Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bad Smells and Complexity

I work with software. A few years ago a couple of influential folks, Kent Beck and Martin Fowler, started using the term "bad smell" to describe a situation where something doesn't seem quite right. When you pour a glass of milk, you may catch an odor. Everything may be fine, but you probably don't want to gulp it down until you have investigated a little further. The notion of bad smells can be used in any complex human endeavor. Experienced people quickly recognize when something is off, even if they cannot express exactly what it is.

Sometimes it is hard to figure out whether something is just complex or if the investigators are simply lost. Migraine headaches are a good example. A few years ago I started getting occasional migraine auras though, thankfully, not the headaches. When I researched the topic I found that there were several proposed causes and any number of proposed treatments or ameliorations. Sufferers look for triggers of the headaches. Different people have proposed different triggers. Trigger lists include: changes in air pressure, bright light, smells, foods including meat, wine, chocolate, beans, cheese, pickled or marinated food, nuts, herring, figs, raisins, citrus, tea, coffee, chicken livers. Of course the old standby "stress" is included in the trigger list.

Lists like the migraine triggers are a bad smell. If you stop any person on the street, you will undoubtedly find they have been exposed to one or more of these triggers in the past 24 hours. It may be that triggers are quite individual and that different people have a small set of different triggers. I find it more likely that people in pain are grasping at straws to find something that might enable them to avoid the pain in the future.

Sometimes complexity is not a bad smell, but just complexity. For a long time I have been interested in questions that different people answer differently. I live in a place without a lot of crime. A number of years ago I asked folks whether they locked their doors when they were in their house. I thought the answer might give an indication of risk tolerance. Sure enough, some people answered always, some answered never. One person said he only locked the doors when he was home because he cared about his own safety, not that of his possessions. I don't know if this was a truthful answer, but it was an interesting point of view.

It is an open question whether we can use some relatively small set of traits to characterize our behavior. Even identifying traits that influence behavior is problematic.

For about a century western society has been very interested in measuring "intelligence" ( A Welsh friend of mine used to say that people in the United States have a peculiar fascination with reducing complex phenomena to a single number. Certainly intelligence testing fits this pattern. It is not clear what "intelligence" is and how many aspects of it there are (, but that doesn't stop us from measuring and assigning a single number.

There have also been attempts to measure both moral beliefs (Moral Judgment Test) and religiosity (The internal structure of the Post-Critical Belief scale). As it turns out, these may not be correlated (Religiosity, moral attitudes and moral competence).

Psychologists have tried a number of personality characterizations. There are classifications of pathologies and personality disorders ( Some of this is clearly cultural. For example, homosexuality was listed for a time as a personality disorder. There are tests, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory for example, to help diagnose these disorders.

There are also more general classifications. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator test is based on Jung's analysis of perception (sensation and intuition) and judgment (thinking and feeling). Based on this, four dichotomies were established: Extroversion/Introversion, Sensing/iNtuition, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving. I always joke that Myers Briggs test is much better than astrology because astrology has only 12 categories to explain us, but Myers Briggs has 16.

The "Big Five" model comes from linguistic analysis. The thought is that essentials of personality are expressed in language so an analysis of language can lead to a understanding of personality. The big five are: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

In looking at all of this I don't detect that much bad science or even many bad smells. I come to the conclusion that people are just complicated. The theories project this complexity onto a number of different spaces, but none of them fully encompass us. We are just too complicated for simple analysis.

1 comment:

sf said...

I think this entire post proves your point. Thought processes, oh I mean people, are just convoluted; oh, I mean complicated.