Google Expert – Noun? Not Verb? – Second Run At It

A few days ago I wrote the post Google Expert – Noun? Verb? – First Run At It and today I am taking the second run at it. The reason I am doing it is because the article I intended to write was not what I ended-up writing. This is often the case when I get into writing about something I think is important. My brain goes off and does its own thing and my consciousness is left trying to stitch together the outcomes of the various processes the initial thought triggered. It would be silly to be upset about this because it is only a brain after all and it cannot help itself from acting like one.

Recall that I said:

… the 2019 Kentucky Derby that was run on May 4 saw the first disqualification in the history of the race. The horse that crossed the line first was later disqualified because it seemed to change its path and was deemed to have impeded another horse. A lot of people are commenting about it. I don’t know anything about horse racing so I don’t know if the DQ is appropriate. Google experts.

Assuming, because I am, using the term “google experts” as a noun. It’s intended to be slightly ironic or maybe a little sarcastic. Google-experts are a relatively new thing, but there have always been people who are full of crap. The only time there were not people who were full of crap is when there were no people. It’s hard to hold this against people because our large brain makes a lot of things possible that are not desirable.

The main trait of the brain that doesn’t entirely work for people is their need for certainty. It doesn’t work because the world has always been so insanely complicated that the chances of us being certain about most things is never going to be 100%. We can exclude the pure sciences from this – there is a right answer to most of the things in science, even the things that we do not know yet – leaving everything else. Math, for example, is a realm that deals with certainty in terms of there being a correct answer to questions and a near infinite number of incorrect answers. You are certainly going to be wrong when you say that 4 times 4 is 19 or 367, just as you will be certain that you are correct when you say that 4 times 4 is 16. And given that most things in science are governed by mathematical formulas, these things have a right and wrong answer. When we learn and follow the proper processes we can be certain that the answers we generate will be correct.

About almost all other things, certainty isn’t something that most of us will ever have a legitimate claim to. But that isn’t how we feel about them. Putting aside your keen ability to manage and coordinate a diverse and complex collection of actions taken by the people you work with, or your impressive ability to analyze spread sheets to uncover trends in complex global markets, or your legendary ability to write a tune and lyrics that capture the ubiquitous suffering that is being alive – or whatever expertise you have in your area of specialization – you are not an expert in anything else. In most other things, you have the average level of ability, which is to say almost none because most people do not know anything about most things. The Pareto distribution more or less dictates that 20% of the people have 80% of the resources. This leaves everyone else sharing the remaining 20%. The statistical analysis is based on things for which there is a finite quantity; money for example, 80% of the worlds population share 20% of the worlds money.

In a way, but not a big way, Pareto does not apply to things for which there is an infinite supply. Fluency in language is an example of a non-finite resource. Most people can learn how to communicate in their native language at an average level. Some people will have much higher skill than the average, while others will have much less skill than the average, but for those who are in the middle 60%, they will get along fine. Trouble may only be experienced with the lower 10% meaning the upper 90% will have no functional challenges that are the consequence of their language fluency. BUT the upper 20% will be exceptional while the lower 20% will have noticeably less skill. With common or shared traits, the curve isn’t as steep at the upper levels and is more steep towards the bottom levels.

BUT the capacity to develop language fluency is something that is possessed by almost all people and it only requires exposure and practice to cultivate. In this regard, it is like any other skill, but it differs from most other learned skills in so far as it is a critical survival skill. It is much closer to walking in this regard – given the poor survival outcomes when compared to those who can walk and talk – than it is to bowling. In fact, bowling is something that most people could learn and become very good at. All they would need is exposure and practice. But the distribution of bowling skill maps very well onto the traditional Pareto curve and not at all onto the normal distribution curve.

This is where most people go off course, and it may not be their fault. We are taught the normal distribution curve in school because it is useful for helping people gain a basic level of understanding about statistic. Everyone knows someone who is smarter than them and they know someone who is less intelligent than them. It is very easy to understand the nature of the bell curve with a high bump in the middle, covering 68 percent of the population, and decreasing tails on either side to account for decreasing number of people who are very smart or very low in intelligence. And it works for helping people to understand the distribution of abilities. The problem is that it doesn’t reflect much else and is actually very misleading from a visual stand point. It deals with distribution and NOT quantities. The fact that there is a bump in the middle is an indication that there are a lot of people in the middle. It doesn’t indicate a quantity of something OTHER than people. To see the actual quantity you need to look at the x axis to see the IQ level of 100 as the score that corresponds to the maximum peak of the curve. 100 is the mean score or the statistical average score for EVERYONE in the population.

It’s fine, but it is misleading because it creates the impression, or more accurately, it does nothing to disabuse or prevent the creation of the impression that the mean is a large quantity of something. The truth is, a mean level of anything probably isn’t going to be very much of that thing.

Let’s assume that the global money supply added together equals 100 and that there are 100 people in the world. The average amount of money is 1 unit. Okay, so long as everyone has the average amount of money, everything will be fine because no one will be falling behind. BUT this isn’t how money is distributed. If we assume that money has a normal distribution, the person who is in the middle will have an average amount of money, 1 unit, while each person above them will have more than one unit and each person below them will have less than one unit. This should immediately cause your brain to throw an error. Because it doesn’t make sense and your brain knows that. What is described here isn’t what happens.

We have to assume that every person who is above the middle has at least a little bit more than the person who is immediately below them – if person 50 has 1 unit, person 51 has 1 unit + some amount, person 52 has what person 51 has + some amount, etc…. The same thing goes the other way but instead of adding some amount, it is subtracted. This makes narrative sense, but it isn’t what happens in practice. Instead, the person at the top has almost infinitely more money than the person at the bottom, while the person at the middle has an average amount of money. Again, the brain throws an error. What does it mean to have an average amount of money?

You probably do not have any idea of what it means because the chance that you have ever seen someone who is making the average amount of money is very low. If you are reading this, you are much more likely to be in the top 20% in terms of income than you are to be at the 50th percentile simply because the global supply of money was never evenly distributed. A select group of countries have always had more money that others and there is a very good chance that if you are reading this, you live in one of those countries.

This is why the median value is more frequently used when talking about the distribution of things. The median value is the quantity possessed by the person who is in the very middle. In the above example, it would be the amount of money held by the person who was ranked in the 50th position.

There are benefits to using the median instead of the mean, and there are costs. The benefit is that it can tell a story that feels closer to reality. The mean income for a human being is estimated to be around $2 a day while the median income was estimated to be around $3000 in 2013. There is a big difference here, but when you think about it for a minute or two, it makes sense that the two numbers are so different. Very specific income data is only recorded for countries that have the ability to record it. The 2013 median income value was not the actual income of the person who was at the very middle position, it was the value for the person who was at the middle position for the data that was available. And this brings us to the main cost of using the median instead of the mean. It has the effect of turning down the volume on the outliers – those with almost everything and those with almost nothing. While this maps closer to our lived experience, factoring out these groups of people blunts the impact of reality and it has a profoundly negative effect on our ability to understand statistics.

Everyone has an idea of what a person with no money looks like and can imagine what their life is like. For those who own a computer or a phone, and have access to the Internet, the image generated by the thoughts of an insolvent person or someone who is flat broke is very different from the lived experience of someone who has a median income. But when we look the other way, we have less clarity about what it would be like to live as the richest person in the world. We’re able to visualize an abundance of nice things, luxury trips, the best quality food and clothing, and the ability to buy anything that they want, but the difference between the imagined life they live and the life we live is about the quantity and quality of things – we have a car that we share with our family, they have a number of cars that are much nicer and paid for. We have a modest house or an apartment, they have many giant houses and penthouse apartments that take-up the top three floors of some skyscraper in New York, London, Hong Kong, etc…. We eat a high quality steak occasionally to celebrate something, they eat $400 steak because it’s dinner. But in general, we do not go hungry or thirsty, cold, scared, without shelter or experience any real concern about surviving tomorrow.

At the lower end there is suffering and turmoil, at the upper end there is a glorified version of the life experience of the median person. This does not give us any indication of what having 150 billion dollars is actually like, or of what having that quantity of money means when compared to the average amount of money – either the mean or the median.

The same applies to things like IQ. The smartest person I know personal has an IQ of around 145. This places them in the top 0.25 percent of the population, meaning that they are the one person in about 400 who has this level of intellectual horse power. But it is very hard to tell that they are bright by looking at them, and it can take a couple of minutes to figure it out when talking to them. The best way I can describe the experience of engaging them is that they thing faster than most other people. They have the same capacity for input, they just generate the output at a speed which is noticeably different. And the nature of their output can have a much wider reach or large foot print than the output of a closer to average person. It is as though more mental circuits are activated and these allow them to draw from a lot more information or experiences. Generally though, they arrive at the same conclusion as I would, they just get there faster. However, they are capable of doing things with their brain that I am not able to do. They have a data processing capability that falls outside of my scope, and this is the most common narrative observation that people have about the extremely intelligent.

What does this have to do with google-experts? Well, considering that we are blind to the upper and lower 20 percent and have such a poor understanding of statistics that we do not have a realistic idea of what average anything is like, we are painfully unaware of just how little we know about most things. Assuming that we have an average level of knowledge about some subject, our natural tendency will be to assume that this ability places us at the 50th percentile. This is fine and may even be accurate. But doing so has an automatic and unconscious consequence of mapping this ability to IQ distribution and then making assumptions based off of what we know or believe we know about the abilities of a person with an IQ of 100.

The consequence of doing this is an unwarranted boosting of our perceived ability because we have a difficult time noticing the actual differences between someone with an IQ of 100, 120, 140 or 160. We see that they do different things for a living, but most of their life is about the same as everyone else’s. 100 might be an electrician or carpenter, 120 might be a nurse or pharmacist, 140 might be a physician, and 160 might be a theoretical physicist or surgeon. These are very different jobs and each requires a very different set of skills. But at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, each will drive a car to their destination, each will eat food, and each will need shelter and a sense of security in order to sleep soundly.

I am not suggesting that 160 is better than 100 nor am I suggesting that either one of these people is more valuable than the other. Frankly there are so many people on the planet that the average value of any individual person is nothing to brag about. Each one of us matter to a few people and to the rest of the population we are complete non-factors.

What I am suggesting is that there is a big difference between the average level of something and the level possessed by someone in the top 20%. And this difference NEEDS to be considered and kept in mind when we engage the world in a way that involves people or relies on our abilities in an area that we are not an expert. Specifically we need to generate an awareness of what “average” means in terms of skill or ability, and we then need to allow this awareness to influence our thinking and actions.

Our brain does not do well with uncertainty so it is coded to manufacture certainty and default to this state. When there is nothing on the line, this tendency only harms ourselves because it prevents us from seeking out actual knowledge and wisdom that would allow us to be both certain and correct. But when there is something on the line, or when our actions will impact other people, our false certainty and general misunderstanding of what average is causes a lot of suffering for ourselves and other people. When we KNOW but are wrong, we push forward with things that cause ripples of consequence that will very often make our futures less certain and more difficult.

This is the root of the problem with google-experts. We can do an Internet search and instantly have access to a wealth of information about a subject that, if consumed and remembered in its entirety, would make us an expert in the field. But consuming all of it would take a very long time, and remembering it all is impossible. The search results that google brings forth represents the potential for future expertise but it does not represent instant expertise.

And this is why things are so messed up. Our need for certainty and the brains ability to manufacture it based on very little information, when paired with a google search, results in an instant and unjustified sense that we are an expert in something that we didn’t know existed moments ago. Whatever innate error correction might exist is consciously suppressed by the knowledge that we started off with an average level of ability and have just added to it by reading a couple of search results. All of this is true, but it is based off of a profound misunderstanding of what “average” means.

Average knowledge about a subject that we don’t have expertise in, or didn’t know existed a few minutes ago, is about the same quantity as the average amount of money a human being has. When it comes to reviewing the correctness of a legal decision handed down by the courts, I, like most people, have an average level of knowledge about the legal system and am therefore painfully unqualified to comment on the accuracy of the judgement. I have around 1 unit of legal knowledge and while I can comment on my feelings, I cannot comment on the legal rationale of the decision. I may not like the ruling and be certain that it is wrong, and when I google search it, this certainty will allow me to select the evidence that supports my position while ignoring the evidence the proves that my feeling isn’t appropriate because the ruling was legally sound.

I have watched the horse race and was hit by a couple of things. The first is that the sport looks really dangerous. I was shocked that the horse that appears to have been cut off didn’t get its leg broken by the horse that was in front of it. The second thing was that the ground was really wet, there were pools of water and I started to wonder if horses care about that type of thing? Do horses choose dry ground over wet or wet ground over puddles? The third thing was that I had no idea if what happened was right or wrong in terms of the rules. It was this final thing that lingered. I was forced to accept that I have, at best, an average level of knowledge about the rules of horse racing and that left me completely unqualified to vet the accuracy of the decision the officials made about the disqualification.

Of course, no main-stream news story goes without a google search and once I read what the rules are I had to conclude that I still had no idea about the accuracy of the decision that was made. Making a call like that is hard. It’s complicated because noticing exactly what is happening on the video isn’t something that I am capable of doing given that I have never seen anything like it before.

Once I realized that I didn’t know and wasn’t ever going to know, I started to read the opinions of experts and was quickly faced with a dilemma, I don’t have any idea who the experts are. There were opinions, but nothing to indicate who should be listened to and who was a google-expert like me. The only thing I was able to use as an indication that someone wasn’t an expert was if they used the decision as a way to piggy-back in a different issue. Animal rights advocates used it as a way to talk about the dangers of horse racing, advocates for the elimination of instant replay used it as a way to say that the fastest horse didn’t win, and those with an axe to grind about anything used it as a segue to talk about their issue.

People are entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts. There is no such thing as alternative facts, there are facts and there are opinions. The Internet gives us the ability to uncover the facts, but they are hidden among an almost unending sea of opinions, screeds, and lies told to sell people something. It’s entirely possible that someone could take the time to wade through all of the stuff that is available and come out the other end legitimately informed and in possession of an expert level of knowledge. But like the cultivating of any skill to a high level, this process will take time and a deliberate effort to consume information that doesn’t match the belief we are constantly updating and becoming certain of. The world is very complicated and being certain about anything is a matter of facts, not a matter of feeling.

Google Expert – Noun? Not Verb? – First Run At It

Or maybe the subtitle “how to change the meaning of anything using punctuation” would be more clear. Check this out:

“Google expert.” Google-expert. Google “expert.” Google expert.

The same two words in the same order can have two distinct meanings depending on punctuation and how it is used. Without the quotation marks or the hyphen the meaning is unclear – it means each of the distinct meanings, just not both at the same time. It probably doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things because so long as there are some follow-up sentences to add context people will be able to figure out what is going on. Except when speed is required, and when dealing with a specific type of thinker.

For example, the 2019 Kentucky Derby that was run on May 4 saw the first disqualification in the history of the race. The horse that crossed the line first was later disqualified because it seemed to change its path and was deemed to have impeded another horse. A lot of people are commenting about it. I don’t know anything about horse racing so I don’t know if the DQ is appropriate. Google experts.

What do I mean by google experts? There is probably enough context there to be 70% sure that I am being ironic and implying that most people who are commenting are as qualified as I am when it comes to horse racing. That leaves about 25% to assume that I am inviting you to do an Internet search to find out what horse racing experts have to say about the race and to allow you to formulate a more educated opinion. The remaining 5% is to cover the possibility that I didn’t proof read this post and failed to notice the sentence fragment at the end of the above paragraph.

This is not a case in which speed or specific types of thinkers will be impacted by my lack of punctuation. The world does not depend on you understanding exactly what I mean in that situation. In fact, the lack of clarity is actually what I’m getting at here. BUT it is lousy writing in the paragraph nonetheless. Ideally I should go back and correct it to say “Google experts.” By the same token, I would be incorrect to go back and update the post title to “”Google Experts” – Noun, Not Verb” because that would be redundant given that the second half of the sentence directly says what part of speech I am making reference to. While not technically incorrect, it’s just, well, redundant.

Being very specific is important when there isn’t much time to process and respond to the information that is being communicated. Consider the use of “affirmative” vs. “right” used by air traffic controllers and pilots. Both mean “correct” but only one of them means a direction. It’s a small thing right now, but in an emergency situation it could become the only thing.

Being specific is very important for “run with it” (RWI) or “primed” thinkers. In the event that you have never really thought much about it, people have a number of different thinking processes, some of which are more dominant than others. Many people will be able to loop back and correct their thinking path when they realize that they made an error while interpreting an ambiguous sentence. A little time will be wasted with having to do this, but if there is no time crunch it won’t matter very much. However, those who’s thinking is disproportionately RWI may never loop back and correct their path. Their interpretation triggered unconscious thought processes and the thinking has begun. It will not be influenced by the intended meaning until it runs its course. This could take a while because of the recursive nature of unconscious mental processes – whatever output is generated becomes input and is reprocessed. With someone who is dominated by this type of thinking, a lack of clarity can cause them to waste a lot of effort on stuff that doesn’t matter or was never intended to have been said.

“Primed” thinkers are very similar to RWI thinkers but differ in terms of just how quickly thoughts take hold. While a RWI thinker is off to the races and will not be back until they reach the end the thought stream, the primed thinkers are less overcome by their mental experiences. Unconsciously a lot is happening – various mental processes will fire-up, but these are less recursive in nature and can be looked at as being clerical or akin to database access commands. While a RWI thinker will go a great distance, a primed thinker will activate memories, knowledge, the neural networks that contain the process code for mental functions, and anything else that the brain brings to mind as a result of the idea or notion they have been primed with.

In the above example about the Kentucky Derby, if we assume that I was inviting people to google the horse racing experts in order to find out what the entire thing is all about, the 25% probability interpretation, a RWI thinker who makes the 70% probability call, that “google experts” was my intended meaning, a whole lot can be triggered and happen before it reaches an end and they return to learn that it was an invitation to seek out actual expertise and not a critical statement that anyone can scream their opinion on-line. The primed thinker may be more likely to loop back quickly and receive the corrected meaning BUT their brain will be filled with a lot of stuff that has to do with the false experts and the misrepresentation of knowledge as wisdom and the over confidence that is associated with the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Of course, it would be my fault if this was how they ran with it and I would be the person who was responsible for bringing them back or correcting the misinformation that I put out. People cannot be held accountable for how they interpret unclear communication and if my lack of clarity was responsible for an unnecessary mental journey, the sole responsibility of cleaning it up fall onto me. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is immoral for us to waste other peoples time and mental resources. They have a very limited bandwidth so when we are asking for a portion of it, we need to be very careful with how we put it to use.

I accept that this may seem like an over the top assessment of the value of other peoples intellectual horsepower. And it might be more than just an over the top assessment. But when you take a moment to consider what your time is worth and the value you place on having agency over your own brain, it may not seem so far fetched to suggest that we need to take great care when making requests for others people brain power. The truth is that thinking is so much more than what is consciously going on in someones brain. That piece is actually the smallest part of it – maybe 10 percent. Most of the thinking a person does happens below the level of awareness, meaning that it can be next to impossible to identify when our actions have actually triggered their brain to do something and when we are the direct cause of the usurping of someone else’s bandwidth. It will never be a bad idea to be mindful to the reality that our actions have an obvious and a covert impact of the brain of other people. When we engage others carefully and with a genuine intent to be helpful and only as disruptive as absolutely necessary, we will eliminate a lot of the wasted mental effort for all of the people we engage.

Under certain circumstances some useful information can be revealed by analyzing how a person interprets ambiguous statements, but this would only be done when absolutely necessary and with as much consent as it is possible to get. The nature of conversations means that things will happen that are not planned, that mistakes will be made and information will be revealed without anyone setting out to get it or agreeing to allow it to be mined. That’s fine, so long as the lessons are learned and the knowledge is applied to the conversations moving forward. It is essential that this approach is never used as a form of manipulation or to get other people to do what you want them to do. While both of these things are possible, the people you do them to will learn to not trust you and to avoid spending time with you. As they should, because manipulating people is a pretty underhanded thing to do.

Clarity is very important, which is a big reason why I prefer to read the things that I want to learn as opposed to watch them. Words and punctuation work together to eliminate some of the possible meanings and to more clearly indicate the intended meaning. This works for me because I have a tendency towards running with it when I get an interpretation and can very easily find myself five or ten minutes older and having invested a lot of mental energy onto something that didn’t matter, wasn’t said, or wasn’t what was intended to be communicated. Reading can limit a lot of these potential tangents and allow me to remain more focused on the subject at hand.

When I want to float away and give someone else influence over what my brain does from moment to moment, I’ll listen to Podcasts or YouTube videos. This is a lot less constrained and very often results in more creative thinking. And that is great, but only when I have the time to deal with it. Otherwise it can be a real pain in the side, and a very inefficient use of the finite amount of mental energy and capacity that I have access to.

Speaking, writing, or communicating clearly can be a little more challenging, but in the long run it allows you to make much better use of other peoples brain power. You’ll get the best quality information from them, and you will get to a solution as quickly as possible. Even if it doesn’t have this impact on others, it’s worth the effort. It will streamline your own thinking and narrow the scope of what your brain does because it will limit the input to a single thing – as opposed to having to decode the ambiguity before considering a single thing or divide the mental effort giving both potential meanings an equal share.

Pay For The Right To Pay Less And Other-such Nonsense

A few years ago I went into a supplement shop to buy some gels – these are individual wrapped single servings of complex sugar in a gel form. People take them when they are running or riding a bike (or doing anything that makes eating / digestion challenging or impossible). What I found interesting was the price of them. There were two prices, the regular price and the card member price. What was odd and completely transparent was that the card member price was the same as the regular price at SportChek. The card at the supplement shop cost $10 or $20 and it entitled me to pay the same price as I would have to pay elsewhere. I left after buying nothing. I haven’t bought anything from them since they created this program because I don’t like feeling like an idiot.

I recently remembered this when I went to Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) to buy shoes and was asked for my membership card. The whole process of becoming a member / owner at / of MEC was strange when I first shopped there but the cost of the card was low enough for me to not care, given that their prices are really good and have never been mistreated by them. That card paid for itself with the first thing I bought there.

Recently another one of these type of programs has come to my attention. Again it is supplements, but this time it’s a little more complicated and uses cognitive biases to capture people and their money.

It starts off with a specific course that you take and need to renew every year. The initial course costs a little more than $1000. You have a few options to renew your certification and can take on-line courses. Depending upon which ones you take, it’ll cost between $450 – $725 for two courses which will count towards your renewal. It isn’t clear what you do the following year but it looks like you will at some point need to take the initial course again; that looks like another $1000.

If you are successful at completing the course, you will then be allowed to sell their supplement line. They will give you the wholesale price on these supplement. If you fail to renew your certification, you will no longer get the wholesale price. I don’t know what the wholesale price is, but their retail price is fairly high and they sell vitamin E (supplementing with vitamin E has been linked to increased risk of prostate cancer and it probably shouldn’t be sold) so I question their intentions of selling any supplements.

What sucks about this last example is that it plays on the sunk cost fallacy – those spending the money to get the certification are disinclined to give it up given that they have spend a lot of money on it. It also creates the illusion of a great value because if you get the certification you get to save a bunch of money on the supplements that they recommend during the course, compared to the retail price of these supplements.

I won’t speak about the course because I haven’t taken it. Those I know who have, do come out of it with a sense of having gained profound insight about what makes people gain / drop body fat. And they do come out very enthusiastic about the quality of the supplements that they can now sell and how they can prescribe these supplements to help people achieve their fitness and physique goals. So long as they workout regularly, intensely and specifically, and eat moderate amounts of high quality food, including lots of vegetables.

Maybe I don’t understand the draw here, but it seems like the course is a gateway to capturing resellers of their supplements, which will help people achieve their goals so long as they do all the things that evidence based science has repeatedly demonstrates helps people drop body fat and improve muscle tone.

It’s one heck of a business model! Get people to pay you to convince them that you have the solution and then let them sell this solution for you, over and over and over again to the people they convinced to buy it.

Why Your Life Is Fine

In my post about the Dunning–Kruger effect I spoke about the inverted bell curve shape between the amount of knowledge someone has about a subject and their level of confidence in the subject – those who are experts and those who know very little about a subject will display the same level of confidence about the subject while those in the middle will show low levels of confidence in the subject matter.

Your life is fine because you rely on shortcuts to make a call as to who to listen to. One of these short cuts is the level of confidence a person displays. ‎As a consequence you’ll trust an amateur as much as an expert. Welcome to you fine life.

Dunning Krueger applies equally to yourself though. Often times you’ll believe you know an enormous amount about a subject when you know practically nothing. The end result is that you feel confident cherry picking information that confirms your point of view while you close off to anything that doesn’t match your world view. This tendency is called a confirmation bias and given that wealth of information that is easily available on-line, it is hard not to find opinions, studies and data that support any point of view.

Think about it this way:

When you listen to someone talk about a subject, you’ll approach it from one of three places. The first is that the person is correct ‎because what they are saying matches what you know / believe to be true. The second is that they are wrong because what they are saying doesn’t match what you know. The final way is from a place of curiosity about what they are saying, why they are saying it and how did they end up believing it. They aren’t wrong, they are correct in what they are saying not because they agree with you but because human beings are completely logical even if one of their assumptions is inaccurate.

Few people spontaneously approach things from a place of genuine curiosity; they either nod and think “yeah, thats how it is” or shake their head and say “what a load of nonsense.” Both approaches are a flawed, dangerous, and hurting the quality of your life.

Consider what would happen if you were to, as soon as you hear something and feel agreement or disagreement, immediately go to the other side and come-up with reasons as to why you disagree or agree. It’ll force you to think about things in a very different way, to try on some unusual thoughts and feelings and help you find out ways to be right about something that is wrong. After you come-up with 3 or 4 possible reasons, allow your mind to return to its initial state and then move forward as you deem appropriate. The goal is not necessarily to change your point of view, it is to take a moment to get away from knowing and open-up to other possibilities.

When you do this, you’ll find yourself becoming more curious about what is actually going on and very soon realize that you’ve started to learn more about something you thought you knew a lot about. This is going to take your fine life and make it so much better!

Cognitive Biases – Some Reasons Why Nothing Changes

With the sheer amount of sensory information that bombards us at every moment it is not surprising that our brains have evolved to use shortcut to help filter the important information out of the noise. These shortcut serve us well, but the automatic nature of them can present us with challenges when we neglect information or make a decision to act without getting more information.

Cognitive Biases by Drake Baer and Gus Lubin on Business Insider gives a list of automatic ways of thinking that can lead to errors in thought. The list is important, not just because it outlines some of the ways that the human brain can deflect accurate perceptions, but because of their nature, we cannot automatically notice them occurring. This is critical. You can combat them using direct conscious effort, but this will take effort and may never become automatic.

Consider the Conservatism bias, “where people believe prior evidence more than new evidence or information that has emerged,” for a moment. This bias may be active within you right now as you look through the list of the cognitive biases and think that they are false and don’t exist. The fact of the matter is, they are real, and over time your brain may begin to accept them as true and alter your understanding of the world to accommodate for their existence. But for the time being, before your brain assimilates this new information, everything you know about how the brain works says that it is a logical information processing machine that puts the same weight on all information it receives.

Why someone would feel this way makes sense. If we are still alive, everything we did before contributed to our survival. Anything new that we learn may not contribute to our survival so we resist it. Why accept untested information when the consequences can be so dire?

Okay, a few thousand years ago. But given that our brain hasn’t evolved much in the last 20000 years, it is no wonder that these cognitive biases exist. Our brain is the product of an environment that ceased to exist eons ago but is still running the same software with the same intention and now both need to be updated.

Read the list and notice some of the instances in your life were these cognitive biases has played a role in your thinking. You may not commit all of them and are likely very good at preventing some of them from happening. That’s great, it means that we are not powerless to their impact. We can, with conscious effort and practice, become aware of them, observe them happen and reprocess the impacted moment bias free. Taking this moment before acting will make your life better, and much closer to what you want it to be.

“The Fog Of War” – Eleven Lessons Applied To Personal Training

Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ during the escalation of the war in Vietnam. He had an interesting life with many jobs, but as he got older he opened-up a lot about Vietnam. He had no lust for war and had reservations about it while he was in a position of influence. When he left office in 1968 he had already suggested that the sunk cost of the Vietnam war was too high and that the US should transition their direct fighting role to the South Vietnamese. These suggestions were not accepted and the fighting continued.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 documentary film about Robert McNamara. What is interesting is that he admitted to his mistakes and expressed that he had done some very wrong things while Secretary Of Defense. He learned from his actions and tried to move forward applying these lessons.

From the movie, the 11 lessons are:

  1. Empathize with your enemy
  2. Rationality will not save us
  3. There’s something beyond one’s self
  4. Maximize efficiency
  5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
  6. Get the data
  7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
  8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
  9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
  10. Never say never
  11. You can’t change human nature

When I read the list, I considered how these lessons would apply to personal training. This is possible if we regard war as a partnership between two countries / groups to fight; in a fashion similar to the partnership between client and trainer. Maybe it’s more of a thought exercise and that I have defined the players in a way that allows me to apply the lessons to something that they were never intended to cover. And that is fine, what matters is if something is useful, not that it is right.

1) If a client wants to change, you’ll benefit from gaining an understanding about how they are suffering and what is motivating them to change their course. While you may not know what it is like to be in chronic pain or how unsatisfying seeing your reflection can be, a moment or two spend considering these things can soften the most dogmatic trainer enough to actually connect with a client to establish the trust needed to guide them towards a more fulfilling path.

2) Burning more calories than we consume is, for the most part, how people lower their body weight. That is a logical and rational thought. People know this yet it does not help them achieve their fat loss goals. Their choices are based on something less rational so the solution is likely going to flow out of uncovering or addressing the illogical something that is making life unfold as it is.

3) Often, people will only change for other people. Having enough energy to be an fantastic mother is one of the biggest motivators for a women to begin to exercise and improve her cardiovascular health. Being told that you are 6 months away dying from a heart attack moves people to make the changes they need to in order to enjoy eventually seeing their children graduate, get married and start their own families.

4) Busy people do not have ample time to do all the things that are needed to quickly achieve optimal health. If they are able to create 3 hours a week to dedicate to to improving it, these three hours need to pack in as much of the most effective movements as possible. Stretching, while important, is not going to improve strength or boost energy as much as lifting weights and increasing movement intensity to elevate heart rate. In this case, there is an enormous opportunity cost to stretching or low intensity exercise.

5) If your goal represents a 5% change in your body / fitness, you need to dedicate a small amount of time to it. If the goal is a 50% change, proportionately more effort is needed. Both the client and the trainer will spend a lot more time and effort at the beginning that then will towards the end simply because there is less to achieve towards the end.

6) Great trainers, like great people, make great decisions when they have all the information they need to make a great decision. Without the information to guide your decisions, your solutions will be incomplete and maybe even geared towards solving a problem that doesn’t exist. Listening without judgment is critical for collecting the highest quality data. You’ll remain open to what is actually occurring and this will shape your counsel.

7) Cognitive biases impact our perceptions in such a way that we see what we believe we see and we find the evidence we need in order to support our beliefs.
The things we see may not exist at all and the real world is likely somewhat different from how we perceive the real world. Effective personal trainers are always aware that they have the capacity to see things that aren’t there and to believe things that are not true. These keep the trainer open to the world and bring them closer to seeing the truth as it unfolds in front of them.

8) Progress is a state of constant change and each change may impact the next action. Effective coaches re-examine their clients course regularly and select different actions when they are called for. They know the reason for doing particular things and will not continue coaching something if a better action exists.

9) Doing good work for your clients is going to mean that you engage the worst parts of their behavior. You may not track in completely on their reason for over eating chips and under eating veggies, but to do the good work as a trainer, you are going to have to engage your clients evil and self destructive actions.

10) Everything that is possible IS possible and will come to be with the correct strategy and enough hard work. If the possible remains impossible it is simply because the strategy is incorrect or the work has not been done. “Never” is something that is said at the end of life or in the event that someone quits working towards their goal.

11) You cannot change human nature and as a personal trainer, you need to be aware of your clients nature. In some cases you can just tell someone to stop eating candy and they will stop eating candy – it’s not these peoples nature to eat candy. Regardless, you will need to work with a persons nature to help move them towards their goal. Someone who loves eating candy will probably always love to eat candy so they need to be allowed to eat candy every now and then because their nature will be expressed if repressed for too long, and these unplanned expressions tend to be over the top and extreme. You can work with their nature by asking them to eat good quality food 80% of the time, and have some candy once a week.

It’s probably fair to say that any good lesson can be applied somewhat to any other area in life. The Fog Of War does present some lessons and growth opportunities for personal trainers.

Interesting Stuff About Conflicts of Interest – Post Revisited

In early October 2012 I posted Interesting Stuff About Conflicts of Interest and have decided to take another run at the topic because my feelings have intensified and evolved since then.

Heather likes sales people – well, she likes listening to their pitch and she completely admits that she is open to being taken on the “what would your life be like if you owned this” ride that skilled sellers can take you on. But she doesn’t buy anything she doesn’t want to buy. She is open, but always in control. Sellers like her up until when she says “no thanks.”

I’m the opposite of it this – I hate it when people try to sell me stuff. I rarely allow myself to consider the benefits that buying their product will bring me while I am in front of the sales person. I’m on guard constantly when I shop. It can take me a long time to buy something and I rarely use the items I buy on an impulse or was “sold”. The buying (the sales) process for me is about collecting information that I will consider later.

Both approaches work, but Heather’s seems to deliver a more joyful experience than mine.

Heather is extremely strong and has a clear vision of what she needs in her life. She is able to go along with the sales process to see if the object fits her vision. Items that do, are bought, items that do not are not. It’s very simple. At her job she says “no” to a lot of vendors so she doesn’t seem to fear the consequences of saying “no” and she is already primed with the knowledge if someone is selling something they cannot be trusted to speak objectively about the negatives of that item. She buys when her mind is made up, and she ONLY buys when she wants the thing that is being sold.

I’m different here. While I’m strong and have a vision of what I want my life to be like, I need to try things on in a more reflective way. The reason I believe I am like this is because I have spent a lot of time selling in the fitness industry and am aware that effective selling can be about doing something to the other person vs. doing something for them. Be it a gym membership, personal training sessions or supplements, these items are sold the same way, on the hope of a better life or some improvement if someone ends up buying. While I was selling, I had a conflict of interest that biased my view of what was true.

Much of how I see the fitness world now is based a need for me to live with myself. Given that, as revealed in the clip of my initial post, IF I have a conflict of interest I will have a tough time being honest, in order to live with myself I need to remove the conflict of interest.

What I’ve stumbled on, through experience and conversation with my brother and Ben, is that the industry as it presently exists is incompatible with my views. Most of the people in the industry are selling something OTHER than what the industry is offering. They are selling the hope of a better life disguised as a short-cut. Regardless of their conscious or mindless intentions, very few of them are actually being honest about what they are doing. “Join this gym and you will lose weight”, “eat this supplement and you will gain muscle”, “train with me for 6 months and you’ll become a brand new person”, etc…..

Some of what they promise might actually come true, but that doesn’t make their sales pitch an honest one because most of the people who buy from them do not achieve their goals. In the fitness industry, the sellers are leaving out two very critical pieces of information that one must keep in mind when someone is attempting to sell them something:

1) The seller stands to gain from them buying. Even if the seller is a very moral person, they will lie, manipulate, pressure, etc…. to get the other person to buy their product or service (P&S). IF the seller honestly believes their (P&S) is effective and amazing, and will help the other person get what they want, can they really be blamed for playing hardball to get them to get them to buy? After all, they are acting in the other persons best interest even if the other person doesn’t see it that way. While not necessarily malice, it does imply that the seller does actually know what is best for the other person and knows with absolute certainty that their (P&S) is the best. In the fitness industry this is rarely the case.

2) The future actions of the buyer are what will determine if a (P&S) is actually helpful. In fact, the (P&S) is essentially interchangeable for any similar (P&S), equally effective or useless depending upon the actions of the buyer. The responsibility for the outcome is solely on the buyer.

Consider these for a moment.

If it is the actions of the buyer that determine the value of a sellers (P&S), can the seller really make any statement about the efficacy of what they are selling? The answer is almost always no. The fact that so many people in the fitness industry fail to recognize and mention that their P&S are useless without the consistent effort of the user makes it a dirty industry, loaded with salesmen, cheats, lairs, charlatans and the otherwise “need to be ignored”. Given this it’s easy to understand why so many gym rats dislike the personal training industry. They don’t care that the clients are using the equipment, they don’t like seeing people getting taken advantage of. The gym rats clearly understand that the individual works hard to get the results and that no mentor, coach, trainer or paid companion will ever do the work from them.

How I Have Been Wrong

There is this thing people do that used to annoy me but that I now use as a vetting tool and that is a persons ability to admit that they were wrong. Regardless of their motivation, if someone isn’t able to say that they were wrong they are not a scientist, so their inflated opinion of what they know is tainted by an unmentioned emotional need and biased by something that isn’t an objective truth or reality.

I have been wrong a lot, even if it was well intentioned and based on everything that I knew at the time. And it is important to be wrong and to admit it because only the divine and the foolish do not change.

Here is a list of some of the ways that I have been wrong and changed over the last 15 years in the realm of the fitness industry:

Believing that nutrition is more important than food. This mistake, like a number of the ones I have made while in the fitness industry, was based on the need to make statements that sounded correct, were thought provoking, and that were sticky. But it is nonsense. Human beings NEED to eat food to get nutrients, they cannot thrive consuming the nutrients alone. Whole food is a natural concoction of 1000’s of chemicals that work in a synergistic way inside the body. When these chemicals are taken in one at a time, they have a different impact on the body and there is no certainty that this is going to be a health promoting.

Believing that the program is more important than consistency. I used to believe a lot of the hype and I would dispense this advice as though it was scientific fact. The fact that my clients were getting good results I interpreted as proof that the programing was effective. But over time I started to notice that the clients of some other trainers who programed using the same methods were not experiencing the same results. Furthermore, I noticed that clients who were using extraordinarily simple programs were experiencing great results. What I had missed was the fact that doing small things consistently will generate better results than a perfectly crafted program that is done occasionally.

Believing that by creating an emotional response a transformation has occurred. This one is false, completely false. While there may be times when an emotional response indicates a readiness for change or that a person has started their transformation, setting out to make a client cry is not helpful and will usually permanently damage the relationship. This is not to say that there is no useful information revealed when a client has a spontaneous and organic emotional response, there is just very little useful information to be gained by setting out to create an emotional response. It’s a sales tool that is used to breakdown defenses so someone can sell their services. It’s unforgivable and anyone who sets out to do it is trying to help their own bottom line and doesn’t care about the well-being of the person they are trying to take money from.

Believing that EVERYONE should workout and become more healthy. Morally I struggled with this one for a while. I believe that everyone is entitled to live an amazing life, rich in health and vitality BUT they must choose to live this life. Any coercion or pressure that forces them to choose it will usually result in more suffering as they fail to achieve success and feel worse than they would have had they not tried. I am always enthusiastic and possibility driven with anyone who is suffering the effects of poor health choices, but I’m only at their service when they choose to transform their life. Everyone CAN be more healthy but people shouldn’t be pressured into it.

Believing that what gurus said was more useful than what I knew. Within the fitness industry the gurus have a field day selling their wisdom to anyone who is looking for a shortcut. These people in turn make money dispensing this wisdom to the people they convinced would benefit from it. The problem with believing the gurus is that they rarely have any scientific basis for supporting their claims, and given that they have a financial motive for stating anything, there is a conflict of interest that motivates them to lie. Their well of wisdom in poisoned and unless science supports their claims, you shouldn’t buy into them. After 15 years in the industry, the formula for success is very simple, consistent intense work through a full range of motion, moderate amounts of good quality food (mostly vegetables), adequate rest and recovery, and a positive outlook on life in general. This isn’t flashy and it won’t make me millions of dollars, but it works for everyone and it is based on science.

About Science and Research In The Field of Fitness

Interesting read by Helen Kollias via Dr. John Berardi’s web site.

It is mostly about the relationship between eating breakfast and changing levels of body fat. But it is so much more!

The thrust of the article is that researchers have a conflict of interest and will observe what they want to observe, report what they want to report, leave-out what they want to leave-out and put forward conclusions that reflect their bias. Regarding eating breakfast and reducing body fat levels – the findings have more to do with overall behavior and very little to do with breakfast alone; if someone begins to eat a good quality breakfast, they tend to change other behaviors so they become more inline with how they start their day.

A few weeks ago they posted an article about nutrient timing and how workout shakes make no direct long term difference to the results people get. Supplements can, however, play a role in changing behavior (in much the same way starting to eat a good quality breakfast can/does). Anyone who makes a claim that a supplement will do anything more than good quality food can is either deliberately lying, blinded by a conflict of interest or clueless. The role of supplements is to supplement a good diet so their use in some instances is helpful but never a substitute to one.

If you are, however, looking for a shortcut to better health and willfully accept someones recommendation that buying supplements from them will provide you with this shortcut be aware of two things:first, you are making them money, which is their role in the interaction and two, in the long run the shortcut is actually to eat moderate amounts of good quality food, mostly vegetables, get moderate amounts of safe exercise, keep life in perspective and get sufficient amounts of rest / recovery.

While the truth isn’t sexy, it is the truth REGARDLESS of how biased the loudest point of view may be.

Sunk Cost – Another Way The Past Influences Your Future

Sunk cost is regarded as the amount of money / resources that have already been spend / invested into something that cannot be recouped. These costs have already been incurred regardless of the outcome.

For example, spending $5000 digging a hole in the back yard for a swimming pool. Regardless of how you proceed after the hole has been dug, you cannot get the $5000 back; filling in the hole will not return the money. Another example is working on a relationship – you can spend 6 months going to therapy in an effort to mend things with no guarantee that you’ll both grow old together.

The issue with sunk costs is that they can bias perspective and effect decision making because we can tend to place a higher value on past actions vs. future actions. A number of studies have shown that people become more certain about their decisions after they make them – those who bet on a sporting event will immediately become more confident that their desired outcome will be the eventual outcome once they place their wager.

The reality is very different. While the betting odds can change as a result of more people betting on an outcome, and while those people will become more certain about the outcome, NOTHING about the outcome has changed. The team that was going to win is still going to win. The actions of those outside of the system will have no impact on the actions inside the system.

To put is another way, what is the eventual outcome is going to be the outcome regardless of any sunk cost. Sinking cost into a bad decision will not make it a good decision REGARDLESS of any perceptual tendency to think that it does.

Given the human tendency to further invest in poor choice because of sunk cost, it’s easy to see how this can have a detrimental impact on ones life. Alternative options will not be considered or will be viewed less favorably and resources will continue to be invested into a poor decision. What is viewed as unworkable from an external and objective point of view can be viewed as worthy of continued effort by those who are involved and subjectively engaged in the process.

How do you know when you are being impacted by sunk costs?

  • You’ll hear yourself saying or thinking “well, I’ve put this much into it already” while you have a feeling that walking away will be a waste of that effort. In this instance, you have already realized the eventual outcome but rationalizing a delay by looking at the sunk cost. Immediate action is both appropriate and needed here.
  • You have a tendency to view things in terms of win:lose and not from a perspective of what was the lesson from an experience. You don’t want to lose so you continue in a failing attempt to win. In reality both are abstract and meaningless distinctions. If you choose personal growth from an experience you will be able to move forward very quickly because you’ll view the sunk cost as the price for a powerful lesson.
  • You are fearful to consider different alternatives because of a sense of wasted time / money / resources. This is an indication that you are not being objective and open minded, a clear indication that something illogical is at play.
  • You have a scarcity view of the world and believe that you may not ever have the sunk resources again. Being loss avoidant isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you hold a view that what has been spend cannot ever be regained, you are not looking at the future accurately. The consequence is that you end-up pouring MORE resources into something that is a lost cause; this will increase the scarcity of resources making real the very thing you are trying to avoid.

There are times to stay and persevere and there are times to learn a lesson and change your course. The right thing to do is the thing that is objectively and statistically the most probable way to achieve your goal. The wrong thing to do is to avoid unpacking your reasons for staying because you believe everything would be a waste if you were to stop.

Sunk costs impair rational thinking so if you are in a situation and have spend a lot of resources on it, be mindful that your natural tendency will be to view continuing as the best course of action. It may be, but take the time to see the potential costs of continuing and to evaluate the situation for what it actually is right now vs. what it was when you made the decision to invest in it.