Friday, April 29, 2011


This post relates to NTTATS, but focused on our experience of life, and in particular our experience of volatility.

I have a core hypothesis that humans appreciate order, that we, in anticipation, expect our experiences to proceed linearly from our past, in an orderly progression, and that in retrospect we "smooth" experiences in our memory to make the past seem more orderly than it appeared in the moment.

Let's talk through some examples.

Consider your sleeping patterns.  How many hours do you sleep at night, taking as your data set the last 3 months?  7 hours?  9?  Chances are you  have a pretty good idea of your average night's sleep.  But dipping into the specific data will vary considerably.  If the average is 8 hours, but some nights you linger an extra half hour awake, playing Bejeweled on your phone, but still wake up at the same time.  That's a 6.25% difference in minutes slept!  And in the moment, when you wake up with 6% less sleep, you may well feel grumpy about it.  But two months later, that incident of less than average sleep will have faded in your memory to seem more or less the standard.

Now consider your moods (or those of someone in your life); looking back over those same 3 months, you may recall being "mostly" happy/content or sad/grumpy, but my suspicion is that your recollection will be seriously colored by your mood at the current moment.  And further, that your expectation for your mood in the near future proceeds primarily from your current state.

The upshot is this (I know this post is wordy, but my mind has been clouded by a sinus infection for days...) - the natural world and our experience of it exhibit significant volatility.  Everything observed closely reveals this volatility, but both society at large and our minds individually seek to flatten out or smooth the data to make it seem less volatile.  Put another way, we try to make the chaotic look orderly.

As with NTTATS, this volatility idea seems really obvious to me after talking it out, but when I first became aware of the concept it seemed novel.  And as with NTTATS, I'm struggling a bit to put into words the practical application of the knowledge.  I think that in both cases the real value is to alter our working expectations to accommodate a reality where the future will necessarily not proceed exactly per past experience.

We need to internalize that volatility is the rule, and not the exception, and then so many frustrating things about the world will look differently.

Let's flesh this out in the comments.  Maybe the pressure in my head will subside soon and I can be more coherent.


  1. In these examples, the biggest cause of the misperception is the data gathering tool. But as more extra-corporeal data gathering tools become available we'll be less at the mercy of our crummy, clouded, post-post-post-processed memories.

    It will be interesting to see, at that point, if people are any better at reviewing and learning from un-clouded data.

  2. I'm not sure that you and I are on the same page here. Regardless of how the data is measured, the sequential experiences are volatile.

    Another example I was thinking of when conceiving the post had to do with politics, but I couldn't get that thought to work out in words for the post. I'm going to try here.

    The US system of two strong parties constantly at odds annoys the hell out of me /when i'm paying attention/. Listening to debates or following the news about political BS wears me out...but I suspect it is because of the volatile nature of that news. The Republican'ts say we have to lower tax rates to zero and the Demofarts we have to raise them to 100% and allow the government to allocate the money "fairly". Both sides are wrong, and both sides know it. But the system has evolved for people on both sides to push as hard as they can, knowing that someone will push back. This view of politics as an inherently volatile space is actually an improvement over my previously level of cynicism and is a (relatively) positive outgrowth of my thoughts on volatility in general. The idea here is that the moment-to-moment volatility of political action gets smoothed out over time...the Bush era erosion of personal liberties swings back a bit during his own administration and much more in the next; the health care "reforms" initiated by Obama necessarily go "too far" in some respects but get pulled back by subsequent sessions of volatility.

    The markets provide the easiest data set to discuss this concept, but I'm hamstrung in talking about finance here...let's just say, in simple terms, that a comment like "the S&P went up 10% last year" is common and easily understood; however, if you look at all closely at the data it is clear that the S&P went up, and down, and up, and down, and sideways, and up, and down, and that if you choose any but the simplest way to measure, the numbers get really complicated.

    The insight that I'm promoting here is that /everything/ in life is like the S&P and how we discuss it. The most linear thing we experience is time, but the relative /experience/ of time is one of the easiest ones to recognize. Baby screaming for 10 minutes? It seems like 2 hours. Your vacation on the beach? 7 days seems like 2...