Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


It surprises no one that the last letter in my Myers-Briggs type is a ‘J’

File under: Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:51 pm.

John at Toilet Paper With Page Numbers, one of the most underappreciated blogs around, has an excellent post about the importance of just making a bloody decision already, rather than continuing to do research ad infinitum until one is confident that enough information has been gathered. Like, in general. John quotes from a variety of folks who are better-read than I, and who are consequently able to make a stronger case for decision-making than the typical clenched-toothed, raised-voiced demand to MAKE UP YOUR GODDAMN MINDS AND ACT FOR CRYING OUT LOUD to which I have been known to resort on more than one occasion. I’m going to quote at length, because there’s a lot of good stuff here.

Here we go: John, going straight for the jugular, starts out by proclaiming that “[l]eadership counts. Even in the absence of total access to information.” (John, are you sure about that? Have you put enough thought into this that you can confidently - oh, nevermind.) He then continues,

If…omniscience were possible, human organizations still could not attain the requisite efficiency to use the information effectively for good or ill. In any human organization, information is passed through layers of management and across functional silos. Each silo and each layer has its own preconceptions and ambitions.

This last bit is key. There’s a misconception that I’ve, um, encountered purely hypothetically, that holds that as long as everyone is communicating clearly, and as long as everyone has complete information, then everyone will agree. This is true in math - and it’s part of why I love the subject - but it’s not true elsewhere. People aren’t blank slates. We all come with our own data and filters.

John then quotes from a book review by Photon Courier, who writes favourably on Dietrich Doerner’s The Logic of Failure:

One very interesting angle explored by Doerner is the danger, in decision-making tasks, of knowing too much - of becoming lost in detail and of always needing one more piece of information before coming to a decision. He posits that this problem “probably explains why organizations tend to institutionalize the separation of their information-gathering and decision-making branchs” - as in the development of staff organizations in the military.

It also explains why individuals tend to self-segregate along these lines, and why the sets of intellectuals and effective leaders are virtually disjoint.

Photon Courier also mentions a study that aptly illustrates the law of diminishing returns as it applies to information gathering and decision-making:

In a study done many lears ago, a researcher asked psychologists to evaluate a particular individual (Joseph Kidd) based on writen information. In the first stage of the experiment, he gave them just basic information about Kidd. In later stages, he gave them more and more information about this same person–first, one and a half pages about his childhood, eventually, a detailed account of Kidd’s time in the Army and his later activities. After each stage, the subjects were asked to answer a 25-item test about Kidd.

As the the psychologists got more and more data, they became more and more confident in their judgments. But objectively, the judgments didn’t get any better. The overall accuracy remained pretty constant at about 30 percent.

I often like to point out that deciding to gather more information is often much more than a means of postponing a decision - it’s a decision itself. You’re (passively) deciding to take the time to gather information and to mull things over instead of…actively making a decision about the issue at hand and getting on with other things. And it might not be worth it.

I minored in philosophy as an undergraduate, an experience that was worthwhile if only because I’d never otherwise have read William James’ essay The Will To Believe, which I encountered in a philosophy of religion class. Alas, I can’t seem to find this essay online (thanks to jhr in the comments for the link). In it, James argues compellingly that agnosticism is a false position for anyone who cares about the existence (or not) of God. A decision, he argues, that is live (that is, it has some subjective appeal to the chooser), forced (it’s either/or - there’s no third option that arises by avoiding the decision) and momentous (vitally important in the relevant context) needs to be made within a limited time frame - and it can’t always be made on strictly intellectual grounds. There’s no avoiding a decision, but excessive waffling can lead to making the wrong one. This essay, by the way, did little to change the way I viewed religious belief (James argues in its favour), but it did much to change the way I lived.

The ‘J’ in the title of this post, by the way, refers to judging, as opposed to “perceiving”:

Judgers prefer to come to decisions and move on. They can feel betrayed if a decision is “reopened”. They are prone to hastiness, but get things done.

Which is a nice segue into a personal anecdote to shed some light on why I feel so strongly about this. I’m sticking this one way at the bottom of this post, by the way, in the hopes of minimizing the number of people who were actually involved in this who are still reading. This one took place a few years ago, when I was working for a more-or-less nonhierarchical organization in which most decisions were made by consensus. For the most part, this was a great working environment, at least during the 99% of the time when there were consensi to be found. But there was one issue on which the twenty (20) or so of us on staff were utterly polarized. So we talked about it. And talked. And talked some more. We usually held staff meetings once a week, for an hour or two at a time; when this one issue arose, we held meetings every single day. A few undecided people in the middle shifted slightly to one pole or the other as a result of these talks, but by and large, we were all set in our ways after a certain point. We eventually compromised by deciding on an “average” outcome that lay somewhere between the two extreme viewpoints. (As the viewpoints spanned a one-dimensional space, this was a workable solution.) Everyone came out of this sort of pleased. There was some tension, to be sure, but we were all on speaking terms.

A few days later, some new information entered the picture (sort of - I personally thought that this information was more of a rehashing of old information, but that’s neither here nor there), and one of the higher-ups decided to reopen discussion. And I felt betrayed. With no small amount of effort, and anger, I summoned my energy to reiterate and redevelop all of the points I’d just made at the previous round of staff meetings. And we held another round of staff meetings, every lunch hour. And we got really stressed over this. And then, finally, we came to exactly the same decision we’d come to a week earlier.

This left everyone upset, and even the most ardent supporters of our non-hierarchical decision-making process lost some faith in it. Another of the higher-ups had the idea of creating a subcommittee of five staff to whom we would defer difficult decisions in the future. Five staff members, selected in such a way that each position on the staff was represented among them, were suggested as possibilities. Capital idea, I said, but I was concerned about the composition of the subcommittee, which in its suggested form contained some of the biggest wafflers from the ordeal that had inspired this proposal in the first place. Most worrisome was the fact that the person who’d reopened that discussion was among the five proposed members. I wanted decisive people on this subcommittee, I said; otherwise, it would be useless.

To which I was informed, and I shit you not, that it was beneficial to have a diverse decision-making committee, and that in particular, we should strive to have both decisive people, and indecisive people on it. And it was thus, and I’m not about to question the judgement of the powers that be, but let’s just say that I don’t think that the decision-making subcommittee has made a single momentous decision since its inception.


  1. Absolutely. One nitpick:

    There’s a misconception that I’ve, um, encountered purely hypothetically, that holds that as long as everyone is communicating clearly, and as long as everyone has complete information, then everyone will agree. This is true in math - and it’s part of why I love the subject - but it’s not true elsewhere.

    I don’t know that I would say so broadly that “it’s true in math.” It’s certainly (I hope!) true about mathematical proofs, but there’s a lot more to mathematics than proofs. Mathematicians disagree on the relative merits of different fields, the likelihood of different conjectures to be true, the values of various research programs, and sometimes about “the real meaning” of a certain theorem, or “why” a certain theorem is true (which is not always closely related to how it is proven). As a category theorist, a controversial field if there ever was one, I frequently encounter differences of opinion that are not really based on miscommunication or lack of information.

    - Mike — 9/16/2005 @ 5:45 pm

  2. This looks like it is the James essay:

    - jhr — 9/16/2005 @ 8:33 pm

  3. Mike - you’re right, and I’d be dishonest to disagree with you, seeing as…I’ve disagreed with you before on the merits of category theory ;) (And it’s not even as true as I’d like it to be in math - there are a lot of flawed proofs floating around in the (published) literature - which I find really disturbing. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. Part of what attracted me to math was that I naívely thought that that was not the case…)

    jhr - ah, indeed it is - thank you! I’ll link it in the post.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/16/2005 @ 8:58 pm

  4. my grandfather shared your trait of curmudgeonliness, and (alhtough i don’t really know you that well) probably exceeded your degree of it. but he did give me one bit of very valuable advice that i’ve retained: if you’re having trouble making a decision, and the reason (a common one) is that both seem to be of about equal overall utility, then trust your ability to evaluate! the ultimate benefit/happiness you gain will probably be about equal, so you might as well just go ahead and choose one. in fact, since most of us are competent, high-functioning people, you will be able to make the best of either outcome.

    of course he didn’t use analytical terms like that. he just said “if you can’t decide, neither decision could really be that bad, right?”

    - Polymath — 9/17/2005 @ 9:10 am

  5. My husband is a J and I’m a P. His need to make a decision (when there isn’t any urgency) has lessened as he’s learned that sometimes better options become available if you wait. Meanwhile, my discomfort at making a decision and moving on has lessened as I realize that it isn’t always possible or even useful to make the “best” decision.

    My girlfriend is a J and her husband is a P. She still gets the giggles telling about her husband’s reaction when they decided to buy a bed which would be the first major purchase of their married life. When her husband said, “Let’s go” she thought they’d be going to a store whereas (of course) her husband drove to the library (so they could read Consumer’s Reports).

    - Susan — 9/17/2005 @ 10:36 am

  6. You raise a good point re: committees. Relating to some of your earlier posts, have you ever been on an academic *search* committee? The ones I have been on generally manage to weed out the best (and worst) candidates! On the rare occasion you get the committee to choose a good candidate, some administrator will screw things up and bring in their own candidate. Perhaps this will help explain your (non) employment situation. Next time I am chair of a search committee, I am insisting we not average each member’s rankings to choose a pool of finalists. Rather, each member gets to choose 1 candidate and put them in the pool.

    - William — 9/17/2005 @ 4:16 pm

  7. Polymath - often when I find myself having trouble deciding between two options, it turns out there’s a third, better option that I hadn’t even considered.

    Susan - oh, that’s a riot about the bed! I find that I cannot make myself research something that I find boring - I’d rather just make the relevant decision and suffer the consequences, should any arise. The biggest purchase I’ve ever made was my electric bike. Perhaps I could have gotten a better one if I’d done more research, but I am quite happy with the one i ended up with. (If I were broke, mind you, I would probably spend more time researching major purchases (not that I make many), because I’d feel the financial hit a lot more strongly.)

    William - I’ve been on a hiring committee for an academic organization - I’m not going to go into details here - and it actually went rather smoothly. Probably because we had a timeline, and if we recognized that if we waffled too much, the people we were even considering hiring would have been hired by someone else by that time. Interesting idea about each member choosing a candidate, though. Do you have any idea why the best candidates tended to be weeded out in the committees of which you were a member?

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/17/2005 @ 8:51 pm

  8. So I’m and ISTJ and my wife is an ENFP. I really learned a lot from the testing and the group exercises afterwards — my wife really +wasn’t trying to drive me crazy by making herself a PB & J and then leaving the jelly jar open on the cutting board, the lid off the PB, the bread not re-closed, and the dirty knife on the table! She just got distracted with other things!

    - Rex — 9/18/2005 @ 4:27 pm

  9. I dunno, Rex, I’m a textbook INTJ, and your wife’s sandwich-making algorithm sounds a lot like mine. That has nothing to do with planning / judging / what have you - it just has to do with being a slob. (I am meticulous and methodical at doing the things I care about. I just don’t care how my kitchen looks.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/19/2005 @ 9:25 am

  10. It’s something of a military truism that a mediocre decision today beats a good decision tomorrow or a perfect decision next week. In part this is because of the nature of military conflict, which involves adversarial decision loops.

    But I would also argue that a bad decision today beats a brilliant decision next month in many other fields. If you make a bad decision now, it is likely that you will begin to develop real information about the issue almost immediately. When you come to the realization that the decision was fatally flawed, you will be able to change your decision with a great deal more information than if you desultorily research the issue for the same period.

    Thus, in most cases, if you make even a bad decision quickly, you will probably end with a better decision in the same timeframe than if you make a good decision slowly.

    And that’s the almost the worst case*. If you actually make a good decision quickly (which seems at least equally likely), you’ll end with a better result still, and come to that much more quickly.

    * The worst case is making a bad decision, then being entirely unwilling to revisit the issue. It’s not clear, though, how much worse this is than making the same good decision over, and over, and over again.

    (Just remember, the meeting isn’t over when everything is said, it’s over when everything is said by everybody.)

    ps. I’m an INTJ; my wife is an ESFP. It’s a bit strange sometimes, but it works for us.

    - Doug Sundseth — 9/19/2005 @ 9:53 am

  11. Why were the good candidates weeded out? In search committee I have been on, I can give several explanations:

    1) Some folks care about certain criteria (e.g., did the applicant go to a good school or have a good advisor) whereas some care only about their “area of interest” or whether they satsified some boolean criteria (”Has the candidate ever taught a class by himself/herself?”).

    2) Two people working together on a search committee of size five can control the process.

    3) Some department chairs behave inappropriately

    4) Cronyism can play a role

    5) If you are in a split dept (Math/Stat or CS/EE) you can have real battle lines drawn … I have also seen this in Math depts with the Applied Math and Non-applied camps.

    - William — 9/19/2005 @ 5:31 pm

  12. Very interesting, William, and your #1 in particularly is a nice illustration of the fact that disagreements aren’t always based on incomplete information - sometimes they’re based on differing priorities and differing values. And regarding your #2 - I know that a subcommittee of size 2 can, in theory, control the outcome in a search committee of size 5 - but have you known people to actually manipulate the system in such a way? I mean, I’ve worked with mathematicians, but even the most obnoxious of them seemed to be above this sort of applied game theory.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/19/2005 @ 9:12 pm

  13. Point #2 … I have seen this, though it was not devious in this case. Like-minded folks working togther (reviewing applications) can skew the voting when the 3 other members behave independently. As a result, a strong applicant not satisfying these two people’s bias has no chance.

    You are right, different priorities is where the committee system breaks down, as there is no room for compromise in such instances.

    - William — 9/20/2005 @ 7:41 am

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