Monday, May 2, 2016

Select or explore

When we finish a good book, we face a barren time of trying to find the next one.  The previous chapter of Algorithms to Live By was about optimal stopping.  How many possible books should we consider before picking a book to read?  The next chapter is about the related question: should we read one that seems good or should be go exploring for something better?  For me, the question is more suitably put in terms of restaurants.  Should we return to a favorite place, where we expect to have a good time and a good meal or should we give ourselves some variety and try a new place, where we might well have an inferior time?

Each time, we return to the same place, we increase the feeling of it being the same place.  Each time we order the same item, we increase the sameness of our experience.  We grow more accustomed to what was once notably superior.  When we watch a new star athlete demolish the competition, we are excited.  When we see the same athlete continue to squash all comers for year after year, it can be boring, predictable, old hat.  We start to look for our star to age, to be defeated, something new and different to happen.

We naturally aim for quality but when we get it, it becomes habitual and expected.  It becomes the norm and no longer excels. Since I taught the fifth graders considered to be less able than the rest of the grade, I have had an interest in who gets the highest grades and why.  Comparative grading is more or less built into the human nervous system.  Ornstein in "Multimind" (1986) points out four main ways our senses note events in the world: recency, vividness, comparison and significance.  It just happened, it struck us as especially gripping, it was more something that we are used to (bigger, faster, slower, some other comparison or superlative) and it had deep significance, as when a bird on the window sill speaks in English to us).  But, no matter how shocking or impressive, given some repetitions, we begin to be accustomed.  We become used to the experience. That is often when our animal curiosity, possibly egged on by others, begins to ask,"Can we change?  Is there something better?  Is this even as good as we had before?"

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