The onus is on us to think better

Who are you?

A fox or a hedgehog?

Do you tend to take rapid decisions even if faced with low evidence?
Or mull and deliberate over possibilities?
Perhaps you think through the circumstances, even though people are losing their head.

Quick decision making is valued in our modern civilization. We have subconsciously associated itself with confidence, life-force and ‘tenacity’. However, decision making in reality is not a race. It is a game of chess. And like any game of strategy, one has to think deeply through the options.

We seldom do.

I myself have fallen to this serious flaw in my past. And as I write this, I am trying to completely uproot this vice in me. Its hard, because thinking rationally is tough. Our brains which operate on that level are lazy, demand lots of energy and are prone to fatigue.

But as they say- in the land of blinds, the one eyed man is the king. In a land of System 1 thinkers, a barely decent System 2 thinker is the king.

But has our education trained us to think rationally? Has the responsibility entrusted to our knowledge providers, to our teachers, parents, schools worked for our benefit?

The answer is a vehement NO.

We have failed ourselves in learning to think well and we have failed in teaching the same.


Philip Tetlock in his book Expert Political Judgements: How good is it?How can we know? presents a mind boggling finding. Over a course of thousands of decision making problems (easily running to north of 10,000) he analysed the ability of people to make decisions. He categorised them on the basis of their dominant framework of thinking.

That is, whether a certain group tends to take extreme positions, lacks the ability to rationally account for contradictory evidence etc (hedgehogs), or they take very calculated, thoughtful decisions always recognising that there are pitfalls in everything (foxes).

In short, hedgehogs have a single dominant frame of thinking, foxes have multiple framework of thinking which are often mutually contradictory. With the foxes because they are able to not only understand the differing forces shaping an event, but also judge the relative strength of such ‘forces’ they tend to take a ‘centrist’ position. Probability guides their actions and not beliefs.

Tetlock involves even more categories of people – hedge-foxes (a combination of two , with hedgehogs dominating), or fox-hogs (foxes dominating), mindless algorithms or even the base rate exploration which Daniel Kahnemann explores in his book Thinking Fast and Slow . Then he considers, how does a moderate amount of “case recognition” look like (that is mindless algorithms + some amount of human intelligence to consider whether this is an extreme case or not).

And lastly he considers the hallowed students of Berkeley University. The result is for everyone to see.

The Philip Tetlock finding on the efficacy of judgements- calibration and discrimination (explained below)

The Philip Tetlock finding on the efficacy of judgements- calibration and discrimination (explained below)

What does calibration mean?

It is the difference between the subjective probability and objective reality. In other words prediction versus reality. Expectation vs Truth… and so on.The author plots the graph on the basis of the “Improving Calibration”. That is the closer the predictor is to truth, more towards the right he will lie.

What does discrimination mean?

It implies the ability of a person to discriminate between cases. Not all cases are same, yet people who cant develop the nuance to understand the difference will have low amounts of discrimination. In other words they will lie lower in the graph than others. It is obvious that discrimination will be lower for a person who sees everything through “one lens”. He will be more prone to take extreme positions.

Drumrolls please!

Foxes trump hedgehogs. Hands down. In every metric.
But the foxes are not the big-daddy in the decision making world. They get serious competition from algorithms with even a slight amount of discerning power (point 35,36). And trumping even that, is the power of formal models (point 37).

Imagine a fox maintaining a ‘latticework’ of mental models in his mind, following a checklist in his hand and a collection of formal models which sits along with the mental models!

I think he will be a formidable competition.

The formal model mentioned by Tetlock doesn’t imply anything fancy. It can be as simple and robust as regession equation.

And can you spot the Berkeley students in the chart? These undergraduates, the brightest of America rank even worse than the hedgehogs.

Ladies and gentlemen, our education has failed us.

No matter where we live and which university we study in, we are not adept at making the decisions we are expected to make in real life.

The onus is on us to move from the lower leftmost corner to upper- rightmost corner.


3 thoughts on “The onus is on us to think better

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