Nir’s Note: This guest post comes from my friend Jules Maltz, a General Partner at Institutional Venture Partners (IVP), a late-stage venture capital firm based in Menlo Park. In this article, Jules admits something few people are brave enough to say here in Silicon Valley — that luck plays a huge role in success.
I now understand why baseball players are superstitious. During a hitting streak, “hot” players rarely shower. They wear the same clothes and eat the same food. They follow the same routine to an exactness that would make someone with obsessive compulsive disorder proud. They’re trying to keep the magic alive.
If, as Billy Beane knows, baseball is all about numbers and probabilities, why all the nonsense? There are no “baseball gods” to appease.
As mortal humans, it’s hard to accept this. The chances of getting a hit are different for each player and situation, but always contain an element of randomness. We try to create patterns and order out of the chaos. We try to control the uncontrollable. We wear our smelly clothes to keep the hitting streak going.
A funny thing happens when you lie to people: they tend to believe. Why shouldn’t they? They lie to themselves all the time. Our minds are wired to respond in predictable ways–among them is perceiving the world the way we want to see it, not necessarily the way it is.
Perhaps no other phenomenon demonstrates our brain’s ability to make believe better than the placebo effect. Long known for its ability to improve a patient’s health, the practice of giving people an inert treatment they believe will make them better has been proven to be highly effective. In fact, in recent studies, researchers have found the placebo effect may be much more potent than previously thought. So strong is the expectation that a pill will provide relief, that even patients who are told beforehand that the medication is a placebo and has no medicinal properties, still show significant signs of improvement. When it comes to fooling ourselves, the brain can’t help itself.
How a sugar pill could be as effective as an FDA-approved drug, backed by millions of dollars in research, is a central mystery of the placebo effect. But the brain’s predilection to fool itself is not only evident in the medical field. The cognitive trick is a central trait of how the products we use every day become part of our lives.
How do products tempt us? What makes them so alluring? It is easy to assume we crave delicious food or impulsively check email because we find pleasure in the activity. But pleasure is just half the story.
Temptation is more than just the promise of reward. Recent advances in neuroscience allow us to peer into the brain, providing a greater understanding of what makes us want.
In 2011, Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, gained unheard of access to sensitive information about the way undergraduates were using the Internet. His study tracked students on campus as they browsed the web. Chellappan was looking for patterns, which not only revealed what students were doing online, but provided clues about who they were.
“We believe that your pattern of Internet use says something about you,” Chellappan wrote in the New York Times. “Specifically, our research suggests it can offer clues to your mental well-being.” Chellappan concluded that there was, in fact, predictive power in the data. He found students with early signs of clinical depression used the Internet differently and he could identify students most likely to face mental health issues simply by looking at how they clicked.
“We identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression,” wrote Chellappan. “For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage.”
Chellappan developed the technology in hopes of creating an early-warning system to identify struggling students. But his study raised another question, why do people with depression check email more?