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The freeing power of admitting to your own stupidity

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None of us knows what’s going to happen in the future. And realising that is an important step towards being content, says Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

What we could all do with in 2017 is admitting that we are extremely stupid. Being stupid is the natural human condition. Seriously, it is scientifically proven. The book of the moment, Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, is about the work of two geniuses – Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – whose lives have been dedicated to making us see what we struggle to admit: most of the time, we’re just making it up because we hardly know anything, but we can’t admit it.

Their message? The human brain does not give you all the information you need in any given situation, especially when it comes to decision-making. This is because all the information is never available. (It’s physically impossible for all the information to be available. No one’s brain is big enough, for a start.) For example, when making a decision, the outcome is actually unknown because it’s in the future. So, what can we do about this? Always remember that we are working with a flawed system, one that is inclined towards mistakes, and constantly remind ourselves of this fact. And have a sense of humour about the fact that your decision is just as likely to be right as wrong.

You could be forgiven for not having heard of these two psychologist types. Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner and the author of Thinking, Fast And Slow, an extraordinary book about how the mind works (and how it frequently plays tricks on us, making the gaps in information invisible to us because it would stress us out too much). Amos Tversky was his partner in crime, the one who died before the Nobel Prize was awarded. Michael Lewis’ book is an analysis of their partnership and a précis of their work. Their theories can’t be easily summarised but, having binge-read them in recent months, I am utterly sold on their world view of humility in the face of chaos.

The human brain does not give you all the information you need in any given situation, especially when it comes to decision-making – because all the information is never available

The two worked jointly on theories about psychology and thinking which have revolutionised the fields of mathematics, economics and cognitive science. What they did mostly, though, was point out what idiots we all are, starting with themselves. They would conduct conversations where they tried to point out flaws in the other’s thinking, then devise experiments off the back of that. Usually, they tried to prove that we are very uncomfortable about not knowing things, to the extent we will just make it up.

A typical example? You know if someone tosses a coin and it comes up heads two or three times? The next time you would expect it to be tails, right? Wrong. It could be either. We don’t know. It’s random. But we don’t like admitting it’s random. So, if we guess tails and we’re right (which has a 50-50 chance), then we think we “guessed correctly”. We didn’t. It’s random. This is the sort of stuff that makes your head hurt. And so instead we devise systems of thinking that fool us into imagining that we can predict and know things (“It must be tails!”) when we absolutely can’t.

You can see why I’m attracted to these guys. They are basically the antidote to “I told you so”, which seems to have become a sort of lazy refrain this year. Their alternative? “No one knows shit.” (They don’t literally say that. I don’t think you can win a Nobel Prize for literally saying that.) In the world of Kahneman and Tversky, there’s no predicting anything – except for the stupidity of humankind. They love what they call “subjective probability” – our tendency to over-estimate the likelihood of something happening or being true simply because we want it to be. That is 2016 in a nutshell. How to overcome that tendency? Point it out in yourself. Point it out in others. Laugh at your own stupidity. Encourage others to laugh at theirs.


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