~ these tangled strands of our poor judgement cast a silhouette virtue ~

Photo by Charles Büchler on Unsplash

We have lots of errors in our mental operating system. Be real about it: we’re the prototypes. Dinosaurs needed tens of millions of years to turn flat-flipper reptile feet into fused-bones-and-ankle T. Rex. Our brains have only had a third of a million years to find bugs since the latest, massive firmware update. It’s as if we escaped from the lab!

Yet, we speak with bluster and certitude. We plough ahead with our proposals; fearing naught, planning little aside from our celebration-speeches for afterwards. An entire branch of sociology is devoted to studying our consistent errors in judgement: prospect theory, pioneered by Nobel laureate Kahneman & Tversky in the 70s and since. Sociology and economics have changed radically as a result; we now know it’s naïve to assume consumers are rational, or that they have complete information, or that they weight options by actually crunching the numbers. I’ll build a point atop their work and others’, so I’ll only be mentioning the tidbits which are relevant. I heartily encourage reading more to everyone who finds it in themselves to seek it — the whole field is a gem mine for understanding ourselves, as well as seeing how events unfold so horrifically around us. Perhaps prospect theory can helps us to escape them.

Why is everything broken and stupid?!

The research that Kahneman & Tversky performed with Israeli pilots, some half-century ago, is still waiting to filter down into the common culture and practice. We are oblivious to a vital, lethal flaw in our thinking. Watch:

To see which method helped fighter pilots improve most, K. & T. split them into three groups of pilots: Rewarded-group, Punished-group, and Explained-Improvements-group. At the end of the study, they asked the officers who led each group: “Was this method effective, in your estimation, at improving their performance?” These officers’ answers are the REAL insight.

Reward-Leaders said “every time they got a reward, they’d slack-off!” Punish-Leaders said “every time they got punished, they would get their act back together!” Both thought that punishment should be the universal policy, based on their judgement. Yet, they made a mistake. Imagine this scenario, to see how the error happens:

Punishing Dice

Roll a 6-sided die, repeatedly. Each time, record the value of the roll, in order as they occur. So, first roll at the top of the list, second roll beneath, etc. And, whenever the dice rolls a 5 or 6, say something sweet to it and pat it gently on the head and smile, like it’s a beautiful little snowflake. Meanwhile, if it rolls a 1 or 2, shout at it, insult it, glare, to give it tough-love, a kick in the pants. Then, look at your list. What? Two-thirds of the time, when you praised its 5’s and 6’s, it would roll LOWER the next time! The dice was SLACKING-OFF! And, most of the time that you punished the dice, it would ROLL HIGHER the next time! See?! Dice listen to punishment and slack-off if you coddle them. “We need to be MEAN to people, in order for them to LEARN.” Uh…wait.

What about that other group, the one where pilots weren’t give rewards OR punishments? They just got a list of… where to improve. Huh. What happened to them? Their AVERAGE performance went up and up! While rewarding pilots leads to a flat-line of averaged performance, and punishment LOWERED average performance, by discouragement and stress. Damn fools.

Turns out, if you tell people what they can do better… they do it, and feel good about it when it’s OFF their list! There’s a wholesome, fortifying feeling to that accomplishment. It’s the difference between satisfaction (“a full gut, that will need filling again tomorrow”) and fulfillment (“I’ll always be your mom — and you are my greatest achievement”). No need of mantras in the mirror from self-help gurus, in an addictive cycle of pseudo-wellness. You know your real accomplishments, and you are at peace in the efforts you proved. Who wants a participation trophy, after that!

The Lethal Mistake

Now, a frightening scenario, illustrated repeatedly by sociologist Stanley Milgram: a regular person off the street, sitting at an electric switchboard, timidly giggling, flips switch after switch. Each is more power than the last, in a progression labeled up to “DANGER XXX”. They flip the third-to-last switch, and the screaming in the other room, where they had seen a man tied-down and wired, has stopped. Two more switches, flip…flip. Silence. Why has this normal, random pedestrian just laughed as they killed another human being? Because a guy in a white lab coat with a diploma said “The Experiment Must Continue. We TAKE Full Responsibility.

Two-thirds of the random volunteers flipped the switches, thinking that they had killed someone (who was really part of the team, faking it). Their nervous glee was a sort of psychological response to terror. Don’t watch the recordings, unless you like to feel sick. After these experiments, such practices amongst sociology and psychology researchers were banned, because the psychological stress of guilt and fear lingers.

What did the ‘not-a-switch-flippers’ say and do? That third refused to continue as soon as the actor in the other room began saying “I want to be let out! Let me out!” And, when lab-coat-Apologist said “We take full responsibility” — the volunteer responses, generally: “No one can possibly TAKE my personal responsibility AWAY from me. I am always responsible for my own choices. If you want to torture someone, you’ll have to get past me, first. I won’t be your accomplice.” I suggest we all take that difference in mindset very seriously. Wars are waged atop the gigglers’ sort of obedience, and Milgram’s reason for doing the tests was to understand the Holocaust’s enforcers. “I was just following orders…” Two thirds of us need to fortify our sense of compassion and personal responsibility. The alternative is dire.

Co-Dependency’s Ignition Switch

“Hey, we’re all headed to the bar — wanna?” “Aw, I’m trying to stop for a while, after last time…” “What? Just have one beer!” That bruh is slowly torturing and killing his friend. That is the enabler of their destructive behaviors. The ignition switch.

There’s another kind of enabler: “Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to upset you, sir! I’ll do anything you say, just don’t be angry at me! I want you to like me, and let me stay near you…” These enable tyrants. The sycophants. Milgram must get chills every time a political junkie is incapable of seeing their own leader’s obvious failings: “This is how it happens.”

But, specifically, how does that happen? The anxiety of potentially making the wrong choice and being blamed or causing trouble motivates them to find a ‘guru’ or ‘team captain’ who is Always Right. Now, by following Always-Right-Guy, they feel relieved and steadfast! They never consider: “I am following this dude, because he’s always right and I’m not. Yet, if I’m not always right, how can I be sure that I actually picked the right guy?! My premise is that, when it comes to knowing if someone is always right, I assume I am the perfect judge of it! But, I know I’m often wrong — that’s why I was looking for someone to follow. I might be picking a guy who is totally wrong…” That happens a lot. I’m sure you are thinking of a few modern examples, already, so I won’t bother with them. :/


The nightmares keep coming. I can’t say much else is pretty, either. The Dunning-Kreuger Effect is our next stop toward real humility-in-service-of-compassion. And, it hurts to admit it.

Give folks a test. Not to rate them on that particular topic; you ask them two questions afterwards: “How do you think you did, compared to others? And, how many questions do you think you got wrong?”

90% will tell you that they’re higher-tier-than-they-really-are, and they also assume they were right with far more answers than they really were. Hubris, pride, coupled with blindness to their own failings! 90%. yup

In contrast, the remaining 10% assumed that others would do well, in comparison to themselves. They were also surprisingly accurate when estimating error-rates — they knew when they didn’t know something! Like Socrates, when talking to the arrogant lawyer, “If I am wise, it is because I know when I don’t know.” How do you identify these folks? They’re easy to spot — the highest scores. Fools are over-confident and think little of others’ abilities. So, they don’t listen to the caveat-covered jargon and details from those experts who hope we all learn something. Ignorance is just whenever we ignore; we don’t look for the truth because we think we’re already right.

So, the Dunning-Kreugers are destined to win every election. Crap. Are we just trapped? Well, there’s a tiny candle of hope…

Chess Heroes

An educational psychologist decided to prove that a good education and good practice, firm commitments really do make the biggest difference in performance… by training his daughters to become chess champions! Not in a tentacled-helicopter-parent torture montage. Supportive, slow and steady, grasping concepts and practicing them, a curious puzzle together, getting the most important feedback and focusing on that part. “We’ll sweat the other stuff once this part is done and we’ve had a nice break.” You make real progress day-by-day, with a good coach.

It seemed almost immediate that the eldest daughter, Zsuzsa, was a Grandmaster in the men’s tournaments back when Gary Kasparov was saying women just couldn’t take it. And her youngest sister, Judit, was the youngest Grandmaster ever, man or woman! Judit, in particular, had a fervent love for the game she shared with her older sisters, quickly learning enough to beat her father. She went on to be the 8th-highest ranked player on Earth, and she has inspired a wave of women to become masters at a game men thought they could keep to themselves.

We’re not doomed to Dunning-Kreuger. Yet, we DO have to learn well; gut feelings and good intentions won’t cut it. Darn.

80/20 Everywhere

In general, though, when measuring performance at a task, or revenue generated for a company, or number of hit songs, or importance of research papers… all follow what is called a ‘power law’. Not because of some domination-trickery! ‘Powers’ are simply what mathematicians call exponential functions. It’s silly, but tradition usually is. So, the ‘power laws’ are curves that look like a hockey-stick laying sideways: slow, gentle increase along the handle, until a rapid, accelerated upswing at the very end of the wacky-side. Why does that matter?

Look at this one: a company has 100 employees. It earns $1 dollar of revenue, at a given moment. 20 people in that company are responsible for 80 cents of that revenue, an average of 4 cents per person. The other 80 employees? They only contributed 20 cents — and average of 1/4th of a cent, each. Ouch. Those 20 are completely carrying the company! They are 16 TIMES more productive than the rest. L33T!

What’s worse, power laws continue to hold for the smaller chunks: Among that group of 20 extra-productive people, only 20% of them produce 80% of their revenue! That’s 64% of revenue, generated by 4% of the company. (Sure, this pattern tops-out at the extreme, and each group is a little different, and yeah, yeah. Power laws are still insanely resilient to circumstances.) I’m talking about when Daniella noticed an error in the core accounting software. And when Robert found a cool new way to integrate vendors efficiently, to better-weather changes in the marketplace. NOT the CFO making fat bonuses. I’m pointing to those mad scientists of the back-office. If you don’t already know you are that person, you probably aren’t. And the company dies if they leave.

Climbing the Mountain

You read a book about “Succeeding at Climbing Everest” — which compares the climbers who got to the top with us couch-potatoes, in order to illuminate the qualities you’ll need to get where they got. Grit, athleticism, preparations. Yet, the author made a horrible error, and the readership perpetuates it — we CANNOT compare the successes to the ones who never tried. Statisticians will point-out emphatically: compare the successes to the failures! Dear gosh, please. For your own sake!

What might you find, then? Perhaps, the biggest determinants of success end up being a knowledgeable, competent Sherpa guide, and going in a large group at the right time of year, so that you don’t fall through a snow-crust-covered chasm. Don’t just ‘train hard’ and go alone in the wrong month saying ‘it’s not so crowded then’, bruh.

Let’s look at another mountain. This one is a bit nicer: it’s an easy-ish and beautiful natural climbing wall, accessible, but out-of-the-way enough to feel pristine. You go there because, on the suggestion of a climbing instructor at the indoor wall, plenty of people like to go there. You meet old-timers who give you tips, and spot for you. And, the quiet expectation in that calm smile of theirs: “Once you’ve got this, I know you’ll be coming back to stand were I am now, for another.” Inspire that kid to teach others how to fish, and feed the whole countryside! It’s how we get civilizations; all their founding Gods were doing it. A good mentor? Yeah, they can imbue you with the power to move mountains. Just pay attention, and keep at it.

Those mentors want you to learn the stuff that actually matters, not the stuff that catches your eye long enough to hop a ride across the check-out counter. They’re gruff when you’re about to hurt yourself! And mentors take the time to talk it over and watch you try, because they, in all their experience, remember when they were like you — and that is why they know you can become as skillful as themselves, if not better. “Don’t give up so easily! Focus on this part, for now.”

Last mountain, a frustration. We haven’t gotten there before; it’s a new Idealism! I’m with you, headed to that pinnacle that we can see at this vast distance already. You say “It’s important!” I agree whole-heartedly. You say “We set-out for it at once, and don’t stop until we get there!” I agree again. You say “And we’ll be walking STRAIGHT to get there, not turning, for fear of any delay!” I gulp, “Uh…wait, what the flock?” “Yes, bee-line it is, the only possible choice…” I begin looking for a local to ask more details about topography. You, in a huff, start walking down a steep ravine toward a deep, fast river that cuts across the overgrown heaps. I’ll be traipsing off to the north in an hour, circumventing the headwaters you get stuck at, never bothering to climb down a canyon only to climb up the other side. Forethought lightens the load and hastens the longest journeys. Adapting to circumstances is similarly virtuous for those who are serious about their goals. Rushing headlong is only a product of an anxious stubbornness that wants to claim quick successes, without remembering that the hardest problems demand real fortitude.

The Christopher Ford Network

I don’t imply any spiritual force behind this example; I only mention vignettes of virtue which many readers might remember, and which are worth being remembered by atheists and agnostics, just as much. Saint Christopher, a strong-man bully-turned-boy-scout for his hometown, used his strength to hoist others across a treacherous narrow river for the remainder of his life. That is humility.

Contrast this with the mousy party-goer, who complains: “Oh, I haven’t really practiced in a while, and I’m not really that good at it, and you’d all be really bored, and we could just play something on the…” Until their friend finally convinces them to sit at the piano, where they stun the audience. Applause, “how modest!” Don’t be fooled. Those excuses were a coy lie, to manipulate peoples’ expectations, to avoid exclusion from the group. It’s a neurotic’s nervous tic. Modesty doesn’t count. Better to be honest about what we have the power to do, and be generous with that power. The humble pianist wagons their piano to the docks and plays for the homeless people, letting them try. Virtue isn’t opinion-farming.

There’s another layer to humility: seeing our own fallibility clearly, and looking back to our honest regrets as firm reminders of why we keep our commitments and our compassion, now. Engineers wear an iron ring, made from the wreckage of a collapsed bridge, to remember that their work has real consequences and they DO make mistakes. No ‘fake it til ya make it’. No ‘dress for success’. It’s ‘measure twice, cut once’ and ‘better a foot behind, than an inch too far ahead’.

That clear sight of our own errors motivates skepticism. No, I don’t mean the tired, cliché sound-bites that people jab each other with, in the name of ‘playing Devil’s Advocate’. “Well, like, how can we be sure of anything, bruh!” That’s the philosophical equivalent of waving their hands in front of you, saying “But I’m not touching you…I’m not toooouching yoooou!” It’s ignorance cloaked in BS.

Real skepticism points-out specific errors and gaps in reasoning, as well as potential sources of bias. Once those are all gone, the Skeptic submits gladly, welcoming some small semi-certainty. And, should new evidence find new flaws, then revise those premises, step back from certainty again! That is healthy skepticism.

Now, putting those two together: you’re in the garage, door up, and your neighbor walks over. “Hey! I wanted to ask you, do you have a wide bit for a drill?” You think for a moment: “Yeah, somewhere over here, if you’d like to help me look.” In a few moments, they find it. “By the way, what’re you using it for?” “Just some sheet metal… a little project.” Your ears perk-up: “Oh, no this isn’t a hardened bit; it’s for wood.” They shuffle their shoes and mumble “well, geez, I’ll be gentle with it. Don’t worry!” You stand up straight: “Look, this bit is for wood. I’m glad to help, but only the right way.” “Oh, uh, well… I guess I can just use some plywood for it, instead. Yeah, it’ll be fine that way… so…”

You look a bit closer at the corners of their mouth: “Why don’t you bring that plywood over, and drill it out here, and you’ll be done with the bit.” Their eyebrows skittle — “What?! No, just, you can trust me, I…” Arms crossed, now, you say slowly, calmly: “I want to be clear. I am happy to help you. I also don’t appreciate being lied to or taken advantage of. Why don’t you bring the wood over?” A gulp: “Well…cuz it’s a water tank. It’s gotta be metal, that part.” “I thought as much. Come by whenever you want honest help, but don’t expect me to trust you so easily.”

What should we call that way of being, to keep it in our memories? All I can muster: Neighborly and Stern. It’s an active, diligent compassion, coupled with skeptical, cautious boundaries. Not ‘fawning and polite to the cheats and dictators’. No virtue in those obsequies and indulgences. Imagine, instead, if George Washington and Arundhati Roy were your foster parents. Like that.

So, is that the strange Elitism?

Yeah, that’s the elitism I’m getting at. I am NOT insinuating the devilish con-artist elitism we all rightly fear: “Just trust us…we are the only ones who know the trutheverything else is a lie…trust us, because you can’t understand on your own.” No. There are people in this world who are whole-hearted and kind, without being martyrs for the sake of tyrants’ vanity. There are patient experts. The people who can point to a track-record of real results deserve our full attention. We have a long way to go, and we need to be ready to stand where they are now, for the sake of the next batch coming down the pike. It’s always going to be that way.

So, a call to get off our high horses: listen to the proven, humble elites! And, when we stick our feet further in those stubborn stirrups, George’ll look over sidelong and say in that tone of his: “If you want to keep squatting in BS, instead of getting clear-eyed about what works, then you need to ride in the truck bed; you won’t be stinking-up the driver’s seat.” Yep. Just like that.

Easily distracted mathematician

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