Friday, June 6, 2014

The near miss effect -- what compulsive gamblers and tech reporters have in common

A few days ago I posted a bit of a rant about how excited tech reporters got over a Google press release about the company's driverless car. The problem was that, based on the details available in the reports, there didn't seem to be any significant indications of increased functionality.

Of course, reporters have a strong incentive to see signs of progress -- "just around the corner" sells better than "don't get your hopes up" -- but I think this eagerness has more than one cause (most things do) and I wonder if one of those factors might have something to do with the near-miss effect as described in this memorable story from This American Life:

Sarah Koenig

Habib and especially Dixon have spent a long time studying what's called the near-miss effect. In slot machines, a near miss is just what it sounds like. It's when, say, two cherries line up on the payoff line, and then the third is about to come but stops just short or just past the payoff line.

Sarah Koenig

In 2006, Dixon teamed up with Habib to see if they could figure out what was happening to people neurologically when they saw near misses. They scanned the brains of 22 gamblers-- 11 addicted, or what they called pathological gamblers, and 11 non-pathological gamblers-- as all these people watch near misses on slot machine displays.
The results surprised them. Because while both addicted and non-addicted gamblers said the near misses felt more like wins, their brains said something different. Here's Reza Habib.

Reza Habib

What you see in the non-pathological gamblers is that the regions that are activated for losses, those same regions tend to be also activated for near misses. And so the brain, at least, processes these near misses in the same way that it processes losses in the non-pathological gamblers. In pathological gamblers, the same regions that are activated for wins are also activated for near misses.
And so these include regions such as the amygdala, which is a region involved in emotional processing, as well as parts of the brain stem which are involved in reward and dopamine function, which is part of the reward system. So the pathological gamblers, their brains, at least, are responding to these near misses in the same way that they respond to wins.

Mark Dixon

This is Mark again. And one of the effects of this, or the implications of these data, are that a pathological gambler going into the casino who's actually losing, his brain is firing like he's winning. Disturbing, isn't it.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. It's crazy.

Mark Dixon

Oh, it's way crazy. And so you are experiencing those same sensations as a win when you're not winning.

Just as casinos are very good at eliciting the reactions associated with winning even when very little winning is going on, companies like Apple and Google have become very good at eliciting the reactions associated with technological progress even when the technology is advancing little and sometimes not at all. In this case, Google assumed correctly that, by showing journalists a prototype that looked different but apparently did nothing new, the reporters would react as if they had seen an advance in the technology. They respond to these meaningless press conferences in much the same way as a pathological gambler responds to two cherries out of three.

If anything, the shift to custom-made, low-speed cars would seem to be a sign of trouble. Google's stated goal is to release this technology to manufacturers in 2018. Whenever you're designing complex systems that have to work with complex systems designed by others, compatibility is usually more than half the battle. I would therefore expect some of the most daunting engineering challenges to come from getting Google's technology to work smoothly with a wide range of makes and models. The decision to go from road testing Toyota Priuses ('Prii' believe it or not) and Audi TTs to track testing what are basically go-carts does not make the four year goal look more likely.

What happens if that deadline isn't met? I suspect it will still be business as usual. Google has proven that merely symbolic progress or, failing even that, just bringing the subject up is enough to create the desired effect of public perception. My guess is that the only real deadline is beating GM, Mercedes-Benz, or Nissan or any of the other companies that have equally gifted engineers working on these problems (but with less gifted PR departments to promote them).

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