Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Palo Alto and beyond

For those of you following my peripatetic year of book touring, August is a quiet month.  (Very welcome!)  I am really looking forward to my sole event, though--a talk at the Books Inc store in Palo Alto on Thursday the 22nd (7 PM).  Stanford is practically across the street, and it's lovely to be able to drive.

Upcoming in Sep/Oct, another driving trip, to Oregon, northern California, and western Nevada.  Then an ambitious trip crisscrossing Florida, Georgia, and Alabama . . .  I'll be ready for another break after that!

Summer is moving along swiftly; enjoy the rest of it, everyone.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

George Marshall and the "It changed my life" memory

Continuing with the last post's theme of memory, I just finished Ed Cray's biography of George Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff during World War II and chief author of the postwar Marshall Plan for European reconstruction (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize).  Talk about an individual who had a big impact on the world . . .

His prospects didn't start out looking very good, though.  As Cray reports, the young Marshall was a mediocre student.  Planning to attend the Virginia Military Institute for college, Marshall overheard his older brother urging his mother not to send George there, because he couldn’t cut it.  Hearing that, Marshall said later, gave him loads of extra motivation; in terms of the science of consequences, it considerably changed the reward value of academic and military success.  In his first year, Marshall worked hard, was ranked 18 out of 82 academically, and was named "first corporal" for the following year, a distinct honor. 

That's all neat and tidy, and I'm not doubting that this one overheard remark did have a big impact.  But in any human life, so many things influence consequences and motivation, it seems important to remember that they act in a messy, cumulative way. (It's a system!)  That's taking nothing away from the good story value and real significance of the "It changed my life" memory--which I appreciate as much as the next person.  Indeed, I have a few of my own . . .

Perhaps we all are under some pressure to develop rather simplified answers to common questions like "What's the secret of your success in school/your chosen career/your marriage?"  Think about the consequences for long, rambling, indeterminate answers.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Trying to remember

Yesterday I struggled to remember something I'd intended to mention during a phone conversation.  If I don't write it down ahead of time, it's a hit-or-miss proposition.

Same thing for those great thoughts I might have while I'm driving, or when I awaken at 3 AM.  When I arrive at my destination, or get up at 7, those thoughts have flown the coop.  The science is clear:  Using mnemonic techniques can help us cage those flighty birds.  Even in the 21st century, mnemonics have a place.

In Introductory Psychology, students learn about a method used by the ancient Greeks:  associating things to remember with locations or objects in a consistent sequence.  You might imagine walking around your living room, noting landmarks like a lamp, an end table, a sofa, etc. To remember that you want to attend your niece's trombone recital, you picture a horn sticking out of your lamp.  (The weirder the image, the better.)  For a whole list of things to remember, just add associations to the standard landmarks, in order.

With smartphones and all the rest of our high-tech doo-dads, do we really need mnemonic devices?  Not as much as the ancient Greeks, surely.  But they still come in handy surprisingly often, and the skill is a useful one to develop.

I could summarize some of the extensive data showing that these methods really work.  But instead, I want to focus on why we use them.  And that's--consequences!  I can personally testify how annoyed I get when I think I'll remember something and I don't.  Ouch.  Conversely, when I take the extra time to use a mnemonic technique, how rewarding when it works--and how much more likely I am to use it again.  Even a simple method, like saying out loud what I want to remember, does take extra time and effort.  It's a choice:  a more effortful behavior with the likely consequence of a longer-lasting memory, versus just hoping for the best and (all too often) forgetting.  Those darned delays are an inherent part of these particular choices, exerting their usual drag.  But over time, we can learn to remember--given enough consequences.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Schedules of consequences on the Pacific Crest Trail

 "Every time I moved, it hurt.  I counted my steps to take my mind off the pain, silently ticking the numbers off in my head to one hundred before starting over again.  The blocks of numbers made the walk slightly more bearable, as if I only had to go to the end of each one" (p. 63).  That's a quote from Cheryl Strayed's engrossing, bestselling memoir, Wild, which I recently read.  After personal losses and struggles, Strayed saved up to be able to hike much of the Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California through Oregon.  With boots that were too small and feet rubbed raw, her persistence wins readers' hearts.

The strategy in the quote will be familiar if you've read my book:  Added signals that indicate progress can double as extra rewards that help us keep going.  The schedule for these particular signals?  A steady hundred by hundred means a fixed work-based schedule, the same as a "fixed ratio."  Keeping track of progress in other ways ought to have helped too, such as making it to the next bend, then to a particular tree, etc.  Little rewards can make a surprisingly big difference.

Much farther along the trail, out of water during a heat wave and desperate (and still with those painful feet!):
"I counted my steps, working my way to a hundred and starting over again at one.  Each time I completed another set it seemed as if I’d achieved a small thing.  Then a hundred became too optimistic and I went to fifty, then twenty-five, then ten" (p. 193). 

Not to spoil it, but obviously Strayed did live to tell the tale.  And this application from the science of consequences helped.