Archive for June, 2014


Being extremely talented is generally an attractive trait

`confidence is sexy’: confident people are generally considered more attractive

Boasting is generally considered unattractive.

Thus, I conclude that modesty is attractive only if it’s false modesty. False modesty implies: (a) the person has something to be modest about (i.e. they are talented); (b) they are aware enough to recognize their talent, which should make them confident; (c) they are socially aware enough to know not to brag.

Imagine if someone was extremely talented but truly didn’t realize it. Their friends might feel like they need to keep convincing them to keep working on the projects that they’re good it. They could be viewed as somewhat clueless or even a bit stupid in that regard. Underestimating your talent doesn’t show humbleness as much as it shows a chronic lack of confidence / awareness. While this could be viewed as cute or charming, I don’t think it would be considered as attractive a quality as a confident person who signals modesty.



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I recently realized that I am basically incapable of answering vague questions. Why can’t I do this? Can I learn to do it? Should I?

I was at a department retreat a couple of weeks ago. The person who was presenting asked a series of questions. We were tasked with writing down answers to these questions using just a few words (not full sentences — just a few key words). From my perspective, the questions were so vague that they were unanswerable. The questions were things like: “how would you describe the culture of your organization?” and “how are decisions made in your organization?”. I looked around and saw that everyone else was writing. I couldn’t comprehend how they could be coming up with a word or two to answer these questions. Yet, given that everyone seemed to be able to do this without hesitating, I wondered why I couldn’t.

Consider the question “how are decisions made in your organization?” When I hear that question I think: “What type of decision? Who is involved? The way decisions are made vary as a function of all kinds of factors. How could anyone possibly answer this questions with anything other than ‘it depends’ or some long explanation?” And yet, everyone else could do this.

So let’s say I wanted to learn how to answer vague questions. Perhaps having the ability to do this is beneficial. How would I do it? Well, I am capable of answering specific questions. So I could picture all specific questions that fall under the general category of the vague question. I could answer them. I could then weigh the answers by their frequency of occurrence and/or by their importance, and then answer the vague question with the one or two answers that got the most weight. For example, consider the question about how decisions are made. I could picture a bunch of different types of decisions and think about how often they occur and how important those decisions are. I could think about how each type of decision is made. For the most common and most important decisions, I could try to find common elements in terms of how the decisions are made. I could then give that as my answer.

Is this what people do? Or do people not give it that much thought? Maybe one specific scenario pops in their head when they hear a vague question, and they answer based on that?


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One of my favorite episodes of 99% Invisible was episode 78: No Armed Bandit. In the episode Natasha Dow Schüll discussed the evolution of casinos and addiction psychology. At one point, she talks about how penny slots are very popular because people (a) can afford to bet many lines at once and (b) ‘win’ almost every time:

When you’re betting 300 pennies on 100 lines, you’re gonna win back a portion of those. For the first time in history, you’re not betting a token and then losing it all or doubling it tripling it. That’s a really volatile setup. This is much less volatile. You’re spreading your bet across a hundred lines and it’s really a lot safer if you want to see it that way. Because chances are you’re going to win something on some of those lines. And it just so happens that these machines are designed when you win back something to give you all the winning stimuli that comes along with a real win. And so one researcher has aptly called this a false win or losses disguised as wins. ’cause you’re putting in 45 coins and ‘winning’ 9 back, that’s a pretty radical net loss. But yet, there’s little diddies that are being played. It’s virtually no different than when you really do win.

I feel like false wins are a metaphor for much of life (and possibly for life itself if you’re feeling extra cynical).

But I also think this can happen on a group level. Consider the idea of ‘following your dreams.’ By this I mean when a youngish person invests everything they have into pursuing some long-shot goal. For example, maybe they drop out of college to try to become a famous musician, move to LA to try to get into movies, try to turn a casual interest in magic into becoming the next David Blaine, or try to become a best selling author. Think of every person who does this as a coin. If every person who did this had their story told, we would be aware of how often they failed to achieve their goals and how often they wished they hadn’t spent so many years ignoring the advice of people who told them they weren’t good enough. We would also be aware of the details of each success story. If it was a TV show and each episode was one person’s story, we might have to watch 1000 episodes detailing failures before observing one success (I have no idea what the true ratio of failures:successes is). In that case, we would be aware of whether each coin won or lost. We would feel these losses, and might not be so encouraging of mildly talented people pursuing their dreams. Alternatively, suppose pretty much the only stories we heard about were the successes. The famous musician is interviewed, looks into the camera and tells young people to always follow their dreams. The best selling author tells the story of how they kept writing no matter how many times they were rejected — and how it paid off. In this scenario, we have some awareness that there must be a bunch of people who didn’t succeed, but we don’t hear their stories. We only hear the winning sounds and flashing lights of the false win.


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