Clinging to the Laundry List
Earlier this week I gave a talk at a Boston area high school. I decided this venue would provide a good opportunity to test out my new Radical Simplicity Manifesto. The students were generally receptive. But it became clear to me that there was still wide skepticism regarding one of the central tenets of the manifesto: the laundry list fallacy.
As you may remember, the laundry list fallacy claims that the longer your list of accomplishments, the more impressive you become. For the students at this high school, many of whom had just completed the college admissions process and were currently awaiting, with exhausted anticipation, the results of this struggle, the rejection of the laundry list fallacy did not come easy.
As one young woman asked, in response to my presentation: “Right. But do you think I did enough to get into Dartmouth?”
How can I be sure that the laundry list fallacy is indeed a fallacy? I’ll admit: I conceived of the concept based on intuition and anecdotal experience. I was pleased to discover, however, that over the past several years, the scientific community has been reinforcing this idea with mathematical and experimental rigor.
To better understand this unexpected support, we must turn our attention to an unlikely source: a pair of economists, working alongside a Bureau of Labor statistician, who, starting in 2002, waged a campaign to change the way we think about bragging.
Too Cool for School
In 2002, economists Nick Feltovich and Rick Harbaugh, in collaboration with statistician Ted To, set out to answer a simple question: Why don’t the smart kids raise their hands more in school?
To address this social anomaly, they turned to the field of signalling theory. Originally developed by evolutionary biologists in the late 1970s, and since expanded to a variety of fields, from sociology to economics, signalling theory studies systems in which agents send costly signals to convey value. It can provide insight into problems as diverse as the peacock’s plumage to men’s fascination with sports cars.
In classical signally theory, agents send costly signals to transmit desirable traits. Because the signals are expensive, only the most fit agents can afford to send them. Accordingly, the signals are honest. That is, if you receive a braggadocios signal (think: the peacock with the outrageous plumage) you can trust that the sender is worth bragging about (only a fit peacock can afford to grow such an extravagant display).
In this new paper, however, the authors added a twist: a side channel that sends extra signals about the sender with a probability based on sender’s fitness. In other words, miss peacock will likely hear some rumors on the street about the prowess, or lack thereof, of her potential suitors.
The Peacock in the Classroom
When Feltovich, Harbaugh, and To applied this model to the classroom, they defined the side channel to convey extra information about the intelligence of the students. The smarter you are, the higher the probability that people will hear, through the grapevine, about your abilities.
Once this crucial extra element was added, it turned out that the best strategy for the smartest kids to communicate their intelligence was to not answer many questions in class. When you deconstruct the mathematics of the result, the finding follows a graceful logic. The medium ability students have to signal their ability through answering questions. If they don’t, and the side channel does not happen to convey positive information about their skills (a definite possibility as their skills lie only in the middle of the range), then they will be indistinguishable from the low ability students — a bad fate.
The top students, however, with their high probability of the side channel saying good things about them, are best off not answering questions. They make this decision exactly because the medium ability students can’t risk it. In other words, only a student who is truly confident about his skills can afford to avoid constantly trying to show them off.
They named this strategy: countersignalling. And the more they looked, the more it popped up.
Beyond the Classroom
The researchers went on to validate this concept in the lab: putting real students in real scenarios, and paying them for successfully conveying value. With actual money on the line, the cash-strapped student’s behavior soon converged to the countersignalling approach predicted by the math.
Soon, more behaviors were examined and then explained by this framework. In a job interview, for example, it turns out that if you’re a top candidate, it’s best not to brag about your good grades. Similarly, for a new professor, the better the school where you teach, the less need you have to emphasize that you have a PhD.
(This last prediction was verified in an elegant experiment in which professors in the California public university system were called late at night so their voice mail would pick up. Sure enough, the better the school, the less likely you were to hear: “You’ve reached Doctor…”)
Debunking the Laundry List
These results shed powerful insight on the laundry list fallacy. Consider your resume. Each item is a signal. In addition, you have a side channel conveying extra information about your ability. If you’re applying to college or graduate school, this might include your recommendations. But it also covers intangibles, such as the type of awards or honors you’ve received or the impression left in an in-person meeting.
Countersignalling theory predicts that the best strategy for the best candidates is to have a short resume. If you have many items, this will brand you as a medium ability candidate desperate not to be mistaken for a lower ability candidate. Only the top applicants have the confidence to trust the side channel.
These studies point toward a few conclusion for maximizing your impressiveness:
- Don’t send mediocre signals. An easy way to represent yourself as a medium ability candidate (be it for college, grad school, or a job) is to present a laundry list of activities none of which are all that difficult to achieve; e.g., club memberships, a summer program, a two-week mission trip. None of these signals convey a particular impressive trait, and the list as a whole makes you seem like someone desperate to differentiate yourself from the low ability candidates. The top people don’t have this worry.
- Send a small number of strong signals. The real world is messier than what math predicts. Help the reviewer follow a high ability story line by having one or two activities that are really impressive — that is, required an desirable trait, like creativity or deep values, and not just persistence. Seeing a small number of excellent things, and no low-value bragging, will convey a strong sense of confident ability.
- Prime the side channel. In the formal model, you have no control over the side channel. In the real world, you do. Be interesting. Make people like you. Actually convey the traits that you want the channel to communicate. If you’re a high school student, for example, this means you should actually be a curious, nice, energetic person that engages the class material. Teachers notice this, and admissions officers admit that such traits easily come through in the recommendations.
This philosophy, like most, is riddled with exceptions and caveats. But the general point is clear. Less is more. Not just for your health and sanity, but also for the power of value you communicate.