Thursday, May 12, 2016

Experiences and Learning

Here we are at the culmination of eight or nine months of (nearly) weekly blogging. As many of you might not know, Economics of Reality is, in fact, my second foray into blogging. What started as an experiment early this last fall semester was actually a continuation, or should I say, discontinuation, of a blogging series I wrote early in this last fall semester for a class. The project was extended under a similar, but non-graded, circumstance through this group discussion which began as three people but was immediately reduced to two. This particular series began as a fresh graduate trying to capitalize on a skill only relatively recently acquired. Now that this blog may (but may not) be coming to a close with the ending of the school year, I can look back on past work and really question what I learned, gained, and improved on from this experience.

I’ve narrowed my list of new knowledge to the three most important lessons (in no particular order): Deconstructing, examining, and thinking critically about processes; breaking away from rituals, experimenting to find a better way, and then practicing deliberately; and that writing ability, along with most other skills, are not handed to you and require practice and continuous self-examination to achieve improved results.
First, discovering the value of process requires the examination of its parts. For writing, these pieces are topic discovery, prewriting, writing, and editing. But what do those look like? Same goes for skill acquisition. When I’m learning something, I first read a few books on it. For the first book, I read slowly and I take notes on the practical aspects. I do a web search on any words or concepts I don’t understand. I make connections with previous books; sometimes between somewhat different subjects such as management and psychology. The next books naturally go faster since I have a good grasp on the topic by then. I may also read articles online relating to the topic (an RSS feed is great for this). With the specific knowledge committed to memory, I can continue making connections with books I read afterwards.

Now that I’ve considered the process, I can begin to improve it.  What might I do? I can see that I should spend more time applying the new information in the real-life situations. And now that I’ve discovered that, I can think of strategies and processes to improve on that aspect as well. For example, how might I turn these subjects into play so they might be more enjoyable to practice?

Second, I learned from this experience that the improvement of technique often requires experimentation. This can mean breaking away from ritualistic processes in writing, working, simple tasks, and entertainment. Rituals can be so comforting and reliable in part because we’re become experts in our ritualistic behaviors and can complete things quicker with reduced anxiety. My daily ritual, for example, is a comforting and reliable one. I get plenty of reading done, and I’m able to make a smooth transition from sleeping to working. I wake up to an alarm at 8:30, open the blinds, get my coffee brewing, make my bed, organize my desk, check my phone/emails, fill a cup of coffee, grab my current book off the shelf, sit down in my desk chair, and read until noon when I have lunch. After an hour for that, I open up my laptop and get some work done until I, well, just sort of stop. The rest of the evening is free until around 12:30 when I go to bed.

That’s all well and good, but rituals can also be a hindrance if relied on too much. They might go from comforting to comfort zone, from productive to leisurely, and from flexible to rigid. Getting attached to a ritual that is no longer serving its purpose can become a distraction or an inhibiter. Maybe reading isn’t the best use of my mornings. Since it’s during the time of day when I’m most motivated, I could be better off tackling higher priorities then instead of later. I run into this problem all the time. I'm much more likely to make important phone calls in the morning, but since I use that time to read, I don’t always do so. I hate making phone calls, so sticking with my reading ritual becomes nothing more than an excuse to stay in my comfort zone.

Finally, something I gained a great deal of experience from was the writing itself. It’s hard for me to say exactly what I’ve learned since there’s been too much learned to talk about. There’s certain subtle differences in my style that hardly applies to other people, but for me personally, it’s an essential development. Two of the most stressed aspects of this experience, deliberate practice and mindset, have allowed me to see learning in a new light; every blog post I write and everything I do contributes to a lifelong learning process. There’s some profound implications there. And through practice and self-examination, I’ve gained a great deal of confidence to write with personality, style, and emotion and have learned to stand by my beliefs, opinions, and level of expertise, albeit with open-mindedness. I haven’t written enough yet for some of these aspects to show, but I’ve made some important first steps in that direction.

This group discussion has been a humbling experience. I used to think that performing well meant waiting for high-performance rather than working for it. In writing, I was always expecting to discover the perfect topic or for one piece to just turn out better than all others. Being fixed minded, that’s all I could really hope for. Having now fully realized how essential practice is to the improvement of performance, I no longer see that as the case. My best work may lie ahead provided I put in the proper effort and work hard to get better. Perhaps that means I’ll start fresh with a new blog now or continue writing outside of blogging for a while. When the time is right, and I’m ready to commit myself once again to writing, I will blog again.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Writing Process

Is there a single most efficient way to write? Almost certainly not, but for each individual, there’s likely a more efficient way than what they’re currently doing. The following post will be primarily on my own writing process, but perhaps some of this may be relatable or instructive. My current process can be broken down into four common parts: choosing a topic, deliberating on that topic, writing, and editing.

Choosing a topic is something I might go into more detail on another day, but for now, the basics. My better ideas and “Aha” moments come into existence when I’m not trying so hard to think of a topic. That can be when I’m doing some low-effort task such as cooking, traveling, or any number of relaxation-based activities. Reading is particularly useful since it sometimes leads to what I’ll call the “I never thought of it like that” experience and subsequent questions that arise from it. Another way I come up with topics is through collaboration and discussion which has been the case for the last several posts.

Deliberation on a topic, unlike selecting one, is more productive when I actively focused on it. Otherwise, this step can easily take up long lengths of time. It tends to expand and contract in length between topic-discovery and, if I let it, the deadline. This doesn’t mean more thinking. It means the same amount of thinking spread out over a longer time period.

Writing begins when I’ve exhausted all possible excuses for delaying the process. I sit down in my desk chair, open up a new document rather than working directly in Blogger (Just a preference; I do the same for professional emails), and begin with the first body paragraph. I skip writing the introduction until later. If I run into an issue while writing, I make sure to mark the problematic section for later editing. Admittedly, I try to finish the rough draft as quickly as possible, but it’s not always a bad thing. When I work quickly, I become immersed. I become focused on what I’m writing. It’s when I sit back to smell the roses that my mind wanders off the task.

The editing process is where my work really starts to take shape. I reread the sections that I previously struggled with, I shift things around, I look for grammatical errors, and I take another look at the issues I’ve marked. Once I’ve taken care of these major issues, I go to the beginning and start reading. Every time I reach an issue, such as something that doesn’t flow very well or something that doesn’t work in the big picture, I change it. Then I reread the paragraph and make any more necessary changes. If I finish the paragraph without any more issues, I move on to the next one. When I finish the first run through the post, assuming I’ve made a few errors, I go back to the top of the post and start the whole process over. It’s not until I can read the entire piece without issue that I consider my work done. I honestly find this to be a tedious thing to do, especially for longer work, but it’s effective for me.

On the other hand, my ideal process can be broken down into five common parts: choosing a topic, deliberating on that topic, prewriting, writing, and editing.

I’m not entirely satisfied with my current writing strategy. It’s served me well through college, but now it’s time to find a better, more consistent way. You may have noticed that prewriting wasn’t included in my current process. In the past, I’ve utilized the tried-and-true outlining method countless times as often required for class essays. For something so common and obvious, you’d think I’d already be doing this for blogging. I’m not. At first glance, it doesn’t take much to explain why; four steps to my process is less than five.

Of course, that’s hardly a sufficient reason, but here’s the problem. In the past, when an assignment called for an outline, I would obviously do it and even overdo it. I’d format, underline, italicize, write in bold, and line up all the bullet points. I’d use all the recommended sections and follow essentially the right formula, but then I’d start the writing step and the whole process would fall apart. For me, outlines would end in only one of two ways: either I would end up ignoring my own outline throughout the writing process, or I would follow through but see negligible changes in quality and time spent. Perhaps the problem is that I haven’t committed enough to improving my prewriting skills. Eventually, proper prewriting will likely save time. It may make the five-step approach easier and faster than the four-step process.

I’m a little more okay with the other steps of my process. I’d like to further explore choosing a topic. The inclusion of prewriting may radically change my writing process, but I’m pretty comfortable with my editing process. A few tweaks might help, though.

As it turns out, my attempt at prewriting for this very blog post was, in a lot of ways, a failure. I fell into my first result category of outlining: prewriting occurred, but I had trouble utilizing my own outline once writing began. It wasn’t a total loss, though, because I stuck to certain elements of my outline. Therefore, next week, I am committing to prewriting.

I hope readers can identify with what I’ve written here and analyze their own process. Maybe it’s better than mine (in fact, I’m confident it is), but one of the things I’ve learned lately is that everything in life, not just writing, is a process. Regardless of where you’re at or where you started, you can always end up at a far higher level of performance through practice. That being said, I’ll try and update my writing strategy. It could use some work.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Immersion in Writing

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been losing one battle after another against procrastination. For the first few posts that I wrote, one of them being on procrastination itself, I perhaps had better, but otherwise useless, excuses. Post #1 was late because I was new to this format of blogging. Post #2 was late because the responsibility for me to post weekly wasn’t immediately established. The next few posts were late because of writer’s block and finding the right topic slowed me down considerably. My reasons for posting late eventually ran out, yet the results remain the same. I’m forcing myself to write this post today, but I’m far from convinced this will put an end to Thursday night blogging.

Whenever I blog, I find it hard to focus on my topic. I look around the room again and again, I think about other things I might be doing, and I stare out the window. I’m fully aware of my surroundings and not fully aware of what I’m writing. Believe me, I try to hold my attention to my work, but it rarely seems to work out the way I want it to. This is not immersion.

That isn’t to say I don’t know what immersion in writing feels like. Occasionally, when everything is going exactly right (the topic is relatable, I have plenty to say on the particular subject, and I'm not being distracted by the train rumbling and screeching passed my building for the hundredth time today, etc.), I’ll become completely focused, the flow of ideas entering my mind outrun the speed I can type, writing temporarily ceases to be difficult, and before I know it, I’ve written a thousand or more words and I’ve lost all track of the time.

When I used to write for fun, which historically was during the summer when I had the time, I’d become immersed enough that I could write several pages before slowing down. That’s probably why my first story grew into the longest writing project I’ve ever done; it was at least three times as long as anything else I’ve ever written (I never finished it, but I’d gladly get back to it someday). It never felt like work. I could write for hours without even realizing I was doing so. While in this intense state of immersion, writing became immensely enjoyable.

Since then, I’ve been trying to induce this immersion in other things I’ve written. In my personal writing, when I’m only trying to get my thoughts out, I have no trouble achieving just that. It becomes the speed of typing, and not the flow of ideas, that prevents me from writing faster. It can almost become frustrating that my hands can’t keep up with my mind; by the time I get to each idea, many others have already been forgotten. Nevertheless, the more immersed I am in what I’m writing, the more enjoyable it becomes. That being said, it’d be helpful to explore how this level of focus can be achieved so I may improve my results in blogging and elsewhere.

The following are some of the factors that may be responsible for immersion in writing: firstly, it has to be personal. Writing style tends to appear most clearly when what’s being written is from the heart, so to speak. Writing by-the-numbers does not make for an enjoyable process or an individualized result. The more rules for content I have to follow, the more writing moves into the work category. Of course, this isn’t always up to the writer and sometimes you have to write what you have to write, but true immersion is less likely to occur under these circumstances.

Second, which relates to first, is the allowance of creativity. This doesn’t have to be an absolute; the lack of guidelines can lead to writer’s block as often as it prevents it. Having a direction is a good thing, but rigidity stifles the process. Being able to address issues in your own way rather than someone else's allows for work you can be proud of and a great sense of accomplishment when everything turns out right.

Lastly, I write best and most productively when I’m not over-thinking the rough draft. The harder I try to perfect my work in this early stage, the more progress begins to stagnate. Self-induced negativity ruins the fun aspects of writing and makes immersion unattainable. It forces a more fixed mindset and raises defensiveness. You may decide early on that the work isn’t at a satisfactory level before anyone, even yourself, sees the end product. At that point, what’s the use of feedback when you’ve already declared your project to be unacceptable? It's difficult to accept input from others when you don't want your work to be criticized. Anyway, that’s just my take on the immersion process.

If I stop to think about it, these factors could be true in a variety of situations. Whenever immersion is desired, you have to make your own choices, reach your own conclusions, look at old problems in new ways, and above all else, you have to open up to the possibility of failure. The more I sweat the details and the more I get wound up in the right vs. wrong way of doing something, the more I start to question the quality of my work. The more I question the quality of my work, the less likely I am to become immersed in what I’m doing. The less immersed I am, the less fun I’m likely to have and the more an activity begins to feel like work.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Practice and Play

If there’s one thing that I spend a good amount of free time doing, it’s playing video games. As a child, I’d have to say I was addicted. Recently (after reading the Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer’s article on "Deliberate Practice" but before reading "Mindset" by Carol Dweck), when asked if I practiced video games to get better, I initially thought I did not. “Video games are just something I do for fun. I don’t try to get better; it just sort of happens,” I thought.

Upon reflection, I began to question that kind of thinking. When I stopped to consider what I was really doing when playing a game, my thought process change quite a bit. Perhaps as a result of the aforementioned article and book, I stopped seeing practice through real-life experience and instead started viewing it through a different lens; a lens that says practice is, by necessity, a struggle. Is it, though?

To continue briefly with my video game example, I paid little to no notice about improvement. I never thought of what I was doing as practice. However, much of the experience is based around just that. Some games have you fighting for the high score, some have you in competition with other players, and some have the player progressing through increasingly difficult scenarios. Most games require some development of skills, a process that many games even coach you through whether the player realizes it or not. At the same time though, a video game is meant to be a positive experience. Otherwise, it’s not worth playing. In other words, practice and play can be occurring at the same time even without the person realizing it. It doesn’t have to be agonizing.

The question is whether this translates to other tasks. It’s one thing to enjoy practicing something designed for short-term entertainment, but it’s quite different in other areas of work for different lengths of time. Consider the professional musicians and athletes of the world. After years of practicing a musical instrument or playing a sport, burn-out is certainly possible or even likely. Doing something day-in and day-out for ten or twenty years would drive some people crazy or at least ruin the fun of something they once enjoyed. That isn’t to say their work has to be all struggle and effort. There can be enjoyment in it.

Unfortunately, not being at that level in my field yet, I can’t exactly say whether or not practice can be fun or not at extremely high levels of performance. I’d imagine, though, that a professional athlete or other expert-level performer wouldn’t have made it to that level without some intense enjoyment in their work. Managing internal motivation is a big factor, so finding enjoyment in the activity is essential to ongoing deliberate practice.

There are also plenty of people who aren’t practicing to be the next 'great' and are only trying to improve on a particular skill. In these cases, it’s a little more likely that practice can be fun. If not fun, maybe it’ll be tolerable. The first step in achieving this may be with Dweck’s idea of growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. From a fixed mindset, as I said in my last post, practice doesn’t lead to improvement. What’s less fun than practicing something when you believe you’ll never improve? In a growth mindset though, it’s not so bad. In this mindset, you appreciate the learning process.

For example, I recently started reading about accountancy. Nothing too advanced; just the basics. I’m doing this so I might increase my value to potential employers by gaining another new, practical skill. A few years ago, the word accountancy could have put me to sleep, and now I’m going out of my way to learn it.

Part of what changed was my mindset. Now, instead of being overwhelmed and confused by financial terminology and practices, I feel great to be working at it. Every chapter read is a new milestone and another goal accomplished. Somehow, it doesn’t even feel like work. I just sit back in the morning with my book and my coffee and the sun shining through my window. Together, it makes for a pleasurable experience.

So practice can be an enjoyable occurrence. For me at least, it was about finding the right mindset and environment. It was about setting and accomplishing my own personal goals and having a good grasp on what I hope to gain. Being good with financials is a step towards finding better work, and the sense of accomplishment is all I need to keep at it. Other activities might be pleasurable if you make a game out of it. I don’t have a whole lot of advice there since I’m trying to learn that last ability myself, but being able to turn a boring situation into a fun one sounds great. 

Just because it’s practice doesn’t mean it has to be a struggle. It can be fun, too. With the right combination of practice and play, you may not even know you’re doing it.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Mindset and Deliberate Practice

After learning more about deliberate practice in Ericsson, Krampe, andTesch-Romer’s article, that high performance is correlated more with effort than natural talent, it’s important to figure out the difference between a person who performs deliberate practice and one that does not.

This week, I read “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. Dweck argues that the key contrast between these two groups of individuals is mindset. Some have a fixed mindset and some have a growth mindset. To differentiate between the two, a person with a fixed mindset believes their skills and performance to be static properties, and in the growth mindset, these qualities can be improved overtime as a direct result of effort and practice.

In a fixed mindset, you are born with a certain intelligence, specific athletic ability, etc. Try as you might, you’re stuck that way. As a result, fixed-minded individuals do not value practice. They also tend to be defensive. Within a mindset where improvement doesn’t exist, any criticism becomes a personal, permanent reflection of the person’s qualities and performance.  They avoid challenges; taking part in a difficult task might expose themselves to (highly exaggerated) outside judgment. “As a New York Times article points out, failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure)” (Dweck 33). To fail at a task or receive negative feedback necessarily devalues the fixed-minded individual.

In defense of their intelligence and ability, those with a severely fixed mindset can be self-destructive. “Everything I [Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg] was going through boiled down to fear. Fear of trying and failing. . . . If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough’ ” (Dweck 42). So to an extent, a fixed mindset can be comforting. This is likely why it’s so common.

While reading “Mindset,” I found countless examples of how the fixed mindset applies to myself. As a straight-A student through most of grade school, I was usually one of the smartest guys in the room. Not once did I study for a test which was something I took great pride in. Slowly and steadily, however, my grades began to slip. I took it personally but didn’t try to do anything about it. I certainly had enough excuses, though. Unfortunately for my childhood self, it took a few years of declining grades before I switched to a growth mindset. Until that point, I just accepted that I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room anymore. I stopped concerning myself with grades altogether; I wouldn’t look at test grades or report cards or essays that were returned with feedback. I didn’t want to acknowledge any more failures. If I had a growth mindset, this information could have been invaluable. More on that later.

In the growth mindset, you see the same situations quite differently. You see athleticism, intelligence, performance, etc. as something to improve on rather than accept as permanent. In the words of Michael Riordan, a teacher referred to in Dweck’s book, “Performance cannot be based on one assessment. You cannot determine the slope of a line given only one point” (28). High performance is something you achieve, not something you’re born into. The growth-minded don’t limit themselves to their current abilities and level of performance. They consider themselves to be in ongoing development.  

In contrast to the fixed mindset, growth-minded individuals seek challenges. To them, a challenge is an opportunity to learn and improve. A fixed-minded person would shy away from a challenge since it may lead to failure. A growth-minded person is willing to try their best despite exposing themselves to this risk. They see failure not as a reflection on permanent characteristics. It only means more effort is required.

In both Dweck’s “Mindset” and the Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer study on deliberate practice,
 the value of natural talent is minimized in achieving high performance. Dweck doesn’t use the term deliberate practice in her work, but there’s clearly an overlap with her ‘growth mindset.’ Effort is required to achieve high performance regardless of natural talent. Improvement is something that happens overtime. Both refer to the fact we consistently undervalue the effort it took for eminent performers to reach the level that they did.

The growth mindset does not necessarily sustain motivation entirely. Rather, it allows for the possibility of deliberate practice. It could be considered a prerequisite of sorts; a key difference between those that do practice and those that don’t. I don’t see this as a guarantee. Understanding that you can develop your abilities doesn’t mean you will. As the Ericsson article points out, “Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance” (368). Therefore, the benefit of practice has to outweigh the costs. Having a growth mindset is only part of the battle, and the resource, effort, and motivational constraints are the other parts. Dweck doesn’t argue that a growth-minded person will always try to achieve expert performance. However, she does imply that the growth mindset may lead to such an effort.

Eventually, my childhood self learned the value of hard work and effort. Switching to the growth mindset took time; in some areas it took more time and in other areas, less. Dweck points out that you may not have a growth mindset in every domain and in every part of life, and I agree. Academically, it took a long time to make this change, and until very recently, the fixed mindset would occasionally take over when I faced a particularly difficult task such as in computer science. Now, I’m happy to say that I’ve moved pretty firmly into the growth mindset.  I go out of my way to learn, and I’ve fortunately been able to sustain certain efforts for nearly one out of the minimum ten years of required deliberate practice. I am motivated to keep up the high level of effort. That is something I take great pride in.

While the growth mindset doesn’t hold all the answers to why we do or do not take part in deliberate practice, it may be the key to getting started. The resource, effort, and motivation constraints still play their part in the process, so it’s important to take the deliberate practice article into account. Regardless, mindsets may have a long-lasting impact on what our level of performance will be in the near and distant future.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Deliberate Practice

When we think about professional athletes or actors or singers, we often assume they must be unique. They must have been born with some special talent or gift or luck that separated them from the rest of civilization at some early age and set them on the path to stardom. However, this may be a false assumption.

That being said, for this week, I read “The Role of DeliberatePractice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer which argues against the belief that natural talent is the determining factor of high performance. Instead, ongoing, intense practice, also known as deliberate practice, is what enables certain people to reach this level; to be truly good at something, a person should expect to perform deliberate practice for at least ten years.

During those ten years, the individual should be intensely focused on progression in their domain. “Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further” (368). Eventually, with the right amount of time, effort, motivation, and focus, individuals can reach skill levels previously thought unattainable to them. There are some constraints on deliberate practice, though. One of which is referred to as the effort constraint.

A keys to success in deliberate practice is discovering and practicing with the optimal amount of effort. Too much effort can result in severely diminished or negative results. Ignoring the constraint can lead to physical problems in athletes and motivational issues in all domains. The effort constraint tends to be inflexible in the short-run but can and should gradually increase in the long-run as ability improves. It’s important to note that exceeding the effort constraint does not lead to higher levels of improvement. “Too rapid increases in the intensity of practice lead to 'overuse and overtraining,' . . . Bailey and Martin (1988) report many instances of successful 9- to 11-year-old children increasing their training to very high levels, only to experience motivational burnout and quit the domain altogether” (371). Children are expected to train only about an hour a day while higher-level practice can require over fifty hours a week in domain-related activities.

Two other constraints on deliberate practice are resource and motivation. The former relates to costs in time and money; if parents can’t afford to buy their child a violin, it’s going to be difficult for the child to get a hold of one. The resource constraint can be a result of external factors. The latter relates to achieving short-term performance goals and seeing actual improvement over time.

Motivation can be exceedingly hard to sustain over long periods of time. The motivational constraint is a result of the fact that “deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and that individuals are motivated to engage in it by its instrumental value in improving performance. Hence, interested individuals need to be engaging in the activity and motivated to improve performance before they begin deliberate practice” (371). That is to say ten years worth of non-pleasurable practice must be completed in order to achieve high performance. Therefore, choosing the right domain is a must. It takes massive amounts of willpower and perseverance to practice something for the ten-year minimum. Considering certain domains have age as a factor, such as for athletes, the pressure to achieve is being put on children who may rather be at leisure than, for example, practicing the violin.

To help prove the theory of deliberate practice, the article includes a study of three groups of violinists: the best students, good students, and a third group comprised of students who will likely become music teachers rather than particularly great musicians. The results of the study conclude that the best students reached their current level by practicing harder, practicing longer, taking less leisure time, and getting plenty of sleep (including naps). In addition, they also tended to be more structured, organized, and knowledgeable about their daily schedule. A second study included in the article on pianists confirmed the first study’s results (373-387).

There is one caveat to deliberate practice. Different people, especially children, may or may not struggle with the motivation constraint. Some individuals will want to practice and some may not. Whether this propensity to practice is inherited from the parents or is a result of environmental factors is a question proposed by the authors at the end of the article. Furthermore, a few other concerns, such as early guidance, the resource constraint, and the health of the individual are necessary considerations for whether or not a person will commence and sustain practice (400).

Regardless of the time and effort that is required of an individual to achieve expert performance, it’s uplifting to know that we may not be predestined to average levels of skillfulness. While there are some additional concerns, as stated above, they do not entirely detract from the implication that deliberate practice, rather than luck of the draw, is the ultimate deciding factor.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Confirmation Bias

Recently, I’ve been reading a somewhat random book that I picked up called, “The Secret Language of Leadership” by Stephen Denning.  The book is competently written and contains some interesting ideas about using story-telling as a leadership tool. The book isn’t bad; it does have some practical advice, and the author certainly practices what he preaches. My only issue is that I’ve heard most of it before in some way, shape, or form in other books I’ve already read.

One such thing that I’ve heard before, but got me thinking nonetheless, in this book was something known as the confirmation bias. This bias comes into effect when a person receives information either supporting or contradicting an existing viewpoint and can cause that person to incorporate the former and disregard the latter.

Consider the dangers of flying or the possibility of shark attacks. Both are overemphasized in the media and are so statistically rare that they hardly warrant the fear they induce. True, their occurrence certainly isn’t impossible, but the risks come into question when in relation to more realistic and likely dangers such as cancer or heart disease.

Hearing about a plane crash or a shark attack in the news puts the whole nation on edge. For people who have a preexisting phobia of one of the two, a major news story could be hard to swallow. They may have more trouble getting on a plane or being near the ocean. An event like one of these is confirmation to those people that planes and sharks really are that dangerous.

On the other hand, if there was a news story bringing forth data that shows how incredibly unlikely a shark attack is or how cars are multiple times more dangerous per mile than planes, people with a phobia aren’t necessarily going to be any less frightened.

To get away from the whole life-and-death or injury scenario, confirmation bias is also prevalent in more common situations. In one such case, I turn to a New York Times article titled “How Confirmation Bias Can Lead to a Spinning of Wheels” by Justin Wolfers. Within the article is a link to the New York Times political forecasting program nicknamed “Leo”. When the ‘spin’ button is clicked, the program counts how many Senate elections will be won by Democrats and Republicans.  Each result is somewhat different for every spin.

Admittedly, one of the two groups (I won’t say which) came up a few times in a row, so I kept clicking ‘spin again’ until the outcome I preferred was finally reached. Then I returned to the article to discover that that’s exactly the actions that were expected of me. Wolfers shows the data of thousands of other people who have used Leo and the tens of thousands spins performed. The results conclude that a person is more likely to keep spinning if one outcome or the other has yet to occur. Basically, we are waiting for confirmation that our initial viewpoint is correct while disregarding the rest.

Stephen Denning gives some insight into what causes the confirmation bias. A possible positive reason is that our minds are trying to disregard sources that we determine not to be credible. To get a little more into the ‘why’ of the bias, Denning references a study by Drew Weston, a psychologist at Emory University. Weston made use of an fMRI brain scanner and discovered that when we receive contradictory evidence to our current viewpoint, the section of the brain we would expect to activate, the one that takes part in reasoning,  does not. Rather, the parts of the brain that deal with emotion and resolving conflict did (24-25).

Furthermore, it seems the brain responds in another way. Denning quotes Weston by writing, “Once the participants had seen a way to interpret contradictory statements as supporting their original position, the part of the brain involved in reward and pleasure became active, and the conclusion was ‘massively reinforced . . . with elimination of negative emotional states and the activation of positive ones” (25). In other words, the brain encourages this behavior, and thus, we have the confirmation bias.

To conclude, the confirmation bias is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. We often disregard contradicting information, and this may either help us weed out incorrect sources or ignore good sources our brains don’t approve of.  The brain is also self-reinforcing of this bias by bringing us pleasure when we successfully discount certain information. It’s worth considering where confirmation bias appears in daily life so we can be more receptive to other information and diverse points of view.