Monday, June 23, 2014

How many of us are outliers?

  1. Must read article of the day (it appeared quite a while ago, though). Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker: Multitask Masters on those truly extraordinary few who are actually good at multitasking, and who actually become better when the tasking becomes more-multi. This is an apt example of exception proving the rule: Most of us mere mortals, on the other hand, are really, really bad at it, even if we are unwilling to accept this sad reality; the article has tons of links to studies cooroborating this finding. Here's an excerpt from the end of the article:

    The irony of Strayer’s work is that when people hear that supertaskers exist—even though they know they’re rare—they seem to take it as proof that they, naturally, are an exception. “You’re not,” Strayer told me bluntly. “The ninety-eight per cent of us, we deceive ourselves. And we tend to overrate our ability to multitask.” In fact, when he and his University of Utah colleague, the social psychologist David Sanbomnatsu, asked more than three hundred students to rate their ability to multitask and then compared those ratings to the students’ actual multitasking performances, they found a strong relationship: an inverse one. The better someone thought she was, the more likely it was that her performance was well below par.

    At one point, I asked Strayer whether he thought he might be a supertasker himself. “I’ve been around this long enough I didn’t think I am,” he said. Turns out, he was right. There are the Cassies of the world, it’s true. But chances are, if you see someone talking on the phone as she drives up to the intersection, you’d do better to step way back. And if you’re the one doing the talking? You should probably not be in your car.

  2. Beckie Supiano in CHE: Smart People Go to College, and Other Twists in Measuring the Value of a Degree. An interview of Douglas Webber, an assistant professor of economics at Temple University, whose recent research has been on teasing out the role of the factors that account for the fairly big effect (in the US) of college education on lifetime earnings. This discussion of people's focus on outliers stands out [with bold emphasis added by me]:

    Now everything I’m talking about, I’m using average returns. When I said that higher-ability people tend to go into certain majors, I’m saying that on average. So there are many, many absolutely brilliant people who major in art history, and there are many not-so-brilliant people who major in engineering.

    A lot of times people put too much weight on outliers. They see someone who is really successful, and they think that’s a good path to take. But if you are an average person, then you should be looking at the average return.

    Mick Jagger—and the world—would be much worse off if he had stayed at the London School of Economics and gotten an econ degree instead of dropping out to hang out with Keith Richards. But you know, he’s an extreme outlier.

  3. Inside Higher Ed: Study: Web surfing in class hurts top students too: The study challenges the conventional wisdom which "holds that marginal students may pay more of a price for web surfing during class than top students, who are presumed to be better multitaskers."