Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations

“The Forer Effect is a trick used by astrologers, psychics, and social psychologists…What statements show a Forer effect? Wikipedia just says they should be vague and somewhat positive. Can we do better?…

…Or you could phrase them as affirmations, or arguments for self-compassion…

– Scott Alexander, “Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations.” astralcodexten.substack.com. July 26, 2022

I found the concept of the Forer Effect and the exercise or turning it around interesting. But, I think where it fails for me is I think trying to compare ourselves to the internal states of other people, an experience we do not have direct access to and can only guess at, is rarely an exercise that has value. We do not know what other people’s lives are like. And, for those whom we have a lot more interaction and might be able to guess, it’s largely irrelevant.

My wife is someone who seems genuinely happy as a default state. Does it make any sense to use what I imagine her experience is of the world as a comparison for my experience? I assume I am different from her and from most people. I think the real question here is whether a given behavior is adaptive or maladaptive. Is my self-criticism, on net, a positive or a negative in my life? Is my sense of being different from other people a positive or negative force in my life?

When you reframe this discussion and try to get away from comparison and think instead of other ways of being, or perhaps other times in your own life, you are at least interacting with your lived experience and trying to do something to improve it. Personally, ‘I find questions like: does anyone else experience/believe/whatever X?’ to be in the same category. Whether other people have similar experiences is largely irrelevant, isn’t it?

We live in an environment where we are constantly being manipulated and influenced. Of course, everyone feels critical of themselves and awkward because we are products of that environment. If we lived as hunter gatherers 500,000 years ago, the uncertainty and doubts we have would be completely different. So, the fact other people have the same outlook and behaviors that you do is not surprising. It would be surprising if they were much different.

So, perhaps the more interesting question is: how am I different than most people? Or, as Scott Alexander puts it:

“These affirmations aren’t foolproof. 50% of people are in the top 50% of most-sexually-awkward people, and 1% of people are in the top 1% most sexually-awkward. When I read these, I feel like most of the time I can think “Ah yes, this is a Forer Effect, good thing I caught myself before I believed it”, and then for one or two of them I think “No, I am just literally objectively in the top 10% of the population on that trait.” This is why I’m calling these “potential updates” instead of “absolutely correct articles of dogma”.

-ibid.

To me, this is the more interesting question. If you are going to engage in comparison, which I don’t think you should – i.e., comparison is the thief of happiness, wouldn’t it be more interesting to focus on where you are truly different from others?

How a Public School in Florida Built America’s Greatest Math Team

“A single, otherwise unremarkable public high school in Florida has won 13 out of the most recent 14 National Math Championships, a staggeringly successful dynasty for an otherwise average school. It’s accomplished this through treating math competition as any other sport, identifying talent as early as elementary school and developing them over the course of several years through a completely redesigned curriculum. An emphasis on speed also is crucial, and the results are pretty inarguable: The margin of victory at the national title over the past 14 years has averaged 315 points, which in 2021 jumped to 920 points.”

Walt Hickey, “Lottos, ShotSpotter, Mathletes.” Numlock News. July 15, 2022

The Wall Street Journal article is pretty interesting, I particularly liked this comment:

Will Frazer popped out of his flaming red Corvette as his students were trickling into the classrooms. A bond trader on Wall Street in the 1980s, Mr. Frazer retired young and moved to Florida, where he became a scratch golfer and lived the dream for a decade. Then he got bored.

He took a job at Buchholz coaching golf, switched to teaching math, quickly formed a math team, applied the lessons of his experience in finance and turned a bunch of teenage quants into a fearsome winning machine.

“The difference between what I do now and what I did on Wall Street is that I used to get paid money,” said Mr. Frazer, 63. “Now we get trophies.”

-Ben Cohen, “How a Public School in Florida Built America’s Greatest Math Team.” The Wall Street Journal. July 4, 2022

Paying someone to find and develop talent works not only for math, but pretty much everything in life. It makes you wonder why communities do not pay people to do this kind of thing for qualities they want more of. Want more STEM majors? Want more soccer players? Want chess champions? There’s a technique for that.

László Polgár also offers an interesting example because he was not able to select for top talent, he simply helped develop it in his own children. Presumably, if he had interest, there might be genetic factors in play, but I’d guess the bulk of his daughter’s success came from development. No reason this couldn’t be replicated in a million different ways. In the age-old question of Nature vs. Nurture, it would probably lead to a lot better outcomes if we tried a lot more nurture.