Archive for May, 2009

Optimists make prediction errors in the direction of thinking things will work out better than they actually do.

Pessimists’ prediction errors tend to be in the other direction.

If someone says  “I am an optimist,” what they are saying is:

  • I know that I make errors in a specific direction.
  • I am not interested in adjusting my predictions to be less biased.
  • I want you to know that I make errors in that direction.

If one observes that they are making errors in one direction, you would think that they would take that into account when they make new predictions.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for self-declared optimists and pessimists.  They know that they make these errors, and plan to continue doing so.

Why systematic bias?

One could argue that it’s good to be an optimist.  Perhaps it’s like a placebo.  For example, from this review paper,

one of the striking correlates of optimism is good health (e.g., Peterson, 1988; Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988; Scheier & Carver, 1987, 1992). This link seems to reflect several different pathways, including immunological robustness (Kamen-Siegel, Rodin, Seligman, & Dwyer, 1991; Scheier et al., 1999; Segerstrom, Taylor, Kemeny, & Fahey, 1998; Udelman, 1982), absence of negative mood (Weisse, 1992), and health-promoting behavior (Peterson, Seligman, Yurko, Martin, & Friedman, 1998).

One also could argue that there are benefits to being a pessimist.  If you have low expectations, you will never disappointed.  If you assume people don’t like you, you won’t get hurt.

In both cases, though, the errors you make can be harmful.  The optimist might use resources on tasks that had no chance of success, when they could have been using those resources elsewhere.  Pessimists might miss out on opportunities because they unrealistically assume it won’t work out.

So why are there few self-proclaimed neutralists (realists?), people who say “I make errors, but they tend to be distributed equally in the positive and negative directions”?

Declaring bias

Why tell people that you are systematically biased?

The optimist might be signaling that good things are going to happen to them.  That they are going to be successful.  That they are going to achieve high status.  Also, most people want to believe the best about the future.   The optimist is telling people what they want to hear.   They are signaling “if you hang out with me, not only will good things happen to me, but I’ll make you feel good about the future.”  Seems like the type of attitude that people might be drawn to.  So by declaring their bias, the optimist might be more attractive to potential future friends.

I’m not sure what the pessimist gains by declaring their bias.   There must be something.  We humans don’t tend declare things without purpose.  Any thoughts?

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Human mind

I like this sentence:

The human mind is not a blank slate but a “fill-in-the-blanks slate,” outlined by nature and filled in by socialization.

from here

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The Player

I recently read The Player by Michael Tolkin.  Good book.  It’s also a movie, but I haven’t seen it. 

Here are two encounters between the main character, Griffin, and his rival, Levy, that I enjoyed:

The waiter came and took their orders. Levy asked for a salad, and Griffin, buttering a roll, asked for a small pizza.  He was glad he hadn’t come to the table with a strategy, because he would have chosen the same tactics, and the same measly lunch as Levy, and now he was calm, while Levy looked forlorn that he was having only a salad and couldn’t break down for a roll or pasta.  Somewhere Levy had read a book about power lunching, but he must have skipped the lesson on keeping eye contact with the person across the table, and to avoid staring at his carboydrates.  Griffin knew he showed extreme confidence to order more food than Levy. It was a small battle, but he had won it.


As soon as Griffin settled into his office, Larry Levy knocked on the door with a hard cast on his wrist. … Griffin knew Levy wanted to talk about the broken arm, how he’d hurt himself, what the doctors had been like, so he didn’t ask about it when he invited him to take a seat.

Levy scrated inside the cast again.  Something itched him fiercely, and still Griffin refused to ask what had happened, how he had fallen on the slopes.  He sensed that Levy knew Griffin was purposefully ignoring the cast, waiting for Levy to offer the explanation, which would, because it was volunteered, carry the unmistakable whine of the victim.  The urge to tell the story of how he broke his arm was a second itch.

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Headline that came across my gmail page: 

Orlando Magic fan demands apology from Boston Celtics’ Glen Davis

I did a google search, and found many other examples of people/groups demanding apologies.  Here are a few examples:

Tea Party Protestors Demand Apology From Obama and Media

Muslims around the world are demanding that the pope apologize for remarks he made about Islam and its founder.

Filipino Americans demand for apology from ABC and Desperate Housewives

Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have issued a joint statement demanding an apology from Jamie Foxx

Guns N’ Roses Demand Apology From Dr Pepper Over Soda “Fiasco”

Postal workers demand apology from GOP.

Community Organizers Demand ApologyAfter Sarah Palin’s Attack

You get the idea. 

Why does an apology that comes after public pressure make the offended party feel better?  Seems reasonable to assume that if someone apologizes only after heavy criticism and public pressure that the apology is not sincere.  A possible exception is in the case where someone didn’t realize their remarks were offensive until after hearing complaints. Still, I do not see why the people who were offended would feel any better after the apology.

This reminds me of a post Robin Hanson wrote about gifts.  If part of the point of giving a gift is to show how well you know someone, then why do people basically tell you what to buy?  For example, suppose my wife says “I want XYZ for my birthday.”  And then I buy her XYZ.  If she hadn’t told me what she wanted, she might feel very good that I knew she would like XYZ.  But if she told me to buy it, why would it make her feel good? 

Maybe I’m missing the point.  Maybe the point of demanding an apology is to punish the perpetrator. To publicly shame them.  To coerce them into going public with a statement saying they were wrong.  Maybe they get pleasure from putting the individual in an uncomfortable position.

Maybe the recipient of the gift doesn’t care about sincerity — they just want the gift.  I don’t know. 

Still, this all seems peculiar.

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Opt-out as policy

Yvain wrote an interesting post over at Less Wrong (link).  In it, he discussed the idea of an opt out option of certain government policies:

The “soft paternalist” solution is to have a government-mandated pension scheme, but allow individuals to opt-out of it after signing the appropriate amount of paperwork. Most people, the theory goes, would remain in the pension scheme, because they understand they’re better off with a pension and it was only laziness that prevented them from getting one before. And anyone who actually goes through the trouble of opting out of the government scheme would either be the sort of intelligent person who has a good reason not to want a pension, or else deserve what they get

Due primarily to the laziness factor, I hypothesize that you will get more participation in a program if the default is inclusion, and getting out requires effort, compared to the alternative where getting in requires effort.  With opt-out, only the most motivated opponents of the policy will not participate.  With opt-in, people with policy-neutral opinions might remain out.  Thus, opt-out makes sense for policies that we think would generally be beneficial to the public.  It would yield high participation rates,  while preserving the freedom of individuals to make their own decision.

One of the reasons I am not sympathetic to the arguments made by the anarcho-capitalists in this country, besides the flaws in their economic theory, is the fact that if they had their way I’d have to make a lot more decisions.  But some people want to manage every aspect of their life.  Maybe there is a way to compromise.

Another possible use of opt-out as policy is access to de-identified medical records for research.  There is potentially a large public benefit from a learning healthcare system.  An opt-out policy would result in very high participation rates, while allowing highly motivated folks to keep their data private. 

As proposed in the comments of the original post, an opt-out policy for organ donation seems worth considering.

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I just finished reading Damage by Josephine Hart.  The narrator of the book is a man who has an affair with his son’s fiance (Anna).  Prior to meeting Anna, he was basically just going through the motions of life.  He was kind of numb.  Upon meeting her, everything changed.  He had to have her, regardless of the consequences. As he put it:

What responsibility is so great that it could deny this single chance in eternity to exist?

Anna, too, was aware of the damage that could be done, but felt like it was out of her control:

I always recognise the forces that will shape my life. I let them do their work.  Sometimes they tear through my life like a hurricane. … I lie down, and let the hurricane pass over me. I never fight.  Afterwards I look around me, and I say, ‘Ah, so this at least is left for me. And that dear person has also survived.’

The narrator just ignores the storm around him:

Our sanity depends essentially on a narrowness of vision — the ability to select the elements vital to survival while ignoring the great truths.

At one point in the book, the narrator’s wife recognizes that something has changed with their marriage.  He tells her that he has a problem that he has to work out on his own.  He then describes how the conversation ended:

We met each other’s gaze.  We managed to avert our eyes before truth could be seen by either of us.  Elliptical intimacy is the marriage vow of good companions.  Vows that they honour behind the closed doors of bedrooms where, trapped in the winding sheets of dead desire, they take the pleasure they are entitled to.  They convince themselves that they have not been cheated in this roulette game of passionless passion.  It is a legacy from one generation to the next.  The good marriage tie.

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