Thought Experiments

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One of the absolute best things about having this blog is interacting with my readers.

There is something about this format that brings together people with similar interests and perspectives and allows for the mixing of ideas and experiences in unusual ways.

And on this blog, if there were to be an MVR award (for most valuable reader,) it would probably go to Robert.

Robert and I have probably written novels at this point in the form of heated dialogue going back-and-fort over various hot button topics.

I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Robert, but I do feel that I know him.

And if I were to describe him based on nothing more than his comments in this blog I would describe him with the following adjectives.

  • Intense
  • Thoughtful
  • Frugal
  • Honest
  • Passionate
  • Logical
  • Generous (particularly with his expertise. Have you seen his comments in response to this post?)
  • Curious
  • Stubborn
  • Scientific
  • Open minded
  • Conservative/libertarian

In other words, he is exactly the sort of chap but I’m apt to enjoy spending hours with tossing back-and-forth ideas over a coffee or a beer.

I believe we process information in a compatible way, and even have similar interests, strengths and weaknesses.

But there is the sticky issue of our political leanings. By that metric we are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

I am a staunch progressive, and he is a staunch conservative/libertarian. And despite all of our conversation I don’t believe that either one of us has moved an inch towards the center.

As I mentioned previously, I’m happily working my way through this book by Daniel Kahneman. And I’m learning so much from it.

The central insight of the book is that it gives us a model of the working structure of our minds.

To review, there are two systems that control our thoughts and decision-making.

“System 1” is intuitive, automatic, associative, fast, efficient, and in control most of the time.

“System 2” is deliberative, effortful, rational, statistical, slow, high effort, and in the background most of the time.

And I may be extrapolating a bit far here, but it seems to me that system 1 develops without much intention and is largely an effortless product of our cognitive environment and genes.

Attribution is a difficult thing, and we often unconsciously paint ourselves in the best light, but I feel my “system 1” comes from my own unique life experiences. And particularly my way of seeing the world politically is set deep within my mind (and may be indelible?)

And in looking back, these are some factors that I believe led to my unapologetically liberal political outlook.

  • My previously catholic grandmother (with whom I had a particularly close relationship with as a boy) who married my Jewish grandfather and fled Nazi Germany in the 30s. She was viciously liberal and could be found until her dying days protesting at least once a week at City Hall in Providence Rhode Island against the Contras, or Israeli occupation, apartheid, or any other perceived act of oppression.
  • Growing up in an extremely liberal secular Jewish family. (I think the only thing we ever agreed on was progressivism.)
  • Growing up in a diverse and urban environment.
  • Intimately interacting with lots of different types of people as a doctor including poor people, and rich people, and everyone in between.
  • Having experienced different levels of wealth myself, everything from starving student to well-off doctor.

And it is not hard for me to imagine that Robert could construct a similar list of reasons for his own deep felt conservatism.

But for whatever reason, our “system 1’s” are set in their particular patterns. So we have different biases. We have very different assumptions.

Our intuitive way of thinking makes us blind to certain factors, while exquisitely sensitive to others.

So when we are thinking in a non-statistical/logical way. (Which, remember, is how we all think most of the time) we all see completely different worlds.

Some nice examples of how system 1 dominates our perception of reality from the book include:

“Our blindness to reality, and our blindness to our own blindness.” 

Take for example this video. (Please watch it before reading on.  There will be a test…)

Chances are if you’ve not seen this video before, and you were trying your hardest to focus on the task, you completely missed the gorilla.

And I notice this tendency and myself all the time. If I am in an argument with someone and we look at the same piece of data, I will sometimes unintentionally interpret it in an (often inaccurate) manner that most supports my own point of view, so focused am I on my desired reality.

“The affect heuristic.”

Heuristic means the unconscious substitution of a simpler question for a more difficult question.

The affect heuristic states that when we think about something about which we have a preformed emotion (from our system 1,) we often interpret the data (with system 2) to fit our emotion.

Barak Obama is a president who I have been waiting for for a long long time. He is thoughtful, progressive, and charismatic. His rhetoric is all about flattening out the playing field and evening up the score, themes that have always struck a chord with me.

Because I like him so much I routinely give him the benefit of the doubt.

Put another way I surely would be have been more skeptical about big pharma giveaways, the use of drones, and NSA spying if George Bush were still the president.

“Availability”

Availability refers to our human tendency to substitute how memorable something is for how likely it is.

Availability is why people overestimate the danger of accidents, and underestimate the danger of heart attacks. (It is rare to see a headline such as “middle-aged man dies of heart attack,” and so this risk is harder to recall.)

This means that our idea of what is likely to happen in the world is unconsciously shaped by our experiences and references.

So if I watch MSNBC and it’s coverage of gun violence, I am likely to overestimate the danger of gun violence, and underestimate the danger of not wearing a seatbelt.

In fact the book is chock-full of examples of how our minds work involving fun and clever thought experiments and detailed explanations of our own predictable biases.

Reading this book is an active process (System 2 gets a work out.). This is why it’s taking me so long to get through it. Although I can finish a spy novel in a day or two this book is taking weeks. Each chapter is deep pool of original thought that is actively changing the way I think about thinking. I am constantly being shown my own blindspots, even though I know the trick is coming.  To read this book is to really think, not merely absorb.

And the way in which it is opening my eyes to my own biases and irrationalities, is very empathy inducing.

Even if my unconscious and inescapable assumptions will never be aligned with Robert’s on many topics, I can reepeatedly see that my own cognitive lenses are what create my own blind spots.

Which means that Robert’s blind spots are created in a similar manner.

And having the vocabulary to understand the structure of thinking, helps me to see how irrational we all are.

I feel this makes me open to new arguments and will make it easier for me to learn from others with different viewpoints in the future.

But don’t worry (or hope) too much. My system 1 is pretty well formed. No matter what I read, I will likely always remain a liberal, frugal, pizza loving fool.

PS.  Bonus question:  What heuristic does the title picture of this post demonstrate?

Comments below, please…

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10 Responses to “Thought Experiments”

  1. Robert July 18, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    Wow! You can’t even take a couple weeks off for vacation around here without becoming the (counter)illustration of blinded thinking! LOL.

    I think a problem with System 1 is that it governs our first reactions–especially those made under pressure. That’s good when we are needing a rapid response, such as when facing a wild animal. But not so good when talking with other people about important subjects. Learning how to place System 1 on hold long enough to inform it with System 2 may be a learning process that takes a lifetime. It is pretty well-known that radicals and hotheads tend to tame/cool as they age. Is that from learning to let System 2 get more involved? Or is it hormones? Tiredness?

    Behavioral investing research has made much of System 1 vs. 2 and the impact on the behavior of investors. It seems that pattern recognition happens instantaneously (System 1?) but can be misleading. Maybe it is that pattern recognition tendency that drives our stereotyping/pigeonholing of other people (politically, religiously, etc.) as well?

  2. Miles Dividend M.D. July 18, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    Robert,

    Not having even finished the book, I’m certainly no expert, but so far there has been no evidence presented that older people are less system 1 dominant than younger people.

    Perhaps system 1 slowly changes as we age to incorporate our many past failures of prediction into its immediate impressions? (AKA we become humbled by our own failures),,,, I kind of doubt it though.

    Another possibility is that as we age we gain more expertise so our predictive ability is improved. In the book Kahneman uses the example of chess masters who have more accurate system 1 intuition and are able to quickly see the 4 or 5 best moves on the board to choose from, due to past experience.

    One of the most interesting aspects of system 1 is how it dramatically effects system 2 processes without any consciousness. (anchoring, priming, the halo effect, and the affect heuristic are a few of the many examples of this.) The experiments presented in the book are compelling.

    If you haven’t read it yet, put a copy on hold at the library. It is profound. It is probably worth just buying it, as this is a book that you will come back to again and again.

    AZ

  3. Alistair July 18, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    Another great read (and watch) Alexi!

    I very much feel connected to you via your blog. Reconnected of course, since it has been a couple decades. I still have a backlog of posts that I want to go through, but virtually every point you make resounds with my own beliefs and outlook on how to make the most out of our life (and money).

    I many never attain transformational status, but I do my best to lead a gratifying and efficient life in small ways (I hope to share with you eventually).

    So thank you for your extremely well written, reflexive, and certainly useful advice.

    For the bonus: the title picture demonstrates that I should pay closer attention to sexy, sexy ladders!

    or, as Bill Cosby said (in the Fat Albert intro): “…if you don’t watch out you may learn something!”

    • Miles Dividend M.D. July 18, 2014 at 11:52 pm #

      Allistair,

      I’m so happy you like the blog. (And It’s been way too long.)

      Who cares about “transformational status” anyway?

      I’d gladly settle for happiness and honesty.

      King Kong is striking in the title picture. No?

      AZ

      • Robert July 19, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

        Nice. A consistent gorilla theme throughout! It was the very first thing I noticed! LOL.

        • Miles Dividend M.D. July 19, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

          Are you sure it was the first thing you noticed? If so you might have to mix in some meat. Low T!

          AZ :)

  4. Kat J July 19, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Alexi and Robert, you two are among my most favorite friends-still-to-be-met….. I truly and absolutely appreciate the banter, the education and the humor that you two freely share. How apropos to have a blog post acknowledging the richness of your communications. Thank you both for your sharing of whichever mind you use to contribute here!

    Salutations from the antipodes,
    Kat

    ps Aliexi, I’ve been meaning to ask for a while, do you know of a way to still pay from things like my mortgage via a credit card?

    • Robert July 19, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

      Thanks, Kat! I’m glad I found this corner of the www to hang out in. It is fun to exchange views with someone so different, yet then find the points of similarity as well, and have a civil conversation.
      Alexi may have better ideas, but if your mortgage is small, there’s always Amazon payments.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. July 19, 2014 at 10:43 pm #

      Kat,

      Thanks! You are an MVR too!

      In terms of paying your mortgage with credit card it is quite easy in the US. Down under? I have no idea.

      Here the easiest method would be to load up Serve/Bluebird with moneypaks/visa gift cards and writing a check right fron Serve/BB.

      People also report success paying via evolvemoney.com using visa gift cards purchased with CC.

      AZ

      • Kat J July 22, 2014 at 2:59 am #

        My house in Washington State :) Might as well keep collecting miles to travel from here to the US.

        Thanks for the advice, I’m following up!

        Kat

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