The power of the mean and how it effects performance

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discovered how rewards for improved performance are more effective than punishments for poor performance or mistakes when he was teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force many decades ago.

He learned that on many occasions he had praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic manoeuvre but the next time they tried the same manoeuvre again, they usually dis worse. On the other hand, when he often criticised for bad execution, in general the cadet did better on his next try. So, wouldn’t it be rather true that rather punishment for bad execution than reward for good execution works? On first sight, it seems so.

Kahneman acknowledges that the observation is absolutely correct of what happens but completely incorrect about the cause. While the cadets who were praised for exceptional performance did worse the next time, and the cadets who were scolded for poor performance did better the next time their result was not due to the praise or scolding but to the fact that both group’s performance were simply drawn back toward their mean performance due to random fluctuations. A pilot who executes an exceptional technique is just not likely to do it as well the next time and a pilot who makes a mistake is not likely to do quite as poorly the next time.

Statistical reasoning often doesn’t match what our experience tells us. Our experience connects to our fast, intuitive thinking, whereas statistical reasoning requires our slow, more deliberate thinking.

This is also one reason why free societies are better at innovation than authoritarian ones. You can scare people into doing rote behaviour, but you cannot scare people into being curious, creative or growth-oriented. Curiosity, creativity and growth require a part of our nervous system, our higher brain functions, that fear and anger severely restrict. Understanding this concept is important for parents, coaches, teachers and mentors.

Sven Franssen