Everything Is Oblivious

Duncan Watts, sociologist, conducted a study by setting up two versions of a garageband music download website. Both sites had the same songs available for download. The only difference was in one site users could see how many times a song had been downloaded, the other didn’t reveal the count. The “no count” site showed little difference in the popularity among the choices available. The site showing the count soon had a couple of batshit hits and lots of losers. Repeats of the study also showed the “no count” site was relatively consistent from one run to the next. Again, no songs became runaway hits, none languished in obscurity. Repeats of the count-reveal site had another interesting phenomenon occur. The big hits from one trial didn’t necessarily become hits in the next. Hmm?

This curious aspect of human behavior has been called many things—groupthink, pluralistic ignorance, herd mentality, cultural echo chamber, mass madness, mass hysteria, mindless conformity. It’s what advertising relies on for its effectiveness. It’s the goal of viral marketing. It’s the impetus behind idealogical propaganda, political races, and all sorts of good and bad fads that come and go. Pluralistic ignorance is yet another reason to steer away from trends, another reason to ignore what’s hot. It’s evidence that there is no crowd wisdom, conventional wisdom, or commonsense. Thinking, “I’ve made up my mind,” may actually mean your mind has been made up for you. An interesting example of this is European organ donation rates which vary widely from one country to the next with some countries over 90% yes, while others have rates down in the single digits. What could explain this vast difference? You could guess it’s cultural, religious, or any number of other rationalizations. Look at Germany and Austria, two countries that couldn’t be much more alike, yet their rates exemplify this dichotomy. The explanation is simpler than you’d expect. In Germany, to be an organ donor you have to opt-in, the default is no. In Austria, it’s the reverse. Most take no action, they just blindly go with the default.

Ask yourself why you believe something. You might find you haven’t given it much thought, if any. You might find that until you think deliberately about a topic—examine it, explore it, expose it—you haven’t actually made up your own mind. So, when the bandwagons come rollin’ alone, rather than jumping on mindlessly, why not march to your own drumming?WattsCover

Watts’ book on these subjects, Everything Is Obvious* *Once You Know the Answer, is a look into the vagaries of human behavior. But the title of the book is a conundrum itself. It seems obvious that knowing the answer makes everything obvious—the title is a trite tautology. That isn’t quite the point, though. It’s more about how we believe we think we know. Or about how we try to predict what we can’t predict because we think we know what we don’t know but believe we know it, and act on those ideas we think we know anyway, only to find out we were wrong, and later see one more bit of information that suddenly clarifies, and contradicts, what we previously believed we thought we knew. If the title is a warning that something isn’t quite hitting the mark, the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s a mixed bag of “Wow, that’s interesting,” and “Oh pahleeze.” Conflation of too many disparate factors leaves his argument confused, and the reader’s thoughts a little less illuminated. Aah, but that’s just the thing we need to learn from the book, and his point, maybe.

He blames commonsense for sociological failures. And he’s not too wrong, nor always wrong, just mostly wrong, and often right. Still, I think he’s got the answer hidden under his pretexts. As per his definition of commonsense, as I’ve tried to decipher it—the unwritten, and nearly unconscious, social norms, conventions, customs, and etiquettes that we have learned from experience and observation—he sees it as the common reason for the failure of understanding social behavior. However, I can’t quite see how customs can be the cause of blind behavior, insufficient examination, and the omission of getting to the root cause of a problem. He never quite connects commonsense with common ignorance, making exactly the same mistake : not asking the right questions or finding the root causes. And, however, the more he uses the word(s) commonsense, or common sense (not sure why the inconsistency), the more his definition, which he never clearly states, becomes fuzzier and frizzier. He lumps everything from misconceptions to misunderstanding to hunches to jumping to conclusions with commonsense. His commonsense is commonnonsense.

A recurring cause for the problem that he calls commonsense is, number one, assumptions. Assumptions may be common, but they are not sensible. The real problem to understanding social problems is uncovering the actual, rather than assumed, cause of the problem. Assuming the wrong cause has us asking the wrong questions, getting the wrong answers, and taking the wrong actions. The real problem is unexamined intuition.

Then he rattles the Rational Choice Theory cage, so enamored by economists. This theory is so full of obvious holes it’s hard to take it, or anyone who believes in it, seriously. This leads to problem number two : denial. Right before our eyes the world appears. Obvious. We see people doing all sorts of behaviors that are not in their best interest. But the Rational Choice theorists try to shoehorn “rational” on to these “choices.” Take the idea that the financial markets are rational. Any halfwit watching the market for one day can see that it makes no sense, that the participants are acting with reactionary emotions, not thoughtful rationality. A company and its stock cannot change in real value by percentage points, up then down, then up again, in a matter of minutes. It’s clearly irrational nonsense. Yet, economists insist on trying to make sense of the nonsense—analyzing, calculating, and attempting to brute force their model of wishful thinking on a market for which they refuse to acknowledge the irrational behavior of the participants. They start with a false premiss—people are rational—then proceed to deny the facts presented right before their eyes—that people are not rational. This most wondrous denial of in-plain-view facts is not exclusive to economists, it’s everywhere. Watts keeps referring to it as “common sense.” Obviously, good sense is not common and commonsense is not good.

Then he wobbles on to the wisdom of crowds wagon. Thankfully, he puts this twister boner to rest by clarifying another common misconception : groups act like individuals. Easy enough to assume, but study after study, and in plain view observation have shown the bizarre nature of group behavior, or the emergent properties of cumulative individual actions and their feedback loops, is not how lone individuals act. Individuals no longer act independently when in groups. New rules apply, and the interactions are not predictable.

Watts takes us on a ride rolling up and down hills of logic and valleys of intuition. On his kiddy koaster he makes one point very clear : social systems are too complex to make definitive predictions. Independent choices don’t apply when social influences come into the picture. He gives us many examples of this. A good one is the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting, and today the most famous painting in the world, which he uses to point out the difference between intrinsic attributes and cumulative advantage. We get a glimpse into the positive feedback loops, or cumulative advantage, that create crazes and circular definitions of “great.” The Mona Lisa is great because it’s famous and famous because it’s great—the effect becomes cause of itself. He briefly retells the story of how this once obscure painting got elevated to superstar status, not by its intrinsic merit, but by happenstance. One chance event after another, by the luck of the media draw, Lisa is put before the public and “greatness” mushrooms. As much as I admire da Vinci for being the quintessential Renaissance Man, for his contributions to scientific investigation, for his mastery of paint, light, color & composition, there are many other works of art I lust for much more than M. Lisa.

After thoroughly discharging the idea that special objects are special based on their attributes, he likewise neutralizes the idea of special people. It’s hard for us not to accept that special people are special by way of their special attributes simply because most, not all, special people have special attributes. The shortcoming of this intuition is that millions have the same special attributes, in the same special amounts, and yet are not viewed as special. He also goes into the studies that have thoroughly put to rest theories that support celebrity endorsement, and people of special influence. In every case it’s been shown that “marketing strategies that focus on targeting a few ‘special’ individuals are bound to be unreliable.” The fact that they work sometimes keeps hopes high that they’ll work this time. When it fails, thinking drops into the next hole : sampling bias.

Sampling bias describes the habit of noticing the odd event, and putting more weight on it, than we do common events, one’s usually ignored and forgotten. For instance, we notice the hot streaks of sports players, but never notice the longer streaks of average performance. We notice the big storms, heatwaves, and cold snaps, but ignore the perfectly ordinary weather that happens most days. We notice when “I knew that would happen,” but forget the many more frequent times “I thought that would happen, but it didn’t.” This bias throws our judgement out of whack. It’s what keeps us betting on bad odds—there’s always that wee chance. It’s what keeps people believing in psychics—throw out enough guesses something’s going to stick. It’s what keeps people accepting egregious inequalities—in the hope that lady luck might strike me, even when the probabilities are less likely than being struck by an airplane part falling from the sky.

This slides right into historical explanations. “Nevertheless, like a good story, historical explanations concentrate on what’s interesting, downplaying multiple causes and omitting all the things that might have happened but didn’t. As with a good story, they enhance the drama, focussing the action around a few [chance] events and actors, thereby imbuing them with special significance.” We have a tendency to believe the simpler explanation over the more complex—it’s more elegant. In science, it’s more beautiful. “In this way, we can skip from day to day and observation to observation, perpetually replacing the chaos of reality with the soothing fiction of our [simple] explanations.” In social contexts our simplistic stories discount the myriad variables, influences, interactions, and feedbacks that make the social world highly unpredictable.

Success breeds success is an old platitude. It’s true, but again, the common belief is that the initial success is from inherent attributes, which to some extent may be true, but ignores all the examples of equally highly talented persons, one who happens to meet this person and gets that job, and by one chance event after another is thrust into the limelight; the other who meets that person and gets this job, and is never heard from again.

The “success breeds success” mantra also uncovers the mindless monotony of TV, Hollywood, Broadway, book & music publishing. Too afraid to let creativity lead the way, and too anxious about making a killing, producers and publishers keep falling back on big names and what “worked”— tried and true pablum. Nothing stifles creativity more than fear, nor hobbles progress more than “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

One of the later chapters devolves into marketing nonsense. He falls, countless times, into the same traps he’s spent the major part of the book bashing : commonnonsense, or received opinion, or convention, or assumptions, or denial of in plain view facts. We get a recount of the story about a marketing experiment that used a test group, and wisely, a control group. The sales from the test group was much higher than the control group. It worked. The bonus was, sales were four times the cost of the advertising. Wow! That’s an amazing return. Impressed? It is an amazing return for advertising, but you shouldn’t be impressed. Unless that company’s net profit margin is greater than 25%, which is a huge margin, they’ve lost money on the test group. For advertising to be cost effective, it needs to make a return on the net, not the gross. Increased sales also means increased cost of goods and other expenses. The net on those new sales has to exceed the cost of advertising to yield a positive result.

His overarching messages make for a worthwhile read, particularly the second to last chapter, “Fairness and Justice.” It encapsulates the ideas from the entire book into the benefits these studies, if heeded, can bring. Overall, the takeaway is that we don’t understand our own, nor other people’s motivations. Human social behavior is not simple, and with our feeble intuitive attempts at deciphering it, we grossly over simplify, make absurd assumptions, and believe mountains of nonsense. It’s a lot like the weather. With its hundreds of variables, each influencing and in turn being influenced by the others, weather emerges from a highly complex, apparently chaotic, system. It could be predictable with all the variables compiled. Miss one variable for the calculation, and in short order, the entire prediction falls apart. Start from a false premiss, idiocy prevails. Miss calculate one variable, the end will be wildly inaccurate. In other words, it would take infinite knowledge of initial conditions and infinite processing power to predict with certainty—infinity squared. Everything is oblivious.

Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious* *Once You Know the Answer, Crown Publishing Group, 2011

Related posts—
[Driving the Economy : the cost of advertising]
[Topsy-Turvy : the cost of assumptions]
[Competition Makes the World Go ’round]
[Everything Is Art]
[Celebrity Worship]
[Idea Challenge]
And a documentary film that connects all the above : [(Dis)Honesty : The Truth About Lies]

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