Predicting Unpredictability – When The Player You Choose Matters Most

For the past four weeks, like many other Americans (mostly men) who are simply not satisfied enough with just watching their favorite teams play, I have been drawn into the world of Fantasy Football. This being my first year playing, there was certainly a learning curve for me (which I continue to attempt to overcome). For those of you who don’t know what Fantasy Football is, it is simply choosing the best (i.e. your favorite) players from all the many players in the NFL, and forming them into a motley team under whatever clever name you’ve come up with. Then, as the weeks progress, if your players do something good on the field, your team gets points; if your players do something bad on the field, you lose points. At the end of each week, the team with the most points is the winner.

Obviously, what makes this pseudo-sport difficult is selecting the players for your team. Everyone is choosing from a limited supply of players, and you want to make sure you have as many high scoring players as possible. The real problem, however, comes from how unpredictable sports players can be. While a player on your team may have seemed amazing before, they could totally fail you and get few points when playing against a different team each week.  Similarly, the player who was ignored because of bad past performance may suddenly step up and leave everyone wishing they had him on their team. Therefore, being able to predict the performance of each player is crucial to a good Fantasy Football team.

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As Luck Would Have It

“With that, [Billy Beane] walks out into the clubhouse, closing the door behind him, and begins to storm around. Past the trainer’s room…and, finally, past the video room where Paul DePodesta stews on the improbability of the evening. Paul already has calculated the odds of winning twenty games in a row. (He puts them at fourteen in a million.) Now he’s calculating the odds of losing an eleven-run lead. (‘It may not be fourteen in a million but it’s close.’)” ~ Moneyball

The year is 2002. The Oakland Athletics, to cope with high baseball salaries and a low budget, revolutionize the way their team looks at baseball statistics. By finding players overlooked by every other team for their perceived flaws, the Oakland A’s put together a team that is able to get runs and win games. Throwing years of conventional baseball wisdom in the face of analysts, scouts, and managers, the Oakland A’s success is one topic of Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball (now a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Without giving away too much to people who haven’t read the book or seen the movie (or followed baseball history, for that matter), the road to success isn’t exactly smooth. While the statistics may be accurate, anyone who has ever gambled knows just because something is probable does not mean it’s a sure thing. On September 4, 2002, the Oakland Athletics faced off against the Kansas City Royals for what could be their 20th win in a row, the longest winning streak in American League history. Oakland quickly goes up 11-0 in the third against Kansas and all seems set to bring in the win.

Then everything goes to pot.

Over the next five innings, Kansas manages to score 11 runs, while Oakland doesn’t get a single run, tying the game. To everyone, the game looks all but lost. Behind the scenes, Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, come across Paul DePodesta, the assistant general manager and brains behind the team’s statistics, anxiously calculating the odds that they got where they are and the odds that they could lose it all.

14 in a million!


The other night, I was playing Risk and one player ended up rolling triple 1s, the worst roll you can get in the game. The probability of getting that roll is 1 in 216, or .46% – nothing compared to .0014%, but still highly improbable compared to other rolls. As the dice landed, the roller threw his hands in the air, exclaiming how unlucky his rolls were. We all quickly agreed, thinking how we would feel if that were our situation.

As we pondered the unfortunate roll, it occurred to us that triple 1s wasn’t the only roll with that low of a probability. As an astute reader, you may have realized that any triple using three dice has the exact same probability! (Check it out: Dice Probability Calculator)That means for him to roll a triple 1s, he was just as likely to roll triple 6s, one of the best rolls in the game!

“I guess that actually means you are lucky,” my friend said.

Of course, by “lucky” he meant the roller had something improbable happen to him. However, the roller certainly did not see it as lucky himself. It seems then, that our perception of luck is not about the probability of something unlikely happening, but the probability of something unlikely happening when we want it to happen. Instead of Risk, if we were playing a game where lower rolls equaled better outcomes, the roller would still have thrown his hands in the air but for a totally different reason.

As we have already shown, though, an uncommon positive event is just as probable as an uncommon negative event (as long as these extremes exist, which is another discussion). Both happen with equal frequency in our lives, we just notice and remember the events differently (there is plenty of evidence to suggest pessimists dwell of negative events more than optimists, and vice versa). Therefore, “luck” as we understand it is a function of our memory and expectations.

Fortunately, we have the power to alter these perceptions. By seeing and dwelling upon all unexpected events not as obstacles towards designing our perfect world, but as forays into new experiences that continually nurture our growth, every improbability can be “lucky.” Once we accept the capricious nature of life’s events, the only “unlucky” events are the ones that maintain the status quo. “Unlucky” becomes synonymous with “uneventful.” While it is easy for us to appreciate a predictable environment, it is important to understand that the beauty of life comes from experiencing, coping with, and learning from unexpected situations.

Of course, this is could be the poster child for “easier said than done.” As Billy Beane stalked through the halls, I am confident the last thing on his mind was how exciting it was to lose the 11-point lead. But I hope maybe the next time something unexpected happens, even negative, you will at least think about how much more exciting your life has become because of this one improbability.

Screening Out Friends

Few people like getting calls from people they don’t know. Luckily, in late 1980s, phones were revolutionized with the deployment of caller ID, giving call receivers the ability to identify calling numbers. Today, with the advent modern phone technology, caller ID has become even more sophisticated in our ability to track who is calling us and when. While this has largely fixed the annoying telemarketer issue, it has helped develop a habit of limiting not only our conversations with people we don’t want to talk to, but also people we do.

Personally, I have a very bad habit of screening calls. It isn’t because I am trying to avoid anyone or don’t like talking to people. The problem is that I see a name, think about my last convo with the person, then decide whether picking up the phone is something that will take an easy two minutes, or deserves a much longer, quality recap convo.

The problem, though, is that like many of you who constantly forget to take out the trash or run that important errand, I also have horrible short term memory. If I don’t take care of something when it is on my mind, I’ll often forget or get caught up in something else. When I do finally remember, I am generally in a similar position to the one I was in when I got the call in the first place, and thus a vicious cycle of forgetting and procrastination takes place.

This is a huge problem for many of my long-distance friendships. I am notorious for being one of the hardest and least reliable people to get in touch with. This sounds like I’m making excuses, but I really do miss you all and would love to hear how your life is going. I’m hoping that at some point in my life I reach a maturity where this cycle is no longer an issue.

I bring all this up because I recently lost this ability to screen calls. My phone broke about a month ago in such a way that when I got a replacement, I was unable to shift over my contacts list. Given that the only phone numbers I have memorized are ones I learned when I was 15, everyone call was one I didn’t recognize. I avoided the whole facebook numbers shoutout, and instead only asked people I ran into for their numbers. Thus, my current contacts list is only people I see on a regular basis. Until they call, however, all of my long-distance friends will appear as random numbers.

This became apparent to me the other day when I got a call from an area code I didn’t recognize. For fear of missing something important, I picked up. It turned out to be a friend who I hadn’t seen in nearly 2 years who was attempting to coordinate a reunion of some old travel buddies. Expecting that I’d be the hardest to reach, she was ecstatic that I actually picked up. Contrary to my belief about long recaps, we only talked for a minute or two, but I can’t express how great it was to hear her voice again after so long, and how excited I am to be part of the plans to see these people again.

The funny thing is, I have to admit that if I had seen it was her calling, I probably would have put off picking up and decided to call her when I felt more prepared to answer. Like I mentioned, this would have led to me forgetting and I might never have gotten in touch with her in time to coordinate anything. But because I didn’t know who it was, what they wanted, or how long the conversation would be, I simply crossed my fingers that it wasn’t a salesman, and picked up. Not screening the called payed off.

The lesson hear is that sometimes even with the best intentions, we let our expectations get in the way of what could possibly be great experiences. Maybe you are one of those people who refuse to pick up for numbers they don’t recognize, instead expecting the person to leave a message if it is really important. There seems to be this idea that the only people we want to talk to are those we already have in our contacts list. Or maybe you are like me and only pick up when you think the conversation is going to be short and sweet. Either way, our expectations limit the interactions we have and the relationships we build.

We do this everyday, not just on the phone, but when we interact with anyone in our life. Just like we think of a certain friend as the person who talks forever on the phone and don’t pick up, we also think of a certain family member who complains so we avoid visiting home. But we forget the times when that certain friend only wants to say hi and invite you to a party, or when that certain family member wants to just laugh and happily play board games. When we let our expectations get in the way, we might successfully avoid some interactions, but we also miss out on many others. Humans are notoriously bad at prediction, so why are we letting that get in the way.

So, the next time you get a call random call or a call from a long-lost friend, go ahead an pick up. Maybe don’t even look to see who is calling before you answer. Let me know what happens.

Get a piece of paper and take 5 minutes to write out as many phone numbers you can think of off the top of your head and who they correspond to. Then check your Contacts list and give yourself one point for each accurate pair.

Making People Better…or Not?

“Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.” – Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity

For those of you unfamiliar with Malcolm Reynolds, he is the captain of a fictional spacecraft, Serenity, in the Sci-Fi movie of the same name. This quote takes place during a pivotal scene where the crew of the ship have discovered that the inhuman Reavers (“men who have gone bad on the edge of space”) are actually a government experiment gone wrong. Attempting to get rid of the aggressive tendencies in humans, the Alliance (totalitarian bureaucracy that governs the known Universe) designs and releases a chemical agent into the air supply that causes almost all of the population to become docile. In fact, they become so complacent that they lay down and let themselves die. However, a small percentage of the population has the adverse effect, and the chemical agent excited their aggressive tendencies causing them to go crazy and become Reavers.

After the crew has discovered this, Captain Malcolm Reynolds gives this inspiring speech, letting the crew know that he plans to let the rest of “the Verse” know about what the alliance has done. This would severly undermine the power of the Alliance (so much so that an assassin has been sent to keep Mal Reynolds from finding the secret). Mal aims to misbehave.

If you couldn’t tell, I am a huge fan of this movie. It is an amazing story, and if you haven’t seen it, you should watch it. If you have seen it, you should watch it again. But as a liminal psychologist studying positive/clinical psychology (whose aim is to make the world a better place by understanding human behavior), this quote challenges me. Am I like the Alliance in that I don’t accept the way people are as good enough? Am I trying to make people “better”?

I think not. The goal should not be to improve an imperfect human nature (and whether it is imperfect at all is a discussion for another time), but to understand the full range of human potential. I look at the books and articles I am reading and realize that they aren’t about what people could be if we tinkered with them, they are about what people can be if they learn to handle all the anxieties, stressors, polutions, warfare, and aggression. Note, I am not saying “take away” anxieties, stressors, etc. The goal is to help people reach their desired potential in and around those aspects of life. We investigate the full potential of humanity to be happy, satisfied, intelligent, curious, friendly, loving, and so many more attributes because we believe that every human should have the opportunity to live to whatever capacity they desire.

The goal is also not to “make” people better; it is to help others be the people they want to be. When counselors get patients in their offices, it is not the psychologist who does the work, it is the individual. The best counselor is simply a guiding presence to help the individual accept who they are, help her/him acknowledge what is and isn’t working, and then give suggestions on ways to develop new potential. It is always the individual’s choice about what they want to do and how they want to do it.

The point is that humans don’t need to be made better. Humans have a potential to do both great and despicable things. They have the potential to lead amazing lives or exist in the doldrums of unappreciated living. Humans don’t need to made better because they already have all the potential they need. It is easy to get so caught up in an ideal of creating a fanciful utopia that we lose sight of the very real potential that already exists. The catch is that the individual has to make the choice themselves. Potential is realized from within, and only one person has access to that.

So, our goal is not to “make” people better, but to reveal the potential that exists and guide people, if they so choose and as best we can, on that path. What do you think about that, Captain Reynolds?

Glorified Case Studies

As a liminal psychologist, research is an extremely important part of my career. Right after graduation, I spent a fair amount of time working with the Center for Social Science Research as an attempt to gain some form of research experience. I thank my lucky stars, because for a while they were the only reason I wasn’t bleeding money.

But even as I’m thankful for the employment I had been offered, I couldn’t help but wondering what I was accomplishing. One day we came in to find this Dilbert comic strip tacked next to our schedules. My humor and experience showed through as I laughed aloud, thinking about how it seemed that the only willing interviewees were over the age of 80. It was a common occurrence to repeat questions, or receive a “honey, you sure have a nice voice, but I don’t know anything about that.” This was in response to simple opinion questions such as “how important of an issue is immigration/health reform/unemployment to you?”

So the question is, who are we reaching? One of the main goals of social research is to learn about the people in our society. I understand that we do demographic analyses to account for this age differential, but there is never going to be a representative sampling when doing any research where the method of recruitment is limited. According to the Consumer Confidence Index, participant cooperation has dropped from 60% in 1996 to 43% in 2003. According to Pew Research, major media polling companies only receive 15-20% response rates. So we are only representing the few people who actually want to participate. Grandma’s opinion is important, but only interesting as far as we care what Grandma’s of the world are thinking.

So here I was in that existential funk that I believe all researchers come to at some point in their career. What am I actually accomplishing? What am I actually finding out? Who am I actually representing? Even if we collect a million surveys, if they don’t represent the population, how can we say we found anything? Again, statistical error rates, controls for demographics, etc., but how far will those excuses go before we realize that all we have is elderly opinions in media research? In my career path, how long will we be satisfied over-representing white, college males in experimental research? Or geriatrics in survey research?

In the early years of human research, case studies were the source of our information. Researchers looked at the individual for clues about the greater population. We feel we have come so far using theoretically random sampling. Really, we are just using a glorified case samples. Our “case” represents the amalgamated sample of people willing to pick up the phone, click the internet link, or send in the reply mail. We hide this fact by trying to stretch the data to simulate a representative sample, but is that cutting it?

So we continue to strive for solutions. What are those solutions, you ask? Well, that is a post for another time. Till then, keep answering those phones Grandma; you are all we’ve got.

Keeping Friends Close

Our world today is full of distance communication. At times, we talk through phones and computers as often as we do in person. We call, text, e-mail, Skype, tweet, blog, etc. all with the goal of communicating with people even when they are not physically with us.

One episode of NBC’s show Community, one of our main characters, Pierce Hawthorne (an older, sometimes inappropriate business tycoon played by Chevy Chase), acquires a listening device that allows him to eavesdrop on conversations. Throughout the episode, he picks up secrets and gossip form the rest of the characters and at one point becomes convinced that he is the brunt of some of these jokes. In one of the final scenes of the episode, Pierce is found without his earpiece, saying he got rid of it because he realized that man had been created to only hear things in immediate range. He says, “You know why that is? It’s because the people talking to us in this range are the people who love us.”

His point is well taken. Clearly when we listen to things outside our range, we hear things not necessarily meant for us or that cause more harm than good. I am reminded of Lucy, in The Chronicles of Narnia, looking into the magician’s book to see her supposed friend bad-mouthing her. Severely hurt, things will never go back to the friendship they once had, even though there may have been reasons for the betrayal outside of Lucy’s knowledge. Often, it is best to only listen to what we are supposed to hear.

Pierce’s words also hint at another point: the people we should actually listen to are the ones who keep themselves around us. In our culture today, our metaphorical ears have grown to cover so much more space. We are able to tune in and connect with more people than ever before. But as we have access to more and more people, our resources to stay in contact with those we care about go down. It is for those reasons it is so important to consciously allocate time to continue e-mail threads, comment on people’s walls, or call up a friend.

So even as our society moves towards a digital age, remember to keep those you care about around you. that way, the group within reach will continue to be full of people who love us.

The episode referenced in this article was titled “Social Psychology.” The scene from The Chronicles of Narnia was adapted from the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 10: “The Magician’s Book.”

Satisfied Conversation

Small talk. It is a social convention that most people say they hate, yet we use every day. These types of conversation can feel empty or superficial, two qualities many people try to reject in their lives. We prefer to think of ourselves as people who have solely substantive conversations. If we are going to talk to someone, we want the conversation to have value. Yet small talk is sometimes a go-to type of conversation. In fact, a recent study in Psychological Science of substantive vs. small talk conversations showed that nearly 1 in 5 of the participants’ conversations consisted mostly of small talk.

The way researchers measured this was by using their EARs…also known as Electronically Activated Recorders. These are recording devices participants wear that automatically record sound at researcher chosen intervals. In this study, the EAR recorded 30 seconds of conversation every 12.5 minutes. All of the recordings are then compiled for each participant and coders go through and classify each conversation. For this study, coders marked the 30 second recordings as either small talk (i.e. only trivial information was exchanged; e.g. “What do you have there? Popcorn? Yummy!”), substantive conversation (i.e. meaningful information was exchanged; e.g. “She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?”), and neither (i.e. no conversation happening).

However, that wasn’t the only thing the study was measuring. Researchers also wanted to know whether people with higher well-being (i.e. people who rate highest on measures of well-being, satisfaction with life, and self-reported happiness) had different percentages of small talk and substantive conversations than those who rated lower in well-being. What they found was that higher well-being was associated with having much less small talk and more substantive conversations. High well-being was also associated with a greater likelihood of talking with others and not being alone. Happier people (those with higher levels of well-being and life satisfaction) are having deeper conversation!

Now, it is important to note that like all correlation studies, correlation does not imply causation. But we can still make reflect on possibilities: Does more substantial conversations make use more satisfied with life, does satisfaction with life lead to more substantive conversation, or is there some third variable that makes people feel happier AND allow for more substance? Let’s investigate.

Option A: More substantial conversations lead to greater feelings of happiness in life. Interpersonal communication is a huge factor in our relationships; you can’t be close if you don’t talk. (This is a huge issue in couples who have been together so long they feel they don’t have anything to say to each other anymore. Communication is key!) As we talk to others, we learn more about them and develop better relationships. However, just talking is not enough to learn about someone. I do not learn much about a person who I spend 5 minutes talking about how much it is raining outside. We grow by having conversation that gives us a real glimpse of the other person’s life. So, substantive conversation help develop relationships. In the past, having a greater number of positive relationships has been linked to greater life satisfaction. Voila…but this discussion isn’t finished. Why are our relationships linked to life satisfaction? Isn’t life satisfaction a personal thing, not an interpersonal thing…or is it…?

Option B: Satisfaction with life leads to more substantive conversation. When do you feel most likely to resort to small talk? When you are in a familiar place or in a foreign situation? With close friends or strangers? When you are comfortable or uncomfortable? For me at least, I most often resort to small talk when I am unsure of my situation or who I am talking to (something that causes many people to feel uncomfortable). I speculate that a tendency towards small talk in conversation is partially a function of discomfort. Interestingly, life satisfaction is associated with better adaptability in situations (resulting in less discomfort) and greater curiosity (more willing to move past feelings of discomfort for interest’s sake). Therefore, well-being helps lessen discomfort, allowing one to feel able to engage in substantive conversation. Once again, voila! However, discomfort is clearly not the only precursor of small talk. What other factors lead to small talk, and why do more satisfied people have less of that? Do they have less of it, or are they better at ignoring it?

Option C: A third variable makes people feel happier AND enables substantive conversations. I remember when I worked at a bank, I hated small talk, but since all of my conversations with customers lasted about 2 minutes, they were all I could do. I also disliked my job for other reasons that had little to do with substance of my customer interactions (though I sometimes wished to know more than how hot it was outside). My satisfaction with my life at the time was very low and coincidentally my number of small talk conversations was incredible high, but they were both a function of my job atmosphere. Maybe there are also jobs that allow people to be satisfied with their life and contributions while at the same time have substantive conversation with coworkers and clients. What third variables do you think could be at play here?

In conclusion, we all have both substantive and less-than-substantive conversations in different proportions for each person based on many variables. Now, satisfaction with life is linked as one of those variables, but we don’t know why yet. Look at your own life. Ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • In what situations am I more likely to have small talk? In what situations am I more likely to have substantive talk?
  • How do I feel when I have more substantive talks? How do I feel when I have less substantive talks?
  • At times when I am feeling most satisfied with my life, which type of conversation do I tend to have?
  • Do I feel closer to people when I have substantive conversation with them? How about when I have small talk with them?
  • Does feeling closer to people make me feel more satisfied with my life? Are other variables better predictors of my life satisfaction?
  • What do I like talking about most? How do I feel when I’m in situations that allow that subject of conversation?

These are all questions you can ask yourself to help you better understand yourself as well as you interactions with other people. Let me know what you find!