The Undoing Project: Exploring ‘Natural Stupidity’

The New York Times: The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis (also author of Moneyball), is “a story about two unconventional thinkers who saw the world differently from everyone around them. Their peculiar area of research — how humans make decisions, often irrationally — has had profound implications for an array of fields, like professional sports, the military, medicine, politics, finance and public health.” It is the story of “two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whose discoveries challenged long-held beliefs about human nature and the way the mind works.”

Their work “helped explain why a simple algorithm is often better than the most experienced doctors at diagnosing stomach cancer, why so many financial experts failed to foresee the implosion of the housing market, and why professional basketball teams make costly errors when picking players — in short, why people’s instincts are often so wildly wrong … In 2002, Mr. Kahneman won the Nobel in economic science … for demonstrating how people make decisions when faced with risks and uncertainty. (When asked if their work had any application to artificial intelligence, Mr. Tversky, who died in 1996, countered that they were more interested in exploring ‘natural stupidity.’)”

“Their research demonstrating how people behave in fundamentally irrational ways when making decisions, relying on their gut rather than available data, gave rise to the field of behavioral economics. That discipline attracted Paul DePodesta, a Harvard student, who later went into sports management and helped upend professional baseball … It wasn’t until Mr. Lewis read a 2003 review of Moneyball in The New Republic, which mentioned the connection between Mr. Kahneman’s and Mr. Tversky’s research and the data revolution in baseball, that he realized the extent to which their work had shaped the book.”


Marlboro Black: A Hit With Millennial Smokers

The Wall Street Journal: “In the five years since Marlboro Black was introduced, it has done a lot to help Philip Morris USA with its millennial problem. About 85% of young adults don’t smoke. Many who do smoke don’t like Marlboro … But Black has breathed life into Marlboro. Since grabbing more than 1% of U.S. cigarette market share in its first year, the brand has helped Marlboro reach an all-time high of 44.1% market share … And it has helped boost Marlboro’s market share among 18- to 25-year-old smokers by 3 percentage points to 46% in 2014 from 2011.”

“Marketing representatives have pushed the brand by handing out coupons for $1 packs of cigarettes at places like Atlanta’s popular underground dance club MJQ Concourse and the Graveyard Tavern, a neighborhood bar. The company also sought to bolster the brand’s urban credibility with digital shorts about graffiti artists, lowrider cars and Chicago city photographers … Jerry Weger, who manages the tobacco business across Sheetz Inc.’s 500 convenience stores, said Marlboro’s “manly man thing wasn’t that appealing” to the younger generation, but the black packaging gave the brand an upscale image that has allowed it to accumulate an estimated 6% to 8% market share at Sheetz stores.”

“Price was key to the brand’s success. Nicole Cichon, a veterinary student at Michigan State University, said she first started buying the brand because a pack cost $5.25, about $1.50 less than the Marlboro Reds she used to smoke. The 24-year old grew to prefer the brand’s less-harsh flavor and its modern marketing.”


Mind Games: The Reality About Fiction

Nautilus: “Feeling a range of real emotions for fictional events is so commonplace we don’t often think to question it. But why should we get emotionally involved with characters and situations that we know are not real? Why should we get scared by something we know is only a movie? This is the paradox of fiction. To resolve this paradox we need to understand a bit about the nature of the human mind and brain.”

“The older parts of the brain evolved to see things, detect predators, manage emotions, and other, older cognitive skills. The newer parts of the brain are capable of reasoning and reflection. What this means is that only the newer parts (specifically the frontal lobes) ‘know’ that what you’re reading is fiction. The older parts of the brain have trouble distinguishing real from fictional faces, and even true from false sentences!”

“Storytelling is the ancestor of modern fiction, and it makes sense to speculate that a primary function of storytelling was to communicate important information about the environment … What probably happened was that we tended to believe what we heard by default, and only consider that it might be false if we have good reasons to suspect deception or misinformation … This is probably why literature can transport us, enrapture us, and create such transcendent experiences … Half of our minds believe these stories to be true.”


Dad Shoes: Hot But Not Cool

Business Insider: “The Air Monarch is by all accounts a boring shoe, meant neither to inspire nor offend. This makes it stand out in terms of the other shoes on the usual lists of bestsellers … But the shoe’s mundane design could be precisely what attracts both older customers seeking something comfortable and acceptable, as well as some younger consumers looking to subvert trend-obsessed fashion attitudes.”

“Adidas’ Stan Smiths, similarly, have been flying off the shelves for years now. The shoe is distinctive enough that designers, models, and moguls want to be seen with them on their feet, but they’re not so outlandish and colorful that the average person would be wary of buying and wearing them. And indeed they do buy them, as the shoe has sold an estimated 40 million pairs since 1973.”

“Then take NBA MVP Steph Curry’s partnership with Under Armour. The ‘Che'” Curry Two Low was torn apart on Twitter after its debut because of its ‘boring’ appearance. But the shoes ended up performing very well, selling out in two days even though the shoes are not on limited offer like many of the collaborations that have star power behind them … The flashier shoes are designed to create a halo effect, enshrining the brands in a holy glow that makes it feel trendy and cool … but it’s the consistent and reliable success of dad-approved shoes like the Air Monarch, Stan Smith, and Chef Curry Two Low that are helping to make these brands real money.”


Cellphone Chemistry: Your Portrait is on Your Mobile

The Wall Street Journal: “Those smudges on your cellphone reveal intimate details about your lifestyle, a new study says, potentially offering a new tool for criminal profiling, airport screening, clinical trials and environmental exposure studies. Traces of molecules and microbes left when you handle your phone can add up to a composite portrait, including gender, diet, medications, clothing, beauty products, and places visited,” according to researchers at the University of California in San Diego.

“Such chemical signatures likely build up whenever someone regularly touches a phone, keys, credit cards, or other personal possessions—and can linger for months … The researchers tested 39 people and their cellphones. They took samples from the front and back of each phone and from the palm and fingers of each person’s right hand. They used a mass spectrometer to detect the molecules in each sample and, consulting chemical databases, identified as many of them as they could.”

“Among the medications detected on the phones were anti-inflammatory and antifungal skin creams, hair loss treatments, antidepressants and eye drops. They identified traces of citrus, caffeine, black pepper, and chili spices. Traces of sunscreen ingredients and DEET mosquito repellent also turned up.” “We got 90% of the people correctly identified based on the chemistry of the phone,” said lead researcher Pieter Dorrestein, a professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.