Posts Tagged ‘probability’

It’s Extraordinary

December 9th, 2011 | Strategic | 0 Comments

It is extraordinary.  If it wasn’t for the plentiful evidence, it would be unbelievable.  And the effect that it has on our behaviour is both extraordinary and extra ordinary.

It is extraordinary that we have a predisposition to focus on the extraordinary.  It’s a twist on the usual ‘forest and trees’ connection; in this case, we can’t see the trees all around us as we focus on the chance that a sasquatch lives in the forest and the danger this would represent.  What makes something extraordinary is precisely why this focus is misplaced.  If it was just a question of misplacement, it would be less of an issue for priorities can always be rearranged.

However, concern does grow when displacement enters the cognitive arena.  Displacement is close to replacement; once the crucial focus on the very common ordinary is replaced by an unwavering focus on the very infrequent extraordinary, the risks we (fail to) perceive and the decisions we make accordingly affect our behaviour adversely.

How many falling branches, snakes, spiders, cliffs or weather conditions do you tend to overlook because you think that the real danger is found in the possible presence of an angry Bigfoot?  It’s extraordinary that the extraordinary is so extraordinarily influential.

This music video for the song ‘Extraordinary’ assembles many extraordinary events and piles them one on top of the other but, as you watch it, you have to remember that ‘extraordinary’ is almost never the problem.  However risky you perceive this behaviour, it should never distort your perception of risk towards the extraordinary:

One of the many benefits of effortful experience is the ability to see the bigger picture.  But operating at the level of the bigger picture should not and does not arrive at the expense of only seeing/looking for the biggest risks.  It’s an interesting contrast – experiential learning allows you to cope with the many ordinary risks automatically while you concurrently focus on the extraordinary risks intentionally.

‘tis nobler hopes that you achieve extraordinary things, perhaps just by doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.  This will involve some risk management – skilled yet ‘ordinary’ performance that should not be distorted by an intentional focus on the extraordinary.

And yet it remains extraordinary that we continually act on our predisposition to focus on the extraordinary.  In what way will you be extraordinary?

Sailing The Specific Ocean

August 10th, 2011 | Specific | 0 Comments

Sailing can be spectacular but, when you are sailing the specific ocean, spectacular is only the start.  The full equation for this type of ‘sailing’ is:

Spectacular  =  Available  =  Dominant  =  Distorted

Just because something is more available to you in thought, knowledge or memory – which is itself often a function of how spectacular the subject matter appears – does not mean that it is more important, more likely or more true.  The association of these qualities – importance, likelihood or truth – with availability (known as the availability heuristic) can produce biased reasoning.  Think of it as a type of error in inductive reasoning, the mistakes you make when going from the specific to the general.

Sailing the specific ocean can be disastrous.  If something or someone dominates your reasoning by being ‘spectacularly available’, there is every chance that dominance will create distortions.  Imagine that you’ve been told, again and again, that Kramer dominates the dojo.  You’ve had this dominance described in great detail – how he throws his opponents around, how he wins every bout and how nobody else can lay a finger on him.  These vivid descriptions, spectacular and thus readily available to you, lead you to conclude that Kramer has all the makings of a great martial artist.

But spectacular and available need not mean accurate:

More spectacular does mean more available and more available pervades and distorts your thinking in many ways.  This is one explanation for the ways in which important public debates can be hijacked by ‘spectacular’ irrelevancies.

The potential distorting effects of the spectacularly available can also be used as a demonstration of the labyrinthine ‘world’  of experiential learning and behavioural change.  Can you imagine the interactions between these spectacularly available distortions and the creation of false memories through the influence of present actions on (manipulated) memories of past actions?  And these are just two issues in a universe of competing, compounding and conflicting issues.

It’s little wonder, then, that the only valid way to navigate this messy ‘world’ is to find your own way.  Finding your own way is not spectacular but it is always available to you.

One Thing Leads To Another

February 16th, 2011 | Specific | 0 Comments

Regardless of what skill you’re learning, it’s impossible to know when the learning started.  It will always pre-date the time when you first started doing but by how long is anybody’s guess.  And it doesn’t really matter, for it is not the starting point but the journey that is important.

When learning first starts, you see ‘things’, even if you don’t notice them.  As you continue, you realise, and begin to understand, the connections that exist between these ‘things’.  As the connections multiply, so your understanding deepens.  There comes a point when you transcend these connections, forming patterns from groups of connections.  Only chumps don’t chunk!

And these patterns allow you to compare and contrast what’s in your head, the stored experiences that have created these patterns, with the actual ‘things’, connections and patterns in the world around you.  They will allow you to respond effectively but, more crucially, they will allow you to anticipate and respond more efficiently.

There are always times when you need to go beyond what is around you – can you think of any such circumstances?  In these circumstances, you are trying to match valid patterns in your head with incomplete or ‘fuzzy’ information that surrounds you.  In these circumstances, you fill in these gaps with the possibilities and probabilities you’ve collected through experience.  This is an example of going ‘beyond’.

There’s another type of going ‘beyond’, and this is where you can run into problems for you are also going ‘beyond’ your experience, not just the immediate circumstances.  Let’s use an analogy to help explain; many people have heard of the halo effect whereby, on the basis of a single, positive quality, other positive qualities are ascribed without any evidence whatsoever.  These are assumed connections that are not derived or inferred from relevant experience.  One thing leads to another and, as Vanessa Amorosi sings, “before you know it, you’re in too deep:”

One thing does lead to another – that’s how you learn experientially.  But there are ‘anothers’ that flow from your experience, either directly or indirectly, and there are ‘anothers’ that have little or no relationship to your experience.

When you arrive at an ‘another’, how did you get there?

Don’t Crave Denial, Imagine Craving!

December 15th, 2010 | Specific | 0 Comments

Imagine a person who is struggling with their weight, smoking or exercise regime.  They are often told to stop thinking about chocolate, the next cigarette or the attraction of just sitting on the couch watching TV.  Despite the evidence for the failure of suppression, either at the cognitive or behavioural levels, many behavioural change programs remain based on denial.  ‘Don’t’ is a much more common feature than ‘do’.  While it doesn’t work, putting it out of your mind is still considered equivalent to putting it out of your life.

Now imagine an experienced performer – an athlete, artist, courtroom lawyer or writer.  They often tell themselves to visualise their success, to imagine clearing every hurdle with minimum clearance and immaculate stride pattern, to picture their performance and imagine being in control, producing great work or impeccable arguments.  Thinking that you can and imagining that you can leads to demonstrating that you can.  Putting it in your mind is an integral part of putting it in place in the real world.

Why should we unsuccessfully but frequently pursue denial on the one hand and embrace positive possibilities on the other?  Is this simply the difference between good and bad, between positive and negative?  Should we simply deny what’s bad and imagine what’s good?  Some recent research has illuminated these issues in a very interesting way.  And it’s a way that has significant implications for experiential learners and those attempting behavioural change.

The shortest summary of the findings is that we should crave imagination of our cravings rather than try to deny the existence of these cravings.  In this way, suppression or denial is replaced with visualisation and, guess what, this leads to less frequent ‘craving’ behaviour.  Imagining eating donuts or chocolate leads to less actual eating of donuts or chocolate!  Interestingly, just imagining donuts or chocolate didn’t produce these reductions, suggesting that what is imagined must be closely aligned with what is done.

Perhaps the imagination of an experience is closer to the actual experience than previously thought.  Can you think through the implications for experiential learning and behavioural change?

Just imagine:

Unusually, Usually

November 26th, 2010 | Specific | 0 Comments

There are two types of ‘unusual’ things:

There’s the type of thing that starts out being unusual and gradually becomes usual, and;

There’s the type of thing that always remains unusual.

Don’t think it’s only the always unusual things – the odd, the rare, the unlikely – that present challenges to experiential learners, because it’s the usual things they have to watch out for.  Nobody is perfect in dealing with the usual things – error is a frequent companion to performance – and errors while doing the usual  occur many, many more times than errors learners make while trying to cope with the unusual.  Overall, there is more (aggregate) risk associated with the usual than the unusual.

When you start out doing something, most of it is usually unusual.  While you’ve seen others do it, while you may have watched it on TV, while you may have had a bit of a go from time to time, everything changes when you actually and seriously begin to do it.  Everything is, or appears to be, unusual.  With growing experience, much of the unusual gradually, very gradually, becomes usual; despite this shift and despite what you might think, the ‘usual’ remains your biggest problem.

So, don’t think that all of your effort is directed towards being able to cope with the unusual, because the unusual may never occur.

So, do think that all of your effort is directed towards being able to cope with the usual, because the usual happens every second of every performance episode.  But it is never as usual as you think it is.  But what should you do if you find yourself confronted with unusual circumstances?  What would you do in these circumstances?

Maybe the answer is to treat these very unusual circumstances in the same way you handle the usual stuff, the way you manage your ‘usual’ skilled performance  and its attendant risks day in, day out, time after time.  Do you think that the unusual demands that you do things that you don’t usually do?  Perhaps responding to the unusual with the unusual isn’t such a good idea.

Are you unusual in coping with the usual?  Are you usual in coping with the unusual?


September 24th, 2010 | Specific | 0 Comments

It is possible that ‘probably’ is an ill-defined word.  Being an ill-defined word may be improbable, perhaps, but not impossible.  I’m just not sure how I could possibly establish how probable this assertion is.  As Jill Barber sings, “What are the chances”,

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What are the chances?  Establishing the probability of an event occurring can be a real challenge, even when the event is hypothetical.  This is demonstrated in many attempts to answer questions about probability during statistics examinations:

“It is desirable to study for this exam; if you do not study, there is an 80% chance that you will fail.  Even if you do study, there is a 20% chance that you’ll still fail.  History indicates that only 60% of students will study for the exam.”

If you didn’t study, what are the chances that you failed the exam?  If you studied, what are the chances that you failed the exam?  What is the chance that Student X will pass the exam (assuming study behaviour is the only variable)?  Research has shown that it is easier to solve questions like these by translating them into simple counting activities (if there are 100 students, 60 will study etc) instead of trying to deal with percentages and proportions.  Nevertheless, when you start introducing conditional probabilities (if this, then that), applying the necessary logic can be both difficult and daunting.  When you increase the number of conditions, the necessary logic, while more difficult and daunting, becomes increasingly irrelevant.  If your life has essentially infinite possibilities, all of which have a non-zero probability and many of which are dependent on most everything else, is there any point in trying to establish the chances?

Experiential learning and behavioural change are underpinned by conditional probabilities but you don’t really need to think consciously about them (unless they relate to obvious, perhaps risky, events, in which case you need to manage them).  Through experience, your learning and behaviour will become attuned to relative probabilities – the patterns that ‘tis nobler has talked about before.  Sometimes, these are called expectancies and they reflect your understanding of the world and how it works.  Much of your time will be based on expecting the expected, except for those occasions when you need to expect the less-expected.  Infrequently, you’ll have to expect the unexpected.

You do not need mathematical talent to assess the chances.  You don’t need to spend your time worrying over conditional probabilities.  But you do need lots of experience in order to incorporate increasingly refined expectancies.  Many people think it’s all about expecting the unexpected but this is less important than monitoring and anticipating the range of expected events.

With experience, you’ll know what the chances are.  There’s no ‘probably’ about it.

Expect And Dream

August 19th, 2010 | Specific | 0 Comments

If I can dream, how should I dream and what else should I do?  Wendy Matthews sings:

If I can dream of a better land,

Where all my brothers walk hand in hand,

Tell me why, oh why, oh why, can’t my dream come true.


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So, why don’t some dreams come true?  Should I expect my dreams to come true?  I am positive that something negative might help.  Dreams can be fantastic in several senses of that word, including the sense that they may be fantasies – there is a difference between imaginative and imaginary.

Dreams are also of events yet to occur and there may be much that intervenes in the interim; although they will often be grounded in past or present occurrences, this foundation is usually more tenuous than another type of future-oriented thought, expectation.  Expectations have a harder edge to them than dreams; they can be based more strongly on evidence and are more amenable to probabilistic assessments.  An expectation is more akin to anticipation whereas dreams have more in common with hopes.

Don’t get me wrong – both have important roles to play.  We just need to sort out the relationship between them.  What should we expect from expectations?  Well, it’s probably not unexpected to discover that the evidence indicates that positive expectations are more predictive of success than negative expectations – there are probably elements of self-fulfilling prophesies at work here.  But it’s the evidence on dreams or fantasies that is more surprising.

When people were asked not what they expected to happen but what they imagined these happenings to be like, those who reported negative fantasies were more likely to succeed than those whose ‘dreams’ were more positive.  It is possible for positive dreams to become an end in their own right rather than a (motivating) means to the desired end; if the positive dream is enjoyed now, it is less likely to produce goal achievement in the future.  The dream is enjoyed even though it never leads anywhere.

Think through this as it applies to experiential learning or behavioural change.  Having positive expectations, supported by evidence (of effort, insight, progress, feedback etc), leads to success.  Having negative ‘dreams’, the images that the learning process will be demanding, time-consuming and extensive can also contribute to success, for they are directly connected with the evidence on which expectations are based.  Positive ‘dreams’ are unconnected with anything except your dreaming.

Expect the positive and imagine the negative!

Familiar Novel

July 1st, 2010 | Specific | 0 Comments

How would people respond if ‘tis nobler conducted a Familiar Novel poll?  It’s likely that one from the Harry Potter series would feature prominently; perhaps there’d be a Dan Brown, Michael Crichton or John Grisham book in the mix, with a Dickens, Austen or Hemingway somewhere on the list.  All understandable responses, all reasonable, all appropriate in the apparent circumstances and all wrong because ‘novel’ is not a noun in the title of this post – it’s an unexpected deviation from a general pattern.  The title of this post highlights one of the tensions in hazard perception and risk assessment, the tension between familiarity and novelty.  Things that are familiar are usually not perceived as risky.  In contrast, things that are novel are usually assigned higher levels of risk.  But the story is more complex than that.

They say familiarity breeds contempt.  Perhaps we should talk about familiarity breeding contempt of risk, producing complacency that leads to error.  They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Perhaps we should talk about absence (until now) making the head grow wary.  But the story is more complex than that.

In experiential learning, no two experiences, no two sessions, no two days are ever alike – they retain their novelty – and yet they become sufficiently familiar that you deal with them as general patterns.  These general patterns are never perfectly consistent but, with experience, you become more able to identify and cope with the subtle  deviations from these patterns.  How should we think about familiar, novel deviations from general patterns that increase perceived risk?

‘tis nobler suggests that the concept of fluency is useful.  Where perceived risk is concerned, when the ‘flow’ is interrupted, elevated perceptions of risk ensue.  This is why car drivers might temporarily halt a conversation or chess players might stop a rapid series of moves – their performance ‘flow’ has been affected by pattern deviations and they have to respond until the pattern is restored.  Even when things seem routine and boring, the potential for increased risk remains a constant companion.  Imagine the ‘flow’ upsets that could occur during the daily grind:

Ignoring the ‘flow’ can create problems but it may be that ignoring transient changes in the ‘flow’ creates even bigger problems.  Always try to go with the flow.

possible and probable

June 2nd, 2010 | Specific | 0 Comments

 And John Lennon sang:

                                            “Imagine there’s no Heaven, it’s easy if you try.”

Is it easy to imagine this?  Imagination is fuelled in part by experience; without a reference point to start from, can you actually imagine something?  You might be able to imagine (literally, to form a mental image) what it is like to eat haggis as you know something, even if it is only a little something, about this Scottish ‘delicacy’.  But can you imagine what it is like to eat eri polu?  I doubt it.

Now imagine a thunderstorm sweeping over the vast grasslands of Africa.  Can you imagine this?  How well can you imagine this?  Is the quality of your imagination itself a product of your imagination, and thus a product of your experience?  Perpetuum Jazzile imagined this thunderstorm and then realised it spectacularly well:



Imagination is not just about aliens, hobbits, dragons or vampires.  Imagination can be, and more often is, about everyday things that are not immediately available to your senses but are always available in your brain.  Imagine, that is, retrieve, a mental image of your kindergarten teacher – you can see them ‘in your head’.

Now, imagine you’re driving down a busy undivided road.  This should be quite easy as you’ve been in this sort of situation many times.  Imagine what’s going to happen next.  Unlike the single reference you have for your kindergarten teacher, or the limited references you have for an African thunderstorm or a flying saucer, the thing that’s going to happen next on the busy road is just one of many possibilities.  When the circumstances or environment are complex, the number of possible events is very large.  Lifestyle, health, work and sporting activities all pose similar challenges.

Therefore, in addition to possibilities, you also need probabilities.  Both the range of possibilities and the accuracy of probabilities are improved by experience.

Why are possibilities and probabilities important?  They’re important because they represent the ‘model’ you have in your head that guides your decision making and your behaviour.  The better, more advanced the model becomes, the greater agreement there is between what’s in your head and what’s around you in the real world.

Now, do we all agree that the way to close the gap between what’s in your head and what’s outside your head is by getting all of the things outside your head into it?  This is achieved by getting experience of the possibilities and their associated probabilities. 

Find your own way, both possibly and probably.  Imagine that!