Moving to a new URL…

September 1, 2006

This blog is an experiment slash dare to myself in a couple different ways.

One, to see if there really is something to be discovered in the mashing up of technology, psychology, self-help, game theory, and silliness. I think there is.

Two, it was a test for myself to see if I could bootstrap the blog to gain some readers without publicizing it or linking to it from any of my other projects. Thanks to Gina from Lifehacker and Merlin Mann from 43 Folders, who have a very keen eye watching all corners of the internet and were kind enough to link to me a couple times, I did gain a significant number of readers.

Three, I was curious to see if this experiment could eventually be incorporated into my other projects at The Robot Co-op.

And so, today, which also happens to be the 2nd anniversary of the day we started our company, we’re launching a new blog called Mutual Improvement which will be very similar to this blog in spirit, but even more ambitious and wild. I’ll be continuing the series of cognitive biases and exercises for lost souls (and rewriting many of the existing ones as well) and many of the other ideas I’ve started up.

So, if anything from the last couple months has peaked your interest, please update your bookmarks, add this new RSS feed, read about our new inspiration, and enjoy.

Click Here:


Erik Benson


This is an exercise in finding one thing explicitly and one thing implicitly.  First, measure yourself against a fairly conservative and responsible checklist of things that should increase your personal freedom.  Second, find your hidden personal biases against certain seemingly responsible behaviors.

According to the Better Me website the Clean Sweep Program is:

A checklist of 100 items which, when completed, give one complete personal freedom. These 100 items are grouped in 4 areas of life with 25 in each group: Physical Environment, Well-being, Money and Relationships. These 4 areas are the cornerstone for a strong and healthy life and the program helps a person to clean up, restore and polish virtually every aspect of his/her life. The program takes between 6 – 24 months to complete.

It’s a bold claim.  At first I was curious about which authority they were claiming that these 100 things are actually worth achieving.  The creator of this site, Michael Cooper, is a graduate of Coach University and I think these 100 things are something from their program… and prospective new coaches are encouraged to get their own lives in order before coaching others.

The 100 things are split up into four categories: Physical Environment, Well-being, Money, and Relationships.  Each category has 25 things that, together, imply health and personal freedom.  The idea is that the best way to solve problems and improve yourself is to create the space and mental state that best accommodates problem solving and self-improvement.

I took it and got a 77 out of 100.  I think I cheated on a few though.  I have strong personal preferences against a couple of them (mostly drinking caffeine and alcohol).  However an interesting comment from them is:

Those last 5 or 10 are the ones which are most worth taking care of, given our egos are well entrenched among these incompletions.

That seems true to me.  We all have personal behaviors or habits that we believe our personality is permanently intertwined with.  For that reason alone I suggest that you take this test and pay particular attention to the things on the list that you say to yourself either “Not only do I not want to do that, but I think it’s wrong” or “It’s not that I don’t want to do that, it’s that I can’t”.  Both of these responses indicate a strong emotional conflict between your behaviors and your actual self.  Take a look at WHY you think something is wrong or impossible and you may find some deeply rooted hidden biases in yourself.

This is the tendency to believe that you control, or at least partially influence, things that you do not.   For example, that by leaning to one side after you have bowled a definite gutter ball you might influence it to move back towards the center.  Okay, not really… but I do do that sometimes.

This is the fuzzy land of superstitions that you don’t really believe rationally but which you still engage in emotionally.  If you had $100 bet on the outcome of a coin toss, what would you do?  Loosen up your shoulders?  Hop up and down?  Toss the coin up high, or keep it low?  People who win a lot of coin tosses in a row might begin to feel like they’re better guessers.  They might get angry with you if you try to make them lose their concentration.
One question I have about this bias is whether or not it is a harmful one.  What are the consequences of feeling like you’re actually playing the video game even though you haven’t put any coins in it and it’s on demo mode?  What side effects are there to screaming at the television telling the character not to go into the basement when they will sure get killed?  Does it give you a false sense of confidence that eventually leads you making choices that lead to failure?  It seems like if that were the case, that the illusion of control would correct itself over time… leading to a sense of control that was fairly accurate.  In other words, if the illusion of control was harmful, it would eventually lead you to believe that your control of things was harmful and therefore make you try to control things less in order to not harm them.  However, if the illusion of control has neutral or positive benefits, then that would explain why it stuck around… it would self-reinforce itself.

If you think about it with squinty eyes, you can even see how optimism and the “go get ’em” attitude of many very successful people involves an element of this illusion of control.  It’s in that first split second of coming across a chance event or occurance that might end up being in your favor or against it… do you shy away from it, look at it indifferently, or take it on as something you can influence?  And which reaction leads to the best outcomes?

Walking through this list of biases has been very interesting for me due to this strange confusion about their role and impact on the practical matters of how our brain works.  They exist because they often lead to a net gain somehow… they are shortcuts and assumptions that we can’t help but make if we are to have any hope of processing as much information as we do on a daily basis.  And yet at some point every shortcut will reveal flaws and occassionally steer us wrong.  At which point should we meet the bias and say, “Thank you for your shortcut, but I will take it from here”?  This is the relationship we must become aware of, between the conscious and the subconscious.  Between the fast, cheap, and general, to the slow, expensive, and specific.

Traineo logo

Traineo is a new website that helps you meet your diet and exercise goals with a bit of peer pressure. An interesting web 2.0 take on it, and one that I’ve been waiting for. Since I’m not much of a diet-watcher, some of the tools seem a little awkward: you have to rate your diet subjectively (poor to great) and that you enter your calories in by number. I’m curious to see whether or not that data has any value over time especially since I don’t know inuitively how many calories are in things.

The best feature is how you can add motivators… these are people that will be emailed either your weight change or your actual weight (you can set that up in the preferences) weekly and will therefore serve to deliver a continuous but friendly stream of peer pressure to you.

(Found via Lifehacker)

If you live in Seattle, and you’ve been thinking about the possibility of getting rid of your car but don’t know if it’s feasible, you might want to think about trying the One Less Car Challenge:

What is the One Less Car Challenge?

The One Less Car Challenge is a new program that gives you a taste of living with one less car. Basically, you go on a “car diet” for a month by not driving your second car – or your only car. You’ll get great tips on how to get around by bus, bike & foot, as well as some nifty incentives – like some free Flexcar use for the month.

You may even prove to yourself that you don’t need that extra car. If you sell your extra car, you’ll get even bigger incentives – and save yourself thousands of dollars a year!

Flexcar will reimburse you $50/month (max two months) of Flexcar time if you participate. And if you end up selling or donating your car after the end of the challenge, you’ll get an extra $100/month of Flexcar credit for up to six months.

I think this is a great idea.

Learn more here.

This is the tendency for people to value more immediate payoffs higher than remote payoffs.

Sort of makes sense, right?  I’d prefer to get $5 today than $5 tomorrow.  But would I rather get $10 today or $11 next week?  Or would I rather get $500 today or $1,000 a year from now?  In all three cases I’d probably take what I could get now rather than wait for the bigger payoff in the future.
However, the other twist is that this bias diminishes if both payoffs aren’t that close to the present.  For example, I’d rather take $1,000 5 years from now than $500 4 years from now.  As long as I’m waiting 4 years, might as well wait the 5th for twice as much.  But if you compare it to the example in the paragraph above, you’ll see how this logic seems to flip flop a bit.  In both cases waiting a year could gain me $500, but waiting a year right now seems harder than waiting a year 4 years from now.  Hence the hyperbolic nature of this bias… it slowly twists over time.  It’s irrational because you treat the same problem differenly depending on an arbitrary variable (its nearness in time to you).
Marketers can take advantage of this bias by offering you something small now in exchange for something bigger later.  Credit cards, banks, and loan companies seem to thrive on this bias alone.

Brainwave states

August 16, 2006

The brain is an electrochemical organ that emits an electrical charge that can be measured and also influenced through a technique known as entrainment. Entrainment is the tendency for two oscillating systems that have similar periods to fall into synch with one another. What usually happens is that the system with the greater frequency slows down to match the system with the lesser frequency. I had a very strange experience with this when I was on my meditation retreat last month when my heart beat kept synching itself to the ticking of my bedside clock. Other anecdotal evidence of these things include how people you’re having a close rapport with will often mirror breathing patterns, and for women who live together to slowly gain matching menstrual cycles.

In any case, the brainwave states are typically divided into these five categories:

  • Gamma: 38-80 Hz (waves per second). A heightened state of awareness. Your mind will feel loose and free, able to make wide connections quickly. Good for wit, improve, problem-solving, and sometimes even ESP.
  • Beta: 12-38 Hz. A focused state. You will often be in this state when engaged in conversation, leading a group, or engaged in something new.
  • Alpha: 8-12 Hz. A meditative or relaxed state. Associated with taking a rest between working states, or taking a shower, or driving down a familiar road, or on a walk.
  • Theta: 3-8 Hz. A sleepy state. Right after you wake up or right before you fall asleep. You are still thinking but everything is a bit groggy and slow. Hypnosis can often take people into this very suggestible state.
  • Delta : 0.2-3 Hz. Deep, dreamless sleep.

Once you recognize these states, it’s possible to take advantages of the strengths of each. The alpha and theta states are great for new idea generation… the commonly reported phenomenon of getting your best ideas in the shower, or driving to work, or walking to the store seem to support this. On the other hand, Beta and gamma states are best for intensely social and communicative environments… first dates, parties, etc.

There are biofeedback and brainwave alteration tools out there to help entrain you into deeper slower states of awareness. My question for you is, do you know what you’d want to do with these different states if you could better control them?