When models don’t work

February 10, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog

I write a lot about models on this page. By model I mean a simplified representation of something for a purpose. I promote recognizing what models work and using those, and not dwelling on if the model is right or wrong or accurate or not.

Sometimes I like using models that work despite being very wrong. For example, sometimes thinking men are from Mars and women are from Venus helps understand differences between sexes. I know we’re all from Earth.

But if a model doesn’t work, I promote rejecting it. I’m writing today because I recently heard the model

A rising tide raises all boats.

as an explanation for the value of promoting raising the GDP. It implies that strategy improves the lives of everyone, even if some people’s lives improve more than others. They point out how poor people today have color televisions and other material goods that would have been beyond the reach of kings in the past.

I haven’t found that model helpful.

People can starve while food rots nearby in warehouses. I haven’t studied famines, but I think that happens routinely.

And material possessions don’t determine people’s happiness that well. Plenty of studies show that. In my experience, people’s social status determines their happiness better, and even an overall rising economic tide won’t help everyone if the distribution of material goods makes people feel unequal. Or if they’re starving amid the growth, which happens.

Replace counterproductive models with productive ones

In other words, how we distribute resources matters. I might instead say

Though a rising tide lifts many boats, distribution matters.

How you distribute resources matters. You can increase the GDP and still have many people lose out. They lose out materially and socially.

I should clarify that the model “a rising tide lifts all boats” does achieve some purposes. It justifies distributing resources to people with economic power at the expense of those without, for one thing. If your goal is to distribute resources to economic people with power at the expense of those without, the model will help you. If you hear someone say it, they’re probably promoting helping themselves at the expense of others with less power.

Another relevant model I use that contradicts the “rising tide lifts all boats” model is

Humans are social and our social status affects our well-being more than material goods once we’ve covered our basic needs.

Once you have food, security, and a few other basic needs met, how much does money improve your happiness? I don’t think a high-definition television made anyone happy in the long term, though I’ll bet many people felt miserable that other people had them but they didn’t. I don’t think when Plato and Aristotle were trying to figure out the nature of happiness, emotions, and so forth, they were just missing the right technical gadgetry.

I don’t mean to imply you can’t make yourself happier or create as much emotional reward in your life as you want. On the contrary, I believe you can.

I don’t think people are victims to their environments either, even if they live amid a system that distributes resources preferentially to others. As much as some people may lose out materially and socially, they can still create happiness and reward in their lives. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and a couple others in the Inspiration section on my About page inspire me here, showing me you can create reward, meaning, passion, and so on even in challenging conditions.

Anyone can increase their happiness and reward, mainly by learning about how they work, especially their emotional systems — popularly known as raising their self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

This web page mainly covers those topics.

Learn to make Meaningful Connections

with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.

Including

  • Step by step instructions
  • Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
  • An excerpt from my book

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2 responses on “When models don’t work

  1. A slightly nerdier reformulation of a similar point about the rising tide model:

    A rise in the mean level of tide may not lift the median boat at all.

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