Sunday, August 21, 2011

Options have a cost associated with them

This observation bears repeating:

First, a lack of alternative opportunities can force us to concentrate on developing skills. The kid who spends countless hours practicing football or music becomes much more proficient - and possibly rich - than one who, faced with many opportunities, flits between them and becomes a mere dilettante. A big reason why I got into Oxford - and from there a decent income was a small step - was that, in the days before computer games, I had nothing else to do.

There’s an analogy here with the arts. As Jon Elster points out in Sour Grapes, great art often arises because of constraints. 78 records which limited recordings to three minutes produced lots of great music whereas free jazz and atonality is often unlistenable. Old black and white films with no special effects are often superior to multi-million pound CGI ones. And so on. Excellence often arises from limited choice, and mediocrity from freedom.

I think that this is a very important insight. In sports, we have rules that make the games, themselves, more interesting. A game like Calvinball rapidly becomes uninteresting as one gets older. It is only within a cleanly defined decision space that you can compare degrees of excellence.

I think that this insight has a lot of applications to broader contexts. Removing constraints does not always lead to a uniform improvement in the result. If we took away required classes, I suspect the median student would end up less well educated in epidemiology (is this true for other fields? I'd venture to say that the same would be true in statistics but my exposure beyond that is limited).

I think, as I age, I begin to think that Aristotle (with the ideal of the Golden Mean) was a very clever guy. In particular, it's possible we spend a lot of time comparing two local minima (the two extremes of policy) and ignoring the global maxima (the middle ground between these extremes).

1 comment:

  1. Robert Frost: [writing free verse was like] "playing tennis without a net".