What Aren’t They Thinking?

Eliezer Yudkowsky in September:

Have I ever remarked on how completely ridiculous it is to ask high school students to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and give them nearly no support in doing so? Support like, say, spending a day apiece watching twenty different jobs and then another week at their top three choices, with salary charts and projections and probabilities of graduating that subject given their test scores? The more so considering this is a central allocation question for the entire economy?

Katja Grace two days ago:

I’ve been meaning to remark how surprised I am that not even the students themselves seem interested in researching such things, or to even think of it. Similarly for their families. It’s not expensive to phone a few people who are doing your dreamed of career. … Even if you are entering college without knowing what you want to do later, it would probably make sense to at least contact some current students doing your proposed degree … I did neither of these things, I’m not sure why.

This sort of observation really gets my attention, much like seeing little correlation between medicine and health. Such things seriously call into question very standard stories on why we do what do. We say we go to docs to get well, but why if those who go more aren’t more well? We say we study to get better jobs, but why if we won’t bother to study what jobs we should want to get?

My mind is still pondering how best to explain this. A few ideas come to mind, but none are that satisfactory yet. But what most strikes me is at the meta level – few of my academic colleagues seem nearly as bothered by such things as I. So many academics, including economists, study medicine and schooling, and yet they hardly even mention such obvious dramatic puzzles, much less devote themselves to resolving them.

Yes, most academics are careerists, and yes current academic fashions are not on such topics, so I don’t expect academics to devote much precious career efforts to such things. But even academics have some free time, and some innate curiosity. And most have a better than average view of our best data and theories, a vantage point from which such puzzles come into sharper relief. It is almost as if their minds actively turn their mind’s eye away from such to-me striking views.

Note: this meta-observation is yet another example, as it also questions basic stories on why academics do what they do.

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  • P

    I would have killed for that kind of support. At that age, I wanted to view factories and businesses and everybody told me I couldn’t. I should have just contacted the businesses directly.

  • http://www.hopanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think you underestimate how scarce innate curiousity + threshhold empiricial competency is in the world –I think the low level of challenges of basic assumptions from a good faith empirical angle (and the inconsistent performance even by challengers such as you, Dr. Nassim Taleb, and others) indicates this weak distribution.

  • http://www.hopanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    At an early age I realized it was easy to contact pretty much anybody. I stopped when I got older and realized that most of the pairings I could develop made little sense, because my lack of talent at their craft (or other trait or path dependent comparative advantage) meant my ability to extract attention from them was wasteful. I think most talent is too deferential to attention requests from the mediocre masses.

    And perhaps my participation in academic blogs is partially a failure in self-policing.

  • Michael M Butler

    HA #1 writes: “I think you underestimate how scarce innate curiousity + threshhold empiricial competency is in the world”…

    I think the world has active mechanisms in place to damp down or choke the first; re the latter, it seems that the Dunning-Kruger effect carries little selection pressure cost in the world as it is today.

  • Doug

    I have a younger brother who’s starting high school, and went with him to the orientation at his public high school. I attended the same school, but now a few years being finished with all school has given me an interesting perspective. Going to an “elite” university I’ve met a lot of people who went to “elite” high schools like Exeter or Dalton. Basically the type of path that someone would get tracked on to make partner at Goldman.

    One thing that struck me about the difference between the public high school and what people say about elite schools is just how much more practical the emphasis is in the middle class school. The guidance counselor running the orientation kept emphasizing all the career specific classes taught at the high school like IT, healthcare and early education. She also kept telling the students how important it was to start thinking about what you want to do otherwise you’ll find yourself with no direction after graduating. She told students to focus on a subject area that they like that and focus on those. Throughout the whole presentation the subject of jobs and career was mentioned non-stop.

    Needless to say the emphasis on elite high schools is completely different. They are completely about the “liberal arts” education. My bet is that the word job or career is probably not mentioned once at Dalton’s orientation. My bet is also something along the phrase of “well rounded scholar” is mentioned umpteen times there, yet was not mentioned once at the middle class public school orientation. Also elite prep schools force students to participate in totally unpractical extracurriculars like sports, theater and community service leaving little to no time for actual part-time jobs by the students. Because they know that “leadership activities” are the key to getting into a top college.

    Anyway my point is this. If an 18 year old is directionless and doesn’t have much idea what to ultimately with his life it makes a big difference where he’s coming from. Someone with a 1000 SAT score and crappy academic background will probably drift around community colleges and ultimately take a dead-end unskilled job. For someone with a 1500 SAT score and a stellar high school GPA and a lot of “leadership activities” it doesn’t matter. Okay, you don’t know what you want to do? That’s find just go to an ivy league school and major in a liberal arts subject. Even without any specialized training you can just go to grad school. Such a person can eventually end up in corporate law, investment banking, consulting or academia.

    The difference in ultimate life outcomes between the most unspecialized students and the most specialized 22-year olds at Harvard is pretty trivial. Pretty much everyone going to Harvard is going to be successful, even those who didn’t really study anything. The difference in outcomes for the specialized and unspecialized community college or lower-tiered four year colleges is gigantic. Basically it’s not worth going if you don’t know what you’re going to do.

    So I think it all comes down to a signaling explanation. Students who stay unspecialized well-rounded are basically signaling that they are high-quality intelligent people. And on the contrary students who are too specialized are signaling that they’re lower-quality, because high-quality students don’t need to worry about early specialization as much.

  • http:/juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

    “We say we go to docs to get well, but why if those who go more aren’t more well?”

    Why doesn’t this question bespeak an obvious correlation – causation error?

    • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

      Of course not.

      By the way, caskets are deadly. Everybody inside of one is dead. Everyone not in a casket is still alive.

      Ignore this data at your own peril.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    We say we go to docs to get well, but why if those who go more aren’t more well?

    This is why I avoid docs.

    • J

      “Nobody should have to go to work thinking, oh this is the place that I might die today. That’s what a hospital is for.”

      - Michael Scott

  • Eric

    I’m almost 40 and still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. :) My career has changed several times in the past 10 years, with each transition a reasonable step from my prior work, but leading to pretty dramatic reorientation in my work life over the past decade.

    I wouldn’t have it any other way. Keeps life and work interesting, even though I’m always having to immerse myself in new domains (which has its stresses).

  • ralph

    Family wealth may also play a role; why worry about what to do to make money when your family has money. They can put off researching what to do to “make money”, and do so in a politically correct acceptable high status way by going to college and grad school. By the time they are done with grad school, presumably they will have rolled into some good contacts that lead to a much more interesting and higher status job than if they had researched money-making jobs at a younger age.

    Life is not just about money-making, and paradoxically being rich fosters this freedom of mind. It is no wonder aristocratic Europeans guarded and spread the enlightenment.

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  • http://www.teapartynews.net George

    Have I ever remarked on how completely ridiculous it is to ask high school students to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and give them nearly no support in doing so?

    I was actually in high school when I noticed patterns like this. To say the least it was rather demoralizing.

    My mind is still pondering how best to explain this.

    I suspect that conformity to norms and historical momentum can explain a lot of why things are being done the way they are being done. Conformity crushes intelligent questioning of this problem.

    These same kinds of questions can be asked about other aspects of modern American life. Such as, why do people participate in the current sexual marketplace? Look at what the mainstream SMP produces: a high divorce rate (which also acts to destroy wealth) and reproductive failure in the form of below replacement fertility. Yet there is not widespread questioning of the system in place.

    Simple snappy answer: Idiocracy was not a comedy it was a documentary. Pretentious answer: we are living in a third stage Baudrillard matrix.

  • Bob
  • Constant

    >We say we study to get better jobs, but why if we won’t bother to study what jobs we should want to get?

    It’s hardly a secret what jobs get more money, and hardly a secret that the more you specialize in whatever (not absolutely whatever, but a very wide variety of fields), the higher your skill in whatever, the more money you will make, the more you will be respected, etc. People making a lot of money living in big houses do a wide variety of different jobs at a high level.

    So what’s left? Well, there’s the content of the job. You can do very different things to make the same money. Shouldn’t you spend a lot of time studying the content of a variety of different jobs to see what best fits your personality? But here too, I don’t think it’s any great secret that there is a big difference between the content of selling bathroom fixtures and the content of digging up thousand year old bones. Beyond such massive differences in content, I think people largely don’t do that because they simply don’t care. And they may be right not to care. Humans are highly adaptable mentally. I, for example, gravitate to intellectual work, but I can easily see myself adapting very well to a very wide variety of brainwork jobs.

    If humans were not highly adaptable then it would matter much more than it does what work they do. But humans are supremely adaptable to environments, and have the habit of falling in love with whatever environments they find themselves in for a long time, and while they may enjoy travel a lot of them fairly rapidly become homesick.

  • Hyena

    I actually wonder about this a lot.

    Maybe, though, it’s simply escaped notice until recently and when it has been noticed, it generally hasn’t been in circles that are data-driven. The humanities seems to talk about this sort of thing a lot, for example, and likely has more students who fell into this trap.

  • georgi

    As a parent I have a different response. Most of the highly paid professional jobs are somewhat boring even to a motivated high school student. The main variants of business, law, academia, medicine, and technico-engineering cover the gamut. We need for kids to get an idea of which general area they would be good at and then decide which they would like much later. Given the huge number of people who crash and burn at pop music, acting, or other expressive professions, as a parent my first job is to direct them away from unremunerative jobs that might be “fun.” If you tell me that I can show them how hard the job is by finding sufficiently large numbers of failures, you miss the point. I don’t have time for this. I just keep them away from temptation by filtering their initial life choices.

    Competence and ability signaling are more important. If they truly have passion for something, they can adjust later. I’d rather my kids start towards a respected bourgeois profession and change their minds later than start for something that won’t pay or is out of most people’s reach and then go back to middle class respectability too late.

    The poorer the background society the middle class wishes to escape, the more this basic wisdom is understood. See India and China and middle class immigrant strivers in the US.

  • http://aretae.blogspot.com aretae

    As far as I can tell, there are 4-ish life stages that we consider conceptually distinct.

    Childhood.
    College
    Working Adulthood (maybe young, and full adulthood).
    Retirement.

    In general, there seems to be moderate discouragement of anyone doing anything much out of order. Retired folks working is between suspicious and unfair. Children working, or thinking much about work is too.

    Of course, I think that Eric’s answer is very important in the explanation too. There is no strong obvious correlation between school and work (except mathy stuff), and lots of folks change careers. Focus on what you will be doing is silly.

    • http://www.teapartynews.net George

      Like I said: we are living in a third stage Baudrillard matrix. This 4-stage life model is an excellent example of why things are going unquestioned and why things are falling apart.

      • Anonymous

        Sorry about this, but this is an area I don’t know anything about. Could you explain to me what a Baudrillard matrix is?

  • Someone from the other side

    Even without any specialized training you can just go to grad school. Such a person can eventually end up in corporate law, investment banking, consulting or academia.

    Funny you should say this, sounds kinda like the story of my life (ah except that idea of getting into computer science, that quickly disappeared when I tried the curriculum)

    Yes, you get a general degree (econ, business or some such, I would not do humanities though), move into a top tier consulting firm and a few years later you are none the wiser. Then you do an MBA at a top Bschool to finally figure out what to do with your live in your late twenties. After 1/3 of b-school, I’ve figured out a whole bunch of things NOT to do but not really what to do. Problem is, this game can be played for *decades* all the while making decent to good money (contrary to what everyone believes, compensation in top tier consulting in the lower ranks is good, but far from spectacular)…

  • Evan

    Such as, why do people participate in the current sexual marketplace? Look at what the mainstream SMP produces: a high divorce rate (which also acts to destroy wealth) and reproductive failure in the form of below replacement fertility. Yet there is not widespread questioning of the system in place.

    These are higher-level problems, problems that you get when you transition to a superior system from an inferior one. They are unpleasant, but far superior to the problems of previous sexual marketplaces (getting stuck in a loveless marriage, lack of careers for women, etc.). The only reason they seem worse is that you’re experiencing them now. The reason people don’t question these SMP problems is probably because when most do they realize the stultifying and immoral sexual norms of the past were so horrible that all our current problems are tiny in comparison. Just because they’re smaller problems doesn’t mean they’re not problems, but it’s good to have perspective.

    A good comparison would be obesity. Getting fat because you have too much to eat is a far better problem than starving, but people today have conniptions about obesity because it’s right there in front of them. Another comparison is hoarding, it’s bad, but better than being poor and having no stuff at all.

    Things are not “falling apart,” we’re just having problems, like people have always had since the dawn of time. Eventually we’ll solve them and move onto new (hopefully better) problems.

    • John

      It would be more correct to say that certain social structures are “falling apart” by implicit consensus, because they need to be disassembled as the first step of the repair process.

    • http://www.teapartynews.net George

      They are unpleasant, but far superior to the problems of previous sexual marketplaces

      Did you not read what I wrote? We aren’t making enough babies to replace the population. Such a system is self-defeating. By definition it cannot be superior.

      The reason people don’t question these SMP problems is probably because when most do they realize the stultifying and immoral sexual norms of the past were so horrible that all our current problems are tiny in comparison.

      No the reason they don’t question it is because most people are conformists who care more about fitting in than anything else.

      The brutally inhuman nature of the modern hook up culture is far more immoral than the system we had in the past. People are treated as things rather than as actual human beings. Add to that the psychological castration of boys at the hands of feminists and the de-feminization of girls at the hands of the feminists. Alienating people from their own human nature is obviously immoral because of the psychological damage it does to the victims.

      Of course we haven’t even touched on how most average men have been disfranchised from the SMP because feminism unleashed women’s hypergamy.

      But oh, let’s pretend the past was worse instead.

      but it’s good to have perspective.

      Yes the correct perspective is we live in a far more evil world because the SMP has been dehumanized by liberals.

      Getting fat because you have too much to eat is a far better problem than starving

      Not enough babies to replace population = dying race. Your analogy does not hold up.

  • V.G.

    You should think about Douglas North’s notion of institutions and their role in shaping human behaviour. The educational institutions are very important and they would not want too much individual discretion in selecting future jobs. Think about it as the allocation of parking spaces in a parking lot. Too many individual preferences can burden the system.

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  • Philo

    A substitute for “phon[ing] a few people who are doing your dreamed of career” is watching how such people are portrayed on television, in the movies, in novels, in journalism. And ordinary life experience provides lots of information more directly. Many people intend to follow in the footsteps of one of their parents*, or of another close relative; or they routinely deal with people who are fulfilling the function they aspire to fulfill (school teacher, college professor, general practitioner, dentist, shop clerk, bus driver, traffic policeman, etc.). Finally, the results of phoning job-holders would be biased: people who dislike a certain job tend to quit and take a different job that they like better.

    *Aside: my parents were both accountants, so I knew from an early age something I *didn’t* want to do.

  • Scott Sumner

    And add one more: Very few macroeconomists have any interest in studying how prediction markets might make monetary policy more effective.

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  • Grant

    My initial reaction:

    Career goals are claims of the far future. Such claims are notoriously inaccurate; its hard for us to guess what we’ll be doing 6+ years in the future. It is therefore rational to select a career goal for its immediate benefits as well as long-term ones. For those who’s careers seem especially hard to predict (e.g. most students), immediate benefits would seem to vastly out-weigh long-term ones.

    Because of this, we primarily care about the status of career goals. We can estimate the status of these goals by gathering information from our peers. We don’t need to understand the realities of these careers to understand the immediate status benefits of claiming the career as a goal. Thus it is not rational for a high school student to spend much if anything on investigating his claimed career goal.

    Of course some people (say those with specific talents) have more accurate ideas about what their future career will really be. It makes sense for these people to invest more seriously in this carer.

    My predictions:
    People who know less about their future career choose goals based more on their immediate status effects and investigate these goals less.
    People who know more about their future career choose goals based more on their long-term effects and investigate these goals more.
    While status-based goal choices must be plausible to gain the chooser any status, they tend to be more far-fetched than real career choices.

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    I probably would have been all over the place anyway. I majored in recombinant gene technology 1989-1993 with the belief that one could make a good living in biotechnology. I was, of course, right. I started a Master’s in molecular biology with the same idea. But then I got bored, didn’t like doing lab work, and changed to a M.A. in English. I now have a Ph.D. in the humanities, and work nights at a hotel. I was quite well informed, and went in a different direction anyway. I would probably have an academic job by now if I weren’t such an outspoken libertarian, but that’s neither here nor there.

  • Alrenous

    Have you asked them about it? What do they say to explain why it doesn’t bother them? Have they thought about it before, and are they going to think about it now that they definitely have? (Both in reality, and what they report, especially if they aren’t the same.)