The more one does, the more one can do.
Have you ever felt cold in an office? Or noticed how many women complain about the office being chilly?
That’s because the standard room temperature was devised using a 40-year-old man weighing 154 pounds to calculate the default metabolic rate.
In fact, because of biological differences (some in a study here), on average, women prefer the indoor room temperature to be 77. Men? 71. Of course people are unique, but the gender differences in these averages is robust. Robust enough so that you’ve probably noticed it. (Feeling uncomfortably cold in an office can actually take a toll on your productivity.)
The point is that selection bias can impact findings easily, even when we don’t realize it. Selection bias refers to the way that a non-random selection of research subjects can skew (bias) the results. If I was at a basketball game and “randomly” wandered down to the court and measured the height of five players, I shouldn’t use that data to make a claim about the average height of men in the arena.
Selection bias creeps up in psychology studies all the time—even when we don’t realize it.
Surely you’ve heard of The Marshmallow Test. If not: a researcher at Stanford named Walter Mischel began testing kids’ ability to delay gratification. In his seminal study, he placed children in front of a piece of candy. Before he left them alone with it, he told them that if they could hold off eating it until one of the researchers returned—roughly 15 minutes—they’d be ultimately be rewarded with two marshmallows.
The children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow not only scored higher on their SATs, but reached higher levels of career success than their grabby peers. They were less likely to abuse substances or be obese; even their relationships were better. In a huge follow-up study 40 years after the original one, researchers found differences in how the brains of “delayers” and the “nondelayers” responded to rewards.
Well, duh. Isn’t it obvious that the ability to delay gratification is important? James Clear made that the theme in “40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed.” Angela Duckworth’s famous TED talk on grit also hammered this idea. Keeping your eyes on the prize over the long term is crucial for success. Grit, the ability to delay gratification, perseverance, self-regulation, self-control—whatever you want to call it—leads to good things. But not always.
The problem with the original study was the selection bias in Mischel’s studies.
“The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children—all enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus.” [Atlantic article]
In other words, the kids who participated in the study did not represent a random sample from the population at large. They were upper middle class and white. Their parents had some affiliation with Stanford—even if just living in that area. They were the perfect example of what Joseph Henreich called WEIRD in a famous paper: Western, Educated, Individual, Rich, and Democratic.
“In restaging the experiment, Watts and his colleagues thus adjusted the experimental design in important ways: The researchers used a sample that was much larger—more than 900 children—and also more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education.” [Atlantic]
According to Psychological Science: “The results showed that, although children who were able to wait and resist temptation tended to have stronger math and reading skills in adolescence, the association was small and disappeared after the researchers controlled for characteristics of the child’s family and early environment.”
Behavior is the product of both the person and the situation. This is a form of attribution bias: thinking that not waiting for the marshmallow points to ingrained flaws in someone’s character, when in fact not waiting may just be a rational response to an otherwise shitty situation.
What if you, as a kid, had seen people wait for the marshmallow and come up empty-handed? What if an adult who promised you a marshmallow never followed through? What if you had seen that scenario play out several times?
External circumstances and environments exert a compelling impact on our lives, teaching us when and where our efforts are even worthwhile. It’s logical—it’s how we learn. People repeat behaviors that have been rewarded in the past. If you learn that hard work and patience will pay off and make that effort worthwhile, you’re more likely to try.
If you have a hard time waiting for the second marshmallow, consider your past experiences. For example, suffering from a macroeconomic shock (seeing scads of second marshmallows being yanked away) can alter your entire life, if it happens at a critical moment in your life.
In “Growing Up in a Recession,” Italian economists found that this can happen to an entire generation:
We find that individuals who experienced a recession when young believe that success in life depends more on luck than effort, support more government redistribution, and tend to vote for left-wing parties. The effect of recessions on beliefs is long-lasting.
Remember: waiting, being patient, and being able to delay gratification are adaptive behaviors. But they’re much easier to develop and practice if you’ve always had people follow through.
A year ago at this time, I was getting feedback on my book and making a few final tweaks to the website. The designer I hired—well, let’s just say that I learned a lot about who to hire. The big takeaway was this: to avoid making a decision you’ll regret, always start looking for something well before you actually need it.
•Are you single? Don’t date if you’re lonely or really dislike being alone. Desperation is a surefire way to end up in an abysmal, subpar relationship.
•Are you thinking about hiring someone to expand your team? Start putting out feelers. Now.
•Think you’re going to have a big presentation, date, interview? Start browsing for work clothes now, not just the night beforehand.
•Do you want a new job? Don’t wait until you hate going to work to look for a new gig. Don’t wait until your bank account is getting close to zero.
“Choices do more than reveal preferences; they also reflect subtle, yet often quite reasonable, dependencies on the environment.” (source)
Don’t get me wrong—constraints are good! They’re necessary, because if we don’t make a decision, we’ll never get anything done.
But the downfall of a time constraint is that when we think we have to choose—and, like, soon—it can become incredibly easy to make a subpar decision. Our brain is remarkably efficient at factoring in real world constraints, without even realizing it. When you know that any choice is better than no choice, you stop collecting data and start zeroing in on an option, ultimately choosing whatever the best option seems to be—out of whatever options you think you have.
Why else would so many online retailers put up banner ads, counting down how many hours are left in a sale? (Do you really think that Banana Republic isn’t going to sell you that sweater tomorrow?) I’ve seen many friends wind up in relationships best described as “meh” because they’ve fallen victim to the false ticking of their biological clock. We look at someone, think “this is a human who has agreed to spend time with me,” and try to make it work. You might end up taking a subpar job that sets your career back. Out of loneliness, you might become friends with people who don’t share your values. You get that shirt that you never end up wearing again, simply because you needed something that would cover your tattoos the next day and you really hate shopping.
I make the best decisions when I’m not actively looking for something. Most of us do. That’s when we stop unknowingly limiting ourselves to “the three options that happen to be in front of me right now.”
Instead, we’ve waited until something is so great that it grabs our attention, distinguishing itself from everything else in the environment.
To make the best choice? Stop actively looking. Think about “things you’d like to do someday” (hire, date, furnish your living room, take a class), and let that simmer in the back of your mind. Don’t pick something because you feel like you need it: pick something that you really want. Let the thing find you.
Do you want to date someone who’s a little bit cuter? Someone who seems out of your league? Allow me to take all the
fun mystery out of dating.
Unsurprisingly, everyone wants to end up with the person we find most attractive. But dating is two-sided: we can’t just “choose” someone, since they also have to think of us as a catch. This creates a two-sided marketplace. How high do you aim? But more importantly: who do you decide to pursue?
Most of the time, we pursue someone who looks the part: someone cute who finds us cute. Someone who looks like they’d be a good significant other. But the long road, a.k.a. the slow burn, is the best method to figuring out other people. Don’t immediately pursue others or put them in the friend zone. The way we learn about other people means that we often mistakenly let single or meaningless traits define the way we see them. Suspend judgment. Don’t think you have an idea of how you’ll end up relating to someone. Be patient.
Learned helplessness: it’s not just for dogs in Pennsylvania anymore. Change your world!
WYSIATI: the focusing illusion! Because we overemphasize the information that’s in front of our face, we don’t even realize how little we know. It’s easy to say that others who have what we want are lucky, simply because we often fail to see how different their lives are from our own.
Thank you, Daniel Kahneman, for helping me become the fittest female at my gym. You are the patron saint of my abs.