Piffle: Another Winsome Etherview with Ken Arneson

Note: While the following isn’t technically a book, it’s very close to book-length. This was unintentional. On the plus side, Ken Arneson knows how to rock the mic right.

Readers will remember Ken Arneson both/either from the etherview that appeared in these electronic pages a couple months ago and/or the world-beating interweb sites — Humbug Journal and Catfish Stew — of which he was the world-beating author.

I wanted to address at least two issues with Herr Arneson (if not more). For one, I suspected that the invocation of “procedural memory” in my most recent post here was (a) ill-advised and (b) wildly inaccurate. I trusted that Arneson would right this egregious wrong. For two, I wanted Arneson to flesh out the comment he’d made on another post in which I suggest that Jered Weaver serves as an object lesson for the idea of flow, on account of how successful he is with such little velocity. He appears to be “trying easier,” I claim.

Ken Arneson responded in the comments section:

The “try easier” issue is just another example of the differences in the declarative/procedural memory types.

Muscle memory is procedural memory. That means it’s an automatic, subconscious process. If you try to induce conscious control over those types of memories, you’re rerouting the process through the wrong memory system, and you’ll likely mess the process up.

The conscious part of the process has to come in advance, in tricking the procedural memory system to automatically do what you want it to do when the time comes.

That’s why there’s no such thing as clutch, but there is such a thing as choking. You can’t make an automatic process any better, but you can avoid “thinking too much”, ie sabotaging the automatic responses with improper routing.

Arneson consented to be interviewed Wednesday by means of EtherPad, a program that allows multiple users to create and edit a document. Hence, the “etherview.”


Carson: Ken, first things first: Hello. Bonjour. Ciao. (How do you say those things in Swedish?)

Ken: Hej.

Carson: Really? Are there any “hej is for horses” jokes in Sweden?

Ken: Haven’t heard one, but there’s a bunch of good Swenglish jokes here (NSFW).

Carson: You had me at “Swenglish.”

Ken: Swenglish might actually be a better language to hold this conversation in. We’re discussing knowledge, belief, and thought. The definitions of these English language words are pretty nebulous and blur into each other. In Swedish, the corresponding words are much more clear and distinct.

For example, Swedish has two words that mean “to know”: “kunna” and “veta”. They’re not interchangeable. One kind of knowledge, “kunskap”, is basically used only for procedural memories — motor skills and patterns, things you only learn with practice and experience. The other kind, “vetenskap” is for declarative memories — facts, events, things you learn in lectures and books. Swedes probably find these concepts less confusing than Anglophones because they need to learn the distinction as kids to speak the language correctly.

So, tell me what you want to veta.

Carson: I wanted to begin with the comment you made in response to a recent-ish post of mine about Jered Weaver, flow, trying easier, etc. You said something interesting — that there’s no such thing as clutch, but there is such thing as choking. This presupposes that players are constantly working at 100% of their procedural memories. But I was wondering: Is it possible that they’re working at, say, 95% usually and could, in certain moments, utilize that last 5%?

Like, I was thinking how home/away splits might be evidence of such a thing. Players might play closer to their capacities at home (97%, hypothetically) and further away on the road (93%). Anyway, it suggests to me that maybe we’re only using part of our procedural capacities. How wrong is this line of thinking?

Ken: It’s hard to say. One problem with studying procedural memories — “kunskaper” — is that they are subconscious and automatic — which makes them a bit of a black box. You see the inputs and outputs, but there’s no direct way to access the process inside and see what’s going on.

I’d guess that the home/away split isn’t so much about running at less than 100% as about the fact that context matters. Procedural memories function automatically and strengthen themselves through repetition. You practice more at home than away, so the automatic processes are more trained in your home context. Procedural memories are also tied to emotions, so there may be some kind of psychological difference between being cheered instead of booed. But again, it’s just a guess. It’s very difficult to study what’s actually going on.

Carson: What would it ultimately take in order to analyze that or collect the relevant data? Do we have those capabilities yet? I mean, I know that scans can be taken that measure amount and location of brain activity. Is that the same thing?

Ken: Yeah, but I think the technology is still pretty crude. Looking at brain regions can yield some information from inside the black box, but to really understand it, you actually need to map which neurons are connected to which. But it’s hard to get in the brain and look at individual neurons unless the subject is dead.

Carson: You forwarded me this article written by Jonah Lehrer on some research that’s being done on “the anatomy of choking” (Lehrer’s term). His basic assertion (based to a large extent on some interesting research by Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago) is that pro golfers play worse against Tiger Woods because they’re aware of how great he is. Lehrer writes:

I’d argue that the superstar effect has more to do with “paralysis by analysis” than with decreased motivation. I’d bet that playing with Tiger Woods makes golfers extra self-conscious, and that such self-consciousness leads to choking and decreased performance. The problem, then, isn’t that golfers aren’t trying hard enough when playing against Tiger – it’s that they’re trying too hard.

What’s the analog in baseball? Or is it less prevalent because of the team nature of the sport?

Ken: The obvious example is the guy who fails as a closer but is fine as a set up guy. Arthur Rhodes. The Orioles did some kind of psychological profile on him and predicted that he’d choke as a closer, so they kept him in the set-up role. Billy Beane obviously did not see that report before he signed him to that 3-year free-agent contract to be the A’s closer. If you start thinking “I only need one more out I better make sure I get it”, your conscious brain (your “vetenskap”) starts getting in the way of what you normally do (your “kunskap”), and you fall apart.

Billy Beane the player, not the GM, is another example. From Moneyball we learned that, basically, he choked his entire playing career away. Couldn’t keep his “vetenskap” out of his “kunskap”.

Carson: That sounds disgusting.

Okay, so what does this mean for us — i.e., normal dudes? Like, in my most recent article, I went out on a limb and attributed my lack of excellence during a wedding toast to the intrusion of doubt (my own self-consciousness) on procedural memory. Certainly, performance anxiety, stage fright, whatever you call it — these are more the rule than the exception, I’d guess. Elsewhere, Lehrer finds research in which students basically sabotage themselves under circumstances in which a test is designed to “measure their innate intellectual ability.” The gravity of the event affects their ability to succeed.

Was I affecting my own procedural memory in that case? And, in that case, how helpful is beer?

Ken: Probably. Maybe alcohol sedates the conscious, declarative memory system enough so that it can’t get in the way of the automatic processes you’ve trained all your life. Maybe Arthur Rhodes could have been a better closer if he drank some beer in the 8th inning. Maybe choke-prone golfers should have a beer if they’re paired with Tiger Woods. The question for each individual would be, does beer reduce the interference of the conscious system at a level greater than your automatic motor skills would be impaired by the alcohol?

Carson: Obviously the likelihood of a team not merely condoning but straight-up encouraging a drink or two before a game is minimal. That said, there are a couple of notable instances of substance use tied to excellent performance. The cartoon of Dock Ellis‘s no-hitter has been making the electronic rounds as of late. And, if memory serves, David Wells pitched his perfect game while being hung over.

Certainly this isn’t much data, but I wonder if those sorts of events are telling of something, at least. Please speculate wildly on the possible connection.

Ken: I don’t know that Dock Ellis or David Wells would be the kind of people who would choke normally, so it’s hard to say whether their drugs were performance enhancing. I doubt a guy who never ever chokes, like Derek Jeter, would benefit from drinking beer before a game.

There are probably more effective techniques for avoiding choking than drinking alcohol or taking LSD. The Guardian article suggests “holistic cue words”. Dave Henderson, who had a good clutch reputation, used to yawn before his big at-bats, to get himself in the right frame of mind.

Carson: Finally, it could be argued that one of the appealing qualities of sport is that it plays out in ritualistic form a number of the storylines or myths by which we live our lives. There’s struggle, ingenuity, heroism, victory against the odds: all these things are appealing.

Of particular interest to me (and probably to many FanGraphs readers) is the myth that sabermetrics represents. Baseball (and other sports) offers us this excellent platform for practicing the use of reason and logic and evidence — ad infinitum, really. Essentially, sabermetrics is the the Scientific Method writ large.

I have two questions based on this idea.

1. If, as Steven Johnson suggests in Everything Bad Is Good For You, our popular culture/media can actually help shape our cognitive instincts, is it possible that sabermetrics is actually helping to create a generation of more intellectually responsible people — that is people for whom, by way sabermetrics, the scientific method is now basically second nature?

2. What, if any, are your favorite myths in baseball (that is, besides “the exhilarating tension between being and becoming“)?

Ken: 1. If you read Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, you’ll learn that statistical thinking in America is over 150 years old. It has spread slowly through our culture and our institutions.

Computers are probably by far the biggest catalyst for its recent acceleration, but sabermetrics probably helped give it a nice push, too. It’s certainly been the case for me personally that the popularization of sabermetrics helped me learn about how to think in a more statistically accurate way, and has affected the way I think about other things, like politics and business.

But I don’t think it’s second nature yet. Statistics are hard to grasp, and easy to use incorrectly. Compounding the difficulty is that humans are literally unable to make rational decisions. Our decision-making system is intimately tied into our emotional system. People with a certain kind of brain damage to their emotional systems can analyze and analyze forever, but fail to ever take the final step and reach a decision.

We can’t change our DNA, so in order for us to actually consistently make statistically valid decisions, we have to first make an emotional commitment to follow what the stats tell us. We have to join the team and make faith in statistics part of our self-identity. Otherwise, even if we have the stats in front of us, we’ll continue to do what people are hardwired to do, namely put “kunskap” in charge and make a gut decision first, then use “vetenskap” to rationalize the decision after (using the stats only if it helps in the rationalization, downplaying them if not).

And that emotional commitment to rationality can lead to all sorts of irony. Such as, how defensive and emotional self-identified “rational” people get when you threaten their rationality, by say, posting associative, non-linear analysis on their favorite sabermetric blogs.

2. Myths as in “stories that represent our psychology” or myths as in “stories that are not true”? I don’t really have any further Deep Thoughts on either at the moment, so I’ll plant my flag following Mike Schmidt‘s lead and just go with “Piffle.”

Carson: Piffle it is, then.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

20 Responses to “Piffle: Another Winsome Etherview with Ken Arneson”

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  1. arch support says:

    I thought I was not going to enjoy this going in.

    But then, I did.

    This was great.

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  2. Oscar says:

    Good stuff.

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  3. Jesus says:

    This was excellent.

    BUT..By excellent, I mean really really really interesting. There’s still a huge part of me saying (in terms of athletics at the highest level), “Who cares?” It reminds me of the way Hawking addressed everything that could have happened before the Big Bang in A Brief History of Time, when he basically said it’s irrelevant because it simply doesn’t have any bearing on us currently. In terms of Major League Baseball, players who are affected so much by these psychological shortfalls should have been weeded out on the way up, correct?

    I understand that everything is relative, and even within the scope of Major League Baseball, there is a player who is the best at keeping his cool and allowing his muscle memory to do the work, and there’s another player who is the worst, but at this level, it seems like anyone too dramatically affected here should have been caught in the strainer.

    Even in the case of Arthur Rhodes, where its cited that the Orioles hypothesized he wouldn’t be a quality closer, and then the A’s gave him the opportunity to prove them right, it seems really easy to just give that away to sample size.

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    • Jesus says:

      I should follow all of that up by saying that I did love the piece, and that last question and answer made my day wonderful.

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      • ThePat says:

        The relevant example would be Billy Beane the player. His thinking mind was good enough to play AAA ball well but not good enough to play in the bigs. He needed, and failed, to rely on his subconscious memory.

        So the weeding out can be considered to occur on two levels:
        1. weeding out those who subconscious can’t hack it
        2. weeding out those who conscious can’t hack it

        Both types of players will be washed out at each level, so it is relevant. Its another thing to look for when evaluating a player: can they get out of their own way and let their subconscious hold sway? And if not, maybe they’re good enough to be a 4th OF anyway.

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  4. MPC says:

    George F. Will’s Sports Machine?

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  5. Marty Leadman says:

    There’s a Juan Pierre joke in there somewhere.

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  6. dan woytek says:

    Regarding the beer drinking as choking suppressor, I think that the reason that many coaches encourage athletes to develop routine patterns of behavior before engaging in standstill (non-flow) activities during sport, (activities without body movement i.e. batting, pitching, defensive readiness, free throw taking, golf swinging, tennis serving/returning, in between points in tennis) of which baseball has many, is to enhance the ” kuns

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  7. dan woytek says:

    sorry to enhance the kunskap and suppress the other in order to optimize performance of their athletes.

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  8. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Thanks for taking the time guys, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

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  9. SPLIT FINGER says:

    You hear of people gaining supernatural stregnth all the time, picking up cars and such. Fact or fiction???

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  10. Linkmeister says:

    Seems to me the beer-drinking test could be run by observing slow-pitch and mountain-ball softball games all over the country. It would have been easy on Kwajalein back in the 1970s when I was there. I was in charge of filling the coolers for each game; my major statistical concern was ensuring that there was enough beer to last a seven-inning game. If only this theory had been extant then!

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  11. Jason says:

    Somewhat related: above average, but not spectacular pitcher David Wells; admitted after his perfect game that he was drunk the entire time.

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  12. jpdtrmpt72 says:

    I don’t mean to be a killjoy, cause i liked the piece. But could you have done one of those “more beyond the jump” things? I mean, It was a pain to scroll by the whole thing to get to other articles.

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  13. Robert says:

    I should really be working.

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