Monthly Archives: April 2008

Be biased to be happy

Robin writes "Optimism bias is clearly not an unnoticed accident – people want to be so biased."

In poker, there is a joke which goes "Have you ever noticed that when you win, it’s all skill, and when you lose, it was bad luck?"  It’s funny because this method of protecting one’s own ego is universal enough to strike a deep chord, yet any good player knows how wrong it is.  In the short-term, poker is mostly luck, and it takes a great deal of experience to even partially disentangle the effects of one’s own strategy from the vicissitudes of fortune.  (Hint: a crucial first step is to always think in terms of opponent hand distributions, not specific hands.)

While in poker, this way of thinking will hold a player back from accurately evaluating and improving their game, the evidence from positive psychology is that it helps you be a winner in life.  From Half Full, a blog about the science of raising happy kids:

According to Seligman and other researchers, how optimistic or pessimistic we are amounts to how we explain life’s events, be they good or bad. There are three basic dimensions to an explanation: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.   The OPTIMISTIC way of understanding why something GOOD happened would explain:

The cause of what just happened as Permanent (so it will reoccur);
And Pervasive (it will affect many other circumstances, too);
And Personal (I made it happen).

On the other hand, the PESSIMISTIC way of explaining why something GOOD just happened would illustrate that:

The cause of what just happened is Temporary (something short-lived caused it – probably won’t happen again);
And Specific (affecting only this situation);
And Impersonal (I didn’t have anything to do with what happened, other people or the circumstances did).

The reverse is also true when something bad happens. A kid trips on the sidewalk and skins her knee, dirtying her new dress. The pessimist thinks: “I’m so clumsy – I’m always tripping everywhere, and now I look stupid.” The cause of her fall is (1) permanent—she sees it as a personality trait, and therefore it is both (2) pervasive and (3) personal. On the other hand, the optimist thinks: “Dang!  Someone oughtta fix that crack in the sidewalk!” She’s thinking that a flaw in the sidewalk, not her own inherent clumsiness, caused her to trip. That crack is (1) temporary; (2) specific to that moment; and (3) impersonal—she had nothing to do with it.

There is plenty of evidence that those with the optimistic mindset are happier, healthier, and more successful, but of course we have to be careful because the causality runs both ways.  (If life has been good to you, you will tend to expect more of the same).  But (while I don’t have cites on hand), I’ve seen some research on interventions to improve optimism, and on predicting later success based on earlier optimism (controlling for other obvious factors of success), which suggest that at least some of the causality runs from optimism to happiness.

It seems a bit sad to me that our egos need such nurturing, and as a rationalist I worry that optimistic bias (like any false view of the world) will sometimes lead us to make worse decisions which will increase suffering.  But to the degree that we’re stuck with the biased minds we have, the evidence seems to be that it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic.

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Optimism Bias Desired

From April Psychological Science:

We asked [383] participants to imagine one of four different settings … [of] decisions about a financial investment, an academic-award application, a surgical procedure, and a dinner party. For each setting, we created eight vignettes [varying] … commitment … agency … and control.  One third … were asked to provide prescriptions … whether it would be best to be overly pessimistic, accurate, or overly optimistic, … another third … to indicate what kind of prediction the protagonist in each vignette would make, and the final third to indicate what kind of prediction they themselves would make. …. Options ranged from -4 (extremely pessimistic) through 0 (accurate) to +4 (extremely optimistic). ….

Overall, the modal prescription was moderately optimistic (+2 on our scale), which was endorsed nearly twice as often as accurate (32.3% vs. 17.7%). .. Participants [said] … that [other] people tend to be optimistically biased … [and] also reported being optimistically biased [themselves]. The degrees of bias participants attributed to other people and to themselves did not differ. … Finally, and most strikingly, … [they said] people should be even more optimistic than they are. …

Participants prescribed (and described) more optimism (a) after commitment to a course of action rather than before (b) when the decision to commit was the protagonist’s to make rather than not, and (c) when the protagonist’s control over the outcome was high rather than low. … The results were also largely robust across the settings we sampled … [and] across key measured variables. Interestingly, even participants who were self-identified as pessimists … prescribed optimism … Although Asian participants prescribed less optimism than any other ethnic group, they still prescribed optimism.

Optimism bias is clearly not an unnoticed accident – people want to be so biased. 

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Decoherent Essences

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Followup toDecoherence is Pointless

In "Decoherence is Pointless", we talked about quantum states such as

(Human-BLANK) * ((Sensor-LEFT * Atom-LEFT) + (Sensor-RIGHT * Atom-RIGHT))

which describes the evolution of a quantum system just after a sensor has measured an atom, and right before a human has looked at the sensor – or before the human has interacted gravitationally with the sensor, for that matter.  (It doesn’t take much interaction to decohere objects the size of a human.)

But this is only one way of looking at the amplitude distribution – a way that makes it easy to see objects like humans, sensors, and atoms.  There are other ways of looking at this amplitude distribution – different choices of basis – that will make the decoherence less obvious.

Continue reading "Decoherent Essences" »

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Self-Copying Factories

Most important trends that change our world do not make the news.  Exhibit A:

Reprap RepRap is short for Replicating Rapid-prototyper. It is the practical self-copying 3D printer shown on the right – a self-replicating machine. This 3D printer builds the component up in layers of plastic. This technology already exists, but the cheapest commercial machine would cost you about 30,000 Euro. And it isn’t even designed so that it can make itself. So what the RepRap team are doing is to develop and to give away the designs for a much cheaper machine with the novel capability of being able to self-copy (material costs will be about 400 Euro). … We are distributing the RepRap machine at no cost to everyone under the GNU General Public Licence. … We hope to announce self-replication in 2008, though the machine that will do it – RepRap Version 1.0 “Darwin” – can be built now.


There are at least seven copies of the RepRap machine in the world that Olliver knows about.

Exhibit B is even more dramatic, if you know what you are seeing:

Continue reading "Self-Copying Factories" »

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Decoherence is Pointless

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Previously in seriesOn Being Decoherent

Yesterday’s post argued that continuity of decoherence is no bar to accepting it as an explanation for our experienced universe, insofar as it is a physicist’s responsibility to explain it.  This is a good thing, because the equations say decoherence is continuous, and the equations get the final word.

Now let us consider the continuity of decoherence in greater detail…

Continue reading "Decoherence is Pointless" »

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Charm Beats Accuracy


A seven-month study of weather forecasting at Kansas City television stations was conducted over 220 days … One [station manager] said, "There’s not an evaluation of accuracy in hiring meteorologists. Presentation takes precedence over accuracy." And when discussing accuracy (or the lack thereof) of a seven-day forecast, another station manager stated, "All viewers care about is the next day. Accuracy is not a big deal to viewers." …

The data show that stations are so consumed with ratings that accuracy in weather predictions takes an irrelevant back seat to snappy patter and charm. When directly asked if accuracy mattered in forecasting, every station manager and meteorologist said it did. But when asked what steps they had taken to measure and ensure accuracy, they were without answers.

No meteorologist or television station kept records of what they predicted, nor compared their predictions to actual results over a long term. No meteorologist posts their accuracy statistics on their résumé. No station managers use accuracy statistics in the hiring or evaluation of their meteorologists.  Instead, the focus is on charm, charisma, and presentation. Their words say they care about accuracy, but their actions say they do not.

Why should we expect this to be any better for other kinds of news?  If viewers can watch the same person day after day making predictions about something they care about and personally verify day after day, and still not care much about accuracy relative to looks and charm, how much can we really expect people to care about accuracy of news on unrest in Thailand, the credit crisis, or a new medical study?  Can we really expect people to track the accuracy of advice from their doctors, lawyers, or interior decorators, relative to their looks, charm, and general impressiveness?

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The Conscious Sorites Paradox

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Followup toOn Being Decoherent

Decoherence is implicit in quantum physics, not an extra postulate on top of it, and quantum physics is continuous.  Thus, "decoherence" is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon – there’s no sharp cutoff point.  Given two blobs, there’s a quantitative amount of amplitude that can flow into identical configurations between them.  This quantum interference diminishes down to an exponentially tiny infinitesimal as the two blobs separate in configuration space.

Asking exactly when decoherence takes place, in this continuous process, is like asking when, if you keep removing grains of sand from a pile, it stops being a "heap".

Continue reading "The Conscious Sorites Paradox" »

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On Being Decoherent

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Previously in seriesThe So-Called Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

“A human researcher only sees a particle in one place at one time.”  At least that’s what everyone goes around repeating to themselves.  Personally, I’d say that when a human researcher looks at a quantum computer, they quite clearly see particles not behaving like they’re in one place at a time.  In fact, you have never in your life seen a particle “in one place at a time” because they aren’t.

Nonetheless, when you construct a big measuring instrument that is sensitive to a particle’s location – say, the measuring instrument’s behavior depends on whether a particle is to the left or right of some dividing line – then you, the human researcher, see the screen flashing “LEFT”, or “RIGHT”, but not a mixture like “LIGFT”.

As you might have guessed from reading about decoherence and Heisenberg, this is because we ourselves are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics and subject to decoherence.

Continue reading "On Being Decoherent" »

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Quantum Orthodoxy

Regarding Eliezer’s parable last night, I commented:

I am deeply honored to have my suggestion illustrated with such an eloquent parable. In fairness, I guess I should try to post some quotes from the now dominant opposing view on this.

Last week I wrote:

Physicists mostly punt to philosophers, who use flimsy excuses to declare meaningless the use of specific quantum models to calculate the number of worlds that see particular experimental results.  …  Two recent workshops here and here, my stuff here.

Those workshops and most recent work has been dominated by Oxford’s Saunders and Wallace.  My promised quotes start with this their most recent published statement:

A potential rival probability measure, which actually leads to severe problems with diachronic consistency – to take the worlds produced on branching to be equiprobable – is revealed as a will o’ the wisp, relying on numbers that aren’t even approximately defined by dynamical considerations (they are rather defined by the number of kinds of outcome, oblivious to the number of outcomes of each kind). This point has been made a number of times in the literature (see e.g. Saunders [1998], Wallace [2003]), although it is often ignored or forgotten. Thus Lewis [2004] …  and Putnam [2005] … made much of this supposed alternative to branch weights in quantifying probability. (See Saunders [2005], Wallace [2007] for recent and detailed criticisms on this putative probability measure.)

The most detailed discussion I can find is Wallace 2005:
Continue reading "Quantum Orthodoxy" »

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If I Had A Million

I’ve been telling folks for a long time that if I had a million dollars to spend on a project, I’d implement an idea I posted first twelve years ago today, and described in Forbes sixteen months ago:

Make two subsidized real-money markets on the stock price of each Fortune 500 firm, one market conditional on its CEO stepping down by quarter’s end, and the other conditional on not stepping down.  The difference between these two prices would advice the board on dumping the CEO.

If active, these markets should attract business press, and then most of these CEOs would come to see what the markets say about them.  Half a million would pay for legal/admin.  The other half would only cover a $1000 subsidy per firm, but CEOs trying to manipulate would add lots of liquidity.  A few years of data would let us clearly compare the returns of firms following market advice to firms not following.   With clear data I’d encourage shareholders to sue boards ignoring market advice, and after a few wins most boards would weigh market advice heavily.   A revolution in CEO accountability would then be complete, all for only a million.

Technically, I’d also create a third market per firm in the chance the CEO will step down, and force the three prices to be consistent with external stock prices, so there’d only be two independent degrees of freedom.

Added: And of course this would be a huge foot-in-door legitimization and exposure for many other kinds of organizational decision markets.

Added July 2020: I reaffirm that this is the project I’d fund with a million.

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