Sunday, September 14, 2014

“Mind and Spirit”–> Lencioni Changes My Life

I’d like to introduce you to Patrick Lencioni, a new friend of mine that caused me to view the world in a completely different way.  While Christianity is at the core off my life, there are three additional people that have made an indelible mark on me.

1. Peter Senge, who I read when I was 20 years ago

2. Kahnemann and Tversky, who was introduced to me via Dan Ariely’s books around 5 years ago.

3. Now Patrick Lencioni, who I just read 4 weeks ago

I have over 3000 books, and I continually am reading new thoughts and ideas.  I can normally find something good in all of the books that I have, but rarely will I say a book has changed my life.  However, when I read “The Five Dysfunctions of A Team,” I will never look at work again in the same way.  After reading this book, I walked around in a haze for almost a week, thinking about the truth of his words. Because he is a best selling author, I know his work has been read, but it is obvious that much of it has not been implemented by most companies.

In this post, we will give you a teaser on his work, but then we’ll talk a bit about why his work is not embraced.

I had bought the book almost 2 years ago, but it sat unread on a local reading pile.  While I have a ton of books that I am reading all the time, more are always constantly coming in.  However, I had been in an argument with one of my peers inside of my work, and they kept insisting on a definition of trust that I completely disagreed with an I felt was incredibly illogical.  He has a backbone, and he kept insisting that he was right.  However, he was so wrong (my cognitive hole) that I simply couldn’t listen to him.  Until he said, “you know like that definition in the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.” 

This caused me to do a reset.  I knew that the book was very famous, and I had always wanted to get around to reading it, but the title of the book was something that completely turned me off.  I hate the pop term dysfunction because it is just applied to everything.  However, he spurred my interest, so I picked up the book at started to read.

I was blown away.

The 5DOAT (Five Dysfunctions Of A Team) is a fable.  It tells a story of a company that is a recent start-up in the neighborhood of the Silicon Valley. Lencioni used the exactly same teaching method as our Lord and Savior: he tells a parable or a fable to get through a deeper point.  (This should not be a surprise because Lencioni is a practicing Catholic, with strong ties to the Church.)  If you are not from business, you won’t understand why this book is so appealing, but if you have ever been engaged in a high performance team, his message will cut you to the quick. 

In the fable, he shows a team that is working together, and he shows who is helpful to the team and who is hurtful to the team.  Unfortunately, as I read the story, I recognized myself in some of the good characters, but I also recognized much of myself in the bad characters.  I recognized mistakes that I have made in my own career over the last 20 years.  And when I say mistakes, I mean massive mistakes.  If I had only been trained in this methodology, I could have been 500% more effective in my career. 

I have immediately gone and tried to apply this learning to my job.  However, it is like my quest to pick up golf when I turned 40 a little over a decade ago.  I can become pretty good, and even better than average.  If I had been doing this at a young age, I could have been an expert. 

Now, the one thing you should not do is go and read an outline of the book.  The lesson is going to seem extremely trite and obvious.  It is the parable that make the lesson stick.  I can tell a million people that they should spend less than they earn, yet most of them do not act on this knowledge.  By reading the book, you have a much better chance of having the lessons stick.  The concept is easy.  The learning is hard.

So, I will not tell you the story.  I will explain the principles behind it.

Lencioni’s model involves understanding that companies are broken up into two parts:

1. How smart they are:  This is things that you can measure:  processes, computer systems, numbers of Ph.Ds, your systems, and even your strategy.

2. How healthy they are:  This is things that you can’t measure but impact the interaction of your people:  commitment to the company, the way that people interact with each other, the way that you make decisions, the willingness of people to straightforwardly address improper behavior, and the characteristics of self-discipline

The common vernacular for these two types of smarts is “IQ” for intelligence quotient and “EQ” for emotional quotient.

1. If you are smart, you have high IQ

2. If you are healthy, you have high EQ   

Lencioni points out that there are ways to increase a teams EQ potential.  Before we dig into EQ, let’s chat about IQ and why this really doesn’t matter as much.

imageI work with and I manage an engineering group.  This group is made up of stereotypical engineers, who are pretty smart.  Depending on the study, engineers have an average IQ of roughly 126 IQ points.  (Wisconsin showed closer to 112, but lack of how they measured makes me strongly doubt this number.)

If you have ever looked at IQ, you’ll know that IQ is distributed in a bell shape curve with a gaussian distribution.  This bell curves is shown in the figure above, which looks like a bell.  The .  This means that there are a lot of people with an IQ of 100, and if you tested 100 people the most likely “top rank” score would be at 100.  Now that you know the top, you want to know “how much is contained in a range.”  The way we do this is by creating a number called a “sigma” and 1 sigma or deviation (as it is called) has 34.1% of the population.  We then look at the top of the curve, or 100 IQ points, and we’ll take a sigma or one deviation to either side of the top.  In our case for IQ, 68.2% of the population (or two deviations) range from an IQ of 85 to 115.  Yet, we are speaking about engineers.  Engineers, as I wrote above, have an average IQ of around 126.

If we overlay the average engineering intelligence on the bell curve, we get a line here:

image

Now, the next step can be just a little bit confusing, but our general expectation is that any occupation should look generally bell shaped or Gaussian.  The overall make up of the bell curve is made up of a bunch of smaller bell curves.  However, the peak of the smaller bell curve, should be at the top of the super bell curve.  This can be seen in the curve below.

image 

Hopefully, this should make sense.  You may say, “Well fine, the bell curve is the bell curve.  All populations deviate in the ranges of the abilities in the bell curve.”  Yes, while this is true, the real point is “as the peak gets smaller, the one standard deviation gets much smaller.”  In essence, as you move to engineers, you are going to find the spread of intelligence in this community is pretty small.

Let me give you an example.  If you are dealing with the general population, somebody in the top 16% (this is one standard deviation to the right of the mean) is going to have an IQ that is 15 points higher than your population.  This is a lot of points, and this person is going to be much faster than your average person.

However, now take a look at the smaller curve that I drew for electrical engineers.  To be in the top 16% of electrical engineers, you need to be 4 or 5 IQ points higher.  In other words, all of you people are packed into an exceptionally small range.  I have found this in the groups that I managed.  With a few exceptions, which in retrospect I spotted because of a poor academic record, almost all of my engineers are bright people.  With a little bit of work, they can all solve the exact same set of problems. 

This is a great secret that everybody should hang onto.  The more that you can hire professions that intrinsically have a high IQ, the less precious is that high IQ, because everybody is smart.  (I am ignoring outliers, which is another subject, which is a game changer.)  The bigger aspects is now a secondary function. 

Your ability to work with people and inside of teams is spread on the exact same bell curve.  There are some people that are good natured.  They are forgiving.  They keep the team spirit high.  They share the credit and they bring up the overall performance of the team.  There are others that are backbitters.  They try and get credit for other people’s work.  They constantly complain about other people.  They are political and they lobby for their ideas so they get the personal credit.

The problem is that there is no standardized test for this undesirable part.  Companies are made of individuals and these individuals are made up of three attributes:  being a sociopath, being clueless, and being a loser.  What Lencioni tries and do is create a system where you can pull out a team’s EQ, something that I call the TQ or “Team Quotient.”  He does so in a brilliant fashion, and those individuals that can’t commit to the TQ are either fixed, or they are replaced.

Sounds simple.  Why isn’t it implemented everywhere.  The key to this is understanding the make up of a company.  Hugh MacLeod, on gapping video, has the following comic about how companies are structured.

At the top of the pyramid is the sociopaths.  In a nutshell, these individuals often get to the top of the pyramid because they are willing to do things that most of us are not willing to do.  They are very willing to play the politics.  They will take credit for other people’s work.  They judge on items that are more political than they are based in facts.

In some sense, there are two types of sociopaths.  You have that smart but ruthless sociopath.  This individual will make the company a success.  They may burn down the internal benefits, or devalue other fringe benefits for the rest of the employees.  However, they will be running a successful business if they are smart.  To be led by a ruthless sociopath is better than being led by the other type.

The other type of sociopath is based around image and elite social class.  Companies can be successful because they simply got lucky.  If you just happened to be in a given field when this field became successful, then the company can be very successful.  The success comes from right time and right place.  Normally, the leaders at the top of this chain have attribution error.  They think the company is successful because they are running in the company.  In reality, the company is successful with good or bad leadership.

As I have written before, Taleb waxes on about this to great length in his book “Fooled by Randomness.”  If you want, reviewing survivorship bias would be a good exercise now.

However, even the sociopaths recognize that to have a company of sociopaths is not useful.  Often they will recognize each other and carve our space for each other, but they are not willing for everybody to be on their level.  Instead, they know that they need selfless, hardworking individuals, who will kill themselves for the company.  These are the guys that work really hard and believe that by hard work, they will get ahead in the company.  They are often na├»ve, but have some redeeming value of truly hard work.  These guys are the clueless.  In the worst of all worlds, the clueless are the one that simply mouth the party line, and try to believe in the words of the sociopath.  All in all, they received benefits, but not at the level of the sociopath.

The biggest class is the losers.  They fundamentally are the ones that always get hit in layoffs.  They are the ones that get blamed.  They are on the receiving end.  They look at the clueless and say, “why would I ever want to spend ever minute in the office, and stop all of my vacation so I can address a work issue?”  For these people, they are doing a job.  They put in enough work not to get fired, but they are not going to fully engage in the job because they are not capable, they don’t see the payback, or they simply don’t want to be hurt when something they work on very hard does not happen.

Why do I mention this?  Because for Lencioni’s work to be highly effective, you need to start from the top of a company.  Although in the comic, it shows these layers at the top or the bottom of the pyramid, in reality, we all have a bit of a sociopath, clueless, and loser in us.  If you are very lucky, your top level will have a desire to create a company for more than just themselves.  Quite frankly, our sociopathic side of our nature doesn’t want to confront the changes that Lencioni calls for.  The changes that happen are very anti-sociopathic.  It is hard to stomach something that goes against your nature that allowed you to go forward.  The people that need this work the most are the least able to hear the conversation.

As I quoted in my last post: 

Matt 13:14:

“You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be every seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s hearts has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.”

So, where do we go from here?

At the bare minimum, by being familiar with the Lencioni model, you can hope to find a group which aspires to live outside the normal bounds  If you are really lucky, you can take your success and point to why it is successful.  Then the proof is in the pudding.  However, just insisting that this is the best way will make you no more successful than Semmelweis, as we discussed in our last post.

I know that this is what I’m trying to do.

Friday, September 12, 2014

“Mind and Spirit” –> Take Out The Splinter In Your Own Eye

File:Ignaz Semmelweis 1863 last image.jpgIgnaz Semmelweis was 100% right and went crazy because of it.  You might not recognize the name, but Semmelweis had a master’s touch in fixing the unfixable.  Therefore, he was ignored for 20 years, and died in an insane asylum.  Does this sound like craziness?  In the real world, the best ideas don’t always survive, and probability and chance can overcome true understanding.

Semmelweis was a doctor and worked at Vienna’s general hospital in the early 1800s.  At the time, going to the hospital to deliver a baby was a very dangerous affair.  The mortality rates for deliveries in these hospitals would range somewhere from around 10 to 35%. 

Just think about this, if you had a child and were forced to go to the hospital, the mother was playing a very dangerous game of Russian roulette.  Semmelweis worked at the Vienna hospital, which had two separate sections.  One section had the babies delivered by midwives.  The other section had the babies delivered by doctors.  He noticed that mothers that had their babies delivered by midwives had mortality rates that were far lower than the rates of death when the baby was delivered by the doctors.   

The Doctors of the day had no concept of infections and had no concept of germs.  So after they operated or helped deliver a baby, they would continue to wear the same clothes.  Having a good bit of blood on you showed that you were a busy man, and had been taken care of business.  However, this was a breeding ground for disease and death. 

Semmelweis had deep convictions and really was concerned for the people under his care.  When a close friend Jakob Kolletschka was killed by an unfortunate infection from a dirty scalpel, Semmelweis was able to put all the parts together and understand that it was something from the dirty scalpel that carried the disease.  In a similar fashion, if the mothers were dying it must be something similar.  The rates of infection and high levels of death must be by something similar to the infected scalpel.

Therefore, Semmelweis hypothesized that some how the doctors were carrying death from one mother to the other.  He then had the foresight to test various compounds and stumbled on a disinfectant (chlorine wash) that some how stopped the progression of disease.  If the doctors would wash in the solution, the rates of infection and consequent death dropped to 1%.

He published his ideas with the backing data around 1848.  If you can image yourself in a similar way, you would be excited to understand the power that you were about to unleash on the world.  Needless death and misery would soon be eradicated by doing something as simple as washing your hands in a special solution that was easy to come by.  However, he did not receive a warm reception, and instead he was ridiculed for his efforts by other doctors that knew he couldn’t be right.

Semmelweis was distraught.  Here he was saving many lives, and yet his peers had no concept of what he was talking about.  He did what most of us would do.  He yelled the louder and insisted that he was right.  This started a stressful, nasty war that went on with his peers for many years.  He was the crackpot.  He was the guy that just would not let it go.  It eventually got to him, and he got more abusive.  This ended with him in a mental institution, where he had a fight with the staff, and they beat him to death.  His theories were validated just a few years after his death, by a man better known for a mouthwash. 

Joseph Lister in Glascow, followed down a similar line of thought, but not because he had followed Semmelweis. 

Instead, Lister followed the work of Louis Pasteur, who had a clear theory of germs as the infecting agent.  While Lister used carbolic acid, the end result was the same as the chlorine rinse.  When Doctors would disinfect themselves, rates of disease would drop like a rock. 

To understand Lister, we might want to understand that Lister was born a Quaker, and while he later joined the mainstream Scottish Church, he was used to being an outcast.  The Quakers were a strange and odd people at the time.  Many couldn’t quite understand what they were all about, and I’m sure that this influenced Lister’s unbringing.  Through a series of article and visits, by around 1870, this new idea of being clean was taking off dramatically.

Lister had a different approach.  He said things more gently.  He had a series of followers that would echo his words.  He visited many other hospitals to explain his thoughts.  It is said that after he had down this, he returned to Glascow as a local celebrity.  People would come to listen to him, and gain his understanding.

The story behind this is that humans, and we are all humans, have massive blindspots that keep us from seeing the truth.  We are not higher evolved than the doctors of Semmelweis’s day.  All the shortcoming of these doctors are present not in others, but in ourselves.  It is only through patience and kindness do ideas take off.

Matt 7:3 calls this out in a dramatic fashion when our Lord calls out, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

This verses has been a great source of insight for many years for me.  I have heard the allusion explained many ways.

When Christ says this verse, the first thing that we should realize is that he exaggerated to the extreme for effect.  There are some that think that he was showing humor here to his audience, and this makes a lot of sense to me.  Somehow we think of Jesus as some person that we could not relate to that sat around in a mystic fog.  He was around 6 foot tall.  He was white.  He smiled knowingly like he was always had a track on an inside joke. 

In reality, he was a Hebrew.  Looked nothing like a white German guy.  And he probably had a good sense of humor, including these saying such as “plank in your eye” and “a camel through a needle’s eye.”  This is the oldest form of humor, where the man making the joke simply calls out an effect to the extreme.  My wife “enjoys” worrying about our children.  Now, she really does worry about some important stuff, but she worries too much.  However, if our family is driving to church, I know I can crack the entire van up (with all 4 of our kids) by saying things like, “Don’t tell Mom about the papercut that you got, you’ll be off to the surgeon.” Or, “If Mom hears you sneezing, you better be prepared to spend a couple of days in bed.”  While it cracks everybody up, Mom also knows that it is telling her to “worry less.”

So, when our Lord talks about the plank in our eye, the local audience of the day probably had a good laugh.  “Yeah, Lord don’t you know it,” they probably echoed back to him.

However, on this one, there is a deeper truth.  A speck in your brothers eye is very small.  That exact same speck in your own eye looks much larger, or even as big as a plank.  It is because it is so closer to you.  So while we can see the plank in our neighbors eye, we really should be seeing the speck in our own eye because it should be as big as a plank.  Yet, we don’t see it.  We are just blind.  Jesus was telling us that the thing that easiest to see and obvious to see, is completely overlooked by ourselves. 

Why?  Well the answer to this one should be obvious if you’ve read my last couple of posts.  The problem is cognitive bias. 

This concept is very important in the Bible and repeated multiple times.  Isaiah speaks to it first, and then his words are repeated in the New Testament.  In Matt 13:14, it is simply said as, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be every seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s hearts has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.”

Semmelweis was absolutely correct.  His methods solved infection and saved lives.  However, the right message in the wrong container never gets heard.  In light of the tragedy that happened here, I need to repeat this because my point will not seem to make sense to many.

1. Semmelweis’s peers had a blindspot.  They could not see that Semmelweis had a technique that could save many, many lives.

2. Semmelweis had a blindspot.  He could not see that the way that presented his story and his data to other only made them dig in their heels and not respond.

Wikipedia describes his state nicely, “Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind…”

It is incredibly hard being right and having nobody listen to you. 

It is incredibly wrong to be totally correct and not present your story in a fashion that allows others to listen to you.

I recently read a college text book on leadership.  There are all types of theories and schools of thoughts on leadership.  Some people think that Leaders must have a particular trait, and these traits make you a leader.  Some people think that leadership is about the situation that you are in, and depending on the situation, you modify your behavior to lead others.  Others talk to the contract made between certain followers and the leader (LMX).

In reality, there are only two things that leaders do:

1. They are capable of determining the right path for the future.

2. They are capable of talking others into that path.

If you have just #1, you are a hermit.  You have secret knowledge that nobody else has, but this does nobody any good.  Knowledge that is yours alone is good only to you.  If you have #2, but you don’t know the right way to go, you are a super salesperson.  The original splinter in most of our eyes is not recognizing that when we preach the good news, we have to do it in a way that opens the gospel up for those that we are talking to. 

Finally, one more thought for the day.  It turns out that these blindspots are extremely difficult for us to see.  The speck in our own eye is a speck that we cannot take out ourselves.  Really, what we need to do is find somebody else that can call out the spot for us  Highly effective organizations have people that can correct each other in such a fashion that the entire group can get better.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

“Mind and Spirit”–> Conditional Probability Part 2

One of the things that I notice about this generation is the mass fragmentation that happens.  When I was a child or a teenager, we did not have the internet.  Therefore, we got our data from common sources.  You could not go to Pandora, therefore, you listened to a few radio stations that were available.  This means that groups would be divided into maybe 10 major chunks, and at school you would find the group that listened to the same station.

The same was true for television.  There were very few channels, and cable was just starting.  This means that everybody would pretty much watch the same type of shows and have a common base of knowledge and ability to relate.

This gave everybody a common thread or base of understanding.  This means that there is less fracturing, and, in many ways, more heroes that everybody knows. 

What happens if you were in a niche?  Even the niches were much more common.  If you were into science, you did not have many different sources.  Because my father was an engineer, we had a subscription to Popular Science.  Although my father was not much of a physicist, from time to time, he would subscribe to Scientific American.  Scientific American was designed to take the difficult and theoretical subjects of the day, and create article that could be read by those that may not want to wade through the math, but did want an understanding of what these new theories might say.  It was never simple, but it was never out of reach.

When the magazine came, I would often open it, flip through it, then find myself on the back cover of the magazine right by the section written by Martin Gardner, the person in the black and white photo above.  All of the nerds and science geeks new Gardner, due to his playful column in Scientific American.  He was known as being a magician, which attracted him to me because I was heavily into illusions and magic as a child.  Much of what he liked to do was show readers how they could play around with numbers. 

What does this have to do with conditional probability or Thomas Bayes?  Gardner famously created (or told) the two child problem, which we want to go through today in this post.  If you can get a sense of the two child problem, you will start to understand why probability is so hard to grasp.

We are going to tell the problem in a slightly different form to prevent some of the problems (which Gardner admits to) in his first writing.

Here is the problem:  You are are an accountant that works in megacorporation.  Megacorporation asks you and your computer operator mysterious questions that you must answer.  Many times you don’t know why they ask you the questions, you only know that they ask you in mysterious ways.  Because you are secretly trying to find the power behind Megacorporation for a book your are working on, you are happy for your job as you gather secret notes.

One day, a command comes down from on high and it asks you to have you pull all the demographic data for a town called Childville.  In particular, it wants you to pull the data for all families that have two children where at least one of the children is a girl.  Your computer operator says that it will take a minute to run the data, and he’d like to go to lunch. You want to agree to go to lunch with him, and you agree that you can take a look at the data when you get back.

When you get back, the query has stopped running.  You walk over to the data base, but before you can look at the data, you get a phone call  A mysterious person on the other end of the phone says, “Of the new data set, what is the chance that both children will be girls?”

What will your answer be?

What is the answer?

If you have one in your mind, you probably have the wrong one.  If you remember the dice problem from the last blog post, you might think of the answer as a real life example. Now here is where the beauty of Bayes comes in. We know that it is very tricky for us to figure out what the percentage chance of the second child being a girl if we have the solution set where one of the children is a girl. However, we can easily see that if both children are girls, then the second child will obviously be a girl.

Let’s say that Mr. Jones is walking down the street.  There are two children that he is pushing in an extended baby carriage.  Mr. Jones says to you, “My first child is a boy, what is the chance that the second child is a boy?”

Since you know the first child is a boy, you know that the chance of the second child being a boy is right around 50% (and for purposes of this post, let’s say that boy and girls are always born at the 50% level).  If you didn’t know that the first child was a boy, the chances of having two boys would be 25%.  As soon as you know the first child, however, then it becomes a coin flip to get the second child.

Therefore, it is very tempting to tell the mysterious voice on the telephone that the answer is 50%, because you have pulled all of the pairs of children with one girl.  This must mean the second child has a 50% chance of being a girl also.  Right?

The answer is wrong.

This feels very wrong, and Gardner decided to point this out.   To understand why it is wrong, the only way to quickly to see the answer is to simply write out the possible solution set, similar to the solution set we showed in the last post on dice. 

Luckily for you, this problem is so well known that it is on Wikipedia.  Here is the way to think about Mr. Jones.  You start by listing out the solution set of all the children.

First Child Second Child
Girl Girl
Girl Boy
Boy Girl
Boy Boy

With Mr. Jones, you know that the first child is a girl.  Therefore, you get to knock out the the cells where the first child is a boy.

First Child Second Child
Girl Girl
Girl Boy
Boy Girl
Boy Boy

Thus there are only two options for the second child, boy or girl.

However, the computer data set was picked differently.  It sorted through all the families that had two children.  So the beginning solution set looks the same as the Mr. Jones entry solution set.

First Child Second Child
Girl Girl
Girl Boy
Boy Girl
Boy Boy

However, the computer doesn’t know about first child versus second child.  Remember the data that you pulled is for all families where one of the children is a girl.  This means that you solution set will look like the following:

First Child Second Child
Girl Girl
Girl Boy
Boy Girl
Boy Boy

What you have done is only removed the families where they had two boys.  In the first case, you removed not only the case where the families had two boys, but the very moment you knew that the first child was a girl, you removed the case where the first case was a boy.

This should make you feel uncomfortable.  In our brains, we should say, “wait a minute, in both cases we find out that one of the children is a girl.  Why should knowing the position of which one of them is a girl change everything?  This is true of everybody.  It is well documented that this is a cognitive hole in our brains. 

If you look at the charts above, the more you think about it, should yield an “Ah hah!” moment.  If you think about it for a while, you’ll start to understand that the two questions filtered the original set in two different ways. 

In the computer situation, we only filtered out the boy-boy pairs.  In the Mr. Jones situation, we filtered out all of the answers where the first child was a boy.  Although they look very similar, in reality, the data has been filtered in two very different ways. 

This filtering of data is what Bayesian Statistics is all about.  Because we often make mistakes in probability, by using Bayesian tools, we can formally solve these filtering problems.

This filtering of probability is called conditional probability.  Basically, it means that something happens to cause the data to be filtered one way or the other.  Once you have filtered the data, you now have a new solution set that you can pick from.  The normal way of writing this conditional probability is simply Probability of the event A accounting for event B, or simply P( A | B ).  Bayes said that this probability is derived by the following, which Wikipedia nicely draws as the following:

P(A|B) = \frac{P(B | A)\, P(A)}{P(B)}\cdot

With some work, we can create a different form of Bayes theorem that is as follows:

P(A|B) = \frac{P(B|A)\,P(A)}{ P(B|A) P(A) + P(B|\neg A) P(\neg A)}\cdot

We can set up two cases:

The P(A) = both children are girls = 1:4

The P(B) = one of the children is a girl = 3:4

If both children are girls, then the chance that the second child is a girl is 100% or 1.

In Bayes equation, this is shown by P(B|A) = 100% or 1.

Now we can fill in our equation:  P(A|B) which means “the chance that the both children are girls if one child is a girl” is equal to the following:

= 1 (the chance that your second child is a girl if both are a girl) * 1/4 (the chance that both are girls) divided by 3/4 (the chance that one of the children is a girl) = 1/3.

You should be able to see the advantage of Bayes.  You can take any probabilities, and with a little work, you can quickly find an equation that allows you to figure out the conditional probability.  However, from an intuitive standpoint, I like the filtering idea because it helps us to understand what is happening.

Leonard Mlodinow wrote the drunkard’s walk to describe the history and the subjects that we discussed in this blog post.  I would recommend this book, and he not only gives examples of probability gone wrong, but also a fascinating history of this subject.  In one case, he describes being given a blood test for his life insurance, and when the test came back as hi having HIV, he was told that the test was 99.9% accurate, and he was sure to die.

It turns out that the test is 99.9% accurate for a given community (homosexuals) because the incidences of HIV is very common.  It turns out that for other communities, white hetrosexual men in married relationships, the incidence of HIV is exceedingly low.

This is a common error in testing, and well worth spending a moment on.

If you have a test that is 99.9% accurate, it sound like it is perfect.  Anybody that gets a positive on the test is going to be infected, right?  The answer is that you don’t even have the ability to answer the question.  What does 99.9% accurate mean?

You need to know the time that somebody has a disease and it finds it, and the times that it wrongly identifies a disease, even though the person doesn’t have the disease. Finding a disease when none exists is often called “overkill” because it says that something is dead that isn’t.  For instance, a test may find the disease 99.9% time, but it correctly overkills 50% of the time. 

In this case for HIV, if you gave the test to 1000 people, it would incorrectly “overkill” one person.  So now, all you need to know is what is the base rate of the population.  (Base rate is an extremely important cognitive thing to understand and Daniel Kahneman talks about it a lot in Thinking Fast and Slow, and it can also be called “unconditional probability.)  If the base rate of the population is 2 sick people in every thousand, it should identify the sick people 99.9% of the time, and it will identify a non-sick person as HIV positive 1 time.  This means that if you got identified as having HIV in this scenario, your chance of being sick is 1 in 3.  This is much better than 1 in 1000.

The question is given the probability of A, what is the probability of B.  Mlodinow (as well as Taleb in Fooled by Randomness) points out that  Alan Dershowitz in the OJ Simpson trial used the fact that only 1 in 2500 wives that are abused are murdered by their husbands.  This sounds like a very unlikely event, therefore somebody may say “well then there is very little chance that OJ did the crime.”  The problem with this statement is that because an event is extremely unlikely doesn’t mean that an event hasn’t happened.  Therefore, when an extremely unlikely event happens, the first thing you don’t say is “that event did not happen because it is very unlikely.”

No, in unlikely events, the first thing you say is “an unlikely event happened, how did it happen?”  In the case of women that have been abused, 90% of the death caused by murder were committed by the abusing husband. In other words, the right question is “given the fact that 90% of abused women that are murdered are murdered by their abusing husband, what is the chance that OJ Simpson did the murder.”  This means that the base rate in this case is 90% pointing toward the ex-husband.  Base rates are extremely important in real world use of conditional probability.

The incorrect and fallacious use of base rates is covered in the Wikipedia article of the same name.  I can heartily suggest reading the article as it should shape your life.

Conditional probability is something that our minds don’t deal with well.  To be a critical thinker, you will need to understand that our brain doesn’t deal well with probability.  If you have the advantages of mathematical leanings, I would strongly suggest spending some time with Bayes.  However, the math is very tough.

To get around this, Gigerenzer and Hoffrage published a marvelous little paper in 1995 in Psychological Review.  Rather than show the results as probabilities, you can take all this math and put it in a natural frequency table.  This is shown below, and it should make easy sense on why this pulls the confusion out.  Gigerenzer goes this all of the following in this website.

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I will conclude this post with a short story.  I am good  friends with a person that is very good with math that has a major Ph.D, and he has spent time publishing articles using some of the mathematical extensions of Bayes work.  He is very sharp and a person that I will have conversation with on this.  I can only do a rudimentary level of stats with Bayes Theorem, but I think I understand the principles behind Bayes and how to apply it to real life.  Much of what I know is down in this posting.  He, on the other hand, had overlooked the practical application of Bayes theorem in a recent conversation.  He finally came back and admitted that he had an oversight about the use of Bayes theorem in practical manners.

The moral is that is knowing the math and being extremely bright still leads to misses, you and I don’t always have the ability to pick this up.  The key to remember that in unlikely scenarios, you need to be very careful.  Or, as my nephew once said that my brother-in-law, that does research in physics, would tell him as a child, “You need to cherish your anomalies” 

Cherish and be careful in understanding these results.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

“Mind and Spirit”–> Conditional Probability Part I

Thomas Bayes.gif

As much as I might wish it, this is not a picture of Thomas Bayes, although it is purposed to be one.  This picture comes from Wikipedia, which reports that the best guess is that this picture was created for a 1936 book called “History of Life Insurance” as a placeholder for somebody to think about Thomas Bayes.

As far as we know, there are no known pictures of this famous clergyman, but his work has inspired a great body of learning.  One that extends the previous subjects that we have discussed about when covering Type 1 and Type 2 thinking or Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writings.

Born in 1701, Bayes was a son of a clergyman to a family of nonconformists.  In his day, to be a nonconformist meant that you did not necessarily buy off on the idea of the Church of England.  In today’s vernacular, many of the Churches that came out of this movement are known as the Free Churches, which is to say that they believe that the Church should be separated from the control of the state.  The history of being Protestant is the history of fracture.  Rather than being a hindrance, this movement can result in new discovery and stronger thoughts.  I would like to think that Bayes belief in our Lord Jesus Christ and his familiarity with nonconformist thought generated what I consider one of the greatest branches of mathematics.  Bayes gave the world an understanding of how to deal with randomness and statistics.

While Bayes published a one mathematical publication in his life time, what the world now calls “Bayesian Statistics” was left in a document that was willed to a friend, Richard Price, along with 100 pounds at Bayes death.  Price, being a man of good intent, made sure that his paper was first read to the Royal Society in London, then published.  In this paper, An Essay of Solving A Problem in The Doctrine of Chance, Bayes attacks how to understand conditional probability.

If you have taken any probability courses, one of the first things that you are taught is the idea that a random event does not care about what happened before it.  Almost all probability theory will point out that if you have flipped a coin and heads have come up 5 times, the next time you flip a coin, the coin still has a 50/50 chance that it will come up heads.  This fact disturbs most of us, and it should to some extend.  The reason is that in the long run, eventually we know that the coin should come up around 50 percent of the time as heads and 50 percent of the time as tails.  Therefore, we feel that the coin should somehow be “building up” a tails after it has been flipped 5 times.  Our intuition says, “there must be some type of a mechanism to now start pushing the coin back to the tails side.

Now in the long term of flipping, we do expect that the results will be very close to 50 percent tails and 50 percent heads, and this long term trend is called regression to the mean, which is often not understood correctly.  In the most simple case, this means that any random or even partially random event may have events that deviate from the underlying mean, but eventually the events will center around some type of a mean.  However, the regression to the mean is only accomplished by a random 50 percent chance at every flip of our coin.  This idea that each flip is independent of the last flip means that we will often have streaks where the coin may come up heads many times in a row. 

If you don’t understand this, the deviation from the mean will seem to be a pattern, even though none exists.   Taleb has argued that most most stock pickers get confused between these streaks (which we might call “good luck”) and real skill in picking stocks.  I completely agree with him.  Many things in our life is governed by this streaking nature.  image

However, let us look at the chart above.  This is a chart showing my progress from trying to learn how to golf left handed in 2013.  You can see that I started off very poorly with scores at around 145 strokes per round.  However, in April of that year, I had a round at a course where everything went right, and I shot a 102.  Once I had shot this 102, I could have said, “Oh look, I now know how to shoot a 102, so I’ll shoot this from now on.”  However, because this had a large part of random chance in my game, it look me 36 more rounds, or approximately 200 hours of playing golf, before I could equalize this score  However, if you look at the general trend, which is the solid red line, you can see that my mean results were slowly getting  better.  Games that were above or below the mean simply means that I would eventually return to the underlying mean either up or down.

This graph shows the proportion of heads when one tosses a fair coin from once to 500 times. As the tossing times increases, the proportion of heads becomes stable around 0.5.On a coin flip, we can see the exact same idea.  The graph to the right is from a Penn State course on probability.  As you can see, they started flipping a coin.  During the first 100 flips, the coin appeared to be broken, and during the first 50 flips it was very broken.  Somehow, the coin was coming up heads only 40% of the time.  If you can been betting on heads, you would have lost a lot of money.  However, the coin later reverses itself, and the line trends to the high side, until it gets very close to 50 percent heads.  So, while there is a trend under the data, there is no mechanism under the coin flip to push it one way or the other.  In truth, many random events are extremely lumpy.  In other words, these events seem to push one way for a quite a while.  It is impossible to predict when a truly random event will regress to the mean, and certain trends will stay present for a very long time.

From a theological standpoint, how should we as Christians think about probability? 

There is remarkably little on this in the Bible other than Proverb 16:33:

The lot is cast into the lap,
    but its every decision is from the Lord.

What we do know from the Bible is that God clearly has taken charge of what are random events to make decisions in particular events.  There were several times in the Bible that lots (or dice) were used to determine a path that God’s people should take, and God did not criticize them for using this method.  However, I am going to submit that God allows truly random events to happen.  If you read the scripture above from Proverbs, you can see that the language is specific and unique.  The lot is cast.  The lot’s decision is from the Lord.  It does not say, “The Lord causes the lots to fall in a particular way.”  In other words, the Lord chose a particular number to come up, or the number may be truly random.  In other words, I believe there are two cases:

1. Random events that are not random because God is actually controlling the exact turn of the die or lot.  These can be thought of as miracles, where God intervenes in the machinery that he has set up to break his own physical laws.

2. Random events that are random because God is allowing the random events to happen.

Although beyond the scope of this blog, you cannot not have free will without having randomness.  The two are linked and tied together.  Much of our Christian life is our ability to understand that the world that we live in is random and filled with probabilities.  It is our mission to bring our lives to a place where God breaks down the rule of randomness, and he plays with his own machinery to get the results that glorifies himself most.  Probability exists because it is something that we are called on to embrace and attack through prayer and supplication.

However, let us turn from the side bar on chance, free will and probability to get back on subject.

So after taking multiple courses in stats and probability, you’ll start to understand this idea of “random is random.” If you are very lucky, you will have somebody explain that these random events will regress to a mean, and you will feel that you really understand randomness.

The truth is that we have only gone half way in our journey of understanding probability. 

What we have discussed so far is random independent events.  As we discussed, it is easy to get mislead when thinking about these events.

The reason that these are called independent events is that the first coin flip has nothing to do with the second coin flip.  There is nothing tying these things together.  When two events are truly independent, we say that there is no conditions on the event.

We have talked about coin flips, but lets make it just a little more complicated.  Let’s talk about dice, and more specifically, rolling two dice.  The excellent graph to the left, which I took from the internet, shows the results of rolling a black and white die together, at the same time, and getting results at the same time.  Because each side has exactly 1 out of 6 chances of coming up, we can simply start listing all of the combinations that might come up if we roll the dice together.  There are 36 different combinations that can come up.  The 36 combinations can be made up of the values shown in the graphic.  This graphic is called our “solution space” or “solution set.”  In other words, we know that each dice may come up 1 out of 6 ways, and when we put all of these results together, we can see that there are 36 possible ways of combining the dice.  However, not all numbers are of equal weight. 

Why?  To get a 2 on the dice, you need to roll each die and get it to come up as a 1.  This means that you must have the extremely lucky chance of rolling the white die to come up a 1 (which only happens 1 out of 6 times), then you must have the black die also come up as a 1.  This means, on average, you must roll the dice 36 times because you need to roll the white die 6 time to get a 1, and you need to roll the black die 6 times to get a 1.  Hopefully, it makes intuitive sense that the first series that you roll on the white die of 6 times means that you will probably get a 1, but there is only a 1 out of 6 chance that the black die will also be a 1.  Therefore, we need to roll the dice 36 times to get the double 1s.  (And remember, I am simplifying this because these results assume a regression to the mean, but in the instantaneous case, it may take many times more or less to get our result of 2.)

However, getting a 7 is much easier.  If we look at our solution set, we can see that out of our random rolls, we would expect 7 to come up 6 times in 36 rolls.  The chance of getting a 7 is six times more likely than getting a 2.  In other words, when we roll the dice 36 times, we might expect that the 2 result will come up 1 time but the 7 result will come up 6 times.

Once you go through some basic stats and probability courses, you might heuristically start to recognize short cuts to get to the desired results.  In our dice story, a graduate of a Stats 101 course in college might be able to say, “The chance of getting a 2 is 1/6 *1/6 or 1/36.”  This is correct, but you will probably stop them from quickly calculating what is the chance of getting a 10, because you cannot simply take two outlier conditions that are simple and multiply them together.  Instead, you must write out the solution space, then think to yourself how all the solutions could happen, and what is the chance of how it will come up.

Now imagine that the dice are loaded, or have a slight weighting toward one of the numbers.  This weighting will now influence the randomness.  If they are both weighted toward showing a 1 maybe 10% more often, your results would be 1/36 * 110%.  This would mean that you would need to go back to your solution set, and you would need to adjust all of the solutions up (if they had a 1 in them) or down (if they had no 1 in them).

Here is the kicker.  Life is loaded with loaded dice.  As a matter of fact, random numbers are extremely useful to do things like encode information.  If you are into encryption, you will find out that the most powerful way to encrypt something is to have a list of random numbers that only you and a companion have.  Then you encode your message using only the random number by offshifting the letter by the random number.  If the numbers are truly random, nobody can guess what the underlying letters are.  However, if you use a pair of dice to encode the numbers (which have 7 as much more popular than 2), then somebody simply needs to start using a lot of 7s to figure much of your secret message. 

It turns out that creating truly random numbers is so challenging that many programing languages and/or silicon create “pseudo random” numbers.  These numbers look a lot like random numbers, but if we look at them long enough, we can find some type of pattern in them.

So we come to the end of our blog post on random numbers.  We have found out that predicting even simple random events is very difficult.  Humans don’t have brains that are wired to deal even with simple random events.  Many gamblers have lost a lot of money because they kept thinking “my luck has to change.”  All of us gamble in one form or the other every day.  Having some idea of randomness can help us understand the world that we are in and not take too much (or too little) responsibility for what happens to our lives.

What we have looked at is the chance of two dice rolling a number.  Now we will conclude with what Bayes tried to describe.  What happens when the events are no longer independent. 

Let’s say that we don’t throw the dice at the same time.  Let’s say that we throw one die, then the other.  The chances of throwing both dice and coming up with a 1 is 1/36.  However, let’s say that we throw one die and it comes up as a 1.  What is the chance that the other die will come up as a 1?  It should be obvious that we have taken the odds from 1 out of 36 to 1 out of 6.  Once the first die came up as a 1, we increased our chances to get a 2 out of our die by 6 times. 

This is now conditional probability.  The chance of getting a 2 result has changed dramatically because of the conditions.  Once you have established that you could get a 1 on the white dice, the chance of getting a 2 has become much, much more probable.  This change of probability is understandable in our context, but it turns out that this change of conditions that impact the underlying probability is something that our brains simply don’t process well.  As a matter of fact, this conditional probability issue is something that prone to errors, and an area which I am sure you have made mistakes about in the past.  It is this changes in conditions that we will attack in the next section, and we’ll discuss how to think about it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

“Spirit and Mind” –> Being Poor Is Not A Virtue

Luke 6:20:  “Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Well we start off this post with a bang.  I label that it is not a virtue to be poor, but then I immediately list Luke 6:20, where our Christ says, blessed are the poor. The reason that I can say this is because scripture is easily read, but difficult to understand.  I cannot tell you the number of times that Luke 6:20 has been used to justify the lack of financial diligence by those in the Christian church.  Those of the “poor” persuasion try to use this and the other scripture on calling out that the wealthy have issues to strongly support their lack of willingness to be financially savvy. 

The first thing to do when doing correct exegesis is  make sure we are quoting the fully context of the scripture we are looking at.  Let us look at the full passage in Luke:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

This is the context of the scripture.  Now that we have the entire scripture, we can explain what is happening.  At the time when the Man-God walked this earth, there was a perception that the rich received their money because they were godly.  The more rich you were, the more godly you must be.  The culture went a bit further, and then it called out that if you were poor, then the hand of God was against you.  If you were poor, then this was because you had a spiritual problem in your life.  This can be drawn from the Old Testament, if you look at certain verses.  (Proverbs 10:3 “The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry….”)

Now, either extreme is not a holistic look at scripture.  If you read the above, you will see that the message is extraordinarily simple.  There are two classes of people on this earth.  The first category of person is somebody who is is hungering and thirsting after God and righteousness.  This person may be rich, or this person may be poor.  In this message, to this audience, our Lord was saying a difficult saying to force them to listen and ponder.  This message is difficult for us to hear today, but we must listen.

Our Lord is turning the culture on its head and saying by saying that being poor is not bad in itself.  Matthew quotes the same general message, but in the version in Matthew, it is clear that the Lord is calling out that the hunger (and lack of money) is of a spiritual nature.  If you are satisfied with you life thinking you have it all together (spiritually and fiscally), you are simply screwed.  The more riches (and spiritual self-satisfaction you have), the more you are headed down the spiritual ladder.

The secret of the scripture is that life is a grid, and to understand the scriptures, we need to understand the grid that our Lord refers to.

image

The first line on the grid is our understanding of our spiritual wealth.  The first thing to realize in this life is that all of us are poor spiritually.  I do believe that as we go on our walk with the Lord, and if we open up ourselves to the act and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we can lower our sin nature, and overcome many sins.  Some people believe that there is a second work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification, and in their version of sanctification, the Holy Spirit comes in and removes our tendency to sin.  In essence, we walk this earth and never sin.

I have met those that believe in this doctrine, and I find that they all suffer issues of pride, and if not pride, then some other thing.  I have yet to meet he person that truly has no human nature.  The more the church declares they are spotless, the more I find that they gossip.  I believe that any reading of the scriptures calls out that while we strive to holiness, we also realize that we are very far away from what we should be.

This first axis of knowledge is “Knowledge of Spiritual State.”  The more that you say that you are spiritually rich, the more you are in horrible trouble.  The more than you realize that you are still struggling to attain the goal of a truly spiritual life, or the more that you hunger after a right state (because you know you are Spiritually poor), the more blessed you are.

The other axis is very similar to this axis.  This axis is much easier to recognize, however.  This axis is the axis of the “Amount of money I have.”  Unlike the Spiritual axis, it is exceptionally easy to understand this number.  You look at your bank account.  You understand your assets.  You either have money or you don’t. 

So we have a two axis grid.  One axis is easy to recognize, and the other axis is not.  Christians run into real problems when they start to somehow to equate one axis with the other axis.  There are two major issues.  If you are rich, and you say “this indicates that I am spiritual, you are literally in the danger of Hell Fire.  Our Lord made this exceptionally clear when he said, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24.  I believe that any holistic reading of the scriptures will have you understand that Christ is speaking to those that believe they are spiritually rich.

image

If we return to our grid, we can show this.  If you say you are spiritually rich, and have lots of money, you are basically screwed.  You cannot fit a camel through an eye of a needle, and there is not indication that when Christ spoke these words, he had some other bigger “eye of a needle” in mind.  (Some say he referred to a famous gate, but this is simply not supported by history.)  What Christ meant is “you are going to hell.”

Shocking?  Yes.  True?  Yes.

The absolute best that the rich can hope for is tragedy so they lose their riches.  They no longer have the ability to hand out money to the poor so they can feel good about themselves.  Pray for disaster for the rich Christians, because this is the open door for them.

As a mater of fact, you are better to be fiscally poor, even if you are self-satisfied in your spiritual life, because being poor is highly stressful.  The constant stress of being poor will force you to deal with the fact that you don’t have it all together.  Being poor is the pits because you will find that you constantly fail as you deal with the pressures of being poor.  There is a chance for you in this box, but to be truly saved, you need to realize your spiritual poverty.  This is very important because there has been a belief that somehow being poor is going to get you into heaven.  This is absolutely not true  You have the same risk as the rich person.  However, you are fortunately that experience has shown it is the poor that often are set up to make the move.

Where you want to be is on the right side of the grid.  If you have enough money, this is absolutely good.  This will surprise some of the readers of this blog, but I hope to quickly cover this so more in a second because it is a massive insight.  Just as important, if you have no money, and if you expect to grow in spiritual growth, you must learn how to handle money.  This is so misunderstood by the Christian Church, I will repeat:

The Scriptures say that understanding how to handle money is the secret to Spiritual growth.

Some day, I might do a bit of exegesis on Luke 16 and the parable of the shrewd servant.  The core of the story involves a servant that misused his master’s money to gain favor.  The morale of this story is that the servant looked at money as a tool, and not an end in itself.  He understood how to use money, and because he understood how money could be used, he is recognized by God (or the master) in the story as having an extremely capable virtue.  Now the servant was misusing his role, but he had a valuable virtue.  So, much so, that our Lord caps off the parable by saying the following

So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?

What  shocker for us in the Christian faith. In a story that is very confusing to many that read it, you find a truth that we all must understand.  Knowing about wealth and money is the gate for you to have any Spiritual riches.  The truth is that money is central to our faith, and I’ve read that 11 of the 39 parable talk about money.  Money was something on top of our Lord’s mind, and it should be on the top of our mind.  I encourage you to mine the scriptures to find all that it says, but here are some of the principles that I have derived:

  1. Managing money is a central core of the Christian faith, and we must seek to make wise money judgments or face no Spiritual growth.  This means we manage the money, and it does not manage us.
  2. We are to be prosperous when we can be prosperous so we need to owe no man (or government) anything.  People that simply take welfare and expect the government to take care of them are committing sin if they have the capability to take care of themselves.
  3. On the other hand, if we see real needs, then the Christian must work wisely to support those in needs.  We need to be beyond cautious in saying “you don’t need my help.”  If we don’t help those in need, we are in danger of the hell fire.  We can neither easily ignore the poor, nor can we simply give out money to excuse our guilt.  Instead, we must carefully use our wealth and seek truth.
  4. We are to get to a point in our life where we don’t need to rely on somebody else for our living.  This frees us to follow God whenever and wherever he wants.
  5. The next principle is akin to the last principle, don’t owe money to anybody.
  6. To seek money for fame or power is a grievous sin, and thinking that wealth is equal to spiritual capability is on the road to damnation.
  7. Don’t give publically so that others will say “they are so generous.”
  8. Our wealth must be use to spread the gospel and take care of physical needs.
  9. Don’t spend more than you earn.
  10. While you should eagerly seek wealth, do not allow this goal to choke out Spiritual growth.
  11. Use your wealth to take care of those in your family, and don’t force this burden on anyone else.  If your family needs money, and you are capable of earning, then you must earn it.  This is a much higher calling than “doing a job that is pleasing.”

If you read these 11 principles, you will see a common thread.  We are to seek wealth so that we can use it for ourselves and give it to those in need. The best place for giving is inside of the family and the Church.  Governments cannot know what a person needs, however, friends and family can.  Money given to two families that “look the same” is dangerous.  One family may need it.  The other family may become dependant (and crippled) on it.

Our use of money is a core of our faith, and we need to spend serious time thinking and meditating on the use of it.

image Now, I consider John Wesley to be one of the most Spiritually insight individuals that have walked this earth.  His writings of a practical nature, and unfortunately the genius of practical literature is often thrown away because people say, “Oh, now that I’ve read it, that is obvious.”  I believe that Wesley nicely take the above theme and crafts a much crisper and deeper understanding of the true nature of money. 

If this post hits a nerve, I can think of no better thing to do that to read his sermon 50 on the use of money.

However, he had 3 principles, which may be better than the 11 I have.  If you live your life according to this, you will be blessed:

  1. 1. Gain all you can, without hurting your neighbor
  2. 2. Save all you can
  3. 3. Give all you can

Ah John, you call to us beyond the grave.  I hope we can hear your voice.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mind and Spirit –> “The Power Of Habit”

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Charles Duhigg has written a book about habits. Duhigg is a science writer for the New York Times, and in his best seller, “The Power of Habit,” he revisits foundational research that is shaping the way that we can interact with our world. The good is a good read, and well worth your time to find it. 

If you are a reader of this blog, you’ll know from a previous post that Wendy Woods has done some small research projects that indicate that we live 45% of our life in simple habits.  I personally believe that this is an underestimate because it doesn’t clearly capture how our non-habit activities are entered through our habits.

The title “The Power Of Habit” is a perfect summary of the book. 

Our lives are primarily lived by habit.  We do not have the time to think through all that we are doing.  Instead, most of our lives are stuck on auto-pilot.  This goes to all aspects of our lives, and the power of recognizing these habits in ourselves and in others can make the difference between having a life of success and one of failure.

Duhigg has divided his book into 3 main sections:

1. The Habit of Individuals

2. The Habits of Companies

3. The Habits of Societies

Now, Duhigg tries make some connections that I think are a bit tenuous, such as trying to say that Tony Dungy was able to capitalize on habits to put together winning football teams (and I would argue habits is something that all coaches instill in every player, and you only need to watch any sport match and listen to the commenter's talking about “they are over thinking it.”).  However, he also has some fascinating examples of how the formation of habits for individuals, companies and societies have locked in behavior.

While Duhigg brings up some new facts and ideas, a lot of what he writes about has been known for many years, and before we dig into his book, let’s look at a bit of history that helps underpin his book. What are some of the key building blocks of habit?

A lot of habit is a recap of what you should have learned in Psychology 101:  Operant and Classic Conditioning.

In Operant Conditioning, the subject is given a stimulus or a signal, then a behavior happens in response to this signal, then a reward or punishment happens.  Seems pretty simple, and this idea is the core of our civilization.  Punish what you don’t want, and reward what you do want.  It is important to remember that operant conditioning is different than, Classic Conditioning Response.  Pavlov’s dogs is the famous Classic Conditioning response that many people know from their college days.  In classic conditioning, the experimenter creates a connection between some type of an input (a bell ringing in Pavlov’s case) with food delivery, which always produced salivation by his dogs.  After a while, the dogs would salivate at the ringing of the bell, even without the food delivery.

Now Duhigg leaves out, for all practical purposes, the grandfather of this movement to understand how to apply these types of conditioning habits to change behavior.  This idea that behavior can be changes is called behaviorism.  Probably the most famous of the proponents of behaviorism is BF Skinner, out of Harvard.

I think that Duhigg knows strongly about behaviorism, but relabeling this and rebranding the behaviorism ideas as “habit” makes it much easy to present as new.  In reality, Duhigg simply dresses up behaviorism principles, but this is not bad, as behaviorism is an incredibly important branch of psychology to effect positive (or negative change).

The core of behaviorism is the A, B, C’s, which stand for Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence. 

Antecedent is a trigger or something that starts a cycle.  For instance, we plan antecedents into our life.  An alarm clock going off in the morning is something that we use in our own life to trigger a behavior in our life.  If you think about it, an alarm clock is much more than just waking us up in the morning.  The alarm clock is a trigger for a whole habit of getting up.  It is an antecedent by formal definition.  Once the antecedent has signaled, we go onto the behavior.  In our example, it means rolling out of bed, brushing our teeth, and eating breakfast (or whatever your morning routine is).

Finally, the consequence is the positive or negative reinforcement of the behavior.  Why does anybody have the series of behaviors triggered by the alarm clock?  Probably because it results in having a job, getting good grades, or some other positive consequence of the trigger.  If it wasn’t for these things, most people wouldn’t want a jarring alarm waking them up.  It is because of the ABCs that we do this antecedent, and many other antecedents.  The Duhigg cycle is much the same, only he labels it slightly differently.

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In the picture to the side, you can see Duhigg’s cycle.  You get a stimulus (the cue or antecedent).  Then we create a response (the habit or behavior). Then finally we get a reinforcement (the reward or the consequence).  Once you are into a habit, the brain goes into auto pilot, and unless something breaks the cycle, you will continue to stay in this autopilot forever.

On a society level, we get into some very large habits, and all of society strives to reinforce them.  As an example, we mine data to identify the habits of individuals to understand what they will buy.  An example of this is Target, who has been mining users habits to find out what individuals are pregnant.  Having a baby is expensive, and if Target can target the couples that have children, it is worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars of revenue.  It turns out that Target can do this exceptionally well because there is a very clear set of buying habits once a woman is pregnant.  Target actually has to be a bit careful because they have identified pregnant individuals long before their friends and neighbors know.  So, not to look like the spy they are, they try and hide their ads to this group inside of mailers with other ads.  Nobody expects, unless they know, that they are getting a special mailer with more baby type offers inside of it.

Although he does not mention it, I believe the typewriter keyboard is an excellent example of the habit of a culture.  If you look at your keyboard, you will see that the keys are set in a QWERTY pattern.  The reason for this is that one of the earliest inventors of the typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes, was looking for a method to keep his keys from jamming.  It was not built for speed, as having the “a,” which is  commonly used vowel, hidden under the left hand pinky obviously is not the best layout for anyone.  However, it was the source of the popular Remington #2 typewriter, which became very popular, and cemented QWERTY in the halls of habit.

This habit of a culture has a formal name:  it is known as the networking effect.  Once you get a standard habit going, everybody wants to jump on this habit because it allows them to be very productive.  Once a network of a habit is big enough, it is known as critical mass.  Most products in the world are either in some network, or they are trying to create the network so they can become popular.  Once the QWERTY keyboard started to take off, you could go to most places, and you could find this standard method of keying input.  Therefore, QWERTY has become the habit of the world.  And once habits are created, it is very difficult to change them.

Many years later, Dvorak came up with an alternative keyboard, and he convincingly showed typists to be many times faster.  (There is some dispute it this really true, but it was unchallenged.)  The problem with the Dvorak keyboard is that our culture was stuck in a habit, and no amount of promises could dislodge this hard core activity.  Once locked in, our brains turn off, and we are stuck.  The reason that the next time you sit done and type at a keyboard is due to a culture habit that you are stuck in.

Dvorak keyboard key layout

This goes to deeper discussion of how we make decisions, which is  currently a favorite area of thinking and thought for me of late.  We make decisions based on quick heuristics, such as the availability heuristic, thus creating idea that we have made a decision.  Once we have made the decision, then we are highly susceptible to rationalization for our decision.  Then combine this ability to rationalize our decision with our ability to sort through all the inputs and only take in the ones that we like (this is called confirmation bias), and we find out why we are stuck in a very deep rut.

For example, you would think that something as simple as the Dvorak keyboard would be easy to test, validate, and then make a clear call off.  However, it turns out that even this is a raging area of debate.  Although Dvorak himself did numerous tests, Earl Strong, of the GSA, decided that Dvorak’s ideas were bunk, and set up  test to prove that the Dvorak keyboard was no better than the QWERTY keyboard two decades after Dvorak was pushing his idea (1956).  The two sides of this argument is still being argued today, as in the 1990s Stan Liebowitz and Steve Margolis, a couple of economics guys, were pushing a paper where they were using the Strong work from 1956.  Now, it seems obvious to me that the right answer, 35 years after the fact, would be for Liebwitz and Margolis to try and do original research.  However, they like all of us, are not really looking for the truth, and they simply repeat the conflicting tests held by Earl Strong in 1956.  They are looking to confirm their already made up minds.  The opposite is true for the true Dvorak fans.  They ignore evidence to the contrary, and they don’t prove their point either.

While much of Duhigg’s book can be applied to more than just individuals, this blog, for the most part, focuses on mind, body and spirit.  So, in this light, we are most interested in how to change habits.  As humans, we have two things that we want to do:

1. Create new habits

2. Stop old habits

Duhigg points out that it is almost impossible to stop old habits.  What we can do is not stop the old habit, but we can change the old habit.  He calls this the “Golden Rules Of Habit Change.”  The thought process is that we will not be able to stop the cue part of our habits.  Therefore, you cannot stop this part.

Therefore, you either need to change the reward, which is not normally able to be stopped because it is an outcome, or you change the routine.  The routine is the easiest thing to change, and, therefore, it is the focus of the habit changes.

It is important to note that an individual might get “reward” and “routine” confused.  In his example in the book, he talks about a habit that he had picked up where he would get some food during the middle of the day (a cookie), and this routine was causing him to put on weight.  Normally, cookies would be thought of as a reward.  If you think about it, the cookie is not the reward.  The cookie is the routine to get to the reward.  The cookie would deliver a sense of satisfaction.  It turns out, as he dug into the habit, the cookie was not really what he was looking for.  He was looking for a break.  Therefore, he substituted a break in his routine, and this resulted in the same type of satisfaction. 

Again, Duhigg uses terminology to describe something which would be better described by the more classic terms operant and classical conditioning or the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence.  But when you look at habits with any set of words, you can still see how this cookie habit had formed.  What is interesting is that it turns out that he had developed a habit where he was getting up from his desk to get a break.  It was the break that gave him a relief from just constantly working, and it was this break that gave him a sense of relief.  However, the cookie got in the middle of this cycle, which is the classical conditioning piece.  Therefore, he associated the good feelings of the break with the cookie.  (In reality, I’m sure that the pleasure of the cookie’s good taste reinforces the feeling.)  The point, no matter what language you use, is the same.  Some times self-destructive (which is a strong word, but one that suits the subject) behavior is something that we’ve gotten into the habit about.

In the same way that Duhigg changed his habit, there are many habits that we can change also in our lives.  We simply need to step outside of ourselves an understand the triggers, the behaviors, and the consequences.  The book is fast and easy to read and will leave you with some great ideas.  I strongly suggest getting a copy on Amazon.

I hope you are in the reading habit.