental illness and when they undergo the inevitable stresses of life, they need the support of their friends and family, before things get serious enough for a medical diagnosis and a prescription. You can be that support to the people around you, especially when you notice events such as divorce, breakups, and death that are especially strong stressors.
Consider the times in your life when you felt like you might break. Perhaps they involved the loss of someone you cared about, whether through a death or through a breakup. As an ultra-social species, these are deeply painful events. Consider how you got through those events. Why didn't you break? I know that in my own life, the support of my friends and family helped me in those times. It is that social support that perhaps explains why mental illness is more prevalent in individualistic societies and less so in collectivist nations.
How can you prevent mental illness? Be the change you want to see in the world and help those around you when they go through life's inevitable ups and downs. When you notice one of the events in the above list in someone's life, even someone you aren't that close to, make the effort to go out of your way to show them that you care and they are not alone.
- Ravi Iyer
On Thanksgiving evening, I started reading Greg Smith's book, Why I left Goldman Sachs late in the afternoon. I finished it around midnight. It's a relatively easy read with a relatively straightforward message: That Wall Street, as exemplified by Goldman Sachs' evolution, has increasingly become a place where we send many of our brightest students to outwit the people who manage our pensions and retirement accounts.
Greg Smith is famous for resigning from Goldman Sachs via an op-ed published in the New York Times, accusing Goldman of evolving from a firm that serves its customers to one that often profits by taking advantage of them. Nothing illegal is documented in the book, but it does show how employees are encouraged to sell ever more complex products to customers in the hope of generating more fees, without consideration of whether these products make their customers' lives better. Who are these customers? They are the people who manage the money in our retirement accounts, pension funds, and the wealth of philanthropic organizations. Like many Americans, they look to investment bankers like Goldman Sachs for advice on how to help their money grow.
There is little dispute about this, but not everyone believes it is morally wrong. The CEO of Goldman Sachs asserts that they have no obligation to tell customers when they sell them something that they believe will lose money. The Wall St. Journal's review of the book essentially says that he should have known that Goldman Sachs was not built on selflessness, but rather on "tawdry commerce" and the "sometimes morally ambiguous business of sales". Bloomberg News seems more interested in tearing him down personally than examining the morality of what he says in the book, asking "Hasn't it always been about making money and isn't it okay to be a bank that makes money?"
At the heart of this, is the question that recent financial reforms were designed to change. Specifically, should investment professionals have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients? More simply, should they be required to put their clients' interests over their own, when making recommendations? I can't say objectively whether it is morally wrong to take advantage of clients lack of knowledge, but I can examine our data from YourMorals.org to see which individuals believe that it is ok to conduct a "negotiation where not everyone completely understands the process" involved (e.g. opaque fees hidden in the fine print of investment products). The below table shows correlations of Schwartz Values Scale scores and demographics with belief that negotiations with information assymetries are wrong, with positive correlations first.
Clearly, people disagree about how wrong it is to conduct a negotiation without complete understanding by all parties. People who hold self-transcendent values such as benevolence and universalism are the most likely to believe that such conduct is wrong. People who hold traditional values are also likely to believe that this is wrong. In contrast, younger, educated, more conservative males who tend to value power, of the type that populate most investment banks, are less likely to feel that such information asymmetry is wrong. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that the reaction of many in the business world to Smith's book is a collective "so what?"
Those of us who are mere consumers of financial services, via our 401ks, pensions, and college funds, would do well to understand what is behind this collective yawn. What some in the finance world are telling us is that the primary goal of these financial companies is to make themselves money, not serve clients, and given that the average money manager fails to beat the market, we would all probably be better off simply buying broad, transparent index funds, rather than taking their sales calls. We should urge our city officials, counties, and pension managers to stop trying to beat the market with the advice of ostensibly wise finance professionals, who don't really have their clients interests at heart, lest they suffer the fate of the city of Oakland or Jefferson County, Alabama who both ended up on the wrong side of deals with Goldman Sachs. And if there ends up being less demand for their products, perhaps we can move some of the genius that creates arcane financial products into creating things that people actually need.
- Ravi Iyer
Those of you interested in political psychology and data science might enjoy my latest post on the Ranker Data Blog entitled Mitt Romney Should Have Advertised on the X-Files. In it, I explore correlations between liking Mitt Romney and liking various TV Shows on lists on Ranker.com, replicating analyses which the Obama campaign purportedly conducted in the last campaign season, and finding that the X-Files and Mitt Romney have a surprising correlation. From the post:
As you can see, the X-Files appears to be the highest correlated show, by a fair margin. I don’t watch the X-Files, so I wasn’t sure why this correlation exists, but I did a bit of research, and found this article exploring how the X-Files supported a number of conservative themes, such as the persistence of evil, objective truth, and distrust of government (also see here). The article points out that in one episode, right wing militiamen are depicted as being heroic, which never would happen in a more liberal leaning plot. Perhaps if you are a conservative politician seeking to motivate your base, you should consider running ads on reruns of the X-Files, or if you run a television station that shows X-Files reruns, consider contacting your local conservative politicians leveraging this data.
- Ravi Iyer
One of my favorite Mother Theresa quotes is: "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there."
The current conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel requires the thoughtful liberal to navigate a few seemingly conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, liberals generally believe that peaceful means are more effective than military means at achieving long term success. This often manifests itself in opposition to military action, such as the Iraq war, Vietnam war, etc.. On the other hand, there is no country or government that would tolerate missiles being launched at their large civilian populations and the Israeli response to missiles being launched from Gaza is a response that every nation would take if in the shoes of the Israelis. Defending civilians against attack is just.
The point of this blog post is to point out that you don't have to choose between being pro-peace and remaining anti-war, as these attitudes, while related, are not perfectly correlated. In a paper that is forthcoming in the journal Political Psychology, we found that you can find meaningful differences in what being pro-peace and being anti-war predict. Being pro-peace relates to caring about others, while being anti-war is related to attitudes toward authority, for example. The multi-dimensional nature of peace-war attitudes is reflected in the real world in the above quote by Mother Theresa, and by the assertions of soldiers and politicians everywhere that their ultimate goal is peace. In the current conflict, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the Israelis have every right to defend themselves against attack (therefore not being anti-war), while also faulting both Hamas and the current conservative Israeli leadership for not pursuing peace more vigorously (therefore being pro-peace).
Indeed, I'm writing this in part as a response to a beautifully written essay by Jessica Apple, a writer who lives in Tel-Aviv, which ends:
And as Israel pummels the Gaza Strip, there is no Israeli political leader saying, as Rabin did, “Enough of blood and tears.” [the leader of the opposition party] has, in fact, supported the government’s actions as just, without questioning whether they are wise.....I do agree that Israel has the right to protect its citizens. But I condemn Israel’s current leaders for failing to recognize that the best defense is peace.
The full essay is well worth reading. I pray for the welfare of all the innocent people caught between forces beyond their control in the region and hope to see peace prevail before it is too late for both sides' welfare.
- Ravi Iyer
Losing an election is tough and I have immense empathy for those who have a heartfelt vision for their country that was not fulfilled on election day. Most people who care deeply about the election, Democrats and Republicans, do so out of a real desire for the country to do better and it's unfortunate that the results have to disappoint so many well-meaning people.
That being said, there are some conservatives who have implied that those who vote for Obama simply want free stuff, while some liberals imply that billionaires who support Romney do so out of self-interest. Consider this quote from Sarah Palin:
We're not explaining to the rest of America, who thinks that they're going to get a bunch of free stuff from Obama, that you have a choice. You either get free stuff or you get freedom. You cannot have both, and you need to make a choice.
Or consider this quote from Paul Krugman:
billionaires have always loved the doctrines in question, which offer a rationale for policies that serve their interests....And now the same people effectively own a whole political party.
And in reaction to the election results, Bill O'Reilly opined that the reason that Obama gets support is that...
There are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.
What these three quotes have in common is that they all make a common mistake about how we view the motivations of others. Chip and Dan Heath call this "getting out of Maslow's basement", which refers to Maslow's hierarchy of needs depicted below.
Maslow's idea was that motivation can be grouped from lower level needs such as wanting "stuff" to higher order needs like caring about others, fulfilling values, etc. The implication of O'Reilly, Palin, Krugman, and many partisans, is that the other side is motivated by these lower level needs. It is a common mistake, made in many domains to believe that others are motivated by lower level needs. Chip and Dan Heath have shown that we all assume that other people are motivated by lower level needs, but that we ourselves are motivated by higher order needs. The truth is that most everyone is actually motivated by higher order needs. In the below video, they explain one of many studies showing this.
It is easy to let partisanship help you impugn the motives of others. And there is no doubt that some amount of self-interest helps shape our values. However, most people who care enough to vote do so out of higher order considerations. Indeed, nobody stands in an 8 hour line to vote out of self-interest. They really do want to help the poor or promote economic growth and freedom. And if we ever want to fulfill the bipartisanship we desire in the world, we would do well to understand the sincere motivations of others.
- Ravi Iyer
One of the many great points I took from Nate Silver's recent book, The Signal and the Noise, is that people are generally bad at dealing with uncertainty. We want the weather forecaster to tell us if it's going to rain tomorrow, not that there is a 30% chance, even though that's the right answer. Nevertheless, weather forecasters have failed enough, in part because they get feedback every day, that they insist on giving us probabilities. Perhaps pollsters haven't failed enough, as they still continue to insist that they can categorically predict who is going to vote and who isn't. Since voting records are largely public (whether you voted, not whom you voted for), a recent study by Todd Rogers and Masa Aida was able to actually look at how effective it is to ask a respondent whether they plan on voting. Below is a chart showing what % of people who reported each intention actually voted.
Pollsters can predict who votes and who doesn't above chance, but in the same way that poker players probabilistically predict the likelihood of winning a hand, accepting the inherent uncertainty, pollster predictions on who votes are also likely to be wrong much of the time. Pollsters should realistically adopt the same tactics as poker players who multiply the expected outcome (the size of the pot vs. what they have to put in the pot) by the likelihood of the outcome (the odds of the right cards coming to win the hand) in order to determine their decisions. Similarly, polling would be vastly improved if pollsters weighted votes by voting intention rather than categorically deciding that a person is or is not a likely voter. What would be the result?
Right now (October 26, 2012) Romney is leading Obama in Gallup's survey 51-46 among 2700 likely voters, but they are tied 48-48 among 3,050 registered voters. If one does the math, Obama leads Romney approximately 63-25 among unlikely voters. If the pattern from the above paper remains this year (percentages are very different in non-general elections, btw), then we could apply a weight of .87 to likely voters (since 13% don't vote) and a weight of .55 to unlikely voters (since 55% do vote), which would predict that Romney would get 51% of the overall vote and Obama would get 49%, a result which pushes Gallup's result far closer to the average of other polls, where Romney has a slight lead nationally, and is slightly behind in the battleground states.
- Ravi Iyer
The point of politics is to make people’s lives better. Liberals and conservatives may disagree about how to do that, but despite the heated rhetoric, there are a number of broad goals that most anyone would agree upon. Consider a survey we recently conducted concerning liberal and conservative preferences about the kind of place they would like to live. While there are differences in terms of priorities, the top 5 desirable attributes are largely the same. Everyone wants a strong economy, safety, clean air and water, and good medical care.
Top 5 Desirable attributes in a city by ideology:
Unfortunately, roughly half of the country is going to be disappointed by the results of the next presidential election. Both history and psychology tell us that this disappointment will likely lead to some amount of demonization of whomever wins, reflexive opposition, and incivility. This may lead to outcomes that nobody wants, such as what occurred during the debt ceiling negotiations.
Thoughtful liberals, conservatives, and both presidential candidates have talked about the need to transcend partisanship in order to attempt to create better policy and a better country. The results of the next election are likely to disappoint some of these thoughtful people, yet it also represents an opportunity for them to be the change they wish to see in the world, by consciously resisting the impulse toward demonization and reflexive opposition. It represents an opportunity to back up words of bipartisanship with action, at a powerful moment when everybody will expect the opposite.
Supporting our next president does not mean that you need to support their policies. We can disagree without being disagreeable. But supporting our next president does mean that we hope they succeed at goals that we all share such as creating a safer, cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous world. It means hoping that the unemployment rate goes down, not up. It means hoping that the poor receive the help they need, whether by charity or government, and that terrorism is stopped, whether by military or diplomatic means. Whomever wins, let’s support them by truly hoping they succeed at our shared goals.
If this resonates with you, consider joining our facebook group and pass this message on to your friends. Positive change always starts with small groups of people who believe in something.