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Why we make bad decisions by Dan Gilbert (Transcript)

Transcript of “Why we make bad decisions” by Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness at TED conference…

Dan Gilbert – Author, Stumbling on Happiness

We all make decisions every day; we want to know what the right thing is to do — in domains from the financial to the gastronomic to the professional to the romantic. And surely, if somebody could really tell us how to do exactly the right thing at all possible times, that would be a tremendous gift.

It turns out that, in fact, the world was given this gift in 1738 by a Dutch polymath named Daniel Bernoulli. And what I want to talk to you about today is what that gift is, and I also want to explain to you why it is that it hasn’t made a damn bit of difference.

Now, this is Bernoulli’s gift. This is a direct quote. And if it looks like Greek to you, it’s because, well, it’s Greek. But the simple English translation — much less precise, but it captures the gist of what Bernoulli had to say — was this: The expected value of any of our actions — that is, the goodness that we can count on getting — is the product of two simple things: the odds that this action will allow us to gain something, and the value of that gain to us.

In a sense, what Bernoulli was saying is, if we can estimate and multiply these two things, we will always know precisely how we should behave.

Now, this simple equation, even for those of you who don’t like equations, is something that you’re quite used to. Here’s an example: if I were to tell you, let’s play a little coin toss game, and I’m going to flip a coin, and if it comes up heads, I’m going to pay you 10 dollars, but you have to pay four dollars for the privilege of playing with me, most of you would say, sure, I’ll take that bet. Because you know that the odds of you winning are one half, the gain if you do is 10 dollars, that multiplies to five, and that’s more than I’m charging you to play. So, the answer is, yes. This is what statisticians technically call a damn fine bet.

Now, the idea is simple when we’re applying it to coin tosses, but in fact, it’s not very simple in everyday life. People are horrible at estimating both of these things, and that’s what I want to talk to you about today.

There are two kinds of errors people make when trying to decide what the right thing is to do, and those are errors in estimating the odds that they’re going to succeed, and errors in estimating the value of their own success. Now, let me talk about the first one first. Calculating odds would seem to be something rather easy: there are six sides to a die, two sides to a coin, 52 cards in a deck. You all know what the likelihood is of pulling the ace of spades or of flipping a heads. But as it turns out, this is not a very easy idea to apply in everyday life. That’s why Americans spend more — I should say, lose more — gambling than on all other forms of entertainment combined. The reason is, this isn’t how people do odds.

The way people figure odds requires that we first talk a bit about pigs. Now, the question I’m going to put to you is whether you think there are more dogs or pigs on leashes observed in any particular day in Oxford. And of course, you all know that the answer is dogs. And the way that you know that the answer is dogs is you quickly reviewed in memory the times you’ve seen dogs and pigs on leashes. It was very easy to remember seeing dogs, not so easy to remember pigs. And each one of you assumed that if dogs on leashes came more quickly to your mind, then dogs on leashes are more probable. That’s not a bad rule of thumb, except when it is.

So, for example, here’s a word puzzle. Are there more four-letter English words with R in the third place or R in the first place? Well, you check memory very briefly, make a quick scan, and it’s awfully easy to say to yourself, Ring, Rang, Rung, and very hard to say to yourself, Pare, Park: they come more slowly. But in fact, there are many more words in the English language with R in the third than the first place. The reason words with R in the third place come slowly to your mind isn’t because they’re improbable, unlikely or infrequent. It’s because the mind recalls words by their first letter. You kind of shout out the sound, S — and the word comes. It’s like the dictionary; it’s hard to look things up by the third letter. So, this is an example of how this idea that the quickness with which things come to mind can give you a sense of their probability — how this idea could lead you astray. It’s not just puzzles, though. For example, when Americans are asked to estimate the odds that they will die in a variety of interesting ways — these are estimates of number of deaths per year per 200 million U.S. citizens. And these are just ordinary people like yourselves who are asked to guess how many people die from tornado, fireworks, asthma, drowning, etc. Compare these to the actual numbers.

Now, you see a very interesting pattern here, which is first of all, two things are vastly over-estimated, namely tornadoes and fireworks. Two things are vastly underestimated: dying by drowning and dying by asthma. Why? When was the last time that you picked up a newspaper and the headline was, “Boy dies of Asthma?” It’s not interesting because it’s so common. It’s very easy for all of us to bring to mind instances of news stories or newsreels where we’ve seen tornadoes devastating cities, or some poor schmuck who’s blown his hands off with a firework on the Fourth of July. Drownings and asthma deaths don’t get much coverage. They don’t come quickly to mind, and as a result, we vastly underestimate them.

Indeed, this is kind of like the Sesame Street game of “Which thing doesn’t belong?” And you’re right to say it’s the swimming pool that doesn’t belong, because the swimming pool is the only thing on this slide that’s actually very dangerous. The way that more of you are likely to die than the combination of all three of the others that you see on the slide.

The lottery is an excellent example, of course — an excellent test-case of people’s ability to compute probabilities. And economists — forgive me, for those of you who play the lottery — but economists, at least among themselves, refer to the lottery as a stupidity tax, because the odds of getting any payoff by investing your money in a lottery ticket are approximately equivalent to flushing the money directly down the toilet — which, by the way, doesn’t require that you actually go to the store and buy anything.

Why in the world would anybody ever play the lottery? Well, there are many answers, but one answer surely is, we see a lot of winners. Right? When this couple wins the lottery, or Ed McMahon shows up at your door with this giant check — how the hell do you cash things that size, I don’t know. We see this on TV; we read about it in the paper. When was the last time that you saw extensive interviews with everybody who lost? Indeed, if we required that television stations run a 30-second interview with each loser every time they interview a winner, the 100 million losers in the last lottery would require nine-and-a-half years of your undivided attention just to watch them say, “Me? I lost.” “Me? I lost.” Now, if you watch nine-and-a-half years of television — no sleep, no potty breaks — and you saw loss after loss after loss, and then at the end there’s 30 seconds of, “and I won,” the likelihood that you would play the lottery is very small.