Not Ken Jennings, But . . .

January 13, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

With Jeopardy running its Big Three Showdown (Jennings, Holzhauer, Rutter) last week, people were telling their own Jeopardy stories. Here’s mine.

In 1972, I had just moved to New York. Most of the game shows were still here, and there were a lot of them — Jeopardy, Pyramid, Match Game, and others. Two friends from college had taken the test for Jeopardy. So I called the show. A few weeks later, I was sitting in a room in a nondescript midtown building with forty other people taking the test — paper and pencil, fifty questions, fill in the blank. It reminded me of high school. The only question I recall now was one that I knew I had missed — the capital of Wyoming. I looked it up later. Cheyenne.

In late January they called and told me to show up on February 9.

The host in those pre-Trebek years was Art Fleming, and the contestants instead of standing, sat behind desks. The dollar amounts were 1/20th the current rate — $10 to $50 in round one, $20 to $100 in Double Jeopardy.

The board was mechanical not electronic. The dollar amounts and questions were on square placards, almost like the scoreboard at Fenway, where guys behind the board  replace the 0 tile with a 1 when a team scores. When you selected a category and amount, “History for $30" for example, the $30 square would be mechanically (and often audibly)  yanked up to reveal the question on the card underneath.

Most important, you could ring in at any time. You didn’t have to wait for Art to finish reading the entire question. But finish it he would. So even if you rang the bell two seconds into the question, you would have the full reading time to think of the answer.

They taped a week’s worth of shows in a day.  My episode was a Friday, the last show they would do that day. The returning champion was a woman from Virginia. I had the middle seat, and to my left the other challenger, an Italian-American woman from Bloomfield, New Jersey.

I did well. I was ringing in quickly and getting most of the questions right. I even had a couple of lucky guesses on questions I wasn’t at all sure of.  At the end of the first round, I had $420, the champ had $40, and the woman from Bloomfield was at minus $10. (Remember, $100 then is like $2000 today.)

During the long commercial break before the Double Jeopardy round, assistants came out to adjust our make-up and give advice. “Try to ring in faster,” one of them said, trying to encourage the woman from Bloomfield. To me they said, “Could you try to smile a little bit more. People watching you win all this money want to think that you’re happy about it.”

(Please excuse the less-than-ideal photography. My girlfriend took pictures of the television.)

Going into Final Jeopardy, I was still way ahead — $880 to $160.  ($17,600 to $3200 in today’s Jeopardy dollars.) The woman from Bloomfield had rung in on only a few questions, and had gotten more wrong than right. She finished in the red. So it was just the two of us. Neither of us knew the Final answer (Joseph Lister), and I finished as the winner with $760.

I returned a week later as defending champion. “Did you tell your students?” asked Art in our 20-seconds of human interest. “No,” I said, “but I expect that word will get out.” I was wrong.

The competition was tougher this time, mostly in the person of Mary, born and raised in Oklahoma and now living in Pelham. Going into Final Jeopardy, she had $740 to my $560. (Again the third player had finished below zero.) The category was “state capitals,” but the question was really about theater. “The Western state capital that figures prominently in the musical ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown.’”  

I had no idea. But I remembered the state-capital question I’d missed months before on the qualifying test. Maybe the Jeopardy producers had a thing for Wyoming. So I guessed Cheyenne. Mary also guessed — Denver, “the only Western capital I could think of,” she said later. I was wrong. She was right. Thus ended my career on Jeopardy.

That’s not quite the end of the story. There’s a sociological coda, which I hope to get to in the next post.

NFL Playoffs — FiveThirtyEight vs. the Bookies

January 10, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The 49ers are a 7-point favorite tomorrow over the Vikings. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating, they’re only five points better.

Elo — named for Arpad Elo, a physicist who used it to predict chess matches — is a “power rating,” which takes into account a team’s record, the records of the teams it played, the margin of victory, and some other team variables. Power ratings are common in sports. Elo, as you would expect from something at FiveThirtyEight, is a bit more statistically complicated. For example:

We created a multiplier that gives teams (ever-diminishing) credit for blowout wins by taking the natural logarithm of their point differential plus 1 point. This factor also carries an additional adjustment for autocorrelation, . . .the tendency of a time series to be correlated with its past and future values. [Source]

Can you use Elo to make money betting on the NFL? Is that two-point difference tomorrow enough to warrant a bet on Vikings getting seven points? Below is a chart showing wins and losses for each level of difference between the Elo spread and the actual betting line. I set the minimum difference at 1½ points.

For example, in the last week of the regular season, the bookies had Broncos as 4-point favorites over the Raiders. Elo rated them 5½ points better. So according to my system, that 1½-difference means bet the favorite. As it turned out, the Broncos won, but by only one point. So we Eloists and other Broncos bettors lost.

So far this season, there has been an Elo-vs-bookmakers difference of exactly 1½ points in 37 games. If you had bet accordingly, you would have won 19 bets and lost 18. Unfortunately, most bets require the bettor to give 11-10 odds. You bet $110 to win $100. So on these thirty-seven 1½-point games, you would have lost a little (4%).

(Click for a slightly larger view.)

As the chart shows, Elo as a betting guide does not improve as the rating differential increases. If you had bet $110 on each game where the Elo rating differed from the betting line by 1½ points or more, you would have wound up winning 70, losing 81 — a net loss of $1100. Increasing the size of your bet as the differential increased might have made a small improvement.

In any case, here’s how Elo and Las Vegas see the games this weekend.

Las Vegas Line
Elo likes the Vikings as underdogs. In the other three games, it thinks that the betting line is underestimating the strength of the favorite. That’s not an accident. As their methodological post at FiveThirtyEight says, “We found that, in the NFL playoffs, favorites tend to outplay underdogs by a wider margin than we’d expect from their regular-season ratings alone.”

UPDATE: Here are the Elo picks and their outcomes in the actual games.

1. Elo liked the Vikings + 7. They lost by 17 (27 - 10). A loss for Elo.

2. Elo liked the Ravens - 9½. They lost on the field. Badly (12-28). Nobody saw that one coming. A loss for Elo.

3. Elo liked the Chiefs - 11½. They won and covered (51-31). A win for Elo.

4. Elo liked the Packers - 4½. They won by 5 (28-23). A win for Elo.

Two up, two down. With Elo as a guide, if you had bet of $110 to win $100 on each game, your net would be -$20.

Impostor Syndrome, an Idea Whose Time Has Come . . . Again

January 8, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The impostor syndrome is the dancing partner of pluralistic ignorance. That was the point of the previous post. In pluralistic ignorance, each person thinks that others are doing better at living up to cultural ideals. On campuses where “hook-up culture” rules, most students think that everyone else is having more sex and better sex than they are. Two axioms from Goffman account for this misperception. First, norms require that people present more or less idealized versions of themselves and keep contradictory, self-damaging information to themselves. Second, absent any contradictory information, we accept and ratify the self that the other person presents. These norms make it easy for real impostors to go unchallenged for so long.*

Unless we are playing Humiliation (see the previous post or David Lodge’s novel Changing Places), we don’t tell our colleagues which classics in our field we haven’t read. Instead, when the conversation turns to Weber’s Economy and Society, we nod and keep our silence, assuming that most of the others in the room have read it at least once. Maybe we make a tangential comment, or ask a general question, and the others for their part, observing our wisdom, assume that we too have made our way through all 1700 pages. We, meanwhile, feel like an impostor. (And by we in this paragraph, I mean me. And maybe you.)

The phrase in the seminal 1978 article** was “impostor phenomenon,” but “impostor syndrome” quickly became the more popular choice. It was a phrase just waiting to be coined.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The sharp increase of “imposter syndrome” in print did not reflect an increase in the thing itself. It was already widespread; it was just hiding in plain sight. It was the feeling that could not speak its name. But once someone did speak its name, people were seeing it everywhere.

Did impostor syndrome have a precursor? It did indeed. In the 1920s and 30s, “inferiority complex” followed a similar trajectory.

The person most responsible for putting the concept in play was psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. He used the term “inferiority feeling,” but in the same way that phenomenon gave way to syndrome with imposter, Adler’s feeling was soon swamped by complex. Wikipedia describes it as “feelings of not measuring up to standards, a doubt and uncertainty about oneself, and a lack of self-esteem.” Which sounds a lot like impostor syndrome. The “inferiority complexes” was popular in the 1940s and 50s, but nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone who has one, sort of like a Studebaker.

From the sociological perspective, the trouble with both these versions is that they emphasize the individual. That’s obvious with “inferiority feelings,” which assumes that these are a matter of individual psychology. But even the studies that look at gender, class, or race take these as permanent characteristics of the individual. What these ignore are the structural, situational conditions that make the feelings more likely or less likely.  And these conditions may matter far more than the psychological or demographic characteristics of the individual.

I hope to explore this idea in a later post.

* Frank Abegnale, the impostor played by Leo DeCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can,” once got a university adjunct position in sociology. He said he was a sociologist, and nobody tried to prove him wrong. He moved on after a semester, probably to keep ahead of the law. But apparently his student evaluations were good. The department chair asked him to stay for another semester.

** The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247.

Impostor Syndrome and Cultural Rules

January 6, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many years ago, I was talking with a successful business consultant. He had a PhD in business from a prestigious school, was on the faculty of another pretigious business school, and for several years now, corporations were paying him large sums to come in for a day or two. Still, he didn’t feel secure. “I keep thinking, What if they find out?”

I remembered that conversation when a thread on impostor syndrome showed up in my Twitter feed. What set people off was this tweet in response to someone who had tweeted about her own feelings of being an impostor.

True, it’s the individual’s problem, not society’s. Society doesn’t suffer if you feel like an impostor. But that doesn’t mean that social factors are irrelevant. What if impostor syndrome is more prevalent and more persistent among women than men? That would certainly suggest that the causes are social and not just psychological. In fact, many of the responses to this tweet argued that a person’s race, class, gender, age and other social variables might affect the probability that they would feel like an impostor. Or as Nathalie Olah in the Guardian (here) put it, “what seems more likely is that impostor syndrome is a rather natural reaction of anyone from a working-class, disadvantaged or minority background to the various biases they face on a daily basis.”

The studies on these variables are far from unanimous, if only because there’s no standardized way of measuring the crucial variable of feeling like an impostor. But I’d like to throw in one more variable — culture. My guess is that impostor syndrome is more prevalent and more deeply affecting in societies that emphasize success, societies like, oh I don’t know, the United States.

The British, by contrast, seem not so obsessed by success. In some instances, not being a success and not having the right stuff can put a person one up on the others in the room. I’m thinking here of Humiliation, a party game played by literature professors in Changing Places by British novelist David Lodge. Each person has to name a literary work, preferably one in the canon, that they have never read. You get a point for every other player who in fact has read it. The winner will be the one who has not read the classics that a lit professor would be expected to be familiar with — in other words, the biggest impostor.

Presumably, for the British and for less success-obsessed Americans the game is just a bit of fun. But for Howard Ringbaum, a success-driven American professor, the game creates an unresolvable conflict. “He has a pathological urge to succeed and a pathological fear of being thought uncultured, and this game set his two obsessions at war with each other, because he could succeed in the game only by exposing a gap in his culture.”

Ringbaum and Humiliation are fictions invented by a novelist. But Kate Fox is an anthropologist, and in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, she describes a similar game of “competitive self-deprecation” when real Brits talk about their home-improvement projects.

When showing visitors the results of your DIY efforts . . . a strict modesty rule applies. Even if you are highly skilled, you must always play down your achievements, and if possible play up your most embarrassing mistakes and blunders... 

‘I managed to burst three pipes just laying the carpet!’ 

‘We bought an expensive carpet, but I ruined it by cutting it four inches short, so I had to build some bookcases to cover the gap.’

‘You think that’s bad: it took me an hour and three cups of tea to put up a coat-hook board, and then I found I’d hung it upside-down!’

Here’s more British fun: In a dinner-party scene in the film “Notting Hill,” the competition involves not a specific area like literature or home-improvement but more or less the total self. Except for the newcomer in their midst – a famous actress (played by Julia Roberts), the guests all know one another well, and as the the host says, “I've long suspected, that we really are the most desperate lot of under-achievers.” At dessert time, there’s one extra brownie, and the host says he will award the brownie to “the saddest act here.”

The video is nearly four minutes long, but it’s worth watching.   

I can’t think of anything similar in American novels or films. Maybe such scenes exist, and in any case, the connection between cultural fictions and real life is not always clear. But the larger point is that impostor syndrome depends on the rules of the game. Where the rules of everyday life allow for the disclosure of personal flaws,  people will be less likely to feel like an impostor and that feeling will be less salient.