The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions

Nice People Are More Likely to Follow Orders that Hurt Others
[Via Big Think]

A new psychology study published this month in the Journal of Personality has revealed a dark truth about the nicest and friendliest people in our society — they are probably more capable of doing the most horrific things if ordered to.


The title of the paper tells all: Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm.

Communities of nice people can be made to do awful things. If everyone is nice, no one will be impolite enough to tell the community it is doing wrong.

We all need to find ways to value the rude, contrarian and disagreeable people in our communities. They may be the ones who prevent the community from doing great harm.

Nice people are usually the ones that follow the social norms best. They get along with everyone because they follow the rules. That is why they are seen as nice. No disruptive behavior for them.

It is easy to be seen as agreeable if you never question others or their behavior. 

As the researchers state:

Those who are described as ‘agreeable, conscientious personalities’ are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while more contrarian, less agreeable personalities are more likely to refuse to hurt others.

It is easy to be seen as disagreeable if you question others or  their behavior.

Amazingly, those who are seen as less agreeable  are less likely to harm others. They dug their heels in and refused to submit to authority or social norms.

I expect part of the reason they are seen as less agreeable is that they are rude enough to shirk social norms, the same social norms the agreeable people follow so storngly.

A community with only nice people can suffer from epistemic closure,where all those nice people can be made to do really awful things

Because they do not want to appear rude and thus be less likable by telling everyone else they are doing something harmful. It will never realize that the Emperor has no clothes.

It may be that rude people are the most important ones in a community, needed to keep it on an ethical path.

Yet they are often the ones cast out first, because they are so ‘rude.’

If this research holds up, it would suggest that trying to create a community where everyone is nice and no one is rude could well produce a community capable of doing great harm.

So value and support a few disagreeable people in your organization – the ones that upset some people – in order to have a well-balanced community that will not do something harmful or stupid.

Try to determine why they are disagreeing and engage with that, rather than dismiss them because they act contrary to social norms.

Some rude people are purely disruptive and disrespectful because the attention makes them feel important. But many are actually trying to help the group see where the danger lies, to prevent the group from doing harm.

It takes more work to deal with disagreeable people – it is part of what makes them disagreeable – but they may be critical for the community’s success.

Value those committed yet disagreeable people. They will help the community best in the long run.

Image: Paul Downey

The latest fraud shows science working as expected

A glass-half-full view of academic fraud in political science
[Via Monkey Cage]

Wednesday was interesting for political scientists. Our social media feeds were full of angst in response to the news that a very influential member of our discipline had requested a retraction of a very widely reported finding published by a very prestigious journal on which he had been a co-author. The data upon which the finding rested appear to have been fraudulently produced. Thus, a process of shaming has begun. It is a necessary process. Yet it misses a very important part of the story: science actually worked.

Not much political science research gets major coverage in outlets like Bloomberg, The Washington Post and “This American Life.” The now retracted finding did (here, here, and here), and that is partly because it was published in a journal that all scientists — not just social scientists — read. A retraction of an article published in such an outlet is major scientific news, and to the best of my knowledge, no political science article has ever been retracted from such a publication. And because some U.S. lawmakers oppose funding for political science research, people are particularly concerned that this “black eye” will contribute to such critiques.

“Do not fudge the data” is, of course, an important scientific norm. Public confidence in science rests in no small part upon our upholding it. So the news that the authors of one of the most widely disseminated findings our discipline has produced of late had violated that norm was met with consternation and concern. A political science study had joined the pantheon of famous academic frauds, including the 1989 cold fusion fraud, the 2011 retraction of the vaccine-autism study, and the 2013 case of serial fraud in social psychology.

The reaction to all of these cases is publish shaming. Shaming is the standard process by which human societies reproduce norms. Norms are most readily apparent when they are being violated, and if we want the norm to persist, large groups of us must raise the alarm and call out the violators for their poor behavior.


This is how the system is supposed to work. The fraud was revealed by other researchers and in pretty swift fashion. And social norms are used to make sure everyone in the community knows the penalty for fraud.

There are strong negative feedback loops to deal with fraud. I wish they were as strong in other arenas of our society.

Science worked because the research was openly published, the fraud was revealed by attempted replication and now, the most important part, shunning will be used to enforce social norms.

Not only is the career of the graduate student who made up the data destroyed (for example, he will likely never be able to get a Federal research grant) but the career of the senior researcher, who does not appear to be involved in the fraud, may well be damaged.

In fact the senior researcher may only escape universal opprobrium by having the paper retracted so swiftly. This is a plus in his favor. It was a paper in Science, something that does not happen often for anyone. He knows what the impact of the retraction will be on his career yet he swiftly did the right thing.


Richard Feynman talked about how the system is supposed to work in his commencement address Cargo Cult Science. Scientists are people, with their own faults, just like everyone else.

We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work.

Science creates models of the world based on data. The better the data, the more likely a good model describing the world will be supported.

If those data are wrong, it will be revealed as the model is simply not capable of accurately describing Nature. A model based on bad data will never be a good model and will eventually fall to models that are closer to reality.

“The truth will come out.”  And what is fascinating is that what Feynman described in 1974 regarding things he had seen in the 40s still occur today. 

Because scientists are people, with all the greatness and faults of everyone else. But science works because of the process, one that is social in nature.

We want good reputations. We fear being shunned. It is in our genes and in our communities, because those two approaches provided tremendous selective advantages to a new type of primate.

Most times, the data are wrong because the researchers allowed themselves to be fooled – confirmation bias. Feynman again:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.

We see this in many communities, not just in science. Wishful thinking is a human trait and one that Feynman suggested researchers work hard to remove.

Now when this sort of foolishness does happen – and it always will because we are all human – everyone can recognize that good people can be led astray. In the case of cold fusion, for example, the equipment was not fully calibrated properly. Better equipment revealed the lack of the reaction.

But that can still damage the careers of anyone associated with the wrong data. They gain a reputation of not being a ‘good’ scientist. Thus the lesson for everyone is to be vigilant before the work is published.

Sometimes, though, outright fraud occurs. Here there is usually swift and harsh punishment. Not criminal – no one is unlikely to go to jail. But social – commit outright fraud and be kicked out of the community of researchers.

The negative implications of such shunning goes to the heart of being human. Being thrown out of a community they want to be a part is the greatest punishment for any researcher.

This is why science works, and why it is different from alchemy. Openness allows social norms to be applied to control maladaptive behavior, acts that harm the integrity of the community.

While scientific works are openly published for all to see and to replicate, it is the negative social aspects of being wrong that controls most aberrant behavior.

Social norms are powerful.

The science community uses the same social norms that every successful community should use to punish those who would game the system to hurt the community. 

It has always been easy to fudge the data. Researchers have used all sorts of tricks to try and make their work more important  or fit their personal theory.

That is human nature. Gain an edge by cheating.

But, just as with a baseball player caught using steroids, there has to be rapid and universal consequences of anyone cheating. Cheating in science goes to the core of the success we have seen over the last 400 years.

Researchers are human and some will try to seek advantage hoping no one notices. But the whole process of science requires that people notice.

Because if that fraud presents any important model for the world, it will be examined. And, in almost all cases, others will publish the real data, revealing the fraud.

Then. as here, everyone will see tremendous discordance with reality and the jig is up.

Heck, we still see discussion of possible fraud from research that is almost 200 years old. No important research will ever escape examination. 

So the fraudster has to make a deadly calculus. Gain prestige from their fraudulent work  – the reason to commit the fraud in the first place. But not make the work important enough for anyone to examine it and discover the fraud. 

That is a balance seldom achieved. and why science works.

And an example of what makes humans such a successful species.

Image: Thomas Fisher Rare Book

Whole Foods does not realize the supermarket is dying

Whole Foods’ Misguided Play for Millennials

The news that Whole Foods will open a separate chain of stores designed to appeal to millennials stopped me mid-aisle. According to Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, these future stores will feature “modern, streamlined design, innovative technology, and a curated selection” of lower-priced organic and natural foods.

As millennials would write—facepalm.

My dismay is not about the concept. After all, who wouldn’t love to shop for lower-priced, organic, and natural foods in a store that boasts a clean and modern design?  My dismay is about how this new chain is being communicated to the public and designed to win in the marketplace.

By describing this new concept as “geared toward millennial shoppers,” Whole Foods is essentially saying one (or both) of the following:

  1. Gen X and Baby Boomer shoppers are fine with or even prefer old, cluttered stores that sell a confusing array of stuff at high prices.
  2. We (Whole Foods) need to create new stores because our current ones are old and cluttered and sell all sorts of poorly organized stuff at high prices.


Supermarkets as we know them are going to disappear.We will not need one stop shopping for all our staples and other food products.

At least not one we traverse ourselves in person. When we do go out, it will be to smaller, more personal stores.

How do I know? I’ve been using Amazon Fresh for the last few months. It is a well stocked grocery store that can deliver my goods to the front door almost anytime I want.

Like before I wake up.

It remembers previous purchases, so I can easily select the things I want. Delivery is free with at least $50 purchase. Instead of making one large trip to the supermarket each week, I can order a couple of times a week from Amazon Fresh.

All while I am at home and can see just what I need. And the prices are the same or cheaper on almost every thing I checked. The selection is good and getting better.

I find I really only need to go to the supermarket occasionally to get fresh produce – Amazon Fresh has them but I still like picking out my own. And fresh meats.

I’ve tried ordering things like chicken breasts from Amazon Fresh but when it comes to something like this, I;d rather see the entire selection and make my choice.

So really all I need is a good farmers market and a good butcher.

What happens to Whole Foods’ great idea when Amazon simply includes the wonderful organic foods at Amazon Fresh?

Amazon Fresh is not everywhere yet. But I expect Amazon is working on that.

And Amazon has made some missteps with membership pricing that may hamper its acceptance.

But someone will get this right. Or supermarkets themselves will get into the act.

I expect that the major way people will get their groceries in a few years will be home delivery. Large boutique stores would seem to a relic.

Especially if the home delivery service can also access the same organic markets.

Give me access to a good butcher or fresh produce and I would not need a supermarket.

Image: Sean Gregor

It’s all personal

Personal. And easy to see.

Ask ten people who runs Apple or Tesla. You will get a large number who get the answer correct. Then ask them who runs GM or Boeing. Only rarely to you get a correct answer.

21st century companies create a personal connection with everyone, including their customers. This signals a very different way of organizing their efforts, one that indicates an underlying understanding that moving information around rapidly is critical.

One of the emerging aspects of corporations making the transition to new structures that allow them to rapidly adapt to change is a personal connection – with their employees, suppliers and customers.

Companies of the last century were faceless multinationals who had users and consumers, not customers. They employed hierarchical structures to control the flow of information to allow them to mass produce identical items for sale.

They were barely above the Henry Ford dictum that you could have any color of car you wanted, as long as it was black. Everyone was a cog in the wheel of process, even the CEO. Strength came from presenting a monolithic edifice of tremendous power.

The hierarchical structure worked for simple processes but, as only the person at the top knew everything, the organizations were not very adaptable.

Companies for the 21st century operate differently. We know who runs the company, not only who is at the top but also their close executives. They make things for individual customers. While they can make hundreds of millions of things, these can be easily personalized by those who purchase them.

Strength comes from presenting a kind face hoping to make an individual’s life better. It’s personal.

So we have Apple, whose CEO is not only known to many by name but also puts the signatures of everyone who worked on the original Macintosh inside the first Macs. In fact, at the famous Apple Keynotes, the VPs and even lower level executives are introduced on stage to discuss new developments.

In contrast, few can really name who was involved in the development of the Windows OS. Or the designers of the new Boeing airplane. Or any new car.

These 21st century companies create a community that really appreciates what the company provides. They stay in constant contact with each other on a personal level.

Steve Jobs provided apparently personal responses to many emails people sent him. Not with corporate speak but with real personality – sometimes a LOT of personality.

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, told the world about the failure of their latest efforts by tweeting it, not by hiding it.

The ability to move information around, to engage in a large community, provides tremendous advantages when it comes to succeeding at complex efforts.

It enlarges not only the pool of people excited by the things being produced but also provides tremendous abilities for rapid feedback in positive ways.

We will see more of these sorts of organizations coming soon.

Image: NASA

Can AT&T copy Apple?

AT&T wireless store revamp to emphasize smartwatches, home security and more 
[Via – Yahoo Finance]

As growth in the wireless phone business slows, AT&T (T) is rebooting its vast chain of retail stores to put more emphasis on other offerings, from wearables and tablets to video, connected car and home security services.

The second-largest U.S. wireless company plans to open a series of larger flagship stores with dedicated areas for each segment along with a modernizing revamp of many of its current 2,000 outlets, Yahoo Finance has learned.


Apple has created a huge ecosystem that incorporates so much more than just selling computers, cellphones and software. It has created, and is tremendously focussed, on sustaining a community.

A community that continues to support Apple, as long as that focus is laser-like. To Apple, those people are not consumers but are customers deserving of the best.

AT&T also has millions of people that use it. And it is rapidly becoming much more than simply a wireless company ≠ home automation and security. It could actually model itself after Apple, with a warm connection to the people who drop by its online and real-life stores.

But it must make a key change away from what the multi-national, mass production companies of the 20th century have moved towards.

The users need to be treated as customers rather than consumers. They take an active part in the social interaction that is a purchase, rather than passively but things.

That will be a tall order to fill.

More insight into Pixar and Steve Jobs

Pixar’s Ed Catmull: It was the changed Steve Jobs that made Apple great
[Via MacDailyNews]

Michal Lev-Ram reports for Fortune, “For our recent cover story on Disney, I sat down with Ed Catmull at Pixar headquarters. Here is an edited excerpt from our conversation in October, which ranged from Pixar’s rocky beginnings to Disney’s use of technology to the late Jobs.”

A snippet:

The thing that the general public has missed is that there is a perception of ‘bad boy Steve’ when he was younger and that that behavior led to this giant success at Apple. But while Pixar was going through its rocky beginnings, the reality is that Steve was learning and changing dramatically. About 15 years ago he figured out things and we saw the change in the person. He became very empathetic and changed the way he worked with people. And after that point everybody that was with Steve stayed with him for the rest of his life. It was the changed Steve that made Apple great, not that guy. It’s like the classic hero’s journey, except people didn’t know that.


I’ve written before about Pixar a lot. It has been a hallmark of the 21st century company. Apple is one also and Jobs is a big reason. I wrote a long, three part series on the Synthetic Organization based on Pixar.

As discussed in the original article, Pixar views each  movie as a reason to incorporate new technology, to solve a new problem. DIscussing the new movie coming out:

So that group has to solve the problem for how they make that work, and how you do exaggeration and carry the emotions with those kinds of characters. Every film has new technical problems that we have to solve.

“Every film has new technical problems we have to solve.” Hierarchical authorities – which is how 20th century companies were organized – are designed to take action, not to solve problems. Distributed democracies – which are strong in 21st century organizations – are designed to solve problems, but not really for taking actions.

Pixar has created a company with a tremendous balance between the authoritarian need to get things done and the democratic need to solve problems. Strong leadership from Lasitter and Catmull at the top permits difficult problems to be solved. 

The article details very quickly how this is done – keeping two separate animation groups who each have to figure out solutions themselves, instead of depending on another. Diversity, smart people and low hierarchy.

So now we have two great animation studios. And Jobs learned how to accompish this while working at Pixar and neXt. Instead of being the authoritarian at the top – as he was so often  in his first stretch at Apple –  he began to create a culture that allowed talented individuals to solve difficult problems. 

This is the key – very strong leadership that works with the distributed democracies solving problems. There needs to be hierarchy to get things done but there also needs to be ways to route around the hierrchy to solve problems, to get answers from anyone.

Image: Brett Jordan

Large city, small town – human social networks are very similar but can carry very different information loads

Even in large cities, we build tightly-knit communities
[Via Boing Boing]

A study of group clustering–do your friends know each other?–shows that it does not change with city size. [via Flowing Data]



An average person in the small town (population – 4233) has 6 connections who have a 25% chance of knowing each other. In a large town (population – 564.657), the number of friends is 11 but the chance that they will know each other remains 25%.

This fits a lot of previous data – the majority of any community connect with one another to a very high degree. The difference between living in a large city or a small town lies in how big the network is, not in its shape.

And, it shows that the size of the network increases faster than the size of the community. Not only are there more people to connect to in a large city. People in a large city connect to more people than those in smaller groups.

But the chance that those people know each other remains about the same. That is, the structure of the social network does not change. No matter the size of the town or the size of the network, about 25% of the people will know each other.

city size.png

Interestingly, as the size of the town increases, the networks get larger, and people make contact with other people in the networks more often. So not only are the networks scaling ‘linearly’ but the total number of contacts increases super-linearly.

If we look at the total cumulative calls made, we see that more calls are made to more people in large towns than in small towns. 


What they were then able to show in the paper is that because of the types of connections seen in bigger cities, information spreads much more rapidly here than in smaller communities.

In a world dealing with rapidly changing environments and increasingly more complex problems, the ability to move information around rapidly so as to create knowledge and wisdom becomes critical.

But it also shows that people in large cities are not isolated at all but maintain rich connections with others. We live in communities that are about as tightly knit in large cities as in smaller ones. They are just larger.

Too many videos in a presentation – forgetting that the audience is there to see YOU, not a TED talk video

GiardinaKARLSRUHE - Death by Powerpoint 

Think including a TED talk video can enhance your Powerpoint or Keynote presentation? Think again and think like a magician
[Via Les Posen’s Presentation Magic]

Last month, June 2014, I was part of a nationwide travelling convention intended to bring high school teachers up to date with the field of Positive Psychology and what it can offer students.

This year its organisers wanted to pay particular attention to the place of Technologies in mental health, and so I was tapped to offer a series of talks as well as presentation skills workshops.

The talks were part of a seminar featuring how to best understand how current and imminent technologies have a role to play in mental health in schools. The presentation skills effort was a one hour talk, showcasing the highlights of my half day and longer workshops.

All in all, there were about a dozen speakers, comprised of authors, psychologists, researchers and technologists including those from the Australian arms of Microsoft and Google, who visited the cities of Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

The arrangement, as told to me by the organisers, was that each city would receive the same presentations. On the surface, that sounds ideal and easy: the same talk four times. But as it turns out for a few of the presenters, including myself, this wasn’t ideal and in fact we gave variations for all of our presentations. It was an iterative process, learning from each presentation what worked best and which slides and ideas appealed to the audience.

By the fourth conference I felt I had “honed” my presentations and delivered the “biggest bang for the buck”; that is, in the time I had these were my most impactful presentations.

During each of the conferences, conducted over two days including large auditoriums and break out rooms for smaller concurrent workshops, I was able to attend as an audience member and watch others in action.

For each conference, there were times when all the attendees (400+) would gather in one large auditorium to hear the speakers, including me on technologies.

What I, and the organisers, found interesting were those highly paid professional speakers who gave the same presentation each time. I was perhaps the least known to the audience of all the presenters and likely the least financially compensated, so I had to prove myself and win over the audiences with my content and presentation style. Which is why I welcomed the opportunity to present and improve each time.


Too many people, either due to fear or inexperience, forget that it is the personal interaction – you are THERE – that explains the audience’s presence. Otherwise they could just watch the video online.

Anything on the screen has to enhance your presence. not detract from it. That is what Powerpoint bullet lists are deadly. Focus moves away from the speaker to a static list, often simply reread out loud by the speaker.

Why even have them there?

If the speaker cannot provide a reason why their personal presence is important, why should the audience?

Videos need to be short and provide an easy to understand visual to support the speaker. Why show someone else speaking? That generally implies laziness, not exactly what an audience wants to see.

Even in scientific presentations, the speaker is there to provide context, not to read data out loud. To be personal.

An important book on innovation from Pixar

Incredible Bokeh 

GM and Philips nearly bought Pixar, but deal’s collapse allowed Steve Jobs to invest
[Via AppleInsider]

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull reveals in a new book that the now-legendary animation company was nearly sold to General Motors and Philips for its technology, but the deal fell through just before it could be signed.


What happened at Pixar not only serves as an example of an innovative business but may also help explain one of the great transformations in recent history – Steve Jobs from his original Apple incarnation to his modern Apple incarnation.

He gained much better understanding of what worked with creative solutions and how to positively destroy things in order to move on to new areas.

Things would be so much different today if GM and Philips had gotten Pixar.