Emotional Management and the Illusion of Consciousness

It’s time to buy some new socks. You plant yourself in the sock aisle at Target, and after a few moments you choose the pair you like best.   It feels like you’re making a conscious decision.  But are you?

The key is the “liking” feeling elicited by the socks.  This  emotion is based on the instantaneous recall of everything in your memory activated by the socks. (For example, people you like or admire  who wear those socks.)  These unconscious memories trigger an emotion which then triggers a behavior.  In this sense you’re not consciously deciding to by the socks. That decision was made when you saw Brad Pitt wearing them and thought he looked good. The “conscious” decision you perceive is merely the output of underlying processes you have no control over.

This is important because sometimes these underlying processes can lead you astray. Feeling positive about socks because of Brad Pitt’s  similar footwear is relatively unproblematic. But what if the clothing reminds you of a co-worker you hate? And what if the clothing is being worn by new co-worker instead of on a shelf in a store? You will dislike that new co-worker for no good reason.  You are a slave to your unconscious.

Conscious analysis of emotion is the only way to break free from the control of our unconscious. When you feel something, stop and think about why you feel that way.  Sometimes, you’ll discover a legitimate reason for the emotion and the feelings will stay. But sometimes you won’t, and the feelings will begin to disappear. Regulating the unconscious will lead to more rational emotions and better decision making.

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Eric Schmidt and Changing Cultural Norms

Google CEO Eric Schmidt increased his Google Trends ranking with his comments about young people one day needing to change their names to escape past online activity.  Most of the commentary focused on whether this was actually a possibility, but in doing so it missed the larger question.

In a world where there is a public record of  all nearly all past activities, there will eventually be less  emphasis placed on a person’s past actions and more emphasis placed on their current motivation. How will this affect society?

The obvious upside is that it will lead to fewer utility-decreasing disqualifications based on irrelevant past behavior. A college drug arrest will no longer keep a bright politician or CEO from making their maximum contribution to society.

The downside is a potential uptick in reckless behavior of people below a certain age.  Why shouldn’t a 17 year-old risk buying heroin if getting caught won’t deprive him of any future opportunities?  The former effect would probably be stronger than the latter, but only time will tell.

The Fallacy of the Athlete Role Model

I caught the highlights of a baseball game last night.  In the first inning the pitcher of Team A hit a batter on Team B. He hit him above the waist, a no-no in baseball.  Two innings later Team B’s pitcher responded by plunking a batter on Team A.  Before I could even consciously comprehend the situation one thing jumped to the forefront of my brain: The Wire. They got one of our guys, now it’s time to seek vengeance by retaliating. There’s a good lesson for kids.

In hockey fighting is sill commonplace.  Relatively unsupervised bare-knuckle fighting in which the surface fallen players potentially land on is ice-hard.  Sometimes the fights are a response to excess physical play. Sometimes they’re a ploy to help motivate the team and home crowd.  So there’s your lesson, kids. If somebody is bothering you, the way to resolve it in with violence. In fact, sometimes if you’re just feeling blue the solution is to beat the crap out of somebody.

In basketball star players bitch and whine after every call. Why? Because when you mess up in life there’s a 99% chance it’s because of somebody else and not your own failings.  If more kids were able to successfully glean this lesson they could stop trying to improve themselves and blame their problems on other people.

I actually don’t have major problems with any of these practices. (Maybe I like the socially sanctioned depravity of it all.) But I also don’t pretend to believe that kids should be looking to pro sports a guiding light for how lives their lives. I bring this up merely to point out  another example of how our upbringing and cultural biases blind us to an issue which probably should be given more attention.  Give credit to the marketing department of the major sports leagues. After all, the “NBA Cares (about getting your money).”

Universities Are Greedy

We tend to give big-time research universities a free pass regarding their financial decisions because of all the perceived good they do for the world.  That’s unfortunate, because much like a CEO whose primary goal is to raise the company stock price, many universities don’t have the public’s best interest in mind. Instead of providing the best product at the lowest possible price, most universities are concerned with maximizing their appeal to donors and future students (rather than current students.)  All of this is apparent in Kevin Carey’s Washington Monthly piece (and his follow up blog post) on the  spanking new, uber-thrifty University of Minnesota-Rochester campus.

The whole thing is run on a one-time $6 million increase to the University of Minnesota’s annual budget. The marginal cost of expansion all comes from tuition.

That’s because UMR doesn’t spend any money on stuff like student housing, sports teams, theaters, gymnasiums, libraries, and other expensive things that tend to accumulate at older universities over the years. When nearby Winona State University decided it needed a new library a few years ago, it spent $18 million on a brand-new building staffed by 17 people and filled with 220, 000 books. UMR hired one librarian and installed wi-fi in a room full of comfortable chairs.

As nice as the UM-Rochester story is, the Winona State example is the norm because fancy libraries and athletic championships attract sweet sweet donations.   The cost is then passed on to students, the majority of whom would surely prefer a decrease in extravagant buildings if it was accompanied by a decrease in tuition.  Life would be a lot easier if students could keep their money and decide how they want to use it to improve their lives at college.

(I realize this is the argument conservatives make about our entire tax system. The difference is that the government can arguably use it’s size and organizational ability to create economies of scale and provide services that no other entity could. A majority of people may in fact get more than a dollar worth of benefits for every dollar they pay in taxes.   The same argument cannot be made for college students reaping the benefits of a new football stadium. And although  many of these big expenses are specifically earmarked in donations, at some point that money would have ended up  in university coffers, 100% unappropriated)

One final point. When I was a freshman first-year students were required to purchase a meal plan. The most popular plan was the “points” plan. For $1800 a student could purchase 1600 points. At any campus dining location points were interchangeable with dollars.   One point equaled one dollar. The school was effectively forcing freshman to spend money purchasing a smaller amount of an equivalent currency. Why? So they could add another hidden tuition cost. Universities will do whatever they can to get their hands on more money.

We don’t tend to think of universities as “evil” in the way we do about mega-corporations. But they are.  They just happen to use a high percentage of their spoils from evil deeds for good causes.  Until people begin demanding accountability, tuition will continue to fund extravagant projects with benefits dwarfed by the costs they impose on students.

Astute Observations

Alan Simpson, debt reduction commission extraordinaire, on politics:

In politics there are no right answers, only a continuing flow of compromises among groups, resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom.

Misrepresenting the Consequences of Teacher Evaluations

Dave Leonhardt’s column on teacher accountability is a good illustration of the general (and in my opinion correct) consensus on the issue — something along the lines of  “It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have, and it creates a net utility gain for the system.”

It’s also important to point out that the critiques coming from the anti-accountability crowd are somewhat misleading. They tend to forecast a doomsday scenario in which the country’s best teachers are getting fired because of a little statistical variance. In reality, it would be almost impossible for a good teacher to be fired because of it. In fact, it would be almost impossible for an average teacher to be fired because of it.

Evaluations and value-added scores are meant to weed out the absolute dregs of the teaching profession.  As long as you’re somewhere above the 30th percentile, there’s little chance you’ll be fired. And if you’re below the 30th percentile, well, then your job deserves to be in jeopardy.

Irrational Sports Strategies – Tennis Edition

The New York Times has piece examining one of the numerous irrational strategies prevalent in professional sports — soft 2nd serves in tennis.

The question persists: would players have a better chance of winning the point, even after factoring in the sure rise in double faults, by going for it again on the second serve — in essence, hitting two first serves? The answer is yes, over time, for many of the top players.

Generally, the top men’s players make about 65 percent of their first serves and 90 percent of their second serves. But when the first serve goes in, most win about three-quarters of the points, often on aces. On second serves, the win-or-lose proposition is about 50-50.

The quickie math has player winning 45% of points on conventional 2nd serves but nearly 49% of  points on “first serve” second serves.    The article quotes Daniel Kahneman who explains the poor strategy as an application of his findings that  “people prefer losing late to losing early.”

Another potential explanation is the sports mantra of  “don’t beat yourself” or “make the other guy beat you.” From a young age kids are essentially taught that it’s better for the other player to win than it is for you to lose.  This is why pitchers are taught to always throw a strike on 3-2 counts. It’s also why in the 4th quarter NFL coaches conservatively play for game-tying field goals when all the numbers tell them it’s better to try for a winning touchdown. (The preference for losing late also applies here.)

This philosophy even extends to other parts of society. I would wager that 90% of job applicants play it safe in the interview to make sure they don’t accidentally disqualify themselves.  Better to have a more qualified applicant “beat” you than to “lose” the job by saying something non-standard.  Unfortunately, even this NYT article is lunikely to encourage more rational behavior in tennis, or society as a whole.