Machiavellian framing

“The thing that makes The Prince such a timeless and scandalous work,” explained Stacy Vanek Smith, “is the same exact thing, Machiavelli removes morality from the situation.”

Smith is out to talk about her book, Machiavelli for Women and the book’s seed came about when Smith was stuck on her salary. Rather, her salary disparity. In her first job out of college, Smith and two classmates both ended up at the same organization in roughly the same jobs. But, not with the same pay. Rather than plead her case, pound the table, and present data, “I was in an emotional spiral of unjustness and upset and I never asked for a raise.” Smith needed some unemotional advice.

“What Machiavelli does is remove all that. He would probably look at (the salary disparity) as great information to use. Now what’s the best way to go about getting a raise? What’s the best way to ask? What do I do now? That’s why it is timeless, because it’s so smart.” – Stacy Vanek Smith, September 2021

Good framing is a design choice that affects behavior. We can frame self talk by having multiple ‘jobs’. We can frame vaccines as better than being bulletproof. We can frame decisions by asking, would I want this even if it were free? Each prompt changes the reference point and possibly the behavior.

As needed then, maybe some people should be Machiavelli Bayesians. Be slightly more princely, if that works do it again until it doesn’t.

Being (even more) Bayesian

Bayesianism has become my favorite math-idea-that-doesn’t-involve-math. It’s three simple steps. Step 1: have an idea about a thing. Step 2: observe the thing. Step 3: have a new idea based on the observation. (repeat)

There are two tricks to make this work for you. The first is how much to update. Being Bayesian means changing your mind in proportion to the change. Try the expression, “I’m slightly more sympathetic to X,” for example. Saying this acknowledges the new information and massages the ego.

The second trick is where to start (Step one), and we have to start somewhere.

“By not taking advantage of the accumulated knowledge that we have as a scientific community, we are artificially leveling the playing field. We are giving theories with no basis in scientific fact too great of a chance to prove themselves through the data.” – Aubry Clayton, The Conversation, August 2021

Clayton’s context is Covid19, but he touches on a larger point too. How much coordination and decentralized command a system allows.

A decentralized command iterates quickly. From the front lines of fast food to fashion to fights. If an organization wants to move fast, the decentralized command structure works better than coordination.

But while individual agents may be fast, the whole may be slow. Why? No coordination. The scientists in a medical research lab will do more experiments with no oversight or collaboration but they may not make more progress.

Coordination and decentralized command apply to both knowledge and people. Having accurate base rates and priors means coordinating our existing knowledge with the accumulated.


Bayesians even frame things beautifully. It’s not “changing your mind” bur rather it is “updating your beliefs”.

The itty-bitty-shitty-committee

The itty-bitty-shitty-committee is that voice in your head. It’s the chatter.

“The chatter is the zooming in really narrowly on a problem and getting stuck and spinning over and over in ways that are dysfunctional and destructive. We want to get rid of the chatter that gets in the way of your job, your relationships. and your physical health.” – @Ethan_Kross on Armchair Expert

I’ve been in that loop, in that cartoon whirlpool. I’m the bumbling sea captain. I see it. I try to avoid it. I can’t get out of my own way. Which is kind of wild, being the captain of this ship of one. Kross suggests reframing during rough seas.

It’s not a free bag, it’s a bag that’s been paid for. It’s not a free coffee, it’s a free coffee that’s been paid for. I used to advise college students that anytime they saw the word FREE on campus they could interpret that as “Your tuition pre-paid this for you.”

Time is also a good way to reframe a situation. Do I remember a situation like this from three years ago? No. Then I probably won’t remember this one three years from now. This kind of framing was especially good when my daughters were young. My wife used this too only her mantra was: this too shall pass.

Kross’s specific suggestions echoes Jenna Fischer‘s career advice. Fischer said she looks at herself as the CEO and the product. The boss Fischer said that headshots had to be done by a professional. The talent Fischer had to tell her photographer friend.

“Distance self-talking involves coaching yourself through a problem using your own name like you’re talking to someone else. We are much better at advising other people than ourselves…when we use a name to talk to ourself it changes the perspective, it’s a psychological jujitsu move.” – Kross

That’s incredible reframing. And it works!

If we remember. Usually when someone cuts us off on the road they’re an idiot. When we do it it’s because we’re late. Maybe that’s part of it. We see things differently when the information changes and a simple switch in internal dialogue can create big switches outside in our actions.


Dax Shepard and Kross talk about the IBSC around 31:20. The distant self-talk reframing is known as Solomon’s paradox.

Numeracy at Best Buy

We note that numeracy is important but it is hard to box in what numeracy is and how to use it well. Generally it is this idea that numbers explain some parts of the world well and we should use those numbers in a world full of people.

Yes?

Maybe an example will help:

“The Best Buy Geek Squad was reporting the mean (repair time) to their customers. A customer walks in to get their computer fixed, the part is on backorder, and the Geek Squad would quote the mean time to repair the computer. Of course, that means plenty of people’s repairs were not the average amount of time. So they changed and reported the 95th percentile time. They ranked the past times and now quote that to the customer – which is what people want!” – Elea Feit, March 2018

Like wet bias, maybe we can’t handle the truth. Or rather, maybe the way we see the world makes more sense one way rather than another.

One thing people are pretty bad at is randomness. We use stories to connect actions to events. Another thing we tend to miss is thinking that what did happen was the only thing that could have happened. It’s not.

We work around this through design. For instance, we know innovation is important but without separate metrics and incentives it’s less likely to happen. Put another way, it’s the framing stupid.

Wet bias makes sense. Being less honest than possible also makes sense. Quoting average waits may be more accurate but it’s less valuable.


Design and framing were two of my favorite ideas. For the ideas vitamin-style in a daily email drip, buy the email-drip on Gumroad. Find it on Amazon too.

Being better than Superman

Maxim four from Richard Zeckhauser is: “When trying to understand a complex real-world situation, think of an everyday analogue”.

Alex Tabarrok has been using this strategy to communicate about vaccines.

“To me the vaccines are like a superpower. Superman is immune to bullets and I tell people: ‘Wouldn’t you like to be immune to bullets? The virus has killed many more people this year than bullets have, and the vaccine makes you immune to the virus, it’s better than being immune to bullets!'” – Alex Tabarrok, July 2021

In Dan Levy’s book about Richard Zeckhauser he includes a section from Gary Orren who used the everyday analogy strategy to describe the AmeriCorps service program. AmeriCorps, Orren told legislators, is like a Swiss Army knife, it does many things well though it’s never the perfect tool. A few weeks after addressing the governmental staff Orren returned to their offices. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Swiss Army knife.”

This strategy helped, Orren explained, because it focused his thinking and the audience’s understanding. A lot of times our thinking is FAST and analogies shift complex concepts into simpler situations.

Simplification isn’t the end though. Extremes, like questioning the Ohio vaccine lotto, are not the final answers but a first foothold. If we can understand an issue’s basic components first, it can be easier to build up to the rubber-meets-the-road challenges of IRL.


My year of AmeriCorps was health based, and I remember many vision screenings .

Free Meals

At the start of Dan Levy’s book Maxims for Thinking Analytically, a book about Richard Zeckhauser’s tools for thought, is this riddle: “Mary and Jim want to paint a room together. If Mary painted alone it would take her 2 hours, and if Jim painted alone it would take him 3 hours. How long would it take to paint the room if they paint together?”

It’s not 2.5 hours.

Zeckhauser’s first maxim is: “When you are having trouble getting your thinking straight, go to an extreme case”. We used this maxim to ask: was the Ohio vaccine lotto a good idea? And it probably was.

Danny Meyer uses a version of this maxim too. One of the most important factors for a restaurant’s success is the location. (Overall it’s a hard business). Meyer wants to avoid errors of commission. Even if a restaurant proves successful it is “stuck with” the location. So Danny explores many locations to find something that works and ask an extreme question:

“Sometimes a space says, don’t plant anything here, this place should not be a restaurant. The first question I ask myself when I look at a restaurant space is: would I want this even if it were free?” Danny Meyer, July 2021, The Knowledge Project

Another way to consider this kind of framing is the expression you couldn’t pay me to. One advantage to living in the south, where football rules the roost, is the access to football. If you like it that is. One friend uses you couldn’t pay me to to express her feeling about SEC football games, the same games where tickets can be hundreds of dollars.

Levy’s riddle is easy once we slow our thinking. Thinking fast we average the work, and get 2.5 hours. Thinking slow(er), like Zeckhauser, and we notice that Mary alone would take two hours. That’s the extreme.

Competing with counterfactuals

Peter Attia has this idea called ‘healthspan’. Rather than measure what is easy (years), Attia suggests we aim for something more difficult to measure, but more meaningful: health.

The idea, IIRC from Attia is that it’s the quality of years that matter. Okay, sure, but what does that mean? It’s to ask: what do I want to be able to do when I’m 80? an work backwards from there. If I want to be able to pick up my grandkids then, what do I need to be able to do now?

Working backward is one nice way to frame this idea. Another is to think about competition. Imagine the Healthspan Games.

A proxy for this was Sport Climbing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In this event contestants competed in speed, bouldering, and lead courses. Each contestant was ranked by finish and ranks were multiplied for a final score. If someone finished first, fourth, and seventh, their final score was 28.

A competitor must consider how they could compete. Of course it would be very good to be very good at each section, but a slip in the head end is much more costly than a slip at the tail due to the multiplicative nature of the scoring. An initial score of 2x5x8=80 improves by fixing the middle score to 2x4x8=64 whereas a weakest leg fix yields 2x5x7=70. This may not be a case to fix weaknesses first.

Sport climbing is a good proxy for the Healthspan Games because they also have three areas of competition: strength, balance, and flexibility. However the competitors are slightly different. Instead of athletes from different countries, the competition is different versions of oneself. It’s the you that does yoga against the you that does not. The different versions of you are a counterfactual.

“Counterfactuals are hard because we don’t think about what is on the other side. ‘What if we had done nothing; How many games would we have won?’.”  – Sam Hinkie to Zach Lowe, April 2016

Counterfactuals and competition are one way to reframe the idea of: how to be healthy. It’s easy to think about weight (lost or lifted) or speed while running as the important aspects. But the competition is more varied than these very visible areas.

Are strength, flexibility, and balance the most important parts for a long Healthspan? Probably. Does framing them this way make them easier to think about? Probably too.


We return to the idea of easy to measure vs helpful to measure in the “metric” tag.
IIRC = if I recall correctly

Konnikova’s Data

Park of poker’s appeal  is that people balance consequences and rewards. Thoughtfully in the best cases. But the lessons aren’t always obvious.

Nate Silver notes that live poker can be boring because participants don’t play that many hands. Yes, Maria Konnikova replied, that’s one way to look at it.

“There’s a perception that live poker can be boring because if you’re playing well you shouldn’t be playing that many hands. There is a lot of time you are just sitting there. But something I learned from Eric Seidel is that the times you are not in a hand are some of your most valuable opportunities to gather data.”

Konnikova recounts to Silver a time she was disposed as chip leader by an opponent who, after a day of play complimented her on her previous tournament. Why? It was televised. He picked up on her over aggressive style (something Konnikova notes in her book, I highly recommend The Biggest Bluff) in that tournament, and he used that against her in this one.

So rather than play as the thing-to-do, observe and learn are the things to do. Konnikova (and Seidel) reframed poker folds from something passive to something active. This is the same trick Annie Duke used for her poker clients. Duke reframed the action from playing hands to making good decisions.

Barry Ritholtz calls this the don’t just do something, sit there challenge. It’s hard to break the action-progress association. Yet there are situations, beyond poker, where not doing is more important that doing.

The basic level of learning a new thing is the advice to “just do it”. Just exercise/save/invest/read more. That’s difficult, especially without an anchor. A better way might be to substitute something of the same class. In the case of poker, Duke and Konnikova substituted one verb with another, and gave a reason for doing so.

I’m on a big pickleball kick right now and this advice, along with Winning Ugly from Brad Gilbert points in a clear direction: my game isn’t so much about hitting winners first but hitting winners second. A lot of my level is about setting up n+1 shots. Rather than beat an opponent down the line, with varying success, my aim should be to hit feet high down the line, move them, wait for a ‘green light ball’ and then hit winners. 

onward and upward

Hurdle Technologies for Consumer Goods

“The truth was, we sold health and safety first, environment second and as an add-on, these products worked as well as traditional products,” said Jeffery Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation on HIBT, “We believed that in order to set ourselves apart, especially to new moms – health and safety was critical as well as the environmental benefits.”

In food safety there’s an idea called ‘hurdle technology’. Rather than a single preventative measure for keeping food safe, there are a series of ‘hurdles’ that pathogens must clear to make it into the human body. Preservatives, temperatures (extreme high or low), and acidity are all hurdles that can and are used.

The same idea applies to consumer products, though we don’t quite have the language to think this way. Each consumer has a series of questions they want answered before they decide to buy a product, though we don’t quite have the language to articulate this.

Winning wines, for instance, showed that people want something that tastes good (average), something with an interesting label, and some guidance about how to, or what to serve with. Every time I walk past the 19 Crimes wines I smile, they get it.

Rx Bars demonstrate that same idea. Are there grains? No, okay, next hurdle. Is it tasty? Yes, okay, next hurdle.

Framing a problem this way helps a lot because as companies develop products they can narrow down the issues. Also notable, like Barefoot Wine and JTBD of wine, there was a new set of consumers (young moms) that Seventh Generation served.

‘Peloton doesn’t offer discounts’

One of the challenges of running a business is seeing a business from the customer’s perspective. Internally your worldview is all website updates and payment processing, employees and benefits, and hiring and HR. Externally the customer wonders: does this do what I want?

Enter jobs-to-be-done.

Job-father Bob Moesta joined Customer Camp to conduct a mock-interview with Amanda about her Peloton purchase. It’s really good. You don’t even need to conduct ‘JOBS’ interviews to get something good from watching. For instance, framing.

Amanda wanted a Peloton. After getting and liking an Oura ring, and hearing her friends talk about Peloton she wanted one. It was better than a treadmill—if she wanted to run she could just run outside. So, Amanda and her husband watched for a Black Friday deal. None came.

A holiday deal? Nope. Is there any discount? No. There’s not really a Peloton discount, and Amanda was hearing about shipping delays (thanks Covid). So Amanda and her husband ordered one, financed with Affirm.

“Finance a stationary bike?!?!?” – Boomer

Well not really, it’s a 0% loan. It’s basically a payment plan. Actually Amanda notes, it’s like a gym membership.

Now here’s the magic trick business model: Peloton pays Affirm a commission for each bike sold and financed. 50M$ in Q3 2020. Peloton doesn’t offer discounts but it does offer 0% financing. And that’s the magic.

This, as regular readers know, is Alchemy. The financial picture is the same for Peloton: they have a retail cost and accept less than that to sell more units. The question is how much less and to who? Having Affirm be the who and the amount be vague creates value. Buyers hold Peloton in higher esteem and it just feels good to finance something at 0%. As one friend told me “it’s free money.”

To the accounting office it’s the same. To the market it’s different.