Oliver Payne

Behavioural insight & comms consultant

What an Israeli flight instructor tells us about creative teams

By admin • Mar 23rd, 2009 • Category: Twitter updates

Dan Gardner’s book ‘Risk: The science and politics of fear’ is a fascinating insight into the extreme difference between gut reactions and calm reflection. Our gut reaction generally helps us, but can give wildly inaccurate readings. And it’s these wild inaccuracies we need to watch, as an Israeli flight instructor now knows and creatives need to understand.


Gut reactions are poor at understanding maths. Or, more accurately, gut reactions are poor at understanding the irrefutable statistical truths that turn the cogs of the universe. One of the most significant statistical irrefutable truths that is that is wildly misunderstood is regression to the mean.

And here’s where our Israeli flight instructor teaches us a lesson: Daniel Kahneman - Winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics - discovered that the flight instructor concluded that criticism improves performance and praise reduces it. How did he reach this odd conclusion? Every time a flight student made a good landing he praised them, and their subsequent landings were not so good. And every time a student made a poor landing he criticised them and their subsequent landings improved. So, praise = bad subsequent performance, and criticism = good subsequent performance.

It made sense to the flight instructor, but he hadn’t accounted for regression to the mean.

Regression to the mean simply states that if an unusual result happens it is likely to be followed by a result closer to the statistical average. If you perform well above your average in a particular task you’re likely to perform less well at the same task next time around. Likewise if you perform way below your average, next time, you’ll likely perform better: Much like landing a plane - an above average landing is likely to be followed by less good examples closer to the student’s mean landing ability.

This same truth affects creatives and creative teams in advertising: an idea way above average will likely be followed by one closer to their mean. Likewise a poor response to a brief will likely be followed by a more robust and attractive answer. I’ll bet this flies in the face of your ‘gut feel’ about a team who’ve done well? ‘they’re on fire’, ‘they’re on a roll’…

So now we know how good creatives are likely to be when we give them a brief?

To a degree, yes. The bugger is that you have to take a longer view and try to work out someone’s mean ability. And there’s no magic way to work that out, but it is possible to make a good thumbnail check if you’ve worked together for a year or more. And of course, a team may simply be getting better, so you’ll have to extrapolate their mean ability improving over time to get an accurate assessment of their reversion up or down.

While there’s no simple calculation you can use to work out mean ability, there’s value in recognising the statistical concepts at play that oppose out natural conclusions. Gut feel is very helpful. Sometimes.

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admin is a digital native who's been taking brands and businesses digital since 1995 (only 5 years after Tim Burners-Lee created the first ever web page). Honing his skills in a variety of companies for the last 14 years, including Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi as a Creative Director, Partner and/or Board Member. He also won some awards.
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