The Availability Heuristic

kahnemanAs someone who has been working in the field of behavioral economics for a couple decades now, I have long been aware of what psychologists call “the availability heuristic.” This was a phenomenon described by Kahneman and Tversky in some of their seminal research from the early 1970s. I recently came across a nice example of this heuristic when reading Fooling Houdini, a book I have been blogging about recently. If you don’t know what this heuristic is, the following quote from Stone’s book will provide a nice example:

“When law enforcement agencies began putting pictures of missing children on the backs of milk cartons, for instance, the perceived rate of childhood abductions, as measured by national surveys, shot up drastically.”

When trying to figure out how common something is, we rely upon how easily instances of these phenomena come to our minds. When authorities began picturing children on the sides of milk cartons, images of abducted children with that much easier for us to retrieve – they are that much more available to our conscious awareness – causing us to mistakenly think these awful events were more common than they really were.

On Personality and Professions

math nerd“An extroverted mathematician, goes an old joke, is one who looks at your feet while he’s talking.”
Alex Stone recounts this joke in his book, Fooling Houdini, which I wrote about in a previous post. As a philosophy major, I love to think there might be a college major more full of nerds and introverts than those of us who spent the end of our teen years reading Immanuel Kant.
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On the Psychology of Magic

fooling houdiniNot long ago, I had the pleasure of reading Fooling Houdini, by Alex Stone. It is a marvelous book, part memoir about how his obsession with magic pulled him away from his career in physics, but also a wonderful explanation of the psychology of how magic works its wonders. Get rid of all those images you have in your head about nerdy guys in capes performing at your children’s birthday parties. Stone doesn’t deny that magic is a nerdy pastime: “Like physics, magic is all about nerds playing god with the universe.” At one point of the book he even points out that at many magic conventions, there are more guys with mullet haircuts then there are women. But the dominant image of a magician you will develop after reading this book is of someone extremely skilled at playing with the limits of human perception.
A good magician understands the psychology of belief. People will not believe something is remarkable if it looks too easy. Stone learned this lesson from one of his mentors, who made an analogy between magic and juggling:

World-class jugglers know to drop at least once during a performance, because it makes their act appear all the more difficult, drumming up suspense for the finale and driving home the message that they’re operating at the extreme edge of human potential.

For this reason, a real expert at card tricks won’t make it look like he is an expert at handling cards. He will shuffle the deck in what looks like a haphazard manner. He might drop some cards once in a while. But this feigned clumsiness is part of what makes the end result of his tricks that much more impressive.
As Stone points out, “Magic tricks can fool you even after you know the secret, because they exploit perceptual mechanisms that are etched into our brains.” For those who work in close contact with their audience, it is crucial to understand how people react to proximity, and to touch:

“Minor tactile cues can exert a measurable influence on our judgment, our perception of people and places, our decisions and social behaviors, even our willingness to part with cash. Waiters and waitresses who casually touch customers on the hand or shoulder for a second or even less at the end of a meal earn bigger tips and boost their restaurants’ ratings, as measured by exit surveys. A friendly pat on the shoulder from a broker makes clients less risk-averse. The chance that a grocery store shopper will agree to sample a new treat increases by 28 percent when the product demonstrator touches them lightly on the upper arm during the request. Shoppers who’ve been touched leave the store later, spend more, and rate the store more favorably on average. A slight, unobtrusive tap on the arm makes random strangers more willing to participate in mall intercept interviews and street surveys and predisposes them to bum you a smoke or comply with marketing requests. By promoting group cohesion, interpersonal touch also improves the performance of sports teams and enriches family life.”

See this concept demonstrated masterfully in a video featuring the world’s most entertaining pickpocket, Apollo Robbins.
If you want a better understanding of magic, and more importantly human nature, read Alex Stone’s book.
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Paul Samuelson's View of Milton Friedman

friedman_samuelsonIn their book Animal Spirits, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller recount the intellectual battles waged between Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, two of the 20th century’s most important economists. Friedman was a huge believer in the power of markets, and in consumers’abilities to make rational decisions. Samuelson also recognized the power of markets, but thought Friedman went too far. Akerlof and Shiller say that Samuelson described Friedman as:

Like the boy who knew how to spell banana but did not know when to stop.

And I will stop this post right here.
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The Psychology of Entrepreneurial Success

zemurrayIn a recent post, I give you a flavor for Rich Cohen’s wonderful book The Fish That Ate the Whale. One of the things that struck me in reading his book was the psychology of entrepreneurial success. It is often difficult to be a superstar entrepreneur if you are realistic. Often the biggest successes in business are people willing to take ridiculous risks. Cohen captures that well: “There are times when certain cards sit unclaimed in the common pile, when certain properties become available that will never be available again. A good businessman feels these moments like a fall in the barometric pressure. A great businessman is dumb enough to act on them even when he cannot afford to.”
At one point, Zemurray borrows money from some shady characters to pay off his business partner. Cohen summarized the situation: “What was Sam thinking, piling debt on debt, risk on risk? By buying out Hubbard, he was taking it all on his own shoulders. But what did it matter? If he failed by himself, he would lose the exact same amount as if he failed with a partner: everything.”
And sometimes, great business people have an intuitive grasp of social psychology that exceeds that of most PhD students. Take this description of how he negotiated with the folks from United Fruit, before he took over the company: “According to friends, Sam was a sharp trader who knew the price goes to he who does not lose his head or open his mouth too soon. What cannot be accomplished by threats can often be achieved by composure. Sit and stare and let your opponent fill the silence with his own demons.”
And then finally, there is the important ingredient of never being satisfied. As Cohen summarizes it: “Show me a happy man and I will show you a man who is getting nothing accomplished in this world.”
That thought makes me miserable.
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Why I'm Bananas Over The Fish That Ate the Whale

fish that ate the whaleRecently I had the pleasure of reading Rich Cohen’s wonderful book: The Fish That Ate the Whale – the Life and Times of America’s Banana King. The book tells the story of Samuel Zemurray, a true rags to riches story, a man who started by spending his entire life savings – all $150 – to buy bananas that would’ve otherwise been thrown out, and selling them stop to stop out of a train car. He eventually ended up running United Fruit, the company most of us know for selling Chiquita Bananas. Cohen’s book is wonderful in large part because Sam the Banana Man was an absolutely fascinating person, admirable for his work ethic and entrepreneurial creativity, and horrifying the lengths he would go to – including overthrowing Central American governments standing in his way – to promote his business interests.
The book is also wonderful because of Cohen’s colorful writing. Let me share just a few examples with you. It starts right with the opening sentence of the book, which captures Cohen’s style well: “Sam Zemurray spoke with no accent, except when he swore, which was all the time.”
Cohen’s descriptions of the Central American landscape are equally colorful: “If you’re going to build in the jungle, build fast. Anything left for a season is lost. It turns first into a ruin, then into a story, then is forgotten altogether.”
To his descriptions of banana farming: “In the jungle, after a heavy rain, you can hear the banana trees growing.” And that’s not just an overwrought description. Cohen points out that banana plants can grow 20 inches a day.
And here’s something you might not have known about bananas: “The scientific name for the plant, Musa paradisaica, the fruit of Paradise, carries evidence of a medieval legend – that it was the banana, not the Apple, that the snake used to tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden, a belief that, considering the shape of the fruit and the nature of man’s Fall, makes sense.”
There is Cohen’s take on late night thoughts: “After all, some of the most profound moments of any life are lived between three and four in the morning, when you stare at the ceiling as the silence roars.”
I wonder what time of day Cohen came up with that sentence!
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On Reading Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle

day of battleI don’t read much war history. I’m fascinated by what causes humans to end up in a state of war, but not so interested in the bloody details of how they fight their battles. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Day of Battle, a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson.
The book covers the war in Italy, which the Allies turn to after achieving military success in Africa:

“For the Americans, the first leg of the century’s most grueling race had come to an end, its emblem the Afrika Korps’s prisoners now trudging into camps in Kansas and Oklahoma. That leg, from Pearl Harbor through the capture of Tunisia, had required spunk and invention, unity and organizational acumen. Now the long middle leg of the race was about to begin, of uncertain duration, over an undetermined course, and few doubted that new virtues would be needed: endurance, impenitence, and obdurate will.”

Atkinson’s writing is rich in details. Almost cinematic at times. Often it’s from his own writing. But he also finds an amazing array of quotes from soldiers in the field. One soldier describes an attempt to land on a beach this way:

“The water had become a sea of blood and limbs, remains of once grand fighting men who would never be identified.”

And the bravery of those soldiers is often contrasted with the idiocy of their superiors:

“If the courage of those flying to Sicily that night is unquestionable, the same cannot be said for the judgment of their superiors in concocting and approving such a witless plan.”

I highly recommend this book.

On the Underutilization of Single Sentence Paragraphs

I have long been a fan of single sentence paragraphs.
I really have.
When used properly, an occasional one-off sentence can really stand out, amidst the tumble of longer paragraphs made up of complicated sentences. Here’s a good example from The Power Broker. In this part of the book, Robert Moses has spent an intense year, one that followed upon some pretty intense years preceding it, fighting to build parks and parkways on Long Island and elsewhere. But he found himself blocked at every turn. Too many powerful interests were stacked up against him, and it really looked like his plan was doomed to fail. Robert Caro describes his situation in the following two paragraphs:

It had been more than a year since Robert Moses had announced his revised and broadened Park and parkway plan, a plan which had, after all, included parks and parkways not only on Long Island but throughout the rest of New York State, along the Niagara Frontier, in the Genesee Valley, in the farmland of the Taconic region, and among the peaks of the Alleghanies, Catskills and Adirondacks. Now, more than a year later, parks and parkways were still located nowhere but in the map of Moses’ imagination. After all the talking, all the planning, all the fighting, he simply didn’t exist. And at the end of 1925, there seemed little possibility that they would come into existence at any time in the foreseeable future. If one looked ahead a decade, even a generation, it seemed unlikely that any substantial part of the dream would be reality.
Within three years, almost all of it would be reality.

And then Caro continues on to the next chapter. That last sentence, to the point and standing alone, thereby magnifying its impact on the reader. Don’t you want to read on and find out what happens? Not a surprise that this guy has won multiple Pulitzers.
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On Repetition and Good Writing

In high school, I was taught not to repeat words too often in the same paragraph, or even within a relatively short essay. I know I am not alone in having been taught that way, because many of the people I’ve mentored over the years present me drafts of their writing which show that they have been working hard to give a different name to the main topics of their writings, each time those topics occur. A person writing about congestive heart failure, for example, may call it congestive heart failure one time, CHF another time, systolic dysfunction yet another time, etc., leaving the reader to wonder whether these are different but related concepts or simply the same idea put forward in a variety of guises. But often, repetition is a mark of good writing, not only because it is easier to understand, but because repeating the same word over the course of a paragraph, or even a longer chunk of writing, can give the writing rhythm.
Consider this paragraph from The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. In the paragraph he is writing about the main character of the book, Robert Moses – a behind the scenes politician, to most eyes, who nevertheless had an enormous impact on New York State and New York City, from its highways and parks to many other aspects of urban design. Moses had a brilliant legal mind, and was famous for throwing language into obscure sections of bills that would sneakily enable him, in whatever government position he held at the time, to garner more power.
Quoted below, Caro writes about the way he slipped concepts of “entry and appropriation” into the law in a way that clearly circumvented what anyone else wanted the law to accomplish, thereby accomplishing exactly what Moses wanted to:

To realize a dream of unprecedented scope, Robert Moses, by use of the law, had armed himself with unprecedented powers – and then, finding that these powers were still inadequate, he had deliberately gone beyond them, beyond the law. “Entry and appropriation” was, even as defined in law, of questionable constitutionality in its negation of the individual’s rights when his property was coveted by the state. And Moses had gone beyond the definition to use the power of the state with even less restraint than the law allowed. But both courts and Legislature understood the situation; before both courts and Legislature, Moses stood stripped of all defenses and, it seemed in February 1925, both courts and Legislature would now step in and rectify the situation, the courts by affording redress to the individuals injured by his actions, the Legislature by ensuring that he never again have the opportunity similarly to injure any other individual.
But the ultimate court in which the fate of Moses and his dream was to be resolved would be the court of public opinion. And in this court, Robert Moses had close to hand three formidable weapons…

Like a drumbeat, the words courts and Legislature recur throughout the paragraphs. And the closely related concepts of law and court do too. But rather than make the writing boring and repetitive, they propel the writing along. Beautiful stuff. Expect to see more over the next few weeks.
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On the Importance of Getting Things Done in Politics

I’m currently in the middle of reading Robert Caro’s first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I’ll be blogging intermittently about this wonderful book over the next few weeks. Expect a few of those posts to be focused on drawing writing lessons from this wonderful author.
But a relatively early in the book, only 129 pages into it in other words, a paragraph jumped out at me that struck me as very relevant today: on the importance of finding the right balance between ideals in politics and accomplishing something in politics. The paragraph occurs in a chapter about Al Smith, the longtime governor of New York. He was not an intellectual, didn’t like to read it all, but was nevertheless very intelligent and shrewd. And what he understood most of all how to get things done. And that meant he sometimes lost patience with people who fought so hard for their ideals that they missed opportunities to implement policies that improve upon existing policies.

He has no patience for reformers who, unlike Belle Moskowitz, didn’t understand the importance of practical politics and getting things done, who refused to compromise, who insisted on having the bill as it is written, who raged loudly at injustice, who fought single-mindedly for an unattainable ideal. Their pigheadedness had the effect of dragging to political destruction politicians who listened to them, of ruining careers men had taken years to build. He had seen it happen. And more important, what was the inevitable result of their efforts? Since they refused to compromise and operate within the political framework – the only framework within which their proposals could become reality – the laws they proposed were never enacted, and therefore at the end of their efforts the people they had wanted to help, the people he knew so well needed help, hadn’t been helped at all. If anything, they had been hurt; the stirring up of hard feelings and bitterness delayed less dramatic but still useful reforms that might have been enacted. When the reformers were finished with all their hollering and were back in their comfortable homes, the widows of the Fourth Ward would still be forced to give up their children before they could get charity. What good was courage if it’s only effect was to hurt those you are trying to help?

I do love the writing of this paragraph – the back and forth between long and short sentences, for example. The rather than dwell on the writing per se, it’s the idea here worth noting right now: political courage doesn’t mean being unwilling to compromise. It means doing what you can, within the political realities you inherit, to make the world a better place.
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