Papyrus Overload

One of the many limits of man is the limited amount of books he can read. On a good day, I cannot read more than about fifty pages. This is slow progress, if it can even be called progress.

Not many other forms of media can capture thoughts and stories the same way paper can. Music is good to satisfy the emotional needs, but not the logical. Movies provide visuals in a way that books can never. But watching is a passive act, whereas reading is not. And that is the problem. It requires so much of your attention, almost all of it. I don’t know where to divert the attention to.

A Song of Ice and Fire.

Paper Towns.

The Cold War.

Feynman Lectures on Physics.

The Perks of being a wallflower.

The quest for AI.

The list above is just a fragment of the whole, but I see that there are a variety of genres and different levels of importance. It’s like New York, basically.

I recently read about something called the Eisenhower matrix. I will be using this model to guide attention properly. It does not need much explanation. You just have to look at the figure.

                 The eisenhower matrix

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The Cemetary of Failures – Survivorship bias

Behind every popular author you can find 100 other writers whose books will never sell. Behind them are another 100 who haven’t found publishers. Behind them are yet another 100 whose unfinished manuscripts gather dust in drawers.

When I said 100, I was downsizing to keep it simple.

The probability of becoming a popular author is a fraction above zero. So, like so many others, you will most likely end up as a failure. No journalist is interested in failures, with the exception of fallen stars.

You hear of only the successful authors and fail to recognize how unlikely literary success is.

The same goes for photographers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, artists, rappers, athletes and architects.

The same goes for the big world and the small world.

This does not mean that you should not take risks. You have to be aware that chances of winning is low, so the only way to beat other people is to have strong basics in whatever you do and get creative and meet the right people.

In a crowd – Herd Instinct

Central park

You are on your way to the park. At the entrance, you encounter a group of people staring at the sky. Without even thinking about it, you see upwards too.

You are at Broadway, watching a play and someone begins to clap and suddenly the whole room joins in.

Social Proof dictates that individuals feel they are behaving correctly when they act in the same way as other people.

 
in a crowd

In other words, if a more number of people follow a certain idea or behaviour, the better or truer we think the idea or behaviour is. This is an absurd flaw in thinking.

It exists in fashion, management techniques, hobbies, religion and diets.

Only a few cases come to mind where social proof is of value. For example, if you find yourself hungry in a foreign city and don’t know a good restaurant, it makes sense to pick the one that’s full of locals. In other words, you copy the locals’ behaviour.

Comedy and talk shows make use of social proof by inserting canned laughter at strategic spots, inciting the audience to laugh along.

In the past

In the past, following others was a good survival strategy. Suppose that 50,000 years ago, you were travelling around the Serengeti with your hunter-gatherer friends, and suddenly they all bolted. What would you have done? Would you have stayed put, scratching your head, and weighing up whether what you were looking at was a lion or something that just looked like a lion but was in fact a harmless animal that could serve as a great protein source? No, you would have sprinted after your friends. Later on, when you were safe, you could have reflected on what the ‘lion’ had actually been.

Those who acted differently from the group were the ones that exited the gene pool. We are the direct descendants of those who copied the others’ behaviour. This pattern is so deeply rooted in us that we still use it today, even when it offers no survival advantage, which is most of the time.

A little more serious – Joseph Goebbels

One of the most impressive, though troubling, cases of this phenomenon is the famous speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, delivered to a large audience in 1943. As the war went from bad to worse for Germany, he demanded to know: ‘Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?’ The crowd roared. If the attendees had been asked individually and anonymously, it is likely that nobody would have consented to this crazy proposal. Later, it was found that some people in the crowd were bribed to shout approval. This is what helped in getting the whole crowd to go along with the idea.

If 50 million people say something foolish, it is still foolish.

 

Sid and Harry – Contrast Effect

Sid and Harry ran a clothing store. Sid was in charge of sales and Harry led the tailoring department. Whenever Sid noticed that the customers who stood before the mirror really liked their suits, he became a little hard of hearing. He would call to his brother, ‘Harry, how much for this suit?’ Harry would look up from his cutting table and shout back: ‘For that beautiful cotton suit, $42.’ This was a completely inflated price at that time. Sid would pretend he hadn’t understood: ‘How much?’ Harry would yell again: ‘Forty-two dollars!’ Sid would then turn to his customer and report: ‘He says $22.’ At this point, the customer would have quickly put the money on the table and hastened from the store with the suit before poor Sid noticed his ‘mistake’.

hkj

Leather seats

You order leather seats for your new car because compared to the $60,000 price tag on the car, $3,000 seems a pittance. All industries that offer upgrade options exploit this illusion. The contrast effect is at work in other places, too.

Relatively speaking…

We judge something to be beautiful, expensive or large if we have something ugly, cheap or small in front of us.

We have difficulty with absolute judgements.

Tiny Manifesto

Hey,

As I write this there are zero people reading this blog. That’s fine because it has only been a couple of days and this takes time to grow.

First of all, I am surprised anyone would even read this blog. So thank you for the time.

I will try and keep this short.

The Reason I do this

I want to do a lot of things and I started this blog to document what I do and also to help me focus on them one by one.

More here.

Right here, Right now

This is what I am going to be doing for the next couple of weeks:

Read and write about biases and fallacies in thinking
Learn Java and do the first 50 problems at Project Euler
The occasional current affairs ( serious and silly )

You can contact me at avidlysubversive@gmail.com or catch me in the comments.

Get out of the theatre – Sunk cost fallacy

The film was dire. After an hour, Trevor whispered his friend: ‘Come on, let’s get out.’ He replied: ‘No way. We’re not throwing away $30.’

But that’s no reason to stay. $30 has been spent regardless of whether we stay or leave, so this factor should not play a role in the decision. This is the sunk cost fallacy at work.

There are two possible outcomes here.

One: You pay $30 and you stay to watch the rest of the movie. In this case you lose $30 and you lose 2 hours of your time. Two hours, down the drain.

Two: You pay $30 and you leave the theatre. In this case you lose $30 but you get to keep the 2 hours. You can do something else with it. Maybe, you can find a new friend.

Let it go

The sunk cost fallacy is most dangerous when we have invested a lot of time, money, energy or love in something. This investment becomes a reason to carry on even if we are dealing with a lost cause.

The more we invest, the greater the sunk costs are, and the greater the urge to continue becomes. It leads to costly, even disastrous errors of judgement.

Of course, there may be good reasons to continue investing in something to finalize it. But beware of doing so for the wrong reasons.

Rational decision-making requires you to forget about the costs wasted to date. No matter how much you have already invested, only your assessment of the future costs and benefits counts.

The Storyteller – Story Bias

 
The Storyteller
 

Here are two stories. Which one would you remember better?

  1. A) The king died, and the queen died.
  2. B) The king died, and the queen died of grief.

Most people will retain the second story more easily. Here, the two deaths don’t just take place successively, they are emotionally linked. Story A is a factual report, but story B is a story.

Story A is shorter but that does not mean we will remember it easily. Our brains don’t work that way.

Advertisers have learned to capitalize on this too. Instead of focusing on an item’s benefits, they create a story around it. Objectively speaking, narratives are irrelevant, but still we find them irresistible.

Stories simplify and distort reality, and filter things that don’t fit. But apparently we cannot do without them. From our own life stories to global events, we shape everything into meaningful stories. Doing so distorts reality and affects the quality of our decisions.

In the media, the story bias rages like wildfire. For example: a car is driving over a bridge when the structure suddenly collapses. What do we read the next day? We hear the tale of the unlucky driver, where he came from and where he was going. We read his biography: born somewhere, grew up somewhere else, earned a living as something. If he survives and can give interviews, we hear exactly how it felt when the bridge came crashing down. The absurd thing: not one of these stories explains the underlying cause of the accident. Skip past the driver’s account and consider the bridge’s construction: where was the weak point? Was it fatigue? If not, was the bridge damaged? Was a proper design even used? Where are there other bridges of the same design?

The omitted elements might not be of relevance. But then again, they might be even more relevant than the elements featured in the story, such as when ‘explaining’ a financial crisis or the ‘cause’ of war. The real issue with stories: they give us a false sense of understanding, which inevitably leads us to take bigger, useless risks.