Why putting the other guy down works

I’m a big fan of selling yourself instead of putting the other guy down. I agree with Seth Godin:

John Kerry called George Bush dumb, but it didn’t matter, because
Bush’s base didn’t care that Kerry thought he was dumb. The people who
did care had already decided not to vote for Bush, so the story had no

So I was wondering why people spend so much energy putting the other guy down instead of talking themselves up. One of the reasons I think people bash their opponents is a concept that I learned in Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

If you have two products, A and B, that are very different, it’s hard to compare them. In his example, he uses a colonial house and a ranch house. People have a hard time choosing between them and the split will probably be 50/50 for the colonial or the ranch. (Assuming they’re pretty similar in price, size, location, etc.) However, imagine you introduce A’, a colonial house that needs a new roof. Most people will now pick the colonial house that doesn’t need a new roof over the ranch house. Now they have something to compare it to (the colonial house that needs a roof) and it’s obviously better. The ranch is not obviously better even though it might be just as good.


Picture from Predictably Irrational, page 9.

(By the way, he recommends that if you are barhopping and looking for a date, you should take someone who looks a lot like you but is not quite as attractive.)

So I think that’s one of the reasons why politicians put their opponents down. They are trying to give you something to compare against so that you’ll pick the better one (with regards to that feature.)

Now you can imagine how this compares to products. He gave an example of bread machine company introducing a new model just so that people had something to compare the existing model to. Sales went up because they had two models of bread machines and so now they could compare them, not because the new model was what people wanted.

So maybe that’s part of the reason people bash political opponents, rich people, and other operating systems.

How cops would use money and shame to stop crime

According to How Cops Really Want to Police, cops would use money and shame to stop crime. They’d dish out punishment on the spot. Most of their suggestions were either financial or shame.

On the financial side they’d do things like  give drug money to the neighbors or make a shoplifter work for the shop owner.

On the shame side, they’d make sure the whole neighborhood knew who was driving drunk or beating their wife.

Why $9.95 really works

From Scientific American, Why Things Cost $19.95:

if we see a $20 toaster, we might wonder whether it is worth $19 or $18
or $21; we are thinking in round numbers. But if the starting point is
$19.95, the mental measuring stick would look different. We might still
think it is wrongly priced, but in our minds we are thinking about
nickels and dimes instead of dollars, so a fair comeback might be
$19.75 or $19.50.

We are addicted to information!

Throughout history, information has been scarce – and important to staying alive. So we try to accumulate and learn as much as possible. Now what used to be a survival technique is now keeping us glued to our monitors. From the WSJ article Why We’re Powerless To Resist Grazing On Endless Web Data:

new and richly interpretable information triggers a
chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to
seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid
not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom.

It is something we seem hard-wired to do, says Dr.
Biederman. When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we
are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores.’ "

He compares it to food. We are programmed to eat lots so that we don’t starve. Even though food is abundant now, we still eat lots. Even though information is abundant now, we still want more and more!

Why do you believe myths?

There’s a really interesting article in the Washinton Post, Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach about how myths grow.  As an example they used a CDC study that tried to dispel myths about the flu.  After reading the flyer, many people remembered the false facts as true!

It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

So the article concludes that trying to dispel myths by stating them only makes them more memorable and more true in people’s minds!

Why don’t people give more to charities? Part II: Values

Yesterday I wrote about how one of the reasons people don’t give more to charities is because they don’t know the people personally.  I think another very real reason is that it’s hard to give aid to people whose values don’t match yours.  I know people that could very much use some help – or at least help with the things I value – but I wouldn’t help them because I think they are spending what they have on things that aren’t important.  For example, here are some stories from individuals I know personally:

  • Can’t afford insurance but bought a $225 chihuahua puppy,
  • Can’t afford to send their kids to preschool but pays twice the market rate in rent to live in a really nice place,
  • Complains about not having enough money for baby formula but owns a big screen TV,
  • Talks about how they can’t afford a car while holding a Starbucks cup.

(And don’t tell me they deserve all the nice things!  I’m sure they do but when you have to make trade-offs because you don’t have enough money, do you choose a TV or food for your baby?)  I want to give them financial education but who’s to say that my values are better than theirs?

P.S.  I should also note that none of the above people asked me for any money!  So this is all a theoretical debate.

Why don’t people give more to charities?

This quote from Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, really hit home for me.

The obstacle is that poverty is often not personal. If your next-door neighbor’s child was dying and you
could save her for $100, you wouldn’t think twice. But a child 10,000 miles
away whom you have never met, that’s just different.
About 29,000 kids die every day of preventable causes–29,000! These kids
have names and faces, hopes and dreams. Their parents love them as much as
we love our kids. We’ve got to make poverty personal.

"It’s not personal" is the reason people don’t give more and it’s probably the reason they are racist or demeaning to minorities as well.  I know that having friends from many walks of life has really helped me understand the world better.

What makes people friends?

This isn’t a post about how to make or keep friends.  This is about an article that dives into the pyschology of friendship.  So if you don’t like analyzing things, skip this post!

What makes people friends?  How do we choose who we are friends with?  The bottom line according to Friendship: The Laws of Attraction:

We become best friends with people who boost our self-esteem by
affirming our identities as members of certain groups, and it’s the
same for both genders.

In English, that means that if we think of ourselves first as moms, we will probably either hang out with moms or people that tell us we are good moms.  If we think of ourselves first as engineers, we will probably be best friends with engineers or someone who tells us we are great engineers.

Once you’ve found your best friend, there are four key ingredients to friendship:

  • self-disclosure – we share personal information and wait for the person to disclose equivilent personal information.  For example, I share that I’m having a hard time dealing with my brother and you share that you are having a hard time dealing with your husband.
  • supportiveness – friends listen to those problems and support their friends either by commiserating, offering advise or just listening.
  • interaction – you have to talk, email, write, … it doesn’t have to be in person.
  • positiveness – nobody wants to listen to rants all the time.  People want to feel good so they tend to hang out with people that make them feel good.  (I had a friend who told me she loved hanging out with me because I always made her feel good I was so upbeat.  I had never thought about it but I found myself thinking about all my friends and how upbeat they were or weren’t after that!)

So knowing all that probably won’t help you find or make friends but maybe it will make for an interesting, postive, supportive interaction with your existing friends.