Archive | July, 2011

All Swans are White, I Swear!

29 Jul

Nassim Nicholas Taleb“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”  This quote, attributed to several personalities including Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra, seems to sum up what we all would attest to know.  However, just as the cost of living has not affected its popularity, the necessity to conjecture is unavoidable.  Humans are constantly processing information and developing correlations and hypotheses to explain the world around them, yet we are surprisingly bad at it.

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan, he preaches the foibles of speculation and cautions that we need to hedge our interests against the unexpected.  He uses black swans as an example since most human beings historically would be quick to postulate that all swans are white, and they might even be willing to accept financial risk to back such a claim given that their extensive experience seems to prove their theory.  Central to this weakness in human nature is what Taleb calls the confirmation bias.  This is the tendency we have to formulate a hypothesis, and then look for evidence that proves our theory, rather than look for examples that disprove it.  Several bloggers have reviewed this book (see for example Think Inside the Cube, Panarama of the Mountains, and Quasi-Coherent), so be sure to read what they have to say.  What made this book so important to me, though, are the extensive examples of real world situations and vast bibliography of institutional experiments that illustrate how wrong our instincts can be.

The need to conjecture seems rooted in the fact that we have limited resources available to gather information, store it, and retrieve it.  To facilitate this process, humans attempt to compress the data by recognizing patterns, rather than trying to absorb every digit of detail.  This leads to the narrative fallacy, in Taleb’s words, where we try to create a coherent story to summarize our observations.  For example, if a child is shown a photograph of a person and told that he is a member of a larger group, and then asked to describe the other members of the group, he is likely to get some things right, but fail in other areas.  Typically, children would assume that the other members of the group would share the same language, which is reasonable, and somehow the children would avoid the assumption that all members were the same height and weight.  However, the children would often predict that all members shared the same skin color, which was a brash extrapolation.  Studies of split-brain patients, individuals who have had their corpus callosum severed to disconnect the two sides of the brain, indicate that this causality processing resides in the left hemisphere of a right handed person, emphasizing that there are significant biological factors that influence our reasoning.  Additionally, patients having higher concentrations of dopamine, which regulates moods and lowers skepticism, are found to be more prone to developing wild extrapolations of patterns.

More troubling than our tendency to formulate and speculate, is our inability to accurately gauge our level of accuracy.  For example, a group may be asked to estimate the number of books at their local library.  Instead of an exact number, they are asked to provide a range in which the true value resides, within a 98% level of confidence.  The estimates, it turns out, are wrong by at least an order of magnitude larger than ideal 2%, indicating that we generally are far too confident in our estimates.  Surprisingly, additional experiments showed that the more information we have, the more likely we are to overestimate the accuracy of our predictions.  Therefore, more data and more knowledge actually increase the likelihood that you would be wrong since overconfidence would lead you to estimate ranges that were too narrow.Black Swan Bird

  “The future is not what it used to be,” is another quote that applies here, also often attributed to Yogi Berra, but is of dubious origin.  So, please, be mindful of your assumptions, particularly when making important life decisions.  And, by the way, black swans are native to Australia, where I had the good fortune to see them in the wild when I lived near Melbourne in the mid-90’s.

Woody Allen and Multiple Selves

27 Jul

Woody Allen Zelig movie posterBefore starting his long career writing, directing, and starring in movies, Woody Allen was a stand-up comic.  And, by chance, I happened to catch a snippet from his act on the radio where he made a joke that has stayed with me for several decades.  True to his neurotic persona, the joke went something like this, “I went to college, briefly, but I was kicked out for cheating on a metaphysics exam… I was caught looking into the soul of the guy next to me.”  His delivery was much better, of course, but this simple quip emphasizes the reality that we all look to others to help shape our concept of ourselves.

Social psychologists have performed numerous experiments to study this condition of human nature, and they have shown that others can influence our self-concept either directly through their behavior towards us, or indirectly as we compare ourselves to those that we observe.  In the first case, who hasn’t had their self-esteem boosted or dashed by a comment or facial expression from a parent, spouse, teacher, boss, etc.  As an example of the latter, I feel emasculated in the gym when I see some buff macho man bench press 300 pounds, but later I will stand with my chest out and my hands on my hips like superman after swinging my 3 year old grandson around in circles.  When we walk into a bar, each of us evaluates how we will be perceived.  Men check out the women to determine if they have a chance.  Women check out the women to determine if they have a better chance.

Woody Allen's Zelig as an IndianTaking this further, it seems that we also exhibit different personal characteristics depending on our environment.  Apparently, our self-concept is different at home than it is at work, or when we are on a date, or playing sports, and so on.  I know this to be true since I am generally a very quiet person in most social situations.  I was the youngest of four boys, so I found it difficult to get a word in growing up, and, being less experienced, had less to contribute anyway.  However, in a few situations I find that I cannot shut up.  This is usually when I find that I am viewed as the expert in the room on a particular subject, or when I am among good friends, with whom I am completely comfortable and feel to be of equal standing.

The accomplished Mr. Allen again provides insight into this phenomena, as his 1983 film Zelig addresses this subject in a very humorous manner.  The movie is a mockumentary about a man that has the ability to change his appearance, speech, and demeanor to fit in with whomever he is interacting with.  Through hypnoses, his psychiatrist, played by Mia Farrow (yes, this was a long time ago), reveals that this disorder is the result of his strong yearning for approval from those around him.  If you haven’t seen the film, please give yourself a treat and watch it.

First Book Released in Sophronismos Series

25 Jul
Sophronismos - The Rise of Alcibiades, by Allen R. HansenI am thrilled to announce that the first book in the Sophronismos series of books has been released.  Take a look at my Books page for a summary and free chapters to download.  It is available as an ebook from most retailers, and will soon be available in paperback from
Read the free chapters or, preferably, the whole book and leave a comment or share this link.