Bryan Caplan  

Try Harder or Do Something Easier?

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Smoking, Social Desirability B... Larry Summers is persuasive...
A friend tells you, "I'm thinking of starting a restaurant.  Advise me."  You know that about 60% of new restaurants fail in their first three years - and have no reason to think that your friend would be anything other than average.  How should your knowledge affect your advice? 

You could say, "Open the restaurant and work like mad, because the odds are against you."  Slogan: Try Harder.

Or you could say, "Don't open the restaurant, because the odds are against you."  Slogan: Do Something Easier.

Neither recommendation is crazy.  But as the probability of failure rises, the case for Do Something Easier gets stronger and stronger.  Why tell your friend to work his fingers to the bone when he's probably going to fail anyway? 

This is especially true on the plausible assumption that people are more likely to heed advice about one-time discrete decisions than day-to-day continuous decisions.  Saying "Marry her" is more likely to sway behavior than "Be good to your wife every day" - and saying "Do Something Easier" is more likely to sway behavior than "Try Harder."

Why then are advisers so reluctant to say "Do Something Easier"?  Because Try Harder sounds better - and most advisers would rather sound good than genuinely help their advisees.

This analysis clearly applies to starting a business or choosing an occupation.  But it works equally well for educational decisions.  Suppose a kid at the 30th percentile of the high school distribution asks you if he should go to college.  You know that kids at the 30th percentile have a dismal dropout rate.  Should you respond with Try Harder or Do Something Easier?

In our society, "Try Harder" is the socially acceptable - nay, socially mandatory! - slogan.  Don't tell kids to give up on their dreams; tell them to work for their dreams.  On reflection, though, this just exposes advisers' vanity: They'd rather sound helpful than be helpful.  Do you really imagine that chanting "Try Harder" will induce weak students to devote themselves to their studies, day in, day out?  No?  Then urging weak students to "Try Harder" barely differs from "Make an expensive investment that will fail at its normal high rate." 

To be fair, most weak students will ignore you even if you urge them to Do Something Easier.  But some will probably listen to you - and refrain from making a very bad bet. 

What about the tiny minority of weak students who would have blossomed in college?  Obsession with this group is the height of pious folly.  Suppose you convince a lot of people to stop buying lottery tickets.  Should you lose sleep over the likelihood that - but for your advice - one of your advisees would have won the jackpot?  Of course not.  "Advice that works on average" is also known as "good advice."

Say it with me: Risk of failure is a reason not to try.  Not a decisive reason, but a reason nonetheless - and the higher the risk of failure, the stronger the reason.  True, if you have no alternatives, you may as well try your best and hope for the best.  But would-be restaurant owners and would-be students always have alternatives.  And as long as you have alternatives, willingness to Do Something Easier in the face of crummy odds is not cowardice.  It is good economics - and common sense.



COMMENTS (19 to date)
Shane L writes:

I guess some people perform poorly simply because they have low morale and expect to fail. Encouraging such people to be more ambitious, try harder and seek a better life could be positive.

For others, as you say, the dream is unrealistic and "give up, try something easier" makes sense. I wonder how many people live difficult lives with low income and status in the pursuit of unattainable careers in music, acting or sports.

I remember watching an episode of British talk show The Graham Norton Show some years ago when various celebrities all said they were discouraged from pursuing music or acting careers in their youths, but ignored the advice and succeeded. It struck me that there was a kind of silent evidence missing: all those who tried to get these jobs but failed are never interviewed. Viewers only see the successes.

Pajser writes:

When I reflect my past, I always conclude that I regret only if I didn't tried. If I tried seriously and failed, I do not care.

Human emotions prevent mentally healthy people from continuing to invest large, destructive efforts in something they cannot accomplish. They gradually lose their desire and decision to give up is easy.

So, yes, if I think someone is mentally healthy, I'll say "burn your bridges and go for it."

Tracy W writes:

It does depend on context, what will be the regrets if someone tries and doesn't fail, versus not trying at all?
And how about giving some advice to make it less likely to fail? Like "why don't you talk to my brother the chef?"

Eli writes:

Can't argue with that!

There's also an availability bias in the kind of stories we hear. We love to tell and hear about overcoming the high risk of failure. Those times we played the odds and lost make for awkward and depressing dinner conversations.

SG writes:

I'm reminded of the immortal words of Homer Simpson:
“Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”

AS writes:

Astute observation. Everyone thinks they can beat the odds. Overconfidence bias?

And why is it so socially unacceptable to tell people to avoid taking unwise risks? Is it because we like to deny the harsh reality that we might fail, and to instead cling to some irrational hope? If someone takes away our hope for a better future, what if life no longer becomes worth living? Why do we set such high standards that we're not happy unless we achieve our highest dreams?

RPLong writes:

Another good one from Homer Simpson: "Trying is the first step toward failure."

All of Caplan's arguments seem to come from the perspective that the person giving the advice is in a better position to judge than the person considering the activity. "Try harder" is annoying advice and "do something easier" is boorish and pessimistic.

That's why I take a different approach in this kind of situation: I talk to the person weighing the decision and help them articulate for themselves what the pros and cons are, and whether they think they have a chance. Then I let them make their own decisions.

Rather than trying to be the one with the most accurate advice, we should strive to be the one with the most helpful advice.

Al writes:

Or maybe a society that value exceptionalism follows the keep trying mantra because the output of the minority outweighs the opportunity costs of the majority.

gwern writes:
Why then are advisers so reluctant to say "Do Something Easier"? Because Try Harder sounds better - and most advisers would rather sound good than genuinely help their advisees.

Is this premise actually true?

When I look in my mind's eye for a stereotypical Quora question 'I want to become a rock star', the top answer I see is not 'good idea! My advice is to master $obscure_instrument which is undervalued by would-be rock stars...' but rather, 'you're an idiot. 0.0001% of would-be rock stars ever make a living at it and it's a horrible career idea [1][2][3][4][5]'.

Nor can I recall the last time I saw anyone urge another to open their dream restaurant...

Actually, instead of speculating, let's take a quick look on Quora.

For 'be a rock star' (http://www.quora.com/search?q=be+a+rock+star) I can't actually find anyone asking how to become a rock star - just someone who has sensibly given up and is asking for advice on what's the next best goal (http://www.quora.com/Psychology/If-I-cant-be-a-rock-star-what-can-I-do) which is not very consistent with OP.

OK, how about restaurants, since that's more on point? Let's look at http://www.quora.com/search?q=opening+a+restaurant - first question is 'what are the typical margins for a franchise restaurant' (immediately we notice the realism of this question - they expect it to be unprofitable, and are trying to adopt a tried-and-true franchiser's work). Next question: 'What obstacles exist in opening a restaurant in NYC?' (speaks for itself; answers are pessimistic & discouraging). 'Other than location, what are the most important factors to consider when opening a new restaurant?' (likewise; favorite line from top answer: 'All those combined can somewhat alleviate the risk of crashing and burning as many food service ops are wont to do within the first year.'). 'What is the cost of setting up a good restaurant in South Delhi?' (25 lakh, apparently).

Ah, finally, we get a question which might reveal Caplan's claimed behavior: "What does it take to successfully go from "I really enjoy cooking" to "I'm opening a restaurant"?" Surely here we will find people giving advice in how to do better rather than discouraging doing an overly-popular activity? I mean, if we can't find that behavior in a perfect question like this, where can we find it? Surely there will not be nattering nabobs of negativity here? First answer: "Open. Profit (or not, your chances are about 20% that your first venture will make it the first year)." Hm. Second answer, quoted in full:

"The first step to this process is to go to work in a restaurant for six months. Spend 12 hour days on your feet, six days a week, in front of 140 degree F air temperature, and that will reveal one facet of opening a restaurant. Imagine then having to go home, balance books, write up inventory orders, staff schedules, menu plans and last-minute to-do lists that include making sure the refrigerator repair guy is coming first thing in the morning, and you're about halfway there in terms of the time and energy it takes to run a restaurant. Don't forget to clean up on your way out!"

Oops. Well, there's answer #3 - "First thought: Stupidity!" Ah. Never mind. Answer #4? "Complete insanity and the desire to associate with the dregs of society."

Well, I think I've made my point.

awp writes:

In the last few years I have been in a unique position that has led to are sharp rise in requests for advice, on this particular type of scenario (high failure rate). I try to not ever give any advice, just facts and information, e.g. "it is really hard work, the failure rate is high, a large part of that high failure rate is luck and circumstance, so, even if you work really hard you are still likely to fail."

NZ writes:

There might be a hidden psychological undercurrent where the person asking for advice subconsciously imagines that the person giving advice is actually capable of implementing the advice himself, but doesn't for some reason relating to comparative advantage.

The person giving advice senses this, too, and so gives advice that makes him look like a brave, hard worker rather than a quitter or a coward.

Captain Dangerous writes:

No, this is wrong.

Subjective probabilities of success in an endeavor are observations of lots of anecdotes. Data, indeed, but not particularly instructive.

My cat became sick with a virus that has a 90% mortality rate. I could have said, "Sorry Frisky, the $4000 to care for you is not worth a 10% probability of success."

But wait a minute. How is that 90% derived? It includes all cats that were never treated. It includes all cats where the owner chose euthanasia. It includes cats that died with the disease not not from it.

Like every other case where only two variables are observed, there is enormous potential for omitted variable bias. It is the conditional probability that should guide our decision making!

By saying people should work harder you merely tip your cap toward the idea that the probability of success is not just a cosmic game of dice. Despite knowing otherwise, you fall back on the deceptive notion that results are determined by exogenous factors.

I used to tell my students that an asteroid falling from the sky is exogenous. Anything involving human choice isnt.

There is truth to the fact that effort alone cannot turn a mud pie into an apple tart. There are limits to human abilities, and there are some exogenous endowments. I will likely never be a pro basketball player or a porn star. And i have chosen my career based on that reality. This is not to say that it is impossible for me to be either if I wanted, and trying can be a choice worth taking unto itself. It is MY choice.

But where matters of public policy are concerned, there is a bias toward action even when action is likely to yield all costs and no benefits. In that situation, unconditional probabilities are useful because the conditional probabilities are often not far away. Unintended consequences often negate good intentions and bureaucracy thwarts hard work, and a multitude of individual interests destroys the consensus of values necessary to make a wise collective choice.

I accept your basic idea that people should not indulge futile pursuits. I just don't like your explanation.

Jeff writes:

This reminds me of an insightful quote from a Professor, "it is never too early to fail a student" (read: give a failing grade).

The comment was about giving Fs to poor students early on in college to encourage them to change majors, as opposed to what are you suppose to do with a failing student in her final semester.

MingoV writes:
Suppose a kid at the 30th percentile of the high school distribution asks you if he should go to college.... Should you respond with Try Harder or Do Something Easier?
If the kid's at the 30th percentile because he's reasonably smart but unmotivated, then try harder would be a good answer if you expect college to be a motivator. If the kid's at the 30th percentile because his IQ is 86, then tell him to try something easier.
DougT writes:

JRR Tolkein: "Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill."

I used to think that this was silly: of course you give the best advice you can, especially if you're a wise High Elf and Frodo is just a lowly hobbit. But no, advice ties the adviser to the advised, with a level of accountability, if the adviser has any integrity.

The problem with advice is, everyone wants it, everyone wants to give it, and there's no feedback mechanism. Whether you give good or bad advice, what difference does it make?

Tolkein was right.

LD Bottorff writes:

It isn't always "Something Easier." For many rock-star wannabees, music is easier. It just isn't appropriate. For many high-school seniors, allowing the parents to pay for a few years of college is easier; but the harder alternative, going straight to work is not easy, but is more appropriate.

Michael York writes:

When asked whether it would be a good idea to go into partnership in opening a new restaurant with a friend whose contribution to the scheme would be "sweat equity", a very wise adviser answered: "I have a better idea. Why don't you take the money you would invest in the restaurant, put it in a shoe box and leave the shoe box on the curb. That way, you'll only be out the money, which you're going to lose anyway, but you'll keep your friend."

Floccina writes:

I love this post.

...but then I have been accused of being a dream crusher.

Floccina writes:

BTW I would only give the facts e.g. someone with your grades is x% likely to succeed.

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