The Weekender: December 9, 2016

1)  “The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive” (1843 Magazine/The Economist, 19 minutes, October/November 2016). If you’ve ever wasted way too many hours on any sort of digital experience, you probably can relate to this one.

When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically unless you tell it to stop. Your motivation is high, because the last episode has left you eager to know what will happen and you are mentally immersed in the world of the show. The level of difficulty is reduced to zero. Actually, less than zero: it is harder to stop than to carry on. Working on the same principle, the British government now “nudges” people into enrolling into workplace pension schemes, by making it the default option rather than presenting it as a choice.

When motivation is high enough, or a task easy enough, people become responsive to triggers such as the vibration of a phone, Facebook’s red dot, the email from the fashion store featuring a time-limited offer on jumpsuits. The trigger, if it is well designed (or “hot”), finds you at exactly the moment you are most eager to take the action. The most important nine words in behaviour design, says [Stanford University researcher B.J.] Fogg, are, “Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”

If you’re triggered to do something you don’t like, you probably won’t return, but if you love it you’ll return repeatedly – and unthinkingly. After my first Uber, I never even thought of getting around Palo Alto any other way. This, says, Fogg, is how brands should design for habits. The more immediate and intense a rush of emotion a person feels the first time they use something, the more likely they are to make it an automatic choice. It’s why airlines bring you a glass of champagne the moment you sink into a business-class seat, and why Apple takes enormous care to ensure that a customer’s first encounter with a new phone feels magical.

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3) “How to Hide $400 Million” (New York Times, 36 minutes, November 2016). This is a long but fascinating story of a would-be divorcee who hid their fortune in order to not have to share it after he and his wife split. It’s probably too complicated to ever be a movie, but it’s certainly amazing enough to not be a box office disaster (well, I think… but I defer to the experts in item #6 below).

4) “The Alaskan Town Where People Still Pan For Gold” (The Atlantic, 10 minutes, September 2014). The town’s name is Chicken. Really. And it gets quirkier:

The Fourth of July picnic in Chicken, Alaska, attracts several hundred people, which for a town of 23 is an impressive turnout. In winter the population drops to seven, and between mid-October and mid-March there is no road in or out. “We’re not snowed in,” one resident told me, in what felt a well-rehearsed line, “the rest of them are snowed out.”

The town of Chicken is 40 miles west of the Canadian border and 90 miles from Eagle, the closest, and more majestically-named, town. The story has it that Chicken is so named because its original residents, a ragtag bunch of gold prospectors, were unable to spell ptarmigan, the ubiquitous local bird, and ptarmigan tastes a little like chicken—close enough.


5) “Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves” (The Atlantic, 12 minutes, October 2013). Does this one require a quote or summary? Probably not. But just in case:

In one 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. That poll is fairly consistent with other findings and with qualitative fieldwork, according to an academic paper published in 2000 titled “The Elves’ Point of View” by Valdimar Hafstein, who now is a folkloristics professor at the University of Iceland.

6) “How to Avoid a Box Office Disaster” (The Ringer, 13 minutes, November 2016). Can surveys, data, trends, and math tell us if a movie is going to be a hit? Probably not. But — maybe those tools can tell us if the film will be a failure.

Have a great weekend!