Fear-Mongering is Not a Part of Constructive Political Discourse

In the midst of an excellent column about “wicked” problems, Atul Gawande touches on a characteristic of our political system that’s often overlooked.

The rhetoric of intransigence favors extreme predictions, which are seldom borne out. Troubles do arise, but the reforms evolve, as they must. Adjustments are made. And when people are determined to succeed, progress generally happens. The reality of trying to solve a wicked problem is that action of any kind presents risks and uncertainties. Yet so does inaction. All that leaders can do is weigh the possibilities as best they can and find a way forward.

Our political discourse is essentially about the bottom of slippery slopes. It’s an exercise in fear-mongering — you make your case by stating the worst-sounding hypothetical scenario that will arise from your opponent’s agenda (or in the case of “death panels,” the worst-sounding impossible scenario.) The bad news is that overemphasizing unlikely scenarios is generally not a method of argument that leads to policy improvements.

I think we’ve reached this point partly because of the prevalence of lobbying. A lobbyist’s job is basically to come up with the worst possible consequence of a provision their client doesn’t like, and then convince people it will happen. Politicians already do this on their own for the big issues, but now they hear about every tiny provision in every bill. The recent rise of partisan media outlets has helped spread the “worst-case-scenario” talk out of the beltway and into people’s living rooms.

As Gawande points out, it’s ridiculous to talk about these scenarios because if a piece of a bill looks unquestionably troublesome, Congress will change the bill. Extremely bad things do happen, but they’re almost never the things we were worried about. Our political system can still deal with predictable worst-case scenarios. I guarantee Congress would be able to pass a timely bipartisan bill to abolish real death panels. The problem is when there’s a “this will piss of 57% of Americans” scenario. Then we’re still out of luck.

I’m not sure when or how things will change. Political parties are stuck in a nuclear arms race of talking points and campaign ads. If they slow down, they’ll make their opponent look reasonable. Perhaps things could change if the media started calling people out for trumpeting unlikely scenarios, but the fact that they couldn’t manage to kill off “death panels” does not leave me optimistic.

Want to Be Creative? Play Dungeons and Dragons

Screenwriter John August (Go, Big Fish) often attributes his success as a storyteller to playing Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. When the game is played at a high (i.e. fun) level, players create detailed histories for their characters and come up with complex explanations for various outcomes. This ultimately builds the creativity, imagination, and storytelling ability that make for a good writer.

There is also some scientific evidence that supports August’s theory. A study forthcoming in Thinking Skills and Creativity found that people who play table-top role playing games (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons) engage in more divergent thinking (a common measure of creativity) than people who play electronic role playing games (e.g. Final Fantasy) or people who don’t play any role playing games.

What makes a game like Dungeons and Dragons so beneficial is that it gets at the cognitive core of what creativity is about — the act of connecting existing knowledge in a novel way in order to generate new knowledge. This new knowledge can be a pleasant way to place paint on a canvass, a plan to stop the leak in your sink, or a way to explain how a Dwarf’s Level 3 Fire spell is repelled by a Dark Ogre.

One of the many things that’s unfortunate about American schools is that students are rarely placed in environments that necessitate this kind of thinking. One reason for this is that art and music (and to a lesser extent, drama) tend to hold a special place in the school day under the guise of teaching creativity. There’s nothing wrong with art and music, but if we think they’re important skills then we should teach them on their own merit. And if we think it’s important to enhance student creativity, then we should allocate instructional time designed to accomplish that goal. Lumping creativity and music into one glob does a diservice to music (by forcing it on kids who aren’t interested) and creativity (by “teaching” it in a half-assed manner.) This shouldn’t be taken as a screed against art and music in schools. It’s a screed against art and music’s monopolization of school time dedicated to creativity.

I think there are two better ways to foster creativity in schools. The first is to present students with specific scenarios in order to generate original thinking. For example, “Your spaceship crash lands on a primitive alien planet. An alien approaches and spots your iPhone. What do you say the iPhone does, and why?” Suddenly you have kids theorizing about the alien, what it thinks, what it wants, what it believes, and what you’re capable of saying.

The second way to teach creativity is to literally do nothing. Strip everything away. Leave students with a box of crayons, or a guitar, or a video camera. Let them explore their own minds by doing whatever they want.

Right now we seem to be getting the worst of both worlds. Because art and music classes are designed to teach art and music, kids don’t have the freedom to truly make connections among whatever chunks of knowledge are floating around in their heads. On the other hand, art and music class also lack the structure to foster the more controlled type of creativity in the alien example. Obviously this isn’t the most pressing issue in our education system, but if we think that creativity is important we should actually try to foster it, not simply assume it’s being taken care of by classes that are designed to teach other things.
Chung, T.S. (2012). Table-top Role Playing Game and Creativity. Thinking Skills and Creativity DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2012.06.002

How Finance Executives Aren’t Like Poker Players, and Why it Means We Should Be More Skeptical of Their Expertise

Imagine nine poker players seated at the final table of a major tournament. Although they posses a variety of different skillsets and backgrounds, there is one thing they have in common. They have all had the luck necessary to win the majority of the many 50-50 hands that arise during a tournament. Nobody reaches a final table by only gambling as an overwhelming 80-20 favorite.

Now imagine nine random Presidents/CEOs of large finance firms or banks. In some sense, they are also finalists in a tournament. Hordes of smart young people enter the finance industry each year, but only a select few reach the top. Like the pokers players at the final table, the CEOs have benefitted from a perfect combination of skill and luck. Nobody is repeatedly finding risk-free piles of money lying around in a competitive market, and that means each CEO must have successfully gambled on at least a few big ideas. Even if the CEOs repeatedly found major opportunities with a 70% chance of success, they never would have reached the top without beating the odds that they would fail.

Although poker players and finance CEOs rely to some degree on luck, the perception exists that we have identified the ones who are the most skilled. This is where there is a big difference between the two groups. Evaluations of poker players are based on hundreds of thousands of hands, not the outcome of a few tournaments. I won’t venture a guess as to how many risky decisions a finance CEO makes during his first 25 years of employment, but I’m confident the number has substantially less descriptive and predictive power than a poker player’s vast history. Finance CEOs were clearly wise with many gambles — that’s why they are where they are — but the small sample size means we can’t ignore the fact that some of them are CEOs instead of senior managers because they lucked out on bad gambles or a long string of coin flips.

All of this is to say that when we think about the expertise of finance bigwigs we should be more mindful of “outcome bias,” the tendency to focus on the outcome of a decision rather than the decision itself. Imagine LeBron passes up an uncontested dunk but seconds later makes a contested three pointer. Did he make a good decision? The answer is obviously no, but many people might say yes because they fail to understand that good outcomes don’t retroactively create good decisions.1  For example, one recent study found that ethically questionable behavior produces less condemnation when it leads to a positive outcome, even if the outcome is entirely due to chance. In their pioneering work on the issue, Jonathan Baron and John Hershey found that when people were asked about the quality of a medical decision, they said the thinking behind the decision was better when they were told the decision led to a positive outcome.

The lesson is that if a Wall Street CEO rises to his position by making a string of profit-growing decisions, the decisions may not have all been wise given the conditions at the time. That doesn’t mean Jamie Dimon isn’t a smart man who knows a lot about the American financial system, but it does imply that even in a vacuum (i.e. no consideration of political or financial motivation) we should be marginally more skeptical of the the expertise of influential finance people.

In the early days of the internet there was a classic scam where somebody claiming to be an NFL gambling expert would send 800 people a free pick during the first week of the season. The catch is that half the people were told a certain team would cover the spread and the other half were told the team’s opponent would cover the spread. The same thing was repeated the following week among the 400 people who initially received the winning pick. After four weeks 50 people had received four consecutive winning picks, and at that point the scammer asked them to pony up $49.95 to subscribe to the picks for the rest of the season.

The beauty of the scam is that 1/16th of your initial sample will always get the four good picks. Similarly, in a poker tournament nine people will always get lucky enough to make the final table. When it comes to finance, some set of people will always rise to the top of our largest institutions — after all, the banks can’t be leaderless. But when these leaders are annointed, it’s important to be mindful that in an arena full of unpredictability, a rise to the top is not always as indicative of ability as we might think.

1One highlight of my never-heralded sportswriting career was finding a Washington Redskins message board thread that used the outcome bias to take-way-too-seriously a joke I made about Joe Gibbs’ poor decision making. Skins fans need to learn that when Gibbs plays it too conservatively in overtime by kicking a 39-yard field goal on 1st down, the fact that the kick went in doesn’t make it good coaching.
Gino, F., Moore, D.A. & Bazerman, M. (2009). No Harm, No Foul: The Outcome Bias in Ethical Judgments SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.1099464

Baron, J. & Hershey, C. (1988). Outcome bias in decision evaluation Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.54.4.569

How Congressmen Are Like 4-Year-Olds (But Not 6-Year-Olds)

Regular readers know that I like to speculate about the long-term future of our education system. In general, I think that technology will eventually make the practice of learning standard academic subjects in the classroom obsolete. The hyper-interactive chemistry or history lessons that will be freely available will make it easy enough to learn academic subjects on your own. The result is that schools will focus on helping kids learn how to motivate themselves and evaluate their own learning. In order get to that point it will be useful to have more studies like this one, which sheds some light on how and when children begin to know what they don’t know.

This research investigated children’s ability to recognize gaps in their knowledge and seek missing information from appropriate informants. In Experiment 1, forty-five 4- and 5-year-olds were adept in assigning questions from 3 domains (medicine, firefighting, and farming) to corresponding experts (doctor, firefighter, or farmer). However, when given the options of answering the same questions themselves or assigning them to an expert (Experiment 2), only 6-year-olds were consistently able to recognize when they did not know answers and then assign test questions correctly. Four- and 5-year-olds tended to overestimate their own knowledge or assign questions to the wrong expert.

Six-year-olds know when to defer to experts, but when Ben Bernake appears before Congress he still has to sit there as a bunch of lawyers-turned-fundraisers lecture him about the effects of monetary policy.

It should be obvious that older kids also have room for improvement when it comes to evaluating their own knowledge and the knowledge of experts. “Understanding when a person is worthy of being the decision maker” doesn’t neatly fit into any generic school subject, but it seems more useful than much of what kids learn. I think it be worthwhile to develop a Common Core-like set of standards for important skills that don’t align with a well-defined academic subject. It wouldn’t accomplish much at the beginning, but it would get people thinking outside of the box in terms of the classes middle and high school students should be taking.

Aguiar, N.R., Stoess, C.J., & Taylor, M (2012). The Development of Children’s Ability to Fill the Gaps in Their Knowledge by Consulting Experts Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01782.x

Why Education Reform Is Hard

A key problem facing education policy makers is that the conversation about reform has taken on the worst qualities of the American political system. One of these qualities is the tendency to begin arguing about policy specifics without resolving or even acknowledging the nuanced philosophical and ethical issues underlying the disagreement. (I’ve touched on this here and here). You can now see this dynamic playing out in the consequences stemming from New York City’s recent decision to eliminate the less rigorous “local” diploma for non-special education students. Special education advocates are unhappy about the differentiation, but rather than raise standards for special education students, they want the lower standards to remain for everybody.

Advocates say that leniency runs the risk of creating a second-class diploma for students with disabilities, similar to the IEP diploma that is being eliminated. Students had to pass exams known as Regents Competency Tests to get the diploma, but earning one did not qualify graduates for college, work, or the military.

Last month, a group of advocates officially asked the state to extend the local diploma option for all students rather than set students with special needs apart.

“By having a diploma that’s a disabilities-only diploma … it’s a stigmatizing act, singling out kids with disabilities,” said Stephen Boese, the executive director of the state’s Learning Disabilities Association. “Down the line one wonders if there will be a diminution of the diploma.”

What you see here are two generic goals of any education system coming into direct conflict with one another. On one hand, there is the goal of continuously raising standards and maximizing achievement. This is the reasoning behind doing away with “local” diplomas. On the other hand, there is the desire to not create separate classes of students. This is the concern expressed by special education advocates.

I think we’re going to see this kind of conflict play out more and more as alternate models of schooling and credentialing become more popular. For example, at some point it might become relatively more common for the very best and brightest to graduate high school at 15 or 16. If this were to happen, graduating school at 18 would signal you’re not one of the elite, and a nuclear arms race would ensue where everybody tried to have their kids graduate as early as possible. This would be a bad thing because 17 or 18 is the “right” graduation age for the majority students.

On the other hand, if somebody graduates high school two years early, they can graduate college and medical school two years early, become a practicing doctor two years early, and add two prime “being-a-doctor” years to their life. At the margin, the supply of medical care in America will increase, and the price of medical care will decrease. These are good things for everybody.

The philosophical question in the above scenario is similar to the one facing New York City with regard to graduation requirements. Do the benefits of a system that will lead to higher achievement outweigh the costs of making it easier to create separate classes of students? But we’re never going the people debate the policy on those terms. This is the core question, we’re unlikely to ever see it formally articulated and discussed. Instead people will continue to push for their preferred policy without addressing the deeper question of what kind of tradeoffs we’re willing to allow in our education system.
Aguiar, N.R., Stoess, C.J., & Taylor, M. (2012). The Development of Children’s Ability to Fill the Gaps in Their Knowledge by Consulting Experts Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01782.x

Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Makes Immigrants Less Productive

One thing that often gets lost in the media’s obsession with whether a political ad or speech might lead to an incremental polling shift is that campaign rhetoric can have a real effect on people’s non-voting behavior. For example, a new study shows that exposing immigrants to anti-immigrant campaign ads reduces their intellectual performance.

In an experiment conducted at Austrian schools, the intelligence test performance of adolescents with an immigration background decreased after they were exposed to radical right election posters whereas ethnic majority adolescents remained unaffected. The results further suggest that individuals with a strong ethnic minority identity are less vulnerable to the detrimental impact of the radical right propaganda.

The findings stem form stereotype and social identity threat — the idea is that the concern your poor performance will confirm a negative stereotype about yourself or your group leads to increased anxiety and decreased performance. In this instance, anxiety that a poor performance will confirm the negative stereotypes in the campaign ads ends up leading to lower test performance.

The study only examined short-term effects, but it seems the long-term effects ought to be worse. Repeated exposure to anti-immigrant propaganda is likely to induce a “fixed” mindset about the inability of immigrants to contribute to society. Research has shown that believing certain characteristics or beliefs are permanent leads to a slew of negative outcomes. For example, believing that racial attitudes are permanent leads to less positive inter-group interactions, and believing that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable leads to less motivation and achievement.

It seems likely that an immigrant’s fixed beliefs about their ability to contribute and integrate themselves into society will also lead to negative outcomes. For example, they may pass up opportunities to contribute because a failure would prove their ethnic group’s immutable inability to help their new country. Similarly, they may decide not to engage in activities with non-immigrants because any kind of negative outcome would prove they are forever an outsider.

The result is that on some level anti-immigrant rhetoric can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you attack a group of people and lambast their ability to improve the country, you stymie their attempts to contribute by instilling the fear that any kind of failure will confirm your rhetoric.

Appel, M. (2012). Anti-Immigrant Propaganda by Radical Right Parties and the Intellectual Performance of Adolescents Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00902.x

Remember the Famous Invisible Gorilla Experiment? The Same Thing Can Happen With Sound

If you’ve ever been in an introductory psychology class you’ve undoubtedly seen the gorilla video from Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabis’ famous experiment. If you’ve never see it (spoiler alert), the 25-second video shows a group of people throwing balls back and forth, and subjects (or students) are asked to count how many times the balls bounce. About halfway through the video a person in a gorilla suit walks on screen, pauses in the middle to beat his chest, and then walks off. Many people never notice it, thereby demonstrating what Simons and Chabis called “inatentional blindness” — the tendency to miss something in plain sight if you’re focused on something else.

A new study by Polly Dalton and Nick Fraenkel finds that this blindness can also occur with sound (i.e. deafness). The researchers had subjects listen to a 69 second audio clip of four people preparing for a party. (You can hear the clip here.) In the recording, two women wrapped presents and two men prepared food and drink, but at one point one of the men repeatedly exclaimed “I’m a gorilla.” The majority of partipants who were instructed to listen to the men noticed the odd statement, but fewer than a third of the participants who were instructed to listen to the women noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Obviously the study is of immense importance because psychology professors now have one more neat thing with which to wow their students, but I also wonder whether the study tells us something about the role our perceptual systems can play in enhancing the outcomes produced by motivated reasoning. When something we don’t agree with enters our minds we’re good as discounting it, but what if something we don’t agree with never even enters our minds in the first place because we fail to “hear” it?

Even when a single person is talking, we must still choose to pay attention to them. In the experiment subjects were instructed to listen to the men or women, but in everyday life our brains instruct us to focus on things based on our interests and desires. If the person we’re listening to isn’t saying what we want to hear (like the men for subjects instructed to listen to the women), perhaps our brains instruct us to focus on other thoughts and thus make us marginally more “deaf” to whatever the person is saying. In other words, if the man in the experiment was talking about how people die because they can’t afford health insurance instead of saying “I’m a gorilla,” would there be more “deafness” among staunch small-government conservatives? Whereas people in the experiment didn’t hear the men because the experimenters told them to focus on the women, the conservatives would hypothetically be more likely to miss the healthcare information because their brains are always telling them to focus on small government ideas. (That’s my attempt at creating an exaggerated example for the purpose of illustrating an idea.)

Dalton, P. & Fraenkel, N. (2012). Gorillas we have missed: Sustained inattentional deafness for dynamic events Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.05.012