Friday, March 2, 2012

More on Genius and the Emotional Oracle Effect


My last post bloviated about techne and poeisis contribute, and how douches pork friends' wives and shout about it into phones in Adams Morgan, the epicenter of douchiness in what is probably the center of American douchiness, Washington DC.

I often write about the mental side of bike racing, not only because it makes me feel smarter than I am, but also because I'm convinced it's far more important than having great genes.

Yeah, yeah. That's what everyone says, I know. "Cycling is all mental!" It sure doesn't feel that way, does it?

Why is it that the people who end up winning races are usually the folks who devote the most mental energy to the sport?

It's a good question, one I think Joshua Foer tackles in his book about memory, Moonwalking with Einstein. Foer describes a visit to the Weightlifting Hall of Fame in Pennsylvania, looking at pictures of the world's strongest men and wondering about the world's smartest men.

At that moment he realized intelligence is harder to quantify than strength, which leads him to explore ways of quantifying intelligence. This leads him to his encounter, first as a journalist and then as a participant, with the U.S. Memory Olympics.

The kicker is that, in the process of talking to the athletes, he realizes that memory, like FTP, is a adaptation (not just a product of genes), and as he acts upon this Foer goes from a normal forgetful journalist covering geniuses to becoming the U.S. Memory champion in one year. His victory illustrates the point of the book--memory can be improved through technique, practice, and devotion.

This is really extraordinary. Not only do Foer (and the other memory olympians) remember some things better, they develop techniques to remember everything better. They improve their mental FTP.

They memorize the order of a deck of cards in less than one minute.
They memorize 500 random numbers in 5 minutes.
They memorize 154 faces and names in 5 minutes.
They memorize 234 lines of a poem in 5 minutes.

And their IQs are probably not much higher than yours or mine.

We'd be tempted to label these feats of genius, but if Foer is to be believed--and I think he is--these are just the result of hard work. In other words, you and I can't do this BECAUSE WE ARE LAZY, and have better things to do with our time than create memory palaces.

Another error we make in assigning genius has do with emotions and assuming that when it comes to making complex decisions, it's better to follow reason than emotion. A new study suggests that this is wrong.

Jonah Lehrer explains the study:
The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather.

Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome. Pham’s catchy name for this phenomenon is the emotional oracle effect.

Consider the results from the American Idol quiz: while high-trust-in-feelings subjects correctly predicted the winner 41 percent of the time, those who distrusted their emotions were only right 24 percent of the time. The same lesson applied to the stock market, that classic example of a random walk: those emotional souls made predictions that were 25 percent more accurate than those who aspired to Spock-like cognition.


This provides more empirical evidence for Malcolm Gladwell's Blink thesis--that sometimes our gut makes better choices than our brain. Note that these questions weren't math problems; they were complex. Out reason cannot take into account every variable that influences the stock market. That still doesn't explain why our emotions are better at it. It's as if having some information and some logic is actually worse than having none at all when choosing stocks, winning sports teams, and American Idol victors.

One caveat: the superiority of emotional decisions only appeared when test subjects exhibited some knowledge of the subject. That is, for those who followed college football, using their emotions was more accurate than using their reason to pick the BCS winner. For those who don't follow college football, neither reason nor emotion improves chances of predicting results.

Think about how this applies to choices in a bike race. The more races you do and watch, the more you'll be able to make the right choice--you may not be able to explain the choice, but your emotions should be able to guide you at least more accurately than your reason.

So here we come two steps closer to explaining the geniuses of bike racing:
(1) genuises on the bike are made through hours of effort and mental devotion (just as memory champions are made, not born);
(2) but this does not mean that geniuses use their powers of reason or can explain their choices; they use their emotions and intuition, developed through years of experience and racing, to make choices in races.

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