#73 Being A Jerk Seems To Work: Getting Confused by Regression To The Mean

An Israeli Air Force Flight Instructor noticed that when he praised folks for great work their performance tended to get worse. But when he screamed at them for poor work their performance tended to get better. This convinced him that punishment works and praise doesn’t.

Nobel Prize winning psychologist and author, Daniel Kahneman, disagrees with the instructors conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 17 of his best-selling book Thinking Fast And Slow.

“What he had observed is known as regression to the mean, which in that case was due to random fluctuations in the quality of performance. Naturally, he praised only a cadet whose performance was far better than average. But the cadet was probably just lucky on that particular attempt and therefore likely to deteriorate regardless of whether or not he was praised. Similarly, the instructor would shout into a cadet’s earphones only when the cadet’s performance was unusually bad and therefore likely to improve regardless of what the instructor did. The instructor had attached a causal interpretation to the inevitable fluctuations of a random process.”

Regression to the mean or reversion to the mean (slightly different but close enough for our discussions) can be summed up this way. 

An extreme event - good or bad - is probably going to be followed by a less extreme event.

Or, stated even simpler…

Suck will probably be followed by less suck - regardless of the manager's actions. Awesome will probably be followed by less awesome - regardless of the manager's actions.


Years back I worked with someone who had a reputation for getting nasty with folks. It was becoming a problem so I sat down with him for a one-on-one. I asked him to be a little more gentle when he gave feedback to his team.

His answer. “I don’t like being a prick, but it works. When I raise hell with folks their performance improves!”

Sounds exactly like the Israeli flight instructor, doesn't it? This manager had convinced himself that being a prick CAUSED folks to perform better. When, in reality, their improved performance was way more likely to have been a result of reversion to the mean. He probably could have kept his mouth shut and gotten the same results.


If you want to see reversion to the mean in your own living room, tune into a sporting event.

A player makes a mistake.
The coach pulls the player from the game, and gives them a butt-chewing.
The player returns to the game and plays better. 

That anger spewing coach sure is a genius motivator, isn’t he or she? 

No. They’re a statistically illiterate knucklehead. They could have left the player in the game - confidence and ego intact - and the player's performance would have likely improved on its own. Extremely bad performance is likely to be followed by performance that is LESS extremely bad, whether the coach puts on a show for the TV cameras or not.


This is bad stuff. It’s easy to see how a well-meaning manager can turn to the dark side. 


I praise extremely good performance - performance degrades - so I praise less.

I scream at extremely poor performance - performance improves - so I scream more.

Reversion to the mean tricks us into becoming an asshole.

Which is why it’s so important that we learn to understand, recognize, and correct for it.

Remember, raising hell is not motivation. Motivation, as Herzberg taught us back in post #3 (Can Kissing Your Sister Motivate You), is intrinsic. It comes from inside the individual. So your job is to create the right conditions for folks to self-motivate. And you do that by providing two things...

Freedom - enough rope to explore and learn without hanging themselves. 
Feedback - caring challenging advice that stretches them.

Do these two things while deleting the tongue lashing, and your world is likely to get a whole lot better.


(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

So where does this fit on my MAP?  Wrong Stories from my SELF Map. We’re telling ourselves we’re doing what has to be done to get results, but we’re wrong. And as a double whammy, we’re also doing personal and cultural damage in the process.


Daniel Kahneman’s book - Thinking Fast and Slow - is all about this kind of stuff. Ways we get confused and work against ourselves. It's the most interesting book I’ve read in terms of explaining how easy it is to come to wrong or biased conclusions. And for that reason, I’m going to do a series of posts covering the topics that Kahneman writes about. And since it’s summertime and folks are extra busy I’m also going to try to keep the posts shorter.

I hope you enjoy.

***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.