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Evading Goodhart’s Law in My Personal Life

A few months ago, I stumbled across Goodhart’s Law:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

An example: The owner of a business wants his company to become a reputable brand on Twitter. To get there, he begins rewarding his social team for the number of followers the account accumulates. Over time, that number goes through the roof. There’s celebration!

But then the owner skims through the tweets. He’s frustrated to see a high ratio of click bait with an overabundance of spammy hashtags. And on top of that, most of the new followers are bots or totally outside the company’s target market. Improving the measurement was a success, but the reaching the objective — growth as a reputable brand on Twitter — was a failure.

Jonathan Smart shared this illustration on LinkedIn a while back. It captures the spirit of the idea perfectly.

This phenomenon reveals some noteworthy things about us:

First, we’re good at optimizing for specific outcomes.

Usually, that’s a good thing. But if we’re not careful, it risks yielding some unintended consequences.

Consider high-stakes testing in schools. When standardized test scores are used to judge the performance of students and the effectiveness of teachers, classroom energy pivots from thoroughly teaching the material to preparing students to test well. Two very different things. Schools are given the definition of success, and anything that doesn’t help achieve that end falls out of focus. No one intends for it to happen, but it does.

The story of the SEO industry also bears witness to this. Years ago, web content creators figured out that filling a site with (at least partially) relevant keywords and building a network of backlinks can boost its page rank. Knowing this, energies yet again shifted — this time from creating high-quality, engaging content to optimizing for these metrics. Keyword stuffing became a thing. Link farms were born. And eventually, Google and other search engines responded to these “black hat SEO” tactics by either dampening the benefit, or straight-up penalizing sites for practicing them.

The takeaway is that when we are so dead-focused on a particular metric (or small set of them), the underlying purpose of that metric (a good education, strong content, etc.) can fade into our peripheral, perhaps disappearing altogether. If you’ve heard of the Troxler effect, it should feel similar:

When one fixates on a particular point for even a short period of time, an unchanging stimulus away from the fixation point will fade away and disappear.

TL;DR: Stare at something long enough and you’ll become blind to everything around it.

Try it out by focusing on the black cross in the image below. After staring for a while, if you’re a normal human, the pink, fuzzy dots will vanish:

You probably did a really good job ensuring the black cross didn’t sneak away. Nice work! But you likely also lost sight of what made the image interesting.

Second, we’re picky (and lazy) about what we choose to measure, gravitating toward the things are simple and quantifiable (counting is easy). This shouldn’t be surprising. Many aims are difficult to reason about without hard numbers. Take “brand influence.” We know that winning in this area goes beyond revenue, follower count, or market share. But metrics like these are all we have when trying to get our heads around such a concept.

As a consequence, though, it’s easy to fall into some sort of analytical streetlight effect, using certain measurements to track progress for no other reason than them being the ones within reach. It’s a common challenge with any objective worth pursuing. We measure what we can monitor, at the risk of leaving out other elusive, unquantifiable, but meaningful indicators.

Third, we’re quick to assume there’s two-way causality between events.

We tend to believe that…

“If we meet an objective, our measurement moves up.”

… will also make for the inverse:

“If we make our measurement move up, we will have met our objective.”

But the Questionable Cause fallacy and probably Nicolas Cage say this isn’t always the case. A may cause B, but B will not necessarily cause A. And sometimes, they aren’t causally related in either direction, but simply share some other correlation that tricks us into thinking they’re really tied to the same lever. It’s a hard tendency to break when we’re so eager to grasp for something we can be confident will lead to an outcome.

Goodhart Gets Personal

All of this is usually discussed in the context of public policy, business strategy, and other boring grown-up topics. But as the it rolled around in my head, I began catching this law rear its head in several areas of my life (like, all of them), and I was very much taken aback. I started to notice how often I think things like this:

  • If I run more miles, I know I’ll be healthier. But then I start religiously obsessing over getting my runs in, compromising other areas of my well-being. Rather than eat lunch, I go on a run. I sacrifice sleep to squeeze in a few more miles. My Strava account looks great, but it’s questionable whether I’m actually healthier.
  • If I read more books, I know I’ll be smarter. But then I find myself gravitating toward shorter books with shallow content, instead of substantive ones that challenge me to think. I start skimming pages rather than wrestling with them. None of the concepts stick because I’m always looking forward to crossing off another book from my list. I’m reading more, but only marginally better off for it.
  • If I spend more time with my kids, I’ll strengthen my relationship with them. But then the time I do spend with them becomes hollow. There’s physical proximity, but not much more. We’ll spend an entire day together, but my focus will be on various projects in the garage while they bike on their own in the driveway. I’m “with” them, but not in a way that actually means anything. Again, the numbers are good, but the objective fails.

None of the aims in this non-exhaustive list are inherently bad. In fact, I think they’re all good. But if they become the end goal themselves, my efforts become little more than an exercise in vanity. And even if these things do help to propel me toward some deeper purpose, my mind can become so fixated on moving a needle that it’s impossible for me to notice the real impact anyway. I’m blinded by the satisfaction of pulling something off. My life becomes one big demonstration of the Troxler effect.

Spiritual Parallels

I can’t help but see similarities in how the Bible speaks of faith and works. Rather than being the ultimate sole objective in the life of a Christian, works should overflow out of our faith as a byproduct. They’re a necessary side effect of the best objective having already been achieved by Christ:

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. - James 2:17-18 (ESV)

And there’s no two-way causality here. Flipping the order will get you nowhere. Jesus is pretty direct:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ - Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV)

You can show up with the results, but unless they’re aligned with and driven by something (someone) greater, they’re worthless.

Skirting the Law

Given how natural it is, I don’t think you can just “decide” not to succumb to these forces. But there do seem to be some good approaches to warding them off. Here are the favorites I’ve come across.

Diversify how you measure for success.

There’s a simple way to the short-circuit the Troxler effect: continually shift your focus, just a little bit, every so often. Test it yourself by going back up to that image and staring again. But this time, make little shifts in focus around the cross, always maintaining it within your direct view. The diversification of focus will prevent anything from fading away, no matter how long you’re staring. You get to keep an eye on the cross without losing site of the peripheral details.

Similarly, diversifying your measurements can provide a more comprehensive picture of whether you’re hitting the mark without losing sight of the objective. For that business owner looking to build his brand’s influence on Twitter, those might include:

  • The engagement rate of Twitter followers (likes, replies, retweets).
  • The ratio of followers who are likely to be bots.
  • The fraction of tweets engaging with other users vs. just one-off posts.

Or, for me looking to strengthen my relationship with my kids:

  • The frequency at which they ask me to play a game with them.
  • The number of times they immediately go to me when they’re hurt, scared, or worried.
  • How often they want to show me the artwork they’ve made or the new trick they learned on the climbing dome.

Shake up your measurements, and you’ll end up with a more whole, accurate view of how well you’re actually pulling things off.

Second, track the untrackable.

We’re missing something if we to bind the success of every objective to something we can count; the nature of some aims make it impossible to do so. This is the entire essence of the McNamara Fallacy, named for the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, who was known to judge the success of the Vietnam War exclusively by measurements like body counts. He would adamantly dismiss any metric that couldn’t be quantified.

But in reality, some of the most valuable metrics you can chase are completely subjective but just as telling.

For the company’s brand influence, maybe it’s hearing how helpful a follower found its content to be in a certain area of life. Or maybe it’s noticing the depth of the questions you get from others in the industry, clearly hungry to learn from your efforts.

For my kids and me, that might mean watching the way they greet me when I come home from work. Or maybe it’s paying attention to the inflection of their voice when they come to me after they’ve screwed up. Unquantifiable, but immensely valuable.

Finally, maybe just don’t measure.

Running has always been somewhat of a pressure release valve for me. A means physically resetting and shaking off stress. For these reasons among others, I enjoy it.

But there was a season when the numbers got in the way. While training for races, the enjoyment I got out of it was displaced by the pressure to hit a certain mile count or pace. Rather than looking forward to getting on the road, I was eager for it to be over. I started to question whether contemptuously squeezing the stats out of a run was worth the feedback I’d get when I’d eventually post a picture of a race medal to Instagram.

Depending on the circumstances, maybe measuring an output at all does a disgrace to the real objective. Maybe the thing you’re measuring are just gifts, and aren’t meant to be monitored, but simply enjoyed.

I wonder if Paul’s getting at something like this in Galatians 5. It’s in the context of the freedom Christ has achieved for us, allowing us to no longer live in submission to “a yoke of slavery” (v1). Being free, we are called not to live by the flesh, but by the Spirit. It’s here where Paul lists the “works” of the former:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do, such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. - Galations 5:19-21

But later on when describing life by the Spirit, he provides another list. This time, they’re notably described as “fruit.”

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. - Galations 5:22-23

“Works” is a something I do. “Fruit” is something I harvest. It’s an output indicative of choosing to live by something holy rather than ungodly, sure. But more than anything else, that verse reads to me like those things are gifts. The work is done, and I’m simply invited to enjoy them in gratitude.

I’ve seen (and done so myself) people use this passage as some sort of litmus test for authentic Christianity — a “measurement” in the Goodhart sense. I don’t want to dismiss that altogether, but if that’s all we see in this passage, I think we’re missing the point. That list of things isn’t just evidence of our sanctification. They’re good things that result from choosing to live under a certain Authority. Knowing this makes me breathe more easily, both on the road & off.

Be Not Deceived

There’s a hint of irony in writing this very post, because I’ll probably fall prey to Goodhart’s law by doing so. I’ll walk away from publishing this with a boost of achievement. My total post count will go up. I’ll get some site hits. Maybe some comments. And I’ll yet again deceive myself into believing that all those metrics are indicative of something greater I’ve achieved as a result. What’s extra rich is that I don’t even know what that “something” is. I’ve just become so conditioned to focus on the numbers that it really doesn’t matter anymore.

It should go without saying: the habit isn’t going anywhere. But at the very least, I’m hoping that reflecting on all of this will help crack the blinds of awareness and lead me to catch it more frequently in my daily life. And maybe with enough practice, more and more fuzzy, pink dots will come back into view.

Alex MacArthur is a software engineer working for Dave Ramsey in Nashville-ish, TN.
Soli Deo gloria.

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