Monday, January 29, 2007

Making the right decision

Gosh, is it as long ago as that? I find, on looking it up, that it was in October 2005 that I reviewed Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, edited by Dylan Evans and Pierre Cruse. And my post attracted zero comments, I see. Perhaps because the book in question is a serious scientific work, not really intended for the layman, and and not easy to get a handle on.

In the introduction to Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, the editors say that the main theme of the book is that a consensus appears to be emerging among scientists, from a range of disciplines, that emotions are in fact (contrary to what was previously thought) vital to intelligent action.

This new attitude to emotion arises from a consideration of evolution. Those who study evolution are coming round to the view that emotions would not have continued to be a feature of human life unless they were actually helpful to survival.

Recent theories on emotion therefore contrast with the well established tradition in western society, which has almost universally assumed, since ancient times, that emotions are, at best, harmless luxuries, and at worst are outright obstacles to intelligent action. In other words, the received wisdom is that, when making a decision about anything important, you should try to do it in as unemotional a manner as possible.

Ever since reading Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, I have been meaning to consider its main theme from the point of view of a writer. If scientists are now suggesting that the presence of emotion can actually be helpful in making a good decision, how does this affect writers? When a writer makes a decision about any aspect of writing, is it a good idea for the writer to allow herself to be influenced by emotion, or not?

On reflection, I think that a question as broad as that is likely to lead to the response 'It all depends'. So let us try to be more precise, and consider one practical question, relating to a fairly big decision that is made by quite a large number of writers. We will consider this: Is a decision to write a novel best made with or without the involvement of emotion?

In chapter eight of Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, Matteo Mameli notes that, even though many scientists now accept that emotions are advantageous to 'ecological' rationality -- which is the ability of an organism to cope successfully with its environment -- it is still often thought that emotions remain destructive of 'practical' rationality, which is an organism's ability to make optimum decisions about how to act.

However, Mameli questions this latter assumption. Furthermore, he puts forward arguments which attempt to show that emotions are just as essential to practical rationality as they are in the ecological context.

In chapter ten, Daniel Nettle also considers the relationship between emotions and deliberative rationality. He comes to the conclusion that, under certain circumstances, being overly optimistic about one's chances of success, or degree of control over a situation, could be adaptive; that is to say, superior, in terms of behavioural decisions, to either pessimism or unbiased neutrality.

I am not concerned here to question Nettle's general conclusions -- not least, because I am not sufficiently familiar with the scientific evidence in this field. Instead, I want to draw apply what he has to say to the context of writing, and to consider whether his broad conclusions still hold good in relation to that one narrow field.

Nettle argues that, influenced by emotion, people systematically overestimate the likelihood of favourable outcomes of future contingencies, and underestimate the negative aspects of any given situation. However, he says, this doesn't matter very much, from the point of view of human evolution as a whole, as there is an asymmetric pattern of costs and benefits. In other words, if I am reading Nettle aright, people may make decisions for unsound (emotional) reasons, but, in general, when the outcome is favourable, the benefits are often great and far outweigh the costs.

Which is all very well. But it's not a lot of use when you and I come to consider specific questions, such as whether to spend several hundred hours writing a novel.

Let us look at Daniel Nettle's argument more closely. Nettle uses the available scientific evidence to show that, when people are questioned about their abilities, they systematically overestimate their own skills; this is called a self-enhancing bias. And you would not have to go far, I humbly suggest, to find examples of it among the writing community.

Secondly, individuals generally have an unjustified level of optimism about the future. They overestimate the likelihood of their having positive future-life events (e.g. a good job, their own home, achieving professional success). Once again, writers are a marvellous source for misplaced optimism.

Third, there is a well known phenomenon labelled the illusion of control. When engaged in games which are heavily influenced by chance, such as dice-rolling and lotteries, people overestimate their chances. In other contexts, they consistently overestimate the effectiveness of their own actions in controlling the flow of events.

Having these three positive illusions, as they are known, seems to be the population norm. So the plain fact of the matter is that, for most people, most of the time, emotions do play a major part in everyday decisions.

Following a great deal of work by academic researchers (the details need not detain us here, since we are laymen), any behavioural decision can be conceptualised as a game. The game has two outcomes: success and failure. And there are two courses of action: to play or not to play.

In writing terms, the question we have settled on is, Do we write a novel or not? Are we going to participate in this novel-writing game or not?

The outcome is either success or failure. What is success? Well, let us be modest and say that we will define success as simply achieving publication by one of the big six publishers (rather than having a smash-hit number one bestseller, which is a lot harder).

The player's optimal response is not to play when she would fail, and to play when she would succeed. Provided, of course, that the costs of playing do not exceed the benefits of winning.

Nettle analyses this situation in algebraic terms. If a player plays and succeeds, she takes the benefit of success (b). If she plays and fails, she accepts the cost of playing (c). Another important factor in the algebra is the probability of success (p).

I won't attempt to go into the algebra here, because I never was much good at that stuff, and besides, we don't need to. The point is that, to make a good decision, you need to have a very clear estimate of the values, or size, of the benefits, the cost, and the probability of success (b, c, and p).

If the benefits of success far outweigh the costs of failure, then the probability of success which is required to justify a rational decision to play is quite small. But where the costs are substantial, and the benefits are modest, and the probability of success is small, then the smart guys do not agree to play.

And this, I suggest, is where, in the writing context, emotion enters into the situation and can cause absolute havoc.

As we have seen, Nettle has summarised the scientific evidence to show that most people, most of the time, cannot think straight anyway. They suffer from the three positive illusions, described above. In the writing context, you and I are already well aware (if we're paying any attention at all) that the positive illusions are present among writers in abundance. And they are there, I suggest, because writers are awash with emotions.

We could spend some time debating (to little effect) whether ambition is an emotion, but we can agree, I think, that most writers are wildly ambitious. (For a discussion of ambition, see my post of 6 September 2006.) And it is surely the case that ambition is fuelled by emotion, or emotions in the plural, some of them not particularly attractive, such as envy, resentment, pride, a sense of inferiority, and even our old friend lust.

If we try, with a conscious effort of will, to step back from the situation and review the evidence objectively, what can we say about the factors b, c, and p in terms of our novel-writing decision?

In summary, based on over fifty years of writing experience, nearly three years of blogging, and a couple of books about writing, my own conclusions are as follows:

The costs are higher than many people think (over-optimism). Writing a novel is going to take several hundred hours of effort. Usually this will have to come from the writer's 'spare time' -- time which she would otherwise spend with family, friends, or developing her main career. The cost of failure is not merely that this time is 'wasted' -- it cannot be retrieved and re-allocated to a more fruitful purpose -- but there is also an emotional penalty attached, in terms of anger and resentment.

The benefits of success are also, I would suggest, more consistently overestimated in the writing world than in most others. Our definition of success was, you will recall, a fairly modest one: publication by a top firm, and little more. The amount of money, fame, and enhanced reputation which result from that are modest indeed. Ask anyone who's been there.

And then there is the probability of achieving success. This is slim. In my books The Truth about Writing and On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, I have set out the painful facts about this probability in some detail.

Just to rub home the point: I share the general view of Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of Fooled by Randomness), namely that events in life are much more heavily influenced by chance than most of us care to believe. We are not saying, Taleb and I, that everything is a matter of luck. Far from it. Hard work, talent, perseverance, all these play a part. But they are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to guarantee favourable outcomes.

Thus, when it comes to writing fiction, not only is the probability of success low, but those who do achieve it will largely achieve it as a result of chance, and not as a direct and inevitable result of hard work, talent, and perseverance. In any estimate of the true probability of success in a writing context, this plain and simple fact (it is not a theory) needs to be taken into account.

So. Are we any nearer an answer to our question? Is it a good idea to allow emotions to influence the decision on whether to write a novel?

You must make up your own mind, but personally I think it is a very bad idea to allow emotions any role. And the wise decision, in my view, is not to play this particular game at all.

In which case, you may reasonably ask, why have I written so many novels, and why do I show signs of being likely to continue down that road?

Well, for one thing I don't claim to have been all that smart in my past career decisions. And for another, the decision will change dramatically if you either (i) vary the values of b, c, and p, or (ii) ask a different writing-related question.

For example, if you decide that, for you, the principal benefit of writing a novel is the sense of satisfaction which you obtain from that process, regardless of whether anyone actually gets to read it or not, that has an effect.

And suppose you ask one of more of the following questions:

Is it a good idea to write a non-fiction magazine article about a matter related to your main career (as an accountant or teacher, or whatever)?

Is it a good idea to enter a short story in a competition with a prize of £1,000?

Is it a good idea to publish a collection of poems through Lulu?

You don't need to do much thinking to conclude that, in some of these questions, the costs are markedly reduced, the probability of success may well increase, and the benefits, though different, could be substantial.

Conclusions:

The real danger here is that writers will underestimate costs, overestimate benefits, and wildly misjudge the probability of success. For decisions about major projects, such as a novel, such misjudgements can reasonably be described as catastrophic. For relatively minor decisions, the consequences are relatively trivial, but still need to be taken seriously.

Overall, I take the view that the smart thinkers, the ones who are keen to protect their own mental and physical health, will not allow themselves to be unduly influenced by emotion in making decisions about writing.

Whether the decision is major or minor, the smart thinkers will spend a considerable amount of time collecting data relating to costs, benefits, and the probability of success. They will not believe everything they read in the newspapers.

On the whole (if asked, and even if I'm not) I would advise writers to keep all emotion in reserve, to be drawn on during the writing itself -- at least if you're in the fiction or drama business. Otherwise, I suggest that business and career decisions are best made in cold blood, on the basis of as much solid data as you can possibly assemble.

See also: An overview of emotion, 28 September 2006.

12 comments:

Susan Hill said...

An excellent post GOB - especially the second section about writing. BUT,many of us invested every ounce of emotion we possessed in writing our first book as well as every second of spare time. I did. I was 17 and doing A levels and I wrote a novel after homework/revision instead of having a social life. But I was fuelled by emotion - a passionate desire to succeed, a love of the writing and an absolute conviction that this was what I was meant to do and indeed, the only thing I would ever be much good at doing. Those emotions kept me going, after 2 hours of Latin and Chaucer. They still do. Don`t underestimate their power.
But your point about aspiring authors underestimating not just the time-investment but the likelihood of small reward even after success, if you follow, is extremely well made. Every aspiring novelist wants to be published. But when they are going to be, they wildly overestimate the likely attention they will get, fame they will acquire, money they will make and status they will achieve in the literary as well as in the rest of the world.
But look at the X FACTOR. The serious contestants are fuelled by PASSION to succeed because they love singing and playing music as much as because they want to be rich and famous. Those who only want the latter are soon found out.

Elberry said...

Splendid essay, old chap.

i've given up trying to get anything published: not an act of despair, just a reasoned weighing-up of the long odds against me. i don't have the energy or time to waste - i've never been able to send my stuff out on autopilot, without hope, without expectation. i doubt i could write AND try to get my stuff published. i keep my passion, such as it is, for my writing; i won't waste it on publishers, agents, on marketing myself.

It's sad that, were i to give advice to my younger self, it would be "you'll never see your book in print; give up any hope of being published." But much much better than wasting stamps and energy, committing emotion to an A4 envelope...

SAND STORM said...

As humans we are all but incapable of completely keeping our emotions out of this type of equation. Yes we would be better suited to the truth of writing and being published if we could, but few are able to control this part of our being.

To really have a logical expectation one should weigh their odds against a penalty.

Write if you must but if unpublished in say 5 years you have to pay X
(first born, right hand, million dollars,etc.) that will test the strength of the over optimistic more than anything as to their need to write and an expectation that they will find success.

Andrew O'Hara said...

We view our success through the eyes of others, not our own. While we might be happy with the mere completion of the book, we blush when someone says, "You can't get it published?"

We are even more embarrassed when someone snorts at us for publishing through Lulu. Writers talk a good line, but really we aren't a very self-confident lot.

Eric Mayer said...

I certainly agree with this. However two things occur to me.

If you enjoy the writing process, and have fun writing something you want to write, then not being published is not a total loss.

Also, if every potential writer made the rational decision -- based on probability of publication -- as to whether to write, there would be no novels.

Daddy said...

A very interesting article, a kind of ontology of writing. I'm reading Taleb's Randomness right now. I like it, but I disagree with his conclusions in a religious sense only: I am deluded by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as it applies to prayer: in science, the act of measuring alters the measurement; in life, the act of praying alters the outcome. And that opens a whole can of worms, I realize.

Lee said...

Susan, I do not agree that every aspiring novelist wants to be published. There are some notable exceptions, like Michel Faber, who waited for years and essentially had to be talked into it by his wife.

Old Sam said...

Fascinating and thank you. The most visible example of the ridiculous prize for success against overwhelming odds is the salary of a Fortune 500 CEO, which is a pot of gold that keeps thousands of noses at the grindstone, ruining marriages, lives, and health. I agree completely that there is a danger in applying this mentality to writing, where there is negligible chance of the home run. In fact, if you want to make a living writing, I suspect the best thing to do is do technical writing and the like.

However, I stumbled accidentally into writing, to the extent that I now have three completed novels, and I am wondering what to do with them. The sunk cost of writing is irrelevant at this point. Rather, the issue is what incremetal energy one should invest. With this in mind, I believe a decent attempt at marketing to the traditional media is in order, and if unsuccesful, going POD with a reasonable marketing campaign also wise.

But I would be much better informed if anyone knows where I can get hold of statistics on the likelihood of success; i.e. economic profiles, or book counts, for current published authors. I'd be very grateful if anyone who knows would like to my blog and post to me.

Thanks

Simon Haynes said...

When I started on my first book, getting published wasn't even on the radar. I didn't even know it was going to be a novel - at first I thought it was just a short story.
I remember wanting to write the sort of book I liked to read - that was important to me. Whether anyone else would be interested, including publishers, didn't matter.

Simon Haynes said...

"But I would be much better informed if anyone knows where I can get hold of statistics on the likelihood of success."

If you write a competent novel publishers believe they can make money from, the odds are in your favour. If you don't, they're not.

Publishing isn't a very precise industry, and I don't believe any statistics you could gather would actually mean anything. (Statistics and slush-to-publication ratios would have to assume all manuscripts were created equal, and they aren't.)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Having just had an email from my publisher, Polygon, to say that they won't be reprinting my novel The Curiosity Cabinet, I am in that shrieking misery phase of wondering why the hell I do it? I have a big writers' conference coming up as well as a launch for my non-fiction book about the history of the Isle of Gigha. Since my novel (which was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize) has a similar Hebridean setting, I thought that there might be a good chance for marketing the paperback at the same time as the hardback non-fiction. A major best selling novelist liked it so much that she offered me a completely unsolicited cover quote, but it made no difference.
I sometimes think I should take the rational decision not to write any more - it is a form of madness and the more we do it, the more embroiled we become. But I love writing. And I've been doing it for so long now, that I don't think I can break myself of the habit. And actually, I think I do it quite well. What I'm sorely tempted to give up is the endless, fruitless, degrading, and essentially unrewarding attempt to get the stuff published. Sometimes I think I should just write for pleasure, and blog the whole damn lot for free.

Psychic said...

I certainly agree with this. However two things occur to me.

If you enjoy the writing process, and have fun writing something you want to write, then not being published is not a total loss.
psychic reading
Also, if every potential writer made the rational decision -- based on probability of publication -- as to whether to write, there would be no novels.