Every few years we seem to get a new aspect of psychology that is ‘more important to success than intelligence’. In the 1990s it was Emotional Intelligence. In the Twenty-teens, it’s Grit.
So what can we learn from a woman whose father told her that she was no genius? Well, when that woman has a string of academic, commercial, and social successes to her credit by her early 40s, perhaps we should listen to her.
Philip Tetlock has done more than any other academic to help us understand the process of forecasting and making predictions. He has shown us why experts don’t do well, and, with his latest work, has found the secret sauce of ‘Superforecasting‘.
Philip Tetlock was born in 1954 and grew up in Toronto. He studied psychology, gaining his BA and MA at University of British Columbia, before moving to the US, to research decision-making for his PhD at Yale.
His career has been entirely academic, with posts at University of California, Berkley (Assistant Professor, 1979-1995), Ohio State University (Chair of Psychology and Political Science, 1996-2001), a return to UC Berkley (Chair at the Haas Business School, 2002-2011), and currently, he is Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is jointly appointed between the School of Psychology, Political Science, and the Wharton Business School.
Tetlock’s early books are highly academic, but he started to come to prominence with the publication, in 2005, of ‘Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?‘ This book has become highly influential, by documenting the results of Tetlock’s research into the forecasting and decision making of experts. The bottom line is that the more prominent the expert: the poorer their ability to forecast accurately.
Tetlock’s most recent book, 2015’s ‘Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction‘ is one of those few magic books that can change your view of the world, make you smarter, make you feel wiser, and inspire you at the same time. It is co-written with journalist Dan Gardner (whose earlier books cover Tetlock’s work [Future Babble], and that of Daniel Kahneman [Risk]) and so is also highly readable.
The Tetlock Two-step
In ‘Expert Political Judgment‘, Tetlock is a pessimist. He finds substantial evidence to warn us not to accept the predictions of pundits and experts. They are rarely more accurate than a chimp with a dartboard (okay, he actually compares them to random guessing).
Ten years later, in ‘Superforecasting’, Tetlock is an optimist. He still rejects the predictions of experts, but he has found light at the end of the predictions tunnel. The people he calls ‘Superforecasters’ are good at prediction; far better than experts, far better than chance, and highly consistent too.
If you want to understand how to make accurate predictions and reliable decisions; you need to understand Tetlock’s work.
Hedgehogs and Foxes: The Failure of Experts
In a long series of thorough tests of forecasting ability, Tetlock discovered a startling truth. Experts rarely perform better than chance. Simple computer algorithms that extrapolate the status quo often outperformed them. The best human predictors were those with lesser narrow expertise and a broader base of knowledge. In particular, the higher the public profile of the expert, the poorer their performance as a forecaster.
This led Tetlock to borrow a metaphor from philosopher Isiah Berlin: The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The experts are hedgehogs: they know one thing very well, but are often outsmarted by the generalists who recognise the limitations of their knowledge and therefore take a more nuanced view. This is often because experts create for themselves a big theory that they are then seduced into thinking will explain everything. Foxes don’t have a grand theory. So they synthesise many different points of view, and therefore see the strengths and weaknesses of each one, better than the hedgehogs.
One result of Tetlock’s work was that the US Government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) set up a forecasting tournament. This is an ‘Intelligence Community’ think tank. Eventually, Tetlock moved from helping design and manage the tournament, to participating.
Superforecasting: The Triumph of Collective Reflection
Tetlock, along with his wife (University of Pennsylvania Psychology and Marketing Professor, Barbara Mellers) created and co-led the Good Judgment Project. This was a collaborative team that was able to win the IARPA tournament consistently.
The book, Superforecasting, documents what Tetlock learned about how to forecast well. He identified ‘Superforecasters’ as people who can consistently make better predictions than other pundits. Superforecasters think in a different way. They are more thoughtful, reflective, open-minded and intellectually humble. But despite their humility, they tend to be widely read, hard-working, and highly numerate.
In a recent (at time of writing – https://twitter.com/PTetlock/status/738667852568350720 – 3 jJune 2016) Tweet, Tetlock said of Trump University’s ‘Talk Like a winner’ guidelines :
Guidelines for “talking like a winner” are roughly the direct opposite of those for thinking like a superforecaster
The other characteristics that enable superforecasting, which you can implement in your own organisation’s decision-making, are:
Screen forecasters for high levels of open-mindedness, rationality and fluid intelligence (reasoning skills), and low levels of superstitious thinking (Tetlock has developed a ‘Rationality Quotient’ or RQ). Also choose people with a ‘Growth Mindset’and ‘Grit‘.
Collect forecasters together to work as a team
Aim to maximise diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives
Train them in how to work as a team effectively
Good questions get good answers, so focus early effort on framing the question well to reduce bias and increase precision
Understand biases and how to counter them
Embrace and acknowledge uncertainty
Take a subtle approach and use high levels of precision in estimating probabilities of events
Adopt multiple models, and compare the predictions each one offers to gain deeper insights
Start to identify the best performers, and allocate higher weight to their estimates
Reflect on outcomes and draw lessons to help revise your processes and update your forecasts
Roy Baumeister is one of the most widely cited psychologists. His research interests are broad and range across much of social psychology, leading him to be able to take a multi-disciplinary and synthesising approach to understanding large and important psychological questions. Yet he also engages in careful and detailed experiments.
Very Short Biography
Roy Baumeister was born in 1953, in Cleveland Ohio. He describes his upbringing as ‘a series of lucky accidents that helped bring me to a calling perfectly suited to me’. And he describes his parents as ‘harsh, strict, dogmatic, Nixon-worshiping immigrants who plodded grimly and dutifully through life [who] clung to each other and feuded with the rest of the world … and insisted on unquestioning obedience and allegiance to their theories about everything.’
As a result, Baumeister has no allegiance to any point of view and is therefore able to change his mind, as he learns of new evidence. This makes him an ideal scientist, and well placed to revise long-cherished social and psychological theories.
He gained his Bachelors degree from Princeton, switching from Maths after two semesters to Psychology – a compromise between maths (which his father favoured) and philosophy (which Baumeister was drawn to). He did an MA at Duke, before returning to Princeton for a PhD, that was awarded in 1978. After a one-year post-doctoral fellowship in sociology and University of California, Berkeley, he took a teaching post at Case Western University in 1979. There he remained until 2003, becoming a full professor in 1992. He then moved to his present appointment, as Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University.
Baumeister rapidly realised that scholarly review articles would give him the opportunity to survey large amounts of literature and answer larger questions than individual experiments could tackle. Consequently, his wide research interests and his big-picture approach have led to him producing a lot of important thinking over the last 35 years. This has resulted in a vast array of academic citations, around 30 scholarly book publications and a huge following of academic researchers who rate the impact of his work extremely highly.
A broad, psychology-based approach to understanding how we make sense of our lives: Meanings of Life
Among these are some topics that are of particular interest to us, with a focus on management.
Free Will and Self-defeating Behaviours
Of course, free will has fascinated philosophers for centuries, and now neuro-scientists are highly engaged in the debate. Baumeister’s contribution is to define it in psychological terms, as being made up of four components:
He argues that exerting free will results in three things: control of our actions, socially-directed choices, and enlightened self-interest (choices that define our self-interest in the wider context of our social groups and broader society). Free will does, however, sometimes lead to self-defeating behaviours.
Some have argued that certain people have a self-destructive urge that powers these kinds of behaviours. But Baumeister’s research rejects this hypothesis. What he finds is that apparently self-defeating behaviours are the result of trade-offs we make, unexpected consequences, or at most, an attempt to escape from our perception of who we are (linking back to his interest in identity).
His most significant contribution to date is the concept of ‘Ego Depletion’ and the two related ideas that:
Willpower literally requires energy
(the ‘battery’ metaphor)
Exercising willpower deliberately can strengthen it
(the ‘muscle’ metaphor)
Baumeister coined the term ego depletion as a deliberate description of an effect that was first observed in a simple experiment. People had bowls of chocolate cookies and radishes placed before them and were told which they could eat. Those who were allocated the radishes were disappointed and showed desire for the ‘lost’ cookies.
In a subsequent test, Baumeister and his colleagues found that those who had had the radishes were far less persistent in solving puzzles than the group who had got the cookies and than a control group who had not been shown the choices. The conclusion is that the ability to exert conscious control (a function of what Freud called the ‘ego’) was depleted among those who had been forced to do so earlier. Baumeister was heavily influenced by Freud’s approach early in his career.
Your willpower, Baumeister says, starts the day at a peak, after a restful night, but diminishes through the day, as you use it up. (Toddler bedtime?) It needs recharging with food and rest. Indeed, his subsequent research has implicated blood glucose levels as a part of the physical mechanism, so the battery metaphor is highly apt.
More recent work also finds that if we practise willpower, our ability to deploy it grows stronger. The technique is regular practice at deliberately overriding your habitual ways of doing things and exerting conscious control over your actions. It is also worth noting research (including that of Angela Duckworth) shows that levels of willpower are highly indicative of lifetime satisfaction, wellbeing and success.
Whilst Baumeister is an accomplished academic author, he chose (wisely, I think) to team up with experienced journalist John Tierney to write about willpower. The resulting book, Willpower: Why Self-Control is The Secret to Success, is an excellent addition to any library: insightful, thought-provoking and easy to read. It is in a class with books by authors like Ariely, Thaler, Csikszentmihalyi, and Kahneman, and therefore one that scores exceptionally high on my ‘marginal notes and post-its scale’.
One facet of emotional intelligence is motivation, and this is front and centre of the work of another psychologist. Angela Lee Duckworth’s research interest is competencies other than general intelligence that predict academic and professional achievement. And she has been putting the spotlight on two of them: self-control and perseverance.
Very Short Biography
Angela Lee was born in 1970, and grew up in New Jersey. She was the third child of immigrants from China, who had fled the cultural revolution. The parents were exceptionally results-oriented, leading to three children who have all excelled. However, as the third child, Duckworth recalls feeling a sense of benign neglect, as her parents focused their attention on her older siblings.
She was exceptionally bright and worked hard, entering Harvard and graduating in neuro-biology in 1992. Two years later, she took up a scholarship to study neuroscience at the University of Oxford, leaving with an MSc in 1996.
From there, she joined consulting firm McKinsey and Company (where she met her husband, Jason Duckworth). Promised opportunities to do pro bono work, but being allocated work in the pharmaceuticals sector, Duckworth left and started teaching, first in New York. During this time, she started paying attention to why some children succeeded and others failed.
She joined a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Positive Psychology Center, under the leadership of Martin Seligman, who supervised her study. She was awarded her PhD in 2006 and took up an academic post there. She is now a Professor of Psychology and leads the Duckworth Lab, which focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.
Grit and Self-control
Duckworth’s work shows that two traits predict success in life:
the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals
the voluntary regulation of behavioural, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.
These two are different. Grit equips you to pursue especially challenging aims over long periods; years or even decades. Self-control operates at a short timescale in the battle against distractions and temptations – willpower, if you like.
Duckworth’s research shows that the two are related, but not totally correlated. People who are gritty tend to be more self-controlled, but the correlation is not total: some people have masses of grit but little self-control, while some exceptionally self-controlling people are not especially gritty. Her team has developed non-commercial scales that measure each.
Duckworth’s research has found that, when they strip out the effects of intelligence, grit and self-control predict objectively measured success outcomes. They have used contexts as diverse as children’s spelling competitions, military officer training, and general high school graduation results.
Because of the importance of these factors, therefore, Duckworth has introduced them into the routines for her family: husband and two daughters. Academically, her team is researching ways to instil self-control and grit into children. She has shown that children can learn and practise strategies to build grit and self-control.
In a recent Pocketblog, we looked at the work of Carol Dweck, on Growth Mindset. Duckworth sees Dweck as a role model and is collaborating with her because she has found that children who have more of a growth mindset tend to be grittier. Once again, there isn’t a perfect correlation, but enough to suggest that one of the things that makes you gritty is a growth mindset: the attitude ‘I can get better if I try harder’. This should help you to be tenacious, determined, and hard-working: gritty.
Orpah Winfrey (not a mis-spelling) was born into poverty and hardship in 1954 and rose to become both a celebrity phenomenon and a business magnate. Along the way she made many astute decisions. One of the first was to change her name, recognising that if too many people mis-pronounced Orpah as Oprah, then she may as well go with the flow. Part of her skill has been an adept assessment of the direction of flow.
There is far more biographical detail available about Oprah Winfrey than most other of our management thinkers, so let’s stick to summarising a few of the facts most relevant to our theme, and leave the more vibrant details to other sources. Many of them have been revealed on her TV shows and in her books – others have emerged through unauthorised tabloid revelations.
Winfrey’s early years in rural Mississippi with her grandmother, urban Wisconsin with her mother, and Tennessee. She experienced much hardship and poverty, including serious abuse, teenage pregnancy, and bereavement.
It was while living with her father for a second time that she started to succeed at school, enter Tennessee State University and land a news job on the local radio station, WVOL in Nashville. This led to a news anchor role at the local TV station, WTVF-TV (then WLAC-TV). She was a television natural and had evident star quality. In 1976, she moved to Baltimore as a news co-anchor at WJZ-TV, which didn’t work out well for her, but the senior executive at the station suggested she co-host a chat show instead.
Although she was reluctant at first, and both she and the station considered it a risk, this was her defining moment: the audience loved her and the show’s ratings rose rapidly. In 1984, she took on a new role as host of WLS-TV’s prime morning talk show, AM Chicago, broadcast head-to-head with the top-rated talk-show, hosted by Phil Donahue. Within a month, it was Winfrey who rated number one.
In 1985, she co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-nominated movie, The Color Purple, winning an Oscar nomination herself as best supporting actress. The following year she launched her nationally syndicated show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her style of being open and honest with her emotions made her a national hit with many millions of viewers.
Two years later, her astute business sense became evident, as she bought the rights to her own show, set up a production company (Harpo – Oprah backwards), and build a $20m studio in Chicago. After Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball, Winfrey was the third woman to own a major US studio. Hwer business life continued and continues to be a huge success, making her a multi-billionaire.
What Business Lessons can we Learn from Oprah Winfrey?
It is easy to think of Winfrey as a media celebrity: her TV chat show is the foundation of her business empire and she has 22 credits as an actress. But she is producer on half as many again films and TV shows and she is owner of a huge portfolio of media assets including TV networks, production companies, and magazines.
I think there are three principal lessons that any business person or manager can learn from her:
The value of sheer grit and determination. Yes, Oprah surely has talent, but to triumph over the hardships she faced, Winfrey needed hard work and persistence. Throughout her life, she struggled with setbacks, but has always pushed forward.
Recognise your strongest assets, and take control of them. From her earliest exploitation of her talents as a speaker when she went to a local radio station to collect a prize for winning the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant, Winfrey has spotted her opportunities well and taken control. The best example is her decision to buy out the rights to her TV show and become its producer. This was a big risk and most hosts are content to stay just that: Winfrey was not. This is what made her a media mogul, rather than a media celebrity.
When rivals start to challenge you, shift ground to differentiate yourself. In the early 1990s, the Oprah Winfrey Show was a huge success and therefore, inevitably, widely copied by other producers. Everyone was interviewing anyone with a tale of woe, and the more salacious the better. Amid this race to the tabloid bottom, Winfrey took a step upwards. She started to produce uplifting shows that she started to call ‘change your life TV’. Instead of wallowing in people’s misery, she offered audiences a choice of improvement… which they loved. In transforming her show, she charted her way to where she sits now as a celebrity: a champion for highbrow self-help (and, to be fair, some practitioners offering advice that is less than empirically validated).
In 2003, Michael Moore wrote that Oprah should run for US President. That would be a shift, and it would take grit too. Will she do it?
Hear Oprah Winfrey in her own words
For more about her career and her advice to listen to your instincts, here is an interview (c.65 min) she gave at Stanford’s Business School in 2014.