Better reading / On deadlines and poverty

15 Nov

I have started the second month of my “being a better scientist” project. This month I will focus on better reading. My goals are:

1. Read more random stuff
2. Read more relevant stuff
3. Annotate what I read
4. Switch from Endnote to Mendeley

Reading random stuff

Yesterday, I started with reading more random stuff. Random stuff means papers that are not directly relevant to my research. Since a few months I have a print subscription to Science magazine (for just $50 for a year!). So now I can sit on the couch at home and read articles which are interesting, and entirely irrelevant to my work.

Following a tip I read somewhere (likely in David Allen’s “Getting things done”), I flipped through the magazine and cut out the stuff I wanted to read. Then I quickly threw away the rest of the magazine. This is important and I should make sure I really do it because piles of half-read Science issues make me feel quilty. Yesterday, I cut out an article about malaria, something about selective sweeps, a perspective about speciation and an article about the mindset of poor people.

The last one, about poverty, is clearly furthest away from my own work. But it turned out to be relevant to the “being a better scientist project!” The paper describes how people behave when they play certain games, just like in many experimental economics papers. In this case the players were made “rich” or “poor” (by giving them few or many tries to complete a task) and the researchers tried to find out how being “poor” changed how people played. They found that “poor” players sometimes did stupid things. For example, if the game allowed them, they would borrow tries (e.g., they can try to guess a word X times) from the next round, even if they knew they had to pay a high interest (they loose two tries in the future for each extra try they use now). “Poor” players who were allowed to borrow ended up with lower scores than “poor” players who were not allowed to borrow. This was not true for “rich” players.

The researchers conclude that people who are faced with scarcity will focus on solving the task that is most urgent and ignore future problems.

What I find absolutely brilliant of this study is that, in a second experiment, they compared being poor with being busy. They created “busy” players by giving them much less time to play each round of the game. And they found that “busy” players made the same mistakes as “poor” players. The “busy” players borrowed time, even though it didn’t lead to higher scores.

Poor similar to busy?

Comparing busy with poor is very cool. First of all because they can show that scarcity of time and money has a similar effects – it makes that we stop thinking about the future. It is also brilliant because it connects the busy and the poor in a deep way. If you are a politician, for example, or a scientist, you may have never felt poverty, or you may not remember how it felt. But most certainly you know how it feels to be busy. The Science paper tells us that what happens to us when we are very busy (we ignore emails, forget to back-up our computer, work too many hours and eat unhealthy food) is very similar to what happens to the poor when they have no money to pay the rent. In both cases, we focus too much on the issues that play now and ignore how our actions affect the future. In one case this may lead to borrowing money, and in the other case to forgoing sleep. The consequences will be felt the next month or the next day.

One thing I should mention is that the “poor” in the game made better use of their few tries, than “the rich”. So scarcity also has a positive effect.

What can we learn from this? Deadlines are good, the scarcity of time probably makes us perform somewhat better. But we shouldn’t borrow time from the future by ignoring other tasks or by not getting enough sleep. It tells me that my “no work after 8pm” rule is scientifically sound!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: