Monday, July 11, 2016

results may vary

It's common to receive plenty of captivating stories in reply to the straightforward question, "In your personal history, what have been some detectable effects of the existence of _____, the supernatural concept you follow?" And it's as equally common for the stories to have several dubious characteristics. Like a placebo pill relieving pain, the effect in the story might have been largely subjective in nature. Or it might have been embedded in a highly complex situation affected by an inseparable mixture of factors (e.g. the economy?), and the exact role played by delicate supernatural guidance would be impossible to distinguish by a disinterested observer. Or a repeated effect might occur sporadically. Granted, irregular timing isn't a clinching argument against an effect's validity. Nevertheless this characteristic should arouse suspicion. Coincidental rare events could happen independently, at the same rates, during the same time period, with equal probability.

To the questioner, an effect with unknowable timing seems like an awful motive to persistently follow a concept. After the concept's effects have failed to turn up time after time in the past, why would someone feel inclined to currently choose to follow it again? The key to understanding is to examine the choice from the viewpoint of the storytelling followers instead. In the moment they aren't choosing whether to renew their embrace of the concept; they're choosing whether to quit embracing it. They intensely remember the stories of when the effects have occurred before. And yet they know from experience the many cases in which they haven't.

Ergo they've intuited that those many cases of nonoccurrence have been temporary. So, they can eagerly disregard a recent sequence of cases of nonoccurrence whenever they contemplate the current choice. That choice presents two possibilities: if they continue on then the effect might reoccur, but if they quit now then it certainly won't. If they continue, they might be blissfully vindicated in the present; these vindications aren't definite but do occur often enough to leave fresh memories. If they continue and the effect isn't there, then at least there'll be more chances in the long as they keep those chances "alive" by refusing to stop in the meantime. They're led to wonder if this will soon be the time that some kind of corroborating effect reappears.

If the description sounds familiar, there's a good reason. It's an example of the widely applicable principle of a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. It's a strength, not a problem, for the effects to vary intermittently. The variance "trains" someone to retry no matter what. The lackluster statistics that the schedule generates can't compete with the pleasing surprises that the statistics are summarizing. A broken pattern attracts attention to positive results while a steady pattern deflects it.

Moreover, the schedule encourages two tendencies that feed itself. First, because it boosts someone's alertness so that they won't miss any effects that come along, they're more prone to categorize events as effects than to not. Events on the margin will be called effects, so the margin will in effect be redrawn in a lenient manner. And then it could be redrawn again, etc. Second, because a larger set of samples has a greater yield of unlikely outcomes, they're moved to merge their monitoring with peers who are also looking for effects of the same concept. Therefore, when any one of them monitors an effect and reports it, everyone can count it. Through their sharing of one another's occurrences—but not the stunningly boring news of each nonoccurrence, of course—they have a steadier supply to feed their commitment, even if the effects in their own lives aren't that steady.

The lesson here is to be prepared for a muted reaction to pointed questions about the fitful temperament of the effects that someone has narrated. The storyteller already realizes the long-suffering patience this characteristic demands. Their ongoing inability to forecast the next (supposed) manifestation of their concept's existence is partly why they're reluctant to give up on it too quickly.

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