Problem Finding

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Problem Finding

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Today, I googled “problem solving” and it returned 287,000,000 results. In most of our school life as well as most people’s work life, we are given problems and asked to solve them. “Problem finding” only returned about 2.5 million or fewer than 1/100th as many hits. Solving problems can make processes more efficient and more effective. Solving problems can even save lives. We generally reward people both at school and at work for being good problem solvers. We seldom train people in problem finding. In fact, the reaction of many teachers and many managers when someone finds a problem is to dismiss it as being a non-problem. 

I can understand this sentiment. As a teenager driving my dad’s car home from a date with my girlfriend, somebody beside me tried to make a right turn from the left lane and ran right into my dad’s blue Dodge. I heard what sounded like the voice of God say “NO!!” loud and clear. It was actually louder than the sound of crumpling metal. For a split second, I was in complete denial. Even some moments later, when we pulled over to assess the damage, it looked minor enough to ignore in my mind and just drive off. A more experienced guy from the corner gas station near where this happened said that while it may look minor, it would cost hundreds of dollars to fix and we therefore needed to trade information. I was stunned.

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In many cases, it is a human tendency to want to deny that a problem really exists. If you can get past that tendency however, and embrace problems and indeed, even learn to seek them out, you may be able to create tremendous value for yourself and for those around you. Problem solving can make your bookstore more profitable. Problem finding lets you invent Amazon. Problem solving lets you build a better internal combustion engine. Problem finding leads you to a Tesla.

What might you do to discover problems? First, you might take your own negative emotions as a jumping off place. If you find yourself angry, or anxious, or depressed, to the extent that you can trace back what is going on to the initiating event, you may be able to be consider whether that event is unique to you — or, more likely, that event is likely to trigger a negative reaction in many people. 

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If you found waiting even 48 hours to have your photographs developed and printed — and you thought others might also be impatient to see the results, you might invent Polaroid instant photos. If you found cooking a casserole too time-consuming and messy for your taste, you might invent frozen dinners. If you drove a lot in hot, humid climates, you might be motivated to put air conditioning in cars. 

Of course, you do not have to limit yourself to your own misfortune. If you read about someone having a miserable time, you could dig a little deeper and ask yourself how a tragedy might have been prevented or how an accident could have been avoided. You can also look at a change that seems minor and ask yourself what will happen if this change becomes widespread. 

For example, if you read in the newspaper that a robot has been invented that harvests tomatoes, you might extrapolate to a more universal situation. What if all crops were harvested by machine? This might make groceries cheaper. But what else would it mean? Tomatoes are rather delicate, after all. You might wonder whether growers using a machine to harvest tomatoes would harvest them early to avoid them being mashed by the machine. You might wonder whether they would even genetically alter the tomatoes so that they were easier to harvest by machine (even if they were no longer as tasty). You might wonder what will happen to the tomato pickers? Politicians may tell you that they will all be retrained for higher paying jobs as machine inventors, machine programmers, and machine maintenance folks. But this makes no sense. If there were an equal number of IT jobs as there used to be tomato pickers but each of the new jobs came with a higher salary, why would the growers use robots? There will be fewer jobs after automation and in some cases, far fewer. 

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You might look at the global temperature trends and ask yourself what will happen if they continue. What will happen if global temperatures continue to rise? What can be done about it? Of course, once people start seriously mapping out the consequences, some people will react by saying, “Oh, it isn’t really happening!.” Why do they think that? Because it’s too scary to contemplate the truth; or too inconvenient to take the necessary actions. There are vested interests in old energy sources who will be happy to help you along in your fantasy of denial. In the short run, it’s often easier to imagine that problems do not exist, or are not that bad, or won’t get worse, or that there is just nothing to be done. 

Even most of the people who rail against what most of us think of as sensible gun regulation (requiring a license, showing ID, getting at least some training and testing the would-be gun owner’s knowledge, competency, and eyesight as we do with cars) don’t think that mass shootings of innocent children is a fine thing. They see it as a problem — just one that cannot be solved or one that can only be solved by adding cost and inconvenience to the potential victims. After such a tragedy, they may even send “thoughts and prayers.” 

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There is a possible “down side” to problem finding. The greedy may decide that they can make a lot of money by generating a solution to a problem that isn’t really a problem and making you believe it is a problem. My favorite, and so far made up, example is “Elbow Cream” for those unsightly skin wrinkles that appear on the back of your elbow when you straighten your arm. But that made up example is not too far off. You eat spicy food and it upsets your stomach? We can fix that! Of course, you could too by not eating spicy food! But nobody makes money that way. So they will sell you something that supposedly fixes the “problem.” While it might be fantasy to imagine “Elbow Cream” that will “fix” your “unsightly elbow wrinkles” it is not fantasy to imagine that people have been hoodwinked into spending money on “fixing” their faces and bodies. 

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Americans spent 16 billion dollars on cosmetic plastic surgery in 2017. There are 50 countries who each have a lower GDP than that. The beauty industry in the USA overall was supposedly around $445 billion in 2017. That’s more than the GDP of each of 151 countries! Both figures are also less than the federal government spends on reducing climate change. Or cancer research. 

Do you see that as a problem? I do. 

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Negative Space

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Negative Space

When you look at a scene, it is natural to concentrate on the objects in the scene. So too, when one begins to design, it is natural to concentrate your attention on the things you put in the design whether those are menus, icons, images, banners, buttons and so on. You tend to give little thought to what is not there because, after all, there’s nothing there! 

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As your expertise grows, you will find it useful to spend some time and resources thinking about what is not there; the “negative space” if you will. In art, the “negative space” refers to the space around and between the objects. Often, paying attention to the “negative space” can result in a much more interesting and aesthetically pleasing composition. It is a concept that has applications far beyond artistic visual composition however. 

Consider music for a moment, or better yet, listen to some and you will note that the silence is just as important as are the notes. Increase or decrease the silence in a tune by a factor of two and it becomes a different, and in most cases much worse, tune. 

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The same can be said of great acting whether on stage or in a movie. The silence while we wait for the actor’s response to some news — while they are saying nothing and possibly even showing nothing or very little on their face, can often be the most poignant and moving parts of the picture. If the actor reacts “too quickly” with no space, we can tell that the stimulus presented is something that they “trigger” on because they are upset about it or trying to deny it. The leading man, for instance, asks a seemingly innocent question on a first date, such as, “So, do you like French Cuis…” “NO!” she cuts in. The audience’s attention is immediately drawn to see what comes next. The response that is too fast indicates a “sore spot.” Did the leading lady want to become a French chef? Did she just end a love affair with a Frenchman? What is going on here? 

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On the other hand, imagine the leading man, says, “So, do you like French Cuisine?” One beat, two beats go by. No answer. A long pause. The leading lady’s face shows nothing. Perhaps she tightens her lips ever so slightly or frowns to the slightest possible extent. The pause continues. The leading man tilts his head as though to ask whether she’s okay. Finally, we come to expect a tirade about the French or French Cuisine or French wine or … something. Instead, after this long pause, the leading lady says nothing but punctuates her silence with something that sounds like a cross between a humorless laugh and a karate grunt. There are probably no words she could have said which would have intrigued us more than the non-response. We think, “What the hell is going on with her and French Cuisine?”  

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Speaking of French Cuisine, when you go to a fine restaurant, your focus is on the food. So too is the focus on the chef and the server. But the space is important as well. It is annoying when you are paying good money to have a nice dining experience and you are shown to your table, given menus and then ignored for the next twenty-five minutes. On the other hand, it is equally annoying when your server comes back every 30 seconds and asks, “Are you ready to order yet or do you need more time?” The optimal time to wait between courses is not always obvious either. Some people need or want much more time between courses. Maybe this nice dinner is all they have planned for the evening. The patrons are having a nice quiet dinner with good conversation. They are in no hurry. Just as one of the diners launches into a complex story or joke, the server comes over and interrupts to tell about the specials. Conversely, another foursome may be planning on attending a play and long pauses between courses may mean missing the first act. 

The negative space in dining is not just about the timing of events. It is also about the spatial arrangement of the food, the spacing between textures and colors. Often, the artistic arrangement is as much about the negative space as the objects on the plate. 

Sometimes, the food itself has positive and negative elements. In a meal with varied and complex and contrasting tastes, for instance, the rice or the bread can provide a kind of “negative space” between the tastier and more salient constituents. These neutral or negative elements allow more contrast among the salient elements than if the more salient elements were enjoyed right after each other.  

Negative space is important in architecture, paining, typography, cinematography, the design of user interfaces, culinary arts, music, and the design of other stimuli. It is also important in activity.

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One of the first popular video games was called “Asteroids.” In this black and white vector graphics game, you controlled a small space ship that shut bullets in the direction the space ship was aimed. All you could control was the speed and direction of the space ship and whether it was shooting. The screen also showed a number of large, irregular “asteroids” that you were meant to hit. When you hit one of these large asteroids with a bullet, it split into two moderate asteroids. When you hit a moderately sized asteroid with a bullet, it split into two small asteroids. When you hit a small asteroid with a bullet, it disappeared. If you got hit by an asteroid, you would die. There was also a flying saucer who came to hassle you. Anyway, I found that if I focused on all these floating asteroids and trying to not to get hit by one, it was a difficult game. For me, at least, it was much better to visualize a path among the asteroids and try to follow the path. In a way, concentrating on the negative space, helped. 

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The importance of negative space in sports can hardly be over-emphasized. In American football, the back tries to find the holes to run through. In soccer, players seek paths between. In baseball, the hitter wants to “hit it where they ain’t.” In tennis, beginners often play only during half a point. Their attention is focused on the ball and the opposing player(s). They choose a target on the other side of the court and watch to see how well they hit that target. Just as their opponent begins to hit the ball they shift their attention to their opponent and watch where that opponent hits the ball, scurrying there as quickly as possible so as to hit the next shot. What does such a player do between the time they hit the ball and their opponent hits the ball? They watch! They want to see where the next ball goes. If you are young and fast and your opponent is not well skilled, you can often get away with this process. However, what higher level players do is something quite different though it may look similar. The good player has a target in mind but watches the ball while their mind has the target clearly in mind. By watching the ball, they are much less likely to mis-hit the ball. Furthermore, they are not giving away their intended target with their body language. Perhaps most importantly, long before their opponent hits a return shot, the good player thinks about the open spaces on their side of the court and go to cover the most likely of those spaces. 

Many otherwise well-skilled athletes only focus on the game during play. For example, many hitters on amateur softball teams, pay little or no attention to the game while their team is batting until they are “on deck” (almost ready for a turn at bat). This is absurd in the majors, but it’s even more absurd in amateur games. You should be taking this time to learn about the opposing pitcher and about the weaknesses in the opponent team’s fielders. Just because you’re not in the batter’s box doesn’t mean you can’t improve your play. Similarly, in tennis, you can use the time between points to think about tactics and strategy, as well as to mentally “reset” yourself if necessary. Some players wave their hands in front of their face after a point as a reminder/trigger to forget about what just happened and focus on the next point. Some will even turn away from the play, seemingly to talk with their “imaginary friend.” 

To close, a very short, short story based on true events in my first trip to Japan. 

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The Touch of One Hand Clasping

Japan, Tokyo, 1977. I walk crowded streets and beautiful gardens where care is taken for spaces as well as things that grow. I struggle — try to speak Japanese language but usually mispronounce “Key-Ray-Ee-Des” (It is beautiful) as “Key-Rah-Ee-Des” (It is dirty). I tip-toe through minefields of culture steeped in subtlety; lose huge chunks of flesh and karma with my thunderous, blunderous New York strides.

Shin-Ju-Ku: lights dim Times Square into grandmother’s fruit cellar. Row on countless row of Japanese stare hypnotized at small vertical pin-ball game called Pah-Chinn-Koe. This bright hustle bustle hassle hides deeper subtlety, deeper calm, inside, beneath, where foreign eyes can peer not.

I enter Tokyo subway. Then — she enters — total stranger, totally beautiful, black hair, endless eyes. I, of course, having learned small little in my many minefield walks, look everywhere but at her. Better, she looks everywhere but at me. We ride, totally not looking at each other. She stands in middle — nowhere to hold on to — unprotected, beautiful, vulnerable.

Suddenly, train lurches. Simultaneously: she shoots hand out to only spot I can possibly reach while I shoot hand out to only spot she can reach. Our hands clasp strongly for instant and I save her from fall. 

Slowly, we release.

Next stop, she rushes out. But — just before the doors bang shut, she turns — looks straight into my eyes. “Kohn-bahn-wah” she says (“Good Evening”).

Thus, Japanese beauty touches beyond body into very soul of clumsy Westerner.

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Negative space….

 

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Fraught Framing: The Presumed Being-ness of State-ness

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Fraught Framing: The Presumed Being-ness of State-ness

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As I understand it, in Spanish and Portuguese, for example, there is a linguistic distinction between current state of being and habitual state of being that is signaled by the use of different verbs. In English, we say, “That is an angry dog” to mean “That is a dog who is generally and habitually angry” and also to mean, “That dog is in an angry mood right now.” 

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But, regardless of what native languages we write and speak, we humans often make statements about something and treat something according to the unstated and untenable presupposition that what is true about the current state of affairs is true about eternity. 

This habit of mind, reinforced by language, is often incredibly useful. For instance, near me right now are a table, and on the table, among other things are a coffee cup filled with coffee and a checkbook. The table is mainly composed of wood and marble. For many purposes, this is an adequate description. Of course, none of these so-called objects were always in their current state. Once, the wood was part of a tree. And, before that, the material in the tree was mainly rainwater and dirt. It was transformed into a tree by a mere seed of information using energy from the sun. 

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Meanwhile, even the marble portion of the table was not always in its current state. At one point, in the distant past, this marble was limestone. The limestone was transformed by temperature and pressure into marble. Before the limestone was limestone it was mainly the shells of tiny animals living in the ocean. If we trace the table back far enough we will come to the “Big Bang” that started the universe as we know it. The transformation of the table from one sort of thing into another did not end when it became a table nor when I bought the table. Some day, it will no longer be a table. Eventually, the material nature of the wood, and eventually even the marble will be different. The checkbook and the coffee cup will likely cease to be a checkbook and a coffee cup long before that. 

For the purpose of drinking my coffee, it is just fine to think of this cup as being a cup. It holds my coffee and keeps it somewhat warm. The table works just fine as a place to hold the coffee cup. I don’t need to think more deeply about the lifecycle of the table or the cup or the checkbook. 

Usually. 

But sometimes, it is useful to deconstruct these categories. A fairly common test of creativity, for example, is to think of alternative uses. What could this table be used for besides a table? It is a pretty sturdy looking table, so I would say it could be used as a seat by one or two people pretty safely. It could be used as a deadly if awkward weapon. The bracing cross-piece could be detached and used as less awkward weapon.  It could be used as a barrier. The wood part could be used as firewood. The thing that I habitually use as a coffee cup could be used as a container for many types of liquids or solids and even, with the help of the checkbook, could be used to hold gasses though not very effectively. The checkbook can be used as a weapon against a mosquito. In a very different way, the checkbook could be used as a weapon against a person or even as a weapon against a nation; e.g., by writing checks to steal an election. 

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While all of these “objects” have histories, they also have futures. Generally speaking, the people I know give little thought to the future of the objects that they interact with. But slowly, and likely too slowly, this is gradually changing. We often now recycle or reuse objects. Thinking about the future of an object also influences my choices about what I buy. This kind of thinking is particularly important to when it comes to radioactive material which can pose very long term hazards or it can be stolen and used to cause fairly short term mayhem. Collectively, the plastic that we use gets discarded and then, does not vanish into nothingness. It finds its way into the air we breathe and the water we drink. Now that the population of the earth is 7 billion, we can no longer afford to ignore how the objects we interact with were created and we cannot afford to ignore what becomes of them. What we call a “table” or a “cup” or a “checkbook” is really only a “table for now”, “a cup for now” and a “checkbook for now.” 

The fluidity of things also applies to human beings. It should be pretty obvious to most adults that someone we call “a toddler” or a “teen-ager” is not in that category forever. Most people evolve over time both physically and mentally. The change from “toddler” to “teen-ager” takes many years. Physically, the person usually seems stable from one hour to the next (even physical stability is an illusion; we create over 200 billion new cells a day!). Socially and psychologically, however, we are unstable even at a macro level. A sixteen year old, for instance, may act very much like a mature adult in hundreds of different circumstances. Yet, if they are overly influenced by “friends” or under the influence of alcohol for the first time, their behavioral self-control may easily revert to that more like a ten year old or even a two year old. 

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We Limit Others by our Categories

It is human and common but not useful to observe a small slice of someone else’s behavior and thereby make inferences about their habitual behavior. Even if we know about someone’s habitual behavior, it doesn’t mean that they always behave that way and it doesn’t mean that they can’t change over time. When we say, “Oh, don’t pick Chuck for the baseball team; he’s such a spaz” or “No, I’m sure Sally wouldn’t like to join us; she’s really a loner” or “You can’t count on Jim; he never follows through” we are almost certainly over-generalizing. Perhaps Chuck never learned baseball as a kid and he simply needs to learn and practice basic skills. Maybe Sally has no real friends precisely because no-one asks her to join them because everyone thinks she’s a loner because she’s always alone – because no-one ever asks her to join them. Or maybe her idea of a good time is hiking and she’d be happy to do that, but has no interest in going clubbing and getting drunk every day. Maybe Jim is completely overworked and/or needs to learn better time management skills. 

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“How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.” 

People may be changed by circumstances but therapy often works too. As the joke implies, it won’t work very well if the main reason the “light bulb” goes to the therapist is to feel better rather than to get better, it’s an opportunity lost. Others who frequently interact with the “light bulb” often hold views and use names that subvert therapy. For example, a person who is never assertive and wants to change that may find that when they do so, their family and colleagues at work, who have been taking advantage of them for their own purposes may say things like this: “Oh, you used to be so nice!” {Translation: I used to be able to manipulate you for my own purposes so much more easily}.   

We Limit Ourselves by our Categories

While we unwittingly define others into boxes that may serve to limit what they can do, we humans are generally “equal opportunity destroyers” and also limit our own potential through self-talk as well. I like to play golf and have therefore asked many people over the course of my life, “Do you play golf?” 

Take a guess what response I have heard at least two dozen times. “Golf? Oh, no. I tried that a couple times. I’m no good.” 

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After picking myself up off the floor, I try to explain as nicely and politely as possible that if you’ve literally tried it a couple times, you have no idea whether you would be any good at it. You very likely have no idea whether you would like it either. The same goes for painting, writing poetry, playing video games, eating healthy food, exercising regularly, and so on. In each case, your initial level of skill and your initial level of enjoyment are very poor predictors of the long term. It is most often, not our ability, but our self-definitional boundaries and self-talk that limits us. 

Exercises for Flexibility.

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Life is complicated and complex so I understand that many folks may be reluctant to expand the scope of what they and others are capable of. But if you do want to become more flexible in your behavioral repertoire, there are several things you can do. 

First, you can become aware of your statements about yourself and others. When you find yourself thinking, “Jim never follows through,” try to restate that in terms of empirical evidence. It could be: “Well, once I asked Jim to help plan the office party and he never showed up for the first meeting. Another time, he said he would help teach my daughter how to parallel park, but nothing ever came of it.” You might immediately see that you have precious little evidence to back up your claim that Jim never follows through. You might also ask yourself whether you ever asked Jim about these incidents. There may be hundreds of legitimate reasons that he didn’t “follow through.” His name might have been left off the distribution list for the party planning meeting. And so on. Generating these alternatives is explored in more detail in “The Iroquois Rule of Six” which basically says before acting on an explanation that is inferred you should generate five alternative explanations. 

Second, you can read fiction, watch movies, attend stage plays, do some amateur theater or even answer a questionnaire from someone else’s perspective. In working with Heather Desurvire at NYNEX, on a usability evaluation of a prototype, we did a variation on heuristic evaluation in which we had people look for issues and offer suggestions from a variety of different perspectives; e.g., a behaviorist, a cognitive psychologist, a worried mother, a physical therapist and so on. With the total amount of time controlled for, people found more issues and offered more suggestions when they looked at the application from the perspectives of many people. 

Third, and my current favorite, is “Attitude Dancing.” I’m not sure this is what Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman meant by their song title, but when I turn on music while I am cooking or cleaning, I spent part of my dancing time dancing as though I were in a completely different mood or even as though I were a completely different person. 

Give it a try! 

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Author Page on Amazon. 

Desurvire, H. and Thomas, J.C. Enhancing the Performance of Interface Evaluators Using Non-Empirical Usability Methods. In the Proceedings of the Human Factors Society 37th Annual Meeting, October, l993

  

Fraught Framing: The Virulent “Versus” Virus

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Fraught Framing: The Virulent “Versus” Virus

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Like most of us, I spent a lot of time in grades K through 12 solving problems that others set for me. These problems were to be solved by applying prescribed methods. In math class, for example, we were given long division problems and we solved them by doing — you guessed it — long division. We were given history questions and asked who discovered [sic] America and we had to answer “Christopher Columbus” because that’s what the book said and that’s what the teacher had said. 

Even today, as of this writing, when I google “problem solving” I get 332,000,000 results. When I google “problem formulation” I only get 1,430,000 results — less than 1%. (“Problem Framing,” which is a synonym, only returned 127,000). And yet, in real life, at least in my experience, far greater leverage, understanding, and practical benefit comes from attention to problem formulation or problem framing. You still need to do competent problem solving, but unless you have properly framed the problem, you will most often find yourself doing much extra work; finding a sub-optimal solution; being stymied and finding no solution; or solving completely the wrong problem. In the worst case scenario, which happens surprisingly often, you not only solve the “wrong problem.” You don’t even know that you’ve solved the wrong problem. 

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There are many ways to go wrong when you frame the problem. Here, I want to focus on one particularly common error in problem framing which is to cast a problem as a dichotomy, a contest, or a tradeoff between two seemingly incompatible values. We’ve all heard examples such as “Military Defense Spending versus  Foreign Aid” or “Dollars for Police versus After School Programs” or “Privacy versus Convenience” or “A Woman’s Right to Choose versus the Rights of the Unborn Fetus” or “Heredity versus Environment” or “Addressing Climate Change versus Growing the Economy.” 

One disadvantage of framing things as a dichotomy is that it tends to cause people to polarize in opinion. This, in turn, tends to close the minds on both sides of an issue. A person who defines themselves as a “staunch defender” of the Second Amendment “Gun Rights”, for instance, will tend not to process information or arguments of any kind. If they hear someone say something about training or safety requirements, rather than consider whether this is a good idea, they will instead immediately look for counter-arguments, or rare scenarios, or exceptional statistics. The divisive nature of framing things as dichotomies is not even what I want to focus on here. Rather, I would like to show that these kinds of “versus” framings often lead even a single problem solver astray. 

Let’s examine the hidden flaws in a few of these dichotomies. At a given point in time, we may indeed only have a fixed pool of dollars to spend. So, at first blush, it seems to make sense that if we spend more money on Foreign Aid, we may have fewer dollars to spend on Military Defense and vice versa. Over a slightly longer time frame, however, relations are more complex. 

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It might be that a reasonable-sounding foreign aid program that spends dollars on food for those folks facing starvation due to drought is a good thing. However, it might turn on in a specific case, that the food never arrives at the destination but instead is intercepted by local War Lords who steal the food and use it get money to buy more weapons to enhance their power; in turn, this actually makes the starvation worse. Spending money right now on military operations to destroy the power of the warlords might be a necessary prerequisite to having an effective drought relief programs.  

Conversely, spending money today on foreign aid, particularly if it goes toward women’s education, will be very likely to result in the need for less military intervention in the future. That there is a “fixed pie” to be divided is one underlying metaphor that leads to a false framing of issues. In the case of spending on military “versus” foreign aid, the metaphor ignores the very real interconnections that can exist among the various actions. 

There are other problems with this particular framing as well. Another obvious problem is that how money is spent is often much more important than the category of spending. To take it to an absurd extreme, if you spend money on the “military” and the “military” money is actually to arm a bunch of thugs who subvert democracy in the region, it might not make us even slightly safer in the short run. Even worse, in the long run, we may find precisely these same weapons being used against us in the medium turn. Similarly, a “foreign aid” package that mostly goes to deforesting the Amazon rain forest and replacing it with land used to graze cows, will be ruinous in the long run for the very people it is supposedly aimed to help. 

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False dichotomies are not limited to the economic and political arena. Say for example that you are designing a car or truck for delivering groceries. If you design an axle that is too thin, it may be too weak and subject to breakage. But if you make it too thick, it will be heavy and the car will not accelerate or corner as well and will also have worse gas mileage. On the surface, it seems like a real “versus” situation: thick versus thin, right? Maybe. Let’s see what Altshuller has to say.

Genrich Altshuller was a civil engineer and inventor in the Stalin era of Soviet Russia. He wrote a letter to Stalin explaining how Russian science and engineering could become more creative. A self-centered dictator, Stalin took such suggestions for improvement as personal insults so Altshuller was sent to the Gulags. Here, he met many other scientists and engineers who had, one way or another, gotten on the wrong side of Stalin. He discussed technical issues and solutions in many fields and developed a system called TRIZ (a Russian acronym) for technical invention. He uses the axle as one example to show the power of TRIZ. It turns out that the “obvious” trade-off between a thick, strong but heavy axle and a thin, weak, but light axle is only a strict trade-off under the assumption of a solid axle. A hollow axle can weigh much less than a solid axle but have almost all the strength of the solid version. 

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One may question the design assumptions even further. For instance, why is there an axle at all? If you use electric motors, for example, you could have four smaller, independent electric motors and not have any axle. Every wheel could be independent in suspension, direction, and speed. No-one would have designed such a car because no human being is likely capable of operating such a complex vehicle. Now that people are developing self-driving vehicles, such a design might be feasible. 

The axle example illustrates another common limitation of the “versus” mentality. It typically presumes a whole set of assumptions, many of which may not even be stated. To take this example even further, why are you even designing a truck for delivering groceries? How else might groceries go from the farm to the store? What if farms were co-located with grocery stores? What if groceries themselves were unnecessary and people largely grew food on their own roofs, or back yards, or greenhouses? 

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For many years, people debated the relative impact of environment versus heredity on various human characteristics such as intelligence. Let us put aside for a moment the considerable problems with the concept of intelligence itself and how it is tested, and focus on the question as to which is more important in determining intelligence: heredity or environment. In this case, the question can be likened to asking whether the length or height of a rectangle is a more important determiner of its area. A rectangle whose length is one mile and whose height is zero will have zero area. Similarly, a rectangle that is a mile high but has zero length will have zero area. Similarly, a child born of two extremely intelligent parents but who is abandoned in the jungle and brought up by wolves or apes will not learn the concepts of society that are necessary to score well on a typical IQ test. At the other extreme, no matter how much you love and cherish and try to educate your dog or cat, they will never score well on a typical IQ test. Length and breadth are both necessary for a rectangle to have area. The right heredity and environment are both necessary for a person to score well on an IQ test. 

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This is so obvious that one has to question why people would even raise the issue. Sadly, the historical answer often points toward racism. Some people wanted to argue that it was pointless to spend significant resources on educating people of color because they were limited in how intelligent they might become because of their heredity. 

Similarly, it seems that in the case of framing dealing with climate change as something that is versus economic growth, the people who frame the issue this way are not simply falling into a poor thinking habit of dichotomous thinking. They are framing as a dichotomy intentionally in order to win political support from people who feel economically vulnerable. If you have lost your job in the steel mill or rubber factory, you may find it easy to be sympathetic to the view that working to stop climate change might be all well and good but it can’t be done because it kills jobs. 

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If the planet becomes uninhabitable, how many jobs will be left? Even short of the complete destruction of the ecosphere, the best estimates are that there will be huge economic costs of not dealing with global climate change. These will soon be far larger than costs associated with reducing carbon emissions and reforesting the planet. Much of the human population of the planet lives close to the oceans. As ice melts and sea levels rise, many people will be displaced and large swaths of heavily populated areas will be made uninhabitable. Climate change is also increasing the frequency and severity of weather disasters such as tornados and hurricanes. These cause tremendous and wide-spread damage. They kill people and cause significant economic damage. In addition, there will be more floods and more droughts, both of which negatively impact the economy. Rather than dealing with climate change being something we must do despite the negative impact on the economy, the opposite is closer to the truth. Dealing with climate change is necessary to save the world economy from catastrophic collapse. Oligarchs whose power and wealth depend on non-renewable energy sources are well aware of this. They simply don’t care. They shrug it off. They won’t be alive in another twenty years so they are willing to try to obfuscate the truth by setting up a debate based on a false versus. 

They don’t care. 

Do you? 

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Imagination

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Imagination. 

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It seems odd to bother to remind people that imagination is a tool of thought. I have four kids and twelve grandkids and they all use their imaginations. I also worked as a camp counselor, Y leader, child care worker in a psychiatric hospital, and a sixth grade science teacher. Kids use their imaginations! In many cases, they do this for “fun” but they also are constantly using their imagination to do creative problem solving. 

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When I did therapy with adults however, I found that many had convinced themselves that they had no imagination. This is rather sad as well as being completely inaccurate. Furthermore, in the very ways that such adults exhibited neurotic symptoms, they were using their imaginations. But instead of using their imagination to further their enjoyment or to solve problems creatively, they mainly seemed to use their imaginations for one main purpose: to make themselves miserable. 

For example, few of us enjoy being stuck in stop and go traffic. As it turns out, you can actually impact the traffic flow around you by driving differently. You can read about how in this link, but you can come to much the same conclusion by using your imagination to empathize with the drivers around you. Instead, the neurotic train of thought goes something like this: “WHY oh WHY are all these people out on the road?! MOVE! Oh, crap, I am going to be late. My boss is going to scream at me. Probably fire me. CRAP! MOVE! I’m going to be late. I’m getting fired. Damn! It’s not my fault. My boss doesn’t care. He hates people who are late. I should have left earlier. Where will I get another job at my age? I’m sunk. Once I lose my job, my spouse will leave me too. Crap. He won’t write a good letter of recommendation. Should I get off the highway and take surface roads? That might make me later. Damn! I’m sunk. Life sucks!” 

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That train of thought certainly uses imagination! 

But in all the wrong ways! That person is not using imagination to enjoy the moment, but using imagination to quite literally make themselves miserable. And it isn’t just the commuter. Plenty of people use their imagination to “awfulize” about situations. They think of the worst possible outcome and then imagine that that worst possible outcome is bound to happen. 

Instead, if you are in a situation that you can’t change, you could use your imagination to have some fun. So you’re stuck in traffic. There are literally a million things you could do instead of writing a tragic screenplay in your mind’s eye. I won’t list all million, but here are a few. You could design a better transportation system. You could construct a joke to put your boss in a better mood. You could turn on the radio or listen to a podcast or a book on tape. You could look at the scenery. You could make up a rather salacious spy thriller about the people around you who are also stuck in traffic. And so on. 

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So too, in solving problems….hold on… someone’s at the door. I’ll be right back. 

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Well, that was weird! Two of the characters from my last blog series came to the door! They wanted me to hurry up and finish this series on tools of thought so they can come back to life. I had to explain to them that my translator is on vacation and that there’s nothing else to write until more of the myths can be decoded. Right now, there is growing interest in recent, though mythological, archeological digs that will give us further clues about the Veritas. My own command of the mythical Veritas language is extremely rudimentary and I’m not even absolutely sure I understood correctly what they were asking. But I am sure it was She-of-Many-Paths and Shadow-Walker. It was definitely them, more or less as I pictured them, but taller, and more ripped than I had imagined. It’s also clear that the two of them are more than friends. Anyway, they seem to be of the opinion that I need to write their myths so that we real humans can avoid making the same errors that people made in their mythical universe. I don’t quite see how that’s possible, but I will use my imagination to try to understand how it might be done. I hope they don’t bother my neighbors.

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Meanwhile, back to the catalog of thinking tools in general and to the use of imagination in particular. Under some circumstances, of course, it is a useful skill to use imagination to think of what can go wrong. I use imagination in this vein for example, when asked to evaluate something from a user perspective. I try to imagine how various icons, words, transitions and so on can be problematic for users. Even though I am pretty good at that, when users are actually observed in real life, they still manage to demonstrate problems that neither I nor anyone else on the design team had thought of! 

Even in UX work, it is also important to use your imagination to think of additional opportunities. “You know, we’ve been thinking about this calendar application as a passive recipient of the user’s information. But some users might also like seeing a weekly summary of their activity in different categories.” Or, you might think, “Suppose we tie the calendar in with the message system. The system knows where the user is; we could send a reminder when it’s time for them to leave for an appointment.” Or, you might think, “In some places the time to drive somewhere depends on traffic and weather. We could tie this calendar and reminder in with the map and weather apps to give better estimates of when to send a reminder.” Such musings could result in a better product. Of course, timing is important as well. Your colleagues will tend to appreciate these thoughts a lot more if you are not currently in beta test but instead at the conceptual design phase! 

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Even knowing that, your imagination might be more likely to kick in later in the project because the application seems more real. You can imagine the reactions of your colleagues and frame your response this way, “Trying this app makes me realize that we can make a number of enhancements in version 2.0, 3.0 etc. I’m going to start this shared file of potential additions, changes, and enhancements that we can all contribute to. We should take a look at this when we are doing 2.0 brainstorming.”  

More generally, there are many possible triggers for using your imagination and you may find that some kinds of triggers are more fun for you. For example, you might read fiction and you enjoy following along with the story being presented. This requires a lot of imagination work. 

You can also start with a goal or even desire and work outward from this internal state to imagine ways you might accomplish your goal or fulfill your desire. But you can also work inward. You look at what is before you; e.g., a computer screen like the one I am looking at now and ask yourself how it might be different in the future. 

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Such musings can follow a thread based on the characteristics. The screen is flat, for instance. What if it were curved, or dynamically reconfigurable, or foldable or moldable? What if I could shrink the actual screen depending on circumstances? You can inject your screen (and possibly yourself) into a different and unusual situation. What if I had the screen available on the tennis court? Well, I could project things on my glasses; e.g., as I walk over to retrieve a ball, I could be reminded of how to hit a kick serve. What if I had special lenses that I could pass over any word or icon on the screen? One might give me the history of any given word. Another might give me the definition. Another might give me alternatives that are more esoteric or are easier to understand; more general or more specific; more positive or negative in tone. Another tool might enable you to select a sentence, a paragraph or an entire article and ask, “Who has written similar things before?” Even without AI, a purely statistical approach might lead you find out about people with similar interests. 

Another way to practice using your imagination is to pose a question or see how two things are or could be related. On the table beside me are a number of objects: a set of keys, an iPhone, a coffee cup, a checkbook, two of the books I wrote, copies of some papers that I reviewed for a recent conference, a quarter, some business cards. How could these be combined? It doesn’t necessarily matter at this point that the combination is feasible. Let’s just try it. 

Putting together a set of keys and an iPhone suggests to me having an app wherein I could photograph all my keys and then, if I lost any (or all!) of the keys, I could have one 3-D printed at a local store or my home 3-D printer. I can also imagine that for another layer of security (at a cost of inconvenience) my iPhone would not turn on unless I took a picture of a particular physical key. A coffee cup and a checkbook seem to belong to different worlds indeed, but that only makes it more of a fun challenge! I like coffee. I don’t particularly like writing bills. On the day before the bills are due, perhaps the coffee machine might not deliver coffee till I wrote the bills. This strikes me as too controlling. For me, it might work better to have an ironic message delivered on the coffee cup such as, “Have a nice day! And save the insane interest rates for paying $25 a day late by paying your bill on time! Or, make some rich banker even richer. The choice is yours!” This approach would not be everyone’s “cup of tea” but that doesn’t matter. The point is to reawaken your imagination. 

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What about a quarter and two books I wrote? I could offer a 25 cent rebate. I could write about about the history of the quarter. I could mail people books with a quarter inside. I could make an advertisement about The Winning Weekend Warrior that is aimed at tennis players and suggest that every time they lose a set, they put a quarter in a piggy bank. When they get to 40 quarters they can buy my book. I can design strategy and tactics sheets for different sports that are sold separately. The reader/user places quarters on the sheet to reinforce strategy. In tennis, for instance, such a sheet might be static and the user could use four quarters for the positions of the four players on the court. They could be asked to select smart shots, given the positions. Similarly, I might have 4 or even 18 sheets for golf and on these sheets I would show the slope and terrain and ask people to put the quarter on for their target. Eventually, I imagine, there is a way to capture the data of how the player actually hits the golf ball on real courses and that could be incorporated into what the best shot is for that particular player. This data could also be used as input to computer golf games so that a player might use the game to help select better clubs and targets. We are no longer necessarily talking about my book or about quarters. That doesn’t matter! All that really matters is that I have used these arbitrary objects to trigger my imagination. And you can do the same!

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I’m done. Hold on. Doorbell. II see that it’s the Veritas power couple again. I’m inviting them in for coffee. I wonder if they’ve ever had coffee before….     

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Metaphors We Live and Die By: Part 2

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Metaphors We Live and Die By: Part 2

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Today, I want to delve further into the topic of metaphors that we often unconsciously adopt. In particular, I want to look at a common metaphor in four areas: disease, business, politics, and and the role of UX in the entire cycle of product development. 

Although I am fascinated by other cultures, my experience is overwhelmingly USA-centric. I am aware that all of the four areas I touch on may be quite different in other countries and cultures. If readers have examples of how different metaphors are used in their culture, I would love to hear about it. 

Disease is an Enemy to be Destroyed. 

In most cases, American doctors view disease as an enemy to be destroyed. In fact, this metaphor is so pervasive that American readers are likely puzzled that I used the verb “view” rather than “is” in the previous sentence. In American culture, there is also a strong thread of another metaphor about disease: “Disease is a punishment.” This latter metaphor is behind such statements as, “Oh, they had a heart attack! Oh, my! Were they overweight? Did they smoke?” Perhaps I will consider this more fully another time, but for now, I want to examine the view that disease is an enemy to be destroyed. 

It seems as though it is an apt metaphor. After all, aren’t many diseases caused by other organisms invading our bodies and doing harm? There are many examples: bacteria (Lyme Disease, pneumonia, ulcers, TB, syphilis), viruses (herpes, Chicken Pox, flu, common cold),  protozoa (malaria, toxoplasmosis) or even larger organisms (trichinosis, tapeworms, hookworm). 

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When it comes to considering causality, our thoughts usually travel along linear chains of causes. So, we may admit that while Lyme disease is “caused by” Borrelia bacteria, the “deer tick” that spreads the disease is also partly at fault. Similarly, although malaria is caused by a protozoa, the most effective prevention is to reduce the mosquito population or to use netting to keep the mosquitos from biting people. Similarly, you might try to prevent Lyme disease by wearing light clothing, using spray to keep the ticks off, checking for ticks after being in tick infested areas, etc. So, even in common practice, we realize that saying that the little organism causes the disease is an over-simplification. 

Once one “gets” a disease, however, the most commonly invoked metaphor is war. We know what the enemy is and we must destroy it! I grant you that is one approach that can be very effective, but consider this. The “human” body contains approximately as many bacterial cells as human cells. What you think of as your “human” body is only half human! It is half bacteria! Furthermore, since we all have trillions of bacteria in us when we are well, the picture of treating bacteria as an enemy to be destroyed is at best an over-simplification. In fact, more recently, medical science seems to indicate that under-exposure to bacteria in childhood can make you more not less susceptible to disease. If you use anti-antibiotics to “destroy” the “enemy” bacteria in your body, many of the “good” bacteria necessary for digestion are also destroyed. This sometimes, though rarely, requires exotic treatment to return to health. 

In cancer, both doctors and the general public mainly think of the cancer cells as “enemies” who must be destroyed! And yet, it seems that people may often have mutations that could lead to cancer but don’t. There are even very rare cases of spontaneous cures of cancer. What are some alternatives to thinking of cancer as an “enemy” that must be destroyed? 

Clearly, I don’t know of a definite answer or you would have already heard about it on the news! But let’s consider a couple alternatives. First, instead of thinking you have to “destroy” this enemy, imagine you thought of cancer cells as confused. People get confused all the time. Sometimes, we put them in jail. Sometimes we put them in mental hospitals. Sometimes, we simply teach them what they need to know. Sometimes, we do end up killing them. But it is not our approach to kill someone just because they make a mistake. So, we might seek a way to “re-educate” cancer cells so that they “realize” that they are part of something even larger and more wonderful – the human body! How would one go about this? Using the metaphor of a confused person, we would have to understand just why they were acting confused. Then we would have to provide situations so that they could learn (or re-learn) what they needed to know in order to become a productive member of “society.” We could “remind” a liver cell that, after all, they were born to be a liver cell and they’re potentially quite good at that. We could think of cancer as cells that are misinformed or have amnesia about their true nature. 

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We might also think along a different line. We could try to discover the best possible environment for these cancer cells to thrive – and then offer it to them somewhere else. For example, perhaps they really prefer an extremely acidic environment. Say you have a skin cancer on the back of your hand that thrives in a really acidic environment. You provide a gradient of acidity next to the tumor and encourage all those acid-seeking cancer cells to migrate into a really acid tube that is next to the tumor. The farther away it gets from you, the more acidic the environment. 

You might also think of cancer cells as being rebellious. For whatever reason, they “feel” as though they are not experiencing enough of the “good life” being part of your body so they “take matters into their own hands” and begin leading a rebellion of cells out to steal the food supply and multiply in an unrestrained fashion. A solution might be to “convince” them that they are better off retaining their initial function rather than becoming a lawless gang of cells. I am not sure what the best metaphor for thinking about infection or cancer is, but surely it is worth imagining others rather than sticking to just one based on war as a metaphor. 

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Business is a Sport. 

I treat this at greater length in The Winning Weekend Warrior, but the basic idea is simple. Yes, there are many strategies and tactics from sports that apply to business. But there is at least one crucial difference. Sports are designed to be difficult. They typically require skill and training if you are to do well. The parameters of the sport are fixed at any given time though they will vary somewhat over time. In golf, for instance, the hole is small and the distances are great. Though the rules of golf are complex, there is one over-arching principle. If it would help you to do something, doing that thing is penalized!

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If golf were a business, many CEO’s would nonetheless approach it as a sport. They would try to hire the “best people” – that is, people with a proven track record of good golfing. They would then proceed to offer incentives for people to do even better. If people shot a high score repeatedly, they would be fired. Eventually, such a CEO might get good results by having skilled people who are well motivated and well trained. But why? If putting a golf ball in the hole is what gained you profit, simply shorten the fairways, widen the hole, and eliminate the hazards! Of course, as a sport this would make golf no challenge and no fun. Everyone could win. But having everyone win is exactly what you should do to maximize profit. Yet many in management are so taken with the “business is a sport” metaphor that they do not change the situation. Some do “change he game” and with spectacular results. Google and Amazon come to mind. 

Politics is War. 

If you belong to a political party and believe the “other” party or parties are enemies to be destroyed, you are failing to understand the dialectic value that parties with different views can bring to complex situations. Life is a balanced dance between strict replication and structure on the one hand, and variation, exploration, and diversity on the other hand. A species who had no replication of structure from one generation to the next would die off. But so too would a species that had no variation because the slightest change in environment would also cause the species to die off. So it is with human cultures. If every generation had to start from scratch in determining what was edible, how to get along, how to avoid predators and so on, humans would have died out long ago. On the other hand, if a culture were completely unable to evolve and change, they would also die out. Typically, “conservative” parties want to keep things the same for longer and “liberal” parties want to change things more quickly. There is no obvious answer here. But what is vital is that members of each party see that there is value in the debate; in the dialogue; in the dialectic. 

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The other party is not an enemy; it is the balance so that you can do what you do best. If you are predisposed toward exploration, science, new experiences, and so on, great! On the other hand, if you are more predisposed toward tradition and loyalty and repetition, great! If you did not have the people of the opposite predisposition, you would have to incorporate all that within yourself. Conservatives are what allows liberals to be liberal. And liberals are what allows conservatives to be conservatives. A huge problem arises, as it has recently in American politics, when one party decides they are just “right” all on their own and “victory” is worth lying, cheating, and stealing to get it. This is not unique to contemporary America of course. History is littered with administrations who were so convinced that they were “right” that they wanted to destroy all opposition. It has always ended badly. Politics is not war. (Though the failure of politics often leads to war.)

UX is All that Matters vs. UX Does Not Matter. Development is war!

As you might guess, neither of these extreme positions is useful. Price matters. Time to market matters. Marketing matters. Having good sales people matters. Having excellent service matters. Having a good user experience matters. It all matters. Depending on the situation, various factors matter relatively more or less. 

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(Original artwork by Pierce Morgan)

As in the case of political ideologies, it is just fine for UX folks to push for the resources to understand users more deeply; to test interaction paradigms more thoroughly; to collect and observe from more and more users under a wider variety of circumstances. Similarly, while you are pushing for all that and doing your best to argue your case, remember that the other people who are pushing for tighter deadlines, and more superficial testing are not evil; they simply have different perspectives, payoffs, and responsibilities. Naturally, I hope the developers and financial people do not view UX folks as simply “roadblocks” to getting the product out quickly and cheaply either. 

The first half of 2018, I tried to catalog many of the “best practices” in collaboration and teamwork. You might find some of these useful if you are embroiled in “UX wars.” You and your colleagues from other disciplines might also find it useful to consider that it is worth taking the time to affirm your common purpose and common ground. You are meant to work together. Development is not war! 

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Metaphors We Live By and Die By

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Metaphors We Live By and Die By

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I love metaphors.I always have. I admit it. I think youngster does, at least until they are exposed to poetry in English class. I was lucky to have an awesome English teacher who deepened rather than destroyed my natural love of metaphors. There are plenty in my own poems.  but in this post, I am not focusing on metaphors for poetry so much as metaphors that we use in our thinking. Metaphors impact the way we approach situations at work and at home. I was influenced to see this by two main sources. First, Lakoff & Johnson’s book, Metaphors we Live By  was first published in 1980. This book greatly influenced, among other things, our IBM Research team’s study of human-computer interaction. At this point in the history of human-computer interaction and user experience, researchers and practitioners began to explore how various metaphors (e.g.,desktop, trash can, windows, drag and drop) could be used to help users understand the capabilities of computers and how to invoke them. (See, e.g., Carroll, J. and Thomas, J.C. (1982). Metaphor and the cognitive representation of computer systems. IEEE Transactions on Man, Systems, and Cybernetics., SMC-12 (2), pp. 107-116). 

Consider the error messages “Illegal Syntax” and “User Error.” They both put the responsibility for an undesirable state of affairs squarely on the shoulders of the user. “Hey you! User! You did something dastardly! You used illegal syntax.”

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Generally, the term “illegal” implies that you did something that was against the law. It usually implies you did something unethical too. Gerry Weinberg, one of the pioneers of UX/HCI (a keynote speaker at the Gaithersburg Conference),  pointed out that the “legal” syntax of languages often has arbitrary restrictions. It might be more accurate to have an error message that says, “Our programmers were unable to take the time to allow dates to be entered in European or Chinese format. Please enter dates as MM/DD/YYYY as in 08/04/1961 for August 4th, 1961.” This longer message tells the user what was “wrong” with their input and how to correct it as well as conveying the very real truth that the limitation is with the software, not with the user. Similarly, what is called “User Error” actually comes up as a message when the user does something that seemed reasonable to the user and would most likely be interpretable by another human being but was not anticipated or could not be dealt with by the programming team. Suppose it said instead, “Software error. We did not anticipate this kind of input so we can’t deal with it.” Or, in many cases, a more honest message might be: “Software error. We knew people would want to do this, but we didn’t have budget to program properly.”  

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 At the same time I was thinking about metaphors and Human Factors in Computing Systems, I was also conducting therapy as a Fellow at the Institute for Rational Living. I was learning and supervising cognitive behavioral therapy under the direction of Albert Ellis. Here I observed how people used metaphors to help make sense of their lives and make decisions about their lives. For example, as pointed out by Lakoff & Johnson, people often viewed romantic love as a sickness! It is also common to view romantic love as a journey over which you have little or no control. It is understandable why it sometimes feels that way, but such a metaphor is not empowering. It does little to lead you to make reasonable decisions about love or about those whom you love. Think instead of love as a collaborative work of art. 

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The “Love is a collaborative work of art” metaphor encourages you to realize that you must collaborate with your partner to make a relationship work over time. You can’t really collaborate very well unless you communicate. It also encourages you to realize that work is involved. It encourages you to realize that it is a creative endeavor. While you can certainly learn from the successes and mistakes of others, in the end, your relationship is unique. It will take creativity to make your relationship work. It puts the responsibility for the relationship on you and your partner, not on forces beyond your control. 

It isn’t only love about which people often use inappropriate metaphors. For example, when it comes to overcoming addiction, overeating, under-exercising, people often use sin as their over-arching metaphor. “I was bad last night. I had two pieces of pumpkin pie.” “I was horrible all week. I had those evil donuts every morning.” The metaphor that “eating is evil” is inaccurate. After all, you have to eat to live. Furthermore, that metaphor doesn’t lead to any solutions except to try harder to be “good.” Worse than that, if often subverts a person’s efforts. “I didn’t want to have any ice cream but I did. Oh, well, the night is blown. I may as well eat the whole quart.” (Now that I’ve sinned, I may as well enjoy it). Weight is best thought of in purely physical terms. If you ingest more calories than you burn you will gain weight. If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. That’s it! That’s all there is. Making it about good and evil does not help and, in my experience, is completely counter-productive. 

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Speaking of counter-productive metaphors, I have been annoyed and concerned for decades that the media have largely (though not wholly) reported on political matters as they report on sporting events. During election season, you will hear relatively little about the candidates, their positions, their backgrounds or their ethics. You will hear a lot about strategy and where they stand in the polls. Often you will literally hear nothing more than a sound bite per day about major candidates. Then, pundits will unendingly discuss and debate how this or that sound bite will work or not work with various voter groups. No matter how outrageous, unethical, or disgusting a candidate’s behavior is, the media will spend most of their coverage on how it will affect the “score.”

Metaphors have consequences. 

We now find ourselves in an extremely weird position, at least in America. One candidate has “won” the “World Series” of elections (American Presidency). Many of the people who voted for him think of themselves as his “fans” and “supporters.” They believe their guy “won” so they want to continue to support “their team.” After all, imagine that you are a Yankees fan and the Yankees won the World Series. You get to have bragging rights until the next World Series. If one of the Yankees turns out to be a tax evader, you’re still going to be a Yankees fan. If one of the Yankee pitchers turns out to have cheated during the games, say, by putting illegal substances on the baseball, you’ll still be a Yankees fan. Another Yankee might be a wife beater. But, hey, they won the World Series! So you’re still a loyal Yankees fan. 

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Here’s the thing. It doesn’t make a whole lot of real difference in your life who won the World Series. It doesn’t matter materially to your kids. It doesn’t matter materially to your grandkids. Don’t get me wrong. It will make some difference in how you feel. You and your whole family might be happy they won. But it won’t make the air you breathe cleaner or dirtier. It won’t make the water you and your family drink pure or contaminated with carcinogenic toxins. It won’t make or break the economy. Having the Yankees or Boston Red Sox win the World Series will have zero impact on global climate change. Even if Chicago wins the World Series, it won’t start an atomic war. If the Phillies win, it won’t mean you will lose your health care. Stay loyal to those Yankees! Or to the Green Bay Packers. Or to Manchester United. Or to the India National Cricket Team. Or whoever your favorite team is. Why not? 

Politics though, regardless of how it is reported by the news media, is vastly and vitally different from a sporting event!  Who is in office can have a huge influence on what happens in the lives of people. In the case of an American President, who is in office can have a huge influence on the lives of people around the globe, not only today and tomorrow, but also for decades to come. 

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Collectively, those Americans who voted (about 137.5 million) in the last Presidential election hired someone for a job. (Actually, nearly 63 million voted to hire him while nearly 66 million voted to hire Hilary Clinton). POTUS is an important job and how that person does that job impacts your life in a very real way. It impacts the lives of your friends and your family. It impacts the lives of people around the world. Every action that person takes, every speech they give, every statement they tweet has an impact. You or I might send out a nasty tweet about people. But our nasty tweets are very unlikely to cause someone to construct and send pipe bombs to the people we tweeted about. We have hired someone to do a very important job. It isn’t a sporting event.

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Imagine instead of rooting for your favorite sports team that you hired a guy to take care of your kids. To you, that is certainly an important job. After you hire him, you discover that the person you hired lied to get the job. He lies to you every single day. He steals from you! Not only that. Every day, he trashes your house a little more. He has parties at your house and the people he invites include known criminals. Worst of all, this guy you hired is a child molester! That’s obviously a nightmare scenario. What makes it worse is that many people knew that the person you hired was a crook and a child molester. 

What do you do when there is a mountain of evidence that he is lying to you; stealing from you; trashing your house; consorting with known criminals; and is a child molester? 

Do you keep him on to watch your kids anyway out of a sense of loyalty? 

Do you feel so guilty about hiring him that you insist to all your friends and relatives that this guy is doing a great job? (Because, after all, that’s what he keeps saying). 

Do you keep him on until he is convicted in a court of law? 

Of course you don’t! You fire him immediately. 

You have the power to choose the metaphors you use. You don’t have to stick with a metaphor just because it was the first one to occur to you. 

Metaphors have consequences. Whether in your personal life, work life, or political life, choose your metaphors with care. Don’t latch on to one simply because it’s the one the mainstream media discovered rakes in the most ad revenue.

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 Representation 

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 Representation 

“Choose your words carefully.” We have all heard that advice. It’s good advice and choosing a good representation is key to solving problems, but the general point extends beyond choosing words. Take a few moments now to divide DCXXXV by IX without translating to Arabic numerals. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

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Choosing the “best” representation for a problem depends on the nature of the problem but it also depends on your own skills and experience with a representation. If you have memorized the multiplication tables up to 99 x 99 (rather than only up to 9 x 9), you can use different techniques for multiplication than if you haven’t. If you already know how to program in FORTRAN and LISP, some algorithms will be easier to program in FORTRAN and some will be easier in LISP. But if the only language you know is R, then under most circumstances, it will be far faster and less error prone to use R than to learn another language and then use that one. 

Every representation of a real-world situation will necessarily make some features of the situation obvious and other features will be hidden or less obvious. An elevator, for instance, might say, “Capacity: 12 people.” If all of the people are wildly obese, then 12 may not fit into the elevator. The capacity sign is assuming that the people will be somewhat average. If there are 12 adults in the elevator, and one of them is holding a newborn, it won’t make much difference. If there are only 10 people in the elevator and each one has a large suitcase full of gold bullion, there may be room for all 10 to stand, but the total weight of the cargo may exceed the capacity of the elevators, snap the cable, and plummet you to your death. Remember that the next time you get on an elevator filled with folks who have suitcases of gold bullion. 

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Every representation has its limitations. If you’re familiar with a field, you will hopefully learn to recognize what those limitations are. In a famous book, The Mythical Man-Month, (still worth reading, though it should be called “Person-Month”), Fred Brooks shows that such a metric as “man-month” or “person-month” has serious limitations in planning and executing software projects. Some have paraphrased his message this way: “You can’t use nine women to make one baby in one month.” According to Brooks, who had plenty of experience as a high level manager of large software projects, when management finds that a software project is behind schedule (which is quite often), there are two major reactions of management: 1) require more measurements, reports, and presentations to management and 2) hire more people. 

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The issue with reaction 1 is partly that it takes time away from the managers and workers in order to make those measurements, prepare those reports and presentations, and to attend the meetings. Beyond that, it puts the focus of attention on those measurements (representations) which will only be at best, modestly correlated with what the real problems are. If, for instance, requirements keep changing, or there are incompatibilities in the requirements, measuring lines of code produced is not only useless in itself; it keeps people from tackling the hard problem. A solution to a hard problem might be telling the client that there can be no more changes in requirements. A solution to a hard problem might be resolving the incompatibility in requirements. One can count lines of code pretty easily. One can count other things like “function points” with a little more work but it doesn’t require getting into the “hard” and people-oriented problems that really need to be solved. 

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Reaction 2 – adding more people – will put more “resources” on the project. You can easily count the people. You can easily count the hours they work. The problem is that a person-hour is, like the elevator capacity, an over-simplified metric. In fact, it is a much worse representation of the resources on the project than the elevator metric. First of all, studies show that even among programmers with equal training, there are often ten-fold differences in productivity. The second, and even bigger issue is that even really productive programmers who are added late to a project will have to learn about the project: the people, the requirements, and the code base. If these new people are stolen from an existing project, that will also put that project in jeopardy as well. If they are instead new hires, then in addition to all the technical knowledge that they need to come up to speed on, they will also have to learn all sorts of administrivia that will take time and brain space away from the project: how to commute to work, where the cafeteria is, how to fill out time cards. Most likely, they’ll have to attend ethics training, and diversity training, and safety training. Even worse, a lot of the knowledge that they will need to become a productive member of the team mainly exists in the heads of the very people who are doing the programming now! This means that the busiest, most productive people on the project will have to take time away from programming to spend it instead on answering questions that the new people will have. 

Even this understated the real impact however. Let’s look at that phrase I just used, “…will have to take time away from programming to spend it instead…” What hidden assumption about representation is buried in this phrase? It gets the reader to think along the lines that time is additive. If I am deeply involved in programming and I get an IM or phone call from a newbie asking me a question about the project, it might take an hour to answer. Does that mean I have subtracted an hour from my own productive programming? No. It’s probably much worse than that. Why? Because I am not a machine, but a human being. It will cost me much more than the hour to get back to the same state of flow that I was in when I was interrupted. 

I was involved for a time in looking at programmer productivity for high performance computing  using various tools and the X programming language. One of the people I interviewed put it this way: “My manager calls for an hour meeting for 10 am when I am in the middle of a complex [parallel programming] problem. He thinks he’s taken an hour of my time. For him it’s an hour long meeting. But for me, he’s really destroyed the whole morning.”  

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These representational issues apply far beyond software development. For example, in the USA and in many other countries, we look at GDP as a measure of the economic productivity of the country. But how does this metric shape — or distort — our view of productivity? If a parent stays home with small children and they both love the time together, and the parent uses that time to help grow a loving, educated, productive citizen, it adds to the well-being of the country as well as that child and that parent and that family. But GDP? Nada. If instead, the parent paid money to put the child in mediocre day care, that would add to the GDP. 

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Similarly, if I go to the grocery and buy a hard, tasteless tomato for myself, I will pay for the growing of that tomato, advertising it, shipping it, warehousing it, displaying it, and for the genetic alterations so that the tomato, while tasteless, is easy to transport without spoiling. Yay me! I have added to the GDP. But if I go to a friend’s house and taste a wonderful tomato, ask for some seeds or a cutting and grow my own heirloom tomato, watering it lovingly with rainwater, weeding around it, and fertilizing it with compost, I have added zero to the GDP. Yet, the tomato will give me more pleasure, not less, than the croquet balls they have in the store. 

Representation is a good thing! Humans use symbolic thinking to do many things that would be difficult or impossible without these kinds of representations. But we must remember the limitations and not confuse reality with our representations of reality. 

This is not a new phenomenon. In the American Revolutionary War, high ranking British military officers could not understand why the British navy “refused” to navigate their warships up the Bronx River to attack revolutionary positions upriver. If you’ve ever seen the Bronx River, you’ll realize why immediately. But the maps that the British brass looked at showed a navigable river! 

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Yes, we need to use representation in our thinking. But we also need to think about our representations. You cannot assume that the one that is customarily used is “right” in all circumstances. People of different backgrounds and cultures will often use somewhat different representations of a problem or situation. (This is one of the advantages of diversity). However you do it, it’s worth questioning whether the way you are representing a situation or problem is optimal, or even adequate, for the problem at hand. 

Suppose you are measuring “number of user errors” that users make while using a prototype text editor. You move from prototype A which averaged 10 user errors per half hour test to prototype B which only averages 5 user errors per half hour. Yay! You’ve cut user errors in half! But what if the errors you eliminated were all fairly trivial; e.g., people with version A couldn’t figure out how to number their footnotes with Roman numerals instead of Arabic. In version B, that error, along with other trivial errors, was eliminated. But one of the new errors causes the system to crash and all the user’s work to be lost. Have you really made progress? 

All errors are not alike. All dollars are not alike. All people are not alike. Not even all tomatoes are equivalent. We constantly over-simplify and yet in some cases it’s necessary in order to deal with complexity. I don’t see how all such errors can be avoided. But it’s crucial for everyone, but especially for managers and executives, to be open to the cases where the representation that is being used has become counter-productive rather than “doubling down” on such errors. Finding and fixing errors of representation are generally harder to diagnose and fix than errors made with a representation. That is all the more reason why everyone, but especially leaders, must be open to changing the way issues are represented. 

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It is no accident that dictatorships generally result in nations wherein people have both less material wealth and less enjoyment and freedom. A dictator typically refuses to admit mistakes and fix them even if it means murdering someone to make the problem appear to go away. Ultimately, this process ruins any organization. Such a person need not be a national leader. They can be a company manager, a coach, a corporate executive, or a parent. Everyone makes errors, including errors of representation. But a reasonable person is open to fixing it when new information becomes available. You can be like that too. 

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Regression to the Mean

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Regression to the Mean

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While working full-time at IBM Research, I was also a Fellow at the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy in Manhattan. I wrote an article in 1978 for their Journal, Rational Living.  The title was: “Why Do I Self-Down? Because I’m an Idiot?” Indeed, many people put themselves down and it is not helpful. I hypothesized several different causes for this kind of self-slamming behavior. Most of these causes you could probably figure out on your own. But one in particular is subtle and non-intuitive. It is based on a statistical phenomenon which few people know about despite the fact that it is extremely pervasive. This phenomenon is called “Regression to the Mean.” 

I want to define this term by explaining some examples. Imagine that you have a new soft drink which contains a combination of herbs that will purportedly make you smarter; e.g., gingko and bacopa. (There is some evidence these may actually work but let’s assume that they don’t or that your tea has too little to be effective). Here’s what you do to “prove” that it works anyway. You give an IQ test to 10,000 people and choose the 50 who score the lowest on the test and have them drink your tea for the next six months. At the end of that time, you give those 50 people an IQ test again and — Voila! The average (or mean) of the IQ scores has almost certainly gone up. Yay! It works! 

Or does it? One of your competitors is not too happy about your study. In fact, they aren’t even happy you put your tea on the market. They decide to prove that your tea is not only ineffective but that it makes people less smart. So what do they do? They give an IQ test to 10,000 people and they pick the 50 who score the highest. They have them drink your tea for six months and at the end of that time, they have them take another IQ test. In this case, the mean (average) score is lower than the first time! Ouch! They say your tea causes brain damage! 

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How can the same tea make people smarter and make them dumber? In this case, it does neither. What is going on? Here’s what is going on. When you measure something, there is always some error. Whether you are measuring your weight, your height, your blood pressure, or your IQ, the measurement is never exactly perfect. Your weight may vary slightly because of atmospheric pressure and more so because of water retention. If you take an IQ test, your score will partly reflect how well you do on such tests in general, but it will partly depend on luck. You may have felt particularly good that day, or a few of the questions might have been on topics you just heard about on TV the day before, or you may have made some lucky guesses. Or, you may have been unlucky on a particular day. You might have had a cold or misread one of the questions or forgotten your morning coffee. On any given day, some people will be a little lucky and some people will be a little unlucky. These things tend to balance out in a large group and if you tested all 10,000 people after six months, then assuming the tea has no real effect, no effect will be shown in the data. 

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However, if you select the very best scores, you are partly picking smart people, of course, but you are also picking the people who were lucky that day. When you test just those people six months later, they will generally be just as smart but there is no reason to suppose they will be lucky again. Some will be lucky both times, most will not be particularly lucky or unlucky and a few will be unlucky. The average score will be lower. Conversely, if you choose the lowest scoring people, you will partly be choosing people who don’t do well on such tests in general. But you will also be choosing people who were tired, sick, guessed wrong or were otherwise unlucky that day. When you retest, those people will still tend to be people who do poorly on such tests, but they won’t necessarily all be unlucky again. Some will. Some won’t. On average, the scores will be higher than they were the first time. 

The phenomenon of “Regression to the Mean” was first noted by Francis Galton in the 1880’s. Tversky and Kahneman, so far as I know, were the first to note that this phenomenon could easily cause managers, coaches, and parents to end up being unnecessarily negative. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are learning to hit tennis serve. Although you will likely improve in general, over time, there will also be a lot of variation in your performance. Sometimes, everything will work well together and you’ll hit an excellent serve, one that is above your average level. At first, the coach’s natural inclination will be to praise this by saying, “Wow! Great serve!” or something like that. Unfortunately, your next serve, due to regression to the mean is very likely not to be quite as good as that one was. Your coach’s praising behavior was thereby punished. On the other hand, if you hit a particularly poor serve for your level, your coach might say, “Oh, come on. You can do better than that!” If they choose to say such things only on your very worst performances, then, due to regression to the mean, your next serve is likely to be somewhat better. In other words, their slamming you will be rewarded by your doing better the next time. The same general tendencies will apply to managers and parents as well.  

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The same applies to you! Whatever you are doing, your performance will vary somewhat over time. If you begin by praising yourself internally whenever you hit a particularly great shot, your next shot will most likely be not so great. On the other hand, if you put yourself down when you find your performance particularly bad, “You idiot! How could you miss that!?” Your next shot will tend to be somewhat better. Over time, your positive self-talk will tend to be punished and your negative self-talk will tend to be rewarded. 

It’s no wonder then that many managers, coaches, and parents end up saying very negative things about their charges. It’s also no wonder that many people say (or more likely think) many more negative things about themselves than they say positive things.  

Is there anything to be done? First, simply be aware of this phenomenon. That is step one. If you are running a study, you need to be careful in selecting. The study about your tea could be fixed by re-testing the entire population; by selecting a random group of 50 rather than the best or worst; or by using a control group who did not drink tea but was retested anyway. When praising or punishing someone’s performance, do not bother with trying to reward or punish outcomes based on one trial. That’s actually a pretty poor way to coach yourself or others in any case. See The Winning Weekend Warrior for more on this. Also watch out for this when you read about various conclusions of other studies. Did the investigators select either the “best” or the “worst” for their study? If they did such a selection, did they talk about the bias this introduces? Did they have a control group? 

Meanwhile, treat your mistakes as opportunities to learn, not as opportunities to put yourself down. There’s really no point in self-downing. But if you do find yourself self-downing, remember that it’s common; relax; smile at this human foible; then quit doing it. At least give yourself a break for the holidays. 

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Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 1974, 185, 1124-1131. 

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Theory of Mind

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Theory of Mind. 

“Theory of Mind” refers to the ability of most humans to imagine, at least to a degree, what another person is likely to do based on their knowledge of what the other person knows. Here is a simple test used to determine whether someone has this ability. 

You are the “subject” being tested and you are in a room with me (the “experimenter”). Your friend Vlad is in the room too. In full view of you and Vlad, I hide a giant luscious chocolate chip cookie (such as you might purchase from Panera, but won’t because you realize that if you buy it there is no way you aren’t going to eat it!). I “hide” this cookie in the top drawer of my desk. Now, Vlad walks out of the room. He’s well out of sight. Now, I take the cookie out of my drawer, and using great self-control, do not eat the cookie myself but instead put it in my pocket. 

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Now, I turn to you and ask, “When Vlad comes back, where will he look for the cookie?” If you are 2, 3, or 4 years old, you would say, “In your pocket!” I rephrase this a few times to make sure you understand that I am not asking you where the cookie actually is but where Vlad will search. You again insist that Vlad will look in my pocket. At such a young age, kids do not distinguish their state of knowledge from someone else’s. Most adults will have no problem with this task. They have a “theory of mind” that allows them to know that their state of knowledge is not the same as Vlad’s. Some adults diagnosed with autism will have trouble with this task however.

An interesting question arises as to whether other animals have a “theory of mind.” It is not a settled question. My purpose here however, is to explain what the term means and show how it’s useful for humans. Despite the fact that most adult humans have the capacity to do “theory of mind” tasks and that it is useful, they nonetheless often fail to evoke their capacity.

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A closely related concept is “empathy.” Empathy generally refers to being able to feel what another person feels emotionally. I see the distinction as one of perspective or emphasis rather than two different entities. These two concepts (empathy and Theory of Mind) are explored in much greater detail in the “Myths of the Veritas” series in this blog. For now, suffice it to say that you might empathize with another person by relating to their facial expressions, posture, or regarding what they say and how they say it. You might see a picture of a small, terrified four-year old alone in a cage and know that they are terrified without having any verified knowledge or detailed knowledge of what they “know” or “don’t know.” They might or might not know any English. And you might or might not know their language or even what their language is. But you can tell that they are in great distress just by looking at them. If you actually feel what it is like to be a small child separated from your parents and being trapped in a cage in a strange place, that is generally called “empathy.” 

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If I were to ask you what kind of pleading this four year old is likely to make in court, if you have  the capacity for a “Theory of Mind,” you might well ask, “Well…I don’t know. What do they know about courts or proceedings? What could they know? They are only four years old.”  You’d be correct, of course, to question whether it was meaningful to have a four year old acting for themselves in court. This would be particularly true if they had to plead in a court where they were unfamiliar with the culture, the venue, and the language. But even a really smart four year old who had been brought up in America and spoke excellent English would not be capable of really understanding the consequences. This kind of understanding demonstrates a deeper theory of mind than simply knowing that because a specific piece of information is in your own head doesn’t mean it’s in someone else’s head. 

In The Myths of the Veritas, people are given a range of tasks that involve what is called empathy. To me, although one can draw a conceptual distinction between understanding another person’s knowledge and feeling an echo of another person’s feelings, when it comes to many practical situations, it’s more important to put oneself in another person’s shoes, than to correctly label the process. 

Writers must often deal with multi-level theories of mind. There is what the writer knows about the events that are being written about in a story. There are the spheres of knowledge that various characters have. Most often, different characters have critically different states of knowledge. What the reader knows is yet again different. And all of these spheres of knowledge change throughout the course of the narrative. 

In The Myths of the Veritas, for example, the author knows throughout that ALT-R is making POND MUD put his face in the mud purely to humiliate him and keep power over him. ALT-R knows it as well. Over time, most readers will come to the same conclusion but not necessarily at exactly the same place in the narrative. Most of the Veritas tribe initially know nothing about this incident, but She-Of-Many-Paths intuits it and eventually many of the Veritas come to understand it. At first POND MUD is fairly certain ALT-R saved his life by making him do it. But as he observes and interacts with ALT-R and others, he begins to doubt that and then goes about actively seeking information from others that would help clarify ALT-R’s true motives. 

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In Othello, the writer knows from the beginning that Iago is an evil sociopath. The audience knows quite early that Iago is an evil sociopath and learns more about his schemes through speeches that Iago delivers directly to the audience. Othello himself, on the other hand, has his state of “knowledge” manipulated by Iago. The audience knows that Othello is being duped by Iago but Othello himself does not know of it or of Desdemona’s innocence when he murders her though at that point, the writer, the audience, Desdemona, Iago, Cassio and other characters all know that Desdemona is innocent. We have some sympathy for Othello because we realize that he is operating on false information. 

Let’s turn to a happier piece of fiction, The Gift of the Magi by O’Henry (William Sydney Porter). In this story, a couple with financial struggles each gives up their most prized possession to buy a gift for the other. The functional value of the gifts is destroyed by what they gave up. Della knows that Jim’s most prized possession is his gold watch so she sells her beautiful hair to get money to buy him a watch chain. Jim knows that Della’s most prized possession is her beautiful hair so he sells his watch in order to buy her some jeweled combs for her hair. Of course, the real gifts they give are not diminished by their being no longer functional. The real gift is the gift of love. The author obviously knows all this from the beginning. Readers “catch on” to what is happening at various points in the narrative, but Jim and Della are the last to learn of the full irony. 

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Sadly, many people seem not to bother trying to understand the situation and capabilities of others. In one of the simplest cases, people are apparently unable to understand how very basic physical properties of the universe result in various people having various states of knowledge. On the tennis court, in a “friendly game,” the players themselves make the calls and keep track of the score. The server is supposed to announce the score before every serve. Some people actually “announce” the score by saying it so softly that only they can hear it! 

In other cases, novice drivers will follow a semi truck so closely that the truck drive cannot see the car behind them. Another trick of drivers is to turn their blinkers on – but only as they begin making the turn. In another post, I explain how one person’s driving behavior in “stop and go traffic” can influence many other people’s. In particular, if you leave a large space between your car and the one in front of you, it makes it easier for many people around you to drive more smoothly because they have a much more complete view of what is happening in front of them. 

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A more subtle failure in “Theory of Mind” occurs when a person assumes that everyone is motivated in the same way that they are. For example, a person may be so partisan that they will always defend and promote people in their own political party no matter how heinous the crimes of that person. This is an error, but a concomitant error is that such people assume everyone who doesn’t defend the criminal, and certainly anyone who actively resists such a crooked politician is doing so from a purely partisan perspective because that’s what they would do. Sociopaths who cheat may assume that everyone would cheat and the only reason they don’t cheat is because those non-cheaters are not smart enough to get away with it. 

When teamwork is operating at a high level, whether it’s hockey, soccer, tennis doubles, basketball, families, or design teams, people exhibit excellent “Theory of Mind” skills. How are yours? Have you experienced such high functioning teams? How can you improve your skills at “Theory of Mind”? 

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