The Art of Having an Informed Opinion

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

The first thing they always do is tell you what they think. When someone has an opinion about everything, they want to share it with you. They often tout stats and research as if they had an imaginary checklist of facts they need to be able to rattle off to establish themselves as an expert in a field they actually know very little about. Because they have an opinion on everything, they are quick to judge others – for their lack of opinions, for their lack of knowledge, for their lack of outrage … the list goes on.

I'm a firm believer that you can learn something from everyone. Sometimes that effort is more time-consuming than others. People who have opinions about everything barf so much noise that it's hard to find the signal. Your brain has to work overtime to figure out if they did the work to come up with their opinions themselves or if they're simply regurgitating some op-ed in a newspaper. Over time, opinionated people also end up in their own prisons and they try to take you with them.

The problem comes from how we see the world. Our opinions are often rooted in how we think the world should work, according to our morals, values, and principles. If we see the world through the lens of our opinions, much of what happens will not agree with us. This is feedback, and how we respond to this feedback is key.

The world never tells you that you're wrong; it only gives you outcomes.

When an outcome is not what you want it to be, things get tough. You can ignore the result and continue to think that you're right. This protects your ego. It also carries the risk of your continuing to believe something that isn't true. Alternatively, you can calibrate your believability on the subject at hand by lowering the odds that you're right. For example, maybe you gave yourself an 85 out of 100 for the ability to hold a firm opinion on this subject, and now you lower your score to 75. If the world continues to provide undesirable outcomes, eventually you get the hint and change your beliefs. Finally, you can give up your opinions and just respond to the world as it is. This option is the hardest.

People who can't change their minds never move forward. Worse still, they see themselves as heroes. And I mean “heroes” in the Hollywood sense. They hold opinions that have been proven wrong over and over again. And they pay a dear price.

They stop getting promoted. Their work colleagues avoid them. Their friends call less often. Their disagreeable dispositions mean that people don't want them around. They are prisoners of their beliefs. They want everyone to see that they're right. If they persist long enough, the only people they have in their circles are people who have the same (incorrect) worldview.

If you insist on having an opinion, carry a mental scorecard. Start it with 50/50 on all subjects and adjust it based on outcomes. Use a decision journal. When you're right – and “right” means that you're right for the right reasons – you raise your score. When you're wrong, lower the score. Over time, you'll calibrate your circle of competence.

If that sounds like a lot of work, just say, “I don't have an opinion on that; why don't you tell me how you got to have such a firm one? It sounds like I could learn something.”

Life Lessons from a Self-Made Billionaire: My Conversation with Ray Dalio

Are you in love with your own ideas regardless of how good they are?
Would you like to make better decisions and fewer mistakes?
Would you like to improve the most important relationships in your life?

These are just some of the topics I discuss with my guest, Ray Dalio.

Ray Dalio is the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, and is the author of the new book Principles: Life and Work. He is also a leading figure in the world of philanthropy, is an avid supporter of transcendental meditation, and has appeared on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. His recent TED Talk on the topic of an idea meritocracy has already been viewed over a million times.

Ray gave me over an hour and a half of his time, and I didn’t waste a minute of it. We cover a lot of ground, including:

  • How most people are caught up in the “blizzard” of noise and information, and how Ray learned to operate above it
  • How predicting a financial collapse just before one of the most prosperous eras in US history almost ruined him — and why he’s grateful he was wrong
  • Ray’s meditation practices and a simple exercise you can use to foster more creativity, be more insightful, and eliminate stress
  • The one question Ray started asking himself that instantly improved how he made important decisions
  • Why the best decision isn’t always the one you have in your head — and how to know when to sacrifice your favorite ideas in exchange for the best ideas
  • The “two yous” that wrestle inside everybody, and how to help them get along
  • Why “tough love” is the greatest gift you can give somebody
  • The most common mistake we make every day that can bring our progress to a screeching halt
  • The five-step process Ray uses after a mistake has been made to make sure learning and growth occur

And much, much more.

Look, when you get the chance to ask one of the world’s most successful people how they did it, you should probably listen to what they have to say. I guarantee this will be time well spent.




A full transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately.

Show Notes

Ray tells the story of punching his boss in his face. [00:02:34]
What a typical day is like for the manager of the world's largest hedge fund [00:04:00]
Shane asks Ray how he filters what's valuable and what's noise when so many people throw information at him [00:05:25]
How Ray came to Transcendental Meditation [00:06:24]
The basics of Transcendental Meditation [00:07:05]
Ray's biggest influences in the 1960s,1970s, and 1980s [00:10:01]
Reading versus experiences [00:11:39]
How did Bridgewater almost go bankrupt? [00:12:04]
One of the most valuable experiences of his life [00:14:40]
The value of thoughtful disagreement and radical open-mindedness [00:15:40]
Learning to look at history for knowledge [00:16:41]
How to use a decision journal [00:18:14]
How long did it take you to figure out the value of stress-testing ideas? [00:20:15]
Idea-meritocratic decision-making is the best decision-making [00:21:36]
There are two things you need to do to be successful [00:21:55]
Thoughtful disagreement is not an easy thing for people [00:22:22]
What is an idea meritocracy? [00:22:43]
The difference between an autocratic decision maker and a democratic decision maker [00:23:50]
What is believability? [00:25:13]
How do people transition into an idea meritocracy? [00:26:44]
The equal values of meaningful work and meaningful relationships [00:29:16]
How can you tell that someone will respond well to an idea meritocracy? [00:30:19]
Understanding whether you're a teacher, student, or peer [00:32:27]
What advice would you have for somebody who doesn't work in an idea meritocracy but wants to improve? [00:33:49]
Are people more successful at Bridgewater with some experience or straight out of school? [00:35:42]
Which one of the principles of an idea meritocracy is most often misunderstood? [00:36:45]
Why is “tough love” one of the best gifts you can give somebody? [00:38:12]
Has your implementation of the principles of idea meritocracy changed over the years? [00:39:44]
What technology tools do you use to aid in decision-making or giving feedback? [00:40:32]
“Pain + reflection = progress” [00:42:04]
Can you define a culture of radical transparency? [00:45:06]
Radical transparency isn't for everybody [00:46:27]
Due to technology, radical transparency is happening anyway [00:47:40]
When radical transparency goes wrong, how does it go wrong? [00:48:49]
The importance of environment [00:49:17]
“There's no disagreement about strengths…” [00:52:03]
How do you foster open-mindedness in yourself or in others? [00:52:33]
Are social gatherings similar to work gatherings? [00:54:05]
The two things that Ray requires in a relationship [00:55:36]
Do other organizations like Bridgewater? [00:56:17]
Is leadership innate or can it be learned? [00:57:43]
The leadership program at Bridgewater [00:59:55]
Who are the masterminds behind the development program at Bridgewater? [01:01:05]
“2017 is going from the second stage of my life to my third stage…” [01:02:55]
The three life stages [01:03:14]
Does Ron worry about the next generation of leadership at Bridgewater? [01:04:43]
How do the principles at Bridgewater extend to philanthropy? [01:06:13]
In what ways will the future be the same as today? [01:09:13]
First-order versus second-order consequences [01:12:11]
With the growth of algorithmic thinking, who is at risk of losing their job? [01:14:08]
Machine-created art versus human-created art: does it matter? [01:15:10]
What's the most common mistake that successful people make? [01:15:53]
Why are many successful people unhappy? [01:16:31]
The connection between community and happiness [01:18:12]
How would a Universal Basic Income interact with a person's need for purpose? [01:19:37]
Ray's wife's experiences with low-income schools and disengaged students [01:20:58]
What is the overarching decision-making process at Bridgewater? [01:23:28]
“Rather than thinking about what our decision is, we spent more time thinking about what our criteria for making our decision are.” [01:23:54]
Ray's five steps to success [01:25:58]
Is the reflection process the most important? [01:27:41]
What advice would you give to a class of high school students? [01:28:33]

People, Events, and Books

Ray’s TED Talk
Bridgewater Associates
President John F. Kennedy
Steve Jobs
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mexican Debt Crisis
Vince Lombardi
Adam Grant and his book Originals
Robert Keegan and his book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
Warren Buffett

Learn More About Ray

You can learn more about Ray on Twitter and Facebook or by visiting his website,

Finding Truth in History

If we are to learn from the past, does the account of it have to be true? One would like to think so. Otherwise you might be preparing for the wrong battle. There you are, geared up for mountains, and instead you find swamps. You've done a bunch of reading, trying to understand the terrain you are about to enter, only to find it useless. The books must have been written by crazy people. You are upset and confused. Surely there must be some reliable, objective account of the past. How are you supposed to prepare for the possibilities of the future if you can't trust the accuracy of the reports on anything that has come before?

For why do we study history, anyway? Why keep a record of things that have happened? We fear that if we don't, we are doomed to repeat history; but often that doesn't seem to stop us from repeating it. And we have an annoying tendency to remember only the things which don't really challenge or upset us. But still we try to capture what we can, through museums and ceremonies and study, because somehow we believe that eventually we will come to learn something about why things happen the way they do. And armed with this knowledge, we might even be able to shape our future.

This “problem of historical truth” is explored by Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. He explains that Tolstoy was driven by a “desire to penetrate to first causes, to understand how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise.” We can understand this goal – because if we know how the world really works, we know everything.

Of course, it's not that simple, and — spoiler alert — Tolstoy never figured it out. But Berlin's analysis can illuminate the challenges we face with history and help us find something to learn from.

Tolstoy's main problem with historical efforts at the time was that they were “nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles. … History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events.” Seen like this, the study of history is a waste of time, other than for trivia games or pub quizzes. Being able to recite what happened is supremely uninteresting if you can't begin to understand why it happened in the first place.

But Tolstoy was also an expert at tearing down the theories of anyone who attempted to make sense of history and provide the why. He thought that they “must be imposters, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”

History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did.

And therein lies the spectrum of the problem for Tolstoy. History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did. A battle is more than dates and times, but trying to trace the real impact of the decisions of Napoleon or Churchill is a fool's errand. There is too much going on – too many decisions and interactions happening in every moment – for us to be able to conclude cause and effect with any certainty. After leaving an ice cube to melt on a table, you can't untangle exactly what happened with each molecule from the puddle. That doesn't mean we can't learn from history; it means only that we need to be careful with the lessons we draw and the confidence we have in them.

Berlin explains:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter – a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

Arguing against this view of history was N. I. Kareev, who said:

…it is men, doubtless, who make social forms, but these forms – the ways in which men live – in their turn affect those born into them; individual wills may not be all-powerful, but neither are they totally impotent, and some are more effective than others. Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him.

This means that studying the past is important for making better decisions in the future. If we can't always follow the course of cause and effect, we can at least discover some very strong correlations and act accordingly.

We have a choice between these two perspectives: Either we can treat history as an impenetrable fog, or we can figure out how to use history while accepting that each day might reveal more and we may have to update our thinking.

Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the scientific method to me – a preference for updating the foundation of knowledge versus being adrift in chaos or attached to a raft that cannot be added to.

Berlin argues that Tolstoy spent his life trying to find a theory strong enough to unify everything. A way to build a foundation so strong that all arguments would crumble against it. Although that endeavor was ambitious, we don't need to fully understand the why of history in order to be able to learn from it. We don't need the foundation of the past to be solid and fixed in order to gain some insight into our future. We can still find some truth in history.


Funnily enough, Berlin clarifies that Tolstoy “believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained.” But he also believed “that simple people often know the truth better than learned men, because their observation of men and nature is less clouded by empty theories.”

Unhelpfully, Tolstoy's position amounts to “the more you know, the less you learn.”

The answer to finding truth in history is not to be found in Tolstoy's writing. He was looking for “something too indivisibly simple and remote from normal intellectual processes to be assailable by the instruments of reason, and therefore, perhaps, offering a path to peace and salvation.” He never was able to conclude what that might be.

But there might be an answer in how Berlin interprets Tolstoy's major dissonance in life, the discrepancy that drove him and was never resolved. Tolstoy “tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe.”

Finding truth in history is about understanding that this truth is not absolute. In this sense, truth is based on perspective. The perspective of the person who captured it and the person interpreting it. And the perspective of the translators and editors and primary sources. We don't get to be invisible observers of moments in the past, and we don't get to go into other minds. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and keep our biases in check. And what history can teach us is found not just in the moments it tries to describe, but also in what we choose to look at and how we choose to represent it.

Loops of Progress, or How Modern Are You?

On your way to work, you grab breakfast from one of the dozen coffee shops you pass. Most of the goods you buy get delivered right to your door. If you live in a large city and have a car, you barely use it, preferring Uber or ride-sharing services. You feel modern. Your parents didn’t do any of this. Most of their meals were consumed at home, and they took their cars everywhere, in particular to purchase all the stuff they needed.

You think of your life as being so different from theirs. It is. You think of this as progress. It isn’t.

We tend to consider social development as occurring in a straight line: we progressed from A to B to C, with each step being more advanced and, we assume, better than the one before. This perception isn’t always accurate, though. Part of learning from the past is appreciating that we humans have tried many different ways to organize ourselves, with lots of repetitions. If we want success now, we need to understand our past efforts in order to see what changes might be needed this time around.

Would you be surprised to learn that in Victorian London (the nineteenth century), the vast majority of people ate their food on the run? That ride sharing was common? Or that you could purchase everything you needed without ever leaving your house?

To be fair, these situations didn’t exist in the exact instantiations that they do today. Obviously, there was no back then. But while the parallels are not exact, they are worth exploring, if only to remind us that no matter the array of pressures we face as a society, there are only so many ways we can organize ourselves.

To start with, street food was the norm. All classes except the very wealthy (thus, essentially, anyone who worked) ate on the run. At outdoor stalls or indoor counters. Food purchased from street vendors or chophouses (the Victorian equivalent of fast-food outlets). Food was purchased and consumed outside of the home, on the commute to or from work.

Why? Why would everyone from the middle classes to the working poor eat out?

Unlike today, eating out was cheaper then. As Judith Flanders explains in The Victorian City:

Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class lived in rooms, not houses. They might have had access to a communal kitchen, but more often they cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful. … Several factors — the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities — meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual.

Even food delivery isn’t new.

Every eating place expected to deliver meals, complete with cutlery, dishes and even condiments, which were brought by waiters who then stayed on, if wanted, to serve. Endless processions of meals passed through the streets daily. … Large sums of money were not necessary for this service.

People need to eat. It’s fundamental. No matter what living conditions we find ourselves in, the drive away from starvation means that we are willing to experiment in how we organize to get our food.

Public transportation took hold in Victorian London and is another interesting point of comparison. Then, its use was not due to a sense of civic responsibility or concerns about the environment. Public transportation succeeded because it was faster. Most cities had grown organically, and streets were not designed for the volume they had to carry in the nineteenth century. There was no flow, and there were no traffic rules. The population was swelling and road surfaces would be devastating to today’s SUVs. It was simply painful to get anywhere.

Thus the options exploded. Buses and cabs to get about the city. Stagecoaches and the railroad for longer excursions (and commutes!). And the Underground. Buses “increased the average speed of travel to nearly six miles an hour; with the railway this figure rose to over twelve, sometimes double that.” Public transportation allowed people to move faster, and “therefore, areas that had traditionally been on the edges of London now housed commuters.”

As a direct consequence of the comparable efficiency of the public transportation system, “most people could not imagine ever owning a private carriage. It was not just the cost of the carriage itself, of the horse and its accoutrements — harnesses and so on — but the running costs: the feed and care of the horse, the stabling, as well as the taxes that were imposed on carriages throughout the century.” As well as the staff. A driver, footmen, their salaries and uniforms.

A form of ride-sharing was also common then. For travel outside of the city, one could hire a post-chaise. “A post-chaise was always hired privately, to the passenger’s own schedule, but the chaise, horses, driver and postboys all belonged to the coaching inn or a local proprietor.”

Aside from the cost of owning your own transportation, neither the work day nor the city infrastructure was designed for reliance on individual transport. London in the nineteenth century (and to a large extent today) functioned better with an extensive public transport system.

There was no social safety net. You worked or you died.

Finally, living in London in the nineteenth century was very much about survival. There was no social safety net. You worked or you died. And given the concentration of wealth in the top tier of society, there was a lot of competition among the working poor for a slight edge that would mean the difference between living another day and starvation.

This situation is likely part of the reason that sellers went to buyers, rather than the other way around. Unlike today, when so many bookstores are owned by the same company or when a conglomerate makes multiple brands of “unique” luxury goods, a watercress girl owned and sold only the watercress she could carry. And this watercress was no different from the bundles the girl one street over had. The competition to sell was fierce.

And so, as Flanders describes, in the first half of the nineteenth century, street vendors in all neighborhoods sold an astonishing array of goods and services. First chimney sweeps, then milkmaids; “the next sellers were the watercress girls, followed by the costermongers, then the fishmongers’, the butchers’ and the bakers’ boys to take the daily orders.” Next came the guy selling horsemeat.

Other goods regularly available from itinerant sellers in the suburbs included: footstools; embroidery frames; clothes horses, clothes-pegs and clothes line; sponges, chamois leathers, brushes and brooms; kitchen skewers, toasting-forks and other tinware; razors and penknives; trays, keyrings, and small items of jewellery; candlesticks, tools, trivets, pots and pans; bandboxes and hatboxes; blackleading for kitchen ranges and grates, matches and glue; china ornaments and crockery; sheets, shirts, laces, thread, ribbons, artificial flowers, buttons, studs, handkerchiefs; pipes, tobacco, snuff, cigars; spectacles, hats, combs and hairbrushes; firewood and sawdust.

You didn’t have to leave your house to purchase items for meeting your daily needs.

This is not to say that Victorian London had everything figured out or that progress is always a loop. For example, there is no time in history in which it was better to be a woman than it is now, and modern medicine and the scientific method are significant steps up over what has come before. But reading these accounts of how London functioned almost two hundred years ago hints that a lot of what we consider modern innovations have been tried before.

Maybe ways of organizing come and go depending on time and place. When things are useful, they appear; as needs change, those things disappear. There really is no new way of doing business.

But we can look at the impact of social progress, how it shapes communities, and what contributes to its ebb and flow. Flanders notes that in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a shift to going out to shop in stores. What changes did this give rise to? And how did those changes contribute to the loop we are experiencing and to our current desire to have everything brought to us?

The Power of Incentives: Inside The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior

“Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”

— Charlie Munger

According to Charlie Munger, there are only a few forces more powerful than incentives. In his speech “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment,” he reflects on how the power of incentives never disappoints him:

Well, I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.

Sometimes the solution to a behavior problem is simply to revisit incentives and make sure they align with the desired goal. Munger talks about Federal Express, which is one of his favorite examples of the power of incentives:

The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can’t be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work.
And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.

If you’re trying to change a behavior, reason will take you only so far. Reflecting on another example where misaligned incentives hampered the sales of a superior product, Munger said:

Early in the history of Xerox, Joe Wilson, who was then in the government, had to go back to Xerox because he couldn’t understand how their better, new machine was selling so poorly in relation to their older and inferior machine. Of course when he got there, he found out that the commission arrangement with the salesmen gave a tremendous incentive to the inferior machine.

Ignoring incentives almost never works out well. Thinking about the incentives of others is necessary to create win-win relationships.

We can turn to psychology to obtain a more structured and thorough understanding of how incentives shape our actions.

The Science of Reinforcement

The science of reinforcement was furthered by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (usually called B.F. Skinner), a professor of psychology at Harvard from 1958 to 1974.

Skinner, unlike his contemporaries, refused to hypothesize about what happened on the inside (what people or animals thought and felt) and preferred to focus on what we can observe. To him, focusing on how much people ate meant more than focusing on subjective measures, like how hungry people were or how much pleasure they got from eating. He wanted to find out how environmental variables affected behavior, and he believed that behavior is shaped by its consequences.

If we don’t like the consequences of an action we’ve taken, we’re less likely to do it again; if we do like the consequences, we’re more likely to do it again. That assumption is the basis of operant conditioning, “a type of learning in which the strength of a behavior is modified by [its] consequences, such as reward or punishment.” 1

One of Skinner’s most important inventions was the operant conditioning chamber, also known as a “Skinner box,” which was used to study the effects of reinforcers on lab animals. The rats in the box had to figure out how to do a task (such as pushing a lever) that would reward them with food. Such an automated system allowed Skinner and thousands of successors to study conditioned behavior in a controlled setting.

What years of studies on reinforcement have revealed is that consistency and timing play important roles in shaping new behaviors. Psychologists argue that the best way for us to learn complex behaviors is via continuous reinforcement, in which the desired behavior is reinforced every time it’s performed.

If you want to teach your dog a new trick, for example, it is smart to reward him for every correct response. At the very beginning of the learning curve, your failure to immediately respond to a positive behavior might be misinterpreted as a sign of incorrect behavior from the dog’s perspective.

Intermittent reinforcement is reinforcement that is given only some of the times that the desired behavior occurs, and it can be done according to various schedules, some predictable and some not (see “Scheduling Reinforcement,” below). Intermittent reinforcement is argued to be the most efficient way to maintain an already learnt behavior. This is due to three reasons.

First, rewarding the behavior takes time away from the behavior’s continuation. Paying a worker after each piece is assembled on the assembly line simply does not make sense.

Second, intermittent reinforcement is better from an economic perspective. Not only is it cheaper not to reward every instance of a desired behavior, but by making the rewards unpredictable, you trigger excitement and thus get an increase in response without increasing the amount of reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is how casinos work; they want people to gamble, but they can’t afford to have people win large amounts very often.

Finally, intermittent reinforcement can induce resistance to extinction (stopping the behavior when reinforcement is removed). Consider the example of resistance outlined in the textbook Psychology: Core Concepts:

Imagine two gamblers and two slot machines. One machine inexplicably pays off on every trial and another, a more usual machine, pays on an unpredictable, intermittent schedule. Now, suppose that both devices suddenly stop paying. Which gambler will catch on first?

Most of us would probably guess it right:

The one who has been rewarded for each pull of the lever (continuous reinforcement) will quickly notice the change, while the gambler who has won only occasionally (on partial reinforcement) may continue playing unrewarded for a long time.

Scheduling Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement can be used on various schedules, each with its own degree of effectiveness and situations to which it can be appropriately applied. Ratio schedules are based on the number of responses (the amount of work done), whereas interval schedules are based on the amount of time spent.

  • Fixed-ratio schedules are used when you pay your employees based on the amount of work they do. Fixed-ratio schedules are common in freelancing, where contractors are paid on a piecework basis. Managers like fixed-ratio schedules because the response to reinforcement is usually very high (if you want to get paid, you do the work).
  • Variable-ratio schedules are unpredictable because the number of responses between reinforcers varies. Telemarketers, salespeople, and slot machine players are on this schedule because they never know when the next sale or the next big win will occur. Skinner himself demonstrated the power of this schedule by showing that a hungry pigeon would peck a disk 12,000 times an hour while being rewarded on average for only every 110 pecks. Unsurprisingly, this is the type of reinforcement that normally produces more responses than any other schedule. (Varying the intervals between reinforcers is another way of making reinforcement unpredictable, but if you want people to feel appreciated, this kind of schedule is probably not the one to use.)
  • Fixed-interval schedules are the most common type of payment — they reward people for the time spent on a specific task. You might have already guessed that the response rate on this schedule is very low. Even a rat in a Skinner box programmed for a fixed-interval schedule learns that lever presses beyond the required minimum are just a waste of energy. Ironically, the “9-5 job” is a preferred way to reward employees in business.

While the design of scheduling can be a powerful technique for continuing or amplifying a specific behavior, we may still fail to recognize an important aspect of reinforcement — individual preferences for specific rewards.

Experience suggests that survival is propelled by our need for food and water. However, most of us don’t live in conditions of extreme scarcity and thus the types of reinforcement appealing to us will differ.

Culture plays an important role in determining effective reinforcers. And what’s reinforced shapes culture. Offering tickets to a cricket match might serve as a powerful reward for someone in a country where cricket is a big deal, but would be meaningless to most Americans. Similarly, an air-conditioned office might be a powerful incentive for employees in Indonesia, but won’t matter as much to employees in a more temperate area.

What About Punishment?

So far we’ve talked about positive reinforcement — the carrot, if you will. However, there is also a stick.

There is no doubt that our society relies heavily on threat and punishment as a way to keep ourselves in line. Still, we keep arriving late, forgetting birthdays, and receiving parking fines, even though we know there is the potential to be punished.

There are several reasons that punishment might not be the best way to alter someone’s behavior.

First of all, Skinner observed that the power of punishment to suppress behavior usually disappears when the threat of punishment is removed. Indeed, we all refrain from using social networks during work hours, when we know our boss is around, and we similarly adhere to the speed limit when we know we are being watched by a police patrol.

Second, punishment often triggers a fight-or-flight response and renders us aggressive. When punished, we seek to flee from further punishment, and when the escape is blocked, we may become aggressive. This punishment-aggression link may also explain why abusing parents come from abusing families themselves.

Third, punishment inhibits the ability to learn new and better responses. Punishment leads to a variety of responses — such as escape, aggression, and learned helplessness — none of which aid in the subject’s learning process. Punishment also fails to show subjects what exactly they must do and instead focuses on what not to do. This is why environments that forgive failure are so important in the learning process.

Finally, punishment is often applied unequally. We are ruled by bias in our assessment of who deserves to be punished. We scold boys more often than girls, physically punish grade-schoolers more often than adults, and control members of racial minorities more often (and more harshly) than whites.

What Should I Do Instead?

There are three alternatives that you can try the next time you feel tempted to punish someone.

The first we already touched upon — extinction. A response will usually diminish or disappear if it ceases to produce the rewards it once did. However, it is important that all possible reinforcements are withheld. This is far more difficult to do in real life than in a lab setting.

What makes it especially difficult is that during the extinction process, organisms tend to look for novel techniques to obtain reinforcement. This means that a whining child will either redouble her efforts or change tactics to regain the parent’s attention before ceasing the behavior. In this case, a better extinction strategy is to combine methods by withholding attention after whining occurs and rewarding more desirable behaviors with attention before the whining occurs.

The second alternative is positively reinforcing preferred activities. For example, people who exercise regularly (and enjoy it) might use a daily run as a reward for getting other tasks done. Similarly, young children learn to sit still by being rewarded with occasional permission to run around and make noise. The main principle of this idea is that a preferred activity, such as running around, can be used to reinforce a less preferred activity. This idea is also called the Premack principle.

Finally, prompting and shaping are two actions we can use together to change behavior in an iterative manner. A prompt is a cue or stimulus that encourages the desired behavior. When shaping begins, any approximation of the target response is reinforced. Once you see the approximation occurring regularly, you can make the criterion for the target more strict (the actual behavior has to match the desired behavior more closely), and you continue narrowing the criteria until the specific target behavior is performed. This tactic is often the preferred method of developing a habit gradually and of training animals to perform a specific behavior.


I hope that you are now better equipped to recognize incentives as powerful forces shaping the way we and others behave. The next time you wish someone would change the way they behave, think about changing their incentives.

Like any parent, I experiment with my kids all the time. One of the most effective things I do when one of them has misbehaved is to acknowledge my child’s feelings and ask him what he was trying to achieve.

When one kid hits the other, for example, I ask him what he was trying to accomplish. Usually, the response is “He hit me. (So I hit him back.)” I know this touches on an automatic human response that many adults can’t control. Which makes me wonder how I can change my kids’ behavior to be more effective.

“So, you were angry and you wanted him to know?”


“People are not for hitting. If you want, I’ll help you go tell him why you’re angry.”

Tensions dissipate. And I’m (hopefully) starting to get my kids thinking about effective and ineffective ways to achieve their goals.

Punishment works best to prevent actions whereas incentives work best to encourage them.

Let’s end with an excellent piece of advice that has been given regarding incentives. Here is Charlie Munger, speaking at the University South California commencement:

You do not want to be in a perverse incentive system that’s causing you to behave more and more foolishly or worse and worse — incentives are too powerful a control over human cognition or human behavior. If you’re in one [of these systems], I don’t have a solution for you. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself, but it’s a significant problem.


Maya Angelou on Living

Letters to My Daughter is both a simple and a complex read, which makes it at once engaging and thoughtful. Simple because we can see ourselves in the various stories it shares. Complex because it demonstrates how hard it can be just to live.

While the time to read the book is short, the writing is so evocative that when you put the book down, you feel like you have lived an entire life, with all the accompanying laughter and tragedy and accumulated wisdom.

At the beginning of the book, Maya Angelou offers this advice: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.”

In slices of her life that somehow capture the essence of the whole, she proceeds to explain how she arrived at those words. She gives us this message because we are all her daughters, her children. The accessibility of the prose can make you forget that you are learning about humanity and race, about grief and love.

The chapters cover the long arc of her life, and the lesson there is that learning never stops. Our experiences can often teach us something, right up to the end. Here are some of her lessons.

On charity: “The ensuing years have taught me that a kind word, a vote of support is a charitable gift. I can move over and make another place for someone.”

On parenting: “The birth of my son caused me to develop enough courage to invent my life. I learned how to love my son without wanting to possess him and I learned how to teach him to teach himself.”

On honesty: “I wish we could stop the little lies. I don’t mean that one has to be brutally frank. I don’t believe that we should be brutal about anything, however, it is wonderfully liberating to be honest. One does not have to tell all that one knows, but we should be careful what we do say is the truth.”

On self-esteem: “I am never proud to participate in violence, yet, I know that each of us must care enough for ourselves, that we can be ready and able to come to our own defense when and wherever needed.”

On loss:
“When I find myself filling with rage over the loss of a beloved, I try as soon as possible to remember that my concerns and questions should be focused on what I learned or what I have yet to learn from my departed love. What legacy was left which can help me in the art of living a good life?”

On living: “The ship of my life may or may not be sailing on calm and amiable seas. The challenging days of my existence may or may not be bright and promising. Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”

Maya Angelou’s words remind us that there is power in reflection. It is how we learn from our experiences, widening our perspectives to appreciate that life has all manner of ebbs and flows. Indeed, I would argue that we cannot learn without reflection.

Angelou did enough living for two lifetimes. Her book doesn’t shy away from the pain that led to wisdom. There are very honest chapters about violence, rape, and racism, but one of her gifts is to show us that fighting for a better world while finding peace is a process of lifelong learning from our experiences.

She shares what she learned through hate and fear, as well as through humility and love, perhaps so that we can see, through the tumult of our own experiences, the value of the lessons we are learning and pass them forward within our own spheres of influence.