Friday, December 20, 2013

A Christmas Quickie

Seasons Greetings to everyone during the holiday season. In lieu of the normal posting this week you'll find an interesting graph that charts expected gift expenditures versus average wealth for a nation. The further rightward a country can be found the more generous it's people in terms of Christmas gifts. The further towards the top of the graph the more the population can generally afford.  Thus countries found more towards the top left give a smaller percentage of their income as gifts while countries more towards the bottom right give a larger portion. 

Residents of Luxembourg give the most on average (but can also afford the most) whereas the Irish seem to give most selflessly. Meanwhile it seems like the Netherlands give relatively the least for Christmas. 

Until next time have a happy holiday season!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Like Riding a Bike

The expression, "It's like riding a bike." is commonly used to indicate an activity that once learned is easily repeated regardless of how much time has passed.  But what makes some activities such as bike riding easily retained while other activities such as basketball rapidly deteriorate without practice?

A recent paper published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America" explored a possible root cause of this phenomenon. The paper, co-authored by Robert Ajemian, Alessandro D'Ausilio, Helene Moorman and Emilio Bizzi deals with neuroplasticity and how motor skills are learned.  In brief, the researchers posit that motor skills are encoded in the brain by a large number of neurological pathways which are all equivalent.  These pathways are refined via feedback during skill learning and largely maintained due to a constant babble of neurological "noise" (neuron to neuron signaling that does not serve a specific purpose) that is found in all complicated brains.

The question of skill or memory retention is one that has proven difficult for researchers to solve.  Clearly the human brain has a relatively high level of plasticity or else we would be unable to learn new skills.  However, too much plasticity would cause existing skills to rapidly deteriorate whenever we weren't using them. Clearly some middle ground exists wherein we can learn and retain, but the exact mechanism for this ideal state has generally remained mysterious.

The co-authors of the aforementioned paper have presented a model of learning and retention that seemingly is a viable explanation for how our brains manage to acquire new skills without losing those we already know.  During skill acquisition the brain establishes many pathways which correspond to a given activity.  Riding a bike for example.  These pathways are all equivalent in that they all have the same end result of causing the muscle movements which propel a bike forward.  During bike riding many of these pathways are utilized and reinforced by feedback mechanisms. When we take part in some other unrelated activity, cooking for example, the pathways are largely inactive.  However, even while inactive these pathways are still receiving a great deal of traffic from the surrounding neurons.  It's this neurological noise which continues to reinforce the pathways and limits skill loss.  Although over time many of the neurological paths will breakdown for biological reasons a large portion will remain allowing for the retention of previously learned skills.

So why do some skills stay with us longer than others?  The researchers of the study conjecture that it has to do with how unique a skill is as compared to other daily activities.  Bike riding doesn't have a great deal of overlap with anything else most people do in their daily lives, therefore it tends to be retained for a long while. Proficiency in video games tends to rapidly deteriorate however as each game is similar to the next in terms of motor function (they all essentially amount to pressing buttons).  When skills utilize movements which are not commonly applied to other purposes it seems they are maintained far longer than skills which use more generic movements.

The researchers new model is interesting insofar that it nicely deals with common questions surrounding skill acquisition and retention.  However, it's important to note that there is little experimental evidence to directly support the model at this point.  The researchers have simply proposed an interesting idea which merits exploration, not proven anything experimentally.  Still, all experiments have to begin with a hypothesis and this one seems promising.

That's all for this week. Until next time stay safe and rationale.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Informed Choice

Recall for a moment your first job.  On the first day it's likely you didn't have much of a clue what was expected of you.  Like most people you were probably rather nervous and it was a relief when your boss gave you a relatively simple task you could easily handle.  But what if the situation had been different? What if you arrived at 9 a.m., were pointed towards an office and told to get to work.  It probably would have been rather distressing.  You'd have no idea what your responsibilities were. No idea if you should be calling clients or compiling reports or if you were any good at either.  It's far less stressful to just be given a simple task and left to do it while you acclimate to your new environment.

Yet for years the idea of more choices being better has been a common tenant of US policy creation. Wouldn't a worker be happier if he was allowed to choose his own tasks? Aren't patients more satisfied when they're making their own decisions about their healthcare? Don't retirees want to have options when it comes to their financial planning?  Like most complicated questions the answer is "It depends.".

A recent series of studies conducted at the University of Texas at Austin by Erika Patall, Breana Sylvester and Cheon-woo Han sought to explore the relationships between motivation, performance, task selection and perceived competence.  Each study attempted to trick participants into believing they had a certain competency level at word puzzles.  Participants took a test and then were given random feedback that indicated their skill level. In other words their test scores were unrelated to actual test performance. Participants were then asked to choose between similar word puzzle tasks and afterwards asked how important having a choice was to them.

Performance, motivation and importance of task selection were all highly correlated with perceived competence for a given puzzle set.  Essentially participants who believe they were good at a given task performed better, were more willing to exert themselves, and wanted more control over their choices than participants who believed themselves to be unskilled at a task.  Importantly, the participants beliefs of their competence had little relationship to their actual skill level.

What does this information mean for us on our first day at a new job or when we're making healthcare decisions?  Generally speaking, the more informed the decider the more options they'd prefer to have.  A doctor making healthcare decisions probably feels that more choices is more optimum.  Similarly, a financial planner probably would prefer a highly customizable retirement plan to a one size fits all option. However, the general public for the most part would simply prefer that the most informed party narrow down options to a best few.  When showing up for our first day on the job most of us just want to be told what to do by an experienced employee at first.  Later, when we have more information about the environment we'll start making decisions about what tasks we'd most prefer.

An interesting wrinkle of this phenomenon is that it has significant policy implications.  When it comes to crafting healthcare plans we don't often ask the public's input.  Instead we turn to groups of informed experts to craft options for us. However, as explained previously, more informed individuals are likely to prefer more choices than the average person.  Doctors are likely to create a variety of health plans geared towards serving very specific needs.  Yet when confronted with such a large selection of choices most people become confused and frustrated.  Often a better approach is to make a few simple plans that may not serve everyone as specifically as possible, but will leave participants more satisfied.

The important lesson to learn is that more choices isn't always better.  The higher an individuals believed competence level in a subject the more likely they are to desire both more choices and self determination.  Options should be tailored to the audience rather than simply covering every possibility for completeness sake.

That's all for this week. Until next time stay safe and rationale.