Jonathan Cantor points me to an opinion piece by psychologist Reid Hastie, “Our Gift for Good Stories Blinds Us to the Truth.”
I have mixed feelings about Hastie’s article. On one hand I do think his point is important. It’s not new to me, but presumably it’s new to many readers of bloomberg.com. I like Hastie’s book (with Robyn Dawes), Rational Choice in an Uncertain World, and I’m predisposed to like anything new that he writes.
On the other hand, there’s something about Hastie’s article that bothered me. It seemed a bit smug, as if he thinks he understands the world and wants to just explain it to the rest of us. That could be fine—after all, Hastie is a distinguished psychology researcher—but I wasn’t so clear that he’s so clear on what he’s saying. For example:
The human brain is designed to support two modes of thought: visual and narrative. These forms of thinking are universal across human societies throughout history, develop reliably early in individuals’ lives, and are associated with specialized regions of the brain.
Is that really true? How does math fit into this picture? Or music? Music has a sort of narrative structure but it doesn’t seem quite like a story, either.
What isn’t universal or natural is the kind of highly structured cognitive processes that underlie logical and mathematical thinking.
Not natural . . . really? Maybe math is not universal, but certainly it’s natural. I was doing it when I was 2 years old. And music, that does seem to be universal, no?
The mathematics of causal reasoning has recently experienced a major change, with the widespread acceptance of Bayesian Causal Networks as a normative, rational model for causal induction and reasoning.
Ummm . . . maybe Hastie is a bit too accepting of this particular story! I think Bayesian inference is great—I wrote two books on the topic!—but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “a normative, rational model for causal induction and reasoning.” But I suppose that if I feel able to opine about psychology, I can’t object to Hastie expressing his views on statistics.
Hastie continues with a famous example:
The legendary theorists of decision-making Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman illustrated [our desire for stories] with the following pair of judgment questions: One group of respondents was asked, “What is the probability that a massive flood will occur sometime in the next year and drown more than 1,000 Americans?” The typical estimate was low (less than 20 percent). But, when another comparable sample of respondents was asked, “What is the probability that an earthquake in California will be followed by a flood in the next year that drowns at least 1,000 Americans?” the estimates were significantly higher.
The irrationality is that the second question is about a much more specific event, an earthquake that would be only one of the several reasons for the flood referred to in the first question. It is logically impossible for the second probability to be higher than the first. But, because the second question provides a plausible scenario for the unlikely outcome in the first query, our innate preference for a good story trumps our logical thinking skills.
This story is a great example of the availability heuristic, but I don’t see how it demonstrates a problem with “our logical thinking skills.” When responding to the first question, many people have difficulty visualizing that massive flood. The second question gives a clue. But I don’t see the combination of responses (coming from different sets of people) as indicating irrationality. Most people are not flood experts. They answer the questions as best they can, and when you give more information they will use it.
I hate to get all Gerd Gigerenzer on you here, but what’s the point of saying that this “trumps our logical thinking skills”? I think Kahneman and Tversky did better, decades ago, by writing of “heuristics and biases.”
What’s the political message here?
The article under discussion concludes with:
So the next time you hear a good story about why the financial recession, or any other economically significant event, was caused by a single collection of bad actors — or how a simple linear narrative “explains” an important event — remember this: Just as we are wired to like a diet rich in fats and sugars, we have an appetite for simple, coherent narratives. Neither habit is good for our long-term health.
(Reid Hastie, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is a contributor to Business Class. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Aaahhhh, now I get the message: The financial crisis is nobody’s fault! Let’s put aside the politics of blame, let’s all work together etc etc. OK, fine. Does this apply to all catastrophes? If you know someone in a plane that crashed, are we allowed to check if the pilot was stoned before takeoff? If someone takes $100,000 from you on a fraudulent pretext, and you catch him, are you allowed to try to collect? Or is it only in the financial crisis that we should set aside all “good stories” and “simple linear narratives”?
I agree that our financial problems our complex, and I’m all for warning people about the simplicity of storytelling, but I’m also a bit suspicious of someone from the University of Chicago School of Business telling me not to think about stories of the financial crisis.
Also, I’m surprised that, when people estimate “the probability that a massive flood will occur sometime in the next year and drown more than 1,000 Americans” as less than 20%, Hastie characterizes that estimate as “low.” Even Katrina drowned only 387 people (according to this source which I found by googling Katrina drownings). If a 20% chance of this “massive flood” occurring in a one-year period is “low,” I’d be interested in what Hastie thinks is a more reasonable probability estimate.
Hastie’s article bothered me for two reasons. First, what does it mean to it describe “the kind of highly structured cognitive processes that underlie logical and mathematical thinking” as “unnatural.” I don’t quite get what “natural” means here.
Second, I see an implicit political message, which seems to be that we shouldn’t blame anyone for the financial crisis:
We know there was no single cause or event that set in motion the crisis and that the truth is complex and multicausal. So why do we keep seeking the easy answers? It may be that we are hard-wired to do so.
Or, as the guy said in Repo Man, “it’s society’s fault.”
I contacted bloomberg.com, the publishers of the above-linked article, but was told:
We typically don’t publish opeds responding to articles we’ve published, though we welcome letters to the editor. We also post corrections to pieces containing factual errors and would gladly review any objections you have to Mr. Hastie’s column.
Fair enough, but in this case I don’t think the problems would be resolved by a correction note. I’m more bothered by the totality of the piece. For example, the claim that logical reasoning is “unnatural” is not quite a “factual error” but it still seems wrong to me.
P.S. Someone who knows the judgment and decision making field better than I do writes:
I don’t think that Reid has a political agenda here. (He has only been at Chicago for a few years, and Chicago’s School of Business is not monolithic.) . . . To say that blame narratives are oversimplified is not the same as saying that nobody should be blamed; you may be reading the latter subtext into his text.
So maybe I was being unfair. Although I’d feel a little better about Hastie’s column if he’d clarified that, even though stories can be oversimplified, the “life is complicated” defense shouldn’t be used to get people off the hook.
Also, I’m still unhappy about the claim that logical and mathematical reasoning is “unnatural.” But this fits with the innumeracy of thinking there’s a greater-than-20%-chance of a major flood in any given year. I feel that, to Hastie, numbers are just words. Which is consistent with the idea that mathematical reasoning is unnatural to him.