Blog

The Availability Bias: How to Overcome a Common Cognitive Distortion

“The attention which we lend to an experience is proportional to its vivid or interesting character, and it is a notorious fact that what interests us most vividly at the time is, other things equal, what we remember best.” —William James

The availability heuristic explains why winning an award makes you more likely to win another award. It explains why we sometimes avoid one thing out of fear and end up doing something else that’s objectively riskier. It explains why governments spend enormous amounts of money mitigating risks we’ve already faced. It explains why the five people closest to you have a big impact on your worldview. It explains why mountains of data indicating something is harmful don’t necessarily convince everyone to avoid it. It explains why it can seem as if everything is going well when the stock market is up. And it explains why bad publicity can still be beneficial in the long run.

Here’s how the availability heuristic works, how to overcome it, and how to use it to your advantage.

***

How the availability heuristic works

Before we explain the availability heuristic, let’s quickly recap the field it comes from.

Behavioral economics is a field of study bringing together knowledge from psychology and economics to reveal how real people behave in the real world. This is in contrast to the traditional economic view of human behavior, which assumed people always behave in accordance with rational, stable interests. The field largely began in the 1960s and 1970s with the work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

Behavioral economics posits that people often make decisions and judgments under uncertainty using imperfect heuristics, rather than by weighing up all of the relevant factors. Quick heuristics enable us to make rapid decisions without taking the time and mental energy to think through all the details.

Most of the time, they lead to satisfactory outcomes. However, they can bias us towards certain consistently irrational decisions that contradict what economics would tell us is the best choice. We usually don’t realize we’re using heuristics, and they’re hard to change even if we’re actively trying to be more rational.

One such cognitive shortcut is the availability heuristic, first studied by Tversky and Kahneman in 1973. We tend to judge the likelihood and significance of things based on how easily they come to mind. The more “available” a piece of information is to us, the more important it seems. The result is that we give greater weight to information we learned recently because a news article you read last night comes to mind easier than a science class you took years ago. It’s too much work to try to comb through every piece of information that might be in our heads.

We also give greater weight to information that is shocking or unusual. Shark attacks and plane crashes strike us more than an accidental drowning or car accidents, so we overestimate their odds.

If we’re presented with a set of similar things with one that differs from the rest, we’ll find it easier to remember. For example, of the sequence of characters “RTASDT9RTGS,” the most common character remembered would be the “9” because it stands out from the letters.

In Behavioural Law and Economics, Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein write:

“Additional examples from recent years include mass outcries over Agent Orange, asbestos in schools, breast implants, and automobile airbags that endanger children. Their common thread is that people tended to form their risk judgments largely, if not entirely, on the basis of information produced through a social process, rather than personal experience or investigation. In each case, a public upheaval occurred as vast numbers of players reacted to each other’s actions and statements. In each, moreover, the demand for swift, extensive, and costly government action came to be considered morally necessary and socially desirable—even though, in most or all cases, the resulting regulations may well have produced little good, and perhaps even relatively more harm.”

Narratives are more memorable than disjointed facts. There’s a reason why cultures around the world teach important life lessons and values through fables, fairy tales, myths, proverbs, and stories.

Personal experience can also make information more salient. If you’ve recently been in a car accident, you may well view car accidents as more common in general than you did before. The base rates haven’t changed; you just have an unpleasant, vivid memory coming to mind whenever you get in a car. We too easily assume that our recollections are representative and true and discount events that are outside of our immediate memory. To give another example, you may be more likely to buy insurance against a natural disaster if you’ve just been impacted by one than you are before it happens.

Anything that makes something easier to remember increases its impact on us. In an early study, Tversky and Kahneman asked subjects whether a random English word is more likely to begin with “K” or have “K” as the third letter. Seeing as it’s typically easier to recall words beginning with a particular letter, people tended to assume the former was more common. The opposite is true.

In Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Tversky and Kahneman write:

“…one may estimate probability by assessing availability, or associative distance. Lifelong experience has taught us that instances of large classes are recalled better and faster than instances of less frequent classes, that likely occurrences are easier to imagine than unlikely ones, and that associative connections are strengthened when two events frequently co-occur.

…For example, one may assess the divorce rate in a given community by recalling divorces among one’s acquaintances; one may evaluate the probability that a politician will lose an election by considering various ways in which he may lose support; and one may estimate the probability that a violent person will ‘see’ beasts of prey in a Rorschach card by assessing the strength of association between violence and beasts of prey. In all of these cases, the assessment of the frequency of a class or the probability of an event is mediated by an assessment of availability.”

They go on to write:

“That associative bonds are strengthened by repetition is perhaps the oldest law of memory known to man. The availability heuristic exploits the inverse form of this law, that is, it uses strength of association as a basis for the judgment of frequency. In this theory, availability is a mediating variable, rather than a dependent variable as is typically the case in the study of memory.”

***

How the availability heuristic misleads us

“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.” —Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

To go back to the points made in the introduction of this post, winning an award can make you more likely to win another award because it gives you visibility, making your name come to mind more easily in connection to that kind of accolade. We sometimes avoid one thing in favor of something objectively riskier, like driving instead of taking a plane, because the dangers of the latter are more memorable. The five people closest to you can have a big impact on your worldview because you frequently encounter their attitudes and opinions, bringing them to mind when you make your own judgments. Mountains of data indicating something is harmful don’t always convince people to avoid it if those dangers aren’t salient, such as if they haven’t personally experienced them. It can seem as if things are going well when the stock market is up because it’s a simple, visible, and therefore memorable indicator. Bad publicity can be beneficial in the long run if it means something, such as a controversial book, gets mentioned often and is more likely to be recalled.

These aren’t empirical rules, but they’re logical consequences of the availability heuristic, in the absence of mitigating factors.

We are what we remember, and our memories have a significant impact on our perception of the world. What we end up remembering is influenced by factors such as the following:

  • Our foundational beliefs about the world
  • Our expectations
  • The emotions a piece of information inspires in us
  • How many times we’re exposed to a piece of information
  • The source of a piece of information

There is no real link between how memorable something is and how likely it is to happen. In fact, the opposite is often true. Unusual events stand out more and receive more attention than commonplace ones. As a result, the availability heuristic skews our perception of risks in two key ways:

We overestimate the likelihood of unlikely events. And we underestimate the likelihood of likely events.

Overestimating the risk of unlikely events leads us to stay awake at night, turning our hair grey, worrying about things that have almost no chance of happening. We can end up wasting enormous amounts of time, money, and other resources trying to mitigate things that have, on balance, a small impact. Sometimes those mitigation efforts end up backfiring, and sometimes they make us feel safer than they should.

On the flipside, we can overestimate the chance of unusually good things happening to us. Looking at everyone’s highlights on social media, we can end up expecting our own lives to also be a procession of grand achievements and joys. But most people’s lives are mundane most of the time, and the highlights we see tend to be exceptional ones, not routine ones.

Underestimating the risk of likely events leads us to fail to prepare for predictable problems and occurrences. We’re so worn out from worrying about unlikely events, we don’t have the energy to think about what’s in front of us. If you’re stressed and anxious much of the time, you’ll have a hard time paying attention to those signals when they really matter.

All of this is not to say that you shouldn’t prepare for the worst. Or that unlikely things never happen (as Littlewood’s Law states, you can expect a one-in-a-million event at least once per month.) Rather, we should be careful about only preparing for the extremes because those extremes are more memorable.

***

How to overcome the availability heuristic

Knowing about a cognitive bias isn’t usually enough to overcome it. Even people like Kahneman who have studied behavioral economics for many years sometimes struggle with the same irrational patterns. But being aware of the availability heuristic is helpful for the times when you need to make an important decision and can step back to make sure it isn’t distorting your view. Here are five ways of mitigating the availability heuristic.

#1. Always consider base rates when making judgments about probability.
The base rate of something is the average prevalence of it within a particular population. For example, around 10% of the population are left-handed. If you had to guess the likelihood of a random person being left-handed, you would be correct to say 1 in 10 in the absence of other relevant information. When judging the probability of something, look at the base rate whenever possible.

#2. Focus on trends and patterns.
The mental model of regression to the mean teaches us that extreme events tend to be followed by more moderate ones. Outlier events are often the result of luck and randomness. They’re not necessarily instructive. Whenever possible, base your judgments on trends and patterns—the longer term, the better. Track record is everything, even if outlier events are more memorable.

#3. Take the time to think before making a judgment.
The whole point of heuristics is that they save the time and effort needed to parse a ton of information and make a judgment. But, as we always say, you can’t make a good decision without taking time to think. There’s no shortcut for that. If you’re making an important decision, the only way to get around the availability heuristic is to stop and go through the relevant information, rather than assuming whatever comes to mind first is correct.

#4. Keep track of information you might need to use in a judgment far off in the future.
Don’t rely on memory. In Judgment in Managerial Decision-Making, Max Bazerman and Don Moore present the example of workplace annual performance appraisals. Managers tend to base their evaluations more on the prior three months than the nine months before that. It’s much easier than remembering what happened over the course of an entire year. Managers also tend to give substantial weight to unusual one-off behavior, such as a serious mistake or notable success, without considering the overall trend. In this case, noting down observations on someone’s performance throughout the entire year would lead to a more accurate appraisal.

#5. Go back and revisit old information.
Even if you think you can recall everything important, it’s a good idea to go back and refresh your memory of relevant information before making a decision.

The availability heuristic is part of Farnam Street’s latticework of mental models.

How to Write Creative Fiction: Umberto Eco’s Four Rules

Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was one of the bestselling authors of all time. In Confessions of a Young Novelist, he shares some unique advice for writing fiction.

Umberto Eco wrote Confessions of a Young Novelist in his late seventies. But having published his first novel, The Name of the Rose, only twenty-eight years earlier, he considered himself a newcomer to fiction writing. Looking back on his career so far, Eco reveals some valuable insights into his writing process. In this post, we’ve extracted four of the key lessons for fiction writers from Confessions of a Young Novelist.

***

Defining creative writing

“A text is a lazy machine that wants its readers to do part of its job.”

It seems a given that fiction writing is inherently creative, but what exactly makes a piece of writing creative?

“I have never understood why Homer is viewed as a creative writer and Plato isn’t. Why is a bad poet a creative writer, while a good scientific essayist is not?”

Some languages draw a distinction between the kind of writer who creates texts out of their imagination and the kind who simply records information, such as a poet versus a court stenographer. Eco disagrees with the notion that we can make this distinction based on the function a writer’s work serves in society. Nor can we define as creative solely writing that does not pretend to state the truth:

“Can we say without a doubt that Melville, in telling the story of a nonexistent whale, had no intention of saying anything true about life and death, or about human pride and obstinacy?

…It is problematic to define as creative a writer who simply tells us things that are contrary to fact. Ptoelmy said something untrue about the movement of the Earth. Should we then claim that he was more creative than Kepler?”

For Eco, the distinction lies in how a writer responds to interpretations of their work. It is possible to misunderstand an uncreative piece of writing. It is not possible to misunderstand a creative piece of writing—creative writers leave it to the reader to decide what their work means.

The most creative works are those that can be endlessly reinterpreted and reinvented by readers. Every reader can understand their own version of them depending on their particular worldview. Some of the most popular works of fiction ever written are ones that reflect common dreams and fantasies or idealized versions of life. They afford enough ambiguity to allow readers to project themselves into the text, thereby formulating their own interpretation of it. They also present worlds that readers want to be a part of and characters that readers want to spend time with (whether from affection or morbid curiosity or a hundred other reasons). And just like we all get something different out of various relationships, so too do we connect with books differently than other readers do.

“…in a theoretical essay, one usually wants to demonstrate a particular thesis or to give an answer to a specific problem. Whereas in a poem or a novel, one wants to represent life with all its inconsistency.”

***

Defining fiction

“Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world. But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here and now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world.”

Now let’s take a look at Eco’s four rules for writing creative fiction.

***

Rule 1: Start with a seminal image

Each of Eco’s novels began with a striking image around which he constructed an elaborate narrative.

For The Name of the Rose, he began with the image of a monk being poisoned while reading a book, which first came into his mind forty years earlier. For Baudolino, Eco began with the image of the city of Constantinople set alight by the Crusaders at the start of the thirteenth century. For Foucault’s Pendulum, he began by imagining the juxtaposition of two things: the device made by physicist Léon Foucault in 1851 to demonstrate the earth’s rotation and a trumpeter playing in a cemetery on a sunny morning.

“But how to get from the pendulum to the trumpeter? To answer this question took me eight years, and the answer was the novel.”

Once he had the seminal image, Eco would construct an entire world around it. Everything else in the book was about making that image make sense. Once you pick your image, you close the door on hundreds of other choices. To make that image work, you need to build your world so that image fits seamlessly, and so there are many element which you can no longer incorporate.

The place in which your image is set, the time, the people in it—all of these will help you determine what characteristics your world must have.

If your seminal image is a woman in a torn coat holding a drooping bouquet of daffodils in the rain at the end of a long driveway, here are some of the questions you might immediately ask yourself: Is she coming or going? Do daffodils grow everywhere? How old is she? What color is her coat? What style? Is the driveway paved?

Once you start to answer these questions, more will appear. You will start to get a feeling for the style and genre of your story. If you make your audience care about the woman, you will have to get her out of the rain. Where can she go? Does she have a car? Is she walking? How long to the closest refuge? You will make decisions. You will choose elements for your setting that are incompatible with others. You will choose plot points that necessitate certain elements in the backstory of your characters, which will then influence what they do during the course of your story.

Your choices will narrow. You will begin to build your world.

Eco cautioned that having a multitude of images in mind is a bad sign: “If there are too many seminal images, this is a sign that they are not seminal.”

Sometimes two or three seminal images can be signposts as you build your story. But one image will always be the starting point, and as you keep creating, you may find those other images need to be discarded.

***

Rule 2: Don’t expect inspiration to come out of nowhere

It’s a common misconception that the inspiration for a great work of fiction comes to a writer in a sudden flash. While particular ideas or images can seem to appear out of nowhere, they are often still the product of the long, slow digestion of relevant material. Creating a whole world requires a great deal of contextual information.

For Eco’s first novel, the material for it was collected in his subconscious mind for many years, during which he never intended to turn it into a work of fiction. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Middle Ages which inspired years of interest in the subject, and so he accumulated “twenty-five years’ worth of old filing cards” on the topic. As he began writing his novel, he had a rich collection of knowledge about the area from which to draw information.

After a chance suggestion, Eco discovered the inspiration he’d accumulated for The Name of the Rose:

As soon as I returned home, I hunted through my desk drawers and retrieved a scribbling from the previous year—a piece of paper on which I had written down some names of monks. It meant that in the most secret part of my soul the idea for a novel had already been growing, but I was unaware of it.

…When I decided to write the novel, it was as if I had opened a big closet where I had been piling up my medieval files for decades. All that material was there at my feet and I had only to select what I needed.

To illustrate the reality of creative writing, Eco gives the example of Alphonse Lamartine. The French poet claimed to have written one of his most famous works in a sudden flash of inspiration. After his death, a plethora of versions of that poem were found in his study, revealing he’d actually worked on it for years.

For later novels, Eco spent years studying relevant subject matter to fit with his main idea. Although he always picked topics he had some knowledge of to begin with, later novels required far more research than his first. Once he had his seminal image and knowledge of relevant subjects, he used these to create an entire world for his story to live in.

Curiosity is a much more useful starting place for a writer than inspiration. Even with a topic you know well, there is so much you don’t know. Being curious about what you would need to know to set your story in a field hospital during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a penthouse in contemporary Hong Kong, or a saloon on a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy is how you find the inspiration to write and the elements of the story you want to tell.

***

Rule 3: Create an entire world for your story to live inside

Whether you aim to set your story in the so-called “real world” or to create an entirely fabricated one, you need to know as much as possible about that world. It needs to have a consistent logic and rules that make sense to the reader. You then need to write with that world in mind, ensuring every part of your story truly inhabits your world.

Writing of the time he spent researching for novels in order to gain inspiration, Eco explained:

“What do I do during the years of literary pregnancy? I collect documents; I visit places and draw maps; I note the layouts of buildings, or perhaps a ship…and I sketch the faces of characters…I give the impression of doing a lot of different things, but I am always focused on capturing ideas, images, words for my story.”

For example, for The Name of the Rose, Eco sketched hundreds of maps and plans of its locations so he would know how long it would take characters to get between different places. When writing dialogue for scenes in which characters conversed while walking, he knew precisely how long to make each conversation, so “the layout of my fictional world dictated the length of the dialogues.

Eco believed that the physical world a writer creates should dictate a great deal of the way they write. In particular, he believed in knowing what locations looked like “down to the last millimeter.” He went on to write:

To narrate something, you start as a sort of demiurge who creates a world—a world that must be as precise as possible, so that you can move around in it with total confidence.

…If you design every detail of a world, you know how to describe it in terms of space, since you have it before your eyes.

Having created an entire world, you will then have a clear sense of the kind of language to use within it. You will be influenced not only by the time and place but also by the history of your characters. You will know more about your world than will ever make it into the pages of your story. You will know what one character received for Christmas when she was ten, and all the years before and after. You will know exactly how long a certain pub has been in business and the color of the fabric on its barstools. You will know the bus routes and the frequency of buses at each stop and what the driver looks like on each one. You will know intimately the details of every part of the world that your characters inhabit.

The makeup of your world will also influence other factors, such as the overall structure of the writing. Certain worlds demand a certain pacing. You will find a cadence that suits your world. A world in which everyone is moving quickly can suggest sentences in which the words tumble over each other. Intense actions demand short, clear descriptions so a reader can easily imagine they are going through it all with the character.

The rhythm of the words you use to tell a story has a huge impact on the story you tell.

***

Rule 4: Enforce constraints on your writing

Once you have your seminal image, you’ve crafted a world for your story to live in, and you’ve gathered the material necessary for inspiration, Eco proposes one more step for writing creative fiction. You need to place some constraints on your work. Counterintuitively, constraints lead to greater creativity and make it easier to come up with ideas.

Eco writes:

“In order to enable the story to proceed, the writer must impose some constraints. Constraints are fundamental to every artistic endeavor. A painter who decides to use oils rather than tempera, a canvas rather than a wall; a composer who opts for a given key; a poet who chooses to use rhyming couplets, or hendecasyllables rather than alexandrines—all establish a system of constraints. So too do avant-garde artists, who seem to avoid constraints; they simply construct others, which go unnoticed.”

For example, in Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco imposed a constraint on the book’s structure. He decided it needed to have one hundred and twenty chapters and be divided into ten parts. Naturally, this decision shaped the way he wrote the book. In his novels, Eco also often employed temporal constraints. He might decide a particular character needed to be in a particular city on a particular date in order to witness a real historical event, or that a plot required the existence of a particular piece of technology, meaning events needed to happen after its invention.

Some constraints will naturally occur as you build your world. But if you find yourself creatively blocked, adding more constraints (instead of removing them) can help the writing flow. Constraints are powerful because they cut down the number of options open to you, making it easier to know how to proceed.

To give an example: if you’re writing a story and need to decide on several locations for different events to happen, you could decide they all need to happen in real cities with names beginning with the letter “C.” This reduces the number of possible locations, meaning less deliberation over where to situate your story. Once you choose the cities, you’re then further constrained by the nature of the places themselves. If you decide that the first chapter will take place in Chicago and the second in Copenhagen, the differences between those two cities will naturally influence what can happen in those parts of the story.

You may decide to kill a character, or make a commitment to another one that they are going to live. You may create obstacles to limit the movement of your characters. You may set yourself a cap on your word count. There are many ways to introduce constraints once you have started to write.

Ultimately, constraints are necessary to tell a story. Stories themselves have built-in constraints called the beginning and the end. No work of fiction can be everything to everyone. All choices in storytelling introduce constraints, and employing them deliberately is a powerful tool for a writer.

***

Eco’s advice in Confessions of a Young Novelist offers some excellent signposts for aspiring fiction writers. But remember: “In order to write a successful novel, one needs to keep certain recipes secret.

Better Thinking & Incentives: Lessons From Shakespeare

At Farnam Street, we aim to master the best of what other people have figured out. Not surprisingly, it’s quite a lot. The past is full of useful lessons that have much to teach us. Sometimes, we just need to remember what we’re looking for and why.

Life can be overwhelming. It seems like there’s a new technology, a new hack, a new way of doing things, or a new way we need to be every five minutes. Figuring out what to pay attention to is hard. It’s also a task we take seriously at Farnam Street. If we want to be a signal in the noise, we have to find other signals ourselves.

That’s why we spend a lot of time in the past. We like reading about history, and we like to look for timeless ideas. Learning information that is going to stay relevant for one hundred years is a better time investment than trying to digest information that will expire next week.

However, the past is a big place containing a lot of information. So it’s always appreciated when we find a source that has curated some timeless lessons from the past for us. In his book How to Think Like Shakespeare, professor Scott Newstok dives into history to pull out some of what humanity has already learned about better thinking and applying incentives.

***

Better thinking and education

“Doing and thinking are reciprocal practices.”

How do we get better at thinking? When you think about something, hopefully you learn more about it. But then the challenge becomes doing something with what you’ve learned. Often, we don’t want our knowledge to stay theoretical. We’ve learned something in order to do something. We want to put our knowledge into practice somehow.

The good news is, doing and thinking reinforce and augment each other. It’s a subtle but powerful feedback loop. You learn something. Armed with that new information, you do something. Informed by the results of your doing, you learn something new.

Throughout his book, Newstok weaves in many ideas on how to think better and how to engage with information. One of the ways to think better is to complement thinking with doing. For centuries, we’ve had the concept of “craft,” loosely understood as the knowledge one attains by doing. Newstok explains that the practice of any craft “requires—well, practice. Its difficult-to-codify habits are best transmitted in person, through modeling, observation, imitation, [and] correction adjustment.” You develop a deeper understanding when you apply your knowledge to creating something tangible. Crafting a piece of furniture is similar to crafting a philosophical argument in the sense that actually doing the work is what really develops knowledge. “Incorporating this body of knowledge, learning how to improvise within constraints, [and] appreciating how limited resources shape solutions to problems” lies at the core of mastery.

The application of what you’ve ingested in order to really learn it reminds us of the Feynman Learning Technique. To really master a subject, teach it to a novice. When you break down what you think you know into a teachable format, you begin to truly know something.

Newstok writes, “It’s human to avoid the hard work of thinking, reading, and writing. But we all fail when technology becomes a distraction from, or, worse, a substitute for, the interminable yet rewarding task of confronting the object under study.” Basically, it’s human to be lazy. It’s easier to cruise around on social media than put your ideas into action.

Better thinking takes strength. You have to be able to tune out the noise and walk away from the quick dopamine hits to put the effort into attempting to do something with your thoughts. You also need strength to confront the results and figure out how to do better next time. And even if your job is figuring out how to be better on social media, focusing on the relationship between doing and thinking will produce better results than undirected consumption.

The time and space to do something with our thoughts is how we transform what we learn into something we know.

Admittedly, knowing something often requires courage. First, the courage to admit what you don’t know, and second, the courage to be the least smart person in the room. But when you master a subject, the rewards are incredible. You have flexibility and understanding and options to keep learning.

***

Applying incentives

“If you create an incentive to hit the target, it’s all the less likely you will do so.”

Newstok explains how the wrong incentives do far more damage than diminishing our motivation to attain a goal. Applying bad incentives can diminish the effectiveness of an entire system. You get what you measure, because measuring something incentivizes you to do it.

He explores the problem of incentives in the American education system. The priority is on the immediate utility of information because the incentive is to pass tests. For students, passing tests is the path to higher education, where they can pass more tests and get validated as being a person who knows something. For teachers, students passing tests is the path to higher rankings, more students, and more funding.

Newstok suggests we don’t need to worry so much about being right and feeding the continual assessment pressure this attitude creates. Why? Because we don’t know exactly what we will need to know in the future. He writes, “When Shakespeare was born there wasn’t yet a professional theater in London. His ‘useless’ Latin drills prepared him for a job that didn’t yet exist.…Why are we wasting precious classroom hours on fleeting technical skills—skills that will become obsolete before graduates enter the workforce?” It seems that a better approach is to incentivize teaching tools that will give students the flexibility to develop their thinking in response to changes around them.

Considering the proper application of incentives in relation to future goals has ramifications in all organizations, not just schools.

A common problem in many organizations is that the opportunities to accrue further reward and compensation can only come by climbing ever higher in the pyramid. Thus people are incentivized to get into management, something they may have no interest in and may not be any good at. Not everyone who invents amazing widgets should manage a group of widget inventors. By not incentivizing alternate paths, the organization ends up losing the amazing widget inventors, handicapping itself by diminishing its adaptability.

We’ve written before about another common problem in so many offices: compensation is tied to visibility, physical presence, or volume of output and not to quality of contribution. To be fair, quality is harder to measure. But it is really more about organizational attitude. Do you want people to be busy typing or busy thinking? We all say we want thinkers. We rarely give anyone the time to think. In this case, we end up with organizations that end up being able only to produce more of the same.

And paying people by, say, profit-sharing can be great, as it incentivizes collaboration and commitment to the health of the organization. But even this needs to be managed so that the incentives don’t end up prioritizing short-term money at the expense of long term success—much like students learning only to pass tests at the expense of their future knowledge and resiliency.

Newstok suggests instead that “we all need practice in curiosity, intellectual agility, the determination to analyze, commitment to resourceful communication, historically and culturally situated reflectiveness, [and] the confidence to embrace complexity. In short: the ambition to create something better, in whatever field.” We don’t need to be incentivized for immediate performance. Rather, we need incentives to explore what might need to be known to face future challenges and respond to future opportunities.

***

The most fascinating thing about Newstok’s book is that it rests on ideas that are hundreds of years old. The problems he explores are not new, and the answers he presents to the challenges of better thinking and aligning incentives are based on perspectives provided in history books.

So maybe the ultimate lesson is the reminder that not every problem needs to be approached as a blank slate. Humanity has developed some wisdom and insight on a few topics. Before we reinvent the wheel, it’s worth looking back to leverage what we’ve already figured out.

Advice for Young Scientists—and Curious People in General

The Nobel Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar (1915–1987) is best known for work that made the first organ transplants and skin grafts possible. Medawar was also a lively, witty writer who penned numerous books on science and philosophy.

In 1979, he published Advice to a Young Scientist, a book brimming with both practical advice and philosophical guidance for anyone “engaged in exploratory activities.” Here, we summarize some of Medawar’s key insights from the book.

***

Application, diligence, a sense of purpose

“There is no certain way of telling in advance if the daydreams of a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth will carry a novice through the frustration of seeing experiments fail and of making the dismaying discovery that some of one’s favourite ideas are groundless.”

If you want to make progress in any area, you need to be willing to give up your best ideas from time to time. Science proceeds because researchers do all they can to disprove their hypotheses rather than prove them right. Medawar notes that he twice spent two whole years trying to corroborate groundless hypotheses. The key to being a good scientist is the capacity to take no for an answer—when necesssary. Additionally:

“…one does not need to be terrifically brainy to be a good scientist…there is nothing in experimental science that calls for great feats of ratiocination or a preternatural gift for deductive reasoning. Common sense one cannot do without, and one would be the better for owning some of those old-fashioned virtues which have fallen into disrepute. I mean application, diligence, a sense of purpose, the power to concentrate, to persevere and not be cast down by adversity—by finding out after long and weary inquiry, for example, that a dearly loved hypothesis is in large measure mistaken.”

The truth is, any measure of risk-taking comes with the possibility of failure. Learning from failure to continue exploring the unknown is a broadly useful mindset.

***

How to make important discoveries

“It can be said with marked confidence that any scientist of any age who wants to make important discoveries must study important problems. Dull or piffling problems yield dull or piffling answers.”

A common piece of advice for people early on in their careers is to pursue what they find most interesting. Medawar disagrees, explaining that “almost any problem is interesting if it is studied in sufficient depth.” He advises scientists to look for important problems, meaning ones with answers that matter to humankind.

When choosing an area of research, Medawar cautions against mistaking a fashion (“some new histochemical procedure or technical gimmick”) for a movement (“such as molecular genetics or cellular immunology”). Movements lead somewhere; fashions generally don’t.

***

Getting started

Whenever we begin some new endeavor, it can be tempting to think we need to know everything there is to know about it before we even begin. Often, this becomes a form of procrastination. Only once we try something and our plans make contact with reality can we know what we need to know. Medawar believes it’s unnecessary for scientists to spend an enormous amount of time learning techniques and supporting disciplines before beginning research:

“As there is no knowing in advance where a research enterprise may lead and what kind of skills it will require as it unfolds, this process of ‘equipping oneself’ has no predeterminable limits and is bad psychological policy….The great incentive to learning a new skill or supporting discipline is needing to use it.”

The best way to learn what we need to know is by getting started, then picking up new knowledge as it proves itself necessary. When there’s an urgent need, we learn faster and avoid unnecessary learning. The same can be true for too much reading:

“Too much book learning may crab and confine the imagination, and endless poring over the research of others is sometimes psychologically a research substitute, much as reading romantic fiction may be a substitute for real-life romance….The beginner must read, but intently and choosily and not too much.”

We don’t talk about this much at Farnam Street, but it is entirely possible to read too much. Reading becomes counterproductive when it serves as a substitute for doing the real thing, if that’s what someone is reading for. Medawar explains that it is “psychologically most important to get results, even if they are not original.” It’s important to build confidence by doing something concrete and seeing a visible manifestation of our labors. For Medawar, the best scientists begin with the understanding that they can never know anything and, besides, learning needs to be a lifelong process.

***

The secrets to effective collaboration

“Scientific collaboration is not at all like cooks elbowing each other from the pot of broth; nor is it like artists working on the same canvas, or engineers working out how to start a tunnel simultaneously from both sides of a mountain in such a way that the contractors do not miss each other in the middle and emerge independently at opposite ends.”

Instead, scientific collaboration is about researchers creating the right environment to develop and expand upon each other’s ideas. A good collaboration is greater than the sum of its parts and results in work that isn’t attributable to a single person.

For scientists who find their collaborators infuriating from time to time, Medawar advises being self-aware. We all have faults, and we too are probably almost intolerable to work with sometimes.

When collaboration becomes contentious, Medawar maintains that we should give away our best ideas.

Scientists sometimes face conflict over the matter of credit. If several researchers are working on the same problem, whichever one finds the solution (or a solution) first gets the credit, no matter how close the others were. This is a problem most creative fields don’t face: “The twenty years Wagner spent on composing the first three operas of The Ring were not clouded by the fear that someone else might nip ahead of him with Götterdämmerung.” Once a scientific idea becomes established, it becomes public property. So the only chance of ownership a researcher has comes by being the first.

However, Medawar advocates for being open about ideas and doing away with secrecy because “anyone who shuts his door keeps out more than he lets out.” He goes on to write, “The agreed house rule of the little group of close colleagues I have always worked with has always been ‘Tell everyone everything you know,’ and I don’t know anyone who came to any harm by falling in with it.

***

How to handle moral dilemmas

A scientist will normally have contractual obligations to his employer and has always a special and unconditionally binding obligation to the truth.

Medawar writes that many scientists, at some point in their career, find themselves grappling with the conflict between a contractual obligation and their own conscience. However, the “time to grapple is before a moral dilemma arises.” If we think an enterprise might lead somewhere damaging, we shouldn’t start on it in the first place.

We should know our values and aim to do work in accordance with them.

***

The first rule is never to fool yourself

“I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing of whether it is true or not.”

Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” All scientists make mistakes sometimes. Medawar advises, when this happens, to issue a swift correction. To do so is far more respectable and beneficial for the field than trying to cover it up. Echoing the previous advice to always be willing to take no for an answer, Medawar warns about falling in love with a hypothesis and believing it is true without evidence.

“A scientist who habitually deceives himself is well on the way toward deceiving others.”

***

The best creative environment

“To be creative, scientists need libraries and laboratories and the company of other scientists; certainly a quiet and untroubled life is a help. A scientist’s work is in no way deepened or made more cogent by privation, anxiety, distress, or emotional harassment. To be sure, the private lives of scientists may be strangely and comically mixed up, but not in ways that have any special bearing on the nature and quality of their work.”

Creativity rises from tranquility, not from disarray. Creativity is supported by a safe environment, one in which you can share and question openly and be heard with compassion and a desire to understand.

***

A final piece of advice:

“A scientist who wishes to keep his friends and not add to the number of his enemies must not be forever scoffing and criticizing and so earn a reputation for habitual disbelief; but he owes it to his profession not to acquiesce in or appear to condone folly, superstition, or demonstrably unsound belief. The recognition and castigation of folly will not win him friends, but it may gain him some respect.”

The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right

If you expect a dazzling feat, you might just get one.

Many people believe that their pets are of unusual intelligence and can understand everything they say, often with stories of abnormal behavior to back it up. In the late 19th century, one man made such a claim about his horse—and appeared to have evidence to prove it to anyone.

Wilhelm Von Osten was a teacher and horse trainer who believed animals could learn to read or count. Von Osten’s initial attempts with dogs and a bear were unsuccessful, but when he began working with an unusual horse, he ended up changing our understanding of psychology. Known as Clever Hans, the horse in question could answer questions with 90 percent accuracy by tapping his hoof. He could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and tell the time and the date.

Clever Hans could also read and understand questions written or asked in German. Crowds flocked to see the horse, and the scientific community soon grew interested. Researchers studied the horse, looking for signs of trickery. Yet they found none. The horse could answer questions asked by anyone, even if Von Osten was absent. This indicated that no signaling was at play. For a while, the world believed the horse was truly clever.

Then psychologist Oskar Pfungst turned his attention to Clever Hans. Assisted by a team of researchers, he uncovered two anomalies. When blinkered or behind a screen, the horse could not answer questions. Likewise, he could respond only if the questioner knew the answer. From these observations, Pfungst deduced that Clever Hans was not making any mental calculations. Nor did he understand numbers or language in the human sense. Although Von Osten had intended no trickery, the act was false.

Instead, Clever Hans had learned to detect subtle yet consistent nonverbal cues. When someone asked a question, Clever Hans responded to their body language with a degree of accuracy many poker players would envy. For example, when someone asked Clever Hans to make a calculation, he would begin tapping his hoof. Once he reached the correct answer, the questioner would show involuntary signs. Pfungst found that many people tilted their head at this point. Clever Hans would recognize this behavior and stop.

When blinkered or when the questioner did not know the answer, the horse didn’t have a clue. When he couldn’t see the cues, he had no answer. People believed the horse understood them, so they effectively made it possible. Subtle cues in our behavior influence what other people are capable of. The horse was obviously unusually smart, but no one would have known if he hadn’t been given the opportunity to display it. Which raises the question: what unimagined things could we all be capable of if someone simply expected them?

***

How expectations influence performance

The term “Pygmalion effect” was coined in reference to studies done in the 1960s on the influence of teacher expectations on students’ IQs. The studies asked if teachers had high expectations, would those expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies regardless of initial IQ? In that particular case, years of debate and analysis have resulted in the conclusion that the effects were negligible.

Nonetheless, the concept of the Pygmalion effect—expectations influencing performance and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies—is widespread. Many people have stories of achieving something just because someone had especially high expectations of them.

In Pygmalion in Management, J. Sterling Livingston writes:

“Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most…unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.”

The Pygmalion effect suggests our reality is negotiable and can be manipulated by others—on purpose or by accident. What we achieve, how we think, how we act, and how we perceive our capabilities can be influenced by the expectations of those around us.

Clever Hans was an intelligent horse, but he was smart because he could read almost imperceptible nonverbal cues, not because he could do math. So he did have unusual capabilities, as shown by the fact that few other animals have proved capable of the same.

An interesting use of the Pygmalion effect might be that suggested by George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. In it, Professor Henry Higgins takes a poor flower seller from the streets, Eliza Doolittle, and by giving her elocution lessons helps her sound like a duchess. Being able to speak like a member of the upper classes is meant to open doors and give her opportunities that she would otherwise never have.

The play is, among other things, an exploration of how others’ expectations limit us. Eliza has far more potential than can be realized solely because of her accent. A critical part of the plot is that Eliza herself is all too aware of how her speech holds her back and diminishes her value in the eyes of others. She is the one who follows Higgins and cajoles him into taking her on as a student. She sees the opportunities that will follow from changing her accent.

The improvements in Eliza’s speech alone do not confer the opportunities. But being able to speak like a duchess puts her in the company of people from whom she can learn the sentiments and sensibilities of the upper class. When she begins to speak like them, they treat her differently, giving her an opening to expand her capabilities.

***

Check your assumptions

The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.” —Carl Sagan

In Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education, Robert T. Tauber describes an exercise in which people are asked to list their assumptions about people with certain descriptions. These included a cheerleader, “a minority woman with four kids at the market using food stamps,” and a “person standing outside smoking on a cold February day.” An anonymous survey of undergraduate students revealed mostly negative assumptions. Tauber asks the reader to consider how being exposed to these types of assumptions might affect someone’s day-to-day life.

The expectations people have of us affect us in countless subtle ways each day. Like Eliza Doolittle, those expectations dictate the opportunities we are offered, how we are spoken to, and the praise and criticism we receive. Individually, these knocks and nudges may have minimal impact. In the long run, however, they might dictate whether we succeed or fail or fall somewhere on the spectrum in between.

A perfect illustration of this is the case of James Sweeney and George Johnson, as described in Pygmalion in Management. Sweeney was a teacher at Tulane University, where Johnson worked as a porter. Aware of the Pygmalion effect, or perhaps just familiar with the play, Sweeney had a hunch that he could teach anyone to be a competent computer operator. He began his experiment, offering Johnson lessons each afternoon. Other university staff were dubious, especially as Johnson appeared to have a low IQ. But the effort was successful, and the former janitor eventually became responsible for training new computer operators.

The Pygmalion effect is best understood as a reminder to be mindful of the potential influence of our expectations. Even if the effect is small, having high expectations in many situations can only inspire others regarding their own capabilities. People’s limitations can be stretched if you change your perception of their limitations.

A lot of what we accomplish in life is done in groups. Individual success is often dependent on some degree of team success. Thus, we have a better chance of succeeding when we are around others who succeed. If you want the people around you to have success, you can try raising your expectations.

If you expect the worst, you’ll probably get it.

Efficiency is the Enemy

There’s a good chance most of the problems in your life and work come down to insufficient slack. Here’s how slack works and why you need more of it.

Imagine if you, as a budding productivity enthusiast, one day gained access to a time machine and decided to take a trip back several decades to the office of one of your old-timey business heroes. Let’s call him Tony.

You disguise yourself as a janitor and figure a few days of observation should be enough to reveal the secret of that CEO’s incredible productivity and shrewd decision-making. You want to learn the habits and methods that enabled him to transform an entire industry for good.

Arriving at the (no doubt smoke-filled) office, you’re a little surprised to find it’s far from a hive of activity. In fact, the people you can see around seem to be doing next to nothing. Outside your hero’s office, his secretary lounges at her desk (and let’s face it, the genders wouldn’t have been the other way around.) Let’s call her Gloria. She doesn’t appear busy at all. You observe for half an hour as she reads, tidies her desk, and chats with other secretaries who pass by. They don’t seem busy either. Confused as to why Tony would squander money on idle staff, you stick around for a few more hours.

With a bit more observation, you realize your initial impression was entirely wrong. Gloria does indeed do nothing much of the time. But every so often, a request, instruction, or alert comes from Tony and she leaps into action. Within minutes, she answers the call, sends the letter, reschedules the appointment, or finds the right document. Any time he has a problem, she solves it right away. There’s no to-do list, no submitting a ticket, no waiting for a reply to an email for either Tony or Gloria.

As a result, Tony’s day goes smoothly and efficiently. Every minute of his time goes on the most important part of his work—making decisions—and not on dealing with trivial inconveniences like waiting in line at the post office.

All that time Gloria spends doing nothing isn’t wasted time. It’s slack: excess capacity allowing for responsiveness and flexibility. The slack time is important because it means she never has a backlog of tasks to complete. She can always deal with anything new straight away. Gloria’s job is to ensure Tony is as busy as he needs to be. It’s not to be as busy as possible.

If you ever find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, sinking into stasis despite wanting to change, or frustrated when you can’t respond to new opportunities, you need more slack in your life.

In Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, Tom DeMarco explains that most people and organizations fail to recognize the value of slack. Although the book is now around twenty years old, its primary message is timeless and worth revisiting.

***

The enemy of efficiency

“You’re efficient when you do something with minimum waste. And you’re effective when you’re doing the right something.”

Many organizations are obsessed with efficiency. They want to be sure every resource is utilized to its fullest capacity and everyone is sprinting around every minute of the day doing something. They hire expert consultants to sniff out the faintest whiff of waste.

As individuals, many of us are also obsessed with the mirage of total efficiency. We schedule every minute of our day, pride ourselves on forgoing breaks, and berate ourselves for the slightest moment of distraction. We view sleep, sickness, and burnout as unwelcome weaknesses and idolize those who never seem to succumb to them. This view, however, fails to recognize that efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing.

Total efficiency is a myth. Let’s return to Gloria and Tony. Imagine if Tony decided to assign her more work to ensure she spends a full eight hours a day busy. Would that be more efficient? Not really. Slack time enables her to respond to his requests right away, thus being effective at her job. If Gloria is already occupied, Tony will have to wait and whatever he’s doing will get held up. Both of them would be less effective as a result.

Any time we eliminate slack, we create a build-up of work. DeMarco writes, “As a practical matter, it is impossible to keep everyone in the organization 100 percent busy unless we allow for some buffering at each employee’s desk. That means there is an inbox where work stacks up.

Many of us have come to expect work to involve no slack time because of the negative way we perceive it. In a world of manic efficiency, slack often comes across as laziness or a lack of initiative. Without slack time, however, we know we won’t be able to get through new tasks straight away, and if someone insists we should, we have to drop whatever we were previously doing. One way or another, something gets delayed. The increase in busyness may well be futile:

“It’s possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack. It’s also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously. In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, reinvent itself, and make necessary change.”

***

Defining slack

DeMarco defines slack as “the degree of freedom required to effect change. Slack is the natural enemy of efficiency and efficiency is the natural enemy of slack.” Elsewhere, he writes: “Slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health.”

To illustrate the concept, DeMarco asks the reader to imagine one of those puzzle games consisting of eight numbered tiles in a box, with one empty space so you can slide them around one at a time. The objective is to shuffle the tiles into numerical order. That empty space is the equivalent of slack. If you remove it, the game is technically more efficient, but “something else is lost. Without the open space, there is no further possibility of moving tiles at all. The layout is optimal as it is, but if time proves otherwise, there is no way to change it.

Having a little bit of wiggle room allows us to respond to changing circumstances, to experiment, and to do things that might not work.

Slack consists of excess resources. It might be time, money, people on a job, or even expectations. Slack is vital because it prevents us from getting locked into our current state, unable to respond or adapt because we just don’t have the capacity.

Not having slack is taxing. Scarcity weighs on our minds and uses up energy that could go toward doing the task at hand better. It amplifies the impact of failures and unintended consequences.

Too much slack is bad because resources get wasted and people get bored. But, on the whole, an absence of slack is a problem far more often than an excess of it. If you give yourself too much slack time when scheduling a project that goes smoother than expected, you probably won’t spend the spare time sitting like a lemon. Maybe you’ll recuperate from an earlier project that took more effort than anticipated. Maybe you’ll tinker with some on-hold projects. Maybe you’ll be able to review why this one went well and derive lessons for the future. And maybe slack time is just your reward for doing a good job already! You deserve breathing room.

Slack also allows us to handle the inevitable shocks and surprises of life. If every hour in our schedules is accounted for, we can’t slow down to recover from a minor cold, shift a bit of focus to learning a new skill for a while, or absorb a couple of hours of technical difficulties.

In general, you need more slack than you expect. Unless you have a lot of practice, your estimations of how long things will take or how difficult they are will almost always be on the low end. Most of us treat best-case scenarios as if they are the most likely scenarios and will inevitably come to pass, but they rarely do.

You also need to keep a vigilant eye on how fast you use up your slack so you can replenish it in time. For example, you might want to review your calendar once per week to check it still has white space each day and you haven’t allowed meetings to fill up your slack time. Think of the forms of slack that are more important to you, then check up on them regularly. If you find you’re running out of slack, take action.

Once in a while, you might need to forgo slack to reap the benefits of constraints. Lacking slack in the short term or in a particular area can force you to be more inventive. If you find yourself struggling to come up with a creative solution, try consciously reducing your slack. For example, give yourself five-minutes to brainstorm ideas or ask yourself what you might do if your budget were slashed by 90%.

Most of the time, though, it’s critical to guard your slack with care. It’s best to assume you’ll always tend toward using it up—or other people will try to steal it from you. Set clear boundaries in your work and keep an eye on tasks that might inflate.

***

Slack and change

In the past, people and organizations could sometimes get by without much slack—at least for a while. Now, even as slack keeps becoming more and more vital for survival, we’re keener than ever to eliminate it in the name of efficiency. Survival requires constant change and reinvention, which “require a commodity that is absent in our time as it has never been before. That commodity—the catalytic ingredient of change—is slack.” DeMarco goes on to write:

“Slack is the time when reinvention happens. It is time when you are not 100 percent busy doing the operational business of your firm. Slack is the time when you are 0 percent busy. Slack at all levels is necessary to make the organization work effectively and to grow. It is the lubricant of change. Good companies excel in creative use of slack. And bad ones only obsess about removing it.”

Only when we are 0 percent busy can we step back and look at the bigger picture of what we’re doing. Slack allows us to think ahead. To consider whether we’re on the right trajectory. To contemplate unseen problems. To mull over information. To decide if we’re making the right trade-offs. To do things that aren’t scalable or that might not have a chance to prove profitable for a while. To walk away from bad deals.

***

Slack and productivity

The irony is that we achieve far more in the long run when we have slack. We are more productive when we don’t try to be productive all the time.

DeMarco explains that the amount of work each person in an organization has is never static: “Things change on a day-to-day basis. This results in new unevenness of the tasks, with some people incurring additional work (their buffers build up), while others become less loaded, since someone ahead of them in the work chain is slower to generate their particular kind of work to pass along.” An absence of slack is unsustainable. Inevitably, we end up needing additional resources, which have to come from somewhere.

Being comfortable with sometimes being 0 percent busy means we think about whether we’re doing the right thing. This is in contrast to grabbing the first task we see so no one thinks we’re lazy. The expectation of “constant busyness means efficiency” creates pressure to always look occupied and keep a buffer of work on hand. If we see our buffer shrinking and we want to keep busy, the only possible solution is to work slower.

Trying to eliminate slack causes work to expand. There’s never any free time because we always fill it.

Amos Tversky said the secret to doing good research is to always be a little underemployed; you waste years by not being able to waste hours. Those wasted hours are necessary to figure out if you’re headed in the right direction.