“And Miriam raised her voice in song
She sang with praise and might
We've just lived through a miracle
We're going to dance tonight”
I’m a Debbie Friedman super fan.
While my passion for Debbie Friedman would be justified simply because she was the soundtrack of my Jewish education from ages 6 through 13 (well…her and Safam), I actually think that Friedman’s legacy is underrated.
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Yes, Debbie Friedman wrote countless songs that made it into the Jewish canon (some now used in incredibly unexpected places).But I think Friedman inspired a paradigm shift where Jews of all flavors felt that they could pray or sing prayer-like songs in English. Of course, she did not invent this trend, but the ubiquity of her songs even a decade after her death is a lasting imprint on Jewish life.
While asking me to pick Debbie Friedman’s best song is an impossible task,if forced to give an answer I would choose Miriam’s Song, a recounting of Miriam leading the Israelites in dancing in Parashat Beshallah. The depth and quality of this song’s message are top-notch, much more than a song about a personified potato.
In rabbinic literature, the rabbis attempt to identify the human hero of the splitting of the sea, with many interpretations fixating on the role of Nahshon ben Aminadav jumping into the sea before it splits while Moshe prays off in a corner. However, in the Torah text, it was only Miriam who came prepared for the possibility of the miracle, as Rashi notes that Miriam was so confident that there would be a miracle at the sea that she and other women brought timbrels with them out of Egypt.
For our purposes, Miriam’s story is fascinating because it shows the complexities of this week’s heuristic, the action bias.
Miriam is a hero because she showed a bias toward action. Of course, I imagine many of us are conditioned to see the word “bias” and immediately associate it with something bad, but the reality is more complex. Webster’s Dictionary defines a bias as “an inclination of temperament or outlook.” While many human inclinations lean in a prejudicial direction (racism, fatphobia, etc.), it is also possible to be biased toward something positive. Given how many employers want to hire people who are “self-starters,” choosing to do something rather than nothing is often exactly the quality we want in leaders.
Anthony Patt and Richard Zeckhauser capture this tension when they coined the term “action bias” in a 2000 paper.Patt and Zeckhauser argue that “When good things happen, people like to take credit,” which is hardly a surprise. However, Patt and Zeckhauser argue that since people want to take the credit when something good happens, “When there is a choice between two roughly comparable good things…[people will] choose the one with which they will be most closely associated.” If people want credit, they are more likely to get credit for what they did that led to a successful outcome, as opposed to a successful outcome that arose because they did not do something. Thus, people have an inclination/preference/bias to do something, even when doing nothing is the better option.
My favorite example of action bias is found in soccer penalty kicks.Essentially, most soccer goalies assume that the shooter is going to kick the ball to the right or the left, and thus a goalie will dive to one side or the other to stop the shot. As a result, the best option for the shooter is to shoot the ball in the center of the goal, since goalies rarely stand still while defending a penalty kick. But do most soccer players take the center option? Of course not! Why? The action bias; no one wants to be accused of taking the “easy” route of shooting in the center, even if it’s the best option.
Consider the implications of the action bias when a new leader’s instinct is to “shake things up” in an organization. Yes, the status quo bias reminds us that people tend to focus on the downsides of change while ignoring the downsides of not changing. However, the action bias is a cautionary tale that the status quo is not always a bad option, and that certain leaders may pursue change for less than noble reasons. Whether a leader wants the status quo or change, he/she/they need to be cognizant of biases every person brings into the conversation.
In Miriam’s case, she uses the action bias perfectly; she proactively brings instruments to celebrate, but only uses them when a miracle actually occurs (i.e. she doesn’t hold a preemptive party). But since most of us are not like Miriam the prophetess, we should remember that our actions are seldom perfectly calibrated.
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I imagine that pondering the strengths and weaknesses of action bias leads many of you to ask what is the relationship between action bias and peer pressure. Remember, Patt and Zeckhauser argue that our inclination towards action is a good thing under many circumstances, which means that something like peer pressure, often associated with keeping kids and young adults away from dangerous behaviors, can also be good, depending on how peer pressure is used.
This is the story Tina Rosenberg tells in Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Rosenberg argues that when someone wants to address a societal ill, whether that is teen smoking or taking down a dictatorship, the worst thing that an advocate can do is appeal to information, because “The more important and deeply rooted the behavior, the less impact information has and the more people close their minds to messages that scare them.”Of course, we have seen the limits of information on the human mind throughout our journey. Instead, Rosenberg makes a convincing case that people who solve seemingly intractable problems are the ones who primarily focus on what “people..care most about: the respect of their peers.”
For our readers who are community organizers, I imagine you are nodding vigorously right now. The best change takes place when people engage other people, as opposed to imposing change from on high. And why do people respond to the appeals of a peer, rather than a distant leader? Because peers make it more likely for us to want to do something, instead of nothing.
American Religion is Not Dead Yet: Reports of religion’s death in America have been greatly exaggerated. Here is a take in The Atlantic about the present and future of religion.
Questions Raised by Jacinda Ardern’s Resignation: Jacinda Ardern has been a model leader in countless ways since she was elected New Zealand’s Prime Minister in 2017. What does her resignation teach us about challenges that will face even the best leaders?
Would Frances Hesselbein be Successful Today?: I mentioned a few weeks ago how much I admire the late Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America. Would her leadership style fit into today’s world? Here’s a take from Harvard Business School.
Why Good Fundraisers Are In Short Supply: If the nonprofit sector has a hiring crisis, the fundraising sector has a hiring crisis on steroids. Here’s a take on why.
Have You Conducted A Past Year Review?: Tim Ferriss argues that new year’s resolutions are overrated, but reviews about the past year are underrated. In honor of everyone on this list who has already dropped your resolution, read Tim’s post to learn how to conduct a past-year review.
The Million Dollar Tullip Bulb
Our friend Tim Harford had a wonderful podcast about a legendary and perhaps apocryphal story of a tulip craze in the seventeenth century that reflects the arc of buying hysterias from bitcoin to pogs (remember those?).
If you think that this newsletter is nerdy, just wait until you read my Safam fan fiction that I shall one day write with Doron and Rabbi Eytan Kenter.
I have heard of countless Orthodox, and even Ultra-Orthodox, communities that use Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah melody; I do wonder who gives proper credit for her authorship…
My favorite song by Debbie Friedman is a song called “Those Who Sow.” However, this song came relatively late in her career, and I’ve never seen anyone perform the song in the singular way Debbie Friedman could simultaneously lead large groups in melody and harmony. This is the best recording I’ve found; she starts at the 2-minute mark.
Rashi on Shemot 15:20:3. Here is the original midrash from the Mekhiltah.
Anthony Patt & Richard Zeckhauser, “Action Bias and Environmental Decisions,” in Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Volume 21 (2000), 45-72.
I’m an American…we call it soccer. Sorry, every other country in the world.
M. Bar-Eli, O.H. Azar, I. Ritov, Y. Keidar-Levin, and G. Schein, “Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks,” in Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 28, Number 5 (2007), 606–621.
Malcolm Gladwell also has a great podcast on why basketball players never adopted Rick Barry’s style of shooting free throws underhanded (sometimes known unfortunately as “granny style”), even though Barry’s method is clearly superior. Turns out, NBA players know that shooting underhanded is a far better option, but they don’t do it because they think they will look silly on television. This will come back when we get to Tina Rosenberg’s book on peer pressure.
Tina Rosenberg, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), xix.
Enjoyed this article very much. What about Carlebach's musical influence. Thinking of that because BJ used a number of his melodies so successfully this shabbat. Of course, he, too, has influenced various "brands" of Judaism. (I realize that he is persona non grata for personal improprieties). Richard Hammerman