We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and underestimate the role of chance.

—Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most subtly disturbing books that I have ever read. This is due to Kahneman’s ability to undermine our delusions. The book is one long demonstration that we are not nearly as clever as we think we are. Not only that, but the architecture of our brains makes us blind to our own blindness. We commit systematic cognitive errors repeatedly without ever suspecting that we do so. We make a travesty of rationality while considering ourselves the most reasonable of creatures.

As Kahneman repeatedly demonstrates, we are particularly bad when it comes to statistical information: distributions, tendencies, randomness. Our brains seem unable to come to terms with chance. Kahneman gives the example of the “hot hand” illusion in basketball—when we believe a player is more likely to make the next shot after making the last one—as an example of our insistence on projecting tendencies onto random sets of data. Another example is from history. Looking at the bombed-out areas of their city, Londers began to suspect that the German Luftwaffe was deliberately sparing certain sections of the city for some unknown reason. However, mathematical analysis revealed that the bombing pattern was consistent with randomness.

The fundamental error we humans commit is a refusal to see chance. Chance, for our brains, is not an explanation at all, but rather something to be explained. We want to see a cause—a reason why something is the way it is. We do this automatically. When we see videos of animals, we automatically attribute to them human emotions and motivations. Even when we talk about inanimate things like genes and computers, we cannot help using causal language. We say genes “want” to reproduce, or a computer “is trying” to do such and such. 

A straightforward consequence of this tendency is our tendency to see ourselves as “in control” of random outcomes. The best example of this may be the humble lottery ticket. Even though the chance of winning the lottery is necessarily equal for any given number, people are more likely to buy a ticket when they can pick their own number. This is because of the illusion that some numbers are “luckier” than others, or that there is a skill involved in choosing a number. This is called the ‘illusion of control,’ and it is pervasive. Just as we humans cannot help seeing events as causally connected, we also crave a sense of control: we want to be that cause.

The illusion of control is well-demonstrated, and is likely one of the psychological underpinnings of religious and superstitious behavior. When we are faced with an outcome largely out of our control, we grasp at straws. This is famously true in baseball, especially with batters, who are notoriously prone to superstition. When even the greatest possible skill cannot guarantee regular outcomes, we supplement skill with “luck”—lucky clothes, lucky foods, lucky routines, and so on.

The origins of our belief in gods may have something to do with this search for control. We tend to see natural events like droughts and plagues as impregnated with meaning, as if they were built by conscious creatures like us. And as our ancestors strove to influence the natural world with ritual, we imagined ourselves as causes, too—as able to control, to some extent, the wrath of the gods by appeasing them.

As with all cognitive illusions, these notions are insulated from negative evidence. Disproving them is all but impossible. Once you are convinced that you are in control of an event, any (random) success will reinforce your idea, and any (random) failure can be attributed to some slight mistake on your part. The logic is thus self-reinforcing. If, for example, you believe that eating carrots will guarantee you bat a home run, then any failure to bat a home run can be attributed to not having eaten just the right amount of carrots, at the right time, and so on. This sort of logic is so nefarious because, once you begin to think along these lines, experience cannot provide the route out.

I bring up this illusion because I cannot help seeing instances of it in our response to the coronavirus. In the face of danger and uncertainty, everyone naturally wants a sense of control. We ask: What can I do to make myself safe? Solutions take the form of strangely specific directives: stay six feet apart, wash your hands for twenty seconds, sneeze into your elbow. And many people are going further than the health authorities are advising—wearing masks and gloves even when they are not sick, disinfecting all their groceries, obsessively cleaning clothes, and so on. I even saw a man the other day who put little rubber bags on his dog’s paws, presumably so that the dog would not track coronavirus back into the house. 

Now, do not get me wrong: I think we should follow the advice of the relevant specialists. But there does seem to be some uncertainty in the solutions, which does not inspire confidence. For example, here in Europe we are being told to stand one meter apart, while in the United States the distance is six feet—nearly twice as far. Here in Spain I have seen recommendations for handwashing from between 40 and 60 seconds, while in the United States it is 20 seconds. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that these numbers are arbitrary. 

If Michael Osterholm is to be believed—and he is one of the United States’ top experts on infectious disease—then many of these measures are not based on hard evidence. According to him, it is quite possible that the virus spreads more than six feet in the air. And he doubts that all of our disinfecting has much effect on the virus’s spread, as he thinks that it is primarily not through surface contact but through breathing that we catch it. Keep in mind that, a week or so ago, we were told that we could stop it through handwashing and avoiding touching our own faces.

Telling people that they are powerless is not, however, a very inspiring message. Perhaps there is good psychology in advocating certain rituals, even if they are not particularly effective, since it can aid compliance in other, more effective, measures like social distancing. Rituals do serve a purpose, both psychological and social. Rituals help to focus people’s attention, to reassure them, and to increase social cohesion. These are not negligible benefits. 

So far, I think that the authorities have only been partially effective in their messaging to the public. They have been particularly bad when it comes to masks. This is because the public was told two contradictory messages: Masks are useless, and doctors and nurses need them. I think people caught on to this dissonance, and thus continued to buy and wear masks in large numbers. Meanwhile, the truth seems to be that masks, even surgical masks, are better than nothing (though Osterholm is very skeptical of that). Thus, if the public were told this truth—that masks might help a little bit, but since we do not have enough of them we ought to let healthcare workers use them—perhaps there would be less hoarding. 

Another failure on the mask front has been due to bad psychology. People were told only to wear masks when they were sick. However, if we follow this measure, masks will become a mark of infection, and will instantly turn wearers into pariahs. (What is more, many people are infectious when they do not know it.) In this case, ritualistic use of masks may be wise, since it will eliminate the shame while perhaps marginally reducing infection rates.

The wisest course, then, may indeed involve a bit of ritual, at least for the time being. In the absence of conclusive evidence for many of these measures, it is likely the best that we can do. I will certainly abide by what the health authorities instruct me to do. But the lessons of psychology do cause a little pinprick in my brain, as I repeatedly wonder if we are just grasping at a sense of control in a situation that is for the most part completely beyond our means to control it.

I certainly crave a sense of control. Though I have not been obsessively disinfecting everything in my house, I have been obsessively reading about the virus, hoping that knowledge will give me some sort of power. So far it has not, and I suspect this is not going to change.

2 thoughts on “Quotes & Commentary #74: Kahneman

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