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Mark Murphy
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A nice guy until crossed.
A nice guy until crossed.

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The Motivation Problem ~ A Lesson in Cause & Effect on Israeli Fighter Pilots

In the 1960s, Nobel award winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman gave a lecture to a team of Israeli Air Force flight instructors about the value of positive reinforcement. Having proposed the idea that positive reinforcement almost always produced better results, the instructors scoffed at the idea. Their experience was completely the opposite confirmed by years of experience.

The instructors had tried being positive and it didn't work. When they used positive reinforcement the results actually got worse. After bad performances, when they used threats and normal military reprimands, the instructors found the pilots almost always improved the next day. Thus Kahneman's suggestion was the opposite of everything these instructors had experienced.

Illusions of Causality

You may be asking, who could even argue with such seemingly conclusive results? Yet Kahneman could, because he was right.

He showed that the actions of the instructors were not the cause of the expected results, and in fact, these actions weren’t the cause of anything. What the instructors were reporting was merely a case of regression toward the mean.

The fighter pilots were the very top in their fields, extremely dedicated and motivated, yet they were human like any of us so they were prone to good and bad days. On average, they performed very well. When one would have a bad day that would be below his norm, mere probability suggests that his next day is likely to be better. Conversely, when one performed well above his norm, the regression worked in the opposite direction as the probability would show that he would be expected to perform worse the next day.

The fact that the instructors yelled in their faces or praised their efforts had little to do with their next performance. The pilots simply had good and bad days from time to time. But positive feedback created considerably less stress than negative feedback, which was a powerful asset in an already stressful environment.

The beliefs of the instructors were completely fueled by a false assumption about cause and effect. We all want to assume we know the meaning of things, especially when it seems obvious. Yet often in life there is more depth than we notice.

As famed English writer Aldous Huxley observed...

"Man is so intelligent that he feels impelled to invent theories to account for what happens in the world. Unfortunately, he is not quite intelligent enough, in most cases, to find correct explanations."

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SOURCE: Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1973). On the Psychology of Prediction. Psychological Review, Vol. 80(No. 4). American Psychological Association, Inc.

(Artwork by: Tenjin Hidetaka)
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