Laws of Human Nature: The Map is not the Territory

The first article I read about the laws of human nature today was about a numerical simulation of the Peter Principle, which states that employees keep getting promoted until the point where they can no longer perform their jobs well. This simulation is pretty clever, but I don't know that is in fact quite as revolutionary as the article hints. Based on the random ability model the authors created, the optimal promotion strategy is to select employees at random for promotions. This is pretty clearly bad for morale.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the best promotion strategy might be to choose people at random.

"This is a really interesting alternative approach to looking at the Peter principle," says Rajiv Mehta, a professor of marketing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. "But it would turn on its head almost every established theory of human behaviour and would face a multitude of problems."

The other principle we ought to keep in mind here is the map is not the territory: the model is not reality. I think this model could probably be turned into something really useful if it took into account the distribution of abilities such as g and the OCEAN personality factors, plus the experience people gain on the job. I think the model is just too simple to be actually useful, rather than an interesting exercise. I really like the attempt to apply a quantitative model, it just needs to much more complicated.

I will be curious to see whether the authors of the study follow up on this, or if it was just a one-off neat idea they had. This was done by a group of physicists, and I suspect that they are not really interested in getting into all the details it would take to get this right. Physicists are notorious for their simplifying assumptions [well, assume you have a perfectly spherical cow....] and I think this tendency is at play here. Philosophers are subject to the same tendency these days, so strongly wedded to simplicity that they will prefer a simple theory even when it doesn't work quite right. I am grateful that I have worked as an engineer because it has attuned me to complexity. I have to attempt to optimize 50 attributes at the same time, and I don't understand many of them very well, but I have to get on with it nonetheless. Physics and philosophy alike tend to make simplifying assumptions in order to make problems solvable, whereas I do not have that luxury.

I followed a link in the New Scientist article, and I found another post on 5 Laws of Human Nature that is also interesting. Among the 5 laws listed in the second New Scientist article is Parkinson's Law, named for C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson is on my list of people to read real soon now. I started reading The Evolution of Political Thought, which is an updating of Aristotle for the XXth century, but I found Parkinson's style idiosyncratic, so I decided to put the book down and come back to it later.

The other laws, Pareto's principle especially, are also worth attention.

h/t John D Cook