THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 23

Subject:  Action Bias – Soccer Goalie Study

Event:  Birthday of Michael Bar-Eli, 1953

In his classic essay “Shooting An Elephant,” English writer George Orwell tells the story of an experience he had while serving as a police officer in Burma in the 1930s, a region under colonial rule by the British Empire at the time. When a rogue elephant gets loose, Orwell is confronted with a dilemma concerning whether or not to shoot the elephant.  Feeling pressure from the gathered crowd to act rather than appear indecisive or cowardly, he shoots and kills the elephant.  In the story’s final line, he honestly reflects on what he did and why he did it:  “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”

The work of psychologist Michael Bar-Eli, who was born on this day in 1953, examines this distinctly human fear of being shamed by inaction.  To examine what Bar-Eli calls the action bias, he studied the strategy of soccer goalies when facing a penalty kick.  There are basically three potential targets for a player taking a penalty kick:  the left side of the goal, the right, or the middle.  Even though each target is equally likely, you rarely see a goalie remain in the middle of the goal; instead, they dive either to the left or the right side. Despite the fact that a statistical analysis by Bar-Eli reveals that the optimal strategy for goalies is to stay in the center, the pull of the action bias is too strong.  Rather than risk the appearance of being indecisive or facing the embarrassment of not following the normal course of action, the goalies prefer diving, even when it results in a dive in the wrong direction.  

The action bias makes sense when you think about it in evolutionary terms.  Our ancestors survived by reacting quickly when facing potential danger; a human who spent too much time in contemplation became easy prey for a predator.  If we’re aware of the action bias, we know that our automatic, default response to situations is to act swiftly.  However, as with Orwell and the elephant or a goalie preparing to stop a penalty kick, sometimes it makes sense to develop a strategy or rationale, looking before you leap. 

Today our instincts still drive us to favor quick, decisive action, but the truth is our strength as a species is our ability to ruminate and reflect before we act.  Society still favors decisiveness and quick responses.  Looking busy trumps looking foolishly inactive.  Understanding the action bias, however, gives us the insight to follow reason rather than our feelings.  Even though taking time to reflect and ruminate might feel awkward, it often pays off by offering a prudent plan rather than a rash action.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the action bias, and how can watching penalty kicks in a soccer game teach us about life?

Challenge – Proverbs/Converbs:  Although proverbs are meant to convey concise wisdom to live by, many contradict each other.  For example, one proverb cautions us against the action bias saying, “Look before you leap.”  Another snippet of proverbial wisdom, however, rebuts with, “He who hesitates is lost.”  Research a pair of contradictory proverbs.  Quote them both; then, make your argument for which one of the two is the wiser advice. 

Sources:

Dobelli, Rolf, The Art of Thinking Clearly. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

January 23: Docendo Discimus Day

Today’s date when written numerically follows the basic sequence 1, 2, 3.  Therefore, today is a day for looking at basic process analysis: explaining step by step how something is done or how to do something.  When you explain the basic steps for how to do something — such as baking a chocolate cake or building a treehouse —  it’s called directive process analysis.  When you explain the basic steps for how something is done — such as how a bill becomes a law or how new words get into the dictionary — it’s called informative process analysis.

Writing a process analysis composition is a great writing-to-learn activity. The best way to truly solidify your understanding of a process is to teach it to someone else.  The act of putting it down in writing, step by step, helps you clarify and cement your own understanding of the process.  This is not a new concept; in fact, it dates back to the first century AD.  The Latin term for it was docendo discimus, or “by teaching, we learn.”

To craft your own process, follow the following three steps:

Step One:  Determine a “how-to” topic using a strong verb, and use it as your title.  Think of a process that you know well enough to explain clearly to a novice, and think about whether it is a directive, hands-on process or an informative, explanatory process.  Use the examples below to help spark some ideas:

How to AVOID

-How to avoid procrastination

-How to avoid going into debt

How to BUILD

-How to build a sandcastle

-How to build a budget

How to MAKE

-How to make meatloaf

-How to make your mother happy

How to SUCCEED

-How to succeed at studying

-How to succeed at breaking a bad habit

How to SURVIVE

-How to survive an earthquake

-How to survive Spanish class

How to STOP

-How to stop forgetting birthdays

-How to stop eating too much

How to WRITE

-How to write a love note

-How to write a valedictory address

Step Two:  Break the large task into three vital steps from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end.  Think in threes: What should be done first, second, and third?  Also, help your reader to see what might go wrong, by anticipating what should be avoided at each step.

Step Three:  Write your process out as at least one clear paragraph.  Begin by giving your audience a vision of what the process is and why this process is important to know.  As you write about each step, think about the process from your audience’s perspective, trying to remember what it was like when you did it for the first time.  Like giving driving directions to someone on how to get to your house, anticipate where they might take a wrong turn or where they might get lost.  

Today’s Challenge:  How to Write How To

What is a process that you know well enough to explain?  How would you divide the task into three key steps?  Use the three steps explained above and write a how-to composition. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense. -Thomas Edison