Tuesday, November 27, 2018

beware of the semi-attached figure

What can you do if you need to convince someone of something, but you don’t have proper evidence?

One simple way is to demonstrate something else to be true and then just pretend it’s the same thing.

In statistics, this trick is known as the ‘semi-attached figure’.

Simply pick a couple of things that sound kind of the same – though they aren’t (this is the important point) – and make a comparison between them to validate your conclusion.

An everyday example would be the number of reports that contrast hours spent TV viewing with hours spent on the internet, as though those activities were the same thing.

One reputable market research firm recently tried to convince an audience I was in about the popularity of a particular on-demand Aussie TV channel.

‘Who is watching?’ they asked. ‘Well, 90% of viewers are aware of the service!”.

Sounds impressive, however, awareness of the existence of something is not the same as usage of the service.

It has long been a common tactic of persuasion to cite information that initially seems to uphold an assertion, but upon closer inspection is pretty much irrelevant to the actual claim.

This means stating one thing as a proof for something else.

For example, if some report claims says ‘85% of CEOs think that Blockchain will change the way their organisations do marketing by 2020”– what does that actually prove?

This implies that CEOs are some sort of authority on the application of Blockchain technology.

Or marketing.

There’s no shortage of reports showing the decline of advertising spends on printed news.

The implication is that advertisers should spend more on whatever the alternative is that’s being sold.

Of course, a decline in advertising spend does not necessarily mean a decline in readership.

When dealing with any ‘evidence’ of this nature, ask yourself how the evidence specifically proves the claim. Could there be alternative explanations that would make the claim false?

If the evidence isn’t necessarily relevant to the conclusion then you are probably dealing with a semi-attached figure.

(Note: For more fun with statistics I always recommend 'How To Lie With Statistics' by Darrel Huff, first published in 1954.)

tinbergen's four questions

The Dutch ethologist and ornithologist, Nikolaas Tinbergen - along with colleagues Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz - received the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their 'discoveries concerning organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns'. Essentially kickstarting our understanding of the innate properties of animal behaviour.

Alongside this accolade, Tinbergen’s most famous contribution to science is the ‘four questions’ framework, originally posed in his 1963 article ‘On Aims and Methods of Ethology’.

This simple framework goes a long way towards explaining how and why any animal exhibits a behaviour, and was instrumental in putting the nature vs nurture debate to bed once and for all. The model shows how all behaviour (and all traits) are products of complicated interactions between genes and the environment.

Tinbergen and his colleagues argued that any analysis must address four aspects of a trait: how it works, what function it serves, how it develops, and its evolutionary history.

Although not posited as explicitly evolutionary, Tinbergen’s Four Questions - as they have since come to be known - detail the basic considerations a researcher should want to make. And they still hold.

(Ethologists tended to focus on observable behaviour and so didn't go deep into the psychological mechanisms, that came later as areas of ethology morphed into evolutionary psychology.)

The four questions are grouped under two headings.

Proximate questions.

1. What are the mechanisms? - how does the behaviour get elicited, what signals or primes are required, and which pathways within the organism are involved?

2. How does it develop? - how does the behaviour change with age, experience and environment?

Ultimate questions.
3. Why did it evolve? - how did evolution and earlier generations/species contribute to this particular behaviour?

4. Why did this behaviour help the organism/species survive/reproduce?

To illustrate how this framework can be applied, think of the last time you stuffed a Big Mac into your face. What was the decision process behind that?

Was I hungry? Perhaps it was just convenient? I had a hangover? Or it’s a treat every now and again?

These kinds of explanations for behaviour operate at the proximate level.

These causes point to relatively up-close and immediately present influences—to what you are presently feeling or thinking or a plausible story you tell yourself.

Yes, proximate reasons are important, but they tell only tell part of the story.

Proximate reasons don't address the broader question of why Big Macs are appealing in the first place.

Understanding the deeper reasons for preferences and behaviour requires an ultimate explanation.

Ultimate explanations focus not on the relatively immediate triggers of behaviour, but on its evolutionary function.

In the Big Mac scenario, humans have psychological mechanisms that respond positively to the sight, smell, and taste of foods rich in sugars and fats.

These mechanisms exist because an attraction to these kinds of foods helped our ancestors obtain calories and survive in an environment that where they were often scarce.

So whereas the proximate reasons you bought a Big Mac may be many and varied, the ultimate cause is that a desire for sugary and fatty foods helped solve the critical evolutionary challenge of survival in the ancestral environment.

McDonald's, Burger King and KFC have become some of the biggest brands in the world and wield colossal global advertising budgets. However, it's no accident that they got there selling burgers, fried chicken and milkshakes rather than salad.

Market researchers, like social scientists, have typically been concerned with the proximate influences on behaviour.

Moreover, anything masquerading as insight asserting that people generally want to experience pleasure or happiness, and to avoid pain or sadness is just banal.

However, an evolutionary perspective highlights that there is a deeper level of explanation rooted in the adaptive function of behaviour.

This is a useful lens through which to look at motivation because while there could be any amount of proximate motives for a given behaviour and many goals people pursue, there is a much smaller set of ultimate evolutionary functions that behaviour might serve.

These functions are almost certain to be connected to recurrent adaptive problems that our ancestors would have faced. And as they are rooted deep in our long evolutionary history, they can shape all stages of consumer journeys and decision-making processes.

the reverse naturalistic fallacy

The naturalistic fallacy, as outlined by Scottish philosopher David Hume, is the leap from is to ought.

The tendency to believe that what is, is good; therefore what is, is what ought to be.

The moralistic fallacy, is the opposite. It refers to making the leap from ought to is. The claim that the way things should be is the way they are.

This is sometimes called the reverse naturalistic fallacy.

For example, take some randomly selected Simon Sinek platitude like this:

‘Great companies don't hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them’.

Or how about:

‘The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.’

This kind of glibness falls squarely into the reverse naturalistic bucket, which makes them great Linkedin fodder for the mass of suckers.

Nice ideas. But just because that’s the way things ought to be doesn’t mean it’s anything like the way things really are.

Outside of Simon’s world, for most people the reality of their jobs is what the anarchist philosopher David Graeber calls ‘the shift towards an immaterial economy that creates large numbers of jobs without an obvious social value that are often experienced as being purposeless and empty by their occupants.’

Sinek himself is no sucker, of course. I’d kill for one-tenth of his book sales.