Posts Tagged psychology

If you finish reading this headline, your attention span beats a goldfish

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…

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Who foresees the future better—the Hedgehog or the Fox?

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

–  Archilochus

In the June 3rd issue of Chemical & Engineering News Frederick M. Peterson, a chemical engineer who went on to achieve a doctorate in economics, dissects what happens when “Scientists Tackle Finance.”  He warns against the tendency of experts in one field being overly bullish about their ability to manage things outside of their specialty.  These are the hedgehogs—people who make bold predictions and happen to be right long enough that they attract a strong following.

On the other hand, the foxes, who observe many things and adapt readily to differing situations, lack confidence about the chances of any particular path leading to success.  They are seen as being weak and wish-washy, which is not very popular.  Nevertheless, it may not be surprising that foxes do better than hedgehogs at forecasting, according to Peterson, who cites a seminal study by the School of Business at University of California, Berkeley.

The moral of this story is to be wary of anyone who expresses too much certainty about the shape of things to come.  It does not pay to follow hedgehogs—they will ultimately go beyond their narrow limits of competence and roll into something very prickly.

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