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You Can't Control Random

Published 4/21/2017

In today's episode, we'll discuss the illusion of control, and why you can't control random.

Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
So let's say there's a game that I'm asking you to play, and I tell you up front that your moves in this game, and your actions, and your influence have no effect whatsoever, and that the winner is going to be chosen entirely at random. Would you play this game? It doesn't sound fun on its face, does it? It doesn't really sound much like a game at all, but the interesting reality of our psychology is very different from that. We're going to talk about that reality, that illusion of control that we have over random events in today's episode of Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. My goal on this show is to coach you through your career, to give you advice, and help you level up in your career. And it's not going to be easy, it requires you to dedicate yourself and to really put forth strong effort. If your goal is to try to shortcut your way to the top and to find ways of being lazy, then this is probably not the show for you. If instead you want to learn and you want to use that knowledge to become better at what you do, and you want to use that knowledge to boost you upward, well that's who I want to talk to on this show. If that's you, then I hope you stick around. As we discuss this weird illusion of control that we have, some research was done that basically showed that a group of people, when they were given a game to play, and initially they were not given many details about the game. For all intents and purposes, this was like a slot machine. And the subjects in the study, they played the game for a little while, and then they were told that their input had no effect on the output. The interesting thing is that these people, the subjects, continue to play the game. And this seems kind of crazy, doesn't it? We want our input to matter. We want our control to actually have consequences. But we do this not only with games and with things like the lottery, for example, we do this in our careers. We make big bets and we assume that we have some level of control over relatively uncontrollable events. For example, we may make a bet on a new programming language. And we use our knowledge of the industry to make what we consider to be educated bets. And sometimes we're right. And being right once or twice bolsters our confidence that we're going to be right again in the future. But the factors that go into whether or not a language becomes popular and gains traction amongst the larger development community, they're difficult to determine and perhaps even impossible to determine. In many ways they could be considered largely random, at least practically random. And yet we consider ourselves to be more in control than the average person. Most people consider themselves to be luckier than the average person. An example of this is the confidence that we have when we get behind the wheel of a car. Most of the time people are going to feel safer when they are the ones driving. For example, if you compare the statistics between driving a car and riding in a commercial airline, the likelihood that you are going to experience catastrophe and a commercial airline flight is incredibly low. This is very well known. And yet we still have the perception that as long as I am the one who is behind the wheel that I'm more likely to be safe. The same pushback is often provided for things like self-driving cars when algorithms make decisions for people. Even though statistically speaking self-driving cars, presumably, is going to be significantly safer than human-driven cars, there's still a large faction of people who reject that notion, who reject the idea that an algorithm is going to be safer than their judgment. And perhaps this comes from our overconfidence in our own judgment. Perhaps it comes from a perception that we've been fine all along and therefore we must continue to be fine, or maybe this is driven by some level of fear, specifically the fear of being not in control. But if we go back to our original example, our discussion about people's fixation with control and people's desire to fill in the blanks or to fill in randomness with control, we see that a lot of the time the control that we assume that we have is very often an illusion. And it's an illusion that is so strong. It's a belief that we so strongly hold that millions of people are willing to buy a watery ticket, even though it's statistically nearly impossible to win. Millions of people still consider themselves to be lucky. And the cognitive illusion is not without reason altogether, in some cases. For example, if you were to win the lottery, on the off chance that you were to win the lottery, it would have such a massive impact that you're willing to suspend your disbelief for the short time and for the amount of a lottery ticket. Similarly, the upside to you continuing to believe that driving is safe and the upside to viewing your past history of driving as safe is that you continue to drive. You have the opportunity to continue carting yourself around town. But when this trusting of our own superiority or our own ability to rise above the statistics and debate randomness, when that really becomes a problem is when we start using our intuition or we start using some causal factors to describe things that are happening in our lives, and certainly happening in our careers and our code and in our career relationships. When we start using our intuition, when we start using our judgment and we ignore the factor of randomness when judging a given situation. This can become incredibly problematic when we start looking at, for example, hiring if we're using only intuition and we don't factor in the possibility of chance, the possibility of randomness in our hiring decisions. Another example of this is trusting data, especially small sets of data to represent all future interactions, all future truth. It is incredibly difficult to control for every single variable. If you ignore randomness or if you rely on intuition so much so that you're ignoring the possibility that your algorithm or your formula is wrong entirely or that the factors that you're using in your algorithm are not complete, they're not telling the whole story. When you ignore those things, then you can make major errors that can end up costing a lot to you and to the business that you're working for or to the client that you're working for. So what do we do with this knowledge? What do we do with the knowledge that very often things that we assume are not random, that they are in fact controllable and that more importantly, that we are the ones who are controlling them, what can we do to fight off this wrong intuition that we have and to kind of reverse our way back out of it? Well, as you've probably come to expect with many of our cognitive biases that we've talked about in the past, the first step to fixing problems like attributing more control than you actually have or not taking into account the factors of randomness in the uncontrollable variables that are playing into something. The very first step is to recognize not only that this happens and it happens a lot, but that it very likely is happening to you on a regular basis. This is not behavior that you're only going to recognize in other people and point it out, this has to be behavior that you know is likely happening to you yourself and you may not even be aware of when it is happening. Ironically that would actually be quite a good illustration of exactly what we're talking about here that we feel exclusive in our knowledge that somehow we believe that we have a better handle on things than the average person does. But once we know that we ourselves are likely experiencing this problem, then we can start modifying our thought patterns and perhaps as important or more importantly our speaking patterns, what we talk about and how we talk about it. If you see yourself speaking in platitudes, in other words, if you start talking in such a way that you think you have all of the answers, this is something that is very easy to become guilty of especially when you start gaining a lot of experience. If you feel like you have the answer or that you can identify the problem in any given scenario, especially if you have an answer to everything, then you very likely are speaking from a position of an ignorance to randomness. So I have a very simple piece of homework for you today and hopefully this is going to be helpful to you. To do exercises like this, take about five minutes and write down two or three things that you are likely to be over confident about. Spend some time thinking about the things that you feel already, you feel very confident about and perhaps things that you often get in conflict with other people about. Refresh your memory on this list on a regular basis, especially when you run into some kind of conflicts or when you are walking into a meeting and you are trying to diagnose a problem what went wrong on a project, for example, and you are trying to find the root cause, the root problem. I want you to be the one that proposes the possibility that there were random and uncontrollable factors that you may never be able to quite understand. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. Hopefully this actually gives you a little bit of hope in these scenarios. The point is not to throw up our hands and just give up, right? We certainly do have the ability to have major influence and sometimes even the most talented or the most masterful developer has some level of failure. And a lot of the time, random factors, uncontrollable things are happening that cause that failure. So I hope this again, it gives you a little bit of hope and a little bit of encouragement today. Not every failure is going to be the direct result of your mistakes. Not every failure is going to be explainable and not every success is going to be explainable. Not every success is going to be replicable. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope you'll share this with someone that you feel like can benefit from thinking and talking about this idea of being overconfident in yourself, being overconfident in your ability to rise above the statistics and also ignoring the random factors that have such an influence in the things that are happening in our lives every single day. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time, enjoy your tea.