Revisiting a classic finding: the fallacy of the hot hand

(*In honor of the upcoming NBA playoffs, a brief post on, for my money, the big paradox of professional basketball: the myth of the hot hand.)

Despite a long and fruitful career full of notable findings, Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich is perhaps most well known for a study he conducted with psychologists Amos Tversky and Robert Vallone 25 years ago when he presented a devastating debunking of the sports phenomena known as the “hot hand.”

The hot hand refers to the belief that success in basketball (and elsewhere) is self perpetuating. That is, a player can “get into a groove” after making a couple of shots such that making a shot leads to the higher likelihood of making the next shot. String together a bunch of these and you’ve got yourself a hot hand. Tune into any basketball game and you’ll inevitably hear an announcer say, “he’s in the zone” or “he can’t miss right now” about a player with a hot hand.

If this is true, one should look at a set of all made shots and all missed shots for some entity, such as one team for an entire year, and see that players made more shots after hits than they did after misses. Gilovich and his colleagues did just that, and that’s not what they found. They found that a player was just as likely to miss as make a shot after a previous make. But what about the possibility that opposing defense becomes tougher after a guy has made a few? Or what if he starts taking more difficult shots?

To control for these possibilties, they looked at free throws, which control for both of those factors in that there is no defensive pressure and shots are always taken from the same distance. A look at two seasons worth of free throws from the Boston Celtics showed second shots were completely independent of first shots. That is, if a player made the first free throw, he was no more likely to make the second one than if he missed the first one.

As a sports fan, I’ve always had a difficult time accepting this. (I’m not alone: the famed coach Bobby Knight responded to the study by saying, ” … there are so many variables involved in shooting the basketball that a paper like this really doesn’t mean anything.” Red Auerbach was even more blunt: “Who is this guy? So he makes a study? I couldn’t care less.” ) It just seems so counterintuitive that success or failure wouldn’t have some systematic effect on subsequent performance.

It’s a seeming truism that professional athletes (and performing artists, for that matter) perform best when they’re not thinking about how they’re playing. And it’s widely known by sports psychologists that thinking too much about one’s form in any given sport, whether it be shooting the basketball or attempting to sink a putt, can have deleterious effects on performance. So it seems plausible to imagine that success (or lack thereof) on the basketball court could alter one’s mental state in a way that could systematically alter performance. But, that’s not what the data says.

In the two decades plus since Gilovich, Vallone and Tversky’s seminal paper, the hot hand fallacy has been subject to a great deal of scrutiny and doubt, but the original finding has generally held up. One study controlled for time between shots but still found no evidence for the hot hand (Adams, 1992). Others have suggested that statistics are insufficient to handle the complexity of the game (Larkey, 1989). In 2009, John Huizinga from the Chicago Booth School of Business and Sandy Weil analyzed almost a million shots from 49 star players (unpublished; here for more details) and found, contrary to the existence of the hot hand, that NBA stars were more likely to miss after a made shot than after a miss. According to their analysis, this was more likely to happen after jump shots than non-jump shots (layups or dunks).

The implications of all this are that teams shouldn’t be looking to feed the ball to a guy just because he’s made a few in a row. But despite the ample support that hot hands don’t exist, you won’t have any easy time convincing many players or coaches of this.

A post game synopsis from an LA Lakers game last fall:

Jackson’s rationale for leaving Vujacic out entails the fact that Shannon Brown scored 16 points on six of nine shooting in 21 minutes. That led Jackson to “ride the hot hand,” as he called it, even if he had planned for Vujacic to defend against Houston guard Kevin Martin…

Even Phil Jackon, probably the most successful NBA coach in modern times, cites “the hot hand” as basis for his personnel decisions.

In Gilovich’s book summarizing the work, How We Know What Isn’t So, he talks to former NBA star World B. Free about the hot hand. “If I’m on, I find that confidence just builds . . . you feel nobody can stop you. It’s important to hit that first one, especially if it’s a swish. Then you hit another, and . . . you feel like you can do anything.”

This line of thinking, that success breeds success, is certainly feasible in many aspects of one’s life. Financial success can lead to further success, as profit can lead to more profit through increased capital. In one’s professional life, success can have a powerful effect on how one is perceived by others and promote increased success through an enhanced reputation. But, on the basketball court, the implications are quite clear. There are many factors that go into deciding – say, during crunch time of a close game – who should get the ball. A simple heuristic might be to give the ball to the guy with the highest shooting percentage. But what if he’s having an off night due to injury? Or being consistently double teamed? Perhaps your second best shooter gets the call. Many factors might inform the decision. But, according to everything the data is telling us, the “hot hand” should not be one of them.

References
GILOVICH, T. (1985). The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences Cognitive Psychology, 17 (3), 295-314 DOI: 10.1016/0010-0285(85)90010-6

Adams, R. (1992). The “Hot Hand” Revisited: Successful Basketball Shooting as a function of intershot interval.Perceptual and Motor Skills, 74 (3) DOI: 10.2466/PMS.74.3.934-934

Larkey, P. D., Smith, R. A., & Kadane, J. B. (1989). It’s okay to believe in the ‘‘hot hand’’.
Chance: New Directions for Statistics and Computing, 2, 22 – 30.

ResearchBlogging.org

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Disorder increases Stereotyping and Discrimination

The study previously summarized in this post was formally retracted in December 2011.
The retraction is the first in what is expected to be a slew of retractions of papers by lead author Diderik Stapel based entirely on falsified data.

Stapel was removed from his position at Tilburg University in November 2011 after an investigative committee at the university concluded he faked data on as many as dozens of papers over the past several years. Read a concise summary of how Stapel pulled this all off here.

Stapel’s mea culpa is below. Note that while his apology seems sincere, he can’t resist blaming his actions on the field itself, the pressure to publish often, etc. And he says he didn’t do it for selfish ends. Sorry buddy, but everyone else in the field is under the same pressure as you were but they don’t go around publishing papers based on fake data. They work their asses off and actually collect data (arguably the hardest part of the whole endeavor) before writing a study up and submitting it. What you did was for entirely selfish reasons. You did it to advance your career beyond what would have been possible if you played by the rules.

“I failed as a scientist. I adapted research data and fabricated research. Not once, but several times, not for a short period, but over a longer period of time. I realize that I shocked and angered my colleagues, because of my behavior. I put my field, social psychology in a bad light. I am ashamed of it and I deeply regret it.
… I think it is important to emphasize that I never informed my colleagues of my inappropriate behavior. I offer my colleagues, my PhD students, and the complete academic community my sincere apologies. I am aware of the suffering and sorrow that I caused to them.
… I did not withstand the pressure to score, to publish, the pressure to get better in time. I wanted too much, too fast. In a system where there are few checks and balances, where people work alone, I took the wrong turn. I want to emphasize that the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.”

UPDATE (2.26.2012): Tilburg University is conducting an investigation of Stapel’s entire body of work and won’t announce verdicts on specific studies until after the investigation in concluded.

Mirror Neurons and Mentalizing

Perhaps few findings in the cognitive sciences have received more press in recent years than the discovery by Rizolatti and colleagues in macque monkeys of mirror neurons; that is, neurons that preferentially activate both when a monkey performs some action and when observing someone else perform the same action. There is evidence that these neurons exist in humans, although it’s indirect (however, see Keysers 2010). They’ve quite captivated the publics’ attention, these crafty little neurons.

The mirror neuron system is thought to help primates, non-human and human, understand what others are doing by simulating the motor plan of an observed action and also allowing for prediction of the most likely outcome of an observed action. In other words, mirror neurons are sensitive both to actions and outcomes, and to some extent, inferring the why behind the what. Many have suggested that they play a significant role in comprehending mental states and empathic processes. But it’s in regards to these latter claims where the evidence is not as clear.

So, how does the brain intuit others’ inherently unobservable mental states in the absence of biological action? Much of the research evidence points to the mentalizing system, also known as the theory-of-mind network, as the neural network tasked to the job (see meta-analysis by Van Overwalle and Baetens, 2009). Anatomically speaking, these networks are distinct, with the mirror neurons located primarily in the ifraparietal sulcus, superior temporal sulcus and the prefrontal cortex, while the mentalizing system constitutes a distinct set of brain regions that lie along the cortical midline and in the temporal lobes, including the mPFC, TPJ, temporal poles, PCC and posterior STS.

One of the big challenges in this area of research is in designing tasks that are able to effectively disentangle processing of motor action from mentalizing. This is quite a challenge because it’s difficult to know what kind of mental process participants are applying to any given set of social stimuli. Do participants engage in higher-order abstract mentalizing automatically, and even when the stimuli might not necessarily demand it? How can we know what mental process subjects are engaging in? In other words, how might one capture the distinction between perceiving what others are doing vs. obtaining a more abstract representation of why they might be doing it?

UCLA’s Bob Spunt and colleagues (2011) designed a study that would attempt to do just that. They had participants observe short video clips of a human performing an action and directed the participants, in the scanner, to covertly describe each video clip in terms of (1) what an actor was doing, (2) why he was doing it, (3) how we was doing it or (4) to just passively view the video. They were to start the process of covert description once the video started playing, begin their description with the word “he” (e.g. he is reading) and to press a button once they were done.

(Thanks to the researchers for providing the video)

For example, in the above example, participants might have covertly described that the man is reading (WHAT), that he wants to learn or is bored (WHY), or that he is flipping pages or gripping the book (HOW).

This had the effect of creating three levels of mentalizing “depth” while holding the action component constant. If the mirror neuron network was involved in the mentalizing process, then one would expect to see neural activation increases in the mirror neuron network covarying with the increase in participants presumed mentalizing about the actor. And if the mirror neuron network was involved in mentalizing, then one would expect to see increased activations in neural regions which have been previously suggested to contain mirror neurons.

Results
In support of the theory that mirror neurons don’t play a significant role in mentalizing, the researchers found no increase in the mirror neuron network in response to increases in mentalizing. But they did find increased activation in brain regions associated with mentalizing, including dorsal and ventral medial pFC, posterior cingulate cortex, and the temporal poles.

Conclusion
The study does provide another piece of support to the position that although the mirror neuron system might be necessary in understanding actions of the body, it’s not sufficient to explain the cognitive processes required to infer unobservable mental states.

References
Spunt, R., Satpute, A., & Lieberman, M. (2011). Identifying the What, Why, and How of an Observed Action: An fMRI Study of Mentalizing and Mechanizing during Action Observation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23 (1), 63-74 DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21446

Keysers, C., & Gazzola, V. (2010). Social Neuroscience: Mirror Neurons Recorded in Humans Current Biology, 20 (8) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.03.013

Van Overwalle F, & Baetens K (2009). Understanding others’ actions and goals by mirror and mentalizing systems: a meta-analysis. NeuroImage, 48 (3), 564-84 PMID: 19524046

ResearchBlogging.org

Soap, Sex and the Dirty Liberal

Do you find Rush Limbaugh more palatable after vs. before taking a bath? Might you be more inclined to linger on the Bill O’Reilly Show while channel flipping in a recently-mopped and cleaned room compared to a dirty and disheveled one?

Perhaps you just might. At least, that’s what recent research from Cornell’s Erik Helzer and David Pizarro suggests. Their just published study showed that reminding people of physical cleanliness made them report being more politically conservative and also led them to make harsher moral judgments when considering mildly perverted sex acts.

The study builds upon work showing links between moral judgment and the subjective experiences of bodily purity and visceral disgust. Recent studies have shown that individuals who experienced disgust in response to foul odors or by sitting at a dirty desk, judged the moral transgressions of others far more harshly compared to controls. The general idea behind these and other studies is that moral judgments are in part based on emotional responses which originally evolved for other purposes. For example, visceral disgust — say, the kind one might experience when smelling rotten meat — likely evolved as a means of detecting and avoiding harmful pathogens. The argument, as it goes, suggests that self-reported moral disgust responses to, for example, a visible display of homosexual affection (two men kissing) could be subserved by the same system from which “visceral disgust” responses emerge. The current study builds on this work with a crafty two-part experiment.

In the first study, participants were approached in the hallway of a campus building and asked to complete a questionnaire, which asked three questions about political orientation. Participants were instructed to stand either near a hand sanitizing station (the experimental condition) or step over to a wall where there was no hand sanitizer nearby (the control condition) to complete the questionnaire. Those who stood near the hand sanitizing station rated themselves as being more conservative than the control group.

In the second study a wall sign commanding researchers to “use hand wipes” before typing at a computer served as a reminder of cleanliness. Additionally, while the moral judgement task was introduced, participants were asked to use a hand wipe before starting. In the control condition, there was no sign and subjects weren’t asked to wipe their hands. First, participants filled out the political orientation questionnaire from experiment 1. As in the first study, participants in the cleanliness condition rated themselves as more conservative. Then participants engaged in the moral judgment task in which they were asked to rate their moral approval of sex-related items, such as:

“A woman enjoys masturbating while cuddling with her favorite teddy bear”
“After a late-term miscarriage, a woman asks her doctors to take a picture of her cradling the miscarried fetus.” (phew!)

Participants who received the cleanliness reminder issued harsher moral judgments of sexual acts than the control group. As a within-group control, both groups were also asked to rate their level of approval of non-sexual but purity related items such as “As a practical joke, a man unwraps his office mate’s lunch and places it in a sterilized bed pan” and non-sexual, non-purity related items that described people lying on their taxes, or forging a reference letter. For these latter two groups of items, there was no difference between control and experimental groups. Only the sexual items were rated more harshly by those in the “cleanliness” condition. In sum, reminders to maintain cleanliness led to increased conservativeness and harsher moral judgments for sexual violations of purity but not for non-sexual and/or non-purity related violations.

The paper adds to the growing body of work supporting the idea that moral condemnation may have evolved by piggybacking onto evolutionarily older systems originally dedicated mainly to survival via “literal” pathogen avoidance and concern with personal cleanliness and only later being adapted for a more uniquely human purpose. One big question that emerges from this work is: what comes first? The cognitive disposition or the ideology? The author’s suggest that the evidence supports a bidirectional explanation. Beyond that it’s mostly speculation.

Also unclear is the question of the relationship between moral condemnation and moral behavior. Does one predict the other? Conservatives often describe themselves as adhering to higher moral standards when it comes to sex than liberals. And they tend not to be supportive of “alternative” lifestyles, especially romantic relationships between homosexuals. Conversely, most liberals take pride in their embrace of a wider range of lifestyle choices and more progressive sexual attitudes. But, this is not to suggest that either conservatives’ or liberals’ attitudes necessarily maps directly on to their behavior. People sometimes say the wrong thing and do the right thing. Or, conversely, say the right thing and do the wrong thing.

Reference

Helzer EG, & Pizarro DA (2011). Dirty Liberals!: Reminders of Physical Cleanliness Influence Moral and Political Attitudes. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 21421934

ResearchBlogging.org

There, but for the grace of providence and probability theory, go I

Note: This post veers away from what I normally write about here. It’s long. It’s personal. It’s not rigorously scientific (although it does touch on a couple of psychological theories and employs some rudimentary statistical analysis). It involves speculation, opinion and a little bit of preaching and teaching. But it does touch on how one might take an empirical approach to thinking about how to fulfill a creative, artistic life through optimal decision making. And although the ideas contained herein are framed in terms of my former mistress, the goddess of music, the ideas are essentially “domain general” and could be applied in any number of different creative arenas.

The Setup
In 1990 I got a call from keyboardist John Medeski to come up to his retreat in upstate New York and play some music. He wanted to explore some musical ideas, he said, looking to put together a little unit for a weekend of jamming, perhaps have some BBQ, and see what happened. It sounded like fun. John, although not yet nationally known, was an outstanding musician. But I didn’t do it, because I had gigs booked. Nothing amazing – just a couple of little bullshit corporate gigs – but they paid cash and I’d just moved to NYC and was broke all of the time. I couldn’t afford to turn down paying work, so I declined.

Medeski is the founder and leader of the group Medeski, Martin and Wood, a mostly instrumental band who’ve released 15 or so albums, earning a loyal fan base and strong critical acclaim. Did John’s call and proposed session represent the early stages of MMW? I’m not sure but it certainly seems within in the realm of possibility. For the sake of argument let’s assume that’s the case. Seventeen years later, that band is still going strong, seemingly having provided some modicum of fame and fortune for all involved.

Of course, the only thing that makes the story of interest is that MMW went on to become such a success. Of course, I remember the Medeski call well. But I used to get calls like that quite a bit from musicians in the early stages of putting a project together. And as Medeski’s call is memorable precisely because of his later success, other such calls have since disappeared into the ether. It wouldn’t be uncommon for someone in such a situation to experience a sense of regret – “I should have gone up for that weekend, eh?” But, is such regret really the appropriate response?

Probably not. Not appropriate, but perfectly natural, which begs a couple of questions:

Q1. How does one know to make the right decision when faced with a decision between two different musical/ artistic situations?

Q2. How does one deal with the sense of regret that often accompanies the kind of missed opportunity described above?

The remainder of the piece will attempt to provide some answers.

The Representativeness Bias

Have you ever had the experience of thinking about someone, let’s say your mom, only to have her call you at that exact moment? You’re not alone. Although one might be inclined to see these two events as being either causally related (your thinking about her caused her to call) or a sign of psychic ability, either of those explanations requires a belief in the supernatural. A simpler (and therefore more likely) explanation would be that you think about your mom frequently and she calls regularly, thus making favorable odds for a thought about and a call from her occurring simultaneously.

What do those odds look like? Perhaps it would be helpful to break it out statistically (I will henceforth be putting my math-statistics-probability theory nerd hat on; if that’s not your cup of tea, you can skip this section and go to the next paragraph below without really missing too much):

Category: Thoughts about mom (C)

Memorable examples: Thoughts about mom followed by a phone call from her (M)
Nonmemorable examples: Thoughts about mom not followed by a phone call from her (N)

There isn’t much solid data on how often we have passing thoughts about close others over the course of an average day (largely because this is very difficult to measure), so we’ll have to estimate, and I will proceed to do so (wildly). Lets say that you have 15 thoughts about your mom a day, or one every 64 minutes (based on a 16 hour waking day). If your mother calls you every day (ouch!), that puts the odds of her calling you within 5 minutes of a thought about her on any given day at about .08 or 8%. In other words, this should only happen 8 times every 100 days, or approximately 2 or 3 times per month. Finally, we’ll estimate that we might only remember 20% of the thoughts we have about her (again, there is no solid data out there regarding how many passing thoughts people actually remember having, so this is just a wild but intuitive-feeling estimate.)

In reality, over a 100 day period, you’re experiencing 1500 thoughts about her, with 8 coincidental thought/call combos. The actual thought-to-call ratio is .005 (In other words, The chance of any given thought being followed within 5 minutes by a call, is half of 1%.). But since we’re only consciously aware of 20% of the thoughts, or 3 thoughts a day, it will feel like this happens rather more frequently: the subjective thought to call ratio is FIVE TIMES GREATER, approximately 2.5% (In other words, we actually experience 187.5 thoughts to every 1 thought/call combo but it feels like 37 to 1, certainly a small enough ratio to create the sense there is something psychic going on.)

This is a highly-convoluted example of a cognitive bias known to psychologists as the “representativeness bias,” whereby we overestimate the prevalence of memorable examples of a given category and underestimate the less memorable examples when making decisions and judgments, or estimating the probabilities of certain events occurring.

Now, how might we apply this well documented bias to the way we think about the gigs we do and don’t take?

First, let’s define the categories:

Main Category: No- or low-pay projects declined in favor of paying gigs (“jam” sessions or get togethers, low paying gigs or tours with unsigned, or recently signed, bands or singer-songwriters)

Memorable examples: no-pay/low-pay projects, declined, which have gone on to be wildly successful
Nonmemorable examples: (a) no pay/low-play projects — — declined or accepted — which haven’t gone on to be successful

So, let’s imagine a musician named Rob, a professional session guitarist who earns a decent living. Over the course of a year, Rob gets about one call a week from someone asking him to participate in some kind of no- or low-paying project. Rob turns down most of those (40 to be exact) in favor of paying gigs, but he does accept 10 of the offers. None of the projects he participates in lead to any substantial success, but one of the projects he turned down led to a record deal/tour involving a decent amount of remuneration for all involved (too bad, buddy!). The question is: Does missing out on that opportunity cause Rob to start overweighting the probability of the future success of speculative projects? How much so?

Remember, what we’re interested in is the actual (real) vs. subjective (felt) odds of success. The actual odds of success are a simple calculation: 1 out of 50 or 2%. The subjective odds are slightly more complicated. First we need to add up all of the “opportunities” Rob actually recalls: 10 (accepted) + 1 (the one success) + 8 (the 20% of offers he rejected that are recalled) = 19. So, the odds of success feel like about 1 out of 19 or a little over 5%. Although it doesn’t seem like a huge difference – 2% vs. 5% – it does suggest that success will seem twice as more likely than it actually may be based on the actual data.

The take away message here is two fold: (1) most speculative projects are likely to fail and (2) missing out on a success will make future successes seem more likely than they actually are.

But this is crazy, right? One can’t apply statistical formulas to decisions about music or art? Can one? Intuitively, this may feel wrong to some people. Music is an organic and spiritual thing, not something that we can subject to dry probability formulas, some might say. The problem is that we often don’t know why we make the decisions we make. But we are intuitively computational creatures who create implicit statistical models of the world in order to help us successfully navigate it. Increasing our awareness as to how we make decisions might help us correct for certain errors. But, now I’m going to turn around and agree with the naysayers, and concur: the above data and formulas, although interesting, may not work so well in the context of musical/artistic decisions.

Why?

Because even the probability of success I’ve outlined above, even when biased, is only 5%! Most people are going to fail! Why would anyone pursue such a speculative undertaking? One has to be extremely committed and more than a little delusional to do so. I’ve merely suggested that probabilistic errors can make us slightly more delusional. But its really just a drop in the bucket when one considers the difficulty of become a working artist of any stripe. But, hey, if you wanted stability and a steady paycheck you would have become an accountant rather than a musician, right? So, given failure is the most likely outcome anyway, what’s the best approach?

I’m going to recommend making an important decision up front; that is, to decide whether you are going to be a musical artist or a musical artisan.

The Artisan
The rule for decision making for the musical artisan is simple: Paid gigs always prevail over non-paid gigs. My personal goal was to be a professional musician, to support myself entirely as a musician and to be doing so as quickly as possible. What this meant in reality was that I often favored paying gigs with low artistic value over those with high artistic value but no pay. And, although I paid my bills for many years through working as a musician, I led myself systematically, decision by decision, down a specific path. That is, the path of a skilled manual worker whose contributions to the world of music were generally functional or decorative in nature.

Our friend Rob, the guitarist described above, is a model of one form of contemporary working musician or “musical artisan.” He makes a comfortable living doing recording sessions, teaching, going on the road with various acts, performing the occasional corporate gig, subbing on Broadway, and cranking some industrial music out of his home studio. He also takes occasional club gigs with friends for the fun of it and is involved in a couple of speculative projects that may or may not yield some fruit. It took many years of hard work for him to get to this position and he should be rightly proud. His only regret is that he doesn’t have enough time to work on his own music. Rob writes and records his original compositions, and has gotten some good feedback from colleagues and people in the industry, but he just doesn’t have the time to focus on it, so his own music sits mostly on the back burner, as something he does on the side when time permits.

Without thinking about it too much, this is natural path many talented musicians will follow.

Personally, I was driven to claim myself as a professional, and motivated to do so because I’d been challenged on that front by family and by adults who spoke of how difficult it would be to “make it.” Plus, it carried some cultural cache to have earned one’s professional stripes and to become a full-fledged member of the “tribe.” Neither did I have any real appreciable skills in any other field. If you want to make a decent living, you’re more likely to do so as a musical artisan. Don’t waste your time playing for free or for little money on original projects that offer nothing but the promise of future success. Rather, focus on setting a decent price for your services and go after solid gigs with the realization that your contributions to the world of music will ultimately be more utilitarian than original. Of course, this doesn’t mean you won’t consider the artistic value of a given situation, it just means that you would be willing to lower your artistic standards if the price was right.

The Artist
On the other hand, you could decide to be an artist (putting aside for the moment the argument that artists don’t choose to be so, but, rather are themselves chosen). In this case, artistic value would prevail over money; you choose the $20 jazz gig over the $300 club date. The obvious challenge, of course, is making a living. An artist has a vision and stays true to it, knowing full well that he/she may not ultimately achieve monetary success (she might even ultimately abandon the artistic quest to become an artisan). The true artist attempts to “keep it pure,” and doesn’t strap the instrument on without a full commitment to expressing their singular artistic vision.

Why can’t one do both?

The question of what makes an artist is a difficult one. I hope I haven’t created the impressions of putting down the musical artisan. It’s worthy and important work. Some of my favorite drummers aren’t artists per se, but rather high-level artisans. The reason I’m harping on the commitment to the artist lifestyle is that I fear that some true artists, real visionaries, might be slipping through the cracks. By not defining themselves early on, making a definitive stand for their vision as it were, and also because of their desire to enter the working ranks, many who should be on the artistic path are reduced to being mere functionaries. I’ve seen it happen more than once to friends and colleagues, seen their unique voices silenced by success, by the siren’s call or by the need to buy diapers for their kid.

Legendary modernist classical composer Charles Ives famously made dual livings both as a composer and as an insurance executive (in fact, he was one of the originators of group insurance). I once heard a quote attributed to him to the effect, “One should never try to make a living from one’s art, lest their art be compromised.” ( I couldn’t find the original source so this is a bit of guess work). To me, this is the essence of what it meant to be a true artiste. Granted, not everyone can pull off high level artistic achievement while simultaneously working as an insurance exec. Nor would many musicians I know want to, many of whom take great pride in the fact that they keep the electric on, the rent paid and food in the fridge, solely from their earnings in the music biz. I was one of those. But I would argue that true artists would be less concerned with this accomplishment and more concerned with never compromising artistic integrity for money. The true artist NEVER chooses the money over the art. This is a level of commitment that most people can’t, and perhaps rightly shouldn’t, make. But it is a decision one can make BEFORE embarking on their careers.

What I’ve described may sound a bit unrealistic. Most musicians I know would say that they employ some consideration of both factors when making decisions about what projects to take on, some balance between artistic expression and compensation, such that the lower the artistic value, the more money is required and vice versa. I would agree that this is the approach most working musicians, including myself, have taken. But that artistic value is part of the concession process, does not mean that one is living as a true artist. What I’m suggesting is that the artist doesn’t compromise. Ever. Once money becomes a consideration, one is no longer functioning purely from an artistic vantage point. One cannot make a commitment like this in a casual way. This is why its important to determine early on what are the defining principles by which one is going to live one’s creative life.

Crying over spilled milk – The random walk
In the example I used to begin, the “missed opportunity” was the result of a conscious decision. Some sense of regret is to be expected. But what about opportunities missed purely by chance? Consider this story, told by Howard Grimes, the original drummer for the Stax record label. “[Stax] gave Booker T. an opportunity to record one day. I don’t know where I was, usually I was at home, but that day I left home. When I got back, my mother told me [Stax] had called. I was the staff drummer, but I called them back, and they said they had got someone else. I found out it was Al Jackson. Steve Cropper had recommended him. He called [Jackson] in that day for ‘Green Onions,’ and the rest is history. That was my shot and I missed it.”
Although Grimes’ miss was accidental, it was, nonetheless, clearly a source of regret.

And the closer we are to having missed an opportunity, the deeper the pain of the loss. Imagine the following scenario: two men are rushing to airport to catch a plane. Both arrive 30 minutes late. The first man’s flight left on time so he’s missed his flight by 30 minutes. But the second man’s slight is delayed 25 minutes and he only misses it by 5 minutes. Who feels the deeper the sense of regret? Intuition and experiment seem to suggest the second man will feel worse for having missed it by a narrower margin.

Missed opportunities hurt. And the narrower the margin by which they were missed, the greater the pain.
I offer the following example from my own experience (from the mid ’90s):

“I had booked a weekend of work out of town with a saxophone player, Mark Johnson, who had a record coming out on a pretty good sized label. This was to be his record release party and would be a big deal: the label was going to be there, radio promotion, etc…We did a fair amount of rehearsing for said gig, as it was an important one for him. Around the same time, I got a call to audition for another smooth jazz sax player, Warren Hill, who was a bit more established. He was looking for a new drummer and had three months of solid, and well paying, work booked. The only problem was his tour started the same weekend as the first sax players’ gigs in Chicago. I figured I’d just do the audition so I could meet the guy at least and get a relationship going. Hopefully I wouldn’t get the gig and won’t have to make a difficult decision. I went down and played, said thanks and went home with the mindset that I was still working that weekend. Next morning, I get a call from Warren’s keyboard player that Warren can’t decide between me and one other guy and he’s going to take a couple days to think about it. I know if he calls me for the gig, I’ll probably have to take it. I can’t turn down the money. Oh shit. Later that same day, I get another call, this one from the manager of a famous bebop trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard, one of my heroes, seeing if I was available for two dates for the upcoming weekend; one in Bermuda and one in the US. Now I’m really confused. I know that Freddie’s gig is just a one shot situation; I would just be subbing and probably wouldn’t do the gig again but it would be an amazing experience. I would have to cancel Mark’s gig and risk losing it entirely and if I got Warren’s gig I would have to turn it down and lose out on three months steady work. I seemed to have one bird in the pocket and one in the bush. I decided I couldn’t take the gig with Freddie so I turned it down. At this point my head was swimming so I decided to get out of the house, take a walk and get some air. I arrived home about a half hour later to the perfect storm. I check the machine and hear the following; “Beeeep. Hey D, this is M.; I’m really sorry man, but those gigs in Chicago were canceled.” Oh shit…”Beeeep. Hey D, This is [Warren’s keyboard player], Warren decided to go with the other guy. Thanks for coming down though. You sounded great and he said he could have gone either way.”
I’d lost two birds but it freed me up to take Freddie’s gig so I immediately got on the phone to his manager only too find out it was too late, he had already taken care of it. The gig was no longer available. I had gone from three potentially great situations that weekend to none. I think I did end up booking a bar mitzvah for that Saturday and as I was getting into my monkey suit that Saturday afternoon, I remember seriously questioning whether or not I was really cut out for this business.”

Things clearly didn’t work out very well in that case.
But consider what happened a couple of years later:

“One Saturday night, during a late club gig, I received a call from a good friend of mine that he was able to hook me up an audition with Lenny Kravitz. The one catch was that the audition was to be the next morning and I would need to learn about 7 or 8 songs cold. Getting off the gig at 4 am and forgoing my usual visit to the Italian after hours club I often visited, I sped home to learn tunes, passing out sometime around 7 am. I was scheduled to go out to Jersey around 10 in the morning or so to play with the band. But it wasn’t to be. Also auditioning was a guy from LA, a drummer who had worked with Fishbone. He came in early Sunday morning, sounded good, and Lenny hired him on the spot. I was disappointed but such is life. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Two days later, I got called to audition with Bo Diddley for an upcoming European tour and possible regular position in his touring band. I went down to a session at the Lone Star, sat in with his rhythm section and was hired for the gig that night. Four days later, the guy who had been hired by Lenny was un-hired when Lenny decided not to replace his drummer. Had I come in and got the gig with Lenny, I probably wouldn’t have auditioned for Bo and by midweek would have been gigless! And likely back in a monkey suit by Saturday. What a valuable lesson to have learned.”

The music business is one beautifully cruel bitch, aint she?

So, in closing:

Statistically speaking, the odds are that most speculative projects will fail. Quality is not an accurate barometer of success. Don’t fall for the hype (those bonafides from managers, record company people, or the artists themselves, about how you’ll be going “straight to the top!”) Think hard before giving up a solid situation for an unknown one. There may be occasions when it is more wise to forgo immediate financial remuneration and choose the gig that might offer better long term benefits – players that you would like to meet, opportunities for more and better work in the future, the quality of the music (lest we forget that crucial aspect of the equation!) Choose these projects, however, only because your artistic instincts tell you to.

If you’ve missed out on opportunity to be part of something great because you went with the bird in hand (rather than in the bush), don’t despair. And don’t start overweighing the possibility of success for subsequent speculative projects. Don’t kill yourself engaging in woulda, shoulda, coulda kind of thinking. There isn’t much benefit to second guessing yourself after the fact. Randomness does play a significant role in how one’s career transpires. But if you stay in the game long enough, and keep working hard, eventually the luck might break your way.

Finally, decide what your artistic goals are before you even embark on your journey and then commit to them with the tenacity of a rabid bulldog. Whichever life you choose, that of the artisan or the artist, or some hybrid thereof, every subsequent decision you make will be so much easier by virtue of this decision.

I’d be interested to hear others’ idea/thoughts/comments. Please don’t hesitate!

Serotonin-deprived mice may be gay (or not)

A couple of days back I posted a link to Ed Yong’s synopsis of the paper just released by Nature purporting to show that modulating serotonin levels in mice could have an effect on their sexual orientation. In short, low- or no-serotonin producing mice no longer discriminated sexually between males and females, mounting cagemates of either gender with equal vigor. There’s really no point in re-summarizing the study as Scicurious has provided an excellent recap.

Here’s a serotonin deficient mouse mounting first a male, then a female:


As the paper’s authors themselves noted, one alternative explanation for the findings is that the loss of gender discrimination was a byproduct of a serotonin-regulated increase in sexual behavior rather then a change in sexual preference per se. Although the study showed that no serotonin mice didn’t show increased sexual behavior towards solo females, they mounted close to 90% of the females in that condition, not leaving a lot of room to show an increase.

Furthermore, mice rely on pheromones to determine who is female and who’s not. The depletion of serotonin might have had some effect on the peripheral olfactory system such that the mice couldn’t distinguish the males from the females. The study did include a control condition which showed mice’s olfactory systems were still at least somewhat functional (they could distinguish between sesame oil and air, and could still identify fox urine.) But maybe the difference between physiological levels of pheromone requires a level of sensitivity in the olfactory system that was lost in the serotonin-depleted animals. I’m not convinced that this explanation has been sufficiently ruled out.

Finally, on a more speculative note, serotonin is known to play a large role in regulating forms of social behavior including aggressiveness and social dominance, in a wide range of species from mice to humans. These animals were completely depleted of serotonin which should lead to significant changes in their social behavior. Past research has associated low serotonin with increased aggressiveness in mammals. Could it be that when male mice mount other males, they are doing something other than “getting it on”? (Male mice with normal levels of serotonin sometimes do mount male mice. Why’s that?).

Although the study’s findings are just the kind of topic that the mainstream media loves (anything involving sex), and they’ve responded with salacious headlines in kind, it seems prudent to interpret the results cautiously and await further work.

worthy links: Rama, acupuncture, disgust and politics (redux), mouse sex

V.S. Ramachandran gives a stimulating TED lecture and a short interview, mostly about mirror neurons, over at Neurophilosophy.

NeuroLogica’s Steven Novella recaps a recent study showing that acupuncture doesn’t work — and points out the clever way in which the failure was spun by the study’s authors.

Just the other day, I summarized a recent study looking at the relationship between disgust/purity and political ideology. In this short video, a brief discourse by Yale’s Paul Bloom on the topic.

Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Wong talks about work out of Bejing that showed male mice with reduced serotonin levels became less choosy about the sex of their sexual partners. And as should be expected, the sensationalistic headlines from mass media organizations shortly followed. From the BBC: “Sexual preference chemical found” And from CBS News, a NY Post-worthy headline: “Serotonin sex bomb: How to make a mouse bisexual or just really horny”