The moderation glitch

More doesn’t scale forever. Why are we so bad at enaging with this obvious truth? :Seth Goodin

In Malcolm’s new book, he points out that our expectation is that most things will respond in a linear way. More input gets us more output. If you want a hotter fire, add more wood. If you want more sales, run more ads.

In fact, it turns out, most things don’t respond in a linear way. It’s more of a steep curve (he calls it an inverted U). For a while, more inputs get you more results, but then, inevitably, things level off, and then, perversely, get worse. One brownie makes you happy, a second brownie, maybe a little more. The third brownie doesn’t make us happy at all, and the fourth brownie makes us sick.

U curve godin

Health care is a fine example of this. First aid makes a huge difference. Smart medical care can increase our health dramatically. But over time, too much investment in invasive medicine, particularly at the end of life, ends up making us worse, not better. Or, in a less intuitive example, it turns out that class size works the same way. Small classes (going from 40 to 25 in the room) make a huge difference, but then diminishing class size (without changing teaching methods) doesn’t pay much, and eventually ends up hurting traditional classroom education outputs.

But here’s the unanswered question: if the data shows us that in so many things, moderation is a better approach than endless linearity, why does our culture keep pushing us to ignore this?

First, there are the situations where one person (or an organization) is trying to change someone else. Consider the high-end omakase sushi bar, where, for $200, you’re buying a once-in-a-lifetime meal. The chef certainly has enough experience to know that he should stop bringing you more food, that one more piece of fish isn’t going to make you happier, it’s quite likely to make you uncomfortable. But he doesn’t stop.

Or consider the zero-tolerance policy in some schools. We know that ever more punishment doesn’t create better outcomes.

Here’s the problem with the inverted U: We aren’t certain when it’s going to turn. We can’t be sure when more won’t actually be better.

As a result of this uncertainty, we’re likely to make one of two mistakes. Either we will stop too soon, leaving stones unturned, patrons unsatisfied, criminals unpunished… or we will stop too late, wasting some money and possibly missing the moderation sweet spot.

You already guess what we do: we avoid the embarrassment of not doing enough. The sushi chef doesn’t want someone to say, “it was great, but he wasn’t generous.” The politician says, “I don’t want any voter to say that even one criminal got away because I was soft on crime.”

We always start with intent, as Omar Wassow has pointed out. It’s intent that gets us to take action and to start marketing and spending. But intent and results are different things.

We market our solution (to ourselves and to others) and that marketing drives our actions. As long as we’re uncertain as to where the curve turns, we’re going to have to push that marketing message forward. It’s a lot more difficult to sell the idea of moderation than it is to sell the earnest intent of joy or punishment or health or education.

Moderation is a marketing problem.

(this is getting long, sorry, but I hope it’s worth it)

The other category of interventions are the things we do to ourselves. This is the wine drinker who goes from the health benefits of a daily glass of wine to the health detriments of a daily bottle or two. This is the runner who goes from the benefits of five miles a day to knees that no longer work because he overdid it.

Here, the reason we can’t stop is self marketing plus habit. Habits are the other half of the glitch. We learn a habit when it pays off for us, but we’re hardwired to keep doing the habit, even after it doesn’t.

Hence the two lessons:

1. Smart organizations need to build moderation-as-a-goal into every plan they make. Every budget and every initiative ought to be on the look out for the sweet spot, not merely “more.” It’s not natural to look for this, nor is it easy, which is why, like all smart organizational shifts, we need to work at it. How often does the boss ask, “have we hit the sweet spot of moderation yet?”

If doctors were required to report on quality of life instead of tests run, you can bet quality of life would improve faster than the number of tests run does.

2. Habits matter. When good habits turn into bad ones, call them out, write them down and if you can, find someone to help you change them.

“Because it used to work,” is not a sensible reason to keep doing something.

[But please! Don’t forget the local max.]

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