August 04, 2015

Experimental Considerations Touching on the Art of Winning Lotteries

Attention conservation notice: Facile moral philosophy, loosely tied to experimental sociology.

Via I forget who, Darius Kazemi explaining "How I Won the Lottery". The whole thing absolutely must be watched from beginning to end.

Kazemi is, of course, absolutely correct in every particular. What he says in his talk about art goes also for science and scholarship. Effort, ability, networking — these can, maybe, get you more tickets. But success is, ultimately, chance.

I say this not just because it resonates with my personal experience, but because of actual experimental evidence. In a series of very ingenious experiments, Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts have constructed "artificial cultural markets" — music download sites where they could manipulate how (if at all) previous consumers' choices fed into the choices of those who came later. In one setting, for example, people saw songs listed in order of decreasing popularity, but when you came to the website you were randomly assigned to one of a number of sub-populations, and you only saw popularity within your sub-population. Simplifying somewhat (read the papers!), what Salganik et al. showed is that while there is some correlation in popularity across the different experimental sub-populations, it is quite weak. Moreover, as in the real world, the distribution of popularity is ridiculously heavy tailed (and skewed to the right): the same song can end up dominating the charts or just scraping by, depending entirely on accidents of chance (or experimental design).

In other words: lottery tickets.

If one has been successful, it is very tempting to think that one deserves it, that this is somehow reward for merit, that one is somehow better than those who did not succeed and were not rewarded. The moral to take from Kazemi, and from Salganik et al., is that while those who have won the lottery are more likely to have done something to get multiple tickets than those who haven't, they are intrinsically no better than many losers. How, then, those who find themselves holding winning tickets should act is another matter, but at the least they oughtn't to delude themselves about the source of their good fortune.

Linkage; Commit a Social Science; Complexity

Posted at August 04, 2015 23:11 | permanent link

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