Friday, September 28, 2012

What is wealth?

In my last post, I made a few hefty speculations without a great deal of intellectual support. Among them was the notion than monetary wealth could be seen as "legitimized social defection". I felt that I should say a little more about that, and explain what I meant.
First, let's talk about ownership. What is it? Why do we have the notion that anyone owns anything? Our society is full of statements like "you can't take it with you after you die", and "life isn't about money, it's about love", and yet the principle of who owns what continues to have a massive impact on our lives. Why is that?
I would argue that ownership exists because humans are a lot more dangerous together than they are apart. Consider tigers--they've very dangerous on their own, and so don't have much reason to cooperate. By contrast, humans are pretty feeble on their own. However, put a bunch of them together and allow them to communicate about tool building, and you've got something that should scare the wits out of any tiger with half a brain.
In order for us humans, collectively very dangerous creatures, to work together, we have developed complex protocols. The most obvious one is language, but beyond language is the whole slew of secondary protocols that make up culture. Of paramount importance in any decent cultural protocol is the notion of resource allocation.
Resource allocation shows up all over the place--not just in culture. For instance, it's vital in whatever software you're using to read this post. In order to make changes to data without making terrible mistakes, operating systems need the notion of file locks. A file lock is what happens when one program says "I'm using this bit of data stuff, it's off limits to everyone else until I've finished with it". This prevents two programs from trying to change the same thing at once and messing everything up in the process. 
Human beings need an equivalent to file locks because of the way their brains work. We think by making predictions about what's going to happen next. Those predictions fit together in hierarchies to make plans. Those plans require that the components of predictions be reliable and consistent. Thus, if a person has a goal that requires the use of certain resources, so long as it's not messing up the other humans in the group, it makes sense to let them use it. Thus, allocating specific resources to specific individuals is a cognitively cheap way of making sure that everyone can pursue their goals without conflict.
Similarly, trade arises because it makes sense to have a system by which resources can be reallocated without instant social friction. Thus, barter, or money, or whatever system you want to use, is essentially a nifty way of trading file locks between social agents. This system is so efficient, and so engrained, that we accept it automatically, even in societies where the notion of ownership has not been fully fleshed out. It would be an odd society indeed where an individual's half-eaten lunch was not considered 'theirs', or that underwear or sleeping mat or spouse wasn't considered somehow personally allocated.
Problems arise because this notion of personal allocation is subject to game theoretic exploitation, just like everything else in society. Because increased resources entails increased social standing, people have a tendency to accumulate stuff. Because human beings often limit their sense of justice to members of their own perceived group, theft occurs. Because we want the ability to pass allocation of a resource to our offspring, we end up with inheritance. Because people will often trade favors or services for resources, resources serve as a proxy for power. And so on. 
Put these things together, and it's natural to end up with societies that engage in the bizarre habit of perpetuating and magnifying unequal resource allocation for generations, regardless of the inevitable consequences. 
Hence, while the concept of ownership constitutes a form of social cooperation, gaming the notion of ownership until you have more resources than you can possibly use while others are lacking, is transparently a form of defection. This is because effective cooperation, the original goal of the system, has been compromised for individual gain.   
For reasons I alluded to in my last post, we've taken this form of defection and make a pseudo-virtue out of it, because of the implied collective benefit of tolerating highly effective cheats. This makes things complicated, because, in order to encourage those cheats to try out, we wrap the accumulation of wealth in positive social symbols. This ensures that individuals who aren't psychologically locked in by empathy or fear will try their luck. 
I'm not proposing that we change this system. I doubt we even could if we tried. And even if we succeeded, we'd be more likely to create a botched horror than something wise and good. However, a game theoretic understanding of what money actually is, and how it relates to mental and social function, is going to be an inevitable part of 21st century science and reasoning. Therefore, we might as well embrace that reality now, and start building compassionate, honest ideologies around it based on science, rather than pretending that this isn't how society works. That option is a recipe for letting the understanding of money remain with those keenest to exploit its dynamics, which, in the long run, doesn't benefit anybody. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What are leaders?

We talk about them. We work for them. We aspire to be one of them. Occasionally, we elect them. But seldom do we ask what leaders actually are. After all, animals don't have leaders. So far as I know, there are no examples of 'leadership' anywhere in the animal kingdom outside of the human race. 
Does that statement seem hard to swallow? Let's think over the facts. Gorillas, for instance, don't they have leaders? They have silverbacks, after all. Nope. They have dominant males. Those males don't shape the feeding strategy or direction for the group. They just exercise sexual dominance. The decision makers in group behavior tend to be those individuals with the greatest need. Eg: pregnant females or females with young. The same goes for wolves, lions, naked mole rats, you name it. There are loads of examples of sexual dominance, but dominance is uncoupled from group decision making. 
Okay, you may say, but consider bees and ants. They have queens that produce all the offspring in the hive. They produce pheromones that mediate a huge amount of hive behavior. Surely, in this case, we have some animals we can point to that exhibit leadership. The answer is still no. And, in this case, Richard Dawkins makes an important point about this in his 1990 book, The Selfish Gene. Namely, that it's at least as legitimate to think of the workers exploiting the queen as it is to think of the queen leading the workers.
While there is still much discussion about exactly how hive cooperation arises, in the case of bees and ants it's undeniable that the workers in a hive are more related to each other than they are to any offspring that are produced. Therefore, it's in many ways the most logical approach to consider the workers as a group that's using the queen to perpetuate a colony of sisters.
Having no other examples of leadership for nature is unsettling. It leaves us with the horrible challenge of explaining how the invention of leadership has sprung out of nothing in the last few million years.
But wait a minute. If examples of leadership seem so rare in nature, maybe we're not thinking about leadership the right way. Maybe we're so used to thinking of leaders through the lens of human interpretation that we're missing the parallels with other natural systems. What happens if, instead, we turn our model of leadership about? Say, for example, if we look at the example of the queen bee, and see what other, perhaps hidden, parallels actually exist? 
To my mind, the answers to this question are striking, and they've transformed my recent thinking about business and politics. To explain what I mean, let's take a human example that hopefully makes the connection clear: Elizabeth II, Queen of England.
Queen Elizabeth occupies what is generally considered to be a powerful leadership position. Heads of state defer to her. Crowds come out to support her. She comes with top billing in governments and religious organizations world over. But what does she actually control? How many decisions that she makes actually affect anyone besides her own family? Arguably, none. Furthermore, Elizabeth has a busy schedule that's administered by her handlers. She has international appointment bookings that stretch for years, none of which she personally chose. In many ways, our human queen looks rather like a bee.
So why do we call her a leader? The answer is, of course, historical. She's the descendent of prior rulers who were actually exercising power. And as that power was whittled away and replaced with a democratic system, her symbolic role was retained. That, at least, is the popular answer, and it's basically useless.
It's useless because it doesn't tell us why her symbolic role was retained. If leadership is about exercising control, as we generally assume, why wasn't the monarchy dumped the moment it became irrelevant? The popular riposte is to say 'because people liked the monarchy and wanted it to persist'. But this isn't a good answer either. Why did people want the monarchy to persist. Why do people still want her there now?
I propose that the reason why the queen exists, and the reason why all leaders exist, is precisely because human beings are a lot like bees. We create leaders to exploit.
What I mean by this is that human beings select individuals to fulfill specific social roles. We make room in society for those roles, and we clad those roles in ideas that ensure that we never look too closely at what they truly entail. Why do we do this? We do it to make cooperative behavior more robust. 
Cooperation is a tricky business. Anyone who's spent a few years studying game theory will tell you that. A society of individuals who cooperate with each other is always at risk of being subverted by individuals who cheat, unless they have some strategy for punishing cheaters.
In the case of humans, this problem is even more pronounced. Because we have language, gossip, tool use, and planning, the number of ways to cheat is uncountable, and the number of ways for humans to punish each other is broad and ghastly. In order to survive, human beings have evolved a natural tendency to cooperate automatically, which only ever starts to switch off when conscious thought is brought into play.
In order to mitigate the risk of instinctive cooperation, I propose that humans have evolved social structure that allow us to borrow cheating from others
Consider two populations. In one, let's call it Population A, people cooperate automatically, except when they discover someone who is aggressively out for themselves at the cost of others. Let's call these people 'defectors'.
In the other group, Population B, people still cooperate automatically. However, when they encounter a defector, they call that person a 'leader'. They cooperate with that person while still cooperating with each other. They relinquish control of some fraction of the social order to the defector and let them do what they want.
How effective is Population B? That depends on how good their defector is. If their defector is crappy and has no imagination, then Population B suffers. However, if the defector has ambition, Population B finds itself charging over the hill to burn Population A's village and claim all their food. In this case, Population B wins big-time, even though most of the people in that group are still behaving cooperatively with each other all the time.
There's a catch here, though. In order to make this work, the people in Population B have to find a way to suspend their sense of fair play while doing or watching some of the shitty things that their defector has recommended. If they don't, they're going to have trouble holding onto their identity as cooperators.
So, to make the strategy work, the people in Population B have to be constantly evaluating possible 'leaders' from among any defectors who arise. Those who don't make the cut are drowned in the village well as liars and cheats. Those who do are promoted and eulogized. We tell ourselves that their control over society is inevitable because 'they're the ones with the power', and that their aggressive exercise of will illustrates 'vision and direction'.
This, I'd say, explains why we have trouble understanding leadership or finding it in other species. We're looking for what we want leadership to be, not what it is. In truth, we own our leaders. We make them happen. We take individuals whose capacity for cooperation is damaged, and we use them as tools for social advantage. 
To my mind, this is an important point to be sharing with the world right now. That's because the leaders we've chosen haven't done a very good job, by and large, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, the austerity disaster in Europe, worldwide banking scandals, etc. 
It's important for us to remember that our leaders exist because we let them. Their power is, and always has been, exercised by us, because it's less risky than cheating ourselves. At any time, we can take those leaders and replace them with others we think will do a better job. That's how society works. 
That idea is easy to absorb when it comes to elected officials, but it is at least as true for every banker on Wall St. That's because wealth is just another form of legitimized defection. Hence, if we don't like how they're going about things, we should swap them out. After all, they, just like the queen, belong to us. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

How to Plot a Novel 3

In the last couple of consecutive posts, I've covered material on how to create plots for novels and movies. Why put information about book plotting in a blog dedicated to applied improv and behavior science? Several reasons. Firstly, because it's fun. But also because this process tells us a huge amount about how people learn and interact. Furthermore, it tells us about how they justify their own actions to themselves.

Not only do people respond to stories that have the specific shape we've been discussing, they also build stories in their own minds the same way. Even if the events that occur in a person's life don't really resemble nice, clean learning experiences, they will deform those events in memory until they do. In other words, the structure of story not only reflects the way that we like to hear about the experiences of others, it also reflects the way in which those experiences are stored. This is perhaps not surprising, but it's highly useful to understand. Knowing how people create self-narrative enables you to more clearly see where they're recalling the truth, and when they've screened it from themselves.

In any case, let's press on as there is still plenty more to say about plotting novels that I haven't yet covered. Last time, I outlined the sixteen steps that map the human learning experience onto story structure. I also suggested that this pattern was a pretty tight fit for Hero's Journey story patterns that other researchers have already identified.

To demonstrate that, here's a mapping to the story steps from The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler:

1A (Surprise/Steady State): Ordinary World
1B (Surprise/Stimulus): Call to Adventure
1C (Surprise/Response): Refusal of the Call
1D (Surprise/Consequence): Refusal of the Call
2A (Coincidence/Steady State): Meeting the Mentor
2B (Coincidence/Stimulus): Meeting the Mentor
2C (Coincidence/Response): Crossing the Threshold
2D (Coincidence/Consequence): Tests, Allies and Enemies
3A (Pattern/Steady State): Approach to the Innermost Cave
3B (Pattern/Stimulus): Ordeal
3C (Pattern/Response): Ordeal
3D (Pattern/Consequence): Reward
4A (Application/Steady State): The Road Back
4B (Application/Stimulus): Resurrection
4C (Application/Response): Resurrection
4D (Application/Consequence): Return with the Elixir

Some research onto Vogler's book, or even just a scan of the Wikipedia page will hopefully give you a perspective on the pattern I'm describing.

There are three important things we can take away from this equivalence. Let's deal with each of them in turn.

The first thing we notice about the mapping above is that it's not one-to-one. Vogler, and Joseph Campbell--the guy whose work he developed, didn't see sixteen steps. Why not? Because some of these steps happen quickly. When you're analyzing stories by looking at dozens of examples from history, its easy to see the commonalities but harder to see the purpose. However, the extra steps are always there. So, when I mentioned last time that there was about one novel chapter per step in the process, you have to take that idea with a pinch of salt. Some of your steps, particularly the early ones, may take only a page, while others will be stretched out over whole chapters.

The Story Middle (The Yellow Brick Road)
Both the Vogler pattern and the one I've outlined are missing something--the all important middle of the story in which character development happens. Vogler compresses this with the section titled 'Tests Allies and Enemies', because the consequence of the second major event in the book corresponds to the hero entering their new world and having a sequence of experiences.

In reality, this part of a well-told story is usually a sequence of mini-adventures, each of which introduces a major character or motif that will be important in the rest of the narrative. Each mini-adventure generally takes the same Steady-State/Stimulus/Response/Consequence pattern. This is also the part of a story that's often compressed in a movie with a montage, so that we can see character relationships building over time.

For a nicely plotted novel, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the right number of mini-adventures is usually three. That gives the reader enough information to build a pattern of what the new world is about, without being in danger of feeling redundant. Hence the existence of scarecrows, tin men and lions.

Vogler's sections include terminology such as 'the mentor', referring to story archetypes--an aspect of storytelling just as important as the linear steps I've outlined here. Though this feature of stories might seem unrelated to the process of plotting, it's not. The use of archetypes is directly connected to how a story plays out, a symmetry that we make extensive use of in improv in the Vanilla Six Hander play format I explained in a previous post.

In short, there's a close correlation between the characters that appear in the story and the learning steps that the story represents. This is because, as I mentioned in the last post, everything in a story is a symbol, whether it's a prop, a style of writing, or a choice of lighting. And characters are the most important symbols of all.

This critical relationship between plot and character explodes the notion of 'character-driven' or 'plot-driven' stories, and reveals that really good stories require both. In the next post in this sequence, I'll try to explain more about how that relationship works.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How to Plot A Novel 2

Last time, started explaining how to plot a novel, using techniques combined from improvisation, neuroscience and machine learning to make it awesome. We got as far as building a outline for a protagonist, and creating a basic 'plot-triangle' of the events that would take place in the story: a beginning, a lowest point, and an ending. Now it's time to fold in some of the story structure we've explored in recent posts.

Broadly speaking, your story will comprise of four major steps. For those who follow this blog, these should be familiar by now:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Successful application of pattern.

However, for longer stories, we need to dig a little deeper and look at how these steps work. Each step represents a learning experience, and in a novel or a movie, those learning experiences can be stretched out over many scenes. So let's introduce some extra structure about what a learning experience looks like. In fact, I'm going to propose that each of these major steps is comprised of four smaller steps:
A: Steady State.
B: Stimulus.
C: Response.
D: Consequence.

It's easy to see how this works if you consider the process of training a pet. There's Scruffy, sitting on the floor. He's in his Steady State. You hold up a treat and tell him to roll over--that's Stimulus. He leaps up and down in excitement about the treat. That's his Response. As a result, you don't give him the treat and he's disappointed. That's the Consequence. Give Scruffy enough cues, and enough opportunities, and gradually he'll learn a new pattern, though it might take him more than four times.

This pattern of four substeps is identical in learning whether we're talking about pets, robots or people. And it shows up all the time in stories. This means that we can divide our story, at least at first, into sixteen little steps--four little steps for each big one.

Now we can pin the events from our plot-triangle onto the slots in the sixteen steps. The start of the story fits in 1A. The end of the story, unsurprisingly, fits in 4D, and the lowest point goes at 3D. You're now in a good place to start filling in the rest of the slots in the basic pattern.

To make filling it in a little easier, we can focus on the ways in which the four major steps are different. The first big step (Surprise), should feature a novel event that the hero tries to process as if it were part of his ordinary world. He does what we all do when faced with the unknown--he tries to fit it into some preconceived model. As a result, his life gets a little worse.

The second big step involves the same problem coming back to trouble our protagonist in another guise, only this time it's more serious, because it wasn't dealt with properly last time. This forces the protagonist to adopt a new behavior they haven't used before. In many novels, this corresponds to visiting a new place, or entering a different slice of society. However, despite the fact that the hero uses new behavior, he still doesn't solve matters because this is the first time he's tried a new behavior. His change is external, not internal.

The third big step involves the protagonist facing his problem under the changed circumstances caused by his new behavior. This time the problem is huge, but because the hero is ready to adapt this time, he learns from it even though it hurts.

By the time we reach the fourth big step, the hero is already different. He's gone to an unhappy place and come back with new tools. This time when the problem shows up, he's ready for it, inside and out. Consequently, he aces the problem and walks away the victor.

Here's a small demonstration story I often use to make the point:
1A: There's a guy sitting under a tree reading a book.
1B: Something hits him on the back of the head, a small rock perhaps.
1C: He looks around, confused, but sees nothing.
1D: He shrugs, and goes back to his book.
2A: He's just getting back into the story again...
2B: When he's hit on the back of the head again, this time harder.
2C: He jumps to his feet and looks around, but once again sees nothing.
2D: Annoyed, he goes back to his book.
3A: The guy is on edge. Now he can't focus on the story.
3B: There's a faint rustle, and then he's hit on the head again, even harder.
3C: The guy leaps up quick, and notices a monkey darting back among the branches of the tree, grinning to itself.
3D: The guy nods in understanding, looks around the base of the tree and finds a large stick.
4A: Our hero pretends to read, the stick ready in his hands.
4B: He hears the rustle sound again, and spies motion from the corner of his eye.
4C: As the monkey readies to throw, our hero leaps up and whacks the branch where the monkey sits.
4D: The monkey falls from the tree, hits its head, drops the nuts it carries and runs off yelping. The man returns to his book, this time with a supply of tasty nuts to eat.

In an novel, each one of these steps usually corresponds to about a chapter. For those interested, I recommend looking at the Wikipedia page for The Writer's Journey. It should start to become clear how these learning-science derived steps match up to the more traditional ones.

Of course, the process doesn't end there. For a start, the attentive will have noticed that some of these steps take a lot longer than others in most stories. And something in the middle seems to be missing. For instance, try to map this pattern onto a movie like The Wizard of Oz, and the yellow brick road will be missing, which is a pretty critical component. In the next post in this sequence, I'll talk about the significance of the steps, and provide some more concrete examples.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to Plot A Novel

A friend of mine, the excellent, and highly impressive, Robert Strong, is leading a team in the Forty-Eight Hour Film Project this weekend. To make such a film come off, participants need to be able to take a theme that they have no prior information about and derive a strong screenplay for it within a matter of hours.

Sound impossible? It's not. You don't need hours. I have helped people craft novels that are far more complicated than the average film. It usually takes about thirty minutes. At the end of that time they have a compelling heroic story arc, the seeds of well-developed characters, and an understanding of what needs to happen in every chapter.

How do you do it? I'm going to show you. But first, a warning.

This approach doesn't work for every kind of novel, or every kind of film. It's a formula, and what makes stories great is the extent to which they deviate from formula. This approach is not a cure-all. If it were, we'd be able to punch some buttons on a script-writing machine and awesome text would pop out.

Having said this, though, there are a lot of smug, uninformed people who will tell you that there is no such thing as a good story that follows formula, and that's why this kind of approach is limited. That's just dead wrong. In fact, it's worse than wrong. It's counterproductive and deluded. Good stories have shared structure because they reflect the processes of human cognition as I've outlined in the last few posts. Stories that don't pay attention to how human minds work aren't respecting their audiences. Consequently, they're generally, objectively, bad.

Sure, there are a plenty of people with letters after their name who will tell you that there are literary-theoretic reasons why what I'm saying cannot possibly be true. They'll point at some dense, opaque books that they claim to love and say that their excellence comes from their complete freshness, and absence of predictability. However, the steamroller of science touches everyone eventually, from priests to philosophers to artists. Storytelling is just as amenable to researched investigation as the origins of life.

Phase One: Story Profile
Your starting point is this: Do you have a message, an environment, or a character you want to write about?
In a well-constructed story, these elements reflect each other.
  • If you're starting with a message, ask yourself what kind of person would have the hardest trouble learning the lesson that your message represents. 
  • If you're starting with a character, ask yourself what their greatest flaw is, and therefore what kind of character-change you want them to undergo. That gives you your message.
  • In both cases, look for the kind of environment that would make your character as uncomfortable as possible, and make learning his or her lesson inevitable.
  • On the other hand, if you're starting with an environment, ask what's special about it. Then ask who'd have the greatest amount of trouble in a setting like that. And use that to build your protagonist. 
One thing to note about your choice of the environment is this. Everything in it, every prop, interior, light-level and weather choice is a symbol. So is every character your protagonist meets. Each choice about exterior environment and the challenges it presents should map onto the transition the hero is making internally. It's the interior change that's the important one.

The same relation also holds in the opposite direction. If there's an important part of your character's inner life that doesn't have an externalized symbol somewhere that you can use to aid storytelling, your story isn't going to turn out as strong as it could be. (Note, symbols can be as subtle as shades of blue. You don't have to beat the audience over the head with them.)

After a little thinking here, you should be able to think up a simple one sentence description for a protagonist, a setting, and a message. The lesson your protagonist learns is going to be a reflection of their heroic flaw, and every good protagonist needs a flaw. Otherwise, they're usually boring. When thinking about your hero's flaw, ask whether the flaw is a reflection of your character's motivation and personality. A good flaw reflects a deep-seated behavior that can be overcome. Also ask whether your flaw enables your audience to see themselves reflected in your character, or whether his attributes will be alienating to them.

Example good flaws: won't stand up for himself, perfectionist, incapable of opening up to others, etc.

Example bad flaws: a limp, vulnerability to a special food, a memory impairment, kills people, etc.

Now ask yourself how you want your protagonist to end up at the end of the story. What's their end point? In a classic heroic arc, the end point should communicate to the audience that the protagonist has a better life now, because he's changed.

Then ask what's the worst thing that could happen to them in the setting you've chosen, and given their flaw. What experience would force them to change and learn their lesson?

Once you've thought of a worst point, put it aside and ask yourself the same question again, because the first thing you thought of almost certainly isn't bad enough. Keep iterating on this until you're making yourself laugh and wince about how bad your protagonist is going to feel. Only stop when you find yourself saying: 'I don't want this story to be that dark'.

Given an ending and a worst point, now ask yourself where your protagonist starts off. Try to find an initial setting for your protagonist that have the following properties:
  • The starting point is often not the setting in which your story will unfold. If the settings are physically the same, your character will have to experience a change in emotional or social condition instead of a physical one. (Try to establish the physical, emotional and social features of your starting place regardless of what story you want to tell.)
  • The protagonist should be uncomfortable but lacking enough momentum or power to change things. Try to think of ways to show that in the initial setting. 
  • The starting point should enable the protagonist out of their ordinary world very quickly when your story starts moving. Hence, the protagonist should somehow be situated at the edge of their normal world, whether physically or otherwise. There should be mechanisms already latent in your starting place that make it easy for them to be pushed out. 
  • For a classic heroic story arc, the protagonist's starting place should be less good, from their perspective, than the place they end up.
  • Your initial setting will usually be populated with support characters who are going to be incidental at best in most of the narrative that follows. Make sure that those characters can help you efficiently depict what the protagonist's life is like. 
Here's your checklist for the things you should have at the end of this phase:
  • A one-line description of who your protagonist is.
  • A setting for your story to play out in.
  • A message that underscores your character's personal transformation.
  • A heroic flaw for your protagonist.
  • An end point for your character's story.
  • A worst point for your story.
  • A starting point for your story from which it's easy to kick off the hero's personal journey. 
That's probably enough for this post. I'll outline some more phases next time.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why B+ is Better than A

In my last post, I talked about the power of the number three in understanding human frustration. This time, I'd like to talk about the power of the value three quarters in human learning.

This whole ad-hoc sequence of posts kicked off with the statement that great comedy sketches tended to have a specific structure because they closely reflected how the human brain acquires new rules about the world. We went on to talk about how understanding this pattern could help people do any number of wonderful things, from writing better software to avoiding nuclear war.

For reference, the structure looks like this:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Subversion of pattern

What I didn't mention is that the same pattern also crops up in education research, and for the same reason. Recent psychology research has shown that kids who get the right answer about seventy-five percent of the time learn fastest. This result was first noticed, I think, by the amazing George Polya, author of How to Solve It, who saw that scores of around seven out of ten corresponded to healthy progress in math education. (When I find decent links to more books or papers on this, I'll add them. Good links are proving elusive.)

I'd believe that the reason for this is simple. When you're learning and you get the right answer three times in a row, your brain gets to imprint a successful new rule. Your brain sends out a little hormonal pulse of 'I win!' into your system and your confidence goes up. This puts you in the right frame of mind for wanting to demolish the next problem that you receive. Furthermore, the sense of steadily attained mastery of a problem, coupled with cues that suggest that mastery isn't yet complete, spur the learner onward. This is why the most successful computer games feature a sequence of steadily increasing obstacles.

Go too high above the seventy-five percent success ate and your brain starts tuning out. You become confident of your ability to solve the problems you're being set, and this is actually likely to make you more defensive when you get one wrong. Hence, your rate of learning goes down. Similarly, go too far below seventy-five percent and your brain isn't seeing frequent enough instances of success to be able to identify new rules. Learning feels like too much of a struggle.

It's not hard to see how using this effect can help teachers and trainers maximize their impact. By making sure your students are sitting in that sweet spot, you can get them to absorb content at their maximum possible rate. However, when you're training a large number of people together, you usually don't have the luxury of pacing the content differently for each participant. This is where you have to get clever.

One of the tools you can use springs from using using this cognitive effect in another guise: storytelling. As I've alluded to the, four-step pattern for comedy sketches applies equally well to Greek legends or the structure of most Hollywood blockbuster movies. Screenwriters have been playing around with cognition-based story patterns for years, thanks to Joseph Campbell and those who've expanded on his work.

However, in the case of your average novel, movie, or awesome fireside tale, the structure is slightly different. Now it goes like this:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Successful application of pattern.

These are the four core steps of Campbell's monomyth (which also forms the basis of good Vanilla Six-Hander plays, by the way.)  Though the steps are a little buried in the structure Campbell describes, they're not too hard to see.

A careful trainer can use this. One way is to create parables that have learning content. You deliver them up until the point at which the protagonist figures out what step he needs to take to win the day, but you don't tell your particpants what that step is. At that point you throw a question open to your students and let them figure out the hero's solution together.

This helps because a good story will create audience empathy. Your students will be sharing the experience, and will hopefully share in the feeling of success that comes with solving the problem. Thus, even if everyone isn't learning at quite the same rate, they all get the benefit of feeling about seventy-five percent correct, and share a sense of ownership of the solution. If you're really being clever, you put a sting in the tail of the story that reveals that the participants don't know everything yet.

There's lot's more to say on this subject, of course. In the next post in this sequence, I'll try to show you how you can use the four-step story pattern to plot out that novel you've been meaning to write.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Logic of Frustration

In my last post, I used the pattern of human learning to reveal how to structure good improv sketches. However, what I didn't get to, and what I promised I'd explain, was how the same reasoning could be used to improve our everyday lives, and the way we interact with each other. This time, I'm going to focus on the psychology.

As I've alluded to in previous posts, comedy relies on releasing cognitive tension. We laugh in order to signal to each other that some confusing stimulus has revealed itself to be devoid of threat. We don't do this consciously, of course. The signalling happens at a very primal level.(For a clearer, more exact picture of what I mean, I can heartily recommend Inside Jokes, by Hurley, Dennett and Adams.)

What the structure of good comedy sketches therefore reveals is what kinds of patterns of interaction between people generate cognitive tension, and what the exploding of that tension looks like. We can use this knowledge to help us design machines, rituals, and social systems that don't create cognitive tension in the first place.

The first, most important pattern for us to notice in sketches is the power of the number three, which I alluded to in the first post in this sequence. The brain loves things that comes in threes, because three instances is the minimum that the brain needs in order to build a new rule about cause and effect. However, as well as enabling the brain to construct new useful behaviors, the same rule-building architecture in our heads also watches out for patterns of frustration.

Life is full of obstacles. This means that when we go about the process of trying to achieve goals in our lives, whether simple or complex, things will go wrong. We usually don't mind that much because it happens so often. We just adapt and move on.

When we are frustrated twice while trying to achieve the same goal, our brain is put on alert. Our mental focus increases. We apply more resources to the problem. However, when we're frustrated three times in the same activity, our brain knows that applying mental focus wasn't sufficient. We have evidence that the activity we've chosen is either harder than we thought, or that we're being purposefully thwarted. At this point, the brain signals the amygdala, and we receive a squirt of cortisol. The fight or flight response kicks in and we stop being fully rational.

This is why the best sketches focus around an obstructed desire--a protagonist who wants something they're not getting. By empathizing with someone in a state of mounting frustration, we indirectly experience that mental state. This is also why the third strike of obstruction in a good sketch needs to be both different from the preceding ones, and ludicrous. It's vital that rather than getting angry about the contents of the sketch, we see it as ridiculous.

In short, comedy works when we play brinkmanship with the reflex that makes us upset. That's why much of the most powerful comedy is dark. The closer you get to that edge, the more profound the release of tension.

Part of the problem with this reflex is that we've created a world filled with complex systems that we can't control, and which vary wildly in their ease of use. This means that our trigger for frustration is pulled many times per day, and it's the easiest thing in the world for our brains to try to match the pattern of obstruction we experience onto some kind of conscious agent, however imaginary. Whether it's your computer, people on bicycles, people in cars, or the office printer, the effect is the same.

How do we build better social systems, then? By maximizing the number of sequential frustrations a person experiences in trying to achieve any particular goal to two. Whether you're designing roads or software interfaces, you study the usage patterns of the system you're building, and try to make sure that for every two instances where a person may encounter obstruction, there is some other step that is almost guaranteed to go right that follows it, even if that step is unecessary.

While this doesn't apply to every situation in system design, it's an extremely powerful human factor to bear in mind, and it applies far more broadly than might immediately be obvious. Furthermore, by having an awareness of the processes by which we get frustrated, we enable ourselves to overcome anger more easily. Unsurprisingly, improv training can help here. In the next post in this set, I'll talk more about how we can take this understanding and apply it in training and education to improve the lives of the people we interact with every day.