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How Your Focus Explains Why Condom Sales Soar During a Recession


“Promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.”

When you want to influence someone else a reasonable approach is to start by trying to figure out what that person wants and use that understanding to increase your odds.

In Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, Tory Higgins and Heidi Grant Halvorson explore how our focus changes what we see and how we are influenced. The book grew out of Higgins' research. To them you either tend to be promotion-focused or prevention-focused. And it matters because it changes how we should influence you.

If you are promotion-focused, you want to advance and avoid missed opportunities. If you are prevention-focused, you want to minimize losses and keep things working.

If you are promotion-focused …

Studies from our lab (and many other labs now) show that promotion-focused people respond best to optimism and praise, are more likely to take chances and seize opportunities, and excel at creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, all that chance-taking and positive-thinking makes them more prone to error, less likely to completely think things through, and usually unprepared with a Plan B in case things fail. For a promotion-focused person, what’s really “bad” is a non-gain: a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance. They would rather say Yes! and have it blow up in their faces than feel like they let Opportunity’s knock go unanswered.

If you, on the other hand, see goals as opportunities to meet responsibilities and to stay safe you are prevention-focused …

They consider what might go badly if they don’t work hard enough to achieve. They don’t play to win – they play to not lose. They want, more than anything else, to feel secure. When people pursue this kind of “good,” they have what we call a prevention focus. In our studies, we find the prevention-focused to be more driven by criticism and the looming possibility of failure (if, for example, they don’t work hard enough) than by applause and a sunny outlook. Prevention-focused people are often more conservative and don’t take chances, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully-planned. Of course, too much caution and hypervigilance for error pretty much kills off any potential for growth, creativity, and innovation. But for the prevention-focused, the ultimate “bad” is a loss you failed to stop: a mistake made, a punishment received, a danger you failed to avoid. They would much prefer to say No! to an opportunity, rather than end up in hot water.

Of course we're not pinned down into one category all of the time. Things change. How does this work? Let's look at condom sales.

Here's a paradox for you: why do condom sales go up in a bad economy, despite the fact that anxiety about finances reliably leads people to have less sex? The answer isn't as obvious as you may think. Yes, it's true that in a bad economy people are less inclined to want to have more children to support—but if wanting to avoid an unwanted pregnancy were enough, all by itself, to get people to use condoms, you'd expect them to be used far more frequently and reliably in the good economy too.

Once again, it comes down to a question of motivational fit. In good times, sex is fundamentally about pleasure—it's about fun. (Or at least it's supposed to be.) Using condoms is not a good fit (no pun intended) for sex because they are not a means to pleasure—they are a means to safety. And as you'll see, means that work for one focus are generally awful for the other. So if at the moment when you're deciding whether to use a condom, condoms don't fit your focus, it won't feel right to use one.

Unless, of course, times are bad rather than good. When the economy is bad, you experience a lot of anxiety every day, and that feeling spills over into your sex life as well. Even if sex itself remains mostly about pleasure, life in a bad economy becomes much more about safety and security. Condoms are a great means for those goals, so they create more motivational fit with people's general focus, and using a condom feels right.

Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence goes on to explore more about how where we focus changes almost everything.

The Science of Snowflakes

Joe Hanson takes a look at the science of snowflakes. The origin of no two snowflakes being alike comes from Wilson Bentley in 1885. He's right (but for the wrong reasons).

Snowflakes are symmetrical but they're not perfect. They are ordered but they are created in disorder. Every random branch retells their history, that singular journey they took to get here. And most of all they are fleeting and temporary. Even if sometimes they don't look so unique on the outside, if we look within we can see that they are truly unique after all.

Laws of Character and Personality

laws of character“One of the most valuable personal traits is the ability to get along with all kinds of people.”

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering is a book for those engineers who have more obstacles of a personal nature in organizations than technical. First published as a series of three articles in Mechanical Engineering, the “laws” were written and formulated as a professional code of conduct so to speak circa 1944. Although fragmentary and incomplete, they are still used by engineers, young and old, to guide their behavior.

This is a rather comprehensive quality but it defines the prime requisite of personality in any human organization. No doubt this ability can be achieved by various formulas, although it is based mostly upon general, good-natured friendliness, together with consistent observance of the “Golden Rule.” The following “dos and don’ts” are more specific elements of a winning formula:

(1) Cultivate the ability to appreciate the good qualities, rather than dislike the shortcomings, of each individual.

(2) Do not give vent to impatience and annoyance on slight provocation. Some offensive individuals seem to develop a striking capacity for becoming annoyed, which they indulge with little or no restraint.

(3) Do not harbor grudges after disagreements involving honest differences of opinion. Keep your arguments objective and leave personalities out of it. Never foster enemies, for as E. B. White put it: “One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy.”

(4) Form the habit of considering the feelings and interests of others.

(5) Do not become unduly preoccupied with your own selfish interests. When you look out for Number One first, your associates will be disinclined to look out for you, because they know you are already doing that. This applies to the matter of credit for accomplishments. But you need not fear being overlooked; about the only way to lose credit for a creditable job is to grab for it too avidly.

(6) Make it a rule to help the other person whenever an opportunity arises. Even if you are mean-spirited enough to derive no personal satisfaction from accommodating others, it’s a good investment. The business world demands and expects cooperation and teamwork among the members of an organization.

(7) Be particularly careful to be fair on all occasions. This means a good deal more than just fair upon demand. All of us are frequently unfair, unintentionally, simply because we do not consider other points of view to ensure that the interests of others are fairly protected. For example, we are often too quick to unjustly criticize another for failing on an assignment when the real fault lies with the manager who failed to provide the tools to do the job. Most important, whenever you enjoy a natural advantage or hold a position from which you could seriously mistreat someone, you must “lean over backwards” to be fair and square.

(8) Do not take yourself or your work too seriously. A sense of humor, under reasonable control, is much more becoming than a chronically sour dead-pan, a perpetual air of tedious seriousness, or a pompous righteousness. It is much better for your blood pressure, and for the morale of the office, to laugh off an awkward situation now and then than to maintain a tense, tragic atmosphere whenever matters take an embarrassing turn. Of course, a serious matter should be taken seriously, but preserving an oppressively heavy and funereal atmosphere does more harm than good.

(9) Put yourself out just a little to be genuinely cordial in greeting people. True cordiality is, of course, spontaneous and should never be affected, but neither should it be inhibited. We all know people who invariably pass us in the hall or encounter us elsewhere without a shadow of recognition. Whether this is due to inhibition or preoccupation, we cannot help thinking that such unsociable chumps would not be missed much if we just didn’t see them. Like anything else, this can be overdone, but most engineers can safely promote more cordiality in themselves.

(10) Give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when you can afford to do so. Mutual distrust and suspicion generate a great deal of unnecessary friction. These are derived chiefly from misunderstandings, pure ignorance, or ungenerously assuming that people are guilty until proven innocent. You will get much better cooperation from others if you assume that they are just as intelligent, reasonable, and decent as you are, even when you know they are not (although setting the odds of that are tricky indeed).

In a closing section of The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, King makes the point that “It is a mistake, of course, to try too hard to get along with everybody merely by being agreeable or even submissive on all occasions. … Do not give ground too quickly just to avoid a fight, when you know you're in the right. If you can be pushed around easily the chances are that you will be pushed around. Indeed, you can earn the respect of your associates by demonstrating your readiness to engage in a good (albeit non-personal) fight when your objectives are worth fighting for.”

As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet when Polonius offers advice to his son, “Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.”

Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

The “last lecture” is common with a lot of professors on college campuses. Professors are asked to consider what matters most to them. If you've ever sat in the audience for one of these lectures you can't help but wonder what wisdom you'd want to impart to the world if it was your last chance?

Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, gave such a lecture. Only he didn't have to imagine it was his last act because he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“That is what it is. We can’t change it. We just have to decide how we’ll respond. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

The Last Lecture is a summary of all Pausch had learned and all he wanted to pass along to his children. The lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” wasn't about dying rather just the opposite. It was about dreams, moments and overcoming obstacles because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children. If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.

I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left. I talked about honesty, integrity, gratitude, and other things I hold dear. And I tried very hard not to be boring.

On his childhood:if you have a question then find the answer.

[M]y dad had this infectious inquisitiveness about current events, history, our lives.

In fact, growing up, I thought there were two types of families:

1) Those who need a dictionary to get through dinner.
2) Those who don’t.

We were No. 1. Most every night, we’d end up consulting the dictionary, which we kept on a shelf just six steps from the table. “If you have a question,” my folks would say, “then find the answer.”

The instinct in our house was never to sit around like slobs and wonder. We knew a better way: Open the encyclopedia. Open the dictionary. Open your mind.

On his father's advice:

My dad gave me advice on how to negotiate my way through life. He’d say things like: “Never make a decision until you have to.” He’d also warn me that even if I was in a position of strength, whether at work or in relationships, I had to play fair. “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat,” he’d say, “doesn’t mean you have to run people over.”

Echoing one of the Five Habits of Effective Thinking, Pausch writes:

As a college professor, I’ve seen this as one lesson so many kids ignore, always to their detriment: You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

That’s an expression I learned when I took a sabbatical at Electronic Arts, the video-game maker. It just stuck with me, and I’ve ended up repeating it again and again to students. It’s a phrase worth considering at every brick wall we encounter, and at every disappointment. It’s also a reminder that failure is not just acceptable, it’s often essential.

On encountering obstacles:

The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

Complaining doesn't work.

Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.

We're all aware that time is finite but few of us live our lives as if we know this simple truth. Pausch put a lot of effort into managing his time well and because of that he was able to pack a whole lot of life in. Here is what he says about time management:

Time must be explicitly managed, like money. My students would sometimes roll their eyes at what they called “Pauschisms,” but I stand by them. Urging students not to invest time on irrelevant details, I’d tell them: “It doesn’t matter how well you polish the underside of the banister.”

You can always change your plan, but only if you have one. I’m a big believer in to-do lists. It helps us break life into small steps. I once put “get tenure” on my to-do list. That was naïve. The most useful to-do list breaks tasks into small steps. It’s like when I encourage Logan to clean his room by picking up one thing at a time.

Ask yourself: Are you spending your time on the right things? You may have causes, goals, interests. Are they even worth pursuing? I’ve long held on to a clipping from a newspaper in Roanoke, Virginia. It featured a photo of a pregnant woman who had lodged a protest against a local construction site. She worried that the sound of jackhammers was injuring her unborn child. But get this: In the photo, the woman is holding a cigarette. If she cared about her unborn child, the time she spent railing against jackhammers would have been better spent putting out that cigarette.

Develop a good filing system. When I told Jai I wanted to have a place in the house where we could file everything in alphabetical order, she said I sounded way too compulsive for her tastes. I told her: “Filing in alphabetical order is better than running around and saying, ‘I know it was blue and I know I was eating something when I had it.’”

Rethink the telephone. I live in a culture where I spend a lot of time on hold, listening to “Your call is very important to us.” Yeah, right. That’s like a guy slapping a girl in the face on a first date and saying, “I actually do love you.” Yet that’s how modern customer service works. And I reject that. I make sure I am never on hold with a phone against my ear. I always use a speaker phone, so my hands are free to do something else.

Delegate. As a professor, I learned early on that I could trust bright, nineteen-year-old students with the keys to my kingdom, and most of the time, they were responsible and impressive. It’s never too early to delegate. My daughter, Chloe, is just eighteen months old, but two of my favorite photos are of her in my arms. In the first, I’m giving her a bottle. In the second, I’ve delegated the task to her. She looks satisfied. Me, too.

Take a time out. It’s not a real vacation if you’re reading email or calling in for messages. When Jai and I went on our honeymoon, we wanted to be left alone. My boss, however, felt I needed to provide a way for people to contact me. So I came up with the perfect phone message:

“Hi, this is Randy. I waited until I was thirty-nine to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently, I have to be reachable.” I then gave the names of Jai’s parents and the city where they live. “If you call directory assistance, you can get their number. And then, if you can convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.”

We didn’t get any calls.

In the end, “time is all you have,” writes Pausch. “And you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

The Last Lecture is a wonderful and heartfelt book, and one that you'll want to revisit regularly.

Why we follow financial advice

There is something very persuasive about financial advice, especially when given in a confident and confidential way.

In How to Get Rich Slowly But Almost Surely: Adventures in Decision-Making, a book published in 1973, William Morris discusses the specific effects of financial advice given by advisers and brokers.

More interesting than the advice itself is the effect it has on you.

What is the effect of advice on your behavior? Are you really using it, or just listening to it? What is its effect on your moods, attitudes, and expectations?

People generally are quite willing to be told what to do with their money by a confident, authoritative sounding source which supplements advice with plausible arguments. These arguments are almost never examined critically or challenged.

Morris claims we sometimes follow advice because it: (1) relieves us of having to make some very difficult decisions; (2) stimulates our greed; (3) reduces our uncertainty; and (4) reduces our anxiety and fear while building our confidence.

“Advisory services make use of more or less subtle devices to appeal to our needs and emotions. … There are several readily identifiable ways of engaging our attention:”

To be bullish when the general trend appears to be down is a powerful stimulant to our tendencies toward wishful thinking.

To be bearish when everybody else sees a continued rise is to awaken our worst fears.

If there is a surprising drop in the market, everybody takes a beating. There is a tendency to forgive the advisory services as a companion in misery. Everybody is human, and in the same boat. To miss a rise, however, is far more serious, and not as likely to be forgiven.

A generally bullish tendency is thus a good policy for an advisory service.

To talk about “strong upside moves,” “most rewarding commitments,” and “outstanding appreciation possibilities” is to make a discreet attempt to awaken our latent get rich quickly desires.

There is a “staunch conservative” disclaimer that “we cannot, of course, guarantee the future effectiveness of our recommendations, but OH BOY, look what we've done in the (recent) past.”

There are obvious methods of trying to enhance credibility. “We have been in close touch with top management,” or “based on our computerized, thirty variable, regression model, it would appear that …”

Along with a recommendation which seems to run counter to the prevailing opinion, an attempt is often made to project the image of the fearless, courageous, independent thinker.

“The point of raising these hypotheses,” Morris writes, “is not to discount advice, but to see the effects it is actually having on us.”

The core of his argument is that research on one's own plans, attitudes, and emotions is likely to make more of a difference than advice.

The thing that most distinguishes the amateur from the professional in financial operations is, simply, self-awareness.

— Via How to Get Rich Slowly But Almost Surely: Adventures in Decision-Making.

On Listening

Immediately to lash out in retaliation, however, and neither to listen nor be listened to, but to speak while being spoken to, is scandalous; on the other hand anyone who has acquired the ability to listen in a self-controlled and respectful fashion is receptive to and retentive of any remarks that are useful, while any that are useless or false are quite transparent to him and easily detectable, because he is–as is obvious–aiming at the truth rather than at winning an argument, and does not pitch in head first for a fight.

Essays by Plutarch