You’re Never Too Old to Learn

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duck-with-ducklings-1543709For some reason, I never felt part of my high school peers. Actually, I know the reason. I never fully accepted moving from the comfort of the community where I was born to this strange new place. Mind you, the non-acceptance didn’t start with me. It was quite mutual. But that’s another story.

This story is about psychology. I can’t remember what interested me in the subject, but it had to be something very early in my life. By ninth grade, I had psycho-analyzed the entire high school population, separating them into nine distinct demographic groups based on their psychological profile as determined by their observed behavior. I never showed it to anyone, but I’m pretty sure I still have it. Somewhere.

I wouldn’t take my first psychology class until my senior year in high school. The teacher so enjoyed my term paper she suggested something I considered quite odd at the time. The research paper – “The Effective Use of Nonverbal Communication as Related to the Game of Chess” (those reading this on-line can click the linked title to read the actual paper) – explained my victories as captain of the chess team not in terms of my intellectual prowess, but how I used subtle persuasion techniques to convince my opponents they couldn’t win. Think of it as the psychology of winning chess. Needless to say, the matter bored my classmates, but the instructor insisted I compose a book based on it. I asked her a disbelieving “Why?” She responded quite bluntly, “Everyone wants something for nothing.”

Spurred by this endorsement, the first job I landed as a college freshman was working for the Yale Child Study Center. I was among several student research aides responsible for coding data for one of their ongoing research projects. Throughout my time there, the project director continually tried to recruit me to switch my major to psychology. I was too loyal to the department that originally accepted me, and I remained a Physics and Astronomy double major.

My interest in psychology never waned. I’m always curious as to how and why people make decisions. This has so many fascinating applications, particularly in business and public policy, but most especially in the field of picking investments. How else would you know when to sell high and buy low? I’m always on the look-out to detect behavioral patterns. I recently saw one you might find interesting.

If you don’t know by now, in 2014 I wrote a book by the name of A Pizza The Action. In it, I chronicled the decade during the late teenage/early adult years of my life when I worked in my grandparents pizza stand at the Erie County Fair – one of the nation’s largest fairs and expositions (it’s bigger than the New York State Fair). In the last few years, I’ve been invited as a local author to sit for two hours in the late afternoon of the first Friday of the Fair to talk to visitors, sign my books, and (hopefully) sell a few of them, too.

The challenge, however, is to come up with a unique way to engage the various passers-by as they walk through the Historical Building (where the book signings occur). In the past, I’ve asked trivia questions. This year, in the spirit of the presidential election, I decided to ask people to vote for which book they’d like me to write next. (The choice was between a book about Greater Western New York becoming its own state and the story of the Hamburger.) I created two “petitions,” where people could sign their name, their email address, and indicate if the wanted Choice #1 (the state book) or Choice #2 (the hamburger book).

The first interesting observation I already knew about (and wrote about in A Pizza The Action). When people see a crowd, they’re naturally curious and want to know what’s going on. So the crowd gets bigger. It’s sort of the same idea as the “rubber-necker” delay on the opposite lane of where the traffic accident occurred. People want to see what all the excitement is about, so they slow down, creating a traffic jam by the accident. Well, in the case of Decision 2016: Which Book Should I Write Next, it took people a while to read the choices. And since I had two forms, two people could be reading at once. Except it wasn’t just two people. It was all their family and friends. And this crowd caused more people to ask what was going on. I got a lot of signatures that day. And sold more books than I did the previous year.

The second observation is more noteworthy. Remember how I said I had two forms? Well, it turns out, once people started answering, people after them appeared to make choices that conformed to the earlier choices. For example, on one form, the first few people picked Choice #1. Almost everyone after that picked Choice #1. Likewise – and totally by coincidence, I didn’t artificially induce this as an experimenter would – the first few people picked Choice #2 on the other form. Almost everyone after that picked Choice #2 .

This happened each time we changed the paper and placed a blank sheet on the clip board. The first few people would tend to all answer the same way. The rest of the people filling out the form would then answer in an identical fashion. It didn’t matter if the first few people picked Choice #1 or Choice #2, all subsequent respondents answered the same way.

But this “copycat” phenomenon wasn’t just limited to the choices. Recall how I had a category for email address. In cases where the first few people filled in their email address, the rest of the responders on that page also filled in the email address. Similarly, if the first few respondents did not fill in their email address, neither did the rest of the respondents on that page.

These particular observations fall under the category of “social proof.” This occurs when people mimic the behavior of others because they believe that is the more acceptable behavior. It’s why bartenders “seed” the tip jar by putting a few of their own dollars in it before the first customer enters. It’s also why peer pressure tends to be so effective. I’m not sure if it ever helped me win chess matches, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

What I can say for sure is that you’re never too old to learn. After all those years attending and working at the Fair, the experience continues to offer valuable lessons and insights. I look forward to discovering what I’ll learn there next year.

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