More information and openness is not always a good thing – via @TimHarford

Tim Harford has an interesting article on the murkier side of transparency – i.e. how more information is not always better.

For example, he talks about how Toronto installed countdown timers at various traffic signals, giving pedestrians an idea of how many seconds they have to cross the road. Since they installed these signals on only some intersections and not others, some researchers used this opportunity to study the impact of the timers on the accident rate.

Their findings:

You might well anticipate that the countdowns would make junctions less dangerous, by telling pedestrians whether or not they have time to cross in safety. Toronto’s traffic planners certainly seemed to believe that would be the case. They were wrong. The new signals caused more accidents.

How is this possible? Here is the suggested explanation:

If a signal is about to turn red for pedestrians crossing at a junction, then drivers who are trying to get across the junction in the same direction are also about to get a red light. Since there was more speeding and more rear-end collisions after the countdown signals were installed, Kapoor and Magesan reckon the natural explanation is that some drivers were accelerating into the junction to avoid being delayed, just as other drivers were slowing down.

This idea, that more information can actually hurt, shows up in other places too. Here is an example of a study conducted on hospitals which insisted that success rates of individual doctors/surgeons be published.

Ten years ago, David Dranove, Daniel Kessler, Mark McClellan and Mark Satterthwaite looked at the impact of mandatory “report cards” in New York and Pennsylvania, which published data on the performance of individual doctors, hospitals or both.

One might imagine that this information would, at the very least, be convenient. At best it should spur physicians to improve their skills because patients would seek out the very best. But the researchers looked at the impact on cardiac surgery, and found a tragic side effect: once doctors and hospitals knew that their success rates would be published, they had a strong incentive to operate on the healthiest patients. The best hospitals had their pick of the sick and selected easy cases. Meanwhile patients with more complicated conditions were more likely to have surgery postponed. The net result: more money was spent, yet more people died of heart attacks.

In other words, sometimes it pays to make information available only selectively:

Publishing clear information is often a way to make the world a better place – but not always. Sometimes it pays to be selective. Doctors could benefit from report cards, provided their patients never find out what they said. And Toronto’s countdown signals would work perfectly if only they could be hidden from drivers.

Read the full article

To appreciate or not to appreciate kids/students

Recently, a friend of mine asked me this question:

In my last few interactions with freshers, I have found some to be really good. Although a lot of my conversations with freshers covers encouragement and motivational phrases, I also appreciate (from my heart) good work when I see it, good thoughts as soon as I hear it.

But I have realized that appreciation gets to their head, and they just stop delivering immediately. A day or 2 from the appreciation they just stop.

I was talking to one of my friends and he said something that surprised me. He said, dont appreciate in lots, infact do it in phases. Club appreciation with some criticism/feedback. Freshers have use this a way of feeling really good and actually start thinking that they will get 50L jobs starting tomorrow.

Throw some light on this. I am looking for some wisdom here.

I don’t really have enough expertise in this area, so I did not really venture an opinion.

However, I do remember reading about some research in the area of kids’ motivation, which essentially said this:

Do not praise the achievement. Praise the effort.

Here are more details from an New Yorker Magazine article about experiments conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck and her team:

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

These days, I am skeptical of these psychological studies since they study some tiny aspect of psychological theory in isolation, and there is no guarantee that any of this really works in practice. As someone said, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.

But that article does have a lot of interesting insights to chew up.

In any case, those who have some experience in this area (those with grown up kids, or those with some sort of a teaching background, or any other relevant experience), can you weigh in on this topic. What do you think?

(You should also check out the comments on this topic on my Facebook page)