Trade-offs: Sometimes You Can’t Be Harder, Better, Faster, and Stronger

Smarter isn’t always better.

Thomas Hills

This, at least, was the conclusion of Thomas Hills and Ralph Hertwig in a new meta-analysis. They pointed to studies of drug research and enhanced mental traits.

In cases where drugs were used to boost brain performance, inverted u-shaped performance curves were the norm. In other words, past a certain stage, “enhancement” actually had a counterproductive effect. It was only helpful up to an optimal point.

In cases where specific aspects of brain performance were enhanced, there was usually a trade-off elsewhere. Those who excelled in certain types of intelligence, in other words, would usually languish in others.

People with high IQ, savant tendencies, or photographic memories, for example, often suffer from much higher rates of autism, extreme synesthesia, and neurological disorders.

Scientific American recently published an article about the fact that forgetting is actually an important part of memory. Those who have near-perfect memory find it almost impossible to recollect relevant information. The inability to forget efficiently seems to contribute to psychological problems like ADD and depression.

Sometimes there’s a limit to just how beneficial something can be. Trying to push things past that point can have unintended consequences.

A State of Equilibrium

The principle of equilibrium has been applied in almost all scientific fields. The basic idea is that opposing influences find a state of balance so that things don’t change much, if at all.

This concept was borrowed from the hard sciences and applied to game theory, the science of strategies. John Nash, popularized by the movie A Beautiful Mind, invented the concept of what has been aptly called a Nash equilibrium.

This state is reached when a “game” is being played by two or more players. If every player knows everybody else’s strategy, and has nothing to gain by changing their own strategy, a Nash equilibrium has been reached.

The math for game theory was originally developed to describe economic behavior, but it has since found applications in evolutionary biology.

The human brain appears to be in a state of evolutionary equilibrium. With a limited amount of energy available, and several other selective pressures in place, it didn’t make sense for the brain to become any more intelligent than it already has.

Punctuated Equilibrium

The idea of slow, gradual evolution has been challenged in recent decades by the newer concept of punctuated equilibrium. Rather than slow, tiny competitive changes, the new theory argues that evolution occurs in relatively short bursts, where a species splits into two or more species.

(Short bursts, in this context, last tens of thousands of years.)

While the theory originally saw a lot of criticism, evidence from the fossil record, and new discoveries from genetics, thrust the theory into the mainstream.

Essentially, something nudges one species or one population within a species to adopt a new strategy. This throws all the related species out of equilibrium, forcing them to adopt new strategies as well.

A key insight from the theory is that, most of the time, species aren’t evolving. They are in a period of stability. Only change in the environment results in the evolution of new strategies.

But once equilibrium is disrupted, all the effected species need to find a new strategy.

Ideas from evolution have often been borrowed, sometimes unfairly, and applied elsewhere. In particular, economics and evolution have often traded game plans, inspiring such views as social Darwinism, which has since been seen as a perversion of Darwin’s views.

Stephen Jay Gould was one of the first proponents of the punctuated equilibrium model

The traditional evolutionary view assumes constant change. This has led some to mistakenly think of evolution as constant progress. While this is not what most evolutionary biologists have ever believed, the idea that every mutation holds the possibility to offer a competitive advantage does have an influence on the way that we view competition in general.

The realization that species are actually caught in stalemate most of the time has a very different influence. Rather than thinking that there is always some small change we can make in order to beat the competition, we must face the possibility that we are already in our optimal state, and that any change will put us at a disadvantage, unless it is a change to the entire system.

This makes it more difficult to argue, for example, that the poor or unemployed could do better if they just tried harder.

The old notion of gradualism and the new notion of punctuated equilibrium are sometimes pitted against each other unfairly. There is actually a significant amount of overlap between Darwin’s beliefs and those of the newer theorists. That said, ignoring the notion of equilibrium gives us a biased view of the way the world works.

The Best Time to Change

Changing at the wrong time leads to devastating consequences. But failing to change at the right time can have the same result. Strategies that were once effective can suddenly become inefficient or even counterproductive.

At least, that’s what modern evolutionary science tells us about the thoughtless, unplanned word of natural selection. What about the world of human behavior, where change can occur in less than a generation, and where we have the ability to see things coming?

Small changes did not add up to create fundamental transformations.

In 1994, The Academy of Management Journal published the results of an empirical test. Data collected from US minicomputer producers revealed that many of the principles of punctuated equilibrium also applied here. Organizational changes occurred rapidly and broadly. Small changes did not add up to create fundamental transformations. Changes in the environment, or replacement of the CEO, influenced whether or not a change would occur.

The New York State Psychiatric Institute published a paper in 2011 that took things a step further. Rodrick Wallace developed a formalized approach to apply the science of punctuated equilibrium to economics. It explains how the principles of variation, heredity, differential reproduction, mutation, and environmental interaction can be borrowed from biology.

Wallace is careful to point out that the principles of modern evolutionary theory offer “necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for understanding the dynamics of social entities.” In other words, it tells us something about economic behavior, but not enough to offer much predictive power.

…the best time to change is when everything else is about to change.

What we can learn from these breakthroughs is that the best time to change is not when things are running smoothly and nothing else seems to be changing. Instead, the best time to change is when everything else is about to change.

It’s less about always trying to pull ahead of the competition, and more about responding to changes in the environment. Then again, Wallace points out that organizations can “in a sense, select environments.”

In other words, the social environment is also evolving.


Nick Rowe

Do all strategies have a trade-off? The very idea of equilibrium hints that they do, but things aren’t quite so simple. Nick Rowe, an economics professor at Carleton University, elaborates on the trade-off assumption.

Graph any two (or more) dimensions, and draw any curve. If we always want more of x and more of y, all we care about is the boundary of that curve. A point below that curve isn’t interesting to us, because you can have more of x and more of y.

But along the boundary of the curve, you will almost always find a trade-off. Having more of x means having less of y, and vice versa. Only in very rare cases will there be a single point with the most x and the most y, simultaneously.

Whether it’s the slow, inefficient process of evolution or the fast, efficient process of innovation, you will eventually find yourself on the boundary of that curve.

On that boundary, the more children you have, the less parental care you can offer each of them. The fewer products you buy, the more each of them costs. Greater rewards require taking bigger risks. Higher quantity means lower quality.

And high intelligence increases your risks of mental, emotional, and neurological disorders.

We all face trade-offs. What are yours?

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