The Ultimate Behavioral Science Playlist: Ego

By Aline Holzwarth

Illustrations by Matt Trower


We have joined together with other behavioral scientists to compile a playlist of over 5 hours of songs from a diverse range of genres that each, in some way or another, exemplify the principles of behavioral science. These songs are organized by the categories of the BEHAVIOR Framework (a mnemonic for remembering different behavior change strategies: Bias, Ego, Habits, Appeal, Visceral, Incentives, Others, Reminders), and will be released with their descriptions in the coming weeks, one category at a time.


People think in terms of themselves, even as they are influenced by others. We, ourselves, are our ultimate reference point. That’s why we’re susceptible to behavioral phenomena like self-herding (where we defer to our previous behavior to guide current decisions) or the endowment effect (where we overvalue what we own). And perhaps most illustrative is our tendency to be overly confident (we believe we are likely right and above average) and overly optimistic (we underestimate the risk of bad things happening to us). We even think we can get away with texting while driving.

Overconfidence is a popular theme in music, as seen in DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” or Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Troy Campbell notes, in “Sicko Mode” by Travis Scott and Drake, that “Drake doesn’t merely brag; he almost always employs contrast effects to illustrate a point. He frequently does this with his past self and sometimes other rappers.”

Tim Houlihan hones in on a prime example of attribution bias in “Angry Eyes” by Loggins & Messina, where the singer recognizes a double standard and blind spot in his accuser, with ”you want to believe that I am not the same as you.”

These displays of ego in music (and more) appear in the ultimate behavioral science playlist, a compilation of songs that demonstrate common behavioral principles. These songs are organized by the categories of the BEHAVIOR Framework (a mnemonic for remembering different behavior change strategies: Bias, Ego, Habits, Appeal, Visceral, Incentives, Others, Reminders). 

In collaboration with behavioral scientists from eight cooperating organizations (Action Design, Behavioral Grooves, Habit Weekly, behavioraleconomics.com, ideas42, Behavioral Scientist, PeopleScience and Betterment), we are pleased to share the ultimate behavioral science playlist with you. We hope you enjoy it, and share it with one other person!

Listen to the Ultimate Behavioral Science Playlist:

 

Songs About the Behavioral Principle: Ego

 

Experiencing vs. Remembering Self

I Remember

Molly Drake
Zarak Khan
Contributor, Action Design

"And now we can be grateful for the gift of memory
For I remember having fun
Two happy hearts that beat as one
When I had thought that we were ""we""
But we were ""you and me""."

Memory is so interesting! Especially how two people can share the same experience but come out of it with totally different memories. Not only that, but how the end of the experience shapes our memory.

Contrast effect Narrative

Sicko Mode

Travis Scott / Drake
Troy Campbell
Contributor, Center for Advanced Hindsight

"She's in love with who I am
Back in high school, I used to bus it to the dance (yeah)
Now I hit the FBO with duffles in my hands"

Drake doesn’t merely brag; he almost always employs contrasts effects to illustrate a point. He frequently does this with his past self and sometimes other rappers. In addition to adding narrative, the contrast exaggerates his successes further, as demonstrated in “Sicko Mode.”

Endowment Effect

Take It With Me (Tom Waits cover)

Angie McMahon
Perry Wright
Contributor, Center for Advanced Hindsight

"The children are playing at the end of the day
Strangers are singing on our lawn
It's got to be more than flesh and bone
All that you've loved is all you own

In a land there's a town, and in that town there's a house
And in that house there's a woman
And in that woman there's a heart I love
I'm gonna take it with me when I go"

This cover of “Take It With Me” recounts the ephemera and gentle misfortunes of life, mining the memories for all their true value in the narrator’s story: sleeping on a porch, breaking down by the side of the road and passing the hours playing solitaire, an apartment from a previous chapter of life. These things are humdrum and lack the vitality and salience of the biggest moments in life, and if you were asked to assign a price to a trip on which you would end up breaking down, stuck playing cards by the side of the road, you would likely be inclined to value it very low. But Tom Waits gets at something adjacent to the behavioral principle of the endowment effect, that we tend to ascribe more value to things merely because we own them. As theoretical experiences, the list falls somewhere between boring and unfortunate, but as lived memories the list recalls treasure after treasure. In its pure form, endowment effect is more transactional—my hypothetical selling (willingness to accept) price of Duke vs UNC basketball tickets is far higher than my hypothetical buying (willingness to pay) price of the same tickets. In other instances, however, there are shades closer to the elements depicted in the song; for example, selling your home can lead to a strong endowment effect where your sale price may start far outside what is reasonable for your housing market because you both own the house already and have made many important memories in that house, both causing you to value it more highly.

Life is Complex Perspective Learning Subjectivity

Both Sides Now

Joni Mitchell
Tim Houlihan
Contributor, Behavioral Grooves

"I've looked at love from both sides now
From win and lose
and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall

I really don't know love
Really don't know love at all"

One of the keenest observations on the human condition, Joni’s homage to love AND life (at age 25) in “Both Sides Now” is on equal philosophical standing as Hume or Socrates, and she goes further by adding in the psychological bender that the most memorable parts of love and life are merely illusions.

Self-Efficacy

Give Yourself a Try

The 1975
Troy Campbell
Contributor, Center for Advanced Hindsight

"You learn a couple things when you get to my age
Like friends don't lie and it all tastes the same in the dark
When your vinyl and your coffee collection is a sign of the times
You're getting spiritually enlightened at 29

So just give yourself a try
Won't you give yourself a try?"

Albert Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments. In “Give Yourself a Try” by The 1975, the singer recommends giving oneself “a try” to fully become, rather than to be a cliche.

Endowment Effect Loss Aversion Ingroup Bias

That's my Toy

David LaMotte
Jonathan Corbin
Contributor, Center for Advanced Hindsight

"That's my parking place, I was here first
This is my place in line, you can't cut in
That's my woman, keep your eyes off of her
This is my land, stay on your side of the fence

This is our country, we don't want you here
This is our land, we mean to keep it for our own
This is our freedom, we don't want to share it
You can pack your dreams, you can go back home"

In “That’s my Toy” by David Lamotte, we are taken from kids alienating other kids by not sharing their toys to groups of adults fighting to keep perceived outgroups from entering their country. The focus on the self at the detriment of others is painful to listen to, particularly as it evolves from lighthearted selfishness to outright nationalistic discrimination.

Autonomy

Hair

Lady Gaga
Troy Campbell
Contributor, Center for Advanced Hindsight

"I just wanna be myself
And I want you to love me for who I am
I just wanna be myself
And I want you to know, I am my hair

I've had enough, this is my prayer
That I'll die livin' just as free as my hair"

Lady Gaga desires to be herself and have the strength to choose her own life. The concrete metaphor of her hair is fan favorite for all her little monsters who have had crazy hair and been told not to.

Happiness Relationship Between Wealth and Happiness

Mo Money Mo Problems

The Notorious B.I.G., Mase, Diddy
Aline Holzwarth
Contributor, Center for Advanced Hindsight

"I don't know what they want from me
It's like the more money we come across
The more problems we see

I don't know what they want from me
It's like the more money we come across
The more problems we see"

In “Mo Money Mo Problems,” The Notorious B.I.G. shines a light on the complicated relationship between money and the complexities of life. Contrary to the (incorrect) belief that money brings happiness, Biggie hypothesizes that more money could actually lead to more problems in life.

Apophenia (pattern seeking)

The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs

Wye Oak
Zarak Khan
Contributor, Action Design

"I search for patterns, sense that isn’t there
You can have everything, and still you have nothing

So I take them all apart, then I put them back
Sometimes it takes a long, long, long time"

Being a behavioral scientist feels like being an explorer. You’re looking for patterns and trying to make sense of what you see. Sometimes you’re on the right track and other times there’s nothing there. There is also a pleasing ambiguity to “The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs” by Wye Oak. The lyrics “the louder I call, the faster it runs” could mean that the harder you’re looking, the faster the answer comes to you. But it could also mean that the harder you look, the more the answer eludes you. Research and exploration can feel that way!

Identity Endownment Effect

Lights and Buzz

Jack's Mannequin
Troy Campbell
Contributor, Center for Advanced Hindsight

"It's Christmas in California
And it's hard to ignore that it feels like summer all the time
But I'll take a west coast winter to remove my splinters

It's good to be alive"

This California band, Jack’s Mannequin explains in “Lights and Buzz” how even though others might not enjoy a West Coast Winter, they love it. It is part of who they are. We tend to love what we know and what we have, a clear demonstration of the endowment effect.

Overconfidence

All I Do Is Win

DJ Khaled
Zarak Khan
Contributor, Action Design

"All I do is win win win no matter what
Got money on my mind I can never get enough
And every time I step up in the buildin'
Everybody hands go up
And they stay there
And they say yeah
And they stay there"

I mean, IS that all you do no matter what, DJ Khaled? Thinking so might lead to disappointment and bad decisions.

Spotlight Effect Attribution Bias

Angry Eyes

Loggins & Messina
Tim Houlihan
Contributor, Behavioral Grooves

"You want to believe that I am not the same as you
And now I can't conceive of what it is you're trying to do

With those angry eyes
Well, I bet you wish you could cut me down
With those angry eyes"

Loggins & Messina seem to know in “Angry Eyes” that the person accusing the singer is guilty of the same things he’s being accused of, but it’s a blindspot for the accuser. Also, one of the best songs to feature a sax solo, an electric guitar solo and a flute solo.

Backfire Effect Confirmation Bias

La La La (Never Give It Up)

Petra Marklund
Samuel Salzer
Contributor, Habit Weekly

"Never gonna give it up
I never wanna stop
never ever give it up
I never give it up

la la la la la la la, la la la la la la, la la la
la la la la la la la, la la la la la la"

“This early 2000s pop song, “”La La La (Never Give It Up)”” by Petra Marklund, perfectly describes the backfire effect – our tendency to at times paradoxically hold on stronger to our existing opinions when faced with contradictory evidence. For a clearer representation of this, you can imagine the artist shaking her head with hands over her ears while screaming “”I’ll never ever give up [my opinions], I’ll never give it up, la la la la la la la, la la la la la la…””

Self-examination Relieves Suffering Imposter Syndrome

Beneath the Surface of the Well

Tim Houlihan
Tim Houlihan
Contributor, Behavioral Grooves

"Somewhere deep inside your mind
Is a fear that you'll be left behind
But you've got a green light to come on in
The water is fine"

Please forgive the self-promotion. I wrote “Beneath the Surface of the Well” thinking about a friend who suffers from an oversized imposter syndrome. After a few weeks of crafting lyrics, I played it for a mutual friend hoping that this third party would see that I wrote it for our buddy. However, when he said, “Wow, I’m surprised you wrote that about yourself,” it got me thinking that my own biases were getting in the way.

Irrationality Escapism Intention-Action Gap

Just a Fool

Jim James
Erik Johnson
Contributor, Action Design

"Memorize the lines and try to work within the frame
Bustin' out the glass, bloody knuckles broke the pain

Just a fool getting by
Just a fool doin' alright
Just a fool, just a fool"

In “Just a Fool” by Jim James, the singer speaks of mistakes he’s made, the action-intention gap, and strategies for escaping reality to numb the pain.

Objectivity Subjectivity Perspective GI Joe Effect

Motion Sickness

Phoebe Bridgers
Tim Houlihan
Contributor, Behavioral Grooves

"I have emotional motion sickness
Somebody roll the windows down
There are no words in the English language
I could scream to drown you out

I'm on the outside looking through
You're throwing rocks around your room"

Phoebe Bridgers is a talented songwriter who can craft a phrase with wit and clarity. In her song “Motion Sickness,” she sees the self-destructive nature of self-evaluation and realizes that, owing to the GI Joe effect, more information won’t be helpful to the person she’s singing about.

Overconfidence

Can’t Tell Me Nothing

Kanye West
Erik Johnson
Contributor, Action Design

"Excuse me, is you saying something?
Uh, uh, you can't tell me nothing (ha, ha!)
You can't tell me nothing
Uh, uh, you can't tell me nothing"

Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is the perfect demonstration of overconfidence. True to form, Kanye boasts about his “game so professional” and “chain so fresh.” But a hint of humility peeks through when he cries, “Somebody call me a shrink. Until then, I’mma fix me a drink.”

Rationality Spotlight Effect Relativity

Can We Still Be Friends

Todd Rundgren
Tim Houlihan
Contributor, Behavioral Grooves

"It's a strange sad affair
Sometimes seems like we just don't care
Don't waste time feeling hurt
We've been through hell together

La la la la, la la la la
Can we still be friends?
Can we still get together sometime?"

Rundgren is a thoughtful and clever songwriter. His anthems for love and peace represent songwriting at it’s best. In this song, he discovers that using logic on a social relationship is futile. A purely rational approach doesn’t get him where he wants to go.

Endowment Effect Loss Aversion

Holding On

The War on Drugs
Erik Johnson
Contributor, Action Design

"I ain't never going to change
He never gonna learn
I keep moving on the path, yeah
Holding on to mine

When you talk about the past
What are we talking of?
Did I let go too fast?
Was I holding on too long?"

In “Holding On” by The War on Drugs, we experience the reluctance to change or let go from someone who wants to move on, but struggles with the potential loss required to do so.