Category Archives: Psychology

Coffee Shop Epiphanies: Influences of Design on Behavior

Coffee shops provide a great opportunity to observe the flow of product from customer order and collection of cash to the delivery of the order and order pickup by the customer.

The coffee shop I sit at has the entrance for its order queue close to the entrance to the store. So, when customers walk into the store they immediately find themselves in queue to place their order. The customers place their order at one of two cash registers that are set side by side along the path of the flow. They then walk further to the end of the line where their order is delivered. In a relative measure, the exit of the queue is much farther from the store entrance than the entrance of the queue.

Recently I made a couple of observations:

1. Some customers order specialty coffee products (e.g. espressos, lattes, etc.), while others order brewed coffee. Specialty coffee products takes time to make while brewed coffee is ready to serve on demand.

Customers who order specialty coffee products move to the end of line and wait there for their order. Almost all of them wait right at exit of the queue. During a surge a cluster of people forms there essentially blocking the exit.

Customers who order brewed coffee have their coffee delivered to them right at the cash registers. Their order is not delivered at the end of line. So these customers, almost exclusively, exit the queue through the entrance of the queue instead of taking their order and following the line and exiting at its end. I suspect two contributing factors: the exit to the store is closer to the entrance of the queue, and the exit of the queue is blocked by the cluster of people waiting to pick up their order.

2. Many customers after picking up their order from the end of line still do not exit from there. They instead move back through the queue and exit through the queue entrance and then on through the store exit. I suspect that is because there is no direct way to exit the store from the exit of the queue. The customer has to navigate through the seating area.

As I made my observations on how people were behaving, I found myself getting irritated. Why couldn’t these customers, who had a brain and the ability to sense their environment, follow the line from the queue entrance to the queue exit and then out of the store? It’s not hard! Stop creating back-flows! How inconsiderate! So selfish! So oblivious! Ugh! I’m sure my disgust was plainly apparent on my face. I recall my many sanctimonious conversations with friends and colleagues on the thoughtless behavior of people.

Then I experienced an epiphany. My mind, without my conscious awareness, flipped its perspective and answered the question, “What is it about the design of the space that led people to use it in the way they were?” It shifted from blaming the human to accepting human behavior as an uncontrollable factor and addressing the inadequacy of the design of the space that enabled humans to behave in an undesirable way. That released my mind from being stuck and frustrated to feeling creative. With that one realization, my mind started working on redesigning the space.

Still, I wanted to continue observing the activity to understand it a little more deeply. But what happened caught me by surprise. Even though I had had the epiphany that the design of the space was the problem, and that people were responding to the design, I still found myself getting irritated with them for what I ascribed to them as their conscious decisions. That triggered my second epiphany, that unless I consciously focused on the first epiphany, my mind will naturally shift to blaming people for their behavior instead of the design of the space that enables it.

Postscript: Our brain evolved in an environment to notice activity that signaled potential danger: movement, sound, smell, etc. So it is biased to see this foreground. So much so that most times it doesn’t even see the background; the relatively unchanging environment. People and their behavior are always in the foreground. The context for their behavior, the design of the space, is in the background. When we are faced with behavior problems, our mind instinctively focuses on the human, rather than his environment. It takes conscious awareness to not do that.


Fragmented Beings

We call a human being an individual. But is he really? Consider what the word “individual” means. It is derived from the Latin “in-,” which means not, and “dividere” which means divide. So the word “individual” means not divided or undivided. But even a cursory look reveals that the human being is totally fragmented!

We have created a society where each of us plays different roles in the course of our daily life, each distinct from the other. We go further and purposely try hard to keep them separate, switching from one role to another as we move from environment to environment. These roles are nothing more than images we have constructed in our mind, built by the thoughts that fill it. If we observe our thoughts, pay attention to them, we become aware of the great variety of them appearing and disappearing in our mind: fragments from memory with no discernible relationship between them.

Even as I define myself as an individual, I am really not undivided. I am not whole. I am an unintegrated collection of thought fragments, memories. And because these fragments of thought have no relationship to one another, they are often contradictory and in conflict with each other. So the prevailing state of my mind is chaotic! When I, an individual, am not whole, how can my world be? After all, the chaos in my mind I act out in the world.

The problem of fragmentation and disorder affects both the common man and our so-called leaders. Thus, we all behave in contradictory ways, engage in conflict and hypocrisy. It is critical that each of us work to transform ourselves from fragmented beings, disordered and divisive, into whole beings, ordered and unified. This has real world implications on how we relate to one another in conflict and cooperation. It determines whether our change efforts succeed, whether we will live in harmony or discord.

External systems of rules and regulations can coerce behavior, but they cannot integrate the fragmentation inside the human mind. That work must be done by the individual. It can only be done by the individual. Even the gurus, priests, imams, psychologists, are fragmented beings. How can they guide you to becoming an integrated whole? No one can. Thus, as the Buddha said, “be a light unto yourself.” If the human being transforms himself, he transforms everything, i.e. if he changes, his world changes. If he does not, nothing changes.

It’s the Work, Stupid!

Yesterday I had an interview with the Human Resources Director of the company. He asked me what I was looking for in my next job. I shared that I was looking for a good group of people to work with. I was looking to build relationships with my coworkers wherein I could help them feel good about the work they were doing. I was looking for a company where I could reduce wasted effort, boost productivity, and build pride in personal craftsmanship.

This was music to his ears, and he said as much. He said that the company wanted to be an employer of choice. He shared the effort made by the company to improve its culture to that end. Like many of my previous employers, they had surveyed their employees to find out what management could do. Employees, while happy with the cafeteria, had said the food was too expensive. So the company decided to subsidize it with $20 per employee. They also started making people take their birthdays off.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It makes it appear as if management was listening and responding to employees, that it cares for their well-being.

The trouble is that such actions do nothing to improve an individual work process or the system within which workers work. And we all know by now that the bulk of the problems workers deal with reside in the process or system. Workers are powerless to affect them. What does subsidizing the cost of a meal do for improving the way work gets done? How does making people take their birthdays off boost productivity? Will installing an espresso machine help with reducing rework?

The assumption going into providing such fringe benefits (perks) is that problems are the result of workers holding back. That workers do not give their all or that they do not do their best. If only management rewarded them more, then workers would work better. Much has been written about the negative impact of boosting extrinsic rewards without changing the work process or system. Rather than feeling better, workers become more stressed, make more mistakes, take more time.

Management’s diagnosis of the cause of productivity problems is fundamentally flawed. Worse, management knows it. But working on the system to improve it requires management to work in ways they are not prepared to. Effects of changes to the system are not immediate nor are they easily perceived. But providing fringe benefits makes a real splash, however short-lived it might be. So here’s to hoping the pizza and beer will stop all of you workers from whining!

Above All, Don’t Wobble

In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.
– Yúnmén

The companies I’ve worked for have been neurotic. They dither. When decisions are made they have an irrational and anxious quality about them.

My experience of work can be described as a shuddering paralysis. In an effort to take everything into account teams I’ve been on enter into an infinite regression of analysis that often takes us off course, delaying action. (I have been guilty of contributing to this.) However, the essence of a business is to act, to do.

When we do act, we don’t just act, but worry about whether that action is the best possible; we complain about all the flaws we find in the method; we even wonder whether the goal is the right goal. So our attention is split, bouncing between acting and thinking. Instead of moving gracefully toward our goal, we wobble. I wobble.

Perhaps Yúnmén wouldn’t mind if I rephrased his quote as “In planning, just plan. In doing, just do. Above all, don’t wobble.”

Retraining Can’t Fix This

In the course of an average workday we make hundreds of decisions. Some of those decisions require engaging our conscious awareness. In my previous post I described how the quality of those decisions deteriorate as that awareness or willpower fatigues with use.

However, there are decisions where human error occurs with certainty even if our attention is totally focused on the task. Consider the Muller-Lyer[1] illusion below:

The two vertical lines are of the same length. Even after knowing this, we all continue to perceive the line on the left to be longer than the line on the right. The “fact” that the two lines are of different lengths is simply obvious to us. Because of its obviousness we don’t stop to check our judgment before acting on it. Such actions, based on erroneous perception, are likely to produce faulty outcomes.

This error in our human perception/cognition system is hard-wired into our brains. No amount of retraining or conscious effort will correct it. So corrective actions that identify retraining as the way to prevent recurrence of this type of error won’t be effective. It will only serve to demoralize the worker. What, then, is an effective corrective action for such errors?

We can develop and use tools and methods that circumvent the brain’s perception/cognition system, for example with an overlay (red lines in the figure below), or actually measuring each line and comparing those values to one another. This does add a step to the evaluation process; an after-the-fact fix to a faulty design. Ideally, though, we would want our designs to take into account human limitations and avoid creating such illusions in the first place.

[1] Muller-Lyer illusion Retrieved 2017-06-22

Personal Willpower, Communal Impact


We seem to make decisions in more impulsive ways than before. Many of us don’t seem to practice any reasonable amount of self-control. I feel this may be because most of us today just don’t have strong willpower.

Last year I read a book called “Willpower”[1] by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. In it the authors liken willpower to muscle. And just like a muscle willpower can wear out from fatigue. When willpower is worn out, we behave more impulsively. How quickly we drain our willpower depends on how strong it is.

In using our willpower to make decisions we’re using our conscious mind or “System 2” as Daniel Kahneman refers to it in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”[2]. Conscious decision making or thinking is hard! It requires effort and uses a lot of energy in the process.

The body, however, has a limited store of energy. When we are low on energy, this conscious decision making process shuts down and decision making is shunted to the brain’s default decision making process or “System 1.” It doesn’t require much energy; it’s automatic and occurs outside of our conscious awareness. Many of the decisions we make in the default mode are driven by habit.

Conscious decision making generally produces reliable outcomes. We make better decisions with it. Not so with automatic decision making, which has been shown to be error-prone, often in systematic ways. So it’s important that we exercise our willpower; build it up, and make it stronger.

No one can make you exercise your body or mind. That’s a choice you make for yourself. But the results of your choice affects your behavior which in turn affects society. We live in communities and we have an obligation to them: to be the best version of ourselves.

[1] Baumeister, Roy F., John Tierney (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
[2] Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The Context for Concepts

In my last post I might have left the impression that conceptualizing the real place is bad or that we should avoid it. This is not a correct impression.

We cannot avoid conceptualizing the real place. It’s automatic; part of our biological structure and the structure of our language. Concepts are how we make sense of the real place. They provide insights into the real place. We need those insights to respond appropriately to the real place. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that concepts are the mind’s representations of the real place and not the real place itself! We can call them images, idols, models, data, or symbols.

D. T. Suzuki[1] shared, “To point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon…” Alfred Korzybski[2] wrote in Science and Sanity, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” George E. P. Box[3], in Statistics for Experimenters, put it pithily that “all models are wrong; some models are useful.” These reminders, to be consciously aware of the difference between the real place and our mind’s abstractions of it, is the thread that runs through science and religion.

Problems only arise when we hold onto a concept long after it has stopped representing the real place and a gap has developed between what is and what we conceptualize it to be. To know what is, we must first “go and see” the real place. Without that direct experience with the real place, we cannot hope to act in ways appropriate to it. This is my understanding of what Zen and lean teach.

[1] D.T. Suzuki
[2] Alfred Korzybski
[3] George E.P. Box

The Real Place

My study of Buddhist thought, and especially Zen, have so far taught me that I am often unaware of the real place. Decades of schooling and acculturation to society have taught me to ignore the real place in favor of concepts manufactured by the human mind; to create and be hypnotized by images and models. Right, wrong, god, devil, me, you, husband, wife, mother, father, boss, servant, friend, enemy, success, failure, good, bad, us, and them are all concepts. These are all creations of the mind. It gives them meaning. They’re not real.

Concepts are static–unchanging and easy to grab a hold of and cling to, while the real place is dynamic–ever changing; sometimes in predictable ways, most times in unpredictable ways. The real place offers nothing to grab on to; nothing to cling to. It is inevitable then that the two will eventually diverge from one another. I believe that that gap between what I see and what I think I see is the source of much, if not all, my suffering–frustration, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, exhaustion, and such. To experience the real place, I must let go of concepts, or rather I should not cling to them. Only then will my actions be appropriate or right for the real place.

Zen has been useful in ferrying me back to the real place every time my mind drifts to concepts.

My most direct experience of this gap, or at least one that I am most aware of, has been in the workplace. Data, charts, procedures, policies, concepts abound. Again, most, if not all, are disconnected from the real processes and systems. How work actually happens. However, like me, organizations remain mostly unaware of the disconnect. They thus suffer in a mire of internal conflict and frustration, too.

Lean can be useful to get organizations back to the real place.

Dysfunction Junction

Initially, when they hired me, they thought I was deeply knowledgeable. They were impressed with my solid understanding of quality and the breadth of my experience. Now they were wondering if I fit in. There are doubts about whether I mesh with others well enough to be productive; whether I wasn’t gumming up projects instead. They tell me people are afraid to engage with me. I’m trying, I respond, laying out a dozen examples of efforts I’ve made. I want to help reduce the time it takes to complete a project. I care deeply about my coworkers. But not so far back in my mind I’m wondering the same things.

I do want to help complete projects faster, but I also want them to be done well. I truly care deeply about my coworkers, so I want them to develop. It’s a challenge for me to contain my frustration with sloppiness and laziness. Despite my best efforts, what I feel is plainly apparent on my face. As I grind through each workday I think about the choices I’ve made: living apart from my family, postponing relationships, and foregoing vacations. I think about how hard I’ve worked to build my expertise–countless nights, weekends and holidays spent studying textbooks and papers–and how demoralizing it is to not be able to put it to practice. For what?

My values and actions have remained consistent with one another. The struggle is to keep them aligned when doing so means not fitting in with a group. I have stood on my own a long time. It’s exhausting.

Book Review: “The Bonobo and the Atheist”

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
— Socrates asks Euthyphro in Plato’s “Euthyphro”
TheBonoboAndTheAtheist In “The Bonobo and the Atheist“, Frans de Waal argues that the source of our morality is not religion. Morality is much older. It arose with life. It has been built into it. So much so that it is seen in apes, monkeys, canids (dogs), whales, and dolphins. Morality isn’t an exclusively human trait.I found de Waal’s explanation compelling and uplifting. At this time when there is such confused, often heated, disagreements over what religion is and what role it should play, it is reassuring to know that nature has built in several backstops to prevent us from complete devolution into anarchy. de Waal’s style in making his points is warm, not confrontational. That made them more compelling than the abrasive condescending approach of neo-atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens.

To be clear, I am not a believer, but I do want to understand the role religion has played in our history. Why does it have such a strong grip on so many of us regardless of culture? I don’t want to displace religion without having something else to take its place and serve the needs it has done up to now. The good news is many civic institutions are rising up to the task. I expect that trend to continue into the future freeing us from the need to believe in something supernatural.

I enjoyed the book. I agree with de Waal’s message. But, I didn’t think it was as fun to read as Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal“. Still, I would recommend it for you to check out. I would love to hear what you think :)