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Thoughtful Thursday: Preconceptions


“You must challenge your preconceptions or they will challenge you” — Penny A.Proctor (You may hear this first quote in the upcoming new Star Trek series on CBS taken from a short story by Penny A. Proctor)

“Mistakenly thinking you know usually results in not knowing mistaken thinking later on.” — Zumwalt

IQ tests sometimes contain questions that, though not particularly hard, will not be answered correctly if one falls back on preconceptions rather than solving the problem on its own terms: doing the work rather than taking a short cut by falling back on what one accepts as given truths

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If one starts with preconceptions, one goes for the easy answer.  If one just works through this without jumping at the misleading “short cut” then one gets the correct answer.

If one even checks their preconceived wrong answer, then they will soon have the right answer.  The wrong answer of 10 cents for the ball doesn’t stand up as 10 cents for the ball, plus one dollar extra than the price of the ball for the bat at $1.10 sums up to $1.20.

One way to solve the problem is rely on simple algebra:

x (price of ball); y (price of bat)

x + 1.00 = y  –> y-x = 1.00

x + y = 1.10 –> y+x = 1.10

Add these 2 equations up and we get 2y – 2.10  or y = 1.05 so the bat is $1.05 and the ball is .05.

Even if we don’t use algebra but try a few guesses, checking our guesses will eventually get us to the right number.

But the way that life works for most of us, most of the time, is that we make assumptions and never ever check them, making decisions on top of bad assumptions.

Bill is stalking Mary. Mary is stalking John. Bill is married, but John is not. Is a married person stalking an unmarried person?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Cannot be determined from the given information

Once again, if we fall into the trap of lazy thinking, we may never work through this problem finding the right answer and end up agreeing with 80% of people that choose answer #3. It really doesn’t matter that we don’t know Mary’s marital status.  If she is single, it is then Bill, the married person, that is looking at an unmarried person, and if she is married, then Mary is the married person looking at an unmarried person.

We rarely object to an instance of a person saying “that’s my spouse” (“that’s my wife”, “that’s my husband”) or “that’s my child.”  And so, it’s no issue to say “that’s my dog” or “that’s my cat.”  But we would object to saying “I am the owner of this husband” or “I am the owner of this child.”  Should we also object to one saying “I am this dog’s owner.” Does one own the dog or is it a partnership? If the dog runs away, the “owner” can get the pet back.  The “owner” can decide to trade the dog for money or put the dog to sleep. In ancient Greece and in 19th century America, people owned other people, and could trade them and even put them to death.  The people in the past re-examined ownership of people and determined this was unacceptable in any way, shape or form.  Should we examine our relationships with our pets, or just accept our preconceptions and continue on.

Anchoring is a sales and marketing ploy that takes advantage of our tendency to have preconceptions.  This is very common in the cruise industry where cruise lines offer “limited” 2-for-1 permanent cruise sales or have a brochure starting price that’s double (or more) than the actually offered price:cruise3

Preconceptions are the most troublesome when we don’t know about them. In doing data analysis it’s the bad data that we don’t know about the messes up the results.  Any belief that one doesn’t examine for its accuracy (maybe not examined as one isn’t aware of the belief or thinks it is correct) will influence one’s final decisions and analyses, often making actions based on such decisions and analysis worse than random actions. Anchor prices are used to take advantage of our tendency to lock on to the earliest data we have about something and to subconsciously put more weight or more credence in the earlier or earliest obtained data than later data, even though analytically we often chose to prefer more recent data over older data.

Take the time to examine what data is used to make an important decision and challenge the validity of that data.  By identifying the bad data or erroneous preconceptions and not using them to base a decision on,  one can significantly increase their likelihood of acting appropriately.








Thoughtful Thursday: Observing, Comparison and Evaluating

“Knowingly, and unknowingly, I relentlessly measure everything you do,
And that’s okay, as long as I don’t then pretend that I have ever measured you.”
— Zumwalt

“Accuracy of observation is the equivalent of accuracy of thinking.” — Wallace Stevens

We can observe what one does or what they have.

We cannot observe who they are.  We are basically limited to observing what they do and have. And usually, we only see a very small percentage of that.

But even if we saw everything, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, we would be left with only seeing manifestations and phenomena, not the essence of who people truly are.  We may know it’s safe or dangerous to be around this or that person in this or that circumstance, but we have no direct understanding of those people, we make the leap from observing what they do to who they are.

So its pointless to compare ourselves to others.  We can compare what we do to what someone else does.  Or we can compare what someone has to what we have.  Just don’t fool yourself that you can compare yourself to anyone else.

The truth is that you cannot measure anyone.  You can measure their body. You can measure the size or weight of their brain, their heart, their stomach.  With the right equipment, you could even count the number of neurons in their brain, the number of synaptic connections, and, if using top-of-the-line (though still futuristic) equipment, the number of neurotransmitters and their motion and chemical composition.

To say the heart, the stomach or the brain is the person is a large leap of illogic and foolishness.  To say the body (containing the heart, stomach, brain and several gallons of water) is the person is also not true.  Maybe removing an appendix, a few skin cells, a couple of liters of water, or consuming a bit too much at a cruise ship buffet changes the viewpoint or experience of the person , but so can reading a book or watching a movie or interacting with someone else — and we don’t confuse the books on your bookshelf or your friends and family with you.  Or do we?  Yes, we often do! Since we cannot observe you, we observe things around you and use these are proxies for measuring you.

Be careful that what you observe is relevant to what you evaluate.  Do not observe the behavior of ducks in the park and assume that you have collected pertinent data to evaluate the behavior of wolves in the wild.  Do not observe the behavior of a person, and assume that you can evaluate the person: you can only evaluate their behavior.

Data seduces us.  We see data and we sometimes don’t stop to see if this data is relevant, complete or appropriate for our analysis.  Our process of drawing conclusions may be sound, but if we are not observing what we need to observe, then we cannot expect valid comparisons or evaluations and this in turn will impact our understanding and any subsequent action.



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