Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Cost of Excellence

 “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives - choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”    ― Aristotle

            “The best is the mortal enemy of the good. -- Montesquieu

Photo: Pixabay

Bias Part III

In the relentless pursuit of quality standards, and competing to express them, we automatically show our bias against anything but best-in-class.  If we pursue the top nominee for “Best cat breeds for catching mice,” then we must discriminate against less talented mousers.  If we look only at top colleges, we ignore all other options.  We also daydream about absolute top quality in marriage partners, homes, career, and car – the top big-ticket decisions in a lifetime.  It would be rare for anyone to achieve top quality results in all these categories, which is what even the very successful can’t manage to pull off. 

While working or waiting for ideal opportunities, there are many more decisions that are fated to yield less-than-stellar outcomes.  Rarely do all big-ticket criteria align for the perfect world we hold in our heads.  Aristotle championed the excellent while also promoting the Golden Mean as the avenue to avoid the extremes of the excellent and the abysmal.

In practice, though, of course, people can’t perform at their best or fit the top ten criteria for everything, from driving to cooking, singing, organizing, playing bridge, managing their portfolio, or giving presentations.  We do below-best most of the time, and that has consequences across the board for quality of life and reputation. “Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.”  True, but we don’t always choose to pay for that option.  The costs of operating at that level are too high.  Or we must concentrate on one area of life at the expense of others.  The cognitive strain exacted by excellence means we only apply high effort selectively.  On his site, Robert Ferguson notes that for the Forbes 500, Excellence is the third most popular core value—after Integrity and Respect.

Social scientist Herbert Simon articulated the cognitive limits to effort and focus in studying complex problems with high demands.  When things get too complex or hard to evaluate, we default to “satisficing,” making efforts good enough for the situation and its goals to get the job done, even if the outcomes are not top-ranking.  Satisficing sees that the job is taken care of but doesn’t impose a mandate for excellence.  This measure departs from the classical Rational Man theory of economics that assumes people know what they want and the logical price they are willing to pay for it for any given choice—like college. Too often we are dealing with incomplete information, with limited resources and energy.  In everyday situations, entropy rules over excellence.

In engineering and economics, this situation is called “theory of second-best.”  No system operates in all its parts and dynamics at top efficiency all the time, and any aspect that isn’t fully operational impacts the effect of every other aspect of the system, as in welfare economics entitlements. There are too many errors to make, and few ways to be top-notch, compared to hundreds or thousands of chances to be less than that.  A basic human brain problem is that there are two brains: we make decisions and take action both on the rational and the non-rational sides—the reason cognitive economics began to study both, venturing beyond the Rational Man theory.

Diversity programs in all sectors of society are dedicated to breaking down the hierarchy of success by insisting on making the successful better represent subset groups within the culture.  To diffuse class envy and inequality, Santa Monica High School in California has closed down its honors program in English in a radical move against excellence based on merit achievement.  As amazing as this sounds as a solution within an academic institution devoted to developing minds to their fullest extent: it is a logical step under the assumption that the top ranks of students express privilege based on unequal advantages such as educated parents in homes full of books.  SAMO’s home page declares its mission as “Extraordinary achievement for all students while simultaneously closing the achievement gap.”  This noble confusion might be rephrased as “Get great, but not too great to be unequal.” 

On another front, Congress is debating a “Worst Passengers” list, a nationwide no-fly blacklist to bar unruly fliers.  “But in a perfect world, who else would be prevented from flying?  Chatty or entitled passengers? Babies?“ (Elliott Advocacy).  The no-fly list is of cultural interest, because it reflects our collective ideas of profiling bad actors.  The nature of close quarters at high altitudes makes this profiling critical as compared to issues on the ground. One would think that suspected terrorists would come first, followed by anger-management failures, then on to the unruly.  Alcoholics, drug addicts, spastics, mental patients, maybe even the anxious and depressed could follow.  Babies and their behavior included.  Comfort animals other than dogs.  And yes, hygiene-compromised passengers as well.  This could become a long and inclusive list.  Any condition that promotes “disruptive” behavior would be eligible, and that, when you think about it, is a widely distributed trait: anyone who fails to fit “normal” parameters.  Exactly like high achievers, just at the other end of the scale.  

Excellence and the competition for virtuosity is the root cause of inequality.  Any effort to separate people based on merited achievement creates an obvious rift: the top 1% versus everyone else, as in the extreme wealth curve.  Sifting for criteria, either competence or character-based, is a discriminatory act.  This happens constantly at all levels of behavior, within our own actions and in the way we think about and judge others and their origin groups.  How are we to reconcile Excellence with Equity?

Monday, May 15, 2023

Ranking: Perils and potentials

“Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems that we created with our current patterns of thought.”     --Albert Einstein

Bias Part II 


Compare these two stacked curves.  Which is longer?  

This is a classic optical illusion, from the nineteenth century. In fact, the two are actually identical.  The illusion vanishes with a change in perspective to upright/vertical.  The human brain is automatically comparing everything it sees.

Ranking is a human proclivity, and it is all around us.  SEO (search engine optimization) ratings, US News Best Colleges, The Olympics, pro sports and amateur sports, Amazon product reviews, happiness rankings of countries worldwide, employee job applications, political candidates’ approval ratings, reputation polls.  In fact, it is impossible for anyone to examine two objects within the same category without ranking them in some way on some feature.  These can include reputation, performance, brand, cost, design, range of uses, aesthetics, color, size, speed, efficiency, and dozens of other basic aspects.  Think about the time and energy we all expend in comparing ourselves to others.  We compare along these lines and beyond – without having any way of confirming these ratings except a general anxiety about the need to do so.  Our social media scores are a simple example.


Top Ten lists are everywhere and cover everything imaginable, including longest reigning monarchs, youngest state leaders, no-hitter record pitchers, highest jumpers, most innovative countries, winning tips for college-level essays, video game characters, famous astronauts, hang-gliding champions, chess minds, Noble Peace Prize winners, teams with the largest stadiums, quickest female Paralympians, and, of course, Best Top Ten lists.  The recent obituary of singer Harry Belafonte ranks him as the first Black Emmy and Tony Award winner as well as the first of any race to sell one million albums (“Calypso,” in 1956). (The Week, May 12 2023)

Our hourly ruminations consist of searching for clues to our standing compared to others.  Talent, wealth, perception, power, influence, trustworthiness, and romantic interest are all rankings we seek to compete and excel in.  These are dominance hierarchies in every society, and they serve a purpose.  As systems expert Peter Erdi puts it in his book Ranking, “Dominance hierarchies are very efficient structures at very different levels of evolution.  They have a major role in reducing conflict and maintaining social stability…to regulate access to these resources [food and mates].”  

Dominance ranking is a great mechanism to maintain the status quo, so that people (and animals in general) have a good idea of where they stand, and where they would like to stand in the future. Dominance goes beyond power, leadership, and authority to include influence, expertise, competence (toward virtuosity), and trustworthiness (a brand of social equity).  Think of writers, athletes, musicians, artists, and inventors and their role as models of prestige.

Emergent properties

Ranking and valuing have their value.  But what are the emergent properties, the unanticipated outcomes, of ranking competitions?  There are costs.  They begin with the constant need to measure and judge, ending often enough in an ongoing critical evaluation of self as never good enough.  Constant comparison is the essential activity of social media worldwide.

The Zoom screen affords the opportunity-as-compulsion to see oneself alongside others.  The self-criticism and appraisal of our appearance up against others in the screen meeting is one reason that remote meetings are as stressful as they are, regardless of the business at hand.  And while we are comparing ourselves to others on dozens of scales, they are doing the same.  No one entirely knows what their score is, but act as if they do.  Billionaire investor Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet’s business partner) declared “The world is not driven by greed. It's driven by envy.”

The obsession with determining the best of everything is a form of “virtue bias,” the directive we all share to seek out a way that lets us agree on rankings for everything from colleges to cars to cappuccinos.  So we curate “best of” lists for everything.  Whatever their standards, and whether those standards are based on tangible and provable truths, these lists take on a life of their own, reinforcing themselves in a self-fulfilling prophecy as the most-cited attract to become the most-desired and best-selling. 

The cost of competition is then passed along to those underneath the top ranks—the second place to mediocre to loser class.  Which, because so few of us are winners (on one scale, let alone several), means that we all tarred by the bias against “second-best,” or as a colleague once phrased it, “First Loser.”  That’s not a great-sounding placement, considering all the effort put out to make something of our lives and our reputations.  Just a reminder that talent is not equally distributed.  Neither is the work ethic necessary to maximize that talent.  This is why equality is such a tricky concept to pin down and engineer.  The social contest is not a level playing field, and some of that levelling is under our own control, while the start-points—family, location, culture, ethnicity, wealth, class—are more steeply slanted as well as harder to equalize later in life.

These contests, in operation in all domains of life, are one way to find information useful in making choices and investments of our time, money, and attention.  To this end, we seek out the best possible in schools--including preschools--for our children, politicians who will represent our interests, cars we can rely on to confer status as well as deliver performance, books that will reward the time investment in reading them.  We seek out friends who will enhance our efforts by reinforcing our values, making them worth the precious time invested in socializing.  We hope for college roommates whose good character and work habits will encourage our own school success (as important, some studies show, as the quality of the school attended).  President-to-be Franklin Pierce had such a roommate at Bowdoin College, one who fired up his ambition and work habits. Homes in the most advantaged parts of town we can afford in order to enjoy quality neighbors.  Colleagues to match our interests and our goals and lifestyles. Marriage partner, ditto.  Such preferences are quality-control devices, deployed as systematic bias protection against making poor judgments by our social group.

Ratings are supposed to help us distinguish between good and less effective use of our resources: time, wealth, energy, reputation.  Life is largely an efficiency game, one we seek to win at as often as possible, by aiming to win each time.

Outcomes and correctives

When recorded music became available by record and radio, everything else started to sound amateurish, or homegrown, or less-than-professional (John Phillip Souza, consummate composer in many genres, predicted this effect of technology).  The music on the ground, as it migrated onstage, created its own recording traditions that nationalized the genre (like folk, country, blues, and jazz), leading to its own “best-of” listings.  Belafonte’s signature “Banana Boat Song,” “Day-O,” is a Jamaican work song out of the colonial island fields but massaged by studio technologies, headed the charts in 1956.  Songwriters led by “the father of American music,” Stephen Foster, could be rewarded for their talents thanks to copyright and printing advances.

In the workplace, to compensate for the seller’s market in computer talent, companies are starting to adopt “skills-based hiring” to get around degree-based ranking of job applicants.  Applied computer skill doesn’t require the traditional four-year degree or professional title, and can be conducted on-line and on the associate level.  Distinction between certification and performance is the focus, opting for evidence-based performance over degree awards.  By the same mentality, merit-based admissions values achievement over race-based pro-bias in college admissions.  Affirmative action continues to be an ongoing debate that pits achievement against adjustment in the cause of balance and fairness.  To erase any competition for recognition, Santa Monica High School in California has done away with its Honors program in English as an enabler of inequality.  Not without concern over loss of opportunity for bright contestants who are now losers of this resume benefit.

Even bat-flipping in professional baseball, the practice of tossing the bat in the air to celebrate a home run, is a point of debate.  The practice was labelled as disrespectful of the opposing team and the game itself.  More recently flipping the bat is being viewed increasingly as simply a celebratory exhilaration and not an insult – realigning expectations and allowing for a more expressive game.  Even the slightest ritual carries with it a bias-based value.

All bias depends on expectations and context as a culturally constructed virtue or vice.  From the birth of human society, nonetheless, physical height is still positively correlated with leadership potential and dominance in pecking orders.  Erdi notes that “the desire to achieve a higher social rank appears to be a universal, a driving force for all human beings.”