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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Procrastination At Its Finest

For this week, I looked into a New Yorker article written by James Surowiecki simply named Later. It was written back in October of 2010, but its message is, in a matter of speaking, timeless. That is, I can only imagine individuals, even those living thousands of years ago, fighting the same battle every day, over and over again, against procrastination. It’s a line of thinking that says “I don’t want to do this activity now. I’d rather put it off to a later time.” I’d find it hard to believe that there’s a person alive, free from coercion, that doesn’t struggle with procrastinating, to a varying amount, every so often at the very least. The article tells us that not even the likes of a Nobel prize winning economist George Akerlof is free from this human quirk, but that goes without saying. It’s not something that can be entirely cured by learning or by intelligence. The best you can do is find methods to control these urges to put off work. Some of us, myself especially, lose an outrageous amount of time in our daily lives putting things off unnecessarily.

Procrastination is a excellent counterargument  to rationality and instead points to the general irrationality of humankind; there are few things quite as prevalent and illogical. It’s prevalent because, as I said previously, I don’t think it’s something that can ever be avoided entirely. Contained or partially circumvented, yes, but avoided, no. It’s illogical because the net benefit of procrastination, at best, is zero, but realistically, it’s negative. If I don’t, for example, write a blog post now, I’ll be better off in the short-run since I free up time and energy in the immediate sense. However, I’ll be worse off in the long-run since I’ll lose an equal amount time when I’m finally forced to commit to completing the avoided action.

This is procrastination in the most basic scenario; one with an indifference between working now or working later. With a more realistically complex situation, procrastination leads not to a zero-sum game but rather a negative-sum game. Future loses can potentially be greater than current gains.

Irrationality comes into play because procrastination has side effects. These include nonessential stresses and unintended consequences. While currently, a person won’t know the extent of these side effects, there’s enough awareness to question the validity of procrastination. By knowingly putting something off that we recognize the importance of completing, we subjugate ourselves to a variety of negative emotions regarding the task. There’s fear or worry such as in the questions “Will I meet the deadline?” or “How will inactivity negatively affect me in the long-term?”, and there’s doubt such as “Will I be able to complete this in the future?” There’s a general feeling of anxiety and dread prevalent in a procrastinator’s life. Apprehension, over-analyzing the problem, and over-exaggerating or over-emphasizing on the size, difficulty, and duration of the work are common in the waiting period. Then there’s the more tangible consequences of procrastination when there’s a set deadline; less time means less quality work or the potential of running out of time entirely. More extreme emotions like panic can take hold just before deadlines . Regret can occur if the time and quality standards had not been met.

Just to be more specific, I want to differentiate between (a) putting off a project because current time is deemed more valuable than a later time and (b) putting off a project because it’d be inefficient to take immediate steps toward completing the task. The former is a zero- or negative-sum game. The later can be rational under the right conditions. Maybe you lack the proper internal resources (such as energy or nourishment),  external resources (such as tools, materials, or even people), or perhaps there are higher or more urgent priorities to take into account.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that play sometimes does need to come before work. An imbalance between the two can be counterproductive. Stepping back from an activity gives the mind an opportunity to be creative and inspired as well as find enjoyment and relieve stress. To put it more eloquently, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

I found “Later” to be a substantially depressing read, though I don’t think it was meant to be. For some, like me, procrastination is one of the biggest of time wasters. Between this article, other books and sources, and personal experience, I’ve reached the reasonable conclusion that procrastination is largely inescapable;  motivation is short-lived and extremely situational. So, for me, this leads to one major question: “Can we ever reach our true potential?”, or to put it differently, “Is true, personal efficiency achievable at all?”. I have my doubts.

Even so, there are plenty of theories on how to manage procrastination. I’m inclined to believe some of them because I’ve seen results in my own life as well as in the lives of those more productive than myself. Generally, these theories include some form of habit-creation such as planning and structuring a daily routine or short- and long-term goal-setting. Removal of obstacles and distractions is another technique. These are my simple, shallow explanations of thoroughly-researched and nuanced strategies. The overwhelming amount of literature written on the subject just goes to show how big an issue procrastination creates.

It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like without procrastination. We, as a species, could have been years ahead both technologically and socially. How many years of time have been unintentionally squandered by this human quirk? I don’t have the answer, but whatever it is, I’m sure it’s a long way away from what rational models would predict.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Too Good Intentions

In preparation for this first post, I first read a pair of articles written by Hanna Rosin: “The Overprotected Kid” and “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” Rosin examined how current forms of parenting may be doing more harm to children’s potential than good. It comes as no surprise that a neglectful parent will have a negative impact on how the child learns and grows. Without guidance and essential needs fulfilled, the child will be at a severe disadvantage. What we may not have considered is the opposite end of the spectrum. What happens when the parent becomes too protective? What happens when a parent’s good intentions of raising a child yield negative results?

Rosin studied a park in North Wales know as “the Land.” The Land has the appearance (and name) akin to something you might see in a Mad Max film. It is complete with an abundance of junk, tattered furniture, and basic tools scattered about the place all covered in mud or residing in puddles. Children build their forts from some wooden pallets and some tarps.  They are even allowed to burn things at will. This is not something I could refer to as “familiar”.

While it sounds like the nightmare of the typical family, the Land is, on the contrary, a place of learning. It is a different kind of learning from math or history; the children are learning lessons of a much more practical and diverse nature. They are learning the consequences of their actions as well as self-responsibility and independence. They are building confidence and creativity. They are undertaking manageable risks and discovering the results. They conquer fears and learn new skills. The only adult supervision is by professionally trained “playworkers” who only intervene in serious safety matters.

Few parents would ever allow this type of risky freedom today. Whether the danger is real or perceived, big or small, allowing children to take part in an activity that may cause physical harm is a tough thing to do. However, it is one thing to prevent serious injury, but to avoid all injury is taking it to far. Having the ability to manage risks and make choices for ourselves is something that we all eventually have to do in our daily life, and it is something that takes time to learn. Getting a head start on these skills could increase the child’s potential more than sheltering them away until they are forced to learn these lessons anyway.

This kind of learning is not something that can be taught in a classroom nor from complete safety. It is a lesson in independence, self-responsibility, and understanding consequences that cannot be learned adequately without taking a few small real-world risks. Regardless of whether or not a place like the Land is right way to learn these lessons, they are certainly worth learning.

Safety is one thing, but pushing children too hard is another matter entirely. Consider “The Silicon Valley Suicides” by Rosin. In this article, danger takes a different form. At Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, home to some of the hardest-working students in the country, there is a very real concern for the danger of overworking a child; seemingly ordinary students tragically taking their own lives likely due to a combination of educational and parental pressures. In an effort to provide the best future opportunities for their kids, parents may sometimes push too hard. In some cases, they push way too hard.

Like the overprotective parent, any negative side effects of extreme child-pressuring are purely accidental. Finding a balance between pushing too hard and not hard enough is critical, but it is not always easy. Nevertheless, when an environment is created where a child is afraid to speak honestly and openly to their own parents, something has to be done. It is up to the parents to recognize when they have created such an environment. These situations do not happen overnight.

In addition, everyone has their limits. There is a point of diminishing returns where pushing forward starts to yield negative results and perhaps negative side effects. Constant stress takes a toll on people over time. There is a point where doing less may boost learning rather than detract, and an increase in happiness would be a powerful added benefit.

Finally, if there is one overarching issue in how children can be raised with good intentions but negative consequences, it is an aversion to mistakes. Most of us have this aversion to making mistakes, including myself, to a varying degree, and it is possible this trait starts from childhood. The overprotective parent does not want their child making a mistake of getting hurt. The parent over-pressuring their child does not want mistakes that will jeopardize the future.

In Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” one of the themes is that children are sent down a path in life by their parents and by the education system away from their talents and their passions. Rather than nurturing the child’s abilities, adults tend to waste them; they do not want their child choosing the “wrong” direction in life.

Furthermore, parents and educators instill this right vs. wrong mentality in their children for six or seven hours a day in the classroom. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong,” says Robinson, “you’ll never come up with anything original . . . And by the time [children] get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong . . . And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.” Overprotective parents, as well as schools, have a major part to play in this. They watch over the child like a hawk, half-expecting something to go wrong. Children do not get the privilege of being wrong. They do not get the opportunity to take the risk that may lead to them to be wrong.

Good parenting and over-parenting can be two very separate things. Overprotection and pushing too hard in education may be with good intentions but do not necessarily lead to higher potential. It has to do with finding a balance.

Something that is often overlooked is the benefits of making mistakes. It never feels that way at the time, leading to physical injuries or a bruised ego, but as we all know, they are part of life. Preventing the serious mistakes are a must, but their seriousness can also be subjective. More important is to turn mistakes into learning experiences so these children can find their own right path into the future.

Works Cited

Rosin, Hanna. “The Overprotected Kid.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, April 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Rosin, Hanna. “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, Dec. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Robinson, Ken. (2006, February). “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Retrieved from