Halo effect

iPod first generation When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, he knew it would take a lot of efforts to rebuild the image that the company had lost while he was gone. Introduction of iMac helped quite a bit, but it was not until the release of iPod when things started looking up for Apple. iPod, as we now know, changed the entire music industry forever. But more than that, iPod changed the very notion of intractability and usability. The huge success and wide adoption of iTunes and iPod interfaces inspired Apple to incorporate them into their other products too. In fact, iPod became a statement of products coming out of Apple because people thought if this company can make something as great as iPod, they must do other things also that great. This phenomena is often referred to as the Halo Effect.

Wikipedia notes, “The halo effect refers to a cognitive bias whereby the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.”. In the late 1920s a researcher named Edward Thorndike found that when army officers were asked to rate their charges in terms of intelligence, physique, leadership and character, there was a high cross-correlation. This means no good-looking person was rated dumb. People seem not to think of other individuals in mixed terms; instead we seem to see each person as roughly good or roughly bad across all categories of measurement.

The concept of halo effect complements the idea of social proof. As I noted earlier, social proof says that if a group of people doing something similar, there is a good reason that’s a good idea. Halo effect, on the other hand, states that if one person possesses a good quality, he may also have other good qualities.

The art of imitation

As mortal entities with a limited life-span and intellectual capabilities, we are bound by the cognitive limits that the nature has imposed on us. We can’t do everything or solve every problem that we encounter just by ourselves. Therefore, over the period of our evolution, among other things, we developed an ability to imitate something or someone instead of “reinventing the wheel”. However, we don’t copy just anything. In order to make imitation work, it has to be beneficial in the long run.

Nature is full of such examples. Take for instance, Monarch butterfly. It’s poisonous and so the predators won’t risk to have a bite of this butterfly. Some other butterflies have learned this fact over the period of their evolution. Viceroy butterflies are not poisonous, but they have learned that having the looks of Monarch butterfly is life-saver and so, they imitate Viceroy’s colors and patterns. See for yourself in the following pictures how similar both the butterflies look, but one can be a good snack, and the other a death-trap!

Viceroy butterfly Monarch butterfly
Viceroy butterfly Monarch butterfly

Holism vs. Reductionism

The great philosopher Aristotle famously put “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” With this, he proposed an idea of holism. The term itself did not appear until 1926 when South African statesman Jan Smuts defined it as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.” in his book Holism and Evolution. Nonetheless, it is important to note that more than two thousand years back, Aristotle had this fascinating idea that instead of parts of a substance defining the substance, it is the substance that defines its parts.

Reductionism, on the other had, takes the apposite approach to explaining anything. It says that a complex system is nothing but the sum of all of its parts and understanding those parts can tell us everything about the complex system that they belong to. This idea was supported by philosophers that came out of Miletus. This includes Thales, arguably the first known philosopher of the western civilization.

Compliance

According to Robert Cialdini, there are six ways of influencing people to comply with you.

  1. Reciprocation. People tend to return a favor.
  2. Commitment and Consistency. If people make a commitment in a perceivable or tangible form, they are likely to honor that commitment.
  3. Social Proof. People will do things that they see other people are doing.
  4. Authority. People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts.
  5. Liking/Friendship. People are easily persuaded by other people that they like or are friends with.
  6. Scarcity. Perceived scarcity will generate demand

Social proof

We are social creatures. A lot that we do and think is influenced by what the society, or the people around us do. A common realization of this can be found in the concept of conformity; we often seek to get a confirmation of some decision that we have already made. Doing so gives us an assurance that our decision is actually good. Think about all those time when you took your friend shopping with you just so that you can get her seal of approval on that new dress you were going to buy.

There is another form in which before-mentioned social behavior is exhibited. To understand this, let’s talk about a study that Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowit did in 1968 in New York City. They put a man at the corner of a busy street looking up. A few of the passersby stopped to look up what he was looking at, and most kept moving. Then Milgram et al. put 2 people looking up, and then 3, 5 10, and 15. As they increased the number of “crowd” people looking up, more and more passersby stopped and looked up. These “subjects” were not looking for a confirmation; they were merely following the collective decision of a crowd.

Joshua Bell A more recent example can be found in a story published in Washington Post, who convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso to play in the Washington DC subway during the morning rush hour. So he took his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and played. Almost no one noticed or stopped to listen. He collected a total of $32 for an hour of playing (not counting a $20 bill that was given by a person who recognized him). The commuters judged the famous violinist not by his performance, but how the rest of the crowd was reacting to him.

If lots of people are doing something or believe in something, there must be a good reason why. This idea is called social proof or informational social influence, or bandwagon effect.

Wikipedia defines social proof as a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.

If we look around carefully, we can find the realization of social proof almost everywhere. Why do companies distribute free stuff (also called SWAG) at job fair? Why do some items are over-priced? Why does a man take a picture with a group of attractive women and upload it show it to everyone? The answers to all of these and many more questions can be provided with explanations involving social proof.

Toward Collaborative Information Seeking (CIS)

Recently I wrote an article that deals with the notion of collaboration and proposes a model to facilitate collaboration in an information seeking process. This article has been accepted to be presented at Collaborative Exploratory Search workshop at JCDL 2008 conference and can be downloaded from here.

Abstract: It is natural for humans to collaborate while dealing with complex problems. In this article I consider this process of collaboration in the context of information seeking. The study and discussion presented here are driven by two dissatisfactions: (1) the majority of IR systems today do not facilitate collaboration directly, and (2) the concept of collaboration itself is not well-understood. I begin by probing the notion of collaboration and propose a model that helps us understand the requirements for a successful collaboration. A model of a Collaborative Information Seeking (CIS) environment is then rendered based on an extended model of information seeking.

Galton and the wisdom of crowd

Francis Galton Sir Francis Galton was not one of those who believed in the wisdom of crowds. Instead, he was convinced that the world was falling apart because there were too many idiots who have a say in its functioning. If only all the power could be given to a select few, he thought, things could be much better. His opinions mattered. After all [source: Wikipedia], he had produced over 340 papers and books throughout his lifetime. He also created the statistical concept of correlation and widely promoted regression toward the mean. He was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and inheritance of intelligence, and introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities, which he needed for genealogical and biographical works and for his anthropometric studies. And did I mention that he was Darwin’s cousin?!

Anyway, one day in early 20th century this brilliant scientist, who was well in his 80s, went to a country fair fair close to his town in England. There he saw a guessing game, which we get to see even in these days at state/country fairs. The point was to guess the correct weight of an ox. Nearly 800 people gave their guesses. Galton collected these guesses once the “competition” was over and analyzed this data trying to measure several parameters. It almost shocked him when he averaged the guesses. The average was 1197 pounds. The correct weight of the ox was 1198 pounds! The “best” guess was far off from this number. This was not what Galton had expected. He thought since the crowd was likely to have a few smart, some dumb, and many dumber people, the average of their cumulative “intelligence” would be bad. But this wasn’t the case here. The crowd, as an entity, turned out much more “intelligent” than even the “smartest” person in that crowd.

Moral of the story: never underestimate the wisdom of crowd!

This story is inspired by the one given in The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Collaboration – essential for philosophy

Crucial elements for philosophy are discussion, argument, and debate. It makes sense since if anything that’s said is not open to question and criticism, there would simply be individual opinions and beliefs, and not a shared view or vision. Indeed, one might say it takes two to philosophize, and philosophy happens because of their shared search for truth.

Two ways of making a difference

There are essentially two schools of thoughts for changing this world. One believes that giving a lot of power to a few select individuals, who are smart and know what’s good for the world, is the way to go. The other school believes giving a little more power to a lot of people instead. I belong to the latter school of thought. I am convinced that the goodness of the world cannot be determined by a select handful individuals; instead, let the consensus of common good be emerged from the wish and willfulness of the whole world.

To make a difference in this world, I would rather focus on empowering the mass by a little than handing over all the authority to some select individuals.