Monday, February 27, 2012

An Organized Mind

We so want to make sense of things, don't we? The first thing when we meet a new person or see a new place is to try and bucket this new experience in with the old. What is this person like? What does this restaurant remind me of? We are insatiable organizers of our own experiences.

This categorization of everything we encounter is of course useful, because otherwise we would be adrift without the ability to make connections or properly react to the new. But it also makes us qucker to judgment than we sometimes should be, and at risk of over-simplification. Thus, some of our best ideas come from resisting our initial impulse to label and looking at stimuli without preconceived notions.

I was reminded of this by two quite disparate articles. The first was a reflection on the meaning (or lack thereof) of the races that we have lumped the human race into. In the course of noting that these racial categories are largely artificial, he notes that this is also true of other classifications that are much less controversial:
Do races exist in human biology? Is it a useful concept? That depends on criteria in both cases. The reality is that I’m not sure I know what a species is in an axiomatic sense, let alone race (many biologists don’t, that’s why there’s a whole area devoted to studying the issue of the definition). Rather, for me species are evaluated instrumentally. Is the classification of a set of individuals as a species useful in illuminating a specific biological question? Species are human constructions, categories which are mapped upon reality. That doesn’t make them without utility. Many of the same “where do you draw the line?” questions asked of race can be asked of species. In a deep ontological sense I don’t believe in species. But in a deep ontological sense I don’t accept the solidity of a brick (most of the volume is space of any object of course!).
Of course our catalogue of species gives a useful shorthand of evolutionary branching, but it is easy to forget that the idea of species predates evolutionary theory, and was meant to capture the distinct types of creatures that had existed in their current forms for all of history. So the idea of distinct, hard-and-fast species can lead us into some false assumptions.

A similar idea crops up in a totally different area: our depiction of the mind. In this piece, provocatively entitled "The Mind is a Guess", the author notes that some cultures do not understand the mind as a singular thing that controls all our thinking function.
In traditional Haitian culture, there is no direct equivalent of the mind. The self is made up of a three components. The corps cadavre is the physical body; the ti-bon anj or ‘little good angel’ loosely represents what we would consider as agency, awareness and memory; while the gwo bon anj or the ‘big good angel’ is the animating principle that manages motivation and movement. Incidentally, a traditional Haitian zombie is created when a sorcerer steals the ‘little good angel’ leaving a coordinated body capable of understanding and following instructions but without reflective thought, clearly demonstrating a split where we see a single mental realm.
The idea of a single mind is so fundamental for most of us that trying to imagine it split or otherwise defined differently is almost impossible. We think of the mind as one thing (generally housed in our brain), but different types of thought could function differently enough that it makes more sense to talk about two minds, or four, or twelve. The usefulness of the 'mind idea' might be blinding us to a more nuanced understanding of how we think.

Who knows what other things that we think we know, that we perhaps even think are proven, that are in truth flaws of our mental organization?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Evolution, Brain Scans, and Just So Science Stories

When it comes to trying to answer questions about human nature (or even human behavior) scientifically, our reach consistently exceeds our grasp. Often times what we believe is a new understanding of the world is, at best, a theory, and at worst speculative imaginings meant to bolster a certain world-view. A chronic offender in this regard is Steven Pinker, who is, in fairness, an excellent explainer of the latest science of the mind. His book How the Mind Works is, overall, very helpful in walking the lay person through these issues. However, the later chapters are marked by an effort to rope that science into supporting a materialist ideology, a flaw that is much more in evidence in his shorter writings, like this New York Times article on morality, when he expounds upon where our altruistic impulses might come from:
Community, the very different emotion that prompts people to share and sacrifice without an expectation of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives (and which evolved because any gene that pushed an organism to aid a relative would have helped copies of itself sitting inside that relative). In humans, of course, communal feelings can be lavished on nonrelatives as well. Sometimes it pays people (in an evolutionary sense) to love their companions because their interests are yoked, like spouses with common children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with common tastes or allies with common enemies. And sometimes it doesn’t pay them at all, but their kinship-detectors have been tricked into treating their groupmates as if they were relatives by tactics like kinship metaphors (blood brothers, fraternities, the fatherland), origin myths, communal meals and other bonding rituals.
That entire paragraph is a great example of what I call (with all credit to Rudyard Kipling) Just So Science Stories. In Kipling's book, of course, fanciful yet plausible explanations are given for how animals ended up looking as they did. The elephant got his long trunk by a crocodile pulling it, the leopard got his spots from a hunter who put dark fingerprint smears on his fur to help him blend into the shadows. Just so with Pinker: we have a sense of community because our kinship detectors are tricked by wordplay and having dinner together. I suppose that could be true, but it certainly seems a lot like he's trying hard to make challenging data fit a one-size-fits-all explanation: your genes did it! Here is a great retort to Pinker:
If Pinker could break out of his evolutionary innate approach to human capacities, he would be able to explain more easily why people reason so differently about pushing someone over the edge versus having a train run someone over.

Lakoff makes a central distinction in how people think about causality, of billiards-ball causality versus human action.  We treat billiard-ball causality and human causality as very different things.  And for good reason, since this distinction builds from everyday experiences and is mediated by language and cultural models. There is a dramatic but quite real difference between pushing someone off a ledge and watching some people get run over.  In the latter case, the train—that massive billiard ball—is the immediate cause of death.  But pushing?  That’s human doing, and it lights up all sorts of systems in the brain that generally light up when people think about doing stuff and what that might mean in the real world.
That last quote alludes to bran scans, another area where Just So Science Stories seem to be told with impunity. It seems like once a week I'm reading an article touting the latest amazing finding from these windows into our brains. And yet, all too often, all these studies have really proved is that certain stimuli tend to make neurons in a certain area of the brain activate at higher levels. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a Professor of Psychology at UMass Amherst, brings some needed skepticism to these studies:
Brain scans are clearly an advance over phrenology, but they also have their limitations. The biggest problem is that we can't precisely localize specific brain functions. Though it's possible to speak in general terms of a "reward center," it's not possible to pin down the exact nature of which reward goes with which set of neurons. Neurosurgeons discovered many decades ago that there is redundancy in the brain and that there are substantial variations from person to person.
It's important that think hard about these studies, because pretty soon we're going to be asked to make societal decisions based on their findings. For example, scientists have begun to look at whether criminal behavior may be linked to underdeveloped or damaged areas of the brain. They point to reduced brain activity in parts of the brain that, they say, are important for regulating emotion, and link this to poor impulse control that leads to crime. This could potentially be used to argue that certain criminals aren't culpable for their acts. But should we make this leap based on the number of neurons firing in a person's brain, without understanding why those neurons are or are not firing?

Let me make an analogy. Brain scans are creating a visual representation of the brain's electrical activity. We could similarly make a heat map of a car, which would light up most around the engine, and much less so around the person driving it. But drawing the conclusion that the engine then determines where the car goes would, of course, be completely wrong. And our heat map would almost completely miss the GPS system sitting on the dash, which might be more significant in determining where the car goes than even the driver. Similarly, parts of the brain that light up on scans might not be the only parts that contribute to a certain behavior.

We all like direct, satisfying answers to the big "Why?" questions in life, but we have to maintain our skepticism to avoid falling for trendy, persuasive, but ultimately false or incomplete Just So Stories.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Genius and Madness of Culture

The failures of large, previously successful companies offer endless opportunities for outsiders to feel superior. Geez, any moron could have seen their business model was broken a decade ago! How could they think anyone was going to buy that clearly inferior [insert hyped product that no one ended up wanting here]? It's easy, fun, and I've done it way too often to offer any criticism of the impulse.

But once we get past the schadenfreude of criticizing these seemingly obvious business blunders, we may be left with an uneasy feeling: If that company, which everyone once thought was God's gift to business, could screw up that badly, is my company doing the same thing? The good news is that, if you allow yourself to be honest and objective about it, you can probably figure out if your company is circling the drain. The bad news is that it will be incredibly hard, perhaps even impossible, to do anything about it.

At least, that's the conclusion I drew after reading Megan McArdle's piece in the Atlantic about the role of culture in business failure, and the human tendencies that keep us from turning away from the precipice. I was particularly struck by the notion of the 'founder effect': 
Even a dysfunctional culture, once well established, is astonishingly efficient at reproducing itself. The UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman told me, “If new entrants assimilate to whatever is the majority at the time they enter, and if new entrants trickle in slowly, then the founding culture can persist over time, even if over the long run they make up a tiny minority.” This is why Americans speak English even though more of us are ethnically German or Yoruba. In linguistics and sociology, it’s known as the “founder effect.” In corporations, it’s known as “how we’ve always done things.”
That gave me pause because I have often been in an environment where, everyone will tell you, what's needed is 'new blood' or 'fresh thinking'. Business people will readily acknowledge that what they're doing isn't working, and bring in an outside perspective (as I discussed in my last post) only to either disregard that new perspective as foreign or, perhaps more commonly, absorb that person into the collective so they end up parroting back the same old company line. The implication here is that, to truly get away from old, bad habits, it is best to bring in a lot of new people and allow them to work, at least for a while, apart from the existing structure and the accompanying pressures for conformity.

Another way of addressing this problem, at least partially, would be to select a devil's advocate in meetings, and especially when there are big decisions about products or corporate direction to be made. Instead of hoping someone will have the courage to challenge the group consensus (not a position most people want to be in), there would be a person assigned to make the opposing case in the most compelling terms possible. If that case seems persuasive, then maybe the group's direction is unsound.

At any rate, it seems clear that businesses need to vigilantly guard against their culture ossifying in a way that pushes people to conform. And yet, a strong corporate culture is a good thing, right? So far I've essentially made an anti-culture case, but culture, and even a conservative culture, is often a major part of a company's success. McArdle again:

One possibility is that firms don’t change because inertia is in their DNA—indeed, it’s a gene that once made many of them successful. In their 1989 book, Organizational Ecology, Michael Hannan and John Freeman argue that organizations are actually selected for inertia by their environment, and “rarely change their fundamental structural features.” Change is risky, after all, since it definitionally involves doing something that isn’t already working—and even product lines that have grown lackluster still have somecustomers. Firms that are prone to frequent large changes will probably have more opportunities to kill themselves off with bad choices than firms that resist big changes. 
Moreover, the need for accountability and reliability in the modern economy selects against constant radical experimentation—people like knowing that their bank has cumbersome and invariable procedures for keeping track of deposits, for instance. Think of McDonald’s, where a core premise is that no matter where you go, the food and decor will be reliably, exactly the same. Or consider what happened to Coke after it tried to change the recipe of its iconic product, even though taste tests showed that most people actually liked the new version better. The larger and older the firm is, the heavier the selection for stability.
The need for stability is fundamental, both for employees who want to believe that their jobs are secure and their companies won't lurch dangerously from one position to the next (think of how disconcerting 2011 must have been at Netflix). Customers want to know they can rely on companies to provide consistent goods and experiences. A strong culture helps meet these needs. 

So culture is good until it is bad. Consistency is critical but leads to stubborn repetition of behaviors that have stopped working. Perhaps the (frightening) truth is that companies have a natural life cycle, and it is smarter to take the resources of an old, faltering firm to start dynamic new ventures. Don't attempt to reform culture, but allow new ones to blossom. (I think, in some ways, this is similar to Clayton Christensen's advice on how to deal with disruptive innovation.) Culture, like the human mind itself, seems remarkably resistant to quick fixes.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Psychic Value of Consultants

I have long wondered how so many consultants do so well creating reports that find their way to the bottom of desk drawers at prestigious companies around the country. I have had plenty of clients laugh bitterly about the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on a report from McKinsey or BCG that was completely wasted, either because it was un-implementable or because it was so obvious in its recommendations that it was totally unneeded.
But I had never stopped to think about what benefits a client might be getting from consultants besides the economic value of their actual advice. But a recent string of posts from very smart guys explored just that question, and came up with some interesting conclusions about the psychic and persuasive benefits of hiring consultants. Take, first, Tyler Cowen
The rest of the world is increasingly specialized, so the returns to your general intelligence, as a complementary factor, are growing too, in spite of your lack of widget knowledge.  “Hey you, think about what you are doing!  Are you sure?  How about this?” often sounds bogus to outsiders but every now and then it pays off and generates a high expected marginal product.
 Cowen makes a simple point: sometimes having an outsider who can credibly claim to be really smart challenge the conventional wisdom, even in obvious ways, can be helpful to an entrenched organization. In my experience, this does happen, but rarely, and it requires an organization that has struggled enough that most of its leadership are willing to take a sledgehammer to the familiar way of doing things. More often, that what about this? idea gets dismissed as unworkable (usually because of the internal politics of the organization) and the report gets shelved.

But one response to Cowen's original post, from Robin Hanson, captured an important truth about consulting:
My guess is that most intellectuals underestimate just how dysfunctional most firms are. Firms often have big obvious misallocations of resources, where lots of folks in the firm know about the problems and workable solutions. The main issue is that many highest status folks in the firm resist such changes, as they correctly see that their status will be lowered if they embrace such solutions.
 Hanson captures something real about the psychology of organizational change. As corporations get larger, executives get more and more autonomy to run their little fiefs the way they want to, regardless of whether all the parts are working together to optimize profits. To these chieftans, it is better to protect what they have built for themselves than take a risk on change that may make things better for everyone but also makes their position near the top less secure. In that world, a consultant can provide a spiral-bound kick in the pants that energizes those who would benefit most from change and neutralizes those with the most to fear. However, I think Hanson is slightly off in describing how this works:
The CEO often understands what needs to be done, but does not have the resources to fight this blocking coalition. But if a prestigious outside consulting firm weighs in, that can turn the status tide. Coalitions can often successfully block a CEO initiative, and yet not resist the further support of a prestigious outside consultant.
 I may be splitting hairs, but what it seems Hanson is describing is a world in which a CEO has a great idea, but can't get support for it. Then a consultant comes to the rescue by backing up the CEO. This seems a bit off to me: in my experience, consultant reports are usually used by one of the other C-level executives (say the chief marketing officer), who tells the consultant firm what 'recommendation' he wants the report to make, and then uses that document as part of his up-sell. In this case, it is less the prestige of the consultant that helps make the sale (though that does add credibility) and more the perceived neutrality.

To challenge the notion that consultants are primarily pimping out their Ivy League pedigrees to help pathetic clients make obvious decision, Jim Manzi of National Review offers some first-hand observations of how consulting firms are set up:
No competent consulting firm is going to have a bunch of unsupervised “kids fresh out of college” standing in front of a Fortune 500 CEO telling him what they think. In a typical CEO-level final presentation, a good senior partner will let the engagement manager do a lot of the meat of the presentation, so that he or she gets experience. The partners lay out the overall recommendations at the start of the meeting, and then fly air cover for the rest of it.
 This is undoubtedly true, but I doubt anyone thinks the 'kids' are making the recommendations. But the 'engagement manager' Manzi describes is probably not much past 30, if that, and that person is probably doing the bulk of the brain work on the project. So why should this hypothetical CEO listen to someone with 5-7 years of experience, much of which is probably not directly relevant to the problem at hand?

In the end, my belief is that we develop a certain amount of contempt for the people we work with on a day to day basis. We stop hearing each other, stop listening when we think we can anticipate our colleague's ideas and objections before they articulate them. So when a 29 year old consultant comes in in his (or her) nice suit, with the backing of a prestigious firm and a prestigious degree, the novelty and perceived neutrality of the recommendation gets it a better hearing than it could hope for if it came from in house. In other words, you pick a consulting firm not because of how good their ideas are, but because of how receptive they will make your organization to those ideas.

Friday, February 3, 2012

What is Mind Pried Open?

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by the question of why people think what they do. Why is it so hard for us to really understand each other? What happens between when we learn a fact and when we try to share it with someone else that so often leads to the information getting mutilated? Why are most of us so easily distracted, so engrossed in the ephemeral?

One of the interesting aspect of these questions is that there is a debate, not just about the answers, but about which discipline properly should try to answer them. At first, they were the realm of philosophy. About a century ago, the social sciences began to weigh in. Now, in our time, neurologists and biologists have entered the discussion, armed with brain scans and genetic studies. This cacaphony of voices could make us despair of reaching any final answers, but it certainly keeps the discussion interesting.

My hope for this blog is that it can navigate, and sometimes add to, that discussion. I work within the advertising industry, a business that is predicated on the belief that a good message well delivered can make people think differently. So one area I will return to frequently is why some ads work: not just whether they are clever or visually arresting, but how they might act on a mind.

But the scope of this blog will be somewhat broad: I want to explore how we prioritize, gather and retain information, how we use that information to form, support or challenge our beliefs, and how we transmit it to others. Much of what I write will be inspired by my reading on this topic, but also personal observations and, from time to time, some poorly substantiated opinions.

This is a bit of a departure from what I have blogged about in the past, so any feedback, criticism, or suggestions of topics to cover will be most appreciated.

I hope you enjoy what follows,