"Thinking Fast And Slow" By Daniel Kahneman
April 8, 2020
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist, noted for his work on in the areas of the psychology of judgment and decision-making, as well as behavioral economics. Much of his most notable work was done with Amos Tversky. His partnership with Tversky was the basis of Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, The Undoing Project (which by the way is a great read). Lewis wrote The Undoing Project after he realized that much of what he wrote about in Moneyball was supported by the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Kahneman is the only non-economist to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, which he won in 2002. His (along with Tversky’s) empirical findings challenge the assumption of human rationality prevailing in modern economic theory.
Thinking Fast and Slow is not a fast read – pun intended? But it is an essential read. If you ever have wondered about how our mind works, this book is the answer. It explains how we are able to quickly piece together a cohesive (albeit of questionable accuracy) story when we only a few facts and how we have systematic errors in our thinking. It explains why we have limited “mental energy”. Understanding these characteristics of our mind can allow us to account for those errors when we are making judgments and decisions.
My outline of the book is long. Apologies for that - I edited it down as far as I could without losing important information. The latter part of Part Two and Part Three were the hardest sections to summarize; first they are intellectually the most challenging and second, Kahneman provides many examples in the book that I found too lengthy to include in this outline. What I have provided here will help you sound erudite but not expert.
The book is divided into five parts (six including the introduction). Part One explains and examines our two different systems of thought. Part Two discusses heuristics and biases; Part Three is a discussion of our overconfidence. Part Four presents a discussion of how we make choices and Part Five addresses the concept of two selves - our experiencing self and our remembering self and wellbeing.
Every author, I suppose, has in mind a setting in which readers of his or her work could benefit from having read it. Mine is the proverbial office water cooler, where opinions are shared and gossip is exchanged. I hope to enrich the vocabulary that people use when they talk about the judgments and choices of others, the company’s new policies, or a colleague’s investment decisions. Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own. Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinions of others.
Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. You cannot trace how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a hint of irritation in your spouse’s voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid a threat on the road before you became consciously aware of it. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind. Much of the discussion in this book is about biases of intuition.
Valid intuitions (defined as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning) develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.
The essence of intuitive heuristics (roughly, a rule of thumb): when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution. The reliance on the heuristics causes predictable biases (systematic errors) in our predictions.
Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.
We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance (luck) in events. Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight.
We are not good intuitively at statistics.
The spontaneous search for an intuitive solution sometimes fails - neither an expert solution nor a heuristic answer comes to mind. In such cases we often find ourselves switching to a slower, more deliberate and effortful form of thinking. This is the slow thinking of the title. Fast thinking includes both variants of intuitive thought—the expert and the heuristic—as well as the entirely automatic mental activities of perception and memory, the operations that enable you to know there is a lamp on your desk or retrieve the name of the capital of Russia.
The halo effect (a type of bias) is the tendency for positive impressions of a person, company, brand or product in one area to positively influence one's opinion or feelings in other areas. An example of the halo effect is when an individual noticing that the person in the photograph is attractive, well groomed, and properly attired, assumes, using a mental heuristic, that the person in the photograph is a good person based upon the rules of that individual's social concept.
The availability heuristic, also known as availability bias, is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person's mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled. Subsequently, under the availability heuristic, people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.
So this is my aim for water cooler conversations: improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgments and choices often cause.
Part One - Two Systems
This part presents the basic elements of a two-systems approach to judgment and choice. It elaborates the distinction between the automatic operations of System 1 and the controlled operations of System 2, and shows how associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant. I attempt to give a sense of the complexity and richness of the automatic and often unconscious processes that underlie intuitive thinking, and of how these automatic processes explain the heuristics of judgment. A goal is to introduce a language for thinking and talking about the mind.
Chapter 1: The Characters of the Story
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.
The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. Your body is also involved. Your muscles tense up, your blood pressure rises, and your heart rate increases. Someone looking closely at your eyes would see your pupils dilate. (Your pupils contract back to normal size as soon as you ended your work—when you found the answer or when you gave up.
System 1 effortlessly originates impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.
Some examples of the automatic activities that are attributed to System 1:
- Detect that one object is more distant than another.
- Orient to the source of a sudden sound.
The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Some examples:
- Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.
- Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text.
- Check the validity of a complex logical argument.
In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately. System 2 has some ability to change the way System 1 works, by programming the normally automatic functions of attention and memory.
It is the mark of effortful activities (System 2) that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once.
When System 2 is fully engaged, we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.
When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book.
Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine—usually. When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer.
System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.
System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior—the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made.
Most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word. The division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does: its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate. System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. As we shall see, it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.
One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.
Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent.
The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.
The mind—especially System 1—appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities.
Anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think.
Chapter 2: Attention and Effort
System 2 is a supporting character who believes herself to be the hero. The defining feature of System 2, in this story, is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only System 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.
The life of System 2 is normally conducted at the pace of a comfortable walk, sometimes interrupted by episodes of jogging and on rare occasions by a frantic sprint.
People, when engaged in a mental sprint, become effectively blind.
Switching from one task to another is effortful, especially under time pressure.
Much like the electricity meter outside your house or apartment, the pupils offer an index of the current rate at which mental energy is used.
System 2 and the electrical circuits in your home both have limited capacity, but they respond differently to threatened overload. A breaker trips when the demand for current is excessive, causing all devices on that circuit to lose power at once. In contrast, the response to mental overload is selective and precise: System 2 protects the most important activity, so it receives the attention it needs; “spare capacity” is allocated second by second to other tasks.
System 2 is the working mind.
As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Talent has similar effects.
Highly intelligent individuals need less effort to solve the same problems, as indicated by both pupil size and brain activity. A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.
System 2 is the only one that can follow rules, compare objects on several attributes, and make deliberate choices between options. The automatic System 1 does not have these capabilities. System 1 detects simple relations (“they are all alike,” “the son is much taller than the father”) and excels at integrating information about one thing, but it does not deal with multiple distinct topics at once, nor is it adept at using purely statistical information. System 1 will detect that a person described as “a meek and tidy soul, with a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail” resembles a caricature librarian, but combining this intuition with knowledge about the small number of librarians is a task that only System 2 can perform—if System 2 knows how to do so, which is true of few people. A crucial capability of System 2 is the adoption of “task sets”: it can program memory to obey an instruction that overrides habitual responses.
The most effortful forms of slow thinking are those that require you to think fast.
We normally avoid mental overload by dividing our tasks into multiple easy steps, committing intermediate results to long-term memory or to paper rather than to an easily overloaded working memory. We cover long distances by taking our time and conduct our mental lives by the law of least effort.
Chapter 3: The Lazy Controller
System 2 also has a natural speed. You expend some mental energy in random thoughts and in monitoring what goes on around you even when your mind does nothing in particular, but there is little strain. Unless you are in a situation that makes you unusually wary or self-conscious, monitoring what happens in the environment or inside your head demands little effort. You make many small decisions as you drive your car, absorb some information as you read the newspaper, and conduct routine exchanges of pleasantries with a spouse or a colleague, all with little effort and no strain. Just like a stroll.
It is normally easy and actually quite pleasant to walk and think at the same time, but at the extremes these activities appear to compete for the limited resources of System 2. You can confirm this claim by a simple experiment. While walking comfortably with a friend, ask him to compute 23 × 78 in his head, and to do so immediately. He will almost certainly stop in his tracks. My experience is that I can think while strolling but cannot engage in mental work that imposes a heavy load on short-term memory. If I must construct an intricate argument under time pressure, I would rather be still, and I would prefer sitting to standing.
This is how the law of least effort comes to be a law. Even in the absence of time pressure, maintaining a coherent train of thought requires discipline.
Flow neatly separates the two forms of effort: concentration on the task and the deliberate control of attention.
It is now a well-established proposition that both self-control and cognitive effort are forms of mental work. Several psychological studies have shown that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation.
System 1 has more influence on behavior when System 2 is busy, and it has a sweet tooth. People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.
People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations. A few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night.
Self-control requires attention and effort. Another way of saying this is that controlling thoughts and behaviors is one of the tasks that System 2 performs.
An effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.
Activities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant. Unlike cognitive load, ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation. After exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another, although you could do it if you really had to. In several experiments, people were able to resist the effects of ego depletion when given a strong incentive to do so.
Mental energy is more than a mere metaphor. The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose.
Restoring glucose levels can have a counteracting effect to mental depletion.
System 2 is lazy.
One of the main functions of System 2 is to monitor and control thoughts and actions “suggested” by System 1, allowing some to be expressed directly in behavior and suppressing or modifying others.
Many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort (System 2) at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.
A plausible answer comes to mind immediately for simple questions. Overriding it requires hard work—the insistent idea that “it’s true, it’s true!” makes it difficult to check the logic, and most people do not take the trouble to think through the problem.
This fact has discouraging implications for reasoning in everyday life. It suggests that when people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound. If System 1 is involved, the conclusion comes first and the arguments follow.
Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed. Memory function is an attribute of System 1. However, everyone has the option of slowing down to conduct an active search of memory for all possibly relevant facts.. The extent of deliberate checking and search is a characteristic of System 2, which varies among individuals.
Not using System 2 seems to be a matter of insufficient motivation, not trying hard enough.
A significant difference in intellectual aptitude emerged: the children who had shown more self-control as four-year-olds had substantially higher scores on tests of intelligence.
Individuals who uncritically follow their intuitions about puzzles are also prone to accept other suggestions from System 1.
System 1 is impulsive and intuitive; System 2 is capable of reasoning, and it is cautious, but at least for some people it is also lazy. We recognize related differences among individuals: some people are more like their System 2; others are closer to their System 1. This simple test has emerged as one of the better predictors of lazy thinking.
Chapter 4: The Associative Machine
The events that took place as a result of your seeing the words happened by a process called associative activation: ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain. The essential feature of this complex set of mental events is its coherence. Each element is connected, and each supports and strengthens the others. The word evokes memories, which evoke emotions, which in turn evoke facial expressions and other reactions, such as a general tensing up and an avoidance tendency. The facial expression and the avoidance motion intensify the feelings to which they are linked, and the feelings in turn reinforce compatible ideas. All this happens quickly and all at once, yielding a self-reinforcing pattern of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses that is both diverse and integrated—it has been called associatively coherent.
Starting from a completely unexpected event, your System 1 made as much sense as possible of the situation.
An odd feature that your System 1 treats the mere conjunction of two words as representations of reality. Your body reacted in an attenuated replica of a reaction to the real thing, and the emotional response and physical recoil were part of the interpretation of the event. As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain.
In the current view of how associative memory works, a great deal happens at once. An idea that has been activated does not merely evoke one other idea. It activates many ideas, which in turn activate others. Furthermore, only a few of the activated ideas will register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent, hidden from our conscious selves. The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.
In the 1980s, psychologists discovered that exposure to a word causes immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which many related words can be evoked. We call this a priming effect and say that the idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and that WASH primes SOAP.
Priming effects take many forms. If the idea of EAT is currently on your mind (whether or not you are conscious of it), you will be quicker than usual to recognize the word SOUP when it is spoken in a whisper or presented in a blurry font. And of course you are primed not only for the idea of soup but also for a multitude of food-related ideas, including fork, hungry, fat, diet, and cookie.
Priming is not limited to concepts and words; your actions and emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware, including simple gestures.
This remarkable priming phenomenon - the influencing of an action by the idea - is known as the ideomotor effect.
Reciprocal priming effects tend to produce a coherent reaction: if you were primed to think of old age, you would tend to act old, and acting old would reinforce the thought of old age.
Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices.
Money seems to prime individualism: reluctance to be involved with, depend on, or accept demands from others.
When I describe priming studies to audiences, the reaction is often disbelief. This is not a surprise: System 2 believes that it is in charge and that it knows the reasons for its choices. Questions are probably cropping up in your mind as well: How is it possible for such trivial manipulations of the context to have such large effects? Do these experiments demonstrate that we are completely at the mercy of whatever primes the environment provides at any moment? Of course not. The effects of the primes are robust but not necessarily large.
Among a hundred voters, only a few whose initial preferences were uncertain will vote differently about a school issue if their precinct is located in a school rather than in a church—but a few percent could tip an election.
You do not believe that these results apply to you because they correspond to nothing in your subjective experience. But your subjective experience consists largely of the story that your System 2 tells itself about what is going on. Priming phenomena arise in System 1, and you have no conscious access to them.
System 1 provides the impressions that often turn into your beliefs, and is the source of the impulses that often become your choices and your actions. It offers a tacit interpretation of what happens to you and around you, linking the present with the recent past and with expectations about the near future. It contains the model of the world that instantly evaluates events as normal or surprising. It is the source of your rapid and often precise intuitive judgments. And it does most of this without your conscious awareness of its activities. System 1 is also the origin of many of the systematic errors in your intuitions.
Chapter 5: Cognitive Ease
Whenever you are conscious, and perhaps even when you are not, multiple computations are going on in your brain, which maintain and update current answers to some key questions: Is anything new going on? Is there a threat? Are things going well? Should my attention be redirected? Is more effort needed for this task? You can think of a cockpit, with a set of dials that indicate the current values of each of these essential variables. The assessments are carried out automatically by System 1, and one of their functions is to determine whether extra effort is required from System 2.
Cognitive ease: no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort.
Cognitive strain: affected by both the current level of effort and the presence of unmet demands; requires increased mobilization of System 2.
Memories and thinking are subject to illusions, just as the eyes are.
Predictable illusions inevitable occur if a judgement is based on an impression of cognitive ease or strain.
Words that you have seen before become easier to see again—you can identify them better than other words when they are shown very briefly or masked by noise, and you will be quicker (by a few hundredths of a second) to read them than to read other words. In short, you experience greater cognitive ease in perceiving a word you have seen earlier, and it is this sense of ease that gives you the impression of familiarity.
You may not know precisely what it is that makes things cognitively easy or strained. This is how the illusion of familiarity comes about.
The impression of familiarity is produced by System 1, and System 2 relies on that impression for a true/false judgment.
A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.
The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true. If you cannot remember the source of a statement, and have no way to relate it to other things you know, you have no option but to go with the sense of cognitive ease.
If you want to make recipients believe something, general principle is to ease cognitive strain: make font legible, use high-quality paper to maximize contrasts, print in bright colors, use simple language, put things in verse (make them memorable), and if you quote, make sure it’s an easy name to pronounce.
Remember that System 2 is lazy and that mental effort is aversive. If possible, the recipients of your message want to stay away from anything that reminds them of effort, including a source with a complicated name.
Weird example: stocks with pronounceable tickers do better over time.
Psychologists believe is that all of us live much of our life guided by the impressions of System 1 -- and we often do not know the source of these impressions.
Mood also affects performance: happy moods dramatically improve accuracy. Good mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility and increased reliance on System 1 form a cluster.
The sense of ease or strain has multiple causes, and it is difficult to tease them apart. Difficult, but not impossible. People can overcome some of the superficial factors that produce illusions of truth when strongly motivated to do so. On most occasions, however, the lazy System 2 will adopt the suggestions
At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together. A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.
Cognitive strain, whatever its source, mobilizes System 2, which is more likely to reject the intuitive answer suggested by System 1.
The mere exposure effect does not depend on the conscious experience of familiarity. In fact, the effect does not depend on consciousness at all: it occurs even when the repeated words or pictures are shown so quickly that the observers never become aware of having seen them. They still end up liking the words or pictures that were presented more frequently. As should be clear by now, System 1 can respond to impressions of events of which System 2 is unaware. Indeed, the mere exposure effect is actually stronger for stimuli that the individual never consciously sees.
Mood evidently affects the operation of System 1: when we are uncomfortable and unhappy, we lose touch with our intuition.
A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.
Chapter 6: Norms, Surprises, and Causes
The central characteristics and functions of System 1 and System 2 have now been introduced, with a more detailed treatment of System 1. Freely mixing metaphors, we have in our head a remarkably powerful computer, not fast by conventional hardware standards, but able to represent the structure of our world by various types of associative links in a vast network of various types of ideas. The spreading of activation in the associative machine is automatic, but we (System 2) have some ability to control the search of memory, and also to program it so that the detection of an event in the environment can attract attention. We next go into more detail of the wonders and limitation of what System 1 can do.
The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it. The model is constructed by associations that link ideas of circumstances, events, actions, and outcomes that co-occur with some regularity, either at the same time or within a relatively short interval. As these links are formed and strengthened, the pattern of associated ideas comes to represent the structure of events in your life, and it determines your interpretation of the present as well as your expectations of the future.
We can detect departures from the norm (even small ones) within two-tenths of a second.
Finding such causal connections is part of understanding a story and is an automatic operation of System 1. System 2, your conscious self, was offered the causal interpretation and accepted it.
Even if we have limited information about what happened on a day, System 1 is adept at finding a coherent causal story that links the fragments of knowledge at its disposal.
“Associatively coherent interpretation of the initial surprise, completing a plausible story.” (System 1)
We are evidently ready from birth to have impressions of causality, which do not depend on reasoning about patterns of causation. They are products of System 1.
The prominence of causal intuitions is a recurrent theme in this book because people are prone to apply causal thinking inappropriately, to situations that require statistical reasoning. Statistical thinking derives conclusions about individual cases from properties of categories and ensembles. Unfortunately, System 1 does not have the capability for this mode of reasoning; System 2 can learn to think statistically, but few people receive the necessary training.
Chapter 7: A Machine for Jumping to Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information. These are the circumstances in which intuitive errors are probable, which may be prevented by a deliberate intervention of System 2.
In the absence of an explicit context, System 1 generated a likely context on its own.
When uncertain, System 1 bets on an answer, and the bets are guided by experience. The rules of the betting are intelligent: recent events and the current context have the most weight in determining an interpretation. When no recent event comes to mind, more distant memories govern.
A definite choice was made, but you did not know it. Only one interpretation came to mind, and you were never aware of the ambiguity. System 1 does not keep track of alternatives that it rejects, or even of the fact that there were alternatives. Conscious doubt is not in the repertoire of System 1; it requires maintaining incompatible interpretations in mind at the same time, which demands mental effort. Uncertainty and doubt are the domain of System 2.
A Bias to Believe and Confirm
The initial attempt to believe is an automatic operation of System 1, which involves the construction of the best possible interpretation of the situation.
Unbelieving as an operation of System 2.
When System 2 is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything. System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. Indeed, there is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted. The operations of associative memory contribute to a general confirmation bias.
A deliberate search for confirming evidence, known as positive test strategy, is also how System 2 tests a hypothesis. Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.
The confirmatory bias of System 1 favors uncritical acceptance of suggestions and exaggeration of the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.
Exaggerated Emotional Coherence (Halo Effect)
If you like the president’s politics, you probably like his voice and his appearance as well. The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person—including things you have not observed—is known as the halo effect.
It is one of the ways the representation of the world that System 1 generates is simpler and more coherent than the real thing.
The halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.
To counter, you should decorrelate error - in other words, to get useful information from multiple sources, make sure these sources are independent, then compare.
The principle of independent judgments (and decorrelated errors) has immediate applications for the conduct of meetings, an activity in which executives in organizations spend a great deal of their working days. A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members of the committee should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position.
What You See is All There is (WYSIATI)
An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.
The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. When information is scarce, which is a common occurrence, System 1 operates as a machine for jumping to conclusions.
And there also remains a bias favoring the first impression. The combination of a coherence-seeking System 1 with a lazy System 2 implies that System 2 will endorse many intuitive beliefs, which closely reflect the impressions generated by System 1.
Jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence is so important to an understanding of intuitive thinking, and comes up so often in this book, that I will use a cumbersome abbreviation for it: WYSIATI, which stands for what you see is all there is. System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and the quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.
WYSIATI - What you see is all there is.
The confidence that people experience is determined by the coherence of the story they manage to construct from available information. It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. WYSIATI facilitates the achievement of coherence and of the cognitive ease that causes us to accept a statement as true. It explains why we can think fast, and how we are able to make sense of partial information in a complex world. Much of the time, the coherent story we put together is close enough to reality to support reasonable action.
WYSIATI helps explain some biases of judgement and choice, including:
- Overconfidence: As the WYSIATI rule implies, neither the quantity nor the quality of the evidence counts for much in subjective confidence. The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.
- Framing effects: Different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions. The statement that the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90% is more reassuring than the equivalent statement that mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.
- Base-rate neglect: Recall Steve, the meek and tidy soul who is often believed to be a librarian. The personality description is salient and vivid, and although you surely know that there are more male farmers than male librarians, that statistical fact almost certainly did not come to your mind when you first considered the question.
Chapter 8: How Judgments Happen
System 2 receives questions or generates them: in either case it directs attention and searches memory to find the answers. System 1 operates differently. It continuously monitors what is going on outside and inside the mind, and continuously generates assessments of various aspects of the situation without specific intention and with little or no effort. These basic assessments play an important role in intuitive judgment, because they are easily substituted for more difficult questions—this is the essential idea of the heuristics and biases approach. Two other features of System 1 also support the substitution of one judgment for another. One is the ability to translate values across dimensions, which you do in answering a question that most people find easy: “If Sam were as tall as he is intelligent, how tall would he be?” Finally, there is the mental shotgun. An intention of System 2 to answer a specific question or evaluate a particular attribute of the situation automatically triggers other computations, including basic assessments.
System 1 has been shaped by evolution to provide a continuous assessment of the main problems that an organism must solve to survive: How are things going? Is there a threat or a major opportunity? Is everything normal? Should I approach or avoid?
Good mood and cognitive ease are the human equivalents of assessments of safety and familiarity.
People judge competence by combining the two dimensions of strength and trustworthiness. The faces that exude competence combine a strong chin with a slight confident-appearing smile. There is no evidence that these facial features actually predict how well politicians will perform in office. But studies of the brain’s response to winning and losing candidates show that we are biologically predisposed to reject candidates who lack the attributes we value—in this research, losers evoked stronger indications of (negative) emotional response. This is an example of what I will call a judgment heuristic in the following chapters. Voters are attempting to form an impression of how good a candidate will be in office, and they fall back on a simpler assessment that is made quickly and automatically and is available when System 2 must make its decision.
System 1 understands language, of course, and understanding depends on the basic assessments that are routinely carried out as part of the perception of events and the comprehension of messages. These assessments include computations of similarity and representativeness, attributions of causality, and evaluations of the availability of associations and exemplars. They are performed even in the absence of a specific task set, although the results are used to meet task demands as they arise.
Because System 1 represents categories by a prototype or a set of typical exemplars, it deals well with averages but poorly with sums. The size of the category, the number of instances it contains, tends to be ignored in judgments of what I will call sum-like variables.
Another aptitude of System 1 - an underlying scale of intensity allows matching across diverse dimensions – colors, numbers, music.
System 1 carries out many computations at any one time. Some of these are routine assessments that go on continuously. Whenever your eyes are open, your brain computes a three-dimensional representation of what is in your field of vision, complete with the shape of objects, their position in space, and their identity. No intention is needed to trigger this operation or the continuous monitoring for violated expectations. In contrast to these routine assessments, other computations are undertaken only when needed: you do not maintain a continuous evaluation of how happy or wealthy you are, and even if you are a political addict you do not continuously assess the president’s prospects. The occasional judgments are voluntary. They occur only when you intend them to do so. You do not automatically count the number of syllables of every word you read, but you can do it if you so choose. However, the control over intended computations is far from precise: we often compute much more than we want or need. I call this excess computation the mental shotgun. It is impossible to aim at a single point with a shotgun because it shoots pellets that scatter, and it seems almost equally difficult for System 1 not to do more than System 2 charges it to do.
Chapter 9: Answering an Easier Question
A remarkable aspect of our mental life is that we are rarely stumped. True, you occasionally face a question such as 17 × 24 = ? to which no answer comes immediately to mind, but these dumbfounded moments are rare. The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it. Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.
If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution.
The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answer instead. The technical definition of heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka.
When called upon to judge probability, people actually judge something else and believe they have judged probability. System 1 often makes this move when faced with difficult target questions, if the answer to a related and easier heuristic question comes readily to mind.
The mental shotgun makes it easy to generate quick answers to difficult questions without imposing much hard work on your lazy System 2.
The automatic processes of the mental shotgun and intensity matching often make available one or more answers to easy questions that could be mapped onto the target question. On some occasions, substitution will occur and a heuristic answer will be endorsed by System 2. Of course, System 2 has the opportunity to reject this intuitive answer, or to modify it by incorporating other information. However, a lazy System 2 often follows the path of least effort and endorses a heuristic answer without much scrutiny of whether it is truly appropriate. You will not be stumped, you will not have to work very hard, and you may not even notice that you did not answer the question you were asked. Furthermore, you may not realize that the target question was difficult, because an intuitive answer to it came readily to mind.
The present state of mind affects how people evaluate their happiness.
Affect heuristic: in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world. Your political preference determines the arguments that you find compelling.
If you like the current health policy, you believe its benefits are substantial and its costs more manageable than the costs of alternatives.
We see here a new side of the “personality” of System 2. Until now I have mostly described it as a more or less acquiescent monitor, which allows considerable leeway to System 1. I have also presented System 2 as active in deliberate memory search, complex computations, comparisons, planning, and choice.
It appeared that System 2 is ultimately in charge, with the ability to resist the suggestions of System 1, slow things down, and impose logical analysis. Self-criticism is one of the functions of System 2. In the context of attitudes, however, System 2 is more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions—an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs, not with an intention to examine them. An active, coherence-seeking System 1 suggests solutions to an undemanding System 2.
Part 2: Heuristics and Biases
Part 2 updates the study of judgment heuristics and explores a major puzzle: Why is it so difficult for us to think statistically? We easily think associatively, we think metaphorically, we think causally, but statistics requires thinking about many things at once, which is something that System 1 is not designed to do.
Chapter 10: The Law of Small Numbers
System 1 is highly adept in one form of thinking—it automatically and effortlessly identifies causal connections between events, sometimes even when the connection is spurious.
However, System 1 is inept when faced with “merely statistical” facts, which change the probability of outcomes but do not cause them to happen.
A random event, by definition, does not lend itself to explanation, but collections of random events do behave in a highly regular fashion.
Large samples are more precise than small samples.
Small samples yield extreme results more often than large samples do.
You have long known that the results of large samples deserve more trust than smaller samples, and even people who are innocent of statistical knowledge have heard about this law of large numbers. But “knowing” is not a yes-no affair
A Bias of Confidence Over Doubt
System 1 is not prone to doubt. It suppresses ambiguity and spontaneously constructs stories that are as coherent as possible. Unless the message is immediately negated, the associations that it evokes will spread as if the message were true. System 2 is capable of doubt, because it can maintain incompatible possibilities at the same time. However, sustaining doubt is harder work than sliding into certainty. The law of small numbers is a manifestation of a general bias that favors certainty over doubt,
The strong bias toward believing that small samples closely resemble the population from which they are drawn is also part of a larger story: we are prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence of what we see.
System 1 runs ahead of the facts in constructing a rich image on the basis of scraps of evidence. A machine for jumping to conclusions will act as if it believed in the law of small numbers. More generally, it will produce a representation of reality that makes too much sense.
Cause and Chance
The associative machinery seeks causes. The difficulty we have with statistical regularities is that they call for a different approach. Instead of focusing on how the event at hand came to be, the statistical view relates it to what could have happened instead. Nothing in particular caused it to be what it is—chance selected it from among its alternatives.
Our predilection for causal thinking exposes us to serious mistakes in evaluating the randomness of truly random events.
We are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world, in which regularities (such as a sequence of six girls) appear not by accident but as a result of mechanical causality or of someone’s intention. We do not expect to see regularity produced by a random process, and when we detect what appears to be a rule, we quickly reject the idea that the process is truly random. Random processes produce many sequences that convince people that the process is not random after all. You can see why assuming causality could have had evolutionary advantages. It is part of the general vigilance that we have inherited from ancestors. We are automatically on the lookout for the possibility that the environment has changed. Lions may appear on the plain at random times, but it would be safer to notice and respond to an apparent increase in the rate of appearance of prides of lions, even if it is actually due to the fluctuations of a random process.
The illusion of pattern affects our lives in many ways off the basketball court. How many good years should you wait before concluding that an investment adviser is unusually skilled? How many successful acquisitions should be needed for a board of directors to believe that the CEO has extraordinary flair for such deals? The simple answer to these questions is that if you follow your intuition, you will more often than not err by misclassifying a random event as systematic. We are far too willing to reject the belief that much of what we see in life is random.
The law of small numbers is part of two larger stories about the workings of the mind:
- The exaggerated faith in small samples is only one example of a more general illusion—we pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify. Jumping to conclusions is a safer sport in the world of our imagination than it is in reality.
- Statistics produce many observations that appear to beg for causal explanations but do not lend themselves to such explanations. Many facts of the world are due to chance, including accidents of sampling. Causal explanations of chance events are inevitably wrong.
Chapter 11: Anchoring Effects
An anchoring effect. It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number that people considered—hence the image of an anchor. If you are asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to death at 35.
Any number that you are asked to consider as a possible solution to an estimation problem will induce an anchoring effect.
Two different mechanisms produce anchoring effects—one for each system. There is a form of anchoring that occurs in a deliberate process of adjustment, an operation of System 2. And there is anchoring that occurs by a priming effect, an automatic manifestation of System 1.
Suggestion is a priming effect, which selectively evokes compatible evidence.
System 1 understands sentences by trying to make them true, and the selective activation of compatible thoughts produces a family of systematic errors that make us gullible and prone to believe too strongly whatever we believe.
System 1 tries its best to construct a world in which the anchor is the true number. This is one of the manifestations of associative coherence that I described in the first part of the book.
The Anchoring Index
The anchoring measure would be 100% for people who slavishly adopt the anchor as an estimate, and zero for people who are able to ignore the anchor altogether. The value of 55% that was observed in this example is typical. Similar values have been observed in numerous other problems.
Powerful anchoring effects are found in decisions that people make about money, such as when they choose how much to contribute to a cause.
It is not surprising that people who are asked difficult questions clutch at straws, and the anchor is a plausible straw.
A key finding of anchoring research is that anchors that are obviously random can be just as effective as potentially informative anchors.
The conclusion is clear: anchors do not have their effects because people believe they are informative.
By now you should be convinced that anchoring effects—sometimes due to priming, sometimes to insufficient adjustment—are everywhere. The psychological mechanisms that produce anchoring make us far more suggestible than most of us would want to be. And of course there are quite a few people who are willing and able to exploit our gullibility.
In general, a strategy of deliberately "thinking the opposite" may be a good defense against anchoring effects, because it negates the biased recruitment of thoughts that produces these effects.
The effects of random anchors have much to tell us about the relationship between System 1 and System 2. Anchoring effects have always been studied in tasks of judgment and choice that are ultimately completed by System 2. However, System 2 works on data that is retrieved from memory, in an automatic and involuntary operation of System 1. System 2 is therefore susceptible to the biasing influence of anchors that make some information easier to retrieve. Furthermore, System 2 has no control over the effect and no knowledge of it. The participants who have been exposed to random or absurd anchors confidently deny that this obviously useless information could have influenced their estimate, and they are wrong.
The main moral of priming research is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Many people find the priming results unbelievable, because they do not correspond to subjective experience. Many others find the results upsetting, because they threaten the subjective sense of agency and autonomy.
Anchoring effects are threatening in a similar way. You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). However, you should assume that any number that is on the table has had an anchoring effect on you, and if the stakes are high you should mobilize yourself (your System 2) to combat the effect.
Chapter 12: The Science of Availability
We defined the availability heuristic as the process of judging frequency by “the ease with which instances come to mind.”
The availability heuristic, like other heuristics of judgment, substitutes one question for another: you wish to estimate the size of a category or the frequency of an event, but you report an impression of the ease with which instances come to mind. Substitution of questions inevitably produces systematic errors.
You can discover how the heuristic leads to biases by following a simple procedure: list factors other than frequency that make it easy to come up with instances. Each factor in your list will be a potential source of bias.
Resisting this large collection of potential availability biases is possible, but tiresome. You must make the effort to reconsider your impressions and intuitions by asking such questions as, "Is our belief that thefts by teenagers are a major problem due to a few recent instances in our neighborhood?" or "Could it be that I feel no need to get a flu shot because none of my acquaintances got the flu last year?" Maintaining one’s vigilance against biases is a chore—but the chance to avoid a costly mistake is sometimes worth the effort.
I am generally not optimistic about the potential for personal control of biases,
The Psychology of Availability
For example, people:
- believe that they use their bicycles less often after recalling many rather than few instances
- are less confident in a choice when they are asked to produce more arguments to support it
- are less confident that an event was avoidable after listing more ways it could have been avoided
- are less impressed by a car after listing many of its advantages
The difficulty of coming up with more examples surprises people, and they subsequently change their judgement.
The conclusion is that the ease with which instances come to mind is a System 1 heuristic, which is replaced by a focus on content when System 2 is more engaged. Multiple lines of evidence converge on the conclusion that people who let themselves be guided by System 1 are more strongly susceptible to availability biases than others who are in a state of higher vigilance.
The following are some conditions in which people "go with the flow" and are affected more strongly by ease of retrieval than by the content they retrieved:
- when they are engaged in another effortful task at the same time
- when they are in a good mood because they just thought of a happy episode in their life
- if they score low on a depression scale
- if they are knowledgeable novices on the topic of the task, in contrast to true experts
- when they score high on a scale of faith in intuition
- if they are (or are made to feel) powerful
Chapter 13: Availability, Emotion, and Risk
The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.
The affect heuristic is an instance of substitution, in which the answer to an easy question (How do I feel about it?) serves as an answer to a much harder question (What do I think about it?).
The emotional tail wags the rational dog. The affect heuristic simplifies our lives by creating a world that is much tidier than reality.
Paul Slovic probably knows more about the peculiarities of human judgment of risk than any other individual. His work offers a picture of Mr. and Ms. Citizen that is far from flattering: guided by emotion rather than by reason, easily swayed by trivial details, and inadequately sensitive to differences between low and negligibly low probabilities.
Experts sometimes measure things more objectively, weighing total number of lives saved, or something similar, while many citizens will judge “good” and “bad” types of deaths.
An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action.
On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs,” individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up.” The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.
A basic limitation in the ability of our mind to deal with small risks: we either ignore them altogether or give them far too much weight—nothing in between.
In today’s world, terrorists are the most significant practitioners of the art of inducing availability cascades.
Psychology should inform the design of risk policies that combine the experts’ knowledge with the public’s emotions and intuitions.
Chapter 14: Tom W’s Specialty
The representativeness heuristic is involved when someone says "She will win the election; you can see she is a winner" or "He won’t go far as an academic; too many tattoos."
One sin of representativeness is an excessive willingness to predict the occurrence of unlikely (low base-rate) events. Here is an example: you see a person reading The New York Times on the New York subway. Which of the following is a better bet about the reading stranger?
- She has a PhD.
- She does not have a college degree.
Representativeness would tell you to bet on the PhD, but this is not necessarily wise. You should seriously consider the second alternative, because many more nongraduates than PhDs ride in New York subways.
The second sin of representativeness is insensitivity to the quality of evidence.
There is one thing you can do when you have doubts about the quality of the evidence: let your judgments of probability stay close to the base rate.
The essential keys to disciplined Bayesian reasoning can be simply summarized:
- Anchor your judgment of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate.
- Question the diagnosticity of your evidence.
Although it is common, prediction by representativeness is not statistically optimal. Michael Lewis’s bestselling Moneyball is a story about the inefficiency of this mode of prediction. Professional baseball scouts traditionally forecast the success of possible players in part by their build and look. The hero of Lewis’s book is Billy Beane, the (general) manager of the Oakland A’s, who made the unpopular decision to overrule his scouts and to select players by the statistics of past performance. The players the A’s picked were inexpensive, because other teams had rejected them for not looking the part. The team soon achieved excellent results at low cost.
Chapter 15: Linda: Less is More
When you specify a possible event in greater detail you can only lower its probability. The problem therefore sets up a conflict between the intuition of representativeness and the logic of probability.
Conjunction fallacy: when people judge a conjunction of two events to be more probable than one of the events in a direct comparison.
Representativeness belongs to a cluster of closely related basic assessments that are likely to be generated together. The most representative outcomes combine with the personality description to produce the most coherent stories. The most coherent stories are not necessarily the most probable, but they are plausible, and the notions of coherence, plausibility, and probability are easily confused by the unwary.
The uncritical substitution of plausibility for probability has pernicious effects on judgments when scenarios are used as tools of forecasting.
System 2 is not impressively alert.
The laziness of System 2 is an important fact of life, and the observation that representativeness can block the application of an obvious logical rule is also of some interest.
Chapter 16: Causes Trump Statistics
In probability and statistics, base rate generally refers to the (base) class probabilities unconditioned on featural evidence, frequently also known as prior probabilities. For example, if it were the case that 1% of the public were "medical professionals", and 99% of the public were not "medical professionals", then the base rate of medical professionals is simply 1%.
Statistical base rates are facts about a population to which a case belongs, but they are not relevant to the individual case. Causal base rates change your view of how the individual case came to be. The two types of base-rate information are treated differently: Statistical base rates are generally underweighted, and sometimes neglected altogether, when specific information about the case at hand is available. Causal base rates are treated as information about the individual case and are easily combined with other case-specific information.
Stereotyping is a bad word in our culture, but in my usage it is neutral. One of the basic characteristics of System 1 is that it represents categories as norms and prototypical exemplars. This is how we think of horses, refrigerators, and New York police officers; we hold in memory a representation of one or more “normal” members of each of these categories. When the categories are social, these representations are called stereotypes. Some stereotypes are perniciously wrong, and hostile stereotyping can have dreadful consequences, but the psychological facts cannot be avoided: stereotypes, both correct and false, are how we think of categories.
Two inferences that people can draw from causal base rates: a stereotypical trait that is attributed to an individual, and a significant feature of the situation that affects an individual’s outcome.
The experiment shows that individuals feel relieved of responsibility when they know that others have heard the same request for help.
Even normal, decent people do not rush to help when they expect others to take on the unpleasantness of dealing with a seizure. And that means you, too.
To apply Bayesian reasoning to the task the students were assigned, you should first ask yourself what you would have guessed about the two individuals if you had not seen their interviews. This question is answered by consulting the base rate. We have been told that only 4 of the 15 participants in the experiment rushed to help after the first request. The probability that an unidentified participant had been immediately helpful is therefore 27%. Thus your prior belief about any unspecified participant should be that he did not rush to help. Next, Bayesian logic requires you to adjust your judgment in light of any relevant information about the individual. However, the videos were carefully designed to be uninformative; they provided no reason to suspect that the individuals would be either more or less helpful than a randomly chosen student. In the absence of useful new information, the Bayesian solution is to stay with the base rates.
Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.
There is a deep gap between our thinking about statistics and our thinking about individual cases. Statistical results with a causal interpretation have a stronger effect on our thinking than noncausal information. But even compelling causal statistics will not change long-held beliefs or beliefs rooted in personal experience. On the other hand, surprising individual cases have a powerful impact and are a more effective tool for teaching psychology because the incongruity must be resolved and embedded in a causal story.
You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behavior than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.
Chapter 17: Regression to the Mean
Whenever the correlation between two scores is imperfect, there will be regression to the mean.
An important principle of skill training: rewards for improved performance work better than punishment of mistakes. This proposition is supported by much evidence from research on pigeons, rats, humans, and other animals.
What he had observed is known as regression to the mean, which in that case was due to random fluctuations in the quality of performance. Naturally, he praised only a cadet whose performance was far better than average. But the cadet was probably just lucky on that particular attempt and therefore likely to deteriorate regardless of whether or not he was praised. Similarly, the instructor would shout into a cadet’s earphones only when the cadet’s performance was unusually bad and therefore likely to improve regardless of what the instructor did. The instructor had attached a causal interpretation to the inevitable fluctuations of a random process.
I had stumbled onto a significant fact of the human condition: the feedback to which life exposes us is perverse. Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty.
Talent and Luck
Kahneman’s favorite equations:
success = talent + luck
great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck
The fact that you observe regression when you predict an early event from a later event should help convince you that regression does not have a causal explanation. Regression effects are ubiquitous, and so are misguided causal stories to explain them. A well-known example is the “Sports Illustrated jinx,” the claim that an athlete whose picture appears on the cover of the magazine is doomed to perform poorly the following season.
Overconfidence and the pressure of meeting high expectations are often offered as explanations. But there is a simpler account of the jinx: an athlete who gets to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated must have performed exceptionally well in the preceding season, probably with the assistance of a nudge from luck—and luck is fickle.
Regression to the mean was discovered and named late in the nineteenth century by Sir Francis Galton, a half cousin of Charles Darwin and a renowned polymath.
Correlation and regression are not two concepts—they are different perspectives on the same concept. The general rule is straightforward but has surprising consequences: whenever the correlation between two scores is imperfect, there will be regression to the mean.
If the correlation between the intelligence of spouses is less than perfect (and if men and women on average do not differ in intelligence), then it is a mathematical inevitability that highly intelligent women will be married to husbands who are on average less intelligent than they are (and vice versa, of course).
Causal explanations will be evoked when regression is detected, but they will be wrong because the truth is that regression to the mean has an explanation but does not have a cause.
Our difficulties with the concept of regression originate with both System 1 and System 2. Without special instruction, and in quite a few cases even after some statistical instruction, the relationship between correlation and regression remains obscure. System 2 finds it difficult to understand and learn. This is due in part to the insistent demand for causal interpretations, which is a feature of System 1.
Chapter 18: Taming Intuitive Predictions
Some predictive judgements, like those made by engineers, rely largely on lookup tables, precise calculations, and explicit analyses of outcomes observed on similar occasions. Others involve intuition and System 1, in two main varieties:
Some intuitions draw primarily on skill and expertise acquired by repeated experience. The rapid and automatic judgements of chess masters, fire chiefs, and doctors illustrate these.
Others, which are sometimes subjectively indistinguishable from the first, arise from the operation of heuristics that often substitute an easy question for the harder one that was asked.
We are capable of rejecting information as irrelevant or false, but adjusting for smaller weaknesses in the evidence is not something that System 1 can do. As a result, intuitive predictions are almost completely insensitive to the actual predictive quality of the evidence.
When a link is found WYSIATI applies: your associative memory quickly and automatically constructs the best possible story from the information available.
All these operations are features of System 1. I listed them here as an orderly sequence of steps, but of course the spread of activation in associative memory does not work this way. You should imagine a process of spreading activation that is initially prompted by the evidence and the question, feeds back upon itself, and eventually settles on the most coherent solution possible.
A Correction for Intuitive Predictions
Intuitive predictions need to be corrected because they are not regressive and therefore are biased. Suppose that I predict for each golfer in a tournament that his score on day 2 will be the same as his score on day 1. This prediction does not allow for regression to the mean: the golfers who fared well on day 1 will on average do less well on day 2, and those who did poorly will mostly improve. When they are eventually compared to actual outcomes, nonregressive predictions will be found to be biased. They are on average overly optimistic for those who did best on the first day and overly pessimistic for those who had a bad start. The predictions are as extreme as the evidence. Similarly, if you use childhood achievements to predict grades in college without regressing your predictions toward the mean, you will more often than not be disappointed by the academic outcomes of early readers and happily surprised by the grades of those who learned to read relatively late. The corrected intuitive predictions eliminate these biases, so that predictions (both high and low) are about equally likely to overestimate and to underestimate the true value. You still make errors when your predictions are unbiased, but the errors are smaller and do not favor either high or low outcomes.
Recall that the correlation between two measures—in the present case reading age and GPA—is equal to the proportion of shared factors among their determinants. What is your best guess about that proportion? My most optimistic guess is about 30%. Assuming this estimate, we have all we need to produce an unbiased prediction. Here are the directions for how to get there in four simple steps:
- Start with an estimate of average GPA.
- Determine the GPA that matches your impression of the evidence.
- Estimate the correlation between your evidence and GPA.
- If the correlation is .30, move 30% of the distance from the average to the matching GPA.
Correcting your intuitive predictions is a task for System 2. Significant effort is required to find the relevant reference category, estimate the baseline prediction, and evaluate the quality of the evidence. The effort is justified only when the stakes are high and when you are particularly keen not to make mistakes. Furthermore, you should know that correcting your intuitions may complicate your life. A characteristic of unbiased predictions is that they permit the prediction of rare or extreme events only when the information is very good. If you expect your predictions to be of modest validity, you will never guess an outcome that is either rare or far from the mean. If your predictions are unbiased, you will never have the satisfying experience of correctly calling an extreme case. You will never be able to say, “I thought so!” when your best student in law school becomes a Supreme Court justice, or when a start-up that you thought very promising eventually becomes a major commercial success. Given the limitations of the evidence, you will never predict that an outstanding high school student will be a straight-A student at Princeton. For the same reason, a venture capitalist will never be told that the probability of success for a start-up in its early stages is “very high.”
A Two-Systems View of Regression
Extreme predictions and a willingness to predict rare events from weak evidence are both manifestations of System 1. It is natural for the associative machinery to match the extremeness of predictions to the perceived extremeness of evidence on which it is based—this is how substitution works. And it is natural for System 1 to generate overconfident judgments, because confidence, as we have seen, is determined by the coherence of the best story you can tell from the evidence at hand. Be warned: your intuitions will deliver predictions that are too extreme and you will be inclined to put far too much faith in them. Regression is also a problem for System 2. The very idea of regression to the mean is alien and difficult to communicate and comprehend. Galton had a hard time before he understood it. Many statistics teachers dread the class in which the topic comes up, and their students often end up with only a vague understanding of this crucial concept. This is a case where System 2 requires special training. Matching predictions to the evidence is not only something we do intuitively; it also seems a reasonable thing to do. We will not learn to understand regression from experience. Even when a regression is identified, as we saw in the story of the flight instructors, it will be given a causal interpretation that is almost always wrong.
Part 3: Overconfidence
The difficulties of statistical thinking contribute to the main theme which describes a puzzling limitation of our mind: our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events. Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight. My views on this topic have been influenced by Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan. I hope for water cooler conversations that intelligently explore the lessons that can be learned from the past while resisting the lure of hindsight and the illusion of certainty.
Chapter 19: The Illusion of Understanding
From Taleb: narrative fallacy: our tendency to reshape the past into coherent stories that shape our views of the world and expectations for the future. Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative.
We tend to overestimate skill, and underestimate luck.
Good stories provide a simple and coherent account of people’s actions and intentions. You are always ready to interpret behavior as a manifestation of general propensities and personality traits—causes that you can readily match to effects. The halo effect discussed earlier contributes to coherence, because it inclines us to match our view of all the qualities of a person to our judgment of one attribute that is particularly significant. If we think a baseball pitcher is handsome and athletic, for example, we are likely to rate him better at throwing the ball, too. Halos can also be negative: if we think a player is ugly, we will probably underrate his athletic ability. The halo effect helps keep explanatory narratives simple and coherent by exaggerating the consistency of evaluations: good people do only good things and bad people are all bad.
Once humans adopt a new view of the world, we have difficulty recalling our old view, and how much we were surprised by past events.
The human mind does not deal well with nonevents. The fact that many of the important events that did occur involve choices further tempts you to exaggerate the role of skill and underestimate the part that luck played in the outcome. Because every critical decision turned out well, the record suggests almost flawless prescience—but bad luck could have disrupted any one of the successful steps. The halo effect adds the final touches, lending an aura of invincibility to the heroes of the story.
At work here is that powerful WYSIATI rule. You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.
The mind that makes up narratives about the past is a sense-making organ. When an unpredicted event occurs, we immediately adjust our view of the world to accommodate the surprise. Imagine yourself before a football game between two teams that have the same record of wins and losses. Now the game is over, and one team trashed the other. In your revised model of the world, the winning team is much stronger than the loser, and your view of the past as well as of the future has been altered by that new perception. Learning from surprises is a reasonable thing to do, but it can have some dangerous consequences. A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.
Hindsight bias has pernicious effects on the evaluations of decision makers. It leads observers to assess the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad. [The argument put forth in Thinking in Bets!]
Outcome bias: our tendency to put too much blame on decision makers for bad outcomes vs. good ones.
Although hindsight and the outcome bias generally foster risk aversion, they also bring undeserved rewards to irresponsible risk seekers, such as a general or an entrepreneur who took a crazy gamble and won. Leaders who have been lucky are never punished for having taken too much risk. Instead, they are believed to have had the flair and foresight to anticipate success, and the sensible people who doubted them are seen in hindsight as mediocre, timid, and weak. A few lucky gambles can crown a reckless leader with a halo of prescience and boldness.
This both influences risk aversion, and disproportionately rewarding risky behavior (the entrepreneur who gambles big and wins).
At best, a good CEO is about 10% better than random guessing.
Because of the halo effect, we get the causal relationship backward: we are prone to believe that the firm fails because its CEO is rigid, when the truth is that the CEO appears to be rigid because the firm is failing. This is how illusions of understanding are born.
Knowing the importance of luck, you should be particularly suspicious when highly consistent patterns emerge from the comparison of successful and less successful firms. In the presence of randomness, regular patterns can only be mirages.
You are probably tempted to think of causal explanations for these observations: perhaps the successful firms became complacent, the less successful firms tried harder. But this is the wrong way to think about what happened. The average gap must shrink, because the original gap was due in good part to luck, which contributed both to the success of the top firms and to the lagging performance of the rest. We have already encountered this statistical fact of life: regression to the mean. Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes and ignores the determinative power of luck and the inevitability of regression. These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too eager to believe them.
Chapter 20: The Illusion of Validity
System 1 is designed to jump to conclusions from little evidence—and it is not designed to know the size of its jumps. Because of WYSIATI, only the evidence at hand counts. Because of confidence by coherence, the subjective confidence we have in our opinions reflects the coherence of the story that System 1 and System 2 have constructed. The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous—and it is also essential.
We often vastly overvalue the evidence at hand; discount the amount of evidence and its quality in favor of the better story, and follow the people we love and trust with no evidence in other cases.
Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct. Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.
The illusion of skill is maintained by powerful professional cultures.
Experts/pundits are rarely better (and often worse) than random chance, yet often believe at a much higher confidence level in their predictions.
The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions—and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem—are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide base-rate information that people generally ignore when it clashes with their personal impressions from experience.
The main point of this chapter is not that people who attempt to predict the future make many errors; that goes without saying. The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).
Chapter 21: Intuitions vs. Formulas
A number of studies have concluded that algorithms are better than expert judgement, or at least as good.
The research suggests a surprising conclusion: to maximize predictive accuracy, final decisions should be left to formulas, especially in low-validity environments.
More recent research went further: formulas that assign equal weights to all the predictors are often superior, because they are not affected by accidents of sampling.
In a memorable example, Dawes showed that marital stability is well predicted by a formula:
- frequency of lovemaking minus frequency of quarrels
The important conclusion from this research is that an algorithm that is constructed on the back of an envelope is often good enough to compete with an optimally weighted formula, and certainly good enough to outdo expert judgment.
Intuition can be useful, but only when applied systematically.
To implement a good interview procedure:
Select some traits required for success (six is a good number). Try to ensure they are independent.
Make a list of questions for each trait, and think about how you will score it from 1-5 (what would warrant a 1, what would make a 5).
Collect information as you go, assessing each trait in turn.
Then add up the scores at the end.
Chapter 22: Expert Intuition: When Can We Trust It?
When can we trust intuition/judgements? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:
- an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable
- an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice
When both these conditions are satisfied, intuitions are likely to be skilled.
Whether professionals have a chance to develop intuitive expertise depends essentially on the quality and speed of feedback, as well as on sufficient opportunity to practice.
Among medical specialties, anesthesiologists benefit from good feedback, because the effects of their actions are likely to be quickly evident. In contrast, radiologists obtain little information about the accuracy of the diagnoses they make and about the pathologies they fail to detect. Anesthesiologists are therefore in a better position to develop useful intuitive skills.
I traced people’s confidence in a belief to two related impressions: cognitive ease and coherence. We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true. The associative machine is set to suppress doubt and to evoke ideas and information that are compatible with the currently dominant story. A mind that follows WYSIATI will achieve high confidence much too easily by ignoring what it does not know. It is therefore not surprising that many of us are prone to have high confidence in unfounded intuitions. Klein and I eventually agreed on an important principle: the confidence that people have in their intuitions is not a reliable guide to their validity. In other words, do not trust anyone—including yourself—to tell you how much you should trust their judgment.
It is wrong to blame anyone for failing to forecast accurately in an unpredictable world. [Although the shorter the term of the forecast, the more reliable it may be.]
However, it seems fair to blame professionals for believing they can succeed in an impossible task. Claims for correct intuitions in an unpredictable situation are self-delusional at best, sometimes worse. In the absence of valid cues, intuitive “hits” are due either to luck or to lies. If you find this conclusion surprising, you still have a lingering belief that intuition is magic. Remember this rule: intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment.
When evaluating expert intuition you should always consider whether there was an adequate opportunity to learn the cues, even in a regular environment. In a less regular, or low-validity, environment, the heuristics of judgment are invoked. System 1 is often able to produce quick answers to difficult questions by substitution, creating coherence where there is none. The question that is answered is not the one that was intended, but the answer is produced quickly and may be sufficiently plausible to pass the lax and lenient review of System 2. You may want to forecast the commercial future of a company, for example, and believe that this is what you are judging, while in fact your evaluation is dominated by your impressions of the energy and competence of its current executives. Because substitution occurs automatically, you often do not know the origin of a judgment that you (your System 2) endorse and adopt. If it is the only one that comes to mind, it may be subjectively undistinguishable from valid judgments that you make with expert confidence. This is why subjective confidence is not a good diagnostic of accuracy: judgments that answer the wrong question can also be made with high confidence.
Chapter 23: The Outside View
Base rates normally are noted and promptly set aside.
The inside view: when we focus on our specific circumstances and search for evidence in our own experiences.
Also: when you fail to account for unknown unknowns.
The outside view: when you take into account a proper reference class/base rate.
Planning fallacy: plans and forecasts that are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios
- could be improved by consulting the statistics of similar cases
Reference class forecasting: the treatment for the planning fallacy
The outside view is implemented by using a large database, which provides information on both plans and outcomes for hundreds of projects all over the world, and can be used to provide statistical information about the likely overruns of cost and time, and about the likely underperformance of projects of different types.
The forecasting method that Flyvbjerg applies is similar to the practices recommended for overcoming base-rate neglect:
- Identify an appropriate reference class (kitchen renovations, large railway projects, etc.).
- Obtain the statistics of the reference class (in terms of cost per mile of railway, or of the percentage by which expenditures exceeded budget). Use the statistics to generate a baseline prediction.
- Use specific information about the case to adjust the baseline prediction, if there are particular reasons to expect the optimistic bias to be more or less pronounced in this project than in others of the same type.
Organizations face the challenge of controlling the tendency of executives competing for resources to present overly optimistic plans. A well-run organization will reward planners for precise execution and penalize them for failing to anticipate difficulties, and for failing to allow for difficulties that they could not have anticipated—the unknown unknowns.
When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or to deliver the expected returns—or even to be completed.
Chapter 24: The Engine of Capitalism
Optimism bias: always viewing positive outcomes or angles of events
Danger: losing track of reality and underestimating the role of luck, as well as the risk involved.
If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person—you already feel fortunate. An optimistic attitude is largely inherited, and it is part of a general disposition for well-being, which may also include a preference for seeing the bright side of everything. If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism. Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore popular; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chances of clinical depression are reduced, their immune system is stronger, they take better care of their health, they feel healthier than others and are in fact likely to live longer.
Optimistic individuals play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the political and military leaders—not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks. They are talented and they have been lucky, almost certainly luckier than they acknowledge. They are probably optimistic by temperament; a survey of founders of small businesses concluded that entrepreneurs are more sanguine than midlevel managers about life in general. Their experiences of success have confirmed their faith in their judgment and in their ability to control events. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: the people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.
To try and mitigate the optimism bias, you should be aware of likely biases and planning fallacies that can affect those who are predisposed to optimism
Perform a premortem:
The procedure is simple: when the organization has almost come to an important decision but has not formally committed itself, Klein proposes gathering for a brief session a group of individuals who are knowledgeable about the decision. The premise of the session is a short speech: "Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster."
The damage caused by overconfident CEOs is compounded when the business press anoints them as celebrities; the evidence indicates that prestigious press awards to the CEO are costly to stockholders.
The upshot is that people tend to be overly optimistic about their relative standing on any activity in which they do moderately well.
Overconfidence is another manifestation of WYSIATI: when we estimate a quantity, we rely on information that comes to mind and construct a coherent story in which the estimate makes sense. Allowing for the information that does not come to mind—perhaps because one never knew it—is impossible.
Inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment inevitably leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid.
The main benefit of optimism is resilience in the face of setbacks. According to Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, an “optimistic explanation style” contributes to resilience by defending one’s self-image. In essence, the optimistic style involves taking credit for successes but little blame for failures. This style can be taught, at least to some extent, and Seligman has documented the effects of training on various occupations that are characterized by a high rate of failures, such as cold-call sales of insurance (a common pursuit in pre-Internet days). When one has just had a door slammed in one’s face by an angry homemaker, the thought that “she was an awful woman” is clearly superior to “I am an inept salesperson.” I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.
Part 4: Choices
The focus of these chapters is a conversation with the discipline of economics on the nature of decision making and on the assumption that economic agents are rational. This section provides a current view, informed by the two-system model, of the key concepts of prospect theory, the model of choice that Amos and I published in 1979. Subsequent chapters address several ways human choices deviate from the rules of rationality. I deal with the unfortunate tendency to treat problems in isolation, and with framing effects, where decisions are shaped by inconsequential features of choice problems. These observations, which are readily explained by the features of System 1, present a deep challenge to the rationality assumption favored in standard economics.
Chapter 25: Bernoulli’s Error
The subject matter would be people’s attitudes to risky options and that we would seek to answer a specific question: What rules govern people’s choices between different simple gambles and between gambles and sure things?
Gambles represent the fact that the consequences of choices are never certain.
The psychological value of a gamble is therefore not the weighted average of its possible dollar outcomes; it is the average of the utilities of these outcomes, each weighted by its probability.
Bernoulli’s insight was that a decision maker with diminishing marginal utility for wealth will be risk averse.
His utility function explained why poor people buy insurance and why richer people sell it to them.
Bernoulli’s theory assumes that the utility of their wealth is what makes people more or less happy. Jack and Jill have the same wealth, and the theory therefore asserts that they should be equally happy, but you do not need a degree in psychology to know that today Jack is elated and Jill despondent. Indeed, we know that Jack would be a great deal happier than Jill even if he had only 2 million today while she has 5. So Bernoulli’s theory must be wrong. The happiness that Jack and Jill experience is determined by the recent change in their wealth, relative to the different states of wealth that define their reference points (1 million for Jack, 9 million for Jill). This reference dependence is ubiquitous in sensation and perception.
The theory fails because it does not allow for the different reference points
Theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws.
Chapter 26: Prospect Theory
Our decision to view outcomes as gains and losses led us to focus precisely on this discrepancy. The observation of contrasting attitudes to risk with favorable and unfavorable prospects soon yielded a significant advance: we found a way to demonstrate the central error in Bernoulli’s model of choice.
The reason you like the idea of gaining $100 and dislike the idea of losing $100 is not that these amounts change your wealth. You just like winning and dislike losing—and you almost certainly dislike losing more than you like winning.
The missing variable is the reference point, the earlier state relative to which gains and losses are evaluated.
· It’s clear now that there are three cognitive features at the heart of prospect theory. They play an essential role in the evaluation of financial outcomes and are common to many automatic processes of perception, judgment, and emotion. They should be seen as operating characteristics of System 1.
- Evaluation is relative to a neutral reference point, which is sometimes referred to as an "adaptation level." For financial outcomes, the usual reference point is the status quo, but it can also be the outcome that you expect, or perhaps the outcome to which you feel entitled, for example, the raise or bonus that your colleagues receive. Outcomes that are better than the reference points are gains. Below the reference point they are losses.
- A principle of diminishing sensitivity applies to both sensory dimensions and the evaluation of changes of wealth.
- The third principle is loss aversion. When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.
The “loss aversion ratio” has been estimated in several experiments and is usually in the range of 1.5 to 2.5. This is an average, of course; some people are much more loss averse than others. Professional risk takers in the financial markets are more tolerant of losses, probably because they do not respond emotionally to every fluctuation. When participants in an experiment were instructed to “think like a trader,” they became less loss averse and their emotional reaction to losses (measured by a physiological index of emotional arousal) was sharply reduced.
In mixed gambles, where both a gain and a loss are possible, loss aversion causes extremely risk-averse choices. In bad choices, where a sure loss is compared to a larger loss that is merely probable, diminishing sensitivity causes risk seeking.
The Humans described by prospect theory are guided by the immediate emotional impact of gains and losses, not by long-term prospects of wealth and global utility.
Chapter 27: The Endowment Effect
Endowment effect: for certain goods, the status quo is preferred, particularly for goods that are not regularly traded or for goods intended “for use” - to be consumed or otherwise enjoyed.
Note: not present when owners view their goods as carriers of value for future exchanges.
Evidence from brain imaging confirms the difference. Selling goods that one would normally use activates regions of the brain that are associated with disgust and pain. Buying also activates these areas, but only when the prices are perceived as too high—when you feel that a seller is taking money that exceeds the exchange value. Brain recordings also indicate that buying at especially low prices is a pleasurable event.
The fundamental ideas of prospect theory are that reference points exist, and that losses loom larger than corresponding gains.
Chapter 28: Bad Events
The concept of loss aversion is certainly the most significant contribution of psychology to behavioral economics. This is odd, because the idea that people evaluate many outcomes as gains and losses, and that losses loom larger than gains, surprises no one.
The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce. The automatic operations of System 1 reflect this evolutionary history.
The brain responds quicker to bad words (war, crime) than happy words (peace, love).
“Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”
If you are set to look for it, the asymmetric intensity of the motives to avoid losses and to achieve gains shows up almost everywhere. It is an ever-present feature of negotiations, especially of renegotiations of an existing contract, the typical situation in labor negotiations and in international discussions of trade or arms limitations. The existing terms define reference points, and a proposed change in any aspect of the agreement is inevitably viewed as a concession that one side makes to the other. Loss aversion creates an asymmetry that makes agreements difficult to reach. The concessions you make to me are my gains, but they are your losses; they cause you much more pain than they give me pleasure.
Gottman estimated that a stable relationship requires that good interactions outnumber bad interactions by at least 5 to 1.
Goals are Reference Points: Loss aversion refers to the relative strength of two motives: we are driven more strongly to avoid losses than to achieve gains. A reference point is sometimes the status quo, but it can also be a goal in the future: not achieving a goal is a loss, exceeding the goal is a gain. As we might expect from negativity dominance, the two motives are not equally powerful. The aversion to the failure of not reaching the goal is much stronger than the desire to exceed it.
The concessions you make to me are my gains, but they are your losses; they cause you much more pain than they give me pleasure.
The basic principle is that the existing wage, price, or rent sets a reference point, which has the nature of an entitlement that must not be infringed. It is considered unfair for the firm to impose losses on its customers or workers relative to the reference transaction, unless it must do so to protect its own entitlement.
Speaking of Losses
- “This reform will not pass. Those who stand to lose will fight harder than those who stand to gain.”
- “Each of them thinks the other’s concessions are less painful. They are both wrong, of course. It’s just the asymmetry of losses.”
- “They would find it easier to renegotiate the agreement if they realized the pie was actually expanding. They’re not allocating losses; they are allocating gains.”
Chapter 29: The Fourfold Pattern
Whenever you form a global evaluation of a complex object - a car you may buy, your son-in-law, or an uncertain situation - you assign weights to its characteristics. This is simply a cumbersome way of saying that some characteristics influence your assessment more than others do.
Your assessment of an uncertain prospect assigns weights to the possible outcomes.
The assignment of weights is sometimes conscious and deliberate. Most often, however, you are just an observer to a global evaluation that your System 1 delivers.
The conclusion is straightforward: the decision weights that people assign to outcomes are not identical to the probabilities of these outcomes, contrary to the expectation principle. Improbable outcomes are overweighted—this is the possibility effect. Outcomes that are almost certain are underweighted relative to actual certainty.
The large impact of 0 to 5% illustrates the possibility effect, which causes highly unlikely outcomes to be weighted disproportionately more than they “deserve.” People who buy lottery tickets in vast amounts show themselves willing to pay much more than expected value for very small chances to win a large prize. The improvement from 95% to 100% is another qualitative change that has a large impact, the certainty effect. Outcomes that are almost certain are given less weight than their probability justifies.
When we looked at our choices for bad options, we quickly realized that we were just as risk seeking in the domain of losses as we were risk averse in the domain of gains.
Certainty effect: at high probabilities, we seek to avoid loss and therefore accept worse outcomes in exchange for certainty, and take high risk in exchange for possibility.
Possibility effect: at low probabilities, we seek a large gain despite risk, and avoid risk despite a poor outcome.
We identified two reasons for this effect.
- First, there is diminishing sensitivity. The sure loss is very aversive because the reaction to a loss of $900 is more than 90% as intense as the reaction to a loss of $1,000.
- The second factor may be even more powerful: the decision weight that corresponds to a probability of 90% is only about 71, much lower than the probability. Many unfortunate human situations unfold in the top right cell. This is where people who face very bad options take desperate gambles, accepting a high probability of making things worse in exchange for a small hope of avoiding a large loss. Risk taking of this kind often turns manageable failures into disasters.
Possibility and certainty have similarly powerful effects in the domain of losses. When a loved one is wheeled into surgery, a 5% risk that an amputation will be necessary is very bad—much more than half as bad as a 10% risk. Because of the possibility effect, we tend to overweight small risks and are willing to pay far more than expected value to eliminate them altogether. The psychological difference between a 95% risk of disaster and the certainty of disaster appears to be even greater; the sliver of hope that everything could still be okay looms very large. Overweighting of small probabilities increases the attractiveness of both gambles and insurance policies. The conclusion is straightforward: the decision weights that people assign to outcomes are not identical to the probabilities of these outcomes, contrary to the expectation principle. Improbable outcomes are overweighted—this is the possibility effect. Outcomes that are almost certain are underweighted relative to actual certainty. The expectation principle, by which values are weighted by their probability, is poor psychology. The plot thickens, however, because there is a powerful argument that a decision maker who wishes to be rational must conform to the expectation principle. This was the main point of the axiomatic version of utility theory that von Neumann and Morgenstern introduced in 1944. They proved that any weighting of uncertain outcomes that is not strictly proportional to probability leads to inconsistencies and other disasters.
The combination of the certainty effect and possibility effects at the two ends of the probability scale is inevitably accompanied by inadequate sensitivity to intermediate probabilities. You can see that the range of probabilities between 5% and 95% is associated with a much smaller range of decision weights (from 13.2 to 79.3), about two-thirds as much as rationally expected. Neuroscientists have confirmed these observations, finding regions of the brain that respond to changes in the probability of winning a prize. The brain’s response to variations of probabilities is strikingly similar to the decision weights estimated from choices.
The fourfold pattern of preferences is considered one of the core achievements of prospect theory. Three of the four cells are familiar; the fourth (top right) was new and unexpected.
The top left is the one that Bernoulli discussed: people are averse to risk when they consider prospects with a substantial chance to achieve a large gain. They are willing to accept less than the expected value of a gamble to lock in a sure gain. The possibility effect in the bottom left cell explains why lotteries are popular. When the top prize is very large, ticket buyers appear indifferent to the fact that their chance of winning is minuscule. A lottery ticket is the ultimate example of the possibility effect. Without a ticket you cannot win, with a ticket you have a chance, and whether the chance is tiny or merely small matters little. Of course, what people acquire with a ticket is more than a chance to win; it is the right to dream pleasantly of winning. The bottom right cell is where insurance is bought. People are willing to pay much more for insurance than expected value—which is how insurance companies cover their costs and make their profits. Here again, people buy more than protection against an unlikely disaster; they eliminate a worry and purchase peace of mind.
When you take the long view of many similar decisions, you can see that paying a premium to avoid a small risk of a large loss is costly. A similar analysis applies to each of the cells of the fourfold pattern: systematic deviations from expected value are costly in the long run—and this rule applies to both risk aversion and risk seeking. Consistent overweighting of improbable outcomes—a feature of intuitive decision making—eventually leads to inferior outcomes.
Speaking of the Fourfold Pattern
“He is tempted to settle this frivolous claim to avoid a freak loss, however unlikely. That’s overweighting of small probabilities. Since he is likely to face many similar problems, he would be better off not yielding.”
“We never let our vacations hang on a last-minute deal. We’re willing to pay a lot for certainty.”
“They will not cut their losses so long as there is a chance of breaking even. This is risk-seeking in the losses.”
“They know the risk of a gas explosion is minuscule, but they want it mitigated. It’s a possibility effect, and they want peace of mind.”
Chapter 30: Rare Events
How terrorism works and why it is so effective: it induces an availability cascade. An extremely vivid image of death and damage, constantly reinforced by media attention and frequent conversations, becomes highly accessible, especially if it is associated with a specific situation such as the sight of a bus. The emotional arousal is associative, automatic, and uncontrolled, and it produces an impulse for protective action. System 2 may “know” that the probability is low, but this knowledge does not eliminate the self-generated discomfort and the wish to avoid it. System 1 cannot be turned off. The emotion is not only disproportionate to the probability, it is also insensitive to the exact level of probability.
The probability of a rare event is most likely to be overestimated when the alternative is not fully specified.
Overweighting of unlikely outcomes is rooted in System 1 features that are familiar by now.
Emotion and vividness influence fluency, availability, and judgments of probability—and thus account for our excessive response to the few rare events that we do not ignore.
How do people make the judgments and how do they assign decision weights? We start from two simple answers, then qualify them. Here are the oversimplified answers: People overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events. People overweight unlikely events in their decisions. Although overestimation and overweighting are distinct phenomena, the same psychological mechanisms are involved in both: focused attention, confirmation bias, and cognitive ease.
Adding vivid details, salience and attention to a rare event will increase the weighting of an unlikely outcome.
When this doesn’t occur, we tend to neglect the rare event.
Our mind has a useful capability to focus spontaneously on whatever is odd, different, or unusual.
The successful execution of a plan is specific and easy to imagine when one tries to forecast the outcome of a project. In contrast, the alternative of failure is diffuse, because there are innumerable ways for things to go wrong. Entrepreneurs and the investors who evaluate their prospects are prone both to overestimate their chances and to overweight their estimates.
The idea of denominator neglect helps explain why different ways of communicating risks vary so much in their effects. You read that “a vaccine that protects children from a fatal disease carries a 0.001% risk of permanent disability.” The risk appears small. Now consider another description of the same risk: “One of 100,000 vaccinated children will be permanently disabled.” The second statement does something to your mind that the first does not: it calls up the image of an individual child who is permanently disabled by a vaccine; the 99,999 safely vaccinated children have faded into the background. As predicted by denominator neglect, low-probability events are much more heavily weighted when described in terms of relative frequencies (how many) than when stated in more abstract terms of “chances,” “risk,” or “probability” (how likely). As we have seen, System 1 is much better at dealing with individuals than categories.
A good attorney who wishes to cast doubt on DNA evidence will not tell the jury that “the chance of a false match is 0.1%.” The statement that “a false match occurs in 1 of 1,000 capital cases” is far more likely to pass the threshold of reasonable doubt. The jurors hearing those words are invited to generate the image of the man who sits before them in the courtroom being wrongly convicted because of flawed DNA evidence. The prosecutor, of course, will favor the more abstract frame—hoping to fill the jurors’ minds with decimal points.
There is general agreement on one major cause of underweighting of rare events, both in experiments and in the real world: many participants never experience the rare event!
A rare event will be overweighted if it specifically attracts attention. Separate attention is effectively guaranteed when prospects are described explicitly (“99% chance to win $1,000, and 1% chance to win nothing”). Obsessive concerns (the bus in Jerusalem), vivid images (the roses), concrete representations (1 of 1,000), and explicit reminders (as in choice from description) all contribute to overweighting. And when there is no overweighting, there will be neglect. When it comes to rare probabilities, our mind is not designed to get things quite right. For the residents of a planet that may be exposed to events no one has yet experienced, this is not good news.
Chapter 31: Risk Policies
There were two ways of construing decisions:
- narrow framing: a sequence of two simple decisions, considered separately
- broad framing: a single comprehensive decision, with four options
Broad framing was obviously superior in this case. Indeed, it will be superior (or at least not inferior) in every case in which several decisions are to be contemplated together.
Decision makers who are prone to narrow framing construct a preference every time they face a risky choice. They would do better by having a risk policy that they routinely apply whenever a relevant problem arises. Familiar examples of risk policies are "always take the highest possible deductible when purchasing insurance" and "never buy extended warranties." A risk policy is a broad frame.
A rational agent will of course engage in broad framing, but Humans are by nature narrow framers.
Narrow framing is when you focus on the details at the expense of the big picture. Narrow framing can hurt your decision-making skills because it keeps you from seeing your choices in context.
Narrow Framing v. Broad Framing
When you evaluate a decision, you’re prone to focus on the individual decision, rather than the big picture of all decisions of that type. This is called narrow framing. A decision that might make sense in isolation can become very costly when repeated many times.
To see how narrow framing works, consider both decision pairs, then decide what you would choose in each:
§ 1) A certain gain of $240.
§ 2) 25% chance of gaining $1000 and 75% chance of nothing.
§ 3) A certain loss of $750.
§ 4) 75% chance of losing $1000 and 25% chance of losing nothing.
As we know already, you likely gravitated to Option 1 and Option 4. If you did, you used narrow framing.
But let’s actually combine those two options, and weigh against the other.
1+4: 75% chance of losing $760 and 25% chance of gaining $240
2+3: 75% chance of losing $750 and 25% chance of gaining $250
Even without calculating these out, 2+3 is clearly superior to 1+4. You have the same chance of losing less money, and the same chance of gaining more money. Yet you didn’t think to combine all unique pairings and combine them with each other!
This is the difference between narrow framing and broad framing. The ideal broad framing is to consider every combination of options to find the optimum. This is obviously more cognitively taxing, so instead you use the narrow heuristic—what is best for each decision at each point?
An analogy here is to focus on the outcome of a single bet (narrow framing), rather than assembling a portfolio of bets (broad framing).
Yet each single decision in isolation can be hampered by probability misestimations and inappropriate risk aversion/seeking. When you repeat this single suboptimal decision over and over, you can rack up large costs over time.
Narrow Framing Examples
§ In a company, individual project leaders can be risk averse when leading their own project, since their compensation is heavily tied to project success. Yet the CEO overlooking all projects may wish that all project leaders take on the maximum appropriate risk, since this maximizes the expected value of the total portfolio.
§ Appliance buyers may buy individual appliance insurance, when the broad framing of all historical appliances may show this is clearly unprofitable for individuals.
§ A risk-averse defendant who gets peppered with frivolous lawsuits may be tempted to settle each one individually, but in the broad framing, this may be costly compared to the baseline rate at which it would win lawsuits (let alone settling lawsuits invites more lawsuits).
§ If given a highly profitable gamble (e.g. 50-50 to lose 1x or gain 1.5x), you may be tempted to reject the gamble once. But you should gladly play 100 times in a row if given the option, for you are almost certain to come out ahead.
§ The opposite scenario may also happen: in a company, leaders of individual projects that are failing may be tempted to run an expensive hail-mary, to seek the small chance of a rescue (because of overweighting probabilities at the edges). In the broad framing, the CEO may prefer to shut down projects and redirect resources to the winning projects.
Chapter 32: Keeping Score
Agency problem: when the incentives of an agent are in conflict with the objectives of a larger group, such as when a manager continues investing in a project because he has backed it, when it’s in the firms best interest to cancel it.
Sunk-cost fallacy: the decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available.
Disposition effect: the preference to end something on a positive, seen in investment when there is a much higher preference to sell winners and “end positive” than sell losers.
An instance of narrow framing.
People expect to have stronger emotional reactions (including regret) to an outcome produced by action than to the same outcome when it is produced by inaction.
To inoculate against regret: be explicit about your anticipation of it, and consider it when making decisions. Also try and preclude hindsight bias (document your decision-making process).
Also know that people generally anticipate more regret than they will actually experience.
Chapter 33: Reversals
You should make sure to keep a broad frame when evaluating something; seeing cases in isolation is more likely to lead to a System 1 reaction.
Chapter 34: Frames and Reality
The framing of something influences the outcome to a great degree.
For example, your moral feelings are attached to frames, to descriptions of reality rather than to reality itself.
Another example: the best single predictor of whether or not people will donate their organs is the designation of the default option that will be adopted without having to check the box.
Part 5: Two Selves
These chapters describe recent research that has introduced a distinction between two selves, the experiencing self and the remembering self, which do not have the same interests. For example, we can expose people to two painful experiences. One of these experiences is strictly worse than the other, because it is longer. But the automatic formation of memories—a feature of System 1—has its rules, which we can exploit so that the worse episode leaves a better memory. When people later choose which episode to repeat, they are, naturally, guided by their remembering self and expose themselves (their experiencing self) to unnecessary pain. The distinction between two selves is applied to the measurement of well-being, where we find again that what makes the experiencing self happy is not quite the same as what satisfies the remembering self. How two selves within a single body can pursue happiness raises some difficult questions, both for individuals and for societies that view the well-being of the population as a policy objective.
Chapter 35: Two Selves
Peak-end rule: The global retrospective rating was well predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end.
We tend to overrate the end of an experience when remembering the whole.
Duration neglect: The duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.
Generally: we tend to ignore the duration of an event when evaluating an experience.
Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion—and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined.
Chapter 37: Experienced Well-Being
One way to improve experience is to shift from passive leisure (TV watching) to active leisure, including socializing and exercising.
The second-best predictor of feelings of a day is whether a person did or did not have contacts with friends or relatives.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.
Can money buy happiness? Being poor makes one miserable, being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being.
Severe poverty amplifies the effect of other misfortunes of life.
The satiation level beyond which experienced well-being no longer increases was a household income of about $75,000 in high-cost areas (it could be less in areas where the cost of living is lower). The average increase of experienced well-being associated with incomes beyond that level was precisely zero.
Chapter 38: Thinking About Life
Experienced well-being is on average unaffected by marriage, not because marriage makes no difference to happiness but because it changes some aspects of life for the better and others for the worse (how one’s time is spent).
One reason for the low correlations between individuals’ circumstances and their satisfaction with life is that both experienced happiness and life satisfaction are largely determined by the genetics of temperament. A disposition for well-being is as heritable as height or intelligence, as demonstrated by studies of twins separated at birth.
The importance that people attached to income at age 18 also anticipated their satisfaction with their income as adults.
The people who wanted money and got it were significantly more satisfied than average; those who wanted money and didn’t get it were significantly more dissatisfied. The same principle applies to other goals—one recipe for a dissatisfied adulthood is setting goals that are especially difficult to attain.
The focusing illusion: Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.
Miswanting: bad choices that arise from errors of affective forecasting; common example is the focusing illusion causing us overweight the effect of purchases on our future well-being.
Rationality is logical coherence—reasonable or not. Econs are rational by this definition, but there is overwhelming evidence that Humans cannot be. An Econ would not be susceptible to priming, WYSIATI, narrow framing, the inside view, or preference reversals, which Humans cannot consistently avoid.
The definition of rationality as coherence is impossibly restrictive; it demands adherence to rules of logic that a finite mind is not able to implement.
The assumption that agents are rational provides the intellectual foundation for the libertarian approach to public policy: do not interfere with the individual’s right to choose, unless the choices harm others.
Thaler and Sunstein advocate a position of libertarian paternalism, in which the state and other institutions are allowed to nudge people to make decisions that serve their own long-term interests. The designation of joining a pension plan as the default option is an example of a nudge.
What can be done about biases? How can we improve judgments and decisions, both our own and those of the institutions that we serve and that serve us? The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely: "This number will be an anchor…," "The decision could change if the problem is reframed…" And I have made much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than my own
The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2.
Organizations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures. Organizations can institute and enforce the application of useful checklists, as well as more elaborate exercises, such as reference-class forecasting and the premortem.
At least in part by providing a distinctive vocabulary, organizations can also encourage a culture in which people watch out for one another as they approach minefields.
The corresponding stages in the production of decisions are the framing of the problem that is to be solved, the collection of relevant information leading to a decision, and reflection and review. An organization that seeks to improve its decision product should routinely look for efficiency improvements at each of these stages.
There is much to be done to improve decision making. One example out of many is the remarkable absence of systematic training for the essential skill of conducting efficient meetings.
Ultimately, a richer language is essential to the skill of constructive criticism.
Decision makers are sometimes better able to imagine the voices of present gossipers and future critics than to hear the hesitant voice of their own doubts. They will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decision to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.