Archive for December 2016
The start of a new calendar year is upon us. Everyone wants to know what is in store for us, and there is no shortage of those willing to make predictions. After such an abysmal year in trying to predict election outcomes you would think there would be some hesitation in offering prognostications.
There are those who extensively study prediction making, such as Phil Tetlock and his Good Judgement Project. He documented his work in a book he co-authored with Dan Gardner, called Superforecasting, the Art and Science of Prediction. He identified people, by nature of their approach to problem solving and prediction, who were much better than average at determining likely outcomes to an event or situation. The very best of them knew that they did not have all the answers, were always questioning themselves, acknowledged their mistakes and failures, were always looking for more information, and were willing to adjust and change their predictions based on that new information. He summed up their approach as “try, fail, analyze, adjust, try again”.
Phil’s recommendations for doing good forecasting include:
- Use predictive techniques on problems that can be predicted. Don’t try to predict, for instance, what life will be like 50, 100 or 150 years from now. The answers will be sheer nonsense.
- Break complex predictions into a series of less complex predictions. You are better off trying to predict one aspect of life 50 years out, not everything.
- Consider both insider and outsider sources of information. An insider (your contractor) might say, in predicting how much a kitchen remodel might cost, that it would cost X. By doing your research you would find that kitchen remodels more than a third of the time run over budget by substantial amounts (outsider source of information) and you should adjust your contractors estimate accordingly.
- Don’t over or underreact to evidence as it becomes available and don’t fall into the trap of wishful thinking (just because you want something to be true does not make it true).
- Open yourself up to considering both sides on an issue. (But make your consideration based on scientific evidence).
- Think about your predictions with percentages of certainty and uncertainty. Very few things in life are binary, either/or. Think about your prediction as a likelihood number – say 65% or 75% certain.
- Don’t become frozen by “analysis paralysis”. Balance making a prediction needed to take action, with the need to continually refine your predictions.
- Learn from your mistaken predictions, but don’t fall into the cognitive traps and biases commonly found.
- Listen to others and consider their insights.
- You get better at making good decisions by practicing and honing your decision-making skills and abilities.
- Don’t blindly follow these or any other rules. Realize that each situation can be different.
In today’s environment, I would add, 12. Don’t give into fear. Realize that many people will be trying to influence your personal predictions and your perceptions of future events by manipulating your emotions and thinking patterns in order to achieve their own ends. And 13. With the abundance of fake news and fake information that is now all around us, check your sources. Make sure they are legitimate. We all need to take lessons on how to be better at predicting, for the decisions and predictions that we make have real consequences on people’s lives.
Psychologists spend a lot of time trying to predict behaviors. In my first job after graduate school, I was tasked with trying to predict which person would make the best steel worker, the best bearing manufacturer, executive assistant, or corporate manager among other occupations. All of those predictions were based on probabilities and not absolute judgments. And I would have to say that many (maybe most) did not understand that. In order to make better predictions in this area, one technique used by psychologists is called a “multiple hurdle” approach. This means that the prediction of who would be the best steel worker, for instance, had multiple decision points where a candidate either passed for failed. Did they score high enough, compared to other successful steel workers, on a test of math ability? The kind of math required to do the job. If they did, they moved onto the next hurdle. If not, they were rejected. Could a person who failed the math test make a good steel worker? Yes, but the odds were longer. The more hurdles, in general the better the prediction. The cost of each hurdle had to be taken into consideration against the added value it gave in prediction. (In my work, at the time, I determined that the most predictive assessment for steel workers was the Bennett Test of Mechanical Comprehension, it measured people’s understanding of how the physical world operated. It was a test, mostly non-verbal, of innate understanding of the properties of mechanics and physics).
At my current company, OrgVitality, which I founded with several partners, a good portion of our work on assessing organizational culture is aimed at prediction as well. Some of the questions we attempt to answer for clients include: What pattern of responses to an organizational survey, will best enable, making it more likely, that an organization can fulfill its strategic mission? (And how do you increase the likelihood of success?) Where in the organization are there response patterns that are indicative (more likely to occur) of higher levels of innovation, customer service, sales success, safety, ethics, etc.? What response pattern is indicative of less turnover and more future success for employees? And we like to examine those factors in terms of present performance and future potential. Scott Brooks and I wrote a book called Creating the Vital Organization which examines our approach in detail. One aspect of prediction the company is working upon and continually fine-tuning, is to determine, through various algorithms, which comments an employee or customer may make which are the most valuable in terms of organizational improvement and to have the very best rise to the top out of a pile of tens or hundreds of thousands.
Some pressing questions of prediction in the public sphere today revolve around violence and mass killings. Can we predict who will cause mayhem and violence in our society and importantly can we prevent the violence from happening? If we look at 85 tracked mass shootings from 1982 to 2016 the demographics of those who committed these crimes in our society, a pattern emerges. Most of the mass murders were committed by around 30 year old, white men, a significant portion of which had a history of some sort of mental illness. The vast majority, as far as can be determined were not Muslim (about ½ of 1% were Muslim), even though those committed by Muslims garner much attention. Most obtained their guns legally and were not prohibited from owning the weapon. Who has access to guns to commit these crimes? The largest percent are more likely to live outside of the northeastern part of the USA, 41% are white, 51% live in rural environments, 49% self-identified as Republicans (22% as Democrat) and 41% identify themselves as having a conservative ideology. Using this profile, logic and statistics (and I am doing this to point out a flaw in this reasoning), if we take guns away from 30 year old white, non-Muslim men, who live in rural environments and have conservative beliefs we will greatly reduce the incidence of mass murders in our country. The flaw in this logic should be obvious to you. Of the 30 year old, white, non-Muslim men, who live in rural environments and have conservative beliefs, less than a fraction of one-tenth of 1% will commit mass murders. 99.99% of them will not commit any crimes with their weapons. Taking away the guns from all of them is like putting out a match with the Pacific Ocean. It simply does not make sense. Yet there are those who are willing to use this very same type of flawed logic to castigate all Muslims or those with mental illnesses. It doesn’t work there either. Americans are being skillfully manipulated to come to erroneous conclusions.
I am reminded of an adult education class discussion I attended, where there was much discussion of how violent the 20th century was, with huge numbers being slaughtered in WWI and WWII. I made the statement that in general humanity over the millennia was becoming less violent (and there is one hypothesis that we are self-domesticating, weeding out the most violent among us). My statement was met with much derision. Those who ridiculed my statement where falling prey to at least one human bias – what you see is all there is. If you look at the larger context, which they were not, you realize that historically, the conquerors, the crusaders and warlords of millennia ago, killed much larger percentages of the population than what occurs today. For instance it is estimated that Genghis Khan killed 40% of the total global population as he conquered much of Asia. I am certainly not condoning or dismissing the levels of violence that occur today.
So what can we predict for 2017? Anything beyond the sun will come up in the morning and set at night? Yes, probabilistic predictions can be made, as long as they are about specific manageable, measurable issues which are surround by scientific facts, (important facts, not red herrings), all the information available is taken into consideration and you are careful not to fall into the traps of human bias and predisposition. Happy predicting!
From 2010, but even more relevant today.
I am feeling somewhat cynical at the moment so forgive me if this seems a bit one-sided.
What organization has not tried to present itself in as favorable a light as possible through their marketing and promotional efforts? A question for deliberation is, how far can they go before they cross the line into what could be called deception and falsehood? And what causes them to do so? The pursuit of profit? Fear of failure? A win at any cost mentality? The need to attract organizational members? A desire to maintain a harmonious employee or customer base? Simple goal attainment? Hubris?
False statements by an organization fall broadly into two categories, those that are ignored or “winked” at by society and those that carry formal penalties. For instance, false statements made by a representative of the organization during the hiring of a new employee are generally viewed as…
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Organizations and societies need to examine their errors and to learn how to correct them on an ongoing basis. First, most importantly you must be able to openly and candidly admit to an error. Errors can be made in selection, opportunity, training, resources (including support staff), as well as in a host of other areas. In the heat of the moment it is very easy to ignore the basics of error correction. This piece covers some of those basics.
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” – Mark Twain
We all make errors, it is part of life. I have made more than a few, and some of them were big ones. When an error occurs by an employee inside an organization, there can be a concern on the part of the employee that the over-riding motivation on the part of management when investigating the error is not simply to learn from the error and put into place corrective actions, but that there will be some form of retribution taken against the employee. This can often be the case no matter what words are coming out of the organization regarding their motivation to find the cause of the errors, and to learn from mistakes so that they don’t reoccur.
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In these days of rapid rushes to judgement, the taking of hard and fast opinions, it is worthwhile to again think through how humans make rapid decisions. Jeff
“So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
A teenager with a motorcycle is racing another motorcycle down a two lane road in the countryside. He loses control when he hits 90 miles an hour around a curve and wraps his bike around a tree. He breaks both legs, fractures his skull, scraps off a good portion of his backside, he is lying on the ground bleeding heavily and writhing in pain. One can’t help but notice the long skid marks which show exactly where the motorcyclist began to lose control and went off the road. His racing partner takes off, not sticking around to see what becomes of the injured biker. Luckily, no one else is injured by their behavior. It will take…
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Something smells. Did you ever walk into a room with a fairly strong smell, but then after a while you fail to notice the odor? Your sense of smell comes from a combination of your nose and brain working in unison. The receptors in your nose fire, which ones fire depends on the specific smell, and sends signals, which are interpreted by your brain. A human can become acclimated to a constant smell after it has been detected by the nose, and analyzed by the brain, a process called sensory adaptation.
A recent study by Neil Garrett and Tali Sharot at the University College of London shows that small lies can become big lies in a somewhat similar fashion. In a nutshell, people were induced to lie (in a self-motivated scenario – meaning they did not have to lie) and as they lied they underwent a functional MRI, which monitored their brain activity. As people lied, the MRI showed a reduction in brain activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is an ancient part of our brain, near the base of the brain and is the center of our emotions. As brain activity went down, people lied more. The researchers found that it was possible to predict whether the subject would tell another whopper by their level of brain activity. In other words, there was less cognitive emotional load (the brain had to work less) when lying and that lower levels of brain activity resulted in more and larger lies.
This disconnection between the amygdala, where our emotions come from, and the higher thinking centers of our brain is also evident in psychopaths. Psychopathy is defined when a person exhibits antisocial behavior alongside emotional impairment, such as the inability to apologize, to show remorse, and a lack of guilty feelings for negative behaviors against others (Hare & Hare 1996). The anti-social behavior of the psychopath tends to be, “goal-directed towards achieving money, sexual opportunities or increased status” (Cornell et al, 1996). Neuroimaging studies have confirmed that amygdala dysfunction is associated with psychopathy (Tiihonen et al, 2000; Kiehl et al, 2001). They found that high levels of psychopathy were associated with reduced amygdala function. At this time there is no effective treatment for psychopathy.
A good overview of this mental illness can be found in the book by Hare, Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths go to Work. Psychopaths can be charming, and persuasive. They can do great damage to others and yet are incapable of feeling guilt. Charles Manson, the well-studied psychopathic mass murderer, was able to convince others to participate in his crimes, others who were not necessarily psychopaths. How is that possible? The process is similar to how the Nazis in Germany got seemingly normal people to participate in horrific crimes against humanity. There is a long list of what makes people do horrific acts, believe in lies (even when they know they are lies) and take action based on those lies. Countless millions of lives have been taken over millennia because of our human failings and foibles with respect to what we believe and what we don’t. Books can be written, and have been on this topic, but here is some summaries on this topic that I have written:
- Adherence to authority figures – Stanley Milgram
- Role compliance – Phillip Zimbardo
- WYSIATI – What you see is all there is – Daniel Kahneman
- Confirmation bias
- Vilification of the “other”
- Desire for power and the “inner ring” – C.S. Lewis
- Wishful and magical thinking
An example of how one notorious episode of unsubstantiated accusations was stopped comes from the Senate trials on how communists and homosexuals had infiltrated our government and society in the 1950’s. Senator Joe McCarthy, a US Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957, was unmasked for the fraud that he was, telling lie after lie and pressuring others to do the same. Finally, his witch hunts came to an end, for a variety of reasons, but prominent among them was when the lying bully was stood up to by Mr. Welch, a lawyer who was asked to “unmask” and testify against others within his firm, during a Senate hearing. Mr. Welch famously stated: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Joe McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the story goes, as his prominence and power faded, drank himself to death not long afterwards.
Episodic periods of public and political lying, and the dissemination of fake news, seem to occur on a regular basis in our societies. One difference today is how easy it is for these lies to achieve wide-spread dissemination through social media avenues. But we, as humans, have always been susceptible to and in many respects are primed to believe in false information – until we say “enough!”