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Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 87,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
The decisions that we make are rarely impartial. Most of us already know that we prefer to take advice from people that we like. We also tend to more easily agree with opinions formed by people we like. This tendency to judge in favor of people and symbols we like is called the bias from liking or loving.
We are more likely to ignore faults and comply with wishes of our friends or lovers rather than random strangers. We favor people, products, and actions associated with our favorite celebrities. Sometimes we even distort facts to facilitate love. The influence that our friends, parents, lovers and idols exert on us can be enormous.
In general, this is a good thing, a bias that adds on balance rather than subtracts. It helps us form successful relationships, it helps us fall in love (and stay in love), it helps us form attachments with others that give us great happiness.
But we do want to be aware of where this tendency leads us awry.
For example, some people and companies have learnt to use this influence to their advantage.
In his bestseller on social psychology Influence, Robert Cialdini tells a story about the successful strategy of Tupperware, which at the time reported sales of over $2.5 million a day. As many of us know, the company for a long time sold its kitchenware at parties thrown by friends of the potential customers. At each party there was a Tupperware representative taking orders, but the hostess, the friend of the invitees, received a commission.
These potential customers are not blind to the incentives and social pressures involved. Some of them don’t mind it, others do, but all admit a certain degree of helplessness in their situation. Cialdini recalls a conversation with one of the frustrated guests:
It’s gotten to the point now where I hate to be invited to Tupperware parties. I’ve got all the containers I need; and if I wanted any more, I could buy another brand cheaper in the store. But when a friend calls up, I feel like I have to go. And when I get there, I feel like I have to buy something. What can I do? It’s for one of my friends.
We are more likely to buy in a familiar, friendly setting and under the obligation of friendship rather than from an unfamiliar store or a catalogue. We simply find it much harder to say “no” or disagree when it’s a friend. The possibility of ruining the friendship, or seeing our image altered in the eyes of someone we like, is a powerful motivator to comply.
The Tupperware example is a true “lollapalooza” in favor of manipulating people into buying things. Besides the liking tendency, there are several other factors at play: commitment/consistency bias, a bias from stress, an influence from authority, a reciprocation effect, and some direct incentives and disincentives, at least! (Lollapaloozas, something we’ll talk more about in the future, are when several powerful forces combine to create a non-linear outcome. A good way to think of this conceptually for now is that 1+1=3.)
The liking tendency is so strong that it stretches beyond close friendships. It turns out we are also more likely to act in favor of certain types of strangers. Can you recall meeting someone with whom you hit it off instantly, where it almost seemed like you’d known them for years after a 20-minute conversation? Developing such an instant bond with a stranger may seem like a mythical process, but it rarely is. There are several tactics that can be used to make us like something, or someone, more than we otherwise would.
We all like engaging in activities with beautiful people. This is part of an automatic bias that falls into a category called The Halo Effect.
The Halo Effect occurs when a specific, positive characteristic determines the way a person is viewed by others on other, unrelated traits. In the case of beauty, it’s been shown that we automatically assign favorable yet unrelated traits such as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence, with those we find physically attractive.
For the most part, this attribution happens unnoticed. For example, attractive candidates received more than twice as many votes as unattractive candidates in the 1974 Canadian federal elections. Despite the ample evidence of predisposition towards handsome politicians, follow-up research demonstrated that nearly three-quarters of Canadians surveyed strongly denied the influence of physical appearance in their voting decisions.
The power of the Halo Effect is that it’s mostly happening beneath the level of consciousness.“The power of the Halo Effect is that it's mostly happening beneath the level of consciousness.” Click To Tweet
Similar forces are at play when it comes to hiring decisions and pay. While employers deny that they are strongly influenced by looks, studies show otherwise.
In one study evaluating hiring decisions based on simulated interviews, the applicants’ grooming played a greater role in the outcome than job qualifications. Partly, this has a rational basis. We might assume that someone who shows up without the proper “look” for the job may be deficient in other areas. If they couldn’t shave and put a tie on, how are we to expect them to perform with customers? Partly, though, it’s happening subconsciously. Even if we never consciously say to ourselves that “Better grooming = better employee”, we tend to act that way in our hiring.
These effects go even beyond the hiring phase — attractive individuals in the US and Canada have been estimated to earn an average of 12-14 percent more than their unattractive coworkers. Whether this is due to liking bias or perhaps the increased self confidence that comes from above-average looks is hard to say.
Appearance is not the only quality that may skew our perceptions in favor of someone. The next one on the list is similarity.
We like people who resemble us. Whether it’s appearance, opinions, lifestyle or background, we tend to favor people who on some dimension are most similar to ourselves.
A great example of similarity bias is the case of dress. Have you ever been at an event where you felt out of place because you were either overdressed or underdressed? The uneasy feelings are not caused only by your imagination. Numerous studies suggest that we are more likely to do favors, such as giving a dime or signing a petition, to someone who looks like us.
Similarity bias can extend to even such ambiguous traits as interests and background. Many salesmen are trained to look for similarities to produce a favorable and trustwothy image in the eyes of their potential customers. In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini explains:
If there is camping gear in the trunk, the salespeople might mention, later on, how they love to get away from the city whenever they can; if there are golf balls on the back seat, they might remark that they hope the rain will hold off until they can play the eighteen holes they scheduled for later in the day; if they notice that the car was purchased out of state, they might ask where a customer is from and report—with surprise—that they (or their spouse) were born there, too.
These are just a few of many examples which can be surprisingly effective in producing a sweet feeling of familiarity. Multiple studies illustrate the same pattern. We decide to fill out surveys from people with similar names, buy insurance from agents of similar age and smoking habits, and even decide that those who share our political views deserve their medical treatment sooner than the rest.
There is just one takeaway: even if the similarities are terribly superficial, we still may end up liking the other person more than we should.
“And what will a man naturally come to like and love,
apart from his parent, spouse and child?
Well, he will like and love being liked and loved.”
— Charlie Munger
We are all phenomenal suckers for flattery. These are not my words, but words of Robert Cialdini and they ring a bell. Perhaps, more than anything else in this world we love to be loved and, consequently, we love those that love us.“We love to be loved and, consequently, we love those that love us.” Click To Tweet
Consider the technique of Joe Girard, who has been continuously called the world’s “greatest car salesman” and has made it to the Guinness World Record book.
Each month Joe prints and sends over 13,000 holiday cards to his former customers.While the theme of the card varies depending on the season and celebration, the printed message always remains the same. On each of those cards Girard prints three simple words ”I like you” and his name. He explains:
“There’s nothing else on the card, nothin’ but my name. I’m just telling ’em that I like ’em.” “I like you.” It came in the mail every year, 12 times a year, like clockwork.
Joe understood a simple fact about humans – we love to be loved.
As numerous experiments show, regardless of whether the praise is deserved or not, we cannot help but develop warm feelings to those that provide it. Our reaction can be so automatic, that we develop liking even when the attempt to win our favor is an obvious one, as in the case of Joe.
In addition to liking those that like us and look like us, we also tend to like those who we know. That’s why repeated exposure can be a powerful tool in establishing liking.
There is a fun experiment you can do to understand the power of familiarity.
Take a picture of yourself and create a mirror image in one of the editing tools. Now with the two pictures at hand decide which one – the real or the mirror image you like better. Show the two pictures to a friend and ask her to choose the better one as well.
If you and your friend are like the group on whom this trick was tried, you should notice something odd. Your friend will prefer the true print, whereas you will think you look better on the mirror image. This is because you both prefer the faces you are used to. Your friend always sees you from her perspective, whereas you have learnt recognize and love your mirror image.
The effect of course extends beyond faces into places, names and even ideas.
For example, in elections we might prefer candidates whose names sound more familiar. The Ohio Attorney-General post was claimed by a man who, shortly before his candidacy, changed his last name to Brown – a family name of Ohio political tradition. Apart from his surname, there was little to nothing that separated him from other equally if not more capable candidates.
How could such a thing happen? The answer lies partly in the unconscious way that familiarity affects our liking. Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.
Charisma or attraction are not prerequisites for liking — a mere association with someone you like or trust can be enough.
The bias from association shows itself in many other domains and is especially strong when we associate with the person we like the most — ourself. For example, the relationship between a sports fan and his local team can be highly personal even though the association is often based only on shared location. For the fan, however, the team is an important part of his self-identity. If the team or athlete wins, he wins as well, which is why sports can be so emotional. The most dedicated fans are ready to get into fights, burn cars or even kill to defend the honor of their team.
Such associated sense of pride and achievement is as true for celebrities as it is for sports. When Kevin Costner delivered his acceptance speech after winning the best picture award for Dances With Wolves, he said:
“While it may not be as important as the rest of the world situation, it will always be important to us. My family will never forget what happened here; my Native American brothers and sisters, especially the Lakota Sioux, will never forget, and the people I went to high school with will never forget.”
The interesting part of his words is the notion that his high school peers will remember, which is probably true. His former classmates are likely to tell people that they went to school with Costner, even though they themselves had no connection with the success of the movie.
Costner’s words illustrate that even a trivial association with success may reap benefits and breed confidence.
Who else do we like besides ourselves, celebrities and our sports teams?
People we’ve met through those who are close to us – our neighbors, friends and family. It is common sense that a referral from someone we trust is enough to trigger mild liking and favorable initial opinions.
There are a number of companies that use friend referral as a sales tactic. Network providers, insurers and other subscription services offer a number of benefits for those of us who give away our friends’ contact details.
The success of this method rests on the implicit idea that turning down the sales rep who says “your friend Jenny/Allan suggested I call you” feels nearly as bad as turning down Jenny or Allan themselves. This tactic, when well executed, leads to a never-ending chain of new customers.
Perhaps the right question to ask here is not “how can we avoid the bias from liking”, but when should we?
Someone who is conditioned to like the right people and pick their idols carefully can greatly benefit from these biases. Charlie Munger recalls that both he and Warren Buffett benefitted from liking admirable persons:
One common, beneficial example for us both was Warren’s uncle, Fred Buffett, who cheerfully did the endless grocery-store work that Warren and I ended up admiring from a safe distance. Even now, after I have known so many other people, I doubt if it is possible to be a nicer man than Fred Buffett was, and he changed me for the better.
The keywords here are “from a safe distance”.
If dealing with salesmen and others who clearly benefit from your liking, it might be a good idea to check whether you have been influenced. In these unclear cases Cialdini advises us to focus on our feelings rather than the other person’s actions that may produce liking. Ask yourself how much of what you feel is due to liking versus the actual facts of the situation.
The time to call out the defense is when we feel ourselves liking the practitioner more than we should under the circumstances, when we feel manipulated.
Once we have recognized that we like the requester more than we would expect under the given circumstances, we should take a step back and question ourselves. Are you doing the deal because you like someone or is it because it is indeed the best option out there?Mental Model: Bias from Liking/Loving Click To Tweet
Still Interested? Check out some other mental models and biases.
“Who is rich?
He who is satisfied with his lot.”
— Ben Zoma
Pyrrhus was the King of Epirus, a region of Greece. As he lays out his plan for a conquest of Rome, his advisor Cineas decides to take a step back and help Pyrrhus see himself in a mirror — to do a second-step analysis of his goals. Contained in that conversation is a great deal of wisdom about life. We suggest thinking deeply about what it means for your own.
“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if God permit us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”
“You ask,” said Pyrrhus, “a thing evident of itself. The Romans once conquered, there is neither Greek nor barbarian city that will resist us, but we shall presently be masters of all Italy, the extent and resources and strength of which any one should rather profess to be ignorant of than yourself.”
Cineas after a little pause, “And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?”
Pyrrhus not yet discovering his intention, “Sicily,” he replied, “next holds out her arms to receive us, a wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained; for since Agathocles left it, only faction and anarchy, and the licentious violence of the demagogues prevail.”
“You speak,” said Cineas, “what is perfectly probable, but will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?”
“God grant us,” answered Pyrrhus, “victory and success in that, and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach, which Agathocles, even when forced to fly from Syracuse, and passing the sea only with a few ships, had all but surprised? These conquests once perfected, will any assert that of the enemies who now pretend to despise us, any one will dare to make further resistance?”
“None,” replied Cineas, “for then it is manifest we may with such mighty forces regain Macedon, and make an absolute conquest of Greece; and when all these are in our power what shall we do then?”
Said Pyrrhus, smiling, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”
When Cineas had led Pyrrhus with his argument to this point: “And what hinders us now, sir, if we have a mind to be merry, and entertain one another, since we have at hand without trouble all those necessary things, to which through much blood and great labour, and infinite hazards and mischief done to ourselves and to others, we design at last to arrive?”
Cineas is saying, in so many words: Why go to all the trouble of trying to own the world when you can be happy and content right now? Unfortunately, Pyrrhus fails to heed the advice.
The great Scot Adam Smith, after recounting the above story in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, uses it as a way to remind us to be very careful with our continual discontentment:
The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.
The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.
Wherever prudence does not direct, wherever justice does not permit, the attempt to change our situation, the man who does attempt it, plays at the most Unequal of all games of hazard, and stakes every thing against scarce any thing.
Do you know anyone that’s really, really competent? Like really, ridiculously competent?
They seem to have a work ethic that’s twice as powerful as yours, they get things done as asked, going “above and beyond” the call of duty almost always, and always within a reasonable time. They come up with creative solutions, or absent that, simply know how to get to a solution to keep the process moving. They keep going when others stop.
They’re Competent, with a capital “C”.
Now ask yourself, regardless of the other traits you like or dislike about them, is that person at risk of losing their job, whatever it may be? Are they at risk of “wallowing in the shallows” in life? Are they at risk of true, debilitating failure? Or are they just getting ahead time and time again?
I’m going to guess the latter.
There’s something about the pure and simple “getting things done”-type ability, the pure hustle, which acts like oxygen for most organizations and teams, making the people with that ability super-useful. These super-productive, super-able people, almost regardless of their other traits, seem to rise to the top. (Although, multiplicative type thinking tells us that it depends on how severe the lacking traits are. A drinking problem can kill even the best, for example.)
For the man we’ll study today, the “pure oxygen” of competence outweighed so many awful traits that it’s worth figuring out what lessons we might learn for ourselves.
The inimitable Robert Moses was maybe the most powerful man in the history of New York City, responsible for building a large number of the beaches, bridges, tunnels, highways, parkways, and housing developments we all recognize today. Just pulling from Wikipedia the number of artifacts in New York City named after the guy shows you his influence:
Various locations and roadways in New York State bear Moses’s name. These include two state parks, Robert Moses State Park – Thousand Islands in Massena, New York and Robert Moses State Park – Long Island, and the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island, the Robert Moses State Parkway in Niagara Falls, New York, and the Robert Moses Hydro-Electric Dam in Lewiston, New York. A hydro-electric power dam in Massena, New York also bears Moses’ name. These supply much of New York City’s power. Moses also has a school named after him in North Babylon, New York on Long Island; there is also a Robert Moses Playground in New York City. There are other signs of the surviving appreciation held for him by some circles of the public. A statue of Moses was erected next to the Village Hall in his long-time hometown, Babylon Village, New York, in 2003, as well as a bust on the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University.
By the time Moses’ reign was done in New York City — he held some form of influential power between 1924 and 1968 — he had built seven of the major bridges that connect Manhattan to its boroughs, at least a dozen major roads that would be familiar to all New York area drivers today (416 miles of parkways), over 1,000 public housing buildings, 658 separate playgrounds, scores of dams, State Parks, and beaches (including Jones Beach), Shea Stadium, the Lincoln Center…the list goes on. He was the dominant force behind all of them.
His physical — and in many ways, social — mark on New York City is unmatched before or since.
Oh, and did I mention he accomplished much of this during the Great Depression, a time when no one, cities least, had any money, finding incredibly creative ways to corral Federal funds to New York and away from the country’s other great cities? And did I mention he was able to do it without ever winning any elections?
That is “capital-C Competence”.
But the thing about Moses is that he was kind of a bastard. He did not treat others well. He didn’t seem to care about making others feel good. He certainly did not follow the popular Dale Carnegie type behavior popular back then. Most of the people he had to work with over the years — Governors, Mayors, Commissioners, thousands and thousands of employees — did not like him.
If I described some of his personal traits to you — verbally abusive, racist, classist, demanding, elitist, difficult, insufferably arrogant — you would not conceive of this as the stereotype of someone you’d help rise to power. He “drove” his men, and he “commanded” those around him. He rarely passed up an opportunity to make a new enemy.
As an example, here’s how his biographer Robert Caro, in his classic book The Power Broker, describes the general feeling when Moses is named New York’s Secretary of State in 1927 by Governor Al Smith, his main ally:
The depth and unanimity of the feeling transcended party affiliation. Moses had for years been either insulting or ignoring legislators of both parties. And now the Legislature was being asked–for under reorganization the Senate had to approve key gubernatorial nominations–to approve the elevation to the second most important post in the state. One observer says: “When he walked down a corridor in the capitol and passed a group of legislators, you could see their eyes follow him as he passed, and you could see how many enemies–bitter, personal enemies–he had. I really believe that Robert Moses was the most hated man in Albany.
How did a guy like that get the elevation needed to become the Secretary of State, the State Parks Commissioner, the Triborough Bridge Authority, the city “Construction Coordinator,” the Long Island Park Commissioner…? He had more titles than a bookstore, all carrying tremendous power to direct the public purse, hand out thousands of jobs, and physically shape the most important city in the country.
Pure and simple, the guy was insanely competent. He could get things done that no one else could get done. His administrative abilities were brilliant and his work ethic legendary.
His written reports, starting with his Oxford PhD thesis The Civil Service of Great Britain, were considered classics of the field. The brilliance of that thesis probably got him his first appointments. The following was said about Moses only in his mid-twenties:
Two men who had read Moses’ thesis — it had been published — were Luther C. Steward, first president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, and H. Elliot Kaplan, later president of the New York civil Service Commission and executive director of the Civil Service Reform Association. Years later, when Kaplan had read everything there was to read on civil service, he was asked to evaluate the thesis and said simply, “It was a masterpiece.”
There were, he said, “very few people in the United States in 1914 who knew much about civil service. Bob Moses really knew.” Steward’s wife, who had been working beside her husband in 1914, was even more emphatic. “Bob Moses wasn’t one of the men in this country who understood civil service best at that stage,” she said. “He was the man who understood it best.”
He didn’t just understand it well: He was the best.
Then again, when Moses got his career started in New York City municipal government, he wrote a report basically alone and in a small apartment (he didn’t have a lot of money), late at night while keeping to his main duties by day.
It was another classic. Speaking of Moses’ 1919 Report of the Reconstruction Commission to Governor Alfred E. Smith on Retrenchment and Reorganization in the State Government, Robert Caro writes:
From the moment on October 10, 1919, that it was published, it was hailed as a historic document, not only by [Al] Smith, who had sponsored it, and not only by the reformers, who saw in it the finest exposition of their philosophy, but, more importantly, by the men Belle Moskowitz had hoped would hail it– the Republican “federal crowd.”
The paper was hailed as “deserving of unreserved approbation,” while another commenter said “This paper is, I think, the most helpful one that I could put in your hands…to give you an idea of…what I believe to be the correct principles of state government.”
With that, Moses got pushed ahead again.
Time and again this would happen: Moses would do something extremely competent, demonstrating great value to this who needed his work, and he would get a boost.
And did he ever work his ass off to keep things moving. As he gathered momentum building up Long Island and Jones Beach State Park in the 1920s, his life became, as Caro puts it, an “orgy of work.”
Sloughing off distractions, he set his life into a hard mold. Shunning evening social life, especially the ceremonial dinners that eat up so much of a public official’s time, he went to bed early (usually before eleven) and awoke early (he was always dressed, shaved, and breakfasted when Arthur Howland arrived at 7:30 to pick up the manila envelope full of memos).
The amenities of life dropped out of his. He and Mary had enjoyed playing bridge with friends; now they no longer played. Sundays with his family all but disappeared. He did not golf; he did not attend sporting events; he was not interested in the diversions called “hobbies” that other executives considered important because they considered it important that they relax; he was not interested in relaxing.
…there was never enough time; minutes were precious to him. To make sure he had as many of them as possible, he tried to make use of all those that most other men waste.
And it was this “orgy of work,” combined with a dedication to being the “best” and not “pretty good” that allowed Moses to rise in spite of his faults.
Even his true enemies, people who truly did not like him or want to see him succeed, like FDR — who was the Governor of New York during the Depression — continued to support his rise, almost against their own will!
Not only does a Governor not interfere with an official like Robert Moses; he heaps on him more and more responsibilities. No matter what the job was, it seemed, if it was difficult Roosevelt turned to the same man. During 1930, 1931, and 1932, Moses handled more than a dozen special assignments for Roosevelt and produced results on every one. And if increasing Moses’ responsibilities meant increasing his power–giving him more money to work with, more engineers, architects, draftsmen, and police to work with–well, the Governor simply had no choice but to increase that power.
No two men in New York would come to hate each other more than Moses and FDR, yet there was FDR, dumping more and more power and more and more work into Moses’ lap. Why?
He could be trusted to get it done and do it well. It was that simple. Competence is oxygen.
This aspect of the life of Robert Moses, a life worth studying for so many reasons, illustrates a few simple points.
The first is the pure value of capital-C Competence: Hard, correct work, repeated ad infinitum with no intermittence, will get almost anyone very far, even if they’re missing other desirable traits. Moses, in spite of faults that would likely stop any mortal in his or her tracks, rose near the very top on the back of it. You can probably think of ten other individuals in your head who demonstrate a similar reality.
But as interesting, true, and instructive as that is, it brings up a very interesting historical counterfactual:
What if Bob Moses had that driving competence but also folded in things like humility, empathy, good temper, fairness, desire for group success over individual glory, and other traits we all desire in our own leaders? Wouldn’t he be considered one of the most inspiring and beloved figures in the history of the United States? Might he have been the President instead of FDR? Might he have lived a much more pleasant and less contentious life than he did?
A great debate lingers even now about whether his actions to reshape the City were on balance a positive or negative — he created a lot of misery in his march to physically reshape New York City. He made it a very car-heavy, traffic-heavy city. He created slums. He destroyed a lot of neighborhoods. And so on. Might a bit of humility and respect for others’ goals and opinions have built a New York City that people are less troubled about today? He could have a record of accomplishment and the unabashed respect of history.
It’s hard to know — traits like Moses’ work ethic are often “co-located” with traits that are not so desirable. But it is interesting to ponder, for our own lives, both the value of pure ability and the value of balancing it out with the other traits that can get us even further. Good is not always optimal.
And most of us probably don’t have the pure ability and fire that Moses did, all the more reason to work on our “soft” skills. We may need to either work harder on our competence and work ethic or find a way to compensate for it in “softer” ways like true leadership ability.
But even as we do that, it’s important to never forget the reality that competence and hustle go pretty far. Sometimes we’re getting “beat” simply because others are providing more “oxygen” than we are, even if they’re not pleasant people. It’s just a part of reality.
So if we’ve already got the “soft skills” down, perhaps we need to do the hard work in figuring out how to raise our competence level.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky spent decades in psychology research to disentangle patterns in errors of human reasoning. Over the course of their work they discovered a variety of logical fallacies that we tend to make, when facing information that appears vaguely familiar. These fallacies lead to bias – irrational behavior based on beliefs that are not always grounded in reality.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, which summarizes his and Tversky’s life work, Kahneman introduces biases that stem from the conjunction fallacy – the false belief that a conjunction of two events is more probable than one of the events on its own.
Probability can be a difficult concept. Most of us have an intuitive understanding of what probability is, but there is little consensus on what it actually means. It is just as vague and subjective a concept as democracy, beauty or freedom. However, this is not always troublesome – we can still easily discuss the notion with others. Kahneman reflects:
In all the years I spent asking questions about the probability of events, no one ever raised a hand to ask me, “Sir, what do you mean by probability?” as they would have done if I had asked them to assess a strange concept such as globability.
Everyone acted as if they knew how to answer my questions, although we all understood that it would be unfair to ask them for an explanation of what the word means.
While logicians and statisticians might disagree, probability to most of us is simply a tool that describes our degree of belief. For instance, we know that the sun will rise tomorrow and we consider it near impossible that there will be two suns up in the sky instead of one. In addition to the extremes, there are also events which lie somewhere in the middle on the probability spectrum, such as the degree of belief that it will rain tomorrow.
Despite its vagueness, probability has its virtues. Assigning probabilities helps us make the degree of belief actionable and also communicable to others. If we believe that the probability it will rain tomorrow is 90%, we are likely to carry an umbrella and suggest our family do so as well.
Most of us are already familiar with representativeness and base rates. Consider the classic example of x number of black and y number of white colored marbles in a jar. It is a simple exercise to tell what the probabilities of drawing each color are if you know their base rates (proportion). Using base rates is the obvious approach for estimations when no other information is provided.
However, Kahneman managed to prove that we have a tendency to ignore base rates in light of specific descriptions. He calls this phenomenon the Representativeness Bias. To illustrate representativeness bias, consider the example of seeing a person reading The New York Times on the New York subway. Which do you think would be a better bet about the reading stranger?
1) She has a PhD.
2) She does not have a college degree.
Representativeness would tell you to bet on the PhD, but this is not necessarily a good idea. You should seriously consider the second alternative, because many more non-graduates than PhDs ride in New York subways. While a larger proportion of PhDs may read The New York Times, the total number of New York Times readers with only high school degrees is likely to be much larger, even if the proportion itself is very slim.
In a series of similar experiments, Kahneman’s subjects failed to recognize the base rates in light of individual information. This is unsurprising. Kahneman explains:
On most occasions, people who act friendly are in fact friendly. A professional athlete who is very tall and thin is much more likely to play basketball than football. People with a PhD are more likely to subscribe to The New York Times than people who ended their education after high school. Young men are more likely than elderly women to drive aggressively.
While following representativeness bias might improve your overall accuracy, it will not always be the statistically optimal approach.
Michael Lewis in his bestseller Moneyball tells a story of Oakland A’s baseball team coach, Billy Beane, who recognized this fallacy and used it to his advantage. When recruiting new players for the team, instead of relying on scouts he relied heavily on statistics of past performance. This approach allowed him to build a team of great players that were passed up by other teams because they did not look the part. Needless to say, the team achieved excellent results at a low cost.
While representativeness bias occurs when we fail to account for low base rates, conjunction fallacy occurs when we assign a higher probability to an event of higher specificity. This violates the laws of probability.
Consider the following study:
Participants were asked to rank four possible outcomes of the next Wimbledon tournament from most to least probable. Björn Borg was the dominant tennis player of the day when the study was conducted. These were the outcomes:
A. Borg will win the match.
B. Borg will lose the first set.
C. Borg will lose the first set but win the match.
D. Borg will win the first set but lose the match.
How would you order them?
Kahneman was surprised to see that most subjects ordered the chances by directly contradicting the laws of logic and probability. He explains:
The critical items are B and C. B is the more inclusive event and its probability must be higher than that of an event it includes. Contrary to logic, but not to representativeness or plausibility, 72% assigned B a lower probability than C.
If you thought about the problem carefully you drew the following diagram in your head. Losing the first set will always, by definition, be a more probable event than losing the first set and winning the match.
As discussed in our piece on the Narrative Fallacy, the best-known and most controversial of Kahneman and Tversky’s experiments involved a fictitious lady called Linda. The fictional character was created to illustrate the role heuristics play in our judgement and how it can be incompatible with logic. This is how they described Linda.
Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.
Kahneman conducted a series of experiments, in which he showed that representativeness tends to cloud our judgements and that we ignore the base rates in light of stories. The Linda problem started off with the task to estimate the plausibility of 9 different scenarios that subjects were supposed to rank in order of likelihood.
Linda is a teacher in elementary school.
Linda works in a bookstore and takes yoga classes.
Linda is active in the feminist movement.
Linda is a psychiatric social worker.
Linda is a member of the League of Women Voters.
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is an insurance salesperson.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Kahneman was startled to see that his subjects judged the likelihood of Linda being a bank teller and a feminist more likely than her being just a bank teller. As explained earlier, doing so makes little sense. He went on to explore the phenomenon further:
In what we later described as “increasingly desperate” attempts to eliminate the error, we introduced large groups of people to Linda and asked them this simple question:
Which alternative is more probable?
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
This stark version of the problem made Linda famous in some circles, and it earned us years of controversy. About 85% to 90% of undergraduates at several major universities chose the second option, contrary to logic.
What is especially interesting about these results is that, even when aware of the biases in place, we do not discard them.
When I asked my large undergraduate class in some indignation, “Do you realize that you have violated an elementary logical rule?” someone in the back row shouted, “So what?” and a graduate student who made the same error explained herself by saying, “I thought you just asked for my opinion.”
The issue is not constrained to students and but also affects professionals.
The naturalist Stephen Jay Gould described his own struggle with the Linda problem. He knew the correct answer, of course, and yet, he wrote, “a little homunculus in my head continues to jump up and down, shouting at me—‘but she can’t just be a bank teller; read the description.”
Our brains simply seem to prefer consistency over logic.
Representativeness and conjunction fallacy occur, because we make the mental shortcut from our perceived plausibility of a scenario to its probability.
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. 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.
Kahneman warns us about the effects of these biases on our perception of expert opinion and forecasting. He explains that we are more likely to believe scenarios that are illustrative rather than probable.
The uncritical substitution of plausibility for probability has pernicious effects on judgments when scenarios are used as tools of forecasting. Consider these two scenarios, which were presented to different groups, with a request to evaluate their probability:
A massive flood somewhere in North America next year, in which more than 1,000 people drown
An earthquake in California sometime next year, causing a flood in which more than 1,000 people drown
The California earthquake scenario is more plausible than the North America scenario, although its probability is certainly smaller. As expected, probability judgments were higher for the richer and more detailed scenario, contrary to logic. This is a trap for forecasters and their clients: adding detail to scenarios makes them more persuasive, but less likely to come true.
In order to appreciate the role of plausibility, he suggests we have a look at an example without an accompanying explanation.
Which alternative is more probable?
Jane is a teacher.
Jane is a teacher and walks to work.
In this case, when evaluating plausibility and coherence there are no quick answers to the probability question and we can easily conclude that the first one is more likely. The rule goes that in the absence of a competing intuition, logic prevails.
The first lesson to thinking clearly is to question how you think. We should not simply believe whatever comes to our mind – our beliefs must be constrained by logic. You don’t have to become an expert in probability to tame your intuition, but having a grasp of simple concepts will help. There are two main rules that are worth repeating in light of representativeness bias:
1) All probabilities add up to 100%.
This means that if you believe that there’s a 90% chance it will rain tomorrow, there’s a 10% of chance that it will not rain tomorrow.
However, since you believe that there is only 90% chance that it will rain tomorrow, you cannot be 95% certain that it will rain tomorrow morning.
We typically make this type of error, when we mean to say that, if it rains, there’s 95% probability it will happen in the morning. That’s a different claim and the probability of raining tomorrow morning under such premises is 0.9*0.95=85.5%.
This also means the odds that, if it rains, it will not rain in the morning, are 90.0%-85.5% = 4.5%.
2) The second principle is called the Bayes rule.
It allows us to correctly adjust our beliefs with the diagnosticity of the evidence. Bayes rule follows the formula:
In essence the formula states that the posterior odds are proportional to prior odds times the likelihood. Kahneman crystallizes two keys to disciplined Bayesian reasoning:
• Anchor your judgment of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate.
• Question the diagnosticity of your evidence.
Kahnmenan explains it with an example:
If you believe that 3% of graduate students are enrolled in computer science (the base rate), and you also believe that the description of Tom is 4 times more likely for a graduate student in computer science than in other fields, then Bayes’s rule says you must believe that the probability that Tom is a computer science student is now 11%.
Four times as likely means that we expect roughly 80% of all computer science students to resemble Tom. We use this proportion to obtain the adjusted odds. (The calculation goes as follows: 0.03*0.8/(0.03*0.8+((1-0.03)*(1-0.8)))=11%)
The easiest way to become better at making decisions is by making sure you question your assumptions and follow strong evidence. When evidence is anecdotal, adjust minimally and trust the base rates. Odds are, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Want More? Check out our ever-growing collection of mental models and biases and get to work.
On this episode, I am so happy to have Pedro Domingos who is a professor at the University of Washington.
He’s the leading researcher in machine learning and recently wrote an amazing book called The Master Algorithm. I was fortunate enough to have a long and fascinating conversation with him over dinner one night which I hoped would never end but that ended up leading to this episode which I think you will love.
In this conversation we explore the sources of knowledge, the five major schools of machine learning, why white collar jobs are easier to replace than blue collar jobs, machine wars, self-driving cars and so much more.
***Pedro Domingos on Artificial Intelligence Click To Tweet
A complete transcript is available for members.
Human beings are, in large part, driven by the admiration of their peers.
We seek to satisfy a deep biological need by acting in such a way that we feel praise and adulation; for our wealth, our success, our skills, our looks. It could be anything. The trait we are admired for matters less than the admiration itself. The admiration is the token we dance for. We feel envy when others are getting more tokens than us, and we pity ourselves when we’re not getting any.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The pursuit of (deserved) admiration causes us to drive and accomplish. It’s a part of the explanation for why the human world has moved along so far from where it started — we’re willing to do extraordinary things that are extraordinarily difficult, like starting a company from scratch, inventing a new and better product, solving some ridiculously complicated theorem, or conquering unknown territory.
This is all well and good.
The problems come when we start compromising our own standards, those we have set for ourselves, in order to earn admiration. False, undeserved admiration.
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