Notes from Readings: Master emotions, Seeing like an algorithm, Why Nordic countries are happiest – 11/07/20

Context around these posts:

  • Primarily written to help me better distill concepts from articles but thought I’d share for anyone interested
  • Naturally more related to my specific interests, career, and life
  • Unedited

Try these two smart techniques to help you master your emotions

  • More granularly labeling your emotions as you have them enable you to better understand how to tackle them and have less anxiety around them (e.g. Instead of “Feeling Crappy”… is it actually angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, envious, woeful…)
  • Your brain then has more options for predicting, categorizing and perceiving emotions, providing you with the tools for more flexible and useful responses.
  • A simple way to to gain more granular emotional concepts is to learn new words, as words help structure concepts in your brain 
  • This is what people pay therapists and life coaches for: Help them reframe situations so they can better choose most appropriate actions
  • Another effective way to manage emotions is to recategorize how you feel. E.g. If you’re about to go to a job interview and feel nervous you might categorize it as harmful anxiety (Oh no, I’m doomed!) or as helpful anticipation (I’m energized and ready to go!). Question the negative emotions and reconstruct the emotion to what may create a more positive experience 
  • People who are able to recategorize anxiety as excitement show positive effects with less symptoms of anxiety in their performance
  • Recategorization is not easy, but it’s possible and helpful with practice. 

Phil’s Thoughts

  • I found the granular labeling concept reminded me of a conflict resolution techniques as well. In that labeling another’s emotions helps them feel heard and opens them up to being more empathetic. In this case, labeling your own emotions in more specific ways opens up your ability to be more compassionate about it to yourself and deal with it in different ways. 
  • Recategorization of emotions is interesting as I often do that for situations (e.g. This project is so hard –> This project is such a great opportunity to learn) but have not considered doing it for emotions specifically. 

Seeing like an algorithm

  • TikTok’s design helps its algorithm “see” intent much better than other social products
  • For machine-learning algorithms, significant process has been made on these over time simple by increasing the volume of training data by orders of magnitude
  • Even if the algorithms aren’t that different, with the significantly larger data sets new breakthroughs are able to occur
  • Most experts in the field doubt that TikTok has made any significant advancement in machine learning recommendation algorithms. Most would say TikTok’s algorithms are built off standard approaches
  • However, the TikTok algorithm is remarkably accurate at matching videos to those who will find them entertaining due to its dataset
  • TikTok had no existing data set for engaging short-form videos shot from the phone. It had to become its own source of training data, and its design was key to this 
  • Traditional design principles center around removing friction for users so they can accomplish what they want to do while being delighted (e.g. Apple: “It just works”, Facebook/Twitter: Infinite scroll feeds)
  • However, if a core value of the product is based on the machine learning algorithm that needs a massive dataset – you also need to design to help an algorithm “see”. To serve users best, you need to first serve the algorithm. 
  • TikTok has “Algorithm-Friendly Design”
    • Optimized to feed its algorithm as much useful signal as possible
  • Design components that help the algorithm “see”
    • Entire screen is filled with one autoplay video – puts the user to an immediate question: how do you feel about this short video and this short video alone? 
    • Every action a user can take is a strong signal – stay on video? swipe up for next video? did you let it loop a few times? did you share the video? did you want to learn more about the music? did you tap into the video creator’s page? did you follow the creator? what tags are attached to the video you engage with? 
  • The algorithm sees all of these signals that the design facilitates the collection and can close the feedback loop. 
  • Compare what TikTok’s algorithm sees to one of the more traditional social networks and there is a stark difference. The default UI in social networks with infinite vertical scrolling are not able to provide the granular signals on what types of content you’re seeing that you’re interested in.
  • As people scroll past many stories in feeds, the algorithm cannot “see” which story your eyes rest on. Even if it could and a user doesn’t press any feedback buttons like the “Like” button, is their sentiment toward that story positive of negative? The user sentiment isn’t clean. 
  • Infinite scrolling feeds abide by the “removing friction” type UI with uninhibited control of the pace of consumption, whereas having to flick for every story would add a lot of friction.
  • However, maybe that friction is worth it if every tweet is better targeted because the Twitter knows what’s more interesting to you via your explicit/implicit feedback on every tweet. 
  • It is also difficult to capture negative sentiment on stories in traditional social networks due to lack of feedback mechanisms, whereas on TikTok they can better infer your lack of interest based on your churn time out of that specific content. 
  • The goal of any design is not to minimize friction, it’s to create a great user experience. Sometimes reducing friction may not be consistent with that end 

Phil’s Thoughts

  • This highlights the dangers of ascribing deeply into specific philosophies, even outside of design. In this case, if one always believes reducing friction is the best thing to do they miss out on opportunities to create value in other ways like TikTok did. I actually experienced this first-hand when I was doing optimization for onboarding at a previous company, and even though we extended the onboarding the completion rate was higher users felt that the information they were inputting would enable them to get a more valuable experience. 
  • When trying to determine how to optimize various parts of a product I’ve ended up in many conversations where it’s very ambiguous to say we should optimize in one direction or other due to the lack clear signals. We could potentially optimize our design to collect signals better first to better inform these decisions 

The Nordic Exceptionalism: What Explains Why the Nordic Countries are Constantly Among the Happiest in the World

  • Five Noridc countries – Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland have been top ten in the world happiness report from 2013 until today 
  • Across all factors used in the study they scored high: democratic rights, lack of corruption, social trust, safety, social cohesion, gender equality, income distribution etc. 
  • Most of the potential explanatory factors for Nordic happiness are highly correlated with each other and often also mutually reinforcing, making it hard to disentangle cause from effect.
  • Myths dispelled that contradict Nordic happiness
    • Cold Weather: Effect on happiness for changes in weather tend to be small. People adapt to average weather. 
    • High Suicide Rates: Although rates used to be higher, they are now the same as European average
    • Easier to build welfare societies in small and homogenous countries compared to larger and more diverse countries: Research has not found a relationship and now Nordic countries are quite heterogeneous – 19% of Sweden population is from outside the country. Ethnic diversity does not reduce trust, it is only when there is ethnic residential segregation that trust is undermined. The fact that Nordic countries have not had an underclass of slaves or cheaper labor imported from colonies could play a role in their path to welfare societies. Immigrants also tended to be as happy as people born locally due government institutions serving them just as well. 
  • Theories to explain high level of Nordic happiness:
    • Welfare state generosity
      • Generous pensions, income maintenance for disabled, labour market regulation, and unemployment benefits exerts a positive impact on life satisfaction
      • Both poor and rich people benefit from these measures. Income security in case of unemployment plays a strong role in life satisfaction as both unemployment and fear of unemployment strongly affect quality of life. 
      • Although people don’t like more taxes, this is fully mediated by people’s satisfaction with public and common goods such as healthcare, education, and public transportation that the taxes fund
    • Institutional Quality
      • Two dimensions that describe the quality of government, Nordic countries are high on both of these
        • Democratic quality: Access to power such as ability to participate in selecting government, freedom of expression/association, and political stability 
        • Delivery quality: Exercise of power such as rule of law, control of corruption, regulatory quality, and government effectiveness. [This one has found to be more strongly related to citizen happiness] 
    • Income Inequality
      • Nordic countries have famously low levels of income inequality but there is no evidence that income inequality affects life satisfaction
      • One theory is that inequality can lead to lower levels of perceived fairness and trust, and higher levels of status anxiety that contribute to a lower life satisfaction. 
    • Freedom to make life choices
      • Autonomy and freedom to make life choices are connected to subjective well-being
      • Three factors that contribute [which Nordic countries have high levels of]
        • Prosperity that liberates people from scarcity
        • Democratic political institutions that liberate people from political oppression
        • More tolerant and liberal cultural values that give people room to express themselves and their unique identity 
    • Trust and Social Cohesion
      • Social trust is robustly correlated with life satisfaction 
      • Measured via asking questions around can others be trusted and if a wallet might be returned if found 
      • Denmark, Finland, and Sweden are the top three in these categories 
    • Other
      • Social comparisons with people around them are often used to assess how good one’s life is. Subjective perception of their position in society is more predictive of well-being than objective measures. This effect is moderated in Nordic countries due to the welfare systems in place, and people perceptions of their position is society have less influence on their own happiness. 
  • Potential Causes 
    • Ranking highly on numerous well-being indicators it’s hard to disentangle cause and effect. However, there are some theories on how they went on this path to being a virtuous cycle (well-functioning institutions > Citizen benefits and security > Citizen trust institutions > vote for parties that preserve their system).
    • Potential causes on how they ended up in a virtuous cycle:
      • Didn’t have the deep class divides and economic inequality most other countries countries had in the beginning of the 20th century. Increased trust in this society contributes to a preference for a stronger and more universal welfare state 
      • Government institutions were able to handle corruption-related matters fairly well in 19th century, which also increased trust 
      • Mass education – invested heavily in universal and free education for all citizens. Produce citizens with strong national identity and social cohesion
  • There seems to be no secret sauce specific to Nordic happiness that is unavailable to others. There is rather a more general recipe for creating highly satisfied citizens: Ensure that state institutions are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens in various adversities.
  • Transformation is the hard part though, low-trust societies easily get trapped into vicious cycles where low levels of trust in institutions lead to low willingness to pay taxes and low support for reforms that would allow the state to take better care of its citizens
    • Potential ideas to help transformation:
      • Minimize corruption and maximize citizen participation and representation in various decisions can help citizens gain trust and be willing to invest more  
        • Democratic quality and factors such as free press, informed and educated citizens, and strong civic society play an important role in keeping the government accountable and citizen-oriented.
      • On a cultural level, arguably the most important factor is to generate a sense of community, trust, and social cohesion among citizens. Divided society has a hard time providing universal benefits that would support each citizen’s ability to live a happier life 
        • In a divided society, people also tend to be less supportive of various welfare benefits because worry they would benefit the ‘other’ groups, as well. When people care about each other and trust each other, this provides a much more stable base on which to build public support for various public goods and welfare benefit programs.

Phil’s Thoughts

  • Super relevant to living in America right now in terms of trust being eroded in government institutions more and more. This is a dangerous and vicious cycle as described – the less people trust government institutions, the less they are willing to invest into it, and the less the institutions are able help people. 
  • It wasn’t discussed as much but the heavy investment into education Nordic countries I think is key. It enables people to have constructive discourse and think critically on all the complex issues society faces to ultimately make more informed decisions.  

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