Friday, February 17, 2012

They Know What We Want Before We Do.

There's a fantastic New York Times article by Charles Duhigg out now, focusing on the intersection between data, marketing, the habits of shoppers, and the science of habit-forming. It's all over twitter today, with a great deal of focus on a relatively small portion of the article--namely, that Target is able to use statistics on shopping habits to determine when someone is pregnant, and even get a ballpark due date. I can understand why that might have been the section that was pulled out (after all, what could be a better tagline than TARGET KNOWS A BABY IS COMING BEFORE THE FAMILY DOES) but it's a relatively minor anecdote in the article (People tend to change habits during major life events; pregnancy, marriage, divorce, etc).

Here's what I think people should really be talking about:

  • Humans are creatures of habit, just like all other living things.
  • The habit cycle is predictable, and can be harnessed.

As an information scientist, I'm certainly drawn to the predictive aspects of big data and statistics. As a mind- and program-hacking student, however, I'm especially interested in the analysis of the "habit loop." It goes something like this:

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic (Duhigg).

Duhigg goes on to say that as habits form, we become less conscious of them, making them harder to break. Still, it's possible, especially if you're familiar with the various cues and rewards in your life.

If not, start experimenting! Rewards are easier to pinpoint--just ask yourself "What am I getting out of this?" When you think you have an answer, try an alternate reward that would provide the same benefit. Cues, on the other hand, can be tricky, but tend to fall into a few major categories: Location (Where are you?), Time (When is it?), Emotional State (How do you feel?), Other People (Who's around?), or the 'immediately preceding action' (What did you just do?). If you see yourself starting your habit, ask those five questions, and you might gain some insight into your habit loops.

Science is cool - Go use it!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

On Hats

Last week in IST613 (Planning, Marketing, and Assessing Library Activities), I was introduced to de Bono's "Six-Hats" system of collaboration and brainstorming. In a nutshell, each participant in a group "wears" a figurative hat. The hats are referred to by color, and each hat carries with it a role in the group:

White Hats--Responsible for bringing factual information to the table, white hats map out the pathways to required information.

Yellow Hats--Responsible for a deliberate approach to positive thinking, yellow hats strive to find the good points in each idea discussed.

Red Hats--Responsible for opinion-based thinking, red hats analyze ideas that may have no grounding in reality by a purely visceral approach.

Green Hats--Responsible for wild and crazy ideas, green hats take the creative angle in a discussion.

Black Hats--Responsible for constructive criticism, black hats focus on the bad points of any idea.

Blue Hats--The facilitators in a conversation, blue hats take the meta-conversation angle, serving as referees and making sure the other perspectives are balanced.

Any one of these roles can be a challenge, but I particularly want to focus attention on two of them. For me, good librarianship is about wearing the blue hat--certainly, we're encouraged to make our own decisions and contribute our own thoughts, but I see our position as being uniquely suited to facilitation. Good librarians bring resources and a multi-disciplinary background to bear on any problem, and have training to help disseminate ideas and solutions among disparate groups.

In tonight's exercise, however, I played the black hat of my group. I expected it to be easy--finding a negative position is often easier than backing up a positive one. However, it soon became astoundingly clear that if I was sniping at my teammates and tearing down our ideas, we wouldn't get anywhere as a group. From that realization, I reinterpreted the role of the black hat--though, certainly, black hats are meant to take the pessimistic side of a discussion, it's more about pointing out flaws as problems to solve. There's a distinct skill set involved in breaking problems into solvable chunks, and black hats - productive ones, anyway - need to focus their energy that way.

As more of a personal note, I tend toward blue-hat thinking and positioning within a group. I'm glad we explored this idea in class, because the other perspectives offered within the six-hats framework will likely prove useful, especially knowing that they might not be my instinct. (Also interesting--two of the other students in my project-group also identified with the blue-hat approach. I wonder to what extent we self-selected because of it?)

It's another concept to add to my toolkit. If only all of my classes had such concrete additions!