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The evolutionary roots of human behaviour

Anthony Gottlieb writing in the New Yorker:

Indeed, the guilty secret of psychology and of behavioral economics is that their experiments and surveys are conducted almost entirely with people from Western, industrialized countries, mostly of college age, and very often students of psychology at colleges in the United States. This is particularly unfortunate for evolutionary psychologists, who are trying to find universal features of our species. American college kids, whatever their charms, are a laughable proxy for Homo sapiens. The relatively few experiments conducted in non-Western cultures suggest that the minds of American students are highly unusual in many respects, including their spatial cognition, responses to optical illusions, styles of reasoning, coöperative behavior, ideas of fairness, and risk-taking strategies. Joseph Henrich and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia concluded recently that U.S. college kids are “one of the worst subpopulations one could study” when it comes to generalizing about human psychology. Their main appeal to evolutionary psychologists is that they’re readily available. Man’s closest relatives are all long extinct; breeding experiments on humans aren’t allowed (they would take far too long, anyway); and the mental life of our ancestors left few fossils.

He concludes:

Barash muses, at the end of his book, on the fact that our minds have a stubborn fondness for simple-sounding explanations that may be false. That’s true enough, and not only at bedtime. It complements a fondness for thinking that one has found the key to everything. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary explanation for such proclivities.

Still curious? Check out Barash's book, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, for yourself.

Why do we lose focus so easily?

From an excellent career coach column in the New York Times:

People often lose their concentration when they are bored, of course, but also when they are engaged in challenging tasks, says Peter Bregman, author of “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done” and chief executive of a management consultancy in New York. “We have a momentary feeling of wanting to escape what’s difficult or boring, so we jump out,” he says — hence the appeal of e-mail and shopping Web sites.

The brain’s wiring also lends itself to being distracted. The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain’s emotional center, says Srini Pillay, author of “Your Brain and Business” and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Any strong emotion — frustration with a colleague, problems at home — can disrupt your attention, he says.

Add to that the perceived virtue of multitasking both socially and at work. Studies and books, over the last decade, have consistently demonstrated our inability to multitask.

How can you set up your day so you aren’t easily distracted and can complete your tasks?

Take more control by structuring your time and becoming more aware of your behavior, Mr. Bregman says. For example, he often sets his phone alarm to go off every hour, as a reminder to stay on task.

“It’s a way of creating awareness,” he says. “You have to notice you’ve lost focus in order to do something about it.”

You are more vulnerable to distraction when you’re uncomfortable, hungry or tired, so it’s important to plan “self-management activities,” says Dr. Epstein, such as when to eat, go to the gym or take a walk.

Starting the day with a to-do list is important, but if it’s overly ambitious you will put yourself in a state of anticipatory anxiety, Dr. Pillay says. That makes it hard for the brain — which doesn’t like uncertainty — to concentrate. “Choosing three or four things as your priority for the day allows your brain to settle down and focus,” he says. Look at what is realistically possible and be specific with yourself about what you can and cannot do that day.

Looking for more? Try CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life.

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Michael Mauboussin: Three Things to Consider in Order To Make an Effective Prediction

Michael Mauboussin commenting on Daniel Kahneman:

When asked which was his favorite paper of all-time, Daniel Kahneman pointed to “On the Psychology of Prediction,” which he co-authored with Amos Tversky in 1973. Tversky and Kahneman basically said that there are three things to consider in order to make an effective prediction: the base rate, the individual case, and how to weight the two. In luck-skill language, if luck is dominant you should place most weight on the base rate, and if skill is dominant then you should place most weight on the individual case. And the activities in between get weightings that are a blend.

In fact, there is a concept called the “shrinkage factor” that tells you how much you should revert past outcomes to the mean in order to make a good prediction. A shrinkage factor of 1 means that the next outcome will be the same as the last outcome and indicates all skill, and a factor of 0 means the best guess for the next outcome is the average. Almost everything interesting in life is in between these extremes.

To make this more concrete, consider batting average and on-base percentage, two statistics from baseball. Luck plays a larger role in determining batting average than it does in determining on-base percentage. So if you want to predict a player’s performance (holding skill constant for a moment), you need a shrinkage factor closer to 0 for batting average than for on-base percentage.

I’d like to add one more point that is not analytical but rather psychological. There is a part of the left hemisphere of your brain that is dedicated to sorting out causality. It takes in information and creates a cohesive narrative. It is so good at this function that neuroscientists call it the “interpreter.”

Now no one has a problem with the suggestion that future outcomes combine skill and luck. But once something has occurred, our minds quickly and naturally create a narrative to explain the outcome. Since the interpreter is about finding causality, it doesn’t do a good job of recognizing luck. Once something has occurred, our minds start to believe it was inevitable. This leads to what psychologists call “creeping determinism” – the sense that we knew all along what was going to happen. So while the single most important concept is knowing where you are on the luck-skill continuum, a related point is that your mind will not do a good job of recognizing luck for what it is.

Mauboussin is the author of The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing.

Frederick W. Taylor: Time Management Skills

SteelMill_interior

There is no question that the tendency of the average man (in all walks of life) is toward working at a slow, easy gait, and that it is only after a good deal of thought and observation on his part or as a result of example, conscience, or external pressure that he takes a more rapid pace.

***

From Frederick W. Taylor's 1904 book Shop Management, which appeared long before his Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Taylor is considered the father of management consulting.

The natural laziness of men is serious, but by far the greatest evil from which both workmen and employers are suffering is the systematic soldiering which is almost universal under all of the ordinary schemes of management and which results from a careful study on the part of the workmen of what they think will promote their best interests.

The writer was much interested recently to hear one small but experienced golf caddie boy of twelve explaining to a green caddie who had shown special energy and interest the necessity of going slow and lagging behind his man when he came up to the ball, showing him that since they were paid by the hour, the faster they went, the less money they got, and finally telling him that if he went too fast the other boys would give him a licking.

This represents a type of systematic soldiering which is not, however, very serious, since it is done with the knowledge of the employer, who can quite easily break it up if he wishes.

The greater part of the systematic soldiering, however, is done by the men with the deliberate object of keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done.

So universal is soldiering for this purpose that hardly a competent workman can be found in a large establishment, whether he works by the day or on piecework, contract work or under any of the ordinary systems of compensating labor, who does not devote a considerable part of his time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.

The causes for this are, briefly, that practically all employers determine upon a maximum sum which they feel it is right for each of their classes of employees to earn per day, whether their men work by the day or piece.

Each workman soon finds out about what this figure is for his particular case, and he also realizes that when his employer is convinced that a man is capable of doing more work than he has done, he will find sooner or later some way of compelling him to do it with little or no increase of pay.

Employers derive their knowledge of how much of a given class of work can be done in a day from either their own experience, which has frequently grown hazy with age, from casual and unsystematic observation of their men, or at best from records which are kept, showing the quickest time in which each job has been done. In many cases the employer will feel almost certain that a given job can be done faster than it has been, but he rarely cares to take the drastic measures necessary to force men to do it in the quickest time, unless he has an actual record, proving conclusively how fast the work can be done.

It evidently becomes for each man's interest, then, to see that no job is done faster than it has been in the past. The younger and less experienced men are taught this by their elders, and all possible persuasion and social pressure is brought to bear upon the greedy and selfish men to keep them from making new records which result in temporarily increasing their wages, while all those who come after them are made to work harder for the same old pay.

Choice Under Uncertainty

Some of the general heuristics—rules of thumb—that people use in making judgments that produce biases towards classifying situations according to their representativeness, or toward judging frequencies according to the availability of examples in memory, or toward interpretations warped by the way in which a problem has been framed. These heuristics have important implications for individuals and society.

Insensitivity to Base Rates
When people are given information about the probabilities of certain events (e.g., how many lawyers and how many engineers are in a population that is being sampled), and then are given some additional information as to which of the events has occurred (which person has been sampled from the population), they tend to ignore the prior probabilities in favor of incomplete or even quite irrelevant information about the individual event. Thus, if they are told that 70 percent of the population are lawyers, and if they are then given a noncommittal description of a person (one that could equally well fit a lawyer or an engineer), half the time they will predict that the person is a lawyer and half the time that he is an engineer–even though the laws of probability dictate that the best forecast is always to predict that the person is a lawyer.

Insensitivity to Sample Size
People commonly misjudge probabilities in many other ways. Asked to estimate the probability that 60 percent or more of the babies born in a hospital during a given week are male, they ignore information about the total number of births, although it is evident that the probability of a departure of this magnitude from the expected value of 50 percent is smaller if the total number of births is larger (the standard error of a percentage varies inversely with the square root of the population size).

Availability
There are situations in which people assess the frequency of a class by the ease with which instances can be brought to mind. In one experiment, subjects heard a list of names of persons of both sexes and were later asked to judge whether there were more names of men or women on the list. In lists presented to some subjects, the men were more famous than the women; in other lists, the women were more famous than the men. For all lists, subjects judged that the sex that had the more famous personalities was the more numerous.

Framing and Loss Aversion
The way in which an uncertain possibility is presented may have a substantial effect on how people respond to it. When asked whether they would choose surgery in a hypothetical medical emergency, many more people said that they would when the chance of survival was given as 80 percent than when the chance of death was given as 20 percent.

Source: Decision Making and Problem Solving, Herbert A. Simon

David Ogilvy 10 Tips on Writing

David Ogilvy 10 Tips on Writing

In 1982, the original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy, sent the following internal memo to all employees of his advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, titled “How to Write.”

Via The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners:

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

6. Check your quotations.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

10. If you want ACTION, don't write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

***

Still Curious? Read Confessions of an Advertising Man and The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners.

Seneca on The Shortness of Time

“A man who dares to waste an hour of time
has not discovered the value of his life.”

—Charles Darwin

***

If we see someone throwing money away, we call that person crazy. This bothers us, in part, because money has value. Wasting it seems nuts. And yet we see others—and ourselves—throw away something far more valuable every day: Time.

Unlike the predictable reaction we have to someone throwing away money (they're crazy), we fail to think of the person who wastes time as crazy. And yet time is a truly finite, expendable resource: The amount we get is uncertain but surely limited. It's even more insane to waste than money — we can't make any more when it runs out!

The Roman philosopher Seneca said it well in a letter to Paulinus:

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.

[…]

I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time. Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust. Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about and no rest from their lusts abides.

In life and business, the people we admire are often the ones who have firm control over their time. Rarely are they wasting a moment, and if they find themselves wasting it, they adjust quickly.

Time is one of the most under-appreciated models that we all encounter, and yet it's the most ubiquitous. When employed correctly, wise use of time becomes an amplifier of our life satisfaction. When spent without consideration, it becomes a persistent source of regret.

Here are four examples of how we misunderstand time.

First, take productivity. We actually don't want to be more productive. What we really want is more time. And yet because we don't properly value time, we never end up with more; even when we find ways to work more efficiently, we don't actually use it wisely. We simply layer in more work.

Second, consider investing in learning. The upfront costs are real and visible and, like any investment, the future payoff is uncertain. So we tend to skim the surface, thinking this will “save us time” versus doing the real work. Yet this surface-based approach leads to no improvement in our ability to make decisions. In fact, it may harm us if we think we've learned something for real. Thus, surface learning is a true waste of time. It's just that the link to our bad learning is unclear, so we rarely identify the root cause.

Third, let's look at relationships. We're often too “busy” to spend time with the ones we care about. The very parent at the park playing on his iPhone while his children run around playing and laughing is the same one, who, when you fast-forward the axis of time, wants those precious moments back. Likewise, the “busy” 30-something who can't make time to see their parents wishes to have them back after they're gone. They wish for more time with them.

Finally, we have meetings. Meetings are part of how many of us earn a living. Often, however, they're poorly organized and poorly run. Lacking an agenda or decision, they become nothing more than half-meeting half-gossip session. A giant waste of time.

Time is invisible, so it's easy to spend. It's only near the end of our life that most of us will realize the value of time. Make sure you're not too busy to pay attention to life.

3 Things You Should Know About the Availability Heuristic

William James

There are 3 things you should know about the availability heuristic:

  1. We often misjudge the frequency and magnitude of events that have happened recently.
  2. This happens, in part, because of the limitations on memory.
  3. We remember things better when they come in a vivid narrative.

***

There are two biases emanating from the availability heuristic (a.k.a. the availability bias): Ease of recall and retrievability.

Because of the availability bias, our perceptions of risk may be in error and we might worry about the wrong risks. This can have disastrous impacts.

Ease of recall suggests that if something is more easily recalled in memory it must occur with a higher probability.

The availability heuristic distorts our understanding of real risks.

When we make decisions we tend to be swayed by what we remember. What we remember is influenced by many things including beliefs, expectations, emotions, and feelings as well as things like frequency of exposure.  Media coverage (e.g., Internet, radio, television) makes a big difference. When rare events occur they become very visible to us as they receive heavy coverage by the media. This means we are more likely to recall it, especially in the immediate aftermath of the event. However, recalling an event and estimating its real probability are two different things. If you're in a car accident, for example, you are likely to rate the odds of getting into another car accident much higher than base rates would indicate.

Retrievability suggests that we are biased in assessments of frequency in part because of our memory structure limitations and our search mechanisms. It's the way we remember that matters.

The retrievability and ease of recall biases indicate that the availability bias can substantially and unconsciously influence our judgment. We too easily assume that our recollections are representative and true and discount events that are outside of our immediate memory.

***

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes:

People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.

***

Nobel Prize winning Social Scientist and Father of Artificial Intelligence, Herbert Simon, wrote in Models of My life:

I soon learned that one wins awards mainly for winning awards: an example of what Bob Merton calls the Matthew Effect. It is akin also to the phenomenon known in politics as “availability,” or name recognition. Once one becomes sufficiently well known, one's name surfaces automatically as soon as an award committee assembles.

* * *

According to Harvard professor Max Bazerman

Many life decisions are affected by the vividness of information. Although most people recognize that AIDS is a devastating disease, many individuals ignore clear data about how to avoid contracting AIDS. In the fall of 1991, however, sexual behavior in Dallas was dramatically affected by one vivid piece of data that may or may not have been true. In a chilling interview, a Dallas woman calling herself C.J. claimed she had AIDS and was trying to spread the disease out of revenge against the man who had infected her. After this vivid interview made the local news, attendance at Dallas AIDS seminary increased dramatically. Although C.J.'s possible actions were a legitimate cause for concern, it is clear that most of the health risks related to AIDS are not a result of one woman's actions. There are many more important reasons to be concerned about AIDS. However, C.J.'s vivid report had a more substantial effect on many people's behavior than the mountains of data available. The Availability Heuristic describes the inferences we make about even commonness based on the ease with which we can remember instances of that event

While this example of vividness may seem fairly benign, it is not difficult to see how the availability bias could lead managers to make potentially destructive workplace decisions. The following came from the experience of one of our MBA students: As a purchasing agent, he had to select one of several possible suppliers. He chose the firm with whose name was the most familiar to him. He later found out that the salience of the name resulted from recent adverse publicity concerning the firm's extortion of funds from client companies!

Managers conducting performance appraisals often fall victim to the availability heuristic. Working from memory, vivid instances of an employee's behavior (either positive or negative) will be most easily recalled from memory, will appear more numerous than commonplace incidents, and will therefore be weighted more heavily in the performance appraisals. The recency of events is also a factor: Managers give more weight to performance during the three months prior to the evaluation than to the previous nine months of the evaluation period because it is more available in memory.

* * *

There are numerous implications for availability bias for investors.

A study by Karlsson, Loewenstein, and Ariely (2008) showed that people are more likely to purchase insurance to protect themselves after a natural disaster they have just experienced than they are to purchase insurance on this type of disaster before it happens.

Bazerman adds:

This pattern may be sensible for some types of risks. After all, the experience of surviving a hurricane may offer solid evidence that your property is more vulnerable to hurricanes than you had thought or that climate change is increasing your vulnerability to hurricanes.

Robyn M. Dawes, in his book Everyday Irrationality, says:

What is a little less obvious is that people can make judgments of the ease with which instances can come to mind without actually recalling specific instances. We know, for example, whether we can recall the presidents of the United States–or rather how well we can recall their names; moreover, we know at which periods of history we are better at recalling them than at which other periods. We can make judgments without actually listing in our minds the names of the specific presidents.

This recall of ease of creating instances is not limited to actual experience, but extends to hypothetical experience as well. For example, subjects are asked to consider how many subcommittees of two people can be formed from a committee of eight, and either the same or other subjects are asked to estimate how many subcommittees of six can be formed from a committee of eight people. It is much easier to think about pairs of people than to think about sets of six people, with the result that the estimate of pairs tends to be much higher than the estimate of subsets of six. In point of logic, however, the number of subsets of two is identical that of six; the formation of a particular subset of two people automatically involves the formation of a particular subset consisting of the remaining six. Because these unique subsets are paired together, there are the same number of each.

This availability to the imagination also creates a particularly striking irrationality, which can be termed with the conjunction fallacy or compound probability fallacy. Often combinations of events or entities are easier to think about than their components, because the combination might make sense whereas the individual component does not. A classic example is that of a hypothetical woman names Linda who is said to have been a social activist majoring in philosophy as a college undergraduate. What is the probability that at age thirty she is a bank teller? Subjects judge the probability as very unlikely. But when asked whether she might be a bank teller active in a feminist movement, subjects judge this combination to be more likely than for her to be a bank teller.

* * *

Retrievability (based on memory structures)

We are better at retrieving words from memory using the word's initial letter than a random position like 3 (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973).

In 1984 Tverksy and Kahneman demonstrated the retrievability bias again when they asked participants in their study to estimate the frequency of seven-letter words that had the letter “n” in the sixth position. Their participants estimated such words to be less common than seven letter words ending in the more memorable “ing”. This response is incorrect. All seven letter words ending with “ing” also have an “n” in the sixth position. However it's easy to recall seven letter words ending with ing. As we demonstrated with Dawes above, this is another example of the conjunction fallacy.

Retail locations are chosen based on search as well, which explains why gas stations and retail stores are often “clumped” together. Consumers learn the location of a product and organize their mind accordingly. While you may not remember the name of all three gas stations on the same corner, your mind tells you that is where to go to find gas. Each station, assuming all else equal, then has a 1/3 shot at your business which is much better than gas stations you don't visit because their location doesn't resonate with your minds search. In order to maximize traffic stores must find locations that consumers associate with a product.

* * *

Exposure Effect

People tend to develop a preference for things because they are familiar with them. This is called the exposure effect. According to Titchener (1910) the exposure effect leads people to experience a “glow or warmth, a sense of ownership, a feeling of intimacy.”

The exposure effect applies only to things that are perceived as neutral to positive. If you are repeatedly exposed to something perceived as a negative stimuli it may in fact amplify negative feelings. For example, when someone is playing loud music you tend to have a lot of patience at first. However as time goes on you get increasingly aggravated as your exposure to the stimuli increases.

The more we are exposed to something the easier it is to recall in our minds. The exposure effect influences us in many ways. Think about brands, stocks, songs, companies, and even the old saying “the devil you know.”

* * *

The Von Restorff Effect

“One of these things doesn't belong,” can accurately summarize the Von Restorff Effect (also known as the isolation effect and novelty effect). In our minds, things that stand out are more likely to be remembered and recalled because we give increased attention to distinctive items in a set.

For example, if i asked you to remember the following sequence of characters “RTASDT9RTGS” I suspect the most common character remembered would be the “9” because it stands out and thus your mind gives it more attention.

The Von Restorff Effect leads us to Vivid evidence.

* * *

Vivid Evidence

According to William James in the Principles of Psychology:

An impression may be so exciting emotionally as to almost leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues; and thus originates a pathological delusion. For example “A woman attacked by robbers takes all the men whom she sees, even her own son, for brigands bent on killing her. Another woman sees her child run over by a horse; no amount of reasoning, not even the sight of the living child, will persuade her that he is not killed.

M. Taine wrote:

If we compare different sensations, images, or ideas, we find that their aptitudes for revival are not equal. A large number of them are obliterated, and never reappear throughout life; for instance, I drove through Paris a day or two ago, and though I saw plainly some sixty or eighty new faces, I cannot now recall any one of them; some extraordinary circumstance, a fit of delirium, or the excitement of hashish would be necessary to give me a chance at revival. On the other hand, there are sensations with a force of revival which nothing destroys or decreases. Though, as a rule, time weakens and impairs our strongest sensations, these reappear entire and intense, without having lost a particle of their detail, or any degree of their force. M. Breirre de Boismont, having suffered when a child from a disease of the scalp, asserts that ‘after fifty-five years have elapsed he can still feel his hair pulled out under the treatment of the ‘skull-cap.'–For my own part, after thirty years, I remember feature for feature the appearance of the theater to which I was taken for the first time. From the third row of boxes, the body of the theater appeared to me an immense well, red and flaming, swarming with heads; below, on the right, on a narrow floor, two men and a woman entered, went out, and re-entered, made gestures, and seemed to me like lively dwarfs: to my great surprise one of these dwarfs fell on his knees, kissed the lady's hand, then hid behind a screen: the other, who was coming in, seemed angry, and raised his arm. I was then seven, I could understand nothing of what was going on; but the well of crimson velvet was so crowded, and bright, that after a quarter of an hour i was, as it were, intoxicated, and fell asleep.

Every one of us may find similar recollections in his memory, and may distinguish them in a common character. The primitive impression has been accompanied by an extraordinary degree of attention, either as being horrible or delightful, or as being new, surprising, and out of proportion to the ordinary run of life; this it is we express by saying that we have been strongly impressed; that we were absorbed, that we could not think of anything else; that our other sensations were effaced; that we were pursued all the next day by the resulting image; that it beset us, that we could not drive it away; that all distractions were feeble beside it. It is by force of this disproportion that impressions of childhood are so persistent; the mind being quite fresh, ordinary objects and events are surprising…

Whatever may be the kind of attention, voluntary or involuntary, it always acts alike; the image of an object or event is capable of revival, and of complete revival, in proportion to the degree of attention with which we have considered the object or event. We put this rule into practice at every moment in ordinary life.

An example from Freeman Dyson:

A striking example of availability bias is the fact that sharks save the lives of swimmers. Careful analysis of deaths in the ocean near San Diego shows that on average, the death of each swimmer killed by a shark saves the lives of ten others. Every time a swimmer is killed, the number of deaths by drowning goes down for a few years and then returns to the normal level. The effect occurs because reports of death by shark attack are remembered more vividly than reports of drownings.

Availability Bias is a Mental Model in the Farnam Street Mental Model Index

Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule

Herbert Simon and William Chase, in a paper from forty years ago, drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:

There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions …

That's the famous ten-thousand-hour rule.

Malcolm Gladwell takes this up in the New Yorker:

This is the scholarly tradition I was referring to in my book “Outliers,” when I wrote about the “ten-thousand-hour rule.” No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”

The key point of The Sports Gene, a new book by David Epstein, is that the ten-thousand-hour idea must be understood as an average.

Gladwell writes:

[B]oth he and I discuss the same study by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that looked at students studying violin at the elite Music Academy of West Berlin. I was interested in the general finding, which was that the best violinists, on average and over time, practiced much more than the good ones. In other words, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was how long and how intently they worked (see deliberate practice). Epstein points out, however, that there is a fair amount of variation behind that number—suggesting that some violinists may use their practice time so efficiently that they reach a high degree of excellence more quickly. It’s an important point. There are seventy-three great composers who took at least ten years to flourish. But there is much to be learned as well from Shostakovich, Paganini, and Satie.

Gladwell concludes:

The point of Simon and Chase’s paper years ago was that cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed. There’s a reason the Beatles didn’t give us “The White Album” when they were teen-agers. And if the surgeon who wants to fuse your spinal cord did some newfangled online accelerated residency, you should probably tell him no. It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly. What Simon and Chase wrote forty years ago remains true today. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.

So maybe being ‘a natural' means you're on the lower end of the average.

(Update: I'm not sure how to think about this stuff. What I do believe is something along the lines of: (1) We're born with different innate talent or physical attributes that sometimes no amount of “hard work” can overcome; (2) having a growth mindset and a little bit of grit makes a big difference (call this tenacity for short, it helps but it's not everything); and (3) deliberate practice makes a difference but it won't, for instance, make you taller. In short, you can tilt the odds in your favor and how many hours that takes may be a function of what you're born with. )

Still curious?
How Do Excellent Performers Differ from the Average?
What separates those who accomplish outstanding feats from those who don’t?