Sunday, December 27, 2009

What is Risk?

Most people think a risk is something bad, which is often, though not always true. More specifically, a risk is a future event that would have a significant impact on you or something you care about if it should happen. The effect may be bad (threat) or sometimes good (opportunity).

You and I – every single one of us – live in a world of risk. Risk is uncertainty. It’s future tense, as opposed to “problem,” which is present tense.

We often manage risk by denial, declaring ourselves helpless in the face of implacable destiny, or checking our horoscope to find a propitious day to ask for that promotion. We deny the existence of randomness by chanting self-help mantras – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” – declaring ourselves solely responsible for all that befalls us.

There is, however, a science of risk. We tend to notice the work of risk professionals only when they fail, when the patchwork of convertible debt swaps backing subprime mortgages unravels due to faulty pricing. But it’s not only the economy, stupid. Risk managers keep airplanes in the air, buildings from collapsing, and secure every bit of a modern infrastructure.

Fundamental Concepts of Risk

A risk event may be likely, or it may be unlikely. You have to take into account both the severity of the impact and its likelihood.

How likely is it that this risk will occur? Sometimes we know with mathematical certainty. More often, the best we can do is guess: pretty low, or almost certain. Impact can sometimes be turned into a number: $1000, or €50. Other times, it’s about as specific as that scene in Ghostbusters when Egon explains what will happen if they cross the streams: “It would be bad.”

The standard risk formula is R = P x I, or the value of a risk is its probability times its impact. That’s particularly helpful in pricing financial risk. If there’s a 10% chance of something happening that would cost you $1,000, then the value of the risk is $100. That means if you can get rid of the risk for under $100, it’s clearly profitable to do so. If it will cost more than $100 to get rid of the risk, you have to consider whether other factors justify the additional cost.

Because risks can be threats or opportunities, you have to know the difference between a “pure risk” and a “business risk.” A pure risk is all downside. If you didn’t get in an accident today, you’re not better off — you avoided becoming worse off.

A business risk — a stock market investment, for example — has an upside and a downside. There is a possibility you will make money, and a possibility you will lose money. The risk formula’s P x I has to be determined for the upside and for the downside, so you can see how the risks balance. If the result is favorable, that’s an argument for the investment; if it’s unfavorable, perhaps not.

For example, let’s say you’re offered an investment for $5,000. In return, you are guaranteed a 70% chance of $50,000, and a 30% chance of losing your investment. That works out to an expected monetary value of $33,500 (the value of the opportunity risk [$35,000] plus the value of the loss [-$1,500]).

But the real outcome isn’t $33,500. You’ll receive either $50,000 or lose your $5,000. There are three possible strategies — bet on the upside (go for the $50,000), hedge the downside (avoid losing the $5,000 by not betting), or bet the expected value (take the investment because an expected $33,500 means more than keeping an actual $5,000).

Your personal choice may be influenced by how much is in your bank account.

Ways to Manage Threat Risk

  • Avoidance (change the environment so the risk no longer exists)
  • Transference (give or sell the risk to someone else; buying insurance is a common risk transfer strategy)
  • Mitigation (do things to reduce likelihood or impact of the risk, even if you can’t get rid of it completely)
  • Contingency planning (come up with a plan to follow if the threat should start to develop or seem likely)
  • Acceptance (ignore it for now and deal with it if it happens)

Ways to Manage Opportunity Risk

  • Exploitation (take the value and cash it in)
  • Enhancement (try to grow the value to a higher level)
  • Sharing (give, trade, or sell the value to someone else
  • Contingency planning (come up with a plan to follow if the opportunity should start to develop or seem likely)
  • Acceptance (ignore it for now and deal with it if it happens)

Residual and Secondary Risk

Most risk strategies can’t get rid of every bit of risk. You start with an initial level of risk, and whatever’s left after you identify your strategy is the residual risk. You can come up with additional ways to reduce the residual risk further, but at some point you normally accept some level of residual risk and move on. We take our lives in our hands every day we get behind the wheel of a car, but really, what choice do most of us have?

Secondary risk is new risk created by your proposed solution to the original risk. If you spend time and energy to get rid of Problem A, and that means less attention to Problem B, it’s possible you’ve made things worse overall. Make sure you inspect any proposed solutions for secondary risk before rushing to implement them.

* * *

While some risk tools are enormously sophisticated, and their use only appropriate for specialists, you and I can use many of the techniques of experts to make our lives safer more prosperous and more successful.

We don’t want to sweat the small stuff, but the truth is, it’s not all small stuff. Some risks we can, and should, accept.

Others, we can't — though sometimes we have to.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How Much Will You Pay for this Cheese Sandwich? (Part 6 of Cognitive Biases)

A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations, and boy howdy, are there a lot of them! Links to the first five parts follow below.

In this week’s installment we’ll look at biases that begin with the letters “D” and “E.”

Disposition effect

Markets are supposed to be rational, but investors aren’t, according to the discipline of behavior finance. Investors have a tendency to sell shares whose price has increased, but hold onto assets that have dropped in value, because the pain of recognizing losses exceeds the potential pleasure of having assets that may yet grow. The disposition effect is measure of that tendency.

Egocentric bias

There are two different types of egocentric bias — social and memory.

The social egocentric bias makes people tend to take more credit for their own part of a joint action than an outside observer would give them. What’s interesting about the egocentric bias is that not only do people claim more credit for positive outcomes (which would make this the same as “self-serving bias”) but also claim more responsibility for negative outcomes.

The memory egocentric bias is a self-serving tendency to remember our own past in a way that makes us look better. Like most memory biases, this isn’t the same thing as lying about our past; it’s a form of self-deception in which we really do recall things that way, facts notwithstanding.

Endowment effect

The endowment effect is also found in behavioral economics, where it’s also called “divestiture aversion.” In one test, people demanded a much higher price to sell a coffee mug they’d been given than they were willing to pay for a coffee mug they didn’t yet own. This contradicts a standard principle of economic theory that a person’s willingness to pay (WTP) should be equal to their willingness to accept payment (WTA).

There are arguments about why this is so. One possibility is that emotional attachments to things you already own may make them seem more valuable to you. It’s also been linked to a form of “status quo bias,” a general dislike of change. Some other experiments have not detected this effect.

Extraordinarity bias

A cheese sandwich that appears to have the image of the Virgin Mary on it isn’t tastier than one without, but a normal cheese sandwich costs a couple of bucks while the one with the Virgin sold for $28,000. A guitar once owned by Elvis Presley might not play better (or possibly even as well) as a new one, but people are willing to pay much more for it.

That's not wrong, it's simply a bias. The extraordinarity bias is the measure of your willingness to pay more (sometimes much more) for an "extraordinarity" of an object that doesn't in itself change the intrinsic value of the object. The extraordinarity can be personal as well as external: a present from a loved one, for example, could have far more value to you than the intrinsic object is worth.

There's no reason to avoid the extraordinarity bias; the only thing you need to do is to be conscious of it.

Previous Installments

Part 1 "Unknown Unknowns — A Survey of Assumptions, Biases, and Bigotry" — Bias blind spot, confirmation bias, déformation professionnelle, denomination effect, moral credential effect.
Part 2 "Looking for the Pony" — Base rate fallacy, congruence bias, experimenter’s bias
Part 3 "Women Drivers and Balls" — Ambiguity aversion effect (Ellsberg paradox), choice-supportive bias, distinction bias, contrast effect
Part 4 "If I Already Know I Don't Like Your Conclusion, Why Should I Listen to Your Argument?" — Actor-observer bias, anchoring effect, attentional bias, availability cascade, belief bias
Part 5 "Patterns, Probability, and Plagiarism" — Clustering illusion, conjunction fallacy, cryptomnesia

See you next week!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Godzilla Principle and the Most Dangerous Word

We'll take another break from Cognitive Biases, with three short pieces on project management.

The Godzilla Principle

In Japanese monster movies, there’s frequently a scene in which the monster du jour (Godzilla, Mothra, Gamora, etc.) is still a cute little baby monster. People say, “Oh, what a cute little monster!” Obviously, there’s no urgency, so they ignore it.

They wait until the monster is full grown and busily stomping downtown Tokyo, and then they’re running through the streets shouting “What are we going to do?”

By the time Godzilla is rampaging through downtown Tokyo, most of the good options are long since gone. The project management answer is to stomp the baby monster while it’s still little.

Options for solving a problem tend to reduce over time. Effective risk management and risk response planning are a lot more powerful than even the most creative on-the-job problem solving.

Are you doing enough to find and kill those pesky baby monsters on your projects before they grow up?

The Most Dangerous Word

The most dangerous word in project management is “Yes”—said before you know what it is you’re saying “yes” to. Once you say yes, you’ve bought the whole package, and your negotiating leverage with your customers, internal and external, loses a lot of potential power.

Of course, saying “No” might not be a good idea either. Enthusiasm and a positive attitude are important qualities. But you can be enthusiastic and positive and still ask probing questions. “Let me see if I understand what you’re asking for.”

Here’s a tip about working with customers: they need to hear their words in your mouth before they believe you’ve listened to them. First tell them what they said, and then start your probing. You’ll get less push back that way.

Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose

With the debut of the World Wide Web, some people predicted the death of retail in two years — five tops. After all the hype dissipated, we saw that purchasing patterns weren’t that much different. Twenty years later, however, as we routinely buy our holiday gifts online and have rare items shipped to us from all over the world, we can see that some types of retail establishments are indeed dying. In other words, don’t expect the world to change in a year, but be prepared for it to be unrecognizable in 20.

The first calculator I ever saw belonged to Arthur C. Clarke. When I was in college, I got to be his driver for a couple of days. Between appointments, we talked for a while and he pulled out a Hewlett-Packard calculator, for which he had paid $700 in 1971. It had four functions and no memory.

“Do you see this?” He paused dramatically. “It means that the slide rule is obsolete!

My reaction was, “This is cool, but I will never own one in my life. I will never have enough need to pay $700 for a calculator. I have a slide rule and that’s all I’ll ever need.” And that’s how most of the world felt, except for a handful of hard-core engineers.

Ten years later, banks were giving calculators away when you opened a checking account.

Short term and long term outcomes are very different.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Patterns, Probability, and Plagiarism (Part 5 of "Cognitive Biases")

This week's installment of Cognitive Biases, the ways in which our brains distort our thinking is brought to you by the letter “C.” The series begins here.

Clustering illusion

Is the sequence below random or non-random??


If you thing the sequence looks non-random, you’re with the majority…but you’re wrong. The sequence has several characteristics of a random stream, an equal number of each result and an equal number of adjacent results. But people seem to expect a “random” sequence to have a greater number of alternations (O to X or vice-versa) than statistics would predict. The chance of an alternation in a sequence of independent random binary events (flips of heads or tails) is 50%, but people seem to expect an alternation rate of about 70%.

The clustering illusion is a cognitive bias that creates atendency to see patterns where actually none exist. This is why most people believe in “streaks.” When you expect greater variation in a sequence, you tend to assume that there’s a trend. But that isn’t necessarily the truth.

Conjunction fallacy

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which statement is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

In a 1982 study by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, 85% thought statement 2 was more probable than statement 1, but that’s wrong. The probability of two events occurring together is always less than or equal to the probability of either one occurring alone. Even if there’s a very low probability Linda is a bank teller (let’s make it 5%) and a very high probability that Linda is active in the feminist movement (95%), the chance that Linda is a bank teller AND active in the feminist movement is 5% x 95%, or 4.75%, lower than the first statement.

The conjunction fallacy happens when you assume that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one, which is a violation of basic logic. Now, one possibility is that because most people aren’t familiar with the rules of formal logic, they may assume that statement 1 (Linda is a bank teller) implies that she isn’t active in the feminist movement.

But the fallacy has been demonstrated with very educated audiences.

Another Tversky/Kahneman experiment in the early 1980s surveyed a group of foreign policy experts to determine the probability that the Soviet Union would invade Poland and the US would break off diplomatic relations in the following year. The consensus estimate was about a 4% chance. Next, another group of experts was asked the probability that the United States would break off relations with the Soviet Union the following year. They estimated only a 1% chance. This implies that the detailed, specific scenario of the first scenario all by itself made it more likely.


Robert Louis Stevenson refers to an incident of cryptomnesia that took place during the writing of Treasure Island, and that he discovered to his embarrassment several years afterward:

I am now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade, I am told, is from Masterman Ready. It may be, I care not a jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet's saying: departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands of time, Footprints which perhaps another — and I was the other! It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther. I chanced to pick up the Tales of a Traveller some years ago with a view to an anthology of prose narrative, and the book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning's work to the family. It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye.

Sometimes what seems like inspiration turns out to be memory, and you’ve committed inadvertent plagiarism, or cryptoamnesia. In a 1989 study, people generated examples (such as kinds of birds), and later were asked to create new examples and to recall which answers they had previously personally given. Between 3-9% of the time, people either listed examples previously given, or recalled as their own someone else’s thought.

Few writers would risk committing deliberate plagiarism, but the dangers of cryptoamnesia are real. It’s most likely to occur when you don’t have the ability to monitor your sources properly, when you’re away from the original source of the idea, or when the idea was originally suggested by a person of the same sex (!). It’s also likely to happen in a brainstorming session, in which you recall as yours an idea that came up immediately before your idea.

Of course, not all claims of cryptoamnesia are necessarily valid; sometimes the plagiarism was all too deliberate. But nothing else explains certain situations in which people with an awful lot to lose commit what appears to be blatant plagiarism with no upside whatsoever.

The courts have ruled that the unconsciousness of the plagiarism doesn’t excuse it; the classic (rock) case is Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music involving the similarities between “He’s So Fine” and “My Sweet Lord.”

That cost George Harrison $587,000.

Cognitive biases can be expensive.

More next week.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

If I Already Know I Don't Like Your Conclusion, Why Should I Listen To Your Argument? (Part 4 of Cognitive Biases)

We return to our series on cognitive biases this week with some new ways our thinking tends to be distorted. The series begins here.

Actor-observer bias — This cognitive bias make us assume other people act the way they do because of their personality and not because of their situation. Do people steal food because they are immoral, or because they are hungry? The real answer may vary; the bias is to assume the first.

Of course, when it comes to ourselves, the bias is reversed. We excuse our own behavior by citing our circumstances. Fight this bias in judging other people by focusing extra attention on their circumstances; fight this bias in yourself by being aware of your own ethical choices.

Anchoring effect — When people were asked the percentage of African nations that are members of the UN, people who were first asked “Was it more or less than 45%?” gave lower estimates than those who were first asked “Was it more or less than 65%?”

The numbers don’t even have to be related. When an audience is first asked to write the last two digits of their Social Security numbers, and then to submit mock bids in an auction, the half with the higher two-digit numbers submitted bids between 60% and 120% higher than those of the other half!

You can use the anchoring effect to your advantage in negotiation or sales situations. To combat it, be aware of any numbers mentioned, and consciously try to disconnect them from your decision process.

Attentional bias — If someone with cancer drinks green tea, and the cancer goes away, attentional bias might make someone conclude that drinking green tea cures cancer. After doing some research, it turns out that there are many cases in which someone who drank green tea had a remission of cancer.

But that leaves out three other ideas that need to be tested: Have there been green tea drinkers whose cancer wasn’t cured? Have there been people who didn’t drink green tea whose cancer went into remission anyway? Is it the case that non-green tea drinkers always suffer fatal cancers?

Attentional bias happens when you focus on one piece of evidence and fail to examine different possible outcomes. To fight attentional bias, consciously list the various possibilities and make sure you analyze each one.

Availability cascade — “Repeat something long enough and it will become true.” Political operatives of all stripes take advantage of the availability cascade. Start with an idea that summarizes a complex situation in a simple, straightforward manner, and you can start a chain reaction. The availability cascade is one of the processes that make up groupthink.

A variation on the availability cascade is to accuse others of falling victim to it to give the illusion that a minority position is in fact true. Both those who agree with the consensus on global warning and those who disagree with it accuse the other side of influencing the debate through this technique. However, it’s important to distinguish between a consensus of popular opinion, which is heavily influenced by repetition, and a consensus of scientific opinion, which rests on a body of evidence. (One can challenge the evidence, of course, but that’s a different kind of debate altogether.)

Availability heuristic — If something’s accessible in your memory, this cognitive bias causes you to think it’s also more probable. In surveys, people think dying in a plane crash is more common than dying in a car crash, when it’s the other way around. Plane crashes, of course, get more publicity.

A lot of racial or cultural stereotyping relies on the availability heuristic. “[Fill in the blanks] steal a lot. I know, because a [fill in the blank] robbed my neighbor.” Because a single close example stands out in memory, it seems probable that the characteristic is widespread, when of course a single case proves nothing one way or another.

Belief Bias — Why is it so hard for our logical, well-reasoned arguments to penetrate other people's thick skulls? And, of course, why is it that people so seldom give logical, well-reasoned arguments to support their idiot ideas? Belief bias is the tendency for all of us to evaluate the logical strength of someone's argument based on whether we believe in the truth or falsity of the conclusion. We're all subject to this one; susceptibility to belief bias is independent of reasoning ability.

The Red Queen in Through The Looking Glass practiced believing five impossible things before breakfast, and it's not a bad exercise. Make sure you look at a diversity of information, and spend effort imagining how a reasonable person could reach a conclusion so different from your own. This isn't an argument that you should necessarily change your belief; of course. But make sure your beliefs don't suffer from hardening of the mental arteries.

Next week’s installment will be brought to you by the letter “C.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Did The Samaritan Cross the Road? (Part 3)

This is the third and final installment of my series on the Samaritan people, in honor of Real Samaritans for Peace Day (November 19). Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here. Check out the Samaritan Medal website at

Samaritan History After the New Testament

Under Christian Byzantium, three of the great figures in Samaritan history appear: the powerful leader Baba Raba, the composer Amram Dare, and the poet and theologian Marqe.

Baba Raba, Samaritan reformer and leader, from the third century CE, is part man and part legend. He reorganizes the demoralized and decimated Samaritans, and establishes the Hukama, a council of Sages, to interpret and administer Samaritan law. He battles the Samaritan heresy known as Dositheanism, a Gnostic version of Samaritanism. (Dositheos was a follower of John the Baptist and the teacher of Simon Magus.) He launches a massive building program, and seeds Samaritan communities throughout what has been, since the Bar Kochba revolt, known as Palestine.

Some stories about Baba Raba are perhaps not fully grounded in historical fact. For example, to keep Samaritans from climbing Mount Gerizim, the Byzantines install a mechanical bird on the mountain. If a Jew or Samaritan approaches, the bird screams “Hebrew! Hebrew!” and summons the guards.

The bird comes into play when Baba Raba’s nephew Levi converts to Christianity and becomes a bishop, though he remains a secret Samaritan in his heart. He travels with other church officials to Palestine, and with his colleagues, climbs Mount Gerizim. The mechanical bird screams “Hebrew!” “Hebrew!”

“There are no Hebrews here,” says Bishop Levi. “The bird must be broken!” The others, not knowing his secret, believe him. The Byzantines remove the bird and once again the Samaritans have access to Mount Gerizim.

That story conveys the flavor of a weak, minority that finds heroism in guile.

And what about Baba Raba? Samaritan tradition says Baba Raba spent the final years of his life under house arrest in Constantinople after being invited there by the emperor . . . “Come to the palace,” Never an invitation you willingly accept.

Amram Dare, a contemporary of Baba Raba’s, revolutionized Samaritan music. The Samaritan Chorus has released several CDs of his music. Amram Dare’s son, Marqe, a poet, wrote the great work of Samaritan theology, the Memar Marquah.

During the Byzantine period, persecution steadily grows. Like Jews, Samaritans are forbidden to hold civil service jobs. They cannot serve as royal informers. They cannot hold any office or honor that would put them in a position to harm Christians.

As if to underscore the point, the Samaritans respond by cutting off a bishop’s fingers and massacring Christians in Caeserea.

Ultimately, this did not endear the Samaritans to the Christian emperor.

With a history like that, it is not surprising that in the seventh century Samaritans welcome the new Muslim invaders into Palestine, figuring anything would be an improvement over the Byzantine Christians.

At first, it seems to be a good bet. Some Samaritans achieve high political office. Although they still use Ancient Hebrew as their liturgical language, Samaritans adopt Arabic as their everyday language. Their traditional red turbans date from this period. Muslims color-coded the religions, reserving white for their own turbans, and assigning blue to the Jews, yellow to the Christians, and red to the Samaritans.

Assimilation, however, was less than total. Samaritans, who follow rigid codes of purity, didn’t like being touched by outsiders. Muslims often referred to Samaritans as “Lamasasiah,” or “Don’t Touch”-ers.

By the beginning of the 11th century of the common era, most Samaritans lived in Nablus, and the community numbered only a few thousand.

In 1099, the first crusaders arrive, demanding supplies for their march on Jerusalem. The presence of a large Christian community keeps the crusaders from sacking the city, but they do take time to convert the Samaritan synagogue at Nablus into a church. Over the next 150 years, four more armies sweep through, each taking a toll in lives and treasure.

The Samaritans managed to survive all this, but just barely. From an estimated original population of 1.5 million, by the mid-sixteenth century—when “modern” Samaritan history officially begins—there are only about 220 Samaritans in Palestine, 200 living in Egypt, and about 100 in a small community in Damascus.

By all rights, the Samaritans should have gone the way of innumerable other dying people, but they continued to hang on.

Part of it was the great gift of Jesus to the Samaritan people—the legacy of the Parable.

By the 17th century, Samaritan manuscripts started to reach Western Europe. This was the first independent European knowledge of the mysterious Samaritans of the New Testament. European scholars were hungry to know more about the people of the Parable.

This sudden interest from the West puzzled the Samaritans, who decided there must be groups of lost Samaritans living in England. Some Englishmen used this perception as a ruse to get more Samaritan holy books until the Samaritans got suspicious.

Under the Ottoman Turks, Samaritans continued a slow decline. In 1912, an article in National Geographic put the total number of Samaritans at 140. The community was on the verge of extinction. Shortly after that, only a handful of the 24 Samaritan men drafted by the Turks in the First World War returned to the Mountain.

But there was good news in the making. E. K. Warren, a wealthy businessman from Three Oaks, Michigan, was president of the International Association of Sunday School Teachers. While leading a group of Sunday school teachers to the Holy Land in the years before World War I, he met the high priest of the Samaritans. (At this time, there were 168 living Samaritans.)

Warren, like most of us, had no idea there were still Samaritans in the world. Notice the effect here. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that never happened, had so fixed the Western view of Samaritans that Warren could not resist repaying that nonexistent act of charity.

Warren played Good Samaritan to the Samaritans themselves, helping the community survive. He acquired a large collection of Samaritan artifacts, which is located today at Michigan State University. It’s not too much to say that Warren’s timely intervention may have saved the community.

The Samaritans survived the Ottomans, survived the British Mandate in Palestine, survived the 1948 War and the division of the community once again, survived the 1967 War, which put the two halves of the community in contact once again, and today still practice their traditions while living in the modern world.

Today, the Samaritans still follow their ancient ways. They must live in the Holy Land. They must participate in the Passover Sacrifice on Mount Gerizim—they sacrifice lambs just as did the original Israelites. They keep the Sabbath, with rules slightly different from Orthodox Jews. And they practice the ancient rules concerning female purity.

My Adventures on the Mountain of Blessings

A year ago, in February, I disregarded the warning in Matthew 10, and went into Samaritan towns—well, one town and a neighborhood. I was there to help present the Samaritan Medal to Shimon Peres. The Samaritans had also recommended two other honorees: Palestinian billionaire philanthropist Munib al-Masri and former Nablus mayor Ghassan al-Shaq’ah.

The presentation to al-Masri got rescheduled even before we left. One down.

Our meeting with the president of Israel was scheduled for four o’clock Sunday afternoon. At noon, his office called. Peres had the flu. He was too sick to meet with us in person, though he accepted the medal.

Ah, well. Even presidents are entitled to an occasional day of sick leave.

That left Ghassan al-Shaq’ah and one more honoree, the Samaritan High Priest himself. For that, we traveled from Holon in Israel into the Palestinian Authority (West Bank) to visit the Mountain of Blessings and downtown Nablus—one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

In Kiryat Luza, we started at the Mount Gerizim International Peace Center, a living part of the Samaritan efforts to achieve peace in the heart of one of the world's most difficult trouble spots.

One thing I didn’t sufficiently plan for is that the Middle East in February is cold. And windy. The winds atop Mount Gerizim rivaled anything Chicago could offer. Ralph Benko, my fellow board member, nearly found himself levitated to Heaven by the wind. We did pick up some rocks from the mountain as souvenirs.

We had a date in Nablus to award a medal to Ghassan al-Shaq’ah. I was enormously impressed by al-Shaq’ah, and have written on him elsewhere. After our meeting with al-Shaq’ah, Aabed, our Samaritan driver in Nablus, drove into an alleyway and pointed to a building two blocks away. Armed gunmen were walking back and forth. “This is the tomb of Joseph,” he said. I quickly locked on my telephoto lens and got a few shots before Aabed pulled away. It was probably not a good idea to hang around too long.

Ralph wanted some rocks from the Mountain of Curses—he had a list of people he wanted to send them to—but that, we were told, was also a bad idea. “Don’t tease them,” Aabed advised.
We returned to the mountain as the storm clouds rushed in. Freezing rain for sure, possibly snow. We had to get back to Holon, but first, we were to visit the High Priest.

We had a small ceremony and chatted with the High Priest afterward. He was a warm and deeply sincere man, sort of a Middle Eastern Dalai Lama in his manner. He blessed Ralph and me, and then it was time to bundle back into the car to get to Holon before the roads became impassible.

That was the end of my first—but definitely not my last—trip to the Mountain.

The Not-So-Good Samaritan

At the end of it all, what did it mean? I went back to the Parable.

There are lots of ways to interpret a parable. Here’s what it means to me.

When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” what he means is “To whom do I owe the duties of neighbor?” Being a good neighbor can get expensive. He’d like Jesus to admit it’s unrealistic to treat everyone as a neighbor.

Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he turns the premise upside down. By telling a story of a Samaritan who turned out to be good, he’s really answering a different question: “Whom do you want to treat you like a neighbor?”

Well, that’s different, of course. Regardless of how much the lawyer might despise Samaritans in general, he’d definitely prefer a good one if he were to find himself in a ditch.

Jesus, with an almost palpable grin, twists the debate knife. “Go, thou, and do likewise.”

Most of us are not-so-good Samaritans. Sometimes we cross the road to help; sometimes we walk by.

Isn’t it a good idea to remember that being a good neighbor is not just in their best interest, but also in yours? After all, you never know when you’ll need help, or who will be there to provide it.

We have all played all four roles in the story. We have been priest and Levite, and for whatever reason chosen to walk by when we might have helped. We have all been the Good Samaritan, helping when we didn’t have to, and perhaps helping someone who might in other circumstances be an enemy.

And, of course, we’ve all found ourselves in a ditch.

The truth is, it’s privilege and an opportunity to be a Good Samaritan. It’s a favor to yourself as much as it is a favor to anyone else. And favors beget favors in the most unexpected ways. A store of goodwill is a precious treasure, and where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

The Parable began life as a story told by Jesus, but it has become the essential story of the survival of the Samaritans themselves, still living on the Mountain of Blessings after over 3,300 years.

Next week, we’ll return to our survey of cognitive biases.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Did The Samaritan Cross the Road? (Part 2)

This is the second installment of my series on the Samaritan people, in honor of Real Samaritans for Peace Day (November 19). In our first installment, we learned that the Samaritans of the Parable are still alive and practicing their ancient religion.

[Photo: Kiryat Luza, the Samaritan community on Mt. Gerizim]

Will the Real Samaritans Please Stand Up?

Who, then, are the Samaritans? Where did they come from? Why was there such antipathy between Samaritans and Jews? What religion did Samaritans practice? And what happened to them after the days of the New Testament?

There’s controversy on some of these matters. Let’s start with the non-Samaritan side. Here’s a description from Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews.

“[By 721 BCE]…[t]he Kingdom of Israel had…been reduced to the status of a vassal kingdom by the expanding Assyrian empire to the northeast. But soon after the death of Tiglath-pileser III, Assyria’s great warrior emperor, Israel decided to flex its muscles and throw off the Assyrian yoke. This was its last mistake. The Assyrians descended and carried off all the people of property, dispersing Israelite nobles throughout the empire as nameless slaves who would never be heard from again. In times to come, their land would be colonized by subject peoples from elsewhere in the empire, who one day intermarried with the remaining peasant stock, would come to be known as Samaritans.”

2 Kings 17 takes a similar view of the origins of the Samaritans. The North Kingdom of Israel, it says, fell to the Assyrian empire as punishment for its sins. The inhabitants had worshiped foreign gods and even put up two gold statues of calves and a sacred pole for Asherah. The Assyrians brought in new settlers from elsewhere in the empire—places like Cuthah and Hamath and Sepharvaim, and they brought the worship of their own gods with them.

The God of Israel sent lions to attack these heathens, and as a result, the settlers converted—sort of. They took up the worship of the God of Israel, but alongside their own idols. Their descendents, the Bible writes, meaning the Samaritans, did the same thing.

Josephus echoes the story in 2 Kings, and adds that while Greeks call them “Samaritans,” the Hebrew call them “Cuthem”—“from Cuthah.” These Cuthem are evidently an unsavory lot who sail with the prevailing winds. Writes Josephus, “When they see the Jews prospering, they call them their kinsmen, on the grounds that they are descended from Joseph and are related to them, but when they see the Jews in trouble, they say that they have nothing whatever in common with them.”

If that's the public story, you can imagine what got said off the record. The only epithet we know about is “Cuthem,” but there were no doubt others. I’ll bet Jews and Samaritans told jokes about each other—most likely versions of the same jokes that have at one time or another been applied to every outsider group or rival. Did you hear the one about the two Samaritans who go into an inn? Or, my favorite, Why did the Samaritan cross the road?

Today, we’d send both sides to diversity training.

Heretics, idolaters, half-breeds…This is, to put it mildly, not quite how the Samaritans see themselves. It is a good guideline, however, to help us understand why, as the commentator of John 4 helpfully reminds us, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” and why the idea of a “Good” Samaritan was, at the time of the New Testament, an outlandish notion. It would be somewhat akin to telling a Southern during Reconstruction the story of the Good Carpetbagger . . . or anyone with a 401(k) today the story of the Good Wall Streeter.

The Origins of the Samaritan People

Let’s first figure out whom we’re talking about. The word “Samaritan” today refers to a religious and ethnic community that uses the Samaritan Pentateuch for its sacred text and believes Mount Gerizim is the proper place for worship. That usage hasn’t always been the case, and when reading ancient documents, it’s hard to be sure whether “Samaritan” refers to that group or refers more generally to any inhabitant of Samaria, the former North Kingdom. That can lead to all sorts of confusion.

Samaritan religious beliefs revolve around the four principles of their faith:

  1. One God, the God of Israel
  2. One—and only one—prophet, Moses
  3. One holy book, the Pentateuch, and no other books.
  4. And one holy place, which is Mount Gerizim, the Mountain of Blessings.

The last item is the source of all the trouble between Samaritans and Jews.

Samaritans themselves prefer to be called “Israelites,” and settle for “Israelite Samaritans.” To them, “Samaritan” doesn’t mean “inhabitant of Samaria.” Those are Samarians, not Samaritans. Instead, “Samaritan” derives from the word Shomrim, “keeper of the law.” That goes to the heart of what Samaritans believe about themselves and their origins.

The Civil War

For that story, let’s set the Way-Bac dials for the time period of the Book of Judges, the 11th Century BCE, and hear what the Samaritan Chronicles, the major work of Samaritan history, has to say.

“A terrible civil war [has broken] out between Eli son of Yafni, of the Line of Ithamar, and the sons of Phineas, because Eli son of Yafni resolved to usurp the High Priesthood from the descendants of Phineas.

When the Great High Priest Ozzi learnt of this, he thoroughly disowned him; and it is even said that he rebuked him.

Thereupon he and the group that sympathized with him, rose in revolt and at once he and his followers set off for Shiloh.

“Thus Israel split into factions...”

These words were written in the 14th century CE by Abu’l Fath. Here’s what he’s talking about.

The first capital of post-Exodus Israel was not Jerusalem, but ancient Shechem. Today, the city is known as Nablus. It is nestled in a valley between two mountains: Gerizim and Ebal. These mountains appear in the 11th chapter of Deuteronomy: “And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God hath brought thee in unto the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt put the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.”

It was at Shechem that the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua, reaffirmed their covenant with God, as described in Deuteronomy 27. Six tribes stood upon Mount Gerizim to recite the blessings for following the laws of the God of Israel, and the other six tribes stood upon Mount Ebal to recite the curses on those who disobeyed the Lord.

As far as the future Samaritans were concerned, this made Mount Gerizim, the Mountain of Blessings, God’s chosen place, and the proper center of Israelite worship.

Around the 11th century BCE, the priest and judge Eli—the one who was rebuked by the Great High Priest Ozzi—established a new worship site at Shiloh. This drove a wedge between the proto-Samaritans in Shechem and other Israelites, who recognized other prophets and additional books that make up the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament.

The Era of Divine Disfavor

The tribe of Judah and the city of Jerusalem became increasingly dominant. Jerusalem was the political capital, the economic capital, and to a greater and greater degree, the religious capital. The traditionalists in Shechem were increasingly unhappy, and following the death of Solomon, as you know, the previously united Kingdom of Israel broke in two: the Kingdom of Israel, known as the North Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Judah, known as the South Kingdom. Both Samaritan and Jewish scholars agree that the break involved a division within the priesthood.

For the next two hundred years, the two kingdoms struggled, until the regional superpower, the Assyrians, took over in 721 BCE. This ended the “Era of Divine Favor,” the Rahuta, which began with Moses, and started the “Era of Divine Disfavor,” the Fanuta, which will last until the coming of the savior, or Taheh.

What happened to the ten tribes of Israel that made up the North Kingdom? Samaritans tell us that the deportation primarily affected the aristocratic leadership in the city of Samaria, and involved far fewer people than is generally claimed. The Joseph tribes of Menasseh and Ephraim were relatively untouched, and it is from those tribes that today’s Samaritans claim an unbroken line of priestly succession all the way down to the current High Priest Elazar bin Tsedaka bin Yitzhaq, the 131st of his line, a direct descendent, according to their genealogical records, of Aaron the brother of Moses.

Roughly two hundred years later, the Kingdom of Judah falls to Babylon, and Jews endure fifty years of captivity in Babylon before being permitted to return to their homeland.

After the exile, during the Persian period, a Jew, Nehemiah, becomes the Persian governor of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. He outlaws marriages with “foreign women,” scuttling a marriage between a daughter of the Persian governor of Samaria and a son of the Jewish High Priest. Although the governor of Samaria wasn’t a “Samaritan” as we use the term, it was one more wedge between the Jews and their increasingly distant cousins on Mount Gerizim.

Both Samaritans and Jews credit a contemporary of Nehemiah’s, Ezra, of the Book of Ezra, for completing the schism. Ezra, according to tradition, established the canon of the Hebrew Bible, including books other than the Pentateuch, and insisted on the centrality of Jerusalem as the one holy place for the worship of God. For this, Samaritans refer to him as “Ezra the Cursed.” From that time on, Samaritans and Jews are clearly different religions, even though they spring from the same root.

The Tenth Commandment

One important question is which came first — the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, or the Jewish version? There are roughly 7,000 differences in the two versions, most involving different orthography. The differences that matter, as you might imagine, involve the chosen place for the Almighty. In 22 verses in the Book of Deuteronomy, the SP version says, “In the place that the Almighty HAS CHOSEN,” referring to Mount Gerizim, which had already been blessed. The corresponding Jewish Masoretic MT text—in each case—reads, “In the place the Almighty WILL CHOOSE,” meaning Jerusalem, which came later.

To make sure there’s no ambiguity, the SP version even offers a different Tenth Commandment in Exodus 20, which basically summarizes as, “Keep Mount Gerizim holy.”

To make the number of commandments ten, the SP combines “I am the Lord thy God” (or “Shehmah your Eloowwem”) and “you shall not have any other gods before me” into a single commandment, followed by “You shall not make for yourself an idol” as the second.

They’re not alone, by the way, in adjusting the number. The Jewish Talmudic version has “I am the Lord your God” as the first commandment, and combines “No other gods before me” and “No idols” as the second.

On the Christian side, Anglicans list “I am the Lord your God” as the preface and separate “No other gods” and “No idols” into separate commandments. The Orthodox churches combine “I am the Lord” and “No other gods” into a single commandment, and make “No idols” the second. Finally, Roman Catholics and Lutherans combine “I am the Lord,” “No other gods,” and “No idols” into a single First Commandment and break the “No coveting” into two commandments: “not your neighbor’s wife,” and then “not anything that belongs to your neighbor,” an important distinction, as you might well imagine.

(The Eleventh Commandment, of course, in all traditions, remains “Don’t get caught.”)

Abominations and Desecrations

As the Persians gave way to Alexander’s Macedonians, the governors of Samaria and Judea chose sides, with Samaria going with Alexander while Judea stayed loyal to the Persians. The governor of Samaria, Sanballat III, gets permission from Alexander to build a temple on the Mountain of Blessings. It’s good news for the supporters of Mount Gerizim.

Now, Alexander (unsurprisingly) appoints his own governors to his new provinces. Jerusalem, long used to foreign overlords, accepts the new boss (same as the old boss). Samaria, however, takes less kindly to the new boss, and burns him alive. The city aristocracy flees Shechem. Alexander’s troops hunt them down. Hundreds of Samarians—some may also have been Samaritans, though not all—take shelter in the caves at Wadi ed-Daliyeh. The soldiers build a fire at the entrance, and everyone inside dies of suffocation. The high priest in Jerusalem takes advantage of the moment to switch sides, and in the process annexes several Samarian districts to Judea.

After Alexander’s death, the Seleucid rulers nominally control the region, but soon they’re in a struggle with the Ptolemies. The leaders of Judea and Samaria intrigue in the background. Under Antiochus IV Ephiphanies, there’s a general persecution of religious Jews, culminating in the sacrifice of a pig on the altar at Jerusalem, the “abomination of desecration.”

Some sources report that the Samaritans, trying to butter up Antiochus, agree to name their Mount Gerizim temple after Zeus, more evidence of Samaritan perfidy and heresy, but if the story has any truth in it—and that’s not at all certain—it’s far more likely that the renaming was involuntary.

The Abomination of Desecration triggers the revolt of John Hyrcanus. The Samaritans sit out the battle, enraging the Jews. John Hyrcanus subsequently attacks Samaria as punishment for their lack of support, and destroys the temple on Mount Gerizim.

By the arrival of Pompey the Great and the beginning of Roman rule in 63 BCE, the Samaritans have already been made virtual foreigners in their own land. But we know who they are; these are the Samaritans of the New Testament, the Samaritans we know best.

Which brings us back to where we started in our discussion of the Samaritans and the people I know today.

Whatever Happened to Pontius Pilate?

While there are no more mentions of Samaritans in the New Testament after Acts, it turns out the Samaritans aren’t quite out of the story. They have a little epilogue all their own.

During the tenure of an otherwise obscure Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, a “lying Samaritan” (that’s Josephus’s phrase) tells everyone he has found sacred vessels on Mount Gerizim that were left there by Moses. A crowd gathers, and Pilate panics. He sends in soldiers and things get out of control. He’s convinced it’s a conspiracy and has the leaders of the movement executed. The Samaritans file a formal complaint with the governor of Syria, Pilate is sent back to Rome.

As it happens, he wasn't able to wash his hands of this case, and so got fired from his job.

The third and final part of this series appears Sunday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Did The Samaritan Cross the Road? (Part 1)

We interrupt our series on cognitive biases to bring you the following special story.

[Photo: The Samaritan Chorus]

This Thursday, 19 November, is Real Samaritans for Peace Day. I’ll be in East Lansing, Michigan, helping to award the Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Service at a ceremony in the chancellor’s house at Michigan State University, home to the finest collection of Samaritan artifacts in the United States.

My good friend and colleague Benyamim Tsedaka, unofficial ambassador of the Samaritan community and chairman of the Samaritan Medal Foundation, will award the actual medal.

Most people are quite surprised to find out that the Samaritans are not only real, but also still with us. But they are. There are today about 750 real Samaritans, descendents of the ones who appear in the New Testament. Roughly half of them live in Holon, Israel, an industrial suburb of Tel Aviv. The other half live in the town of Kiryat Luza, in the Palestinian Territories, a small community on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, the sacred central place of the Samaritan religion.

The Samaritans face real challenges. A tiny people in a hostile region, the Samaritans are desperately involved in the search for peace, and are seen as one of the few groups who get along equally well with both sides in the conflict. As a result, they are much more involved and important in the peace process than their small numbers would imply.

The Origin of the Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Service

In 2004, I met my first Samaritan: Benyamim —Benny — Tsedaka. Benny, head of the AB Institute of Samaritan Studies in Holon, is sort of an unofficial Samaritan ambassador to the world, tirelessly striving to get world attention and support for his community. It’s a tall order. I got interested.

My friend Ralph Benko, a Washingtonian who serves as the Samaritan honorary envoy to the United States, suggested the Samaritans create and award a medal. After all, everyone else offers Samaritan awards—why not the real Samaritans? I thought it was a brilliant idea.
We started the Samaritan Medal Foundation the following year, when Benny next came through town. It was a shoestring operation, basically involving whatever free time Ralph and I could spare. Artist Steve Stiles created the medal design, and we had a hundred medals struck in silver.

We established an interfaith board chaired by Benny, a Samaritan; with Ralph, who is Jewish; my friend Humayun Mirza, who is Muslim; Mark Davis, who is Christian, and me, the not-so-good Samaritan, as executive director. In 2006, we began to honor our Good Samaritans with the Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Service.

Lord Eric Avebury, who is deeply involved in human rights issues, had taken an interest in the Samaritans. We recognized his achievements in world peace. Rev. Jim Singer, whose church was right in the middle of the 14th Street riot corridor in 1968, kept his church opened and fed and sheltered thousands. Paul Pinkerton has devoted his life to caring for Vietnamese orphans through his Paul’s Kids charity.

We weren’t looking to run Alfred Nobel out of business; we just figured Good Samaritans could always use recognition, and the rest of us need reminders that Good Samaritans are all around us.

Then, out of the blue, Benny emailed us that Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, had agreed to accept the Samaritan Medal. We were invited to Israel for the ceremony. And that’s why, in February of 2008, I visited the Samaritan communities in Israel and on the Mountain of Blessings.

The Road to Jericho

Of course, a person can’t get involved with the Samaritans without developing a more than casual curiosity about these people. I’ve found out about their fascinating beliefs, about their amazing history, and about the turbulent world they’ve managed to survive for some 2,700 years. So, if Mr. Peabody will be kind enough to fire up the Way-Bac Machine, we’ll get our trip underway. Our first stop is Alexandria, Egypt; the date is December 26, 1855.

We’re on the deck of the USS Constellation, the tall ship now on display at Harborplace in Baltimore. In 1855, it’s stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. Its mission in these pre-Civil War years is to fight the African slave trade.

The following story comes from letters written home by Marine Corps Sergeant William Philip Schwartz—who just happens to be my wife’s great-great-grandfather. The letters were discovered in a trunk in her uncle’s attic a decade or so ago, and are now part of the USS Constellation Museum collection.

In December of 1855, Schwartz and ten of his men take extended shore leave to see the Holy Land. They book passage on a Turkish steamer to Jaffa, where they hire guides and horses to travel to Jerusalem, a dangerous ride through bandit country. The American consul at Jaffa warns Schwartz that the guides are probably in league with the bandits.

Wrote Schwartz: “The road for about twelve miles from Jaffa lays between immense orchards of pomegranates, oranges, and lemons, which are defended by herds of prickly pear bushes, some 13 or 15 feet in height.”

“After proceeding a few miles on our journey, we came to a halt and mustered our guides near us. We then [produced our revolvers and cutlasses, which had been generously furnished us by the captain of our ship, and] told [the guides] that we had them completely in our power, that we did not wish to injure any of them, but if we were attacked by any armed forces, they (the guides) would be the first we would kill, then fight our way through, if we could.

“This had the desired effect, for we had not proceeded over sixteen miles when we discovered a party of about twenty men making toward us in a very suspicious manner. We immediately placed our guides in a position to receive our first volley. They, perceiving our movement, at once concluded our motives and turned toward our foes, made hasty signs and dispersed the crowd, who took flight in an opposite direction.”

Later in the trip, as the party climbs from the plains of Sharon into the mountains, Schwartz continues, “This road from the plains to Jerusalem is the worst I think I ever saw. It lays for most of the distance about midway between the summit and foot of the hills, now ascending to the very top, then descending, as it were, into the very bowels of the earth, over rocks upon rocks, and through deep ravines and through gulleys. The hills in most places are perfectly barren, then again in a few scattered places may be seen a few olive trees and brushwood.”

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is to the northeast of the road William Schwartz traveled in 1855. Today, it’s a straight shot down Israeli Highway 1, but for millennia it more closely resembled the terrain Schwartz described: desolate and dangerous.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

A certain traveler who hadn’t thought to bring a revolver and a cutlass, like Schwartz and his men, once fell victim to those bandits. Here’s the story, from the 10th chapter of Luke.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself."

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply, Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

We'll return to the Parable in part 3 of this series. For now, let's put it in historical context.

Samaritans in the New Testament

Everybody knows the story of the Good Samaritan. In fact, it’s the only thing everybody knows about Samaritans—although, as you can see, it never really happened. It’s a story Jesus tells to win an exchange with an expert in religious law.

Yet, the Parable has so entered the consciousness of Western civilization that Roget’s Thesaurus and every dictionary I checked define “Samaritan” as a synonym of “good.”

There are Samaritan charitable and service organizations by the hundred, the “Samaritan” armored ambulance, the USS Samaritan hospital ship, Samaritan skin cream (made in Australia), the “Good Sam” RV owners’ club, and even a superhero Samaritan in a comic-book series known as “Astro City.” (The superhero Samaritan, in a way, is the most appropriate of the bunch. Like his namesake in the parable, this Samaritan is made up.)

The made-up Good Samaritan is much better known than the real Samaritans who appear in the New Testament. A woman from Samaria gives Jesus water from a well when he asks for it in John 4, a surprise, because “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” When Jesus cures ten lepers in Luke 17, they all run away in joy. Only one, who happens to be a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus for his cure.

Jesus seems initially fond of Samaritans, but has an apparent change of heart after the Samaritan village refuses him because he’s heading for Jerusalem in Luke 9. When he gives the twelve disciples their marching orders in Matthew 10, he says, “Don’t turn on the road that leads to the Gentiles, and don’t enter Samaritan towns.” In today’s phraseology, we’re experiencing a little cultural stereotyping here. It’s clear Jews think ill of Samaritans. It’s equally clear Samaritans return the favor.

On the other hand, Philip in Acts 8 preaches in Samaria, and evidently wins a lot of converts. Some scholars also look at Acts 7 as evidence of Christian interest in the Samaritans. But with the end of Acts, the Bible draws a veil over the Samaritan story.

Continued on Real Samaritans for Peace Day…

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Women Drivers and Balls, Part 3 of Cognitive Biases

In the third installment of my series on cognitive biases, we’ll examine four more today: the ambiguity aversion effect, choice-supportive bias, the distinction bias, and the contrast effect. Oh — and the title illustrates one more: illusory correlation, connecting things simply because they're proximate.

Last week’s installment can be found here, and the series begins here.

Ambiguity aversion effect. Daniel Ellsberg, best known for releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, is also known for the 1962 discovery of the Ellsberg paradox, in which people make decisions not because they are best, but because they seem less ambiguous.

In the Ellsberg paradox experiment, you have an urn with 30 red balls and 60 other balls that are either black or yellow. You don’t know the ratio of black to yellow, only that the total of black and yellow is 60. You can make the following wagers:
  • Gamble A: You get $100 if you draw a red ball
  • Gamble B: You get $100 if you draw a black ball.
You can also choose either of the following wagers (for another draw):
  • Gamble C: You get $100 if you draw a red or a yellow ball
  • Gamble D: You get $100 if you draw a black or yellow ball.
If you prefer Gamble A to Gamble B, it’s rational you should prefer Gamble C to Gamble D — the number of yellow balls is the same. If you prefer Gamble B to Gamble A, by similar logic you should prefer Gamble D to Gamble C.

But in actual surveys, most people strictly prefer Gamble A to Gamble B, and Gamble D to Gamble C. The logic that informs one decision breaks down for the other.

The idea of the ambiguity effect is that people prefer known risks over unknown risks, regardless of other factors. Choosing Gamble A over Gamble B is a preference for knowing the number of red balls, even though the number of black balls might be greater. Choosing Gamble D over Gamble C is a preference for knowing that the sum of black and yellow balls is 60, even if the sum of red and yellow might be greater.

Choice-supportive bias. On a business trip to St. Thomas many years ago, the cab driver taking me back to the airport suddenly honked his horn at a car trying to pull out into traffic.

“Women drivers!” he said in disgust.

I looked over at the offending car. “Looks like the driver is male,” I observed.

“Yeah, well, he drives like a woman,” the cabbie replied.

Choice-supportive bias is the tendency to remember your choices as better than they are, to look for information that supports them, and reject information that does not. In the case of the St. Thomas cab driver, he’s decided that women are bad drivers. Any time he sees a woman driving badly, he notices. When it’s a man, he doesn’t notice it’s a man, or forgets about it as an anomaly (“Drives like a woman.”)

This man doesn’t think of himself as prejudiced, because he thinks the observed facts confirm his opinion. What he fails to see is that the key word is “observed.” He’s blind to any facts that would challenge his opinion.

Choice-supportive bias is related to confirmation bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information to confirm one’s own perceptions, and thus to experimenter’s bias, covered last week.

To fight choice-supportive bias in yourself, be skeptical of general beliefs you hold about people, groups, or the nature of life. There’s probably important stuff you’re overlooking.

Distinction bias. In sales, it’s well known that if you present the customer with the higher-priced option first, the customer will be happier with his or her final decision, regardless of which choice he or she finally makes.

The distinction bias is the observed difference between how people evaluate options side-by-side and how people evaluate the same options when presented separately. If you look at two 52” HDTV sets side by side, any quality difference between them looms large indeed, and paying the money for the “better” one seems sensible.

But if you evaluate the sets separately, you may not notice any material quality difference at all. If so, and if both sets are good enough, you’re more likely to buy the cheaper one. So before buying a big ticket item, make sure you evaluate your options separately. You may make a very different decision.

Contrast effect. The contrast effect changes your normal perception as a result of exposure to a stimulus in the same dimension. A number of optical illusions work by exploiting the contrast effect.

File:Simultaneous Contrast.svg
In the first image, the two inner rectangles are the same shade of gray, but the top one looks lighter because of the contrast with the background.

File:Successive contrast.svg

In the second image, stare at the center dot in one of the top row disks for a few seconds, then look at the center dot in the disk immediately below. The two lower disks will appear to have different colors for a few seconds.

In interpersonal relationships, the contrast effect means that we judge the current state of the relationship by its contrast to an earlier state. If someone has been enormously attentive and is now less so (even if much more so than the average person), this is perceived negatively. If someone’s been cold or distant and warms up even slightly (but less so than the first person), that’s perceived positively.

More after these messages from the Samaritan Medal Foundation.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

“Looking for the Pony” — Cognitive Biases, Part 2

Welcome back to part two of our discussion of cognitive and decision-making biases. The series begins here.

Everyone's subject to cognitive biases of one sort or another. None of us is capable of pure objectivity; we cannot see reality without distortion. But we can try.

There are around 100 different identified cognitive and decision biases, and some of them have subsets, as we'll see shortly. Today, we'll cover three more: the base rate fallacy, congruence bias, and everyone's traditional favorite, experimenter's bias.

Base rate fallacy. There are 100 terrorists trying to sneak through airline security for every one million non-terrorists. TSA has set up an automated face recognition system that has 99% accuracy. The alarm goes off, and trained Homeland Security agents swoop down. What is the probability their captive is really a terrorist?

Well, if the failure rate is 1%, that means there’s a 99% chance the person is a terrorist, and a 1% chance that he or she is not, right? That justifies a significant assumption of guilt.

But this actually gets it backward. The chance the person isn't a terrorist is far greater — in fact, it's 99.02% likely that the new prisoner is completely innocent!

The mistake that leads to the first conclusion is called the base rate fallacy. It occurs when you don't notice that the failure rate (1 in 100) is the not the same as the false alarm rate. The false alarm rate is completely different, because there are, after all, far more non-terrorists than terrorists. Let's imagine that we walk everyone — 100 terrorist and 1 million non-terrorists, for a total of 1,000,100 people — in front of the face recognition tool. A 1% failure rate means it's going to ring incorrectly one time for each 100 passengers, 10,099 times in total. It will catch 99 terrorists and miss one, but it's also going to catch 10,000 non-terrorists. The ratio is actually 99:10,099, or a miniscule 0.98%, that the person caught is actually a terrorist.

This does not argue against the value of screening. Screening might be perfectly reasonable. Overreaction, however, is not. If you’re 99% sure you’ve caught a terrorist, you will behave differently than if you’re only 1% sure.

To avoid the base rate fallacy, look at the “prior probability.” If there were no terrorists, what would the face recognition system produce? With a 1% failure rate, it would never pick a real terrorist (there would be none), but it would trigger 10,000 false positives. Now you’ve found the missing fact.

(Footnote: Notice that the base rate fallacy only produces incorrect analysis when the scale is unbalanced, as is our case with 100 terrorists in city with a population of 1 million. As the populations approach 50/50, the failure rate and false alarm rate would converge. Mind you, we'd have different problems then.)

Congruence bias. In congruence bias, you only test your hypothesis directly, potentially missing alternative explanations. In the famous Hawthorne experiment, Frederick W. Taylor, father of Scientific Management, wanted to test whether improved lighting in factories would increase worker productivity. He performed a direct test: he measured productivity, installed better lighting, and measured productivity again. Productivity went up. If you are falling into congruence bias, you’re done. Experiment confirmed; case closed.

But Taylor avoided the trap. He tested his hypothesis indirectly. If improved lighting increased productivity, he reasoned that worse lighting should lower it. So he tested that proposition as well. He took out a lot of lights and measured again: and to everyone’s surprise, productivity went up! A deeper analysis revealed what is now known as the Hawthorne Effect: when people feel others are paying attention to them, their productivity tends to go up, at least temporarily. (It’s a huge benefit of management consultants; just by showing up, we’re likely to make things better.)

To avoid congruence bias, don’t be satisfied with direct reasoning alone. Direct confirmation asks, “If I behaved in accordance with my hypothesis, what would I expect to occur?” Indirect confirmation asks, “If I acted in conflict with my hypothesis, what would I expect to occur?” If Taylor had stopped with the first question, we’d all be fiddling with the lights. Only the second question allowed him to discover the deeper truth.

Experimenter’s bias. This bias is well known to anyone in scientific fields. It’s the tendency for experimenters to believe and trust data that agrees with their hypothesis, and to disbelieve and distrust data that doesn’t. It’s a natural enough feeling; there’s a price to pay if we’re wrong, even if it’s only a hit to our egos. It’s impossible for any human being to be completely objective. Our perceptions and intelligence are constrained, and we are looking from the inside, not the outside.

Experimenter’s bias can’t be avoided; it has to be managed instead. Last week, we discussed the “bias blind spot,” the recursive bias of failing to recognize that you have biases. Self-awareness helps. Another good technique is the “buddy system.” I frequently work with co-authors so I have someone to challenge my thinking. That reduces the problem, though it doesn’t eliminate it — wherever my co-author and I see it the same way, the risk remains.

The best technique is to understand the components of the bias. A 1979 study of sampling and measurement biases listed 56 different experimenter’s biases: the “all’s well” literature bias, the referral filter bias, the volunteer bias, the insensitive measure bias, the end-digit preference bias, and my favorite, the data dredging bias, also known as “looking for the pony.”

More next week

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Unknown Knowns — A Survey of Assumptions, Biases, and Bigotry

“The bigot is not he who knows he is right; every sane man knows he is right. The bigot is he whose emotions and imagination are too weak to feel how it is that other men go wrong.”

- G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions, 1910

Last week, we explored Donald Rumsfeld’s observation about “unknown unknowns.” Unknown unknowns aren't just about what you don't know, they're about what you don't even know that you don't know. The other categories, of course, are known knowns (things you know and know you know) and known unknowns (things you know that you don't know).

But there is one missing combination: unknown knowns, the things you don't know that you really do know. How could you not know something that you actually do know? The answer involves cognitive biases, the ways in which your mind deceives you. Cognitive biases can blind you to what is in fact right in front of you, and also can make you see things that really aren't there.

In looking at cognitive bias, the essential first step is to realize that no one is immune. It's easier to see the mote of self-deception in someone else's eye than it is to see the big heavy curtains that are draped over our own perceptions. None of us can completely escape the trap, but we can (and must) stay aware that what we think isn't necessarily the whole or complete picture. As once was famously said of Vietnam, "Anybody who knows what's going on clearly doesn't understand the situation."

Project managers are taught how important it is to document the range of assumptions on a project, but the PMBOK® Guide doesn't go into much detail about how to discover them or what to do about them. And it's wrong to assume (*ahem*) that all assumptions are bad for your project. They don't always make an "ass + u + me."

Some assumptions are, of course, clearly bad. Common project assumptions include the idea that everybody's on board; that people will always play nice; and that the proposed project will actually solve the underlying problem. "Bad" in this context doesn't mean these assumptions are necessarily or always wrong; it means it's dangerous to take for granted that they're right.

Other assumptions are more useful: if you see a gun, it's wise to assume it's loaded and act accordingly, even if you have good reason to believe it probably isn't. The consequences of an error in one direction don't have the same impact as the consequences of an error in the other. Still other assumptions may change over time. Assume the gun is loaded unless you need to use it; in the latter case, it might be safer to assume it isn't loaded and check to make sure there's a round in the chamber.

The big problem in assumptions comes from assumptions that are held so deeply in the subconscious mind that we (or other stakeholders) aren't even aware they exist -- the “unknown knowns" of our title.

Prejudices and biases are a normal part of the makeup of human beings. They have a certain utility; they permit us to filter and organize and simplify the complex flood of data we get from everyday existence. The danger comes when prejudices are confused with facts. A good general assumption turns into an iron-clad rule; “some” is equated with “all,” and it’s one short step to the idea that if someone sees it differently, they must be either stupid or venal. That, as G. K. Chesterton points out, is the essence of bigotry.

It is both humbling and fascinating to read the extensive and exhaustive lists of biases and cognitive distortions that have been identified over the years. There are far too many for a single blog post, so we'll have fun with these for the next few weeks. If you'd like to jump into discussion, please feel free. SideWise thinkers know they have to battle their own biases as well as those of others, and understanding the list is the essential first step.

Let’s start with five common biases.

Decision-Making and Behavioral Biases

Bias Blind Spot — "Bias blind spot" is a recursive bias, the bias of failing to compensate for one's own cognitive biases. Some 80% of drivers think they are substantially better than the average driver. That's called the "better than average effect." Here, the vast majority of people think they are less subject to bias than the average person.

Confirmation Bias — Evidence is seldom completely clean and clear. If a mass of facts argue against our position and one fact supports it, guess which fact we focus on? When confronted by a mass of data, we tend to be selective in the evidence we collect; we tend to interpret the evidence in a biased way; and when we recall evidence, we often do so selectively. This is why a search for facts isn't as persuasive as logic might suggest.

Déformation professionnelle — Your training as a professional carries with it an intrinsic bias that's often expressed by the phrase "When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails." We probably know IT professionals who think every problem can be best solved with software, HR professionals who think every problem yields to training and human capital development, and project managers who think all problems lie inside the confines of the triple constraints. Each profession, of course, provides enormous value, but no single profession has all the answers.

Denomination Effect — One way to limit your daily spending is to carry only large denomination bills. Research shows that people are less likely to spend larger bills than their equivalent value in smaller ones. (This could also be called the Starbucks Effect.)

Moral Credential Effect — If you develop a track record as a moral and ethical person, you can actually increase your likelihood of making less ethical decisions in the future, as if you have given yourself a "Get out of jail free" card. For example, in a 2001 study, individuals who have had the opportunity to recruit a woman or an African-American in one setting were more likely to say later that a different particular job would be better suited for a man or a Caucasian.

More next week...

[Illustration © 2009 Mark Hill, used with permission.]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Unknown Unknowns

“There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns,” Donald Rumsfeld famously observed. He was talking about an issue close to the heart of every serious project manager: managing risks and making decisions when you don’t always have data to back them up.

Classical risk management is based on the law of large numbers. A creation of famous mathematicians of the 18th century, classical risk is based on statistics. We don’t know if your house will burn down, but in a pool of 100,000 houses, we can make a pretty good prediction about how many houses will. In many ways, classical risk management is at the heart of modern economic civilization. From insurance to interest rates, the ability to analyze and measure risk is essential. At the root of our current economic crisis is the unfortunate fact that risk analysts sometimes get it wrong.

The classic risk formula R=PxI (risk equals probability times impact) measures the severity of risk and provides a guideline for determining how much you should spend in dealing with the risk. If there is a 10% chance, for example, of an event that will cost you $10,000 if it happens, the risk score is $1000. That means if you can get rid of the risk for under $1000, you are better off.

But in project management, you often have no idea what the probability is. “We’ve never done this before! What’s the chance of Event A happening?” Clearly, we have no idea. What do we do now?

Rumsfeld’s answer, basically, was to do nothing. Known knowns and known unknowns fall into the universe of planning, but the set of unknown unknowns was too far outside the box. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out in practice. If you go to your boss and say, “Sorry that project failed, but it was because of an unknown unknown,” that doesn’t work very well as an excuse. Someone else, after the fact, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, gets to decide whether it was reasonable for you to have missed it. You are a hostage to fate.

Fortunately, there are a great many things project managers and planners can do even in the face of unknown unknowns.
  1. Establish a reserve. Military planners know this well. As the elder von Moltke famously observed, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. No project plan survives first contact with reality. The total reserve should be proportional to the estimated risk, but the real secret is that reserve can be created in three dimensions: extra resources, extra time, and optional scope.
  2. Think backwards. The triple constraints – the interplay of time, cost, and performance – form a powerful tool for insight. Any negative event can only do three things to your project: it can make you late, it can drive up your cost, or it can degrade your performance. If it does none of those things, it’s not an issue. If you have generic strategies for recovering lost time, recouping lost resources, or patching up problems in scope, you don’t need to know every possible direction from which trouble can appear. You already know what to do.
  3. Define the range of outcomes. There are six possible outcomes for any given project. The baseline outcome is “fully satisfactory.” That’s the level of meaningful good enough. Another outcome is “barely adequate.” That’s the worst you can do and not have to call the outcome of failure. Above “fully satisfactory” is “exceeds expectations,” a traditional operational definition of quality. At the top is “outstanding,” and below “barely adequate” are the levels of “failure” and “catastrophe.” (Failure just takes down your project; catastrophe takes other stuff down along with it.) The reason you want to define failure and catastrophe is for risk management. The reason to define the higher grades is to improve quality. While it’s easy to provide quality as long as you don’t care how much you spend, that’s not so good for business. Find the elements of outstanding that cost very little, and you’ll deliver high quality performance even on a shoestring budget.
  4. Work harder and dig deeper. At the beginning of the project just about everything is an unknown unknown, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Have you really analyzed your project risk environment? In a number of organizations, thinking about failure causes people to be branded as “not a team player.” Unfortunately, the failure to think about failure increases the likelihood of failure. The more you obsess about the reasons for failure, the more powerful you’ll be at preventing it.
SideWise thinkers don't fall to pieces in the face of uncertainty. Uncertainty and the unknown is quite real, and denying its reality doesn't make your life better. Unknown unknowns are part of projects and of life in general. You can prepare even if you can't know.

Next week, Unknown Knowns — What you don't know that you really do know.