Cameron needs to stop rewarding the lucky

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

If we’ve learned anything in the past few weeks, it’s that life at the top is even better than we thought and life at the bottom is probably just going to keep getting worse.

The thought for the day was brought to you by David Cameron, who seems to be operating under the healthy, no-nonsense, fresh-air-and-cold-showers theory that removing housing benefits from the unemployed will make them all the more determined to do well (rather than, say, depressed to the point of comatose). The super-rich, on the other hand, deserve gold stars for their achievements, and tax law like a cable-knit jumper. It’s motivational.

There are many problems with Cameron’s approach but, in the interests of staying within my word count, I’m going to distil them into one – which is that he is not the headmaster of a small private school. The world of work, you see, operates a little differently. A recent study from Oxford’s Saïd Business School highlighted how, in professional life, ending up at the very bottom or the very top is much more to do with luck than whether you pull your socks up and stop smoking behind the sheds.

Such is the power of luck that society’s biggest failures share a surprising similarity in approach to society’s biggest successes. To demonstrate this, the experimenters created two computer models, simulating five million players of differing skill going through a win/lose game of 50 rounds. The “success” of each person was then modelled on how many rounds they won.

The first model showed that in careers where success builds on previous success (ie, most jobs), luck has a vastly magnified impact on those at the top. Those giving “exceptional performances” were of lower skill, on average, than those giving merely very good performances. The important factor was an early chance success, which then snowballed. Similarly, “extreme failures” (the long-term jobless) were not the least able – they were just unlucky early on.

Highs and lows

The second model looked at careers in which there is an element of risk (investment banking, for instance). Results showed that both the highest and lowest achievers took the riskiest paths. The experimenters noted again that huge success did not correlate well with skill.

They concluded that we should be more careful about dismissing the failed and praising the exceptional, writing of the danger that “high rewards for exceptional performance may tempt other people to deliberately take risks or to cheat because they are unlikely to achieve extreme performance otherwise”. Instead, we should strive to copy the second- or third-in-command.

What can we take from this? Well, first, we should throw out our Mark Zuckerberg biographies and fill our shelves with titles such as Making It to the Middle: How I Only Gave Up on Some of My Dreams and Reaching for the Stars: How I Once Groped John Barrowman. But perhaps we should also take another look at Cameron’s penchant for punishing the unlucky and rewarding the already fortunate. Lady Luck is a harsh mistress, and the day she is allowed to dictate policy is the day she becomes a tyrant.

This article appeared in New Statesman edition 02/07/12

Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”