Jo Craven McGinty in her column The Numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal, debunks this report by Statistic Brain that our attention span has eroded to below that of a goldfish, presumably due to so many distractions nowadays.
My feeling is that the average person truly can only concentrate on one thing for 8 seconds. Where Statistics Brain goes wrong is by overestimating the attention span of a goldfish. I put my pet Pancho (pictured) to the test with a very attractive lure. He came nowhere near 9 seconds of focus, despite me yelling “pay attention!” repeatedly. In fact, he never stopped long enough for me to get a good photo—notice how it’s out of focus.
OK, hold on, I’m getting a text message…
Ok, this headline is a bit misleading. It’s not how quickly you fall in love that’s the problem, according to statisticians, it’s falling for the first potential mate that comes along. In other words, they calculate that only fools rush in. ; )
The optimal process for finding the love of your life is this:
- Estimate the number (“n”) of people you will date in your life.
- Take the square root (√) of n. This is your minimum (“m”).
- Keep records on the first m people you date and rank them by attraction—this is your benchmark (“b”). (I advise a 1-9 scale—the odd number allowing for those who are so-so, them being rated a 5.) Dump every one of them. (Statisticians have no heart when it comes to algorithms like this.)
- After you dump m dates, settle down with the first one who exceeds b. Ideally they will rate 10. (Yes, I know this goes above the scale but that is true love.)
I credit the Wall Street Journal last Friday (Feb. 10)* for alerting me to this recipe for finding a soul mate. However, this 2014 article by Slate breaks it down a bit better, IMO. They report that out of a choice of 10 people (n), the √n method (dictating you dump the first 3-4 potential partners) will get you someone that’s three-quarters (75%) perfect. Not good enough? Then go for 100 candidates (ditching the initial 10 suitors) and increase your score to around 90 percent.
Still not satisfied? Revert to the original benchmark of 37% rejection (the reciprocal of Euler’s number e—the base of the natural logarithm) based on the first calculations for the marriage problem that came out in 1960. However, I suggest you make it easier on yourself (and those who desire you but have no shot) by opening up your search sooner by the square root rule. Just keep reminding yourself after settling down that it could have been a lot worse if you had been a fool by rushing in on your first love.
“If you end up marrying the second best person, life is probably not going to be rotten.”
– Neil Bearden, Decision Behavior Laboratory, University of Arizona, author of “Skip the Square Root of n”, Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 9 June 2005.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
* “In Love, Probability Calculus Suggests Only Fools Rush In”.
Check out this Super Bowl win probability chart by ESPN Stats & Info. It remains bottomed out at an Atlanta Falcons victory from halftime on to the end of regulation, after which the Patriots ultimately prevail. When New England settled for a field goal to cut their deficit to 16 points (28-to-12), the ESPN algorithm registered a 0.04% probability for them to win, being 9 minutes and 44 seconds left in the game. That computes to 249 to 1 odds against a Patriot victory. Ha!
I am not terribly surprised that a team could overcome such odds. The reason is that on December 29, 2006 I attended the Insight bowl in Tempe, Arizona where the Red Raiders of Texas, after falling behind 38-7 with 7:47 remaining in the third quarter, rallied to score 31 unanswered points and ultimately defeat my Gophers in overtime. At the time it was the greatest comeback of all time in a bowl game, matched only after another decade passed with the 2016 Alamo Bowl victory by the TCU Horned Frogs, who trailed the Oregon Ducks 0-31 at halftime. But they had more time than the Gophers to throw away their sure victory. I entered our 2006 chances of victory in this football win probability calculator. It says 100.00% that Minnesota must win. Ha!
The laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular.
– Edward Gibbon
I read a cheery Associated Press report today by their Chief Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione that It’s all good: Any exercise cuts your risk of death. What impresses me is the sample size of 64,000 adults who the UK researchers interviewed and then tracked for death rates. Another surprise is that almost two-thirds of these individuals did not exercise. These slackers could reduce their risk of dying by 30 percent if they would just get out for a walk now and then. Come on people!
“A particularly encouraging finding was that a physical activity frequency as low as one or two sessions per week was associated with lower mortality risks.”
– Researchers from the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine–East Midlands at Loughborough University
As you can see, I awoke this morning to an outside temperature of minus 20.2 degrees F, which comes to precisely minus 29.00000 on the Celsius scale according to this metric converter. When I opened the window, the air provided an impressive slap to my face—no need for coffee to provide an eye-opener. However, I had to quickly shut out the cold before it gave me a brain freeze.
The iconic fellow pictured on my La Crosse Technology Wireless Weather Station, whom I generally find very indicative on temperature, did not get dressed warmly enough today. He needs a mask to avoid a frostbitten nose and frozen ears. When the Arctic express whistles down into our mid-Continent winter wasteland, I fall back on the Anderson Cold Scale, which came up just shy of Freezing Force 6 in the predawn hour. That tells me to don 6 layers before venturing out for my morning walk. I start with Long Johns. If this is your first winter up north and you need a warm undergarment, check out this traditional one from the Gentleman’s Emporium — fire engine red with rear fireman’s flap.
With Thanksgiving coming up I am looking forward to a feast beyond all others throughout the year. Therefore, I did not want to know that eating like a king has been demonstrated to be unhealthy. I learned of this while reading The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom by Stephen M. Stigler, one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of statistics. In his chapter on the pillar of Design, he relates (p. 150) a story from the Old Testament of how Daniel eschewed a rich diet of meat and wine offered by King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel proposed what may be the earliest clinical trial—he and his three companions eating only pulse* and water for 10 days. Meanwhile several followers of the King enjoyed his fare for the same period. In the end Daniel and his friends fared better, at least on the basis of health.
The lesson here is to polish off the bounty of Thanksgiving before 10 days are up, in other words, do not lay off those lovely leftovers! Then eat like Daniel for a few weeks in preparation for the year-end holiday feasts. That will keep you healthy by my interpretation of Daniel’s pioneering study on diet. ; )
*Dried beans and peas (yuk!) as seen here.
Early last Tuesday evening I went to the New York Times elections website to check on the Presidential race. It had Clinton favored, but not by much—just a bit over 50% at the time, with the needle wavering alarmingly (by my reckoning) towards the side of Trump. A few hours later I was shocked to see it at a plus 70% for Trump. By the time I retired for the night the Times had him at near 100%, which, of course turned out to be the case, to my surprise and many others, even President Elect Trump himself, I suspect.
Being a chemical engineer, I like the jittery gauge display—it actually is less unsettling for me than a needle that is fixed (which usually happened only when a measuring instrument failed). Even more important, from my perspective as an aficionado of statistics, is the way this dynamic graphic expressed uncertainty—becoming less jittery as the night went on and returns came in. However, the fluctuating probabilities freaked out a lot of viewers, leading to this explanation by NYT as to Why we used jittery gauges.
For an unbiased, mainly positive, review of this controversial graphical approach by the Times to report election results see this Visualizing Data blog.
“Negativity expressed towards the jitter was a visceral reaction to the anguish caused by the increasing uncertainty of the outcome, heightened by the shocking twist in events during the night, [but] I found it an utterly compelling visual aid.”
— Andy Kirk, author of Visualizing Data
P.S. Here’s a new word that I picked up while researching this blog: “skeuomorphism”, meaning the designing of graphics to resemble real world counterparts, for example, Apple Watch’s clock-like interface. Evidently battles have been raging for years in the tech world over using this approach versus flat, minimalist, designs. I had no idea!
I am torn whether it will be scarier to dress up as the nightmarish Freddie Krueger from Elm Street or as a statistics instructor. Which would you rather be locked in a windowless room with? Hmmm… best you not answer that.
Anyways, here are some frightful facts about the upcoming holiday reported in yesterday’s USA Today:
- 171 million Americans plan to partake in Halloween festivities. Crazy!
- On average, women will pay double for “non-sexy” Halloween costumes. The “sexy” costumes cost on average around $30, while the demure ones (boo!) go for near $60.
- Witch and pirate are the first two costumes of choice, followed by Trump and Clinton. Hmmm… is this a case of perfectly opposite correlation?
In 1989 I attended a debate where George Box defended the standard approach for design of experiments against the Taguchi method. In summary he simply put up a mathematical equation on three scraps of transparencies that projected “Obscurity” “not equal to” “Profundity”. This created a memorable uproar from the Taguchi disciples in the audience.”
I am reminded of this upon the news that the winner of the 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize is this paper by University of Waterloo Ph.D. psychology candidate Gordon Penny et al On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. This treatise sorts out what is serious bullshit versus simply nonsense or harmless mundanity. It provides this example of pseudo profundity from an actual tweet sent by a well-known New Age healer and advocate of alternative medicine:
Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.
Evidently many people are not only prone to eating up stuff like this but they also lack to ability to sniff it out. The Waterloo researchers tested a large number (280) undergrads on a Bullshit Receptivity (BSR) scale. They then completed several follow up studies, going all out to shovel the BSR. ; )
It composts down to bullshit not only being more ubiquitous than ever before (being a big part of internet) but also increasingly popular. The authors’ hope by their study to reduce BSR and thereby the generation of it due to this improved detection of obscure pseudo profundities. That would be good!