I typically find the argument that increased choice in the modern world is “tyrannising” us to be less than compelling. On this blog, I have approvingly quoted Jim Manzi’s warning against extrapolating the results of an experiment on two Saturdays in a particular store - the famous jam experiment - into “grandiose claims about the benefits of choice to society.” I recently excerpted a section from Bob Sugden’s excellent The Community of Advantage: A Behavioural Economist’s Defence of the Market on the idea that choice restriction “appeals to culturally conservative or snobbish attitudes of condescension towards some of the preferences to which markets cater.
Summary: An important book describing how many experts make decisions, but with a lingering question mark about how good these decisions actually are. Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions is somewhat of a classic, with the version I read being a 20th anniversary edition issued by MIT Press. Klein’s work on expert decision making has reached a broad audience through Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and Klein’s adversarial collaboration with Daniel Kahneman (pdf) has given his work additional academic credibility.
As a record largely for myself, below are some notes in review of 2018 and a few thoughts about 2019. Writing: I started 2018 intending to post to this blog at least once a week, which I did. I set this objective as I had several long stretches in 2017 where I dropped the writing habit. I write posts in batches and schedule in advance, so the weekly target did not require a weekly focus.
I did not find Carol Dweck’s Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential to be a compelling translation of academic work into a popular book. To all the interesting debates concerning growth mindset - such as Scott Alexander’s series of growth mindset posts (1, 2, 3 and 4), the recent meta-analysis (with Carol Dweck response), and replication of the effect - the book adds little material that might influence your views.
The best books I read in 2018 - generally released in other years - are below. Where I have reviewed, the link leads to that review. Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) - Changed my mind, and gave me a framework for thinking about the problem that I didn’t have before. Annie Duke, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (2018) - While I have many small quibbles with the content, and it could easily have been a long-form article, I liked the overarching approach and framing.
Confirmation bias In Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein writes: Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky (1982) present a range of studies showing that decision makers use a variety of heuristics, simple procedures that usually produce an answer but are not foolproof. … The research strategy was not to demonstrate how poorly we make judgments but to use these findings to uncover the cognitive processes underlying judgments of likelihood.
From the abstract of an interesting paper Heuristics as Bayesian inference under extreme priors by Paula Parpart and colleagues: Simple heuristics are often regarded as tractable decision strategies because they ignore a great deal of information in the input data. One puzzle is why heuristics can outperform full-information models, such as linear regression, which make full use of the available information. These “less-is-more” effects, in which a relatively simpler model outperforms a more complex model, are prevalent throughout cognitive science, and are frequently argued to demonstrate an inherent advantage of simplifying computation or ignoring information.
My latest contribution at Behavioral Scientist is up. Here’s an excerpt: Modern discussions of whether humans will be replaced by algorithms typically frame the problem as a choice between humans on one hand or complex statistical and machine learning models on the other. For problems such as image recognition, this is probably the right frame. Yet much of the past success of algorithms relative to human judgment points us to a third option: the mechanical application of simple models and heuristics.
In reviewing Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, John Kay writes: Since Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis, published in 1947, mainstream economics has focused on an axiomatic approach to rational behaviour. The overriding requirement is for consistency of choice: if A is chosen when B is available, B will never be selected when A is available. If choices are consistent in this sense, their outcomes can be described as the result of optimisation in the light of a well-defined preference ordering.
From the opening of Lola Lopes’s 1991 article The Rhetoric of Irrationality (pdf) on the heuristics and biases literature: Not long ago, Newsweek ran a feature article describing how researchers at a major midwestern business school are exploring the process of choice in hopes of helping business executives and business students improve their ‘often rudimentary decision-making skills’ … [T]he researchers have, in the author’s words, ‘sadly’ concluded that ‘most people’ are ‘woefully muddled information processors who stumble along ill-chosen shortcuts to reach bad conclusions’.