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Thinking about Thinking

the thinker

While Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, gets all the attention, he’s also written a few articles that might catch your interest.

Optimistic Bias:

In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant cognitive bias. Because optimistic bias is both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic.

Competition Neglect

Colin Camerer, who coined the concept of competition neglect, illustrated it with a quote from a chairman of Disney Studios. Asked why so many big-budget movies are released on the same holidays, he said, “Hubris. Hubris. If you only think about your own business, you think, ‘I’ve got a good story department, I’ve got a good marketing department’ … and you don’t think that everybody else is thinking the same way.” The competition isn’t part of the decision. In other words, a difficult question has been replaced by an easier one.

This is a kind of dodge we all make, without even noticing. We use fast, intuitive thinking — System 1 thinking — whenever possible, and switch over to more deliberate and effortful System 2 thinking only when we truly recognize that the problem at hand isn’t an easy one.

The question that studio executives needed to answer is this: Considering what others will do, how many people will see our film? The question they did consider is simpler and refers to knowledge that is most easily available to them: Do we have a good film and a good organization to market it?

Appreciation of uncertainty

As Nassim Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan,” has argued, inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment inevitably leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid. However, optimism is highly valued; people and companies reward the providers of misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality — but it isn’t what organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred approach.

Theory-induced blindness

Bernoulli invented psychophysics to explain this aversion to risk. His idea was straightforward: People’s choices are based not on dollar values but on the psychological values of outcomes, their utilities. 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.

…That Bernoulli’s theory prevailed for so long is even more remarkable when you see that, in fact, it is seriously flawed. The errors are found not in what it asserts explicitly, but what it tacitly assumes.

The mystery is how a conception that is vulnerable to such obvious counterexamples survived for so long. I can explain it only by a weakness of the scholarly mind that I have often observed in myself. I call it theory-induced blindness: Once you have accepted a theory, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert has observed, disbelieving is hard work.

Reference points and loss aversion

The economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer, at the University of Pennsylvania, suggest that golf provides the perfect example of a reference point: par. For a professional golfer, a birdie (one stroke under par) is a gain, and a bogey (one stroke over par) is a loss. Failing to make par is a loss, but missing a birdie putt is a forgone gain, not a loss. Pope and Schweitzer analyzed more than 2.5 million putts to test their prediction that players would try harder when putting for par than when putting for a birdie.

They were right. Whether the putt was easy or hard, at every distance from the hole, players were more successful when putting for par than for a birdie.

…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. Loss aversion creates an asymmetry that makes agreements difficult to reach.

Negotiations over a shrinking pie are especially difficult because they require an allocation of losses. People tend to be much more easygoing when they bargain over an expanding pie.

In the world of territorial animals, the principle of loss aversion explains the success of defenders. A biologist observed that “when a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest — usually within a matter of seconds.”