How I’d run an airline

Mar 1 JDN 2458910

I’m traveling this week, so I have less time for blogging than usual and airlines are very much on my mind. So I thought I’d write a short post about things I would change if I were to run my own airline.

1. Instead of overpriced first-class seats, offer the option of seats with more space for a proportional amount. First class prices are almost never worth it, and people seem to be figuring that out: Use of first class is in decline. But sitting in that middle seat is so miserable, why not simply eliminate it? I think a lot of people would be willing to pay 50% more for 50% more space.

2. Offer every passenger two free checked bags, but charge for the carry-on. Carry-on bags are far more awkward and disruptive, and slow down boarding and deboarding much more, than checked bags. The airline should be trying to incentivize passengers to use checked baggage as much as possible. I’d still give each passenger a free personal item (like a purse, backpack or laptop bag), and some people would still want a carry-on bag (e.g. for cameras that can be damaged by radiation); but most people really don’t need to have a roller bag as a carry-on.

3. Power outlets in every seat. This is a trivial amount of cost in terms of manufacturing and electricity, compared to what an airplane already requires; but it makes flying much more convenient for your passengers, and thereby allows you to demand higher prices. This is a no-brainer. (Some airlines, like Delta, already do this.)

4. Assign seats and load the plane based on the seating positions. The first boarding group should be the people who sit furthest in the back, so that no one needs to pass seated passengers in order to find their own seat. Ideally window seats would be filled before aisle seats, but since people like to board and sit together, that might not be feasible. But at the very least we can make boarding faster by seating the back rows first.

5. Give pilots and flight attendants reasonable hours and plenty of vacation time. Airline pilots around the world are dangerously overworked and sleep-deprived. This is dangerous for customers, and if it leads to crashes or lawsuits it can be very expensive for the airlines too. Having an aircraft idle overnight really isn’t that great a cost, especially since red-eye flights command lower prices and are thus less profitable for the airline. Working fewer hours makes people more productive per hour—often to the point of making them more productive overall.

6. Explain why you need to put on your own oxygen mask first. Standard airplane safety instructions always include the line “Put on your mask before assisting others.” But since they almost never explain why, I strongly suspect that in a real emergency a lot of parents try to put on their children’s masks first and thereby needlessly endanger themselves. Wording these instructions might be tricky, because any talk of such things is bound to scare people, but the core idea is this: Hypoxia will cause delirium or unconsciousness long before it will cause permanent brain damage or death. You want to first make sure you aren’t incapacitated, and then you can help save others. If you put on your mask first, your kid may get confused or pass out, but you’ll be able to help them and they’ll be fine. If you put on your kid’s mask first, you may get confused or pass out, and your kid won’t be able to help you. Then unless someone else saves you, you may die pointlessly because you didn’t follow instructions. Depending on altitude and how severe the hull breach is, you have about 30 seconds before you lose consciousness. But your kid has at least three minutes before you need to worry about permanent brain damage, and probably as many as fifteen before they’d die.

7. Include carbon offsets in the ticket price, and advertise this aggressively. Despite the fact that airplanes are a major source of carbon emissions, carbon offsets are actually remarkably cheap compared to the cost of airline tickets. Adding offsets would typically raise the price of a ticket by about $30, which on a $300 ticket is unlikely to shock people. And by advertising the carbon-neutrality of your airline, you can probably get a lot of customers who are willing to pay more, potentially even more than the additional cost of the carbon offsets themselves. This could be a win-win for the airline and the environment.

8. Invest heavily in research on more efficient jet engines. The second-biggest cost for an airline is fuel expenditure. (First is the wages of the crew.) If you can install more efficient engines on your aircraft, you can both reduce your environmental impact and dramatically lower your cost. Current state-of-the-art engines can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 20%; future research could improve this even further.

9. Include snacks at every seat before passengers even board. Putting a bag of pretzels and a water bottle at every seat would be trivially easy, and would allow passengers the opportunity to be eating while the plane takes off—and chewing reduces the discomfort of changing air pressure. If the worry is that people will try to put their tray tables down (which is genuinely unsafe during takeoff), install electronic locks that prevent tray tables from being lowered except when authorized.

10. Install seats that don’t recline. The additional comfort for the passenger reclining is far smaller than the reduced comfort for the passenger behind them. Combine that with the additional cost of maintaining the seats and the additional risk of injury during rough landings, and the answer is obvious: Seats shouldn’t recline.

11. Offer better food. Charging less for airplane food honestly isn’t feasible: Because space and weight are at such a premium, it really is that expensive to store and transport food on an aircraft. But the cost comes mostly from the bulk and weight of the food; it really doesn’t much matter what kind of food it is. To that end, airlines should offer high-quality food that people feel more comfortable paying such high prices for. A steak weighs about the same as a hamburger, and champagne has about the same density as Sprite.

12. Reduce, or even eliminate, fees to change flights. Yes, it’s expensive to have empty seats on a moving airplane. But most flights can be filled by standby passengers, and those that can’t often weren’t full anyway. It’s actually fairly rare for a cancellation to result in an empty seat that would otherwise have been full. And the additional goodwill you get from making life easier for your passengers will make up the difference. (Southwest figured this out; other airlines don’t yet seem to have caught on.)

Would these changes revolutionize air travel? No. But I do think they’d make it a bit more pleasant, without greatly reducing the profits of the airline.

A Socratic open letter to transphobes everywhere

Feb 23 JDN 2458903

This post is a bit different than usual. This is an open letter to those who doubt that trans people actually exist, or insist on using the wrong pronouns; above all it is an open letter to those who want to discriminate against trans people, denying trans people civil rights or the dignity to use public bathrooms in peace. Most of my readers are probably not such people, but I think you’ll still benefit from reading it—perhaps you can use some of its arguments when you inevitably encounter someone who is.

Content warning: Because of how sex and gender are tied up together in transphobes’ minds, I’m going to need to talk a little bit about sexual anatomy and genital surgery. If such topics make you uncomfortable, feel free to skip this post.

Dear Transphobe:

First of all, I’m going to assume you are a man. Statistically you probably are, in which case that works. If by chance you’re not, well, now you know what it feels like for people to assume your gender and never correct themselves. You’re almost certainly politically right-wing, so that’s an even safer assumption on my part.

You probably think that gender and sex are interchangeable things, that the idea of a woman born with a penis or a man born without one is utter nonsense. I’m here to hopefully make you question this notion.

Let’s start by thinking about your own identity. You are a man. I presume that you have a penis. I am not going to make the standard insult many on the left would and say that it’s probably a small penis. In fact I have no particular reason to believe that, and in any case the real problem is that we as a society have so thoroughly equated penis size with masculinity with value as a human being. Right-wing attitudes of the sort that lead to discriminating against LGBT people are strongly correlated with aggressive behaviors to assert one’s masculinity. Even if I had good reason—which I assuredly do not—to do so, attacking your masculinity would be inherently counterproductive, causing you to double down on the same aggressive, masculinity-signaling behaviors. If it so happens that you are insecure in your masculinity, I certainly don’t want to make that worse, as masculine insecurity was one of the strongest predictors of voting for Donald Trump. You are a man, and I make no challenges to your masculinity whatsoever. I’m even prepared to concede that you are more manly than I am, whatever you may take that to mean.

Let us consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you were to lose your penis in some tragic accident. Don’t try to imagine the details; I’m sure the mere fact of it is terrifying enough. Suppose a terrible day were to arrive where you wake up in a hospital and find you no longer have a penis.

I have a question for you now: Should such a terrible day arrive, would you cease to be a man?

I contend that you would remain a man. I think that you, upon reflection, would also contend the same. There are a few thousand men in the world who have undergone penectomy, typically as a treatment for genital cancer. You wouldn’t even know unless you saw them naked or they told you. As far as anyone else can tell, they look and act as men, just as they did before their surgery. They are still men, just as they were before.

In fact, it’s quite likely that you would experience a phantom limb effect—where here the limb that is in your self-image but no longer attached to your body is your penis. You would sometimes feel “as if” your penis was still there, because your brain continues to have the neural connections that generate such sensations.

An even larger number of men have undergone castration for various reasons, and while they do often find that their thoughts and behavior change due to the changes in hormone balances, they still consider themselves men, and are generally considered men by others as well. We do not even consider them transgender men; we simply consider them men.

But does this not mean, then, that there is something more to being a man than simply having male anatomy?

Perhaps it has to do with other body parts, or some totality of the male body? Let’s consider another thought experiment then. Suppose that by some bizarre event you were transported into a female body. The mechanism isn’t important: Perhaps it was a mad scientist, or aliens, or magic. But just suppose that somehow or other, while you slept, your brain in its current state was transported into an entirely female body, complete with breasts, vulva, wide hips, narrow shoulders—the whole package. When you awaken, your body is female.

Such a transition would no doubt be distressing and disorienting. People would probably begin to see you as a woman when they looked at you. You would be denied access to men’s spaces you had previously used, and suddenly granted access to women’s spaces you had never before been allowed into. And who knows what sort of effect the hormonal changes would have on your mind?

Particularly if you are sexually attracted to women, you might imagine that you would enjoy this transformation: Now you get to play with female body parts whenever you want! But think about this matter carefully, now: While there might be some upsides, would you really want this change to happen? You have to now wear women’s clothing, use women’s restrooms, cope with a menstrual cycle. Everyone will see you as a woman and treat you as a woman. (How do you treat women, by the way? Is this something you’ve thought carefully about?)

And if you still think that being a woman isn’t so bad, maybe it isn’t—if your mind and body are in agreement. But remember that you’ve still got the mind of a man; you still feel that mental attachment to body parts that are no longer present, and these new body parts you have don’t feel like they are properly your own.

But throughout this harrowing experience, would you still be a man?

Once again I contend that you would. You would now feel a deep conflict between your mind and your body—dare I call it gender dysphoria?—and you would probably long to change your body back to what it was, or at least back to a body that is male.

You would once again experience phantom limb effects—but now all over, everywhere your new body deviated from your original form. In your brain there is a kind of map of where your body parts are supposed to be: Your shoulders are supposed to end here, your legs are supposed to end there, and down here there is supposed to be a penis, not vulva. This map is deeply ingrained into your mind, its billions of strands almost literally woven into the fabric of your brain.

We are presumably born with such a map: By some mindbogglingly complex mix of genetic and environmental factors our brains organize themselves into specific patterns, telling us what kind of body we’re supposed to have. Some of this structuring may go on before birth, some while we are growing up. But surely by the time we are adults the process is complete.

This mental map does allow for some flexibility: When we were young and growing, it allowed us to adjust to our ever-increasing height. Now that we are older, it allows us to adjust to gaining or losing weight. But this flexibility is quite limited: it might take years, or perhaps we could never adjust at all, to finding that we had suddenly grown a tail—or suddenly changed from male to female.

Now imagine that this transformation didn’t happen by some sudden event when you were an adult, but by some quirk of ontogeny while you were still in the womb. Suppose that you were born this way: in a body that is female, but with a mind that is male.

In such a state, surely something is wrong, in the same way that being born with sickle-cell anemia or spina bifida is wrong. There are more ambiguous cases: Is polydactyly a disorder? Sometimes? But surely there are some ways to be born that are worth correcting, and “female body, male mind” seems like one of them.

And yet, this is often precisely how trans people describe their experience. Not always—humans are nothing if not diverse, and trans people are no exception—but quite frequently, they will say that they feel like “a man in a woman’s body” or the reverse. By all accounts, they seem to have precisely this hypothetical condition: The gender of their mind does not match the sex of their body. And since this mismatch causes great suffering, we ought to correct it.

But then the question becomes: Correct it how?

Broadly speaking, it seems we’ve only two options: Change the body, or change the mind. If you were in this predicament, which would you want?

In the case of being transferred into a new body as an adult, I’m quite sure you’d prefer to change your body, and keep your mind as it is. You don’t belong in this new body, and you want your old one back.

Yet perhaps you think that if you were born with this mismatch, things might be different: Perhaps in such a case you think it would make more sense to change the mind to match the body. But I ask you this: Which is more fundamental to who you are? If you are still an infant, we can’t ask your opinion; but what do you suppose you’d say if we could?

Or suppose that you notice the mismatch later, as a child, or even as a teenager. Before that, something felt off somehow, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. But now you realize where the problem lies: You were born in a body of the wrong sex. Now that you’ve had years to build up your identity, would you still say that the mind is the right thing to change? Once you can speak, now we can ask you—and we do ask such children, and their answers are nigh-unanimous: They want to change their bodies, not their minds. David Reimer was raised as a girl for years, and yet he always still knew he was a boy and tried to act like one.

In fact, we don’t even know how to change the gender of a mind. Despite literally millennia of civilization trying at great expense to enforce particular gender norms on everyone’s minds, we still get a large proportion of the population deviating substantially from them—if you include mild enough deviations, probably a strict majority. If I seem a soft “soy boy” to you (and, I admit, I am both bisexual and vegetarian—though I already knew I was the former before I became the latter), ask yourself this: Why would I continue to deviate from your so ferociously-enforced gender norms, if it were easy to conform?

Whereas, we do have some idea how to change a body. We have hormonal and surgical treatments that allow people to change their bodies substantially—trans women can grow breasts, trans men can grow beards. Often this is enough to make people feel much more comfortable in their own bodies, and also present themselves in a way that leads others to recognize them as their desired gender.

Sex reassignment surgery is not as reliable, especially for trans men: While building artificial vulva works relatively well, building a good artificial penis still largely eludes us. Yet technological process in this area continues, and we’ve improved our ability to change the sex of bodies substantially in just the last few decades—while, let me repeat, we have not meaningfully improved our ability to change the gender of minds in the last millennium.

If we could reliably change the gender of minds, perhaps that would be an option worth considering. But ought implies can: We cannot be ethically expected to do that which we are simply incapable.

At present, this means that our only real options are two: We can accept the gender of the mind, change the sex of the body, and treat this person as the gender they identify themselves as; or we can demand that they repress and conceal their mental gender in favor of conforming to the standards we have imposed upon them based on their body. The option you may most prefer—accept the body, change the mind—simply is not feasible with any current or foreseeable technology.

We have tried repressing transgender identity for centuries: It has brought endless suffering, depression, suicide.

But now that we are trying to affirm transgender identity the outlook seems much better: Simply having one adult in their life who accepts their gender identity reduces the risk of a transgender child attempting suicide by 40%. Meta-analysis of research on the subject shows that gender transition, while surely no panacea, does overall improve outcomes for transgender people—including reducing risk of depression and suicide. (That site is actually refreshingly nuanced; it does not simply accept either the left-wing or right-wing ideology on the subject, instead delving deeply into the often quite ambiguous evidence.)

Above all, ask yourself: If you ever found yourself in the wrong sort of body, what would you want us to do?

Reflections on Past and Future

Jan 19 JDN 2458868

This post goes live on my birthday. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to celebrate much, as I’ll be in the process of moving. We moved just a few months ago, and now we’re moving again, because this apartment turned out to be full of mold that keeps triggering my migraines. Our request for a new apartment was granted, but the university housing system gives very little time to deal with such things: They told us on Tuesday that we needed to commit by Wednesday, and then they set our move-in date for that Saturday.

Still, a birthday seems like a good time to reflect on how my life is going, and where I want it to go next. As for how old I am? This is the probably the penultimate power of two I’ll reach.

The biggest change in my life over the previous year was my engagement. Our wedding will be this October. (We have the venue locked in; invitations are currently in the works.) This was by no means unanticipated; really, folks had been wondering when we’d finally get around to it. Yet it still feels strange, a leap headlong into adulthood for someone of a generation that has been saddled with a perpetual adolescence. The articles on “Millennials” talking about us like we’re teenagers still continue, despite the fact that there are now Millenials with college-aged children. Thanks to immigration and mortality, we now outnumber Boomers. Based on how each group voted in 2016, this bodes well for the 2020 election. (Then again, a lot of young people stay home on Election Day.)

I don’t doubt that graduate school has contributed to this feeling of adolescence: If we count each additional year of schooling as a grade, I would now be in the 22nd grade. Yet from others my age, even those who didn’t go to grad school, I’ve heard similar experiences about getting married, buying homes, or—especially—having children of their own: Society doesn’t treat us like adults, so we feel strange acting like adults. 30 is the new 23.

Perhaps as life expectancy continues to increase and educational attainment climbs ever higher, future generations will continue to experience this feeling ever longer, until we’re like elves in a Tolkienesque fantasy setting, living to 1000 but not considered a proper adult until we hit 100. I wonder if people will still get labeled by generation when there are 40 generations living simultaneously, or if we’ll find some other category system to stereotype by.

Another major event in my life this year was the loss of our cat Vincent. He was quite old by feline standards, and had been sick for a long time; so his demise was not entirely unexpected. Still, it’s never easy to lose a loved one, even if they are covered in fur and small enough to fit under an airplane seat.

Most of the rest of my life has remained largely unchanged: Still in grad school, still living in the same city, still anxious about my uncertain career prospects. Trump is still President, and still somehow managing to outdo his own high standards of unreasonableness. I do feel some sense of progress now, some glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel. I can vaguely envision finishing my dissertation some time this year, and I’m hoping that in a couple years I’ll have settled into a job that actually pays well enough to start paying down my student loans, and we’ll have a good President (or at least Biden).

I’ve reached the point where people ask me what I am going to do next with my life. I want to give an answer, but the problem is, this is almost entirely out of my control. I’ll go wherever I end up getting job offers. Based on the experience of past cohorts, most people seem to apply to about 200 positions, interview for about 20, and get offers from about 2. So asking me where I’ll work in five years is like asking me what number I’m going to roll on a 100-sided die. I could probably tell you what order I would prioritize offers in, more or less; but even that would depend a great deal on the details. There are difficult tradeoffs to be made: Take a private sector offer with higher pay, or stay in academia for more autonomy and security? Accept a postdoc or adjunct position at a prestigious university, or go for an assistant professorship at a lower-ranked college?

I guess I can say that I do still plan to stay in academia, though I’m less certain of that than I once was; I will definitely cast a wider net. I suppose the job market isn’t like that for most people? I imagine most people at least know what city they’ll be living in. (I’m not even positive what country—opportunities for behavioral economics actually seem to be generally better in Europe and Australia than they are in the US.)

But perhaps most people simply aren’t as cognizant of how random and contingent their own career paths truly were. The average number of job changes per career is 12. You may want to think that you chose where you ended up, but for the most part you landed where the wind blew you. This can seem tragic in a way, but it is also a call for compassion: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Really, all I can do now is hang on and try to enjoy the ride.

Darkest Before the Dawn: Bayesian Impostor Syndrome

Jan 12 JDN 2458860

At the time of writing, I have just returned from my second Allied Social Sciences Association Annual Meeting, the AEA’s annual conference (or AEA and friends, I suppose, since there several other, much smaller economics and finance associations are represented as well). This one was in San Diego, which made it considerably cheaper for me to attend than last year’s. Alas, next year’s conference will be in Chicago. At least flights to Chicago tend to be cheap because it’s a major hub.

My biggest accomplishment of the conference was getting some face-time and career advice from Colin Camerer, the Caltech economist who literally wrote the book on behavioral game theory. Otherwise I would call the conference successful, but not spectacular. Some of the talks were much better than others; I think I liked the one by Emmanuel Saez best, and I also really liked the one on procrastination by Matthew Gibson. I was mildly disappointed by Ben Bernanke’s keynote address; maybe I would have found it more compelling if I were more focused on macroeconomics.

But while sitting through one of the less-interesting seminars I had a clever little idea, which may help explain why Impostor Syndrome seems to occur so frequently even among highly competent, intelligent people. This post is going to be more technical than most, so be warned: Here There Be Bayes. If you fear yon algebra and wish to skip it, I have marked below a good place for you to jump back in.

Suppose there are two types of people, high talent H and low talent L. (In reality there is of course a wide range of talents, so I could assign a distribution over that range, but it would complicate the model without really changing the conclusions.) You don’t know which one you are; all you know is a prior probability h that you are high-talent. It doesn’t matter too much what h is, but for concreteness let’s say h = 0.50; you’ve got to be in the top 50% to be considered “high-talent”.

You are engaged in some sort of activity that comes with a high risk of failure. Many creative endeavors fit this pattern: Perhaps you are a musician looking for a producer, an actor looking for a gig, an author trying to secure an agent, or a scientist trying to publish in a journal. Or maybe you’re a high school student applying to college, or a unemployed worker submitting job applications.

If you are high-talent, you’re more likely to succeed—but still very likely to fail. And even low-talent people don’t always fail; sometimes you just get lucky. Let’s say the probability of success if you are high-talent is p, and if you are low-talent, the probability of success is q. The precise value depends on the domain; but perhaps p = 0.10 and q = 0.02.

Finally, let’s suppose you are highly rational, a good and proper Bayesian. You update all your probabilities based on your observations, precisely as you should.

How will you feel about your talent, after a series of failures?

More precisely, what posterior probability will you assign to being a high-talent individual, after a series of n+k attempts, of which k met with success and n met with failure?

Since failure is likely even if you are high-talent, you shouldn’t update your probability too much on a failurebut each failure should, in fact, lead to revising your probability downward.

Conversely, since success is rare, it should cause you to revise your probability upward—and, as will become important, your revisions upon success should be much larger than your revisions upon failure.

We begin as any good Bayesian does, with Bayes’ Law:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] P[H] / P[(~S)^n (S)^k]

In words, this reads: The posterior probability of being high-talent, given that you have observed k successes and n failures, is equal to the probability of observing such an outcome, given that you are high-talent, times the prior probability of being high-skill, divided by the prior probability of observing such an outcome.

We can compute the probabilities on the right-hand side using the binomial distribution:

P[H] = h

P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n

P[(~S)^n (S)^k] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n h + (n+k C k) q^k (1-q)^n (1-h)

Plugging all this back in and canceling like terms yields:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = 1/(1 + [1-h/h] [q/p]^k [(1-q)/(1-p)]^n)

This turns out to be particularly convenient in log-odds form:

L[X] = ln [ P(X)/P(~X) ]

L[(~S)^n) (S)^k|H] = ln [h/(1-h)] + k ln [p/q] + n ln [(1-p)/(1-q)]

Since p > q, ln[p/q] is a positive number, while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] is a negative number. This corresponds to the fact that you will increase your posterior when you observe a success (k increases by 1) and decrease your posterior when you observe a failure (n increases by 1).

But when p and q are small, it turns out that ln[p/q] is much larger in magnitude than ln[(1-p)/(1-q)]. For the numbers I gave above, p = 0.10 and q = 0.02, ln[p/q] = 1.609 while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] = -0.085. You will therefore update substantially more upon a success than on a failure.

Yet successes are rare! This means that any given success will most likely be first preceded by a sequence of failures. This results in what I will call the darkest-before-dawn effect: Your opinion of your own talent will tend to be at its very worst in the moments just preceding a major success.

I’ve graphed the results of a few simulations illustrating this: On the X-axis is the number of overall attempts made thus far, and on the Y-axis is the posterior probability of being high-talent. The simulated individual undergoes randomized successes and failures with the probabilities I chose above.

Bayesian_Impostor_full

There are 10 simulations on that one graph, which may make it a bit confusing. So let’s focus in on two runs in particular, which turned out to be run 6 and run 10:

[If you skipped over the math, here’s a good place to come back. Welcome!]

Bayesian_Impostor_focus

Run 6 is a lucky little devil. They had an immediate success, followed by another success in their fourth attempt. As a result, they quickly update their posterior to conclude that they are almost certainly a high-talent individual, and even after a string of failures beyond that they never lose faith.

Run 10, on the other hand, probably has Impostor Syndrome. Failure after failure after failure slowly eroded their self-esteem, leading them to conclude that they are probably a low-talent individual. And then, suddenly, a miracle occurs: On their 20th attempt, at last they succeed, and their whole outlook changes; perhaps they are high-talent after all.

Note that all the simulations are of high-talent individuals. Run 6 and run 10 are equally competent. Ex ante, the probability of success for run 6 and run 10 was exactly the same. Moreover, both individuals are completely rational, in the sense that they are doing perfect Bayesian updating.

And yet, if you compare their self-evaluations after the 19th attempt, they could hardly look more different: Run 6 is 85% sure that they are high-talent, even though they’ve been in a slump for the last 13 attempts. Run 10, on the other hand, is 83% sure that they are low-talent, because they’ve never succeeded at all.

It is darkest just before the dawn: Run 10’s self-evaluation is at its very lowest right before they finally have a success, at which point their self-esteem surges upward, almost to baseline. With just one more success, their opinion of themselves would in fact converge to the same as Run 6’s.

This may explain, at least in part, why Impostor Syndrome is so common. When successes are few and far between—even for the very best and brightest—then a string of failures is the most likely outcome for almost everyone, and it can be difficult to tell whether you are so bright after all. Failure after failure will slowly erode your self-esteem (and should, in some sense; you’re being a good Bayesian!). You’ll observe a few lucky individuals who get their big break right away, and it will only reinforce your fear that you’re not cut out for this (whatever this is) after all.

Of course, this model is far too simple: People don’t just come in “talented” and “untalented” varieties, but have a wide range of skills that lie on a continuum. There are degrees of success and failure as well: You could get published in some obscure field journal hardly anybody reads, or in the top journal in your discipline. You could get into the University of Northwestern Ohio, or into Harvard. And people face different barriers to success that may have nothing to do with talent—perhaps why marginalized people such as women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities tend to have the highest rates of Impostor Syndrome. But I think the overall pattern is right: People feel like impostors when they’ve experienced a long string of failures, even when that is likely to occur for everyone.

What can be done with this information? Well, it leads me to three pieces of advice:

1. When success is rare, find other evidence. If truly “succeeding” (whatever that means in your case) is unlikely on any given attempt, don’t try to evaluate your own competence based on that extremely noisy signal. Instead, look for other sources of data: Do you seem to have the kinds of skills that people who succeed in your endeavors have—preferably based on the most objective measures you can find? Do others who know you or your work have a high opinion of your abilities and your potential? This, perhaps is the greatest mistake we make when falling prey to Impostor Syndrome: We imagine that we have somehow “fooled” people into thinking we are competent, rather than realizing that other people’s opinions of us are actually evidence that we are in fact competent. Use this evidence. Update your posterior on that.

2. Don’t over-update your posterior on failures—and don’t under-update on successes. Very few living humans (if any) are true and proper Bayesians. We use a variety of heuristics when judging probability, most notably the representative and availability heuristics. These will cause you to over-respond to failures, because this string of failures makes you “look like” the kind of person who would continue to fail (representative), and you can’t conjure to mind any clear examples of success (availability). Keeping this in mind, your update upon experiencing failure should be small, probably as small as you can make it. Conversely, when you do actually succeed, even in a small way, don’t dismiss it. Don’t look for reasons why it was just luck—it’s always luck, at least in part, for everyone. Try to update your self-evaluation more when you succeed, precisely because success is rare for everyone.

3. Don’t lose hope. The next one really could be your big break. While astronomically baffling (no, it’s darkest at midnight, in between dusk and dawn!), “it is always darkest before the dawn” really does apply here. You are likely to feel the worst about yourself at the very point where you are about to finally succeed. The lowest self-esteem you ever feel will be just before you finally achieve a major success. Of course, you can’t know if the next one will be it—or if it will take five, or ten, or twenty more tries. And yes, each new failure will hurt a little bit more, make you doubt yourself a little bit more. But if you are properly grounded by what others think of your talents, you can stand firm, until that one glorious day comes and you finally make it.

Now, if I could only manage to take my own advice….

Tithing makes quite a lot of sense

Dec 22 JDN 2458840

Christmas is coming soon, and it is a season of giving: Not only gifts to those we love, but also to charities that help people around the world. It’s a theme of some of our most classic Christmas stories, like A Christmas Carol. (I do have to admit: Scrooge really isn’t wrong for not wanting to give to some random charity without any chance to evaluate it. But I also get the impression he wasn’t giving a lot to evaluated charities either.) And people do really give more around this time of year: Charitable donation rates peak in November and December (though that may also have something to do with tax deductions).

Where should we give? This is not an easy question, but it’s one that we now have tools to answer: There are various independent charity evaluation agencies, like GiveWell and Charity Navigator, which can at least provide some idea of which charities are most cost-effective.

How much should we give? This question is a good deal harder.

Perhaps a perfect being would determine their own precise marginal utility of wealth, and the marginal utility of spending on every possible charity, and give of your wealth to the best possible charity up until those two marginal utilities are equal. Since $1 to UNICEF or the Against Malaria Foundation saves about 0.02 QALY, and (unless you’re a billionaire) you don’t have enough money to meaningfully affect the budget of UNICEF, you’d probably need to give until you are yourself at the UN poverty level of $1.90 per day.

I don’t know of anyone who does this. Even Peter Singer, who writes books that essentially tell us to do this, doesn’t do this. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to do this. Indeed, I’m not even so sure that a perfect being would do it, since it would require destroying their own life and their own future potential.

How about we all give 10%? In other words, how about we tithe? Yes, it sounds arbitrary—because it is. It could just as well have been 8% or 11%. Perhaps one-tenth feels natural to a base-10 culture made of 10-fingered beings, and if we used a base-12 numeral system we’d think in terms of giving one-twelfth instead. But 10% feels reasonable to a lot of people, it has a lot of cultural support behind it already, and it has become a Schelling point for coordination on this otherwise intractable problem. We need to draw the line somewhere, and it might as well be there.

As Slate Star Codex put it:

It’s ten percent because that’s the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in whichever way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.

I think it would be also reasonable to adjust this proportion according to your household income. If you are extremely poor, give a token amount: Perhaps 1% or 2%. (As it stands, most poor people already give more than this, and most rich people give less.) If you are somewhat below the median household income, give a bit less: Perhaps 6% or 8%. (I currently give 8%; I plan to increase to 10% once I get a higher-paying job after graduation.) If you are somewhat above, give a bit more: Perhaps 12% or 15%. If you are spectacularly rich, maybe you should give as much as 25%.

Is 10% enough? Well, actually, if everyone gave, even 1% would probably be enough. The total GDP of the First World is about $40 trillion; 1% of that is $400 billion per year, which is more than enough to end world hunger. But since we know that not everyone will give, we need to adjust our standard upward so that those who do give will give enough. (There’s actually an optimization problem here which is basically equivalent to finding a monopoly’s profit-maximizing price.) And just ending world hunger probably isn’t enough; there is plenty of disease to cure, education to improve, research to do, and ecology to protect. If say a third of First World people give 10%, that would be about $1.3 trillion, which would be enough money to at least make a huge difference in all those areas.

You can decide for yourself where you think you should draw the line. But 10% is a pretty good benchmark, and above all—please, give something. If you give anything, you are probably already above average. A large proportion of people give nothing at all. (Only 24% of US tax returns include a charitable deduction—though, to be fair, a lot of us donate but don’t itemize deductions. Even once you account for that, only about 60% of US households give to charity in any given year.)

Mental illness is different from physical illness.

Post 311 Oct 13 JDN 2458770

There’s something I have heard a lot of people say about mental illness that is obviously well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided: “Mental illness is just like physical illness.”

Sometimes they say it explicitly in those terms. Other times they make analogies, like “If you wouldn’t shame someone with diabetes for using insulin, why shame someone with depression for using SSRIs?”

Yet I don’t think this line of argument will ever meaningfully reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, because, well, it’s obviously not true.

There are some characteristics of mental illness that are analogous to physical illness—but there are some that really are quite different. And these are not just superficial differences, the way that pancreatic disease is different from liver disease. No one would say that liver cancer is exactly the same as pancreatic cancer; but they’re both obviously of the same basic category. There are differences between physical and mental illness which are both obvious, and fundamental.

Here’s the biggest one: Talk therapy works on mental illness.

You can’t talk yourself out of diabetes. You can’t talk yourself out of myocardial infarct. You can’t even talk yourself out of migraine (though I’ll get back to that one in a little bit). But you can, in a very important sense, talk yourself out of depression.

In fact, talk therapy is one of the most effective treatments for most mental disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy for depression is on its own as effective as most antidepressants (with far fewer harmful side effects), and the two combined are clearly more effective than either alone. Talk therapy is as effective as medication on bipolar disorder, and considerably better on social anxiety disorder.

To be clear: Talk therapy is not just people telling you to cheer up, or saying it’s “all in your head”, or suggesting that you get more exercise or eat some chocolate. Nor does it consist of you ruminating by yourself and trying to talk yourself out of your disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a very complex, sophisticated series of techniques that require years of expert training to master. Yet, at its core, cognitive therapy really is just a very sophisticated form of talking.

The fact that mental disorders can be so strongly affected by talk therapy shows that there really is an important sense in which mental disorders are “all in your head”, and not just the trivial way that an axe wound or even a migraine is all in your head. It isn’t just the fact that it is physically located in your brain that makes a mental disorder different; it’s something deeper than that.

Here’s the best analogy I can come up with: Physical illness is hardware. Mental illness is software.

If a computer breaks after being dropped on the floor, that’s like an axe wound: An obvious, traumatic source of physical damage that is an unambiguous cause of the failure.

If a computer’s CPU starts overheating, that’s like a physical illness, like diabetes: There may be no particular traumatic cause, or even any clear cause at all, but there is obviously something physically wrong that needs physical intervention to correct.

But if a computer is suffering glitches and showing error messages when it tries to run particular programs, that is like mental illness: Something is wrong not on the low-level hardware, but on the high-level software.

These different types of problem require different types of solutions. If your CPU is overheating, you might want to see about replacing your cooling fan or your heat sink. But if your software is glitching while your CPU is otherwise running fine, there’s no point in replacing your fan or heat sink. You need to get a programmer in there to look at the code and find out where it’s going wrong. A talk therapist is like a programmer: The words they say to you are like code scripts they’re trying to get your processor to run correctly.

Of course, our understanding of computers is vastly better than our understanding of human brains, and as a result, programmers tend to get a lot better results than psychotherapists. (Interestingly they do actually get paid about the same, though! Programmers make about 10% more on average than psychotherapists, and both are solidly within the realm of average upper-middle-class service jobs.) But the basic process is the same: Using your expert knowledge of the system, find the right set of inputs that will fix the underlying code and solve the problem. At no point do you physically intervene on the system; you could do it remotely without ever touching it—and indeed, remote talk therapy is a thing.

What about other neurological illnesses, like migraine or fibromyalgia? Well, I think these are somewhere in between. They’re definitely more physical in some sense than a mental disorder like depression. There isn’t any cognitive content to a migraine the way there is to a depressive episode. When I feel depressed or anxious, I feel depressed or anxious about something. But there’s nothing a migraine is about. To use the technical term in cognitive science, neurological disorders lack the intentionality that mental disorders generally have. “What are you depressed about?” is a question you usually can answer. “What are you migrained about?” generally isn’t.

But like mental disorders, neurological disorders are directly linked to the functioning of the brain, and often seem to operate at a higher level of functional abstraction. The brain doesn’t have pain receptors on itself the way most of your body does; getting a migraine behind your left eye doesn’t actually mean that that specific lobe of your brain is what’s malfunctioning. It’s more like a general alert your brain is sending out that something is wrong, somewhere. And fibromyalgia often feels like it’s taking place in your entire body at once. Moreover, most neurological disorders are strongly correlated with mental disorders—indeed, the comorbidity of depression with migraine and fibromyalgia in particular is extremely high.

Which disorder causes the other? That’s a surprisingly difficult question. Intuitively we might expect the “more physical” disorder to be the primary cause, but that’s not always clear. Successful treatment for depression often improves symptoms of migraine and fibromyalgia as well (though the converse is also true). They seem to be mutually reinforcing one another, and it’s not at all clear which came first. I suppose if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the pain disorders probably have causal precedence over the mood disorders, but I don’t actually know that for a fact.

To stretch my analogy a little, it may be like a software problem that ends up causing a hardware problem, or a hardware problem that ends up causing a software problem. There actually have been a few examples of this, like games with graphics so demanding that they caused GPUs to overheat.

The human brain is a lot more complicated than a computer, and the distinction between software and hardware is fuzzier; we don’t actually have “code” that runs on a “processor”. We have synapses that continually fire on and off and rewire each other. The closest thing we have to code that gets processed in sequence would be our genome, and that is several orders of magnitude less complex than the structure of our brains. Aside from simply physically copying the entire brain down to every synapse, it’s not clear that you could ever “download” a mind, science fiction notwithstanding.

Indeed, anything that changes your mind necessarily also changes your brain; the effects of talking are generally subtler than the effects of a drug (and certainly subtler than the effects of an axe wound!), but they are nevertheless real, physical changes. (This is why it is so idiotic whenever the popular science press comes out with: “New study finds that X actually changes your brain!” where X might be anything from drinking coffee to reading romance novels. Of course it does! If it has an effect on your mind, it did so by having an effect on your brain. That’s the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science.) This is not so different from computers, however: Any change in software is also a physical change, in the form of some sequence of electrical charges that were moved from one place to another. Actual physical electrons are a few microns away from where they otherwise would have been because of what was typed into that code.

Of course I want to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. (For both selfish and altruistic reasons, really.) But blatantly false assertions don’t seem terribly productive toward that goal. Mental illness is different from physical illness; we can’t treat it the same.

Procrastination is an anxiety symptom

Aug 18 JDN 2458715

Why do we procrastinate? Some people are chronic procrastinators, while others only do it on occasion, but almost everyone procrastinates: We have something important to do, and we should be working on it, but we find ourselves doing anything else we can think of—cleaning is a popular choice—rather than actually getting to work. This continues until we get so close to the deadline that we have no choice but to rush through the work, lest it not get done at all. The result is more stress and lower-quality work. Why would we put ourselves through this?

There are a few different reasons why people may procrastinate. The one that most behavioral economists lean toward is hyperbolic discounting: Because we undervalue the future relative to the present, we set aside unpleasant tasks for later, when it seems they won’t be as bad.

This could be relevant in some cases, particularly for those who chronically procrastinate on a wide variety of tasks, but I find it increasingly unconvincing.

First of all, there’s the fact that many of the things we do while procrastinating are not particularly pleasant. Some people procrastinate by playing games, but even more procrastinate by cleaning house or reorganizing their desks. These aren’t enjoyable activities that you would want to do as soon as possible to maximize the joy.

Second, most people don’t procrastinate consistently on everything. We procrastinate on particular types of tasks—things we consider particularly important, as a matter of fact. I almost never procrastinate in general: I complete tasks early, I plan ahead, I am always (over)prepared. But lately I’ve been procrastinating on three tasks in particular: Revising my second-year paper to submit to journals, writing grant proposals, and finishing my third-year paper. These tasks are all academic, of course; they all involve a great deal of intellectual effort. But above all, they are high stakes. I didn’t procrastinate on homework for classes, but I’m procrastinating on finishing my dissertation.

Another common explanation for procrastination involves self-control: We can’t stop ourselves from doing whatever seems fun at the moment, when we should be getting down to work on what really matters.

This explanation is even worse: There is no apparent correlation between propensity to procrastinate and general impulsiveness—or, if anything, the correlation seems to be negative. The people I know who procrastinate the most consistently are the least impulsive; they tend to ponder and deliberate every decision, even small decisions for which the extra time spent clearly isn’t worth it.

The explanation I find much more convincing is that procrastination isn’t about self-control or time at all. It’s about anxiety. Procrastination is a form of avoidance: We don’t want to face the painful experience, so we stay away from it as long as we can.

This is certainly how procrastination feels for me: It’s not that I can’t stop myself from doing something fun, it’s that I can’t bring myself to face this particular task that is causing me overwhelming stress.

This also explains why it’s always something important that we procrastinate on: It’s precisely things with high stakes that are going to cause a lot of painful feelings. And anxiety itself is deeply linked to the fear of negative evaluation—which is exactly what you’re afraid of when submitting to a journal or applying for a grant. Usually it’s a bit more metaphorical than that, the “evaluation” of being judged by your peers; but here we are literally talking about a written evaluation from a reviewer.

This is why the most effective methods at reducing procrastination all involve reducing your anxiety surrounding the task. In fact, one of the most important is forgiving yourself for prior failings—including past procrastination. Students who were taught to forgive themselves for procrastinating were less likely to procrastinate in the future. If this were a matter of self-control, forgiving yourself should be counterproductive; but in fact it’s probably the most effective intervention.

Unsurprisingly, those with the highest stress level had the highest rates of procrastination (causality could run both ways there); but this is much less true for those who are good at practicing self-compassion. The idea behind self-compassion is very simple: Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat someone you care about.

I am extraordinarily bad at self-compassion. It is probably my greatest weakness. If we were to measure self-compassion by the gap between how kind you are to yourself and how kind you are to others, I would probably have one of the largest gaps in the world. Compassion for others has been a driving force in my life for as long as I can remember, and I put my money where my mouth is, giving at least 8% of my gross income to top-rated international charities every year. But compassion for myself feels inauthentic, even alien; I brutally punish myself for every failure, every moment of weakness. If someone else treated me the way I treat myself, I’d consider them abusive. It’s something I’ve struggled with for many years.

Really, the wonder is that I don’t procrastinate more; I think it’s because I’m already doing most of the things that people will tell you to do to avoid procrastination, like scheduling specific tasks to specific times and prioritizing a small number of important tasks each day. I even keep track of how I actually use my time (I call it “descriptive scheduling”, as opposed to conventional “normative scheduling”), and use that information to make my future schedules more realistic—thus avoiding or at least mitigating the planning fallacy. But when it’s just too intimidating to even look at the paper I’m supposed to be revising, none of that works.

If you too are struggling with procrastination (and odds of that are quite high), I’m afraid that I don’t have any brilliant advice for you today. I can recommend those scheduling techniques, and they may help; but the ultimate cause of procrastination is not bad scheduling or planning but something much deeper: anxiety about the task itself and being evaluated upon it. Procrastination is not laziness or lack of self-control: It’s an anxiety symptom.