Monday, August 22, 2011

Hyperbolic Discounting and Asking For Favors

Hyperbolic discounting is when you value something more in the present than you do in the future. For example, getting a dollar today is worth more to you than getting a dollar a year from now. It also means that cost today is worse than a cost tomorrow. In some situations, this makes perfect sense. In the money example, inflation and interest mean that a dollar today is literally more valuable than the dollar a year from now. The problem is that we apply this reasoning to things we should not.

I was just reading in Wired magazine about how people tend to put movies they want to want to watch in their Netflix queue, but when it comes down to what they want to watch now, they tend to pick lowbrow movies. So, for example, someone will say they want to watch Kramer vs. Kramer a month from today, but right now they want to watch My Cousin Vinny. What's going on here is that you are screwing over your future self. Your future self seems distant, and you're willing to impose your higher-level desires, what you think a person should do, on your future self as though they were someone else. So people end up getting DVDs in the mail of movies they don't want to watch.

Fitness centers work the same way-- you pay for a membership, forcing your future self to exercise in order to relieve the feeling that you wasted your money.

Pictured is a snowboarder. Snowboarding is regarded as a relatively dangerous activity (I'm not saying that it is-- bicycling is also regarded as dangerous, but it's not. The answers to such questions require empirical study, not cultural common sense.) It could be that hyperbolic discounting encourages this kind of risk-taking. Many physical injuries feel worse when you are older. Are snowboarders screwing over their future selves to have fun today?

This is related to the idea of second-order desires, which are desires about desires. For example, you might want to eat a huge bowl of ice cream, but knowing that it's a lot of calories, you might not want to want the ice cream. When you commit your future self to exercise, you think you should exercise, even though in any given moment you might not be too excited about doing it. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls beings with no conflict between their first and second-order desires "wantons" (1971).

How can this work in your favor when asking people to do things? Ask them well in advance. The further in advance, the better, because the further in the future the requested activity is, the more distance the person will feel with that future self (the "hyperbolic" part refers to the curve of how value decreases over time-- exponential discounting is the same idea with an exponential curve.)

So if want someone to help you move tomorrow, they're less inclined to do it than if you asked them if they would help you move two months from now. Two months later, they feel obligated to help because they already said they would, even though, in the moment, they find the thought just as unappetizing.


Ariely, D. (2011). Gamed. Wired p137.

Frankfurt, H. (1971). "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person"Journal of Philosophy 68 (1): 5–20.doi:10.2307/2024717.

Picture1: Sébastien Toutant, a snowboarder, at the downtown Québec big air competition. He won the event.. By Letartean (Own work) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Picture: By Moxfyre (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Bicycle Named Stacey Pilgrim

Here is a video of my new bicycle:

It's a Strida folding bike. My folks got it for me for my birthday, and I absolutely love it. I named it "Stacey Pilgrim."

Stacey Pilgrim is the sister of the protagonist of one of my favorite movies of all time, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."*

Fans of the movie will know that Stacey is not a major character. I was asked why I didn't name the bike "Ramona Flowers," after the love interest in the movie. There are two reasons. First, I think the character Ramona is kind of a sarcastic, unpleasant person in the movie. But the second reason is a cognitive science reason-- the name "Ramona Flowers" does not describe well an angular bike like a Strida. Here's a picture of a Strida with some dude riding it.

As I was riding the bike, I was trying to think of a name, and "Tracy" and "Stacy" both came to mind. In my mind, these are good names for angular things. "Ramona" is a good name for a rounded thing. Sound crazy? It turns out that sounds are not as arbitrary as linguists tend to think. In one experiment, participants were shown these two images:

And asked which one was kiki and which one was bouba. Which do you think was bouba?

95% of people thought the first one was kiki and the second one was bouba (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001).

Em sounds are associated with curvy shapes, and plosives such as the "k" sound are associated with spikier shapes. "Sn" sounds are more likely to be associated with nasal meanings, such as sneeze and snore (Robson, 2011).

This is part of a controversial field of study called phonosemantics, which claims that phonemes have meaning. As I mentioned above, linguists tend to think that phonemes do not have meaning, but the ones I've talked to believe it but only cite anecdotal evidence and reasoning (as opposed to empirical studies) to support their view.

There is empirical evidence for phonosemantics. There appear to be cross-language similarities
with these meanings.  Participants in one experiment could guess the meanings of antonyms (e.g., fast/slow) in foreign languages better than chance (Robson, 2011).

Why would sounds have meanings? We don't know for sure, but there are theories. One is that the act of making a sound physically resembles other experiences. For example, the "br" sound at the beginning of a word involves building up pressure behind the lips and tongue and then releasing the air suddenly. Words with "br" at the beginning are more likely to be associated with some kind of breaking through of a threshold: breach, break, bran, branch, brawl, brief, brittle, brook, browse, bruise (Magnus, 2001).

So, looking at my bike, I think Stacey Pilgrim is a much more appropriate name than Ramona Flowers, due to the angular nature of the bike. What do you think?

Further Reading:


Magnus, 2001:

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(2), 3-34.

Robson, D. (2011). Kiki or bouba? In search of language's missing link. New Scientist, 2821, 30-33.

* Right now my favorite movies of all time are
       1) Kiki's Delivery Service
       2) Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
       3) Bruno
       4) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Territorial Behavior

When people come over for dinner, they often ask where they should sit at the table. My beloved says "anywhere is fine," and I have to feel sheepish asking them not to sit in my seat.

I felt sheepish because it feels very irrational to me to feel the need to sit in the same seat in my own house. I also never really knew why I wanted to do this. Was it because of comfort of the normal? Perhaps, but there is a theory that it's actually territorial behavior.

From my favorite blog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

I have found that one of the strongest feelings of territorial behavior is at retail establishments. Just getting close to the behind-the-counter area at a clothing store or a bar makes the clerk very, very uncomfortable. I felt this too, when I worked as a soda jerk in high school.

My beloved had a retail job once, and left it. She came back to get a paycheck, and went behind the counter. The person working there, whom she's worked with for a long time, asked her to not stand behind the counter. It's interesting-- my beloved's social role changed in an instant (she quit) which immediately triggered a change in the deep-seated, visceral feelings of where is and is not allowed to be. It's especially interesting because it was not a question of trusting her, just a change in role.

I have also felt strong territorial feelings when it comes to how closely people stand to me when talking. Different cultures have different ideas about how close it is appropriate to stand to someone, and I've found that there are individual differences with people in America and Canada, too.

One person I was very close to tended to stand too close to me for my taste. I would back up, and he, unconsciously, would step forward. Realizing this was not working, I learned to stand with my foot out in front of me to keep him at a distance. Writing about it, it sounds ridiculous, but the fact was that when someone is standing that close to me, it's so distracting I can barely concentrate on the conversation.

There is a very famous cognitive scientist (I won't mention his name, but he's big in the ACT-R community) who wants people to stand quite far from him. His conversation partners would, of course, unconsciously followed him every time he backed up. I have watched him, at social functions, back up until he was cornered, like a trapped animal.
Bookmark and Share