James G. March on Hot stove effect and foolishness

One form of the hot-stove effect is the competency trap, where learning encourages people to stick to and improve skills they have already honed to a fine degree rather than spend time gaining new ones. Some of my grandchildren say to me, “We’re not very good at mathematics, so we’re not going to take any more mathematics.” I say, “Wait a minute. Mathematics is a practice sport. If you’re not very good at it, you take more of it.” That’s counterintuitive, and it goes against the main logic of experiential learning, not to mention grandchildren’s sentiments about control over their own lives. It has also been demonstrated that the hot-stove effect leads experiential learners to be risk averse. It is possible to limit the hot-stove effect by slowing learning so that you increase the sample of alternatives that have poor results. That obviously has the cost of incurring short run losses and consequently is hard for an adaptive system to do. …

Part of foolishness, or what looks like foolishness, is stealing ideas from a different domain. Someone in economics, for example, may borrow ideas from evolutionary biology, imagining that the ideas might be relevant to evolutionary economics. A scholar who does so will often get the ideas wrong; he may twist and strain them in applying them to his own discipline. But this kind of cross-disciplinary stealing can be very rich and productive. It’s a tricky thing, because foolishness is usually that—foolishness. It can push you to be very creative, but uselessly creative. The chance that someone who knows no physics will be usefully creative in physics must be so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it. Yet big jumps are likely to come in the form of foolishness that, against long odds, turns out to be valuable. So there’s a nice tension between how much foolishness is good for knowledge and how much knowledge is good for foolishness.

Source: Ideas as Art: A Conversation with James G. March

The hot stove effect first observed by Mark Twain. He observed that if a cat happens to jump on a hot stove, he will never jump on a hot stove again. This of course is a good thing. However, not so good is the fact that he will not jump on a cold stove either, or perhaps anything the bears the slightest resemblance to a stove. This effect have many implication in area of leanring and experimentaal innivation.


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