The Hidden Brain.

I’ve become a huge fan of the NPR prodcast The Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam, a journalist whose 2010 book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives spawned the podcast and a regular radio program on NPR. Covering how our subconscious mind influences our decisions in ways that traditional economists would call ‘irrational’ but modern behavioral economists recognize as typical human behavior, Vedantam’s book is a great introduction to this increasingly important way of understanding how people act and think.

Vedantam walks the reader through these theories via concrete examples, much as he now does in the podcast – this week’s episode, “Why Now?” about the #MeToo movement and our society’s sudden decision to pay attention to these women, is among its best. Some of the stories in the book are shocking and/or hard to believe, but they’re true and serve to emphasize these seemingly counterintuitive concepts. He discusses a rape victim who had focused on remembering details about her attacker, and was 100% sure she’d correctly identified the man who raped her – but thirteen years after the man she identified was convicted of the crime, a DNA test showed she was wrong, and she then discovered a specific detail she’d overlooked at the time of the investigation because no one asked her the ‘right’ question. This is a conscientious, intelligent woman who was certain of her memories, and she still made a mistake.

Another example that particularly stuck with me was how people react in the face of imminent danger or catastrophe. Just before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the sea receded from coastal areas, a typical feature before a tidal wave hits. Vedantam cites reports from multiple areas where people living in those regions “gathered to discuss the phenomenon” and “asked one another what was happening,” instead of running like hell for high ground. Similar reports came from the World Trade Center after 9/11. People in those instances didn’t rely on their instincts to flee, but sought confirmation from others nearby – if you don’t run, maybe I don’t need to run either. In this case, he points to the evolutionary history of man, where staying with the group was typically the safe move in the face of danger; if running were the dominant, successful strategy for survival, that would still be our instinct today. It even explains why multiple bystanders did not help Deletha Word, a woman who was nearly beaten to death in a road-rage incident on the packed Belle Isle bridge in Detroit in 1996 – if no one else helped her, why should I?

Vedantam’s writing and speaking style offers a perfect blend of colloquial storytelling and evidence-based arguments. He interviews transgender people who describe the changes attitudes they encounter between before and after their outward appearances changed. (One transgender man says, “I can even complete a whole sentence [post-transition] without being interrupted by a man.) And he looks at data on racial disparities in sentencing convicted criminals to death – including data that show darker-skinned blacks are more likely to receive a death sentence than lighter-skinned blacks.

The last chapter of The Hidden Brain came up last week on Twitter, where I retweeted a link to a story in the New York Times from the wife of a former NFL player, describing her husband’s apparent symptoms of serious brain trauma. One slightly bizarre response I received was that this was an “appeal to emotion” argument – I wasn’t arguing anything, just sharing a story I thought was well-written and worth reading – because it was a single datum rather than an extensive study. Vedantam points out, with examples and some research, that the human brain does much better at understanding the suffering of one than at understanding the suffering of many. He tells how the story of a dog named Hokget, lost in the Pacific on an abandoned ship, spurred people to donate thousands of dollars, with money coming from 39 states and four countries. ( An excerpt from this chapter is still online on The Week‘s site.) So why were people so quick to send money to save one dog when they’re so much less likely to send money when they hear of mass suffering, like genocide or disaster victims in Asia or Africa? Because, Vedantam argues, we process the suffering of an individual in a more “visceral” sense than we do the more abstract suffering of many – and he cites experimental data from psychologist Paul Slovic to back it up.

The Hidden Brain could have been twice as long and I would still have devoured it; Vedantam’s writing is much like his podcast narration, breezy yet never dumbed down, thoroughly explanatory without becoming dense or patronizing. If you enjoy books in the Thinking Fast and Slow or Everybody Lies vein, you’ll enjoy both this title and the podcast, which has become one of my go-to listens to power me through mindless chores around the house.

Everything is Obvious.

Duncan Watts’ book Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us fits in well in the recent string of books explaining or demonstrating how the way we think often leads us astray. As with Thinking Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Watts’ book highlights some specific cognitive biases, notably our overreliance on what we consider “common sense,” lead us to false conclusions, especially in the spheres of the social sciences, with clear ramifications in the business and political worlds as well as some strong messages for journalists who always seek to graft narratives on to facts as if the latter were inevitable outcomes.

The argument from common sense is one of the most frequently seen logical fallacies out there – X must be true because common sense says it’s true. But common sense itself is, of course, inherently limited; our common sense is the result of our individual and collective experiences, not something innate given to us by God or contained in our genes. Given the human cognitive tendency to assign explanations to every event, even those that are the result of random chance, this is a recipe for bad results, whether it’s the fawning over a CEO who had little or nothing to do with his company’s strong results or top-down policy prescriptions that lead to billions in wasted foreign aid.

Watts runs through various cognitive biases and illusions that you may have encountered in other works, although a few of them were new to me, like the Matthew Effect, by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. According to the theory behind it, the Matthew Effect argues that success breeds success, because it means those people get greater opportunities going forward. A band that has a hit album will get greater airplay for its next record, even if that isn’t as good as the first one, or markedly inferior to an album released on the same day by an unknown artist. A good student born into privilege will have a better chance to attend a fancy-pants college, like, say, Harfurd, and thus benefits further from having the prestigious brand name on his resume. A writer who has nearly half a million Twitter followers might find it easier to land a deal for a major publisher to produce his book, Smart Baseball, available in stores now, and that major publisher then has the contacts and resources to ensure the book is reviewed in critical publications. It could be that the book sells well because it’s a good book, but I doubt it.

Watts similarly dispenses with the ‘great man theory of history’ – and with history in general, if we’re being honest. He points out that historical accounts will always include judgments or information that was not available to actors at the time of these events, citing the example of a soldier wandering around the battlefield in War and Peace, noticing that the realities of war look nothing like the genteel paintings of battle scenes hanging in Russian drawing rooms. He asks if the Mona Lisa, which wasn’t regarded as the world’s greatest painting or even its most famous until it was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian nationalist before World War II, ascended to that status because of innate qualities of the painting – or if circumstances pushed it to the top, and only after the fact do art experts argue for its supremacy based on the fact that it’s already become the Mona Lisa of legend. In other words, the Mona Lisa may be great simply because it’s the Mona Lisa, and perhaps had the disgruntled employee stolen another painting, da Vinci’s masterpiece would be seen as just another painting. (His description of seeing the painting for the first time mirrored my own: It’s kind of small, and because it’s behind shatterproof glass, you can’t really get close it.)

Without directly referring to it, Watts also perfectly describes the inexcusable habit of sportswriters to assign huge portions of the credit for team successes to head coaches or managers rather than distributing the credit across the entire team or even the organization. I’ve long used the example of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks as a team that won the World Series in spite of the best efforts of its manager, Bob Brenly, to give the series away – repeatedly playing small ball (like bunting) in front of Luis Gonzalez, who’d hit 57 homers that year, and using Byung-Hyun Kim in save situations when it was clear he wasn’t the optimal choice. Only the superhuman efforts by Randy Johnson and That Guy managed to save the day for Arizona, and even then, it took a rare misplay by Mariano Rivera and a weakly hit single to an open spot on the field for the Yanks to lose. Yet Brenly will forever be a “World Series-winning manager,” even though there’s no evidence he did anything to make the win possible. Being present when a big success happens can change a person’s reputation for a long time, and then future successes may be ascribed to that person even if he had nothing to do with them.

Another cognitive bias Watts discusses, the Halo Effect, seems particularly relevant to my work evaluating and ranking prospects. First named by psychologist Edward Thorndike, the Halo Effect refers to our tendency to apply positive impressions of a person, group, or company to their other properties or characteristics, so we might subconsciously consider a good-looking person to be better at his/her job. For example, do first-round draft picks get greater considerations from their organizations when it comes to promotions or even major-league opportunities? Will an org give such a player more time to work out of a period of non-performance than they’d give an eighth-rounder? Do some scouts rate players differently, even if it’s entirely subconscious, based on where they were drafted or how big their signing bonuses were? I don’t think I do this directly, but my rankings are based on feedback from scouts and team execs, so if their own information – including how teams internally rank their prospects – is affected by the Halo Effect, then my rankings will be too, unless I’m actively looking for it and trying to sieve it out.

Where I wish Watts had spent even more time was in describing the implications of these ideas and research for government policies, especially foreign aid, most of which would be just as productive if we flushed it all down those overpriced Pentagon toilets. Foreign aid tends to go to where the donors, whether private or government, think it should go, because the recipients are poor but the donors know how to fix it. In reality, this money rarely spurs any sort of real change or economic growth, because the common-sense explanation – the way to fix poverty is to send money and goods to poor people – never bothers to examine the root causes of the problem the donors want to solve, asking the targets what they really need, examining and removing obstacles (e.g., lack of infrastructure) that might require more time and effort to fix but prevent the aid from doing any good. Sending a boat full of food to a country in the grip of a famine only makes sense if you have a way to get the food to the starving people, but if the roads are bad, dangerous, or simply don’t exist, then that food will sit in the harbor until it rots or some bureaucrat sells it.

Everything Is Obvious is aimed at a more general audience than Thinking Fast and Slow, as its text is a little less dense and it contains fewer and shorter descriptions of research experiments. Watts refers to Kahneman and his late reseach partner Amos Tversky a few times, as well as other researchers in the field, so it seems to me like this book is meant as another building block on the foundation of Kahneman’s work. I think it applies to all kinds of areas of our lives, even just as a way to think about your own thinking and to try to help yourself avoid pitfalls in your financial planning or other decisions, but it’s especially apt for folks like me who write for a living and should watch for our human tendency to try to ascribe causes post hoc to events that may have come about as much due to chance as any deliberate factors.

The Antidote.

We are inundated with messages and products that promise to tell us how to be happy. A quick amazon search for “how to be happy” yields books with titles like The 18 Rules of Happiness: How to Be Happy, How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People–Their Secrets, Their Stories, and Be Happy! – How to Stop Negative Thinking, Start Focusing on the Positive, and Create Your Happiness Mindset. You can spend even more money to attend seminars like “How Positive Psychology Changes Our Lives,” “Happiness and its Causes,” and “The Happiness Habit.” All of this, as you might imagine, is just so much bullshit, and I fail to see how someone else taking my money for it is going to make me any happier.

In fact, as Oliver Burkeman argues in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, much of this material is actually deleterious to our efforts to be happier. The feeling that we should be happy just makes us less so, and attempts to be happier by pushing out negative thoughts creates anxiety and, as you probably know, does nothing to keep those negative thoughts at bay. Burkeman approaches the happiness paradox – how those of us in developed countries, especially those of the west, seem to be so much less happy today even though our most basic existential needs are largely met – from a novel angle, instead looking at ways to find happiness through understanding and even embracing the things that tend to make us unhappy.

Burkeman begins the book at a rah-rah positive-thinking seminar held by Dr. Robert Schuller, at the time the leader of a megachurch in Texas, who would end up filing for bankruptcy a few months after Burkeman attended the rally. (Schuller died of cancer in 2015.) Schuller’s words – and those of President George W. Bush, who spoke briefly at the rally as well – appear to have been a lot of empty if not outright counterproductive advice, like banishing the word “impossible” from your vocabulary. Fortunately, this book isn’t just about knocking over mountebanks like Schuller; Burkeman instead explores seven avenues of finding happiness that not only seem to work (or at least to help) but also run counter to the “think positive” mentality that poisons everyone’s attempts to get happier.

Burkeman begins with the stoics, the ones from ancient Greece and the folks still practicing and teaching stoicism today, and moves along to Buddhism, to the secular aspects of Eckhart Tolle’s writings, and even to the Mexican tradition of celebrating death. He visits a museum of commercial product failures in Michigan and explains how our refusal to reconsider our failures leads us to make the same mistakes – as many businesses do, conceiving the same products repeatedly despite past evidence that they’re bad ideas.

Several of those philosophies revolve around the fact that trying to avoid negative or unwanted thoughts makes them harder to get rid of (demonstrated in the white bear experiment). Thinking about the worst-case scenario – when it’s extremely unlikely to occur, that is – can in fact reduce your anxiety about bad things that are likely to occur, because you’ll better understand that they too shall pass. If you’ve practiced mindfulness, or traditional meditation, you know that you are not supposed to suppress negative thoughts when they occur because it doesn’t work; you are supposed to observe them “without judging” and let them float on by. If you’re obsessed with things going wrong, simply saying – or having someone tell you – that they won’t go wrong isn’t helpful. You have to acknowledge those possibilities and put them in the proper context before you can get around them, and then, perhaps, you can be happier.

Along the way, Burkeman demolishes a lot of happiness and productivity myths. Setting goals does not, in fact, make you more likely to achieve them, but it does make you less happy when you fall short. The management scholar Chris Kayes coined the term “fatal magnetism” when analyzing the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, where many climbers who should have known better continued toward the summit in conditions that all but guaranteed they’d die on the way down. Kayes argues that these climbers were so hellbent on achieving their goals that they couldn’t think rationally about failing to do so, an extreme example of how goal-setting can distort our thinking. Burkeman also discusses “security theater,” Bruce Schneier’s term for how we enact visible efforts to stop terrorist attacks – think metal detectors at baseball stadiums – that don’t make us any safer but do impose significant costs on us in time and money. So while The Antidote is ostensibly about happiness, it covers a lot of other areas of life where we go wrong, including obstacles to productivity, inability to properly assess danger (of the physical or financial kinds), and our susceptibility to the placebo effect.

I learned quite a bit from Burkeman’s book, much of which will directly change how I go about my daily life and my work. I am fortunate in that, by nature, I’m a happy, optimistic person; my anxiety disorder is not about dwelling on what might go wrong, but more about reacting badly when things do go wrong, as well as the ongoing static in my brain that didn’t abate until I started a low dose of medication. But like most people, happy or not, I have sources of stress – myriad work responsibilities, like that whole writing-a-book thing right now, and the challenge of balancing work, family, personal interests, and being a homeowner, to pick a few examples – and The Antidote explains how to change your mindset around these questions. Burkeman also gets repeated counsel from the people he interviews or sources he consults about living more in the present; we worry too much about the future and we probably dwell too much on the past, which is why we don’t appreciate what we have now enough to enjoy it. There is no single key to happiness, nor are there 18 steps to take you there, but I think The Antidote can at least help you realign your thinking so you have a chance to be happier.

Next up: I’ve been reading faster than I can write reviews, but I expect to finish Connie Willis’ Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Doomsday Book today.


My ranking of all 30 MLB farm systems is now up for Insiders! The top 100 prospect list goes up in the morning, and I’ll hold a chat here at 1 pm ET.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking felt, at first glance, like a fluffy self-help book. It certainly opens that way, as if the book’s purpose is to make introverts feel better about their introversion in a world that does indeed reward and revere the gregarious and the garrulous. But there’s a modicum of science behind Cain’s arguments and a lot of insight from experts that allow her to present the case that introverts can be just as important and productive and happy as extroverts can, as long as we allow them to be who they really are.

Cain starts out on the wrong foot, talking about the history of extroverts and introverts, explaining how we got to this point where extroverts are lauded as, essentially, better people. It helps create a narrative, but feels like padding when there’s real insight coming shortly afterwards, like the third chapter, where Cain goes into the evidence (some anecdotal) on how extroverts working together come up with inferior results to introverts working alone, and how forced teamwork can subvert the creativity of introverts by muting them and putting them in a space where they can’t produce. Not only is it well-presented and well-argued, but it’s insight with a specific call to action for employers, teachers, group leaders, anyone who is responsible for overseeing a team or collection of people in pursuit of a common task or goal.

(This is probably where I should step in and reveal myself as something of an introvert. I fell right in the middle of the twenty-question quiz Cain presents, which would make me an “ambivert” – kind of like Pat Venditte – but my introvert tendencies are very strong. I enjoy solitude, I do my best work on my own – this isn’t even close – I like celebrations to be small and intimate, and so on. I was very shy as a kid, and I still have a lot of shyness even today. I can get on a plane, read one book for five hours, speaking to no one but the flight attendant, and call it an afternoon well spent. Or on that same flight, I can sit down and write four articles or dish posts in a row like it’s nothing, because I get focused and thrive in an environment without interruptions. I can also sometimes come across as aloof or diffident, have people think I don’t like them when that’s very rarely the case, and I get lost in my own thoughts at least once a day. Prior to taking anti-anxiety medication, I was very sensitive, not just emotionally but even physically, being oddly jumpy when hit or touched. It’s just who I am, and big chunks of this book spoke very directly to my sense of self.)

Cain takes advantage of recent fMRI studies, without which I think the entire subgenre of pop-science books may not exist, in this case showing neurological responses like extroverts having more active dopamine pathways, so they get a faster reward response from activities like stock-trading or gambling, whereas introverts get less of a buzz and thus are better able to regulate their activities. She also discusses the relationship between the amygdala, an ancient part of the human brain found even in primitive mammals, and the relatively new prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate the high-reactive features of the amygdala. When you learn a fear or anxiety, your amygdala holds on to that pretty much forever; your prefrontal cortex is where you learn that, hey, you’re really not bad in crowds, and you’re totally fine to give that speech. Extroverts work better in situations with distractions like loud noises. Introverts are more sensitive and thus more empathetic.

Where Quiet gets really interesting is when Cain looks at introverts in marriages and in the classroom. She examines conflicts between couples comprising one introvert and one extrovert, dismantling the inane axiom about Venus and Mars and pointing out how two people of such different personality types can argue right past each other and end up with one partner feeling like the argument was productive while the other is deeply wounded. She also looks at introverted kids in the classroom and how the growing emphasis on group learning may leave those kids behind. My daughter, who is quite extroverted, is in a Montessori school, where most activities are done collectively; it’s a great fit for her, but would have been a total disaster for me.

I may have felt the greatest connection with Cain’s book in chapter 9, “When Should You Act More Extroverted?,” which looks at introverts who have to gear up to play the extrovert, often for work. I go on television a few dozen times a year, often for an hour at a clip, as part of my job. Doing so, especially when it’s two hourlong shows in one night, is absolutely exhausting. It is not physically demanding – although standing for an hour in dress shoes is no picnic for my joints – but the physical exhaustion is quite real, because I have to shift modes to become the extrovert on TV. (It turns out that I am a “high self-monitor,” a term that relates to how people behave around others and whether such behavior is dictated by internal controls or social cues.) As it turns out, what I do – playing the extrovert in my work life – is quite normal, but it’s also legitimately taxing, and playing someone you’re not too often can have physical consequences. Too much TV really might be bad for my health. (It probably doesn’t help that my TV work often ends at 1 or 2 in the morning.) Going to games, on the other hand, where I am often working alone and rarely talk to more than a couple of people, is quite relaxing even though it’s every bit as much an evening at the metaphorical office as a night in Bristol.

Cain’s book may have just been marketing incorrectly – or maybe marketed well, for more sales to a wider audience, when in fact she has crafted a scholarly work on a topic that generally doesn’t get such serious treatment. You might wish for more science to back up some of her theories, but she does include quite a bit of research and brings in a number of scientists and researchers to discuss their ideas. It’s also a book with a number of clear calls to action, for parents, bosses, teachers, and introverts themselves looking to find a bit more self-assurance in a society that tends to praise the things they’re not.

Man’s Search for Meaning.

I have a scouting blog up on Cuban free agent Eddy Julio Martinez and other Cuban and Dominican prospects for Insiders; Martinez has reached an agreement to sign with the Cubs pending a physical. I also held my regular Klawchat yesterday.

A friend of mine who works as a therapist, dealing in particular with trauma victims, has been recommending Viktor Frankl’s short book Man’s Search for Meaning, which comprises a long essay he composed while in concentration camps in World War II as well as a shorter piece on logotherapy, his concept and program for working with psychiatric patients. I’m rather unqualified to ‘review’ this book in any meaningful way, but since the book is so highly regarded and often cited in polls where readers name the most influential books they’ve read, I’ll offer a few thoughts.

As you might imagine, the first part of the book, where Frankl details much of the suffering he saw and endured at the hands of the Nazis – his entire family, including his pregnant wife, was killed during the Holocaust – is somewhat difficult to read, even though Frankl takes a fairly neutral tone. He received some slightly favorable treatment because he had a medical background and could take on tasks other prisoners couldn’t, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the misery of his situation. Frankl’s point in writing this brief memoir is to explore the ways in which the human mind can survive suffering and find reasons to continue to live even in hopeless situations. Although he gives his ideas on the meaning of life, the book delves more into the specifics of the title – the search itself, the refusal to give up, and the physical consequences he witnessed when a fellow prisoner lost his will to live.

Finding meaning in suffering is a longstanding subject of debate and expostulation in religion and philosophy, with Frankl taking a particularly pragmatic view of the matter. In his view, there is less point in asking “why” than in finding new reasons for hope or optimism even in apparently hopeless situations. Prisoners who could find meaning in helping others, or in sustaining themselves on the chance they’d one day be released and reunited with loved ones, fared better mentally and physically than those who gave themselves up to the awful reality of their lives in the camps. This forms one of the key parts of his program of therapy – helping patients understand why they do have meaning in their lives, often more than they realize.

Several passages describe the presence of a senior group of prisoners who in some ways helped run the camp in exchange for special privileges or favors like cigarettes, liquor, or additional food. We often refer to the Stanford Prison Experiment to explain such brutal behavior, but is there a more stark example of this awful capacity of our personalities, to join with those who would enslave, torture, and kill our relatives, friends, countrymen, fellow worshipers, just to save our own skins?

The foreword to the current edition available on Kindle was written by the rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, who calls Frankl’s book “a profoundly religious book.” I agree to an extent that the book has a spiritual core, although it is not limited to any specific religion, and I think the book can be read, understood, and appreciated by a secular audience. Frankl does not rely on a deity or an afterlife to make his arguments that life here can have meaning even when meaning has left the building; his arguments rely on emotion and psychiatric tenets, none of which requires religious belief or background to follow, which means Man’s Search for Meaning is a book for anyone interested in fundamental questions of why we are the way we are, and how to find that meaning even in situations that appear devoid of it.

Next up: I’m a bit behind on reviews yet again, having finished Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, on the flight back from Santo Domingo, and am now reading Vladimir Sorokin’s very odd novel Day of the Oprichnik.

Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.

Saturday five, 5/16/15.

My Insider content this week includes my redraft of the 2005 class as well as a recap of the first round picks who didn’t pan out. I also held my weekly Klawchat on Wednesday. My first mock draft will go up on Tuesday.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

The Invisible Gorilla.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders looking back at the 2005 draft, one redrafting the top 30 picks and one examining the sixteen first-round “misses” from that loaded class. I’ll be chatting today at 1 pm ET.

Since reading Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow about this time last year, I’ve been exploring more titles in that subgenre, the intersection of cognitive psychology and everyday decision-making, particularly in business settings. Kahnemann discusses the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, which was first demonstrated in the experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that you can take here. That experiment gives The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, the book by Simons and Chabris that explores six “everyday illusions” that distort our thinking and decision-making, its title, but the scope goes well beyond inattentional blindness to expose all kinds of holes in our perception.

(Speaking of perception, the short-lived TNT series of that name, which just ended its three-season run in March, devoted an episode called “Blindness” to two of the cognitive illusions discussed in The Invisible Gorilla, inattentional blindness and change blindness, even reproducing the experiment I linked above. It’s worth checking out when it reairs, even with its hamhanded crime story.)

The Invisible Gorilla is one of the best books of its kind that I’ve encountered, because it has the right balance of educational material, concrete examples, and exploration of the material’s meaning and possible remedies. The authors take a hard line on the six illusions they cover, saying there’s no way to avoid them, so the solution is to think our way around them – to recognize, for example, that just because we don’t notice our inattentional blindness when we talk on the phone while driving, we’re still prey to it. Yet the book remains instructive because forewarned is forearmed: if you know you’re going to fall for these illusions, you can take one more step back in your decision-making processes and prepare yourself for the trap.

The six illusions the authors cover are easy to understand once you hear them explained with an example. Inattentional blindness occurs when you are so focused on one task or object that you don’t notice something else happening in the background – for example, the gorilla wandered across the basketball court while you’re counting shots made by players in white. Change blindness is similar, but in this case you fail to notice the change in something or even someone when you’re focused on a different aspect of the person or image – which is how continuity errors end up in movies and escape the notice of most viewers, even when somewhat glaring once they’re pointed out. The illusion of memory revolves around our false confidence in what we remember, often to the point of being convinced that a story we heard that happened to someone else actually happened to us. The chapter covers the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, including a compelling (and awful) story of a rape victim who actively tried to remember details of her attacker’s face and still identified the wrong man when police arrested a suspect. The illusion of confidence involves overrating our own knowledge and abilities, such as the oft-cited statistic that a wide majority of American drivers consider themselves to be above-average at the task. (I’m not one of them; I dislike driving because I know I’m not good at it.) The illusion of knowledge is our mistaken belief that we know more than we do; the authors give a great test of this, pretending to be a child who keeps asking you “but why?” to show that, for example, you may think you know how a toilet works until someone actually asks you to go into detail on its operation. The sixth illusion, the illusion of potential, seems a bit forced in the context of the first five, even thought I enjoyed the authors’ attacks on pseudoscience crap like using Mozart or other classical music to raise your IQ (shocker: it’s bullshit) or the use of subliminal messages or advertising to change your thinking (the original subliminal advertising stunt in a movie theater was faked). It encapsulates the belief that we can improve our cognitive skills more quickly and easily than we actually can, or that improvements in a small, specific area result in more generalized improvements than they actually do.

The two “blindness” illusions make for the best stories, and are even applicable at times in baseball (how often have you been at a game, focusing on a particular player, and not realized that the pitcher had changed or another player had changed positions?), but the illusions of knowledge and confidence resonate more with the work that I do for ESPN. I’ve accepted and even embraced the fact that I will be wrong frequently on player evaluations, especially of amateur players, because that’s just inherent in the job: there’s far too much unpredictability involved in the development of individual players, so scouting relies on heuristics that will often miss on outliers like the Dustin Pedroias of the world. It’s also why, at a macro level, projection systems like ZiPS beat individual guesses on standings or overall player performances. (Projection systems can miss outliers too, like pitchers with new pitches or hitters with new swing mechanics, but that’s a different and I think more easily addressed deficiency.)

Even understanding the illusion of knowledge puts scouts in a quandary, as they’re expected to offer strong, even definitive takes on players when it would be more rational to discuss outcomes in probabilistic terms – e.g., I think Joey Bagodonuts has a 60% chance to reach the majors, a 20% chance to be an everyday shortstop, a 30% chance to end up at another position, etc. No one evaluates like that because they’re not asked to do so and they’re not trained to think like that. I’m in a similar boat: I tell readers I think a certain pitcher is a fifth starter, and if he has a few good starts in a row I’ll get some trolling comments, but when I call anyone a fifth starter I’m giving you a most likely outcome (in my opinion, which is affected by all of the above illusions) that doesn’t explicitly describe variance over shorter timeframes.

The illusion of confidence comes into play just as frequently, and to some extent it’s almost a requirement of the job. How could you offer an evaluation of a potential first-round pick or pull the trigger on a trade if you had an accurate view of your own limitations as an evaluator or executive? Would a proper system of safeguards to cover this illusion just lead to “paralysis by analysis?” I don’t know that I could ever have enough information to make me feel properly confident (as opposed to the illusory sense of overconfidence that the authors describe here) to decide who to take with the first overall pick in this year’s draft; I think Houston’s predraft process last year led them to take the right guy, and they still ended up with nothing because of a sort of black swan event with Aiken’s elbow. The authors express the need for readers to recognize their confidence in their own abilities is often exaggerated, but taken to its logical end it seems like a persuasive argument against getting out of bed in the morning, because we’re just going to do the wrong thing. In my position, at least, I’m better off pretending I’m a slightly better evaluator of baseball talent than I actually am, because otherwise my writing would be peppered with conditionals and qualifications that would make it unreadable and probably not very helpful to those of you looking for information on the players I cover.

Simons and Chabris present a very compelling if sobering case that the human mind, while highly evolved, has some serious holes in its approach, and that we need to understand five of the six illusions (or failures of intuition) to make better decisions, whether it’s improving our awareness to avoid hitting a motorcyclist on the road or dismissing misplaced self-confidence in our investing acumen to make better choices with our retirement accounts. It seems applicable to just about any line of work, but reading it from the perspective of my thirteen-plus years working in baseball – perhaps now I’m subject to the illusion of independent thinking – I found it immensely applicable and valuable as a reminder of how easy it is to fall into these traps when trying to evaluate a player or a team.

Think Twice

Michael Mauboussin’s short book on the psychology of bad decisions, Think Twice, features an endorsement on its cover from Billy Beane, saying he hopes his competitors don’t read the book. While it doesn’t go into anywhere near the depth on the psychology (and neurology) of decision-making as Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mauboussin’s book covers much of the same ground and does so in a quick, superficial way that might reach more people than Kahnemann’s more thorough but often dense treatise could.

Mauboussin’s book carries the subtitle “Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition,” but I would describe it more as a guide to avoiding decisions based on easily avoidable mental traps. Think Twice has eight chapters dealing with specific traps, most of which will be familiar to readers of Kahnemann’s book: base-rate neglect, tunnel vision, irrational optimism, overreliance on experts, ignoring context, phase transitions (black and grey swans), and conflating skill and luck. Where Kahnemann went into great depth with useful examples and sometimes less-useful descriptions of fMRI test results, Mauboussin writes like he can’t get to the point fast enough – an often desirable trait in the popular business non-fiction section of the bookstore, since the assumption is that business executives don’t have time to read (even if the book might save millions of dollars).

That lightweight approach still gives Mauboussin plenty of space to hammer home the critical lessons of the book. Some of his examples don’t need a lot of explanation, such as pointing out that playing French music or German music in a wine store aisle with wines from both countries skewed consumer choices – even though those consumers explicitly denied that the music affected their choices. (Context matters.) He targets sportswriters directly when discussing their (our) difficulty (or inability) in distinguishing skill from luck – and, in my experience, fans often don’t want to hear that something is luck, even when the sample size is so small that you couldn’t prove it was skill no matter how broad the confidence test. He mentions The Boss going off in the papers when the Yankees started 4-12 in 2005, and writers buying right into the narrative (or just enjoying the free content Steinbrenner was providing). But we see it every October, and during every season; are the Giants really the best team in baseball, or is there an element of luck (or, to use the more accurate term, randomness) in their three championship runs in five seasons? Yet we see articles that proclaim players to be clutch or “big game” every year; my colleague Skip Bayless loves to talk about the “clutch gene,” yet I see no evidence to support its existence. I think Mauboussin would take my side in the debate, and he’d argue that an executive making a decision on a player needs to set aside emotional characterizations like that and focus on the hard data where the sample sizes are sufficiently large.

His chapter on the world’s overreliance on experts also directly applies to the baseball industry, both within teams and within the media. It is simply impossible for any one person to be good enough at predictions or forecasting to beat a well-designed projection system. I could spend every night from February 10th until Thanksgiving scouting players, see every prospect every year, and still wouldn’t be better on a macro level at predicting, say, team won-lost records or individual player performances than ZiPS or Steamer or any other well-tested system. The same goes for every scout in the business, and it’s why the role of scouting has already started to change. Once data trackers (like Tracman) can provide accurate data on batted ball speeds/locations or spin rate on curveballs for most levels of the minors and even some major college programs, how much value will individual scouts’ opinions on player tools matter in the context of team-level decisions on draft picks or trades? The most analytically-inclined front offices already meld scouting reports with such data, using them all as inputs to build better expert systems that can provide more accurate forecasts – which is the goal, because whether you like projection systems or not, you want your team to make the best possible decisions, and you can’t make better decisions without better data and better analysis of those data. (Mauboussin does describe situations where experts can typically beat computer models, but those are typically more static situations where feedback is clear and cause/effect relationships are simple. That’s not baseball.)

Mauboussin’s first chapter describes the three central illusions that lead to irrational optimism, one we see all the time in baseball when teams are asked to evaluate or potentially trade their own prospects: the illusions of superiority, optimism, and control. Our prospects are better than everyone else’s because we scout better, we develop better, and we control their development paths. When you hear that teams are overrating prospects, sometimes that’s just another GM griping that he can’t get what he wants for his veteran starter, but it can also be this irrational optimism that leads many teams to overrate their own kids. There’s a strong element of base-rate neglect in all of these illusions; if you have a deep farm system with a dozen future grade-50 prospects, you know, based on all of the great, deep systems we’ve seen in the last few years (the Royals, Rangers, Padres, Red Sox, Astros) that some of those players simply won’t work out, due to injuries, undiscovered weaknesses, or just youneverknows. A general manager has to be willing to take the “outside view” of his own players, viewing them through objective lenses, rather than the biased “inside view,” which also requires that he be able to take that view because he has the tools available to him and the advisers who are willing to tell him “no.”

The passage on unintended consequences is short and buried within a chapter on complex adaptive systems, but if I could send just two pages of the book to new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, I’d send these. Mauboussin gives two examples, one of incompetent wildlife management in Yellowstone Park, one of the feds’ decision to let Lehman Brothers fail and thus start the 2008 credit crisis, both of which involve single actions to a complex system that the actors didn’t fully understand (or try to). So when MLB tries to tinker with the draft, or fold in the July 2nd international free agents into the rule 4 draft or a new one, or changes free agent compensation rules … whatever they do, this is a complex system with hundreds of actors who will react to any such rules changes in ways that can’t be foreseen without a look at the entire system.

The seven-page concluding chapter is a great checklist for anyone trying to bring this kind of “counterintuitive” thinking into an organization or just into his/her own decision-making. It’s preventative: here’s how you avoid rushing into major decisions with insufficient data or while under a destructive bias. I can see why Beane doesn’t want other GMs or executives reading this; competing against people who suffer from these illusions and prejudices is a lot easier than competing against people who think twice.

The Checklist Manifesto.

I learned of Atul Gawande’s brief business book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right through a positive mention of it in Daniel Kahneman’s fantastic book on cognitive psychology, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Gawande, a successful surgeon in Boston, wrote two books on improving medical care through optimizing processes (rather than throwing money at new equipment or drugs). His third book is aimed at a more general audience, extolling the virtues of the checklist as a simple, effective way to reduce the frequency of the most avoidable errors in any complex system, even eliminating them entirely, saving money and even lives at a near-zero upfront cost.

When Gawande discusses checklists, he’s using the term in the sense of a back-check, a list that ensures that all essential steps have been taken before the main event – a surgery, a plane’s takeoff, a large investment – occurs. This isn’t a to-do list to get you through the day, the type of checklist I make every morning or the night before to make sure I don’t forget any critical tasks, work or personal, from paying bills to making phone calls to writing a dish post. Gawande instead argues for better planning before that first incision, saying that key steps are often overlooked due to a lack of communication, excessive centralization in a single authority (the surgeon, the pilot, etc.), or focus on more urgent steps that detracts from routine ones.

Gawande illustrates his points about the design and use of checklists primarily through his own experiences in surgery and through his work with the WHO on a project to reduce complication rates from surgery in both developed and developing countries – a mandate that included the requirement that any recommendations involve little or no costs to the hospitals. That all but assured that Gawande’s group would only be able to recommend process changes rather than equipment or hiring requirements, which led to a focus on what steps were often skipped in the operating room, deliberately or inadvertently. Several common points emerged. For example, other medical personnel in the room saw surgeons as authoritarian figures and wouldn’t speak up to enforce key steps like ensuring antibiotics were being delivered prior to incision, or critical information wasn’t passed between team members before the operation began. To solve these issues, Gawande needed to devise a way to increase communication among team members despite superficial differences in rank.

The group took a cue from aviation, with Gawande walking the reader back to the creation of preflight checklists and visiting Boeing to understand the method of developing checklists that work. (There’s been some backlash to Gawande’s recommendations, such as the fact that surgeons can “game” a checklist in various ways, detailed in this NEJM subscriber-only piece.) A checklist must be concise and clear, and must grab the lowest-hanging fruit – the most commonly-missed steps and/or the steps with the greatest potential payoff. The checklist also has a secondary purpose – perhaps even more important than making sure the steps on the list have been followed – which is increasing communication. Gawande fills in the blanks with examples from medicine, aviation, and finance of how simple and perhaps “stupid” errors have helped avoid massive mistakes – or how skipping steps or hewing to old hierarchies of command have led to great tragedies, including the worst aviation disaster in history, the 1977 runway crash of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife North Airport in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people. (This isn’t a great book to read if you’re afraid of flying or of surgery.)

Gawande reports positive results from the implementation of pre-surgery checklists in both developed and developing countries, even in highly challenging conditions in Tanzania, Jordan, and India. Yet he also discusses difficulties with buy-in due to surgeons being unwilling to cede any authority in the operating room or to divert attention from what they see as more critical tasks. Acceptance of checklists appears to have been easier in aircraft cockpits, while in the investment world, Gawande presents a little evidence that checklists have made virtually no inroads despite a few investors finding great success in using them to override their emotional (“fast thinking”) instincts.

Even if you’re in an industry where checklists don’t have this kind of immediate value, it’s easy to see how they might apply to other fields with sufficiently positive ROIs to make their implementation worth considering. A major league team might have a checklist to use before acquiring any player in trade, for example – looking at recent reports and game logs to make sure he’s not injured, talking to a former coach or teammate to ensure there’s no character issues, etc. A well-designed blank scouting report is itself a checklist, a way of organizating information to also force the scout to answer the most important questions on each player. (Of course, having pro scouts write up all 25 players on each minor league team they scout runs counter to that purpose, because they’re devoting observation time to players who are completely irrelevant to the scout’s employers.) The checklist is more than just a set of tasks; it’s a mindset, a way of forcing communication on group tasks while also attempting to avoid high-cost mistakes with a tiny investment of time and attention. If the worst thing you can say about an idea is that people need to be convinced to use it, that’s probably a backhanded way of saying it’s worth implementing.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian/dystopian novel The Dispossessed.