The Role of Chance in Outcomes

Are the successes in my life a result of ability (the quality I produce) or chance?

NPR kicked off a story about the Mona Lisa. It’s a popular painting – the most popular painting. Each year thousands swarm the Louvre in Paris to get a glimpse of her enigmatic smile. The Mona Lisa is famous.

But is she famous because she’s a spectacular work of art? Or is she famous because she’s the result of chance encounters (i.e. because she was acquired by the King of France, displayed at the Louvre, a product of a masterful inventor who was acknowledged as such by Italian authorities)?

This question – chance vs ability – has historically been untestable. We live in one reality and in this reality the Mona Lisa is famous.

Until Princeton professor Matthew Salganik decided to come up with a rather genious experiment. He would create multiple identical worlds online filled with the same works of art, get thousands of people to pick which work of art they liked best, and if the same works of art rose to the top in each world, then we could reasonably conclude it was the actual art work that determined its greatness.

The experiment

From NPR:

To test how much of success should be attributed to chance and how much to quality, Salganik created a website that randomly funneled the 30,000 teenagers he recruited online into nine identical worlds.

Each of these worlds exposed the teens to 48 songs from emerging artists — bands that hadn’t yet been signed so were totally unknown to the teens. The deal was that after listening to the songs, the teens could download the ones they liked best for free.

Now in one world — the control world — they couldn’t see which songs their peers were downloading so there was no social influence. But in the other eight, the teens could see which songs had been downloaded before, so they knew what other people thought was good.

“So we had the exact same 48 songs competing against each other, we had the exact same initial conditions, everything starts with zero downloads, and we have indistinguishable groups of participants, because they were randomly placed into the world,” Salganik says.

Good Art Is Popular Because It’s Good. Right?

And what did he find?

Different songs become popular in different histories — and not in small ways, either.

….there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

Good Art Is Popular Because It’s Good. Right?

What does this mean?

I think studies like this give us moments to pause, look at the world around us, and consider the implications and how these implications affect our approach to the people around us.

Take my life as example. In terms of the biggest element of chance – who my parents are – I scored the jackpot. Middle class, a reasonably healthy pool of genes, educated, and willing to throw considerable resources at the development of their children. I try not to confuse the fact that I was born on third base with those who had to run, on their own, from the start of a pitch.

Or consider my current position as Director of Technology. One reason I landed this wonderful gig was that members of Hamilton CSD viewed a presentation by me at an informational session. The curious thing about that day was that I wasn’t supposed to present. My boss at the time had pneumonia and I filled the spot. Pneumonia as a matter of a chance.

If you think that much of a persons success (or lack of success) is up to chance, perhaps it allows you to empathize with an individual better. Or as Salganik points out, you treat them better.


Morning Conversation with my Children

In our household I have the morning shift. This means I get the kids up, ready for school, and dropped off at extended care. For my children, mornings are full of curiosity.

In the short car ride we have to school I’ve put in place a rule. They are not allowed to talk with each other (or touch, hit, poke, etc.), but they can talk with me. This turns conversations into relay points – which I don’t mind – and turns the car ride into funny, often insightful, question and answers channeled in a controlled manner (as opposed to the chaos of smacking each other around).

This year we’ve covered topics like God, ghosts, Putin, gravity, galaxies, puberty, congress, Magna Carta, and chlorophyll. In short, the car rides are too short. I love my kids and I love the questions they ask.

Today the conversation made me sad. First, some context. I have a first grader (learning English), a second grader (good with English, rough with Math), and a third grader (third grade reading guarantee – thank you state of Ohio).

My second grader said, “Diego, have fun in first grade. When you get to second, you get tons of homework and have to start worrying about tests.”

My third grade said, “Kelly, you don’t have to worry about a test yet. You get to worry about it next year.”

Then, turning to me, my third grader asked, “Papi, do I need to keep worrying about tests in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade?

“Yes, sweetheart.”

“Aww. I hate school.”

I want to be clear, my kids don’t shirk from work. School is hard for them (they’re all adopted from Colombia), but they work very, very hard every night (they also have school teachers as parents, so there’s no escaping the academic structure). We’re sweating the legislative mandates and doing what we can. Our core value is not necessarily academic success, but work ethic.

Still, it’s sometimes hard to draw the connection between work ethic, non-stop testing, and genuine curiosity and love of learning. To me, it feels like our systems are out of balance. I suspect it feels the same way to our children.


When Binary Decisions Are Elusive

Decision processes intrigue me especially as I’ve moved into positions that require far more complex decisions on issues that have larger impact. There is the self-reflective part of the process – why do I make the decisions I make – that I’m examining through the most excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow (and if ever there was a book to make us question why we make decisions, that’s the book).

There’s also the process of decision making in a group context. Decision making in a group context can be hard. When anything is hard, I always try use frameworks. Sometimes frameworks need tweaks. Let me explain.

Yes / No Required?

New to the job, I’ve always tried to take complex issues and break them into “if/then” and “yes/no” decision branches. The idea is to force some kind of decision so that progress (or something) can result. I can then plan accordingly.

Say the district has a one time, unique chance to order a couple of dozen Flux Capacitors for special instructional buses that would allow us carve out a few extra months of school for our students (this would solve the unfortunate consequences of the gazillion snow days we’ve had this year).

The decision process would look something like this:

Decision Making 1a

And indeed, sometimes it works this way. You go with yes or you go with no – but either way you move in a particular direction. The job then becomes dealing with the good (or bad) outcomes of the decision.

But it’s Never Truly Binary

There is always a third branch in a yes/no question.

Copy of Decision Making 1a

This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, not answering the question spawns complexities. One of the more enlightening things I’ve learned is that this is sometimes a legitimate and prudent course of action. This issue is that I haven’t learned to decipher well when this is prudent. It’s also quite maddening for me because I tend to be action oriented. In my inexperience, I’m left wondering questions like:

  • Crap, what political implications did I miss? (And if I missed them – is a “not answer” a polite way to communicate to stop asking the question?)
  • Did I not explain the if/then scenarios clearly enough?
  • Is not making a decision protecting the group and/or district in some way?
  • Did I totally botch the timing of asking the question?

The flowchart is a bit miss-leading because not answering questions produces outcomes as well (sometimes outcomes that are remarkably similar to the yes/no outcomes). To me though – a not answer seems to result in less controllable outcomes. And that can be scary. Even when it may be the best course of action.