October 15, 2019 0

The Psychology of Prediction


THERE WAS A TECHNIQUE FOR
SELECTING OFFICER CANDIDATES. IT HAD BEEN INTRODUCED
BY THE BRITISH, I THINK, IN WORLD WAR II.
AND THE AMERICANS IN THE WORLD WAR II HAD A SIMILAR TECHNIQUE.

AND IT INVOLVED LEADERLESS
GROUP ACTIVITIES. SO YOU WOULD BRING PEOPLE, AND
YOU’D GIVE THEM A CHALLENGE. A TYPICAL CHALLENGE WAS, SAY
YOU’D GIVE THEM A TELEPHONE POLE, THERE WOULD BE A
GROUP OF EIGHT PEOPLE. YOU’D GIVE THEM A
TELEPHONE POLE, AND THERE WOULD BE A WALL.
AND YOU’D INSTRUCT THEM TO GET TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL
WITHOUT THE POLE TOUCHING THE WALL OR EVER TOUCHING
THE GROUND, AND WITHOUT ANYBODY TOUCHING THE WALL.
I STILL REMEMBER THOSE INSTRUCTIONS.
IT CAN BE DONE; IT’S VERY DIFFICULT.
AND WE WOULD JUST WATCH THEM.
AND THERE WAS NO LEADERS, YOU
KNOW, THERE WERE JUST EIGHT PEOPLE HOLDING A TELEPHONE POLE.
AND THEY WOULD
START INTERACTING. THEY HAD TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM.
AND WE WERE LOOKING FOR
WHO THE LEADERS WERE.
YOU KNOW, THE LEADERS, THE
FOLLOWERS, THE SHIRKERS. AND WE SAW THEM ALL.
IT WAS REALLY VERY STRIKING, HOW EASY IT SEEMED TO BE TO
DETECT THE PERSONALITIES OF THESE PEOPLE.
AND WE WERE TRULY CONFIDENT THAT WE COULD SEE THEIR
LEADERSHIP ABILITIES. IT SEEMED TO BE INESCAPABLE.

BUT WE WOULD ALSO, ONCE EVERY
COUPLE OF MONTHS OR SO, WE WOULD GET INFORMATION ABOUT
HOW WELL WE WERE DOING IN JUST PREDICTING THE PERFORMANCE OF
THESE INDIVIDUALS AS CADETS IN OFFICER TRAINING.
AND THE TRUTH IS WE COULDN’T DO IT AT ALL.
I MEAN, OUR PREDICTIONS WERE ESSENTIALLY WORTHLESS.

AND YET IT’S THE ARMY.
SO ON FRIDAY WE’D HAVE A
STATISTICS DAY, AND WE’D BE TOLD THAT WHAT WE’RE
DOING IS USELESS. AND TWO DAYS LATER, WE’D BRING
IN THE NEXT BATCH OF RECRUITS, AND WE’D TAKE THEM TO THE FIELD.
AND WE COULD SEE THEIR
PERSONALITIES AGAIN. SO THAT WAS VERY INTERESTING.
BECAUSE THAT’S, I THINK,
THE FIRST COGNITIVE ILLUSION THAT I EVER DISCOVERED.
AND I DISCOVERED IT IN MYSELF. AND I GAVE IT A NAME, WHICH
I WAS VERY PLEASED TO USE MANY YEARS LATER.
I WAS, I THINK, 21 OR 22 AT THE TIME.
BUT I CALLED THAT THE ILLUSION OF VALIDITY.

THAT YOU THINK THAT YOU’RE
MAKING VALID PREDICTIONS, ALTHOUGH YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT.
SO THAT’S EXACTLY
LIKE AN ILLUSION. AND MANY YEARS LATER, WHEN
AMOS TVERSKY AND I WROTE ON THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PREDICTION,
WE USED THAT TERM. THAT WAS QUITE GRATIFYING.

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