Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lab rats of the world, unite

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, social experimentation, memoirs

George Plimpton may not have created the genre of participatory journalism, but he has certainly inspired a generation of self-experimenters. A. J. Jacobs of Esquire magazine comes close to calling himself "Plimpton Lite" early on in The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Live as an Experiment. He hasn't been clobbered by any heavyweight champions, nor "enjoyed" earning flop sweat at stand-up comedy. But during a recent year or so, he has spent periods from a day to a month

  • Impersonating his family's nanny on an online dating site (with her collaboration)
  • Outsourcing most of the busy work in his life to two companies in India (one is still on retainer)
  • Telling the truth relentlessly, including saying whatever pops into his head (with variable success, and variable amounts of risk)
  • For an evening at the Oscars, impersonating a very shy actor whom he resembles (with the actor's grateful consent)
  • Attempting to make every decision rationally, such as buying about 40 kinds of tooth paste to test them all (I'd have suggested getting an online subscription to Consumer Reports)
  • After arranging a bio article for Esquire that included nude photography, he accepted the woman's suggestion that he also be photographed nude, and his photo published with hers in the article.
  • Attempting to conduct himself as George Washington would have. This included bowing rather than shaking hands (he'd have done well to get pointers from Donald Trump)
  • Doing only one thing at a time, after learning that "multitasking" is not real; we actually do task switching, and the more frequently we do so, the more time we waste.
  • Catering to his wife's every whim (to the extent that this is possible for a guy!) He also offered his wife the chance to write the CODA to this chapter, which she accepted with gleeful alacrity!
Appendix A consists of the 110 rules that  George Washington, in early middle age, wrote out and attempted to follow. Old George had been quite a jerk when younger, cherry tree fables notwithstanding, and crafted himself into an admirable specimen, though not the demigod later writers adulated.

Appendix B defines a few dozen cognitive errors to which we all fall prey, that he compiled as he got into being Vulcanly rational. On this, it occurred to me that the makers of Star Trek were wise to make Spock only half Vulcan. It would have been impossible for any actor to behave in a totally rational Vulcan way.

My favorite cognitive bias, in full as he wrote it:
Bias Blind Spot — We fail to compensate for those biases that we're aware of. (In other words, even behavioral economists fall for biases.)
A slogan my company used for years (not recently, curiously) was "Continuous Improvement". A. J. Jacobs reports that some of these experiments affected his life and improved his marriage. For example, the month of truth-telling opened his eyes to how much he and his wife bicker about trifles. They haven't stopped bickering, but, he writes, it has reduced by about a third. Simply saying what you mean without sniping can gradually engender more trust. But he judges that saying whatever pops into your head is usually destructive. We can filter what we say without lying, and about a dozen of George Washington's rules address the same matter.

Experimentation is a good way of expanding our comfort zone. A certain amount of experiment is needed to continuously improve. The company slogan may have been about business, but we can apply it to our lives. A portion of the chorus of a song I wrote has it
We are dealt the cards, /But our own hand we play.
If this book inspires some of us to try new and better things, it will have done its job.

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