My Counterintuitive Journal


In ten years of teaching Counterintuitivity, I’ve never kept a Counterintuitive Journal, but that ends today. How could I have been so foolish?! Surely hundreds of startling insights have occurred to me in all these years, most of them now lost to memory.

Please consider keeping a journal like mine as a post you can update as insights or observations occur to you that you’d rather not lose.

Parliament Re-design?

Winston Churchill was brilliant. When the House of Commons was destroyed by Hitler’s bombs in 1941, the government had an opportunity to redesign the building. Churchill refused.

“On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.” Winston Churchill, London, 28 October 1943

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

OUR BUILDINGS SHAPE US 1. Unlike the US House of Representatives, where members of the two dominant political parties all “face forward” to the Speaker’s table, in the British House of Commons, the parties face each other for the insightful reason that once you’ve spent all day looking into the face of the “opposing” party, it’s harder to ignore their position on the issues.

OUR BUILDINGS SHAPE US 2. The traditional distance between the parties (protected by Churchill’s decision to rebuild it as it was) is “two sword lengths plus one inch,” a physical reminder to resolve differences peacefully.

OUR BUILDINGS SHAPE US 3. The chamber is cramped and could have been rebuilt larger. But the close quarters lend urgency and energy to the proceedings.

Doubt the Pilots

Bishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his work on the Reconciliation Commission. His extraordinary challenge was to provide healing and amnesty for the perpetrators of generations of repression of black residents of South Africa. Of all the world’s most generous people, it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to suffer bigotry.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu - 10 Questions - TIME

But, here’s a story he told on himself on the radio with On Being. I’ve paraphrased:

Boarding a plane I happened to notice in the cockpit that both the pilot and his co-pilot were black. I was gratified to see that the world had finally evolved to accept that men who all my life had been treated as unfit for voting in national elections could be qualified to pilot a commercial airliner with dozens of passengers.

Shortly into the flight, we entered “the mother and father of turbulence,” and I found myself, to my shame, wondering if the boys at the wheel would be able to handle a life-and-death emergency.

Didn’t know I couldn’t

Singer/songwriter Seal’s hit “Kiss from a Rose” won 1996 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, and won Seal a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

When Rick Beato interviewed Seal for an installment of his YouTube series, “What Makes this Song Great?,” he wanted an explanation for the extraordinary intervals in the melody, which he described as “a great example of modal interchange.” The details of the interchange and what makes the melody so special are too complex and esoteric for me to describe, so here’s the link to the YouTube episode. I highly recommend it.

What struck me as brilliant and beautiful and goosebump-inspiring was Seal’s explanation for how he decided to write such a complex and unexpected melody for his “pop” song. Here’s the conversation (start at 7:51):

BEATO: The melody is so complex. Some of the phrases, like when you go [plays a bit of melody] and then you go [plays a bit of melody] those odd interval jumps. How do you think of things like that?

SEAL: The best explanation I can come up with is that I didn’t know you couldn’t really do those things or those things were really unusual. It just felt like the right thing to do. When I wrote that song, interestingly enough, I couldn’t play an instrument. Some may argue I still can’t . . . I started this song as an experiment, to figure out how to work [a tape deck a friend had given him] so I was thinking less “song” and more “let me see how I can practice . . . the whole “balancing thing.” . . . So I [tried] to emulate what an orchestra would do. . . . The whole thing happened really quickly . . . like an afternoon’s work. I wasn’t really thinking about the melody at all.

In other words, you’re either a genius or you’re not.


4 Minutes, 33 Seconds

Avant-garde composer John Cage wrote a very famous piece of music you’ve never heard. When it is performed, a pianist takes a seat at the piano, opens the sheet music, and sits quietly for 4 minutes and 33 seconds without touching the pedals or the keys. The audience becomes increasingly aware of the sounds of the performance hall and either comes to a new appreciation of the use of silence in music, or not, depending on their perspicacity and their patience with experimentation.

The title is sometimes written incorrectly.


10 Skekels for Lateness

The Hidden Brain Episode

Gneezy and Rustichini provide an example in which behavior is not just a function of the current incentives, but may be affected by the incentives offered in previous periods. In their experiment, a daycare began charging late-coming parents a small fine of 10 New Israeli shekels (about $3 at the time).

This resulted in an increase in the number of late pick-ups even in the short run, that is, while the incentives were present. One interpretation of this result is information: the parents did not initially know how important it was to arrive on time. The contract specified that they should pick their children up on time but failed to specify the penalty if they did not. The distribution of the parents’ beliefs regarding how bad it was to be late may have included bad scenarios (for example, “the teacher will make my child suffer”). Once a small fine was imposed, the contract was complete in that being late was priced. The relatively small fine signaled to parents that arriving late was not that important. This new piece of information—that it was not so bad to be late—did not disappear once the fine was removed. Indeed, Gneezy and Rustichini (2000b) found that even in the long run, after the fine was removed, parents who had faced the fine were more likely to pick up their children late than were those in the control group. Once the message has been sent that being on time is not that important, it is hard to revert back to the original level of arriving late.

Hunters as Wildlife Conservationists

Need to investigate the details of the big game “unlimited hunting licenses” that are auctioned off at big hunting conventions. Hunters characterize themselves as the ultimate defenders of the very wildlife species they lust to kill by explaining that most of the money raised to conserve the wild animals and their habitats comes from license auctions for the right to shoot them.

It’s hard to argue against the notion that hunters have more right to claim protectorship of herds of animals than thoughtless defenders of the abstract notion of wildness who merely object to killing any animals under any circumstances but who have never seen one in the wild, have no interest in visiting wild places, don’t interact with or honor wild animals in any way, and wouldn’t know a wildebeest if one showed up in the bedroom.

Wildlife Lovers Threaten Wildlife

Follow up on the story of the wildlife conservators who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into raising a small flock of whooping cranes (when the world population had dwindled to 13). One of the group piloted an ultralight aircraft to TEACH the flock a new migratory route to a nature preserve in Florida in the hope that the new flock would prosper, breed themselves, and migrate annually on their own thereafter. They landed the flock temporarily in a fenced enclosure open to the sky so that, once acclimated, the birds could choose a nearby nesting site on their own.

They did:

In an elderly couple’s back yard where the birds found multiple bird feeders to dine at. “Vandals” shot 6 of the birds who had come to feed, and the conservation team was worried that interaction with the couple that were feeding them would “domesticate” the rest of the flock, the opposite of their intentions. The couple, who loved the birds, could not be dissuaded from likely dooming them to human dependence or extinction by continuing to feed them, and the whole project of raising new “wild” life was undermined by good intentions.