On how tolerating big mistakes can create the biggest learning opportunities

One of those desirable difficulties is known as the “generational effect.” Struggling to generate an answer on your own, even a wrong one, enhances subsequent learning. Socrates was apparently on to something when he forces pupils to generate answers rather than bestowing them. It requires the learner to intentionally sacrifice current performance for future benefit.

Kornell and psychologist Janet Metcalfe tested sixth graders in the South Bronx on vocabulary learning, and varied how they studied in order to explore the generation effect. Students were given some of the words and definitions together. For example, To discuss something in order to come to an agreement: Negotiate. For others, they were shown the only definition and given a little time to think of the right word, even if they had no clue, before it was revealed. When they were tested later, students did way better on the definition-first words. The experiment was repeated on students at Columbia University, with more obscure words (Characterized by haughty scorn: Supercilious). The results were the same. Being forced to generate answers improves subsequent learning even if the generated answer is wrong. It can even help to be wildly wrong. Metcalfe and colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated a “hypercorrection effect.” The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistake can create the biggest learning opportunities.

Excerpt from: Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

 

On expert predictions (beware)

The average expert was a horrific forecaster. Their areas of specialty, years of experience, academic degrees, and even (for some) access to classified information made no difference. They were bad at short-term forecasting, bad at long-term forecasting, and bad at forecasting in every domain. When experts declared that some future event was impossible or nearly impossible, it nonetheless occurred 15 percent of the time. When they declared a sure thing, it failed to transpire more than one-quarter of the time. The Danish proverb that warns “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” was right. Dilettantes who were pitted against the experts were no more clairvoyant, but at least they were less likely to call future events either impossible or sure things, leaving them with fewer laugh-out-loud errors to atone for — if, that was, the experts had believed in atonement.

Excerpt from: Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

On the difficulty of making predictions (even by experts)

In separate work, from 2000 to 2010 German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer compiled annual dollar-euro exchange rate predictions made by twenty-two of the most prestigious international banks — Barclays, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and others. Each year, every bank predicted the end-of-year exchange rate. Gigerenzer’s simple conclusion about those projections, from some of the worlds most prominent specialists: “Forecasts of dollar-euro exchange rates are worthless.” In six of the ten years, the true exchange rate fell outside the entire range of all twenty-two bank forecasts.

Excerpt from: Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

On how much the analogies we use can shape our thinking

An experiment on Stanford international relations students during the Cold War provided a cautionary tale about relying on kind-world reasoning — that is, drawing only from the first analogy that feels familiar. The students were told that a small, fictional democratic country was under threat from a totalitarian neighbor, and they had to decide how the United States should respond. Some students were given descriptions that likened the situation to World War II (refugees in boxcars; a president “from New York:, the same state as FDR”; a meeting in “Winston Churchill Hall”). For others, it was likened to Vietnam, (a president “from Texas. the same as LBJ,” and refugees in boats). The international relations students who were reminded of World War II were far more likely to choose to go to war; the students reminded of Vietnam opted for nonmilitary diplomacy. That phenomenon has been documented all over the place. College football coaches rated the same player’s potential very differently depending on what former player was likened to an introductory description, even with all other information kept exactly the same.

Excerpt from: Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein