Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Critical Thinking

Sinkholes, Icy Roads, and Chenesium

This is nothing. I'm much more worried about sinkholes.

This is nothing. I’m much more worried about sinkholes.

Last week a man was swallowed by a sinkhole while sleeping in Florida. This week, I’m more worried about sinkholes in Florida than I am about driving on icy roads in Colorado. Is that logical?

It’s not logical but it’s very real. Sometimes a story is so vivid, so unexpected, so emotionally fraught, and so available that it dominates our thinking. Even though it’s extremely unlikely, it becomes possible, maybe even probable in our imaginations. As Daniel Kahneman points out, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality.”

What makes a phenomenon more real in our heads than it is in reality? Several things. It’s vivid — it creates a very clear image in our mind. It’s creepy — the vivid image is unpleasant and scary. It’s a “bad” death as opposed to a “good” death. We read about deaths every day. When we read about a kindly old nonagenarian dying peacefully after a lifetime of doing good works, it seems natural and honorable. It’s a good death. When we read about someone killed in the prime of life in bizarre or malevolent circumstances, it’s a “bad” death. A bad death is much more vivid than a good death.

But what really makes an image dominate our minds is availability. How easy is it to bring an instance to mind? If the thought is readily available to us, we deem it to be likely. What’s readily available? Anything that’s in the popular media and the topic of discussion with friends and colleagues. If your colleagues around the water cooler say, “Hey, did you hear about the guy in the sinkhole?” you’ve already begun to blow it out of proportion.

Availability can also compound itself in what Kahneman calls an availability cascade. The story itself becomes the story. Suppose that a suspicious compound — let’s call it chenesium — is found in the food supply. Someone writes that chenesium causes cancer in rats when administered in huge doses. Plus, it’s a vividly scary form of cancer — it affects the eyeballs and makes you look like a zombie. People start writing letters to the editor about the grave danger. Now it’s in the media. People start marching on state capitals, demanding action. The media write about the marching. People read about the marching and assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The Surgeon General issues a statement saying the danger is minimal. But the populace — now worked into a frenzy — denounce her as a lackey of chenesium producers. Note that the media is no longer writing about chenesium. Rather, they’re writing about the controversy surrounding chenesium. The story keeps growing because it’s a good story. It’s a perfect storm.

So, what to do? Unfortunately, facts don’t matter a whole lot by this point. As Kahneman notes (quoting Jonathan Haidt), “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” The only thing to do is to let it play out … sooner or later, another controversy will arise to take chenesium’s place.

At the personal level, we can spare ourselves a lot of worry by pondering the availability bias and remembering that facts do matter. We can look up the probability of succumbing to a sinkhole. If we do, we’ll realize that the danger is vanishingly small. There’s nothing to worry about. Still, I’m not going to Florida anytime soon.

Can You Frame Yourself?

No, please. Not again!

No, please. Not again!

My mother was a great lady but not a great cook. TV dinners were a popular option at our house when I was a kid. If we weren’t eating TV dinners we might have to eat … frozen fish sticks. I can still smell the oily odor of limp fish sticks frying up in the little Sunbeam electric skillet. It permeated everything. I grew up in a clean-your-plate family so, ultimately, I had to choke down those mysterious fish parts. Then, without fail, I raced to the bathroom and threw up.

How does one think critically about such a situation? In our family, we quickly ruled out several non-causes. Everyone else in the family ate fish sticks and didn’t get sick. Therefore, it couldn’t be the fish sticks. Every serving of fish sticks made me sick, so we couldn’t blame it on just one box that had gone bad. Clearly, I must be allergic to fish.

So, from the age of about six to 23, I ate no fish at all. No trout or tuna or herring or salmon or swordfish. After college, I moved to Ecuador and, from time to time, took vacations to the beach. On one such vacation, I found that there was nothing to eat locally but fish. Finally, I sat in a restaurant, braced myself for the worst, and took a bite of fish. I thought, “Wow, this is really good!”  I wasn’t allergic to fish at all … just greasy, stinky frozen fish sticks.

I had been framing myself. I made an assumption about myself based on faulty evidence and stuck with it for almost 17 years. I never thought to re-check the original assumption or re-validate the evidence. I never tried to think outside the frame. Over the past several weeks, I’ve written about the issues of what might be called “external framing” in this blog. Here are some examples:

  • Police pick up a suspect in a crime. They’re pretty sure he did it so they’re especially attuned to any evidence that incriminates him. At the same time, they ignore evidence that might point to someone else. The suspect is framed even without malicious intent.
  • A doctor reads your medical records and discovers that you suffer from XYZ. So, he treats you for XYZ without listening to your current complaints. The medical records framed you and may have prevented the doctor from seeing the whole picture.

In these cases, one person is framing another. The same thing can happen to abstract issues. I’ve noticed that Republicans and Democrats frame the same issue in very different ways.

What we forget sometimes is that we can also frame ourselves. I used to teach a course in research methods that included a mild dose of inferential statistics. Many of my students were women in their 30s and 40s who were returning to school to re-start their careers. Many of them were very nervous about the statistics. They believed they weren’t good at math. As it turned out, they did just fine. They weren’t bad at math; they had just framed themselves into believing they were bad at math.

If you believe something about yourself, you might just want to poke at it a bit. Sometimes you may just be wrong. On other occasions, you may be right — I’m still terrible at anything having to do with music. Still, it’s worth asking the question. Otherwise, you may miss out on some very tasty fish.

Culture — I versus We

I'm the center of the universe.

I’m the center of the universe.

What’s more important: you or the group you were born into? According to Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, the answer to that question is a basic dimension of culture and can be measured and compared. (I introduced the Hofstedes’ intercultural research last week, with a discussion of the Power Distance Index).

The Hofstedes refer to this second dimension of culture as the individualist/collectivist continuum. In cultures that lean toward the collectivist end of the spectrum, “… the interest of the group prevails over the interests of the individual.” In individualist cultures, it’s just the opposite: “…ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family.” In collectivist societies, you give your “unquestioning loyalty” to the group in exchange for protection, status, and general welfare. As the Hofstedes point out, a great majority of the world’s population lives in collectivist cultures.

The Hofstedes created an Individualism Index (IDV) and applied it to 74 countries. The most individualistic countries were: United States (IDV = 91), Australia (90), Great Britain (89), and Canada, Hungary, and the Netherlands, tied at 80. The least individualistic countries were: Colombia (13), Venezuela (12), Panama (11), Ecuador (8), and Guatemala (6).

Broadly speaking, the Individualism Index is inversely related to the Power Distance Index. In other words, individualistic countries tend to be relatively egalitarian. Collectivist countries, on the other hand, tend to rely upon powerful individuals, “imbued with strong moral authority”, to lead the group. The leader might be the head of a family, an ethnic group, a religion, or a country.

The difference between individualist and collectivist cultures can be quite subtle. In collectivist societies, a great deal of information is simply “understood” and messages are relatively brief, a phenomenon known as high-context communication. The context of the message is understood; it doesn’t need to be explained. In individualist societies, low-context communication is more typical. Messages need to be explicit, since individuals are loosely joined. The Hofstedes point out that “American (IDV= 91) business contracts are much longer than Japanese (IDV = 46) business contracts.”

In collectivist societies, “harmony should always be maintained”; in individualist societies, “speaking one’s mind” is admired. In collectivist societies, “resources should be shared with relatives”; in individualist societies, individual ownership is the rule, even for children. This dimension even affects walking speed. In individualist societies, people walk faster. In collectivist societies, they walk slower.

In business, the individualist/collectivist continuum can create significant misunderstandings. In individualist societies, “business is done with a company.”  In collectivist cultures, business is done “…with a person whom one has learned to know and trust.” Employee relations are also affected. “Management” means management of individuals in individualist cultures but management of groups in collectivist societies. Occupational mobility is higher in individualistic cultures and companies strive to treat every customer equally. In collectivist societies, in-groups may (should) be given preferential treatment in hiring, promotions, and customer care.

Perhaps as a consequence of all this, per capita GNP tends to be lower in collectivist societies. Individualist cultures tend to be wealthier. Does wealth cause individualism or vice versa? The Hofstedes makes a strong argument that rising wealth leads to individualism rather than the other way round. They conclude that poor countries, “…cannot be expected to become more individualist as long as they remain poor.”

You can learn more in the Hofstedes’ book: Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.


Pascal’s Wager and the Mediterranean Diet

Wanna bet?

Wanna bet?

I like to think of Blaise Pascal (1623 — 1662), the French mathematician, as the western world’s first practitioner of Twitter. His collected Pensées were brief, enigmatic thoughts about mathematics, religion, and philosophy. Collected after his death, they read like the tweets of the 17th century (though they were intended to be a much more comprehensive defense of religion).

In the Pensées, Pascal made his famous wager. We all bet with our lives on whether God exists or not. We can live as if God exists and practice the traditional forms and virtues of religion. Or we can do the opposite and ignore our religious duties, assuming that God does not exist. If we live as if God exists and we’re right then the rewards are infinite. If we’re wrong, the loss is finite — indeed it’s quite small. Thus, Pascal argues, it’s only rational to live a pious life. The wager is heavily stacked to that side.

In today’s world, we don’t spend much time wagering on God’s existence (perhaps we should) but we make lots of bets that are much like Pascal’s. The cumulative effects are enormous.

For instance, consider the Mediterranean diet. The diet — which features olive oil, nuts, vegetables, and fish but not much red meat — has been on our radar for a number of years now. Epidemiologists observed that people who live near the Mediterranean have a much lower rate of heart disease than would be expected. Maybe it’s the diet. Or maybe it’s something else, like religion, culture, family structure, heredity, etc.

So the evidence for the positive health effects of the diet was an observed correlation. We could see that the diet was correlated (inversely) to heart disease but we couldn’t be sure that it caused the lower rates. Maybe a hidden, third factor was in play. Still, we could make a version of Pascal’s wager: eat as if the Mediterranean diet does reduce the risk of heart disease. If we’re right, we live longer. If we’re wrong … well, we’ve missed out on a few tasty bacon cheeseburgers. Would you take the bet?

Last week, the level of evidence changed dramatically. A five-year, randomized Spanish study of nearly 7,5000 people was published. People who followed the Mediterranean diet had 30% fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease than the control group. Since the study used the experimental method, we can now talk about cause and effect, not just correlation. Now will you take the bet?

Of course, there’s still some doubt about the results. It’s only one study; it hasn’t been replicated yet. It was conducted in Spain. Maybe we wouldn’t get the same results in America. Maybe there were methodological or measurement errors. Still, the evidence seems pretty strong and it points toward a version of Pascal’s classic wager.

We all make versions of Pascal’s wager every day but we rarely think about them. Perhaps it’s time that we pay more attention. Perhaps it’s time to think about what levels of evidence we need before we take the bet. Is correlation enough or do we need to prove cause and effect? Life is uncertain but perhaps we can make it more comfortable by thinking — and betting — logically. While you’re pondering that, I’m going to drizzle some olive oil over a bowl of walnuts. Drop by if you’re hungry.

Culture — Would You Laugh At Your Boss?

We must be in a high PDI zone.

We must be in a high PDI zone.

Would you make fun of your boss… to her face?  If you’re from Denmark, you might. If you’re from Slovakia, probably not.

That’s one of the conclusions you might draw from the Power Distance Index (PDI), a measure of one of the “dimensions” of culture. Since the early 20th century, social scientists have worked to classify human cultures and measure how they differ from each other. The dimensions deal with fundamental concepts, like how we conceive of ourselves as individuals, the relationship between the individual and the group, how men and women relate to each other, and how we handle conflict. From these foundations, different observers have developed different numbers of cultural dimensions, ranging from a low of four to a high of nine.

Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, a father-son team of cultural researchers from the Netherlands. In their book, Culture and Organization: Software of the Mind, they suggest that there are five cultural dimensions: 1) power distance; 2) individualism versus collectivism; 3) femininity versus masculinity; 4) uncertainty avoidance; 5) long-term versus short-term orientation. I’d like to look at all five of these — and their inter-relationship — over the coming weeks. Today, let’s look at power distance. (By the way, one of the reasons I like the Hofstedes is that they relate their findings to the workplace. The last several chapters of their book offer practical advice on managing in a multicultural world).

The Hofstedes define power distance as “the extent to which the less powerful … [citizens] … of a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” The Hofstedes developed an index to measure power distance within a country and applied it to 74 different countries. The five countries with the highest PDI scores are Malaysia (PDI = 104), Slovakia (104), Guatemala (95), Panama (95), and Philippines (94). The five with lowest scores are German-speaking Switzerland (26), New Zealand (22), Denmark (18), Israel (13), and Austria (11). (The United States has a PDI of 40)

Power distance affects cultures in myriad ways. Countries with low PDIs generally believe that “inequalities among people should be minimized.” On the other hand, those with high PDIs generally believe that “Inequalities among people are expected and desired”. In low PDI countries, “parents treat children as equals”; in high PDI countries, “parents teach children obedience”.

In the workplace, differences between low- and high-PDI countries can be pronounced. In low-PDI countries, the workplace is generally decentralized with few supervisors. The ideal boss is a resourceful democrat and status symbols are generally frowned upon. In high-PDI countries, the situation is essentially reversed: the workplace is centralized with a large number of supervisors. The ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat and status symbols are normal and popular.

Here are two findings that struck me as very odd. In Europe and the Americas, countries with Romance languages had — on average — higher PDI scores than those with Germanic languages. In the popular imagination, Germanic countries are often perceived to be very hierarchical. The Hofstedes’ research suggests that the opposite is true. Austria (PDI= 11) has the lowest PDI of any of the 74 countries. German-speaking Switzerland has a PDI of 26 which compares to 70 for French-speaking Switzerland. Germany itself has a score of 35.

The other oddity is that PDI scores tend to drop the farther north (or the farther south) you move from the equator. Tropical lands tend to have higher power distances than temperate lands. Here are scores for some of the more northern (and southern) countries: Denmark (18), New Zealand (22), Ireland (28), Sweden (31), Norway (31), Finland (33), Australia (36), Canada (39). The Hofstedes suggest some possible reasons for this distribution but their ideas seem a bit too pat to me. While I’m scartching my head as to the cause, it may be that we’re simply measuring language differences again. None of the northern countries I’ve just listed speaks a Romance language.

So, what does it all mean? I’m still working on that. I do find it very interesting that the Nordic countries are clustered at the very low end of the PDI table while they’re at the very high end of the World Happiness Report and the Global Innovation Index. There’s something interesting in the state of Denmark. Think about that for a while. In the meantime, don’t laugh at your boss.

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