March 4, 2013

Charlie Munger on "24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgement"

I listened to a talk yesterday by Charlie Munger, a bigshot at Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett's investment firm). (via)

I took notes on the talk because it was interesting and conducive to note taking (being a list and all). They are not out of line with the content of this blog so I thought I would post them. Although I would recommend listening to the talk if you have time. In a way, most of it is common sense, but I think framing these tendencies and addressing them in this way can be very helpful.

24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgement

1. Underrecognition of the power of reinforcement/incentives
He also talks about "Man With A Hammer Syndrome", the tendency of people look at everything through the same lens.

2. Simple psychological denial

3. Incentive-caused bias (both in your own mind and also of trusted advisor--where it causes agency costs) (avoid cognitive dissonance)
This is essentially the Upton Sinclair quote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

4. Bias from consistency and commitment tendency (particularly biased toward expressed and hard-won conclusions) (This is a particularly strong bias.)
Once you think or say something you are biased toward it in the future.

6. Bias from pavlovian association
* coke wants to associated with lots of good things
* persian messenger syndrome--still exists: bad for the messenger
* raising price of alternative product often raises sales because we think higher priced is better
* what causes information
* bias from skinnerian conditioning--skinner created superstitious pidgeons
* the accounting system here is really important--loose accounting standards are just inviting bad behavior

7. Bias from reciprocation tendency (including the tendency when on a roll to act as other people expect)
It is easy to be a patsy for "compliance practicitioners".
Salespeople ask for a lot and then back off: experiment where people are asked to take juvenile deliquents to the zoo 2 for two days? Ok how about just one? (this technique gets way more people to sign up than just asking for one day a week)

8. Bias from overinfluence from social proof (from conclusions of others)
"better to be roughly right than precisely wrong" ~ Keynes

9. Bias from contrast-caused distortions in perception, sensation, and cognition
We percieve things on a contrast scale with quantum effects.
* magicians remove watches
* cognition mimics sensation--people are manipulating you all day long
* marriage
* frog in boiling water

10. Bias from over-influence from authority

11. Bias from deprival super-reaction syndrome

12. Bias from chemical dependency--distorts all other reality very easily

13. Bias from gambling compulsion

Variable reinforcement and Skinner (he gives a gambling example--but is clear that this bias is not only reason gambling is popular--e.g. people love to pick their own numbers)

14. Liking distortion

15. Disliking distortion
Man with a hammer syndrome and Skinner himself: 4-5 of these tendencies combine to create this syndrome.
Revised quote: "In the last analysis every profession is a [subconscious psychological tendency] against the laity"

16. Bias from the non-mathematical nature of the brain and its tendency to get probability wrong
We have whole heuristics of misjudgement, like "availability". The availability [e.g. of coke] changes behavior. But it isn't the lack of availability that distorts your judgement.
You have to train yourself to run down this list--these tendencies make thoughts unavailable because you jump to new conclusions.
Example of the trusted employee that does something wrong/illegal and you don't punish them because of many combined biases.
If we don't then evil behavior spreads.

17. Bias from overinfluence from extra-vivid evidence

18. Mental confusion caused by information not arrayed in the mind and theory structures creating sound generalization developed in response to the question why. Also misinfluence from information that apparently but not really answers the question why also failure to obtain deserved influence by not properly explaining why.
"you've got to array facts on theory structures answering the question why"
If you want to pursuade somebody you have to tell them why (show people incentives for them).

19. Other normal limitations of sensation, memory, cognition, and knowledge

22. Stress induced mental changes, small and large, temporary and permanent.

Pavlov's dogs had total reversal of their conditioning under stress.

23. Other common mental ilnesses and declines including the tendency to lose ability through disuse.

24. Mental and organizational confusion from "Say-Something Syndrome".
E.g.: honey bees do incoherent dances when the nectar is straight above the hive because they don't have a genetic program to describe that direction.
You have to make sure people with "say something syndrome" don't affect decisions

He provided a bit of a FAQ at the end. Questions included:

What happens when these tendencies combine?
Answer: The combination greatly increases the power to change behavior.
-Alcoholics Anonymous
-Milgrim experiment
-contrast principle, commitment and consistency tendency
-"lollapalooza effects"
-"what you should search for in life is the combination"
-McDonnell Douglas airliner evacuation disaster--they did a disasterous test twice: decided to do it, authorities told you to do it, incentive-caused bias, etc...
-Open-outcry auction
-Institution of the board of directors

Isn't this list improperly tautological?
Answer: yes. And there is overlap, etc...

What good is knowing these things?
Answer: These tendencies are partly good--in fact, they are mostly good rather than bad and that's why they are programmed into us by physical and cultural evolution. This thought system is very useful in spreading good thinking and good conduct.
Some of where these tendencies can be used to good effect:
-Use of simulators in pilot training
-Clinical training in medical schools. "watch one, do one, teach one"
-Rules of the US constitutional convention --totally secret, no votes until the final vote
-Use of "granny's rule": you don't get the ice cream unless you eat your carrots--do the unpleasant and important first
-HBS's emphasis on decision trees -- looking at elementary probability
-Postmortems at Johnson & Johnson
-Darwin paid always extra attention to the disconfirming evidence

What special-knowledge problems lie buried in the list?
"damn the paradoxes"
the more people learn about it, the more attenuated the effects of the list get
--the manipulation still works even though you know if you do it

How should the best of psych and econ interrelate?
Answer: There are two views of the relationship between psychology and economics.
-thermodynamics model--some economists like thermodynamics model
thermodynamics model is overstrained--knowledge from these different soft sciences has to be reconciled--behavioral economists are bending econ rules
-equinoxes: the world would be much easier for climatologists if there wasn't a little wobble. in many ways psych may just add a little wobble

Miscelaneous Direct and Indirect Quotes from the Talk:
"all reality has to respect all other reality"

"the lord is subtle but not malicious"

"wanted to get rich so he could be independent"

people are trained to follow the ideas of others in academia

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