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Are We Really That Predictive?

Not too long ago I have started reading books about cognitive psychology. Not that it was planned; it started with just how everything else starts; a book hunt in Neelkhet, then finding a book with a nice cover story, then a new-found interest.

Only this time it started to last and I downloaded a whole bunch of pdfs with it. It all started with the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Now let’s talk about this book.
Thinking Fast and Slow
Our thoughts are not really that tough to interpret. We tend to overestimate our capabilities wildly, respond more earnestly to losses rather than profits. Also, while planning we neglect base rates and think our chances as the highest possible (sometimes better than best case scenario), any incident whether historic or financial or political looks more likely to us after it happens (hindsight bias, one of the most fascinating types I find in all of us). Even after 99% of startups fail we start new startups. We also follow the crowd blindly without thinking about why we are doing it. These behaviors are not that hard to predict albeit hard to swallow or accept.

Well we all find out random irrationalities in our life but to write a whole book about it or studying it is as an actual science hit me harder than it should, and I guess could result the same for some other people too.

Discussing the results of a lifetime of research in a single article is not a task that I want to achieve, so let’s just discuss human behavior after the recent tragic accident in Nepal.

Tragic as it was but this type of accidents is rare, very rare. The actual rate of fatalities for a passenger is 1 in 4.7 million or 0.000021276%. But this incident will probably be on our minds for our entire lifetime probably till our death. Because our mind does not work statistically, rather it works on memory. The possibility of an event is measured by the quickness we can pull up a memory of such an event. The probability of an aviation accident has not increased with the BS211 accident in Nepal. But what did we do?

We completely ignored the chances of an accident before that incident and started to overly think about it just after the accident. This is completely irrational to say the least but that’s how human mind works.

Exactly the reason why a few terrorism incidents can shake up a whole society and the rationale why entities like Islamic State can wreck mental havoc. Or why the thoughts of climate changing or end of the world realities does not hit us as hard as it should because none of us experienced it in our lifetime till now so we ignore its chances. Not good news for a world facing something it had never experienced.

Can we overcome it ??

Economist Daniel Kahneman suggests the only way to do so is to give utmost importance to base rates, statistical rates of an incident which can give you the best picture and make you ignore the memory bias which is so innate to human behaviour.

So next time you are about to take any decision make sure you do not respond to it by searching your memory rather than checking previous records and estimating your chances with respect to base rates thus avoiding over estimation or complete ignorance.

Soham Irtiza Swapnil
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