Category Archives: At work

Good question answered: despite technology, why are there still so many jobs? (TED-talk by D. Autor)

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Funny on Sunday: “The feeling when you realize the robots will steal your job”

This is certainly one of the funniest things I’ve seen this week!

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Barack Obama explains why #solutionism doesn’t work

I shared this already on Twitter, but I think this short text by president Barack Obama is so important that it would be a mistake not to share it here.

Read this and than think about Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, and many others.


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This big genetic study talks about the existence of unrealized human potential, and is probably correct

When you start talking about genes and education, often people will start having all kind of itches. This new study not only looks at the influence of genes on education, but even finds that the same genetic score that has predicting power for academic achievement – always to a certain extent – also has predictive power on labor market outcomes.

But sociologists don’t have to fear. This study isn’t about nature conquering nurture, as the study actually proves that childhood SES is a very important factor. I often summarize it as follows: in perfect conditions the biggest influence would certainly be genetic, but the worse the environment is, the bigger the influence of nurture.

Some could suggest that bringing genetics into this area sounds strange, a discussion we often see when discussing including intelligence in this kind of research. Still, I think that including these kinds of factors can only benefit social studies, helping us getting babysteps closer to understand the complexity of the world.

Abstract of the report:

Recent advances have led to the discovery of specific genetic variants that predict educational attainment. We study how these variants, summarized as a genetic score variable, are associated with human capital accumulation and labor market outcomes in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). We demonstrate that the same genetic score that predicts education is also associated with higher wages, but only among individuals with a college education. Moreover, the genetic gradient in wages has grown in more recent birth cohorts, consistent with interactions between technological change and labor market ability. We also show that individuals who grew up in economically disadvantaged households are less likely to go to college when compared to individuals with the same genetic score, but from higher-SES households. Our findings provide support for the idea that childhood SES is an important moderator of the economic returns to genetic endowments. Moreover, the finding that childhood poverty limits the educational attainment of high-ability individuals suggests the existence of unrealized human potential.

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An important blow for informal learning at work?

We’ve discussed the 70-20-10-model before on this blog and in our book and the defenders of the model usually respond that you don’t need to take the percentages too literally and that the model puts an emphasis on the importance of informal learning.

But the latter may have received a bit of a blow this week by the results of a longitudinal study by the Dutch SCP. I didn’t got their study when it was released, but an article in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant pointed me to the study this weekend.

This isn’t a small study, as 4500 respondents between 16 and 65 who are in a profession are being followed as long as a possible in this longitudinal approach.

What are the important conclusions regarding formal and informal learning:

  • Regarding the life long learning of less educated workers, informal learning doesn’t work.
  • Employees who receive less formal learning opportunities don’t compensate this by informal learning.
  • Actually: the people who do learn a lot in a formal way, are the same who learn a lot informal.



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Childhood can affect performance under stress in adulthood

This study actually confirms a theme that has been a subject of my posts for a while: stress in early age can have a lasting effect. The study by Leyh et al. again adds another nuance from neuroscience: the emotional bonds with our primary caregiver or parent in early childhood are the basis of our ability to regulate our emotions as adults. Do note that the amount of persons tested in this study is really, really small (8), so I would rather regard it more as a pilot study than a big confirmation.

From the press release:

Imagine two candidates at a high stakes job interview. One of them handles the pressure with ease and sails through the interview. The other candidate, however, feels very nervous and under-performs.

Why do some people perform better than others under emotionally stressful conditions? The clue might lie in early childhood experiences, a recent study published in the open access online journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found.

Emotional bonds with our primary caregiver or parent in early childhood are thought to be the basis of our ability to regulate our emotions as adults.

“We know from other studies that our history of attachment directly influences how we act in social situations;” explained Dr. Christine Heinisch, one of the authors of the study; “but what about reaction to a neutral stimulus under emotional conditions?”

A good example of this in daily life, says Dr. Heinisch, is when a car approaches a traffic light. Under neutral conditions, it is easy for the driver to follow the signal. But what happens under emotional conditions?

“Usually, people tend to make more errors, like stopping too late or even driving through when the traffic light is red. Sometimes they stop although the light is still green,” she explains.

But not everyone’s actions are impacted by emotions to the same extent. Some of us had emotionally responsive caregivers or parents in childhood, while others didn’t.

It is these early experiences, according to the “attachment” theory in psychology, which influences the ability to regulate emotions as adults. “We expected those having problems with emotional regulation to make more errors in performing a task — and one significant variable influencing this is our attachment experience;” said Dr. Heinisch.

To test this theory, their group conducted a study on adult subjects with different childhood caregiver experiences. Subjects in the study performed a task of identifying a target letter from among a series of flashing letters. This task was administered under conditions that evoked a positive, neutral, or negative emotional state. The researchers then assessed task performance and analyzed EEG recordings of brain function in their subjects.

The results were revealing. Subjects who did not have emotionally responsive caregivers in childhood (insecure-attached) had more trouble performing under emotionally negative conditions than the others (secure-attached). They also had lower brain activity in response to the target letter under negative conditions than secure-attached subjects.

The lower task performance correlated with inefficient strategies for emotional regulation seen in insecure-attached adults. This could mean that a greater share of cognitive resources was allocated for regulating emotions, and consequently, less was available for performing the task.

One potential limitation of this study is that the target letters were unrelated to the emotional context cues provided, and therefore had little real-life relevance. In future studies, the authors plan to use a person or an object with emotional significance as target, and socially relevant situations as the context of the task.

One thing seems clear though — childhood emotional experiences have long lasting consequences for your ability to perform a given task.

Abstract of the study:

The induction of emotional states has repeatedly been shown to affect cognitive processing capacities. At a neurophysiological level, P3 amplitude responses that are associated with attention allocation have been found to be reduced to task-relevant stimuli during emotional conditions as compared to neutral conditions suggesting a draining impact of emotion on cognitive resources. Attachment theory claims that how individuals regulate their emotions is guided by an internal working model (IWM) of attachment that has formed early in life. While securely attached individuals are capable of freely evaluating their emotions insecurely attached ones tend to either suppress or heighten the emotional experience in a regulatory effort. To explore how attachment quality moderates the impact of emotional contexts on information processing event-related potentials (ERPs) in 41 individuals were assessed. Subjects were instructed to detect neutral target letters within an oddball paradigm. Various images taken from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) served as background pictures and represented negative, positive and neutral task-irrelevant contexts. Attachment representation was assessed using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and individuals were assigned to one of three categories (secure, insecure-dismissing, insecure-preoccupied). At a behavioral level, the study revealed that negative emotionally conditions were associated with the detection of less target stimuli in insecure-dismissing subjects. Accordingly, ERPs yielded reduced P3 amplitudes in insecure-dismissing subjects when given a negative emotional context. We interpret these findings in terms of less sufficient emotion regulation strategies in insecure-dismissing subjects at the cost of accurate behavioral performance. The study suggests that attachment representation differentially moderates the relationship between emotional contexts and information processing most evident in insecure-dismissing subjects.

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Trouble at work? Blame your parents…?

“Hey, we’ve got another study to write a press release about”

“What’s it about?”

“Leader-follower relationships and attachment theory”

“Attachment theory? Ah, this means parents and parenting style!”

“Yes, but isn’t this research a bit far fetched and purely correlational?”

“Probably, but who cares.”

“And didn’t the 152 employees had to fill in a questionnaire about their attachment as an adult today rather than they have to say anything about their childhood?”



“Don’t worry, let me do this press release:”

“It seems cliché, but, once again, we end up blaming mom for everything in life,” said Harms while laughing. “It really is about both parents, but because mothers are typically the primary caregivers of the children, they usually have more influence on their children.”

Harms, an assistant professor in management at UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce, studied manager-employee relationships in the workplace and found a link between parenting styles and workplace behaviors. His new research is published in the journal Human Relations.

Harms and his colleagues studied how so-called attachment styles impact how employees react to their supervisors. Their research was based on the work of John Bowlby, an early psychoanalyst, who argued that the way parents treat their offspring could have long-term implications for how their children approach relationships. In particular, the work focused on how parents acted when their infants cried out for help.

“You’ll see this in almost any parenting book you buy,” said Harms. “Should you let the baby cry, or should you rush to comfort them?”

Babies learn over time that when they feel abandoned or threatened they can either count on their parent to come to their rescue right away or they need to escalate to high levels of distress in order to get attention. Or, on the flip side, if babies learn that parents are simply not a reliable source of comfort, they stop making overt appeals for help.

Individuals with reliable parents view others as potential sources of support. Those individuals with unreliable parents tend not to see parents as sources of support. These people are often categorized as having anxious or avoidant attachment depending on the style they adopted to cope with distress.

“Anxiously attached people genuinely want to be loved, but they are nervous that the important people in their lives won’t return their affection,” explained Harms. “So, they overreact anytime they think their relationships are threatened. They use guilt and extreme emotional displays so that others will stay near and reassure them. They get really upset and can’t turn it off. On the other hand, avoidant people feel, ‘I don’t want to love you, and you don’t need to love me. So just leave me alone.’ You won’t find these people weeping over broken relationships.”

Harms and his colleagues speculated that individuals may transfer this pattern of thinking into the workplace and, in particular, that it may influence one’s relationship with one’s boss.

“Your boss is sort of like your parent,” said Harms. “They’re the ones who can take care of you, they’re supposed to train you and support you. This is especially true for individuals new to the workforce.”

Their research also finds that the way bosses treated their subordinates impacted some, but not all, employees.

“Essentially, we figured that bosses would matter less to individuals with secure or avoidant attachment styles,” said Harms. “Secure individuals have a long history of caring relationships, so they have other people who they can fall back on. And avoidant individuals just simply don’t care. It was the anxiously attached individuals we were most interested in.”

Their findings showed that when anxious followers were paired with supportive leaders, they were perfectly fine. But when they were paired with distant, unsupportive leaders, the anxiously attached employees reported higher levels of stress and lower levels of performance.

“They felt threatened,” said Harms. “Their deep-seated anxieties leak out, and it starts to preoccupy them in an unhealthy way.”

In general, avoidant individuals reported lower levels of stress but also less willingness to help co-workers.

“Good boss, bad boss. Whatever. They just don’t care. They just want to do their job and go home,” said Harms.

So, would the working world be a better place if parents just hugged their kids more?

“Probably,” said Harms, “but we can make a difference even if people come into the workplace with insecurities. Our research shows that a mother or father figure later in life can provide that needed love and support, even in the context of the workplace.

“Ultimately, though, the relationship between a manager and their subordinates has to be like a parent-child relationship in another way,” said Harms. “You can provide attention and support early, but the sign of a mature relationship is that you trust one another to the point where managers can trust their subordinates to let them be autonomous, and subordinates can act without seeking permission. In other words, you graduate and move out of the house.”

Abstract of the study:

The current study utilizes attachment theory to understand how leader–follower relationships impact emotional and behavioral outcomes in the workplace. Specifically, we examine the roles of two dysfunctional attachment styles – anxious and avoidant attachment – as determinants of trust in leaders, stress and citizenship behaviors. Results showed that followers with anxious attachment orientations reported experiencing more stress, whereas followers with avoidant attachment orientations were less likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors. Moreover, we found that the relationship between attachment orientations and workplace outcomes are mediated by affective and cognitive trust. However, these negative outcomes only occur when the follower has a leader with an avoidant attachment orientation. Implications for training, selection, job design and understanding leader–follower dynamics are discussed.

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Another study on why women leave engineering

More women in STEM is an often heard plea, but getting more girls to choose for science, technology, engineering or mathematics is one thing, keeping them is another thing.Women who go to college intending to become engineers stay in the profession less often than men.  That’s why it’s interesting to know why they leave. While multiple reasons have been offered in the past, a new study develops a novel explanation: The negative group dynamics women tend to experience during team-based work projects makes the profession less appealing.

From the press release:

More specifically, the study finds, women often feel marginalized, especially during internships, other summer work opportunities, or team-based educational activities. In those situations, gender dynamics seem to generate more opportunities for men to work on the most challenging problems, while women tend to be assigned routine tasks or simple managerial duties.

In such settings, “It turns out gender makes a big difference,” says Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology, and Anthropology at MIT, and co-author of a newly-published paper detailing the study.

As a result of their experiences at these moments, women who have developed high expectations for their profession — expecting to make a positive social impact as engineers — can become disillusioned with their career prospects.

“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” adds Silbey, regarding the way this group-dynamics problem crops up at a variety of key points during students’ training.

The paper, titled “Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation,” appears in the latest print issue of the journal Work and Occupations. The co-authors are Silbey, who is the corresponding author; Carroll Seron, a professor at the University of California at Irvine; Erin Cech, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan; and Brian Rubineau, an associate professor at McGill University.

“Menial tasks” instead of “all the fun”

Overall, about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, but only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female. Numerous explanations have been offered for this discrepancy, including a lack of mentorship for women in the field; a variety of factors that produce less confidence for female engineers; and the demands for women of maintaining a balance between work and family life.

The current study does not necessarily preclude some of those other explanations, but it adds an additional element to the larger discussion.

To conduct the study, the researchers asked more than 40 undergraduate engineering students to keep twice-monthly diaries. The students attended four institutions in Massachusetts: MIT, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. That generated more than 3,000 individual diary entries that the scholars systematically examined.

What emerges is a picture in which female engineering students are negatively affected at particular moments of their educational terms — especially when they engage in team-based activities outside the classroom, where, in a less structured environment, older gender roles re-emerge.

This crops up frequently in the diary entries. To take an example, one student named Kimberly described an episode in a design class in which “two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop. We heard the girls complaining about it. … ”

Or, as the paper puts it, “Informal interactions with peers and everyday sexism in teams and internships are particularly salient building blocks of [gender] segregation.” The researchers add: “For many women, their first encounter with collaboration is to be treated in gender stereotypical ways.” And by contrast, as the researchers note in the paper, “Almost without exception, we find that the men interpret the experience of internships and summer jobs as a positive experience.”

Such experiences lead to a problem involving what the researchers call “anticipatory socialization.” The women in the study, Silbey and her colleagues observed, are more likely than men to say they are entering the field of engineering with the explicit idea that it will be a “socially responsible” profession that will “make a difference in people’s lives.” But group dynamics seem to affect this specific expectation in two ways: by leading women to question whether other professions could be a better vehicle for affecting positive social change, and by leading them to question if their field has a “commitment to a socially conscious agenda that … was a key motivator for them in the first place.”

Changes beyond the classroom

As Silbey observes, the findings suggest that engineering’s gender gap is not precisely rooted in the engineering curriculum or the classroom, which have often been the focus of past scrutiny in this area.

“We think engineering education is quite successful by its own standards,” Silbey says. Moreover, she adds, “The teaching environment is for the most part very successful.”

That means some new kinds of remedies could be explored, which might have a positive impact on women’s experiences as engineers in training. For instance, as Silbey has previously recommended, institutions could develop “directed internship seminars,” in which student internship experiences could be dissected to help many people grasp and learn from the problems women face.

In this vein, Silbey adds, whatever other components education may have, it is useful to remember that “education is a process of socialization.”

Abstract of the study:

Why does sex segregation in professional occupations persist? Arguing that the cultures and practices of professional socialization serve to perpetuate this segregation, the authors examine the case of engineering. Using interview and diary entry data following students from college entry to graduation, the authors show how socialization leads women to develop less confidence that they will “fit” into the culture of engineering. The authors identify three processes that produce these cultural mismatches: orientation to engineering at college entry, initiation rituals in coursework and team projects, and anticipatory socialization during internships and summer jobs. Informal interactions with peers and everyday sexism in teams and internships are particularly salient building blocks of segregation.


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Great read: Stop Comparing Management to Sports

A bit of a sidestep content-wise, but this piece by Freek Vermeulen is too good to not to share.

This is the problem he addresses:

Often, when I’m asked to give a speech on strategy at some company event or conference, I find that one of the other speakers is a former professional sports player. In that capacity, I’ve happily attended the talks – with much interest – of a famous ice-hockey and a famous table tennis player, some rowers, and a freeskier; I’ve listened to the fascinating tales of a professional BASE jumper whose parachute failed, someone who walked to the North Pole unaided, an Olympic athlete, and a championship-winning golfer. Invariably, they offer tantalizing stories of commitment, perseverance, and the sweet joy of winning. (Some talks go even further, comparing business to war – I’ve accordingly witnessed rousing speeches on Lanchester strategy and from retired generals on how to overcome the enemy.)

The message for managers is clear: this is the way to outcompete your business rivals; these are the traits that will bring you and your company commercial victory. Although there is nothing wrong with commitment and perseverance, I, however, think sport (much less war) is often an unhelpful analogy. Good management is not like a competitive sport. And managing your company as if it is, can lead your business astray – or at least create a mighty corporate mess.

Read the full text here why.

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Smartphone use by parents may influence the attention span of their children?

I do have my reservations about this study, but it has an interesting thesis: based on eye-tracking software the study sees – pun intented – a connection between caregiver focus and key cognitive development indicator in infants. Or to put it more bluntly: caregivers whose eyes wander during playtime — due to distractions such as smartphones or other technology, for example — may raise children with shorter attention spans.

But if we look at the actual study, what is the essence:

  • They  used head-mounted eye tracking to record gaze data in child-parent free play
  • Infants extend their sustained attention when a parent attends to the same object
  • Parent-child social interactions influence the development of sustained attention
  • The development of seemingly non-social competencies depends on social experience

So, which reservations do I have:

  • the study didn’t look at smartphone use at all
  • a connection hides a correlation in this case

Actually, I think this is a great study that again shows how important responsive parenting is. Ok, something that we’ve known for quite a while now. A bit less spectacular, maybe.

From the press release:

The work, which appears online today in the journal Current Biology, is the first to show a direct connection between how long a caregiver looks at an object and how long an infant’s attention remains focused on that same object.

“The ability of children to sustain attention is known as a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones,” said Chen Yu, who led the study. “Caregivers who appear distracted or whose eyes wander a lot while their children play appear to negatively impact infants’ burgeoning attention spans during a key stage of development.”

Yu is a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Linda Smith, IU Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is co-author on the paper.

“Historically, psychologists regarded attention as an property of individual development,” Smith said. “Our study is one of the first to consider attention as impacted by social interaction. It really appears to be an activity performed by two social partners since our study shows one individual’s attention significantly influence another’s.”

Thanks to head-mounted cameras worn by both caregivers and infants in the study, IU scientists got a first-person point of view on parents and children playing together in an environment that closely resembled a typical play session at home or day care. The technology also allowed the parents and children to play with physical toys. A typical eye-tracking study of children would involve manipulating objects on a screen.

Caregivers were given no instructions before engaging with children to ensure the psychologists got an unfiltered view of their interactions.

Generally, Yu said, caregivers fell into two major groups: those who let the infants direct the course of their play and those who attempted to forcefully guide the infants’ interest toward specific toys.

“A lot of the parents were really trying too hard,” he said. “They were trying to show off their parenting skills, holding out toys for their kids and naming the objects. But when you watch the camera footage, you can actually see the children’s eyes wandering to the ceilings or over their parents’ shoulders — they’re not paying attention at all.”

The caregivers who were most successful at sustaining the children’s attention were those who “let the child lead.” These caregivers waited until they saw the children express interest in a toy and then jumped in to expand that interest by naming the object and encouraging play.

“The responsive parents were sensitive to their children’s interests and then supported their attention,” Yu said. “We found they didn’t even really need to try to redirect where the children were looking.”

The gains in attention for children in this group were significant. In cases where infants and caregivers paid attention to the same object for over 3.6 seconds, the infant’s attention lingered 2.3 seconds longer on average on the same object even after the caregiver’s gaze turned away. This extra time works out to nearly four times longer compared to infants whose caregivers’ attention strayed relatively quickly.

The impact of a few seconds here and there may seem small. But when they are magnified over a play session — and those play sessions occur over months of daily interaction during a critical stage in mental development — the outcomes grow significantly, Yu said. A number of other studies tracking the influence of sustained attention in children from ages 1 through grade school show consistently that longer attention spans at an early age are a strong predictor of later achievement.

“Showing that what a parent pays attention to minute by minute and second by second actually influences what a child is paying attention to may seem intuitive, but social influences on attention are potentially very important and ignored by most scientists,” said Sam Wass, a research scientist at the University of Cambridge whose commentary on the study appears in the same journal. “Chen Yu and Linda Smith’s work in this area in recent years has been hugely influential.”

The shortest attention spans in the study were observed in a third group, in which caregivers displayed extremely low engagement with children while playing. These distracted caregivers tended to sit back and not play along, or simply look elsewhere during the exercise.

“When you’ve got a someone who isn’t responsive to a child’s behavior,” Yu said, “it could be a real red flag for future problems.”

Abstract of the study:

The ability to sustain attention is a major achievement in human development and is generally believed to be the developmental product of increasing self-regulatory and endogenous (i.e., internal, top-down, voluntary) control over one’s attention and cognitive systems [ 1–5 ]. Because sustained attention in late infancy is predictive of future development, and because early deficits in sustained attention are markers for later diagnoses of attentional disorders [ 6 ], sustained attention is often viewed as a constitutional and individual property of the infant [ 6–9 ]. However, humans are social animals; developmental pathways for seemingly non-social competencies evolved within the social group and therefore may be dependent on social experience [ 10–13 ]. Here, we show that social context matters for the duration of sustained attention episodes in one-year-old infants during toy play. Using head-mounted eye tracking to record moment-by-moment gaze data from both parents and infants, we found that when the social partner (parent) visually attended to the object to which infant attention was directed, infants, after the parent’s look, extended their duration of visual attention to the object. Looks to the same object by two social partners is a well-studied phenomenon known as joint attention, which has been shown to be critical to early learning and to the development of social skills [ 14, 15 ]. The present findings implicate joint attention in the development of the child’s own sustained attention and thus challenge the current understanding of the origins of individual differences in sustained attention, providing a new and potentially malleable developmental pathway to the self-regulation of attention.


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