October 27, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 40: The 37% Rule, dealing with groundless fears, and sticking with first impressions

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  The 37% Rule

"If you want the best odds of getting the best apartment, spend 37% of your apartment hunt (eleven days, if you’ve given yourself a month for the search) noncommittally exploring options. Leave the checkbook at home; you’re just calibrating. But after that point, be prepared to immediately commit—deposit and all—to the very first place you see that beats whatever you’ve already seen. This is not merely an intuitively satisfying compromise between looking and leaping. It is the provably optimal solution. We know this because finding an apartment belongs to a class of mathematical problems known as 'optimal stopping' problems.

"The 37% rule defines a simple series of steps—what computer scientists call an 'algorithm'—for solving these problems. And as it turns out, apartment hunting is just one of the ways that optimal stopping rears its head in daily life. Committing to or forgoing a succession of options is a structure that appears in life again and again, in slightly different incarnations. How many times to circle the block before pulling into a parking space? How far to push your luck with a risky business venture before cashing out? How long to hold out for a better offer on that house or car?

"The 37% Rule derives from optimal stopping’s most famous puzzle, which has come to be known as the 'secretary problem.' Its setup is much like the apartment hunter’s dilemma that we considered earlier. Imagine you’re interviewing a set of applicants for a position as a secretary, and your goal is to maximize the chance of hiring the single best applicant in the pool. While you have no idea how to assign scores to individual applicants, you can easily judge which one you prefer. (A mathematician might say you have access only to the ordinal numbers—the relative ranks of the applicants compared to each other—but not to the cardinal numbers, their ratings on some kind of general scale.) You interview the applicants in random order, one at a time. You can decide to offer the job to an applicant at any point and they are guaranteed to accept, terminating the search. But if you pass over an applicant, deciding not to hire them, they are gone forever." — From Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (view my three takeaways)

The 37% Rule states that we should reject the first 37% of choices and select the next best option when making a decision.

The first 37% is the optimal amount of research to establish a quality benchmark. The next option that surpasses this benchmark has the highest mathematical probability of being the optimal choice.

The equations for this rule can be found here.

The authors describe an algorithm as "a finite sequence of steps used to solve a problem." In the case of the 37% Rule, the algorithm eliminates the need to calculate variables and commit time to making decisions. Like a recipe, they provide the steps necessary to reach the desired outcome. We might use an algorithm if we do not have a criterion to sort the options or wish to invest as little time as possible in the decision. Keep in mind that in cases where the 37% Rule is applicable, the algorithm can only provide the greatest probability of success, never a guarantee.

II. Dealing with groundless fears

The Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca offers the following advice to a friend on dealing with baseless worries:

"What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

"Put the question voluntarily to yourself: 'Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?'

"You may retort with the question: 'How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?' Here is the rule for such matters: we are tormented either by things present, or by things to come, or by both. As to things present, the decision is easy. Suppose that your person enjoys freedom and health, and that you do not suffer from any external injury. As to what may happen to it in the future, we shall see later on. Today there is nothing wrong with it. 'But,' you say, 'something will happen to it.' First of all, consider whether your proofs of future trouble are sure. For it is more often the case that we are troubled by our apprehensions, and that we are mocked by that mocker, rumour, which is wont to settle wars, but much more often settles individuals. Yes, my dear Lucilius; we agree too quickly with what people say. We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour.

"And somehow or other it is the idle report that disturbs us most. For truth has its own definite boundaries, but that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind. That is why no fear is so ruinous and so uncontrollable as panic fear. For other fears are groundless, but this fear is witless.

"Let us, then, look carefully into the matter. It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.

"The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent; in this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us." — From On The Shortness of Life by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (view my three takeaways)

It seems a common human tendency to perpetuate the worst of situations. Anticipating a future tragedy ensures that we suffer twice, once in imagination and again in reality, if the worst does indeed happen.

Instead of constructing fictional narratives that run rampant through our thoughts, we might instead deal with situations exactly as they are in the present. Even Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher needed to remind himself of this in his journal:

"Don't tell yourself anything more than what the initial impressions report. It's been reported to you that someone is speaking badly about you. This is the report—the report wasn't that you've been harmed. I see that my son is sick—but not that his life is at risk. So always stay within your first impressions, and don't add to them in your head—this way nothing can happen to you."

Quotes to Ponder

I. Seneca on imaginary suffering.

"There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality."

II. Lao Tzu on reducing future problems.

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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