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The Brain and Writing Contests

As part of my quest to become an amateur neuropsychologist, I have recently read two books on the brain. Even though they were national bestsellers, I am taking the position they gave me insights into the workings of the brain that few others possess. The latest book focuses A LOT on statistics and probability.

Now, I tutored football players in statistics when I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia. It was a GREAT gig because the tutoring was through the athletic department (rich as Croesus in the academic world) and, back in the dark ages, it paid $5.00/hour. Anyway, my statistics professor recommended me for the job based on my stellar performance in his classes (true story). What I had discovered in studying statistics—a subject everyone HATES—was that men from Ohio say “May-sure” rather than “measure.” More substantively, I also learned that statistics were counterintuitive. If I thought the answer was clearly one thing, I was probably wrong. In reading this book, I’ve learned that statistics are, literally, counterintuitive. Your intuitive mind always goes to the wrong answer. If you want to get the right answer, you have to slow down and use your System 2 analytic brain.The authors of these books call the intuitive brain with its preference for shortcuts and rules of thumb “lazy,” but that seems a little judgmental to me. Expert neuropsychologists can be hard-core like that.

Of course, to become an expert in anything, you must practice. So I’ve been putting myself to sleep at night by figuring the probabilities of winning or placing in a writing contest I entered. (I’m not going to name the contest in case the judge is reading this blog post and is subconsciously swayed by my keen neuropsychology skills.)

To do my analysis, I used a total figure of contest submissions of 600. I used this figure for the sole reason that in the first contest I ever entered, I placed in the top 25 of 600 entries. The experts would call this an unreliable base line, but amateur neuropsychologists frequently are called upon to work in less-than perfect conditions. I proceeded to calculate my chances of winning (too minuscule to report) or placing in the top 25, 15, 5, 3. Figuring these probabilities requires converting fractions to percentages in your head, but neuropsychologists must be able to do this to make everyone else think they are super smart.

Did I mention this is the way I put myself to sleep at night?

Anyway, I did arrive at percentages for each tier. Plus, I evaluated my chances of winning once I landed in each tier. I did NOT assume success in a lower tier has any relation to advancement in the next tier. Of all things, it is statistically incorrect to use your experience of advancement to one point to project how you will advance from that point on. This dynamited my hopeful feeling that if I made it to the top 15, my chances of advancement were greater. Not true. By that point, all applicants have proven themselves superior, which means they have met the basics of grammar, typos, good structure, finely drawn characters, engaging story. Those advancing must prove something else. (This fallacy is akin to a graduate student projecting her stellar undergraduate career will continue in grad school, when every person in grad school has the same stellar undergrad record—to project success, she must identify how she well she will perform on grad school criteria.)

Which brings us to the factor these books say no one wants to talk about. (I know, you’re thinking, no one wants to talk about ANY of this. I’m being more specific here.)

Novels in contests are judged by people. All people have subconscious biases. In fact, our brains share many, many biases of function. We make decisions using common shortcuts and illogical logic and all sorts of other things. The books I’m reading would say at all levels, but particularly in the higher tiers of a writing contest, luck takes over.

By “luck,” they mean a confluence of circumstances outside the control of the individual that work out as “bad” luck or “good” luck. For example, the best novel in the entire bunch might not make not even make the first cut. Say a reader loves a big, sweeping, story with beloved—predictable—plot lines. She gets a submission that meets these criteria. It also is full of typos and grammatical errors (which the rule contest call a real no-no). Another novel is throughly edited but experimental in nature (a harder to follow plot). Based on her belief in the promise of the first novel, she could advance it, as her brain begins to formulate analytical justifications for doing so. Or maybe she uses the shortcut, “My gut just tells me this one is better.” The better written novel winds up in the dustbin.

Luck can also work out well for me, the applicant. For example, maybe my reader reviews my novel right after she’s had a snack. The rest of the submissions she reads at the end of the day when her tired brain defaults to the easier choice: eliminate, eliminate. (Experiments have repeatedly shown this to universally happen even in situations of the greatest importance). Outcome: I advance to the next tier, and a (perhaps) better novel does not.

This realization—lying there in the dark, still not asleep—led me to switch in the dead of the night from statistics to ethics. I began to wonder if praying for my readers’ brain malfunctions to work in my favor was ethical? For example, can I pray that the reader/judge on my novel spent her summers in Memphis with her grandparents and thus adores Memphis where my novel is set? What if her grandfather recently died, and she connected with the grandfatherly protagonist in my novel? If so, she will be emotionally drawn to my novel without realizing the strength of the pull (I chose to believe ethical readers/judges do their damnedest to keep free of known biases). Her brain will then backfill her choice with rational reasons for her selection (the description was stunning, the character unique, the plot gripping.)

I ran this ethical dilemma past my sister, and she said it would be unethical if my biases prayers involved death. Fair enough.

In any event, even if I get into the top 3 finalists, it hit home that—after all that success—my chances of winning would still be only 33%. Terrible.

Ultimately, as I drifted off to sleep, I concluded that predicting success in a writing contest is pretty near impossible. Unless, say, Neil Gaiman entered. Then I’m pretty sure he would win. Even an amateur neuropsychologist can tell you that.

My Brain on Statistics

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Comments (16)

  • I have been watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about the American Vietnam war on PBS. Your post helps clarify one of the reasons we went so wrong in that war. The US policy makers never did consider the ethics of the war we were waging, relying instead heavily and disastrously on statistics. Not that statistics are inherently wrong; they clarify all sorts of circumstances. For example statistics–in this case simple probability–make clear that the chances of winning the lottery are 1 in however many people bought a ticket plus the infinite variations in the the choosing of the wining number. In simple terms you have a better chance of winning a fiction contest.
    In Vietnam we thought that if we killed enough Vietnamese, they would eventually give up, and so we counted bodies.
    But we did not even try to study the morale and motivation of the Vietnamese people; nor did we consider the ethics of imposing an ideology and our own interests on a people who had recently defeated a modern European army so as to achieve their own independence. You should write more about statistics; you are far easier to understand than some of the people who write statistics textbooks.

    • Yes, I agree. The book says our intuitive brain’s refusal to analyze our rationals is especially strong when the statement has a causal narrative associated with it (i.e. We predict we will win the Vietnam War because we are a mighty superpower who can kill lots of people—how could that statement be wrong?) Of course, as a writer it affirmed for me the power of narrative in our lives, for good or bad. And my explanations might be more understandable because they are surface knowledge only. 🙂

  • According to Myers-Briggs, I am 100% intuitive, so I must be a lazy thinker. Also, according to Myers-Briggs, I am 99% a thinker. So now I am really confused because Myers and Briggs had me thinking that these were not opposites at all. But maybe I didn’t follow this well enough on account ‘o my lazy brain.
    I AM rooting for you to win, though I won’t pray for it because through a bizarre chain of events that could actually cause someone’s death. Not sure how, but I’m sure it’s possible.

    • Ha! I think (but don’t hold me to this because you know my self-directed neuropsychologist course of study is not complete) often what we think of as intuition is actually a very quick synthesis of inputted information from practice, skill, repetition, knowledge—your System 2 brain really showing of. I am an INFJ and based on my reading, I’d say that the reliance on my intuition is not lazy thinking but actually the synthesis of lots of information that perhaps my conscious brain doesn’t even know my subconscious brain has observed. (yep, I’m reading about the conscious and subconscious brain too.) However, primarily, I appreciate your rooting for me to win, and I will tell my sister you are definitely NOT praying!

  • I forged ahead in your post even though I broke into a post-marathon on a 90 degree day sweat when I saw the word “statistics”. Of course you made it engaging and it related to writing and writing contests. Brilliant! Although the odds appear not to be in your favour, I am hopelessly hoping the odds are wrong and you emerge the victor.

    • My mother—who in a physical act of love read this post—said, not all people hate statistics. I thought, yep, they do. I’m not a particular fan, but I was pleased that I could train my brain to do something it most decidedly didn’t want to do. 🙂

  • my being an INFP, my intuitive/feeling/perceiving brain wandered off like a giant amoeba blob after your first sentence. But since I love you, I kept reading. In my earlier years my thinking brain was more developed so it is a natural shift that in my 4th quadrant of life my ‘P’-ness has taken over. [ok, so don’t laugh} – my innate understanding of another’s feelings certainly has an effect on my writing and the audience I believe I am writing to and for. I love statistics – not the ciphering part, but the results part. And I love how anyone’s deep unconscious affects their perceptions [in the case of writing contest judges) of the works they are reviewing. The best-written project could offend someone enough to drop in the reject pile and they may have no concrete idea why. And neither will the author. I have this plot in my head that I do tons of research into a potential agent’s past to find someone who has the same life experiences I have had and that person will understand my writing and put my submission in the ‘accept’ pile. At the end of the day it’s all a crap-shoot.

    • Funny! I’m an INFJ, so we are probably very close? I, too, believe that the intuition affects my writing. In fact, I have come to believe it’s why my paid editor used to say about a character, but how can she know that? I’d think, wouldn’t everyone know it? Then I learned INFJs observe and synthesize so much more info than most people. BTW, that’s brilliant to research agents’ life stories—it’s probably MUCH ore effective than focusing on their statements on what they like/want submitted. And ciphering. 🙂

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