Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cognitive Biases... All of Them

I noticed that recently I have written a lot about various cognitive biases.  I didn't plan it that way... I just kept seeing them and found them interesting.  So imagine my delight at stumbling upon this article the other day:

It's the cognitive biases.  Like... all of them!  In one awesome list!  I almost started drooling.

I am tempted to highlight one or two of them, but there are so many good ones it's hard to pick.

So... enjoy!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Drink Up, Me Hearties!

Yo Ho!

The Ostrich Algorithm

I have never actually seen an ostrich do this, but supposedly, when in trouble, an ostrich will hide its head in the sand.  Its apparent rationale is that if it can't see the problem, the problem is not there.

In Computer Science, we have: The Ostrich Algorithm

It says, in short: "Solve a problem by pretending it doesn't exist."  So, clearly, the term 'algorithm' here is used very liberally.

At first glance it seems rather ridiculous to use this as a precept in software engineering, but at times it is a reasonable course - particularly when the problem in question happens exceedingly rarely and countermeasures are not cost-effective.

Well, you know me: I am a little over-zealous in applying software engineering principles to real life. 

In this case, it fails miserably.

I have tried ignoring problems and hoping they will go away.  I learned something.  If 'hoping' is part of your plan of action... you need a new plan of action. 

That's an important point, so I'll say it again: If you find yourself simply 'hoping' a situation will improve, you're not doing it right.  Stop hoping and start doing something.

I have, on several occassions, not done this.  I invoked the Ostrich Algorithm.  Usually because it's easy.  Actually, always because it's easy.  But now, whenever I catch myself 'hoping' for something, I remember the ostrich and how silly he looks with his head in the sand.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don't Do What I Did

We have all heard this, right? It's often the beginning of some advice from a well-meaning individual. He made some real or perceived mistake and now he does not want you, his younger friend, to make the same mistake.  

I have heard this many times. And I think I have said it to others a fair amount of times too.

Now before I go on, I should be very clear that I really appreciate good advice. If someone feels strongly enough about something to come and talk with me about it, I always give his thoughts serious consideration.


Recently I saw this kind of advice fail. The advice-giver had the best of intentions, but the advice just didn't work. And it was no small failing. The repercussions will likely effect the 'young friend' for her entire life. 

So I got to thinking: "How could such loving advice from an experienced person be wrong?"

The answer is multifold. The prime piece of it is strikingly simple when you think about it. And it is this:

I only know the outcome of the decision I made. I don't know the outcome of 'not doing what I did.'

Let's take an example. The older friend says, "I bought a used car for $3000. It was full of problems. I spent $100 every few months fixing it. Don't buy a used car!"

The younger friend thinks, "Yea, that makes sense." So he leases a new car with an intial payment of $3000. But now he is spending $200 every month making the payments.

See the problem? The older friend didn't realize that the alternative to his choice actually resulted in a worse outcome. Why? Because that's not the choice he made. How could he know the outcome?

This is, albeit, a silly example. One could easily do the research about a car and calculate the cost.

But most of this kind of advice is not such a simple matter - not so easy to confirm by a quick Google search.   

Maybe we are unhappy with a course we took. So it is easy to recommend an alternative course to others. But we should be careful with that. Because we really don't know the outcome of that alternative course. Maybe it's worse.

I will reiterate that advice is great. It's just that we need great caution, both when giving and receiving it.  We shouldn't give advice about what we don't know. Perhaps even more importantly, we shouldn't accept advice about what the advisor doesn't know.