Noise

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Overview

Jacob Burak’s Noise: The Profile of a Cultural Disorder studies a phenomenon that affects each of us every day - ranging from the internal disturbances caused by the need to belong and the urge to achieve to the external sounds generated on the job or by the media. According to Burak, noise is not limited to external annoyances, such as street noise and modern technology, which we all deal with on a constant basis. It also comprises the often unrecognized but powerful emotional forces that create anxiety and uncertainty in our lives, uniquely personal noises generated by the fear of being alone, of failing, or, ultimately, of dying. The book is the story of how the author’s journey in search of a more balanced life uncovered a universal phenomenon with an impact that touches almost everyone. Readers will find the day to day life situations pictured throughout the book very familiar and easy to identify with. In the same vivid way that leading non-fiction writers combine psychology, science, and compelling storytelling, Jacob Burak incorporates both the intensely personal and the rigorously scientific in considering all the implications of his subject. He draws on his diverse experiences as a highly successful businessman and on extensive research -including an exploration of the emerging field of evolutionary psychology as well as in-depth interviews with Taleb, Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, psychologist Paul Slovic, among many others. Using evolutionary psychology, Burak explains how we perceive, process, and amplify noise. More important, he helps us identify the sources of these disturbances and the steps we can take to suppress them, so that we can lead more peaceful, more productive, and happier lives.

Noise is a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and disarmingly witty examination of a prevalent yet largely misunderstood element of modern life.

Do any of these noises disrupt your life?

The noise of perfectionism: In terms of evolution, the survival of perfectionists is a mystery. In a world that demands adaptation and conformance more than ever, the persistence of perfectionism stands out. But researchers say that Perfectionists are not born, they are made - usually at an early age. Setting high standards is not in and of itself a problem, and it characterizes many successful, happy people. The problems begin when high standards are coupled with a fear of making mistakes, which perfectionists tend to confuse with failure. The noise they hear is the fear that others will lose respect for them if they fail.

The noise of the Imposter Syndrome: In psychological terms, the Imposter Syndrome is a cognitive disturbance that prevents the sufferer from internalizing his or her successes and achievements. It is a source of constant internal noise. Those suffering from this condition often feel that they do not deserve their success or attribute that success to luck. They ignore compliments, but immediately register the slightest criticism. While many are affected by this syndrome at one point or another in their lives, women suffer from it more than men. Even at a young age, boys tend to blame external factors when things go wrong, while girls tend to blame themselves.

The noise of medical information: Our health, especially when it is deteriorating, is a source of noise that bursts out at the first sign of illness. We wait for the results of our medical tests and the repetitions of those tests (for verification). Will the doctor calm us down or add noise to our lives? Assessing the results and our course of action based on our doctor’s advice is not always so simple. Many doctors don’t know how to evaluate the quantitative data, such as the statistical complexity of a given test, that is vital to presenting medical information clearly to a patient; an incomplete assessment that can easily result in bad decisions and unnecessary noise.. A new generation of doctors needs to emerge - one that is fully competent at understanding and using statistical information within the context of specific cases.

The noise of information: Our desire as consumers for more and more information of all kinds has been called “infomania.” We have turned into infomaniacs who obsessively gather every bit of available information in the foolish hope that it will give meaning to all the other bits. But our brains overflow with unnecessary anxiety when we watch repeat news broadcasts of the most horrifying daily events. Even though the terror has been recycled, we do not react any less strongly because our emotional system, which is hard-wired to react to frightening news, is not designed to temper the fear with a rational assessment. Such constant streams of threatening images create the noise of intense fear. Psychologists believe exposure to more than thirty minutes of news a day may cause anxiety and even depression.

The most awful noise of all: The frenetic nature of life today diverts our attention from the preoccupation with our inevitable end. We allow other noises to enter our lives, if only to prevent us from hearing the ultimate noise that links us with all other forms of life. But while all species are on some level aware of their existence, we are the only species cognizant of the inevitability of our death. This conflict is a major source of noise. The fear of death stems from the fear of the unknown, the fear of pain, and the desperate need for stability, balance, and especially, meaning, all of which end with our death. Sigmund Freud claimed that in the face of our fear of death, we are desperate for diversions that will enable us to ignore both the fear and death itself. The simple fact that humans find it difficult to think about their own death is evident in the low percentage of people with wills and life insurance policies. Indeed, when was the last time you consciously considered your own death? And how long were you able to do so before your mind abruptly turned to other thoughts?

Excerpts

Social Noises (From Part I - Internal Noises)

The book of Exodus in the Bible warns against following the multitudes. Does that refer merely to the well-known phenomenon of behaving like sheep, or could it apply to the terrible noise of loneliness as well? It is hard to imagine just how far we are willing to go to feel that we belong—even if it is only to a group with whom we share a very low common denominator, like having stayed once in the same hotel. It is even more difficult to describe the malaise (noise, in fact) that we are willing to tolerate to bridge the gap between what we feel is our place in society and our actual standing in society; between how we grasp reality and ourselves in it and how others who are important to us do. A large part of the difference stems from an egocentric bias, our tendency to put ourselves in the center of matters and to attach far greater importance to our own actions than would an outside observer. But there are other reasons as well.

In May 2007 I was offered a rare glimpse into the vulnerability of historical figures to this egocentric bias, at the public auction of a document penned by Marcel Proust in 1890 and rediscovered in 1924. The document, known as the Proust Questionnaire is, in effect, a personal questionnaire filled in by the famed French author of Remembrance of Things Past when he was only thirteen years old. He had found the questionnaire, popular with the British upper class at the end of the nineteenth century, in a book for learning English. The rather tiresome questionnaire is comprised of twenty questions, which, if answered honestly, are supposed to provide a fair picture of the respondent’s personality, dreams, and tastes. French television host Bernard Pivot put these questions to his guests at the end of his popular show Apostrophes. Taking his lead, James Lipton did the same with his guests on Inside the Actor’s Studio.

Proust filled in the questionnaire twice in his life, first when he was thirteen and again at twenty. The differences are quite noticeable, but most striking is his answer to the question, “What would you like to be?” Proust’s reply: “Myself - as those whom I admire would like me to be.” It is a highly accurate description of the distance between who we are and who we wish to be, but it is rather depressing if we understand that who we wish to be is determined by others, admired though they are.

A series of social biases stem from this distance and falls within the category of the egocentric bias, which in turn is subject to the First Law of Noise: we always prefer the noise that diverts our attention to the noise that is more disturbing. In this instance, the more disturbing noise is the noise of loneliness.

The Curse of Knowledge

“Don’t Get Lost, Kid” is a beautiful poem by Israeli poet Eli Netzer, inspired by the story of an Israeli family on a trip to the Netherlands. The parents left their three children for a few moments to look for postcards at a fair. They returned to find that their youngest, a four-year-old boy, was missing. They looked everywhere, called his name, retraced their steps, but their son was gone. After a few long and tense minutes, they heard an announcement over a loudspeaker that a four-year-old child had been found and was waiting at the entrance. “We ran there,” the parents recalled, “and found our son in the arms of the guard on duty, crying quietly.” After thanking the man and calming their son, they asked him how he had gotten lost. “I was walking and looking at the garden and all of a sudden I couldn’t see you,” the boy explained. “I kept walking and then I started to cry. A lady came up to me and took my hand and said, ‘Don’t cry, little boy, your parents will find you in just a minute.’ And she took me to the guard and you found me.” His parents asked, “What language was the lady speaking?” “Dutch, I guess,” the boy answered. “But you don’t speak Dutch,” they told him, amazed. “That’s right,” their son replied, “but I knew she was telling me ‘Don’t cry, little boy, your parents will find you in just a minute.’”

At what age does a child learn to distinguish between his own thoughts and desires and those of others? True, a child attains some level of separation between himself and the world by the age of two, but it takes a few years before he stops believing that the moon can be seen from everywhere because he, by walking, causes it to move. A few years before he stops believing that what was said to him in an incomprehensible language perfectly matched his needs. At a later age, a child may develop empathy, the ability to step into other people’s shoes, understand their needs, and identify with them. It is reasonable to expect that as we mature and grow in knowledge, we are better able to distance ourselves from the child’s viewpoint, in which he sees himself as the center of the world. But are we, really?

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton received a doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. Her dissertation was based on an experiment in which she asked one group to tap a melody chosen from a list of twenty-five popular songs and another group to identify the songs being tapped. The listeners managed to identify only three songs out of 120 that were tapped for them.

Before the experiment began, Newton asked the tappers to predict how many songs the listeners would manage to identify. Their answer? One of every two - a far cry from the result: one in forty.

The tappers wondered how the songs, so clear in their heads and so perfectly executed by their fingers, could not have been easily identified by those “losers” in the other group. Despite their impressive efforts, most listeners were unable to hear anything but a meaningless string of taps that sounded more like Morse code than anything else. Being a tapper in this experiment was not as easy as it sounds, precisely because the tappers had a crucial bit of information: the name of the songs. The phenomenon known as the “curse of knowledge” prevented the tappers from successfully assessing the behavior of those lacking in knowledge; in this case, the listeners. When they tapped, they could neither imagine what the taps would sound like to the listeners nor could they comprehend their difficulty in connecting them to a melody.

This surprising experiment repeats itself many times daily around the world. The tappers and the listeners are managers and workers, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and consumers, writers and readers. All these relationships are based on ongoing communication, but, like the experiment conducted by Elizabeth Newton, they suffer from a deep imbalance between the levels of knowledge of both sides in the dialogue.

The engineer who designs a remote control with dozens of buttons in an array of colors is confident that the user will understand the function of each button. When a CEO discusses unlocking value for the investors, he hears a melody in his head that the people attending the shareholders’ meeting may not necessarily recognize. The curse of knowledge is what ensures that the child in us will remain at the center of the world and will never, ever get lost.

The Spotlight Effect: Social Embarrassment

From the time I peed in the local swimming pool at the age of six, I have been certain that everyone is looking at me. When I forgot part of my speech at the annual conference of Evergreen, the venture capital fund I had founded, the feeling I had in the cool waters of that pool came rushing back at me. As if I needed further confirmation, I misread a recent invitation and showed up tie less to a dressy event. All those years of proper grooming and etiquette; all that time spent understanding the intricacies of social situations went down the drain, drowned in my shame.

Perhaps you, too, are tense before a social or business event, imagining some physical or verbal stumble that will reveal you as a schlemiel - a bungler, a loser - and make you feel that only death could be worse. If a standard reception becomes a test of your social skills, then you will find consolation in a series of studies by psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky and their colleagues, which was published in 2000.

If you suspect that your boss is dissatisfied with your work, that your child is making things up just to make you mad, or that the people you consider your friends are saying nasty things about you behind your back, you can relax. This is not to say that everyone thinks you’re wonderful. It’s more likely that they’re not thinking about you at all, mostly because they’re too busy worrying about what others are saying about them. In general, we are pretty bad at assessing what other people think, and we tend to believe that we occupy more space in their heads than we really do.

The first all-clear signal on that matter was sounded by Thomas Gilovich in an article whose name says it all, “The spotlight effect in social judgment: an egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance.” According to the researchers, the vast majority of us are preoccupied with ourselves, and because of this, we have difficulty assessing just how much attention our behavior merits. A flash of brilliance at a management meeting, a beautifully executed shot during a basketball game, or, on the other hand, a paragraph dropped from an important speech—all these are very meaningful to us. But that’s just it: they are important chiefly to us and only us.

In one study by Gilovich and his colleagues, they asked participants to wear T-shirts printed boldly with the image of Barry Manilow, a singer who, at the time (late 1990s), was held in contempt by most students on North American campuses. The researchers brought the people wearing these T-shirts one at a time into a room and seated them briefly in front of a second group that was busy filling in questionnaires. The study set out to determine how many of those filling in the questionnaires were thought by the T-shirt wearers to have noticed the embarrassing T-shirt and how many of them actually noticed the T-shirt. The results revealed that the T-shirt wearers thought that twice as many people noticed their T-shirts than those who actually did. When the researchers allowed them to wear T-shirts emblazoned with more popular faces (Martin Luther King, Bob Marley, Jerry Seinfeld), those being tested failed once again in their estimates, this time by an even wider margin.

Although adults, unlike children, are more aware that not everyone shares their worldview, it appears that the adjustments we make to accommodate this fact are insufficient. We still tend to place ourselves in the center of things, distorting reality.

According to the research, we are all inclined to overestimate the attention others pay to our appearance and actions, both good and bad. We believe we are in the spotlight when we may actually be at the edge of the stage. A cool haircut, a fashionable article of clothing, an eloquent answer during a discussion, or a great move on the field are of far less interest to others than they are to ourselves.

This phenomenon has a direct influence on what we regret at a later age. People refrain from doing something they have regrets about out of fear of seeming ridiculous to others, even though only they perceive their failures as such. In an earlier study, Gilovich found that people regret more the things they did not do than the things they did, such as not inviting someone to dance or not daring to approach that special someone.

The Spotlight Effect explains why we are more willing to dance privately in our homes or sing in the shower than with friends. But there is some consolation in all this: if we manage to free ourselves from this inhibiting effect, we can laugh more freely and loudly, express our opinions more openly, and connect on a deeper level with others. As a bonus, we’ll discover that those around us will feel more comfortable behaving in the same way - just being themselves.

From the Chapter “The Noise of Medical Information”

In 1998, as I was approaching my fiftieth birthday, a dear friend persuaded me to undergo a cardiovascular scan using the latest technology available at the time. It changed my life.

The machine measured the amount of calcium in my blood vessels, which is usually a reliable indicator of the fatty deposits that clog them and expose us to fatal heart attacks. Printed on the impressive stationery of a New York clinic, the results painted a depressing picture of the chambers of my heart - and my deteriorating health. The doctor used statistical tables and graphs in four colors to outline the cruel destiny that awaited me, the unlucky one in six people tested who receive this verdict. After a short period of despondence, which included writing a will for the first time in my life, I decided to take my fate in my own hands. My lifestyle, which had included modest physical exercise and good dietary habits, became a model of healthful behavior: running, swimming, or tennis nearly every day and red meat once a year, but only if that year had seen a 30 percent rise in the stock market.

Within months, I lost nearly 10 percent of my body weight (I was not heavy to begin with), and I proudly showed off my sunken cheeks as a badge of unfettered good health. In my mind’s eye, I imagined my organs regaining their youth and flexibility, my heart developing new blood vessels to accommodate all the physical activity, and the fats in my blood retreating in horror. The results of my annual physical check up, a habit I began at the age of thirty-five, confirmed my feelings - except for a stubborn cloud of doubt that lingered over my stress test. Although I was in excellent condition, each year the nurse would summon the doctor to have a closer look at the electrical deviation recorded by my EKG. And nearly every time, I was obliged to submit to a few more coronary tests - some rich in radiation - to ensure that I (the doctors insist on “we”) would not be blindsided by an unexpected heart attack. I considered these tests a necessary evil and wondered whether being in excellent shape was not enough to guarantee good health.

Seven years after the original CT, I did the test again at a hospital that used the very same equipment for purposes of comparison, even though there were newer, faster scanning machines. Once again, there were numbers, graphs in four colors - and identical results. My seven years of self-discipline made no impression on the machine, the pride and glory of General Electric. At the end of this examination, as with the first one, the doctor made it clear that only one in six people tested as I had. I could not further improve my lifestyle. Tightening the belt any more would lead to malnutrition or addiction to competitive sports at a harmful level.

I bore my fate courageously, praying that the end would not come before I completed my first book. Then one day, while I was running in a London park, I felt a sharp pain in my left arm, a telltale sign of a heart attack. I jumped into a taxi, called my wife so she’d be waiting with my passport, and off we sped to the hospital. On the way, I phoned my doctor in Israel. After a brief consultation, he told me that I had probably been stung by an insect, a bee likely (suddenly, I could see the sting itself), and that there was no need for panic. I must admit that all those extra tests, scans, and examinations had succeeded in undermining my confidence.

Two years later, I experienced some chest pain. My doctor and I decided that there was no way of avoiding a coronary angiogram, an invasive procedure in which a flexible tube is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin and threaded to the area of the heart requiring treatment, while a radio-contrast agent is administered. The heart is captured onscreen, enabling doctors to determine the extent of clogging in the blood vessels. Dispassionately, like people untroubled, we made the appointment for the following morning at a private hospital.

A coronary angiogram requires the cooperation of the patient, so general anesthesia is not used. I could see, along with the attending cardiologist, the blood vessels leading to my heart. I did not need long years of medical school and a punishing residency to understand that my arteries were completely clear.

I became a victim of surplus medical information, and I have learned my lesson. In an overly emotional response, I initially stopped taking the few medications that were recommended for people my age (I have resumed taking them). My skepticism of medical test results and doctors’ self-confidence has been replaced by a renewed peace and confidence in my body and in my healthful lifestyle. During my doctors’ appointments, which are less frequent these days, I ask them to deliver their prognoses in terms of relative risk. When they talk about the possible outcomes of a certain medical situation, I ask them to rank these in order of likelihood. If the tests they want me to do involve intrusive procedures or radiation, I think twice. I do them only to negate a likely possibility. Oddly enough, the seemingly unnecessary angiogram gave me the peace of mind that dozens of other tests have robbed me of.

Our health, especially when it is deteriorating, is a source of noise that bursts in on us at any sign of illness or each time a routine examination results in a positive finding. Medical prognoses, tests, repetitions of those tests (for verification), and additional tests are part and parcel of medical routine today. We wait for our results. Will the doctor calm us or add noise to our lives? Will she try to rule out all possibilities or will she focus on the most probable? Will she separate the wheat from the chaff? Does the doctor understand that there is a high price to pay for a surplus of information?

Doctors as Human Beings

Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute asked a group of doctors what the chances are that a woman between the ages of forty and fifty who tests positive on a mammography examination to actually be ill at the time of her exam. The mammography scanner that was used, statistically, accurately identified 90 percent of women who were in fact ill and erred, or produced false positives, with no more than 7 percent of women who were healthy. The rate of breast cancer among women forty to fifty years of age is 0.8 percent (eight in every one thousand). This is the most important piece of the puzzle, the absolute risk. Without this piece of information, all the other data are meaningless.

So what are the chances that this woman is actually ill? Is it 90 percent, as many intuitively assume? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t got a clue; you are not in the minority. If we rephrase the question in terms of relative frequency, the picture becomes clearer.

Eight of every thousand women are ill (an absolute risk of 0.8 percent). The instrument will catch seven of those, or about 90 percent. For every 992 healthy women tested, seventy will receive a false positive (about 7 percent). All told, of seventy-seven positive results, only seven reflect illness. Therefore, the chance of someone who has tested positive on a mammography exam actually having breast cancer is seven out of seventy-seven, less than one to eleven (9 percent). Of the twenty-four doctors asked this question, only two answered correctly. Another two were not far off (for the wrong reasons). The rest missed the mark by a huge margin. This is an excellent example of the difficulty in presenting a medical topic in terms of probability.

A positive result on a mammography exam is never good news, but the odds that a woman is well are much greater than the odds that she is ill. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that despite the fact that the vast majority of positive test results are incorrect, the chance that those diagnosed with a suspicious finding are actually ill, while small, are still larger than it was before the exam (9 percent versus 0.8 percent from among the general population). On the other hand, the chance of someone who received a negative response being sick at the time of the test is even smaller than previously thought.

Psychologist David Eddy conducted a similar study in which ninety-five of the one hundred doctors tested were unable to make the calculation. It is disturbing to think of the many hours of sleep lost by women who received false positives. How many were anxiety-ridden enough to undergo unnecessary surgery? When the diagnostic exam is imperfect - which is the case with mammograms - the basic benchmark of the disease being tested (in terms of absolute risk) is the key to medical assessment.

We expect a doctor to present us with the full picture, only part of which is medical. The other part is statistical and stems from an understanding of the limits of accuracy of a given test. How many doctors give their patients statistical information? How many are willing to admit that they are unfamiliar with these data? Doctors may be professionals, but some are ignorant of the quantitative methods that will enable them to present medical information clearly to the patient - and, no less importantly, to themselves.

Reviews & Interviews

"Burak names phenomena which until now were taken for granted and warmly recommends reducing the harmful exposure to information. In a very clear and decisive manner he swims against the current and introduces unorthodox ways to handle the mass of information without drowning. . . . Intelligent, interesting, surprising and often amusing." —Walla

"The local version of Taleb is the writer Jacob Burak. Like Taleb, Burak is an ex-businessman who retired from managing the company he founded and began writing books. His first book became a best seller as did Noise . . . which within two weeks of publication [was] in the top ten of the nonfiction bestseller list." —Maariv

Readers’ Comments

  1. Your second book exceeded my expectations (and they were high...). I thought it was simply brilliant.
    I was wondering how one can get a hold of a few copies in English?
    Regards,
    Galia
  2. Read Noise, then read it again and once you're done wait few months and then read it again. Some of the phenomena in the book are well known, such as Nobel winning theories by Kahenman and Tversky, or have been recently included in other books such as Fooled by Randomness, HOWEVER, Noise brings together so many examples of the noises in our lives, noises with which we can all cope and turn into quietness by increasing our awareness, growing our knowledge or simply by training.
    I've encountered plenty of noises during the years: as an IAF pilot, marketing manager at a leading defense company, MBA student at a European IV league business school, or even now as a banker in a world class bank, I always sense that remains of the Imposter Syndrome bring noise into my life from time to time and make me ask myself - am I really good enough? (Masquerade, pg 71).
    I also sit every morning at the bank's briefing room for a morning market review, watching "experts" present charts and data, "critical news" and FX/stocks forecast prices - I enjoy this daily session of noise as I observe from the side how my colleagues swallow the bait and go ahead to communicate this "valuable information" to their clients (Financial noises).
    These phenomena and others, described so wittily by Burak in the book, hurt all of us on daily basis and may impact one's life severely. Burak elegantly offers practical solutions with a pinch of humor. This is not another "how-to-make-it-in-life" book, but a reading pleasure on how to improve one's quality of life. Well done!!!"
    Noam, S.E Asia
  3. I was deeply impressed from the fresh and innovative approach of this book. I believe it is a must reading for every curious mind
    Yaakov
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