Book Review: Influence: The Science of Persuasion

I first read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Science of Persuasion when I was in graduate school studying judgment and decision making. I was amazed not only by the power of the psychological levers for influence that the author describes, but how easy he makes them to understand. It turns out that MANY things guiding my every day decisions have their roots in psychology, but what’s really amazing and a little distressing is how these levers are used deliberately by people in the know to influence me. Free samples at the super market? They’re given out because the reciprocity effect makes you more likely to buy the product. Fraternity hazing? The consistency principle makes you put up with it. Buying things on sale when you don’t need them? It’s the scarcity principal and loss aversion making you do it.

What’s equally impressive about Influence is how effectively Cialdini communicates these ideas. He provides one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of straddling the line between practical examples anyone can recognize and how it relates to academic research published in scientific journals. Each chapter focuses on one major concept and then dives deep into it before ending with a set of recommendations about how we can guard against unwanted influences. The latter often boil down to “You just gotta be aware of it,” but sometimes they offer pointed advice that can be quite useful.

For anyone interested in the topic of psychology and how it relates to what you buy, what you like, who you support, how you act, what you value, and what you think in every day situations, you can’t do much better than this book. It’s a great combination of empirical science made accessible (and relevant) to the masses.

My First 10K Race: DONE

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve kind of gotten back into running in the last few months. More so than ever before, really. Earlier today I finished my first actual 10K (about 6.21 miles) race and had a great experience. There were a LOT of people there. I finished in 54 minutes and 59 seconds (8:51 per mile), which placed me in 108th place total and 20th place in my age bracket. Not trophy winning, but that’s not what I was aiming for. I finished without walking (or lying down, for that matter) and I’m pretty happy with that pace; I’ll try to kick it up next year.

Sam, Mandy, and Geralyn came down to see me after the race as well and they even surprised me with some pretty awesome signs. Though I actually didn’t see the signs until after I finished the race, at which point the advice they gave was a bit inappropriate. But it was still great! Here’s some pics!

Instead of writing up a big long post about the race itself, here’s some bullet points in stream-of-consciousness style:

  • I listened to music during the run and had my Nike+ track the kilometers. That did a lot to break up the monotony, but apparently the randomization algorithm in my iPod thought that Black Eyed Peas was the most motivating music available.
  • The best thing about the race: periodically there are these tables where guys hand you paper cups of water –then you can totally just THROW THE CUPS DOWN ON THE GROUND! Being a runner means you get to litter!
  • Mile 2: Oh, god, oatmeal burps. Yeaugh.
  • Passing people is invigorating.
  • Getting passed is emasculating.
  • Mile 4: Broke through a wall and just ran on autopilot the rest of the time. Almost easy from here on out.
  • There was this guy in front of me for most of the race I came to think of as “Daddy Long Legs.” Because he ran the whole 10K pushing a double jogger stroller with two kids in it. Impressive.
  • Thinking that the asperin I took just prior to the race was a good call.
  • Wow, there are a lot of really toned legs.
  • Mile 5: There was totally a huge and dead racoon lying right in front of the mile marker. Oookaaay.
  • Waving at people standing on the side of the road and cheering you on is more awesome than you’d think.
  • Knowing what I know about crowd psychology doesn’t make me feel particularly confident about just following everyone else when some of the trail markers went missing. Worked out, though.
  • Mile 6: Tried to do the exact math to figure out how much distance was left. Failed.
  • Finish line: Woo! Free Vitamin Water(tm)!

I’ve got a 5K in June, but I’m already setting my sights on a half-marathon, possibly as early as October of this year. We’ll see…

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

I really enjoyed Audrey Niffeneger’s first book, The Time Traveller’s Wife, so much so that I named it my favorite book that I read in 2006. So it’s kind of surprising to even me that it took me so long to got around to picking up her sophomore novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which tells the story of two (almost) identical twins who inherit a London flat haunted by their aunt’s ghost. No, seriously. Unfortunately this book isn’t nearly as good, mainly because it tosses about as much drama, weird plot twists, and inexplicable behavior as a daytime soap opera.

To be fair, The Time Traveller’s Wife did a lot of this as well. The marriage on display in that book is maudlin and overwraught, with gushing emotions and breathless dialog more suited to a romance novel. But I enjoyed The Time Traveller’s Wife DESPITE all that, because Neffiniger did such an awesome job twisting the time travel threads around the lives of these people. But Her Fearful Symmetry has no such hook, and what we’re mostly left with is some heavy handed themes about freedom and identity. Julie and Valentina, the two aforementioned twins in their early twenties, move from America to London to fulfil the inheratance requirements of their aunt’s will. Their aunt and mother happen to also be identical twins, but are estranged for some reason that’s not revealed until late in the book, by which point it’s actually both hysterically stupid and contrived. Their aunt’s ghost is haunting the apartment where the twins live, and they are also visited by their aunt’s long-time lover Robert, who lives downstairs. In a particularly icky plot line, Robert falls for Valentina, which is a little skeezy when you think about the substantial age difference, really skeezy when you consider that Robert and Valentina are for all intents and purposes uncle and niece by marriage, and super skeezy when it becomes apparent that Robert is only interested in her because she’s the spitting image of her aunt. Who, you know, is watching all this happen as a ghost. And encouraging it.

So yeah, it’s kind of crazy. I get the feeling that Niffeneger was trying to write some kind of romantic thriller, what with all the vulnerable girls, twins, coming of age, rocking the cradle, weird sex, and death. The plot reaches a climax with a series of decisions that no rational person –even an immature girl– would pursue, and which no reasonable adult would condone much less participate in. I actually thought that the author had done something mind blowing with this when it seemed that her characters had more nefarious intentions than we had thought, but she backs down from that twist in the next chapter. Niffeneger had a plot to wind, so there we went. Like I said, the rapid fire series of reveals, twists, and betrayals made me think that I was watching an episode of Guiding Light written by Stephen King.

So if I were to recommend one of Niffeneger’s books, it would still definitely be The Time Traveller’s Wife. It’s much better and has a better hook.

Weight Loss Week 18: 6 Pounds to Go

May 6 weight: 168.0
Weight TWO weeks ago: 170
5 day avg weight: 169.8
5 day avg weight two weeks ago: 171.7

All right, finally establishing a beach head in the 160s and just 6 pounds to go. Hopefully I’ll keep the momentum up until I hit my goal. I missed last week’s update because I was traveling and didn’t take the scale with me. So the graph actually has some guesswork in it:

Weight loss graph week 18
Weight loss graph week 18

That’s still about a pound per week, which at this point I’m happy with. My food diary has helped me keep my diet a little more in check, though I still don’t count calories because every time I come across a meal that isn’t prepackaged or served at a restaurant it becomes more trouble than it’s worth to figure out the caloric content and serving size. I’ve just tried to use what I know to eat healthier and in reasonable portions.

The other part of the equation, of course, is that I’m working out a lot. Specifically, I’ve gotten into running more and have been doing weird things like tracking my miles (22 last week) and trying to get my pace down. I’m also running my first 10K race on May 22. I don’t think finishing will be a problem (I ran 13K last Saturday, albeit on a treadmill) so I’m really looking forward to it.

In fact, I’m been so savaged by the running bug that I went out last weekend and did something ludicrous: I bought a pair of shoes specifically designed for running. BEHOLD!

running shoes

The box says they’re “Nike Zoom Structure Trimax+13 size 9.5” I went to a small local shop that specializes in running equipment and the guy there was really helpful. He had me jog the length of the store so he could study my gait –normal, except I turn my right foot a bit and push off of it hard. He then recommended some different kinds of shoes with different types of support that would help me based on that and the types of surfaces I usually run on. I still ended up trying on 8 different pairs before I settled on the ones above. I also decided to go whole hog and buy a couple pairs of socks made from that technical fabric that supposedly “wick away sweat before it reaches the liquid form.” Which is fascinating, because I wasn’t aware that sweat came in any other form than liquid and honestly I’d rather not think about it.

Do the shoes work? Well, they’re definitely lighter, and they feel different. But the psychologist in me wonders how much of any other benefits (less post-workout pain, easier to run, etc.) are are result of the shoes and how much they’re a result of my expectations and desire to justify the expense. Well, either way is fine, I guess.

Book Review: The Best of Dinosaur Comics

The Best of Dinosaur Comics 2003-2005 AD (subtitle: Your Whole Family is Made Out of Meat!) is a collection of a webcomic strips that by any reasonable analysis really should never have gotten to the point of having enough strips to be collected. Author Ryan North basically took six panels of generic dinosaur clip art and just changed the words to make a new comics every weekday. Not the pictures, just the words.

Here’s what he starts with every time he makes a new strip:

Then he just writes words. What’s amazing: he’s been doing this since 2003. What’s even more amazing than THAT is that Dinosaur Comics is totally, inexplicably awesome. You should at least check out a few strips at

The strip features just three dinosaurs plus the occasional off-panel character like God or The Devil. The strip’s star is T-Rex, who is a force of pure id in that he’s constantly amazed by his own awesomeness, utterly enthusiastic about everything that involves him, and oblivious to the implications of his hijinks. Yet you can’t help liking T-Rex –even loving him– because while he’s a bit narcissistic, his zest for everything that crosses his fever-dream of a consciousness is contagious. He’s a bit like a more thoughtful and intelligent Homer Simpson. In one strip T-Rex may be expressing his irrational fear of cephalopods or how much he enjoys stomping on things, but in others he may be discussing philosophy, the etymology of obscure phrases, or novel applications of fields like economics, statistics, or literary criticism to problems your non-dinosaur brain never thought of.

T-Rex is joined by Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor, who often act as his foils, but who just as often go along with his debates, discussions, and proclamations simply because doing so makes life more fun. You get the feeling that North is a really smart guy whose interests are far flung, and he is somehow able to use these six panels of clip art to talk about whatever thoughts happen to cross his mind. The strip is blessedly bereft of your typical pop culture or subculture references, instead opting to create its own weird amalgam of quasi-intellectual absurdity. The fact that North has been able to do so for so long and to make it so consistently entertaining is really astounding. Go to to see examples of what I’m talking about.