In a galaxy both far and near

A few years ago, I began reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. I was fascinated by its explorations of human cognitive biases, but ended up setting it aside half-finished to explore newer interests.

I returned to it about a week ago. Last night, I was within twenty pages of finishing it when I sat down to watch Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with my family. One particular, quick exchange made me laugh first before then exclaiming, “Wait! I was just reading about this in Kahneman!”

It shouldn’t spoil anything for me to explain this few-second exchange, so:

Threepio and a handful of his buddies are actively trying to escape what my five-year-old would call “bad guys.” When the bad guys appear to have been lost, Threepio says something like, “Well done, sir!” to the craft’s pilot.

A split-second later, when more gun blasts whizz by them, Threepio retracts his prior statement: “Terribly done, sir!” 

What does this have to do with Thinking, Fast and Slow? This: It perfectly exemplifies the peculiar human propensity to judge other people’s choices based on outcomes, despite (for one) the fact that outcomes are heavily dependent on factors over which the chooser has no control.

In this case, the craft pilot was doing exactly the same thing when commended as when dismissed by Threepio. Threepio’s judgment of the pilot’s action then hinged not on the pilot himself, but on factors totally outside the pilot’s control: the pursuers’ piloting skills–namely, a factor over which the pilot has no control whatsoever.

When I finished the book this morning, then, I grinned to read its parting words. They spoke exactly to the Star Wars piloting situation I’d noted just last night:

Decision makers are sometimes better able to imagine the voices of present gossipers and future critics than to hear the hesitant voice of their own doubts. They will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decision to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.

In this case, I’d argue Threepio should more reasonably judge the pilot by how he made his own flight choices, not by the flight choices made by bad guys others.

Then again, as Kahneman’s book reminds, it’s easier to spot other people’s (and, let’s not be exclusionary here, androids’!) errors of judgments than our own.

In late 2016, I began reading extensively on politics and history. While I was excited to be learning so much, I was also pretty damn depressed to slowly come to see how little I’d understood prior. 

One outcome of knowing more was that I gained even more skill in spotting how little other folks continued to know–other people’s errors of judgment, and all!

Daily, I’d spot people being confidently wrong. They’d make verifiably wrong statements with such immense confidence, others hearing the statements were apparently too dazzled by the confidence to contemplate that it might not be warranted.

Trying to counter with facts what I then called “wrong confidence” didn’t work well. No matter how many facts evidencing objective wrongness were presented to those wowed by wrong confidence, the confidence always won.

Always.

(In my fallible human recollection/judgment, that is …)

In a conflict between one person’s outsized confidence and another’s outsized list of supporting facts, confidence won.

Given my personal observations about wrong confidence, I was jazzed to see Kahneman take on “overconfidence”:

  • Overconfidence is another manifestation of WYSIATI [What You See Is All There Is]: when we estimate a quantity, we rely on information that comes to mind and construct a coherent story in which the estimate makes sense.” 
  • “The social and economic pressures that favor overconfidence are not restricted to financial forecasting. Other professionals must deal with the fact that an expert worthy of the name is expected to display high confidence. Philip Tetlock observed that the most overconfident experts were the most likely to be invited to strut their stuff in news shows.” Further exacerbating overconfidence, “Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients.”
  • “overconfidence is a direct consequence of features of System 1 that can be tamed–but not vanquished. The main obstacle is that subjective confidence is determined by the coherence of the story one has constructed, not by the quality and amount of information that supports it.”

I was extremely pleased to have confirmed my observations about how confidence overrode facts. “Wrong confidence” was a real, documented problem that had its own official word: overconfidence!

I was extremely confident that I knew all there was to know about overconfidence.

Having read three pages on the phenomenon, I was an expert.

A few days ago, I bought Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect … and the Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers. Kahneman recommended it, as had Nassim Nicholas Taleb (who numbers among my top-three favorite authors).

I also downloaded a podcast on which Rosenzweig was a guest. The host of the podcast asked Rosenzweig about overconfidence. In response, Rosenzweig expressed concern with the term “overconfidence,” pointing out that it’s been documented to represent at least three separate phenomena.

I was annoyed. I was so annoyed, I stopped the podcast. Why was Rosenzweig dampening the glow of my newfound single-prong answer?!

I listened to something else, instead.

The next day, I wondered why I’d been so annoyed. I laughed when I realized the source of my annoyance was … overconfidence.

Facing that reality, I wondered, “Do I want to be right, right now, or admit I wasn’t quite right and seize this chance to get closer to it?”

And then, I looked up the three kinds of overconfidence, the better to identify them precisely, and potentially avoid them in my own words and acts. 

To be honest, I’ve watched The Rise of Skywalker twice.

The first time, I spent the first hour grumbling to myself about how many stupid flaws of human thinking were apparently sustained by biological and non-biological entities across the Star Wars universe.

About an hour into that watching, I encountered a quote that made me go, “Whoa, this was worth it just for that!” After that, I continued watching with fascination instead of grumpiness.

Watching with my family last night made me feel more favorably about the movie. But there was something else to my joy, too: increased understanding thanks to Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Why should I be grumpy about fictional androids and extraterrestrials reflecting human cognitive biases? In the realm of nonfiction, Cathy O’Neil, for example, writes compellingly about how algorithms are actually being used in ways that sometimes entrench or even amplify human biases. Human biases shape algorithms, making them more fundamentally human, in some ways, than a quick glance could reveal.

Why wouldn’t Threepio, in some ways and in some spaces, reflect the biases of his makers?

Beyond that, Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens touched on the ways human visions of the future are limited by current understandings. I thought I’d understood Harari’s reflections on the point when I read Sapiens, but it was only thanks to Kahneman that I really got how much current context constrains human understanding of what’s possible 

From a certain perspective, these limitations can be frustrating. That’s where I was coming from the first time I watched The Rise of Skywalker.

From another perspective, though? There’s a joy in better understanding what it means to be human right now–to be quirkily not-quite-rational and to embrace all this contradictory weirdness while snuggled together with little ones simply lost in one particular, particularly fascinating vision of what could be, in a galaxy that’s simultaneously both faraway and very near our hearts today.

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