Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Archive for October 2013

Memory and the Recency Effect

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It’s tempting to think that knowing about a cognitive bias or logical fallacy makes them immune to it. I’m no exception, but I constantly find myself falling prey to the recency effect, or recency bias. The good news is that I catch myself from time to time — the bad news is that I have no idea how many instances slip through.

The recency effect describes a condition where the most recent information you learned has a disproportionate impact on your opinion about a topic. I find myself watching TV programs or reading articles where the author sets out arguments on an issue and I often think, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I’ll have to revise my opinion.” The rest of the time I think, “Yeah, right” and move on with my day. If the topic’s one I don’t know much about, the information I just learned will affect my view more than it would if I knew a lot about the issue.

As I mentioned in my review of The Gamble, published here and on Technology and Society Book Reviews, the Romney 2012 presidential campaign managers attempted to use the recency effect to their candidate’s advantage. The authors cited a significant body of research showing that political ads sway opinion, but only for a few days at most before viewers’ opinions revert to their personal baselines. The Romney campaign took out a large number of ads in the days before the election in hopes of using the recency effect to their advantage. In fact, the campaign bought the entire available ad inventory in several states. Rather than leave the money in the bank, they bought ads in states they deemed less important.

If you really want to see the recency effect in action, watch the U.S. stock markets whenever major events occur. Every bit of news causes the markets to move as investors try to out-guess each other and make a profit on competitors’ decisions. I’m not sure how much of the action is individual speculators trying to get a jump on the market and others trying to guess the reactors’ reactions (and so on up the chain), but the short-term volatility can be astonishing.

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Confirmation Bias Proves What You Already Knew

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Human beings deal with complexities by creating mental models. Our models are necessarily simpler than reality and are based on our experiences. These considerations imply two things. First, models are intensely personal constructs. Second, personal models are difficult to change. When we find something that works, we’re reluctant to change it.

There’s a strong temptation to fit what we see into our models rather than invest the effort (and ego) into admitting our model is wrong, or at least incomplete. Oswald and Grosjean define confirmation bias as “the tendency to search for, interpret and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” You probably know someone who engages in impressive mental gymnastics to fit everything into their world view.

In business, falling prey to confirmation bias can cost you money. If you developed a process that worked for years but doesn’t meet your company’s needs, you must be open to change. If you interpret critiques as personal attacks, you’re much less likely to improve your processes.

You can take advantage of confirmation bias to create interesting characters or “find the game” within an improv scene. Improv scenes run on justifying why something someone else said or did is true and important. If your character’s perspective uses “Yes, and…” to bring everything into his or her world view, you can be an interesting character and entertain your audience. Like in business, you have to be careful not to let your internal game hurt your team’s performance, but it’s a fun approach to take on occasion.

The exercise “Your Place or Mine?” provides an interesting context for justification and fitting incidents into your character’s world view. In this exercise, you and a scene partner play characters in two different locations. For example, one of you might be a fast food worker in McDonald’s and the other an archery instructor on the range. If the fast food worker hands the archer a french fry, the archer could interpret it as a small arrow and shoot it into a target, which the fast food worker could interpret as throwing the food into a customer’s mouth.

Cognitive Biases are Fun!

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George Carlin once pointed out that comedy depends on exaggeration — to make something funny, you must distort one aspect of the situation or description to introduce humor.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t have to exaggerate anything…I make enough mistakes to feed a hundred comics for a year,” you’re probably right. We’re all susceptible to cognitive biases that skew our  judgment. If you’ve read any of Dan Ariely’s work (Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty) or read the pop psych literature, you know the human mind is a frighteningly powerful yet flawed instrument.

I have good news: you can identify and minimize the impact of cognitive biases. What’s more, performers can use them to create humorous situations on stage. I downloaded a list of cognitive biases and will do my best to explore how they affect the world where business and funny intersect.

I first thought of writing a series of posts after a ComedySportz gig for health care professional employed by the Oregon penal system. One of their handouts (I always grab the handouts) listed about 120 cognitive biases and logical traps affecting the reasoning inmates and others use to assess their circumstances. I’ll leave the connection between prison, work, and comedy to your fertile brains.

First up? Everyone’s favorite trap: confirmation bias.

Improspectives at ASTD-Cascadia 2013

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I had the very good fortune to present an Improspectives session at the annual conference put on by the Cascadia chapter of the American Society for Training and Development last Friday. My room was pleasantly full and the participants were willing to engage with me and their colleagues in a series of exercises (interspersed with bits of lecture).

The conference’s theme was Collaboration, so I focused on listening, game play, and storytelling. I broke the topics down this way:

  • Prerequisites for effective improvisation
  • Five types of listening
  • Games and game theory
  • Building narratives as a team

After my introductory remarks on what it takes to improvise effectively, I led the group in exercises to reinforce skills described in the listening, play, and narrative sections. We laughed, we talked, we pondered…but most of all, we had fun and learned together for an hour.

Book Review: The Gamble, from Princeton University Press

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Cover graphic for The Gamble

Title: The Gamble

Authors: John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Copyright: 2013

ISBN13: 978-0-691-15688-0

Length: 322

Price: $29.95

Rating: 93%

I received access to a preview copy of this book via the NetGalley site.

The popular media covers U.S. presidential campaigns like announcers calling a horse race, highlighting every move, nuance, and setback as if it could determine the winner. Why? Because not doing so would give viewers tacit permission to watch something else, drive down the networks’ ratings, and cost them advertising dollars. One journalist from Mother Jones identified 68 unique events the press labeled “game changers.” Were they, or was it just meaningless hype?

Approach

In The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, authors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck analyze the race’s twists and turns in measured tones, emphasizing the role “the fundamentals” (especially the economy) play in presidential elections. Sides is associate professor of political science at George Washington University and the coauthor of Campaigns and Elections. He cofounded and contributes to The Monkey Cage, a politics blog. Vavreck is associate professor of political science and communications at UCLA. As academics, they had to strike a balance between writing for a general audience versus writing for an academic audience.

Books without sufficient analytical rigor might not be considered during tenure evaluations, so the authors took a bit of a risk by writing mainly for laymen. I thought they struck a clever and useful balance by dividing the book into two sections: commentary text, where the authors summarize their findings in the main body of the book; and appendixes that present their data and analyses in more depth. The main text contains plenty of facts and figures, but the appendices extend the analysis by including summary statistics (such as standard deviation and standard error) and other measures of interest to professional academics.

Analysis

So, did the various campaign gaffes, missteps, blunders, and revelations make a difference? Sides and Vavreck conclude that, in the long run, they did not. The American electorate is more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans with only a small percentage of persuadable voters for each election. Seemingly substantial missteps such as Mitt Romney’s statement about the (alleged) 47% of Americans who pay no income tax and Barack Obama’s (real) horrific performance in the first debate caused a momentary blip in the polls, but the candidates’ results settled back to the predicted norm within a few days.

The Republican primary season provides an even starker example of how Mitt Romney kept his forward momentum as challengers such as Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum were “discovered” by the media but ran off the road due to policy mismatches with the electorate, poor debate performance, or personal issues the press uncovered. The fundamentals of Romney’s campaign didn’t guarantee him the nomination, but the odds were ever in his favor.

So too with Obama, who could rely on an (albeit slowly) improving economy to lift his campaign. Sides and Vavreck point out that even a general sense that things are getting better makes the incumbent very hard to overcome. Just as most Vegas odds makers give NFL teams a three-point edge for home field advantage, improving economic times provide a lift to sitting presidents.

Of course, campaigns and independent organizations do their best to overcome these limitations through voter outreach (aka the vaunted Obama “ground game”) and advertising. The authors’ analysis confirms previous work that ads shift opinions for a short time after viewing, but the effect fades quickly. The Romney campaign tried to leverage that fact by buying a lot of advertising in the days just before the election, but the Obama campaign had done a good job of maintaining their candidate’s presence and prevented the Romney campaign from succeeding.

The Gamble also addresses what the Obama win implies for American politics. Did his win, which was by a reasonably substantial margin, constitute a mandate and indicate a liberal trend in the polity? Recent votes in favor of legalizing gay marriage and marijuana seem to argue in favor of that interpretation, but Sides and Vavreck found that the electorate tends to equilibrate by moving in opposition to the winning candidate’s views. In other words, a liberal candidate’s win results in a more conservative electorate and vice-versa.

Conclusion

When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, the percentage of the electorate that will vote for their preferred party’s candidate regardless of attempted persuasion is so large as to render most campaigning moot. The campaign machines are so well-tuned, the authors argue, they cancel each other out over the long run. The fundamental elements, especially the economy, are far more relevant. I find that aspect of The Gamble comforting.

Before I close, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the cover designer. I didn’t see the designer’s name in my preview copy of the book, but the cover image uses the point of the “A” in “Gamble” as the fulcrum of a dynamic balance between red and blue, which is a terrific touch. It makes a good book that much better.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.