Humans tend to think by analogy, which can create some cognitive trouble. One issue is that a single analogy, or even a handful of analogies, may fail to reflect a full reference class of relevant cases. For example, rather than asking whether this turnaround is similar to a prior turnaround, it is useful to ask for the base rate of success for all turnarounds. Psychologists have shown that properly integrating the outcomes from an appropriate reference class improves the quality of forecasts.
Another challenge with using analogies is that we see similarities when we focus on similarities and see differences when we focus on differences. The emphasis of the comparison colors the outcome. For example, Amos Tversky, a psychologist known for his collaboration with Daniel Kahneman, asked subjects which pair of countries they deemed more similar, West Germany and East Germany or Nepal and Ceylon (the study was done in the early 1970s and Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972). Two-thirds of the subjects selected West Germany and East Germany.
Tversky then asked subjects which pair of countries they deemed more different. Logic suggests an answer that is the complement of the first response, hence two-thirds finding Nepal and Ceylon more different. But that’s not what Tversky found. Seventy percent of the subjects rated West Germany and East Germany more different than the other pair. What you are looking for dictates what you see.”
Amos Tversky from “The Undoing Project” p. 155
[Amos] had decided pessimism was stupid. When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Amos liked to say, Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.”
Amos Tversky from “The Undoing Project” p. 101
It’s hard to know how people select a course in life. The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”
And this is my problem with the cognitive sciences and the advice world generally. It’s built on the premise that we are chess masters who make decisions, for good or ill. But when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?
Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?
We don’t decide about life; we’re captured by life. In the major spheres, decision-making, when it happens at all, is downstream from curiosity and engagement. If we really want to understand and shape behavior, maybe we should look less at decision-making and more at curiosity. Why are you interested in the things you are interested in? Why are some people zealously seized, manically attentive and compulsively engaged?
Now that we know a bit more about decision-making, maybe the next frontier is desire. Maybe the next Kahneman and Tversky will help us understand what explains, fires and orders our loves.”
— The Lessons of History P. 19 – 21
… the laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history. We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to survive. If some of us seem to escape the strife or the trials it is because our group protects us; but that group itself must meet the tests of survival.
So the first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life — peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law. Cooperation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we cooperate in our groups — our family, community, club, church, party, ‘race,’ or nation — in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. … We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes cooperation because it is the ultimate form of competition. …
The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. In competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival. Since Nature (here meaning total reality and its processes) has not read very carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, we are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character. Nature loves differences as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred way, and no two peas are alike.
Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group. If we knew our fellow men thoroughly we could select thirty per cent of them whose combined ability would equal that of all the rest. Life and history do precisely that, with a sublime injustice reminiscent of Calvin’s God.
Nature smiles at the union of freedom and inequality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below average in economic ability desires freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups. This competition becomes more severe as the destruction of distance intensifies the confrontations of states.
The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality; she likes large litters, and relishes the struggle that picks the surviving few; doubtless she looks on approvingly at the upstream race of a thousand sperms to fertilize one ovum. She is more interested in the species than in the individual, and makes little difference between civilization and barbarism. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she (here meaning Nature as the process of birth, variation, competition, selection, and survival) sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group. Gaul survived against the Germans through the help of Roman legions in Caesar’s days, and through the help of British and American legions in our times. When Rome fell the Franks rushed in from Germany and made Gaul France; if England and America should fall, France, whose population remained almost stationary through the nineteenth century, might again be overrun”
— The Lessons of History P. 88
History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness, and man is equipped to respond in stereotyped ways to frequently occurring situations and stimuli like hunger, danger, and sex.”