15 Dec 2011 zanee   » (Journeyer)

Cognitive Bias and The Mary Protocol

I have lots of questions

Everything you look for and all that you perceive has a way of proving whatever you believe.

Every now and then I am reminded of cognitive bias as presented by Kruger-Dunning in the paper Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. As I have been active in the opensource community for close to 18 years now in some form or fashion the first lesson I learned is that if you have never done it before. You don't know. It's just that simple, and this lesson tends to stick with you with in almost every facet of life. It affects ones approach to problems such that every problem starts with one question. Quickly and summarily followed by a series of questions that need to be answered. My standard trajectory usually begins to branch off in a series of questions leaving me with few answers and even more questions to which I simply don't have the answer. Early on this led to a slight madness as I would start down some rabbit hole and end up working on some esoteric issue that affected a handful of people. In retrospect, I was young and dumb, back then I thought that so long as you plugged away at it. No matter how long it took you, you would be able to answer anything. Now that I'm slightly older, and know how dumb I still am and how valuable it is in choosing the right question, I am able to avoid madness. Of course, sometimes it will sneak up on me and I find myself doing something that makes absolutely no sense at all. This is obviously why we call it madness, but I'm much better at avoiding it or tolerating it depending on my needs or condition. I'm of the mindset that madness can't be cured, only managed.

Usually if I receive an email or a critique of work furnished that needs a sign-off, peer review or some such. I'm wholly open to it because my first assumption is that if I'm treading new or unfamiliar water then I obviously don't know what I am doing. Secondly, the more eyes the better. While treading familiar waters I am much less open to critique or suggestion unless I feel it will beneficial, primarily to avoid rabbit holes but also due to a lack of time. New variables mean risk and if there is no gain by adding the element of risk to something that has been tried and true. I'm unlikely to entertain or even respond to it. This is not necessarily always the case but largely this behavior I feel has strengthened my ability to stay focused on the right question and to avoid rabbit holes.

I think proponents and participants in opensource operate within the same vein and mindset for the most part. It's more of a behavioral mindset or lifestyle, propelled by the some itch, urge, quest to solve a given problem and find the right answer. Whether it be for fortune, fame, enjoyment or some other facet. You work the problem until you are tired and move on to some other problem whether it be in the same domain or somewhere else. Hopefully you were able to answer a question or two and because it's opensource inevitably someone at some point will continue finding answers to questions old or new.

I'd appreciate much more answers however

Lately though with my own interactions I feel as if this isn't the case, partly because I suspect their is a racial and gender tinge to cognitive bias that is ripe for exploration. This brought up in a couple of discussions on gender recently. Specifically in regards to women in opensource and generalizations of women by men in general. Before these discussions a couple of weeks earlier I had recently finished reading a post by Daniel Stenberg titled "Three out of one hundred" (which I recommend you read) so the conversation and ideas were fresh in my head. Also, I had a heated discussion about some work where I can only make the assumption that because of my skin color this person thought that somehow they knew better and would simply do the exact opposite of what I said. To be brutally honest, sometimes this works in my own favor, and to be blunt, I'm a capitalist and love money so cleaning up a mess may work out for me in monetary fashion. I mean, ignorance is costly, but let me be clear. Unlike agile salesmen, I try my best to offer clear and abrupt warning.

On the whole though the idea is that men on average will make the incorrect assumption that they are more capable at a technical subject than their female counterparts no matter how qualified they may be. Women having to deal with this their entire lives tend to see the bigger picture and avoid what they consider to be rabbit holes. As a woman I would ask why? Why even bother going down that route if every time I do someone is going to offer to second guess me? This coalesced quite nicely with another discussion I had on generalizing untrue statements as applied to women. So, let us take for example the statement, "all women are batshit insane" as clearly being a gross generalization. Amongst a group of men shooting the shit  it may be viewed as an off-cuff remark, in a mix of women, it will still be viewed as an off-cuff remark but it will be normally tolerated, at least to your face. However, this one statement in and of itself subtly reaffirms subconsciously that there must be some bit of truth to that statement. Thus, most women are indeed insane, maybe not batshit insane but a mild course of irrational behavior is expected. Of course this statement is simply ridiculous! I don't have the actual data to back any of this up and saying I believe it to be true isn't enough for an idiot, I realize. That aside, I am ashamed to admit that I am guilty of remarks like this myself. I've tried to rationalize the comments with "it's about context" but I can't qualify that as an "african-american" male. Is the statement "black people no jack shit about computers" any different? It's generalistic, and is again ridiculous but do we subconsciously hold onto these ridiculous generalist statements and again subconsciously use them to validate our own cognitive bias? Of course if that is actually the case there will be less women in opensource because all the men seem to think they are superior. Can you really blame someone that can't get a word in edgewise, everything they do is second guessed, or felt to be inferior? Doesn't sound fun to me at all, especially when you are paid less and have to doubly prove yourself answering harder questions. In short, fuck that noise. So of course, there will be less of any group that isn't already in the majority. Which means we have much less answers to our questions. This is unacceptable and we must try harder not just in our professional but personal lives as well.

The Mary Protocol

In response to my own behavior and to help me realize when I may be making a generalist statement that I may not consider hurtful, insulting or a turn-off to someone. I've implemented the Mary protocol. It's a simple procedure that will help me, help myself.

  1. The moment I may have said something and/or heard someone else say something that sounds ridiculous enough to either retract with an immediate apology or to pause the conversation with a "not cool". I will do so.
  2. I will not argue about my position beyond stating that i'm invoking something known as the Mary protocol to help myself from reinforcing my subconscious with nonsense and to allow for open discussion if the offending party would like to hear more.
  3. I will do my best to keep any proceeding conversation succinct and within reason.

The protocol is to be like a bit of a tase to correct my behavior. Not because I want to become some righteous feminist with a penis but because should I have a daughter someday I'm quite sure i'd take high offense to anyone calling her batshit insane, or treating her in inferior manner in anyway shape or form. So much so that I pray to never see it occur in my presence for the safety of the offending party. Off-cuff or not, it's not acceptable behavior and I will not continue it. It is my hope, that you do the same.

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Syndicated 2011-12-15 19:49:38 from Christopher Warner » Advogato

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