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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Why Evidence Doesn't Matter

Given that a good reporter is supposed to be both truthful and balanced, how should journalists cover an issue when opposing camps refuse to agree on the very nature of the truth? (In other words, in this current political climate, how should journalists cover literally any issue at all?)

As psychology professor Derek J. Koehler explained last year in a piece for New York Times Sunday Review, “standard journalistic practice” is to represent both sides of an issue, but when the vast majority of qualified experts share one stance on a topic, while only a tiny minority disagree, giving equal weight to each viewpoint can be extremely misleading.

The BBC has adopted “weight of evidence” reporting, which attempts a compromise by giving airtime to experts with both perspectives, while also being careful to inform the public that one school of thought is far more widely accepted. However, Koehler had his suspicions about how effective this really was, so he decided to put it to a test.

Koehler had one group of subjects read a brief numerical overview of a discussion among experts at a University of Chicago panel on economic issues, which broke down how many panelists took each stance on a given subject. Koehler’s other group got the same information, along with a quote from an expert in each camp, backing up their opinion. For some issues, opinions were more or less evenly divided. But a discussion about a carbon tax found 93 economic experts in favor, 5 undecided, and just 2 opposed.

Unfortunately, Koehler found that just reading a quote from one of those two anti-carbon taxers was enough to deeply confuse his experimental group. People who got those additional quotes were more likely to consider the discussion unresolved, and less likely to believe there was enough consensus to guide policy.

Koehler suggests a few possible explanations: seeing quotes from participants on each side allows us to dramatize a debate in our heads—and it’s easier to picture that exchange as a one-on-one showdown, instead of ninety-three-on-two. It could also come down to the human brain’s blind spot when it comes to accurately weighing proportions. Or it could be that our brains are quick to pick up on any perceived conflict, without pausing to run the numbers.

Factor in the conflict-hungry 24-hour news cycle, and maybe it’s no wonder that no amount of experts seem capable of getting us all on the same page. British-born comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver would agree.

On a May 2014 segment, Oliver lamented a study that found roughly a quarter of Americans were skeptical of manmade climate change--in contrary to an overwhelming majority of experts and mountains of data.

“And I think I know why so many people think it’s open to debate,” he added, “because on TV, it is.” Oliver criticized cable news shows for staging countless one-on-one showdowns between a climate change skeptic and a climate change believer (usually Bill Nye). If just reading a quote is enough to get Koehler’s subjects swept up in the heady emotions of a war of the words, you have to wonder about the effect of staring into the angry faces of two yelling men in bowties.

“Weight of evidence” would be a handy quick fix—if it worked. Unfortunately, it looks like there are no quick fixes in sight. So until journalism discovers some remarkable new innovation, perhaps the fairest, most accurate way to discuss climate change is the one John Oliver used to close out that May 2014 segment—accent not required.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Proportionality Problem

Decision making: it’s what humans do.  Estimates are that the average adult makes 35,000 decisions a day. Of those daily decisions, 226 involve food choice.  The fact that you’re reading this suggests that, for the most part, your decisions have allowed you to stay above room temperature, and live your life.

Still: are you the kind of person who tends to make good decisions? How well have you navigated through the maze of everyday choice? Can you point to at least a couple of dead ends from your past? In all honesty, if you had the chance, how many do-overs would you take?

Given that our brains tend to remember our successes while confining our mistakes to the outer reaches of our minds, many of us probably think our decision-making is pretty good.

The truth might not be so comforting.  After all, there’s a reason Las Vegas can support over 62,000 hotel rooms on the strip alone. According to PBS, $6 billion are lost every year in Vegas.

Gambling aside, why might our decision apparatus betray us more often then we’d like to admit? It’s basically a math issue--a problem of false equivalency. When presented with a binary choice, the human brain displays an interesting flaw: it does a poor job with proportionality.  

Imagine two individuals debating an idea. Subject A cites the testimony of 10,000 scientists and extensive research to argue that the earth is round. Subject B asserts that the Flat World Society and its five card-carrying members can prove the earth is as flat as a pancake. After all, Subject B points out, from 30,000 feet away in an airplane, the earth appears flat.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, an easy rebuke of the Flat World folks. But think again. When presented with two different views, research shows it’s the two individuals themselves we tend to size up, shrugging at vast amounts of evidence or bodies of supporting views. (Especially when the evidence runs counter to our current belief.)

Our brains set up a simple binary exercise: this person against that person, or this idea against that.  You might have an army of experts who can offer real verifiable proof, but your opponent only needs to hit an emotional chord and the listener’s brain levels up the playing field, the weight of evidence be damned.

How has this flaw survived? One theory is that assigning proportional weight doesn’t necessarily have an evolutionary advantage. Imagine your ancient ancestor encountering a poisonous snake. Whether they chanced upon three or thirty deadly serpents, it didn’t really matter. It only takes a bite from one snake to die. In this scenario, quantitative attributes become less important. One snake might as well be thirty.

Without the ability to weigh proportionality easily, we become easy prey for weak and unsupported claims—provided the advocate has good presentation skills. PT Barnum is purported to have said, “There is a sucker born every minute.” Although it’s unlikely Barnum actually said that, still if we’re going to put false words in his mouth, we might as well make a quick revision: Maybe not a sucker, but someone who frequently has a problem with rudimentary math.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

You and I are not that Smart

Soundbites, those tiny verbal morsels, are ubiquitous. From billboards to tweets to political slogans, we are awash in them.  Soundbites are the rhetorical currency of the 21st century.
These quick, appealing messages are crack cocaine for the amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain.  While we might assume that the prefrontal cortex, home of executive control and rational thinking, might overpower or at least subdue this powerful emotional drug. Frequently, it does not.
In fact, research shows if a soundbite is repeated often enough, the prefrontal cortex lets go of the steering wheel altogether, allowing the amygdala to slide into the driver’s seat. The message plays directly to your feelings, free of logical scrutiny. This is part of why politicians obsessively repeat their talking points—and why it works. It is a fundamental human brain flaw.
Statistically, immigrants commit fewer crimes than the rest of the population. Statistically, you are more likely to be killed by a falling flat screen TV than a terrorist attack. But nobody is arguing the real Trojan horse inside your home is your flat screen TV waiting to topple and kill you when you’re not looking.  And yet people continue to insist that an immigration ban is a straightforward precaution, as commonsense as locking the doors on your house.  Plain and simple, the “lock your doors” analogy targets your amygdala’s fear response, potentially deceiving you, your friends, your neighbors, and your family.
So why would otherwise rational people fall prey to flimsy emotional arguments? Because individually, our brains aren’t designed to hold, understand and display a depth of knowledge in every area of our lives. Overwhelmed, we lean on the amygdala, our ancient go-to shortcut thinking system, developed to save time and energy via quick gut judgments in areas where we lack expertise. 
But there is a price to be paid for relying on decision shortcuts. We might be an expert in a given area or field, but mostly we operate within the illusion of depth. That is to say, we rely on sound bites to cover the areas we pretend to, but don’t really understand.
Most achievement has been driven by a handful of brilliant people. You might be a wiz on your smart phone, but could you build one from scratch? The same holds true for just about every piece of technology that you come in contact with. The ugly truth is that a society’s technical and cultural achievements are no guarantee of the wisdom, intelligence, or rationality of its individual members.

The bottom line? You and I are not that smart.
Soundbites allow us to navigate the areas we only pretend to understand. From complicated health care bills to how microwaves work, most of us are basically ignorant. Soundbites provide the illusion of plugging the ignorance gap.
Looking closely at the modern world, our collective primitiveness is on parade everyday.
Your neighbor’s chant to ‘build a wall,’ a measure easily defeated by a well-placed three dollar rope, may sound ridiculous to you. But they might equally point out with smug brazenness that you failed to fully fund your 401K, the one for which your employer has a matching program.  And that program could guarantee financial independence for you in your old age, had you regularly contributed.

So who among us are the real fools when it comes to rational thought and the reliance on silly soundbites? The simple answer­­? Most of us.  Soundbites are Band-Aids for ignorance. Some of us might apply more than others, but in the end, who among us is immune?

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Mozart Effect: Just How Magic Was that Magic Flute?

The person in the cubicle next to you is driving you crazy with their constant chatter. Naturally, you reach for your headphones. Whether piped through a big bulky over-the-ear model or those diminutive ear buds, music is your salvation. But it gets even better: the next track up on your playlist is Mozart.  You’re counting on the ‘Mozart effect,’ the theory that listening to classical music’s greatest hits actually lets you operate at a higher cognitive level, or in layman’s terms, makes you smarter.

So it would appear to be a win-win-win: you’re drowning out your irritating neighbor, giving your brain a boost, and laying the groundwork for your next raise.

You smile to yourself, unaware that your nearby boss witnessed the headphones move and is now wondering whether you’re truly a team player.

But wait a minute, doesn’t the science support you? Aren’t you completely in the clear on this one?

Well­­­­, sort of.

It is true that listening to music you like tends to release dopamine, a multipurpose brain hormone that, among other things, makes you feel good.

Paying attention is a costly enterprise to the brain, and to save energy, it tends to default to mind wandering. Although in some ways efficient, mind wandering lets us drift towards negative thoughts, replaying loops of past slights, miscues, and mistakes. That little dose of dopamine doesn’t just lower your stress level; it can help break those loops. And when we’re happier, we tend to perform at a higher level.

Music has also been shown to heighten focus in other ways. Research suggests that as your brain takes in a musical score, it subconsciously tracks rhythmic and tonal beginnings, endings and transitions. This subconscious attention seems to strengthen your conscious attention.

However, it appears that soundtracking your work follows the ‘Goldilocks rule.’ If you’re a complete novice at something, adding music can simply increase your confusion. If you’re a skilled taskmaster, unfortunately, music doesn’t improve your performance much either, although it can help to pass the time. But if you’re somewhere in between novice and master, music can enhance both your output and mood.

As for listening to Mozart, newer studies suggest it’s not really about ol’ Wolfgang Amadeus per se. Under the right conditions, listening to any music that you find enjoyable can lift your spirits and focus your concentration.  That might be a bummer for the Mozart aficionado out there, but those folks can take solace in the fact that many of his songs come to us sans lyrics. That’s important because instrumental music seems to demonstrate the greatest positive effect on work performance.

Good luck on that raise…

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Four Phases of Focus

What happens to the brain during meditation?

When researcher Wendy Hasenkamp was at Emory University, she and her team ran experiments on focused meditation aided by the fMRI[1]. In the end, the researchers came to recognize a distinct pattern among their subjects, a four-phase process involving four distinct brain areas.

When subjects entered the fMRI scanner, they were told to focus on the sensation of their own breathing. The subject’s insula (related to a person's focus, or lack thereof) would default towards mind wandering. When that happened and the subject became aware of the fact that they were no longer concentrating on their breathing, they were instructed to press a button.

When the subjects tried to refocus on their breathing, their salience network would take over. This is the part of the brain that registers sudden attention shifts, alerting you to nearby distractions. Your salience network might be more aptly named your distraction network, and for many of us, this network is frequently on high alert. Just attempting to concentrate on your own breaths, something you don’t regularly do, becomes a challenge—especially when you’re crammed inside an fMRI as the subject of an experiment.

In the third phase, the test subject would attempt to decouple their salience network and wrestle back focus from distraction in order to renew their concentration.

Finally, in the last stage, the prefrontal cortex’s executive control center would reestablish its dominance and restore focus on the subject’s breath, moving that focused breathing back into awareness.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about an experiment on breath concentration or just living our daily lives, this four-stage process of focusing, mind wandering, decoupling and reestablishing focus is a ritual that we practice over and over all day long. The speed at which you can regain and hold focus has enormous implications for everything you do.

The good news is anyone can learn to meditate. Practicing daily breath-focused meditation, even for just five minutes a day, has been demonstrated to improve willpower, which is a prerequisite for flow and happiness.

Meditation also has an interesting side effect: many people who meditate experience up to an additional hour of sleep at night. This additional hour of rest has all kinds of health benefits, including lowering your general level of anxiety. Besides, who couldn’t use an extra hour of sleep?


[1] Mind of the Meditator, by Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson, Nov 12014 Scientific American

Friday, May 27, 2016

Mental Representations: The Art of Finding The Elephant

In 1501, the Church of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a marble statue of David the Biblical shepherd boy. Because the statue was to be placed on a hill and viewed from below, it needed to be about thirteen and a half feet tall—roughly twice life-size.

Proportionally, this created some challenges, but to make it an even greater test of ingenuity, the marble Michelangelo had to work with was not pristine. It was a leftover from an unfinished 1464 sculpture by another artist.

Clearly, Michelangelo had his work cut out for him. At this point, the artist was only in his twenties, but he had already made a name for himself with his Pieta in Rome. More to the point, he had spent so much time and concentration honing his skills that even working with another sculptor’s scraps, he was able to free the David from his marble prison.

At first read, this might sound like a nice metaphor about art emerging from nature, but it’s at the critical mass of something noted scholar Anders Ericsson outlines in his new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. According to Ericsson's reasoning, what set Michelangelo apart from the competition was not just his raw talent or the practice hours he’d logged; it was what Ericsson calls “mental representation.” Ericsson writes that true experts have developed the uncanny ability to dream up an idea and reproduce it in the real world, down to the most minute details.

When someone like Michelangelo comes face to face with a marble block, their goal isn’t just to carve out a generalized form; they are able to aim for an incredibly specific image—say, a shepherd boy waiting to vanquish his oversized rival.

Throughout my travels, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct some informal sculpting experiments of my own. Sometimes, I will give the adults in my seminars ten minutes, some play-dough, and instructions to make a fist-sized elephant. None of my subjects have any formal training in the arts. They generally begin by producing the necessary elephant parts, which includes four legs, a tail, a trunk, tusks, floppy ears, and so on. Once the parts are formed, they tend to assemble their sculpture like a puzzle. The result is a crude, albeit recognizable, rendering of an elephant.

However, giving them more time does not tend to produce a better elephant. The deadline is not the issue. It seems they either lack an internal picture of what an elephant truly looks like, or the hand-eye coordination to translate that picture to play-dough—or both.

Ericsson says that hyper-nuanced specificity, a note-for-note model of the exact goal is the X factor in deliberate practice. People who successfully perform the type of practice that leads to real improvement start with a crystalline vision of the end product. Like Michelangelo, they sit down to work already seeing the David in the stone, or the elephant in the play-dough. It’s not some stylized, cartoon like notion of body parts; they envision everything down to the veins in the bicep or the barklike skin of the elephant’s hindquarters.

Once you can conceptualize your end result, you can develop a systematic strategy for getting there, knocking out the steps necessary to bring it to fruition.

The problem for novices is that they often haven’t acquired the knowledge to imagine that perfect prototype yet. Do I really understand precisely how my golf swing should look and feel, or how this Beethoven sonata should sound, or how the baseball should appear as it leaves the pitcher’s hand? Ericsson’s research suggests that the novices who do possess better mental representations tend to produce faster and more accurate work.

For instance, Ericsson posits, in sport, mental representation allows for a more refined level of pattern recognition. It’s not that a professional baseball player’s reflexes are necessarily faster than yours or mine, but a subtle change in the pitcher’s wrist prepares them to move into a better hitting position.

This heightened sense of anticipation is the winning formula for expertise in everything from chess to playing the piano, to hitting a fastball. It’s the essential hack for expertise. True effective practice is not just about performing the same rote actions again and again; what really pays off is developing a deeper understanding of the domain-specific mechanics.

Ericsson says that both the quarterback who spends countless hours watching game films and the chess player who endlessly studies past matches with grandmasters are wiring up a vast library of patterns that their brains can then run like subconscious algorithms when competition heats up.

Not having a wholly accurate, detailed mental representation is a little like having a general idea how to get from the east coast to the west coast, but not knowing the city you want, let alone the street address. And a hazily defined goal or incomplete pattern recognition leads to mistakes, frustration, and frequently some very odd-looking play-dough elephants.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Heroes and Patients: Rage vs. Obsession

Across a wide variety of domains, people who have achieved expertise share a common trait. In fact, this one factor might lie at the very epicenter of behavioral control. It’s called ‘the rage to master”—the relentless pursuit of knowledge or skill, in the face of all other distraction.

You can see the results in everything from Steve Curry’s three-point shooting to Meryl Streep’s acting to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s command over the blues guitar. In the latter case, Vaughan’s quest for mastery included supergluing his fingertips so that he could keep playing after he’d bloodied his fingers from practicing the same riff over and over again.

The flip side of the coin is another, less polite word: obsession. In clinical psychology, obsessions are something that people seek help to overcome. There’s even an official diagnosis for people who struggle with their fixations: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.

If you have OCD, you might feel an uncontrollable urge to wash your hands after any human contact. Perhaps you’re driven to count each and every floor tile as you walk the halls of your workplace. Or maybe you find yourself unable to shake certain alarming repetitive thoughts. People with OCD experience a wide spectrum of reactions from other people, from empathy on one hand, to pity, disdain, and ridicule on the other.

In our society, someone scrubbing their hands after every handshake has a problem, but someone practicing their three-point shooting into the wee hours of the morning is a potential hero. It seems that the value of obsession, that inner drive to direct all of one’s focus to one particular goal, is a currency dictated almost entirely by convention. Is the need to stand behind a line and hurl a small sphere through a metal hoop really any more important than the need to track all 286 hallway floor tiles of your office?

There may be some benefits to picking up on details other people don’t notice. But a much larger chorus of season ticket holders and ESPN viewers would argue that three-point shooting has far greater benefits, and is worth paying money to witness. After all, I can’t think of a single hand washing or tile counting contest that draws anything near the viewership of an NBA playoff game, even during a crummy year.

The rage to master is usually viewed as an out-of-the-ordinary gift from the genetic gods, often lumped in with words like “genius.” Obsessions are seen as out-of-the-ordinary peculiar behaviors, more often lumped in with phrases like “warning sign” and “clinical help.” What’s the real distinction? That depends entirely on how you keep count.