|Yesterday I wrote about insecurity and lack of self-esteem and how they lead us to go overboard seeking appreciation and attention. Another product of frail, dependent-on-others egos is learned helplessness — the belief that we’re not competent to do things for ourselves, that we have to rely on specialists, experts, consultants, or ‘leaders’ to do everything for us, or at least to tell us what to do. Even the latest trend towards ‘self-serve’ everything (e.g. Home Depot, FAQs to go through before you get to talk to ‘service’, kiosks, buffets, etc.) is driven by corporations’ desire to reduce overheads, and (thanks to outsourcing, offshoring, corporate profit-skimming and the ever-widening chasm between executive salaries and everyone else’s) the decreasing affordability of service of any kind, rather than any genuine desire to make us more self-sufficient and less helpless.
This insecurity and learned helplessness mitigates against self-experimentation, the process Seth Roberts of The Shangri-La Diet so brilliantly employs to improve his own health, fitness and productivity (and encourages us to employ to improve ours). Just to reiterate, self-experimentation is the use of the well-established scientific method using your own personal data, diligently collected every day. Instead of relying on laboratory tests performed on other people, whose bodies, minds, behaviours and motivations are inevitably much different from yours, you test on yourself, the only ‘sample’ that really counts. Those who make their money conducting formal scientific tests (often dubiously and in their own self-interest) or selling you the standardized, hyped and overpriced product that comes from such tests, obviously go out of their way to dissuade you from self-experimentation, playing up fears that it is dangerous, unscientific, even (if it involves use of substances that require an ‘expert’s’ prescription or licence) illegal. But for those not dissuaded by learned helplessness, self-experimentation can provide an excellent, inexpensive, and liberating means to make your life measurably better.
Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame points out that one of the critical requirements for successful self-experimentation is lots of immediate data — what he calls feedback. What you’re trying to do is compile persuasive evidence of a correlation between some action that you perform (such as a particular diet or exercise program) and a desired outcome (such as weight loss or improved physical fitness). The more data you collect, and the sooner you collect it after each self-experiment, the more quickly and effectively the self-experimentation will produce significant results. Because you’re only one person, you need to be imaginative (not limiting yourself to tried and true actions) and improvisational (quick to change the actions if they do not appear to be producing the results you are looking for). Formal scientific tests do neither of these things, which is yet another advantage of self-experimentation.
Let’s review the five steps of self-experimentation again:
In his recent article, Levitt illustrates this with two examples: The use of a biofeedback machine to reduce stress and pain, and the use of a golf-swing analyzer to improve golf score. These are sophisticated technologies, but the ones you use may be as simple as a stopwatch, a measuring tape, a scale, the size of your ‘to-do’ list, or your own subjective daily rating of your creativity or happiness. The Collision Detection blog (thanks to Seb Paquet for the link) suggests that a self-experimentation chart of commuting times, to find the optimal route and departure times for your daily commute, can save you more time per year than you get in vacation time. The applications are limited only by your imagination and your determination to make your life better in some way.
Imagination. There’s the rub. We live in a world of imaginative poverty, where our education system goes out of its way to crush our imaginations. Our work lives (for most of us) give our imaginations no exercise, and we associate imagination with childishness, daydreaming and impracticality. But Freakonomics would not have been the phenomenon it has become if it was just a book of statistical correlations. The book shows Levitt’s extraordinary imagination. To explain this, and to give you some practice stretching your imagination, I’ve invented something I call The Freakonomics Game. The objective of the game is to come up with the Unconventional Theory that just might explain why something happened, or is happening, that no one else would have imagined to consider. So, when violent crime in American cities plummeted in recent years, conservatives explained this by pointing to tougher sentences, capital punishment, more cops on the beat, and even more devout religious belief. Liberals explained it by pointing to tighter gun control and more outreach and social programs for inner city youth. Levitt found none of these correlated. The Unconventional Theory in this case was the famous Roe vs Wade decision a generation earlier, making abortion much more readily available to urban women who weren’t ready to have a family (or a bigger family), who therefore, presumably, didn’t bring children who might live desperate lives and/or have an innate or learned propensity for violence, into the world. This has outraged conservatives and liberals alike, and it showed great imagination to even think of it. But the data correlates very strongly.
Another example: Seth Roberts had tried everything to improve his restless sleep and insomnia. All the obvious hypotheses failed the self-experimentation test. And then Seth thought: What if our bodies are still genetically like the Cave Man’s, the result of the first 2.97 million of the 3 million years of human evolution on Earth? For that 2.97 million years humans were gatherer-hunters, on their feet for most of their waking hours. What if our sleep patterns haven’t adjusted for our ‘recent’ sedentary life-style? His imaginative Unconventional Theory was that by spending most of the day on his feet, like his ancestors did, he might better prepare his body for a natural night’s sleep. When Seth self-experimented with this (he now works all day at a standing-height desk with a fatigue-reducing cushion under it) it worked. When you think about how well you sleep after a day hiking, this isn’t a surprise, but it still takes imagination.
Ready to play the Freakonomics Game? OK, here’s one to try. Some recent studies have indicated that soccer and hockey stars are twice as likely to have been born in January or February as in November or December. What’s the Unconventional Theory that likely accounts for this (hint: it’s not astrological)? There are actually two Theories, and if you can guess either of them you have a good imagination. Think about it, and then peek at the note at the bottom of this article to see if you were right.
Now you’re ready for some serious play. I’ve taxed my imagination and come up with an Unconventional Theory for each of the following seven observations. I’ll disclose my theories in a later post. Give your imagination a workout and see if you can come up with one or more compelling Unconventional Theories for each, post any of them in the comments to this article, and we’ll let other readers be the judges. Who knows, your Unconventional Theory might be revolutionary, and change the way we look at things, or even make millions of people’s lives better.
Unconventional Theories for sports stars being born at the start of the year:
Einstein, pictured above, once said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.