I write one article per week and one book per year. That’s my schedule. And I am increasingly worried this is making me stupid.
I work in investments, a field in which a lot of focus is on why people make mistakes. This is basically because to make money you need to be right (i.e,. Apple is worth $100 per share) but you also need other people to be wrong (i.e., Apple is trading at $70 per share). So understanding the common causes of misjudgement is a big deal.
I am now pretty convinced that my frequent writing and publishing is exacerbating a couple of psychological causes of misjudgement. More specifically, that it is amplifying first conclusions bias and the commitment and consistency problem. The first is increasing my likelihood of having wrong conclusions and the second is creating artificial loyalty to them.
My argument, which is mostly theoretical musings, is three points:
Point 1: Weekly writing and publishing increases first conclusions bias.
This psych phenomenon is about how your first conclusion tends to stick in your brain. It is also about how resistant people are to change ideas once they are accepted and /or liked. A business professor of mine once described it as like how the first sperm enters an egg. The egg then immediately seals up and no others are allowed in. His analogy was that once we have an idea or conclusion in our minds, we close off to alternatives.
For investors, first conclusions bias manifests as not being diligent enough in challenging your early conclusions. And in not investigating enough alternative explanations or potential outcomes for whatever you are looking at.
In writing, first conclusions bias seems particularly amplified by the short time frame. People in the press usually write about current events, which means thinking, writing and publishing in a couple of days. What is published is usually the first or second conclusion about an event. It is rarely the conclusion that emerges after seriously evaluating and testing 10-15 alternatives.
I much prefer writing books for this reason. I can develop my research over years and can have my conclusions tested and challenged by lots of people – all before publication.
A related psych problem in rapid writing is recency bias. This is about how we overweight things that have happened recently, such as a company’s recent drop in earnings or the importance of a new product (electric cars?). And we underweight events from the past or that happen infrequently or over longer time frames. These can be financial crises and a company’s baseline performance over multiple industry cycles.
Recency is why most every financial crisis seems to come as a surprise, even though they happen about every 8 years. And it’s why many investors won’t watch CNBC or the news. They believe it exacerbates this tendency.
When writing articles and even books, I do find myself thinking way too much about what has happened this month or year – versus the industry or company performance over 5-10 years.
Both recency and first conclusions bias are types of availability bias. Basically, our brains work based on the information they have – and don’t equally weight information or possibilities they don’t have or don’t know. For example, we know Bill Gates but we don’t equally know (or study) the thousands of failed software entrepreneurs. It’s just not natural for us to think in terms of base rates and all possible outcomes. It’s easier to think in terms of the available and recent information – and especially the compelling stories.
Anyways, my worry is that these biases are big problems in my weekly business writing and publishing.
Point 2: Publishing and speaking increase the commitment-consistency problem.
Robert Cialdini’s book Influence gives a great explanation for commitment-consistency. And there is just lots of good data showing that your confidence and commitment to an idea increases dramatically once you write it down. Or publish it. Or say it out loud in front of a crowd.
In each case, you are taking an action and you are making a public commitment to the idea, even if you don’t mean to. And, to a surprising degree, you will later alter your behavior to stay consistent with this commitment (which is often unconscious).
There are lots of fascinating examples of this.
- Young Benjamin Franklin used to ask wealthy men to loan him books. He thought they would later think highly of him, in order to stay consistent with the fact that they had done him a favor.
- Companies ask customers to write online comments about why they like their products. Or ask them to submit essays in contests about why they like their products. And the customers then naturally start to like the product more, to stay consistent with their action.
- Car salesmen ask you to fill out a sales contract early in the sales discussion. This action (filling out the form) increases your commitment to actually buying a car.
- Prisoners of war are often asked to sign confessions and read them publicly. Captives think these small, meaningless actions won’t change their actual beliefs. But there is a surprisingly high correlation later between such actions and collaborating with the enemy.
- The clipboard people on the streets of New York (whom I hate) ask you to sign their petitions. They want your email but they also want you to physically sign something. This small action changes your own self-image with regard to their issue. By signing, you see yourself as more of an environmental activist. And this can lead to later changes in behavior, such as when they email and ask for a donation.
And there are lots of other examples. I am very wary of any small action requested by a company or organization. And the more insignificant or meaningless the action they ask for, the more likely it is a play on commitment-consistency.
In writing and publishing, I can really feel the pull of commitment-consistency. When I write, I struggle and have doubts about what I am thinking. However, once I publish I can feel the uncertainty fade in my mind. I can feel an almost immediate increase in my confidence, which I know is artificial. Publishing is an action that creates a public commitment to an idea.
And even worse, I then start defending my ideas in comments or in public talks. Or I use it in my teaching. This whole publishing plus speaking process really increases my commitment to my ideas. And I can feel the tendency to stay consistent.
I think this makes me far more likely to stay with wrong ideas. For sure, it makes me far less likely to challenge and disregard my own ideas once published.
Really the fundamental problem in both 1 and 2 is that the human mind seems to rail against changing or discarding accepted or liked ideas. I can literally feel my blood pressure rising when I read articles against what I think (especially political ideas). I catch myself avoiding reading contradictory points. articles and publications. I find myself seeking out supporting articles and information. And so on.
Point 3: One solution is to create a system that slows and challenges your ideas while writing – and later destroys most of them after publication.
People have a psychological tendency to steal (i.e., self-interest). And a solution to this was the creation of the cash register. External systems and technology are great defenses against our internal psychological weaknesses.
This is a common approach in the investment world. We have investment committees, checklists, and other processes to protect ourselves against our own psychology. Similarly, scientists have the scientific method and peer review.
I have been searching for a similar system to put in place for writing. I would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions on this.
My working system for combating recency and first conclusions bias thus far is:
- No publishing in less than three weeks. I’m slowing down the writing and thinking process.
- Where possible, use my investment checklists as the main analysis in my writing. These are regularly tested in my work.
- Require a minimum of 5 alternative explanations for any major conclusion.
- Try to disprove each conclusion in at least 3 ways. Such as doing inversions, taking to extremes and identifying and seeking out disproving data.
- Get feedback on each article from five people whose goal is to disprove the conclusions and kill the article. This is one of those situations where it’s helpful to have graduate students.
A system for combating commitment and consistency is where I am struggling: What I really need is a formal process to destroy my ideas after publication. And not just any ideas, but the ones I like the best. Per Charles Darwin, the more you like an idea the more you should seek to disprove it (because you are going to be loyal to your favorites.)
Investors have an advantage here. They get their financial results and that is painfully clear feedback. They also keep journals about why they bought and do post-mortem examinations. They continually refine their checklists based on results. Not much of this happens in publishing.
For commitment-consistency, my initial ideas for a system are:
- Accept that 30-50% of all my writing should be later publicly retracted. Have a formal process for destroying ideas, to balance the process for creating it.
- Peer-review all published papers after six months. And the objective is to have them disproved.
- If possible, have financial incentives for being right or wrong. Try to publish only if I am invested or have other “skin in the game” (per Nassim Taleb).
That’s my thinking so far. It’s mostly theory at this point. But I would appreciate any thoughts or suggestions on this.
Thanks for reading. – jeff
I write and speak about “how rising Chinese consumers are disrupting global markets – with a special focus on digital China”.