I've been wanting to write something on this a really long time ago but I couldn't find time to do so. It's actually about application of the concept of confounders in our daily lives and learning. It is somewhat related to John Kay's Obliquity, which makes for a nice and easy read (and I highly recommend it to any self-righteous economist who thinks everything in the world is just about getting enough incentives in place). I first learnt about confounders in LSE100 (a course at LSE that I thoroughly enjoyed, raved about and accidentally did well enough at). It was almost common sense to me - of course there are things we cannot observe causing two different things which we could jointly observe, and would thus associate, possibly sometimes fabricating some sort of causation story for. Here's an example from the Wiki page:
We find that increase in ice-cream consumption is correlated with increase in incidence of drowning and we think that eating ice-cream may cause drowning (or vice versa) when it could be that people eat ice-creams on hot days and those are the days where more people take a dip in the sea or go to beaches and thus we observe more people drowning at the same time.
Perhaps that wasn't all that convincing because it was an example that is supposed to be obvious. Complexity arises when there are more than one variable involved and maybe when we are using proxies imperfectly. We make such mistakes not only in statistics but just inferences on a daily basis. We do make very smart guesses in our daily lives, such as that a ring on the fourth finger probably indicates the person is married but then of course it depends on whether that ring looks like a wedding band or some plastic accessory. The ring is the indicator and the marriage is its indication. But we obviously know that marriage is not about just the ring; and that aiming to get ourselves a ring doesn't buy us a marriage. Unfortunately, we sometimes behave this way when looking for a job.
As an Economics student in LSE, it is difficult not to be distracted by the vocal crowd of students who goes to networking receptions of companies from the financial industry - the same people from societies with vested interest in finance, banking, investments, etc. These are the people who may spend more time in interview rooms or assessment centers each week than classrooms or lecture theaters. These people are chasing jobs, or rather, those that gives them the money, prestige, and the external envy or perception of intelligence. Those are the indicators. And they think this indicates happiness or success (think about the last time you imagine you're in the shoes of some hot-shot banker and say to yourself, 'how nice it would be to get to drive big cars, buy big houses, don on expensive suits even if it means to be hated by the rest of the economy and insulted by the gutter press'). The joy and the satisfaction honestly is unlikely to come from the work itself for most people. Often, M&A bankers spend months studying potential deals that will not be struck and slides that are made simply goes into archives unseen or examined.
Stephen Ridley's story is an interesting analogy and many people complain that not all have the kind of talents that he did and would be able to achieve an alternative sort of 'greatness'. That sort of status associated with success is what people think makes them happy. In other words, money, together with the prestige, social status attributed to the work/job are the indicators, and they are confused with its indications - happiness, success, a good life. When things are laid out these way, we know there are confounders - all those money, status, 'good' job are nice things to have and maybe it just seem that people who 'have it all' are happy. They're expected to be, everyone thinks they are happy at least. You might know it when you get there; or you can try and discover the confounders - the little things in life that truly cheers you up. The autonomy over your time, the people you get to hang out with (your true friends, not the cool or rich people you hope to be friends with), the pure excellence in performing your job, learning to love the work you do and seeing the meaning of the things you do. Sure, you can get a high-flying job, then grow to like it, deal with its frustrations and end up being happy. More often than not, if you're struggling to even get there, it is quite likely it isn't for you in the first place.
I've written a lot on happiness (see here, here and here). We know of the confounders that has been leading us to the wrong things but there are more. A spirit of excellence might bring you a great job that pays well but it is the spirit and keeping on with doing what you like that makes you happy. If someone who doesn't like the work you do come to establish a relationship between the work itself and the happiness or worst, the pay and the happiness, he'd come to be very disappointed when he tries it himself. Likewise, some people are happy making money, they like the idea of getting good returns by taking risks and they accumulate savings/capital which they use to reinvest (ie. take more risks) and generate greater returns. They are rich and happy but they didn't derive their happiness from the riches. In the chapter 'Why the rich isn't necessarily the most materialistic' of Obliquity, John Kay points out that rich people usually amassed their wealth not so much because they were working for it but for something else they really believe in and can passionately engage themselves with.
Don't be misled; I'm not saying that appearances are always deceiving and that you should be cynical about all sorts of indicators; clearly when the GDP per capita of US is higher than that of China, we can trust that US is richer than China, at least financially speaking, and the bucks they're getting from the output their produce (however worthless they might be in your opinion). But that does not necessarily suggests the people in US are living better lives and further inferences about happiness cannot be drawn. So spend some of your life finding confounders and establishing a more reliable relationship between the variables of your life and what your objectives really are - then shut out the noise.
Jonathan makes it seems as if economists are pitted against philosophers in his WSJ article.
[Economists] have assumed a role in society that for the past 4,000 years has been held by philosophers and theologians. They have made our lives freer and more efficient. And we are the poorer for it. - Jonathan Last
The truth is that economics has always been an extension of philosophy. Adam Smith was a philosopher who wrote first 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' before 'Wealth of Nations'. He wrote first,
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instance to prove it.
Yet the most famous of Adam Smith's quote subsequently immortalized by generations of economists was:
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own neccessities but of their advantages."
Jonathan focuses too much on what economist would consider 'static efficiency', which really is just one aspect of economics that is more easily analysed and subjected to greater scrutiny than its more important counterpart, 'dynamic efficiency'. Dynamic efficiency basically considers the long term efficiency consequences of different 'incentives' and signal mechanisms in the economy.
In other words, even the values, and attitudes that economics promote goes into the equation of dynamic efficiency - if it promotes destructive behaviours and interactions that is beneficial to actors in the short run but bad for the entire system, then there are grounds for these to be weeded out. In any case, the discipline acknowledges that competition or market forces are important in bringing about good outcomes but then by the second welfare theorem (when competition can't bring about the greatest welfare then there are ways to adjust the competition to motivate it to bring about that), we know that artificial frameworks and structures needs to be put in place to encourage what is good for dynamic efficiency.
That being said, Michael Sandel's book is definitely a good buy.
[Meanwhile, for those in UK reading this, you might want to enjoy an awesome Starbucks deal.]
In this TED talk, Daniel Kahneman speaks about the two different kinds of happiness that is defined based on the two 'selves' that resides within us - the 'remembering self' and the 'experiencing self'. And it is interesting how our bias towards the 'remembering self' affects the way we make decision and live lives. The example given about vacations is particularly apt and important. He did neglect to suggest how our remembering self who tells stories to ourselves and others can possibly help the experiencing self generate more happiness through boasting to others about their experiences.
The single most powerful observation that Daniel makes in the talk, I feel, is this:
We think of our future, as anticipated memories.
And perhaps then, indulging in lots of changes in life, despite the discomfort of adapting and adjusting, could possibly enhance the happiness of life by generating more memories for ourselves. Indeed, much moments we live in life are simply lost and we rely very much on sensations to generate memories that can be retrieved more easily. If reported happiness is really what we value then measuring the actual emotions is not longer helpful; and then we get into a rather bizarre situation where inventing nice stories for our lives do help to make us feel happy even when our experiencing self may not have thought likewise.
I always think that motivation and sensible thinking go hand-in-hand. Motivation without sensible thinking can be foolish and even delusional; sensible thinking without motivation can be cold, indifferent and possibly irrelevant. And Purpose Fairy seem to put together pretty well.
To put Susan Cain's ideas in a rather more coherent way; an introvert is someone who gets energy from low levels of social stimulation while the extroverts are people who are energized by high levels of social stimulation. It's great to see a book like Quiet published. And I was pretty moved by Susan's talk in part because I really appreciated the position she was describing, and in part because she presented herself as a really genuine, quiet cheerleader of the introverts.
The more interesting idea that I picked up from the talk was this idea about the transition from a culture of character to a culture of personality. Indeed, because of the ultra connected world and our obsession with efficiency and speed, we no longer have time to try and truly get to know people - we can't be bothered to. Therefore, we prefer bite-size pitches, 'superficial' demonstration of abilities, outright self-confidence, the easily-identified bright spot. Personality supersedes character; even though I suspect that in long term, it really is the people with good character whom you should hang on to.
We need to re-discover character-building; we need to discover people's character to know them and not just by their personalities. Only when we take the time to discover them, people would start realising the importance of building that up. The decline of character-building is also why people are more easily irritated by failure, intolerant of difficulties and drudgery, quick to anger and slow to forgive.
I came across this image a couple of days back and was amused by it. But I've also discovered how mutated our culture has become; indeed, 'hurrying' has already become a virtue, just by the sheer number of people upholding it. So what's with the haste? Why not sit back and think about where has persistence, endurance, patience gone? What's with the obsession with quick fixes and speed? The way we see 'time' has indeed altered our judgments of the merits of the man of actions and the man of contemplation. While those men of action should sit back and contemplate, those men of contemplation need to summon the courage - in Susan Cain's words - 'to speak softly'.
I was watching Salman Khan's talk on TED before I stumbled upon Sherry Turkle's. It was an amazing contrast. And I'm not referring to the tone and attitudes towards technology of both speakers. I was thinking about the role that technology plays and the things it has done for us. As a matter of fact, technology is truly good at seizing a human need and trying to satisfy it; and it sometimes creates new needs that it goes on to satisfy subsequently. It seems, however, that as we try to tap on technology to free up time for more valuable interaction, the more we end up interacting through technology and forgoing real communication for what we believe to be exchanges.
"What technology makes easy is not always what nurtures the human spirit." - Sherry Turkle
I was incredibly moved by how perceptive Sherry was in observing the sort of impacts that our little devices have on us and how profound they are in their interaction with our human spirit. And I'm equally afraid; is there truly a trade-off the way Sherry makes it out to be? Can we not raise kids in these environment and yet have them still grow up to be able to interact and communicate in the humanly way we all really desire? Do we really have to be addicted to editing/beautifying/augmenting our communications with technology just because we use it regularly?
Maybe we should also ask ourselves what kind of values have arisen from this age of emphasis on the superficial value of things. Our enhanced abilities to present ourselves in debatably deceitful ways (make-up, stuff bought on credit, edited photographs, auto portrait enhancement functions on cameras, just to name a few) have made us feel less spurred by the need to nurture our intrinsic self. And Sherry is trying to point out that technology that makes us constantly trying to be 'connected' removes these opportunities for self-reflection that would cultivate this self. Instead, they reinforces it, they allow us to edit ourselves, put up 'presentable versions' of ourselves and the way we communicate. And we become afraid of showing our true self - like a girl who puts on make-up all the time and now refuses to see anyone without her make-up on.
For a moment towards the end of Sherry's talk I was reminded of the film, Surrogates. It was as if she was calling out for all humanity to stand out and live as themselves instead of trying to insulate their real selves from the real world. Indeed, the distance we've built to make ourselves comfortable with being able to meet and interact with more people has similarly isolated us and prevent us from becoming closer to one another. It is a scary prospect, but like Sherry, I think it need not be a trade-off. It may take more technology; but it will also take changes in our own thinking, values and worldview.
In anticipation of Michael Sandel's lectures in the LSE last week, I ended up (re)watching his entire Justice Harvard series again. It was fun reviving the philosophical discussions in my mind and thinking about tricky issues again. Then I attended the LSE Public Lecture 'Should a Banker be paid more than a Nurse?', which turned out to be a little disappointing but understandable because the lecture, being opened to the public, reduced the discussion to one that was charged with subjective judgments. It was less intellectual than intended and difficult to drive forward for Sandel because the framework utilized by the contributors were often inconsistent when they applied their arguments.
Perhaps the worst was that some were searching for an irrefutable stand rather than what they think should be the case. Ultimately, when one observes the lectures at Harvard, one could observe that the students of philosophy transcends the specific issue at hand and considers moral implications of their stand on other matters - little of that was observed at this public lecture.
Michael Sandel did a good job wrapping things up and facilitating the discussions even when I suspect he failed to bring out a point about the morality of markets, that I believe he might be trying to make. In any case, I could probably only settle on waiting for his next book.
Having failed to secure a seat in Alain de Botton's public lecture in the LSE led me to check out his talks on TED.com which turned out to be wonderful. His insights into life and philosophy is extremely powerful and can indeed be applied to living well.
With the influx of information in our everyday life, 99 Percent is quite a gem with great insights on modern life and 'modern living' in general. It speaks of ideas for personal motivation and lots about making your life better.
It features articles that really touches me, like this short great read.
Best-selling Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami talks about talent, motivation and most importantly, hardwork in his memoir 'What I talk about when I talk about running'. This point was well highlighted by 99%'s article on the book. That idea that talent is a pre-requisite is compelling, and that belief puts you at a higher level than most other 'smart' people who have given up on the way and become 'mediocre' or just 'ordinary'.
I sometimes believe that majority of people in life sail through life this way. We are all born with gifts that takes time to discover and develop. As we go through life, we discard these gifts as we found them to be either overly taxing (too much time and effort required to bring us to the next level), or uninteresting. An environment that encourage and fosters these talents are necessary not so much to 'discover' these talents but to develop them appropriately. And inspirations are, without doubt, important too.
Scott Barry Kaufman discusses the importance of inspiration in the blog entry and suggests ways in which inspirations can be made to come by more often. I'm not sure how incredible this appear to our readers but we must acknowledge that no idea comes independently and originally from the guy who mentions it despite the attribution. The mind works in curious ways and we might have simply picked up cues from those around us to eventually arrive at whatever we've got.