Institutional Systems and Game Theory

One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.”  By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies.  Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome.  The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself.  Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%).  There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:

  • If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
  • If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
  • If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
  • If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour.  If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.

Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome.  If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome.  It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating.  I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher.  I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should  be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.

I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program.  I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.

I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me.  I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place.  A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want.  They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at.  If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy.  But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.

It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how the institutional games work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Advertisements

Problem Solving – A Framework

In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems.  That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:

20181018_154129~2

I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas.  On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem.  The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.

When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools.  First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with.  By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.

I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions.  A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning.  However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).

The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head.  Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined.  It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.

My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions.  I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Principled Thinking (part two)

Since my last post on principles, I’ve jotted down a few more ideas in my notebook.  I’ve transcribed my thoughts under the photo below.

20181118_131600~2

6. Where appropriate, seek to reduce or limit choice pools.
a.) Too many choices is paralyzing.
b.) Extraneous choices impacts rank(ing) orders.
c.) Choice + paralysis  will cause decision friction –> procrastination, and inertia will  grind things to a halt.
d.) Time and resources get wasted in the decision process –> you trade off value.
e.) Most decisions can be whittled down by routine and quick preference (gut reaction) –> use 80/20.
f.) Invest time in deliberation for high stakes outcomes or decisions that interest you.
i.) Also invest when decision process is educative for you.

This entry largely captures what my behaviours are like when it comes to making decisions versus where I want them to be.  By nature, I’m a risk averse and indecisive person.  I tend to sit on decisions far too long, to the point where they can cause anxiety when it’s finally time for me to make the call.

I also tend to lack preferences in a lot of things.  For instance, I usually don’t have a strong preference when it comes to picking a place to eat, so I’m terrible at deciding where to go but I’m perfectly happy to go along with choices made by others.  There are many things I’m starkly black-and-white about (which is really annoying to my wife), but most of the time I sit in a middle state like Buridan’s ass.

Therefore, this set of principled notes captures where I want to be – to quickly narrow down extraneous choices (because too many options usually leads to diminished outcomes), and to automate where I can.  Then, I can focus on the really important decisions or use the deliberation process as a teaching tool for myself.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

The Value of a Myers-Briggs Test

There seems to be a publishing cycle, where every year a new slew of articles are released to damn personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs.  Lifehacker published one recently, and a book was released at the end of summer about the mother-daughter duo who created the assessment tool, which can be paired with a book released a decade ago discussing personality tests more broadly.

A few years back, I was thinking about my career, and I happened to take the test.  According to it, I’m a INTP, the Logician, an introverted big-thinker who is logical but adaptive.  A year later, I took the test again and I drifted into ENTJ territory; apparently in that time I became more extroverted and more rigid in my planning.

This, of course, is the biggest issue with these personality tests.  They tend to overly rely on generalizations of fluid behaviours and attitudes.  People rarely have stable traits over time, and the test tends to loosely clump these together in attempt to create a meaningful picture.  In this, the Myers-Briggs is nether reliable nor valid from a scientific point of view.  As the Lifehacker article points out, along with many others, it’s dangerous when you base decisions on the conclusions drawn from these tests for things like dealing with others or hiring employees.  The best thing you can do, the article claims, is to use it as a fun conversation starter and nothing more.

But I find value in the tests for another reason.

Humans are drawn to stories.  We like crafting narratives to explain events and give meaning to our lives.  While we would want our stories to align with true accounts of history or phenomena (a book I recently bought argues that it’s not possible), we can still find value in stories that are not, strictly speaking, true (I’m appealing to a coherence-model of truth, rather than a correspondence-model of truth; I never thought I’d drag that grad course back up in conversation again…).  We can find value in a story even if we are agnostic towards it being literally true or corresponding to a fact “out there” in the world.

When it comes to my career, one problem I have is that I have a hard time knowing how to sell myself.  When you are crafting your resume or CV, or when you are interviewing for a position, you are trying to create an appealing story of yourself.  You are painting a picture of the kind of person you are that aligns with the demands of the job or the needs of the employer.  Sometimes, it’s hard to create a compelling story for yourself.  You don’t know what to include, what to leave out, and what needs some mild spin.  You have to decide how to play-up key points and downplay unsavory details.  How you choose to connect the dots can make a large impact on what others will think of you as a candidate.  You don’t want to be dishonest, but sometimes the “truth” is very compelling.

One critical area that the Myers-Briggs can offer value is providing inspiration for how to tell that story.  It creates neat little packages that arranges details in interesting ways.  It allows you to take the generalizations and apply them to your own experiences.  It’s the same trick astrology uses – if you make a statement sufficiently ambiguous, you can find confirming evidence to support it.  Using this to your advantage, you can create a compelling backstory for yourself while also prompting you to fill in the details with good stories.

And if something does fit?  Leave it out and move on.

As long as you don’t pigeonhole yourself, you can tell a story about you that shows how valuable, interesting, and desirable you are to others.  The Myers-Briggs can offer some themes and typologies to help sell the best version of you.  Just don’t believe everything you read.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Post-Script: After I drafted this post last week, Seth Godin posted some thoughts about changing your story.  If I’m randomly coming up with ideas that coheres with advice from Seth, I count myself in good company.

~R

My Best Blog Post (to date)

I set up  this blog as a way to force myself to write.  With a few minor exceptions, I’ve managed to put out a post every Monday morning for the last few years.  While the tone and theme of the blog shifts around a bit, it’s been a pretty consistent thing.

One thing that is surprising to me is the top blog post on the site.  There is one post that consistently gets more traffic than any of the others (almost daily, in fact).  If I didn’t have access to the metrics, I would have never guessed which one it is.

My best blog post, to date is ……. (*drum roll*)….

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

Yeah, no kidding.

It’s far and away the most popular post.  It’s more popular than my landing page, which means that people often find my blog through a Google search before clicking through to the rest of the site.  Below is my top 15 pages according to views.

Top 15

I suppose there are a few good takeaways I could make use of if I were looking to optimize this blog for hits or monetization.  First, writing reviews of popular apps gets a lot of clicks.  As does talking about health and fitness (or, more specifically, failing at health and fitness).  And finally, people like reading about life/career developments – and posting your content to Facebook for your friends and family to read will get you a good number of hits each time.

I suppose now I have a goal to write something that will drive more traffic than Zombie, Run!  Good luck to me.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Honesty and Trust

The weekend after the last wedding experience I wrote about, I was fortunate to attend a second wedding.  Much like my last post on the topic, I want to reflect a bit on something the officiant said during the ceremony.

Warning: philosophical thoughts ahead!

Midway through the service, the officiant was offering some words of advice and wisdom for the couple.  He was discussing values that make for a strong, lasting relationship, and he commented that honesty is an important value to hold.  However, he speculated that beyond honesty, trust is something worth considering as a higher value.

His message was a little tongue in cheek, alluding to the impossible questions a partner is faced with, such as “does this make me look x,” but he also meant it in a more sincere way.  He was driving home the idea that the partnership can’t rely on honesty and transparency alone, but it also requires both partners to recognize the union of their lives, and that they must trust their partner in the journey.

While I won’t say I fully endorse the idea that trust must always be placed above honesty, it nevertheless gave me food for thought.  I mulled over what trust means to me in a relationship, and whether you can have deserved trust paired with deliberate dishonesty.  I donned my philosopher’s cap and thought about it.

For instance, (hearkening back to Kantian ethics), should we always tell the truth?  Certainly, I’d prefer to live in a world where I’m never (maliciously) deceived, but I can imagine cases where deception can be useful.  If my partner deceives me in order to seek to surprise me in a way that would bring me pleasure, then I think that kind of dishonesty can be permissible (Christmas and surprise birthday parties hinge on this being permissible).  Setting aside considerations about the differences between deception and omission, so long as the deception is for the benefit of the deceived, and that revealing  the nature of the deception results in increased happiness, then I think in most instances this can be thought of as a good thing.  On the other hand, deception that is used to maximize the pleasure of one person while building harm at the expense of the other person (especially if the deception is revealed) is likely to be uniformly wrong in all cases.  Feel free to check my thinking in the comments down below.

The implication I realized during the ceremony is that it is possible to knowingly be deceived by your partner and be fine with it if you trust your partner explicitly.  That is to say, if my partner chooses to be dishonest with me (or, to a lesser degree, if my partner is not fully transparent with me), and I suspect them to be as much, then the only instance where I would be fine with this is if fully trust my partner.

This is not to say that I think this gives license to one’s partner to be deliberately deceitful if a full trusting relationship is present.  I still believe that honesty and transparency ought to be the norm in a relationship; that the relationship is built upon its foundation.

But, if my partner judges that deceiving me is in my best interest (however temporary that might be) and it is indeed in my best interest, then full trust is the only way that it could be managed.  Of course, there would need to be some sort of resolution to the deception.  I don’t think a state of perpetual deception or ignorance is possible while being in a person’s best overall interest – the two run contrary in my mind.

Then, if it is the case that the thought of my partner deceiving me causes me discomfort or some other negative associative feeling, then it cannot be said that I fully trust them (or, that honesty and transparency are not things I care about – but how would a relationship work in that case…?).  A breach of trust and a breach of honesty would both transgress the relationship.

It’s an odd sort of thought experiment to run, especially during a wedding.  I had a lot of fun at that wedding, and I’m glad to have gotten some interesting philosophical thoughts to mull over while I celebrated more friends starting a new chapter in their lives.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan