"The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained." – Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to see a live one hour interview with Michael Lewis at the Annenberg Center about his new book The Undoing Project. Everyone attending the lecture received a complimentary copy of the book. Being a huge fan of Lewis after reading Liar's Poker, Boomerang, The Big Short, Flash Boys, and Moneyball, I was interested to hear about his new project. This was a completely new direction from his financial crisis books. I wasn't sure whether it would keep my interest, but the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their research into the psychology of judgement and decision making, creating a cognitive basis for common human errors that arise from heuristics and biases, was an eye opener.
In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions. They are mental shortcuts that usually involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others. These rules work well under most circumstances, but they can lead to systematic deviations from logic, probability or rational choice theory. The resulting errors are called "cognitive biases" and many different types have been documented.
Heuristics usually govern automatic, intuitive judgments but can also be used as deliberate mental strategies when working from limited information. Kahneman and Tversky created the heuristics and biases research program, which studies how people make real-world judgments and the conditions under which those judgments are unreliable. Their research challenged the idea that human beings are rational actors, but provided a theory of information processing to explain how people make estimates or choices. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work in behavioral economics.
To put their research into terms the common person can understand, human decision making is extremely flawed due to our biases, feelings, irrational thought processes and beliefs in falsehoods. It's over-confidence in our decision making ability that causes us the most problems. For the average person this can result in financial hardship, frustration or a premature death.
When high level government officials, bankers or corporate executives make flawed decisions due to their biases, it can mean war, financial disasters, depressions, or disastrous legislation like Obamacare. Hubris, egotism and faulty reasoning, as noted by Mark Twain one hundred and fifty years ago, can kill you and in some cases lead to war and unthinkable levels of death and destruction.