The Study Dude – Thinking Fast and Slow

Part II

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to critically think your way into a posh career as a professor.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

Today’s study tips are based on a reading of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. The critical thinking analysis in this book will be divided into a three part series. Welcome to part two of the Study Dude’s dissection of that ever-perplexing construct, critical thinking.

The Small Sample of the Water Cooler
Smaller samples give more extreme outcomes (Kahneman, 2011). Does that make perfect sense? Probably not at the outset, but if you see some probability in action, you will start to recognize how extremes are often found in small sample spaces. Think about having an urn filled half with red and half with white marbles. You will have a greater probability of more extreme outcomes with a smaller sample size. For instance, if you drew two marbles out of the urn, you’d have a probability of WW, RR, WR, RW with a 1/4 chance of drawing all white or 1/4 all red, instead of a combination of red and white. On the other hand, if you drew four marbles out of the urn (yielding a larger sample space), you’d have a probability of RRRR, WWWW, WRRR, WWRR, WWWR, RRRW, RRWW, RWWW, RWRR, RRWR, WRWW, WWRW, etc. with only one entry being all red and only one entry being all white, in spite of all the other possibilities available in the large sample space. Thus, the chances of drawing on the extremes (all red or all white) are much smaller for a larger sample space. If that didn’t make sense, don’t worry. The basic principle that smaller samples show more extreme outcomes is all you need to really grasp to follow along.

Believing what you hear from a small sample space is System 1 thinking (the automatic, emotional thinking); recognizing it as potentially spurious is System 2 (slow and deliberate thinking). So, how much credibility should you give the information you hear at the water cooler?

The Study Dude warns you to never listen to anything you hear at the water cooler, particularly if it is something negative about someone else. Here is why from a statistical perspective:

– Smaller samples show more extreme outcomes.
– Large samples are more precise than smaller samples, as larger samples are not as extreme or anomalous.
– The problem with the water cooler, is that anomalous or extreme behaviour can be reported, and it can spread like contagious gossip. Even if message is untrue, it can spread by association. The larger number of people passing on the gossip can make it seem representative when it is only the misrepresentation or malicious intent of the initiator.
– Lawyers will attack either the strongest arguments or the weakest arguments, not the stuff in between, as humans can undergo more bias by more extreme stories.
(Kahneman, 2011)

So, speak well of your supervisors, instructors, and fellow student?and don’t believe what you hear at the water cooler?even if the Landing, or Yahoo, or AOL, for that matter, has a lot of support for a particular negative position. My goal in life is to never utter a negative word or even harbour a negative thought toward another human being. I read these truths in the Bible (and it says the same thing in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other spiritual circles?it is just plain spiritual common sense). Plus, the more you get in the habit of looking at the positives in others, the happier you become overall?and your overall happiness level means the world to the Study Dude.

Professional Stereotypes
Kahneman (2011) uses the movie Moneyball to highlight the difference between stereotype and base rate statistics. In the movie Moneyball, it was common practice for scouts to choose players based on factors as seemingly innocuous as how chiselled their chins were or, basically, how well they “looked” the part of a top athlete. Chiselled pectorals and barn-door lateral muscles were part and parcel of what constituted an ideal prospect. Yet, in the movie, the main character decides to crunch the statistics of past performance to pick out who might be a top player?and at a lower cost to the club.

Yes, incorporating statistics?and not just relying on stereotypes?is the system 2 thinking I discussed in the previous article, which is a slow, deliberate thinking process. Just relying on stereotypes in a state of ignorance of the base rate (or statistical) foundation is system 1 thinking, which is the automatic, emotional, intuitive thinking.

The Study Dude has a (shh!) disability that started when I was doing graduate studies while working full-time. I get anxiety attacks so extreme that, when I have one, I can’t do something as simple as brush my teeth without being laden in terror. Yet, in the past, I loved to spar in martial arts, race my bicycle down the number one highway, and do hard-core exercise for up to five hours a day. I also was at my peak performance, taking advanced university mathematics exams, often finding myself in the greatest state of flow during the examination process?and often receiving the highest final mark of the entire class.

According to my performance, I should have been a prime candidate for anything dealing with intense physical activity or intellectual analytics. I was a jock and highly logical. Yet, statistically speaking, anxiety runs in my family.

Now, I avoid exams at all costs?the thought of taking a math exam comes with thoughts of actually failing due to anxiety attacks during examination?and I get frequent panic attacks whenever I get so enamoured with the thought of training again that I reattempt a daily hourly exercise routine. I fit certain stereotypes, but the statistical propensity toward anxiety was more pronounced.

Here is a breakdown of the stereotypes and base rate (statistical) assessments in action:

– When we are posed with a stereotype of a person, we will often ignore relevant statistical data that would point in a different direction.
– Professional stereotypes (the highly organized accountant, for instance) have hardly changed over time
– People will tend to substitute stereotypes instead of recognized statistical direction.
– Yet, with the absence of information, judging based on stereotypes may have its merit.
– Sometimes plausibility is substituted wrongly for probability. If something seems plausible, we might guess it to be the case, in spite of contradictory statistics.
(Kahneman, 2011)

Rewards Versus Punishment, Success, and Luck
Did you know that severely depressed adults that eat pickles three times a day show signs of improvement? Did you know that severely depressed adults who dance around in their underwear once a day also show signs of improvement? However, severely depressed adults are extreme cases, and will inevitably tend to merge closer to the mean (or average) given time (Kahneman, 2011). So no matter what they do, they will tend to show signs of improvement.

Yet, we humans seek causal explanations for everything. Kahneman (2011) looks at why highly intelligent women marry men who are less intelligent than they are. Why? It’s regression to the mean. Sometimes our causal stories can be explained straight away with a simple examination of the concept of regression to the mean.

The Study Dude had so much good luck at the outset of graduate school, including tens-of-thousands of dollars in scholarships (a SSHRC award), a silver medallion, media coverage, and a TA spot. I was lucky to the core. However, graduate studies continued on, and I found myself scrambling with full-time work to help pay for the continuation of graduate studies. I struggled to make each tuition payment on time, and, well, my GPA was shy of the 3.8 needed to get into the PhD program. A way to describe what happened to me was I very lucky with a little talent, but ended up regressing toward the mean.

– If a golfer has great luck the first day, it can be seen as luck and talent. The next day, his or her performance will likely revert more toward the mean, with a less promising day. This is just a statistical reality that will likely occur.
– It is a running view that athletes featured on Sports Illustrated will perform worse after their showcasing in the magazine. That is likely because to be featured in the magazine, they had to performing at unusually great levels, which would be naturally followed by a reversion toward the mean (less successful performance).
– Changes in performance toward the mean need no causal explanations as often enough luck plays a role, and the player will revert toward the mean.
– Our brains are geared for causal stories and don’t take too well to statistical explanations.
(Kahneman, 2011)

If there’s one thing we can take away from all this, It’s to remember that when we hear something new, we’re dealing with a small sample, and shouldn’t rely on it without double- checking. Not only will doing so keep you from making mistakes in your assignments, but will help to reinforce your knowledge. So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. Canada. Anchor Canada.