Archive for September, 2009

Thinking About Thinking: The Forer Effect.

September 20, 2009

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students. Afterward, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test’s results and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves. In reality, each received the same analysis:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

On average, the rating was 4.26, but only after the ratings were turned in was it revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes.

To summarize, the Forer Effect describes how people take things they hear – particularly positive things – and believe it applies to them for the sole reason that they think it’s supposed to apply to them.

The most obvious consequence of the Forer Effect is that it encourages people to believe in systems that tell things about themselves, even if those systems make no sense.

A couple examples of those obvious Forer-influenced systems:

  • Horoscopes – a system about how the stars at the time of your birth dictate things about you.
  • Japanese blood type personality prediction – a system about how your blood type dictates things about you. (the wiki seems written by someone who does not speak English as a first language)
  • Phrenology – a system about how the bumps on your head dictate things about you.

The principle seems pretty simple: Humans have this little quirk, this ‘feature’, that can make us believe in silly things because they tell us things that we’re hardwired to want to hear and that we’re inherently inclined to believe.

But it’s a bit more significant than that. Vague statements make the effect more obvious, but the key to the effect is not the vagueness, but the impression of legitimacy of the source, which is what makes us inherently more likely to believe it.

As the Forer effect applies to any system which people believe legitimate, and which tells people things about themselves, this behavioral quirk applies to all systems which humans use to describe their own behavior.

This is a bit more significant, ’cause there are a lot of those systems, and some are considered pretty serious science this day and age.

Examples of systems to which the Forer effect applies that are (more)widely considered legitimate include:

  • The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator – a personality inventory that, given a wide battery of tests about what you prefer doing and what you like or don’t like, etc, tells you a bunch of stuff about yourself. Ditto any other personality inventories.
  • Pretty much any measurement of Emotional Intelligence, by definition, is going to end up telling you a lot about yourself.
  • While we’re talking about intelligence, IQ testing itself invokes the effect – it tells you about yourself and it’s very widely considered to be legitimate in doing so.

What seem to be very simple concepts would seem to invoke this inherently irrational feature in our behavior – introversion and extroversion, imagination and practicality, intelligence, wisdom…

It’s a phenomenon intricately tied into how we see ourselves – every time someone or something we trust says something about us, we’re inclined to believe it for no other reason than they said it about us.

Given all that, how much of our self-identities really describe us, versus just stuff we’ve been told describe us?

Anyway, all that philosophical navel-gazing aside, I think there’s a very practical application of this effect.

Human beings aren’t just inclined to believe things we think are about us. We enjoy hearing things that are about us. Invoking the Forer effect, even in nonsensical ways, appears to be emotionally and intellectually stimulating, and something that we inherently seek out.

My pet theory is that this is because being told things about ourselves is good for us – emotionally, and mentally. It strengthens our self-identity (for better or for worse, admittedly), and it ingrains concepts in our minds by associating them with something we obviously consider is important: Ourselves.

So being told about ourselves, even if those things are just outright false, can sharpen our focus and broaden our horizons – which I also imagine is why so many people tell themselves things about themselves so often.

So, knowing all this, why not use it? Take fancy personality, intelligence, and emotional intelligence tests. Read horoscopes. Find out which of the four humours you are (I’m phlegmatic!). Take the second half of this article seriously.

It’s good for you. Probably. After all, what’re the chances all the students in Dr. Forer’s class are wrong?

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A Rational, Self-Interested, Free Market Argument for Socialized Health Care

September 14, 2009

Private health insurance is worthless. Purchasing it does not benefit me.

Let’s say I purchase private insurance. So long as I don’t get very sick, it don’t actually get any benefit – as I could have just saved the money that goes into my insurance and paid for it out of my own pocket (and had the rest as, y’know, actual money).

So, the only way private health insurance could possibly benefit me is if I become so sick that the insurance company would necessarily lose money by paying for my sickness.

So all the people who actually need health insurance are people who are non-profitable for health insurers.

Which leads to a fascinating Catch-22: as any company whose objective is to make profit (all private health insurance) is encouraged to immediately cease to do business with me when it becomes apparent I need their service – because, as noted, I’m not profitable for them.

Even worse, the more sick I am, meaning the more I need their service, the greater their incentive becomes not to provide me with that service.

Furthermore, a free market can not solve this problem through the introduction of honest health insurance companies.

Any market in which an honest health insurance company must compete against a dishonest health insurance company, will have business flowing from the dishonest health insurance company to the honest health insurance company, as interested and informed individuals change their service. However, interested and informed individuals are the ones who need the service, and are thus by definition not profitable (as previously established). So honesty can only ever net a health insurance company reduced profits, ensuring their inability to compete in a free market.

Even a free market in which, somehow, only honest health insurance companies can resist this effect – as it is the nature of free markets to encourage innovation which increases profits, and there is no greater boost for the profits of a health insurance company than refusal to provide health insurance.

Ultimately, this means that I can not trust any health insurance company to actually provide health insurance – while there is a chance that I may receive health insurance if I need it, there is a chance I may not, and the very company which is supposed to provide me with health insurance would conspire that I do not get it.

Health insurance, like all forms of insurance, is a service in which I pay money in exchange for reducing my risk – in this case, my risk of not being able to pay for health care. However, private health insurance does not fulfill this function.

Instead, it shifts my risk – from the risk of being unable to pay for health care, to the risk that my private health insurance company will refuse to do so, leaving me without even the money I would have had if I’d never used private health insurance.

An insurance system that does not reduce risk is a nonfunctioning insurance system.

Furthermore, no amount of regulation can solve this.

Regulation is by its’ nature static and slow-to-adapt, while the market is quick to adapt towards the objective of increasing profits. The government can not be trusted to keep up with a dynamic and strongly motivated private system dedicated to refusing to provide me with service.

Furthermore, successive layers of regulation will increase the system’s complexity, ultimately making it easier for the highly-competitive private health insurance industry to scam me out of providing service, as I must not only contend with the health insurance industry itself but with the additional bureaucratic structures created by the government in an attempt to make public health insurance function.

So ultimately, all government can do to private health insurance is make it even more so a waste of my money.

So I gain nothing from private health insurance. The market can not fix this (and in fact enforces the worthlessness), and the government can not fix this. There is no way a private health insurance company can provide me with a service that I can trust and remain in business.

Ergo, private health insurance is worthless.

Meanwhile, the very problem that most plagues social service – a lack of profit motive which encourages unprofitable spending – is the only thing that can produce a trustworthy form of health insurance. If I need socialized health insurance, the government won’t care! They’ll happily pay the bills at my time of greatest need, not worried that I’m costing them money that they could conserve by simply letting me die.

The government does not need to make money – so they have no reason not to provide me with health insurance.

So I can trust them – socialized health insurance can function to reduce my risk of being faced with health care bills that I can not pay.

So, to reiterate:

Private health insurance: Absolutely, uncorrectably worthless for me.

Socialized health insurance: Accidentally perfectly functional for my needs.

As a self-interested, healthy member of America’s socioeconomic middle class, the only tenable option for me for health insurance is the government.

And I’m pretty sure that applies to everyone else too.

Now the question is: To flowchart this, or not to flowchart it?

If Everyone Is Special…

September 5, 2009

A few basic team management policies I’ve picked up, either through personal experience or through research on the topic:

  • People working in teams function better when they have a clearly defined role.
  • Teams as a whole produce better ideas when the people in the group have more diverse backgrounds, such as coming from different parts of the country, or having distinct socioeconomic backgrounds.
    • Teams only get this benefit if team members aren’t ashamed of said backgrounds as a result of social stigma or an oppressive work environment.
  • Favoritism can cause people to work less – the favored individual because they no longer need to, the unfavored individuals because they see little point in working in a system biased against them.
  • Praise in public, punish in private. Pride is a strong motivator for any individual, no matter how outwardly humble, and feeding that pride while allowing for and encouraging correction can only be ultimately productive.
  • Similarly, gossip weakens team cohesion. Team members should be encouraged to talk to each other – not about each other.

I guess I should actually get to my point.

One of my coworkers said yesterday, “If everyone is special, then noone is,” a line I do believe coined by some Ayn Rand story. Google was not agreeable when I asked it to source the line precisely, so meh. (As an aside, if you put the line into google, guess what you get? A bunch of blog and forum posts. :P)

Anyway, that pithy saying seems to go against modern management principles, tried and tested, and established in accordance with our – admittedly incomplete – understanding of human nature.

And frankly, given the choice between an evil Russian philosopher and the modern management techniques that helped me to grow as a person throughout my ongoing adulthood, I’m going to go with the 21’st century on this.

If everyone is special, then everyone is special*. It really is that simple.

*-Also, your team will have higher productivity, bicker with each other less, get along with each other more, and be better aware of their options and assumptions.

The Political Philosophy of World of Warcraft

September 3, 2009

My generation of my culture is one that thinks in terms of systems.

Previous generations in America thought of people (and still so think) in terms of freedom or repression, but my generation believes only in freedom to function in the system that has been built around you.

Those older generations think in terms of control and power, but my generation acknowledges the power of control only to influence circumstances, which in turn dictate all behavior.

Those generations were individualists, and they believed that everyone could be special – or that if everyone was special, then nobody could be. My generation knows that ‘special’ is more often than not a denotation of your position in the system, often a matter more of luck than of merit.

Those generations preached that by stepping up to play the game of life, you could win. To my generation, so dearly wedded to the power of multivariable analysis and the study of complexity, the imbalances in such a game seem painfully obvious.

Go, if you would, to a forum to discuss a major video game (preferably an online one). In human history there has not existed a more naturally politically liberal group as the one you will see, one so keenly and casually understanding of the principles behind the meritocracy and the reality of its’ nonexistence.

Will exists only within the parameters that the game dictates. Advantages towards one work out to the disadvantage of others, even outside of non-zero-sum systems. One’s fortunes are influenced by one’s community. All of these things are taken as obvious and in-stride that other generations would disbelieve, or only hold halfheartedly.

And yet, these people understand that there are correct and incorrect approaches towards these problems. The disadvantaged do not complain – instead, they describe the nature of the problems, and offer and discuss solutions. The individualists among them, claiming that advantages and disadvantages are trivial and that everything gained is earned, are mocked and derided as worthless to the community.

Video gaming, and the community of system analysts it is raising, stands as a political force fundamentally opposed to the underlying philosophy of conservatism.

And it is ever-so-slowly producing people with the skills to understand, and improve upon, systems.

Of course, having contemplated all that, now I’m wondering about the exact political composition of various MMO playerbases.