Heart or Head in Decision Making

April 21, 2014

Last night, I went to a talk by Professor Liz Phelps, hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi. The title of her talk was Heart or Head? How Brain Science Alters Our Understanding of Emotions and Decisions.

She commenced her talk on the dualist debate about decision-making. Heart decisions are supposed to be fast, risk-taking, impulsive, hot, and now-focused. Head decisions are considered to be slow, cognitive, reflective, logical, and focus on later rewards. She focused her talk on intertemporal choice – looking at how much people would delay taking an instant reward for a greater reward later. This has implications for societal issues such as obesity, poor savings, problem gambling, etc.

The main thesis of her talk was that this dual system (heart vs head) does not stand up to science on brain imaging and autonomic responses. What research has found is that emotional arousal comes from future reward; emotion drives rational choices. It is becoming more known that emotion has a modulatory role in cognition, memory and perception. She focused on the amygdala and the striatum; the striatum in particular codes subjective value and responds to money, food, cocaine, co-operation and beauty.

There are two components to risky decisions; loss aversion and risk sensitivity. People tend to weigh losses more than the potential gains. The amygdala and autonomic responses are correlated with loss aversion but no relationship was found with risk sensitivity. More interestingly, when the trials turned to auctions (which have a tendency for overbidding), responses are linked with potential losses rather than gains. It is actually the fear of losing that drives overbidding rather than the joy of winning.

Ways to limit a loss aversion response include beta blocker drugs and cognitive therapy. Once again no effect was found on risk sensitivity. Side effects include finding that the drugs actually limit memory. Also of note was that the drugs were less effective in high BMI people. Cognitive therapy was helpful if people thought of a portfolio of decisions rather than just one decision.

In summary, Phelps finds no evidence of dual systems in the brain. Emotion and cognition work together in decision-making. There are multiple neural pathways dependent on the context and no link to the limbic system was found.


Richard Florida – The Role of Great Cities

January 19, 2013

Once again, the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University has convened an excellent presentation and I was one of the fortunate few who was able to attend, bringing a couple of friends from Dubai with me. Richard Florida is an urban theorist that I have followed since he published The Rise of the Creative Class when I studying for my Masters. A gifted orator; he was able to hold the attention of the audience for more than an hour without notes or powerpoint slides before following up with answering questions.

His talk was on the role of cities in powering economic development. The world has crossed a threshold and now more than half the global population live in cities. Soon it will be three-quarters. Urbanisation will be rapid with fewer resources than current cities. He posed and then repeated that the grand challenge of our time is to work out how we can tackle this next wave of urbanization and build the next wave of great cities.

Economic growth is based on 1) technology 2) knowledge as the accumulation of human capital and 3) urbanization. Florida made a point about Thomas Friedman’s thesis of the world being flat. While the world may be flat for simple business processes and manufacturing that could occur anywhere, knowledge development requires people to cluster together and this occurs best in cities. The world has actually become spikier with the people living in cities anywhere in the world more alike than ever. However, the people outside cities are very different.

Cities derive their economic power as the speed up the pace of life. The needs of cities have a faster metabolism than other places. Mega regions that combine cities have increasing importance. It is not just Mumbai but the region between Mumbai and Bangalore. The 40 largest ones in the world only have 18% of the world’s population but generate two-thirds of the economic output and 90% of the world’s innovations. In this instance, Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and the other emirates up to RAK) form such a megalopolis.

Florida also discussed how Michael Porter’s and the approaches of other classical economists around the theory of the firm might be fine to drive efficiencies and create cheaper goods, but they are not suitable for creating new work where technological innovation is required. This needs cities to effectively function. The industrial revolution created wealth through physical assets and where location was important. Policy in this period tended towards investment attraction where transparency, favourable tax arrangements and good infrastructure were important. It is about helping firms rather than cities. Cities need a good people climate to attract and retain talent and the main talent cluster is universities. But great cities also need energy as the creative class can pick where they want to live. They want economic and civic and social opportunities; a place which Florida termed a mating market! Not all clusters or areas of technological development function effectively. Cities need a buzz – an energy which comes from these opportunities.

Florida spoke of his three T’s of technology, talent and tolerance (the latter is an openness and diversity with arts/bohemian lifestyles that generate the spark within cities). He added a fourth that I had not heard of before which is quality of place (note not quality of life). Universities are a hub for that and quality of place is about generating an idea capital. Quality of place is about what is there (natural factors and built environment), who is there (those artists and bohemians again that provide the spark) and what is going on (which creates the energy).

Florida then talked about how great cities have a hierarchy of needs. At the bottom is basic opportunity through the labour market and then basic services of infrastructure and safety. Town planners are very good at succeeding in developing these factors. But beyond these basics are valuing openness and diversity (his third T of tolerance) and then at the apex, an aesthetic character of place (his fourth unnamed T). He quoted Jane Jacobs many times – such as new ideas require old buildings so you have to look for the authentic.

In responding the questions, Florida mentioned that Abu Dhabi and Dubai are wonderful living experiments in city building. They have the ability to leverage off each other by being complementary. If Abu Dhabi and Dubai wish to attract and retain talent then they need to change the mobility of the workforce so that people don’t just live in the city for 4 or 6 or 7 years but will gain permanence and emotional attachment to the city.

Since the presentation, I have been thinking about the approach of Dubai and Abu Dhabi towards this topic. They are indeed complementary with differences in business approach. Abu Dhabi has large amounts of public resources through oil wealth that can be invested while Dubai is more reliant on private sector investments to grow its economy. At this stage, Dubai has more of the qualities associated with Florida’ depiction of cities as somewhere the creative class wants to live. Dubai is home to many younger people with an active nightclub, artistic and sporting scene. Corporate headquarters of many companies have become established in Dubai’s Free Zones, attracting talented people from around the world to come to Dubai. It has strong business links with India, Pakistan and Iran. Abu Dhabi is developing its infrastructure but it is yet to become a place with artist/bohemian lifestyles or with an aesthetic quality of place. This may well come with developments on Saadiyat Island for example with the Louvre and Guggenheim but the key will be whether these translate into attracting the cultural capital of emerging artists.

The importance of the education sector cannot be underestimated. Apart from providing the local human capital, its quality and capacity is a major element in the shopping list of items that need to be met too attract and retain knowledge workers in the creative class.

Helping Children Love Reading

September 18, 2012

One of the big issues that we have in Dubai’s private schools is parent engagement in their children’s education.  Too many parents feel that it is the school’s responsibility to educate their children and that the parents can hand over that responsibility in full to the schools.  Yet many research studies have identified the link between improved early childhood development through reading and play with improved performance in academic and social outcomes later in life.  Therefore, it is essential that parents take the time to read to their children and foster a love of learning at an early age.

And so this article from the Guardian that identfies that reading aloud to children is the single most important activity for creating motivated readers.  The author highlights that parents need to model reading for pleasure so that their children can imitate that behaviour.  Even more importantly, he points out that reading to your children should be done in a theatrical manner, building suspense, being emotive and expressive.  Only in this way, will children see that reading is pleasurable and fun and that they will want to learn how to read for themselves! 

Is private schooling worth it?

April 16, 2012

Being in the education policy sector of an administration looking after the highest proportion of non-government funded private schools anywhere in the world, this question plagues my mind. And so reading this article recently from the Sydney Morning Herald on the worth of private education sparked my interest for a number of reasons.

Firstly, consider the sums of money spent on exclusive private schools for a student in Sydney; around 25 t0 30,000 dollars or about 100,000 dirhams.

Secondly, it’s the reasons why parents choose to send their kids to private schools and it’s similar anywhere in the world.  It’s so that their son or daughter is around kids of a similar or better socio-economic status and who they feel that they want to be with and away from the riff-raff.  Like this quote “a good school for my child is one where minorities are in the minority”.  It’s also about the quality of teaching and in particular, about how private schools will get rid of underperforming teachers.

Thirdly, it’s about better customer service from private schools.  Fee paying customers are more likely to get a more favourable reception from the school than in the public system.  Teachers are more responsive.

Fourthly, waiting lists are very fluid and many parents choose to register their child at multiple schools, just like here in Dubai.  Some schools in some areas are very hard to get into but flexibility is an option so that even if your child cannot get into a school now, chances are that in later years there is still a strong possibility.

Yet these items mask the point that even though private school students perform better than their public school peers, once socio-economic factors are taken into consideration, the differences are not statistically significant.  Take a similar kid with similar parental backgrounds, upbringing and income and place him/her in a public school, chances are that their results will be about the same.

So, is private schooling worth it?  As with everything it comes down to capacity to pay, perceived value for money and choice.  For many parents, it’s the only choice and little Johnny will get the best possible opportunity to excel and make the appropriate connections to the right people.  Yet, as with many things in life, it’s just about creating an environment for something to happen whether that is academic excellence, appropriate relationships or sporting prowess.  To what extent these things really matter is up to the student and other factors outside of the school environment such as how much the parents encourage and support their child and involve themselves in their education as much as the type of school that the child attends.

Private Schooling for the Poor

July 15, 2010

I recently attended a talk by James Tooley on the subject of providing private school education in the poorest parts of the world.  My initial inclination, along with most other education policymakers, is to consider that private sector education is for the middle class and elites who can afford it, leaving those with lower incomes to the free education of the public system.  What James Tooley discovered was something completely different; that private schools operate and operate well in the poorest regions of the world.  His work over the past 10 years has been likened to a global detective story as he searches for these hitherto hidden schools.

James Tooley has found low-fee private schools in slum communities in India (Hyderabad), Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and China.  In most cases, a significant proportion of the student population was enrolled in these schools, many of which were not recognized by their education departments.  In many cases, private school enrolments were increasing due to parent dissatisfaction with the public system.

James has performed tests on the school children and found that the students in the private  schools were performing better, even though teachers in the public systems could be getting paid double or up to 5 times more than those in the private schools.  The main reasons for the differences were the lack of accountability in public schools, absenteeism of teachers and poor teaching standards.  Teachers in private schools often came from the local community whereas public school teachers may feel aggrieved at being moved to a school in a poor area.

This work is incredibly important for meeting Millennium Development goals which may be under-reported if many students are actually attending schools that are off the radar for statisticians.  It’s also important for encouraging improvements in the public system by providing good competition for student places.  The key point he found is that the poorest of the poor are willing to fork out a small amount of money each day for their children’s education if they see it as having benefit beyond that of a free public education.

More on Luxury and Dubai

February 4, 2010

Following on from my last article on luxury in Dubai, I came across this fascinating article looking at Deepening Luxury in Delhi.  It tells of a presentation by Jem Bendell at the International Herald Tribune conference on Sustainable Luxury in Delhi, India, in March 2009.

The report focuses on the role that luxury brands can play in helping to promote sustainability.  “Luxury brands have the margin and mandate to create the most environmentally friendly products and services.”  And also “I am here because I believe that luxury can lead, not lag, in the transition to a fair and sustainable world.”

The ability for luxury brands to market environmental awareness, promote reliability and longevity, and have strong links with developing economies for the development of their products is well stated.  Some brands are doing it but so much more could be done.  Too often I have found that luxury tends to involve excess and waste rather than longevity and care.

Currently, my son is completing a project on renewable energy and discovering the frustrations of people not willing to take action on sustainability issues.  This “Life is good, I don’t need to worry about the future” attitude seems to be quite prevalent here in Dubai.  Brands tend to be used as status symbols to define someone in luxury rather than as monikers to encourage awareness raising and responsibility across the populace.

I like Jem’s approach of working “towards a new form of luxury that embodies what is personally, socially and environmentally the best of human creativity.”  This deeper luxury requires a change from buying a brand for status to buying luxury for the inherent meaning in the goods and services and to pass on that message of environmental awareness to others through the branding.

Luxury in Dubai

January 12, 2010

An article in the Gulf News today looks at the preference of many in the Middle East, particularly Dubai, for high-end luxury items.  An international survey found that the response by people that received the highest numbers from people in Dubai was for “luxury is a lifestyle”.  Other countries had a greater preference for a response that classified luxury as “something over and above what you need”.

This penchant for things luxurious is said to be one of the hallmarks of Dubai living, which boasts mega-shopping malls with many high-end brand name stores.  Dubai shoppers are more likely to buy impulsively and less likely to research items before buying an item that has the best value. The virtue of delayed gratification has taken a backseat to the instant elixir of a full shopping bag.

I feel really good about being one of the exceptions to this preponderance of free-wheeling luxury shoppers with more money than sense.  I must admit to never having a great desire for luxury brands and fail to see the need to identify myself with particular brands.  A marketer’s nightmare in other words!  For me, the term “luxury is a lifestyle” makes no sense, perhaps because I try not to live that lifestyle, or perhaps (and this requires some meditation on tonight) that I am living that lifestyle in Dubai and I am not even aware of it!