The Great Balancers

Jun 16th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in 613 Concepts, Portion of the Week
Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics is a psychologist, not an economist. He was lecturing to a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on the conventional wisdom of behavior modification and its application to the psychology of flight training. Kahenman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of his students interrupted, voicing an opinion that would lead Kahenman to an epiphany and guide his research for decades.

“I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they always do worse,” the flight instructor said. “And I’ve creamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t work. My experience contradicts it.” The other flight instructors agreed.

To Kahenman the flight instructors’ experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahenman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. He ruminated on this apparent paradox. And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one.

Here’s how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving, the change wouldn’t be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Whether the instructor complimented the student or yelled, the next maneuver was going to be closer to his average skill. If the previous maneuver was spectacular, the following flight would seem worse. If the maneuver was terrible, the next flight would, as closer to average, seem better.

The responses of God, Moshe, Calev and Joshua to the Ten Spies and the reaction of the people, make me reflect on what was the intended effect of each response. The people had fluctuated between the greatness of Revelation and the construction of the Mishkan and the low points of all their complaints, especially their response to the spies’ report. Some people immediately tried to regain their former heights and simply went forward on their own, only to be quickly defeated.

The people had never found their mean, their balance point, or, their “average.”

Perhaps that is why the portion concludes with Tzitzit: They are intended to be “Balancers” between our highest and lowest points. They serve to remind us of our greatness especially when we have fallen, and when we surge upward, we recall that they are “garments,” external, still to be internalized.

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