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This is the year to start taking happiness seriously. But how and where do you find the time? Here are the tips and advice you need for a pleasure-filled year

The last time I felt joy was at an event that would be many peoples vision of hell: a drunken Taylor Swift club-night singalong in the early hours of the morning a few weekends ago.

I certainly experience joy, either as peaks of euphoria or in quiet, unexpected bursts. But as I go about my everyday business sprinting to meet deadlines, standing in front of the open fridge I wouldnt say it looms large.

I am not alone. Many of us treat joy like the good china, only warranted on special occasions. Even if we know it is within our reach, we may not see it is within our control.

But this is a mistake, according to happiness experts. Nataly Kogan, the author of Happier Now, says: Happiness and emotional health are not extras, or bonuses, or nice-to-haves theyre actually at the core of what helps us live well.

Seeking joy may sound frivolous, but being happy has been shown to promote habits and behaviours that are important to our health. A 2017 study of roughly 7,000 adults found that those with positive wellbeing were more likely to be physically active and to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Being happy has also been linked to better sleep, better weight management, lower stress levels, an improved immune system and even increased life expectancy.

Despite the myriad benefits of joy and the obvious incentive that it feels good many of us dont prioritise it. But experts point out that our resources and energy are finite; what we put off will fall by the wayside. So, as with any goal, the first step to a joyful life is to make it a priority which may mean you need to let go of other commitments and then do the work. In other words, we need to start taking joy seriously.

As the founder and chief executive of the wellbeing business Happier, Kogan helps companies to improve their workplace culture and professionals to foster joy in their lives lessons born out of her experience of career burnout and personal dissatisfaction in her late 30s. She likens herself at the time to a ship on the ocean fine in favourable conditions, but at the mercy of any storm.

Now 44 and based with her family in Boston, Massachusetts, Kogan says she has landed on practices and tools to harness happiness as a steady, sustainable presence in her daily life. The first of these is not to think of happiness as something to pursue at a later date, when your life is in order. I lived with this idea of: Ill be happy when … as I know so many people do, she says. We have to look at emotional health as a skill, not a destination. And, as with any skill, when you practise, you do better.

The gains have been established in research into baseline happiness what in psychological literature is called our hedonic set point. It varies from person to person, but the key point is that our baseline is only half determined by genetics. That means the other 50% is up to us, says Kogan. I think that is incredibly empowering.

So, what can we do to make 2020 a more joyful year?

Identify the problem

Draw a large circle, divide it into segments and label each to reflect a different area of life that you want to assess. Illustration: Adam Higton/The Guardian

Start by identifying where joy is most lacking. Sarah Waite, a London-based psychologist, suggests the wheel of life, a personal development exercise derived from the Buddhist theory of balance. Draw a large circle, divide it into eight or 10 segments and label each to reflect a different area of life that you want to assess.

There are templates online, typically along the lines of fun and recreation, physical environment, career, finances, personal growth, romance, family and friends, and health. Shade in each wedge to reflect your level of satisfaction.

The finished circle should be an overview of the areas of your life that you feel you have under control, and those that may need further attention. When it comes to deciding where to allocate resources, its not necessarily the one youve marked the lowest; its the one you really value the most, says Waite. It may be that your job is not a priority for you, so it doesnt matter if it remains only two-thirds filled.

The goal is to get perspective and clarity. The brain has evolved to be much more sensitive to negatives than positives as, historically, it has been more important for us to be attuned to hazardous situations than satisfactory ones. This negativity bias distorts our perspective, meaning it is hard to make a good decision under stress, says Kogan. People can focus on things that are not as they should be We all have our stories of why we are not happy, at work or otherwise. But small, practical steps taken to boost joy in one part of life can improve happiness across the board as momentum builds.

The big picture

Kogans first tip is to start by writing a list of what you like about your job, no matter how small. Be specific, think broadly and dont judge your list as you write it. It doesnt matter what they are, or how many there are; the idea is to shift your mindset.

Kogan suggests making it a daily habit to note three small, highly specific things that you are grateful for every morning, perhaps before you reach for your phone. Its not about pretending that nothing is wrong, its about helping your brain to get out of that negativity spiral.

Just three weeks of this consistent gratitude practice has been shown to establish new neuron connections facilitating optimism, with the effects lasting for six months. Mindfulness and self-compassion are similarly powerful, says Shamash Alidina, the author of Mindfulness for Dummies and the co-founder of the not-for-profit Museum of Happiness and more attainable than people may think.

Many equate mindfulness with clearing ones mind of thoughts entirely. This means they often give up out of frustration, says Alidina but its not about not thinking, its about being aware. Spending just a few minutes noticing your thoughts pass you by like clouds, experimenting with what Alidina calls your flexibility of attention, can equip you to stop negative spirals before they start. People associate meditation with being calm or relaxed, but its really just about not getting lost in your thoughts, he says.

What does it all mean?

Finding lasting happiness is also about what we do, particularly what we do for others. Kogan says it is important to have a sense of purpose to find what she calls the bigger why among our deadlines and meetings. Its not possible to be a happy human being if you dont feel like what youre doing is meaningful, she says.

Assessing your to-do list particularly tasks you find mundane or frustrating through the lens of Who does this help? can increase motivation, lift your mood and improve your ability to manage stress, she says. When you say: This project is going to help a lot of people my team, customers, readers, whatever your stress has context and you feel more resilient getting through it.

Helping others may seem like a circular way of boosting your happiness, but Kogan says even small gestures, such as pulling out a chair for a colleague or checking in with them about their day, releases oxytocin in the giver and the receiver. Over time, it also fosters a sense of belonging at work and can lead to office friendships one of the most common factors in job satisfaction.

The mindset shift encouraged by practising intentional kindness means it is worth doing for your own happiness, says Kogan. At 3pm every day, she receives a reminder to be kind. Sometimes that is as simple as texting someone she hasnt spoken to in a while and telling them that shes thinking of them: I cannot tell you how much that means to people.

Family fortunes

It is well known that strong relationships are important to happiness, but what those look like and how to forge them can be ambiguous. Happiness can feel very abstract, says Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. My approach is to think about what you want, then break it up into manageable, concrete actions that you can actually take.

In terms of improving relationships, that might look like making a regular time to call or meet a friend, committing to attend a reunion or throw a party, or having a daily exchange with someone in public. Every five days or so, Rubins family email each other an update on the boring everyday stuff of their lives, freed from any pressure to entertain or an expectation to reply. We realised that, by staying in touch with the little minutiae, we would feel more connected and its absolutely working.

Making warm greetings and goodbyes habitual at home is another small but effective shift (I always think that I dont want to be less enthusiastic than my dog, says Rubin). Such low-level commitments are less daunting to start and easier to keep up and they make a real impact. We all have different definitions of happiness, Rubin says, whether it be joy, peace, satisfaction, bliss. My way of thinking about it is: today, next month, next year are there things you can do to be happier? she says. And if there are, why not do them?

Home truths

If Rubin comes across an improvement at home that she can make in less than a minute, she does it immediately. For her, outer order contributes to inner calm, so happiness can be as simple as a clean kitchen bench or a decluttered shelf. It feels trivial and yet over and over people say: When I have control of my environment, I feel like I have control generally, says Rubin. Like making your bed every morning it gives people a lift, more than really makes sense.

Often this is understood as minimalism but there are many happy, successful people who take pleasure in being surrounded by their possessions, says Rubin. It is not a moral failing to prefer abundance, and making your personal space reflect your values and interests can be very pleasing.

Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of The Aesthetics of Joy, agrees. Weve been taught to think about our homes through the lens of other people: whats trendy, what the design books say, she says. As a result, many of us are out of touch with how our spaces measure on our own joy meters. We may view a neutral grey palette as the height of sophistication when, in fact, what brings us pleasure is a neon front door.

Control is inextricable from exercise, sleep and good money management. Illustration: Adam Higton/The Guardian

Even the presence of different shapes can have an impact, with people finding angular objects more subconsciously anxiety-inducing than round ones. Rounded objects also tend to make environments more playful, says Lee: Not only because your mind is unconsciously set at ease, but because youre less worried about bumping into sharp edges.

Play is an effective mood-booster that is often neglected in adulthood. Rubin says she marks holidays such as Halloween and St Patricks Day with themed meals, just because, while the Museum of Happinesss pop-up installations in London and Manchester later this month are testament to the transformative effects of a ballpit on otherwise sober adults.

To bring some of that spirit into your home, Lee advises trying to imagine you are visiting for the first time: Notice how it makes you feel, almost the physiological sensation in your body, as you move from room to room. What are the things that, when your eyes land on them, make you smile or feel drained?

The key is not to feel burdened by your possessions. Owning less means you are surrounding yourself with only your favourite things, says Joshua Becker, who writes the blog Becoming Minimalist. Being intentional with the things that we own and, by extension, our money means that our lives align with our values and passions: things that really matter to us. Minimalism removes distractions so that we can free up our money, time and energy on those things that bring us real joy in life, says Becker.

Early to bed

Play, gratitude and kindness may factor into a life full of joy, but so can discipline. A sense of control is more important to happiness than many people realise, says Rubin. Prosaically enough, this is inextricable from exercise, sleep and good money management. Too often, happiness is located solely in the moment, she says, when it could be achieved through giving up sugar or alcohol, or setting an alarm to go to bed on time. Sometimes, to be happier in the long run, we have to ask more of ourselves or deprive ourselves of something, says Rubin. A happy life is not one thats focused only on the present.

Embracing boredom

In the same vein, putting off a difficult or boring task can detract from your daily experience more than getting stuck into it. Waite says she rolls her eyes at the framing of self-care as baths and candles: I love those things, but if doing your tax return is really making you anxious, maybe the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to make a start. It may not be what is typically understood by joy, but sustainable, long-lasting happiness involves recognising that there are many shades on the emotional palette.

Research shows that occasionally accepting the presence of harder emotions means you experience them less intensely and for less time. In fact, the first step towards a joyful life may be letting go of your ideas of what that looks like and recognising that it is down to you.

Part of this exercise is to recognise that there isnt anything out there that is going to make you feel good 100% of the time, says Kogan. Thats actually great news, because when we let go of this particular idea of happiness we give ourselves more opportunities to be in alignment with our lives.

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Birthday cakes, gift cards, free lunches, snacks, movie tickets, and other perks are generously bestowed on employees to celebrate life’s happy moments. This is an improvement from the industrial approach to management, but can we go deeper for our work-family members?

Life’s darker moments hold the greatest opportunity to exemplify a genuine and caring 21st-century workplace culture. One which fosters empathy and camaraderie. Employee turnover is highest when employees take leave, claim FMLA, or use PTO. According to Global Studies, 79% of employees report their reason for quitting was simply due to feeling unnoticed (lack of appreciation).

Appreciation for your employees is best demonstrated as an act of kindness in moments that really matter, like the loss of a family member. Acknowledging that someone great is gone, instead of ignoring the uncomfortable aspects of grief, is a valuable way to embed empathy into your workplace culture.

Recently, while working with a mid-sized (500+ employees) tech company, I asked what they were doing to support employees during the negative life moments. The HR Director replied, “um, nothing really”.

Once realizing how crappy that sounded, another executive countered her by saying he sent an employee a t-shirt and card after a miscarriage. I later learned that the employee he was referring to had been with the company for over 5 years, so it’s safe to assume that she had a couple of company swag t-shirts in her collection prior to getting one as a get well gift.

Even in the largest and most notable companies, where a variety of employee amenities and benefits are offered, the concept and practice of empathy is often neglected. Perhaps you haven’t come across such extreme examples of indifference in your workplace, but you may have participated in signing a generic condolences card or chipping in for some flowers.

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There is no shortage of books and psychology articles with tips on how to use body language to achieve success. But let’s be real – no language trick will make your date instantly fall in love with you, or your dream company hire you. However, there are some psychological tricks that are so easy, you can use them every day. What can you gain from these tips? Well, you could appear more confident than you really are and that is a great start.

One internet user compiled a list of fun and easy psychological tricks that you can try for yourself. Take a look at these twenty short tips below and tell us in the comments whether you’ve used any of them before.

More info: bigboss0007Aditya Shukla

#1 Make Them Go Easier On You

If you predict that your boss is going to go off on you in a meeting, sit close to them. It is intensely uncomfortable to talk badly about someone and be aggressive when they are sitting right next to you. The result? The person that intended to bad-mouth you will take it easier.

#2 Learn Things With Ease

The best way to learn and remember something is by trying to explain it to someone else. We tend to simplify things when explaining them to others, therefore this might help you to concentrate on the most important bits of information that you wish to remember.

#3 Find Out Who’s Watching You

You know that feeling when you sense that someone is watching you, but you’re not really sure? Try yawning and then look at the person whom you suspect of watching. If they yawn too – then you know the person was watching you, as yawning is contagious.

#4 Stop Procrastinating

If you’re a procrastinator and have important tasks coming up that can’t be put off – try thinking about the task before you sleep. It will force your brain to act on them mentally and your brain will start to draw a pathway to the completion of the task. Simply put – before doing a task in the physical world, do it in your head first. When you get to…

If you’re a procrastinator and have important tasks coming up that can’t be put off – try thinking about the task before you sleep. It will force your brain to act on them mentally and your brain will start to draw a pathway to the completion of the task. Simply put – before doing a task in the physical world, do it in your head first. When you get to it in your real life, the brain will have already processed a huge chunk of the task, making it easier for you to actually finish it.

#5 Drop Name-Bombs

If you want to make an impression on someone and maybe even appear charming to them, try repeating their name throughout the conversation. This is because when we hear our names, it grabs our attention and makes us feel like we’re being personally addressed and really engaged with. Make sure you don’t overdo it though, as you might appear a little bit creepy.

#6 Do A Little Experiment

This is a fun little experiment to try – when you are having a conversation with someone, pick out one word that they say. Each time that the person says that word (or something close to it), just nod or give some other type of positive affirmation. Now watch your conversation partner start saying the word all the time.

#7 Spot Office Romances

While laughing in a group of people, we tend to glance at the person that we feel closest to. This can be an easy way to spot any office romances going on.

#8 Make Them Agree With You

If you want someone to agree with you when asking a question, slightly nod your head while doing so. In psychology it’s called mirroring. It means that people will be more likely to agree with you if you are sending positive affirmation signals (in this case, nodding).

#9 Appear Friendlier

Want to appear friendly and confident while meeting someone new? Try to make a note of their eye color. No need to mention it to them, of course, but the idea behind it is that it’s a simple technique to maintain the optimum amount of eye contact which is a sign of friendliness and confidence.

#10 Get The Information You Need

If you want somebody to open up to you, ask them a question and if the person answers it only partially – remain silent and keep eye contact for a little while. This will pressure the person into talking – only beware that some people might get irritated.

If you feel nervous before some kind of event or action, instead of biting your nails or reaching for a cigarette, just try chewing some gum beforehand. Our brains are wired to believe that we’re safe whenever we’re eating.

#12 Tackle Eye Contact Anxiety

If you experience anxiety, prolonged eye contact can make you a bit overwhelmed. If it is difficult and uncomfortable for you to maintain eye contact, try looking the person between the eyes. It does not look that much different to the observer and it will make you look way more confident and friendly.

#13 Make Your Kids To Finally Eat Vegetables

Every parent knows the struggle of trying to make your kids eat their vegetables. The trick? Instead of asking them if they want any broccoli at all (or any kind of vegetable for that matter), ask them whether they’d like three or five pieces of veg (the quantity is up to you). It’ll make kids feel as if they’ve made a grown-up choice and they’ll still be getting their nutrients….

Every parent knows the struggle of trying to make your kids eat their vegetables. The trick? Instead of asking them if they want any broccoli at all (or any kind of vegetable for that matter), ask them whether they’d like three or five pieces of veg (the quantity is up to you). It’ll make kids feel as if they’ve made a grown-up choice and they’ll still be getting their nutrients. It’s a win-win!

#14 Fake A Smile

If you’re feeling a bit down (we all have those days, don’t we?) trick your brain into thinking that you’re in a good mood by simply faking a smile. The brain and the body both exchange feedback simultaneously, therefore consequently, one affects the other in numerous ways. Fake smiling will engage similar neural networks as a genuine smile would. This means that faking a smile (or any other kind of…

If you’re feeling a bit down (we all have those days, don’t we?) trick your brain into thinking that you’re in a good mood by simply faking a smile. The brain and the body both exchange feedback simultaneously, therefore consequently, one affects the other in numerous ways. Fake smiling will engage similar neural networks as a genuine smile would. This means that faking a smile (or any other kind of expression of joy) can lift your mood.

#15 Mind Your Feet

The feet are a part of the body that we use a lot when communicating in body language. For example, if you approach someone and they turn their torso to you but not their feet – it’s a bad sign and means that they’d prefer to be left alone. Also if you are talking to a person and notice that their feet are pointing away from you, they most probably…

The feet are a part of the body that we use a lot when communicating in body language. For example, if you approach someone and they turn their torso to you but not their feet – it’s a bad sign and means that they’d prefer to be left alone. Also if you are talking to a person and notice that their feet are pointing away from you, they most probably want to flee.

#16 Kill The Annoying Earworm

Probably all of us at one point or another have had a song stuck in our heads that is just impossible to forget. The trick to stop the song playing over and over again inside your brain is to think about the ending of it. This is called the ‘Zeigarnik effect’ – it states that humans remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better in comparison to completed tasks.

#17 Listen To Classical Music While Studying

According to one study, it was found that rap and hip hop negatively affect GPA, while listening to classical and easy music positively affected GPA. It is thought that the reason behind this is that the vocals in the music are naturally distracting – we, as humans, are more reactive to vocal sounds than to non-vocal ones. Therefore, when learning something new – try listening to some classical music or…

According to one study, it was found that rap and hip hop negatively affect GPA, while listening to classical and easy music positively affected GPA. It is thought that the reason behind this is that the vocals in the music are naturally distracting – we, as humans, are more reactive to vocal sounds than to non-vocal ones. Therefore, when learning something new – try listening to some classical music or songs without lyrics.

#18 Learn Wiser

If you have a lot of content which you need to learn, try learning it in chunks of relevant information instead of trying to memorize the whole thing in one sitting. This method of studying is a combination of two psychological processes called ‘interleaving’ and ‘chunking’. For example, if you have a large text to memorize, instead of cramming it whole, read two or three related topics about it and…

If you have a lot of content which you need to learn, try learning it in chunks of relevant information instead of trying to memorize the whole thing in one sitting. This method of studying is a combination of two psychological processes called ‘interleaving’ and ‘chunking’. For example, if you have a large text to memorize, instead of cramming it whole, read two or three related topics about it and then get back to your main paper. Similar topics are filled with information that will later fit into the larger framework, which will then make easier for you to comprehend the whole topic. Also, processing the information in chunks makes your brain retain the information much easier.

#19 Alleviate Motion Sickness

Motion sickness happens when your vestibular system tells the brain that you’re moving, while your eyes are looking at something that is still and informs the brain that you are actually stationary. This clash results in motion sickness. To alleviate it – try looking outside the window as this way, your brain will understand that you’re actually moving.

#20 Ask For Favors

According to a psychological phenomenon called the ‘Ben Franklin effect,’ our minds struggle to maintain consistency between our actions and perceptions. This is due to so-called cognitive dissonance. Would you like to see how it works in practice? Try asking someone to do a small favor for you, as it tricks the other person into thinking they like you (spot the dissonance?). As Benjamin Franklin said himself, “He that has…

According to a psychological phenomenon called the ‘Ben Franklin effect,’ our minds struggle to maintain consistency between our actions and perceptions. This is due to so-called cognitive dissonance. Would you like to see how it works in practice? Try asking someone to do a small favor for you, as it tricks the other person into thinking they like you (spot the dissonance?). As Benjamin Franklin said himself, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.â€

While walking down a busy street, keep your eyes locked on the direction you’re walking towards. People tend to watch other people’s eyes in crowded areas, to see which direction they’re going so that they can go the opposite way.

#22 Don’t Be The Middle Guy

An easy way to make an impression on someone that is interviewing you for a job – don’t be the person in the middle. Simply put – try to be either the first or the last interviewee. People tend to have the clearest memories of something that happened either in the beginning or at the end of something, and our minds easily blur everything that happened in between.

#23 Win Rock, Paper, Scissors

An easy way to win a “rock, paper, scissors” game is to ask someone a question just before the game starts. If you drop a question and then immediately proceed to say “rock, paper, scissors,” chances are that your partner will most likely throw scissors.

#24 Ask Someone To Help You Without Saying A Word

If you are carrying a heavy load, let’s say several bags of groceries or a pile of books, and you want to share the load with someone – just keep talking while you’re handing them the bag (or books). The majority of people will automatically take the bag from you without even thinking about it. However, some people might become confused.

#25 Make Bonding Easier

If you want to seem inviting when meeting someone new, make sure your hand is warm before giving them a handshake. In addition, try subtly mimicking their body language as it builds trust and makes you bond easier.

#26 Drop The Annoying Habit

An amazing thing about our brain is that it is extremely gullible and will believe anything you say – therefore, you can use this trait to your advantage. Firstly, you need to have a trigger – a thing that scares you, like social anxiety for instance. Then, for example, if you want to quit an unhealthy habit, like biting your nails, lie to your brain that you biting your nails…

An amazing thing about our brain is that it is extremely gullible and will believe anything you say – therefore, you can use this trait to your advantage. Firstly, you need to have a trigger – a thing that scares you, like social anxiety for instance. Then, for example, if you want to quit an unhealthy habit, like biting your nails, lie to your brain that you biting your nails will result in some scary social situation. Bear in mind, that this should be used for good purposes only. Don’t tell your brain that you’re unworthy, incompetent or stupid – because while it is not true, you can easily make your brain believe it.

#27 Appear Wiser

If you want people to take you a little bit more seriously, each time you give advice you can tell them that it’s ‘what your father taught you.’ People by nature tend to trust father figures.

#28 Memorize Your Grocery List Easily

The mnemonic peg system is a memory aid that works by creating mental associations between two objects. Generally, the system includes linking nouns to numbers and it is usual to choose a noun that will rhyme with the number you want to associate it with. Let’s say, the third product in your grocery list is a soap. Three rhymes with tree, therefore you can try imagining a tree with bars…

The mnemonic peg system is a memory aid that works by creating mental associations between two objects. Generally, the system includes linking nouns to numbers and it is usual to choose a noun that will rhyme with the number you want to associate it with. Let’s say, the third product in your grocery list is a soap. Three rhymes with tree, therefore you can try imagining a tree with bars of soap hanging from its branches. Ridiculous, yet effective. Try making your imaginary story as dramatic as possible, as vivid visualization helps you to remember information easier. Also, remember chunking? This technique was mentioned as one of the most efficient ways of retaining information. You can also apply chunking when trying to remember everyday things, such as your grocery list. Try grouping the items together, for example – vegetables could be your one group of items and bread products – another one.

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Philippa Perry on her struggle with total devotion to her cat, Kevin

Pets can highlight your mental health issues. Ask my late dad how he was, he would tell you, Fine. If you wanted more information, it was best to ask him how the dog was. Oh, the dog is depressed. My dad was doing what Freud described as projection. This is when you split off a part of you that is too shameful for you to own and project it on to someone else and you believe your stuff is their stuff. My father could not own his vulnerability, but he could dump it on his dog. I hope I would be far too self-aware to project on to my pet. Id hate to think I was that dotty, but the magazine has just asked if they can send a photographer round. Kevin isnt too keen on photos, I said.

Our cat Kevin had been a stray and came to us from Battersea two years ago when he was around six months old. His body was the size of a can of extra-strong lager. That tubular torso would press against me all night, sometimes stretched alongside me, sometimes curled up in my armpit. In the evening, he would start on a lap but his thin body would elongate itself from your ankles to your thighs like a furry tube. He was playful, affectionate and excellent at being a cat.

We followed the Battersea instructions of keeping him indoors for a month and then only let him out accompanied until he knew where to come back to. When he was ready for unaccompanied roaming, I tried to get a collar on him, but however tight I made it, he could spring it off. Even if he left the house with a collar on, he came back without it. Then one day he did not come back at all. The first time he went missing, he turned up at the Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker, a gastro pub half a mile from our house. He was returned to us swiftly by the landlord, who had taken him to the vet to get his microchip read. Getting Kevin microchipped was a very good idea. My fantasy is that he had chased the pubs resident cat all the way home and then did not know how to get back.

How to describe how you fall in love with a cat? First, the softness of their fur and their choice of your ankles to rub around makes you melt a bit. Secondly, you get used to their presence in your home and come to rely on it for company; and thirdly I think we project our love for ourselves on to our animals and believe it is coming back our way. I like to think Kevin really does love me. Whether he does or not, I love him. For most of my adult life I have lived with a cat, sometimes two, and once I lived with three. I came to appreciate their individual characters and the different ways they kept me company, amused and comforted. But my love for Kevin seems more intense.

There is a type of interaction adopted by cults and abusers when they want total devotion from you, called intermittent positive reinforcement. They start the relationship by heaping praise and appreciations on to you and then gradually begin to mock you, or ignore you, or dish out other types of cruelty so you try harder to win back that approval that you became addicted to. Kevin, having got me smitten, now occasionally ignored me, or bit me if his food bowl got as low as half-empty. Oh, sorry Kevin, Id say, and do his bidding. People who are susceptible to intermittent positive reinforcement tend to be those who have an insecure attachment style. This means they feel insecure in their relationships and compelled to work extra hard at adapting, being too nice or too paranoid, and check up on their significant other as they cannot assume, like a secure person does, that their partner will not stray.

I have been in a loving and stable relationship for 30 years I believed myself cured; thought I was now secure. My unhappy youth, when romantic attachment was about the pain of longing rather than the joy of love, was, I thought, truly behind me, yet Kevin had reignited the feeling of longing.

Kevin reignited the feeling of longing. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

After the pub incident, I tended to check up on Kevin more. If he had owned a mobile phone, I would have broken into it. I followed him about. I may have scared away the wildlife he was stalking and he may have got irritated with me. People with an insecure attachment style can be annoying. He strayed again, this time he got himself stuck in a rear light well the other side of the square and was not discovered for two nights. His absences made me long for him more.

Kevin loved it when we went to the country. We followed the Battersea code again of not letting him out alone until he knew where to come back and where his food was and all was good. Well, it was fine for me not so much for the local rodent population but I love Kevin so much that even watching him crunch up the heads of mice, upsetting though it is, is wonderful because I am in his presence. Those with an insecure attachment style can feel they are nothing without their love object. I overheard my husband telling someone, Philippas mental health depends on where the cat is. He was probably not projecting either.

My daughter had taken a weeks holiday to spend with me in the country. On the morning of her arrival Kevin had still not returned from a night out. We were supposed to be enjoying a time of picnics, bike rides and swims but here was I miserable and ruining my daughters break. She and I asked everyone within a miles radius but no one had seen him. There was only one house we did not visit because the owners were on holiday. They came back the day my daughter was leaving. When they opened their front door, a speedy Kevin shot out and came straight back home. He was remarkably fit after his week living off flies and toilet water but I was a wreck. Next time, I told myself, I wont worry: a difficult resolution to keep because when he sees an open door he shoots through it into anyones house, shed or car. I have a dread of supermarket delivery vans those are his favourite.

A year later, hes missing again in London. I go to the pub, they havent seen him. I trudge about calling him. Days pass, nothing. My entire life is Operation Kevin. We tweet about his disappearance and the London Evening Standard picks it up. Hes on the front page (slow news day); I do posters; house-to-house enquiries; leaflets through letterboxes. Eventually the phone rings. Kevin had been spotted, stuck on a flat roof by someone who had a leaflet put through her door who had not realised he was trapped. I wept with relief. On getting him home we saw he had a nasty bite on his tail and required antibiotics for that to heal. Keep him in for a week, said Dale, our vet. Music to my ears. I hoped Stockholm syndrome would make Kevin love me. Stockholm syndrome is where a hostage develops a bond with their captor. Humans are pack animals and naturally create attachments and they may do it with whoever is around even when that someone is holding them prisoner.

Perhaps Stockholm syndrome is relevant to cats as well. To some extent, it seems to work: I am the recipient of many friendly head butts and sitting-on-lap sessions during his captivity. Can I keep him in for ever? I asked Dale when it was time for a check-up. That would be cruel, I am told. He is a wild animal that chooses to live with you. So Mr Kinky Tail, aka Bonzo Boots, aka Kevin (one cat can attract a lot of names) once more roams free.

Since the flat-roof episode, he has been relatively good. It is not that he is a reformed character, he will still make a dash for any open door. But Im delighted because in the night it is me he chooses to wake up so that I can admire his latest kill; it is my feet he wants to practise his biting on, and its my lap he needs to stretch out his tube-like body on when he is soaking wet. I weaned myself off indifferent men in my 20s and found a loving one, but a cat I adore whose affection and approval I must work for is a force I cannot resist. Now if youll excuse me, I must get the chicken livers to room temperature in case he comes home for lunch.

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In a major breakthrough for artificial intelligence, AlphaGo Zero took just three days to master the ancient Chinese board game of Go … with no human help

Googles artificial intelligence group, DeepMind, has unveiled the latest incarnation of its Go-playing program, AlphaGo an AI so powerful that it derived thousands of years of human knowledge of the game before inventing better moves of its own, all in the space of three days.

Named AlphaGo Zero, the AI program has been hailed as a major advance because it mastered the ancient Chinese board game from scratch, and with no human help beyond being told the rules. In games against the 2015 version, which famously beat Lee Sedol, the South Korean grandmaster, in the following year, AlphaGo Zero won 100 to 0.

The feat marks a milestone on the road to general-purpose AIs that can do more than thrash humans at board games. Because AlphaGo Zero learns on its own from a blank slate, its talents can now be turned to a host of real-world problems.

At DeepMind, which is based in London, AlphaGo Zero is working out how proteins fold, a massive scientific challenge that could give drug discovery a sorely needed shot in the arm.

Match 3 of AlphaGo vs Lee Sedol in March 2016. Photograph: Erikbenson

For us, AlphaGo wasnt just about winning the game of Go, said Demis Hassabis, CEO of DeepMind and a researcher on the team. It was also a big step for us towards building these general-purpose algorithms. Most AIs are described as narrow because they perform only a single task, such as translating languages or recognising faces, but general-purpose AIs could potentially outperform humans at many different tasks. In the next decade, Hassabis believes that AlphaGos descendants will work alongside humans as scientific and medical experts.

Previous versions of AlphaGo learned their moves by training on thousands of games played by strong human amateurs and professionals. AlphaGo Zero had no such help. Instead, it learned purely by playing itself millions of times over. It began by placing stones on the Go board at random but swiftly improved as it discovered winning strategies.

David Silver describes how the Go playing AI program, AlphaGo Zero, discovers new knowledge from scratch. Credit: DeepMind

Its more powerful than previous approaches because by not using human data, or human expertise in any fashion, weve removed the constraints of human knowledge and it is able to create knowledge itself, said David Silver, AlphaGos lead researcher.

The program amasses its skill through a procedure called reinforcement learning. It is the same method by which balance on the one hand, and scuffed knees on the other, help humans master the art of bike riding. When AlphaGo Zero plays a good move, it is more likely to be rewarded with a win. When it makes a bad move, it edges closer to a loss.

Demis Hassabis, CEO of DeepMind: For us, AlphaGo wasnt just about winning the game of Go. Photograph: DeepMind/Nature

At the heart of the program is a group of software neurons that are connected together to form an artificial neural network. For each turn of the game, the network looks at the positions of the pieces on the Go board and calculates which moves might be made next and probability of them leading to a win. After each game, it updates its neural network, making it stronger player for the next bout. Though far better than previous versions, AlphaGo Zero is a simpler program and mastered the game faster despite training on less data and running on a smaller computer. Given more time, it could have learned the rules for itself too, Silver said.


What is AI?

Artificial Intelligence has various definitions, but in general it means a program that uses data to build a model of some aspect of the world. This model is then used to make informed decisions and predictions about future events. The technology is used widely, to provide speech and face recognition, language translation, and personal recommendations on music, film and shopping sites. In the future, it could deliver driverless cars, smart personal assistants, and intelligent energy grids. AI has the potential to make organisations more effective and efficient, but the technology raises serious issues of ethics, governance, privacy and law.

Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers describe how AlphaGo Zero started off terribly, progressed to the level of a naive amateur, and ultimately deployed highly strategic moves used by grandmasters, all in a matter of days. It discovered one common play, called a joseki, in the first 10 hours. Other moves, with names such as small avalanche and knights move pincer soon followed. After three days, the program had discovered brand new moves that human experts are now studying. Intriguingly, the program grasped some advanced moves long before it discovered simpler ones, such as a pattern called a ladder that human Go players tend to grasp early on.

AlphaGo Zero starts with no knowledge, but progressively gets stronger and stronger as it learns the game of Go. Credit: DeepMind

It discovers some best plays, josekis, and then it goes beyond those plays and finds something even better, said Hassabis. You can see it rediscovering thousands of years of human knowledge.

Eleni Vasilaki, professor of computational neuroscience at Sheffield University, said it was an impressive feat. This may very well imply that by not involving a human expert in its training, AlphaGo discovers better moves that surpass human intelligence on this specific game, she said. But she pointed out that, while computers are beating humans at games that involve complex calculations and precision, they are far from even matching humans at other tasks. AI fails in tasks that are surprisingly easy for humans, she said. Just look at the performance of a humanoid robot in everyday tasks such as walking, running and kicking a ball.

Tom Mitchell, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh called AlphaGo Zero an outstanding engineering accomplishment. He added: It closes the book on whether humans are ever going to catch up with computers at Go. I guess the answer is no. But it opens a new book, which is where computers teach humans how to play Go better than they used to.

David Silver describes how the AI program AlphaGo Zero learns to play Go. Credit: DeepMind

The idea was welcomed by Andy Okun, president of the American Go Association: I dont know if morale will suffer from computers being strong, but it actually may be kind of fun to explore the game with neural-network software, since its not winning by out-reading us, but by seeing patterns and shapes more deeply.

While AlphaGo Zero is a step towards a general-purpose AI, it can only work on problems that can be perfectly simulated in a computer, making tasks such as driving a car out of the question. AIs that match humans at a huge range of tasks are still a long way off, Hassabis said. More realistic in the next decade is the use of AI to help humans discover new drugs and materials, and crack mysteries in particle physics. I hope that these kinds of algorithms and future versions of AlphaGo-inspired things will be routinely working with us as scientific experts and medical experts on advancing the frontier of science and medicine, Hassabis said.

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Those with highest psychopath scores were among the greatest fans of Blackstreet hit No Diggity, with Eminems Lose Yourself also rated highly

Contrary to the movie trope epitomised by Alex in A Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, psychopaths are no fonder of classical music than anyone else, though they do appear to have other musical preferences, psychologists say.

In a study of 200 people who listened to 260 songs, those with the highest psychopath scores were among the greatest fans of the Blackstreet number one hit No Diggity, with Eminems Lose Yourself rated highly too.

The New York University team behind the work stress that the results are preliminary and unpublished, but the scientists are sufficiently intrigued to launch a major study in which thousands of people across the psychopathy spectrum will be quizzed on their musical tastes.

Tests on a second group of volunteers suggest the songs could help to predict the disorder. Whatever their other personality traits might be, fans of The Knacks My Sharona and Sias Titanium were among the least psychopathic, the study found.

The researchers have a serious goal in mind: if psychopaths have distinct and robust preferences for songs, their playlists could be used to identify them.

The media portrays psychopaths as axe murderers and serial killers, but the reality is they are not obvious; they are not like The Joker in Batman. They might be working right next to you, and they blend in. They are like psychological dark matter, said Pascal Wallisch who led the research.

About 1% of the general population meets the description of a psychopath, but the figure is far higher in prisons, where about one in five has the disorder. One estimate, from Kent Kiehl, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico, suggests that psychopaths cost the US government alone $460bn (340bn) a year.

You dont want to have these people in positions where they can cause a lot of harm, said Wallisch. We need a tool to identify them without their cooperation or consent.

Scientists have already found gene variants that are more common in psychopaths, but they are hardly predictive of the disorder. They appear to alter peoples tendencies for empathy and aggression, but they do not determine peoples actions. Brain scans highlight distinct signs too, as the neuroscientist James Fallon discovered when he spotted the patterns of a psychopath in his own brains anatomy, but again, these do not set a persons behaviour. Even if they did, the police cannot search for dangerous individuals by hauling people into brain scanners.

Wallisch recruited volunteers for a study on musical tastes, but realised that many of the participants had separately sat a battery of psychological tests, including one called the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, which ranks peoples psychopathic traits. By combining the volunteers answers from the music study with their results from the psychopath test, Wallisch identified songs that seemed to be most popular among psychopaths, and others favoured by non-psychopaths.

While No Diggity and Lose Yourself were strikingly popular with psychopaths, other songs had greater predictive power. Wallisch declined to name them out of concern that doing so might compromise any future screening test.

The larger study will now investigate whether the link between musical tastes and psychopathy is real, and if it is, whether groups of songs can predict potential psychopaths. That could lead to some controversial applications, Wallisch said. If the team can identify a group of 30 songs, for example, that together prove good at predicting psychopaths, then playlists from online music providers could be used to identify them.

The beauty of this idea is you can use it as a screening test without consent, cooperation or maybe even the knowledge of the people involved, Wallisch said. The ethics of this are very hairy, but so is having a psychopath as a boss, and so is having a psychopath in any position of power. Fortunately for ethicists, the possibility is some way off yet. This work is very preliminary, Wallisch added. This is not the end of an investigation, it is the very beginning.

Kevin Dutton, a psychologist at Oxford, and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, has been gathering data on musical tastes and other preferences for a psychopath study with Channel 4. More than three million people have responded so far, and while online surveys have serious weaknesses, the results so far suggest psychopaths favour rap music over classical and jazz. They also seem more likely to read the Financial Times than other newspapers.

Regardless of its accuracy, Dutton suspects movie directors like the idea of classical music-loving psychopaths because of the irresistibly alluring juxtaposition. The coming together of the dark, visceral, primeval psychopathic mind and the higher aesthetic of classical composition is inherently incongruous, and there is a whole body of literature on the creative potential of incongruity, he said. It is the hypnotically captivating and age-old appeal of the beauty and the beast, only under the same cortical roof.

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Music is one of lifes great pleasures. But why, asks Adam Ockelford, does it affect us so profoundly?

Its a question that has intrigued thinkers across the ages from Socrates to Schopenhauer: why is it that abstract patterns of sound mean so very much to human beings?

We are more exposed to music than ever before, thanks to streaming from Spotify and YouTube to Mixcloud and downloading, and were bombarded with music via advertising, too. It is there to influence the way we think, feel and behave. As every filmmaker knows, music is unique in its power to stir the emotions. As music therapists work with dementia patients and autistic children has shown, music has the capacity to touch us and tap into memories that words alone are not able to reach. But how?

Defining what isnt music can help us to understand its powerful effect on us. There are those who believe that certain everyday sounds particularly the sounds of nature should be classed as music, such as Tennysons babbling brook. This may be regarded as music to a poets ear, but it doesnt communicate to us in the way music does. Music conveys meaning since all its constituent sounds notes elicit tiny emotional responses, and these are locked together in a coherent narrative through imitation. In this sense, rushing water or pattering rain fail the musical test.

How does music compare with the other uniquely human form of communication in sound: language? Unlike words, sequences of notes are free to convey pure emotion, unfettered by the need for semantic understanding. Hence music requires less mental processing power than language, and music in its simplest form the early vocal interactions between baby and caregiver precede language in human development. The miracle is that the structure and meaning of both music and language are grasped quite intuitively in the early years, merely through exposure. This is because the young brain is primed to search for patterns in sound explicit tuition isnt necessary.

Music is central to the notion of what it is to be human, and spans cultures, continents and centuries.

Many of the core cognitive traits required for musical understanding stem from an evolutionary need one being the ability to detect difference and similarity around us: what looks the same, smells and tastes the same, also sounds the same, and therefore is the same. It may be, as the human brain evolved, other purely musical abilities built on these cognitive survival skills above all, the ability to express oneself emotionally, and to understand others through abstract narratives in sounds. And these skills also became important to our survival.

Current thinking stresses the importance of music in early bonding between parents and infants, and the sense of cohesion within wider social groups it can provide. There is increasing recognition, too, of the potential role of music in the development of empathy, ie If I can copy the sounds you make, then I must in some respects be like you; the emotions that I experience as I make sounds like yours may be the same as the emotions that you experience. And the process is reciprocal, as in: If you imitate me, then to a degree you must understand me, must know how I feel.

My music, your music, our music can bind us together as families, as tribes and as societies in a way that nothing else can.

Comparing Notes: How We Make Sense of Music by Adam Ockelford is published by Profile Books at 20. Order a copy for 17 from

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The Long Read: Employers are turning to mathematically modelled ways of sifting through job applications. Even when wrong, their verdicts seem beyond dispute and they tend to punish the poor

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A few years ago, a young man named Kyle Behm took a leave from his studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He was suffering from bipolar disorder and needed time to get treatment. A year and a half later, Kyle was healthy enough to return to his studies at a different university. Around that time, he learned from a friend about a part-time job. It was just a minimum-wage job at a Kroger supermarket, but it seemed like a sure thing. His friend, who was leaving the job, could vouch for him. For a high-achieving student like Kyle, the application looked like a formality.

But Kyle didnt get called in for an interview. When he inquired, his friend explained to him that he had been red-lighted by the personality test hed taken when he applied for the job. The test was part of an employee selection program developed by Kronos, a workforce management company based outside Boston. When Kyle told his father, Roland, an attorney, what had happened, his father asked him what kind of questions had appeared on the test. Kyle said that they were very much like the five factor model test, which hed been given at the hospital. That test grades people for extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to ideas.

At first, losing one minimum-wage job because of a questionable test didnt seem like such a big deal. Roland Behm urged his son to apply elsewhere. But Kyle came back each time with the same news. The companies he was applying to were all using the same test, and he wasnt getting offers.

Roland Behm was bewildered. Questions about mental health appeared to be blackballing his son from the job market. He decided to look into it and soon learned that the use of personality tests for hiring was indeed widespread among large corporations. And yet he found very few legal challenges to this practice. As he explained to me, people who apply for a job and are red-lighted rarely learn that they were rejected because of their test results. Even when they do, theyre not likely to contact a lawyer.

Behm went on to send notices to seven companies, including Home Depot and Walgreens, informing them of his intent to file a class-action suit alleging that the use of the exam during the job application process was unlawful. The suit, as I write this, is still pending. Arguments are likely to focus on whether the Kronos test can be considered a medical exam, the use of which in hiring is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. If this turns out to be the case, the court will have to determine whether the hiring companies themselves are responsible for running afoul of the ADA, or if Kronos is.

But the questions raised by this case go far beyond which particular company may or may not be responsible. Automatic systems based on complicated mathematical formulas, such as the one used to sift through Behms job application, are becoming more common across the developed world. And given their scale and importance, combined with their secrecy, these algorithms have the potential to create an underclass of people who will find themselves increasingly and inexplicably shut out from normal life.

It didnt have to be this way. After the financial crash, it became clear that the housing crisis and the collapse of major financial institutions had been aided and abetted by mathematicians wielding magic formulas. If we had been clear-headed, we would have taken a step back at this point to figure out how we could prevent a similar catastrophe in the future. But instead, in the wake of the crisis, new mathematical techniques were hotter than ever, and expanding into still more domains. They churned 24/7 through petabytes of information, much of it scraped from social media or e-commerce websites. And increasingly they focused not on the movements of global financial markets but on human beings, on us. Mathematicians and statisticians were studying our desires, movements, and spending patterns. They were predicting our trustworthiness and calculating our potential as students, workers, lovers, criminals.

This was the big data economy, and it promised spectacular gains. A computer program could speed through thousands of rsums or loan applications in a second or two and sort them into neat lists, with the most promising candidates on top. This not only saved time but also was marketed as fair and objective. After all, it didnt involve prejudiced humans digging through reams of paper, just machines processing cold numbers. By 2010 or so, mathematics was asserting itself as never before in human affairs, and the public largely welcomed it.

Most of these algorithmic applications were created with good intentions. The goal was to replace subjective judgments with objective measurements in any number of fields whether it was a way to locate the worst-performing teachers in a school or to estimate the chances that a prisoner would return to jail.

These algorithmic solutions are targeted at genuine problems. School principals cannot be relied upon to consistently flag problematic teachers, because those teachers are also often their friends. And judges are only human, and being human they have prejudices that prevent them from being entirely fair their rulings have been shown to be harsher right before lunch, when theyre hungry, for example so its a worthy goal to increase consistency, especially if you can rest assured that the newer system is also scientifically sound.

The difficulty is that last part. Few of the algorithms and scoring systems have been vetted with scientific rigour, and there are good reasons to suspect they wouldnt pass such tests. For instance, automated teacher assessments can vary widely from year to year, putting their accuracy in question. Tim Clifford, a New York City middle school English teacher of 26 years, got a 6 out of 100 in one year and a 96 the next, without changing his teaching style. Of course, if the scores didnt matter, that would be one thing, but sometimes the consequences are dire, leading to teachers being fired.

There are also reasons to worry about scoring criminal defendants rather than relying on a judges discretion. Consider the data pouring into the algorithms. In part, it comes from police interactions with the populace, which is known to be uneven, often race-based. The other kind of input, usually a questionnaire, is also troublesome. Some of them even ask defendants if their families have a history of being in trouble with the law, which would be unconstitutional if asked in open court but gets embedded in the defendants score and labelled objective.

It doesnt stop there. Algorithms are being used to determine how much we pay for insurance (more if your credit score is low, even if your driving record is clean), or what the terms of our loans will be, or what kind of political messaging well receive. There are algorithms that find out the weather forecast and only then decide on the work schedule of thousands of people, laying waste to their ability to plan for childcare and schooling, never mind a second job.

Their popularity relies on the notion they are objective, but the algorithms that power the data economy are based on choices made by fallible human beings. And, while some of them were made with good intentions, the algorithms encode human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into automatic systems that increasingly manage our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models are opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, are beyond dispute or appeal. And they tend to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer. Thats what Kyle Behm learned the hard way.

Finding work used to be largely a question of whom you knew. In fact, Kyle Behm was following the traditional route when he applied for work at Kroger. His friend had alerted him to the opening and put in a good word. For decades, that was how people got a foot in the door, whether at grocers, banks, or law firms. Candidates then usually faced an interview, where a manager would try to get a feel for them. All too often this translated into a single basic judgment: is this person like me (or others I get along with)? The result was a lack of opportunity for job seekers without a friend inside, especially if they came from a different race, ethnic group, or religion. Women also found themselves excluded by this insider game.

Companies like Kronos brought science into corporate human resources in part to make the process fairer. Founded in the 1970s by MIT graduates, Kronoss first product was a new kind of punch clock, one equipped with a microprocessor, which added up employees hours and reported them automatically. This may sound banal, but it was the beginning of the electronic push now blazing along at warp speed to track and optimise a workforce.

As Kronos grew, it developed a broad range of software tools for workforce management, including a software program, Workforce Ready HR, that promised to eliminate the guesswork in hiring. According to its web page, Kronos can help you screen, hire, and onboard candidates most likely to be productive the best-fit employees who will perform better and stay on the job longer.

Kronos is part of a growing industry. The hiring business is becoming automated, and many of the new programs include personality tests like the one Kyle Behm took. It is now a $500 million annual business and is growing by 10 to 15% a year, according to Hogan Assessment Systems Inc, a company that develops online personality tests. Such tests now are used on 60 to 70% of prospective workers in the US, and in the UK, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, 71% of employers use some form of psychometric test for recruitment.

Even putting aside the issues of fairness and legality, research suggests that personality tests are poor predictors of job performance. Frank Schmidt, a business professor at the University of Iowa, analysed a century of workplace productivity data to measure the predictive value of various selection processes. Personality tests ranked low on the scale they were only one-third as predictive as cognitive exams, and also far below reference checks. The primary purpose of the test, said Roland Behm, is not to find the best employee. Its to exclude as many people as possible as cheaply as possible.

You might think that personality tests would be easy to game. If you go online to take a five factor personality test, it looks like a cinch. One question asks: Have frequent mood swings? It would probably be smart to answer very inaccurate. Another asks: Get mad easily? Again, check no.

In fact, companies can get in trouble for screening out applicants on the basis of such questions. Regulators in Rhode Island found that CVS Pharmacy was illegally screening out applicants with mental illnesses when a personality test required respondents to agree or disagree with such statements as People do a lot of things that make you angry and Theres no use having close friends; they always let you down.

Illustration by Nathalie Lees

More intricate questions, which are harder to game, are more likely to keep the companies out of trouble. Consequently, many of the tests used today force applicants to make difficult choices, likely to leave them with a sinking feeling of Damned if I do, damned if I dont.

McDonalds, for example, recently asked prospective workers to choose which of the following best described them: It is difficult to be cheerful when there are many problems to take care of or Sometimes, I need a push to get started on my work.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal asked a psychologist who studies behaviour in the workplace, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, to analyse thorny questions like these. The first of the two answers to the question from McDonalds, Chamorro-Premuzic said, captured individual differences in neuroticism and conscientiousness; the second, low ambition and drive. So the prospective worker is pleading guilty to being either high-strung or lazy.

A Kroger supermarket question was far simpler: Which adjective best describes you at work, unique or orderly? Answering unique, said Chamorro-Premuzic, captures high self-concept, openness and narcissism, while orderly expresses conscientiousness and self-control.

Note that theres no option to answer all of the above. Prospective workers must pick one option, without a clue as to how the program will interpret it. And some of the analysis will draw unflattering conclusions.

Defenders of the tests note that they feature lots of questions and that no single answer can disqualify an applicant. Certain patterns of answers, however, can and do disqualify them. And we do not know what those patterns are. Were not told what the tests are looking for. The process is entirely opaque.

Whats worse, after the model is calibrated by technical experts, it receives precious little feedback. Sports provide a good contrast here. Most professional basketball teams employ data geeks, who run models that analyse players by a series of metrics, including foot speed, vertical leap, free-throw percentage, and a host of other variables. Teams rely on these models when deciding whether or not to recruit players. But if, say, the Los Angeles Lakers decide to pass on a player because his stats suggest that he wont succeed, and then that player subsequently becomes a star, the Lakers can return to their model to see what they got wrong. Whatever the case, they can work to improve their model.

Now imagine that Kyle Behm, after getting red-lighted at Kroger, goes on to land a job at McDonalds. He turns into a stellar employee. Hes managing the kitchen within four months and the entire franchise a year later. Will anyone at Kroger go back to the personality test and investigate how they could have got it so wrong?

Not a chance, Id say. The difference is this: Basketball teams are managing individuals, each one potentially worth millions of dollars. Their analytics engines are crucial to their competitive advantage, and they are hungry for data. Without constant feedback, their systems grow outdated and dumb. The companies hiring minimum-wage workers, by contrast, act as if they are managing herds. They slash expenses by replacing human resources professionals with machines, and those machines filter large populations into more manageable groups. Unless something goes haywire in the workforce an outbreak of kleptomania, say, or plummeting productivity the company has little reason to tweak the filtering model. Its doing its job even if it misses out on potential stars. The company may be satisfied with the status quo, but the victims of its automatic systems suffer.

The majority of job applicants, thankfully, are not blackballed by automatic systems. But they still face the challenge of moving their application to the top of the pile and landing an interview. This has long been a problem for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women.

The ideal way to circumvent such prejudice is to consider applicants blindly. Orchestras, which had long been dominated by men, famously started in the 1970s to hold auditions with the musician hidden behind a sheet. Connections, reputations, race or alma mater no longer mattered. The music from behind the sheet spoke for itself. Since then, the percentage of women playing in major orchestras has leapt by a factor of five though they still make up only a quarter of the musicians.

The trouble is that few professions can engineer such an evenhanded tryout for job applicants. Musicians behind the sheet can actually perform the job theyre applying for, whether its a Dvok cello concerto or bossa nova on guitar. In other professions, employers have to hunt through CVs, looking for qualities that might predict success.

As you might expect, human resources departments rely on automatic systems to winnow down piles of rsums. In fact, in the US, some 72% of CVs are never seen by human eyes. Computer programs flip through them, pulling out the skills and experiences that the employer is looking for. Then they score each CV as a match for the job opening. Its up to the people in the human resources department to decide where the cutoff is, but the more candidates they can eliminate with this first screening, the fewer human hours theyll have to spend processing the top matches.

So job applicants must craft their rsums with that automatic reader in mind. Its important, for example, to sprinkle the rsum liberally with words the specific job opening is looking for. This could include previous positions (sales manager, software architect), languages (Mandarin, Java), or honours (summa cum laude). Those with the latest information learn what machines appreciate and what tangles them up, and tailor their applications accordingly.

The result of these programs is that those with the money and resources to prepare their rsums come out on top. Those who dont take these steps may never know that theyre sending their rsums into a black hole. Its one more example in which the wealthy and informed get the edge and the poor are more likely to lose out.

So far, weve been looking at models that filter out job candidates. For most companies, those models are designed to cut administrative costs and to reduce the risk of bad hires (or ones that might require more training). The objective of the filters, in short, is to save money.

HR departments, of course, are also eager to save money through the hiring choices they make. One of the biggest expenses for a company is workforce turnover, commonly called churn. Replacing a worker earning $50,000 a year costs a company about $10,000, or 20% of that workers yearly pay, according to the Center for American Progress. Replacing a high-level employee can cost as much as two years of salary.

Naturally, many hiring models attempt to calculate the likelihood that a job candidate will stick around. Evolv, Inc, now a part of Cornerstone OnDemand, helped Xerox scout out prospects for its call centres, which employ more than 40,000 people. The churn model took into account some of the metrics you might expect, including the average time people stuck around on previous jobs. But they also found some intriguing correlations. People the system classified as creative types tended to stay longer at the job, while those who scored high on inquisitiveness were more likely to set their questioning minds towards other opportunities.

But the most problematic correlation had to do with geography. Job applicants who lived farther from the job were more likely to churn. This makes sense: long commutes are a pain. But Xerox managers noticed another correlation. Many of the people suffering those long commutes were coming from poor neighbourhoods. So Xerox, to its credit, removed that highly correlated churn data from its model. The company sacrificed a bit of efficiency for fairness.

While churn analysis focuses on the candidates most likely to fail, the more strategically vital job for HR departments is to locate future stars, the people whose intelligence, inventiveness, and drive can change the course of an entire enterprise. In the higher echelons of the economy, companies are on the hunt for employees who think creatively and work well in teams. So the modellers challenge is to pinpoint, in the vast world of big data, the bits of information that correlate with originality and social skills.

A pioneer in this field is Gild, a San Franciscobased startup. Extending far beyond a prospects alma mater or rsum, Gild sorts through millions of job sites, analysing what it calls each persons social data. The company develops profiles of job candidates for its customers, mostly tech companies, keeping them up to date as the candidates add new skills. Gild claims that it can even predict when a star employee is likely to change jobs and can alert its customer companies when its the right time to make an offer.

But Gilds model attempts to quantify and also qualify each workers social capital. How integral is this person to the community of fellow programmers? Do they share and contribute code? Say a Brazilian coder Pedro, lets call him lives in So Paulo and spends every evening from dinner to one in the morning in communion with fellow coders the world over, solving cloud-computing problems or brainstorming gaming algorithms on sites such as GitHub or Stack Overflow. The model could attempt to gauge Pedros passion (which probably gets a high score) and his level of engagement with others. It would also evaluate the skill and social importance of his contacts. Those with larger followings would count for more. If his principal online contact happened to be Googles Sergey Brin, say, Pedros social score would no doubt shoot through the roof.

But models like Gilds rarely receive such explicit signals from the data. So they cast a wider net, in search of correlations to workplace stardom wherever they can find them. And with more than six million coders in their database, the company can find all kinds of patterns. Vivienne Ming, Gilds chief scientist, said in an interview with Atlantic Monthly that Gild had found a bevy of talent frequenting a certain Japanese manga site. If Pedro spends time at that comic-book site, of course, it doesnt predict superstardom. But it does nudge up his score.

That makes sense for Pedro. But certain workers might be doing something else offline, which even the most sophisticated algorithm couldnt infer at least not today. They might be taking care of children, for example, or perhaps attending a book group. The fact that prospects dont spend six hours discussing manga every evening shouldnt be counted against them. And if, like most of techdom, that manga site is dominated by males and has a sexist tone, a good number of the women in the industry will probably avoid it.

Despite these issues, Gilds category of predictive model has more to do with rewarding people than punishing them. It is tame compared with widely-used personality tests that exclude people from opportunities. Still, its important to note that these hiring models are ever-evolving. The world of data continues to expand, with each of us producing ever-growing streams of updates about our lives. All of this data will feed our potential employers insights into us.

Will those insights be tested, or simply used to justify the status quo and reinforce prejudices? When I consider the sloppy and self-serving ways that companies often use data, Im reminded of phrenology, a pseudoscience that was briefly popular in the 19th century. Phrenologists would run their fingers over the patients skull, probing for bumps and indentations. Each one, they thought, was linked to personality traits. If a patient was morbidly anxious or suffering from alcoholism, the skull probe would usually find bumps and dips that correlated with that observation which, in turn, bolstered faith in the science of phrenology.

Phrenology was a model that relied on pseudoscientific nonsense to make authoritative pronouncements, and for decades it went untested. Big data can fall into the same trap. Models like the ones that red-lighted Kyle Behm continue to lock people out, even when the science inside them is little more than a bundle of untested assumptions.

Mail illustration: Nathalie Lees

This essay is adapted from Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, published by Allen Lane on 6 September

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Martha Mills: How to talk to a woman wearing headphones, without seeming like a terrifying harasser

An article has surfaced from the quagmire of bilge that is The Internet and it has caused, not without reason, a small tornado of outrage. Written as dating advice for The Modern Man (a misnomer if ever there were one), it promises a solution to the hot n horny down-on-their-luck young bucks of the world who face the tedious obstacle of a woman wearing headphones, because how dare she. And no, it isnt a parody.

You can read it in its full entitled glory, or stick with me as I dissect each grubby, jaw-dropping delusion of psychopathic awfulness. Its going to be quite a ride.

How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones

These days, many women walk around playing with a smartphone or tablet device and are often wearing headphones and listening to music at the same time.

Yet, that doesnt mean you cant talk to them.

Of course, not all women are open to being approached because not all women are single and looking.

However, if a woman wearing headphones is single and hoping to meet a boyfriend (or even a new lover), she will almost always be happy to take off her headphones to give you an opportunity to create a spark with her.

The author, one Dan Bacon, could have saved us all a lot of bother here by answering his How to with Dont. Sadly he seems to have missed some basic behavioural science here; you see, the very reason I and many other women wear headphones isnt as a trivial obstacle to some throbbing hormone mountain, nor as a challenge for those blessed with an abundance of ego. Its a defence. A defence against the aural onslaught of modern life and especially the leering advances of said throbbing hormone mountains. In short, we wear them because we dont want to be talked to. Its basic physics really – we fill our ear holes to stop you from getting in.

But back to Dan:

What to Do to Get Her Attention

1. Stand in front of her (with 1 to 1.5 meters between you).

2. Have a relaxed, easy-going smile.

3. Is she hasnt already looked up at you, simply get her attention with a wave of your hand. Wave your hand in her direct line of vision so she cant ignore it.

4. When she looks at you, smile and point to her headphones and say, Take off your headphones for a minute and pretend to be taking headphones off your head, so she fully understands.

If she doesnt understand (most women will), simply gesture that you want to talk to her by briefly pointing back and forth from you to her and say, I want to talk to you for a minute.

In most cases, you wont have to go to that extreme, but some girls are shy and will be hesitant to take the headphones off right away because they are feeling a lot of nervousness and excitement about what is happening.

5. Then, do what we call Acknowledging the Awkwardness by quickly mentioning something about the awkwardness of the moment (see the conversation example below), to demonstrate you understand that approaching a woman in this way isnt the most common of experiences for either party.

This helps put her at ease and know that you are a cool guy who she can relax and open up to.

I dont know if these five steps are a common thing, but I have personally experienced this several times. At step 1 I know what you are doing and Im ignoring you, hoping the ground will open up and take one of us to the depths of somewhere Hellish, which would be more pleasant than this situation is developing to be. By step 3 Im not feeling excited and Im not feeling flattered as Dan later tells his readers I will be – Im feeling harassed. Straight up, dictionary definition harassed.

By step 4 Ive learnt that you cant understand a basic body language brush-off and are therefore a direct threat to my personal safety. My brain is in fight or flight, checking for escape routes, its trying to figure out just how aggressively youre going to react to any further action I take to extract myself from a situation entirely not of my own making and it is praying they use a flattering photo of me on the news, not that one when my front-facing camera went off accidentally that time.

According to step 5, the fact you have bullied me into one of the most awkward and scary moments of my life makes you a cool guy. Mr Bacon clearly has trouble spelling. It begins with a t, Dan.

Heres Dans interpretation of how the conversation goes once a man has used his infallible five-point Jedi mind trick to bludgeon a woman from her blissful state of aural security:

You: [Smile in a friendly, confident manner] Hey I know its not normal for people to talk to someone with headphones in, but I was walking along and saw you and thought wow, shes a cutie, I have to say hi. Im Dan, whats your name?

Woman: [Usually flattered by the compliment and impressed by your confidence to approach her like that] Jessica.

You: [Add in some humor] Coolnice to meet you Jessica. I dont normally talk to girls with headphones, but your big green headphones were just calling out to me.

Woman: [Most likely laughing, smiling and enjoying the interaction].

You: [Let her know that you have something to do/somewhere to go, so she understands that youre not going to stand there talking to her for 30 minutes] Anyway, so Im just out doing a bit of shopping at the moment. Im on my way to a store up the street. Hows your day going so far?

In his scenario, Jessica has just been waiting her whole life to be blessed with the attention of a complete stranger who mistakes hunched shoulders, darting eyes and rictus for laughing and smiling.

Heres how it plays out in real life. Trust me, Ive been it, seen it and spoken to the survivors:

Him: I see you dont want to be talked to but I find you physically attractive and Im making that your problem.

Her: Please leave me alone.


With advice like this out there, its hardly any surprise, is it? These lonely men so desperately in search of conquests have been given permission, blessed with the entitlement to go forth and pluck their bounty using but five humble steps. So imagine their horror and indignation when that which has been promised doesnt want to be plucked and tells them to sling their greasy hook.

Next Dan lists the five mistakes men make when approaching a woman who is wearing headphones. Sadly not one of them is to sod right off.

Points 1, 4 and 5 are fairly inoffensive, generic dating guff (be confident, be engaging, be flirty), but oh boy, just try and get your noggin round points 2 and 3.

2. Allowing her to ignore him

Headphones are a great barrier between a person and the rest of the world.

That being said, if a guy wants to get a womans attention he needs to show confidence by being determined to get her to stop listening to the music and chat to him to him.

If a guy has a weak vibe or presence about him, a woman usually wont give in to his request for her to remove the headphones.

Women love to test guys to see how confident they really are and a favorite test of women is to ignore a guys attempts to converse with her and see what he will do next. Will he walk away in shame, or will he remain calm and continue talking to her in a confident, easy-going manner?

This is her way of gauging his interest in her and also a way of determining whether he is mentally and emotionally strong enough for a girl like her.

If a guy gives up at the first sign of resistance, most women will be turned off by his mental and emotional weakness as a man.

3. Allowing her to take control of the interaction

No matter how confident or challenging a woman might behave, she still dreams of meeting a guy who is more confident than her. A woman doesnt want to be forced to control an interaction with a guy (i.e. call the shots, boss him around), but she will if she has to.

Controlling an interaction with a woman is not about bossing her around, being arrogant or being too assertive. Instead, you simply need to assume the role of the man and let her be the woman. In other words, make her feel girly around you because you think, behave and feel (your vibe) so masculine.

The advice here is basically No doesnt mean no, it means keep going until you get what you want – the screaming will stop eventually. Because apparently thats what women want – and forms the basis for a million rape defence cases. Trust me, when we tell you to go away we arent testing your measure as a man, were testing how quickly your legs can carry you in an offward direction.

Put Dans advice into any other scenario for the true jaw-drop factor: Shopkeepers may lock their doors at night, but if you want a pint of milk, just hammer on the door until they open up. Theyll be flattered.

I appreciate the world of mating is hard but please, for the love of humanity, learn this: just because you want, doesnt mean you can have. Women are not commodities to be hunted and won, and if you have no luck finding someone to bump pink bits with, thats your problem, not our fault for not adhering to the playbook rules. Its a playbook we never signed up for and its only a game if both teams actually know theyre playing.

Nowhere in his advice does Dan tell his frustrated man-babies how to handle rejection with grace, because the advice is simply not to accept it. This attitude is why I and countless other women have been been chased down the street, followed home, physically restrained, spat at, verbally abused and generally made to feel like garbage, merely for trying to exist.

So when, I hear the whiny pissbabies ask, when am I allowed to approach hot single women? Simple.

If a woman has her headphones in, the answer is never – and before you bleat on about ooh, what if theres a fire?, shell smell it, even through all your bulls**t. If youre in a bar or party, her flirtatious smile may be the come-on youre looking for, but be prepared to accept that you read it wrong, politely wish her a good evening and toddle back off out of her life without 20 minutes of awkward pawing, insisting she let you buy her a rohypnoltini. But how about this; take up a hobby, ask your friends if they know of someone looking to date or (brace yourself for a whopper of a revelation) if youre looking for a horde of single, eligible women all looking for friendship-maybe-more in one convenient place, try a dating site.

Anyway, coming soon from Dan Bacon, How To Talk To A Woman Through A Fog Of Pepper Spray. Probably.

Martha Mills is on Twitter as @mittendamour

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