Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
“Nothing will ever be attempted
if all possible objections must first be overcome.”
— Samuel Johnson
In the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein they coin the terms ‘Choice Architecture’ and ‘Choice Architect’. For them, if you have an ability to influence the choices other people make, you are a choice architect.
Considering the number of interactions we have everyday, it would be quite easy to argue that we are all Choice Architects at some point. But this also makes the inverse true; we are also wandering around someone else’s Choice Architecture.
Let’s take a look at a few of the principles of good choice architecture, so we can get a better idea of when someone is trying to nudge us.
This information can then be used/weighed when making decisions.
Thaler and Sunstein start with a discussion on “defaults” that are commonly offered to us:
For reasons we have discussed, many people will take whatever option requires the least effort, or the path of least resistance. Recall the discussion of inertia, status quo bias, and the ‘yeah, whatever’ heuristic. All these forces imply that if, for a given choice, there is a default option — an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing — then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them. And as we have also stressed, these behavioral tendencies toward doing nothing will be reinforced if the default option comes with some implicit or explicit suggestion that it represents the normal or even the recommended course of action.
When making decisions people will often take the option that requires the least effort or the path of least resistance. This makes sense: It’s not just a matter of laziness, we also only have so many hours in a day. Unless you feel particularly strongly about it, if putting little to no effort towards something leads you forward (or at least doesn’t noticeably kick you backwards) this is what you are likely to do. Loss aversion plays a role as well. If we feel like the consequences of making a poor choice are high, we will simply decide to do nothing.
Inertia is another reason: If the ship is currently sailing forward, it can often take a lot of time and effort just to slightly change course.
You have likely seen many examples of inertia at play in your work environment and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Sometimes we need that ship to just steadily move forward. The important bit is to realize when this is factoring into your decisions, or more specifically, when this knowledge is being used to nudge you into making specific choices.
Let’s think about some of your monthly recurring bills. While you might not be reading that magazine or going to the gym, you’re still paying for the ability to use that good or service. If you weren’t being auto-renewed monthly, what is the chance that you would put the effort into renewing that subscription or membership? Much lower, right? Publishers and gym owners know this, and they know you don’t want to go through the hassle of cancelling either, so they make that difficult, too. (They understand well our tendency to want to travel the path of least resistance and avoid conflict.)
This is also where they will imply that the default option is the recommended course of action. It sounds like this:
“We’re sorry to hear you no longer want the magazine Mr. Smith. You know, more than half of the fortune 500 companies have a monthly subscription to magazine X, but we understand if it’s not something you’d like to do at the moment.”
“Mr. Smith we are sorry to hear that you want to cancel your membership at GymX. We understand if you can’t make your health a priority at this point but we’d love to see you back sometime soon. We see this all the time, these days everyone is so busy. But I’m happy to say we are noticing a shift where people are starting to make time for themselves, especially in your demographic…”
(Just cancel them. You’ll feel better. We promise.)
The Structure of Complex Choices
We live in a world of reviews. Product reviews, corporate reviews, movie reviews… When was the last time you bought a phone or a car before checking the reviews? When was the last time that you hired an employee without checking out their references?
Thaler and Sunstein call this Collaborative Filtering and explain it as follows:
You use the judgements of other people who share your tastes to filter through the vast number of books or movies available in order to increase the likelihood of picking one you like. Collaborative filtering is an effort to solve a problem of choice architecture. If you know what people like you tend to like, you might well be comfortable in selecting products you don’t know, because people like you tend to like them. For many of us, collaborative filtering is making difficult choices easier.
While collaborative filtering does a great job of making difficult choices easier we have to remember that companies also know that you will use this tool and will try to manipulate it. We just have to look at the information critically, compare multiple sources and take some time to review the reviewers.
These techniques can be useful for decisions of a certain scale and complexity: when the alternatives are understood and in small enough numbers. However, once we reach a certain size we require additional tools to make the right decision.
One strategy to use is what Amos Tversky (1972) called ‘elimination by aspects.’ Someone using this strategy first decides what aspect is most important (say, commuting distance), establishes a cutoff level (say, no more than a thirty-minute commute), then eliminates all the alternatives that do not come up to this standard. The process is repeated, attribute by attribute (no more than $1,500 per month; at least two bedrooms; dogs permitted), until either a choice is made or the set is narrowed down enough to switch over to a compensatory evaluation of the ‘finalists.’”
This is a very useful tool if you have a good idea of which attributes are of most value to you.
When using these techniques, we have to be mindful of the fact that the companies trying to sell us goods have spent a lot of time and money figuring out what attributes are important to you as well.
For example, if you were to shop for an SUV you would notice that there are a specific number of variables they all seem to have in common now (engine options, towing options, seating options, storage options). They are trying to nudge you not to eliminate them from your list. This forces you to do the tertiary research or better yet, this forces you to walk into dealerships where they will try to inflate the importance of those attributes (which they do best).
They also try to call things new names as a means to differentiate themselves and get onto your list. What do you mean our competitors don’t have FLEXfuel?
Incentives are so ubiquitous in our lives that it’s very easy to overlook them. Unfortunately, this can influence us to make poor decisions.
Thaler and Sunstein believe this is tied into how salient the incentive is.
The most important modification that must be made to a standard analysis of incentives is salience. Do the choosers actually notice the incentives they face? In free markets, the answer is usually yes, but in important cases the answer is no.
Consider the example of members of an urban family deciding whether to buy a car. Suppose their choices are to take taxis and public transportation or to spend ten thousand dollars to buy a used car, which they can park on the street in front of their home. The only salient costs of owning this car will be the weekly stops at the gas station, occasional repair bills, and a yearly insurance bill. The opportunity cost of the ten thousand dollars is likely to be neglected. (In other words, once they purchase the car, they tend to forget about the ten thousand dollars and stop treating it as money that could have been spent on something else.) In contrast, every time the family uses a taxi the cost will be in their face, with the meter clicking every few blocks. So behavioral analysis of the incentives of car ownership will predict that people will underweight the opportunity costs of car ownership, and possibly other less salient aspects such as depreciation, and may overweight the very salient costs of using a taxi.
The problems here are relatable and easily solved: If the family above had written down all the numbers related to either taxi, public transportation, or car ownership, it would have been a lot more difficult for them to undervalue the salient aspects of any of their choices. (At least if the highest value attribute is cost).
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the daily nudges we face but it’s a good start and some important, translatable, themes emerge.
One of the most impactful books we’ve ever come across is the wonderful Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, written by the Swedish investor Peter Bevelin. In the spirit of multidisciplinary learning, Seeking Wisdom is a compendium of ideas from biology, psychology, statistics, physics, economics, and human behavior.
Mr. Bevelin is out with a new book full of wisdom from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger: All I Want to Know is Where I’m Going to Die So I Never Go There. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to interview Peter recently, and the result is the wonderful discussion below.
The short answer: To improve my thinking. And when I started writing on what later became Seeking Wisdom I can express it even simpler: “I was dumb and wanted to be less dumb.” As Munger says: “It’s ignorance removal…It’s dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be.” And I had done some stupid things and I had seen a lot of stupidity being done by people in life and in business.
A seed was first planted when I read Charlie Munger’s worldly wisdom speech and another one where he referred to Darwin as a great thinker. So I said to myself: I am 42 now. Why not take some time off business and spend a year learning, reflecting and write about the subject Munger introduced to me – human behavior and judgments.
None of my writings started out as a book project. I wrote my first book – Seeking Wisdom – as a memorandum for myself with the expectation that I could transfer some of its essentials to my children. I learn and write because I want to be a little wiser day by day. I don’t want to be a great-problem-solver. I want to avoid problems – prevent them from happening and doing right from the beginning. And I focus on consequential decisions. To paraphrase Buffett and Munger – decision-making is not about making brilliant decisions, but avoiding terrible ones. Mistakes and dumb decisions are a fact of life and I’m going to make more, but as long as I can avoid the big or “fatal” ones I’m fine.
So I started to read and write to learn what works and not and why. And I liked Munger’s “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there” approach. And as he said, “You understand it better if you go at it the way we do, which is to identify the main stupidities that do bright people in and then organize your patterns for thinking and developments, so you don’t stumble into those stupidities.” Then I “only” had to a) understand the central “concept” and its derivatives and describe it in as simple way as possible for me and b) organize what I learnt in a way that was logical and useful for me.
And what better way was there to learn this from those who already knew this?
After I learnt some things about our brain, I understood that thinking doesn’t come naturally to us humans – most is just unconscious automatic reactions. Therefore I needed to set up the environment and design a system that helped me make it easier to know what to do and prevent and avoid harm. Things like simple rules of thumbs, tricks and filters. Of course, I could only do that if I first had the foundation. And as the years have passed, I’ve found that filters are a great way to save time and misery. As Buffett says, “I process information very quickly since I have filters in my mind.” And they have to be simple – as the proverb says, “Beware of the door that has too many keys.” The more complicated a process is, the less effective it is.
Why do I write? Because it helps me understand and learn better. And if I can’t write something down clearly, then I have not really understood it. As Buffett says, “I learn while I think when I write it out. Some of the things, I think I think, I find don’t make any sense when I start trying to write them down and explain them to people … And if it can’t stand applying pencil to paper, you’d better think it through some more.”
My own test is one that a physicist friend of mine told me many years ago, ‘You haven’t really understood an idea if you can’t in a simple way describe it to almost anyone.’ Luckily, I don’t have to understand zillion of things to function well.
And even if some of mine and others thoughts ended up as books, they are all living documents and new starting points for further, learning, un-learning and simplifying/clarifying. To quote Feynman, “A great deal of formulation work is done in writing the paper, organizational work, organization. I think of a better way, a better way, a better way of getting there, of proving it. I never do much — I mean, it’s just cleaner, cleaner and cleaner. It’s like polishing a rough-cut vase. The shape, you know what you want and you know what it is. It’s just polishing it. Get it shined, get it clean, and everything else.”
Seeking Wisdom because I had to do a lot of research – reading, talking to people etc. Especially in the field of biology and brain science since I wanted to first understand what influences our behavior. I also spent some time at a Neurosciences Institute to get a better understanding of how our anatomy, physiology and biochemistry constrained our behavior.
And I had to work it out my own way and write it down in my own words so I really could understand it. It took a lot of time but it was a lot of fun to figure it out and I learnt much more and it stuck better than if I just had tried to memorize what somebody else had already written. I may not have gotten everything letter perfect but good enough to be useful for me.
As I said, the expectation wasn’t to create a book. In fact, that would have removed a lot of my motivation. I did it because I had an interest in becoming better. It goes back to the importance of intrinsic motivation. As I wrote in Seeking Wisdom: “If we reward people for doing what they like to do anyway, we sometimes turn what they enjoy doing into work. The reward changes their perception. Instead of doing something because they enjoy doing it, they now do it because they are being paid. The key is what a reward implies. A reward for our achievements makes us feel that we are good at something thereby increasing our motivation. But a reward that feels controlling and makes us feel that we are only doing it because we’re paid to do it, decreases the appeal.”
It may sound like a cliché but the joy was in the journey – reading, learning and writing – not the destination – the finished book. Has the book made a difference for some people? Yes, I hope so but often people revert to their old behavior. Some of them are the same people who – to paraphrase something that is attributed to Churchill – occasionally should check their intentions and strategies against their results. But reality is what Munger once said, “Everyone’s experience is that you teach only what a reader almost knows, and that seldom.” But I am happy that my books had an impact and made a difference to a few people. That’s enough.
It was more fun to write about what works and not in a dialogue format. But also because vivid and hopefully entertaining “lessons” are easier to remember and recall. And you will find a lot of quotes in there that most people haven’t read before.
I wanted to write a book like this to reinforce a couple of concepts in my head. So even if some of the text sometimes comes out like advice to the reader, I always think about what the mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota once said, “The advice we give others is the advice that we ourselves need.”
Some kind of representation that describes how reality is (as it is known today) – a principle, an idea, basic concepts, something that works or not – that I have in my head that helps me know what to do or not. Something that has stood the test of time.
For example some timeless truths are:
I favor underlying principles and notions that I can apply broadly to different and relevant situations. Since some models don’t resemble reality, the word “model” for me is more of an illustration/story of an underlying concept, trick, method, what works etc. that agrees with reality (as Munger once said, “Models which underlie reality”) and help me remember and more easily make associations.
But I don’t judge or care how others label it or do it – models, concepts, default positions … The important thing is that whatever we use, it reflects and agrees with reality and that it works for us to help us understand or explain a situation or know what to do or not do. Useful and good enough guide me. I am pretty pragmatic – whatever works is fine. I follow Deng Xiaoping, “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” As Feynman said, “What is the best method to obtain the solution to a problem? The answer is, any way that works.”
I’ll tell you about a thing Feynman said on education which I remind myself of from time to time in order not to complicate things (from Richard P. Feynman, Michael A. Gottlieb, Ralph Leighton, Feynman’s Tips on Physics: A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics):
“There’s a round table on three legs. Where should you lean on it, so the table will be the most unstable?”
The student’s solution was, “Probably on top of one of the legs, but let me see: I’ll calculate how much force will produce what lift, and so on, at different places.”
Then I said, “Never mind calculating. Can you imagine a real table?”
“But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!”
“Never mind how you’re supposed to do it; you’ve got a real table here with the various legs, you see? Now, where do you think you’d lean? What would happen if you pushed down directly over a leg?”
I say, “That’s right; and what happens if you push down near the edge, halfway between two of the legs?”
“It flips over!”
I say, “OK! That’s better!”
The point is that the student had not realized that these were not just mathematical problems; they described a real table with legs. Actually, it wasn’t a real table, because it was perfectly circular, the legs were straight up and down, and so on. But it nearly described, roughly speaking, a real table, and from knowing what a real table does, you can get a very good idea of what this table does without having to calculate anything – you know darn well where you have to lean to make the table flip over. So, how to explain that, I don’t know! But once you get the idea that the problems are not mathematical problems but physical problems, it helps a lot.
Anyway, that’s just two ways of solving this problem. There’s no unique way of doing any specific problem. By greater and greater ingenuity, you can find ways that require less and less work, but that takes experience.
Ideas from biology and psychology since many stupidities are caused by not understanding human nature (and you get illustrations of this nearly every day). And most of our tendencies were already known by the classic writers (Publilius Syrus, Seneca, Aesop, Cicero etc.)
Others that I find very useful both in business and private is the ideas of Quantification (without the fancy math), Margin of safety, Backups, Trust, Constraints/Weakest link, Good or Bad Economics slash Competitive advantage, Opportunity cost, Scale effects. I also think Keynes idea of changing your mind when you get new facts or information is very useful.
But since reality isn’t divided into different categories but involves a lot of factors interacting, I need to synthesize many ideas and concepts.
I don’t know about that but what I often see among many smart people agrees with Munger’s comment: “All this stuff is really quite obvious and yet most people don’t really know it in a way where they can use it.”
Anyway, I believe if you really understand an idea and what it means – not only memorizing it – you should be able to work out its different applications and functional equivalents. Take a simple big idea – think on it – and after a while you see its wider applications. To use Feynman’s advice, “It is therefore of first-rate importance that you know how to “triangulate” – that is, to know how to figure something out from what you already know.” As a good friend says, “Learn the basic ideas, and the rest will fill itself in. Either you get it or you don’t.”
Most of us learn and memorize a specific concept or method etc. and learn about its application in one situation. But when the circumstances change we don’t know what to do and we don’t see that the concept may have a wider application and can be used in many situations.
Take for example one big and useful idea – Scale effects. That the scale of size, time and outcomes changes things – characteristics, proportions, effects, behavior…and what is good or not must be tied to scale. This is a very fundamental idea from math. Munger described some of this idea’s usefulness in his worldly wisdom speech. One effect from this idea I often see people miss and I believe is important is group size and behavior. That trust, feeling of affection and altruistic actions breaks down as group size increases, which of course is important to know in business settings. I wrote about this in Seeking Wisdom (you can read more if you type in Dunbar Number on Google search). I know of some businesses that understand the importance of this and split up companies into smaller ones when they get too big (one example is Semco).
Another general idea is “Gresham’s Law” that can be generalized to any process or system where the bad drives out the good. Like natural selection or “We get what we select for” (and as Garrett Hardin writes, “The more general principle is: We get whatever we reward for).
While we are on the subject of mental models etc., let me bring up another thing that distinguishes the great thinkers from us ordinary mortals. Their ability to quickly assess and see the essence of a situation – the critical things that really matter and what can be ignored. They have a clear notion of what they want to achieve or avoid and then they have this ability to zoom in on the key factor(s) involved.
One reason to why they can do that is because they have a large repertoire of stored personal and vicarious experiences and concepts in their heads. They are masters at pattern recognition and connection. Some call it intuition but as Herbert Simon once said, “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”
It is about making associations. For example, roughly like this:
Situation X Association (what does this remind me of?) to experience, concept, metaphor, analogy, trick, filter… (Assuming of course we are able to see the essence of the situation) What counts and what doesn’t? What works/not? What to do or what to explain?
Let’s take employing someone as an example (or looking at a business proposal). This reminds me of one key factor – trustworthiness and Buffett’s story, “If you’re looking for a manager, find someone who is intelligent, energetic and has integrity. If he doesn’t have the last, make sure he lacks the first two.”
I believe Buffett and Munger excel at this – they have seen and experienced so much about what works and not in business and behavior.
Buffett referred to the issue of trust, chain letters and pattern recognition at the latest annual meeting:
You can get into a lot of trouble with management that lacks integrity… If you’ve got an intelligent, energetic guy or woman who is pursuing a course of action, which gets put on the front page it could make you very unhappy. You can get into a lot of trouble. ..We’ve seen patterns…Pattern recognition is very important in evaluating humans and businesses. Pattern recognition isn’t one hundred percent and none of the patterns exactly repeat themselves, but there are certain things in business and securities markets that we’ve seen over and over and frequently come to a bad end but frequently look extremely good in the short run. One which I talked about last year was the chain letter scheme. You’re going to see chain letters for the rest of your life. Nobody calls them chain letters because that’s a connotation that will scare you off but they’re disguised as chain letters and many of the schemes on Wall Street, which are designed to fool people, have that particular aspect to it…There were patterns at Valeant certainly…if you go and watch the Senate hearings, you will see there are patterns that should have been picked up on.
This is what he wrote on chain letters in the 2014 annual report:
In the late 1960s, I attended a meeting at which an acquisitive CEO bragged of his “bold, imaginative accounting.” Most of the analysts listening responded with approving nods, seeing themselves as having found a manager whose forecasts were certain to be met, whatever the business results might be. Eventually, however, the clock struck twelve, and everything turned to pumpkins and mice. Once again, it became evident that business models based on the serial issuances of overpriced shares – just like chain-letter models – most assuredly redistribute wealth, but in no way create it. Both phenomena, nevertheless, periodically blossom in our country – they are every promoter’s dream – though often they appear in a carefully-crafted disguise. The ending is always the same: Money flows from the gullible to the fraudster. And with stocks, unlike chain letters, the sums hijacked can be staggering.
And of course, the more prepared we are or the more relevant concepts and “experiences” we have in our heads, the better we all will be at this. How do we get there? Reading, learning and practice so we know it “fluently.” There are no shortcuts. We have to work at it and apply it to the real world.
As a reminder to myself so I understand my limitation and “circle”, I keep a paragraph from Munger’s USC Gould School of Law Commencement Address handy so when I deal with certain issues, I don’t fool myself into believing I am Max Planck when I’m really the Chauffeur:
In this world I think we have two kinds of knowledge: One is Planck knowledge, that of the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. Then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned to prattle the talk. They may have a big head of hair. They often have fine timbre in their voices. They make a big impression. But in the end what they’ve got is chauffeur knowledge masquerading as real knowledge.
One trick or notion I see many of us struggling with because it goes against our intuition is the concept of inversion – to learn to think “in negatives” which goes against our normal tendency to concentrate on for example, what we want to achieve or confirmations instead of what we want to avoid and disconfirmations. Another example of this is the importance of missing confirming evidence (I call it the “Sherlock trick”) – that negative evidence and events that don’t happen, matter when something implies they should be present or happen.
Another example that is counterintuitive is Newton’s 3d law that forces work in pairs. One object exerts a force on a second object, but the second object also exerts a force equal and opposite in direction to the force acting on it – the first object. As Newton wrote, “If you press a stone with your finger, the finger is also pressed by the stone.” Same as revenge (reciprocation).
One that immediately comes to mind is one I have mentioned in the introduction in two of my books is someone I am fortunate to have as a friend – Peter Kaufman. An outstanding thinker and a great businessman and human being. On a scale of 1 to 10, he is a 15.
Their ethics and their ethos of clarity, simplicity and common sense. These two gentlemen are outstanding in their instant ability to exclude bad ideas, what doesn’t work, bad people, scenarios that don’t matter, etc. so they can focus on what matters. Also my amazement that their ethics and ideas haven’t been more replicated. But I assume the answer lies in what Munger once said, “The reason our ideas haven’t spread faster is they’re too simple.”
This reminds me something my father-in-law once told me (a man I learnt a lot from) – the curse of knowledge and the curse of academic title. My now deceased father-in-law was an inventor and manager. He did not have any formal education but was largely self-taught. Once a big corporation asked for his services to solve a problem their 60 highly educated engineers could not solve. He solved the problem. The engineers said, “It can’t be that simple.” It was like they were saying that, “Here we have 6 years of school, an academic title, lots of follow up education. Therefore an engineering problem must be complicated”. Like Buffett once said of Ben Graham’s ideas, “I think that it comes down to those ideas – although they sound so simple and commonplace that it kind of seems like a waste to go to school and get a PhD in Economics and have it all come back to that. It’s a little like spending eight years in divinity school and having somebody tell you that the 10 commandments were all that counted. There is a certain natural tendency to overlook anything that simple and important.”
(I must admit that in the past I had a tendency to be extra drawn to elegant concepts and distracting me from the simple truths.)
The best thing I have done is marrying my wife. As Buffett says and it is so so true, “Choosing a spouse is the most important decision in your life…You need everything to be stable, and if that decision isn’t good, it may affect every other decision in life, including your business decisions…If you are lucky on health and…on your spouse, you are a long way home.”
A good “investment” is taking the time to continuously improve. It just takes curiosity and a desire to know and understand – real interest. And for me this is fun.
Every day is a little different but I read every day.
There is not one single book or one single idea that has done it. I have picked up things from different books (still do). And there are different books and articles that made a difference during different periods of my life. Meeting and learning from certain people and my own practical experiences has been more important in my development. As an example – When I was in my 30s a good friend told me something that has been very useful in looking at products and businesses. He said I should always ask who the real customer is: “Who ultimately decides what to buy and what are their decision criteria and how are they measured and rewarded and who pays?”
But looking back, if I have had a book like Poor Charlie’s Almanack when I was younger I would have saved myself some misery. And of course, when it comes to business, managing and investing, nothing beats learning from Warren Buffett’s Letters to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders.
Another thing I have found is that it is way better to read and reread fewer books but good and timeless ones and then think. Unfortunately many people absorb too many new books and information without thinking.
Let me finish this with some quotes from my new book that I believe we all can learn from:
Finally, I wish you and your readers an excellent day – Everyday!
The fact is, if you don’t find it reasonable that prices should reflect relative scarcity,
then fundamentally you don’t accept the market economy,
because this is about as close to the essence of the market as you can find.
— Joseph Heath
Inevitably, when the price of a good or service rises rapidly, there follows an accusation of price-gouging. The term carries a strong moral admonition on the price-gouger, in favor of the price-gougee. Gas shortages are a classic example. With a local shortage of gasoline, gas stations will tend to mark up the price of gasoline to reflect the supply issue. This is usually rewarded with cries of unfairness. But does that really make sense?
In his excellent book Economics Without Illusions, Joseph Heath argues that it doesn’t.
In fact, this very scenario is market pricing reacting just as it should. With gasoline in short supply, the market price rises too so that those who need gasoline have it available, and those who simply want it do not. The price system ensures that everyone makes their choice correctly. If you’re willing to pay up, you pay up. If you’re not, you make alternative arrangements – drive less, use less heat, etc. This is exactly what market pricing is for – to give us a reference as we make our choices. But it’s still hard for many well-intentioned people to understand. Let’s think it through a little, with Heath’s help.
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One of the best parts of Garrett Hardin‘s wonderful Filters Against Folly is when he explores the three filters that help us interpret reality. No matter how much we’d like it to, the world does not only operate in our circle of competence. Thus we must learn ways to distinguish reality in areas where we lack even so much as a map.
Hardin’s genius reminds us of this quote by Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit.
We need not be a genius in every area but we should understand the big ideas of most disciplines and try to avoid fooling ourselves. That’s the core to the mental models approach. When you’re not an expert in a field, often the best approach is one that avoids stupidity. There are few better ways of avoiding stupidity than understanding how the world works.
Hardin begins by outlining his goal: to understand reality and understand human nature as it really is, removing premature judgment from the analysis.
He appropriately quotes Spinoza, who laid out his principles for political science thusly:
That I might investigate the subject matter of this science with the same freedom of spirit we generally use in mathematics, I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them; and to this end I have looked upon passions such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere.
The goal of these mental filters, then, is to understand reality by improving our ability to judge the statements of experts, promoters, and persuaders of all kinds. As the saying goes, we are all laymen in some field.
What follows is one man’s attempt to show that there is more wisdom among the laity than is generally concluded, and that there are some rather simple methods of checking on the validity of the statements of experts.
The first filter through which we must interpret reality, says Hardin, is the literate filter: What do the words really mean? The key to remember is that Language is action. Language is not just a way to communicate or interpret; language acts as a call to, or just as importantly, an inhibitor to action.
The first step is to try to understand what is really being said. What do the words and the labels actually mean? If a politician proposes a “Poverty Assistance Plan,” that sounds almost inarguably good, no? Many a pork-barrel program has passed based on such labels alone.
But when you examine the rhetoric, you must ask what those words are trying to do: Promote understanding, or inhibit it? If the program had a rational method of assistance to the deserving poor, the label might be appropriate. If it was simply a way to reward undeserving people in his or her district for their vote, the label might be simply a way to fool. The literate filter asks if we understand the true intent behind the words.
In a chapter called “The Sins of the Literate,” Hardin discusses the misuse of language by examining literate, but innumerate, concepts like “indefinite” or “infinite”:
He who introduces the words “infinity” or any of its derivatives (“forever” or “never” for instance) is also trying to escape discussion. Unfortunately he does not honestly admit the operational meaning of the high-flown language used to close off discussion. “Non-negotiable” is a dated term, no longer in common use, but “infinity” endures forever.
Like old man Proteus of Greek mythology, the wish to escape debate disguises itself under a multitude of verbal forms: infinity, non-negotiable, never, forever, irresistible, immovable, indubitable, and the recent variant “not meaningfully finite.” All these words have the effect of moving discussion out of the numerate realm, where it belongs, and into a wasteland of pure literacy, where counting and measuring are repudiated.
Later, in the final chapter, Hardin repeats:
The talent for handling words is called “eloquence.” Talent is always desirable, but the talent may have an unfair, even dangerous, advantage over those with less talent. More than a century ago Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The curse of this country is eloquent men.” The curse can be minimized by using words themselves to point out the danger of words. One of their functions is to act as inhibitors of thought. People need to be made allergic to such thought-stoppers as infinity, sacred, and absolute. The real world is a world of quantified entities: “infinity” and its like are no words for quantities but utterances used to divert attention from quantities and limits.
It is not just innumerate exaggeration we are guarding against, but the literate tendency to replace actors with abstractions, as Hardin calls it. He uses the example of donating money to a poor country (Country X), which on its face sounds noble:
Country X, which is an abstraction, cannot act. Those who act in its name are rich and powerful people. Human nature being what it is, we can be sure that these people will not voluntarily do anything to diminish either their power or their riches…
Not uncommonly, the major part of large quantities of food sent in haste to a poor country in the tropics rot on the docks or is eaten up by rats before it can be moved to the people who need it. The wastage is seldom adequately reported back to the sending country…(remember), those who gain personally from the shipping of food to poor nations gain whether fungi, rats, or people eat the food.
Hardin is clear on his approach to numerical fluency: The ability to count, weigh, and compare values in a general or specific way is essential to understanding the claims of experts or assessing any problem rationally:
The numerate temperament is one that habitually looks for approximate dimensions, ratios, proportions, and rates of change in trying to grasp what is going on in the wold. Given effective education–a rare commodity, of course–a numerate orientation is probably within the reach of most people.
Just as “literacy” is used here to mean more than merely reading and writing, so also will “numeracy” be used to mean more than measuring and counting. Examination of the origins of the sciences shows that many major discoveries were made with very little measuring and counting. The attitude science requires of its practitioners is respect, bordering on reverence, for ration, proportions, and rates of change.
Rough and ready back-of-the-envelope calculations are often sufficient to reveal the outline of a new and important scientific discovery….In truth, the essence of many of the major insights of science can be grasped with no more than child’s ability to measure, count, and calculate.
To explain the use of the literate and numerate filters together, Hardin uses the example of the Delaney Amendment, passed in 1958 to restrict food additives. This example should be familiar to us today:
Concerned with the growing evidence that many otherwise useful substances can cause cancer, Congress degreed that henceforth, whenever a chemical at any concentration was found to cause cancer–in any fraction of any species of animal–that substance must be totally banned as an additive to human food.
From a literate standpoint, this sounds logical. The Amendment sought to eradicate harmful food additives that the free market had allowed to surface. However, says Hardin:
The Delaney Amendment is a monument to innumerate thought. “Safe” and “unsafe” are literate distinctions; nature is numerate. Everything is dangerous at some level. Even molecular oxygen, essential to human life, becomes lethal as the concentration approaches 100 percent.
Sensitivity is ordinarily expressed as “1 part per X,” where X is a large number. If a substance probably increases the incidence of cancer at a concentration of 1 part per 10,000, one should probably ban it at that concentration in food, and perhaps at 1 in 100,000. But what about 1 part per million?…In theory there is no final limit to sensitivity. What about 1 milligram per tank car? Or 1 milligram per terrestrial globe?
Obviously, some numerical limits must be applied. This is the usefulness of the numerate filter. As Charlie Munger says, “Quantify, always quantify.”
Hardin introduces his final filter by requiring that we ask the question “And then what?” There is perhaps no better question to prompt second-order thinking.
Even if we understand what is truly being said and have quantified the effects of a proposed policy or solution, it is imperative that we consider the second layer of effects or beyond. Hardin recognizes that this opens the door for potentially unlimited paralysis (the poorly understood and innumerate “Butterfly Effect”), which he boxes in by introducing his own version of the First Law of Ecology:
We can never merely do one thing.
This is to say, all proposed solutions and interventions will have a multitude of effects, and we must try our best to consider them in their totality.
In proposing this filter, Hardin is very careful to guard against the Slippery Slope argument, or the idea that one step in the wrong direction will lead us directly to Hell. This, he says, is a purely literate but wholly innumerate approach to thinking.
Those who take the wedge (Slippery Slope) argument with the utmost seriousness act as though they think human beings are completely devoid of practical judgment. Countless examples from everyday life show the pessimists are wrong…If we took the wedge argument seriously, we would pass a law forbidding all vehicles to travel at any speed greater than zero. That would be an easy way out of the moral problem. But we pass no such law.
In reality, the ecolate filter helps us understand the layers of unintended consequences. Take inflation:
The consequences of hyperinflation beautifully illustrate the meaning of the First Law of Ecology. A government that is unwilling or unable to stop the escalation of inflation does more than merely change the price of things; it turns loose a cascade of consequences the effects of which reach far into the future.
Prudent citizens who have saved their money in bank accounts and government bonds are ruined. In times of inflation people spend wildly with little care for value, because the choice and price of an object are less important than that one put his money into material things. Fatalism takes over as society sinks down into a culture of poverty….
In the end, the filters must be used wisely together. They are ways to understand reality, and cannot be divorced from one another. Hardin’s general approach to thinking sums up much like his multi-disciplinary friend Munger’s:
Garrett Hardin on the Three Filters Needed to Think About Problems Click To Tweet
No single filter is sufficient for reaching a reliable decision, so invidious comparisons between the three is not called for. The well-educated person uses all of them.
Check out our prior posts about Filters Against Folly:
My favorite chapter in the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher is called ‘Decisions: Focusing Illusions.’ It’s a really great summary of how focusing on the wrong things affects the weights we use to make decisions. There is a lot of great content packed into this chapter but I’ll attempt to highlight a few points.
According to the principle of ‘bounded rationality,’ which (Daniel) Kahneman first applied to economic decisions and more recently to choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our ‘cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.
If you’re pondering a choice that involves risk, you might focus too much on the threat of possible loss, thereby obscuring an even likelier potential benefit. Where this common scenario is concerned, research shows that we aren’t so much risk-averse as loss-averse, in that we’re generally much more sensitive to what we might have to give up than to what we might gain.
The Focusing Illusion
The key to understanding why you pay more attention to your thoughts about living than to life itself is neatly summed up by what Kahneman proudly calls his ‘fortune cookie maxim’ (a.k.a the focusing illusion): ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.’ Why? ‘Because you’re thinking about it!
In one much-cited illustration of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Because the climate is often delightful there, most subjects thought so. For the same reason, even Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. When Kahneman actually measured their well-being however, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99 percent of the stuff of life – relationships, work, home, recreation – is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about it’s climate very much. If you’re prompted to evaluate it, however, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. This illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.
To test the fortune cookie rule, you have only to ask yourself how happy you are. The question automatically summons your remembering self, which will focus on any recent change in your life – marriage or divorce, new job or home. You’ll then think about this novel event, which in turn will increase its import and influence your answer. If you’re pleased that you’ve just left the suburbs for the city, say, you’ll decide that life is pretty good. If you regret the move, you’ll be dissatisfied in general. Fifteen years on, however, the change that looms so large now will pale next to a more recent event – a career change, perhaps or becoming a grandparent – which will draw your focus and, simply because you’re thinking about it, bias your evaluation of your general well-being.
The Effects of Adaptation
Like focusing too much on the opinions of your remembering self, overlooking the effects of adaptation – the process of becoming used to a situation – can obstruct wise decisions about how to live. As Kahneman says, ‘when planning for the future, we don’t consider that we will stop paying attention to a thing.’
The tendency to stop focusing on a particular event or experience over time, no matter how wonderful or awful, helps explain why the differences in well-being between groups of people in very different circumstances tend to be surprisingly small – sometimes astoundingly so. The classic examples are paraplegics and lottery winners, who respectively aren’t nearly as miserable or happy as you’d think. ‘That’s where attention comes in,’ says Kahneman. ‘People think that if they win the lottery, they’ll be happy forever. Of course, they will not. For a while, they are happy because of the novelty, and because they think about winning all the time. Then they adapt and stop paying attention to it.’ Similarly, he says, ‘Everyone is surprised by how happy paraplegics can be, but they are not paraplegic full-time. They do other things. They enjoy their meals, their friends, the newspaper. It has to do with the allocation of attention.’
Like couples who’ve just fallen in love, professionals starting a career, or children who go to camp for the first time, paraplegics and lottery winners initially pay a lot of attention to their new situation. Then, like everybody else, they get used to it and shift their focus to the next big thing. Their seemingly blase attitude surprises us, because when we imagine ourselves in their place, we focus on how we’d feel at the moment of becoming paralyzed or wildly rich, when such an event utterly monopolizes one’s focus. We forget that we, too, would get used to wealth, a wheelchair, and most other things under the sun, then turn our attention elsewhere.
Finally, don’t worry if the choice you made wasn’t the absolute best, as long as it meets your needs. Offering the single most important lesson from his research, Schwartz says, ‘Good enough is almost always good enough. If you have that attitude, many problems about decisions and much paralysis melt away.’
Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, frequently tells the story below to illustrate how to distinguish real knowledge from pretend knowledge.
At the 2007 Commencement to the USC Law School, Munger explained it this way:
I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics.
Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”
The point of the story is not the quick wittedness of the protagonist, but rather — to echo Richard Feynman — it’s about making a distinction between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
Real knowledge comes when people do the work. Click To Tweet
In this world we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge, the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. And then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They’ve learned the talk. They may have a big head of hair, they may have fine temper in the voice, they’ll make a hell of an impression.
But in the end, all they have is chauffeur knowledge. I think I’ve just described practically every politician in the United States.
And you are going to have the problem in your life of getting the responsibility into the people with the Planck knowledge and away from the people with the chauffeur knowledge.
And there are huge forces working against you. My generation has failed you a bit… but you wouldn’t like it to be too easy now would you?
On the other hand, we have the people who don’t do the work — they pretend. While they’ve learned to put on a good show, they lack understanding. They can’t answer questions that don’t rely on memorization. They can’t explain things without using jargon or vague terms. They have no idea how things interact. They can’t predict consequences.
The problem is that it’s difficult to separate the two.
One way to tease out the difference between Planck and chauffeur knowledge is to ask them why.
In The Art of Thinking Clearly Rolf Dobelli offers some commentary on distinguishing fake from real knowledge:
With journalists, it is more difficult. Some have acquired true knowledge. Often they are veteran reporters who have specialized for years in a clearly defined area. They make a serious effort to understand the complexity of a subject and to communicate it. They tend to write long articles that highlight a variety of cases and exceptions. The majority of journalists, however, fall into the category of chauffeur. They conjure up articles off the tops of their heads or, rather, from Google searches. Their texts are one-sided, short, and— often as compensation for their patchy knowledge— snarky and self-satisfied in tone.
The same superficiality is present in business. The larger a company, the more the CEO is expected to possess “star quality.” Dedication, solemnity, and reliability are undervalued, at least at the top. Too often shareholders and business journalists seem to believe that showmanship will deliver better results, which is obviously not the case.
One way to guard against this is to understand your circle of competence.True experts recognize the limits of what they know and what they do not know. Click To Tweet
Dobelli concludes with some advice worth taking to heart.
Be on the lookout for chauffeur knowledge. Do not confuse the company spokesperson, the ringmaster, the newscaster, the schmoozer, the verbiage vendor, or the cliché generator with those who possess true knowledge. How do you recognize the difference? There is a clear indicator: True experts recognize the limits of what they know and what they do not know. If they find themselves outside their circle of competence, they keep quiet or simply say, “I don’t know.” This they utter unapologetically, even with a certain pride. From chauffeurs, we hear every line except this.
If you liked this, you’ll love these other Farnam Street articles:
Circle of Competence — Knowing your Circle of Competence helps intelligent people like Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett stay out of trouble.
Learn Anything Faster with the Feynman Technique — The Feynman Technique helps you learn anything faster by quickly identifying gaps in your understanding. It’s also a versatile thinking tool.