Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement

Overview

You don't need to read this book to know that wealth can't buy happiness; proof of that is abundantly available in every magazine and newspaper. But what does make us happy, and why, and how do these connect to our ability to make the money we need for our very existence?

The surprising answers to these questions and many others can be found in Jacob Burak's Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement. An Israeli bestseller that sold more than 30,000 copies in a year, Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement was number one on the Israeli non-fiction list for three months and spent another nine months in the top ten.

In fast-flowing prose packed with anecdotes, research and humor, Burak proves that while 50% of our capacity for happiness is genetic and 10% depends on our circumstances, fully 40% is up to us and the choices we make. The amount of money we have, above a certain level, is almost negligible with regards to happiness. Try to recall the happiest moment you experienced during the past week. What was it? A nice meal with friends? Exceptionally good sex? A fascinating book or film or performance? Let's agree that not one of these is connected to the weakening of the dollar or the rising price of oil.

Burak offers a ten-point guide to happiness that anyone can apply, along with a layman's study of evolutionary psychology that gives the reader a clear understanding of our place in the greater world and explains how a wide range of human behavior derives from the way our brains were wired hundreds of thousands years ago: a cautious approach to business, a loathing of insects, a reluctance to leave food on our plates, even our social and sexual preferences.

Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement will entertain you by answering dozens of questions such as:

  • Why we are more likely to respond to e-mails when the sender’s initials are the same as ours?
  • Why we buy more stock on sunny days without any connection to the behavior of the markets?
  • Why – in spite of the fact that we understand the clear advantages of patience and long-term investing – our behavior proves we prefer the short term?
  • Why we are evolutionarily blind to the concept of probability but nonetheless exercise optimism and overconfidence, even when the odds are strongly against us?
  • Why, for the very same evolutionary reasons, we are fearful for our status and ,therefore willing to take unreasonable risks to stave off our status anxiety?
  • Why we work night and day to achieve freedom of choice, but suffer when there are too many options to choose from?
  • Why we are willing to sacrifice a great deal in order to be rich, but cannot internalize the fact that money cannot buy happiness, and that focusing on material values is actually an obstacle to happiness?
  • Why we overwork ourselves so that we can retire in comfort, without realizing that it is easier to get rich than it is to retire?
  • • Why firstborn children are averse to risk-taking?
  • Why it pays to trust others?
  • Why women may be better investors than men?

The story of the international business community is the story of the businesspeople who run it and therefore the story of human weaknesses. Ultimately, if stock markets behaved in a completely rational fashion, no one would buy or sell a single share of any stock. For every intelligent – but human – seller, who feels that the price of the stock he is selling is high, there is a buyer – no less intelligent, no less human – convinced that the price of the stock is attractive, ripe for buying.

The source of these human weaknesses is more integral to our nature than we are willing to admit. Thousands of research studies in behavioral science have documented the biases that ultimately determine our behavior in business. This book draws from these studies, mixing them with engaging stories and characters to uncover to what extent we control our own happiness and success.

Excerpts

The Riddle of Hungarian Applause

In March 2006 the heads of the Budapest Spring Festival were faced with the nightmare of orchestral managers of every generation: the unusually warm weather brought not only a large number of tourists but a virus that struck down the two main performers as well – the conductor and the solo pianist. Alexander Sladkovsky, principal conductor of the Saint Petersburg Capella Symphony Orchestra and well known to the festival organizers, was asked to step in as conductor. Entrusting the Budapest Philharmonic's debut performance of Chopin's Concerto No. 1 for Piano to an Italian pianist by the name of Pietro De Maria was more daring.

The Budapest Spring Festival has a particularly successful history of last-minute replacement of musicians, and the 2006 festival was no exception. The audience was very appreciative of the young pianist's exciting performance and of the conductor's inspiring rendition of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, which brought the evening to a close. The applause continued for no less than twelve minutes, and this is of interest to us.

In Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe, an audience expresses appreciation for a good performance by the strength and nature of its applause. The initial thunder often turns into synchronized clapping, which has a well-defined pattern: strong incoherent clapping at the outset is followed by a relatively sudden synchronization process, after which everybody claps simultaneously and periodically. This spontaneous synchronization can disappear and reappear several times during the applause, or, as in the case of the Budapest Spring Festival of 2006, dozens of times.

The ability of hundreds of members of an audience to coordinate their applause is a known phenomenon; so, too, is the fact that from the moment it manages this feat, an audience needs relatively little effort to maintain the beat. So why does the audience prefer instead to revert to the chaos that characterizes the onset of the process, repeating it again and again?

Zoltán Néda, a Romanian professor of theoretical physics first exposed to the phenomenon at the end of a performance of Ionesco's The Bald-Headed Singer in Hungary, was determined to solve the riddle. Together with Albert-László Barabási of the University of Notre Dame and several other colleagues, Néda conducted a study that is clearly one of the oddest in the history of physics.

The researchers probably envisioned flocks of migrating birds flying in pattern, schools of thousands of fish moving as a single entity or the synchronized flashing of Southeast Asian fireflies, which light up the night in flashes that can be seen for miles. Mathematicians call this phenomenon Global Oscillation, whereby crickets synchronize their chirping, pacemaker cells in the heart synchronize the contractions that pump 2.72 fluid ounces of blood through our bodies with each heartbeat, and women living together for long periods of time menstruate in a synchronized fashion.

A precondition for Global Oscillation is a low variance of the measured phenomena, in our case the applause of the audience.

After recording several theater and opera performances in Romania and Hungary, the researchers analyzed the results according to sound volume, noise intensity (volume divided by time) and average noise intensity.

They discovered that typically, after a few seconds of random clapping, a periodic signal of pronounced pikes develops. While synchronization increases the strength of the signal at the moment of the clapping, it surprisingly leads to a decrease in the average noise intensity in the room. Apparently, the conflicting desire of the audience to simultaneously increase the average noise intensity and maintain synchronization leads to the sequence of appearing and disappearing synchronized patterns.

So how do the researchers explain the strange behavior of the Eastern European audiences that zigzag between two types of hand-clapping? The human capacity for coordinating the sounds of individuals into a tribal chorus has clear evolutionary roots, providing a significant tool for survival against distant predators attempting to assess the size of their potential prey according to the level of noise it makes.

Everyone is familiar with the feeling we get from being part of a group – cheering on a sporting competition, taking part in a demonstration, watching the voting results with a crowd of people on Election Day. Researchers claim that the musical descendants of prehistoric man are torn between two conflicting desires. The first – primal, immediate – is the spontaneous wish of the audience to express its appreciation to the artists who have just performed for them. Quite naturally, this message grows clearer as the intensity of the sound increases. And that, the researchers found, is higher when the applause is random. The other is the desire to belong to the group and to gain another chance to listen to the artists. Friendly, rhythmic clapping carries this message, which is cultural in nature, most efficiently.

Accelerating the rhythm, which reflects the urgency of the audience's request, causes each individual member of the audience to applaud the artists at his own rate when the performers return to the stage.

The dynamic of Hungarian applause raises the question that faces society in general and business institutions in particular: Is the power of the institution concealed in the variation and uniqueness of every employee, or is it, in fact, in the common denominator that they share? Is an institution more efficient in reaching a common goal than the individuals that comprise it, even if the latter are more intense in expressing themselves? And in general, can an individual realize any cultural or economic goal without the aid of other individuals – partners, clients, employees, mentors and others?

Tennis star Althea Gibson, the first African-American woman to win at Wimbeldon (1955), had a simple answer to this question: "No matter what accomplishment you achieve, someone helps you."

Cutting Loose the Dependent Variable

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
And that was the end of
Solomon Grundy.

This lullaby, from nineteenth-century England, kept hundreds of little children tossing and turning in their beds at night. Its dubious charm is a result of how our minds work; we assume that all these events were compressed into one tragic week, when in fact they took place over the course of many years.

Another example of a false assumption: in 2006, I visited the National Gallery in London to see the exhibit “Americans in Paris, 1860-1900.” The exhibit highlights the influence of the Parisian art scene on the young American painters who flocked there in the late nineteenth century, including Cassatt, Whistler, Homer and Sargent.

Anyone over the age of sixty, as I am, cannot resist the ontological temptation to glance at the plaque on the wall and calculate the years between the artist’s birth and the artist’s death. The result, it seems, heralds the writing on our own walls.

A quick survey of the dates gives us the sense that the Parisian atmosphere is conducive to a long life. The life spans depicted on the ornate walls of the National Gallery seemed to be longer than the norm for that time. As soon as I noticed this discrepancy, I bought the catalog, did the math, and found that, indeed, the average life expectancy of the 34 artists featured in the gallery was 71 years, as compared to a life expectancy of 48 among the general population of Europe in 1900.

Could it be that the thrill of accomplishment, creativity, and public acknowledgement leads to a longer life?

Although I’ve always assumed that an artist lengthens his life with creativity and shortens it with alcohol, I know that this statistical association is not enough to resolve this issue. Consider the following example: it appears that the increase in wireless communication in England during the 1950s increased in proportion to the number of admissions to mental hospitals at the same time and place. What does this tell us? Nothing, really, once we understand that the natural increase in population growth is responsible for both of these phenomena. That is the extent of their connection.

Our desperate need to connect cause and effect gave rise to what is commonly known as the statistical correlation. In many cases, however, including the communications case described above, cause and effect are only indirectly related, and the standard statistical approach is incapable of detecting this.

For example, prose writers have a longer life span than poets. James Kaufman of the University of California compared the life spans of 1,987 writers and poets from the last few centuries. He discovered that, on average, writers died at the age of 66, playwrights at 63, and poets at only 62. How do we account for this difference? Some claim that poets are more prone to depression, and therefore consume more alcohol and other mood-altering drugs that shorten their lives. Others argue that writers often publish their masterpieces at a later age, while poets do their best work at a young age. Thus, anyone who dies young and has written a poem will be classified as a dead poet, while a prose writer who dies young will probably not be recognized as an artist at all. Most likely, there is some truth in both these explanations. However, the most convincing explanation is far less romantic: poets earn less than writers, and nutrition and medical care are both functions of income. This is the hidden connection between the two.

In another study, researchers compared the life spans of popes to the life spans of court painters who lived between 1200 and 1900. According to this study, the popes, on average, lived five years longer than the painters. In an attempt to take into consideration the fact that popes tend to be elected at an advanced age, researchers included only those painters who were still alive when their popes were inaugurated. The study, which included 80 popes and 426 painters, showed that the painters were 50% more likely to die before age 70 than the popes who lived at the same time. Even in this case, however, we cannot allow ourselves to draw any rash conclusions until we have considered all the variables. The autonomous lifestyle of a painter, for instance, is much more dangerous than the puritanical lifestyle of the clergy. Moreover, some of the paints that were used during that period contained toxic amounts of lead.

Some scientists are constantly striving to simplify things by means of the statistical correlation. A German automotive magazine analyzed the sex lives of more than two thousand of its readers. The dependent variable was how many times a week the readers had sexual relations. The independent variable was the kind of car they owned. Men who owned Porsches lagged at the bottom of the list, with a score of 1.4. Can we make a connection between these two variables? To do so would be hasty. The connecting variable in this case is age: most Porsche owners are older, and as a result less sexually active. As the writer and journalist Greg Easterbrook quipped, “Interrogate numbers and they’ll tell you everything.”

The statistical correlation is also the basis for most economic decisions, which try to draw a connection between two seemingly unrelated variables. The human mind does not want to consider that the two variables may, in fact, not be related at all. When a causal connection doesn’t exist, we create it ourselves.

What really drives us to recklessly impose logical connections between two statistical phenomena? Undoubtedly, there is great comfort in the notion that the world around us is an orderly place, and that – despite all evidence to the contrary – we are able to control it. But the real explanation lies, once again, in the nascent field of evolutionary psychology. Our evolutionary roots reward our minds for quick reasoning, especially in a life-threatening situation. The ability to identify a predator’s shadow, or to predict a famine based on the color of the soil, could save a person’s life. In a similar vein, society fosters our innate desire to make connections between two variables, even when reason warns us to be skeptical. When we make an association, the rewards are many: a pat on the back from a friend, a nod from a colleague, or a winning argument in a successful but scientifically questionable advertising campaign.

The temptation to make a quick and apparently meaningful quantitative association isn’t going away any time soon. But take heed: the word “figure” and the word “fictitious” both come from the same Latin root. So fingere – watch out!

Two Is One Too Many

On November 19th, 2005, a sparrow entered a hall in which a prestigious domino championship was taking place in Holland. The miserable creature knocked down 23,000 dominoes before being shot. A website set up in the wake of this event attracted tens of thousands of visitors.

In October 1987 the world held its breath while a rescue team worked diligently for two days to save Jessica McClure, a small child who had fallen into an abandoned well in Texas. Jessica, unlike the sparrow, was rescued, but the question that arises from these tales and many others like them is why stories about a single victim – identified by a name and a photograph – raise such compassion and interest in the media and touch us so deeply when millions of other nameless, faceless human beings are slaughtered, drowned or felled by diseases the world over but strike no chord in our hearts.

The above stories and the moral questions they pose are the core of Paul Slovic’s unique article. Slovic, a psychology professor at the Oregon University and a humanist, titles his article “If I look at the mass I will never act - Psychic Numbering and Genocide”. The title is taken from a statement of Nobel Prize Winner Mother Teresa who said, "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Are her words a worrisome insight into human nature?.

While there is no doubt most of us will pitch in to help a single person in distress, it is clear that there is no way to explain the apathy of political leaders without first understanding our own indifference to the suffering of others en masse. The cry of "Never again" that followed World War Two seems to have been replaced with "Again and again" (quoting an internet columnist M. Reynolds).

Many researchers relate to the "Dance of Effect and Reason" when they describe the decision-making process. Although rational analysis is important in assessing a situation, it turns out that our initial reaction comes from the part of our brains that is responsible for our emotional activities. Evolutionarily, it is the part that developed earliest, and its response time is fast and immediate. Our ability to intuit will always kick in before our power to judge.

Behavioral theories and a growing body of research support the notion that numerical representation of human life is incapable of describing the importance of this very life and that statistics about disasters on a global scale – as huge as they may be – cannot convey the true meaning of the horror and the distress or awaken our emotive mechanisms. And without this emotional reaction our logic has no chance of taking action.

One of the more effective ways of awakening dulled emotions is by adding a "picture" of some sort to the story. And of course the most representative picture of human life is the face. In a world of numbers and charts, it is the photograph of a human face that can make us identify with the downtrodden.

Although this phenomenon is well known in the laboratory, reactions to photographs of Rokia, a malnourished young woman from Mali, astonished even the researchers, Small & Loewenstein, who made use of them for an experiment. The researchers offered potential donors three options: to donate directly to Rokia, the victim pictured in the photograph; to give money to victims of malnourishment according to statistics detailing the scope of their misery; or, a combination of the two, i.e. contributing to the victim in the photograph where statistics are provided as well. Unsurprisingly, the photo of Rokia brought in twice as many contributions as the second option, but strangely enough, adding statistical information to the photograph of Rokia actually reduced willingness to contribute by 35%.

Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem argue that the dynamics of processing information dealing with a lone victim of hardship is qualitatively different to the path we take in analyzing groups in similar circumstances. In an experiment they conducted, it became clear that willingness to contribute to a single, identifiable child suffering from cancer was greater than willingness to contribute to a group of eight (identifiable!) children suffering from the same disease.

So what number is too large, rendering the "others" as invisible to us? Paul Slovic and other researchers sought to discover the lowest effective number. They added Maussa, a malnourished boy from Mali, to the photograph of Rokia. It turns out that our capacity for developing feelings for more than one person is limited: contributions for each child separately totaled more than the two together.

Bill Gates is known for his limited social skills; some say he is actually emotionally stunted. But though he may be a super-nerd, there are few people who can compare when it comes to abstract thinking about large numbers or understanding the problems of millions of Africans, which is where he has been channeling money from his charitable fund.

On that very topic, Clive Thompson wrote in Wired magazine in 2007 that "we tend to think that the way to address disease and death is to have more empathy. But maybe that's precisely wrong. Perhaps we should avoid leaders who 'feel your pain,' because their feelings will crap out at, you know, eight people…What we need are more Bill Gateses — people with Aspergian focus, with a direct sensual ability to understand what a million means. They've got to be able to envision every angel on the head of a pin. Because when it comes to stopping the mass tragedies of today's world, we're going to need every one of them."

But hang on a minute: Don't the leaders of the business world answer to that incisive definition?

Reviews & Interviews

Reviews

"Burak, who certainly knows how to spin a good yarn," has written, "with clarity and painstaking accuracy" a "lucid book, packed with interesting ideas and keen insights [that] needs to be read."
Amalia Rosenblum, Haaretz Books

"From the outside, [Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement] looks like just another 'how I made my fortune' book written by the ultra-rich. Inside, though, one discovers that it does offer something different."
—Shiri Lev-Ari, Haaretz

"The book is constructed as a collection of articles with many entertaining examples and interesting lessons to be learned."
—Tola'at Sfarim

"…a riveting collection of research from around the world combined with personal insights concerning the psychology of success. Burak, who has been described by [publisher Dov] Alfon as "someone with something to say who happens to have succeeded in business, as opposed to someone who succeeded in business and that's all he has to say," claims – contrary to the conventional wisdom of his peers – that while success is indeed a sign of talent and hard word, phenomenal success is nothing but a matter of circumstance. Sheer luck…Unlike books by [Lee] Iacocca, [Jack] Walsh, Donald Trump and others like them, the foundation on which Burak's book rests is that businesspeople are not necessarily smarter. His message, which contains a measure of humility (thought not necessarily modesty) is something like, 'I made a lot of money, but I don't have a lot to say about that.' Once this matter has been made clear, it is easier to relate to the arguments Burak sprinkles through the book in favor of evolutionary psychology."
—Rika Lichtman, Globes

"Burak uses a flood of statistics and studies for the purpose of trying to understand the magic of the business world through the prism of psychology and sociology, a relatively new branch of science that tries to elucidate human behaviour as a result of evolutionary influences."
—Eitan Elhadaz, Scoop

"A very challenging and interesting book, in a nutshell, but no less thorough, indeed a picture of the role and functioning of the consciousness of man, and how it can work the way we act and react. It is a fascinating exploration by the private life of man and the search for the reasons why people respond to certain stimuli. The difference between the animal and human, the passionate, impulsive, and the genius of man, namely the rational, thoughtful and planned. In a very lively way, a way which many examples and cases as basis for the theory to complement, we get a clear view of all these phenomena and the estimation of how people act. And this is on top of the individual to the greater society, including the role in a global context and the thinking of humans to the tooth is made, and yet also with many estimates and expectations are expressed in an airy, yet clear manner. A particularly confrontational book, who believes that an innocent man just way and must cope with his world. A must for those who want to assess the impact of man on his environment and the world. "
—Patrick Vandendaele, Dutch review

 

Dutch
M&L /May 09

managementboek.nl

Italian
D la Repubblica delle Donne /May 09

il Giorale.it /July 09

Torino Sette /September 09

IL Secolo /September 09

io donna /September 09

la Stampa /September 09

Reset DOC /October 09

Unione Sarda /November 09

 

Interviews

How to make money - or at least be happy

  Readers’ Comments

  1. Very interesting reading. realy enjoyed it
    Nir
  2. The book opened my eyes on a concept usually under-valued: companies are made of people and understanding human behavior is fondamental to reach professional goals.
    Thanks,
    Pietro
  3. I read the book. I think it is very unique and interesting!
    Kobi
  4. Jacob, I found your writings on entrepreneurs of great interest. In fact, my team at Duke and Harvard which confirms some of what you wrote about the background and motivations of entrepreneurs. We surveyed 550 successful entrepreneurs. We found, for example, that the average birth order of respondents in their family was 2.2 and the average number of siblings was 3.1. Here are links to download those papers: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1431263 and http://ssrn.com/abstract=1507384 have also written two articles about entrepreneurs recently: http://techcrunch.com/2010/02/27/can-entrepreneurs-be-made/ and  ttp://techcrunch.com/2010/03/06/replicators-innovators-and-bill-gates/
    Vivek

 

5
חזרה לראש העמוד