Life lessons from chickens

It’s no secret I keep chickens. I find this thoroughly rewarding, as not only are they lovely primordial creatures, but with some love and care will endow a supply of tasty eggs for around the same price as supermarket eggs.

A bird’s-eye view

Chickens are very odd creatures, and one cold morning recently I wondered what (if any) life lessons we might be able to learn from them. Given how many millennia chickens have been around humans, it is no surprise that we have many sayings involving chickens.Some of my favourites:

– “It is better to be the head of chicken than the rear end of an ox” – Japanese Proverb

– “Business is never so healthy as when, like a chicken, it must do a certain amount of scratching for what it gets” – Henry Ford

– “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” – Samuel Butler

– “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

– “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”

– “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”

There is some hilarious truth in many of these statements, in an divination or i-ching way perhaps considering chickens can help us reflect on our own decisions. After all, why did the chicken cross the road?

Still scared

More than these amusing proverbs, chickens fear change. It takes months for them to get used to eating out of a human’s hand, and they scatter very easily (hence the playground speak for scared, “are you chicken?”). In this way, they seem to be very similar to people. A quick google of “people fear change” leads to 223 million pages.

A famous study on “Framing” by behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky suggests that our loss aversion (desire to minimise perceived change) almost always altered our choices even when the other choice was identical. David McRaney summarised the study nicely:

Imagine the apocalypse is upon you. Some terrible disease was unleashed in an attempt to cure male pattern baldness. The human population has been reduced to 600 people. Everyone is likely to die without help. As one of the last survivors you meet a scientist who believes he has found a cure, but he isn’t sure. He has two versions and can’t bear to choose between them. His scientific estimates are exact, but he leaves the choice up to you. Cure A is guaranteed to save exactly 200 people. Cure B has a 1/3 probability of saving 600, but a 2/3 probability of saving no one. The fate of hairlines and future generations is in your hands. Which do you pick? Ok, mark your answer and let’s reimagine the scenario. Same setup, everyone is going to die without a cure, but this time if you use Cure C it is certain exactly 400 people will die. Cure D has a 1/3 probability of killing no one, but a 2/3 probability killing 600. Which one?

Most people chose Cure A in the first scenario and Cure D in the second, but both situations presented are actually the same with different framing. The results showed how humans choose the option that minimises loss: the one with the least perceived change. According to lifehacker, because we’re so opposed to inciting change, logic can go right out the window.

By being aware of this bias, perhaps we can avoid the perils of “being a chicken”.


Introducing… Active Procrastination!

I think this is one of the first times I’ve created something new in a psychology context. Let me first outline the problem. I struggle to relax and unwind, but sometimes (even/especially during the workday) I need to do something different to get away from stuff. I guess you’d call this procrastination. Often I would go for a walk or do some exercise, and my friends were saying why don’t you just watch TV / read the internet / play flash games. But I couldn’t. If I did, I just felt guilty and certainly didn’t get pleasure or relaxation from it.

Research by Chu and Choi suggests that:

Not all procrastination behaviors either are harmful or lead to negative consequences.

I wanted to be able to procrastinate, not least because of this cool research that can be seen in this wonderful article. Basically, people who were told a problem, then played minesweeper, then attempted to answer a creative problem, came out with many more answers. As mentioned in the article, this may not be strictly speaking procrastination, but what I can do is replicate this creativity study environment at home for myself in the hope of enjoying their reported 28% increased creativity.

Cue the world debut of the Active Procrastination Board:


Each card has something different on it, a little like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Unlike oblique strategies, they are all activities designed to:

  • Take me away from what I am doing
  • Take varying lengths of time (so I can choose what I need)
  • Be things I would like to do
  • Be playful
  • Be a large range of different types of thing
  • Be mostly “wholesome” activities
  • Not be too intellectually or physically taxing

When I first used this, I started having it with dice to pick the card, one for the row-number and one for the column-number. However, I found I wanted to use the board more if I picked one I wanted to do at that time instead. For example, “heading to the library to read a random book” in the rain is annoying and takes ages, but in dry weather is fine.

Please let me know your thoughts, and if you try creating your own I’d love to hear about it!


Agile research needs help

Reading some academic papers on Agile recently, there is a huge misunderstanding about what Agile means.

In particular, some academics use the word Agile when really they mean Scrum. There are papers (for example this one) which say “agile teams” and continue on to describe how long their iterations (or even worse, Sprints) are. Sprints are a feature of Scrum alone, of all the Agile frameworks: the Agile framework of Kanban for example does not have iterations. Maybe this is an accidental slip-up, but I would hope for more accuracy from academics.

There are also lots of really great articles by people who helped come up with the very idea of Agile. The reason I am worried about even a few dodgy papers is that one experiment (or research paper) can easily be cited out of context or generalised by another paper, leading to huge misconceptions and ultimately a misleading (but popular) HBR or linkedin article without the right context.

Having said this, it is great that academics are starting to look at Agile: some claim the “research lags years behind of the practice” [1]. For me in particular, I am interested in whether the motivation experiments (which we rely upon for incentivising software developers and trying to keep them motivated) truly apply to software development tasks. This BBC article summarises some of the studies, on playing computer games, maths tests, and repetitive-key pressing. But there are none that I can find which examine software development motivation.

In some disciplines, generalising and abstracting is necessarily bread-and-butter: in Physics this makes loads of sense, but in Psychology given how complex and counter-intuitive some human decision making can be (eg “it was found that everyday hassles and uplifts were a better predictor of concurrent and subsequent psychological symptoms than were the life events scores” [2]). I’d love to share more of these things in a subsequent post, though I am by no means an expert in Behavioural Economics.

2014 most common jobs
The most common job in each US State (2014)

The most common job in several US states is now Software Developer (rather than Secretary or Farmer, as it once was) [3]. Given the huge numbers of people now employed as software developers throughout the world, it would be great to be sure that we are interacting and incentivising them properly.

I hope this post inspires some academics to get more involved in fieldwork and talking with industry, and also inspires some Agile evangelists working in organisations to take a bit more of a rigourous and self-critical perspective when it comes to documenting and sharing what they are learning.