Posts Tagged ‘Gary Klein’

The Upside of Quitting

July 27, 2016

The title of this post is identical to a chapter in “Think Like a Freak” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubnar.  Given the many posts that this blog has devoted to “GRIT,” it is obligatory to pay some time to the benefits of quitting.  The posts on “GRIT” did offer some cautions on choosing passions, on compromising on passion, and of indicating the plausibility of searching out new passions.

The “Think Like a Freak” authors offer three biases against quitting.  The first is a lifetime of being told that quitting is a sign of failure.  The second is the notion of sunk costs.  It is tempting to believe that once we’ve invested time, money, and sweat equity into a project, it seems counterproductive to quit.  However, continuing this activity can result in additional costs without any guarantee of success.  Perhaps the best example of the sunk cost fallacy is the War in Viet Nam.  However, noble the original motivation, more and more resources were put into it, and lives lost without a good result.  In the end, no victory was achieved.  Losses and lives could have been saved the earlier the United States withdrew from Viet Nam.

The third force that keeps us from quitting is a tendency to focus on concrete costs and pay too little attention to opportunity costs.   For every moment and dollar spent on the effort could have been better spent on a an effort with more potential.  The authors note that for every ten Freakonomics research projects they take up, roughy nine are abandoned within a month.  Although they do not say so, it is possible that had they not abandoned these projects it is unlikely that they would have enough successful material to fill three books.

The authors do offer a methodology to help decide if quitting is appropriate.  It is called a “premortem” by the psychologist Gary Klein.  It is common for institutions to conduct a postmortem on failed projects, with they hope that they can learn exactly what killed the project.  This risk can be mitigated can be avoided by doing a premortem as a preventive measure.  This involves thinking of all the factors that could lead to failure of the effort.  Then assess the likelihood of these factors occurring, as well as how these factors are dependent on each other.  That is what needs to occur before other factors can succeed?  This task involves subjective probabilities.  One can do both optimistic and pessimistic projections.  It is your overall subjective assessment as to whether to proceed.  This procedure does not guarantee success, but it should be helpful in identifying points of failure and provide some estimate regarding the likelihood of success.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Creative Desperation

October 1, 2014

Creative desperation is the fifth of Klein’s strategies in his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. Creative desperation is the term the Dutch psychologist Adrian de Groot used to describe some of the brilliant strategies that chess players invented when they got into trouble. When the clock was winding down and when they needed to make a move and none of the plausible moves would work, out of desperation they would find an unorthodox line of play that would save them, gambling on something they would never have tried had any of the acceptable moves looked promising.

Most research done in psychological laboratories using puzzles has tried to stymie subjects. Many subjects get stuck and give up. Others struggle feeling lost and then, out of creative desperation have unexpected insights into solving the puzzle. However, creative desperation does happen outside of laboratories and away from chessboards. One of the most amazing examples occurred while fighting a severe forest fire. Wagner Dodge was a thirty-three-old team leader of 15 men. The wind changed and they were caught in a fire moving rapidly towards them. It appeared that there would be no way they could avoid being overtaken and consumed by the fire. Dodge ran ahead and shouted back to his team to do what he was going to do. What he did was to start a fire in front of him. This action made no sense to the rest of the team and was ignored. However, what Dodge did was to clear the ground in front of him. He lay down on ground that had recently been on fire. However, when the advancing fire got to his position it passed him by as there was nothing left to burn. Unfortunately, the remainder of the team was caught by the rapidly advancing fire and perished in the flames.

Another example of creative desperation involves Aron Ralston, an an American mountain climber who was hiking through some canyons in Utah. His story is captured in his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. A movie, 127 Hours, was made of his ordeal. He fell into a crevice and his right arm became pinned by a boulder. He was unable to free his arm with his pocket knife. Then he had the insight to see that the boulder need not be his enemy, it could also be his friend and aid his escape. The boulder provided the solid leverage he needed to break the bones in his arm so that he could free it.

Creative desperation need not involve situations that are quite so desperate. Klein relates a story about his office manager. It was her job to get the time sheets from the staff in timely manner so she could fulfill contractual requirements. Klein admits that he himself was typically remiss in submitting his timesheet. Initially the office manager, Cheryl Cain, provided alerts and reminders about the timesheets. Then she tried badgering. Nothing worked. Out of desperation, she tried something nice. She awarded staff with Hershey candy kisses when they submitted timesheets on time. This action achieved a high degree of compliance.

A total of 29 out of Klein’s 120 cases, just shy of a quarter of the cases fit the creative desperation category.


September 24, 2014

Contradictions constitute another strategy discussed by Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. The ulcer and yellow fever examples of coincidences are also examples of contradictions as insights can involve more than one strategy. Contradictions turned up in 45 out of the 120 cases studied by Klein. Initially Klein was surprised by this result as people who had insight were generally believed to be open-minded creative individuals. But Klein found that critical thinking can also lead to insight.

The first example of insight discussed by Klein involved the contradiction strategy. Two policeman, one older and one younger, were waiting for a traffic light to change. The younger policeman examined a fancy new BMW in front of them. He watched the driver of the BMW take a long drag on his cigarette, take it out of his mouth, and flick the ashes onto the upholstery. The younger policeman’s insight was that it was a new car and that the driver had just ashed his cigarette in the car. The contradiction was that the owner of the car was unlikely to do this, and the car was likely stolen. They stopped the car and found that it was indeed stolen.

Another example was Harry Markopolous, the main who fingered Bernie Madoff, the respected and admired investor who had in fact be running a Ponzi scheme. Early on Markopolous noticed a contradiction between the investments that Madoff was making and the returns he was reporting. There was much skepticism and it took several years of hard work, but Markopolous was able to prove that Madoff was a fraud and had been running a Ponzi scheme.

Klein discusses the story of five individuals who identified the housing bubble, the fraudulent investment vehicles that were being sold, and predicted the financial crisis and crash that occurred in 2007-2008.. The signs were there for all to see, but few people noticed them and fewer people acted upon them. Those few who did profited quite handsomely. These were the individuals who saw a clear contradictin between the objective state of the financial markets and the unbridled optimism (housing values can only go up) that was generally believed.

Another example of critical thinking leading to seeing contradictions that lead to insights was John Snow’s discovery about cholera in the mid-1800s. Cholera microbes cause diarrhea and vomiting that quickly dehydrates its victims, killing them. Cholera strikes in epidemics, with it quickly spreading from one individual to another. Cholera made its first appearance in Britain in 1831. When the epidemic ended more than 20,000 people had been killed. The next epidemic in 1848-1849 killed 50,000 more.

At that time most people believed in them miasma theory. That is, disease was spread by bad air and poor sanitation. This was the same theory used to account for yellow fewer that was discussed in the immediately preceding post. Snow became interested in cholera when he read about a sailor dieing of cholera in a lodging house. A few days later another person checked into the same room and contracted cholera. Snow saw a contradiction with the miasma theory. If inhaling noxious air caused cholera, why didn’t other people in the lodging hall or in the neighborhood get sick? If noxious vapors spread in currents afflicting everyone in their path, why didn’t the other lodgers come down with cholera? Snow also noted that if cholera were transmitted by bad air, they should show lung damage, but the victim’s lungs seemed normal. The damage was in the stomachs of cholera victims. This was a coincidence that implied a connection—that cholera victims caught the disease from something they ate or drank. Snow gathered more data and began to think that cholera was spread through ingesting waste matter of other victims, by drinking contaminated water.

Snow found that cholera seemed to parallel water systems. In one outbreak twelve people died. He found that they all lived in the same slum and drank from the same well. Then there was the famous Broad Street Pump. Cholera cases were clustered around this pump, but none of the local brewery workers can down with cholera. Although these brewery workers breathed the same air, they drank beer, not water. It was later found that this Broad Street Pump had become contaminated through the dirty diapers of an infant. The infants mother had cleaned the diapers in a bucket and tossed the foul water into a cesspool that ran into some cracks in the pipes of the Broad Street pump. After this Broad Street Pump incident , Snow’s theory of dirty water was quickly accepted. Within a year this story traveled to the United States and guided American campaigns to protect citizens from cholera.

Contradictions also lead to important breakthroughs in science. Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions describes how contradictions lead to scientific breakthroughs. According to Kuhn there are long periods of what he terms normal science. These periods consist of small incremental increases in scientific knowledge. But they come to a point where science cannot advance without breakthrough thinking, and this involves the identification of contradictions and the creation of new ideas to overcome these contradictions.

A good example of Kuhn’s ideas can be found in Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. The Newtonian view of physics was that space and time were constants. Maxwell’s equations predicted that electromagnetic radiation would propagate through a vacuum at the speed of light. Einstein imagined what would it be like to travel at the speed of light. The light beam should appear frozen, but this appeared to contradict Maxwell’s equations. Einstein resolved this contradiction by stating that the sped of light is a constant and space and time or space/time vary.