Don't judge a skill by its specialists

by Academian3 min read26th Sep 201036 comments

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Expertise (topic)Skill BuildingWorld Optimization
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tl;dr: The marginal benefits of learning a skill shouldn't be judged heavily on the performance of people who have had it for a long time. People are unfortunately susceptible to these poor judgments via the representativeness heuristic.

Warn and beware of the following kludgy argument, which I hear often and have to dispel or refine:

"Naively, learning «skill type» should help my performance in «domain». But people with «skill type» aren't significantly better at «domain», so learning it is unlikely to help me."

In the presence or absence of obvious mediating factors, skills otherwise judged as "inapplicable" might instead present low hanging fruit for improvement. But people too often toss them away using biased heuristics to continue being lazy and mentally stagnant. Here are some parallel examples to give the general idea (these are just illustrative, and might be wrong):

Weak argument: "Gamers are awkward, so learning games won't help my social skills."
Mediating factor: Lack of practice with face-to-face interaction.
Ideal: Socialite acquires moves-ahead thinking and learns about signalling to help get a great charity off the ground.

Weak argument: "Physicists aren't good at sports, so physics won't help me improve my game."
Mediating factor: Lack of exercise.
Ideal: Athlete or coach learns basic physics and tweaks training to gain a leading edge.

Weak argument: "Mathematicians aren't romantically successful, so math won't help me with dating."
Mediating factor: Aversion to unstructured environments.
Ideal: Serial dater learns basic probability to combat cognitive biases in selecting partners.

Weak argument: "Psychologists are often depressed, so learning psychology won't help me fix my problems."
Mediating factor: Time spent with unhappy people.
Ideal: College student learns basic neuropsychology and restructures study/social routine to accommodate better unconscious brain functions.

Aside from easily identifiable particular flaws [as SarahC points out, the difference between an athelete and a physicist isn't just physical activity], there are a few generic reasons why these arguments are weak:

  • Having a skill and learning a skill are very different things. This is especially true when the learning is coupled with efforts to avoid compartmentalizing it. People who have the skill already might have developed it early, possibly at the cost of developing other essential skills or traits for «domain», like empathy in the example of social interaction.
  • People who have the skill already probably learned it without the explicit intention to apply it to «domain». For those people, the task now analogous to learning it is decompartmentalizing it.
  • People who don't have the skill already may have been busy learning other skills instead, and those may be critically helpful in applying the new skill.
  • There are generalized effects like inspiration, mental refreshment, and adaptive attitude that come from learning just about anything new as an adult.

All this should be taken into account before dismissing the new skill option. In general, try to flesh out the analysis with the following themes:

  • Synergistic marginal effects – If your other existing skills differ greatly from the relevant specialists', the new skill may have marginal effects that it wouldn't have had for them.
  • Compartmentalization effects – There may be obvious reasons to suspect the specialists are compartmentalizing their skill.
  • Learning order effects – Contrary to popular belief, some skills are more productively learnt as an adult: growing up sometimes makes excellent background material.

So yeah, don't let specialists over-represent the skills the specialize in. Many readers here are in the "already have it" category for a lot of the skills I'm talking about, and there are already lots of posts convincing us to decompartmentalize those skills… but it's also helpful to consider the above ideas in balance with the legitimate counterarguments when convincing others to learn and apply new skills.

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This isn't directly relevant, but a more convincing hypothesis for why psychologists are depressed is that non-neurotypical people are more likely to be interested in psychology.

This isn't directly relevant, but a more convincing hypothesis for why psychologists are depressed is that non-neurotypical people are more likely to be interested in psychology.

An even more convincing hypothesis is that depression is simply contagious. (That is, hearing a depressing thought can be almost as depressing as coming up with it yourself.)

Edit to add: NLP co-creator Richard Bandler claims to have invented the practice of "secret therapy" specifically so that he wouldn't have to listen to depressing thoughts and become depressed by them. (Secret therapy consists of telling clients something like, "I'm a mathematician, not a psychologist; so it's against the law for me to listen to your problems. Just call the problem you're having "X". When do you experience X?"... and proceeding to troubleshoot the structure and process of the problem, rather than its content )

An even more convincing hypothesis is that depression is simply contagious. (That is, hearing a depressing thought can be almost as depressing as coming up with it yourself.)

This is supported by research on social networks: happiness and depression are both contagious.

As an interesting detail, happiness seems to be more contagious than depression, so befriending a lot of people will on average increase your chances of getting "infected" with happiness.

Of course the claim itself sounds very plausible, but I'd like to see the research, because your short summary makes me suspicious that it makes a correlation-is-not-causation kind of mistake. In other words, does the research support the claim that happiness is contagious or that it is clustered? Is there even a temporal aspect present in the analysis?

In the source I'm using, they claim to have checked for it via "mathematical analyses", but no further details are given. They do provide a reference to their their actual paper. This paper is also mentioned as having come to similar conclusions.

ETA: And here's the appendix they keep mentioning in the paper.

I can't remember where I saw the research either (it was recent though, maybe on Hacker News), but they did check casuation/temporal effects by following people over time and seeing that when one person became sad, people within a few social links of them were more likely to become sad, etc.

Kaj -- nice! Can you point me to any good references on this?

There was a lot of buzz last year with Are your friends making you fat?

There is extensive documentation on what many call the Framingham, Mass. longitudinal study, where they studied as many people in the small town for as many years as they could. I think the results of that are the most reliable on the question of the "contagiousness" of happiness and sadness.

See my reply to DanielVarga above.

I also mentioned other interesting tidbits from the same book previously. Guess I should do a summary here soon.

I'm not entirely sure, but I think most of those research fail to discriminate between happiness/depression actually spreading vs. happy/depressed people simply tending to hang out together.

Bandler is also the kind of person who makes up stories as metaphors.

I've both heard numerous people reference the first comment's hypothesis, and I can confirm it extensively anecdotally.

Also as someone who has suffered from depression I can tell you that talking to people always helped me, even if we are talking about depressing things.

Also as someone who has suffered from depression I can tell you that talking to people always helped me, even if we are talking about depressing things.

Sure - but listening to depressing things can still seriously depress people who are not depressed when they start the conversation. The depressed person feels better, but the psychologist may feel worse. (And I, too, speak from personal experience.)

[-][anonymous]11y 14

I assume the examples motivate the insight here. I'd draw a slightly different insight from those examples.

The thing is, all the examples are applications of the area of expertise. To be a better athlete, you don't become a physicist, you use physics. The difference between a physics-savvy athlete and an unathletic physicist isn't just physical activity. The athlete is a consumer, not a producer. Going back to school to get a degree in physics might indeed make him worse at sports -- but reading about biomechanics won't. The lesson isn't that adults should learn everything, but that a targeted application of an art/science/skill can be useful even when learning the whole art/science/skill is impractical.

I agree, and it's in the first of my first 3 points:

As well, they probably learned it without the explicit intention to apply it to «domain». For those people, the task now analogous to learning it is decompartmentalizing it.

In retrospect, that should have been its own bullet.

Your thesis would imply that not judging a skill by its specialists should help my performance in making paperclips. But people who don't judge a skill by its specialists aren't significantly better at making paperclips, so that heuristic is unlikely to help me.

I think the last set of examples should come first, then discussion (less than there is now). Currently, it's not clear just from reading it what the first half of the post is about.

If someone has problems with dating, learning math won't help them find partners. If someone's awkward, playing video games won't help them become less awkward. I'm pretty sure the post is just wrong. When choosing what skill to learn, judging it by its specialists will give you better results than not judging.

Knowing basic probability and being able to solve equations on paper is very different than combating your own mental biases.

How much of the people who pretend to believe in "shut the fuck up and calculate" really follow that advice when it comes to dating? To link to a xkcd comic that shows how someone who "shuts the fuck up and calculate" would behave: http://xkcd.com/701/

Physicists are fairly visibly and obviously good at sports compared to typical people and also compared to typical scientists.

Is that true?

Wouldn't one expect biology to be more useful than physics for most sports? Classical mechanics has been well-understood for long enough for domain-specific knowledge about how to apply mechanics to sports to be translated into terms that even a sub-par phys-ed coach can understand and repeat, but there are new discoveries every year about how the body responds biologically to different kinds of nutrition and stressors.

It took a bit of an outsider-- a mediocre swimmer who was nuts about the sport-- to apply physics to swimming, and he didn't start by thinking about physics, he started by noticing that naturally good swimmers didn't look the same in the water as naturally bad swimmers.

There may still be plenty of low-hanging fruit left to apply physics to sports. Or maybe not-- that site mentions that, because of the high drag from water, efficiency is more crucial in swimming than in other sports.

You're right. Thanks. Corrected.

I was talking about physicists, not about physics. It's a casually obvious fact about them.

I also expect low hanging fruit everywhere, such as the one Nancy mentions below.

Hm. Well, one person's casually obvious fact is another's unverified anecdote.

In my experience, physicists are typically skinny, toned, and in reasonably good cardiovascular shape, but not necessarily "good at sports compared to typical people" after adjusting for education and free time / flexibility of work hours. They tend to be good at running, swimming, pushups, karate, and Ultimate Frisbee, but not necessarily at tennis, football, wrestling, soccer, golf, basketball, or skiing. Again, that's just my biased set of estimates based on a nonrandom sample of about 10 physicists and 20 people with comparable lifestyles but other careers. I wouldn't expect it to be at all representative of national or global trends, and I'm surprised that you feel confident about your assertion.

Wrestling I may not put in the negative category - simply because it is a skill that would be incidentally improved by the general tendency for martial arts training.

That sounds right on all points. My guess is that you are just using an unrealistic baseline. Typical people really are shockingly bad at everything.

My guess is that you are just using an unrealistic baseline.

Lol. Yes, that is indeed one of my more prominent flaws. When I was younger, people thought it was cute and called it "idealism." Now people just feel judged. I'm trying to learn how to maintain high standards and deep hope with less of a compromise to my epistemic rationality, i.e., less bias introduced into my baseline. Wish me luck!

"Don't trust a regression in which all of the relevant variables may not be accounted for."

From another angle, would you say that the value of a skill is separate from the social signals given by learning that particular skill? The social signals of the examples (gaming, physics, math) seem fairly clustered.

Many readers here are in the "already have it" category for a lot of the skills I'm talking about, and there are already lots of posts convincing us to decompartmentalize those skills…

OK, so what are the skills that we need to learn? We are physicists, psychologists, mathematicians and gamers; what skills have we radically neglected in the process of acquiring these skills?

Very often, when I ask a psychologist why they went into psychology, it's because they or one of their family members had a severe psychological problem.

Could you link me to one of these posts about decompartmentalisation? I'm having trouble working out the reward/effort ratio; it seems too low to me (too much effort, not enough reward).