Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'm Back

Hello blog readers!
I have been away having numerous exciting adventures and am now back in improv land. Among my travels, I got to attend the AIN International conference in Amsterdam in September, which was a wonderful experience. The speakers were fantastic, the energy was incredible, and the aura of sheer utopian functionalness that came from having so many applied improvisers in the room at the same time needed to be experienced to be believed.

I was lucky enough to give a talk, and got to share some of the ‘science of improv’ content I’ve mentioned on this site previously. For those who’re interested, the slides can be found here.

Tomorrow, I’ll be giving the same talk at the Bay Area AIN mini-conference in San Francisco, which should also be a lot of fun.

Since getting back from Europe, I’ve been thinking hard about how to close the gap between improv training and the behavioral sciences and things are starting to come together in an interesting way. So, it’s with great pleasure that I’d like to announce the opening of a brand new website, the SF Behavior Lab:

This site is intended as a local rallying point for those people in the Bay Area who’d like to get involved in collaborative events aimed at understanding human interaction through play. The site will include results from software simulations as well as live workshops (more about that in later posts), and hopefully also interactive virtual improv games.

If it sounds like fun, you’re right. I hope to see you all virtually there.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Employee Recognition and Cleaner Fish

My good friend Cindy Ventrice and I have been working for the last month or two on kicking off a rather exciting new training program. To help launch this venture, I wrote an article for Cindy's blog on the reciprocity principle and it's use in the workplace. I'm pleased with it. Anyone interested in the similarities between good management practice and swimming around in the mouths of large carnivorous fish should take a look. You can find it here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Science of Improv Part 1: How to Fail Magnificently

Why does improv change lives? Why are improvisers usually more relaxed and more open than the other people I meet? Why are improv instructors the most engaging teachers I have ever known? How come people who improvise seem to make better doctors, scientists, salespeople, leaders, writers, and engineers than their counterparts? Why do improv class attendees keep coming back over and over again as if for doses of some kind of magical drug?

I’ve spent the last five months conducting research propelled by the belief that these questions can be answered, and that the answers will be rooted in solid science. Finally, a clear picture is starting to emerge. This picture binds together thinking I’ve encountered from motivation theory, behavioral economics, emotional intelligence research, neuroscience, machine learning theory, and psychoanalysis. Explaining all that I’ve learned would take a book and I haven’t finished putting the pieces together yet. However, I’m going to start trying to explain what I’ve discovered. I have a bunch of thoughts to share with you, so I’m going to break the journey up into several posts. Hopefully, it’ll prove both useful and entertaining.

I Suck and I Love to Fail!
One of the greatest lessons that improv teaches is that if you don’t trust yourself to do something perfectly, do it with glee instead. Great improv teachers like Kat Koppett talk about ‘celebrating failure’. Troupes all across the world yell out ‘I suck and I love to fail!’ to each other with huge grins on their faces before going onstage. Trainers everywhere talk about ‘mistakes as gifts’. It all amounts to the same thing: making the most out of getting things wrong.

This idea might sound cute and more useful in a comedy show than the workplace, but I’m going to show you how it can help us overcome arguably the most fundamental limitation of the human mind. I’ll show you how it can change both the way we think, and what we’re capable of achieving.

The Brains of Bugs
In order to explain, let’s cover a little background about how thinking works. And, for starters, let’s look at the most basic kind of thinking we know about: the sort of thinking that happens in simple creatures like bugs and slugs. Unlike us, these creatures don’t spend much time worrying about bank balances or planning vacations. Instead, they just react to the stimuli they sense around them. It turns out they are capable of learning, but only in the most basic way possible: by associating certain stimuli with either pleasure or pain so that they know whether to seek them out or avoid them in the future.

AI researchers have spent plenty of time studying the brains of these kinds of creatures and it turns out that the root principle of how they work is pretty simple. Each neuron in a simple brain can be thought of as a bit like a voter taking part in an election.

Let’s imagine a contest a bit like American Idol. In this contest, all the viewers are watching over the internet and the footage that each voter sees is a bit different. With each round, the voters are all shown footage of the contestants, and on the basis of what they see, they vote. The votes are tallied up and one of the contestant wins.

However, what the voters in our contest don’t know is that their choices have big implications. Lucrative music industry deals are being won or lost on the basis of who gets picked. So after each vote, the entertainment company that hosts the contest changes the footage that each voter will get to see in the next round by just a little bit, so as to make sure that voting in future will be a bit more favorable to their interests. Those who voted for the ‘right’ candidate get to see more footage. Those who voted for the wrong one only get to see some edited highlights.

In a real insect’s brain, instead of singers to choose between, we have decisions like ‘remain very still’ or ‘flee from the spider’. Instead of an entertainment company we have the consequences of those decisions, such as ‘going unnoticed’ or ‘losing a leg’.

After each pleasant experience that our bug has, the voting neurons that caused him to have that experience get reinforced--they get to see more footage. Those that tried to guide him away get weakened--they get the edited highlights. It works the same way when our bug experiences pain. Those neurons that cause him to walk into an unpleasant experience get weakened. Those what would have helped him make a different choice get reinforced. In this way, and with a little luck, our bug learns to make better decisions over time. With luck he gets to breed before turning into somebody’s snack.

While this picture is, of course, a sweeping generalization about how simple brains work, hopefully it makes it clear that pleasure and pain use similar mechanisms. In both cases, some neurons have their connections strengthened while others are weakened. So far so good, but human brains aren’t like the brains of bugs. People, for the most part, are smarter.

The Human Difference
There are lots of differences that we could talk about between the brains of bugs and those of people. It’d be easy to get caught up in a conversation about consciousness, for instance, or creativity. But the broad, distinguishing difference, I would argue, between simple brains and brains like ours is that our brains can make plans.

Somehow, we’re capable of behaviors which don’t head us directly towards pleasure or away from pain, even though, at the end of the day, we like pleasure at least as much as your average insect. We’re even able to devise goals like visiting the moon. In order to achieve such goals we have to be able to build tools, cooperate, imagine, and reason out enormous problems, all without any kind of direct sensory reward, like, say, a large quantity of chocolate cake. How does the brain do it? I propose that the planning process in our brains happens by a process we might call recursive goal matching.

Recursive goal matching means that when a person is considering some reward he’d like to get, his mind identifies interim scenarios that will help him reach that reward. It then treats those interim scenarios as goals in their own right and tries to build chains of behavior that will reach those goals. Some of those chains of behavior contain interim scenarios that become new goals, and so on.

For instance, in order to get the payoff of eating the cake we’re keeping in the fridge, first we have to go to the kitchen. Visiting the kitchen is an interim scenario that becomes a goal. There’s no intrinsic reward in getting there, but in doing so, we’re helping fulfill our yummy plan. However, visiting the kitchen requires that we leave the couch and walk there. The goal of leaving the couch requires that we turn on the table lamp beside us so we can see our way. Etc.

When we successfully complete a goal scenario we’ve pictured in our mind, we receive a small jolt of internalized satisfaction. If we fail to match such a scenario after repeated attempts, such as for instance discovering that someone has locked the kitchen door to keep us away from the cake, the mind sends us a dose of frustration. Just as in the case of the insect brain we looked at earlier, our brains manage our behavior with tiny pulses of neurotransmitters that change how our voting neurons are wired, and thus, what they get to ‘see’.

For a fascinating account of how the brain constructs behavior out of hierarchies of such plans, I recommend ‘On Intelligence’ by Jeff Hawkins. However, what no book I’ve read so far has yet pointed out, though, is that the process of learning through planned behavior is asymmetrical. In other words, while achievement and pleasure have plenty in common, frustration isn’t experienced like pain.

The Magic of Failure
Just as in the case of a pleasure response, the satisfaction we get from reaching a goal reinforces those neuron connections that enabled us to get there, while weakening those that voted for other options that would have prevented us from succeeding. However, what happens in the case of frustration? When we fail to reach a goal, we have no idea which neurons to reinforce because we lack the knowledge of what would have caused our plan to succeed. My guess is that the brain has no choice but to weaken all the connections that might have been responsible. This means that unlike pain, failure is a universally negative sensation.

Let’s go over this again to make it clear. We’ll look at each emotion and the effect in the brain that it causes.
  • Pleasure: Strengthen connections that led to pleasure. Weaken connections to neurons who voted against it.
  • Pain: Weaken those connections that led to pain. Strengthen connections to neurons who voted against it.
  • Achievement: Strengthen the connections that led to us reaching our goal. Weaken those that voted against it.
  • Failure: Weaken those connections that led us down the path to the failed goal. Wait, what do I strengthen? We don’t know which neurons voted against failure, because any part of our plan might be responsible for it not working! If we get to strengthen anything, its the neurons that voted for us to not take this goal on in the first place!
The Frontiers of Science
Here’s an example of this principle in action. It happened to a good friend of mine. A scientist we’ll call Amy. Amy recently had a wild idea that she thought was going to change her field. She spoke to her boss about it, but her boss shrugged and pretty much dismissed the idea as impossible. So, undeterred, Amy boldly set about exploring the idea on her own.

To her great delight, it worked. Amy was terribly excited, and convinced that her discovery would make her career. She felt on top of the world, and was rightly proud of her achievement. When she carried out a literature search, she could find no evidence that anyone had uncovered the same extraordinary result. She wrote up the paper and submitted it. Then, out of paranoia because the stakes were so high, she conducted a second literature search the moment the paper was accepted. This second search turned up a paper that had uncovered the same result three years earlier! Amy hadn’t found that paper because no-one in the literature had been referencing it. She was mortified and withdrew her paper from the journal the same day.

When I learned all this from Amy, I could tell that her self-esteem had taken a hit. She spent the evening questioning whether she was in the right field and whether she was cut out for science at all. She felt like a failure, and stupid for having made a mistake. I’m sure we can all understand how she felt. But let’s take a closer look at what happened.

For starters, Amy’s result was right. The fact that she wasn’t first to find it didn’t affect that. Furthermore, it wasn’t surprising that she didn’t know the result had been found before because nobody had referenced the work. This was simply because the result wasn’t one that anyone wanted to be true. There’s a whole other blog post in here that I’ll save for another time, but broadly speaking, even in science, people see what they want to see.

Despite the fact that Amy was now one of only two people in the world to understand a deeply important result, Amy felt like a loser. This was because the goal she’d built in her head was that of publishing a paper and getting recognition for the result. Her brain had automatically matched to the end result of the process she’d anticipated, without considering the interim benefits like ‘doing good science’. Furthermore, her instinctive response to this crisis wasn’t ‘I need to do better literature searches’, but instead simply, ‘I failed’. She went from contemplating her own genius to wondering if she needed to look for a new job, all inside of about half an hour. To my knowledge, Amy still hasn’t really pursued her line of research further. She feels kind of bad about it. Being brilliant hasn’t prevented Amy from having a brain that doesn’t know how to process failure.

I strongly suspect that if we look back over our own life experiences carefully, we’ll spot situations we’ve all been in that are very much like Amy’s. I know I have. Such episodes can be hard to pick out because the brain doesn’t like to think about failure, but they’re there. In my experience, it’s often easier to catch such experiences while they’re happening. Next time you experience a sudden surge of self-criticism, ask yourself exactly what the goal is that you’re not matching, and whether it even makes sense.

Loss Aversion
So, in a nutshell, when we succeed, we get reward for a specific result. When we don’t match a goal, we get blasted for everything we’ve done recently, even if the goal we were matching against wasn’t a very meaningful one. This effect changes the kind of plans we’re likely to come up with. We’re going to be biased toward those plans that avoid failure, because failure experiences are going to be disproportionally negative.

Sure we can all ‘learn from failure’ as self-help books encourage us to do, but those very same books have to encourage us to do it because it’s not a natural part of our thinking process. Without conscious coaching, the brain usually has no idea exactly what the lesson is that each particular failure grants us.

The fact that we treat failure differently from pain can help explain why people react irrationally to the presence of free gifts as Dan Ariely describes in Predictably Irrational. Something that’s free comes without mental attachment to costs, and therefore potential failure scenarios, which makes it automatically desirable in plan building. It also explains the principle of 'loss aversion', as described in Sway by the Brafman brothers, that causes people to sometimes go to seemingly absurd extremes to avoid failure.

Is there any evidence to support the idea that this difference in learning patterns is responsible for these effects? So far, the evidence is still thin, but it’s building. Recent research has revealed that damage to the amygdala causes loss aversion to be suppressed. The amygdala is the part of the brain that’s responsible for dealing with the consequences of fear and other similar sensations. If the phenomenon of loss aversion is bound up with the process of suppressing links between neurons, just as pain is, then this is exactly where we’d hope to find the experience centered. This result is far from conclusive, but it’s a start. However, while this result is interesting, it still doesn’t say much about improv. For that, we have to look at some of the implications of how the brain processes failure.

Emotional Intelligence
When the brain knows that it’s failed, but not why, it has a problem. Just like any general waging a campaign, it has no choice but to invoke ‘Plan B’. Plan B, in this case, is a suite of backup behaviors designed to resolve tricky situations. These behaviors are ones with a long track record of proven evolutionary success and broad applicability. However, they’re often significantly less sophisticated than the behaviors we build via planning. Our backup behaviors are designed to get us out of trouble fast and often come with physiological knock-on effects to accelerate our responses. These behaviors are ones we might class as ‘irrational’. Which behaviors are kicked off depends on how much stress we’re already under when our plans start to fail.

This is why people become irrational when negotiations fail or expectations aren’t met. It underpins the sort of situations outlined in Crucial Conversations by Patterson et al, and connects up tidily with the themes of emotional intelligence research pioneered by Dan Goleman.

What we know from this research is that by changing how we look at failure, we can change how we respond to it. Our subconscious mind isn’t so hot at deciding what kinds of failure are genuinely dangerous, because failure, by definition, represents a lack of data. However, with a little conscious reflection it’s often straightforward to see that we’re being intuitively navigated away from situations that just aren’t that risky. Consequently, exercises that encourage the brain to treat failure as something to be accommodated and embraced mean that our more extreme ‘Plan B’ responses get activated far less frequently. By habituating a reasoned, conscious, up-beat response to failure, we stand a far better chance of coping well when something goes wrong, and this is what makes improv exercises so powerful.

By remembering to say ‘I suck and I love to fail!’ we are directly targeting and deactivating that part of ourselves that gives us stage-fright, makes us panicky in romantic situations, or gets us into fights. The more we practice that response, the easier it gets. This is what makes improvisers look so witty and fearless on stage. They look that way because they are witty and fearless. However, this isn’t because some kind of innate talent. It’s because their brains have learned to treat being on stage as exactly what it really is: just being at the other end of a room from a bunch of people sitting down.

I suspect that at the scale of whole societies, some well-applied improv exercises might go a long way toward making the world a more peaceful, rational place. Not a bad result for a trick to take the edge off unplanned performances. Admittedly, though, I haven’t said anything yet about what shape our mental plans actually take or how we choose which ones to follow. I’ll cover that next time, and that’s where it starts to get really interesting.

Friday, April 16, 2010

An Intro to Archetypal Improv

On Sunday, I ran an introductory workshop on Archetypal Improv for the excellent SFImprov group and was delighted at how it went. We had a really nice turnout and managed to get through loads of material. Several people asked me, though, if I’d be supplying notes afterward, so that they could go back over what they’d learned. Here then, in the spirit of sharing, is a brief outline of what Archetypal Improv is, and how it works.

Archetypal Improv is an approach I developed with a great deal of help from the other members of Amazing Spectacles in Cambridge (Gary Mooney, Denis Howlett, Netta Shamir, Justin ‘Rob’ Coleman, and several others). Using it, we were able to turn out some of the best long-form improv I’ve ever come across.

The style is based around the idea that in order to create really great improvised plays, players need to understand how stories are built and to have a way of communicating narrative ideas to each other. To provide a shared storytelling lexicon, Archetypal Improv draws inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s theories on the ‘Hero’s Journey’, along with observations from fiction, theater, and machine learning theory.

We use, broadly speaking, two ways to communicate story ideas--through plot, and through character. Communicating through plot helps drive the narrative forward. Communicating through character tells you where the plot should be going. For plot communication, Archetypal Improv focuses on the idea of trouble. For character communication, we focus on the role that each character plays with respect to the greater story--it’s archetype.

Many long-form improv approaches rely predominantly on plot offers and divide a play into sequential segments, often using a ‘story spine’. The archetypal approach instead attempts to build a kind of map of the story within the first few scenes that can drive many of the choices that follow. The map is created by making the purpose of each character clear.

The most basic play format used in Archetypal Improv is the Vanilla Six-Hander, or V6H. ‘Vanilla’, because the format is the basic flavor, and ‘six-hander’ because it makes use of six archetypes. The V6H is a training tool designed to encourage players to think clearly about character roles, and to give them almost all the information they need to complete a strong play within just three scenes. A quick outline of the V6H reveals the archetypes that we generally use.

Scene One: The Banishment
This scene introduces the following pair of archetypes:

The Protagonist or Hero
The protagonist is the focus of the play. It’s their job to desire change, to be flawed, and to have the capacity to learn. The role of the protagonist is telegraphed to other players by creating a character who’s empathetic and limited in their choices without being weak. The protagonist generally starts low status. Their interior monologue generally sounds like this: ‘Somehow, I’m going to make things better!’
As a rule of thumb, the best protagonist flaws are the ones you can imagine being reflected in the moral to a story. Eg: the flaw ‘has no self confidence, can lead you to create a play with the moral ‘always believe in yourself’. A flaw like ‘is terrified of chocolate’ isn’t going to take you very far. ‘Don’t be afraid of chocolate’ doesn’t lend itself to a compelling narrative arc.
Unlike in some other long-form methodologies, the protagonist doesn’t usually drive the narrative. Rather, the protagonist is affected by the offers of trouble that they receive from other characters. Having the protagonist make active choices that propel the play tends to create a ‘willing hero’, and leads the play to tend to take on a tragic format, which is fine, so long as you’re aiming for tragedy.
Using the first Star Wars movie as an example guideline, our protagonist would be Luke Skywalker.

The Banisher
The banisher’s job is to either pull or push the hero out of his or her ordinary world. Generally speaking, the role the banisher will have in the play depends on how that ejection happens. If the banisher, for instance, fires the protagonist from their job, then they’re not likely to feature strongly in the work that follows. We call this kind of character a ‘framing-device banisher’. If, instead, the banisher creates an ultimatum that drags the protagonist with them into a troubled world, they’re generally referred to as a ‘mentor’. Mentors often feature extensively in the play that follows and guide the protagonist on their path.
The banisher usually starts with higher status than the protagonist, because this makes it easier for the banisher to exert the necessary force to make the protagonist leave their world. It’s also much easier if the banisher has a pre-existing relationship with the hero. However, it’s not necessarily always the case that the protagonist is familiar with the banisher. Many interesting mentor banishers are characters who know who the hero is, but who are unknown to the hero.
The banisher’s self-talk is usually something like: ‘I must lead this person on to something better,’ where the person in question is the hero.
Our Star Wars example for this archetype is Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The players should aim to have the banishment happen by the end of scene one, but shouldn’t be worried if they don’t make it. There’ll be another opportunity in scene four. It’s worth pointing out, too, that a banishment doesn’t have to be physical. A change of emotional or physical state can effectively put a person in a new world even though they don’t go anywhere. Thus a banishment can be anything from being divorced, to being sent to China, to growing antlers.

With this scene, as with all others, it’s best to try not to have the offers in the scenes be too prescriptive about what follows. We want to know that the protagonist has been ejected into an uncertain world, but we don’t want to know too much about what that world is just yet. Over describing future events creates expectations that it can be very hard for other improvisers to follow through on.

A checklist for the banishment scene goes like this:
  • Establish an ‘ordinary world’ that the protagonist inhabits--preferably an imperfect but tolerable one.
  • Try to establish strengths and a flaw for the protagonist.
  • End the scene with the protagonist being forced to leave the ordinary world.

Scene Two: The New World
Scene two establishes the world that the protagonist is going to be banished into. Players should aim to set this part of the story in a context that makes things as awkward for the protagonist as possible, given their flaw and what else we know about them. The scene introduces two characters who have a shared problem that they can currently neither escape nor solve.
The archetypes we use here are:

The Catalyst
The catalyst’s job is to symbolize trust, and to be the character with whom the hero is going to build a strong empathetic bond that that will allow them to change. Catalysts are often rescued, or are rescuers somewhere in the play. In many stories, this character is what you might think of as the ‘love interest’, but their role doesn’t need to be romantic. The catalyst looks for clean, positive solutions to problems. They generally have lower status in their opening scene, and their self talk goes something like this: ‘there has to be someone out there who can save us’.
Our Star Wars example would be Princess Leia

The Turncoat
The turncoat represents an ambivalence of trust. This character isn’t necessarily evil, and isn’t driven by a clear agenda. Rather, their moral position is unclear. They act as a foil to the catalyst by being ready to consider all manner of dubious solutions to the shared problem. They generally have higher status, and their self talk is: ‘what’s in it for me?’
A turncoat can start on the side of good and go bad, or start as deeply unreliable and become a strong force for good by the end of the play. Both choices work, so long as this character creates opportunities for the hero to feel uncertain and betrayed.
The Star Wars example is Han Solo.

Here’s a checklist for scene two:
  • Establish a new world that’s the worst place you can think of that the protagonist might end up.
  • Establish a problem that the catalyst and turncoat are stuck trying to solve together.
  • Make the moral difference in attitude between the catalyst and turncoat clear.
  • End the scene with one of the characters going off to try to pursue some solution to the problem.

Scene Three: The Plan
In this scene, any confusion or unresolved offers from the previous two scenes should be folded into a clear direction for the story. The scene focuses on a ‘nemesis’ outlining his or her plan for the world to their ‘henchman’.

The Nemesis or Antagonist
The nemesis is usually what we think of as the villain. Their job is to create trouble that will propel the story. This character almost always has the highest status in the play. Their self talk says: ‘Nothing will stop me from achieving my goal!’
Our Star Wars example is Darth Vader
Whereas the role of the nemesis in the story often ends up as that of a villain, as an improviser, this role requires giving a great deal of attention and support to the other players. Because the nemesis has so much power, they generally create the trouble that the other characters need to overcome. This means that the nemesis has to provide a large number of helpful offers that both keep the story on track and give the others something to work against.
It’s also worth saying that the nemesis doesn’t have to be evil. Many interesting plays feature characters in this role who have a fixed agenda, but are also empathetic to the audience, at least in part. The more that the force driving the nemesis is recognizable to the audience, the more nuanced the character will feel.

The Henchman
The henchman helps the nemesis achieve their goal. They act as the nemesis’s eyes, ears, and hands, and often feature more frequently in the play than the nemesis himself. Also the henchman role can be comprised of a large number of characters, all of which are potentially disposable. Their status is lower than that of the nemesis, but often high with respect to the other characters in the play. Their self talk goes: ‘Through you, I have purpose and value,’ where the ‘you’ in question is the nemesis.
The henchman role has a large amount of comic potential, but this should be used cautiously, as a completely ridiculous henchman is less able to make plausible trouble for other players.
Our Star Wars example is every storm-trooper that appears.

The plan revealed in this scene should ideally clarify the offers made in previous scenes and make sure that the choice of which scene defined the ‘new world’ clear to all, just in case something untoward happened in scenes one and two. Ideally, the plan heaps trouble onto the ‘new world’ developed in scene two, but does so in a way that happens to make matters worse for the protagonist, even though usually the Nemesis character doesn’t usually know of the protagonist’s existence.

Here’s a checklist for scene three:
  • Establish a plan.
  • Bind together the ideas raised in scenes 1 and 2 into a coherent whole.
  • Establish the objective that will drive trouble in the play.
  • End the scene with the henchman being sent off to advance the plan.

That’s it. By the time the third scene is over, players have pretty much all the information they need to create a compelling story. If you don’t believe me, come along to a workshop and watch it in action. Do note, though, that it takes some time to develop the skill of making full use of everything that these scenes reveal. As a starting point in developing this skill, improvisers should ask themselves the following two questions when the third scene is over.

How does this story end?
What is the resolution for each signifiant character we’ve created in the course of this play?

What’s the lowest point I can imagine for this protagonist?
How bad can we make it for our hero before he learns to change? This is important, because this is exactly where the play needs to be headed before real change can be revealed.

With these tools in your hands, creating great plays is a hell of a lot easier. But before I finish, here are a few other important things worth mentioning.

First, the archetypes described here aren’t the same as those you’ll encounter in any book on the Hero’s Journey. That’s because they’ve been derived from the principles of character function, rather than from storytelling tradition. That means that unfortunately, further information is hard to come by on the web.
The mapping between standard archetypes and the ones used here is roughly as follows:

Banisher>Combines elements of Herald and Mentor, but isn’t strictly either
Catalyst>Not really covered in Campbell-style archetypes
Turncoat>Has themes in common with the Shapeshifter
Henchman>Has themes in common with the Herald and Threshold Guardian

Secondly, it’s worth reiterating that the V6H is a training tool. Keeping the first three scenes of a play to the same structure each time will eventually start delivering predictable work. Once the flavors of each archetype have been well understood, plays can and should be started in any way that takes the cast’s imagination. Assuming that you know which character fulfills which role simply because of what scene they happened to appear in will result in confusion, and should be avoided, particularly as characters can shift from one role to another.

Lastly, the archetypes raised in the V6H are applicable to a huge range of kinds of storytelling, from written fiction to screenplays. However, crafting non-improvised stories to open like a V6H won’t make your story as strong as it could be. Compromises have been made in the structure of the V6H to help improvisers gain a clear picture of what’s going on in the minimum number of scenes.

Hopefully this is all clear. There’s tons more to say, of course, but I’m out of steam for now. If anyone has questions or comments, I’d love to hear them.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Multiple Launches

Things here the Bay Area are starting to get interesting. Today I’ll have my second workshop with UC Berkeley grad students. Following that will be a series of seven more workshops for UC Berkeley open to grad students from all departments. I’m excited.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the bay, I’ve kicked off discussions with Olya Lapina of the excellent SFImprov group. Assuming that everything goes to plan, I’ll be running a two-year long-form improv development program with them that will result in a self-sustaining performance troupe. This should be a lot of fun. I’m thrilled at the idea of adding an archetypal improv team to San Francisco’s impressive pantheon of players.

Then, later in the spring, if things go well, I’ll be running two five-week communication skills workshop courses in Berkeley that’ll be open to the general public. This is all on top of some other splendid projects still in development. Notably, a possible one-day ‘basics of long form’ workshop with the marvelous San Francisco Comedy College. Looks like I'm going to be busy!

If you want to know more about any of these projects, just email me at *alex dot lamb at gmail dot com* and I will happily answer all questions.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What is Fun?

What is fun? Fun is a rather nebulous phenomenon. People have wildly varying ideas of what activities are fun, yet we all know what fun feels like. Are things that are funny also fun by definition? If not, why do both fun and funny things tend to incur smiles and laughter? Specifically, why is improv fun, and what is the experience of fun actually for? This week, I’ve found myself trying to answer these questions. I think I’ve done it. And furthermore, the answer I’ve discovered is striking enough that it’s going to change how I train people from here on forward.

My adventure in search of the origin of fun started with the books on behavioral economics I’ve been reading recently. (More on that in later posts!) A lot of the ideas I came across reminded me of topics I’d encountered in my work on machine learning over the years. Out of curiosity, I found myself trying to build a kind of map to explain human emotions and social habits in terms of machine learning goals.

To provide a basic example, we can compare human pleasure and pain with the positive and negative feedback signals that you feed into a neural network to tell it whether it whether it got the answer to a question right or wrong. If we believe that this approximation is fair, we might then describe fear as what a learning system experiences when most of the candidate models of the future it can build at a given moment entail receiving negative feedback. In other words, the system has a high expectation of something painful happening to it. Excitement, by contrast, is what a learning system experiences when the most likely future models it can build feature positive feedback. No big surprises there, but I’ve gone on to try to play the same game a whole range of human emotions, including anxiety, achievement, guilt, pride, embarrassment and frustration.

Intriguingly, there are certain kinds of human experiences that are a lot harder to reshape in AI terms than others. Love is a good example. The best explanation of love I’ve encountered is the one in Stephen Pinker’s ‘How the Mind Works’, where he describes it in terms of Game Theory. Romantic love, he suggests, is an abandonment of rationality that advertises willingness to engage in a pair-bond. General-purpose AIs don’t have much of a reason to engage in pair-bonds, so we can’t expect much love from them. However parrots bond for life and we see behavior that looks a lot like real love coming from them, even though they’re not human.

The most puzzling such emotion, though, of all those I explored, was fun. Clearly fun is something deep and important, because you see something that looks very like it in dolphins, chimps, dogs and the young of almost any mammalian species you care to choose. Similarly, it’s hard to define because if you ask a sample of human beings what’s fun, you’ll get wildly varying answers. For instance, a significant fraction are likely to include ‘shopping’ on their list, whereas many others would rate the same activity as a kind of torture. Fun doesn’t obviously map onto any kind of planning function you find in machine learning, and it doesn’t appear to maintain or moderate any kind of social behavior. It doesn’t even appear to be easily describable in terms of Game Theory. So what’s going on? The answer, I suspect, lies in who craves fun the most, and how they get it.

Clearly, fun has something to do with play, and play has something to do with being young. Play, also, has something to do with simulating experiences. Otherwise, why would children bother playing ‘Families’ when there’s usually ample experience all around them? Fun is also a signaled emotion. It comes with big obvious indicators that can be read between members of social species in an instant. Apes smile and dogs wag their tails. By contrast, achievement, also a powerful sensation, comes with much more subtle cues. Pulling an ‘achievementy’ face is perhaps possible, but a lot harder.

What I would hypothesize, then, is that fun is a specific, dedicated emotion designed for learning. It’s associated with play, and play is the process through which that learning is acquired. (It doesn’t look like I’m the first person to have this idea. In fact, a little web research suggests that Dr. Stuart Brown has been onto this sort of thing for a while. I have his book ‘Play’ on order from Amazon.) Play learning happens through experience simulation, and the primary characteristics of play appear to be that the costs and gains to individuals are reduced to a level at which new behaviors can be explored without the players damaging their social standing by taking part. Fun is strongly signaled to inform others that experimental behavior is being tried out and that normal social costs shouldn’t be applied. Additionally, fun takes different forms for different people because the skills each person wants to practice are different, and likely to line up tightly with the attributes that person values about themselves.

The same model can be used to explain why something is funny. Various philosophers have tried to capture the essence of humor, and their theories can be roughly boiled down as follows:
* Superiority: We laugh at something because we feel safely above it. (Hobbes)
* Incongruity: We laugh at something because it breaks a pattern. We experience ‘frustrated expectation’. (Schopenhauer)
* Relief: We laugh at something to break the sense of tension over an experience. (Freud)

The ‘experimental zone’ theory of play would seem to encompass all these. We decide that an experience is funny when we decide that the net social cost of a statement or idea is negligible even though we might not understand it. We flag that we’re safety-boxing that experience by laughing at it. Applying this model to the theories above, we get the following:
* Superiority: When we feel safely distant from an experience, we signal it.
* Incongruity: When we experience an unexpected pattern break without cost, we signal it.
* Relief: We signal safety to indicate that a tense experience is being considered trivial or experimental, and therefore no longer dangerous.

Laughter has the added bonus of informing those around us that they’re part of a safe group who’re parsing an otherwise dangerous experience in the same way. Hence its infectiousness. Laughter becomes derisive when it’s clear that the boundary of who’s safe includes some individuals and not others.

This model adds up with many personal experiences I’ve had from improv training. For starters, people don’t really start to take on new behaviors until they feel safe. And that safety is defined by everyone in the group agreeing through laughter signals that the experiences they’re having shouldn’t be taken seriously. Also, certain games invariably work better than others, and those that work well seem to be the ones that reinforce that sense of a ‘safe space’ in which nobody is excluded.

The implications of this for teaching, I believe, are significant. Most importantly, I’d recommend not expecting people to try out and take on new behaviors unless they feel they can do so safely. This is why so many ‘role-play’ sessions feel cold and cringey. You know when people feel safe because they’ll signal it to you. Furthermore, rather than being an indicator of ‘mucking about’, laughter and play are the indicators that the brains of the players have activated their dedicated learning mode and are ready to incorporate new data.

From the perspective of soft-skills training specifically, the lesson go deeper still. It’s always tempting as a trainer to illustrate key points to participants by having them directly experience the effects of their own behavior, or the effects of the assumptions they make, through striking, unexpected demonstrations. The ‘experimental zone’ theory of fun suggests that we should only do this so long as it doesn’t impair the sense of safety that we’ve built. Otherwise, the learning potential of the experience is likely to be lost, and it may be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

In short, there seem to be solid reasons to believe that fun should be our compass in guiding us to develop training that produces real, persistent, and valuable change. If anyone has any counter-theories, though, I’d be delighted to hear them. This topic continues to fascinate me. From a relatively innocuous starting question, the results so far feel surprisingly profound.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Respect

This week I learned something very powerful and important about improv training from someone who’s done no improv training at all. Furthermore, I learned it from someone who’s been a part of my life for the last seven years and who I’d never really thought to have a deep conversation with on the topic. That person was my father-in-law.

My journey toward this moment started with a conversation I had with a terrific guy called Ari Hoffman. I’ve been learning from Ari about some groundbreaking work he was involved in to use improv training to teach his fellow medical students at UCSF. He had some profound things to say about the value of teamwork, and using the improv principle of ‘making your partner look good’ in a hospital setting. Most notably, he told me a story about a time when he was helping a woman give birth.

He explained that during childbirth, there’s more loss of control of certain bodily functions than many people expect, and that things can get messy. This means that the sheets or ‘chucks’ under a patient need to be changed from time to time--a task that’s generally considered to belong to the nurses. Ari explained how he’d channeled his improv training and changed the chucks to ‘save the scene’ as it were, while the nurses where unavailable. The nurses responded with unexpected delight, and felt like Ari had behaved much more like a part of the team than they were used to from medical students. Ari believed that it was that improv attitude that enabled him and his improv co-instructor Brynn Utley to graduate with honors from their highly competitive program.

This story really stood out for me, so when opportunity presented, I shared it with my father in law, Howard Graves, a doctor who until recently worked at SF General and is one of the most experienced Emergency Medicine specialists in the Bay Area. I was astonished at the vigor of this response.

“This is a really important point, Alex,” he told me, “and the way I teach it is this...”

He then went on to describe in enthusiastic detail a communication principle that seemed, at first glance, to be almost completely different from ‘make your partner look good’. What he told me was that in medicine, maintaining the dignity of patients is critical. Patients who walk into an emergency room are often at a huge emotional disadvantage. They frequently feel more vulnerable than they have in years. For the doctor handling that patient, another knock to that person’s confidence can mean the difference between their being able to give rational answers about their condition, and not giving useful answers at all. Retaining the dignity of your patients can be a matter of life or death.

When I went on to ask Howard about interacting with nurses or other doctors, he said the same principle applied. For a large number of historical reasons, modern medicine has inherited a rather hierarchical culture that sometimes can get in the way of the effectiveness of the people who comprise it. By taking personal responsibility for keeping up the dignity of everyone you interact with, they feel comfortable and confident working with you, and everything works better all round.

Of course, in truth, Howard’s message has more in common with ‘make your partner look good’ than at first I supposed. Both ideas encourage us to take responsibility for someone else’s experience and to make sure it goes well. The difference, I think, is that ‘make your partner look good’ is about achieving a shared goal. In improv, the good of the scene is placed above the experience of any individual player, and as a consequence, every player gains. In contrast, Howard’s idea often relates to situations where there may not be any shared goals or where goals may be in conflict. I think of this idea as ‘Second Person Status’.

The improv concept of Status is old and well-established. It essentially explains how every character in a scene broadcasts some level of intrinsic authority through their choice of posture, language, etc. Applied improv uses this concept to unpick the social dynamics of real-life situations. In applied improv terms, then, Second Person Status implies that when you find yourself in an environment plagued by a brittle emotional landscape, you can achieve a lot more by attempting to ensure that the status of those around you never drops. It’s a bit like learning to walk through a glassware showroom while wearing a backpack. You take each turn carefully.

I’ve been teaching people to read and pitch their status for years, and also how to flex when the situation requires it, but I feel like this idea is a little different. Taking personal responsibility for the status of others gets at the heart of what ‘respect’ in human society is all about. I suspect that this approach could be useful in academia, business, international relations, and any number of other arenas. I’m now looking forward to turning this idea into a sequence of targeted games and trying them out.

As my last word on the topic of respect then, I have this to say: Respect to Howard Graves and Ari Hoffman--two wise and excellent men.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gift Giving

This week I got to go back to Santa Cruz to run another session with my lovely UCSC grad student group. As before, this session was a kind of a grab bag of exercises I’d come up with--mostly as a reflection of the research I’ve been doing on influence. And once again, we encountered some fascinating results.

Perhaps the most striking game for me this time was a variant on an improv classic called Presents in which players take turns to give each other gifts. (You can find it in the improv encyclopedia.) I picked this game because I wanted to explore the impact of reciprocity in the clearest way possible, and this seemed like a natural place to start. (To understand what I mean by reciprocity, take a look at the previous post.)

Normally, a gift recipient in Presents gets to decide what gift he’s being given and little or no value is assigned to the emotion with which the gift is received. This time, instead, I had givers say what they were giving. I then asked recipients to be as honest as possible about how they felt about the gift they’d been given. The idea was that each player would gradually figure out how to make their partner happy, and the result of the game would be a sense of achievement and increased trust for each pair.

However, shortly after the game started it rapidly became clear that things weren’t going as planned. Some participants were much pickier about what they received than others. Also, people were having trouble tuning in to their partner’s preferences. With each transaction that passed, some faces showed looks of greater and greater discomfort. By the time I halted the game, many participants still hadn’t really figured out how to make their partner happy. The game had had the opposite effect to the one I’d intended.

Fortunately, the group I was playing with have developed terrific rapport and a huge amount of trust, so the outcome didn’t matter, but it certainly surprised me. In the discussion that followed, it became clear that several things had been going on. For starters, the discomfort started when people didn’t appreciate the very first gift they were given. On reflection, one can see that this is because the reaction to a gift is as much a part of the reciprocity process as the gift itself. People give a gift and hope to see delight. An unsuccessful initial transaction immediately weakened the relationship for that pair. This made it harder for players to be pleased by later offers.

Secondly, there wasn’t enough information in the game for people to tune in to their partner's likes. This was even though I had suggested before the game that players offer things that they themselves liked the first few times before trying to work out what their partner wanted. I think everyone started with so much confidence that they’d be able to meet their partner’s needs that they didn’t pay too much attention to revealing information about themselves.

Most significantly for me, though, was how much the game appeared to matter. I base this on the body language and facial cues that the game revealed. People *really* don’t like reciprocity transactions to go poorly. The habit goes very deep. So much so that we have created all sorts of social behaviors to conceal our true reactions to gifts. And, ironically, those that are closest to us are probably most likely to received a censored response.

The strength of this habit may in party explain the enduring ritual draw of Christmas gift giving, and why so many of the emotions that arise from it are nuanced and not entirely positive. The fact that reciprocity--a mechanism intended to increase mutual trust--is so powerful that it causes us to routinely conceal the truth from each other says something about the extraordinary subtlety of the relationships that human beings form.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On Hidden Mechanisms of Influence

In the wake of the fun I had on my last visit back to Santa Cruz, I’ve been thinking more about Robert Cialdini’s impressive book on influence. (See previous post.) I’ve started to do with it what I always do with theories that interest me--to take it apart. (The engineer in me can’t resist.) An besides, I suspect that a weight of highly useful improv games lurk somewhere in this material, waiting to be teased out. Not to mention further valuable insights about how people interact.

Cialdini quotes six mechanisms through which human beings are influenced by others. These are:
Reciprocity: the urge to return favors.
Consistency: the urge to appear to have stable opinions and behaviors.
Social Proof: the habit of assuming that behaviors exhibited by others represent a standard for acceptability and wisdom.
Authority: the habit of assuming that those bearing the social trappings of power can be trusted.
Liking: the urge to make compromises when dealing with those with whom we have a pre-existing bond.
Scarcity: the urge to act quickly when we perceive a valuable commodity to be in limited supply.

Why six mechanisms? And why these six? Business book authors seem to be crazy about lists. (The five habits of great leaders. The seven guaranteed paths to selling. The twenty three easy steps to world domination, etc.) There is probably fascinating study to be done on this topic in its own right--to try to work out why lists hold such appeal. However, that’s not my focus here, and personally, I mistrust lists.

Whenever someone quotes a list at you, it’s effectively a statement that the system they’re describing has symmetry of that order. In other words, the structure that underpins the system can’t be broken down into some simpler pattern. In my experience, things in life seldom have symmetry as consistent, orderly and complex as order six without something going on underneath.

So how about these patterns of influence? Do they have a deeper structure? I think so. Right away, we can break Cialdini’s list down on the basis of the type behavior to which they relate. The mechanisms of Scarcity and Social Proof both relate to the behavior of individuals operating in anonymous groups. They’re not specific to people. You can see the same behaviors in shoals of fish, in their patterns of feeding and flocking. Feeding patterns reflect Scarcity: ‘food is suddenly available and I might not get some’. Flocking reflects Social Proof: ‘everyone’s turning left so there must be a good reason to do so’. The same primal patterns of social optimization can even be found in bacteria.

At the other end of the scale, the mechanism of Authority relates specifically to hierarchical behavior, which you only get in those organisms that collaborate in structured groups. Furthermore, it’s culturally dependent. A man dressed as a witch doctor with lion’s teeth around his neck is going to be less immediately authoritative to a western audience than a man in an Armani suit. This mechanism clearly equates to the improv principle of status.

Between these two extremes lie Reciprocity, Consistency and Liking, all of which relate to building and maintaining relationships with peers. Thus, we can see that there are three levels of social behavior being revealed: hierarchically-connected, peer-connected, and group-connected. (Intriguingly, these layers correspond to the first the scenes in a Vanilla 6-Hander improv play, but that’s perhaps material for another post.) The next question is whether we can slice up each these layers in ways that reveal further structure. Doing so might reveal gaps in Cialdini’s findings and uncover mechanisms that he missed. And this is where it gets interesting.

Let’s look at the group-connected layer first. What’s the difference between Scarcity and Social Proof? While they share the common idea that ‘other people know something I don’t’, I would suggest that Scarcity relates to group competition while Social Proof reflects collaboration of a very basic sort.

However, if we then look at the peer layer--Reciprocity, Consistency and Liking--a different pattern emerges. There’s no pattern in this set that obviously relates to collaboration versus competition. Instead, these three mechanisms appear to correspond to different points on a relationship-building time-line. Reciprocity relates to how people respond to overtures of alliance. Consistency encourages people to behave in a reliable fashion while a relationship is being developed so that others can build predictive models of their behavior. Liking reflects reluctance to break a social bond once it has been fully formed.

Then, last of all we come to the mechanism of Authority, sitting in a group all on its own. Can we infer the existence of other missing mechanisms to this group by applying the patterns we found in the other two groups? Perhaps. I haven’t managed this yet. However, there’s a more obvious omission here. Hierarchies of individuals generally don’t only involve information passing from the top to the bottom. Information percolates back up as well. Thus, given that human beings have been forming hierarchies for a very long time, shouldn’t we also see patterns of influence here too?

Of course we do. I would refer to this new principle as that of Vulnerability. Hard-wired examples involve the ‘looking up cluster’ that women apply to men. This involves body language that’s low-status, yet gently coercive. Consider also tropes such as the female hitch-hiker by the side of the road whose boyfriend suddenly appears when a ride is acquired. Many of us will also be familiar with how successful children can be at exerting social influence on their parents, even though their apparent bargaining position is very weak. I suspect that there are a host of influence tricks that belong in this bucket.

I think Cialdini missed this mechanism because it because it’s employed less frequently by sales-people and managers. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not widely used. A female friend of mine won accolades in her younger days for her door-to-door fund-raising. She raised a staggeringly greater amount of money than her peers working in the same charity because her approach combined quick-witted dialog with a highly non-threatening appearance. Doors opened for her that would open for nobody else.

Thus, all told, we’ve now got seven mechanisms that occupy slots in a more clearly defined structure. What’s curious, though, is that each layer of social interaction we’ve defined comes with its own symmetry. This suggests that Robert Cialdini effectively nailed six out of seven of the major channels of human interaction--at least if you believe the model we’ve constructed here. That’s impressive. However, the lingering question in my mind still whether we can take what we’ve found here and use it to create behavioral games that enable people to do things they’ve never achieved before. And that’s something I’m still working on.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Influence and the power of social proof

I recently read Robert Cialdini's 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion'. Not only is it a terrific book and a 'business classic', but I couldn't help also suspecting that it was dynamite material for improv workshops.

The workshops I ran at UCSC for the graduate students there had a very strong empowerment angle, so when the students decided to have a reunion, I got the opportunity to try to adapt some of the learning points in Influence to an improv context.

All the exercises were successful, but the most fascinating was the one I put together to teach the principle of 'social proof'. This principle outlines how human beings automatically take their cues about how to behave and what's acceptable from the behaviors of those around them.

In the classic improv game 'Yes Lets', everyone engages an a shared physical activity as they move through a room. Then, when someone has a suggestion for a new activity, for instance: flying like a bird, they call out 'let's all fly like a bird!' Everyone then calls out 'yes lets!' and then starts miming that activity.

I adapted this game by randomly handing out slips of paper to all participants beforehand. Every single piece had the word 'chicken' on it, except one, which said 'elephant'. Participants were instructed to look at their paper but not tell anyone what it said. Then I asked them to imitate the animal on their slip when I called out the magic words 'do your thing'.

I ran the game normally for a few rounds before calling out the change, and then watched what happened. Everone in the room started behaving like a chicken, but in slightly different ways. The set of acceptable chicken behaviors, however, rapidly stabilized. This made the person being the elephant in the room rapidly stand out. People started looking at her oddly. The game ended when the woman being the elephant buried her face in her hands and was caught between groaning and laughing so much that she couldn't continue.

Afterwards, people commented that they thought she'd just chosen to be creative in her way of being a chicken. They thought the arm being a trunk was supposed to be some sort of beak. They thought her trumpeting noises were supposed to be the crowing of a rooster. They assumed this even though there was no indication before the game started that I'd be giving most people the same animal to mime. Indeed, the sheer fact that I handed out folded, random slips might have tipped them off that I had something specific in mind. They had all automatically assumed that everyone was a chicken, just because most of them were.

It's worth pointing out that the participants here were graduate students--rational, highly educated, socially aware people who'd attended dozens of improv communication workshops already. Nevertheless, the power of social conformity proved almost overwhelming. I have to wonder what it says about the rest of us, and the way we parse the reality we inhabit each day. How many of the chickens we think we're seeing are actually elephants?