Self-Experimentation, Instant Feedback and the Freakonomics Game

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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6 Responses to Self-Experimentation, Instant Feedback and the Freakonomics Game

  1. Meg says:

    I was trying to figure out when the soccer seasons and hockey seasons ended and people actually stayed home long enough to have sex. :)Most hockey/soccer hotshots I know were not the first in their families. And the hockey one lines up, but not the soccer. So, back to the drawing board!And as someone recently diagnosed with an exceptionally rare (not immediately fatal — just rather disheartening) autoimmune disease, to me the cause (and bear in mind, I have allergies and asthma as well, and this is a totally different animal) has to have something to do with the speed of life right now and my inability to slow down long enough to listen to my body. Apparently this has dogged me for ten years or more, but I did nothing about it until this year. I never thought I had time, and I’m not prone to seek medical care.And now I have to live with this.

  2. Bob Watson says:

    #5– Perhaps just a considerable increase in oral sex accounts for drops in teen pregnancy?

  3. Digambar V. Behere says:

    I am new person to post my comments on your post. I have been following your blog regularly and I must compliment you that personally I have benefitted enormously thru your wisdom, your mission and your approach to the problems facing the world today. I cannot however say it in flowlessly beautiful language that you are used to putting across your views.As far as my views on this post ‘self-eperimentation..’are concerned, I agree with you that ‘insecurity and lack of self esteem togather with the learned helplessness are putting unlimmited barriers against self-experimentation. I expected however that you had also thrown some light on the limitations of self exerimentation. That is, self expermentation is good but man need not always learn thru self experimentation alone. One need not undertake experiment to know the taste of deadly poison. He can learn, before undertaking self-experiment, especially in the matter of health, fitness,diet etc thru plenty of literature available. From plenty of studies that have beeen published, he can plan his future actions and finally caliberate them as to what is suitable to his well being.

  4. Jordan Mechano says:

    1) High Creativity: This is strange, because I notice that my imagination peaks when I lay down to go to sleep. Perhaps because those activities are both calming and less distracting than other activities, and therefore allow you to focus.2) Sleep Deprivation: Heh, maybe lack of sleep creates a condition close to insanity, making people happier. Or something.3) Unhealthy foods: I’d say because back when we were hunter-gatherers, we developed the sweet tooth to get us to look for the hard to find sugars that we need (ie honey). Today, that same sweet tooth does its job correctly, but there is far too much sugar available.4) Intelligence: Perhaps it’s because somehow very intelligent people innately know that they don’t have to work as long or as hard to do a good job. I’m not sure why they would break New Years resolutions. Maybe they live more in the moment, not thinking too far ahead.5) Teen Pregnancy: I don’t know. Video games?6) Cancer Rates: No idea.7) Auto-immune diseases: I’d say overall lifestyle. Living in a society that creates obsene amounts of stress and other negatives, and which does not give us what we need: love, support, etc.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Justin Kownacki’s comments:Here’s my take on the the 7 questions. 1. People are most creative when their bodies can be occupied with something mundane (swimming, exercising, driving, passenging) so their minds are free from active use and can wander. 2. Sleep deprivation diffuses daily stress. At some point, your body becomes much more interested in keeping itself moving long enough to get to a bed and you can’t focus on the daily hassles that eat up your brain-time, so you worry less. I know; I slept for less than an hour yesterday and after about 27 hours on the move, I was in a state of mild bliss as I finally earned my way to a nap. 3. Healthy elements provide the body with essential nutrients it normally lacks due to our shoddy modern diets. Once we get that natural high, our bodies want it again, except it’s not an unusual high any more because our bodies are actually performing as they’re supposed to, so we overload on the high-providing element until we tip the scales in the opposite direction. Or else, like medications, the normal dose ceases to have an effect after continued use and so our bodies crave the high from decreased moderation of use. 4. Very intelligent people have higher estimations of their own ability to produce above-average work, which means they can put things off until the last possible second and still get something done that’s better than the average Joe who actually worked full-time on it. Also, they realize (cynically, as most intelligent folks tend to be in a world designed for the mediocre) that getting ahead does not directly correlate to doing better in life, so they see no point in working within a system that doesn’t directly benefit them. 5. Increased contraceptive availability is probably a big part of decreased teenage pregnancy, as is oral sex (as your reader suggested), in tandem. I would add an increasing amount of sexual experimentation among teens that doesn’t involve traditional intercourse — i.e., anal sex means you’re still a virgin. And, since teens are more likely to spend time online these days than in peer groups, there may simply be less face-to-face social interaction going on. Why meet up after school for a milkshake and a sexual encounter when you can go home and wack off to porn, or erotic chat, or a webcam? (Was this drop across the board or primarily due to richer kids with net access not knocking each other up?) I doubt abstinence training has anything to do with it. 6. Certainly the industrial rationale for cancers and immune system diseases seems more plausible than a shoddy diet — people everywhere have a shoddy diet and you don’t see college kids living off vending machines getting cancer at 20 — plus I’m guessing their diet was shoddy long before the businesses came to town. But if the cause is not the water, then perhaps it’s an electromagnetic or radioactive source in the area. Something must be disrupting the body’s natural flow in a way that wasn’t present x amount of years ago. 7. All of the theories behind auto-immune deficiency diseases seem valid when added up as a joint cause, though individually no one theory seems to substantiate all the different kinds of diseases. I’d attribute the rise in ADD / ADHD to modern society’s ability to transmit information faster than the reptilian brain is able to process it. Just because MTV made hyper-editing fashionable, and computers can deliver terabytes of information per day to our door, it doesn’t mean that our 10% brains are capable of the information overload that’s jacked up exponentially in the last 20 years. As for allergies and asthma, is it possible that plant species which realize they’re in greater danger of being snuffed out by modern industrial methods are taking greater pains to spread their pollen and seeds much farther than they previously had to, in order to find more hospitable climates for reproduction, and that increased pollen traffic is triggering our traditional allergic reactions? Plus, as far as the hockey and soccer theory goes, my initial thought was: babies born in the two coldest months of the year (January and February) will automatically have stronger immune systems than the babies born even one month earlier because the Jan and Feb babies were dipped directly into the cold; thus, they’d be able to play at a higher energy level with less fatigue (or likelihood of suffering debilitating colds) than their warmer-month counterparts. Since hockey is a cold-weather sport and soccer is played outdoors, their immune systems come in handy. (Of course, I don’t know how that applies to soccer stars born in hemispheres where Jan and Feb are warm as opposed to cold…)Justin Kownackihttp://www.somethingtobedesired.comThanks to all who have posted your theories here or by e-mail. My Theories will be coming up in a separate post next week.

  6. capslockf9 says:

    What is a human. The human is composed of electrons, protons, quarks, gluons, and other things. The human is a thing. Electron exchanges in the synapses of this thing creates thought. Thought gives this thing an ego. This ego conceptualizes many evil. Amoung many evil concepts are self-importance, race, superiority over other “things”, nationalism, mis-placed pride, patriotism, dominance over everthing that God created, special preference from a god that it invented for its own use, self-righteousness, etc.. The ego is selfish. All misery is caused by ego. The immaterial entity in this glob of matter is divine spark, spirit, soul, life force or any term you chose. That entity is us. We are is not a body with a soul, but a spirit with a body. When life functions cease the body will die and disintegrate and the ego concepts will disappear, but we will live forever. Introspect will reveal that we are love, compassionate and valorous. The spirit is selfless. The mind can be used for much benefit. Ego-beings use the mind evil-ly. Spirit-beings use it to serve all. Ego-maniacal concepts are detrements to manifestation of The Great Spirit intent.Thank you for your time, my brother.Alejandro Garcia

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