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How to Dispel Your Illusions

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Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Daniel Kahneman, New York City, September 2011

In 1955, when Daniel Kahneman was twenty-one years old, he was a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces. He was given the job of setting up a new interview system for the entire army. The purpose was to evaluate each freshly drafted recruit and put him or her into the appropriate slot in the war machine. The interviewers were supposed to predict who would do well in the infantry or the artillery or the tank corps or the various other branches of the army. The old interview system, before Kahneman arrived, was informal. The interviewers chatted with the recruit for fifteen minutes and then came to a decision based on the conversation. The system had failed miserably. When the actual performance of the recruit a few months later was compared with the performance predicted by the interviewers, the correlation between actual and predicted performance was zero.

Kahneman had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and had read a book, Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence by Paul Meehl, published only a year earlier. Meehl was an American psychologist who studied the successes and failures of predictions in many different settings. He found overwhelming evidence for a disturbing conclusion. Predictions based on simple statistical scoring were generally more accurate than predictions based on expert judgment.

A famous example confirming Meehl’s conclusion is the “Apgar score,” invented by the anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar in 1953 to guide the treatment of newborn babies. The Apgar score is a simple formula based on five vital signs that can be measured quickly: heart rate, breathing, reflexes, muscle tone, and color. It does better than the average doctor in deciding whether the baby needs immediate help. It is now used everywhere and saves the lives of thousands of babies. Another famous example of statistical prediction is the Dawes formula for the durability of marriage. The formula is “frequency of love-making minus frequency of quarrels.” Robyn Dawes was a psychologist who worked with Kahneman later. His formula does better than the average marriage counselor in predicting whether a marriage will last.

Having read the Meehl book, Kahneman knew how to improve the Israeli army interviewing system. His new system did not allow the interviewers the luxury of free-ranging conversations with the recruits. Instead, they were required to ask a standard list of factual questions about the life and work of each recruit. The answers were then converted into numerical scores, and the scores were inserted into formulas measuring the aptitude of the recruit for the various army jobs. When the predictions of the new system were compared to performances several months later, the results showed the new system to be much better than the old. Statistics and simple arithmetic tell us more about ourselves than expert intuition.

Reflecting fifty years later on his experience in the Israeli army, Kahneman remarks in Thinking, Fast and Slow that it was not unusual in those days for young people to be given big responsibilities. The country itself was only seven years old. “All its institutions were under construction,” he says, “and someone had to build them.” He was lucky to be given this chance to share in the building of a country, and at the same time to achieve an intellectual insight into human nature. He understood that the failure of the old interview system was a special case of a general phenomenon that he called “the illusion of validity.” At this point, he says, “I had discovered my first cognitive illusion.”

Cognitive illusions are the main theme of his book. A cognitive illusion is a false belief that we intuitively accept as true. The illusion of validity is a false belief in the reliability of our own judgment. The interviewers sincerely believed that they could predict the performance of recruits after talking with them for fifteen minutes. Even after the interviewers had seen the statistical evidence that their belief was an illusion, they still could not help believing it. Kahneman confesses that he himself still experiences the illusion of validity, after fifty years of warning other people against it. He cannot escape the illusion that his own intuitive judgments are trustworthy.

An episode from my own past is curiously similar to Kahneman’s experience in the Israeli army. I was a statistician before I became a scientist. At the age of twenty I was doing statistical analysis of the operations of the British Bomber Command in World War II. The command was then seven years old, like the State of Israel in 1955. All its institutions were under construction. It consisted of six bomber groups that were evolving toward operational autonomy. Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane was the commander of 5 Group, the most independent and the most effective of the groups. Our bombers were then taking heavy losses, the main cause of loss being the German night fighters.

Cochrane said the bombers were too slow, and the reason they were too slow was that they carried heavy gun turrets that increased their aerodynamic drag and lowered their operational ceiling. Because the bombers flew at night, they were normally painted black. Being a flamboyant character, Cochrane announced that he would like to take a Lancaster bomber, rip out the gun turrets and all the associated dead weight, ground the two gunners, and paint the whole thing white. Then he would fly it over Germany, and fly so high and so fast that nobody could shoot him down. Our commander in chief did not approve of this suggestion, and the white Lancaster never flew.

The reason why our commander in chief was unwilling to rip out gun turrets, even on an experimental basis, was that he was blinded by the illusion of validity. This was ten years before Kahneman discovered it and gave it its name, but the illusion of validity was already doing its deadly work. All of us at Bomber Command shared the illusion. We saw every bomber crew as a tightly knit team of seven, with the gunners playing an essential role defending their comrades against fighter attack, while the pilot flew an irregular corkscrew to defend them against flak. An essential part of the illusion was the belief that the team learned by experience. As they became more skillful and more closely bonded, their chances of survival would improve.

When I was collecting the data in the spring of 1944, the chance of a crew reaching the end of a thirty-operation tour was about 25 percent. The illusion that experience would help them to survive was essential to their morale. After all, they could see in every squadron a few revered and experienced old-timer crews who had completed one tour and had volunteered to return for a second tour. It was obvious to everyone that the old-timers survived because they were more skillful. Nobody wanted to believe that the old-timers survived only because they were lucky.

At the time Cochrane made his suggestion of flying the white Lancaster, I had the job of examining the statistics of bomber losses. I did a careful analysis of the correlation between the experience of the crews and their loss rates, subdividing the data into many small packages so as to eliminate effects of weather and geography. My results were as conclusive as those of Kahneman. There was no effect of experience on loss rate. So far as I could tell, whether a crew lived or died was purely a matter of chance. Their belief in the life-saving effect of experience was an illusion.

The demonstration that experience had no effect on losses should have given powerful support to Cochrane’s idea of ripping out the gun turrets. But nothing of the kind happened. As Kahneman found out later, the illusion of validity does not disappear just because facts prove it to be false. Everyone at Bomber Command, from the commander in chief to the flying crews, continued to believe in the illusion. The crews continued to die, experienced and inexperienced alike, until Germany was overrun and the war finally ended.

Another theme of Kahneman’s book, proclaimed in the title, is the existence in our brains of two independent sytems for organizing knowledge. Kahneman calls them System One and System Two. System One is amazingly fast, allowing us to recognize faces and understand speech in a fraction of a second. It must have evolved from the ancient little brains that allowed our agile mammalian ancestors to survive in a world of big reptilian predators. Survival in the jungle requires a brain that makes quick decisions based on limited information. Intuition is the name we give to judgments based on the quick action of System One. It makes judgments and takes action without waiting for our conscious awareness to catch up with it. The most remarkable fact about System One is that it has immediate access to a vast store of memories that it uses as a basis for judgment. The memories that are most accessible are those associated with strong emotions, with fear and pain and hatred. The resulting judgments are often wrong, but in the world of the jungle it is safer to be wrong and quick than to be right and slow.

System Two is the slow process of forming judgments based on conscious thinking and critical examination of evidence. It appraises the actions of System One. It gives us a chance to correct mistakes and revise opinions. It probably evolved more recently than System One, after our primate ancestors became arboreal and had the leisure to think things over. An ape in a tree is not so much concerned with predators as with the acquisition and defense of territory. System Two enables a family group to make plans and coordinate activities. After we became human, System Two enabled us to create art and culture.

The question then arises: Why do we not abandon the error-prone System One and let the more reliable System Two rule our lives? Kahneman gives a simple answer to this question: System Two is lazy. To activate System Two requires mental effort. Mental effort is costly in time and also in calories. Precise measurements of blood chemistry show that consumption of glucose increases when System Two is active. Thinking is hard work, and our daily lives are organized so as to economize on thinking. Many of our intellectual tools, such as mathematics and rhetoric and logic, are convenient substitutes for thinking. So long as we are engaged in the routine skills of calculating and talking and writing, we are not thinking, and System One is in charge. We only make the mental effort to activate System Two after we have exhausted the possible alternatives.

System One is much more vulnerable to illusions, but System Two is not immune to them. Kahneman uses the phrase “availability bias” to mean a biased judgment based on a memory that happens to be quickly available. It does not wait to examine a bigger sample of less cogent memories. A striking example of availability bias is the fact that sharks save the lives of swimmers. Careful analysis of deaths in the ocean near San Diego shows that on average, the death of each swimmer killed by a shark saves the lives of ten others. Every time a swimmer is killed, the number of deaths by drowning goes down for a few years and then returns to the normal level. The effect occurs because reports of death by shark attack are remembered more vividly than reports of drownings. System One is strongly biased, paying more prompt attention to sharks than to riptides that occur more frequently and may be equally lethal. In this case, System Two probably shares the same bias. Memories of shark attacks are tied to strong emotions and are therefore more available to both systems.

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