The false proxy trap

Last week Seth Godin wrote the following blog post:

Avoiding the false proxy trap

Sometimes, we can’t measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that’s much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.

TV advertisers, for example, could never tell which viewers would be impacted by an ad, so instead, they measured how many people saw it. Or a model might not be able to measure beauty, but a bathroom scale was a handy stand in.

A business person might choose cash in the bank as a measure of his success at his craft, and a book publisher, unable to easily figure out if the right people are engaging with a book, might rely instead on a rank on a single bestseller list. One last example: the non-profit that uses money raised as a proxy for difference made.

You’ve already guessed the problem. Once you find the simple proxy and decide to make it go up, there are lots of available tactics that have nothing at all to do with improving the very thing you set out to achieve in the first place. When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead.

Gaming the system is never the goal. The goal is the goal.

I think that’s an amazing bit of thinking. He’s taken something we all do, day after day after day, and turned it on its head. Using a set of scales isn’t always an innocent way of finding out whether or not you’ve gained a pound; it’s often a malevolent method of displacing your self-perspective.

The real kicker is that it’s the things we really want to measure that we just can’t: happiness, attractiveness, beauty, worth, impact, meaning.

I remember reading a quote from the Rachel Papers: that’s the trouble with having a vocabulary more refined than your emotions. Defining the abstract is often like trying to catch a sunbeam (or a raincloud) in a jar. It’s intrinsically without firm definition and subject to unpredictable change. You might be happy about work but unhappy about your relationship. Does that make you happy or unhappy overall? What if you feel really attractive until you speak to your controlling and insecure boyfriend?

But we generally feel a a need to be in control of things (that’s the reason behind many cases of anorexia: the amount of food you put into your body is something that’s down to you, unlike how that bully makes you feel, or why your mum’s ill), so these proxies are just an attempt to do the impossible, and in the end they end up doing more harm than good. If you measure how attractive you are by the amount you spend on clothes then you’re going to marginalise other things that might be more important to that attractiveness, and you’re going to place far too much importance on the label in the back of your jumper.

I see Seth hasn’t offered an way of making sure we focus on the goal instead of the proxy, but the first step to finding a cure is being aware that you have a problem.