Monday, May 29, 2017

Why Is This So Important?

The behavioral model is very important for a number of reasons.  One is that the focus on behavior moves the discussion away from personal attacks.  If a person’s behavior is good, it is recognized as such, to encourage more of the same.  If a person’s behavior is poor, the discussion is not about attitude, motives or intentions; it’s about what changes to behavior will make him or her more successful.

Another important aspect of the model is the insistence that we all improve behavior in the five key dimensions.  This is no longer optional.  The world is getting more complex at an accelerated rate.  We cannot face that complexity with the same casual approach that suited our ancestors even a few generations ago.

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet’s board of directors, the parent company of Google, made an interesting observation at technology conference in 2010:  “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.”  And that was 7 years ago!  He added that he doesn’t believe people are ready for what’s coming in terms of technology.  Of all that information how much is accurate or even useful?  Yet we are exposed to so much more every day at an increasingly alarming pace and must cope with it.

How did our grandparents deal with the fear of phishing emails or identity theft, traffic light cameras or drones and other invasions of privacy?  They didn’t.  Was anyone concerned about teen cyber-bullying or “sexting” even a few years ago?  In years gone by we had locks on our doors instead of security systems, and we thought hacking meant you had a bad cough, not that your savings or personal information might have been compromised.  No one was “addicted” to their “device.”  The frequency and stress level over the latest health news or food warnings were significantly lower.   The world didn't screech to a halt when the computers crashed.  And today credit cards, home equity loans and other financial tools make it so much easier to go into debt and stay there.

What about the avalanche of advertising we face?  The ad-blocker on my browser counts the ads as it blocks them.  One day I made note of the time as I caught up on (and stored and disposed of) personal email.  In 30 minutes the software blocked 97 ads.  That’s someone trying to sell me something at a rate of more than 3 times per minute.  Advertising exposure within our society is exploding.

Here is another example.  Last week I received an email telling me I may be a “Class Member” in a lawsuit against Staples “if between March 24, 2009 and April 25, 2017, you [1] bought a Rewards-eligible product and a non-Rewards eligible product in the same transaction, [2] used an item-specific coupon on the non-Rewards eligible product, and [3] were negatively impacted by Staples’ pro rata coupon accounting.”  If I don’t want to opt out of the settlement and I submit a claim form, I would be “eligible to receive $10 in Staples Rewards.”  (Further reading told me the class representative – I think that means the guy who sued – will get $5,000 and the law firm will receive $500,000 in fees and cost.)

How in the world do I know if I was negatively impacted?  Should I pull out all my Staples receipts for the last eight years to check?  Just reading this and trying to understand it is not worth $10 of my time, no less filling out an online form.  Yet apparently this stuff is happening every day to punish companies for apparently shady activities, although they admit no wrongdoing and settle to avoid the hassle.

I read recently that if everyone took the time to read only the privacy policies on all the websites visited, the annual cost in lost work time would be over $780 billion.  And that doesn’t even address what rights we might be signing away when we check the box without reading the even longer “terms and conditions.”

We must face it.  The world is getting more complex at a speed nearly impossible to keep up with.  People think technology is wonderful as they play games on their phones, but the technology is a double-edged sword with significant dangers.  As the robots are coming for our jobs and the hackers are stealing our data, the degree of critical thinking, discipline, responsibility, economic understanding, and perspective that served humanity in the past will no longer cut it.  We must do better or be overwhelmed.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Obesity Can't Be Healthy

A little more than ten years ago the “fat pride movement” began to pick up momentum.  The claim, supported by some studies at the time, was that it was possible to be fat and fit, that an active overweight person was healthier than a sedentary skinny person.  This was good news for those who felt they were being discriminated against and bullied due to their body shape and size.

When I list and describe the five behavioral dimensions, responsibility always follows discipline.  The simple reason is that it’s easier to find an excuse or justification rather than doing the hard work to address a problem, whether that be quitting a bad habit, saving more for retirement or maintaining the proper weight.  Dieting is hard; lifestyle changes are challenging.  A movement that advocates acceptance over change can be both refreshing and alluring to those who are struggling.  Why do the hard work when there may be supportive medical research as well as a possibility that the rest of society can be pressured into accepting us the way we are?

Last week the main argument for fat pride was undermined by a new study.  After examining the medical record of 3.5 million people in Britain over 20 years, this yet unpublished study found that “people who were obese but who had no initial signs of heart disease, diabetes or high cholesterol were not protected from ill health in later life.”  This contradicted much of the previous research.

In the study, people who were obese but metabolically healthy, that is with factors such as blood pressure and blood sugar within recommended limits "were at higher risk of developing heart disease, strokes and heart failure than people of normal weight.”

Other factors do enter in, such as weight distribution, genes and other lifestyle choices.  A very large sample is important because some overweight people live a long time, as do some smokers.  But the advice from medical professionals remains the same:  not smoking, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting the proper amount of sleep and limiting alcohol.

Except for the impressive size of the study, this is not exactly breaking news.  A few years ago, Forbes ran an article about an earlier study concluding “for most people, healthy obesity is just a phase that will likely give way to unhealthy obesity in the future” rather than putting them in the same risk category as healthy thinner people.

Losing weight and keeping it off is hard work.  It’s easier to grasp at excuses.  People should not be bullied or harassed for being overweight; they should be supported in their quest for a better, longer life.  This is true for a couple of reasons.  First, to tolerate poor behavioral choices that result in controllable consequences is to compromise our standards.  Second, in America, like it or not, the cost of everyone’s healthcare is charged back to all of society through insurance premiums.  The healthy support the sick.  The smokers, drug abusers, obese, etc. are an economic burden on the rest.  It’s everyone’s civic responsibility to be as healthy as possible to minimize the waste in society.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Some People Do Get It!

I probably don’t dwell on positive behavioral examples often enough, but this one came up on a local news report in Indiana.

The story tells of a 14 year-old boy living in West Lafayette who started his lawn care business at the age of 8.  He began with only a couple of nearby customers and has grown the business to about 40 yards in the neighborhood.

Though he had some difficulty getting started – some might consider an eight-year-old mowing lawns as not a very safe situation and I would tend to agree – he persevered and grew the business from year to year.  It seems to be a real business in that he reinvests a portion of his earnings in better mowing and yard maintenance equipment without relying on financial assistance from his parents.

The segment also made clear with a number of interviews of the neighbors that he understands the importance of outstanding customer service.  They say he is always on time, reliable and conscientious.  When they see the results, they “always want more.”

Some of his earnings he saves, some he reinvests in mowers and snow blowers, but he even reserves some to give to local charities.  He’s a kid with a good attitude who “enjoys taking care of people.”

These are the kinds of behaviors that reflect the entire range of the five key dimensions.  America needs more kids and clearly more adults with this kind of perspective, work ethic and generally good values.  What a marvelous example!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Protect Yourself

In response to my entry one week ago about the idea that much of the consumer protection by the government is merely an attempt to protect people from their own mistakes, one of my faithful readers sent a couple of good examples of the same.  I’ll take a look at one of them.

Remember, the original piece was about a chunk of plastic that you plug into the wall to protect against negative energy of many types ranging from Blue Tooth radiation, which is real but harmless, to noxious psychic energy, which has never been proven to exist, and that’s about as harmless as you can get.  The wide range and varieties of these so-called noxious energies it protects against should have been the first clue that something was probably fishy.  That the company did not explain how their product apparently absorbed or repelled this energy and only backed up their claims with endorsements is also suspicious.  Finally, the information that after plugging in the appliance, it did not draw any electricity is very curious – why plug it in at all?

So I was tipped off about this promotion with a similar sales pitch for yet another miracle product.

This website provides detailed information about “the healing properties of gemstones and crystals.”  They present the usual references to ancient wisdom for all these health claims, secrets from the same ancient people with average life expectancies less than half of ours today.  But ancient wisdom and the mysteries of the orient are staples for these types of sales pitches as they list 42 stones with their special properties (but not their prices). 

Then they cite the science.  “On a cellular level, our bodies and quartz crystal are both made up of mineral silicon-dioxide” and “we are naturally receptive to the vibrations of crystals.”  I didn’t know crystals had cells, yet we are told that one of them acts as a “natural stress reliever that encourages inner strength and brings wealth and a strong business sense,” and another “clears the mind, balances emotions and strengthens personal power.”  Wow, problem solved!  Poverty and a host of mental health issues wiped out for the price of a couple of rocks!  Sounds too good to be true – obviously.  A little research on line shows that none of these claims have any scientific backing.  Any benefit is based on the placebo effect.

The problem is there are so many of these products advertised.  Their target is people facing serious issues in their lives who are searching for any quick and easy way out, the path of least resistance.  These are the same people who hear their doctor recommend a change in lifestyle but opt for the pill instead.  Sometimes the products are designed to solve a problem we didn’t even know we had, but people are tempted to try to make their lives a little better.  The big selling point is that it will take little or no effort.

The fact that these sell is strong evidence of problems within the behavioral dimension of discipline, looking for the easy answer or the “magic bullet.”  Careful examination of the science, if there is any, without falling for the scientific sounding sales pitch and the testimonials about how wonderful they are, usually leads to the conclusion that your money is best spent on something more worthwhile.

I thank my reader for providing the link to this example.  I always welcome comments and suggestions, whether you agree or disagree.  The behavioral model is not necessarily about common conclusions, but about arriving at any conclusions in a well thought out and logical manner without attacking the defender of those ideas personally.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Air Rage

A few weeks ago I commented on the doctor being dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight.  Since then there have been incidents of a mother hit by a stroller while boarding an American Airlines plane, followed by a heated confrontation between a flight attendant and passenger on the same flight, a brawl between customers and police over Spirit flight delays in Ft. Lauderdale and a full fist fight between two passengers on a Southwest flight as they deplaned in Los Angeles.  Is this a new, widespread phenomenon or just another case of the “summer of the shark attack”?

Despite Time Magazine labeling the summer of 2001 as the Summer of the Shark Attack, with other media outlets picking up the theme, it turned out to be just another case of hype from the news.  A University of Florida investigation yielded a different story.  “The annual total of 76 unprovoked attacks worldwide [in 2001] was less than the 85 recorded in 2000, and fatalities declined from 12 to five in the same period.”  This is typical of what happens when the news uncovers a supposed trend with scary consequences.  Now we have this barrage of stories about how badly the airlines treat customers, and Congress gets to show off by calling in the CEOs to grill them about policies and practices.

Perhaps this has something to do with expectations.  When commercial airlines first began service, air travel was a luxury, limited to those who could afford the high ticket prices, executives and movie stars.  People dressed up for the experience.  The common folks who had to travel long distances drove their own cars or took the bus, Greyhound or Trailways, which was relatively inexpensive and not very luxurious.

Now the buses have added more amenities: more comfortable seats with extra legroom, free Wi-Fi, no safety restrictions on phone use and individual power outlets.  Meanwhile, airlines have turned into fast versions of the older busses, where everyone is squeezed on and service is limited.  The whole experience has changed.

Compare this to “road rage,” a term created in the 1980s to describe aggressive or irate driving.  Media stories of road rage have increased from 4,000 per year in the late 1990s to over 13,000 by 2012.  It is often blamed on a combination of more vehicles on the road and an “atmosphere in this country [that] has people more stressed,” an atmosphere of stress that has been amplified over the past two years.  Yet when is the last time we heard of an incident of road rage highlighted and played over and over on the news?  By now it’s old news.  But when the current state of hyper-stress in society is manifest on an airplane instead of behind the wheel and captured with a viral smartphone video, it becomes a headline.  When it happens two or three times (out of 2.5 million domestic airline passengers per day), it takes on the appearance of a serious pattern, like the summer-of-the-shark-attack.

We must always be aware that the news media is in the business of selling news.  The best news will engage us through fear, disgust, curiosity or excitement.  Good pictures and exaggeration add to the sale.  If necessary they will make it up, for example by conducting a poll and then report the results of the poll as a surprising revelation.  They follow important trends, like the murder of black citizens by police last summer, or trivial trends, like these incidents of air rage; then drop them and move on when interest wanes or another, more enticing crisis crowds them out.  It’s up to us to think critically and distinguish between the two.