Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hide the Chocolate or Lose the Diet

There's nothing more counter-productive to not eating between meals than living with someone who leaves an open package of chocolate chip cookies or nacho chips on the kitchen counter.  There are two ways to deal with this situation: close the package and put it back on the shelf or reach in and snatch a couple cookies or a handful of chips.  Guess which action is more likely?  I rest my case.

A new study on self-control by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Dusseldorf adds credence to the scenario above by suggesting that avoiding temptation is likely to increase your chances of success with a diet as opposed to simply relying on willpower alone.  In other words, out of sight, out of mind.  According to one of the investigators, Molly Crockett, "Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place."  True, this sounds like 'bubba psychology" - a truth that your grandmother could have told you, without having to do the research at all, but the research adds empirical support to what otherwise is armchair psychology.

The fancy term for restricting access to temptations is "precommitment" - such as not buying those fattening chocolate chip cookies in the first place or putting money is a savings account with high withdrawal fees. 

The research team provided male participants with a series of choices - some involving small rewards that were continuously available or large rewards that were forthcoming.  To obtain the large rewards, the participants had to exert willpower to resist opting for the small rewards.  For other choices they had the opportunity to precommit, so as to avoid the temptations.  Brain activity was measured as the decisions were made, and by looking at the brain regions that play a role in willpower and precommitment, it was found that precommitment was a more effective self-control strategy than willpower.  So give your brain a break and stick to your diet through some simple precommitments - don't buy the cookies, chocolates, or chips at all, or if you do, put them on a high shelf where you can't see them.  Hide the chocolate, save the diet.

Further reading:
Crockett, M. J., Breams, B. R., Clark, L., Tobler, P. N., Robbins, T. W., & Kalenscher, T.  (2013). Restricting temptations: Neural mechanisms of precommitment.  Neuron.  DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.05.028

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Avatars: You Really Can Go Back

According to recent estimates, more than 80 percent of Internet consumers and Fortune 500 companies have an avatar or presence in an online virtual community, including virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life) and social networks (e.g., Facebook).  In contemporary usage, “avatar” refers to general graphic representations that are personified by means of computer technology. Depending on the web site, an avatar may take the form of a static picture or a dynamic cartoonish character, with facial and body characteristics and style of dress chosen by the real-life user.  Internet users typically have some degree of choice as to the selection, modification, and accessorizing of a self-representational avatar, which can be constructed to represent one’s ideal or aspirational selves, or as a canvas for experimentation of various alternative selves, as MIT psychoanalyst Shelly Turkle observed in interviews with participants of virtual games:

                Online the plain represented themselves as glamorous, the old as young,
                the young as older.  Those of modest means wore elaborate jewelry.  In
                virtual space, the cripple walked without crutches, and the shy improved
                their chances as seducers.

As consumer behavior researcher Russell Belk observed, in the pre-digital era, new identities could be tested by changing one’s hair style or color, growing facial hair, changing one’s lipstick and eye coloring, buying new clothes or cars, and so on.  Part of the great appeal of avatars for consumers in the digital era is derived from the physical invisibility that can be maintained within virtual space, which offers a relatively safe environment for self-experimentation.  Richard Allan Bartle, one of the creators of the first virtual world, MUD, was one of the first to point out that avatars now facilitate this process online by “let[ting] you find out who you are by letting you be who you want to be,” without the concomitant risks that would be evident in the physical world, providing a “looking glass” not only for others, but for ourselves.  A good example of this is the Ditto designer eyeglasses website, which invites each visitor to create a 3-D video of his or her face via their computer webcam to virtually try on glasses.  In this way, online shoppers can “see” themselves in any pair of the site’s growing collection of designer eyewear.

 Researchers have begun to turn their attention to avatars.  In a post a couple weeks ago I mentioned the Milgram obedience experiments and the ethical implications of doing that sort of research in the contemporary era of institutional review boards, ethical guidelines, and increasing suspicions about deception and invasion of privacy.  Avatars, however, are proving to be a more ethical alternative to real people.  In other words, you can convince someone that they are administering painful electric shocks to a virtual research participant, but not a real one.  No surprise, there are even ethical implications in using avatars for this sort of research, such as the argument that if you desensitize people to aggressing against someone in the virtual world, they will be inured to doing the same in the real world.  

Now comes an intriguing set of studies from a research team led by Domma Banakou, Raphaela Groten, and Mel Slater from the Experimental Virtual Environments Lab for Neuroscience and Technology in Barcelona.  This is pretty complicated stuff, but the title of their recently published research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tells it all: "Illusory ownership of a virtual child body causes overestimation of object sizes and implicit attitude changes"  And here's a pretty clear summary from the Beaming website:

Immersive virtual reality can give adults such a strong illusion of being inside a child’s body that it affects their perception of the physical sizes of objects as well as their personal attributes, according to a study. Mel Slater and colleagues use immersive virtual reality to give adults avatars. Half had the virtual body of a 4-year-old and the other half a scaled-down adult body, the same size as the child body. Participants viewed their virtual bodies, which moved in real-time determined by the participants’ movements, from a first person perspective. Both groups reported that they felt a sense of “ownership” over their virtual bodies and both overestimated the size of objects in the virtual environment. However, participants in the child bodies overestimated object size by a greater degree than participants in scaled-down adult bodies. The “children” were also far more likely to associate with child-like attributes than the “small adults.” The sense of body ownership and differences in perception disappeared when the authors used the same virtual bodies, but disassociated participants’ movements from their avatars. This study demonstrates that the type of avatar can influence people’s size perceptions and self-attributes, a result that has potential in various computer-based applications, the authors argue.

Maybe it's an exaggeration to say we can go back again, but this research has some interesting implications.  Altering people's bodily self-representation, for example, by having an adult 'occupy' the body of a child,' seems to have the effect on our system of reproducing the experience of the world 'as a child experiences it.'  It's easy to recognize the potential here for manufacturers and designers of products for children or adults.  The ability to occupy the 'body' of a virtual child could provide insight into children's experience and attitudes towards furniture, toys, clothing, etc.  The same holds true for other kinds of individuals, such as the obese and handicapped.

As we choose our self-representations in virtual reality settings, our behaviors might be influenced accordingly.  In other words, we don't only exert influence on our avatars--they also exert influence on us.

Further reading:
1. D. Banakou, R. Groten, M. Slater.  Illusory ownership of a virtual child body causes overestimation of object sizes and implicit attitude changes.   Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013.  DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1306779110
2. Belk, R.  (2013).  Extended self in a digital world.  Journal of Consumer Research, in press.
3.  Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A. et al.(2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments.
4.  Also check out Sebastian Kuntz's comprehensive Slideshare presentation, Immersive Virtual Reality, at:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

New Trends in Consumer Technology: Stealth Wear

Now You See Me . . .

One aspect of the trend toward photo conversing that I didn't broach in my last post has to do with privacy issues, a big, fat, open can of worms pertaining to social media that most social media pundits would rather not have to deal with.  But threats to privacy comprise the dark underside of all the fun stuff - the content creating and sharing that we read and hear about every day.

Perhaps the one emerging technology that has aroused the most serious concerns related to photo and video sharing is the potential for unsolicited and unrevealed image taking by wearers of Google Glass --the head-mounted glasses that have the capacity to shoot video, take pictures, and broadcast what the wearer is seeing to the world by uploading the content to the Internet within seconds.  Just as legislation appears to be doomed to failure when it comes to regulating new technology that enables peer-to-peer file swapping, I imagine that lawmakers will experience even more difficulty controlling the use of wearable recording and sharing appliances.

Short of trying to reason with image thieves (as I sometimes do when I'm with a Facebook user who
pulls out his or her iPhone to catch me on camera - 'uhn uhn'), there is, however, an emerging alternative:  'stealth wear,' a term used to describe clothing and accessories designed to protect the wearer from detection and surveillance.  In short, stealth wear encompasses a number of products that provide a technological solution for offer individuals privacy, such as hoodies and cloaks that use reflective, metallic fabric that promise to reduce a person's thermal footprint.  Another is a purse that sports extra-bright LEDs that can be activated when in the presence of someone who is attempting to take an unwanted photo or video.  Developed by stealth wear pioneer Adam Harvey, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York, the effect of the lights-activated purse is to reduce an unwarranted photo to a washed-out blur (see image below).

Of course, this sort of product is the worst nightmare of paparazzi whose targets brandish such stealth devices.  On the other hand, I could never understand why stars and celebrities are so concerned about paparazzi in the first place - if you don't want your photo taken, don't be a damn celebrity.  As my fellow Baltimorean John Waters once pointed out, what's the point of being famous if you don't want people running after you all the time and invading your privacy?

To check out some other examples of Adam Harvey's stealth fashion, such as the 'anti-drone burqa' (below), be sure to visit his website.

Some other examples of stealth products include the following:

  • a visor fitted with LEDs that emit light capable of blinding some camera sensors and blurring the details of a wearer's nose and eyes  (National Institute of Informatics in Japan)
  • a lenscap accessory for people who do not want to be recorded while conversing with a Google Glass wearer, the latter of whom is asked to use the lens covering (vs. removing the glasses) so that no taping or photographing would occur during the interaction (Todd Blatt)
 More performance art than serious stealth wear examples are these urban camouflage creations by Japanese designer Aya Tsukioka - a skirt that camouflages the wearer as a soda machine and a  backpack that conceals a child behind something that mimics a Japanese-style fire hydrant:

Stealth wear innovators are currently encountering a marketing challenge in that high tech fashion of any kind has not yet caught on with consumers, be it stealth wear devices or tech-savvy haute couture, such as clothing embedded with illuminated lights.  One possible explanation for the mild level of enthusiasm for stealth wear is that many people just don't care all that much about their privacy, a point elaborated on by Frank Rich in one of his recent New York essays.  As Rich convincingly argued, 'spying is only spying when the subject doesn't want to be watched.'  And it seems that people are falling all over themselves posting photos of themselves and friends on social media, whether they are flattering or not.  When people stop caring about their privacy, they're in big trouble, whether they know it or not.

Now You Don't.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New Trends in Consumer Technology: Snapchat

No Comment

Without a CNN Headline News or other of the same ilk offered by my satellite TV provider, I often turn to Euronews for a quick overview of major news stories.  It does the job for the most part, but I often get infuriated by a regular feature they've dubbed 'No Comment,' which involves showing striking video footage without any off-screen commentary.  In other words, don't ask us, you figure it out. 

Here's how Euronews explains No Comment:

Well, that's peachy.  It's good to respect the intelligence of your audience, but images are not 'facts.'  Images can deceive, especially when details and context are eliminated.  Essentially, the viewer is left with the awareness, for example, that there was a pretty bad catastrophe someplace in the world - an out-of-control fire, a devastating environmental disaster, a street riot, or some other tragedy - without any of the details that journalists are supposed to be paid and trained to tell us (who, what, why, where, etc.). Imagine this conversation:  Honey, what's that you're watching?  Uhm, a story about a really bad fire somewhere, caused by who knows what, with any number of victims - your guess is as good as mine.

On second thought, forget about that conversation.  After all, who needs conversation when all you need to do is use your Snapchat app to take a temporary photo of the screen, which you can then send to whomever it is who may have phoned or texted you asking what you're watching on TV.  In the Euronews case, the photo meta-communicates the answer with a 'no comment' about a 'no comment.'  However surreal this may sound, this scenario is not only plausible, it already exists.  Snapchat, the pioneer iPhone and Android app in temporary image communication, has been around for a while now and is already enormously popular.  Snapchat allows a person to take a photo, send the image to a designated recipient, and control how long it is visible by the person who receives it, up to 10 seconds. After that, the picture disappears and can’t be seen again.  Talk about the ephemeral essence of photography.  On second thought, don't - no, don't speak - just snap and send.  What a misnomer, Snapchat, because in essence, its more appropriate name is Snapchatless.

That's the problem with Twitter . . . too chatty.  140 characters, waaay too many.  In fact, images sent by mobile phones continue to rise as text messages continue to fall.  CTIA, the trade association for the wireless industry reported that in the US in 2012, 2.19 trillion text messages had been sent and received - 5% less than the preceding year.  By contrast, MMS (multimedia) messages including photos and videos rose by 41% in 2012 to 74.5 billion.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the shift from verbal communication to visual nods.  Visual messaging breaks down language barriers, if not cultural differences in message interpretation.  True, if I take a photo of a pizza I am eating and Snapchat it, I doubt it will make a difference if I am sharing it with an Italian or an Aleut, but in other cases the image may be less straightforward.  What bothers me most about conversing by photo is a growing aversion to true verbal dialogue, debate, conversation.  Call me old-fashioned, but I love words.  On the other hand, as a student of photography, I remember fondly sitting in the classroom of Italian art historian James A. Fasinelli, the person most responsible for turning me on to cinema and photography.  Fasinelli would take an entire class session discussing the narrative messages conveyed by a single frame of a film like Juliet of the Spirits or Citizen Kane.  We are a visual species and it is likely more natural for people to read an image than to read and understand text.  Or maybe I'm only thinking about those apparently vacant Snapchat models like the ones you see at the top of this post.

Nonetheless, a new reality, according to Harvard photography professor Robin Kelsey, is that 'this is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment' and are instead 'turning photography into a communication medium.'  But who is to say that these two kinds of photography can't coexist?  In the meantime, visual conversing just keeps getting bigger.  Over 300 million images are shared daily on Facebook (that's 100 billion photos per year), and WhatsApp (a messaging platform where people can share photos, videos, or audio notes), Vine (Twitter's 60-second video-sharing app), Flickr, Instagram
and Snapchat are thriving.  Just don't tell anyone about it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Milgram Returns - The Obedience Experiments 50 Years Later

A bit off the beaten path of marketing and consumer behavior issues, I can't help but signal a rapidly-approaching seminal event: the 2013 Obedience to Authority Conference, which will take place from August 6-8 in Bracebridge, Canada, two hours from
Toronto in the Muskoka lake-district of Ontario, Canada.  Co-convener Nestar Russell and his team have lined up 50 international panelists and presenters to discuss 50 years of rumination, debate, implications, and replications of Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments.   The full program is available here, headlined by keynote speaker, Thomas Blass, Milgram's biographer who also happened to have been my social psychology professor at the University of Maryland during the early 1970s.  It was in that class that I first learned of the obedience project and I have written extensively about it during ensuing decades, particularly in my research ethics books.  Blass will give a talk entitled “The impact of the obedience experiments on contemporary culture and thought.”

Milgram may be better known among consumer behavior researchers for his small world concept, which gave rise to the '6 degrees of separation' notion (both discussed in detail in my book, Connecting With Consumers as well as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point). But Milgram's deceptive research design has informed much discussion in the consumer behavior literature regarding the appropriateness of informed consent violations in research with human participants.  Among the general public, the most disconcerting aspect of the research, which involved the bogus delivery of electric shocks to a hapless victim under the guise of a learning experiment, is what it revealed about ourselves: that people are capable of inflicting extreme, potentially deadly punishment on innocent victims if compelled to do so by an authority figure. The implications of the findings for understanding apparently incomprehensible atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to Abu Ghraib have kept the research salient in our collective consciousness across five decades, and so it is no wonder that the impending conference has generated a great degree of interest.

Given the various ethical strictures that are now in place in most research institutions, it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to conduct Milgram-type experiments in the contemporary context.  Yet researchers have become quite ingenious in terms of developing alternative methodologies to study obedience-related questions, such as the use of virtual testing using avatars as opposed to real-life apparent 'victims.'

I myself never met Milgram, although a couple of my Temple University grad school professors knew him well and admired him greatly.  According to one, Milgram was torn over the ethical criticisms of his work and believed that people just wouldn't let the issues rest and concentrate on his subsequent work.  Think what you will of his obedience experiments, Milgram was a ground-breaking pioneer in the field of social psychology, greatly respected by his students and peers.  I won't be able to attend the conference, but Nestar Russell informed me that there is a chance they will publish something afterwards and perhaps even stream some key talks from the conference.  I'll keep you posted if developments warrant.

 Additional Reading:

Kimmel, A. J.  Deception in psychological research: A necessary evil?  The Psychologist, August 2011.

Blass, T.  The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram.  Basic Books, 2007.

Also check out Prof. Blass's website:

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Monday, July 1, 2013

Blush and Edward Snowdon: What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Privacy?

Rather than focus on the serious implications surrounding NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden's current plight, German luxury brand Blush has decided to exploit the funny implications of governmental domestic eavesdropping and surveillance.  Snowden, as is now well known, is the former Booz Allen employee and National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked classified (NSA) documents detailing the NSA threats to Americans' constitutional rights to free speech, association, and privacy.  Whether you believe Snowden is a patriot or a traitor, I think we can all agree that these concerns are no laughing matters.  

Blush, on the other hand, wants you to like their brand and buy their lingerie.  So, haha, all this domestic spying stuff (and an on-the-run 30-year-old fugitive seeking asylum) is nothing more than fodder for underwear humor, as evidenced by the recent print campaign, courtesy of Berlin-based firm Glow.

'Uncover' - get it?  Or as Mashable puts it, a pretty juvenile play on words.

The campaign is reinforced on Blush's Facebook page.

 Blush isn't the only firm exploiting the NSA scandal.  The American restaurant (I use that term loosely) chain Denny's also sees the humor potential inherent in domestic data collection.

Who's the next bottom dweller to jump on the bandwagon?