Recently I have been reading some popular and interesting social psychology books. The contents are based on empirical evidence and scientific research, and often provide stories about how society operates, and why people behave the way they do. Some of the books in this genre include: Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, Outliers and Kluge
The most recent book I read is Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, by Gary Marcus. Marcus argues that the human mind is not the elegantly designed organ that we conventionally perceive it as, rather it is a cobbled together contraption which is a product of evolution. He offers explanations on why our minds do clumsy things, such as forget where our car is parked, or why we can’t remember what we ate for breakfast.
Without getting into the details, he points out several characteristics of the human brain that are products of evolution. Our cognitive makeup contains several bugs which can be referenced by psychological terms, some of which include: context driven memory, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and framing. (I’ll leave the explanation of these terms to the book itself.) He also gives recommendations on how to overcome these mental pitfalls. It is a fascinating for the laymen psychologist.
So what does all this have to do with developing software? From Marcus’ exploration of the mind, I see several recommendations that can help us become better software developers. Many of the technical and social decisions we make as part of a software team are often afflicted by the “kluges” of the mind. Some basic and common sense tactics can help offset these imperfections, not to mention a help us becomes clearer thinkers, wiser developers, and better teammates.
1. When possible, consider alternative hypotheses.
Often when we have an idea, we get stuck on it and want to see it through to the finish, just for the satisfaction of feeling good about ourselves. It could be a design pattern we see for a problem, or it could be some performance enhancement we think needs done. We tend to not evaluate our own ideas in a dispassionate or objective way. One of the simplest things we can do to improve our capacity to think and come up with good solutions is to consider an alternative track. Contemplate on the opposite and counter your own initial ideas. This can go a long way on improving your own initial thoughts or could lead to an entirely better solution.
2. Imagine your decisions will be spot-checked.
Research has shown that people who believe that they will have to justify their answers are less biased than people who don’t. Hold yourself accountable for any decisions you make, technical or otherwise. If we do this, we will tend to invest more cognitive effort and make correspondingly better decisions based on analysis, not just feelings or habits. A good practice would be to write down rationale for any sophisticated decision made and make sure the reasoning is sound. This could be notes for yourself, or published to the software team in a collaborative tool such as a wiki.
3. Always weigh benefits against costs.
There is always some feature or tool that is cool to use or enticing to learn. We should always weigh the benefits versus the costs before we proceed down a certain route. The feature may be cool to the developers, but how much business value does it provide? Does it help the business save money? The new ORM tool looks great and has some added benefits, but what cost will it incur versus the technical savings?
The inverse argument should be considered just as much. A refactoring may incur some cost to implement upfront, but will payoff in the long run by resulting in more maintainable and defect free code. The new integration testing tool may require a week of investment, but could reap dividends by allowing the team to write automated tests and eliminate the painstaking manual and repeated tests. Sometimes the initial pain is worth enduring to get a long term benefit.
4. Whenever possible, don’t make important decisions when you are tired or have other things on your mind.
Marcus describes how we have two portions of the brain: the reflexive and the deliberative. The reflexive portion of the brain evolved early on and controls our bodily motions. It also controls ours emotions and fight or flight responses. The deliberative portion of the brain is the most recently evolved and controls rational thinking and logic.
When making decisions related to software, make sure you are well rested and not stressed. Get enough sleep and keep your hunger under control. When your health is not optimal, your reflexive portion of the brain activates and overrides the rational part. This inhibits rational thinking and can especially inhibit complicated problem solving. In order to make the best technical and team decisions, keep in a rested state to leverage the rational part of the mind.
5. Distance yourself.
Our mind is set up to ponder the near and defer future decisions for a later time. It’s always about the now and the urgency of the present. The release needs to be done immediately, and we get into fire fighter mode where everything is an emergency. Or…The debate is on about the new design and we must engage in the battle and win the argument!
It’s always best to take a step back and distance yourself from the situation. Imagine you are watching from afar and try to judge the situation objectively. Of course, the here and now is always important, but it’s also important to balance situation by distancing yourself. Doing so will help assess the situation fairly. It can also let the reflexive portion of the brain simmer down and let the deliberative mind step in to take control when needed.
Even though we are rational people in a technical field, we are human after all. We are products of our ancestors and emotions and rationality are both part of our makeup, although not always in the correct proportion. However, simple mindful steps can be taken to offset any shortcomings we have.