Jan 052008

Main Points:

  • We love to debate minutiae because of two critical cognitive errors: “All or nothing” thinking and improper weighting of factors.
  • Think about factors as percentages contributing to an effect. I might go out to buy some ice cream (effect), because its hot out (80%), and because someone else was willing to come with me (the last 20%).

Ramit Sethi runs a very popular blog over at I Will Teach You To Be Rich.com. He wrote this article on how, “We love to debate minutiae“. In case you don’t want to read the entry, here’s a summary:

If you’re below the age of 125, you have heard people saying one of more of these phrases about losing weight:

  • Don’t eat before you go to bed because fat doesn’t burn as efficiently
  • If you cut your carb intake and raise your protein level, you can lose lots of weight quickly
  • If you eat fruit in the morning, it’s easy on your digestive system and your metabolism will speed up

I always laugh at these things because they’re so absurd. Maybe they’re correct, or maybe not, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that we love to debate minutiae.

When it comes to weight loss, 99.99% of people only need to know 2 things: Eat healthier and exercise more. Only Olympic athletes need to know more.

I believe that the real reason for that sort of thing is two cognitive errors: “All or nothing thinking” and improper weighting of factors.

All or nothing thinking is pretty simple to explain: It is when there is no middle ground, it is simple one extreme to the other. For example, I’ve talked to some people about the guideline of saving 10% of each paycheque automatically to invest with and they say, “Oh, I can’t save 10%, that’s too much.” And thus they save nothing at all. However, it is still possible for them to save 1% or 5%, and work up to 10%, but they just don’t think of it.

Another example is when someone tries to understand everything there is to know about a subject before they take action or make a decision, also known as analysis paralysis. And if they don’t understand a small part of it, then they don’t understand any of it. Ze Frank said it best in this episode about bastardization and our complicated lives (which is an excellent one to watch on this topic, too):

“Lots of people seem to experience this. When they fail to understand a small exception in eighth grade algebra, they spend the rest of their lives saying, ‘I’m not good at math.’”

So, the remedy to all or nothing thinking is really the second crucial error: improper weighting of factors. When I say that you don’t need to know everything about a topic before taking action, I’m implying that there is some information that is more important than other information. Most people, though, don’t actually weight the effects of different factors all that well, partially because they don’t have a lot of experience with it and partially because they don’t really know how to.

What exactly do I mean? Let’s say that there are two factors and an effect: Let’s say there’s an elephant that is running towards me and a poisonous spider on my arm that could bite me at any moment. The effect is that I am scared out of my wits. Which one of these two am I scared of more? You might say its about 50% each. And its sorta like that. Ramit above is saying that eating healthier and excersizing more is enough for 99% of the population, and he’s right, because those two factors combine to make probably 99.9% of the goal (effect) of becoming fit. The bit about eating fruit in the morning might account for 0.001% of the effect of becoming fit, meaning that, as a factor, its nearly worthless.

If you want to go to the Olympics, those two factors might account for more like 95%. However, that last crucial 5% would be the winning edge, and would require more work than than the initial 90% might have taken. This is a case of diminishing returns, which is that each additional unit of result takes more resources than the previous one.

Think about factors as percentages contributing to an effect. I might go out to buy some ice cream (effect), because its hot out (80%), and because someone else was willing to come with me (the last 20%). Sometimes you need to reach a minimum threshold for factors to result in effects, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Another thing that ties into this is the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. It states that there is a natural distribution of effects and causes, in that 20% of the causes will result in 80% of the effects. Pareto, who was an Italian economist formulated this when he noticed that 20% of the population controlled 80% of the wealth in many different European countries. In this case, you might spend 20% of your efforts and time on eating healthier and excersizing more,  which produces 80% of your results, but you spend the other 80% of the time on minutiae like Ramit is talking about. There is a clear opportunity for optimization here, in that you could up the 20% to 50% of your efforts go to eating healthier and excersizing more and improve your results to 90-100%.

I’ve been noticing this sort of thing over at the IM forums at Steve Pavlina.com. People are curious about the various aspects of IM, which I whole-heartedly applaud, however it seems that some people are simple poking around, trying to learn more about exceptions or special cases which don’t really apply to them, instead of testing the thing for themselves and seeing if it works or not.

Note: Whew! Lots of writing today. It’s been a productive morning, so I think I’ll feed my new addiction of Age of Mythologies now. Any comments are appreciated. Thanks in advance!

  2 Responses to “Why some things just don’t matter”

  1. [...] be a topic for you to consider going forward. I just wrote a blog entry on this sort of topic: Mind-Manual » Why some things just don’t matter [...]

  2. [...] take a break by walking for a bit, start jogging again, repeat, and then finish up by walking. And that’s about all you need to know for now. The key is not to hurt yourself, because if you hurt yourself, you’re likely to associate [...]

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