A 60-Second Exercise That Boosts Goal Achievement By 20%

The hero of our tale, Jason Padgett.

The hero of our tale, Jason Padgett.

(Content note: this is an example of what I send out to email subscribers. You can sign up to receive more like it on any of the many forms scattered throughout the website, like the one at the bottom of this post.)

In 2002, Jason Padgett got into a fight. It was the fight of the decade, maybe the century. Not because Jason trounced his two assailants (he didn’t), and not because it was a fair fight — it wasn’t — but because of what happened the next morning.

But, wait, rewind a little. Let me tell you about Jason before everything changed.

Jason Padgett: Jock, Underachiever… Time Traveler?

The year was 2002 but, looking at Jason, you wouldn’t know it.

It was as if he’d been beamed straight from the 80s. A grungy time-traveler left stranded in the future, perhaps a consequence of an evil genius’s twisted revenge plot gone awry.

His blonde hair was cut into a mullet.

Attire: t-shirt with ragged, cut-off sleeves — as if he’d gnawed them off himself, like your dog might when left alone, bored. And the finishing touch, transforming him from trucker-stop chic into a form of trailer-park fashion so common you’d mistake it for an official uniform: he tucked his browning white tee into tight, faded jeans.

Plus a leather jacket. The leather jacket.

Just as The Lord of The Rings hinged on the whims of The One Ring, Jason’s story hinges on The One Leather Jacket.

At 31, with a daughter, he looked almost like an awkward teenager, except — barring Mike Tyson and steroids — I’d never seen a teen so well-muscled.

His hobbies included drinking beer — the existence of which, he liked to say, implied that there must be a God — skydiving, cliff-jumping, and thrill seeking generally.

He’d bounced around college for a while, but books were not his scene. In his own words, “I cheated on everything, and I never cracked a book.”

At least, that was Jason before the attack.

The Attack: When A Bar Fight Is A Blessing

The attack happened on Friday the 13th — a superstitious day, to be sure. If Jason had stayed in, he wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital.

My grandmother likes to say that the one week when she doesn’t play the lotto will be the one week that her numbers are called.

For Jason, if he’d stayed in and avoided the hospital, he would have missed out on the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.

It happened at a karaoke bar near his home.

Two men attacked him from behind, punching him in the back of the head. The blows knocked him to the ground.

They then kicked him until he handed over his prized leather jacket. Worth maybe, if we’re being generous, 40 bucks on eBay.

An exchange more than worth it for Jason.

He ended up in the hospital, with a concussion and bruised kidney, but they released him that same night.

When he awoke the next morning, everything was different.

Jock Today, Savant Tomorrow


An example of Padgett’s fractal art.

Today, Jason is one of 40 known cases of acquired savant syndrome. He sees mathematics. He can draw complicated geometric fractals by hand.

When the sun glints, he sees the arc.

Before, he worked at a furniture store.

Now, he’s an aspiring number theorist and an artist.

He draws what he can see and then sells it. He’s even written a book about the experience, Struck By Genius, with an upcoming adaptation for the silver screen.

All because someone punched him in the back of the head.


That’s what I want to be. The convincing fist that transforms you into a number theorist.

Except, no, maybe that’s not right.

…I know.

I want to be the friendly surgeon that communicates with you via email. I teach you how to remove a spleen, and then you, kitchen knife in hand, do it yourself.

Yeah. That’s who I want to be. Email-spleen-remover guy.

The Toughest Part of Behavior Change: Remembering to Change

For Jason, radical behavior change was the result of someone striking him in the back of the head.

For you and me, that sort of change is decidedly more painful than a concussion, as anyone who’s attempted to lose weight can tell you.

Let me know if this scenario sounds familiar.

You want to change something about yourself.

Maybe you want to be friendlier.

Let’s say you’ve read about operant conditioning and positive reinforcement and you think, hey, this just makes sense — I should treat the people around me better.

So this becomes a goal: treat your colleagues better.

And, to do this, your plan is not more cowbell, but more compliments. Criticism sucks. No one likes receiving it.

Solution: more positive feedback.

So you set this goal.

And then you forget about it.

You go to work, critique people like usual, come home, and then realize: I was going to make a change.

But I didn’t even think about it when the opportunity was present.

I just kept acting out of habit, on autopilot, going through the same motions. Like Sisyphus, doomed to repeat my sentence for eternity.

All intended behavior change suffers from this flaw: forgetting to execute the new behavior when its applicable.

Maybe you want to start taking the stairs more, but every night you’re so tired when you check into your apartment that you opt for the elevator.

Or you want to wake up earlier, but every morning you silence your alarm.

What can be done? Is it hopeless?


If-Then Rules Are A Real Life Cheat Code

…what if I told you that life has cheat codes?

That there are certain techniques you can use to make it more likely that you’ll achieve anything you want? Fully-general goal techniques that will increase your probability of success?

Sounds pretty good, right?

These exist.

They’re buried in textbooks, in scientific papers, across a dozen disciplines. Psychology, cognitive science, operations research, game theory, economics, and more.

Today’s email is about one of those cheat codes.

A way to solidify and increase the odds of permanent behavior change.

A tool to move you from who you are now, to who you want to be.

Today’s email is about if-then rules.

If-Then Rules Prevent Breast Cancer

Comic by Vicki Jacoby.

Comic by Vicki Jacoby.

Let me tell you a story. About boobs.

Orbell, Hodgkins, & Sheeran, 1997 rounded up a bunch of women, who all shared the same goal.

They wanted to perform a breast self-examination, or BSE, sometime during the next month. You know what I’m talking about: where women feel for lumps in order to detect breast cancer.

The authors of the study split participants into two groups.

The first group recited an “implementation intention”, which is just newly invented jargon for “if-then rule.” These are of the form, “If [situation], then [behavior].”

For instance, a participant in the study might form an intention like, “If I’ve just finished washing my hair in the shower, I will perform a breast self-exam.”

Or maybe, “If it’s the first Wednesday of the month, I will perform a breast self-exam while changing into comfortable clothes after work.”

The second group didn’t create any if-then rules — they just had the goal of performing a breast self-exam.

The result?

100% of the if-then group successfully performed a breast self-exam, while only 53% of the second group did so.

With one simple if-then rule recited in probably less than 60-seconds, participants doubled their odds of goal success.

If-Then Rules Are Very Effective, Even Across Different Circumstances

The effectiveness of if-then rules for behavior change has since been confirmed many times, in many circumstances. They’ve been used to:

  • Increase the likelihood of implementing a vigorous exercise program (29% -> 91%.) In contrast, an entire motivational intervention that focused on the danger of coronary heart disease raised compliance merely 10%, from 29% to 39%.
  • Hasten activity resumption after joint replacement.
  • In one study, forming if-then rules for eating healthy foods reliably increased the rate at which people did so.
  • In another instance, drug addicts undergoing withdrawal were given the task of creating a brief resume before 5pm that evening. Of those who didn’t form implementation intentions, none were successful. Of those who did, 80% were successful.
  • This effect has even been observed in those with damage to the prefrontal cortex — the front part of the brain, sometimes called the seat of reason. Forming the implementation intention to work quickly when given a certain stimulus — in this case, the number 3 while completing a computer task — increased the speed at which participants did so.
  • Here’s my favorite example: implementation intentions can make you less sexist. In one study, participants formed the if-then rule, “If I see a woman, I will ignore her gender!” The results? No automatic activation of stereotypical beliefs.
  • This has since been replicated both for the old (“Whenever I see an old person, I tell myself: Don’t stereotype!”) and the poor (“Whenever I see a homeless person, I ignore that he is homeless.”)

At least 94 similar studies have been conducted, and since integrated into a meta-analysis (n=8461). The analysis found that implementing this extremely simple technique had an effect size of d=.65.

What does that mean?

Let’s say that, when it comes to achieving goals, you have exactly average performance — 50% of people do worse than you, and 50% do better. (This is just an example. Given that you’ve read this far, you’re almost certainly above average.)

Given an effect size of .65 for implementation intentions, this would mean that — by implementing relevant if-then rules — you’d improve your goal-achieving-ability by .65 standard deviations.

Which is enough to outperform 20% more people. Just by adding these if-then rules, an average goal achiever would end up outperforming 70% of the population.

Oh, and here’s a neat tip: if-then rules can themselves be supercharged. Stellar (1992) enhanced goal achievement by having participants form an implementation intention, and then adding “I strongly intend to follow the specified plan!”

You should use if-then rules – Here’s how

I’m excited about this technique.

It costs nothing to implement, and it will very probably have a substantial impact on your life — if you bother trying it out.

Here’s how: Come up with some if-then rules, either write them down or say them aloud, and voila!, suddenly you’re more likely to achieve whatever it is that you want.

Plus, you can apply this to anything. It’s a fully general technique.

So why wouldn’t you?

The general template is straightforward: If [situation], then [behavior]. The idea is to pair a concrete scenario with a behavior you want to enact.

Here are some examples:

  • If I’m mindlessly browsing the web, refreshing Reddit, I will instead pick up and read a book.
  • When I go out to eat with friends, I will order a salad.
  • If I have just finished dinner, I will write 500 words.
  • If I’m writing and interrupted, I will ignore it.
  • If I add something to my Amazon cart, I will wait 24 hours before purchasing it.
  • When I get my paycheck, I will set aside 10% as savings.

And my personal favorite: if I’m attacked at a bar, I will become a number theorist.

P.S. You’ve read this far – want more? Get articles like this emailed directly to your inbox, just fill out the form below. Thanks!



  1. Orbell, Sheina, Sarah Hodgkins, and Paschal Sheeran. “Implementation intentions and the theory of planned behavior.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.9 (1997): 945-954.

  2. Gollwitzer, Peter M., and Paschal Sheeran. “Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes.” Advances in experimental social psychology 38 (2006): 69-119.

  3. Gollwitzer, Peter M. “Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans.” American Psychologist 54.7 (1999): 493.

  4. Steller, Birgit. Vorsätze und die Wahrnehmung günstiger Gelegenheiten. [Implementation intentions and the detection of good opportunities to act]. tuduv-Verlag-Ges., 1992.

Spinach, unhealthy? Reflections on one month vegan


Rewind. It’s August of last year. I’ve just published a post on the reasoning behind certain “strange” beliefs. It covers veganism, cryonics, existential risk, simulationism, polyamory, and singularitarianism.

Then, in September, I write about the curious gender imbalance among vegans — that there are 3 woman-vegans for every man-vegan.

If we take those as indicative of the feelings of past-me, I’ve been open to the idea of veganism for about 10 months now. Sort of admiring vegans from afar, while the ideas have percolated somewhere in the recesses of my mind, far from the light of day.

It wasn’t until exactly a month ago, though, that I received the push necessary for dietary change.

My mother and sister are, like all women, perpetually dieting. And my sister has recently been on a Netflix documentary spree, with a teen-girl-level-emphasis on those about mistreated marine creatures. Dolphins in The Cove and killer whales in Blackfish, (both of which I recommend, if you’re into that sorta thing.)

So, right, my sister decides, well, she’s going to watch Vegucated next. I told her that, after watching it, if she wanted, I’d go vegan with her.

Not going to happen, she said.

And then I left to do something — maybe run. And she watched it. And then she was like, “Okay. Let’s be vegan now.” And my mom thought, hey, yeah, I’ll do this, too. And my father was like, wow-you’re-so-weird-how-could-I-ever-give-up-meat, playing into the whole women are vegans and men aren’t cliche — which I have a new theory about, but I’ll get into that later.


You know those ridiculous trigger warnings that everyone tangentially associated with Tumblr has been prefacing their writing with?

Maybe this post could use one, because there are a few topics that turn people into lunatics. Like politics, and religion, and racism, and gender, and anything that people absorb into their identity.

Like meat eating.

There is a significant subset of the male population who are really attached to eating meat. Or think that talking about eating right is low-status.

Maybe it is.

But I have a stronger preference for preventing heart disease than for not-talking-about-healthy-eating.

These people should maybe not read this post.

Definitions and whatever

A vegan is someone who refrains from consuming animal products. Here’s what vegetus.org says about veganism:

Unlike the word vegetarian, the word vegan specifically implies moral concern for animals, and this concern extends to all areas of life, not just diet. If you do not believe in animal equality, please consider referring to yourself as someone who doesn’t eat animal products, as one who follows a plant-based diet, or as one who follows a vegan diet. Or, continue to educate yourself about veganism, and perhaps you will choose to practice veganism.

Yeah-h-h, this chick can 100% go fuck herself.

Unless you’re Humpty Dumpty,1 you don’t get to put up a web page and decides what a word means. This would be as stupid as someone deciding that atheism doesn’t just mean disbelief in a God, and it instead requires dedication to “social justice, feminism, anti-racism, and combating homophobia and transphobia.”

Oh, wait, that already happened.

There are some connotations of veganism that I’d like to throw out, too: the woo around GMOs, sympathy for hippy-cluster stuff in belief space (crystal healing, homeopathy, etc.), tattoos. Too much reverence for animals. (Humans have greater moral weight than non-humans, speciesism be damned.)

Maybe I’ll start my own brand of veganism. Punk rock veganism. Where we eat vegetables because we’re mad as fuck at evolution for programming us to love fatty, sugary, animal protein-y foods and to also then die of heart disease.

Or self-interested veganism, for people who eat vegan only because of the health benefits. Ayn Rand veganism. I like the sound of that.

Stuff like that.

But… why?

Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.”

“And,” replied Diogenes, “If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”
Teachings of Diogenes

I’m not going to delve too deep into the different benefits of veganism, because I promised that I wouldn’t try to convert readers. But there seem to be three sort of pillars of veganism — the major justifications for avoiding animal products:

  • Creating a sustainable planet. Meat is a very inefficient source of calories — only about a quarter of the nutritional value of the grain fed to a cow is captured as meat. There’s also a new paper out in Climatic Change, which found that the dietary carbon footprint of vegans is about half that of meat eaters.
  • Reducing animal suffering. This one is pretty straightforward. I know there are a lot of non-vegans out there (men, generally) who claim that they don’t care about what happens to, say, a cow. I suspect these individuals are just confused about their own values, and actually would prefer a world without animal suffering to one with it.
  • Health. The China Study is probably the strongest evidence that we have for the efficacy of a plant-based diet on preventing heart disease and all the other problems that come with affluence. There are a lot of people who argue against this by setting up some straw argument, that veganism is not a perfect diet — I think this is asinine in the extreme. Not perfect? Okay: I still bet it’s better than yours.

Anyways, my general feeling is that if you took two diets, veganism and whatever your preferred diet is, and wrote down a list of pros and cons of each, veganism would be a no-brainer.


I have never been able to deny myself anything, not even a cup of coffee if I wanted it.

So, right, one of the, uh, concerns I hear echoed most about veganism from people is that it’s a very restrictive diet. No animal products! How can someone live like that?

I’ve not found that to be the case. There was a period of about two days where I had to get used to the fact that yes, now I’m not going to eat certain things anymore. There was a sort of profound, alienness to it at first.

I began to think about food in a different manner, too. I mean, before, I just had one real category for food: stuff that’s edible. When I was going through the transition, though, I had to start paying more attention to what foods aren’t animal products.

Which seems pretty basic, but it’s just not something that you pay attention to during your day-to-day life, so, yeah. It felt sorta strange at first.

But after a few days, that all went away, and eating is back to feeling normal.

As far as restrictiveness, it’s really only a problem if you want to eat out, or go to eat at someone’s place where they’re non-vegan. (I’m looking at you, Austin Walters.) Like, if want to eat not-animal products at McDonald’s, you’re limited to like apple wedges and coffee.

Really, this seems sorta messed up. Do we really need meat in every salad? I don’t think so.

So, eating out has been the only real difficulty in sticking with veganism. I’ve “solved” this problem by basically just eating whatever I want when I’m out, veganism be damned.

I figure I don’t want to get too radical about the whole thing and, hey, what’s one marginal burger?

Recreating meat with vegetables

Oh, and here’s one weird side effect of this diet: recreating meat with vegetables seems vaguely immoral — like it’s cheating or something.

I mean, a veggie burger can never be better than a normal burger, so long as it’s classed as an imitation. It will always be comparing to a normal burger — but if you create something on its own terms, then it’s not limited like that.

Or think of it this way: it’s sort of like, after being a painter your entire life, you discover the power of clay. And instead of sculpting, you recreate all your old paintings, but instead of your old paint, you use clay on the canvas.

Plus, faux meat just does not taste that great.

A world of questions

I have been tossed, with no small amount of violence, into a pit of questions that I never thought I’d have to answer.

…like, did you know that animal bones are sometimes used to refine sugar? So, sugar doesn’t technically contain animal products, but some of it is the product of animal suffering, and I’ve already professed a preference for non-animal suffering, so doesn’t that mean I ought to avoid sugar?

Or what about fair trade coffee: I have a preference for humans not to suffer — hence caring about the environment — so doesn’t this imply I should stop consuming products that are built on too-cheap labor?

On the other hand, if I can’t eat anything that causes some social harm, I’ll starve.

How about health? Many simple carbs (white bread, white rice, etc) are technically vegan, and delicious, but I also would like to not have diabetes, so I shouldn’t eat those either.

And if I’m avoiding carbs, where am I going to get my calories? Protein is out — it’d be difficult to live off vegetable protein. I could stick to fat, but isn’t that bad? At least the saturated sort.

Which brings me to my broader point about healthy eating, which is that there are no universally agreed upon healthy foods. Like bread? Well, that has gluten. Eating animal products? Yeah, they have been linked to all sorts of cancers. What about spinach? Google it — there are people claiming that spinach is unhealthy. Soy? Yeah, that’s bad for you. And so on, ad infinitum.

Why are women vegans? The helpless man model

Now, I’d like to update my old post on why women are more likely than men to be vegans with a new theory: the average man, when it comes to changing his diet, is helpless.

The idea is simple: to successfully transition to a vegan diet, you need above-average cooking skills — and most men don’t pass this test. I mean, you can cry and gnash your teeth all you want about stereotyping, but the median woman is still a more skilled cook than the median man.

It all fits together: why aren’t men vegans? They lack the prerequisite skills. If you can’t cook a variety of different vegetables, etc., you’re going to have a bad time. And it’s not like you can go out to McDonald’s and order off their vegan menu.

That’s my thinking right now: women are vegans not because of different values than men, but because they have lower barriers to veganism. They can already cook.

Not that the median woman is much of a cook — my sister watched Vegucated. Now I cook all the food.

1. “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'”

Prolonged Eye Contact and Attraction: What The Science Tells Us

eye_contact_book Edit: Hey guys! This has proved to be one of the most popular articles on the site, so I’ve created a supplemental download on techniques for improving eye contact. Enter your email below (or on any of the forms scattered around the site), and I’ll send it to you, along with ~2 emails per week on research backed techniques for achieving anything.

Here’s the form:




Belladonna means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it’s also the name of a type of plant. The origins of the term belladonna are uncertain, but date back to at least 1554.

It’s been suggested (and this is my favorite theory) that the name might be related to belladonna’s use as a cosmetic. Women would consume the plant in order to dilate their pupils, in an attempt to enhance beauty.

The only problem? Belladonna (sometimes called nightshade) is poisonous.

Richard Pultney’s 1757 paper, “A brief botanical and medical history of the Solanum Lethale, Bella-donna, or Deadly Nightshade,” recounts this tale:

Its relaxing quality is very surprising, as appears by that memorable case… of a lady’s applying a leaf of it to a little ulcer, suspected to be of the cancerous kind, a little below her eye, which rendered the pupil so paralytic, that it lost all its motion for some time afterward: and that this event was really owing to that application, appears from the experiment’s being repeated with the same effect three times.

belladonna-in-eyeBut they were really onto something! This is the craziest part of the whole thing. (Suffering for fashion is passé.) Hess (1965) took two pictures of the same woman and presented it to male subjects and asked them to describe the woman
in the picture. The researchers altered the photos so that one had slightly larger pupils. By and large, the male subjects preferred the woman with the larger pupils.

Try it:


(The one on the bottom is the one that you’re supposed to find more attractive, although I’ve just terrifically biased you by telling you that.)

This has since been replicated at least five times.

Let’s just take a minute and reflect on this. Women in 16th century Italy anticipated the findings of modern scientific research by about 400 years. They not only discovered that belladonna reliably increases pupil size, but they also noticed that men were attracted to that.

I propose a hypothesis similar to the efficient markets hypothesis. We’ll call it the efficient beauty hypothesis: if a beauty-increasing cosmetic intervention exists, some enterprising individual somewhere will discover it.

You might wonder, then: are women interested in men with large pupils? Tombs and Silverman’s 2004 paper, “Pupillometry: A sexual selection approach” tried to answer this question. The paper includes this graph:

The realtionship between prolonged eye contact and attraction.

The relationship between prolonged eye contact and attraction.

You’ll notice that women find average pupil sizes (on men) the most attractive, while men subscribe to the Texan, bigger-is-better philosophy. The authors additionally report that, “Further investigation revealed that females attracted by large pupils also reported preferences for proverbial bad boys as dating partners.”

At this point, you might wonder why men find large pupils attractive. And, of course, evolution has good reason for that, as confirmed by a 2007 study:

We found an increase in mean pupil diameter for sexually significant stimuli during the fertile phase and this pupillary change was also specific to pictures of the participants’ actual sexual partners. Moreover, this effect was only seen for women who did not use oral contraceptives. These findings confirm that women’s attention for sexually significant stimuli is higher during their fertile phase of the menstrual cycle, and that changes in sexual interest are implicitly measurable using pupillometry.

Or, in plain English, fertile women tend to have larger pupils.


In Elana Clift’s Honors thesis, “Picking Up and Acting Out: Politics of Masculinity in the Seduction Community,” she argues that the “pick up artist” movement is the result of the lack of available dating scripts for young men. Back in, say, Victorian England, everyone knew how this whole relationship thing worked. Today, we’re all horribly confused.

I was sorta convinced by that for a while, and I think that explains some of it, but now I’m plagued by doubt. Lots of pick-up strikes me as actively toxic. I mean, yeah, especially to women — there are a disproportionate amount of vocal misogynists associated with the “manosphere” generally, but I mean to men, too: Pick-up is an advertiser’s wet dream. Nothing sells better than insecurity, and what more poignant insecurity than masculine identity and status anxiety about attractiveness? (Whenever you hear the phrase “real” men, ask what they’re selling.)

Of course, my concerns here are hardly limited to men, although I’m more familiar with the struggles of young men everywhere. Cosmopolitan magazine is the female-equivalent of pick-up, telling young women that they need to fit into some sort of mold in order to attract a guy — that they shouldn’t answer the phone on the first ring or whatever — and I’m sure lots more nonsense which isn’t even on my radar, but probably ought to be.

Which brings me to the topic at hand: eye contact. These unsavory actors sell prolonged eye contact as some sort of panacea. An actual example I found with 10 seconds of googling: “Master These Eye Contact Techniques To Create Powerful Attraction,” complete with tips that the author promised “will blow my mind.” (Hint: they didn’t.) Another blog targeted at “Helping men reclaim their masculinity and their relationships,” (gag) includes this gem: “…strong eye contact is difficult to maintain if you do not have the confidence to back it up (thus making it an honest signal).”

Yeah, right. Because if you don’t maintain strong eye contact, it’s because you lack confidence, and definitely not because you haven’t yet mastered the serial killer’s thousand yard stare.

Frankly, this all smacks of the purest bullshit. Evolution has spent billions of years and computational cycles optimizing male-female relations. If maintaining eye contact with your crush is so effective, why don’t people just do it naturally? Could advising people to maintain strong eye contact be harmful? Maybe unnaturally strong eye contact just comes off as creepy.

I decided to find out.

The Evidence on Prolonged Eye Contact

An interlude during which the author does a lot of research.

My (somewhat begrudging) subjective feeling after reading through 5 or 6 relevant papers is that, yes, the pick-up artists are right, the majority of men ought to be making more eye contact. The case for women is less clear. As far as I can tell, too much eye contact is always better than too little, and eye contact combined with a smile is difficult to get wrong.

My neat evolution-has-optimized-eye-contact argument has at least one damning flaw: children learn the association between eye contact and liking. It’s not innate.

The association between gaze and liking appears to be learned. Children do not use eye contact to judge affiliation and friendship until about age 6 (Abramovitch & Daly, 1978; Post & Hetherington, 1974).

Now, is there such thing as too much gaze? Yes. Moderate gaze is better than constant gaze:

Gaze also influences people’s liking for each other, with moderate amounts of gaze generally preferred over constant or no gaze (Argyle, Lefebvre, & Cook, 1974; Exline, 1971).

Bu-u-u-ut constant eye contact is still better than no eye contact:

British college students rated a same-sex peer they met in an experiment as more pleasant and less nervous when the person gazed at them continuously rather than not at all (Cook & Smith. 1975).

Compare that with a mock interview study, which had students either exhibit low, natural, or high gaze. Notably, researchers defined high gaze here as near-constant eye contact. They found no difference in likability between normal and high gaze:

High-levels of gaze do not differ from normative gaze patterns in earning more favorable endorsements for hiring from an interviewer, in conferring greater credibility, in increasing attraction and in receiving favorable relational communication interpretations.

Indeed, there were even some benefits to near-constant gaze. Interviewers labeled near-constant gazers (not to be confused with goats) as more attractive, more intimate, and more dominate than those who displayed normal levels of eye contact. So, again, more evidence that too much eye-contact is way better than too little.

Those who make lots of eye contact are even judged to be more intelligent (!):

Wheeler, Baron, Michell, and Ginsburg (1979) reported a positive correlation between an interviewee’s eye contact with an interviewer and estimates made by observers of the interviewee’s intelligence.

And it’s not even confined to those you look at. If someone sees you making a lot of eye contact with someone, they’ll like you more than if you didn’t:

The positive feelings associated with gaze generalize to observers, who favor people when they gaze at moderate rather than low levels while approaching others (Gary. 1978a) or in social interactions (Abele, 1981; Shrout & Fiske, 1981).

Of course, people like it most of all when you look at them, which a 2005 study, “The look of love: gaze shifts and person perception,” verified.

Ratings of likability were elevated when social attention was directed toward rather than away from the raters.

In the same study, men rated women who paid attention to them not only as more likable, but more attractive, too:

Whereas gaze cues elevated ratings of likability among both male and female participants, only the men displayed gaze-related effects on person evaluation when the physical attractiveness of the targets was assessed.

Here’s another belief I held that turns out to be wrong. I’ve observed that people look at the speaker while listening, and look away while speaking. But this turns out to be totally okay to violate (surprise!) and you can stare all the time if you want (or, at least, high status people do it):

Equivalent amounts of gazing while speaking and listening were found with research participants who were given high status or who were discussing issues on which they had expertise (Ellyson, Dovidio, & Corson, 1981; Ellyson, Dovidio, Corson. & Vinicur. 1980).

And more eye contact makes you more powerful:

Dovidio and Ellyson (1982) reported that high gazing-while-speaking ratios were directly related to ratings of power in an interaction.

Want to make friends? Have you tried staring at people?

College women gazed more at a female confederate when they were trying to make friends (Pellegrini, Hicks, & Gordon, 1970), and college men gazed more at a woman when they wanted to interest her in a social conversation (Lefebvre, 1975).

It even holds for imaginary friends!

Mehrabian (I968a, 1968b) reported that research participants gazed more when they approached an imaginary person they liked rather than disliked.

And real ones, too:

Russo (1975) reported greater amounts of eye contact between elementary school children who were friends rather than nonfriends.

What does eye contact mean, though?

While doing keyword research for this, I noticed that a lot of men and women are confused about what prolonged eye contact means. Does it indicate sexual interest? Well, it definitely can!:

Participants in a study by Griffitt, May, and Veitch (1974) gazed more at opposite-sex peers when they had previously been exposed to sexually arousing slides.

It might even imply that you’re smokin’ hot (and trust me, gentle reader, you totally are):

Coutts and Schneider (1975) reported positive correlations between gaze directed by research participants toward opposite-sex peers and experimenter ratings of the peers’ physical attractiveness.

But not always. People will look at you more even if you’re just plain nice to them:

People gazed more after receiving positive evaluations (Coutts, Schneider, & Montgomery, 1980; Exline & Winters, 1965; Walsh et al., 1977) or warm nonverbal responses (Ho & Mitchell, 1982).

Is eye contact ever bad?

Even if you’re hitchhiking, more eye contact is better:

Drivers were more likely to stop for gazing hitchhikers (M. Snyder, Grether, & Keller. 1974), pedestrians were more likely to help a gazing experimenter pick up dropped coins (Valentine, 1980) and dropped questionnaires (Goldman & Fordyce, 1983), and bystanders were more likely to help an injured gazing jogger (Shetland & Johnson, 1978).

Or when you’re buying cereal, according to the 2014 study, “Why Is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?”:

We showed that eye contact with cereal spokes-characters increased feelings of trust and connection to the brand, as well as choice of the brand over competitors

Now, you might wonder: are there ever times where you shouldn’t make so much eye contact? Well, when waiting for a green light:

Ellsworth et al., (1972) and Greenbaum and Rosenfeld (1978) had experimenters stand on street corners and gaze constantly or not at all at pedestrians and motorists who were waiting for a red light. When the light changed to green, pedestrians and drivers crossed the intersection significantly faster when they had received constant gaze from the experimenter.

But just dress nice and you’re okay:

For example, pedestrians did not cross the street as fast to escape a staring experimenter when the experimenter was dressed and made up to be physically attractive (Kmiecik, Mausar, & Banziger, 1979)

Or add a smile:

People were also less likely to avoid a staring experimenter when the experimenter smiled (Elman, Schulte. & Bukoff. 1977).

Sex Differences

It turns out, though, that there are sex differences. Women (on average) respond positively to lots of eye contact, while men prefer less. For instance, if you want a female friend to reveal all her secrets, eye contact is good:

Female speakers disclosed more personal information about themselves to listeners who gazed. Female speakers also liked gazing listeners more than nongazing listeners. (Ellsworth and Ross 1975)

For men, though, the opposite is true:

Male speakers, in contrast, disclosed more and felt greater liking when the listener did not gaze.

A similar phenomenon holds with asking for help when picking up coins:

For example, women gave more help in picking up dropped coins to a female experimenter who gazed at them (Valentine & Ehrlichman, 1979). Men gave more help to a male experimenter who did not gaze at them.

Women even like it when they’re told that a man looked at them an unusually high amount:

Kleinke et al. (1973) introduced college men and women in pairs and left them in a room to get acquainted. After their conversation, an experimenter told participants that one person (whose gaze was supposedly recorded through a one-way mirror) had gazed at the other person an unusually high, an average, or an unusually low amount of the time. Women were most favorable toward men whose gaze had ostensibly been high.

But not men:

Men’s reactions were exactly opposite. Men were most favorable toward women when they were told the woman’s gaze or their own gaze had been low.

I wonder if this is just male insecurity? If I was told some chick had been staring at me, I might wonder, “Is there something wrong with my hair? Has one of my legs grown two legs and walked off of its own volition?”

Does eye contact cause love?

To see is to devour.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Finally, though, what you really want to know: if I maintain eye contact with my crush, will they fall madly and deeply in love with me? Well, sorta. If you convince someone to maintain eye contact with you for ~2 minutes, they’ll (on average) be more attracted to you. The experimenters in this study told their subjects to maintain eye contact in order to “tune their extra-sensory abilities” and, afterwards, they rated their partners as significantly more attractive than controls. Hey, worth a shot, right?

Actually, it turns out, just tricking your crush into thinking they look at you a lot is enough. (“Hey, Maria, why do you keep looking at me? Is it because you’re in lo-o-o-ove with me?”)

In one of these, Kleinke, Bustos, Meeker, and Staneski (1973) did not actually induce their subjects to gaze at their partners. Instead the subjects were told that they had done so. This produced modest increases in attraction for the partner.

Further Reading

  • If you want to settle down with a book on relationships, the best scientific overview I’ve read is the Handbook of Relationship Initiation. For lighter fare, The Moral Animal is pretty entertaining.
  • If you liked this, you’ll love the Social Issues Research Centre’s “Guide to Flirting.”
  • If you want to dive into the original sources for yourself (or look up references), start with “Gaze and eye contact: a research review,” which is where the bulk of this information came from. (Where it didn’t, I’ve indicated in the text.)
  • One of the most useful bits of research to come out of the study of human relationships is the notion of the “mere exposure effect” which suggests that the more you see someone (or something), the more you’ll come to like them.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Checklists

checklist-salesDr. Peter Provonost had a problem. People were dying and — to borrow a line from Fight Club — not in the Sylvia Plath, Tibetan Buddhist, we’re-all-dying-so-get-used-to-it sense of the word.

No, this is hospital kind of death we’re talking. I mean death in all of its macabre horror. You know, the horror we cover up with euphemisms like “passing away” and pretend that white sheets and a sterile environment somehow make the notion of oblivion no longer panic-inducing. That kind of death.

And not the inevitable sort. Not of the “his body just gave out” or “there was nothing we could do” kind of death, although I’m sure plenty of attendings fell back on that convenient cliche. No, I mean preventable death. Death of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-unwashed-hands-now-I’m-dead kind. I mean the kind where you’re in the hospital for a routine procedure and some dumbass with 15 years of schooling forgets to wear gloves so now you’re profoundly, absolutely dead. That kind. The sort of death where if the average doctor had one more percentile of conscientious you wouldn’t be dead because he wouldn’t have killed you.

The sort of deaths that define why hospitals are a dangerous place.

That sort of death was Dr. Provonost’s problem. Mistakes were killing people at his hospital. Not some podunk care center, either, but critical care at Johns Hopkins.

So he did the obvious, boring thing. He implemented a checklist for one basic-but-still-error-prone-and-infectious procedure, inserting a central venous catheter, and everyone had to follow it. And this checklist of his wasn’t complicated. These weren’t instructions where, in order to understand them, you need to rack up the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation state in medical school debt. There were five whole things, and they boil down to two: clean yourself and the patient, wear a mask and gloves. Not super tricky, only-clever-people-know steps.

These were the hospital equivalent of brushing your teeth before bed and wearing deodorant. The absolute basics. Stuff everyone is supposed to do, but sometimes people forget. Except when you forget to wear deodorant at a hospital, it’s a lot worse than spending a day fretting over whether or not your crush has discovered that your natural smell is not coffee-cinnamon-woodland, but something decidedly funky. When you forget at a hospital, someone catches Legionnaires’ disease and dies forever.

And maybe you’re skeptical: “A checklist for five things? I can remember five things no problem. How many mistakes could doctors possibly be making?” (And that’s how I know you’re not a programmer.) But you wouldn’t be alone. Dr. Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told the New York Times, “It seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.”

Except, you know, this stupid checklist of five whole things totally worked. After a year, the rate of infection on this specific procedure dropped from 11 percent to zero. By two years, it had saved the hospital 2 million dollars, prevented 8 unnecessary deaths, and avoided 43 infections. Consequently, the hospital implemented still more checklists – reducing the average ICU stay by half and saving 21 lives.

A 2009 study duplicated this success in 8 other hospitals: “its use improved compliance with standards of care by 65% and reduced the death rate following surgery by nearly 50%.”

Checklists are awesome.

How awesome are they? A brief review

The bulk of the evidence for the effectiveness of checklists comes from medicine and is relatively recent. While other disciplines, such as aviation and engineering, have long used checklists, they haven’t bothered to actually vet that they work. A 2002 study puts it this way:

Aviation safety … was not built on evidence that certain practices reduced the frequency of crashes (but) relied on the widespread implementation of hundreds of small changes in procedures, equipment and organization (to produce) an incredibly strong safety culture and amazingly effective practices. These changes made sense; were usually based on sound principles, technical theory or experience; and addressed real-life problems, but few were subjected to controlled experiments

This is less surprising when we consider when the pre-flight checklist was implemented. They’ve been a constant in the airline industry since 1937.

Even newer and emerging disciplines, like software engineering and quality assurance, have done little to empirically verify the effectiveness of checklists. A 2007 paper, “Best Practices in Code Inspection for Safety-Critical Software,” is a typical example. Though it focuses solely on the use of checklists to improve software quality, it presents no evidence on the actual effectiveness of checklists. Similarly, a 1999 review further calls using checklists to inspect software a “best practice,” but again assumes their efficacy.

Reassuringly, though, the evidence from medicine is near overwhelming. Checklists have been found effective in scenarios as diverse as oxytocin administration to pregnant mothers (which decreased the rate of cesarean delivery by a quarter), actually giving patients medication, measuring lipid levels, screening stroke patients, and improving the report quality of RCT trials.

This and more is captured in a 2012 review and meta-analysis, which finds that checklists reduce the risk of mortality by nearly half:

This review shows that with the use of the checklist the relative risk for mortality is 0.57 and for any complications 0.63.

It should come as no surprise, then, that checklists are cost-effective, with the ability to save hospitals anywhere between $103,829 and $2,671,253.

If you’re still not convinced, not only do checklists save lives and money, but they may also improve process efficiency and productivity:

Use of a “preflight checklist” in Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s operating rooms resulted in improved nurse retention as turnover decreased from 23% to 7%. Also, after implementation of Kaiser Permanente’s checklist, there was a decrease in the number of operative cases that were canceled or delayed.

So, if the question is “How awesome are checklists?” I’d say: pretty awesome.

Further Reading

The Creative Process Demystified

Jack Kerouac is a liar.

Okay, let me rewind. I don’t know how much experience you’ve had with creative writing types — pale, imaginative creatures — but let me tell you how they talk about Jack Kerouac. They say his name in sort of hushed, reverent tones, and whisper things like, “Can you believe that he wrote On the Road in one sitting?” Like great authors are some sort of gods. We, you and me, on this blog, we know better. There are no gods and his name is Richard Feynman.

Except Kerouac didn’t even write On the Road in one sitting. He spent three years writing pieces of it and, eventually, spent three weeks writing a first draft from that material. He then spent a couple of years revising that draft, which became On the Road. But this doesn’t make as good of a story, so instead Jack told everyone that he wrote it all at once because, as we’ve established, he was a liar.

Now, what’s the significance of this story? The answer is incrementalism: Great works are the result of a process of incremental growth and improvement.

Consider the Christian creation native. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now, God is an omnipotent, all powerful dude, so presumably the heavens and earth are less impressive than he. The implicit assumption is that you need something complicated to create something else complicated.

We were more or less speculating in the dark with this narrative until Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace came along with evolution. It turns out that something as complex as the human mind is not a miracle from on high, but the result of millions of years of selective pressure.

Or, to put it another way, simple things grow into complicated things if you expend enough energy on them.1

Creating something is more like evolution than like God creating the heavens and the earth. It’s not a process of flipping a switch, or letting it all fall out of your mind. You have to grow a book or a blog post. Write a rough draft and filter it into something better. Hill-climb until the quality is twice what it was before.

No magic

There is nothing magical behind the creative process. Sure, authors and poets will sometimes wax romantic about writing and play up the mystery, but this is misdirection.

Look, I can do it, too:

Writing is, in its essence, the soul’s interpretation of the signs that are revealed to it. The ability to write well, the gift of a soul, is something innate. One must be born into it. Just as not all men possess the capacity for reading tea leaves or interpreting the whims of the spirit realm, few are born with that devil’s touch that brands one writer.

Except, you know, that’s all bullshit. There’s no magic. You get an idea. You think about the idea. Maybe write an outline. Write a rough draft. Delete a lot. Write another draft. Repeat until good. With a liberal sprinkling of self-loathing and lots of doubt, that’s creativity.

Indeed, to create something good:

  1. Come up with an idea.
  2. Create a rough version.
  3. Refine it until it’s good.

That’s it. That’s how books are written. I mean, sure, there are some specifics, like how to keep everything organized and whatever, but this is the gist of it. Create a prototype and then refine it over and over. That’s incrementalism. That’s what I mean when I say that great works are grown. It’s not magical. It’s algorithmic. Follow these instructions and you’re golden.

Most of the difficulty in creating something worthwhile is not because of the complexity of the process, but rather the difficulty in maintaining effort over time. We get bored and frustrated and quit. The trick to writing or creating something great is figuring out how to tame those tendencies and continue exerting yourself in pursuit of that goal.

1. Evolution, however, is not a race towards greater complexity. Single-celled organisms rule the world.

What affects your personal identity? You’re a sponge.


That thing is the most badass of all sea slugs, the nudibranch. The nudibranch is more a family of sea slugs than one species, and the name comes from the Latin nudus, meaning naked, as it has no shell.

This slug is not remarkable for its nudity, although “naked sea slugs” would make a good name for a band. No, the remarkable thing about the nudibranch is that it eats jellyfish, digests their stinging cells, and then incorporates those same cells into its body as a defense mechanism.

It uses the same mechanism to absorb the chloroplasts from plant cells, enabling the slug to turn sunlight into food. It’s a photosynthesizing slug.

The nudibranch literally digests and absorbs the abilities of the creatures it eats. You, gentle reader, are like that nudibranch.

Identity considered harmful

Identity is weird. Take politics. I once met this dude and we had a lot in common. He was a software guy, working for the Obama campaign. We hit it off, talking about BitTorrent and evolution, and then he brought up politics.

That was a mistake. We disagreed about the desirability of government regulation, and that was the end of it. He avoided me for the rest of the day.

Politics is a dangerous subject. Revealing your political leanings on Facebook is a great way to alienate half (or more) of your friends. I’ve heard this officialized as dating advice — “Don’t R.A.P.E your date,” where each letter is a topic to avoid:

  • Religion
  • Abortion
  • Politics
  • Exes

Why are people so weird about religion and politics? Because they identify as one tribe or another. If you disagree with the politics of their favorite tribe, well, that feels like a personal attack.

But you’re a sponge


Not all identity sucks, though. One of the best: identity as a sponge.

The sponge is a duplicator, an absorber, like the nudibranch. Whenever a sponge notices someone doing something cool, he incorporates it into his own identity.

Consider style in writing. Where does it come from? Does it spring forth from the inner recesses or our minds, the product of a true self? Nah, fuck that. Style is a result of absorbing the awesome things you read.

Impressive works don’t fall out, wholly formed from some lucky stiff’s mind. Everyone has some sorta process and, if you figure it out, you can absorb and reproduce anything anyone else can do.

What one fool can do, another can.

Further Reading

The Secretary Problem Explained: Dating Mathematically


I was, to put it mildly, something of a mess after my last relationship imploded. I wrote poems and love letters and responded to all of her text messages with two messages and all sorts of other things that make me cringe now and oh god what was I thinking.

I learned a few things, though, like when you tell strangers that your long-term relationship has just been bulldozed as thoroughly as the Romans salted Carthage, they do this sorta Vulcan mind-meld and become super empathy machines. Even older folk, who usually treat me not exactly as a non-person but something sorta like it. At the time, I had this gruff, Russian psychiatrist I’d see once a month, and he was all like, “Been there, man. Have some Diazepam and relax.” — except, you know, he said it in Russian-accented doctorspeak.

This was surprising to me then but isn’t now. Live long enough and you’ll have your heart thrashed about a fair bit, along with the rest of you. Mention heartbreak and everyone has their own private story — maybe more than one. It’s not Vietnam. They’ve been there and they understand.

I sometimes wonder — if I could go back in time, what could I say to comfort my former self? What can you say to someone that will pull them out of the throes of hormone-induced suffering? Probably nothing. The remarkable thing about words is not that they sometimes move people, but that they so seldom do.

Still, I think I’d say something like, “My boy, evolution is a motherfucker and you need a new woman in your life.” He would probably protest that women were the problem and that he’s pretty sure the last thing he needs is another one. Then, I would let out the most condescending sigh imaginable, the sort of sigh that says I-have-unimaginable-wisdom-born-of-experience-and-am-from-the-future, and say, “Not that sort of woman. You need the Queen. You need mathematics –”

“Let me tell you about the secretary problem.”

The Secretary Problem

Consider the plight of John. John’s 25. He lives in Utah and likes country music, hunting, and four wheelers. You probably see where I’m going with this. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. John is gay.

The recent supreme court decision overturning gay marriage in Utah has him thinking. He’d like to settle down one day — maybe adopt a child with the right man. He has a couple short-term relationships going on right now, but married to Bruce or Sidney? No way.

How can he guarantee that he snags, if not Mr. Right, at least Mr. Close Enough? He figures he ought to date at least a few different men, and then… what?

Imagine he meets this guy, Jim. They make out at a party, hang out a few times, and realize that they’re kinda already dating, and decide to label it by making it Facebook official. Things progress. John asks Jim to move in with him.

Then there’s a snag. Valentine’s Day rolls around, and John finds himself, at the last minute, at Walmart, looking to pick up some chocolate and cheap Champagne, wondering, “Is this really what love feels like?”

What should John do in such a situation? Should he next Jim and take his chances on the dating market? Or should he settle and settle down?

John’s predicament is an example of the secretary problem — so named because we can imagine the same situation, except instead of a man searching for a husband, it’s a man interviewing potential secretaries. When is the candidate good enough? What’s the stopping criteria?

Formalizing the Secretary Problem

We can abstract away the specifics of John’s plight and formalize the problem. Let’s consider each man that John dates as an integer — the integer representing his “husbandness factor.” Thus, a sequence of lovers like \((Sidney, Bruce, Jim, Todd, Keith, Bruno, Terrence, Cecil, Nigel)\) would translate to the integer sequence \((1, 3, 7, 5, 8, 3, 1, 9, 4)\).

This problem would be trivial — just pick the max element — if it weren’t for two properties.

  1. There’s no look-ahead. When I’m dating any one person, I’m unable to look forward into the future and consider who I’ll date in the future. I have no crystal ball.
  2. There’s no undo. If I date a great girl for a while, but leave her in a misguided attempt to find someone better, there’s a good chance she’ll be unavailable in the future, married to some douche named Trevor who played lacrosse in high school.

We can think of it visually as a machine which is fed a tape of integers. It has two actions: it can either stop or it can consider the next integer. The machine’s objective is to stop on the highest integer.


Real World Examples of the Secretary Problem

At the heart of the secretary problem is conflict. Do I reject the current possibility in hopes of landing something better if I keep looking, or do I stick with what I have?

Examples of the secretary problem:

  • This is the case with dating. I could commit to the woman I’m with right now or I could start texting her best friend.
  • It applies to hiring not just secretaries, but anyone. Is the current candidate the right person for the job or should I hold out for someone better? What if no one comes along?
  • When buying a house — should I put an offer on some house, or should I hope that something better comes along in the future? How many houses ought I look at before deciding?
  • The opposite side of the interviewing problem: should I accept this job offer or should I keep looking?
  • Alligator hunting, at least in Louisiana. Each year, you’re allotted a set number of tags based on the size of your property — that’s the amount of alligators you’re allowed to “harvest” under the law. When you stumble across an alligator, you’re forced to decide: should I kill this one or save my tag and hope a bigger one comes along?
  • When selling a house or a car or, well, any big ticket item. When presented with an offer, you’re forced to decide: should I accept this offer or hope something better comes along?
  • Deciding whether or not to buy something at the supermarket. Is this bread cheap enough or should I hope for a sale next week? The same goes for clothing and, well, anything.

Solving the Secretary Problem

The following contains the formal details for solving the secretary problem analytically. It can safely be skimmed.

As a general problem solving strategy, I often find it useful to first come up with a horrible solution to a problem and then iterate from there. I call this the dumbest-thing-that-could-work heuristic.

In the case of the secretary problem, our horrible solution can be the lucky number seven rule: In an integer sequence, always choose the 7th item.

If we follow this rule, we’re essentially picking an integer at random. The probability, then, of picking the best element from an integer sequence of length \(N\) with this rule is \(\frac{1}{N}\).

To beat this, let’s consider how people go about solving secretary problems in the real world. I don’t know anyone who’s dating strategy is, “I’m going to date seven women and pick the seventh one — no matter what.” One would have to be a staunch nihilist to adopt such a strategy.

Instead, the strategy most adults adopt — insofar as they consciously adopt a strategy — is to date around for a while, gain some experience, figure out one’s options, and then choose the next best thing that comes around.

In terms of the secretary problem, such a strategy would be: Scan through the first \( r \) integers and then choose the first option that is greater than any of the integers in \( [1,r] \).


How does this new strategy compare to our old one? The above image is a prop to help understand the discussion that follows. Assume that \(i\), the greatest integer, occurs at \(n + 1\).

In order for this strategy to return the maximum integer, two conditions must hold:

  1. The maximum integer cannot be contained in \([1,r]\). Our strategy is to scan through \([1,r]\), so if the solution is in \([1,r]\), we necessarily
    lose. This can also be stated as \(n \geq r\).
  2. Our strategy is going to select the first integer, \( i \),  in \([r,N]\) that’s greater than \(max([1,r])\). Given this, there cannot be any integers greater than \(i\) that come after \(i\), otherwise the strategy will lose. Alternatively put, the condition \(max([1,r]) == max([1,n])\) must be true.

Thus, to calculate the effectiveness of our strategy, we need to know the
probability that both of these will hold. For some given \(n\), this is:

$$ \frac{r}{n}\frac{1}{N} $$

\(\frac{1}{N}\) is the probability that \(i\) occurs at \(n + 1\) (remember, this is the probability for some n, not the n), while \(\frac{r}{n}\) is a consequence of the second condition — the probability that the condition \(max([1,r]) == max([1,n])\) is true.

To calculate the probability for some \(r\), \(P(r)\), not for arbitrary \(n\), but for everything, we need to sum over \(n \geq r\):

$$ P(r) = \frac{1}{N}(\frac{r}{r}+\frac{r}{r+1}+\frac{r}{r+2}+…+\frac{r}{N-1}) = \frac{r}{N}\sum_{n=r}^{N-1}\frac{1}{n} $$

This is a Riemann approximation of an integral so we can rewrite it. By letting \(\lim_{N \rightarrow \infty}\frac{r}{N} = x\) and \(\lim_{N \rightarrow \infty}\frac{n}{N} = t\), we get:

$$ P(r) = \lim_{N \rightarrow \infty}\frac{r}{N}\sum_{n=r}^{N-1}\frac{N}{n}\frac{1}{N}=x\int_{x}^{1}\frac{1}{t}dt=-x \ln x $$

Now, we can find the optimal \(r\) by solving for \(P'(r) = 0\). By plugging \(r_{optimal}\) back into \(P(r)\), we will find the probability of success.

$$ P'(r) = -\ln x – 1 = 0 \Rightarrow x = \frac{1}{e} $$
$$ P(\frac{1}{e}) = \frac{1}{e} \approx .37 $$

What The Math Says

How can this math help John? Well, the optimal solution is for him to estimate how many people he believes he might reasonably date in the future, say \(20\). We plug this into the equation \(\frac{N}{e}\), where \(N=20\), \(\frac{20}{e} \approx 7\).

This result says that, if John wants to maximize his probability of ending up with the best possible man, he should date 7 men and, then, marry the next man who is better than all of those men.

However, we have sneaked some probably untenable assumptions into our analysis. The typical secretary problem maximizes the chances of landing the best man, and considers all other outcomes equally bad. Most on the dating market are not thinking this way — they want to maximize the probability that they end up with a pretty good spouse. It’s not all or nothing.

Maximizing the Probability of a Good Outcome

Fear not, there’s a modification of the secretary problem that maximizes the probability of finding a high-value husband or wife. I’m not going to cover the derivation for this flavor of the secretary problem in this post. (For technical details, see Bearden 2005), but suffice it to say, the strategy is the same except we use a cutoff of \(\sqrt{N}\) rather than \(\frac{N}{e}\).

Consider dating for the average American. Assuming one wants to settle down by the age of 35, one has the opportunity for somewhere between 7 and 30 sorta serious relationships. Taking the geometric mean, we get about 14. Johannes Kepler famously considered 11 women for his second wife, so this is, at the very least, not absurd.

The square root of 14 is about 4. Thus, according to the math, one should have four kinda serious relationships and then marry the next person that comes along who is better than all of those four.

How Human Behavior Compares to the Mathematics

The median number of premarital sexual partners is unclear, with different sources reporting markedly different numbers. I’m inclined to place the number between 1 and 4. Using this number as a rough proxy for the number of kinda serious relationships before marriage, reality conflicts with the results of the secretary problem.

Most people aren’t dating even four other people before marriage. What gives?

At its core, the conflict implies that either the solution to the secretary problem does not apply or that humans are not gathering enough information before getting married.

A number of experimental studies (here, here, here, and here) support the second view. When undergraduates are asked to participate in a secretary problem in its pure form — that is, like the tape discussed in the beginning — they almost always stop searching too early.

One might argue that evolution ought to know what it’s doing — especially when it comes to human mating — and that we should have a strong prior that dating is, in some sense, optimal. Such a view ignores that we’re no longer in small tribes of 50 to 200. Humans did not evolve to deal with modern society and the horror that is dating today. A preference for sugar was adaptive 50,000 years ago, but we have since invented the Twinkie.

Indeed, probably pre-civilized human life didn’t look a whole lot like a secretary problem. Back then, one might have had to choose from a half dozen possible mates — mates one had already known for many years. This looks more like a game of pick the maximal element from a set than a bona fide secretary problem.

What Sort of Optimal?

If I use the results of the secretary problem to find a wife, I will almost certainly end up worse off than a strictly rational agent who pursues the same goal, but probably better than those who have no strategy at all. At the end of the day, the secretary problem is a mathematical abstraction and fails to take into account much of complexity of, you know, reality.

The secretary problem assumes, for instance, that our only means of finding out about the distribution of potential mates and our preferences for them is via dating. This isn’t remotely true. We can observe the actions of others, introspect, read about human mate preferences, discuss our experiences with friends, and otherwise share information.

It’s also not the case that we’re dating men or women at random. There are a huge number of filters that go into deciding whether or not someone is marriage material. Are we of similar ages and interests? Do we speak the same language? Do I feel any attraction for this person?

A theory of optimal dating would need to take this and much more into account. There are a near unlimited number of paths to strategically choosing who to spend the rest of your life with, and a lot of that strategy consists of things other than choosing. You might try getting fit, earning more money, adopting interesting hobbies, honing social skills, meeting lots of the opposite sex, taking voice acting or improv classes, and so on. An optimal theory of dating would, I have no doubt, emphasize some subset of these skills.

All Together Now


  • The secretary problem is the problem of deciding whether or not one should stick with what they have or take their chances on something new.
  • Examples of secretary problems include finding a husband or wife, hiring a secretary, and alligator hunting.
  • The solution to the secretary problem suggests that the optimal dating strategy is to estimate the maximum number of people you’re willing to date, \(N\), and then date \(\sqrt{N}\) people and marry the next person who is better than all of those.
  • In laboratory experiments, people often stop searching too soon when solving secretary problems. This suggests that the average person doesn’t date enough people prior to marriage.
  • At the end of the day, the secretary problem is a mathematical abstraction and there is more to finding the “right” person than dating a certain number of people.

Further Reading

Effective Study Skills for College Students: “Why?” Questions

Consider two sentences:

  • The llama was made out of watermelon flavored cactus.
  • Policeman doe terminology star inconvenience recruit.

If I asked you to close this web page and then recall both sentences, you’d have an easier time with the first sentence. It has meaning and structure — even if a bit strange. I could make this still harder by adding a third sentence that’s just a jumble of letters. That would be less structured and even harder to recall.

Let’s say you’re reading a textbook, like Sedgewick’s The Algorithm Design Manual, and you come across the fact that \( \Theta(n \lg n) \) is the lowest possible complexity of a comparison sort algorithm. You could commit this to long-term memory as is — it’s true, after all. It would be connected to some other knowledge, like what you already know about sorting algorithms. This seems okay.

But, when doing something like this, you’re missing out on a whole lot of structure. If you forgot about the lower bound, you wouldn’t be able to regenerate it from what you already know. It’s connected to other knowledge, but it’s not recomputable. You’re forced to take Sedgewick’s word for the whole thing.

How can we absorb more of the structure of a piece of knowledge — to not be content with knowing a fact that someone else has stated, but to be able to recompute it, to solidly place it in our web of knowledge? The answer is the question, “Why?” There is a massive gulf between knowing that something is true and understanding why something is true. Being able to answer that why question makes all the difference — it forces you to absorb and understand deeper structural characteristics.

If I told you that 3 bits can represent 8 different values, you would not be able to answer the question, “How many bits do you need to represent 1729 different values?” But, if you understood why 3 bits can represent 8 values, that sort of question is trivial. It’s the difference between being able to regurgitate facts from Wikipedia and being able to solve novel problems — to understand the not yet seen.

Asking “Why is this so?” is an easy to implement strategy for absorbing a piece of knowledge, and connecting it to the rest of your beliefs in such a way that you can answer novel questions in the future.

Further Reading

  • I wrote recently about this whole structure thing in “Compressing Knowledge.”
  • Asking “Why?” while learning is sometimes called elaborative interrogation. There’s a review of its effectiveness, along with that of other learning techniques, here.

Love Is Not A Choice And Other Tools For Thinking

I’m not much of a romantic. If I wanted to hack romance I’d start with going through all the literature on the mate preferences of chimpanzees, bonobos, and great apes generally. Only after I’d taken in the unfiltered humans-are-big-monkeys view would I turn to something with a more human emphasis. It’d be a few months before I started, you know, dating.

When I do listen to other people speak about passionate love — mostly internet people — it’s surreal. Things like, “Love is always a choice.” What, I wonder, are these people on about? The emotion I would describe as passionate love is not this tame, controlled thing. If love were a mode of transportation, it’d be more like surfing in a hurricane than a leisurely bike ride.

Some Thinking Machinery

Love-as-drug is a cliche. If I told you, with a serious face, that love is like being on drugs and you responded by vomiting all over me, well, I would deserve it. But hang on. Imagine if love were literally a drug — a pill you could take.

Say Pfizer releases a new product tomorrow, Passionil, shaped like a heart, no less. The drug, when consumed, results in the consumer imprinting on and falling in violent love with the next person that they maintain eye contact with. It lasts three to six months. Would you take such a drug?

We can turn all sorts of knobs on this machinery. Maybe the drug comes in different forms: fast-acting, short release, standard release, and extended release. The fast-acting love might last a night, the short release a couple of weeks, and the extended release for a year. Would you take any of these drugs?

What if these drugs prove so popular that Pfizer creates an ever-increasing variety of them: a light edition which provides a gentle buzz — a weak infatuation — the standard strength, and an extra strength version for those who really want to lose their minds.

But maybe the drug frame is too suggestive. We can exchange drugs for a type of tropical island fruit. Maybe it can be brewed like coffee, some cups stronger than other. That sounds more natural and maybe a little more palatable.

All of these scenarios center around something — a drug — fruit — that can be controlled, but love is often not something we intend. We can liken falling in love to catching a cold, or being bit by a love mosquito. How do those scenarios make you feel about love?

What if you think about love as evolution’s way of screaming, “have children, have children!” — not so much the product of our own free will, and more the demands of an alien god. The other side of that coin: falling out of love is evolution’s way of telling you to try your chances with a different mate. Real romantic.

There are still more knobs — reciprocal and unrequited love. We can imagine that the pills don’t last a set amount of time, but instead have a one percent chance of ending each day. If you take the drug with another person, you’re running the risk that one of you will fall out of love much sooner than the other. This would not matter if you could just take another pill, so we can imagine side-effects. Maybe the pill zonks out for a while after use.

Intuition Pumps

What we’ve just done is built what Daniel Dennet calls an intuition pump — or at least gathered the parts for one. These are thought experiments that aid the intuition in grappling with a problem or phenomena. In Dennet’s case, he builds them to deal with the consciousness problem. We built a few to deal with love.

The fun thing about building intuition pumps is that you definitely can try this at home. It’s not too hard to get started. The easiest knob, and one of the most useful, is the more or less knob. Should we have more love or less love? Stronger love or weaker love? And so on.

Try it out. Build some of your own.

The Science of Habit

The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.
—Albert Camus, The Plague

To my perpetual dismay, I’m not a rational agent with limitless willpower. I’m not every moment brimming with novel insight and original computation. No. I’m a habit machine, a behavior-executor, on autopilot — a creature of habit. (Or “habbit,” for illiterate googlers.) I do the things that I do because that’s how I’ve done them in the past.

How horrible — but no, habits are adaptive. They are a good thing. Don’t believe the popular wisdom. We’re habit machines. Embrace it. Without habit, you would have to think through all the small things — will I have coffee with breakfast? Should I brush my teeth before or after showering? How do I tie my shoes? Ad infinitum.

Something like this does happen with Parkinson’s patients. The disease damages regions key to habit formation — the basal ganglia and company. This interference results in sufferers performing poorly on a number of laboratory tasks. Less habity-ness than a healthy brain: not positive, not a good thing, not beneficial.

Too much habity-ness is a problem, too. The drugs used to treat Parkinson’s can lead sufferers to develop gambling or sex addictions. Some of the symptoms of OCD look an awful lot like problems with habit — repetitive thoughts, urges to engage in certain rituals, grooming behaviors (hand washing), and more. (Wikipedia lists hair-pulling as a symptom of OCD. I dated a chick with OCD once and she would pull out her hair, so I can very scientifically confirm the truth of this.) The compulsions of OCD are the result of taking the “force” in “force of habit” and amplifying it.

There is a habit spectrum with those who have trouble establishing habits — Parkinson’s disease patients — on one end and those who form habits too easily — OCD — on the other end. In fact, Lally et al. found that there is significant individual variation in habity-ness. For a habit to reach its peak, it took subjects anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with a median of 66 days.

We can visualize this as a probability distribution, in which it takes most people around 66 days to establish a new habit, but with significant variation. The tails of the distribution are characterized by pathology, e.g. OCD and Parkinson’s.


Why Should I Care?

Human behavior is like a natural disaster, an avalanche or a forest fire. You can nudge the Titanic, schedule a controlled burn, and build avalanche barriers, but that’s about the extent of it. These are the equivalent of establishing the right habits during periods of high motivation and control. With consistent nudging, you can set yourself onto a new path.

Consider the man gracing the one-hundred dollar bill, Benjamin Franklin. He was interested in cultivating virtue — contrast with our modern obsession with personality — and developed a system for doing so, writing in his autobiography, “the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established.”

He created a weekly chart, marking it “by a little black spot” whenever he failed to live up to one of his 13 virtues. On any given week, he would focus on just one of the virtues. Of his system, he writes, “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”

This is all to say that the essence of a man is, in some sense, what he does out of habit. A mathematician is defined by his habit of doing math, a programmer by his habit of programming, and a writer of his habit for writing. To be a kind person, be kind out of habit. To the extent that enduring personality can be shaped and modified, habit is the way.

Consider competence. Excellence in anything is the result of practice. How does one chew through a mountain of practice? Out of habit. If you develop a habit of setting aside a few hours each day to push through your boundaries, this habit will propel you to excellence. This is what the development of expertise looks like. It looks like a habit of waking up at 5 in the morning to do laps in the pool.

What is a Habit?

My friends were wise men of the first rank, and we found the problem soon enough: coffee wanted its victim.
—Honore de Balzac, The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee

A habit is an automatic behavior, repeated often. There is often a cue that prompts it. I have a coffee habit, triggered by sleepiness, waiters asking if I would like coffee, the smell of coffee, reading about coffee and, as I’m just now discovering, also writing about coffee. The caffeine barricades my adenosine receptors and releases a flood of dopamine, reinforcing the behavior. A habit is born.

We can take nervous habits as an example as well, such as stroking the neck. These sort of self-soothing gestures are cued by internal feelings of distress, which launches the behavior (neck rubbing). The reinforcement here is the resulting decrease in distress.

Cigarette smoking works in much the same way. Many people smoke when they wish to relax, so it can be cued by internal feelings of tension. This triggers getting out the cigarette and smoking it, which provides a hit of nicotine. The nicotine acts on the brains reward system, which reinforces the behavior. (Nicotine’s role in encouraging habit formation is why it can be so difficult to quit.)

However, this process is not carved in stone. There are some habits which don’t have clear cues or rewards. As part of writing this, I set my phone to buzz at random intervals during the day, at which point I’ve been reciting the poem “Invictus.” There’s no clear reward, but habit formation has been chugging along nonetheless.

As my Invictus example implies, there are mental habits, too, and they function in the same way. When you mention Illinois State University, my mother — without fail — will say, “Go salukis!” (Her alma mater’s mascot.) When I hear someone say “Turn it up”, a Filip Nikolic remix of “Bring the Noise” hijacks the helm of my consciousness and steers it to the melody of that beat.

Somewhat troubling is the realization that most of our thought is not internally generated, but scripts that run as a result of external cues. Patients presenting with transient global amnesia are a dramatic example of this. Unable to commit anything to long term memory, they continue to execute the same loop of behavior, repeating the same conversations over and over. Radiolab has great coverage of one case in their “Loops” episode.

Habit Formation

When a habit is first being formed, it consists of deliberate, effortful, goal-based activity. This is supported by brain scans, which show activity in the prefrontal cortex — the front brain, sometimes called the seat of reason. For those familiar with dual process theory, this is system 2 behavior.

In the beginning stages, behavior is flexible. Each act of the behavior in question can be thought of as an original (and thus effortful) computation.

As the behavior is repeated, it becomes less effortful, and brain activity begins to shift. Activity in the prefrontal cortex dies down and activity moves into lower, more central brain regions — mainly the basal ganglia. The behavior itself becomes less flexible. The process is much like the life-cycle of a clay bowl: first, wet clay is malleable, but — once fired in a kiln — it hardens and is ready for use.

Habit formation as a progression from effortful search to retrieving one path.

Habit formation as a progression from effortful search to retrieving one path.

For those comfortable with computational metaphors, we can imagine habit formation first as a sort of graph search — trying to find the right sequence of actions that lead to some reward, like alpha-beta search in a chess engine. With time, the brain learns when one path is often retrieved. It “saves” that path and executes that in the future, avoiding a whole lot of computation, but at the cost of flexibility. The graph search corresponds to activity in the prefrontal cortex, while the saved path is executed by the basal ganglia.

The Progress of Habit

The interplay between automaticity and repeated behavior gives us a visual of habit formation over time.

The interplay between automaticity and repeated behavior gives us a visual of habit formation over time.

The picture above is what an activity looks like over time as it solidifies into a habit. It starts hard and effortful. With each execution of the behavior, it becomes more automatic and natural, until it reaches an asymptote. At this point, it levels off and has become a bona fide habit.

Cultivating Good Habits

Thus far, the discussion has been theoretical. We are interested in habits, though, in what they can do for us. We would like to cultivate the right sort of habits in order to become the person that we would like to be.

The science suggests a few guidelines.

  • First, everything becomes easier with practice. This alone is motivating.
  • To cultivate a habit, do that thing as often as possible. The time to enact new habits is in when a high motivation state.
  • Create some cue to prompt the habit. A cell phone alarm is good for this. You can use the TagTime Android application to set up random pinging throughout the day.
  • After the good habit has been executed, reward it in some way. M&M’s are a popular reinforcer, but even positive self-talk can be effective. Some people even use nicotine.
  • There are a number of productivity tools that make habit formation easier, like HabitRPG, chains.cc, Pomodoro timers, and BeeMinder.

Breaking a Bad Habit

The way that people often go about stopping a bad habit is by attempting to just “use their free will” to quit doing it. This does not often work, as evidenced by all of the people who have such difficulty with their fitness goals or quitting smoking.

If you have a specific habit you would like to stop, I would first suggest looking for resources specific to those habits. There are already good resources for those trying to quit smoking, but I’ll admit that I looked around and most guides were not that compelling.

There are a few ways to tame a bad habit. The first is to understand the context of the habit. What’s the cue? What’s the reward? Once you’re able to notice this, it becomes possible to gain some measure of control over it. You can try to figure out a path to removing the cue or the reward, or even replacing it with a disincentive, like when nail-biters coat their nails in something bitter.

Alternatively, and I think this is the best option, is to establish a new habit in place of another, to fight fire with fire. Eating junk food is a habit that many would like to stop, but this is the wrong way of looking at things. One ought to try to eat more healthy food. The junk food will fall by the wayside. For those who wish to stop eating meat, frame it not as “stop eating meat” but instead as eating more plant-based meals.

This is the difference between approach and avoidance goals. Approach goals are framed as something you want to do, while avoidance goals are framed as something you want to avoid. Approach goals (such as eat more vegetables) are more energized over time and more likely to be achieved. Reason #45820 the human brain is hack: just reframing your goals as approach instead of avoidance can improve your odds of completing those goals.

Putting it All Together

To recap:

  • A habit is a behavior that becomes automatic and effortless with repetition.
  • Habits are important because so much of our behavior happens outside of conscious control. Developing the right habits allows us to modify who we are.
  • A habit consists of a cue which triggers a behavior which is then reinforced.
  • Habits start effortful and goal-directed, but become effortless and automatic with repetition.
  • Habitual behavior becomes less flexible over time and can be conceptualized as the migration from graph search to a fixed sequence of behavior. This is computationally cheaper.
  • There are several technologies available that can aid in habit formation.
  • To conquer a bad habit, notice what cues the habit and then try replacing it with a new, better habit or by removing those cues.

Further Reading