Friday, March 30, 2012

Small Samples, Hot Hands, and Flow

I'm now reading the part of Kahneman's book that is specifically about interpreting statistical information....incorrectly.  We have a tendency to impute causality.  This post is about his chapter entitled, The Law of Small Numbers.  The thesis is that we humans like to impute causality, even when the results we see are simply a consequence of random processes.   (My personal favorite in this category, though not discussed in this chapter, is that once in a while when looking at the sky you can see a cloud formation as a human face.)  In other words, we invent causal explanations when there isn't one, because we don't know how to attribute outcomes to randomness.  Much of this chapter I really liked.  The discussion that with smaller samples you are much more likely to observe extreme behavior was very helpful.  I hadn't seen the issues framed quite this way before.  So that was very good.  It was also helpful to read that even research scientists tend to be overconfident regarding observations from small samples and to grossly underestimate the sample size they need to establish their conclusions.  I did have some trouble near the end of the chapter on the "hot hand" issue.  I'll try to explain that in a bit.

I believe I have a rather sophisticated and nuanced view of probability yet with a rather poor comprehension of statistics, at least as it is applied to hypothesis testing.  In this post I will try to illustrate my issues.  I would like to say first that I come to these questions with some background on the subject.  Stephen Jay Gould's The Streak of Streaks is one of my favorite essays.  Around when it appeared there was an informal discussion in the Econ department here among the econometricians and other applied economists on whether the "hot hand" was possible.  I tagged along on those discussions.  More recently, The Truth Wears Out, has provoked considerable concern among some academics I know that much published behavioral science is based on inadequate samples.  Replication of results is not a rewarding activity, insofar as promotion and tenure are concerned, so attempts at replication happen less than would be desirable, from the perspective as science advancing knowledge is concerned.  Surprises are more interesting to read about than what we expect.  The consequence, it appears, is that even very well respected scientific journals have a tendency to publish results about outliers because they are not recognized as such at the time of publication.

Last year in an undergraduate course I taught, I devoted a class session to these two pieces.  As is my want, I made a simulation in Excel to illustrate some of the issues.  (The simulation has macros.  The file is in xlsm format.  You need Excel 2010 on a PC to run it.  The first worksheet is for the simulation itself.  Subsequent worksheets allow the user to plug the results of the simulation into column A, labeled state.  The worksheet will then compute the length of the current "up" streak and the current "down" streak as well as the maximum length of each streak.)  A good idea of the simulation can be had from this screen shot

The simulation is about a simple Markov Chain.  There are two states, up and down.  There is a matrix of transition probabilities.  The user can set those by adjusting two different parameters.  One is a drift parameter.  An increase in the drift parameter increases the magnitude of entries in the "up" column by the same amount.  The other is a correlation parameter.  An increase in the correlation parameter increases the magnitude of entries on the main diagonal by the same amount.  The other control is to set the initial state, either up or down.  The simulation runs first by erasing the previous simulation (hitting the Reset button) and then hitting the Run Sim button. It cranks away (pretty slowly on my computer), ultimately generating 1000 periods of data, and plotting the graph of that.  (I know the Excel random number generator has been criticized in the past for not being truly random, with each draw independent.  I ignore that issue in this simulation.  In other words, it's good enough for government work.)

There are two different explanations for streaks, using the two-state Markov Chain approach to explain them.  The first is high drift but no correlation.  The second is high correlation but no drift.  (Then one can have combinations of these with both high drift and high correlation.)  The first explanation produces streaks of ups but not so much streaks of downs.  The second explanation produces streaks of both types.  Kahneman reports on the results of Tom Gilovich and Robert Vallone about measuring the "hot hand" in basketball.  Apparently, they find strong evidence in support of the high drift explanation.  Kahneman writes:

Analysis of thousands of sequences of shots led to a disappointing conclusion: there is no such thing as a hot hand in professional basketball, either in shooting from the field or scoring from the foul line. Of course, some players are more accurate than others, but the sequence of successes and missed shots satisfies all tests of randomness. The hot hand is entirely in the eye of the beholders, who are consistently too quick to perceive order and causality in randomness. The hot hand is a massive and widespread cognitive illusion.

Until this point, I believe I understand things.  But now my confusion begins.  The two-state Markov Chain explanation that I've illustrated has the virtue that it's very simple to understand.  From the point of view of statistical estimation, there are only two parameters to estimate - the probabilities in the up column.  (Since the probabilities have to sum to 1, knowing the probabilities in the up column implies knowing the probabilities in the down column.)  Occam's Razor favors the simple explanation, all else equal.  The trouble is, all else is not equal.

In chapter 3 of the book, called The Lazy Controller, which is about System Two (the one our minds use that is rational and deliberate) but gets quickly tired from having to police System One (the one our minds use that is intuitive and fast).  But then Kahneman says there is an exception to prove the rule.  The exception is called Flow, which Kahneman describes as a state of effortless concentration.  The author and psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has studied this state extensively and has written a book on the subject.   My sense from what I know about Abraham Maslow, who provided the inspiration for Csikszentmihalyi, is that people he called self-actualizers have peak experiences fairly frequently, but that everyone in the population is capable of having a peak experience now and then, though mainly people don't attain the state because they are attentive to other things.

The question emerges then whether high caliber athletes are capable of flow experiences during athletic performance.  I know that one of Csikszentmihalyi's students, Keith Sawyer, has a book called Group Genius and there one of his anecdotes is about the high performance of the Boston Celtics when Bill Russell was their center.  In that story it wasn't just the Celtics, but the opponents too who played at a very high level.  All of this was likened to performers in a jazz ensemble, when "the music really cooks."  Taking my lead from Sawyer, it would seem flow is possible in athletics, though perhaps it happens on occasion with only one individual on a team, who "carries the rest on his back."  If this is possible, then might not flow in sports occasionally manifest as the hot hand?  How is it that Kahneman can so subscribe to the notion of flow yet categorically deny that the hot hand exists in sports?

Puzzled by this, and also aware of my own limitations in understanding statistical information but that I'm a reasonably skilled theorist, it occurs to me that the two-state Markov Chain is too simple to sort out these ideas.  Positive serial correlation in the state is at best a very crude approximation of flow, and then only for when in the "up" state.  Might one get a better approximation, still keeping the model to a Markov Chain, by increasing the number of states?

After a few moments, I start to assume there are two state variables, direction (either up or down) and mindset (normal, flow, or funk).  I added funk, though Kahneman doesn't say a word about it, because if flow is responsible for hot hands something analogous but with the opposite effect should be responsible for slumps.  (Also, this week after hearing about the Supreme Court treatment of testimony in support and against the Affordable Care Act, I went into a funk myself.)  So now we have a six-state Markov Chain, and hence 30 probability parameters to estimate.  I have no clue how much data would be sufficient to understand such a model and use it to determine whether hot hands are possible, but it's not hard for me to imagine there isn't enough data to conclude anything on this score.

This brings me to my conclusion.  While we want "the explanation," I know enough from my days as an administrator that there are often multiple possible explanations for what we do observe and ambiguity remains at the end.  In these cases, which occur all too often, we really don't know what's going on.  We may have a preferred explanation, but if we're honest we're forced to admit other explanations are possible.  Why is it then, with a sports streak, that we can't entertain two possible explanations?  One is just the luck of the draw.  Sometimes in flipping a coin you do get eight heads in a row.  The coin is not hot.  The other explanation is that the player did get hot.

This year with Illini men's basketball, we witnessed a truly great performance by Brandon Paul against Ohio State.  In basketball games of this sort it is not just whether the shots go in or not, it's the quality of the shots taken, and it's the defense the other team plays.  Paul made some incredibly difficult shots, the last two coming against the best guard defender in the league, Aaron Craft.  Later in the season, it appeared that the entire team went into a funk, going on a losing streak, playing extremely poorly against the bottom teams in the league, and the team's center bursting into tears near at the end of one lopsided loss.  This wasn't just a case of bad luck, in my view, and the view of many other Illini fans.  There were performance problems because the expectations of players and coaches had gotten out of whack.  Things had gone awry.

Human performance is not the same as drawing balls from an urn (with or without replacement).  Let's recognize that.  Let's agree that there are multiple possibilities to explain what it is that we do observe in human performance.  Maybe, that's as far as we can go.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Academic economists typically don't like to make predictions.  With a random walk, who knows where the drunk will end up?  I will venture outside the received wisdom in this case, however, because it seems evident now there will be lots of discussion in the near future of what the word "freedom" means. Those who like me are aghast at the libertarian/conservative conception, will look for a preferable alternative in its stead.  At times like these, people of my ilk are prone to search the music they grew up with, from the 1960s.  One candidate is Bob Dylan's Chimes of Freedom.  But it's a tough song, filled with imagery and no easy story line.  The other obvious candidate is Kris Kristofferson's Me And Bobby McGee.  My prediction is that we'll repeatedly hear the line offered up as a definition:

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose

The popular media will have a field day with it. It sure looks like that's where we're headed.

It doesn't have to be this way.  Tom Friedman's column yesterday says it's far different down under.  Because voting is mandatory in New Zealand and there is much less religiosity, the political parties are moderate.  The middle has its voice heard.  Is the answer for us to move to Auckland?

I have this image in my head of the little boy who won't hold his mother's hand while crossing at the busy intersection.  When the little boy grows up and has his own children, does he not hold their hands at the busy intersection because he remembers what it feels like to be a child?

With apologies to Neil Young, this verse sums up my attitude at present about our national politics:

It's gonna bring us down,
The entire nation's burning,
To a religious state we're turning,
We'll wind up under ground.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reasonable Pundits Who Disagree

The Tomorrow's Professor listserv had an interesting post yesterday on the Intellectual Habits of Critical Thinkers.  There is a very good list of desiderata in that post.  I aspire to those ends in my own blogging.  Sometimes I think I get there.  But it is increasingly hard to do this on matters of national politics/macroeconomic policy, both because the sides in the argument seem increasingly polarized and because we live in a world of rather quick analysis where, for example, on three of the five points there is vehement disagreement with what is said so all the time is spent on that and we never get around to the other two points where there is a possibility for agreement.

About a year ago I tried to produce such an analysis in a post entitled, Is it possible to have thoughtful conversation about America's future between Conservatives and Liberals?  I'm going to have another go at it here.  That earlier post was written before the first Ryan Tax Plan was announced.  This post is being written in the aftermath of the second plan.

The two pundits I refer to in my title are E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times.  They are friends.  But they tilt a little differently.  Dionne leans left.  Brooks leans right.  This bit is from Dionne's latest column:

Robert Greenstein, president of the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is tough on deficits, careful in his use of numbers, and measured in his choice of words. These traits make his assessment of Ryan’s proposal all the more instructive. 

“It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history),” Greenstein wrote. “Specifically, the Ryan budget would impose extraordinary cuts in programs that serve as a lifeline for our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, and over time would cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance or become underinsured.”

Brooks, in contrast, was much milder about the Ryan plan on the NewsHour last Friday.  He said the following in response to some comments from Mark Shields, who said much the same thing as Dionne:

Yes, I have my doubts about it, but not in that way.
I think one of the things it does -- and the argument behind it, and I have debated Paul Ryan about this -- is he thinks we're headed -- and I think he's right about this -- toward a fiscal catastrophe some time in the next few years, and you might not like the cuts that go in the Ryan budget, but it gets us toward fiscal survivability.
It doesn't balance the budget. It increases spending 3 percent a year. It doesn't shrink government. Government goes up by over $1 trillion in 10 years, but it gets us to avoid a fiscal catastrophe. And Ryan's argument is, you may not like all this, but at least I'm getting us to fiscal survivability. The Democrats are not willing to propose a budget that gets us there. And, therefore, you have got to take us seriously.
And the political argument is we're going to treat the American people like adults. And I'm not sure it's going to work politically, but that's their argument.

It seems clear that there will be gridlock on these issues at least till after the election.  I wonder, however, what will prevent gridlock after that.  It's in trying to find what might work that justifies this exercise.  I will content myself here to talk about the revenue (tax) side of the equation only.  The spending side clearly needs addressing too, but to keep the task at hand manageable, let's focus only on taxes.  That's hard enough.

How much revenue should come in from taxes?  What principle(s) should guide the way the tax system is constructed?  Can there be a fair system and one the does not retard growth in the process? 

I grew up being taught that progressivity in the tax system is a desirable.  For the income tax, which has increasing marginal tax rates, progressivity is built into the design in that way.  However, deductions tend to offset the progressivity.  For example, the mortgage interest deduction tends to be bigger the more valuable the home and the value of the home in turn tends to correlate with income.  This particular deduction may be less important now, with interest rates very low.  But if rates were to rise in the future, it would be an important consideration.  For the payroll tax, where there is a cap above which earned income is not subject to the tax, there is some regressivity built in.  Since capital gains and dividends are currently taxed at a lower rate than earned income, and much of this unearned income is received by by the very rich, this puts a different type of regressivity into the tax system,  as the example of Warren Buffett and his secretary illustrates.   

Last year on the Charlie Rose show, in a segment that also included Martin Feldstein and Dave Leonhardt, Bill Bradley articulated a principle I hadn't heard before, but one that seems to try to reconcile these tensions.  Bradley said that each dollar of income should be taxed the same way - a full flat tax approach.  This could happen if there were no deductions whatsoever, there is no separate payroll tax, and capital income and earned income are taxed at the same rate.   If this were to happen, would both Liberals and Conservatives accept it?  I confess to struggle with this question, not knowing my own mind on the issue.

On the one hand, you could get rid of deductions, have the payroll tax bundled with the income tax, and treat capital income and earned income the same for tax purposes, while maintaining increasing marginal tax rates.  This is my personal ideal.   On the other hand, I posed the issue by talking about gridlock.  Does my personal ideal have a chance of being implemented?   Does any other approach have  a chance to be implemented that includes the feature that the rich will pay more in taxes than they currently are paying?  It's on the other hand where Bradley's "principle" seems to recognize the reality needed for compromise. 

Let me now assume we have a "flat tax," not to resolve the issues discussed above but simply to make the numbers easy to talk about.  The flat tax rate then would be one and the same as the share of GDP the Federal Government collects in tax revenue.  What should that rate be or, equivalently for the purposes of analysis, what should that share of GDP be? 

The big issue here is whether we should answer this by appeal to historical norms (where 20% sounds like a nice round number) or if, instead, we say this is a new ballgame because of rising income inequality and the aging of society, and that demands higher shares.  There is much rhetoric, often expressed angrily, around these issues.  The point is put forward by Conservatives that government is too big, but even they should recognize that is a critique about relative size only.  How does one answer the Goldilocks question: when is the size of government just right?  To my knowledge this is not done by appeal to principle a la Bill Bradley but rather is mainly the practice of looking backward at historical shares (a practice I believe Milton Friedman popularized).  It would be nice if economic theory of public finance could serve up a principle or set of principles.  It does so for local government spending and taxation via the Tiebout (vote with your feet) model.  Unfortunately, that's not useful here.  At the federal level, the taxation is essentially divorced from the basket of public good that are provided. 

There is a further important issue that if we eliminate or reduce the deductions, as Martin Feldstein suggests we do, there is then the question of whether some socially productive spending done by private citizens ceases.  (I'm inclined to agree with Feldstein that there is waste in excess home consumption and perhaps in overly generous health insurance because of the tax deductions, but suppose also that charitable contributions decline.  What will replace the charitable contributions?)  Might government spending have to increase somewhat to offset the decline in this socially productive private spending?

Let me get back to Dionne and Brooks on how they see the Ryan Budget.  That they can come to such different conclusions suggests they are asking different questions in framing the response.  Dionne seems to be asking, whom does Ryan believe the Government can say no to?  Dionne's answer is that Ryan is picking on the poor and defenseless and that doing so is deplorable.  Brooks asks a different question, how does the Federal Budget come into balance long term?  Brooks gives Ryan some credit for asking the question, although his budget doesn't bring us any closer to passing something like that.  

We need to get further along on thinking through these issues.  As it is, it seems like more gridlock is the safe prediction.

Friday, March 23, 2012

When you're lost in the rain in Juarez

And it's Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don't pull you through
.............  Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues, Bob Dylan

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


It occurred to me not long ago that behaviors I had previously taken as adult expression of creativity really were nothing more than rehashes of childhood experience, fifty or so years later, modified to be delivered with current technology.  As a kid, for six years I went to sleep away camp in upstate New York.  It was a long deal - eight weeks each summer.  During the last week or so we had "Color War," the Blue Team against the Gold Team.  Every event was a competition.  If you won, that gave points to your team.  The winning team had more cumulative points.  One of the competitions was done after dinner at the Rec Hall.  The counselors in your group and who were on your team would have previously written snippets of mock lyrics with a camp theme, done to well known tunes, mainly from Broadway musicals.  Your group would  rehearse these during "rest hour" or some other downtime.  Then, during the appointed evening, your group would perform these song bites.   I can't recall whether there was piano accompaniment or not.  It doesn't matter.  At this level, all campers were performers.  Allan Sherman produced the same sort of content, though he did full songs that way.  The key was to produce a humorous and perhaps mildly satirical lyric, to the rhythm of the familiar music.  My Son, The Folksinger provides an excellent example of this genre.  I haven't been to the borscht belt in many years and have been in a university setting for a long time, so try to be more cosmopolitan in my current efforts, but the essence of what I do now can be found in these origins.

Though for the most part I did like summer camp, I believe the main reason we went was so my parents could have a vacation from us.  Yet we did do family vacation too, now and then.  Some of that was before we were old enough to go to camp.  One year when I was three or four that was in Cuddebackville.  I know it only from watching home movies.  We spent some time on a lake in a motorboat, with a kid named Phillip steering the boat.  I have no recollection now of how we knew him or his family.  The next year or the year after that we were at Green Acres.  I had an ingrown toenail and got injections for it that made me cry.  We hung out around the pool and I had to be extra careful, because of my toe.  The next time it was Sha-wan-ga.  We were with our parents there for breakfast and dinner, but in the day there was a camp.  I recall playing punchball and kickball.  There was also some wooden structure we hung out in to play indoor games.  This was probably the first time I spent extended time with kids who had Down's Syndrome.  I remember feeling uncomfortable about that, but I'm not sure why now.  Maybe it's because I couldn't understand what they were saying.  I also have this rather odd and disturbing recollection of finding human feces in the corner of that structure.  It's only a memory fragment and after all these years it easily could be a complete delusion, but I suspect it's real and somehow I associate that recollection with the Down's kids.

Fast forward several years to my last year at sleep away camp.  I was thirteen then, my second year in the Seniors group; this time in bunk 19.  We had a kid in our bunk named Gary and he was quite peculiar in many ways.  For one thing, this was a Jewish camp and he wasn't Jewish.  Though the camp did have Arts and Crafts and Nature activities, most of the time was spent playing team sports, mainly softball and basketball.  Gary was a complete incompetent in all things athletic.  It's as if our maker had assembled Gary wrong, with his legs on backwards.  I was not a very speedy runner, at best average for the group, but I was much faster than Gary.  He couldn't run at all.  And when he swung a bat to hit the softball there simply wasn't any oomph.   There's no way he could have enjoyed playing softball.  Why was he there?

Some of my bunk mates teased Gary mercilessly, if I recollect correctly they then occasionally escalated with physical taunts. The teasing and and the taunting bothered me and in that sense I was different from most of my bunk mates.  (One other kid in the bunk also was not athletic and he stayed out of the taunting, as did another kid who was diabetic.)  I had been teased a lot as a kid, at camp and elsewhere.  Much of that happened because I was so much larger than the other kids.  For the most part, being very big is not a disability.  By thirteen my motor skills had caught up to my size, but five years earlier they hadn't, so then I couldn't readily retaliate and "had to take it," in a good natured way.  That's a big part of why I was teased.  Some of it, though, was from the counselors, who came up with unflattering nicknames for me. That was just the way things were done then, ignorant though it may seem from a current vantage. 

I had no desire to become Gary's friend.  We didn't really have anything in common.  Nevertheless, I did become his protector of sorts.  I stayed close to him at the end of a ball game on our way back to the bunk.  I don't think Gary asked me to do that.  It's just that I didn't see any point to the teasing and the counselor's weren't always around to stop it.  If I could, I should.   My bunk mates wouldn't bother Gary when I was near him, so they wouldn't have to deal with me.  In that way, the responsibility became mine.

I knew how to pronounce Gary's surname, but I didn't recall how to spell it.  I did a Google search for him, trying one version, then another.  On the second version I found a hit, born in 1955, the same year I was born, and from Scarsdale, which seems possible.  That probably was him.  The entry said he passed away in 1998.  If it's the same guy, I suspect he lived a troubled existence for his entire lifetime.  I hope he's more at peace now.

* * * * * 

There's needs to be a trigger to come to memories of this sort.  I've been cooking on several things for a while, some of which will be revealed in the rest of the post.  The actual trigger was the movie Charly, which I watched in part the other night night.  I've seen it several times before and liked it, though it produced no special reaction.  This time, however, it pushed me over a cliff.

The movie is based upon Flowers for Algernon, first a short story, later because of popular demand a full novel.   It is about a laboratory mouse, Algernon is his name, who is part of psychology experiments.  Algernon receives an operation that raises his intelligence, temporarily.   After observing the positive results with Algernon, the thought is that something similar might be done with humans.  Charly is the human who gets the operation.   At the beginning of the movie  Charlie is a complete imbecile, with very low intelligence, though earnest in his endeavors and with a gentle disposition.  Cliff Robertson, who won the Academy Award in the lead role, portrays this mainly with his mouth, wide open most of the time and apparently out of control.   Charly too is a laboratory animal.  One of the tests he is put through is to have a maze on a piece of paper that exactly mimics a physical maze Algernon is to run.  Charlie must complete the paper maze without lifting his pencil from the paper.  He races against Algernon.  The mouse wins the race.  They race again with a different maze.  Algernon wins this one too.

Charly works at a commercial bakery, as a helper.  His co-workers play gags on him.  Charly is the butt of their practical jokes.  Evidently, they don't see the harm in this.  It entertains them to put one over on him.  Charly is too stupid to know that it's a gag.  He goes along with it, to be one of the boys.  At the end, everyone has a good laugh, Charly included.  The co-workers don't have a clue that these gags do bother Charly.

The lab experiments bother Charly too, but the psychologists apparently aren't aware that his ego is taking a bruising from losing to Algernon.  In that way the psychologists, smart in understanding human behavior, are extraordinarily insular in understanding human feelings.  Nowadays, of course, there are protocols for human subjects research that are there, in part, to guard against this sort of insularity.  The movie was made before those safeguards were put into place.   Nevertheless, I found it quite disturbing that the highly educated psychologists in the film could be so insensitive and that was part of a very believable story line.  How can that be?

* * * * *

We're told nowadays that learning things by rote is unhelpful and such knowledge doesn't stick for long.  But as kids we learned mindlessly an entire lexicon.  Some of that was the repertoire of jokes that made the rounds.   Others were bad things to say that we used either to be playful with our friends, yet in a mocking way, or to be overtly critical.  Calling somebody "a retard" is one of those.  (See definition 4.)  Likewise, a term I used above to describe Charly, imbecile, is in this category.  We learned more than just individual words this way.  We learned sing-song lines too.   This one, particularly insensitive I've been told as an adult but pretty common in use when we were kids, is done while attempting to clap your hands but having them miss:

If you're a spastic and you know it clap your hands.  

A question I've been asking myself recently is whether we learn to treat certain people in certain circumstances this same way, thoughtless behavior that perpetuates, because it never occurs to us there's a harm being done to someone, perhaps because the behavior itself has been learned in a sing-song way.  If that's true, then in the domains where it happens we don't grow up.  We remain children instead.  Why do some people do grow up and others don't?  I wish I knew.

* * * * *

I'd like to think I treat people with common decency, but I must confess that often I fall far short of the ideal suggested by the example with Gary.  I've puzzled about this on occasion and whether that bothers me or not when I do.  Here are some tentative conclusions.

One  explanation might be termed ethical shirking.  In order to do the right thing, some minor fear I have needs to be overcome.  I'm full of phobias, some sensible, others silly.  I've been afraid of dogs much of my life.  The last seven years we've had a dog, a golden doodle named Ginger.  I'm definitely not afraid of Ginger, though unlike my son I won't try to grab stuff out of her mouth when she's got a good hold of it.  Having Ginger has helped lessen the intensity of this particular fear.  But it hasn't gone away fully.  It comes out when I go for a walk and see a dog (on a leash held by the owner) and have to make a mental judgment to continue walking on the path I was headed along or if to cross the street or in some other way divert my path to avoid close contact with the dog.  My resolution of this is quite idiosyncratic.  Sometimes I cave into the fear.  Other times I show some spine.   I want to stress here that this is with a dog on a leash and the owner is somebody I don't know.  If the dog is somehow out in the open without the owner, I almost surely will cave.  If I know the owner and he or she is around, I almost surely will not be fearful in the first place.

I don't know if fear of failure is the same as fear of dogs in the ill feeling it generates within.  But I think the response to the fear is similarly idiosyncratic.  Sometimes I cave in.  Other times I show character.  I should note that cave in happens just because of an ill feeling inside, without any attempt to ascertain the true risk.  Here is a particular example, to serve as illustration and make the ideas less abstract.

For many years when I was a campus-level administrator, I was the head facilitator for the Faculty Summer Institute on Learning Technologies.  One year the steering committee decided to have an outside speaker come to talk about Web design for people with disabilities.  In fulfilling that mandate we ultimately decided to invite Norm Coombs, an emeritus professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an expert on these matters.  Norm happens to be blind.

FSI has a lot of moving parts to it, Murphy's Law tends to favor technology events that have some complexity to them, and a good part of my job as head facilitator was to demonstrate to each person involved that their piece of the puzzle had been well considered, in itself and as part of the whole, and that I was available to help in the spur of the moment, if the need arose.  There was quite a bit of planning in getting FSI to work.  The actual week was kind of hectic nonetheless.

Though I've interacted some with blind people on campus, as part of our efforts with accessibility, they were local and knew to navigate on their own or provide for the assistance they needed.  Our interaction was work related only.  In Norm's case he clearly would need a chaperone, to get from the airport to the hotel, to get from the hotel to where he was speaking, and more generally to accommodate his needs.  I was fearful of playing the chaperone role.  I didn't know whether I was up to it.  And I didn't know how time consuming it would be.  The first issue was the fear.  The second issue was a rational time allocation question.  To address both, I got one of my staff who was willing to be chaperone and wasn't otherwise obligated during FSI, Jan, to play the role.  That went quite well, as did Norm's presentation.  However, I was more aloof with Norm than I was with other guest speakers we had, whom I tried hard to befriend and put at ease, because I mistakenly thought that doing so would mean I'd have to perform the chaperone functions for which I was ill prepared.

The next year we had Norm back.  He had done such a good job the year before, it made sense to do that.  But Jan had retired by then and all my other staff were obligated with FSI work.  So the chaperone job fell to me.  I went through a bit of dread about that, complicated by the fact that there was extremely bad weather the afternoon Norm was to have arrived.  His flight ended up being very late.  When I did get him from the airport, it took me only a minute or two to realize that all my worrying was for naught.  I could perform the chaperone function with little fanfare.  All it took was for Norm to have a good hold of my arm, to walk at a modest pace, and to have a more or less steady stream of conversation that included but wasn't restricted to discussing the obstacles he'd have to encounter - escalator, car door, etc.  Afterward, I was rather ashamed of myself for being frightened about this.  On the plus side, Norm gave another very good talk and this time we connected quite well.

Fear is not the only reason for sometimes straying from decency.  Some of this is simply numbness. Time allocation may be part of the issue, but it is not one and the same with it.  The numbness is perhaps explained by the same finding that shows the rich are less empathetic.  The numbness is a learned behavior, in the same way we learned to filter by eyeball much of the email that comes into our Inbox.  Prior experience suggests paying attention is a low expected reward path, so ignoring it is optimal.  Sometimes this happens even when there are some early warning signs to the contrary.   I'll return to this point in my last subsection.

* * * * *

I've been making some but slow progress with Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.  Part of the reason for the slow pace is that the book paints a picture of human nature that I find unattractive.   Another part is that in reading it and asking whether what it describes is me or not, I find myself more exception than rule, part of which may be my training as a PhD economist, the academic career that occurred afterward, and my role as a campus administrator.  In all of that there are lots of elements of education that cut against the picture Kahneman depicts.  Still another part may be that I don't really want to accept his conclusions for the rest of the population.  I maintain a hopeful conceit, that they can be educated to be like me in these respects, without having to go through the regimen I experienced.  It would be disheartening to abandon this view, because much of what I'm trying for in my teaching would have to be discarded as well.

Here I want to discuss Chapter 7 - A Machine for Jumping to Conclusions.  On the one hand, Kahneman makes a point that we all can agree on quickly, we reach quick conclusions using information that depends on context in a critical way.  The information, entirely unaltered, would have a different meaning if read in a different context.  This part is unremarkable and as I said, we can all agree on it being true.

Then he makes the further point that we tend to ignore possible information that is not readily available, a reiteration of the saying, Out of sight, out of mind.  Here I begin to stray from what Kahneman says is typical.  Often I will ask whether my tentative conclusion is indeed correct or if I still need to gather further information to make a full determination.  I discuss these issues at some length in a chapter of my book called, Guessing and Verification.  Kahneman indicates that most other people don't do that.  Instead he says they treat the information at hand as if its the entire universe of possible information.  Kahneman calls this What You See Is All There Is.   Then Kahneman goes on to say that not only is there WYSIATI, but further that people are typically overly confident in the conclusions they derive from WYSIATI.  This overconfidence is a kind of woeful ignorance.  Reading about it depressed me.

Then I recalled one of my favorite lines from George Orwell:

To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.

This is the first sentence of the closing paragraph in an essay about people's intellectual schizophrenia, particularly in regard to political life.  By this Orwell is talking about maintaining truth in a proposition that we should know is false simply by reviewing other things we already know to be true. This essay is a very good read and serves as a rather frightening warning about all the stupidity the collective mind seemingly can lock onto.  If you juxtapose Orwell with Kahneman, you come to the inescapable conclusion that what you don't see may very well include things that you did see before but are now buried in memory.  It's not just the potentially knowable things that we've not yet experienced that matter.  It's also those things we know but don't immediately come to mind.  (Why don't those things come to mind?)

Kahneman in this chapter seems to be describing Charly's co-workers at the bakery.  This is how they operate.  It isn't a pretty picture.  What would it take to shock them out of their complacency and challenge their assumptions?

* * * * *

In the very small class I'm teaching this semester, now only eight students, three of them have taken some other course from me in the past.  We've had more than the usual amount of conversation in class, because of the small size.  A good bit of what the students have said paints a picture of being an undergrad at Big Public U akin to Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, alienated and dehumanized by the bureaucracy and the stress that comes from the lecture/high stakes exam approach to the classes they've taken.  I pointed out to them that there is a paradox of sort in this observation, because as Daniel Pink points out in this video, knowledge work is quite different from manual labor.  There can (and should be) intrinsic motivation for knowledge work.  There really can't be for the manual labor, particularly when the work is repetitive and mind numbing.  For several of these students, school has gone from being potentially rewarding in its own right to dull and dreary labor in its stead.   I've been puzzling for quite a while about this predicament.

In much of my efforts with teaching, I've conceived the challenge along intellectual lines, framing the subject matter in a way that somebody who is otherwise inclined to be engaged would enjoy it. With that I've mainly stressed generating an interesting narrative and deemphasizing the derivation of math models.  That approach has been a partial success, at best.

But with a couple of students, one in particular who is among the three who had a class from me already, I'm beginning to see that treating them as human being in regard to their own welfare as having positive benefits on motivation, and perhaps on performance. 

A conjecture based on this limited experience is that the students want to be treated as adults.  When they find the institution treating them as children, they react negatively in some way - shirking, rebelling, or becoming disillusioned.  Big public universities are apt to be more bureaucratic in my experience than are smaller private universities.  I asked one Assistant Dean in Student Affairs in the College of Business about this when I worked in the College.  She explained the adherence to bureaucracy as emerging from a need to satisfy the taxpayer that things are on the up and up.  (If I recall, the particular issue at hand was the last date a student could drop a course without permission of the instructor.  When I was an undergrad at Cornell in the 1970s, I believe you could drop a class all the way till when final exams were given.  At Illinois, it's much earlier in the semester.)

A lot of attention by my friends and colleagues in learning technology is now given to pedagogy, thinking it the key to unblock student learning.  Perhaps there are some clues here that maybe it is less important than assumed but that we need some substantial additional efforts in treating the students as adults and doing so with decency.   Much of that interaction happens not within courses per se, but elsewhere, with advisers, placement officers, and other possible counselors, as well as and perhaps more importantly with peers.  My experience this semester is that the students themselves often perform below par initially and this itself can bring about a string of pernicious tit for tat.

We need to get past that rather than let it perpetuate.  The institution, however, doesn't seem to have this as a goal.  In that it's not the students who are retards.  It's us.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Harshness of Political Rhetoric and the Race to the Bottom

The ads have started.  If you've already had a primary in your state, you know the ones I'm talking about. I wouldn't know except for the basketball.  I no longer watch the local news, apart from when school closings are a possibility.  There isn't much else on the local channels to draw me in.  You hear about the ads by watching the NewsHour.  It's different actually witnessing them.

Unlike in the past, I've hardly watched the basketball.  The Illini's performance in the second half of the Big Ten season put me off my game as a fan.  Being a serious fan is an emotional experience.  Beyond loyalty, it requires intensity of commitment.  The pleasure and the commitment are intertwined.  A dislike of rivals emerges naturally from that.  In the first half of the 1980s, when as a young assistant professor I cut my teeth as an Illini Basketball fan, the games between the "I" state teams (going east to west that's Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa) were particularly fierce.  It's important to understand that the dislike was coupled with respect.  The rivals were good.  They played tough defense.  They had talented players.  They were well coached.  As a fan, you wouldn't want it any other way.

Yesterday, when thinking about the post I would write today, I had thought I'd write one entitled, "Why Shaka Smart Doesn't Need Illinois."  We desperately need a new coach, one who can light a candle underneath both the players and the fans.  With VCU going to the Final Four last year, Shaka Smart's name has been bandied about in the local press.  Presumably, the Illinois job is attractive for a young coach on the rise.  (It's how we landed Bill Self a while back when Lon Kruger left for the pros.)  I'm less sure the proposition still holds true.  Bruce Weber's very public comment, about coaching not to lose, seemed a portent of serious issues that have not yet been fully articulated in the press (and perhaps never will be).  Shaka Smart clearly has a very good thing  going where he is.  It would be great to get him as a coach, but wishing doesn't make it so.  I didn't watch the Indiana-VCU game last night, but I did monitor it on the ESPN Web site.  I wasn't sure about which team to root for.  I still don't like Indiana, even though Bobby the B______ is long gone.  But I thought a VCU win would confirm my hypothesis.  On this one, I'd prefer to be wrong.

I tuned into the CBS broadcast in the late afternoon.  It was "At the Half."  I got caught up with the scores but never found out which game was airing then.  At the first commercial, the ad came on.  Rick Santorum voted fur such and such when he was in Congress and then he did so and so.  The tenor of the ad was accusatory, the tone angry.  Various pundits have told us the ads are effective.  I agree.  I turned off the show before the ad was over.  I switched to watching a movie I had previously recorded, Black Sunday, from the novel by Thomas Harris that I had read quite a while ago. 

There is much anger and hostility in the terrorist characters in that movie.  Bruce Dern is particularly effective as the pilot, because in every role I've seen him he seems not very far away from having a personal explosion, and that aura serves him well here. Marthe Keller is a bit less convincing.  She plays the part of a very bright woman, one who treats terrorism as sport.  But that doesn't seem the right emotion to me.  Primary should be to feel aggrieved. As a partial substitute, Keller's German accent does help in conveying a sense of alienation. 

One can watch a movie or read a novel where the characters are extremely angry, evil incarnate, without getting upset at all from the viewing.  The evil characters play a necessary role in the story.   The story itself is engaging for me, in part because I read the book in the 1990s, well before 9/11, a prognostication of sorts for then but now too familiar to be a further threat.  A piece in today's NY Times about the benefits of reading fiction says that fiction is remarkably good at allowing us to simulate social encounters that we otherwise are unlikely to experience.  Indeed!

My reaction to the ad is quite different.  Almost immediately, I start to feel ill.  This is not politics as college sport, trying to beat a respected opponent.  It's incitement for the rabble.   Perhaps there's been so much of this sort of thing that others can mentally tune it out or have the good sense to mute the TV.  With ordinary commercials, that's exactly what I do.  But with political speech, that's not my first inclination.  I've taught myself that even if I strongly disagree, it's good to hear the opinions of the other side, if for no other reason than to test whether you have suitable counterarguments.  Here, however, I have no fondness whatsoever for Rick Santorum.  I simply wish the opposition treat his candidacy with a modicum of decorum.

George Will is the only pundit I know who has openly embraced the ruling in the Citizen's United case.  His argument is that the massive external funding has made the race for the Republican nomination more, not less, competitive. He has a point.  But he does not consider whether the massive external funding inexorably leads us to a scorched earth type of political rhetoric.  It is instructive to observe on this point that the ad I found so nauseating was done on behalf of the only presumably reasonable candidate in the race.

The implicit argument being made by those funding the ad is this.  Let's win first.  We can be reasonable later.  Right now, it's about winning.  It would be a disaster if we don't win.

This, however, sound a lot like the views Tea Party types, who regard politics as holy war and are not apt to compromise.  If there is ever a time to be reasonable, it is now.  We've witnessed a kind of hostage taking of the Republican party by the far right.   There needs to be push back of that, not accommodation.  Well articulated push back would necessarily be reasonable. 

Many who voted for President Obama in 2008 and had high hopes at the time have been disappointed in his performance in office.  He was not able to rise about the partisanship.  Then he appeared to get caught in the gridlock.  I count myself in this group, though I've flip flopped on these views.  When health care was on the table, I really wanted to see a Public option.  And I wanted to see more fiscal stimulus (and remarked on this in the subsequent post).  But the conditions in Congress and with the electorate writ large clearly matter.  So, of late, I've taken a more benevolent view, because the conditions have been hostile to the President accomplishing anything of worth, especially domestically.  (Scroll to the post from February 9.)

Can we agree, regardless of our political persuasion, that the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign has an impact on the governing thereafter?   Can we also agree that we require thoughtfulness to address the pressing issues?  They aren't simple problems.  And the solutions will require many of us to incur additional burdens.  Doesn't it make sense to cool it on the rhetoric?  There's enough anger already to go around.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Written Evaluation of Student Work and the LMS

When I was a freshman in college, 1972-73, MIT didn't give grades.  I believe that was to take the stress off of students, who were prone to obsess about these things.  MIT had a high suicide rate at the time and this was one of the counter measures.  So, instead, students would get a written evaluation from the instructor.  This was done at mid semester and then again at the end of the term.  (Ironically, they gave "hidden grades," which were needed for Med school and perhaps some other professional schools.)  Somewhere in our house, I've still got my evaluations from back then.  If I recall correctly, the mid semester evaluations encouraged a written response by the students. 

All these years later, I think this is a preferred way of assessing student work.  It is more personal and communicates in a way that an abstract letter or numerical grade cannot.  It also offers the chance to suggest paths for improvement, something other grading schemes don't really do.  (Office hours after a test might work for that but many students don't avail themselves of that opportunity.)  And by giving the student the opportunity to respond, it encourages a learning as dialog approach, which I favor.  Students don't get this in their other courses, and I've noticed that much of their behavior arises from conforming to norms that I assume are determined during their first year in college.  They have a tough time undoing those behaviors, even when the situation no longer calls for them.  I say this because I don't know how much actual dialog my approach will generate.  (I posted the first assessments yesterday evening.)   Earlier in the course I did suggest that each student meet with me outside of class to discuss their work.  Only half did so.  This written approach to evaluation offers a different possibility for dialog.

In the rest of this post I want to talk about the technology that supports this activity, what I need to do to make it work, and how that might be improved.

First, this is the part of course where I need an LMS.  For the rest of my course I use a blog, and that works pretty well.  Indeed, I prefer to use the blog for that part of the course because the software is better done, it is easy to use, and because it is open.  But for the evaluation communication, that must be private and it must be secure.  So the LMS is the right tool for that.

Second, I'm using Moodle this semester.  Once I learned that I'd have a small class and I didn't need a dropbox for student assignments, I decided not to use the Campus Supported Blackboard service.  So specific comments are about that particular LMS.  Precisely how this translates to other LMS, I don't know.

Third, the built in grade book is not the right tool for this communication.  I learned a year ago that the grade book does support columns with text entries in a cell, so conceivably that would be a way to get the message out.  But it doesn't enable student response.  I should add here that I have both individual work and group work of students to evaluate.  I'd like to use the same sort of mechanism for both.  On the group work, if one member of the team responds, the other members of the team should see that response.  The conclusion is that there needs to be a separate discussion forum for each team and also a separate discussion forum for each student.

This requires making a lot of groups.  Each student becomes their own group.  Because my class is small the first name of the student is a unique identifier and I use that for the group name.  (I've got one student from China and use her American name for this, though that info is not on the official roster from Campus.)  Were I to do this in a larger class I believe I'd adopt group names of the form: First_Name (NetID).  Then I make a Grouping called Individual Students, or something like that.

I repeat the process for Teams.  I've opted for letting the students themselves come up with a team name, but requiring them to have it start with a specific letter, so I have an A Team, a B Team, etc.  I again make groups, one for each team, and another Grouping, this one called Teams.

Then I make two discussion forums, one for the individual students, another for the teams.  I make these by Grouping, and each group gets a separate forum.  It is critical that one group can't see the forum posts for another group.  I don't trust my own knowledge of the software to achieve this end.  So I need to test this after I've set it up.  Fortunately, the people who support Moodle have made some dummy accounts for me for that purpose.  The built in - view as student - tool is not sufficient for this purpose, as far as I'm concerned.  I typically use a different browser for the dummy student access.  That way I can be logged in twice at the same time, one as me, the other as the dummy student.

This setup takes a bit of time.  I recognize that for the time being my needs are idiosyncratic and since I'm not particularly time constrained I'm willing to put in the effort.  If in the future the approach becomes more standard, it would be good to automate much of this process.

For the numerical part of the evaluation, I give both a number and a written explanation, I need to record that in a separate spreadsheet, which serves as the course grade book.  There is no need for that to be in the LMS.  My preference is that it is not.  Last Tuesday in class, we showed this video with the voice over by Daniel Pink.  Elsewhere, I've written that the economics part of this video is somewhat wrong.  But on the intrinsic motivation part, and that income rewards distract from that, I believe it is correct.  For students, grades serve a similar function as wages serve for employees in the workforce.  They can be a distraction from the real learning.  We don't talk about this enough.  Students fixate about the online grade book.  So I don't want one.  (In a very large class, the grade book is a crucial management tool, but in smaller classes I don't believe it is.) 

I hope from all of this the reader can see some movement away from automation and toward a more human form of evaluating student work.  The principle behind this is that teaching and learning needs to take the form of ongoing dialog.  This seems straightforward enough to me that it doesn't require an argument to support the point.  But it does seem outside much of our current practice.  I wonder whether we can change that to be more in accord with the principle.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Suffering Suffrage

The forgotten middle
Hearing now the fiddle,

The politics of sex
Doth Conservative women vex.

On women's rights they trample,
Made clear from this small sample.

With more results at hand
It will confirm that and

Show women in the poll
Do extol birth control.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Undoing Stress We Foist On Our Students

When my older son was in first grade he got tested for the "gifted program."  Anxious and naive as parents, my wife and I wanted, of course, to be told our child was gifted.  Don't all parents want to be told that about their children?  The woman who ran the program indicated to us that gifted children like to be tested, so that in itself shouldn't be stressful.   I didn't quite understand her point, since my son couldn't yet read.  Apparently they had ways to work around that (not really) minor impediment.  Lo and behold, he proved to be gifted according to the test.  We were proud of our son.  He then got put into the gifted classroom for second grade.

There were several factors that made this environment stressful on him.  Like me when I was his age, he was both the youngest and the biggest student in the class.  Because we guessed correctly that he would be a large kid, we thought he should be in the next grade up, though his birthday made him borderline for this.  Then it turned out that the gifted classroom combined grades.  The classroom our son was in had both second and third grades.  With some of the third graders there was almost a two-year age differential; in my opinion that's a lot at such a young age.  And the teacher was on the youngish side herself, not necessarily an issue but it proved to be so in this case.

My son was still not reading on his own. The teacher assigned a lot of homework.  He couldn't do the homework.  Indeed, the teacher made no accommodation regarding where my son was as a learner.  We had several emotion filled evenings about doing the homework.  The situation did not seem to be righting itself so my wife and I complained to the person who ran the gifted program.  She blamed the teacher, but no matter whose fault it was that didn't itself offer up a path to better the situation.  So my wife and I decided to move our son to a regular classroom for the remainder of second grade.  We also decided to take our son to a private reading specialist.  They tested him on how he read, concluded he had a learning disability, something on the lines of dyslexia, and offered up "whole reading" sessions to help him make progress.  Those sessions did help.  Eventually the school concluded that he qualified to see a reading specialist there and he had pullout sessions with that person for some time.

My wife and I had triangle meetings with both the reading specialist and the teacher.  It was clear at those sessions that they were in consult with one another about our son.  They noted the progress he made.  He caught up and became a good enough reader that he no longer qualified for the extra help.  I'm pleased to report all these years later, my son is now a sophomore in college at Illinois, that he is doing well and is a serious reader, of the New York Times and of non-school fiction.  Elsewhere I've written about his essential goodness.  I think that mattered in this case, a trial that he saw his way through. This episode had the possibility of creating permanent damage, but it didn't because the source of the stress was resolved.

* * * * *

My operating hypothesis is that when school creates a continual stress that is not resolved there is dysfunction in the relationship between the student and school that manifests in a variety of ways.  Some of it might show up by the student being present in body but not in spirit, low keying the experience so as not to let it have an emotional impact.  Another alternative is student cynicism and alienation, if not outright anger.  Students have a right to expect that school provides nurture.  When it becomes clear it doesn't, the student needs to find an alternative explanation of what school is in reality.  The quick and available answer is that it's a big game of jumping through hoops, one that is entirely unrelated to personal growth.  One needs to play the game because, presumably, a good job awaits at the other end of the tunnel as long as one wins at the game.  Still another possibility is to stop playing the game entirely and do something else, in the spirit of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, stay true to one's passion irrespective of whether that path runs the possibility of ruin.

I should also point out that some students don't experience much stress and find the same environment nurturing.  They enjoy school and view it as a place that affirms their inner selves.  This gets one to wonder whether in assigning blame if it's the student's or the environment's fault for the dysfunction, when it does happen.

Recently there have been quite a few pieces on the role of habit in determining our behavior.  My suspicion is that initially students try a variety of coping strategies to navigate the academic environment, especially if the approach they used in high school no longer seems to be working.  When one approach seems to work it hardens and becomes habit.  Thereafter the environment might very well change and become more nurturing and less stressful, but the already formed habit trumps that, so the behavior hardly changes if at all.

I was driven to write this post because of the absenteeism I've witnessed in my undergraduate Economics of Organizations class and the tardiness with which some of the students complete the work (or don't submit the work at all).   Based on correspondence with some students it is clear that stress incurred in one course has negative impact on performance in other courses.  That stress may arise from group work where other members of the group don't pull their weight.  Or it may happen as a result of having multiple exams within a very short time window.  Or, perhaps, the material in some class is especially challenging, but the course is required so dropping it is not an attractive alternative.  Many students tend to go on a binge with respect to their school work.  One sign of this is pulling an all-nighter.  This, of course, disrupts the sleep cycle for some days thereafter.  The behavior is myopic and immature.  What else would you expect from a twenty year old kid?  The binge behavior in conjunction with the external sources of stress can create a vicious cycle. 

A couple of weeks ago on the course Web site, I posted a link to a humorous page on Murphy's Laws for Education, and told the students to focus on the Laws of Applied Terror.  Then in class the following day I posted a corollary:

Every instructor assumes that you have nothing else to do except study for that instructor's course.

With that I was trying to be humorous, but also sensitive to the students' reality.  In the correspondence I mentioned, one of the students made reference to the Law of Applied Terror.  That's not a joke.

* * * * *

On my trip to Florida last week I started to read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.   It is about the relationship between our intuitive and automatic thinking, called System 1, and our deliberate and mindful thinking, called System 2.  The message is that System 1 usually has its way.  Much of the time that's fine and indeed often it is necessary.  Some of the time, however, System 1 makes mistakes.  Then it needs an assist from System 2 to correct the errors.  System 2 can fatigue and then not keep up. This is when the mistakes prevail. 

Reading chapter 3 in the book, The Lazy Controller, I got depressed.  The chapter starts out well enough, discussing the concept Flow, which according to the author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has its origins in earlier conceptions, such as Abraham Maslow's notion of peak experience.  Kahneman brings up flow to talk about when System 2 performs optimally without tiring.  This occurs when there is no outside interference and hence no conclusions generated by System 1 to monitor.  All concentration can be placed on the object of attention.   In my recollection, I first experienced flow doing math.  Later in college it sometimes happened in conversations with housemates.  Then again it occurred in solitary activity, learning economics in grad school.  And when I used to jog, the "runner's high" one would get after doing 5 miles a day for a couple of weeks, which would kick in during the middle of the run, had aspects of flow as well.  I've experienced flow in writing blog posts, though not this one, which has been a bit of a struggle for me to produce.  Flow represents an ideal for how System 2 might be utilized.  Presumably the more flow experiences we have, the happier we are and the more we want to generate future flow experiences.

Then Kahneman introduces the downside, by discussing the bat and ball problem.  (It is described here, part way down the page.)  This is an example of what we used to call a word problem in high school algebra.  But the algebra is hidden.  If one writes down the equations, one will get the right answer.  The algebra is not hard.  But instead one might do it in one's head and guess the answer.  The numbers are chosen to encourage an intuitive answer which, unfortunately, is wrong.  Kahneman then reports about administering the bat and ball problem to students at ritzy Ivy League colleges.  Shockingly, 50% of them get it wrong.  At less prestigious institutions, the number that gets it wrong can exceed 80%.  

Kahneman argues, I think he's correct in this, that people who get this problem wrong don't check their answer, because if they did they'd spot their error.  He calls students who don't check their work intellectually lazy.  This is plausible to me, but I want to entertain some other possibilities as explanation, because if Kahneman is right in this and in his next point as well, then its very hard not to be an elitist with regard to "rationality," what at the end of the chapter Kahneman describes as the appropriate label for System 2's effective monitoring of System 1. 

I know from other examples that sometimes students sandbag on a test, deliberately earning themselves a low score, because that is to their advantage later.  On placement exams that entering freshmen take, some will sandbag so they can repeat essentially the same class they had in high school.  They won't learn much new this way, but it will help the GPA.  It's hard to imagine why a student would sandbag on the bat and ball problem, but it's easy to believe that the student doesn't care about the answer, one way or the other.   If you don't care, why check the answer, which involves effort?  Not checking, by a different use of the word rationality, is then optimal.   To conclude laziness on the part of the student, as Kahneman does, the student would have to care about the answer, but also find checking the answer tiresome.  Perhaps if in the bat and ball experiments the student getting it wrong was made publicly known and that was a source of embarrassment to the student, it would be sufficient to generate the Kahneman conclusion. 

Let me give a different possibility to explain the lack of checking.  This one I base on being a parent watching his kid do math homework using a calculator.   I didn't use a calculator in high school.  The technology wasn't yet available.  Kahneman is 20 years older than I am.  Surely he didn't use a calculator either.  We learned arithmetic by working problems with a pencil and paper.  It became a badge of honor for the better students to go beyond that and do hard multiplication problems, or even division problems, in one's head.  When you do this on a regular basis, you learn to check your work as part of the process.  Calculators don't make arithmetic mistakes.  You might verify that you typed in the right stuff, but if you're sure you did that there is no need to run the numbers again.  So the checking habit really may be less of a necessity now.  (This is the same sort of argument that with spell check and grammar check built in, there is less reason to proofread beyond that.  One reason why I compose these blog posts directly in the Web page, rather than in a Word document first, is to not have the grammar checker.  I still think proof reading is important so I try to incentivize it.)  

Kahneman then goes on to talk about the measuring willpower experiments run by Walter Mischel with four-year old children, done in the 1960s.  The experiments seemed strongly predictive of success in later life.  Those with a lack of willpower at four frequently developed emotional or dependency problems later while those with strong willpower were frequently quite successful in later life.  

The juxtaposition of the analysis from the bat and ball results with the measuring willpower results is what I found so depressing.  Kahneman seemed to be saying - "we've got so many lazy thinkers out there and we're stuck with that."  It doesn't seem to offer up a way to improve matters.  Is there a right sort of education that might help?  At the college level, we seem to have a lot of education that is of the wrong sort.  It is provided by instructors who expect intelligence and willpower from their students and implicitly also expect that the student had an expression of both in their prior studies.  It is a form of instruction appropriate for a proper subset of the students at best.  What about the rest of the students?  

I have some reason to question Kahneman's juxtaposition.  Anyone who has eaten a meal with me knows I'm a fresser.  It's not hard to suppose that were I a participant in one of Mischel's experiments, I'd have taken the cookie right away, showing no willpower whatsoever.  On the other hand, when working an algebra problem I do check the math.  Indeed, when I'm making a more involved argument, as I am in this post, I check it for internal consistency.  This is a long acquired habit.  So my type occupies a cell of the matrix that Kahneman would deem unlikely.  And that suggests to me that perhaps something other than willpower should be the focus, something that can be learned, something more in line with flow, something that combats the laziness.

It would be nice if psychologists could all agree so the rest of us who read about psychological issues could get the story straight.  I say that tongue in cheek.  There are too many jokes about laying economists end to end for me to expect such agreement as a realistic outcome.  Ellen J. Langer is no fan of deferred gratification (what willpower is supposed to produce).  She's very much against the idea of telling students to "pay attention."  Let them follow their own interests.  That's how they will best learn.  In my critique of her book, On the Power of Mindful Learning, I concurred with her on this point.   Yet I also found fault in that she offers up no alternative to take it's place.  So I offered up my own - sitzfleisch, which in my definition means not letting go of an idea easily once it's been taken up.  

I presume Kahneman should have taken up this notion himself, because it offers such a nice way to tie System 1 into System 2.  But as with Langer, I think there is something of a trap for the behavioral psychologists in so relying on the evidence from experiments and not at all on evidence that comes from introspection (or relying on introspection only to corroborate the experimental results).   Let me paint the picture here of how this works, starting with this delightful quote that I know some will find surprising. 

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
Gertrude Stein

When in that lolling around mode System 1 is working to identify the next object of focus for System 2 to work on.  For example, watching a TV show a face of an actor that is familiar to you from another context might appear.  You intuit the familiarity immediately, but you can't place how you know the face and who the actor is.  This is the spark that's needed to launch the inquiry.  The face problem can be a grabber.  Once you're hooked there's no turning back till you figure it all out. Then System 2 takes over as you go through your inquiry.  And as long as that inquiry is proceeding nicely you can do that content in your activity.  This is flow.  Before reaching your conclusion, however, you may get stuck, at which point flow stops.  You seem to have run out of leads and yet you still haven't matched the face.  Do you give up at this point?  If you have sitzfleisch, you don't.  You may start to do other functional activities unrelated to this inquiry, partly because you have obligations that you need to address but also so System 1 can come back in and generate a possibility that hasn't yet occurred to you.  During this time it can be uncomfortable, unlike the initial idling, because you have an expectation that an answer will be found.  That's a bother.  Feeling bothered, more than feeling inspired, is the emotion at root with the sitzfleisch, though of course we all want to feel inspired to generate the flow.  Past success at such quests doesn't so much provide confidence that this one will succeed as it makes one not want to admit that it won't.  That too is part of the sitzfleisch.  It is learned, not something we're born with.  If the original intuition wasn't a hallucination, eventually System 1 does generate a spark that illuminates the path to the answer, at which point there is both joy and a sense of relief.   Perhaps a point of frustration to an outsider, to get to that illuminating spark takes as long as it takes.  Internet search engines might make it seem the entire query can be concluded in short order.  Often that is true, but it is not a guarantee.

I should also point out here that when engaged in such a query it's hard to also be focused on something else that requires attention.  So while the individual is actually quite attentive to the task, this might very well make the individual appear lazy to an outsider who wants to bring in some other object into focus.

* * * * *

This brings me full circle to the subject of this post.  Learning for courses does not encourage sitzfleisch in those who don't yet have it.  There is a fixed time endpoint for when the learning should occur (when the exam is given or the term paper is due).  Students do tend to procrastinate.  We all do, though we do not all express it in the same arena.  Part of the binging is simply that.  Just as these late starting students are getting into it, the game is coming to an end.  Initiating earlier would help.  This is why more frequent lower stakes assignments are better than a small number of high stakes tests.  But if the assignments are for low stakes only, why should the students take them seriously?  Why won't they respond, instead, as many students seem to with the bat and ball problem, producing the quick intuition but then never getting beyond that.

My answer to that question may seem ridiculous.  Initially the students should exert effort because they are idealistic.  It might prove to be a good experience so let's give it a try at first.  Doing the assignments seriously then needs to have a rewarding aspect to it with the reward coming from the doing.  If this were a realistic goal, it would create a virtuous cycle.   Perhaps not all subjects can be taught this way (organic chemistry comes to mind).  As things are now, however, many courses are not taught this way because we haven't thought to try.  It's time that we did.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Un American

As I was getting on my flight from FLL to ORD (Fort Lauderdale to Chicago) a woman a bit ahead of me asked a man to get up so she could get into the row he was sitting in.  He said in response, "That will be $20."  He was making a funny that, sad to say, actually had some (gallows) humor to it.

I haven't flown out of Champaign in some time.  The above gives a sample about American Airlines new approach to pricing. Boarding order, for example, is no longer done by where you sit on the plane.  You get put into the default group, group 4 in this case, and then when you check in you go through a little dialog with the computer screen about whether you want to upgrade your group...., for a fee of course.

Looks like it is the same deal with seat selection.  I have a distinct preference for aisle seating.  But apparently the airline wouldn't give out seat assignments ahead of check in.  When I got there, mine was a window seat.  So I clicked the link to change my seat selection.  You guessed it, that too required a fee. 

On the way down to Florida I got to Chicago several hours before my next flight.  There was actually another flight to Fort Lauderdale before mine.  I went to the counter for it and asked if I could get on that flight.  They told me that it was crowded but not completely full.  But since I had a ticket for the next flight I'd have to pay a $75 change fee to take that one. 

Coming back, I actually witnessed some sensibility at the gate at Fort Lauderdale.  The gate agent said that she'd allow people to check their bags, waiving the normal fee, because the flight was full and the overhead bins would be very crowded (and it would take longer to complete the boarding unless some people checked their bags).  Makes you wonder why they have the fee to check the bags to begin with.

The airfare for this trip was $540.  To me, that's a decent chunk of change. To, in addition, be nickel and dimed when getting to the airport  is infuriating.

If they really are going to stick with the ridiculous policy for much longer, then they should let you know about it when buying the ticket in the first place.  Of course people shop for flights by looking for low fares as well as convenient times to travel.  Flying is such a hassle anyway - why make the passengers feel like they are being mugged in the process, with this stupid approach to a la carte pricing?