Category: science

The Behavioral Science of Socks!

Socks – really?

No, this isn’t one of those government studies where you wonder how it ever got approved (i.e., how long can shrimp run on a treadmill or does playing FarmVille on Facebook help people to make friends and keep them?*).

Socks and behavioral science. The two do not seem to fit together, yet I consistently use my socks as a personal behavioral modification tool.

Here’s how.

I have a penchant for different types of imaginative socks.  It started 11 years ago, when one of our Au Pairs from Poland gave me a pair of very colorful, bright blue and green striped socks for Christmas.  Before that, I was a bland brown and black sock kind of guy.

But I liked wearing the colorful socks she gave me – I always seemed to smile when I put them on in the morning.

As the years went by my colorful sock collection grew, both through my own purchases and through gifts from family and friends.  As I collected more socks, they began to go beyond wild colors. They started to have pictures and statements –  I had green socks with little footballs on them, red socks from Canada with drawings of little beavers on them.  My kids even got me a pair of “I’m kind of a big Dill” socks with a picture of a large dill pickle on them. I often can’t distinguish my Thomas Jefferson socks with my “the Thinker” socks (that have an outline of the Rodin’s famous thinker) when they are folded up in my sock drawer.

As my collection grew, there were three pairs that have led to my belief that something as simple as socks can be used as a powerful behavioral hack.

The first are my Einstein socks.  These black socks feature colorful caricatures of Einstein with wild colored hair.

The second are my blue socks – punctuated by menacing sharks.   

The final pair are my unicorn/ narwhal socks, emblazoned with unicorns battling narwhals horn-to-horn.   

I’m not sure when it started, but over time I realized that I was wearing each of these socks on specific days to help build and sustain a mindset for myself.

Mindset and Socks

On days when I thought that I needed to be particularly smart, I would put on my Einstein socks.  If I was giving a presentation, needing to do an analysis of research data or brainstorm ideas with a client, I would purposefully put these on in the morning.  They framed the day, acting as a gentle reminder. Whenever I looked at them that I was smart and ready to refocus my energy.

The shark socks were worn on days when I needed to be tough and direct.  If I was working on a contract or in need of a tough conversation with a client or employee, I would pull out the shark socks.

Finally, the unicorn/narwhal socks were used when I thought I needed a little bit of magic in my life.  When I needed to feel lucky -the days I had a meeting with a new potential client or when I was flying.

The interesting thing is that each day I wore the different socks, I had a different attitude., I exhibited different behaviors.

I started to wonder:  was this just me, or if was there something more to this?

Research

So, I looked for some research.

Alas, there was no research on “socks’ impact on behavior” that I could find (if anybody knows of any, please let me know).

However, there was plenty of research on the effects of attentional selection, pre-loaded associations, influence cues, and priming.  These psychological components have been shown to influence our behaviors – often without us being aware of their influence.

Robert Cialdini, one of the preeminent researchers on influence, says this in his book Pre-suasion, “…exposure either to simple words or simple images can have a pre-suasive impact on later actions that are merely associated with the words or images.”  He uses an example where fundraisers who were raising funds for a local university were placed into one of two groups.  Before their shift, each group was given a sheet of paper with information “designed to help them communicate the value of contributing to the cause.”  The only difference was that one group received the information on a plain sheet of paper while the other group got the information on a piece of paper with a watermarked photo of a runner winning a race.   

We would think that this difference would have no or little impact on performance, the information is the same for both, yet those with the picture had 60% more donations than their non-picture counterparts.

Another example, this one that shows how priming can influence behavior was done by Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996).  In their study, Bargh et al., primed people with words that were related to being old.  When they subsequently measured their walking speed, the people primed with old age words walked slower than those who had not.

Dijksterhuis and van Knippernberg, two Dutch researchers did an experiment similar, but this time, using a quiz and priming people either to think of the attributes of “professors” or “soccer hooligans.”  They found that those participants primed to think about the attributes of a professor answered more general knowledge questions correctly (mean score of 23.4 out of 42) than the soccer hooligan primed participants (mean score of 17.9 out of 42).**

Back to socks

In essence, the socks I wear prime my behavior.

Because I have a pre-association of Einstein with “smart” or sharks with “mean” – they have primed my mind to respond in this way.  They also act as a vivid reminder of my intentions, refocusing my thoughts throughout the day whenever I catch sight of them.

Now does this mean that I’m a completely different person when I wear different socks?

No.  I’m not a completely different person.  My behavior is going to typically fluctuate around some behavioral norm that is my baseline.  This norm is based on a number of factors that impact me including things such as the weather, how well I slept, what others in the room are doing, how I feel, etc.

But at some level, the socks I choose are having an influence on me.  They nudge me to behave in a manner based on the association that I have with them.  It may be a slight change in my behavior, but that slight change could have large impacts on the overall outcome of my day.

A word of caution, you better be careful if you are playing a game of trivial pursuit with me and I am wearing my new Einstein socks.  You’ve been warned!

References:

Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L (1996) Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71: 230–244.

Cialdini, R. B., (2016) Pre-fluence: a revolutionary way to influence and persuade.  Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Dijksterhuis, A., & Knippenberg, A.V. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of trivial pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 865-877.

Other stuff

*I think that these studies get a bad wrap because the researchers do a horrible job of explaining what their study is about.  For instance, the shrimp treadmill study looked at how long shrimp would move on the treadmill in different water pollution conditions – trying to understand the impact that pollution had on their ability to flee predators and thus help predict how this would impact shrimp farmers in the future.  

**Many priming studies, like a lot of psychological studies, have a hard time being replicated.  The studies listed here have a mixed bag in the replication world – with some replication studies finding the priming effect and others not.  As with all research, we need to be careful in how we interpret their findings and how we apply those findings – often, the specific nature of the research isn’t easily generalized to other situations.  Unless we are talking about socks with images on them – then we know the applications hold true

 

 

 

Behavioral Grooves

Back in September,  I partnered with Tim Houlihan to start “a monthly gathering of curious minds” which we called Behavioral Grooves.  We thought it would be interesting to get like-minded people together to talk about applying behavioral science to life and work.

We had no idea if others would be interested in this…

We announced the meetup and were hoping to get at least a few of the friends that we had contacted to show up.  We ended up with 24 people for that first session where we talked about habits – how they are formed and what people can do to improve them.

We were thrilled!

From there, it took off.  We have over 180 members signed up to our meetup group and it is growing fast.  We have had three monthly sessions as of early January 2018 and our fourth is lined up for two weeks from today.  We have over 20 people who have made it to two or more of the sessions.

I guess we struck a nerve.

For our second session, we invited Professor James Heyman to speak and thought, hey, since he’s here, why don’t we interview him and make a podcast out of it.  Thus, our Behavioral Grooves podcast was born.  Tim and I both loved that so much that we decided that we didn’t want to wait for the next Behavioral Grooves session to record our next one – so we started to invite people and interview them – both live and over the internet.

To date, we have seven interviews recorded and three more in the works.  These podcasts mirror the Behavioral Grooves sessions in that they are conversational in nature where we geek out over behavioral science and how we can apply behavioral science insights into our daily work and lives.

They have been a blast!

In reflecting on this, it appears to me that these two outlets provide us with a way of both learning and sharing.  We want to be advocates for good, ethical use of behavioral science.  We believe that there is much to learn and we can improve our work and lives by understanding and by applying these principles in a thoughtful and deliberate manner.

We also realized that we love the community that this is creating.  A community of curious minds who are interested in science and the application of that science.  A community of people that we can bounce ideas off of.  A community of people that can push us to think about things from new perspectives.

This is ultimately what we have been building and hope that it grows and provides a place and outlet for others, as well as ourselves.

If you are ever in Minneapolis on the third Thursday of the month – please come and join us at our meetup (find out more info here) and if you can’t make that, please listen in to our podcasts (click here to find the latest).

Come and join our community of curious minds!

Thanks!

Kurt

Don’t Be A Communications Relic – Using behavioral science to make communications more effective

Communication Relic - LGWant to make communications more effective – use behavioral science

Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in how organizations value their internal communications.  In the past, employee focused communications were often an afterthought.  Companies would spend significant time, effort and money on developing out their incentive plans, making sure they were designed to drive the right behaviors and performance, only to communicate it to the field in an e-mail with a 30-page, single-spaced legal contract attached.

Thankfully, this is starting to change.

Today, organizations realize that they need to invest time and resources into their internal communications to optimize their value and impact.  As companies make this investment we are seeing a significant improvement in the design and visual appeal of internal communications – from incentive compensation to benefits to operations; the production value of employee communications has risen.

However, merely making a communication look pretty and appealing isn’t sufficient in today’s hyper-competitive world.  Organizations need their communications not just to inform, but also to spur new behavior and actions.

When companies communicate about programs that require employee action, they often only see a small change in employee behaviors (or no change at all) – even when these actions have clear benefits for the employee (i.e., increasing their contribution to their 401K plan, using a flexible health care spending account, or changing their selling behavior to align with the new incentive plan to maximize their own earnings).

This is where behavioral science comes in.

Behavioral sciences such as psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics help improve organizational communication and drive both action and behavior change.  These cutting edge scientific concepts are currently being used heavily in consumer marketing with positive results – and now they are being implemented by many companies as part of their internal employee communications to achieve similar results inside the company.

Read further to make sure that you’re not being left behind. 

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