Jed Cohen

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Troubleshooting Theory

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Something wrong?

Okay, confused kitten isn't really related to this post. (via flickr/fofurasfelinas)

Well then let’s try to fix it.

We can break troubleshooting theory down into four simple steps:

  1. Determine all possible causes of your problem.
  2. Remove one half of all the potential causes.
  3. Test to see if your problem is still there.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until you’ve narrowed it down to one specific cause.

The process really isn’t difficult.  We all run through these steps when we encounter a problem.  I can’t get in my car.  Is it me?  Is it my car?  What about me isn’t right?  Oh, I left my keys on my desk?  Cause isolated; when I get my keys my problem isn’t a problem anymore.

Of course, we don’t actively follow each of these steps when we go about our daily lives.  But we can apply this process to almost any process we have problems with, from marketing campaigns to computer programs to people development at work.

So where’s the challenge?

We aren’t experts.

This process works well for us when we know something about the field the problem is in.  I could apply all the troubleshooting theory I want, but there’s no way I’m going to be able to isolate the cause of an issue with the space shuttle.  Or diagnose someone suffering from, well, just about any medical problem.

Sometimes we can figure out the first few steps.

Why doesn’t my television turn on?  Is the problem with the remote or the television itself?  Okay, the television turns on when I press the button on the front.  Let’s replace the batteries in the remote and test again.  And so on and so on.

Sometimes we can’t figure out what to do.

Why is the “check engine” light on my car on?  I don’t know.  And I have no idea what possible causes there are so I have no possibilities to split in half (and for that matter no tests to run).  This is where we turn things over to the experts, specialists who can identify and resolve our problem for us.  They do what we’d do, if we knew what we were talking about.  They run tests.  They reduce possibilities.  And so on and so on.

Sometimes we are afraid to do anything.

Then there are times when we don’t want to make a mistake and make things worse.  Even though we might have an idea of what is wrong or where to start, we don’t want to take that risk.  Perhaps fear isn’t the right word.  Maybe it’s trepidation.  We are uncertain in our own ability to fix the problem, so we don’t touch the matter at hand.  We go and find an expert, who applies these troubleshooting steps for us.  And so on and so on.

This can be a good thing, if the solution is esoteric, or if what we would do is potentially harmful to our goals.  But it can also be detrimental when the solution is simple and our fear stops us from acting.  It’s why there are consultants for hiring decisions, for firing decisions, for personal development.  Because we’re not sure what we’re doing, and these may just be among the most important actions of any company.

So what do we do?

The reasons for our fear varies, but I think it is in part because of the quirkiness of our psychology.  Our minds are optimized to succeed – most of the time.  It’s why we have common sense and rules of thumb to follow.  So when we encounter a situation outside of our comfort areas, something doesn’t translate.  We apply the rules we’re used to to situations we’re not.  Which doesn’t always have the happiest of endings.

We’ll never be perfect (surprise!).  But maybe we can get better.  By taking a look at the results of our past troubleshooting attempts, we might just be able to figure out where our psychology goes wrong and take steps to correct it.  I suppose we’re troubleshooting our troubleshooting – and isn’t that something worth doing every once in a while?

Written by Jed

February 9th, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Mental Accounting

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So I’m starting to pay back my student loans. As a result, I decided to take stock of where I am financially. I know that I’m better off than the average NYU student in terms of debt versus savings (thanks mom and dad), but I have to admit that I wasn’t quite as involved in the borrowing process as I should have been four years ago. So I turned to Mint to get a sense of my financial “health.” According to my profile there I’ve been a member for 416 days, but I haven’t used it much. Yes, I would get a monthly summary, and I’d get e-mails if I made any unusual purchases (something I wish my credit card company would do). But I’ve generally pretty good at not spending more than I earn, so I didn’t need to track budgets or compare credit card programs. Now that I’ve been taking a much more active role in my finances, I’ve been thinking more about how my mind views my savings more than I normally do.

Our minds play tricks on us.

On a semi-regular basis I go to the ATM and withdraw some cash. When I do this, I unconsciously begin to differentiate the cash from my savings, even though it is still part of my total net worth. My mind has placed it in a different account, much like a mental balance sheet. In a way I view that cash as “spent” since it’s no longer in my bank account – which is not such a great thing because I won’t approach spending it with the same scrutiny that I do the money in my checking account.

If you think about it, you might do the same thing when you use your credit card. Whenever you swipe your card, you technically loose money. Yet you may not feel that loss until you pay your credit card bill.  Credit cards, loans, and a whole bunch of other modern financial tools divorce the act of purchasing from the act of paying.

Here’s some other examples:

  • Pennies a day – Framing a large long term purchase/subscription as “x cents a day” or “as much as your daily cup of coffee” is more effective than framing it as a cost per year.  This is because we place them in a kind of petty cash mental account.
  • Length of time is a factor – NYC cab drivers rent their cabs in 12 hour shifts. They tend to quit early on busy days because they make up their costs sooner and stay out longer on busier days. This is the exact opposite of what they should do; on busy days they’ll make more if they stay out longer, while they should save their time on slow days.  This occurs because cab drivers look at their earnings on a per day basis instead of on a longer time frame.
  • Bonus versus rebate – In 2001, the “Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act” gave $38 billion back to American taxpayers in $300-600 rebates to stimulate the economy.  However, only 22% actually spent it – the rest saved it or payed back debt. But there is some evidence to suggest that a greater percentage of people would spend it if it was positioned as a bonus (a gain) instead of a rebate (a returned loss).

I could go on.

There are a lot more examples of how mental accounting (and other psychological phenomena) makes us act in irrational ways. One of the best ways to counteract them is to understand and acknowledge them. Tools like Mint leverage technology to help us think smarter and maybe overcome some of the quirks of our own minds. Which is both cool and disconcerting, isn’t it?

Written by Jed

January 5th, 2010 at 9:59 am

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Ritual is powerful.  It is larger than us, rising above our family and our friends to encompass something much more.  We take comfort in ritual, we acknowledge it, and we let it guide our decisions.

Ritual works hand in hand with belief to pass traditions from one generation to the next.  It can be the glue that holds society together, or the wedge that drives different groups apart.  It can keep us in line, or it can lead us to jump outside of the normal pattern of behavior.  It can comfort us in times of stress, or it can be the stressor pushing us down a road we don’t want to go.

Ritual drives us forward as a group.  It ensures that we step together, towards a common goal.  It lets us believe that we can be the master of our own fate, even if the ritual invokes a higher power.  It joins us together in a common experience, breaking down the barriers between the one and the many.

I write these words on one of the many days we’ve created rituals for in modern society – the last day of the year.  We consider it even more special as the decade ends as well.  For parts of the world it has already passed, and for others the night has yet to wane.  Some have already participated in the rituals associated with the new year, and may just be sipping champagne in celebration right now.  Some have woken up and started their day (I’m sure one or two has already broken a resolutions).  And some may be on their way home from work, looking forward to the celebration to come.

We have seen the standard posting of “The Best of 2009” lists in the last few weeks.  And we’ve seen people predict what will happen, both in the year and the decade to come.  Those too are rituals we have; they celebrate our accomplishments, reflect upon our tragedies, and allow us to imagine a bright future.

Regardless of who or where you are, the rituals we’ve created as a society touch your life.  You may take comfort from them or seek to flee from them; either way, we must acknowledge their power.  We have seen these things before, and we will see them again.  There is something grand in that, if only because it touches all of us.

Don’t you think so?

Written by Jed

December 31st, 2009 at 8:38 pm

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The Benefits of Diction

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Diction is done with the tip of the tongue and the teeth.

I spent a lot of time in the theater while I was in high school.  Not on the stage, but behind (and above) it.  Building sets, stringing together light cues, and managing the cast and crew.  As part of the last one, I sat in on every aspect of rehearsals, including vocal warmups – which is where the phrase above is from.

But diction is not just how we say what we say; it is also what we say.  Because word choice can be just as important as tone, or facial expression, or posture when conveying meaning.

Consider the health insurance reform debate in the United States.  I do not wish to get into the politics of the situation; instead let’s just focus on the fact that health insurance, when provided by an employer, is considered a benefit.  But is health insurance really something that provides an advantage?  I would argue that the answer is no given the cost of modern health care.  Instead, it is a necessity.  And I can not help but wonder whether or not health care reform would be so controversial if we all viewed it that way.

I do not want to suggest that by altering one word we can completely reframe the way people view this issue.  But maybe by using the right words in the right place we can change the way we view the problem.  And that can often lead to solutions we’d never have considered before.

Written by Jed

October 16th, 2009 at 10:21 am

Biased Negotiations

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I’ve already written about how I am a virtual intern for CAREEREALISM, a a blog/discussion forum focused on offering advice concerning the shifting concept of “career.”  Well, I have a guest post up at CAREEREALISM today called “Negotiating with Employers – It’s Not As Bad As You Think.”

The post came about because I started writing the following piece on some common mental biases that occur during negotiation.  As I was writing, I realized that I needed to provide a whole bunch of background information to make sense of what I talk about.  So I wrote a bit on integrative negotiation and realized that it was right up CAREEREALISM’s alley.  I sent it to JT O’Donnell, who graciously agreed to post it and made it CAREEREALISM friendly.

So go and check it out!  And then come back and read the rest of this – my original post on negotiation biases (you can just read the rest of this without visiting CAREEREALISM, but I do use a few terms that are defined there and not here).  So without further ado….

Biased Negotiations

Negotiations can be highly charged affairs.  People tend to get emotionally invested, and reason can often go right out the window.  So it can help to have a grasp of some common psychological traps that can harm you during the course of a negotiation.  We’re going to look at three here:

  • The agreement bias
  • The anchoring and adjustment heuristic
  • Framing

The agreement bias

This is exactly what it sounds like – being biased in favor of reaching an agreement.  The problem here is that people fail consider their alternatives!  If the offer on the table is worse than your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), it’s up to you to recognize it and take the appropriate action (that would be to turn the offer down, in case you were wondering).  Just be sure not to do the opposite, which is to walk away from the table when the deal is good.

Anchoring and adjustment heuristic

The second tendency is the anchoring and adjustment heuristic.  If you haven’t heard of the term before, a heuristic is a basic guide to decision-making during complex situations.  It’s kind of a mental shortcut, and a good portion of the time these basic psychological rules will give you the right answer.  This is one of those times when it is not your friend.  The anchoring and adjustment heuristic says that when primed with an initial reference point, we start there and move towards our end goal.  But we don’t move enough.  (Want to learn more?  Read Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s original paper on heuristics).

Anchoring and adjustment tells us that when you walk into a negotiation, you want to be focused on your target price and not your reservation price.  Why?  Because if you start out primed with a low set of numbers, you’re not going to move as far up as if you started high and moved down.  Keep this in mind when considering numbers thrown out by the other party – they can anchor you just as well as your own needs and wants.  Anchoring and adjustment can also be used to your benefit though; making the opening move can anchor the other party as well.  Just be aware of overstepping your bounds based upon the social dynamic between you and the other party.


Framing is all about context.  The way we are exposed to a deal can impact how we approach it.  The effect of framing can be summed up as “losses loom larger than gains.”  In other words, if I position something in terms of what you gain from accepting my terms, you’re more likely to avoid risk than if I position something in terms of what you loose by not accepting.  This can be tricky during negotiations, as the way you perceive a proposal can influence your willingness to take risk.

Overcoming your own mind

Hey, I never said this would be easy.  Or simple – negotiating is complicated.  But you’ve actually taken the first step towards overcoming biases during negotiations – you’ve read this.  Now that you know about these mental quirks, you can watch your own behavior for them and work on overcoming them.

Which is why the best advice I can give you is this: practice.  Remember the old cliche “practice makes perfect?”  While you’ll never be perfect at negotiation, practicing can make you more comfortable and provide you with feedback that you can use to improve.  The more you try negotiating, the more comfortable you’ll be with your own style, and the better you’ll understand the highs and the lows.

Written by Jed

August 10th, 2009 at 8:28 am

The Role of Propaganda in Modern Democracy (aka My Colloquium)

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So school’s out; I’ve graduated.  Yipee.  This has naturally led me to think about quite a few things and to reflect upon some of my experiences at NYU.  I’ve written before on the wide range of classes I’ve taken and some of the opportunities afforded to me by my academic program at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.  One of the few degree requirements (and as such one of the few guaranteed shared experiences among the students) is the colloquium.  The colloquium is Gallatin’s senior capstone, a two hour discussion on a topic of the students choice with three faculty members.  It is something that students look upon with a bit of dread, and it is a bit daunting – it is rare for a student’s academic career to hinge on a single event like the colloquium (not that many people fail, but it is still stressful).

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jed

May 30th, 2009 at 11:20 am

Twitter, the Psychology of Reciprocity, and Self-Reinforcing Micro-Networks


As I get this blog off the ground, I thought that now would be a good time to take a look at something that I’ve noticed lately on Twitter.  Now I’m sure that just about everyone reading this has at some point heard something about Twitter and the psychology of reciprocity.  Basically, the argument is that if I follow a whole bunch of people, then a certain percentage of them will follow me in response.  The reciprocity principle has been proven to have an effect in many situations; it’s why some non-profits send you those little address labels when they ask you for a donation – it actually increases their donation rates because people feel like they should pay the non-profit for the labels (see Robert Cialdini’s work if you don’t believe me).

Now I’m not arguing with this.   Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jed

April 30th, 2009 at 1:45 am