Why You’re So Predictable

On the one hand, it seems the world is getting less predictable. On the other hand, looking at the successes of Big Data and AI, haven’t we all at the same time become more predictable?

Isn’t that how those kids in Macedonia made thousands of dollars running fake articles on social media? Isn’t that how James Corden got famous enough to host the Grammys?

As I thought about this, I remembered that I’d thought about this before. About 11 years ago. Let’s see how 2006 sounds from the vantage point of 2017.


Fortune talked about recommender systems a few years back.

What’s a recommender system? Well, take Amazon’s “if you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll love Blink.” Now move from book-to-book relationships into book-to-other relationships: “If you liked the Da Vinci Code, you’ll like a Jura Capressa espresso maker.” That’s a recommender system.

Fortune’s example was, helping slackers save time at 10PM Friday night at what was the local Blockbuster by predicting what movie they’ll love. [Remember Blockbuster? Just eleven years ago…]

Fortune interviewed whattorent’s two founders at a coffee shop, and put them to the ultimate test: pick two strangers in this restaurant, and—just by observing them—guess their favorite movie.

They settled on a guy and a young woman. After much clever psycho-babbling, the founders guess: Starship Troopers for Joe, Roman Holiday for Renee.

And wouldn’t ya know it—they were dead right.

You can hear Fortune cuing up the PGA graphic—“these guys are good!” And indeed that’s our reaction—wow, how could anyone pull that off?

But wait. What if we’re mixing up cause and effect? Maybe it’s not that two twenty-somethings are great predictors. What if we’ve just all gotten way more predictable?

Everyone had their favorite Beatle. If you preferred John to Paul, it said something about you—to everyone. Because everyone had a common reference point. The Fab Four were global litmus tests.

Since then, culture got way more global. Africans wear Arizona t-shirts; Valley Girls know Tibetan monk choirs. The weapons of mass dispersion are well known—iPods, MySpace, YouTube, Hollywood [can you believe – this was only 11 years ago…the iPhone was still a year away…]

Everyone wants to be different—but we share referent points from which we diverge. Jeans, music, hair, slang… Take five variables with five values each: five to the fifth power is 3,125 combinations. Sounds like a lot, but it’s based on a small set that’s easy to reverse-engineer.

People don’t predict us: we self-identify, and the code is easy to read. Marketers love this stuff.

Ironically, it also makes it easier to trust others. When a British Stones fan meets a Jagger aficionado from Beijing—the world shrinks.

The question is: can we keep the diversity while enhancing the trust?


Well, that was my question then. My question now is similar, but updated: can we keep the authenticity while mechanizing the means of connection?

This is most evident in commerce. You still know, in your bones, when you receive a mechanized spam email, trying to pass itself off as personal. I suppose scams may be getting more sophisticated; but a ton of people aren’t even bothering to be sophisticated. They confuse the ability to target and segment with the desirability of doing so. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

We’re all pretty predictable. That’s OK. Go ahead, predict me – just let me know there’s someone behind the prediction machine, someone who cares enough to add the whipping cream topping by making it personal.

The difference between being sold to by a person and being sold to by an algorithm is the difference between talking to a person who used a robot to find me, and talking to the robot itself. I don’t mind being predicted – just don’t insult me.

If We’re So Rational, How Come We Don’t Believe It?

From Australia’s comes the story of how positive thinking can make things worse.   

REPEATING positive statements such as "I am a lovable person" or "I will succeed" makes some people feel worse about themselves instead of raising their self-esteem, a study says.

Positive self-statements make people who are already down on themselves feel worse rather than better, according to the study conducted by psychologists Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick.

For the study, the psychologists asked people with low self-esteem and people with high self-esteem to repeat the phrase: "I am a lovable person," and then measured participants’ moods and feelings about themselves. What they found is that individuals who started out with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement.

Hmm.  So much for mantras, affirmations, cognitive therapy and NLP?  Now now, don’t bother writing in, the research also says those things can work in the context of a larger program.  But that just means it’s a helluva job to change our beliefs, no matter how irrationally we got there.  The head is a weak instrument with which to heal the heart.  Syllogisms are powerful only in computer programs.

Dan Ariely’s excellent book Predictably Irrational  uses an opening story/example  involving a nursing practice to show how people behave irrationally. 

Curiously, when he explained the irrationality of the practice to the nurses themselves, they agreed about the irrationality.  And then kept on doing it.

In the “same only different” vein, we have Tim Harford’s Logic of Life.  An economist, his purpose is similar to Ariely’s—to show that apparently emotionally driven patterns in life actually demonstrate very rational behavior, meaning they make perfect sense when explained in terms of the pursuit of self-interest.

Harford has his own curious moment.  He shows how juvenile delinquents’ criminal behavior demonstrate rational decision-making based on the relative severity of juvenile vs. adult laws.  So much for adolescent impulsive crime, he says.  Higher penalties actually do deter criminals.  The data show it.

As Harford puts it, “the policy recommendations that emerged from…the theory and data are strikingly clear and precise…Unfortunately, politicians prefer simple ideological answers.”

Well, duh!

I think both these books are superb—great reads, and very insightful.  I’m not making a fundamental critique of them at all, I agree with them.  I’m just high-spotting a side moment in each book.

But what moments!  Here are two deservedly respected experts on the subject of how apparently irrational behavior actually makes sense.  Yet each of them is flummoxed when faced with people who nod their heads at the experts’ logic—and then proceed to completely ignore it!

Hey guys–aren’t those the folks you wrote the books about?  So–why are you flummoxed?  And where’s the explanation?

I think Ariely and Harford are quite right—as far as they go.  But I think there’s also something still out there, beyond explaining the perversely expressed logic of self-interest.

It’s the reason it takes a couple of generations to work out family neuroses. It’s the reason dieting is so hard, prejudice is so persistent, and why more people trusted Madoff than the IRS.

And it’s the reason mere affirmations can backfire.  Maturity comes upon us at the pace of molasses.  Change is a bitch.