Owning or even imagining that you own an object linked to a particular task can make you feel — and act — more like an adept. Photo via Getty Images

Want to get better at a task? It may be possible to shop — or imagine — your way to success.

Just pretending to shop for items associated with certain skills (for example, a fancy calculator) may actually improve your performance in areas related to that skill (in this case, math).

That’s because our identities are highly influenced by our possessions — which we often experience as part of ourselves. As a result, this activation of an identity by our possessions, even imaginary ones, can enhance performance. For example, one study found that by using a pen labeled “MIT” on GRE exams, students scored higher than those using a standard Pilot pen, particularly when they believed that their inner ability was fixed, and that they had to rely on external products to improve their ability.

In 2018, Rice Business professor Jaeyeon Chung and Gita V. Johar of Columbia University took a close look at the implications of this human quirk.

In a series of experiments, Chung and Johar found that the product-related activation of our identities (e.g., calculator ownership awakening an inner math prodigy) can actually de-activate our identities unrelated to the product, and undermine performance in other tasks.

For example, shopping for a calculator could make you perform better on a math test, but worse on a creative-writing essay.

Merely owning an item, the scholars discovered, is only part of the equation. Self-concept clarity — that is, the strength and clarity of one’s personal beliefs — makes a difference as well. A person whose self-concept is well-defined, consistent, and stable is less likely to be influenced by external factors such as possessions.

To measure the phenomenon, Chung and her colleague devised a series of experiments. The results showed that when a person merely imagines an item she longs to own, two inner changes occur: Identities related to the product are awakened, and identities unrelated to the desired object are stifled. Strikingly, these changes have measurable consequences on the performance of tasks.

But how do you awaken an inner self through possession, and measure its effects? The team found an ingenious approach: They assigned people to a control group or an experimental group, and then asked them to peruse an online IKEA. The control group was told to shop for items to go in a senior citizen home. The experimental group shopped for items to go into their own homes.

The experimental group, who got to imagine items such as a MALM bed in their own bedrooms, were more likely to think of themselves as artistic designers than were their counterparts, the imaginary retirement home shoppers. The exercise, in other words, had activated participants’ art-related identities.

Next, Chung and Johar asked everyone to complete a math task. The experimental group scored lower at this than did those in the control group. Their newly awakened identities as design mavens had undermined their ability to solve math problems, apparently because they were unrelated to the fetching Scandinavian décor they’d imagined owning.

The researchers then took another approach. Asking one group of participants to imagine owning a calculator, they activated that group’s “math identity.” They then asked all the participants to engage in a short IQ test. Though there was only one test, the researchers labeled it two different ways, indicating to some participants that the test measured math skills, and to others that it measured creative writing skills.

Despite the test being exactly the same, the would-be calculator owners performed markedly worse when they thought they were doing a creative writing project than when they thought the test measured their math skills. Why, exactly? The researchers concluded that imagining owning a piece of math-y technology and activating their “math person identities” tamped down participants’ “creative writer” identities — so much so that it actually degraded their performance in that area.

In a third experiment, Chung and Johar asked a group to envision calculators that they actually owned, rather than simply imagining buying one. Again, the group that felt ownership regarding a math tool performed better on tasks that seemed math-related, but worse on tasks that seemed unrelated to math. The finding was robust when the task itself was exactly the same and the only difference how the task was labeled.

Interestingly, identity activation and performance were influenced by the participants’ level of self-concept clarity. Some people have a clear and consistent self-view that does not vary over time; these are individuals who are less likely to rely on their possessions or other environmental stimuli to infer who they are. These individuals were less likely to be affected by the “ownership” of a calculator.

In other words, self-concept clarity limited the power of ownership on identity activation and performance. Chung and Johar’s findings offer practical implications for both business and academia. Owning or even imagining that you own an object linked to a particular task can make you feel — and act — more like an adept.

So the next time you have a big quantitative test coming up, consider browsing for a high-end calculator first — and unwinding with your oil paints or “Infinite Jest” when you’re done. For best results, of course, take the test with your Rice-labeled pen.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jaeyeon (Jae) Chung is an assistant professor of marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.