Monday, June 26, 2017

You don't like Greek yogurt's taste, just its story

Consider, for instance, the unlikely tale of Chobani, the company that essentially created the Greek yogurt industry in the United States. In 1996, as Chobani’s well-oiled promotional machine will tell you, a Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States with $3,000 in his pocket. Sixteen years later, he was selling $1 billion worth of Greek yogurt by employing refugees from local resettlement centers and extolling the artisanal virtues of Chobani for the body, environment and soul.

This story of authenticity has been essential to Chobani’s success and central to positioning Greek yogurt as an alternative to the sugary concoctions that come from companies like Yoplait. ...

As Chobani grew, Big Yogurt got worried. So Yoplait commissioned a series of focus groups that initially soothed executives’ anxieties: Taste tests revealed that most people disliked Greek yogurt. It was too sour and unfamiliar, the data said. The products’ names were too hard to remember. There was little need, Yoplait executives told one another, for concern.

But as the Greek phenomena gained steam — today, it accounts for more than a third of all yogurt sales in the United States — Yoplait’s studies found an interesting hiccup: Even though people said they disliked Greek yogurt, they kept on trying it, again and again, until they learned to like it. Why? Because, consumers told Yoplait’s researchers, they liked the Chobani story.

Consumers heard that Greek yogurt made it easier to lose weight. (There are 15 grams of sugar in a strawberry Chobani cup; Yoplait’s strawberry has 18.) People said they had heard Chobani was more natural. (Though Chobani does not contain preservatives, other ingredients are similar to those of competitors.)

But the most powerful story, according to current and former Yoplait executives who described their research, was that consumers simply thought Chobani was cool. It was easier to believe it was authentic and healthy because it had an exotic name, a founder who embodied rags-to-riches success and lots of buzz.
--Charles Duhigg, NYT, on ignoring your taste buds

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Remedial failure

Nearly perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities, [students] seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life: not getting a room assignment they wanted, getting wait-listed for a class or being rejected by clubs.

“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Ms. Simmons said. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”

Almost a decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. “Many of our students just seemed stuck,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.”

They soon began connecting the dots: between what they were seeing anecdotally — the lack of coping skills — and what mental health data had shown for some time, including, according to the American College Health Association, an increase in depression and anxiety, overwhelming rates of stress and more demand for counseling services than campuses can keep up with. ...

It was Cornell that, in 2010 after a wave of student suicides, declared that it would be an “obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Not long after, Stanford started an initiative called the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video. “It was an attempt to normalize struggle,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said.

A consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling. ...

“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.” ...

Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.
--Jessica Bennett, NYT, on the need to let kids fail from time to time

Friday, June 23, 2017

David Ortiz hit .786 in walkoff situations for 1.5 years

Back in 2005 and 2006, when Ortiz came to the plate at Fenway Park with a chance to win the game, he never made an out. That is barely an exaggeration. When I compiled the data for the first version of this post (August 1, 2006), I noted that from the end of the 2004 regular season through July 2006, Ortiz came to the plate 19 times in a walkoff situation - and made only three outs. He had a .786 batting average (11-for-14) with seven home runs and 20 RBI! ...

Of course, the walkoff opportunities listed below tell only a small part of Ortiz's story. But it is a huge part of Big Papi's legend, one that led to Ortiz being dubbed, officially, by the team, as The Greatest Clutch Hitter In Red Sox History.

2003-2016
          PA   AB   H  HR  RBI BB  Walkoffs
2003       7    6   2   1   2   1     2
2004      14   13   5   3   8   1     5
2005       5    3   3   2   5   2     3
2006      10    7   5   3  10   3     5
2007       7    5   1   1   2   1     1
2008       9    5   1   0   0   3     0
2009       3    3   1   1   1   0     1
2010       6    5   1   0   3   1     1
2011       7    5   3   0   0   2     0
2012       3    2   0   0   0   1     0
2013       8    7   1   1   3   1     1
2014      14    8   1   0   0   6     0
2015       6    3   0   0   0   3     0
2016       7    7   3   0   2   0     1
TOTALS   106   79  27  12  36  25    20   (.342 batting average) 
--Allan Wood, Joy of Sox, on Mr. Clutch

Babies who never cry

The creepiest sound I have ever heard was nothing at all. My wife, Maria, and I stood in the hallway of an orphanage somewhere in the former Soviet Union, on the first of two trips required for our petition to adopt. Orphanage staff led us down a hallway to greet the two 1-year-olds we hoped would become our sons. The horror wasn’t the squalor and the stench, although we at times stifled the urge to vomit and weep. The horror was the quiet of it all. The place was more silent than a funeral home by night.

I stopped and pulled on Maria’s elbow. “Why is it so quiet? The place is filled with babies.” Both of us compared the stillness with the buzz and punctuated squeals that came from our church nursery back home. Here, if we listened carefully enough, we could hear babies rocking themselves back and forth, the crib slats gently bumping against the walls. These children did not cry, because infants eventually learn to stop crying if no one ever responds to their calls for food, for comfort, for love. No one ever responded to these children. So they stopped.

The silence continued as we entered the boys’ room. Little Sergei (now Timothy) smiled at us, dancing up and down while holding the side of his crib. Little Maxim (now Benjamin) stood straight at attention, regal and czar-like. But neither boy made a sound. We read them books filled with words they couldn’t understand, about saying goodnight to the moon and cows jumping over the same. But there were no cries, no squeals, no groans. Every day we left at the appointed time in the same way we had entered: in silence.

On the last day of the trip, Maria and I arrived at the moment we had dreaded since the minute we received our adoption referral. We had to tell the boys goodbye, as by law we had to return to the United States and wait for the legal paperwork to be completed before returning to pick them up for good. After hugging and kissing them, we walked out into the quiet hallway as Maria shook with tears.

And that’s when we heard the scream.

Little Maxim fell back in his crib and let out a guttural yell. It seemed he knew, maybe for the first time, that he would be heard. On some primal level, he knew he had a father and mother now. ...

Little Maxim’s scream changed everything—more, I think, than did the judge’s verdict and the notarized paperwork. It was the moment, in his recognizing that he would be heard, that he went from being an orphan to being a son. It was also the moment I became a father, in fact if not in law. We both recognized that something was wrong, because suddenly, life as it had been seemed terribly disordered.
--Russell Moore, Adopted for Life, on the goodness of baby cries

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Non-stinky kimchi?

If Western consumers on a health kick can be convinced to drink yeasty, probiotic tea and tart, cultured yogurt, then why wouldn’t they be up for spicy pickled cabbage fermented with garlic for months on end?

Well, that’s the goal of South Korean scientists at the World Institute of Kimchi on Kimchi Street in Kimchi Town, on the outskirts of the southern city of Gwangju.

“We are trying to globalize kimchi,” said Ha Jae-ho, head of the institute, describing it as a “functional food.” ...

Even among kimchi-loving Koreans, many have separate kimchi fridges to stop the dish from tainting other food. If they keep it in their regular fridge, it goes into a vault-like box.

For this reason, scientists are trying to increase the good bacteria — especially the lactic acid that gives kimchi its probiotic qualities — and decrease the bad parts, namely the smell so pungent it can take days to work its way out a person’s pores. ...

In labs at the institute, scientists are working on the distinctive fumes, at least. “We’re trying to engineer the smell out of kimchi,” said Lee Mi-ae, a white-coated researcher. “But it’s difficult because the smell is linked to the flavor of the kimchi.”
--Anna Fifield, Washington Post, on creating a culinary abomination

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Claw machines for toys are rigged

At some point or another you've probably played one of these claw machines, hoping to score the plush toy of your dreams. But despite your skill at perfectly positioning the claw over the prize and activating it, you've found that the pincers just don't grab tightly enough to pick up a stuffed animal.

It's not your imagination. Those claw machines are rigged. ...

Some people think the claw machine is so hard to win because the stuffed animals are packed so tightly together. But the bigger reason is more insidious than that: the claw machine is programmed to have a strong grip only part of the time.

This isn't a closely kept secret. It's publicly available information, pulled straight from the instruction guides for the biggest claw games out there. ...

The machine's owner can fine-tune the strength of the claw beforehand so that it only has a strong grip a fraction of the time that people play.

The owner can manually adjust the "dropping skill," as well. That means that on a given number of tries, the claw will drop a prize that it's grabbed before it delivers it to you.

The machines also allow the owner to select a desired level of profit and then automatically adjust the claw strength to make sure that players are only winning a limited number of times...

This isn't isolated to one claw machine or one company — this is standard practice industry-wide.

Starting in 1951, the machines were regulated as gambling devices, but in 1974, those regulations were relaxed. A claw boom began. Today, they're ubiquitous in grocery stores, malls, and anywhere else with lots of foot traffic.
--Phil Edwards, Vox, on money from suckers. HT: MEL

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Friendliness can come from a genetic disorder

Eli D’Angelo has a superpower: the ability to win over strangers in seconds flat.

I once watched the gregarious 12-year-old approach a scowling man in a leather jacket and chaps as he secured his Harley in a restaurant parking lot. He didn’t look like he was in the mood for conversation, but his expression softened as soon as Eli complimented his bike. When Eli reached out to hug him, he hugged back.

Even more intimidating was the group of teenage girls Eli once greeted at an after-school soccer practice. With smiles and flattery, he talked them into drawing him a picture of a two-headed guitar-playing zombie who shoots laser beams from his eyes. ...

Eli’s superpower is actually a symptom. He has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder sometimes called “cocktail party syndrome” because it makes people extremely outgoing and irrepressibly friendly. When I first heard of the disorder — before I knew much about the intellectual impairments and serious health issues it also entails — I was envious of the apparent social ease it imparted. ...

But Eli violated the standard rules of etiquette more often than he obeyed them. ... Again and again, people forgave Eli’s faux pas and responded instead to the earnestness of his interest in them and the sincerity of his care.

And Eli truly cares about people. He wants to talk to them, hug them, invite them over for a sleepover. He can’t help feeling this way; almost everyone with Williams does. It’s one of the quirks of the disorder, caused by the deletion of about two dozen genes from chromosome seven. The absence of these genes, it seems, produces an insatiable drive to connect with other people. ...

Spending time with Eli, and others with Williams, made me realize that this is the key difference between us: It’s not that they’re not awkward, it’s that they’re not afraid of being awkward. They don’t have the fear of looking foolish that holds many of us back. We’re so terrified of that one-in-100 chance of embarrassment or rejection that we avoid the 99 interactions that are more likely to be fulfilling. ... Lacking that concern, Eli grasped what has long eluded me: that most people aren’t excessively judgmental. They’re quick to forgive. And more often than not, they want to connect.
--Jennifer Latson, New York, on the darnedest genetic influences on behavior

Liberals on immigration a decade ago

A decade ago, liberals publicly questioned immigration in ways that would shock many progressives today.

In 2005, a left-leaning blogger wrote, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, a liberal columnist wrote that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” His conclusion: “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.” That same year, a Democratic senator wrote, “When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

The blogger was Glenn Greenwald. The columnist was Paul Krugman. The senator was Barack Obama.

Prominent liberals didn’t oppose immigration a decade ago. Most acknowledged its benefits to America’s economy and culture. They supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Still, they routinely asserted that low-skilled immigrants depressed the wages of low-skilled American workers and strained America’s welfare state. And they were far more likely than liberals today are to acknowledge that, as Krugman put it, “immigration is an intensely painful topic … because it places basic principles in conflict.”

Today, little of that ambivalence remains. In 2008, the Democratic platform called undocumented immigrants “our neighbors.” But it also warned, “We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked,” adding that “those who enter our country’s borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law.” By 2016, such language was gone. The party’s platform described America’s immigration system as a problem, but not illegal immigration itself. And it focused almost entirely on the forms of immigration enforcement that Democrats opposed. In its immigration section, the 2008 platform referred three times to people entering the country “illegally.” The immigration section of the 2016 platform didn’t use the word illegal, or any variation of it, at all. ...

In July 2015, two months after officially announcing his candidacy for president, Sanders was interviewed by Ezra Klein, the editor in chief of Vox. Klein asked whether, in order to fight global poverty, the U.S. should consider “sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders reacted with horror. “That’s a Koch brothers proposal,” he scoffed. He went on to insist that “right-wing people in this country would love … an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.”

...progressive commentators now routinely claim that there’s a near-consensus among economists on immigration’s benefits.

There isn’t. According to a comprehensive new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Groups comparable to … immigrants in terms of their skill may experience a wage reduction as a result of immigration-induced increases in labor supply.” But academics sometimes de-emphasize this wage reduction because, like liberal journalists and politicians, they face pressures to support immigration.
--Peter Beinart, The Atlantic, on why we should be charitable towards our opponents

Friday, June 16, 2017

Why do fathers abandon their children?

Millions of poor children and teenagers grow up without their biological father, and often when you ask them about it, you hear a litany of male barbarism. ... The children’s tales often reinforce the standard image we have of the deadbeat dad — the selfish cad who spreads his seed and leaves generations of wreckage in his wake.

Yet when you ask absent fathers themselves, you get a different picture. You meet guys who desperately did not want to leave their children, who swear they have tried to be with them, who may feel unworthy of fatherhood but who don’t want to be the missing dad their own father was.

In truth, when fathers abandon their own children, it’s not a momentary decision; it’s a long, tragic process. A number of researchers have tried to understand how father abandonment happens, most importantly Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, who moved to Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., immersed themselves in the neighborhoods there and produced an amazing account, “Doing the Best I Can.”

Pregnancy is rarely planned among the populations they studied. Typically the parents are in a semi-relationship that is somewhere between a one-night stand and an actual boyfriend-girlfriend bond. ...

When the men learn that their partner is pregnant, they don’t panic, or lament all the freedom they are going to miss. On the contrary, three-quarters of the men in Edin and Nelson’s research were joyous at the news. The men are less likely than the women to want to end the pregnancy with an abortion.

These guys have often had a lot of negativity in their lives. The child is a chance to turn things around and live a disciplined life. The child is a chance to have a respected role, to find love and purpose.

The men at this stage are filled with earnest resolve. They begin to take the relationship more seriously and commit to the kid during infancy. ...

The key weakness is not the father’s bond to the child; it’s the parents’ bond with each other. They usually went into this without much love or sense of commitment. ...

By the time the child is 1, half these couples have split up, and many of the rest will part ways soon after. Suddenly there’s a new guy living in the house, a man who resents the old one. The father redefines his role. He no longer aims to be the provider and caregiver, just the occasional “best friend” who can drop by and provide a little love. This is a role he has a shot at fulfilling, but it destroys parental responsibility.

He believes in fatherhood and tries it again with other women, with the same high hopes, but he’s really only taking care of the child he happens to be living with at any given moment. The rest are abandoned.
--David Brooks, NYT, on pregnancy without love

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Anxiety disorder is becoming the new norm

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. Meanwhile, the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to Google Trends. (The trendline for “depression” was relatively flat.)
--Alex Williams, NYT, on our anxious age

Richard Thaler's conflict of interest

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
R. H. Thaler has served as an uncompensated advisor to the United Kingdom Behavioural Insights States Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, both from their inception. He also has numerous behavioral biases so would personally benefit from evidence-based noncoercive nudges.
--Conflict of interest section from Benartzi et al., "Should Governments Invest More in Nudging?"

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Fetuses prefer face-like images

It is dark in the womb—but not that dark. Human flesh isn’t fully opaque, so some measure of light will always pass through it. This means that even an enclosed space like a uterus can be surprisingly bright. “It’s analogous to being in a room where the lights are switched off and the curtains are drawn, but it’s bright outside,” says Vincent Reid from the University of Lancaster. ...

But what exactly do fetuses see? And how do they react to those images? To find out, Reid shone patterns of red dots into the wombs of women in the third trimester of their pregnancies, and monitored the babies within using high-definition ultrasound. By looking at how the babies turned around, Reid showed that they have a preference for dots arranged in a face-like pattern—just as newborn infants do. ...

For decades, scientists have known that third-trimester babies can perceive sounds and other stimuli while still in the womb. For example, in 1980, Anthony DeCasper and William Fifer asked pregnant women to read The Cat in the Hat to their fetuses, again and again for the last 7 weeks of their pregnancies. As soon as the babies were born, DeCasper and Fifer gave them pacifiers. The babies could then choose to hear a recording of either The Cat in the Hat or a different children’s story, by sucking at different times. And they sucked for the cat.

“People showed that a fetus could learn, was aware of elements of language, and preferred its mother’s own voice,” says Reid. ...

[The study] also confirms that the preference for faces isn’t the result of experiences that happen after birth. Some scientists have suggested that babies imprint on the first things they see—usually their mother’s face—in the same way that baby chicks or ducklings do. It’s very hard to test that idea: If imprinting happens and is important, it would be unethical to deprive a baby of that stimulus. “But this study rules that out,” says Reid. The preference already exists in utero.
--Ed Yong, The Atlantic, on consciousness before birth