Mar 162017

Book Short – Blink part III – Undo?

Book Short – Blink part III – Undo?

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, and honestly, I wish I could hit Life’s Undo button and reclaim those hours.  I love Michael Lewis, and he’s one of those authors where if he writes it, I will read it.  But this one wasn’t really worth it for me.

Having said that, I think if you haven’t already read both Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (review, buy) and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (review, buy), then it might be worth it.  But having read those two books, The Undoing Project had too much overlap and not enough “underlap” (to quote my friend Tom Bartel) – that is, not enough new stuff of substance for me.  The book mostly went into the personal relationship between two academic thinkers, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.  It also touched on some of the highlights of their work, which, while coming out of the field of psychology, won them a Nobel prize in Economics for illuminating some of the underlying mechanics of how we make decisions.

The two most interesting pieces of their work to me, which are related in the book, are:

First, that human decision-making is incredibly nuanced and complex, and that at least 25% of the time, the transitive property doesn’t apply.  For example, I may prefer coffee to tea, and I may prefer tea to hot chocolate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I prefer coffee to hot chocolate.

From the book, “When faced with complex multidimensional alternatives, such as job offers, gambles or [political] candidates, it is extremely difficult to utilize properly all the available information.” It wasn’t that people actually preferred A to B and B to C and then turned around and preferred C to A. It was that it was sometimes very hard to understand the differences. Amos didn’t think that the real world was as likely to fool people into contradicting themselves as were the experiments he had designed.  And the choice created its own context: Different features might assume greater prominence in the mind when the coffee was being compared to tea (caffeine) than when it was being compared to hot chocolate (sugar). And what was true of drinks might also be true of people, and ideas, and emotions. The idea was interesting: When people make decisions, they are also making judgments about similarity, between some object in the real world and what they ideally want. They make these judgments by, in effect, counting up the features they notice. And as the noticeability of features can be manipulated by the way they are highlighted, the sense of how similar two things are might also be manipulated.”

Second, what Kahneman and Tversky called Prospect Theory, which is basically that humans are more motivated by the fear of loss as opposed to the greed of gain.  I’ve written about the “Fear/Greed Continuum” of my former boss from many years ago before.  I’m not sure he knew about Kahneman and Tversky’s work when he came up with that construct, and I certainly didn’t know about it when I first blogged about it years ago.  Do this experiment – ask someone both of these questions:  Would you rather be handed $500 or have a 50% chance of winning $1,000 and a 50% of getting nothing?  Then, Would you rather hand me $500 or have a 50% chance of owing me $1,000 and a 50% chance of owing me nothing?  Most of the time, the answers are not the same.

For fun, I tried this out on my kids and re-proved Prospect Theory, just in case anyone was worried about it.

Anyway, bottom line on this book – read it if you haven’t ready those other two books, skip it if you have, maybe skim it if you’ve read one of them!

 

Jun 042015

Book Short: Blink Part II

Book Short:  Blink Part II

Years ago I wrote a post about Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Blink (post, buy).  While my post has lots of specifics in it for entrepreneurs, for VCs, and for marketers, my quick summary was this:

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

I recently finished another book, Thinking Fast, and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which was very similar.  I’d call it the academic version of Blink, or that Blink is the journalistic version of it.  Kahneman breaks down our ability to think and process information into what he calls System 1 (quick and intuitive) and System 2 (slower, rational and logical).  As he puts it:

In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The book is rich in examples, and while it’s a bit long and sometimes slow going, it is an excellent read if you want to learn more about how the brain works.  The work applications are many – we do a lot of work at Return Path on understanding and avoiding Unconscious Bias at work – and this book gave me a bunch of good ideas around that.  It’s clear that it’s impossible to become a true master of your intuition vs. logic, but you can design some systems, or at least insert some checks and balances into other systems, to blunt the impact of faulty intuition or lazy logic.  The book also has an overwhelming number of labels it applies to common situations – great, but hard to keep them all straight (the priming effect, anchors, endowment effect, etc.).

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to ponder as an entrepreneur, though, was the section on Loss Aversion (another great label).  It turns out we humans are motivated more by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain.  A poignant example in the book is that professional golfers make a higher percentage of putts (I forget the actual number, but a real one, like 3-5%) for par than for birdie, when the putts are like-for-like in terms of distance and difficulty.  Saving par is more of a motivator than being under par.  The application for work is interesting.  As companies get larger, it can be difficult for founders and management teams to maintain the same level of bold risk-taking they did as smaller organizations.  Having something to lose is harder than having nothing to lose.  And yet, as they say, fortune favors the bold.  Growth stage companies need to figure out how to institutionalize risk taking and experimentation, including putting enough resources into those activities that will generate future growth, rather than simply protecting what’s already running.  (Of course, what’s already running needs investment, too.)

Thanks to my colleagues Dragana and Richard for recommending this book, and to Jamie for facilitating our office book club around it this month!