Pulling an all-nighter won't help with decision-making the morning after. Photo: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
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Asleep at the wheel: what makes us human is our irrationality

We are drawn to some types of information over others, our past experiences shape our present-day judgements and our emotional and physical states affect the choices we make.

I am 14 years old, sitting in my first economics class. We are taught that we make decisions as rational men, Homo economicus. That we objectively weigh up pros and cons and coolly evaluate information.

Rational men. Hmmm. Not only does economics in one swoop ignore my entire sex, it also assumes that we are robotic, dispassionate creatures.

We are not.

What makes us human is our irrationality – the way we are drawn to some types of information over others, the way our past experiences shape our present-day judgements, the way our emotional and physical states affect the choices we make.

Take colour. It plays a surprisingly signi­ficant role in the way we evaluate situations. Men rate women as more attractive if they see their photographs set against red backgrounds rather than white, grey, blue or green. Waitresses are tipped more when they wear red. Football referees are more likely to give penalties to teams wearing black strips than to those in other colours.

Language – the choice of words, images and metaphors used – also has a huge impact on the judgement calls we make. I may not fall for politicians’ fear-mongering, but beauty companies have at times caught me out. In my bathroom cabinet are products that “correct” dark spots, “fight” ageing and can infuse my eyes with “youth”. Really, though?

And how about the British study which revealed that when two groups of psychiatrists were told the same story of a young man who had attacked a train conductor, the only difference being the attacker’s name, they provided different diagnoses depending on what they believed him to be called? When the psychiatrists thought the attacker was called Matthew, they were more likely to diagnose him with schizophrenia. When they thought he was called Wayne, they were more likely to diagnose him with a drug problem.

Time and time again we are affected by factors of which we are not even aware. Time and time again we behave irrationally. It’s not just the way information is presented to us of which we need to be mindful. We need to be aware, too, of the impact of our physiological and psychological state on the choices we make.

If we’re anxious, we are more risk-averse. Stress makes us prone to tunnel vision, less likely to take in all the information we need. When we’re happy we take more risks, are more trusting, more generous. It’s why a country’s stock market tends to rise off the back of a national team’s win at football. (Not something England needed to worry about this year, sadly.)

If we’re tired, that messes with our decision-making. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter you will know the symptoms of sleep deprivation all too well: difficulty concentrating, brain like cotton wool, memory lapses. But did you know that if you go 24 hours without sleep or spend a week sleeping only four or five hours a night, it’s as if you’re making decisions drunk?

Are you the type who skips breakfast? If so you might want to rethink that. Fascinating research in Israel on why judges decided to grant prisoners parole showed that the main determinant wasn’t the applicant’s gender or ethnicity, nor even the type of crime, but whether the judge had recently eaten.

If you went before the judge just before they’d had their mid-morning snack . . . disaster. Zero per cent chance of getting parole. Immediately after that snack: 65 per cent. Just before lunch . . . disaster again. Only a 10 per cent chance of getting parole. Immediately after lunch: 65 per cent.

And if you’re feeling horny, well, you probably want to wait before you make that important call. When Canadian male undergraduates were given one of two images to look at – either a Victoria’s Secret model or a neutral object, a rock – and then asked to make a financial decision, the guys who’d been looking at the Victoria’s Secret model made significantly worse financial decisions than those who’d been looking at a rock.

What makes us human is our irrationality – and that the choices we make are influenced by a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with the decision at hand.

What makes us smart is our ability to acknowledge this, and then actively challenge ourselves and our immediate impulse. 

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in partnership with the Jeremy Vine show (BBC Radio 2)

Noreena Hertz’s “Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World” is out in paperback (William Collins, £8.99)

Noreena Hertz is an academic and an author. Her most recent book is Eyes Wide Open. Other books include The Silent Takeover and I.O.U.: The Debt Threat and Why We Must Defuse It".

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.