Aspiration Rules

Aspiration Rules

My last post was all about satisficing, making decisions based on alternatives that satisfy our wants and needs and that are good enough, but may not be the absolute best option. Satisficing contrasts the idea of maximizing. When we maximize, we find the best alternative from which no additional Pareto efficiencies can be gained. Maximizing is certainly a great goal in theory, but in practice, maximizing can be worse than satisficing. As Gerd Gigerenzer writes in Risk Savvy, “in an uncertain world, there is no way to find the best.” Satisficing and using aspiration rules, he argues, is the best way to make decisions and navigate our complex world.

 

“Studies indicate that people who rely on aspiration rules tend to be more optimistic and have higher self-esteem than maximizers. The latter excel in perfectionism, depression, and self-blame,” Gigerenzer writes. Aspiration rules differ from maximizing because the goal is not to find the absolute best alternative, but to find an alternative that meets basic pre-defined and reasonable criteria. Gigerenzer uses the example of buying pants in his book.  A maximizer may spend the entire day going from store to store, checking all their options, trying every pair of pants, and comparing prices at each store until they have found the absolute best pair available for the lowest cost and best fit. However, at the end of the day, they won’t truly know that they found the best option, there will always be the possibility that they missed a store or missed a deal someplace else. To contrast a maximizer, an aspirational shopper would go into a store looking for a certain style at a certain price. If they found a pair of pants that fit right and was within the right price range, then they could be satisfied and make a purchase without having to check every store and without having to wonder if they could have gotten a better deal elsewhere. They had basic aspirations that they could reasonably meet to be satisfied.

 

Maximizers set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves while those using aspiration rules are able to set more reasonable, achievable goals. This demonstrates the power and utility of satisficing. Decisions have to be made, otherwise we will be wandering around without pants as we try to find the best possible deal. We will forego opportunities to get lunch, meet up with friends, and do whatever it is we need pants to go do. This idea is not limited to pants and individuals. Businesses, institutions, and nations all have to make decisions in complex environments. Maximizing can be a path toward paralysis, toward CYA behaviors (cover your ass), and toward long-term failure. Start-ups that can satisfice and make quick business decisions and changes can unseat the giant that attempts to maximize every decision. Nations focused on maximizing every public policy decision may never actually achieve anything, leading to civil unrest and a loss of support. Institutions that can’t satisfice also fail to meet their goals and missions. Allowing ourselves and our larger institutions to set aspiration rules and satisfice, all while working to incrementally improve with each step, is a good way to actually move toward progress, even if it doesn’t feel like we are getting the best deal in any given decision.

 

The aspiration rules we use can still be high, demanding of great performance, and drive us toward excellence. Another key difference, however, between the use of aspiration rules and maximizing is that aspiration rules can be more personalized and tailored to the realistic circumstances that we find ourselves within. That means we can create SMART goals for ourselves by using aspiration rules. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals have more in common with a satisficing mentality than goals that align with maximizing strategies. Maximizing doesn’t recognize our constraints and challenges, and may leave us feeling inadequate when we don’t become president, don’t have a larger house than our neighbors, and are not a famous celebrity. Aspiration rules on the other hand can help us set goals that we can realistically achieve within reasonable timeframes, helping us grow and actually reach our goals.
External Versus Internal Goals

External Versus Internal Goals

I don’t think about it as much any more, but several years ago I was nearly obsessed with the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. I ran cross country in high school and at the time I was very motivated by winning medals, winning a state championship, and impressing my friends and family. After graduating and starting college, I was no longer on a team, but I was at the peak of my running and I was still motivated by shiny medals and bragging rights. For a long time, my motivation with running was extrinsic and I was focused more on external versus internal goals.

 

However, after I finished my undergrad and started working, got married, and eventually returned for more school, I had to re-think my motivation with running. I have asthma, so I was never quite able to be the best runner in any given race, but I was always competitive and if I got lucky I could win a race here or there. I could live up to the external goals that I set for myself. But once I started working 40 hour weeks and had to balance my time between work, a new wife, and eventually returning to school, I couldn’t run enough or be competitive enough to match those external goals. If I was going to keep running at all, my motivation had to be intrinsic, and I had to identify internal goals that could challenge me and keep me motivated. This is why a few years back my mind was constantly thinking about ideas of motivation.

 

The last few years, extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation and external versus internal  goals haven’t been on my mind as much, but thoughts about motivation and goals came back to me while reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Risk Savvy. When discussing recent increases in rates of anxiety among young people today he writes:

 

“The best explanation can be found in what young people believe is important in life: in the distinction between internal and external goals. Internal goals include becoming a mature person by strengthening one’s skills, competences, and moral values, and living a meaningful life. External goals have to do with material rewards and other people’s opinions, including high income, social approval, and good looks. People’s goals have shifted steadily since the end of World War II toward more and more extrinsic goals. Annual polls of college freshman showed that recent generations judged being well off financially as more important than developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”

 

I think that Gigerenzer’s message is a little overblown and has a little kids these days element to it, but I think the trend he identifies is generally correct, but possibly mischaracterized*. Studies have shown that our overall level of wealth or wellbeing doesn’t really mean much to us and isn’t predictive of happiness. Our expectations and a sense of improved wellbeing and opportunity is predictive of happiness. Today, young people are more connected to the world. They see more possibilities, see more ways to use and spend wealth, and have a much bigger world than children around the time of WWII. A child growing up in a small town around the 1950’s or 1960’s may have been impressed by the dentist’s house and new car, but today, a child growing up in a small town can see far more opulence than the dentist’s Mercedes. He can easily log into any social media platform and see LeBron’s mansion and Drake’s new Bugatti. It may not be that people’s goals have shifted between external or internal, but that the external goals have become far more conspicuous, expensive, and extravagant, making them all the more noteworthy and hard to reach.

 

Combine this increase in expectations of wealth and standards of living with a near constant consumer culture messaging in TV, radio, and social media advertisements, and it is not hard to imagine that external goals have become more important than internal goals as Gigerenzer notes. We are presented an image of a successful life that is full of material possessions, to the point of being unattainable. Having financial wealth, owning a large home, and having lots of toys is presented as more than just an image of success, it is in some ways presented as a morally correct way to live.

 

The problem, as I learned with running, of having external versus internal goals, is that you can’t always live up to external goals based on the ideas, skills, and thoughts of other people. No matter how hard I trained, I was simply never going to be the best runner in my city because I have asthma. On top of that, I have other constraints that are inherent to the life I live. By sticking to external goals, I would have been burnt out and defeated, likely giving up running completely. Much of the motivation and goals we set for ourselves in life are similar to the goals I had with running. We want a certain income level, a certain size house in a certain neighborhood, and a certain car to go with it all because all those things will impress other people. External goals create pressures that don’t need to exist, and can drive us to anxiety as we try to impress other people.

 

Internal goals are more realistic and can be more appropriately tailored to our actual interests, abilities, and limitations. For example, I have goals around running that are focused on health, avoiding injury, and feeling good about my physical shape. I can still have goals around running a certain mileage or a certain pace, but I try hard to calibrate those goals around my own abilities rather than the performance of my friends. Internal goals that are focused on growth and development rather than displays of wealth and social status are healthier and can actually help us achieve more than external goals that don’t align well with who we are and how we actually want to live. In the end, being able to recognize this and adjust our goals is important if we want to flourish and avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety.
*I wrote this post about a week ago, and since then have read a section of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now which further challenges Gigerenzer’s assertion that college students these days are different than college students of the post-war period. Pinker notes that studies like the ones that Gigerenzer highlights are unreliable because it is almost impossible to accurately compare different cohorts at different times. Far more people attend college today than they did during the post-war period. It is possible that even more people with intrinsic motivations for learning attend college today, but that they may be outnumbered in surveys by students with external motivations. It is possible that the increasing number of students just changed the mixture of responses, and doesn’t represent some overall change in human mindsets. Pinker presents additional challenges to these long-term comparisons which I will try to link to in a future post.
Focus on Process

Focus on Process

Recently, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview he did with Annie Duke, someone I remember from the days when my brother watched tournaments for the World Series of Poker.  A line from the interview really stood out to me and is something I think about in my life all the time, but haven’t stated as eloquently as Duke. In the interview she says, “The way to happiness is to focus on process. Then the winning becomes secondary to that. It becomes a way to keep score on how you’re doing on the process piece. And to really focus on that as opposed to focusing on the end result.”

 

I really like the way that Duke thinks about life, happiness, and process. So often in our lives we look at the end results. We ask ourselves if our house is big enough, if our car is fancy enough, if we have a good enough job, and if we took a good enough vacation this year. The problem, however, is that these are end results that we use to judge ourselves. They are lag measures, not lead measures, and as a result they only tell us how we are doing long after we have a chance to make improvements and adjust our approach. The second problem with thinking about the end results is that the end result we pick is arbitrary and in many cases our chances of achieving our desired end result are often beyond our control. There are so many random variables that can determine how successful you become and exactly where you end up. In poker, the randomness and chance within the game is part of its appeal, and sometimes whether you walk away with the most chips or with none is as much a matter of luck on a single hand as it is a matter of skill and intelligence.

 

Similarly, in Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “When one is busy and absorbed in one’s work, the very absorption affords great delight; but when one has withdrawn one’s hand from the completed masterpiece, the pleasure is not so keen.” This quote from Seneca highlights the importance of maintaining good process. We are happy when we are engaged and active in our pursuit of a goal. Achieving our goal and no longer have work to do in pursuit of our goal is actually less fulfilling than the process to obtain the goal itself.

 

When we consider the quotes from both Seneca and Duke we see how important it can be to think about our daily habits, routines, and processes. If we can focus on goals related to process then we can have something meaningful to engage with that is unlikely to disappear and leave us feeling empty once reached. For a poker player, walking away from the table with a large stack of chips is what the game appears to be all about, but it is in playing poker, discussing strategy, and focusing on one’s abilities and weaknesses that professional poker players find the most enjoyment. Those are the pieces the player can control and engage with, and if the player focuses on process, they will improve and reach their end goals to ultimately be successful in the game. Focus on the process to build success and to enjoy the path toward continued success and excellence.
The Why Behind the Drug War

The Drug War’s Goals

A book I haven’t read, that has been on a reading list of mine for a while, is Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why. While I haven’t read the book, I am familiar with Sinek’s ideas and have listened to him in several podcasts and TED talks. At the root of the book is the idea that great leaders think deeply about the why behind their actions. They understand their motivations, understand their goals, and understand how the things they do contribute to a larger picture of the world. When we start with why, we ask ourselves about purpose, about our fit for what we do, and we consider our end goals and how we can best approach the outcomes we want.

 

The global drug war, which the United States leads and forces upon smaller countries, doesn’t really have a why at its heart. In researching his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari traveled across the globe to discover and write about the impacts of the drug war on the lives of drug users in the United States, communities controlled by drug cartels in Mexico, and public policy officials from Vancouver, Canada to Portugal. Everywhere he traveled he saw lives destroyed and people left with nothing, not just due to their own drug use, but also due to the policy responses and financial drives of the governments and people confronting each other in our global drug war.

 

In the face of all the violence and destruction of the drug war, Hari asks, what is the rational for the drug war? What is the why behind the global prohibition on drugs and the global persecution of drug users and suppliers? He writes, “The United Nations says the war’s rational is to build a drug free world—we can do it! U.S. government officials agree, stressing that there is no such thing as recreational drug use. So this isn’t a war to stop addiction, like that in my family, or teenage drug use. It is a war to stop drug use among all humans, everywhere. All these prohibited chemicals need to be rounded up and removed from the earth. That is what we are fighting for.”

 

I think Hari would argue that this why is under-developed, impracticable, and unreasonable. He details animals like mongoose and elephants that do intentionally use chemicals at times to alter their states of consciousness. Humans, he explains, are not alone in using drugs, and there are some common times when animals and humans will turn to drug use. The elimination of all chemicals, Hari believes, is not a real goal that we should be working toward as a global community.

 

For some reason humans have decided that all drugs besides alcohol should be strictly prohibited. We seem to accept that alcohol can be fun, stress relieving, and enjoyable, despite the fact that it can also be addictive, harmful to health, and deadly if used inappropriately. Other drugs that might be recreational, are not given the same leniency as alcohol, and our efforts to stop anyone from ever using other drugs has created a deadly war, with rival gangs competing for product and territory, and drug users pushed out of society and shunned from basic healthcare and normal functioning human connections.

 

Hari believes that we will fail in our efforts to eradicate all drugs from the planet because the why behind the goal is so weak. The rational is built on the fear and egos of those who don’t use drugs and think of themselves as being superior to those who do. The drug war doesn’t fully consider the reality of humans, society, and animal nature to respond to hardship by altering states of consciousness. The why misses the point, so the how will never be successful.
Revealed Preference

Revealed Preference – Insights from Government, Healthcare, and Sports

I have written in the past about government budgets as seen through the eyes of people who have studied government and political science. The budget serves as a written calculation that enumerates the government’s priorities. In economics terms, we might call this revealed preference, where the government puts a dollar figure down next to the things that candidates and political leaders said was important. The dollar figure they put next to an educational program, a defense program, or towards a new Veteran’s Administration Hospital reveals just how much they actually care about that thing. If we elect a whole set of candidates who promised to improve our local school buildings, but then budget only a tiny new amount of money toward school maintenance while offering a big tax break to financial institutions, their real preferences have been revealed, and they didn’t match what was in their campaign message.

 

I wanted to present a detailed example of government budgeting and revealed preference to set up an observation that comes from Dave Chase in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call: Health Care is Stealing the American Dream. Here’s How We Take it Back. Chase was working in the healthcare industry as a revenue cycle consultant, what he describes as someone who helps hospitals with, “generating as a big a bill possible, getting it out as fast as possible, and getting paid as quickly as possible.” After the loss of a close friend, whose encounter with the healthcare system at a young age was incredibly financially costly, Chase saw behind the hospital curtain, and was shaken by the revealed preferences that he uncovered.

 

“Despite breakthrough technologies that could improve patient outcomes, that’s not what hospital wanted to buy. All they wanted were systems tuned to game every reimbursement opportunity the industry had to offer.”

 

I don’t want to say that all hospitals are evil and that hospital management only wants to maximize the money they get out of their patients at every encounter. However, Chase’s quote reveals that the goals of being a financially solvent hospital or healthcare system serving the needs of patients can be displaced by the goal of profit or increased margins. The financial side of a hospital is important – you don’t want your hospital to go under and leave people without medical care – but if the hospital is advertising itself as an organization that puts patient’s first, then its actions should support that messaging. Revealed preference shouldn’t show us that patient care and outcomes fall far behind maximizing profit.

 

Chase was so shaken by the observation in his quote that he left the healthcare field altogether. When revealed preference shows us something hypocritical about the space we are in, whether it is government, healthcare, or even sports, it creates cynicism and drives away the talented innovators who are needed for making the world and field a better place. Chase argues that the revealed preference that he uncovered, increasing hospital margins/profits, was actually damaging to the health and well-being of Americans, and not just in a financial way. If we are in a leadership position, if we are part of the team that makes decisions between the public goal and the internal goal of the organizations we are a part of, we should be asking what our actions and decisions reveal about our preferences. In healthcare, are we really just chasing the dollar, or are we trying to help people live longer and better lives? In government, are we really trying to serve people well, or are we just trying to get really good at following the rules so that we don’t get called in front of a legislative committee? In sports, are we really focused on the game and improving the experiences of athletes and fans, or are we again just maximizing the dollars we get from butts in seats and eyeballs on tvs? The bet I’m willing to make, one that I think Chase would make as well, is that our real preferences will be revealed to the people who interact with our organizations, and in the long-run, if the revealed preference is not what we advertise, people will know, and our organization will lose trust, lose customers, lose talent, and will ultimately fail.
Lead Measures

Find a Lead Measure and Drive Toward It

Cal Newport describes the difference between lead measures and lag measures in his book Deep Work. The lag measure is generally the thing we are working toward. A promotion, a book publication, and a down-payment are all lag measures. They follow our actions and are the outcome that we can measure for success or failure. Lead measures are all the smaller inputs that build toward the success or failure of the lag measure. It is lead measures that are the most useful for us when thinking about our day to day productivity and progress toward goals.

 

Having a good lag measure is important, but achieving or failing in regard to your lag measure is a downstream consequence of upstream actions. It is hard to adjust based on lag measures because the activity that produced the outcomes being measured has already happened. Cal Newport explains the advantages that lead measures have over lag measures because of this fact:

 

“Lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-terms goals.”

 

Newport explains that his personal lag measure for success as an academic is the publication of academic journal articles, and the lead measure he selected to drive toward that lag measure is hours spent in deep work. By measuring how much time he spendings in concentrated focus on work related to academic journal article publications, he ensures that he makes progress toward his publication goal, even if every single moment itself didn’t directly produce a new publication. Good lead measures provide the fundamental building blocks of the success we seek and are more within our control than our larger lag measures.

 

If you work in sales, you likely have a lag goal of a certain number of sales per quarter. A lead measure might be the number of pitches that you make per day or the number of cold calls that you make per day. If you are writing, then the number of hours spent writing is a good lead measure to back up a publication lag measure. And if you are a parent or spouse, a good lead measure might be the number of caring things you did for your spouse or child with the lag measure of having a stable family. Thinking through a reasonable lead measure will help you identify what important actions are within your control that you can do to increase the likelihood of success on your big goals. Failing to pick a lead measure leaves you aimless in your day-to-day, and can have consequences when it comes time to measure your overarching goals later.

Temporal Landmarks

My general sense the last several years is that people are starting to sour on the idea of a new year’s resolution. People that I have talked the last few years seem to be getting away from the idea of making a big change for the upcoming year, or at least if they are planning on making a change, they are not admitting it. Generally, I have been supportive of killing off the new year’s resolution tradition, but Dan Pink’s book When challenged my thoughts on the usefulness of such resolutions.

 

I have had the mindset that people shouldn’t wait for a specific date to try to make a change in their life. I am also skeptical of trying to implement a resolution on January first, since it is immediately after the Christmas holiday in the United States and many people likely still have family hanging around, still have extra pie in the fridge, and its a cold and dark time of year. Trying to start a big change during this time, when the weather is demoralizing and you are not on track with a routine schedule, seems like a poor idea to me. As a result, at least as long back as I can really remember, I have never made any substantial new year’s resolution and I have not been one to encourage people to adopt a resolution.

 

The reality, however, is that people find it helpful to make a change when there is something that can delineate a new starting line for them. Pink describes it this way, “The first day of the year is what social scientists call a temporal landmark. Just as human beings rely on landmarks to navigate space – to get to my house, turn left at the Shell station – we also use landmarks to navigate time. Certain dates function like that Shell station. They stand out from the ceaseless and forgettable march of other days, and their prominence helps us find our way.”

 

I had not thought of navigating the space of time the way we navigate the space of the world around us. But it is accurate to say that days and time can blend together, and since we can’t control time, it can feel as though it relentlessly races forward. I have heard people in the Bay Area in California talk about the disorientating nature of their climate. The Bay Area doesn’t have pronounced seasons the way other parts of the country do. Most days are ok, and the temperature and weather doesn’t vary dramatically across the year. The passage of time feels different when you don’t really have a spring, summer, fall, and winter.

 

Using temporal landmarks helps us make sense of the passage of time and gives us a place to plant ourselves for our upcoming life pivots. Just as we might use another wall or a step to brace ourselves if we are pushing a heavy piece of furniture, a specific date can be a brace for us to push for a new habit. It can provide a reference point for how far we have moved and how successful (or not) we have been with any changes that we want to make.

 

So rather than looking down on the idea of new year’s resolutions or being unhelpful in telling people to just make the changes they want to see in their lives today, I can help encourage people to use temporal landmarks in a smart way. I can encourage people to think about the obstacles they will face and how long after their temporal marker they think they might face those obstacles. I can encourage people to think in time chunks with more temporal landmarks to navigate the time landscape they traverse as they implement new lifestyle goals.  Time landmarks are not just random and arbitrary, they are social constructs that can help establish shared meaning and goals across time and space.

Defining New Leadership

Leaders today are not what we have always thought of. Both in public spheres and in private businesses, leaders are those who can pull lots of strings together, without being a commanding drill sergeant type of personality. When I think back on historical leaders that influenced and shaped the world, I think of dictators who took control of their land and directed society in their own way. I  think of pharaohs who ruled over their subjects and drove them to great accomplishments. However, today’s leaders are flexible, inspiring visionaries of what we can be as a collective, rather than generals who drive society toward their own aim.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about this new form of leadership and what it means in our new economies and new governance structures, “The exercise of power is also not what it used to be. The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions. It is vested in an affected by leaders and institutions that convert market and civic power into fiscal, financial, and political power.”

 

In order to get things done in today’s complex world, multiple factors have to come together. Government has to align with private actors and pro-social groups need to join to help fill the gaps where for profit businesses and public agencies cannot play a role. Leaders must understand the challenges that each of these groups face and find ways to build bridges between them. Leaders develop a shared goal of what is possible, but allow actors to find the path forward, without micromanaging everyone’s actions. In this way, there is no single individual who is calling all the shots. There is no system that drives all actors toward the same end. There are multiple goals, multiple desires, and multiple streams to reach various ends. Leadership’s role is one of coordination, working to figure out what each actor wants, who has the ability to push for new directions, and finding ways to get actors to mesh together, make compromises, and align on plans for the future.

Designing for Two Goals

“Savvy institutional designers,” Write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “must … identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve. Designers can then search for arrangements that actually achieve the deeper goals while also serving the surface goals-or at least giving the appearance of doing so. Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder design problem. But if we can learn to do it well, our solutions will less often meet the fate of puzzling disinterest.”

 

In public policy research, there is a framework that is used to understand the legislative process called the Social Construction Framework (SCF). When examining the world through the SCF, we look at the recipients of particular policies and ask what social constructions are at play that shape the type of legislation surrounding these recipients. We also group the recipients into four broad groups: Advantaged, Contenders, Dependents, and Deviants.

 

Advantaged are those who have strong political power and public respect, like veterans and small business owners. Contenders have lots of political power, but are not viewed as warmly in the public eye, such as big business or unions. Dependents are socially sympathetic groups that don’t have much political power, such as sick children who can’t vote but evoke sympathy. The final group, Deviants, are socially scorned and politically weak, such as criminals or drug users.

 

The way we think about who belongs to which group is a social construction. That is, we attribute positive or negative qualities to groups to make them seem more or less deserving. Businesses always highlight the jobs they bring to communities, the innovations they create to make our lives better, and the charitable activities they contribute to. This is all an effort to move from a Contender status to an Advantaged status. Similarly, we see movements where people look at drug addicts and criminals in new ways, seeing them more as victims of circumstance than as entirely bad actors, moving them from Deviants to Dependents.

 

The reason this is important is because we introduce policies that either reward or punish people based on the groups they belong to. It all ties in with the quote from the book because we can either openly distribute a reward or punishment or distribute it in a hidden manner. Our policies might have stated explicit goals, but they may also provide a big business a hidden tax break. Our policies might be unpopular if they directly provide aid to former felons as they leave prison, but offering policy that is nominally intended to help the poor may provide a greater benefit to formerly incarcerated individuals than anyone else.

 

Hanson and Simler call for more sophisticated policy design that addresses our stated high-minded motivations and at the same time helps fulfill our more selfish and below the surface policy goals. SCF is a powerful framework to keep in mind as we try to develop policies and think about ways to actually enact policy that has both open surface level implications and addresses our deeper hidden purposes. This can, of course, be used for good or for ill, just as the tax code can be used to hide tax breaks for unpopular companies or help new homeowners, and just as social programs can be used as cover to assist individuals who are typically seen as Deviants.

Sample Bias and Obliquity – Lessons from the Education Model

I studied political science for a masters and focused generally on public health. A big challenge in both areas is that the people who end up participating in our studies or who are the targets of our interventions are often different in one way or another from the general population, and that makes it hard to tell whether our study or intervention was meaningful. We might see a result and want to attribute it to a specific thing happening in society or that we introduced to a group, but it could just be that the people observed already had some particular quality that led to the outcome we saw. Our theory and our intervention may have just been a small thing on the side that didn’t really do what it looks like it did.

 

Another challenge in both areas is accomplishing our goals without being able to directly address our goals. We may want to do something like prevent drug overdose deaths, but public opinion won’t support safe injection sites, legal drug use, or free needles for drug addicts. We can work toward our goals, but we often have to do them in an oblique manner that purports to address one thing, while in the background really addressing another thing.

 

These experiences from my educational background come to mind when I think about the following quote from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Their example is about education, but it relates to what I discussed above because it shows how our current education system seems to be doing one thing, but really accomplishes another goal in an indirect way. It does so by taking qualities that people already have, and purporting to provide an intervention to enhance those qualities, but runs into the same selection bias I mentioned in my opening paragraph.

 

“Educated workers are generally better workers, but not necessarily because school made them better. Instead, a lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”

 

Education can do a lot of things for us, but pin pointing exactly what it does is tricky because the people attracted to school are in some ways different from the population that is not attracted to higher education. It is hard to say that the schooling is what made the big difference or if the people who do well in school had other qualities that set the stage for the difference observed between those who do well at school and those who don’t. This doesn’t mean school is a waste or that we should invest in it less, but rather that we should consider a wider range of schooling options to allow people to demonstrate their unique qualities in different ways.

 

The other piece I like about the quote is the obliquity of schooling and education in our journey to tell others how amazing we are. It is hard to demonstrate one’s skills and qualities, but going through an obstacle course, such as college, is a good way to show our positive qualities and skills. Education is one obstacle we use to differentiate ourselves and advertise how capable we are in a socially acceptable manner. There is something to be learned when thinking through policy from the education example. Direct approaches to policy-making sometimes are impossible, but indirect routes can open doors if they make it seem as though another good is being pursued with the outcome we want to see occurring incidentally.