Different, with a better story

I’m currently watching The Voice of China. On that show, there’s this singer called Perhat. He’s, in the words of his fans, an “Uyghur Rock Star”. I’m not really a fan. But that’s just me. Many, many others think he’s the next Bob Dylan.

There is something about him. He’s different from the other contestants. He voice reminds me of Tom Waits (whose song The Piano has been Drinking, video below, I fell in love with at first hear).

The thing about Perhat is that he seems really loveable (I remember in an earlier one-on-one round, when he kicked out his adversary he refused to raise his hand in victory. His adversary had actually helped him a lot with the language of the song, as he wasn’t fluent in Chinese,  and he felt bad at kicking out the very guy who helped him win).

He’s also got a really sad backstory (I was almost going to say “blessed with” but if that’s blessed leave me out of the blessing please). Every time he sings, if you’re aware of his backstory, you really want him to win. To do otherwise just seems heartless.

But… BUT…

It just seems odd that he’s gotten this far in the contest, and I’m just wondering if it’s due to his being different.

By remaining uncategorisable, essentially in a different league but not necessarily a better one, Perhat has made it extremely difficult to judge him.

During the one-on-ones, we have singers singing standard songs, with standards of quality we can easily make sense of (“she sings well, but she’s no Adele”). Perhat, on the other hand, sings in a way that we’re not really accustomed to hearing. We have no real benchmark. Because we can’t make sense of how to score Perhat, we might be inclined to think it’s much better than we think.

The proliferation of English songs in The Voice of China has also been a little put-offish. They sing technically well, but because you know it’s their second (maybe third) language, it’s difficult to really believe the emotion behind the songs (I can’t help but think they’re focusing harder on recalling  the phonetics than the singing).

But still, they insist on singing English songs. And it seems to pay off. Of the episodes I’ve seen, those who’ve sung English songs, have managed to overcome stronger opponents who’ve sung in Mandarin. Foreign songs are a novelty for Chinese singers, and difficult to judge due to unfamiliarity. And, like Perhat, because it’s difficult to make sense of how well the song has been sung, we might be inclined to think it’s better than it really is.

Could it be the blue ocean strategy at work?

The Use of Worry

“Worrying doesn’t get you anywhere.” Or so they say, “they” being the anonymous group of trolls in my head that churns out stuff like that.

But worry does have a use. It urges me to take action. Because of worry, I do things today that I’d ordinarily put off to tomorrow.

I admit, worry makes today (and all preceding time before the event of which I am worried about) potentially nightmarish — the anxiety I feel in the grips of persistent worry isn’t particularly pleasant. But that might be a small price to pay in being as prepared as I can be in anticipation of that worrisome event.

The more I prepare, the less worried I get; till I know that I can prepare no more. That’s when worry ceases to be useful, and itself becomes a cause for concern.

On the Endowment Effect

“There is a very real difference,” my friend told me, “between getting a car ‘new’ and getting it ‘second-hand’. When you’re getting it second-hand, you have no idea what the previous owner did with (or in) the car.”

He should know. We were sitting in his (second-hand) car, bought just a couple of months back, his sixth car in three years. Of these six, only his first two were new.

It reminded me of something I’d been thinking about lately: the endowment effect, of which definition I’ve happily copied and pasted below from good ol’ Wikipedia:

The endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion) is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. This is illustrated by the observation that people will tend to pay more to retain something they own than to obtain something owned by someone else—even when there is no cause for attachment, or even if the item was only obtained minutes ago.

There have been a number of experiments done to demonstrate this effect, with the one that I’ve read about the most times being the following (also from Wikipedia):

One of the most famous examples of the endowment effect in the literature is from a study by Kahneman, Knetsch & Thaler (1990) where participants were given a mug and then offered the chance to sell it or trade it for an equally priced alternative good (pens). Kahneman et al. (1990) found that participants’ willingness to accept compensation for the mug (once their ownership of the mug had been established) was approximately twice as high as their willingness to pay for it.

But I’ve never actually read about an experiment that tried to explain it in terms of the bid/ask spread as it relates to investing (which compensates for risk) and information asymmetry. Or how it relates to how our default option is really not to trade, and that trading requires motivation and commands a premium.

For example, let’s say you are given the choice to buy the mug. There’s no reason to think that the amount quoted to you would be below the market price.

On the other hand, if you are given the mug, and then someone quotes you a price for it, there’s no reason to think that it would be above the market price, even if that price came in the form of a set of equally priced pens.

In fact, try playing the scenario in your head and see if you’d do any different:

  1. The experimenter (a stranger) comes up to you and says, “would you like a mug or a pen? By the way, both cost the same.”
  2. Randomly, you choose the mug. There is no reason, at this point in time, to think either the mug or the pen costs more than the other.
  3. The experimenter gives you the mug.
  4. After five minutes, the same experimenter comes up to you and offers you the choice to trade, saying, “are you sure you don’t want to have this set of pens instead of the mug? I’m willing to trade if you are…” (these are the same pens talked about in point #1)
  5. What would you think? Personally, I’d think there was a catch. You give me a mug, and five minutes later you’re trying to get it back. It’s got to be worth more than the pens if not why on earth would you want to trade?

Point #5 highlights risk and information asymmetry. There’s a risk I’m getting the shorter end of the stick because the experimenter seems to know more than me (i.e. the “true” value of the mug and pens). Why else would s/he offer to trade? (This, I think, is why new cars command such a premium over pre-owned ones. There’s a big risk pre-owned cars were subject to abuse you’d prefer not to know about. Why else would the car owner want to sell?)

Experiencing this risk would urge me to ask for more. If you give me $X more than you’re offering, I’m willing to take the risk that the mug really isn’t worth more than you say it is worth. If I decided on the trade, it’d mean that I trusted you completely on the fact that they were worth the same.

And let’s not forget the idea that people in general don’t really like to think; we don’t like to expend energy unnecessarily. If there’s a risk that we could be losing out, but we don’t really want to think about it, the default option would be to just say “no”, or quote a price such that it’s easy to say “yes”.

The World as it Should Be

Just thought I would share with you what has to be, for me, the quote of the week. Taken from the book Getting More, a beautiful book on negotiation by Stuart Diamond (emphasis mine):

Lower your expectations. If you come into a negotiation thinking that the other side will be difficult, unfair, rude, or trying to cheat you, you won’t be likely to have dashed expectations–and you won’t be emotional. When you lower your expectations of what will take place in a negotiation, you will be rarely disappointed–and you might be pleasantly surprised. Getting yourself psychologically prepared is important.

You might feel, “Hey, I shouldn’t have to do things like that.” Okay, maybe not. But we live in the real world, not in the “should” world.

The beauty of that statement, I think, lies in the fact that it embraces the irrationality of people, the irrationality of the world. Where things are done sometimes for reasons beyond human comprehension.

And even if you don’t believe in the irrationality of people, as I sometimes find myself wont to do, the fact is we as human beings have so many hidden motivations that though we are, perhaps, ultimately rational, we are for most practical purposes just the opposite.

Choosing the amateur path

I’m currently reading a nice little book called Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky that discusses at some length the difference between being a professional and being an amateur. And it seems that being labelled an amateur isn’t really so bad at all, and may in fact be a good thing.

One of the professional vs. amateur examples that Shirky returns to often in his book is about a charity started by a group of Josh Groban fans (or “Grobanites” as they call themselves), aptly called “Grobanites for Charity“. It started off pretty much by chance (enabled by the internet without which it wouldn’t have happened) by people who didn’t know much about starting charities — in other words, amateurs.

And looking at its website, you wouldn’t think otherwise.

Being an avid web-designer earlier on in my life, I’d always prided myself on creating professional-looking sites; the more it looked like something a big corporation would use, the happier I’d with the result.

So when I read about Grobanites for Charity and visited their website I was a little surprised — that though their website looked like it belonged in the early 90’s, it also had a very familial feel to it. It was down-to-earth, honest and relatable. This wasn’t some faceless corporation; it was Kay, and Melanie, and Pat, and Jackie.

In this sense, the amateur look-and-feel of the site actually seemed to work in their favour. Even I, a non-Josh Groban fan, felt compelled to do my bit by donating something or by helping out.

From the book:

Now, the design of a website may not seem to have much to do with fostering a sense of membership, but something designed by an amateur can actually create better conditions of membership than a professional design can.

Consider the kinds of kitchens you see in photographs in House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens, designed to a fare-three-well with a place for everything and everything in its place. My kitchen is not like that. (Perhaps yours isn’t either.) But if you were a guest at a dinner party, you likely wouldn’t dare set foot in a House Beautiful kitchen, because the design doesn’t exactly scream Come on in and help! My kitchen, on the other hand, does scream that — you wouldn’t feel much compunction about grabbing a knife and dicing some carrots if you felt like it.

Which makes me wonder about how the context of a “professional space” and “amateur space” might affect how people think about things.

I would imagine that it’d be similar to how money corrupts intentions?