Posts Tagged ‘Cognition’
For Ada Lovelace Day this year, I want to share my appreciation for Dr. Marian C. Diamond.
In years past, I’ve saluted women in the field of computing, which is my field as well. Dr. Diamond, however, is a biologist. Her research includes “neuroanatomy, environment, immune functions, and hormones. In particular, she is interested in studying the effects of the external environment, aging, and immune responses on the cerebral neocortex.” She has, in her words, had a love affair with the brain for about 70 years.
I know very little about biology. The content and methods of her research are, frankly, beyond me, though some of her results have garnered popular attention. She has inspired me by demonstrating that rare combination of gifts: a deep understanding of a technical subject, and the ability to explain it to other people in an accessible way.
In her interviews, articles and lectures, many of which are available online, Dr. Diamond displays these gifts in abundance. Her skill and enthusiasm for both learning and teaching is unmistakable. After applying her gifts in the classroom for many years, digital distribution has now enabled many more people to see and hear her, through millions of YouTube views.
In 1960, she became the first female graduate student in UC Berkeley’s anatomy department, and was apparently given the job of sewing a cover for a magnifying machine. I can only imagine the persistence required to continue from there to become a recognized leader in her field. She has gone on to help many other students along their way, and was named an “unsung, everyday hero” for the support she provided to students outside of the classroom or lab.
As if that weren’t enough, she has also traveled to Cambodia to apply her expertise in helping children injured by land mines. She still teaches today, just across the bay from where I write this, and will turn 85 next month.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
– attributed to Mark Twain
There is a lot that I don’t know about what goes on in my organization. This isn’t only because I can’t observe everything, or because it’s too complex, or because I make mistakes. These are all true, of course, but they’re also obvious. Much more devious is the way the flow of information to me is distorted. It’s distorted by me, and by the people around me, whether any of us are aware of it or not. This is most apparent in considering how people feel about their managers: this is why I have a deeply flawed view of what it’s really like to work for me.
My theory is that power bends information like gravity bends light. The effect is more pronounced with people of greater mass (more authority), and lessened with distance (less direct influence). The more directly you influence someone else’s fate, the more it is in their self-interest to be guarded around you. This means that the people closest to you, who you receive the most information from, may have the most difficulty being open with you, especially if it’s bad news. It also means that the higher your standing in the corporate hierarchy, the more influence you wield, the more people are affected by this.
Pretty scary, right?
Some managers respond to this terrifying reality by trying to collect more information. They’ll quietly cross-check what people are telling them, asking people in different levels of the organization, routing around managers, hoping to get “the real story”. This usually backfires, because it signals distrust to the people involved and makes the distortion worse.
Another common response is to check in constantly, trying to monitor and control the work as closely as possible (so-called micro-management). This is even worse; not only does it signal distrust, but managers who do this become more personally attached to outcomes, and lose perspective on progress and quality due to information overload, self-enhancement bias, and neglect of managerial work. The more it becomes “your” work rather than the team’s, the harder it is to see it objectively.
So what’s a better way to respond to this phenomenon? Here’s what I try to do:
- Accept it – You’ll never have certainty about what’s happening, so get used to it, and don’t let it paralyze you. Learn decision making strategies which cope well with information noise, and allow you to experiment and adapt.
- Admit it – Everyone else knows that you have this distortion field around you. If you pretend it isn’t there, you’ll appear deluded. Acknowledge that you don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t control.
- Trust – The more you trust someone, the more they trust you. The more someone trusts you, the more confident they can be in telling you what they think. Be grateful for bad news, and never shoot the messenger.
- Delegate – Enable people with a less distorted view of the situation to make local decisions. Don’t make people wait for information to propagate through you before acting, unless there is a clear and sufficient benefit to the organization.
I was inspired to think and write about this today after listening to Prof. Robert Sutton’s speech at the California Commonwealth Club, which Lindsay Holmwood shared with me.
Steve Jobs is a name that comes up a lot when talking to businesspeople, especially in the technology industry. His ideas, his background, his companies, their products, and his personal style are intertwined in the folklore of tech. I have no idea whether most of it is fiction or not, and I write this with apologies to Mr. Jobs for using him as shorthand. I have never met him, and my point here has nothing to do with him personally.
What I want to discuss is the behavior of people who invoke the myth of Steve Jobs. In my (entirely subjective) experience, it seems to me that there is a pattern which comes up again and again: People seem to want to discuss and emulate the worst of his alleged qualities.
Jobs has been characterized as abusive to his employees, dismissive of his business partners, harshly critical of mistakes, punishingly secretive, and otherwise extremely difficult to work with. Somehow, it is these qualities which are put forward as worthy of discussion, inspiration and emulation. Is this a simple case of confusing correlation with causation? Do people believe that Steve Jobs is successful because of these traits? Perhaps it is a way of coping with one’s own character flaws: if Jobs can “get away” with such misbehavior, then perhaps we can be excused from trying to improve ourselves. Or is there something more subtle going on here? Maybe this observation is an effect of my own cognitive biases, as it is only anecdotal.
As with any successful person, Jobs surely has qualities and techniques which are worthy of study, and perhaps even emulation. Although direct comparison can be problematic, luminaries like Jobs can provide valuable inspiration. I’d just like to hear more about what they’re doing right.
Perhaps this is an argument for drawing inspiration from people you know personally, rather than from second-hand or fictitious accounts of someone else’s life. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with many different people, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and style. I’ve seen those characteristics first-hand, so I also have the context to understand why they were successful in particular situations. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leadership, it’s that it’s highly context-sensitive: what worked well in one situation can be disastrous in another. Is your company really that much like Apple? Probably not.
I have noticed that when I am reading, I cannot simultaneously understand spoken words. If someone speaks to me while I am reading, I can pay attention to their voice, or to the text, but not both. It’s as if these two functions share the same cognitive facility, and this facility can only handle one task at a time. If someone is talking on the phone nearby, I find it very difficult to focus on reading (or writing). If I’m having a conversation with someone about a document, I sometimes have to ask them to pause the conversation for a moment while I read.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to me. In Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care what Other People Think?, there is a chapter entitled “It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…” where he describes his experiments with keeping time in his head. He practiced counting at a steady rate while simultaneously performing various actions, such as running up and down the stairs, reading, writing, even counting objects. He discovered that he “could do anything while counting to [himself]—except talk out loud”.
What’s interesting is that the pattern varies from person to person. Feynman shared his discovery with a group of people, one of whom (John Tukey) had a curiously different experience: while counting steadily, he could easily speak aloud, but could not read. Through experimenting and comparing their experiences, it seemed to them that they were using different cognitive processes to accomplish the task of counting time. Feynman was “hearing” the numbers in his head, while Tukey was “seeing” the numbers go by.
Analogously, I’ve met people who seem to be able to read and listen to speech at the same time. I attributed this to a similar cognitive effect: presumably some people “speak” the words to themselves, while others “watch” them. Feynman found that, although he could write and count at the same time, his counting would be interrupted when he had to stop and search for the right word. Perhaps he used a different mental faculty for that. Some people seem to be able to listen to more than one person talking at the same time, and I wonder if that’s related.
I was reminded of this years later, when I came across this video on speed reading. In it, the speaker explains that most people read by silently voicing words, which they can do at a rate of only 120-250 words per minute. However, people can learn to read visually instead, and thereby read much more quickly. He describes a training technique which involves reading while continuously voicing arbitrary sounds, like the vowels A-E-I-O-U.
The interesting part, for me, was the possibility of learning. I realized that different people read in different ways, but hadn’t thought much about whether one could change this. Having learned a cognitive skill, like reading or counting time, apparently one can re-learn it a different way. Visual reading would seem, at first glance, to be superior: not only is it faster, but I have to use my eyes to read anyway, so why tie up my listening facility as well? Perhaps I could use it for something else at the same time.
So, I tried the simple technique in the video, and it had a definite effect. I could “feel” that I wasn’t reading in the same way that I had been before. I didn’t measure whether I was going any faster or slower, because I quickly noticed something more significant: my reading comprehension was completely shot. I couldn’t remember what I had read, as the memory of it faded within seconds. Before reaching the end of a paragraph, I would forget the beginning. It was as if my ability to comprehend the meaning of the text was linked to my reading technique. I found this very unsettling, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book I was reading.
I’ll probably need to separate this practice from my pleasure reading in order to stick with it. Presumably, over time, my comprehension will improve. I’m curious about what net effect this will have, though. Will I still comprehend it in “the same” way? Will it mean the same thing to me? Will I still feel the same way about it? The many levels of meaning are connected to our senses as well, and “the same” idea, depending on whether it was read or heard, may not have “the same” meaning to an individual. Even our tactile senses can influence our judgments and decisions.
I also wonder whether, if I learn to read visually, I’ll lose the ability to read any other way. When I retrained myself to type using a Dvorak keyboard layout, rather than QWERTY, I lost the ability to type on QWERTY at high speed. I think this has been a good tradeoff for me, but raises interesting questions about how my mind works: Why did this happen? What else changed in the process that might have been less obvious?
Have you tried re-training yourself in this way? What kind of cognitive side effects did you notice, if any? If you lost something, do you still miss it?
(As a sidenote, I am impressed by Feynman’s exuberance and persistence in his personal experiments, as described in his books for laypeople. Although I consider myself a very curious person, I rarely invest that kind of physical and intellectual energy in first-hand experiments. I’m much more likely to research what other people have done, and skim the surface of the subject.)
I find that habits are best made and broken in sets. If I want to form a new habit, I’ll try to get rid of an old one at the same time. I don’t know why this works, but it seems to. Perhaps I only have room in my head for a certain number of habits, so if I want a new one, then an old one has to go. I’m sure some combinations are better than others.
I’m currently working on changing some habits, including:
- Start exercising, swimming three times per week
- Stop drinking alcohol entirely
- Start a consistent flossing routine
I’m thinking of adding a reading habit to the set, but it’s going well so far and I don’t want to overdo it. I feel good, and am forming a new routine.
The flossing is definitely the hardest of the three. I hate pretty much everything about flossing. It also unbalances the set, so that I have a net gain of one habit. Maybe that’s the real reason, and if I broke another habit, it would get easier.
Does anyone else have this experience? What sort of tricks do you employ to help you change your behavior?
People who use and promote free software cite various reasons for their choice, but do those reasons tell the whole story? If, as a community, we want free software to continue to grow in popularity, especially in the mainstream, we should understand better the true reasons for choosing it—especially our own.
Some believe that it offers higher quality, that the availability of source code results in a better product with higher reliability. Although it’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison of software, there are certainly instances where free software components have been judged superior to their proprietary counterparts. I’m not aware of any comprehensive analysis of the general case, though, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence on both sides of the debate.
Others prefer it for humanitarian reasons, because it’s better for society or brings us closer to the world we want to live in. These are more difficult to analyze objectively, as they are closely linked to the individual, their circumstances and their belief system.
For developers, a popular reason is the possibility of modifying the software to suit their needs, as enshrined in the Free Software Foundation’s freedom 1. This is reasonable enough, though the practical value of this opportunity will vary greatly depending on the software and circumstances.
The list goes on: cost savings, educational benefits, universal availability, social rewards, etc.
The wealth of evidence of cognitive bias indicates that we should not take these preferences at face value. Not only are human choices seldom rational, they are rarely well understood even by the human themselves. When asked to explain our preferences, we often have a ready answer—indeed, we may never run out of reasons—but they may not withstand analysis. We have many different ways of fooling ourselves with regard to our own past decisions and held beliefs, as well as those of others.
Behavioral economics explores the way in which our irrational behavior affects economies, and the results are curious and subtle. For example, the riddle of experience versus memory (TED video), or the several examples in “The Marketplace of Perception” (Harvard Magazine article). I think it would be illuminating to examine free software through this lens, and consider that the vagaries of human perception may have a very strong influence on our choices.
Some questions for thought:
- Does using free software make us happier? If so, why? If not, why do we use it anyway?
- Do we believe in free software because we have a great experience using it, or because we feel good about having used it? (Daniel Kahneman explains the difference)
- Why do we want other people to use free software? Is it only because we want them to share our preference, or because we will benefit ourselves, or do we believe they will appreciate it for their own reasons?
If you’re aware of any studies along these lines, I would be interested to read about them.
List-keeping is generally regarded as boring administrative work, something only important to compulsive organizers. When a writer wants to portray a character as meticulous and dull, they need only brand them as a list-maker, with eyes bespectacled from years of squinting over their lists.
The reality of list-keeping is much more exciting: reminder lists are a mechanism for cognitive time travel. They allow us to transport information from the time when it occurs to us, to a time in the future when it will actually be useful. Like a wormhole, they connect distant points in spacetime (though unfortunately only in one direction, as in the Stargate universe).
Throughout my day, I will remember things I need to do, though not right away: an article which looks interesting, or someone I need to remember to call. Putting these items on a list frees my mind to keep going with whatever I’m doing, knowing that the idea is not lost. A common scenario for me is that I’m riding the tube, reading RSS feeds offline on my Android phone using NewsRob, and come across something I want to explore further. There is as yet no wireless service on the tube, so I can’t do anything but read, but I can send myself an email using K-9 which will be delivered later. At the other end of the wormhole, when I’m back online, I receive the email (usually at my computer) and pick up where I left off.
Traveling through time in your head may not be as exciting as flitting about in a TARDIS, but it is much more accessible, and genuinely rewarding.