Monthly Archives: July 2007

Schools That Don’t Want To Be Graded

Imagine a college student sent you this job application:

My academic performance is too complex to be summarized by a grade.  So even though I was given grades in college, I am not going to show you those grades.  Yes, I could have gone to another school, but honestly I don’t think any school’s grades could do me justice.  I have saved all of my schoolwork for you to examine, and instead of judging me on my grades, I think you should study my schoolwork and interview me in depth to truly appreciate all I have to offer. 

I doubt this pitch would go over very well.  But amazingly a number of colleges are now making a similar pitch to their students.   A recent Washington Post OpEd, "A College Can’t Be Reduced To a Number in a Magazine," elaborates:

A majority of the 80 college presidents … expressed their intention not to participate in U.S. News & World Report‘s annual college ranking survey. … These academic leaders … believe the choice about which college or university to attend is vital — and too important to leave to an inherently flawed rankings methodology. …
The Annapolis Group has agreed to work with other higher-education organizations to develop a Web-based resource that will present accessible, comprehensive and quantifiable data to help guide students as they select a college. The information will include important data such as average class size and majors, as well as some reporting of student-learning measures.  We have no intention, however, to produce a ranking of our institutions. … Myriad complex variables can’t be reduced to a single number.
We urge students to compare schools on a variety of factors …. They should visit campuses and go on what feels like a good match rather than relying on filtered or secondhand information. We must encourage students to look inside their hearts and trust their instincts when it comes to choosing a college, not whether parents or friends think a university is cool or prestigious.

Oddly enough, most of these schools will insist on scoring their students with a GPA, reducing their myriad complex performances to a single number. 

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The Judo Principle

The principle of judo is to use your opponent’s strength against him, by guiding it rather than resisting it.  A recent Australian campaign against reckless driving, aimed specifically at young men, has adopted the same approach with respect to cognitive biases.  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article1985802.ece

The traditional campaign, emphasizing the risks involved with speeding by showing graphic road crashes, was ineffective.  This is as would be predicted by evolutionary psychology.  Young males of many species engage in risky behaviour in order to signal their extraordinary prowess to women.  A man who succeeds, mates, and one who fails might as well be dead anyway, in evolutionary terms.  The traditional campaign assumes that young male speeders don’t realize their behaviour is risky, when in fact they speed because it’s risky.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the campaign actually increased the incidence of dangerous speeding by young men.

The new campaign encourages women to signal a small penis by wiggling their pinky at speeders, a sign which apparently signals a small penis.  This hits the mark, in evolutionary terms.  But will it work?  If women in fact find men who are successful risk takers to be more attractive, I doubt that an advertising campaign will make men believe otherwise.  If the campaign succeeds it will be a fascinating example of the triumph of culture over nature.  It’s worth a try.

Anyone have any other applications of the judo principle?

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Beware the Inside View

Instead of watching fireworks on July 4, I did 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle of fireworks, my first jigsaw in at least ten years.  Several times I had the strong impression that I had carefully eliminated every possible place a piece could go, or every possible piece that could go in a place.  I was very tempted to conclude that many pieces were missing, or that the box had extra pieces from another puzzle.  This wasn’t impossible – the puzzle was an open box a relative had done before.  And the alternative seemed humiliating. 

But I allowed a very different part of my mind, using different considerations, to overrule this judgment; so many extra or missing pieces seemed unlikely.  And in the end there was only one missing and no extra pieces.  I recall a similar experience when I was learning to program.  I would carefully check my program and find no errors, and then when my program wouldn’t run I was tempted to suspect compiler or hardware errors.  Of course the problem was almost always my fault.   

Most, perhaps all, ways to overcome bias seem like this.  In the language of Kahneman and Lovallo’s classic ’93 paper, we allow an outside view to overrule an inside view.  From their paper:

Continue reading "Beware the Inside View" »

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Goofy Best Friend

Scott Adams has a suggestion for overcoming bias:

When Dilbert launched in newspapers, the response was underwhelming. In the early years, it wasn’t a workplace strip. It was about Dilbert’s life in general. He just happened to have a job. I was surprised to learn, via my e-mail, that readers loved the relatively rare comics featuring Dilbert in the office. Personally, I didn’t think those were my best work. My ego told me to do it my way. My readers told me I was wrong.

What the hell do readers know? After all, they aren’t syndicated cartoonists, and I was, albeit in only a few dozen newspapers. But this time, fortunately, I ignored my ego, changed the focus of the strip to workplace humor, and it took off. …

I’ve come to call this ego-driven behavior the “loser decision.” I don’t mean it as an insult.  It’s an objective fact that life often presents us with choices where the comfortable decision leads nowhere and one that threatens your ego has all the potential in the world.

You need a healthy ego to endure the abuse that comes with any sort of success. The trick is to think of your ego as your goofy best friend who lends moral support but doesn’t know shit.

I don’t think it’s quite fair to be so down on comfortable decisions – discomfort is, after all, a cost.  But it is an upfront cost, and given our irrationally high discount rates, we are likely to understate the net present value of the decision.  Also, my experience is that people tend to consistently overestimate the amount of discomfort involved in doing something new, and once they start, it usually isn’t that bad.  (Which I have trouble seeing an evolutionary explanation for – any ideas?)

So I mostly agree with Adams, but my solution is a bit different:

Continue reading "Goofy Best Friend" »

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Meta Textbooks?

Friday’s Washington Post said:

With two new manuals for high school history and social studies teachers, written in part by Kremlin political consultants, Russian authorities are attempting to imbue classroom debate with a nationalist outlook.

The history guide contains a laudatory review of President Vladimir Putin’s years in power. "We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin," declares its last chapter. The social studies guide is marked by intense hostility to the United States.

Few high school students should be surprised to learn that each nation’s high school history and social studies textbooks tend to present a favorable view of that nation.  But for a rational person, simply knowing about this bias should eliminate its average persuasive effect. 

Of course high school students may not be rational, but this textbook bias seems a great point to explore in discussions with them.  Perhaps after letting students compare their texts to translations of foreign texts, I would repeatedly ask them:  why do you believe local texts more that foreign texts?

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Fantasy’s Essence

After complaining about bad economics in the Harry Potter world, Megan McArdle describes the essence of such fantasy:

It is the meanest sort of Victoriana, the fantasy world of a child Herbert Spencer. There is a hereditary aristocracy of talent, and I am secretly at its apex. There is an elite school almost nobody can go to, and I am one of the chosen. People fall quite neatly into the categories of good, bad, or clueless, we are the good ones who get to run things in the end. That’s powerful fantasy stuff, which is why it’s so common.

Being in a contrarian mood, I’ve chosen this Harry Potter week to read Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy.  It is deeper than Potter’s world, though uneven, has the same essence at its core, and its economics isn’t that much better.  But I was charmed by this self-description:

Philip Pullman believes firmly in the virtues of healthy exercise and a moderate diet – for other people. It makes them feel virtuous, and makes them feel good if not happy. The most exercise he normally takes is unscrewing the top of the whisky bottle.

and his preferred writing process:

Continue reading "Fantasy’s Essence" »

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Clever Controls

Today’s man-machine poker contest has a clever way to avoid random chance errors:

The Alberta researchers have endowed the $50,000 contest with an ingenious design, making this the first man-machine contest to eliminate the luck of the draw as much as possible.

Laak will play with a partner, fellow pro Ali Eslami. The two will be in separate rooms, and their games will be mirror images of one another, with Eslami getting the cards that the computer received in its hands against Laak, and vice versa.

That way, a lousy hand for one human player will result in a correspondingly strong hand for his partner in the other room. At the end of the tournament the chips of both humans will be added together and compared to the computer’s.

Doubles tournaments based on this method could be made for lots of games with chance elements. 

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Investing In Index Funds: A Tangible Reward of Overcoming Bias

On this blog Nick Bostrom once asked “What practical things does debiassing enable us to do?”  Well, investors who overcome overconfidence bias and invest in index funds earn much higher average returns than investors who think they can beat the market by investing in actively managed mutual funds.

Mutual funds buy stocks.  When you invest in a mutual fund you are essentially paying someone else to pick stocks for you.  For the purposes of this essay let’s consider mutual funds that buy stocks only in the S&P 500.  The S&P 500 consists of the 500 largest publicly traded U.S. stocks.

Actively managed mutual funds invest in stocks that they think will do well.  In contrast, index funds buy all stocks in proportion to each stock’s relative total value.  (Most of my savings are in S&P 500 index funds.)  Index funds, therefore, always turn in an average performance while actively managed funds try to beat the market average.

Actively managed mutual funds have higher fees than index funds because actively managed funds must pay people to research stocks.  Also, because they tend to engage in more trades, actively managed mutual funds are not as tax efficient as index funds. 
Consequently, it’s only worth investing in an actively managed fund if you think the fund will significantly beat the market average.

There is strong theoretical and empirical support for the theory that most actively managed mutual funds won’t beat the market average.  As reported in index fund pioneer John Bogle’s The Little Book of Common Sense Investing, after paying taxes and fees, someone who put $10,000 in an index fund in 1980 had $149,000 in 2005.  In contrast, someone who put this same $10,000 in an average actively managed mutual fund in 1980 had only $61,700 in 2005. 

Each year some actively managed mutual funds do outperform the market.  Funds that do well one year are not, however, more likely than average to do well the next.

Despite the clear advantages of investing in index funds, Americans put more money in actively managed mutual funds than they do in index funds.  Part of the reason is because of overconfidence bias on the part of investors who irrationally think they can pick actively managed mutual funds that are more likely than average to beat the market.

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Bad Balance Bias

Balance in life is good. You need to work, relax, have fun, try new things, continue old things, have sex, do sport, play games, sleep. The balanced lifestyle is the ideal, and we all know this.

Problems start when we extend this idea of balance beyond our personal lives. We deal with political and charitable choices as if balance was a virtue. It’s bad enough for governments – they are expected to fund highways, trains, buses and subways, to subsidise clean energy, petrol exploration and energy efficiency, pay money for the opera, for theatre, for sport, for museums and for films. At least in the government’s case the sums involved are so huge that they change the marginal value of these various activities, making this balance obsession possibly acceptable.

But personal charity is the worst. People will give money to combat hunger in Africa, to help the victims of the Tsunami, to educate the under-privileged, to combat global warming and malaria. Since most donations are small, there must be one charity whose marginal value is the highest; rationality implies we should give all our cash to that one. Not only is this not the case, but people seem to prefer to spread their donations around. “You can’t just do one thing” is the reaction I get when questioning this. Yes you can, for charitable giving, and you should.

What are the implications, if my analysis is correct and people demonstrate an irrational love of balance? First, that people will react better to statement like “we are transferring part of X’s funding to Y” rather than “We are cutting X’s funding. We are also increasing Y’s funding.” Secondly that it will be easier to reduce the funding for some X, but much harder to get rid of X entirely. Lastly, that charities boasting a range of different types of projects will fare much better than they should.

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Raging Memories

A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, wonders why natives in East Africa falsely remember that long ago rivers were raging torrents all year round, compared to seasonal trickles now:

Participatory research in East African catchments uncovers memories of catchment hydrology at odds with the hydrological record. Community elders paint a picture of drying and increasingly seasonal rivers; gone are the raging torrents of their youth, replaced by trickles which flow only in the rainy season. However, hydrological records from colonial and the post-independence era suggest that these memories are something of a fiction. In certain catchments, river flow has actually increased over time.

I wonder if you might be able to explain this apparent bias. It may be that participatory research methodologies are to blame – eliciting false information. However, conversation with colleagues indicates that this discrepancy between memory and the record may be a global phenomenon. Additionally, I have noticed that the conclusions of scientist colleagues appear to be influenced by community perceptions of a changing hydrology.

If there is a bias at work, do you think this may have consequences for our understanding of climate change? Do false childhood memories influence the popular  view that the weather is changing?

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