Practical analysis for investment professionals
22 July 2016

Weekend Reads: “Noncomplementary” Behavior and the Science of Networks

Posted In: Weekend Reads

This week’s edition starts off with an unusual story, one I heard on the radio yesterday morning while driving to a running rendezvous.

Picture this: It’s a warm summer’s night in Washington, DC, some might even say it was a magical evening. Eight friends are gathered outside, drinking fine French wine, chatting, and celebrating the new restaurant one of them had recently opened.

“I was standing beside my wife and I just saw this arm with a long-barreled gun come between us,” said a man named Michael, who was there with his wife and daughter.

The stranger raises the gun and says: “Give me your money, or I am going to start effing shooting.”

The problem is that no one had any money on them. The group fell silent and the tension rose. At first, they tried to defuse the situation by invoking guilt. “What would your mother think of you?” one asked. That didn’t go down too well.

The situation became more strained. Then a woman named Christina spoke up. “We’re here celebrating,” she said. “Why don’t you have a glass of wine and sit down.”

And, Michael says, “It was like a switch, you could feel the difference.”

The man in the sweat suit accepted.

He put the gun in his pocket, sipped the wine, ate some cheese, and then did something no one expected: He asked for a hug.

A little while later he apologized and sauntered off, wine glass in hand, out the gate, and into the night.

Not exactly the outcome anyone there, or listening to the story, would have expected, right?

As I learned from listening to this episode of Invisibilia, which aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, what happened that night may be explained by something psychologists call “noncomplementarity.”

Usually, people mirror each other. For example, nastiness begets nastiness and kindness begets kindness. But when you break this pattern, which is very hard to do, it’s called noncomplementarity.

Co-host Alix Spiegel explains that, “People do manage to sometimes behave in noncomplementary ways and, when they do, it often completely shakes up a situation. It happens between people, but also it can happen on a bigger level.”

Psychologist Christopher J. Hopwood explains what is meant by “a bigger level.” He says the reason we admire people like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. is because they were able to maintain warmth and integrity in the face of cruelty.


Hanna Rosin, co-host of Invisibilia, explains further: “Complementary behavior is the norm. It means when you act warmly, the person you are with is likely to act warm back. The same is true with hostility. But noncomplementary behavior means doing the unexpected. Someone acts with hostility and you respond warmly. It’s an unnatural reaction, and it’s a proven way to shake up the dynamic and produce a different outcome from the usual one.”

When I listened to the segment again at my desk, it struck me that we could all use a little more noncomplementary behavior in our day-to-day lives, especially here in the United States where the discourse is especially fraught ahead of the presidential election in November. But not only that, it also sounds like a useful technique for potentially alleviating strife in personal relationships.

What else have I heard, viewed, or read recently that you may find interesting? This week I’m going to veer off script a little and offer a short selection of links that would usually appear under my usual “And Now for Something Completely Different” category. I figure that between finance, Twitter, and the media, we are already overloaded on financial and political stories, so why not spend a little time delving into other subjects?

  • If you’ve spent time in New York, you know how loud the city can be. And if you have taken the subway, you may be familiar with “the screech,” that high-pitched sound as a train’s steel wheels scrape along the tracks. The subway noise from a station platform is about 80 decibels on average. So imagine this: The 1883 eruption on Krakatoa registered 172 decibels 100 miles from the source. “The human threshold for pain is near 130 decibels, and if you had the misfortune of standing next to a jet engine, you’d experience a 150-decibel sound,” writes Aatish Bhatia in a fascinating article titled, “The Sound So Loud That It Circled the Earth Four Times.” The Krakatoa noise level “is so astonishingly loud, that it’s inching up against the limits of what we mean by ‘sound.'” (How loud is too loud? Check out this decibel exposure time guideline. If you have lived or traveled in Hong Kong and have had to make peace with the constant construction, jack hammer noise rates at 125 decibels, alongside ambulance sirens.) (AMNewYork, Nautilus)
  • What can Halloween, Popeye, and the Kentucky Derby possibly have in common with Iran? “Candy” is derived from the Persian qand, meaning sugar cube; spinach is from the Persian aspanakh; and julep started as Persian gul-āb (rose water). That’s what I learned after reading “From Candy To Juleps, Persians Left Imprint On Many Edible Delights.” (National Public Radio)
  • Bradley Stulberg tells readers that when he first started training for marathons, his coach told him something he has never forgotten: learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. For those of you among us who train for a sport, no truer words were ever spoken. In his capacity as a columnist for Outside Magazine, Stulberg has had the opportunity to interview the world’s top endurance and adventure athletes on the practices underlying their success. “Regardless of sport, the most resounding theme, by far, is that they’ve all learned how to embrace uncomfortable situations,” he says. What stuck out for me was something world-champion big-wave surfer Nic Lamb (the type of guy who rides four-story waves) told Stulberg: “While you can pull back, you can almost always push through. Pushing through is courage. Pulling back is regret.” (New York)
  • I only recently discovered Invisibilia, a program about the invisible forces that control human behavior, but I’m so glad I did because it covers fascinating stories. In “What An Hour of Emotion Makes Visible,” co-host Alix Spiegel takes us deeper into the brains of people with Asperger’s. (National Public Radio)
  • I’ve been watching a lot of TED Talks lately and thinking about what distinguishes those that really stand out, versus those that don’t. Last night I happened to click on a TED Talk that caught my eye on Twitter. It was delivered by author Lidia Yuknavitch and it was about being a misfit. Toward the end, she recounts a piece of advice that I think is the best I have heard for anyone considering a personal presentation, article, or memoir: “Give voice to the story only you know how to tell.” (Chris Anderson, curator of TED, offers advice on “How to Give a Killer Presentation” in an article for Harvard Business Review, saying that talks “rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker.”) (TED)
  • Here’s a humorous question, but one with profound consequences: Could Kevin Bacon have saved us from the 2008 financial crisis? “Probably not. But the network science behind six degrees of Kevin Bacon just well may have,” says Bob Henderson in his article, “Can Topology Prevent Another Financial Crash?” As Henderson explains, “according to the famous saying, every movie actor is separated from Kevin Bacon by six degrees of separation or less, going from co-star to co-star (actually most are separated from Bacon by only three degrees). Actors form a ‘small-world’ network, meaning it takes a surprisingly small number of connections to get from any one member to any other. Natural and man-made small-world networks of all kinds are extremely common: The electric power grid of the western United States, the neural network of the nematode worm C. elegans, the Internet, protein and gene networks in biology, citations in scientific papers, and most social networks are small . . . You’d think that, if you were designing a really important network, like, say, the global financial system, you’d want to use a small-world network, with a very small number of hubs. That is not, however, what our financial networks looked like — until recently.” (Nautilus)
  • If the subject of networks interests you, take a look at “Using Social Network Effects to Enrich Yourself Like Facebook Does,” in which my former colleague, Len Costa, discusses the work of Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership at Northwestern University, and “how personal networks can be not only key assets for investment professionals, but also a source of collective intelligence about financial markets, which, if properly harnessed, can help money managers make better investment decisions.” (Enterprising Investor)
  • And finally, whether you’re at your desk or on your smartphone, here’s a short visual journey to distant worlds. @NatGeo put it aptly: “Satisfy your wanderlust with outstanding photos from our Travel Photographer of the Year Contest.” Need I say more? (National Geographic)

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster was a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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