Episode 8 — Influence

In this episode, Chris and Jeff discuss the manner in which social influence affects engineers, how engineers can detect those who seek to exert influence, and how engineers can exert some influence of their own.

  • Jeff stumbled upon a variation of the Pomodoro Method, which was discussed last episode. In the Pelko Method, fear is used as a motivator. Hence, the tomato timer is replaced by one shaped like a hand grenade, and the task intervals are random, encouraging one to finish the task before their allotted time disappears.
  • A book by Robert B. Cialdini, titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, presents six facets of persuasion: Reciprocity, Consistency, Liking, Authority, Scarcity, and Social Proof.
  • Jeff uses the pneumonic RCLASS to remember these facets (as suggested by reviewer Gale on Amazon).
  • While each facet represents a mental shortcut that is largely useful, individuals skilled in the power of influence know how to structure requests and situations to direct these biases and tendencies against those they seek to persuade.
  • RECIPROCATION – “We should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.”
    • Benefit: We accept reasonable offers of assistance, because working together allows us to be more effective than we can be alone. Those who violate this tenet are known as “moochers”, or “ingrates.”
    • Downside: We are trained from childhood to detest obligation. Thus, we feel obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, and invitations, regardless of whether or not we actually wanted such endowments. This can lead to unfair exchanges.
    • Examples: Address labels, note pads, key rings are included in charity requests because they double the level of contributions.
    • The most highly valued favors are seen as significant, unexpected, personalized, and unconditional.
    • We must be aware of how our perceptions change when we accept favors: loaned equipment, nice lunches, tickets to the ballgame.
    • An even more powerful strategy: reciprocal concession, also known as “reject-then-retreat.” Under this scenario, a concession on the part of the requester creates an obligation on the part of the requestee to make a similar concession.
    • Defense: If initial favor was not sincere, recognize reciprocation ploy, and allow yourself to escape the sense of obligation.
  • CONSISTENCY – “Once we have taken a stand, we will behave in such a manner as to justify, and remain consistent, with our earlier decision.”
    • Benefit: A high degree of consistency is perceived is to be at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty. Being consistent keeps us from having to revisit mentally difficult and emotionally challenging decisions.
    • Downside: We can be led into making bad decisions by those who prefer that we not think too much about our actions. If I can get you to take a stand, I have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency.
    • Example: “Would you be willing to contribute time to a charity?” Just asking the question increases positive response seven-fold.
    • Those who exploit consistency often start small, as self-image is easily modified through seemingly insignificant actions.
    • Defense: If you have sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, evaluate the situation for enforced consistency. Tell people you are aware of consistency principle, and allow yourself to change your mind, or reverse your course of action, when it is rational to do so.
  • LIKING – “We like to do things for people we like.”
    • Benefit: We tend to like those who share similar backgrounds or interests, thus those who are most likely to share favors and honor reciprocity.
    • Downside: Our emotional response can be altered by clever influencers.
    • Example: “Would you be willing to contribute time to a charity?” Just asking the question increases positive response seven-fold.
    • Those who exploit consistency often start small, as self-image is easily modified through seemingly insignificant actions.
    • Why do we like?
      1. Physical attractiveness — often unrecognized bias.
      2. Similarity — dress, interests, backgrounds, age, religion.
      3. Compliments — we are suckers for flattery, even when it isn’t true.
      4. Conditioning — Familiarity combined with positive experiences.
      5. Cooperation — We must “pull together.”
      6. Association — Models, athlete endorsements, sports teams, reflected glory.
    • “Luncheon Effect” — We tend to become fonder of people and things experienced while eating.
  • AUTHORITY – “We are trained from birth that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong.”
    • Benefit: Obeying authority figures normally keeps us safe and out of trouble.
    • Downside: Individuals who wish to take advantage of us can take on the guise of an authority figure.
    • Symbols of authority:
      1. Titles
      2. Clothing
      3. Trappings
    • Defense: Be aware of authority power and how easily it can be faked. Ask yourself:
      1. Is this person truly an expert?
      2. How truthful can we expect the expert to be in this situation?
  • SCARCITY — “We are far more sensitive to possible loss than we are to equivalent gain.”
    • Benefit: Things that are easy to possess are typically worth less than those that are difficult to obtain.
    • Downside: Our asymmetric response to loss and gain can be manipulated.
    • We are most susceptible when we have seen abundance, and it has been replaced by scarcity. We hate to lose freedom. Once granted, freedoms will not be relinquished without a fight.
    • Defense: Pursuit of scarcity produces an emotional response. So flag arousal and seek rationality. When we sense scarcity, ask why we want the item. Do we wish to use it, experience it, or possess it?
  • SOCIAL PROOF – “The greater the number of people who believe an idea correct, then the greater the likelihood that the idea is, in fact, correct.”
    • Benefit: Largely saves us from decision errors and social embarrassment with out having to re-evalute situation.
    • Downside: The influence of social proof is strongest in periods of high uncertainty. We can be led astray by those who can manipulate or fake evidence of social response.
    • Defense: Be aware of faked social proof. Look for people acting in an absence of solid data.

Thanks to the|G|™ for the intimidating photo, titled “you.”

Episode 7 — In the Zone

What is it like for an engineer to be “in the zone?” Are there any good techniques for finding such a “flow” in your engineering work? We discuss these issues in this week’s episode.

  • Chris likes the performance of leaded solder, but recognizes the importance of moving to a lead-free alternative. This transition in solder composition was largely driven by the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (or RoHS).
  • The problem of tin whiskers has the aerospace industry continuing to use leaded solder.
  • Chris has slipped “into the zone” while soldering, and Jeff has similarly found the “flow” while working on CAD drawings.
  • Time seems to fly by when one is in the zone, and the process can be both physically and mentally exhausting.
  • Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has theorized that moments of flow occur when we activate so many neurological functions that we can no longer maintain awareness of our own activities. Thus, we lose any sense of self, and become wholly engrossed in the moment.
  • A blog entry about creative flow, written by Everett Bogue, was recently published on the site Zen Habits. It is noted that achieving flow can be difficult.
  • Suggested steps for achieving flow are:
    1. Pick a enjoyable, challenging activity
    2. Eliminate distractions
    3. Think before you do
    4. Isolate yourself
    5. Let go
    6. Give yourself a time limit
    7. Keep moving
    8. Don’t think
    9. Practice
  • Gamification uses game design techniques to enhance non-game contexts.
  • In a recent YouTube clip, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek claims that happiness is rarely a driving desire in creative endeavors.
  • The topic of what inspires people to take action is covered in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
  • We learn that Jeff will listen to (yawn) smooth jazz while working. Chris, on the other hand, can crank away while listening to techno music.
  • Clips of white, pink, or brown noise can be found online at SimplyNoise.com. These are useful for drowning out unwanted background noise in the work environment.
  • John Cook claims that Mental Context Switches are Evil. It’s tough to stay in the zone if you’re constantly having to think about the tools you are using, and the context in which they work.
  • Both Chris and Jeff have experimented with the Pomodoro technique, in which tasks are broken into 20 minute work sessions. Numerous apps are available for tracking tasks and interruptions, if you don’t like using pencil and paper.
  • Cubicles were created for office equipment manufacturer Herman Miller by designer Robert Propst.
  • Jeff’s additional suggestions for getting into the zone include:
    1. Start with a clean desk
    2. Use sketches to capture relationships
    3. Leave a foothold for the next day
    4. Take a power nap when struggling
  • Some companies provide napping rooms for employees to refresh themselves mid-day.
  • Today’s engineers have to maintain a creative edge, as routine functions and duties can be computerized or outsourced.

Thanks again to Ian for being on The Engineering Commons this week. To catch each update as soon as it’s posted, be sure to subscribe to the feed!

Thanks to loop_oh for the speed zone photo, titled “30 zone.”

Episode 6 — Longevity

This week we talk to Ian Dees, software engineer at Tektronix focused on mid level software and ways to improve the longevity of electronics that use software over time.

  • Jeff recently visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  • Ian focuses mainly on C and C++ but also moves into higher level languages and other aspects of product design while working on oscilloscopes.
  • What makes things sustainable 10 years down the road?
  • Architectural changes (that’s “refactoring”, not “rewriting”) can really help short term changes.
  • Planning schedules can end up affecting longevity. However, making software (or hardware) too extensible can create paralysis analysis.
  • Software designers often have to deal with the evolution of languages as well, vs having similar concepts in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering over the years.
  • Reliability and longevity are the same thing over time.
  • Chris likes working on redesigns in order to learn about what not to do and how to design for the long term.
  • Jeff felt drawn towards different bits of software that would “solve problems” when in fact they’ll only solve one aspect and then create new ones.
  • Ian now works with a marketing person who doesn’t just wave off the difficulty of a task; there is trust between engineering and marketing to help get a better grasp on schedule estimation.
  • What would happen if engineers-in-training were subjected to a pile of code with no tests?
  • Jeff learned hands on with drilling and tapping threads into old mills and learning the warts in a realistic product.
  • Expected lifetime can also affect the longevity of a product. Should there be a planned obsolescence or maintenance schedule?
  • In electronics, the Arrhenius Equation helps estimate how long something will last.
  • Complexity of a product (hw or sw) and the quality of the materials can all end up affecting the longevity of a product.
  • Computer systems and engineering tools can end up affecting every engineer…because you might need to pull up your design after many years.
  • Saving designs over years could have other problems. Perhaps we should follow the advice in this article, The Revolution Should Not Be Digitized.
  • Ian likes the idea of a Software Will, where you keep a running list of things you designed and might need to be passed along.

Thanks again to Ian for being on The Engineering Commons this week. To catch each update as soon as it’s posted, be sure to subscribe to the feed!

Thanks to Chris Daniel for the picture of the old circuit board!

Practical insights for the engineering crowd