People rely on financial managers, doctors and lawyers to be as objective as possible when making decisions about investments, health and legal issues, but findings from a new study suggest that an unexpected factor could be influencing these choices. In a series of experiments, researchers found that people at higher elevations in an office building were more willing to take financial risks. The study is available online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. "When you increase elevation, there is a subconscious effect on the sense of power," says lead author Sina Esteky, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing in the business school at Miami University. "This heighted feeling of power results in more risk-seeking behavior." In a pilot study, the researchers analyzed data from more than 3,000 hedge funds throughout the world that accounted for assets over $500 billion. They correlated the level of volatility of the fund with the floor level of the firm -- which ranged from the first to the 96th floor. The researchers found a slight but significant correlation between increased elevation and the volatility of the fund. Esteky's team also conducted experiments in which participants were asked to make a betting decision as they were either ascending or descending in the glass elevator of a tall building. The participants who were going up to the 72rd floor were more likely to opt for the risky lottery that could result in either a small or significant win. Those who were descending preferred the conservative lottery with either a moderate or slightly larger win. In another experiment, participants were either on the ground floor or third floor of a university building, and they were asked to make 10 decisions with differing levels of risk and payoff. Again, the researchers found that participants on the third floor more frequently chose risky options than their ground floor counterparts. To better understand the reason for this behavior, participants completed a series of unfinished words, and people on the third floor were more likely to create words associated with power than the participants on the ground floor. The researchers believe that increased power-related thoughts might explain how elevation affects risk preferences. Esteky suggests that elevation of an office building may be one reason certain hedge fund managers are willing to invest in risky assets such as Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency and worldwide payment system that is highly volatile. Although this study was limited to financial decisions, further studies could show whether the subconscious effect of elevation influences other professionals like doctors who are choosing treatment plans for patients, Esteky says. In another experiment, he discovered that people were more open to taking a sensory risk by trying an unfamiliar fruit when they were at a higher elevation in a building. Although the implications of these findings could be unsettling for consumers who are relying on themselves or paid experts to make rational choices, the elevation effect vanished when participants were informed that floor level influences behavior, Esteky explains. The effect also disappeared when people could not see that they were on a higher floor level, such as those in cubicles without a window view. "The important lesson is that when people become aware of the potential impact of elevation, it doesn't happen anymore," Esteky says. "The brain is very susceptive to subtle situational factors, but also really good at correcting for such effects, so awareness can help us be more rational in our decisions."
Many of the world's most charismatic animal species -- those that attract the largest interest and deepest empathy from the public -- are at high risk of extinction in part because many people believe their iconic stature guarantees their survival. A new international study published today in PLOS Biologysuggests that the popularity of tigers, lions, polar bears and others may actually contribute to the species' downfall. The researchers used a combination of online surveys, school questionnaires, zoo websites and animated films to identify the 10 most charismatic animals. The top three were tigers, lions and elephants, followed by giraffes, leopards, pandas, cheetahs, polar bears, gray wolves and gorillas. "I was surprised to see that although these 10 animals are the most charismatic, a major threat faced by nearly all of them is direct killing by humans, especially from hunting and snaring," said William Ripple, a distinguished professor of forest ecology at Oregon State University and a co-author on the study. "This killing by humans seems sadly ironic to me, as these are some of our most beloved wild animals." Many of these animals are so frequently depicted in pop culture and marketing materials that they may constitute a deceptive "virtual population" that is doing better in the media than in nature, noted lead author Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris. The researchers found, for example, that the average French citizen will see more virtual lions through photos, cartoons, logos and brands in one month than there are wild lions left in West Africa. "Unknowingly, companies using giraffes, cheetahs or polar bears for marketing purposes may be actively contributing to the false perception that these animals are not at risk of extinction, and therefore not in need of conservation," Courchamp said. In their paper, the researchers propose that companies using images of threatened species for marketing purposes provide information to promote their conservation, and perhaps part of their revenue for protection of the species. Endangered species conservation efforts are numerous, though splintered. The researchers note that 20 million Americans took to the streets in 1970 to demonstrate on the first Earth Day, but there hasn't been a similar mobilization for conservation since. Oregon State's Ripple said the concept of charismatic species is pervasive in conservation literature and the public may assume that efforts to ensure their survival are in place and successful. "Even much of the literature emphasizes the need to go beyond charismatic species and focus on the lesser known ones," Ripple said. "The public may be taking for granted that we're doing all we can to save them, when we don't even know for certain how many elephants, gorillas, or polar bears exist in the wild." The status of most of the top charismatic species is cause for alarm, Ripple pointed out. The abundance of tigers in the wild is estimated to be less than 7 percent of their historic number, and at least three sub-species -- Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers -- are now extinct. Lions are declining almost everywhere in Africa, with populations estimated to be at less than 8 percent of historic levels; only 175 individuals are thought to exist in Eurasia -- all of these are in India. The African forest elephant has declined by 62 percent in the last nine years, while savannah elephants are thought to be at less than 10 percent of their historic numbers -- mostly because of poaching. Fewer than 2,000 pandas remain, occupying less than 1 percent of their historic range and their future is uncertain because of climate change. "The top 10 charismatic animals are all mammals and include some of the largest carnivores and largest herbivores in the terrestrial world," Ripple said. "The fact that humans are also large mammals might explain why the public has a strong affinity for these 10 mammals -- it seems like people also love large animals much more than small ones." Nearly half (48.6 percent) of all the non-teddy bear stuffed animals sold in the United States on Amazon were one of the 10 charismatic animals, while in France some 800,000 "Sophie the giraffe" baby toys were sold in 2010 -- more than eight times the numbers of giraffes living in Africa. "The appearance of these beloved animals in stores, in movies, on television, and on a variety of products seems to be deluding the public into believing they are doing okay," Ripple said. "If we don't act in a concerted effort to save these species, that may soon be the only way anyone will see them."
When organizations turn a blind eye to sexual harassment in the workplace, how many people need to take a stand before the behavior is no longer seen as normal? According to a new paper published in Science, there is a quantifiable answer: Roughly 25% of people need to take a stand before large-scale social change occurs. This idea of a social tipping point applies to standards in the workplace and any type of movement or initiative. Online, people develop norms about everything from what type of content is acceptable to post on social media, to how civil or uncivil to be in their language. We have recently seen how public attitudes can and do shift on issues like gay marriage, gun laws, or race and gender equality, as well as what beliefs are or aren't publicly acceptable to voice. During the past 50 years, many studies of organizations and community change have attempted to identify the critical size needed for a tipping point, purely based on observation. These studies have speculated that tipping points can range anywhere between 10 and 40%. The problem for scientists has been that real-world social dynamics are complicated, and it isn't possible to replay history in precisely the same way to accurately measure how outcomes would have been different if an activist group had been larger or smaller. "What we were able to do in this study was to develop a theoretical model that would predict the size of the critical mass needed to shift group norms, and then test it experimentally," says lead author Damon Centola, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Drawing on more than a decade of experimental work, Centola has developed an online method to test how large-scale social dynamics can be changed. In this study, "Experimental Evidence for Tipping Points in Social Convention," co-authored by Joshua Becker, Ph.D., Devon Brackbill, Ph.D., and Andrea Baronchelli, Ph.D., 10 groups of 20 participants each were given a financial incentive to agree on a linguistic norm. Once a norm had been established, a group of confederates -- a coalition of activists that varied in size -- then pushed for a change to the norm. When a minority group pushing change was below 25% of the total group, its efforts failed. But when the committed minority reached 25%, there was an abrupt change in the group dynamic, and very quickly the majority of the population adopted the new norm. In one trial, a single person accounted for the difference between success and failure. The researchers also tested the strength of their results by increasing the payments people got for adhering to the prevailing norm. Despite doubling and tripling the amount of money for sticking with the established behavior, Centola and his colleagues found that a minority group could still overturn the group norm. "When a community is close to a tipping point to cause large-scale social change, there's no way they would know this," says Centola, who directs the Network Dynamics Group at the Annenberg School. "And if they're just below a tipping point, their efforts will fail. But remarkably, just by adding one more person, and getting above the 25% tipping point, their efforts can have rapid success in changing the entire population's opinion." Acknowledging that real-life situations can be much more complicated, the authors' model allows for the exact 25% tipping point number to change based on circumstances. Memory length is a key variable, and relates to how entrenched a belief or behavior is. For example, someone whose beliefs are based on hundreds of past interactions may be less influenced by one change agent, whereas someone who considers only their more recent interactions would be more easily swayed. "Our findings present a stark contrast to centuries of thinking about social change in classical economics, in which economists typically think a majority of activists is needed to change a population's norms," says Centola. "The classical model, called equilibrium stability analysis, would dictate that 51% or more is needed to initiate real social change. We found, both theoretically and experimentally, that a much smaller fraction of the population can effectively do this." Centola believes environments can be engineered to push people in pro-social directions, particularly in contexts such as in organizations, where people's personal rewards are tied directly to their ability to coordinate on behaviors that their peers will find acceptable. Centola also suggests that this work has direct implications for political activism on the Internet, offering new insight into how the Chinese government's use of pro-government propaganda on social networks like Weibo, for example, can effectively shift conversational norms away from negative stories that might foment social unrest. While shifting people's underlying beliefs can be challenging, Centola's results offer new evidence that a committed minority can change what behaviors are seen as socially acceptable, potentially leading to pro-social outcomes like reduced energy consumption, less sexual harassment in the workplace, and improved exercise habits. Conversely, it can also prompt large-scale anti-social behaviors such as internet trolling, internet bullying, and public outbursts of racism. The implications for large-scale behavior change are also the subject of Centola's new book, How Behavior Spreads, published this month by Princeton University Press.