social psychology

The taxi-meter effect, and the benefits of counting your days on earth

ClockAt a new cafe in Shoreditch in London that made the headlines a few weeks back, you don't pay for your coffee or the Wi-Fi; instead, you pay just to be there, at a rate of 3p per minute. Doubtless this innovative approach will go down well in the vicinity of what I believe we're now supposed to think of as Britain's new technology hub, aka the Old Street roundabout. But a pay-per-minute cafe would put me on edge. Being conscious of how my money's dribbling away is the exact opposite of the mindset I hope to achieve while sipping a latte. My goal is to forget the passage of time, however briefly – not to be reminded that the sooner I leave, the more I'll save.

It's not that life used to be simpler, or people less narcissistic. It's that you got older

Parkville'It really was the last time when the world was simple and small," sighed the US television writer Adam Goldberg a while back, explaining his decision to set his new sitcom, The Goldbergs, in the 1980s. What made that era different, he argued, was that the internet hadn't yet erased distance; your world consisted mainly of your immediate family and surroundings. But if you teleported back to Goldberg's world in 1985, I don't think it's his lack of web access you'd notice first. Like me, Goldberg is in his late 30s; in the 1980s, he was a child. "The 80s wasn't 'the last time the world was simple'," one commentator, Paul Waldman, chided on his blog. "The 80s was the last time your world was simple." The hazy memory of a simpler past is enormously powerful in politics: see the Tea Party, or the hate-nostalgia of the Daily Mail. But look closely at the era being praised, whether it's the 40s or the 90s, and you'll frequently find the praise-giver was about seven at the time. Unless you're eight, the world really has changed since you were seven. But possibly not as much as you have.

The best way to judge character? Don't always trust your gut

DinnertableWhat's the best question to ask on a first date? Many forests have been felled for books dissecting this question, but a few years back the dating website made a startling intervention. If you want to know the chances of a first encounter ending in sex, its analysts said, the question to ask is, "Do you like the taste of beer?" If you're concerned with long-term compatibility, the question is, "Do you like horror movies?" When registering, OKCupid users answer hundreds of seemingly innocuous queries – the one about beer, it transpires, is most strongly correlated with positive views of first-date sex. Liking or disliking horror films, meanwhile, is a better predictor of a lasting relationship than beliefs about God. We could invent theories to explain this: maybe people who score highly on "sensation-seeking", as psychologists call it, enjoy both casual sex and cheap ways to get drunk? But the point about Big Data is that you don't need theories. The correlations are there, whether or not they seem to make sense.

Avoid holiday conflicts using the martial art of aikido. No, really.

AikidoWhen it comes to dealing with life's low-level conflicts – the kind of petty sniping some of you may just possibly be about to experience in the coming days – the Japanese martial art of aikido might not seem a promising source of solutions. Faced with a clash of views over turkey preparation, TV viewing choices or your uncle's thoughts on the immigrants, it's impractical to wait for a physical confrontation and then, using only the gentlest of movements, to rechannel your assailant's energy to send him or her somersaulting backwards over the dinner table, neutralised yet unharmed. But an approach surprisingly close to this in spirit – admittedly without the somersaults – lies at the heart of a book entitled Aikido In Everyday Life, by Terry Dobson and Victor Miller, published 35 years ago and due for rediscovery. Their metaphorical version of aikido won't impress bystanders like the person-hurling one. But it may prove more useful.

Is it your fault if you're weak-willed or lazy? The answer's not obvious

LazycatAs we stumble again into the season of overindulgence – that sacred time of year when wine, carbs and sofas replace brisk walks for all but the most virtuous – a headline in the (excellent) new online science magazine Nautilus catches my eye: "What If Obesity Is Nobody's Fault?" The article describes new research on mice: a genetic alteration, it appears, can make them obese, despite eating no more than others. "Many of us unfortunately have had an attitude towards obese people [as] having a lack of willpower or self-control," one Harvard researcher is quoted as saying. "It's clearly something beyond that." No doubt. But that headline embodies an assumption that's rarely questioned. Suppose, hypothetically, obesity were solely a matter of willpower: laying off the crisps, exercising and generally bucking your ideas up. What makes us so certain that obesity would be the fault of the obese even then?

Impostor syndrome? It might be a sign you're getting better at your work

MaskImpostor syndrome – the feeling that you're a fraud, and any day now you'll be exposed – is presumably even more common than surveys suggest: after all, it's not the kind of thing to which people like to admit. Indeed, it can be hard to tell when you've got it: those others might have a syndrome, your reasoning goes, but I'm genuinely out of my depth. It's a classic case of "comparing your insides with other people's outsides": you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it's more justified than anyone else's. This is a strange kind of self-doubt, when you think about it, since it's premised on the idea that you're highly talented at something, namely deception. Still, it's no fun, and if new research is anything to go by, it might be harder to cure than anyone thought.

Confidence is overrated. (And if you're worried you don't have enough of it – relax!)

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphpic C SayThere's a jaded view of humanity according to which we're all manipulating each other, all the time: a planet of confidence tricksters, differing mainly in how good we are at it. After all, we can't know the inside of anyone else's mind. So when deciding whom to trust, date, buy things from or vote for, we're forced to rely on "proxies" – outward indicators of expertise or trustworthiness. But there's a loophole: to triumph at this game, you don't need to be well-qualified or trustable. You just need to master the gestures, the expressions, the lingo. You might not be doing this consciously. You might even really be all you claim to be. But until they release a mind-reading app for Google Glass, how could anyone tell?

Habit change is more effective when you say I don't, not I can't

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphp M Kl HbzFew topics have been more mangled and misunderstood in the world of popular psychology than that of "self-talk", the chuntering monologue most of us conduct through the day in our heads, or out loud when we're alone. (Don't pretend you don't.) Contrary to self-help lore, there's little evidence that positive self-talk works like magic. Telling yourself you're beautiful, a confident public speaker or a future billionaire won't make you any of those things; if anything, it's liable to have the reverse effect. The true impact of self-talk is more subtle. For example, it's been shown that if you want to accomplish a challenging task, you're better off phrasing it as a question ("Will I talk to my boss about that promotion?") than simply declaring it ("I will talk to my boss about that promotion!"). The declaration sounds better, but it's the question that generates more "intrinsic motivation", calling to mind your deeply held reasons for wanting to act. And a similarly tiny linguistic tweak, it emerged recently, could make the difference between resisting temptation and succumbing to it.

Interview with Malcolm Gladwell

I interviewed Malcolm Gladwell for the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new book, David & Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell is in his natural habitat – a cafe in New York's West Village, down the street from his apartment – engaged in a very Gladwellian task: defending Lance Armstrong. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who despite all appearances just turned 50, has a tendency to hoist both arms aloft like a preacher when a topic inflames him. And the topic of doping in sports does. Why, he wants to know, is it OK to be born with an abnormality that gives you surplus red blood cells, like the Finnish Olympic skiing star Eero Mäntyranta, but not OK to reinfuse your own blood prior to competing, as Armstrong apparently did? Why are baseball players allowed performance-enhancing eye surgery, but not performance-enhancing drugs? "Imagine," Gladwell says, "if all the schools in England had a rule that you can't do homework, because homework is a way in which less able kids can close the gap that Nature said ought to exist. Basically, Armstrong did his homework and lied about it! Underneath the covers, with his flashlight on, he did his calculus! And I'm supposed to get upset about that?"

You can read the whole thing here.

Management lessons from terrorists: the perils of being a really, really bad boss

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphpg HwoolMuch hilarity greeted the revelation, back in May, that al-Qaida requires its operatives to submit expense reports. Our fear of terrorists leads us to imagine them as superhuman; it's a relief to learn that even they can't escape bureaucratic hassles. And those expense reports are no exception, judging by Jacob Shapiro's new book The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organisations. (Shapiro's a political scientist; despite the subtitle, this isn't a how-to guide.) There's a long tradition of trying to draw lessons in business from criminals: see, for example, Mob Rules: What The Mafia Can Teach The Legitimate Businessman, by former Gambino mobster Louis Ferrante, or a recent Businessweek article entitled Breaking Bad's Management Lessons. Shapiro avoids that trap: terror groups, in his analysis, are so annoying you'd never want to work for one, even if you had no scruples about terrorism. To me and you, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may be the personification of evil. But to the militants he once scolded for buying a new fax machine when the old one still worked, he's the micromanager from hell.