Monday, July 16, 2007

Monies, memes and such

As (the mostly imaginary) readers of this blog would have realized, I am a person that is obsessed with understanding, and this obsession extends to understanding human psychology as well. And the way to go about this task is to take a lot of data from the world around me and build models that explain this data. As with all things, I share this obsession with some of my friends. So, a few years ago, a couple of my friends and I came up with a strategy for collecting such data. We decided we would come up with a few questions that we thought were “penetrating” in some sense. It was decided that we will ask these questions to all the people we met and we will catalogue and keep the answers for analysis after we had accumulated statistically significant amounts of data (or rather as many of the people we met as possible, I mean, if we really liked them we would not want to risk scaring them away for ever, would we?). This process will help help us get a statistical grasp of the human psyche (paah!! day dreams realizable only in utopia as you will see). I had forgotten all about this for a while now, but recently Bongo tagged me with a meme and this caused all our idealistic planning to come rushing back to my mind! Ok, you are allowed at this point to decide I am crazy, but read on anyway, it might amuse you.

Quite early on in this endeavor of gathering data, we realized of course that the problem was the absence of any “right” questions. For example, one of the questions a buddy came up with was some slight variation of “What would you do if you got a million dollars tomorrow”. We got answers that ranged from “Retire and move back to India” to “Oh! After capital gains and state taxes, that would let me clear may be 600000$, I guess I would pay off my house and three cars and add the rest to my portfolio in the form of some blue chip security or the other”. Clearly the only things that the above two answers told us was that the person with the first answer thought a million dollars was a lot of money and the second one must have a really large income and hence thought of a million dollars as an “everyday sum”. It later turned out that the second guy had a yearly income that was a little more than half the amount, vindicating my earlier statement. This was not useful. We could have found that out by just asking them how much they made every month.

We got some really “out there” answers as well such as : “I will buy a plane and live from October through March here (here being Gainesville Fl) and live March through October in a place of the same latitude in the southern hemisphere with all the same amenities, air conditioning, high speed internet and the VPN that will let me access all journals and such. This way I will have outdoor weather all year round”. May be you could infer from this that this geeky person is outdoorsy and is relatively happy with life as it is so that her biggest problem was the weather?

You see, the motivation behind asking the question was to see what people would change in their lives if money was not an object, but elicit the answer without explicitly stating the same. If you do explicitly state what you are asking, then their answer will be biased by what they think they can tell you about their pet peeves. You are more likely to see the truth if you can ask a clever indirect question from whose answer you could infer what you were looking for. And yes, you are right, what you infer will be biased by what you think about things and hence will not be a “one to one and onto map” that will be “invariant to changes in the reference frame” i.e., be the same irrespective of the mind of the person constructing it. So, after a very short while of trying to fine tune the questions we would ask and encountering the inevitable (in retrospect) frustration of not getting anything useful or trustworthy, we abandoned this scheme of ours.

Now what has this got to do with memes and tags and such? I have been away from the Blogsphere for a little more than a week, working too hard to have time left over to do anything other than check email. Then I try to reenter the world by reading the posts in my reader and find that there are such an overwhelming number of them that I was too lazy to even try. So, instead I clicked around to see the network created by the random facts meme. It lead me to the realization that this is such a rich hunting ground for psychological data! There are all manners of people being tagged, all manners of interpretations of any given tag and of course the value of the written word, where you can see what is being said without the burden of the real personality! So, now I have a new “holy grail” [1] goal for my blog life. After I become this famous blogger that everybody reads and people just love to get a link from me even if it is in the form of a tag because of the traffic I send their way, I will try and start memes with specific objectives and watch them propagate through the blogsphere and thereby acquire all the data I need!:))) . As the Thalaivar once said “How is it?”:))

[1] The “holy grail” idea comes from the lingo used in scientific proposals. You see, when you go asking for money for a project, you have three levels of possible results you predict will come out of it. The highest is the holy grail. This is a result you know you will not get, but if you do by some serendipity you will get the nobel prize as well. The second result, which is what you are really shooting for is called the “Nature” in that you would probably get a paper in that revered journal when you are done. And then there is the “fall back”, the minimum result that you are sure you will get irrespective of how badly things go.


vatsan said...

being a member of the society that academically indulges in such pointless exercises, unless you limit the possible answers to a finite number, then running a statistical analysis is pointless.

or else if you dont wish to limit them at the feedback level, its important to club the various answers under broad headings which are finite, statistical analysis is not gonna happen

CuriousCat said...

of course you have to group them under headings. The first example of an answer and the last one are filed under "graduate student/Indian(upper middle class)" and the second under "brazilian/PR consultant". But what does it mean "feedback level"?

tangled said...

Oooh, very nice post!
Though I wish you'd actually asked one of your grand questions to all of the readers of your blog :)

I think one problem about conducting a survey, though, is the fact that a statistical analysis defeats the purpose of the queries. No?
I have too many of these questions in my head myself :)

CuriousCat said...

Thank you tangled. And I do know about your many querries, whenever I read untangledtee, I am so overwhelmed! Hey, BTW, did you notice the tag a couple of weeks earlier?