Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



May 23, 2006

Self-Experimentation, Instant Feedback and the Freakonomics Game

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 12:27
einsteinYesterday 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:

  1. Decide on your objective: What result do you want to achieve (weight loss, better fitness, better sleep, reduced pain or stress, better work productivity, faster commute to work, better creativity etc.)?
  2. Collect base-line data: Some measurement of the current state (the ‘before’ picture) that you can compare with the final state (the ‘after’ picture) to assess whether the desired result has been achieved — for example, your current weight or fitness or stress level etc. Some measures may be objective (e.g. weight in lbs or kg) while others will be subjective (e.g. how happy or sleepy or stressed you feel) but you should try to develop a quantitative scale (e.g. 1 to 10 or 1 to 100, with some subjective terms that explain what a ‘5’ or a ’75’ on that scale means) so that you apply the measurements reasonably consistently.
  3. Use your imagination to come up with hypotheses (theories): These are ‘educated guesses’ (after all, you know yourself better than anyone else does) about what actions might lead to the desired result (e.g. reducing daily caloric intake or carbohydrates by x%, running three miles a day four days a week etc.) Imagination is critical here, if you want to succeed where others have usually failed, or where you have failed before. Things happen the way they do for a reason. Understand that reason if you want to change what is happening. Seth Roberts realized that his diets didn’t work because his body was adjusting its metabolic ‘set point’ to offset his food intake, essentially defeating his diet. It took enormous imagination (and some thoughtful research) to conceive that he might be able to fool his body to lower its ‘set point’ by consuming flavourless calories (the essence of the Shangri-La diet).
  4. Test your hypotheses (theories) by trying them out, one at a time, keeping everything else about your routine as unchanged as possible, and if possibly by collecting immediate feedback. If the feedback (data) supports your hypothesis, continue it, increase it, find out how sensitive the achievement of the desired result is to slight modifications in application — more sugar-water to fool your body, longer or shorter, less or more frequent exercise etc. If the feedback doesn’t support your hypothesis, re-think or modify the hypothesis, collect different data if you still think the hypothesis may be valid, or set aside the hypothesis and go on to the next one. This is all about improvisation.
  5. Each time your feedback data confirms your hypothesis, continue it, practice it, make it part of what you do regularly and who you are. If you find you can’t, e.g. if the diet or exercise program succeeds in achieving the desired objective but it’s simply unbearable, then go back to step 3 and come up with some other hypotheses or theories that, if they pan out, would be bearable, sustainable, natural to continue.

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.

  1. When people are quizzed about their creativity, they claim it is highest (a) when they’re in or near water, (b) when they’re in motion, and (c) just before falling asleep or just before/after awakening. Why would this be?
  2. Seth Roberts’ work refers to extensive research (and some personal experimentation) that suggest that sleep deprivation elevates mood and may alleviate depression. Why would this be?
  3. We appear to become easily addicted to substances that are healthy or even essential in moderation but unhealthy in excess, and when we get addicted we tend to need more and more to get the same ‘high’. A recent experiment indicated that birds in captivity can get quickly addicted to sugar-water, craving more and more to the detriment of their health. Why would this be?
  4. There is some evidence that very intelligent people are the ones most prone to procrastinate, and to fail to keep New Years’ resolutions. Why would this be?
  5. Here’s an article that reports on a dramatic drop in teenage pregnancy and teenage abortions in the US. Conservatives claim this is due to effective ‘family-values’ abstinence programs. Liberals claim it’s due to better information about and use of contraception. But there’s lots of evidence that neither of these is the case. The author of the article ascribes it to lower sperm counts, but, as we all know, it only takes one. Is there a better Unconventional Theory? (Thanks to Dale Asberry for this link)
  6. Here’s an article that reports an epidemic of rare cancers and even rarer auto-immune diseases in the small community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. Residents blame water, air and soil pollution due to pulp and paper effluents, uranium and other mining, and now the disastrous Tar Sands development nearby. Business interests say the water has been exhaustively tested and is fine, and blame the poor diet in the remote community, exacerbated by the prohibitive cost of trucking in fresh fruits and vegetables. What’s your Unconventional Theory?
  7. You probably know that Harper’s magazine and others have been providing increased publicity to the groups who insist HIV is not the cause of most auto-immune deficiency diseases, and that there must be another cause, probably not viral or microbial, to account for so many people dying of auto-immune related diseases who do not have HIV in their bodies. Many of the diseases on a sharp upswing (e.g. severe allergies, asthma, autism, and ADD/ADHD) also do not appear to have ‘natural’ causes. While some blame human behaviours, or chemical residues (mercury etc.) there are some reasonably compelling studies that refute viral, microbial, behavioural and toxic chemical causes for the dramatic increase in these illnesses, while others assert (less convincingly) that it’s all due to ‘increased awareness and reporting’ of them. Is there another possible cause for one or more of these illnesses (no one Unconventional Theory is likely to explain all of them) that we’re overlooking?

Unconventional Theories for sports stars being born at the start of the year:
(1) Cutoff date for most age-categories in amateur sport is December 31. So in any class, the January kids will be up to a year older, bigger, and more coordinated than those born in December of the same year. Guess which kids will therefore tend to get more play and more attention from the coach?
(2) Levitt suggests another possibility. If December 31 is the cutoff date, and you’re an ambitious parent, maybe you might be tempted to lie about your kid’s birth date by a few months to push him or her into a more advanced, ‘serious’ class with older kids that will force him or her to work harder and learn faster against tougher competitors, especially if he or she is a bit big for his or her ‘real’ age.

Einstein, pictured above, once said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

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