Tag Archives: books

“Thinking Fast and Slow”

Last year I read Daniel Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow“. It took me a long time – definitely reading slow, for me – but I think that was down to his style rather than the book’s content. I read it because two people from very different backgrounds recommended it in the since of a week, and despite being somewhat hard work, bits of it have stuck: they keep recurring in my thoughts.

So I thought I’d share some of those, and recommend it, too. (I haven’t looked at the book for the last six months, and I am deliberately writing from memory. So please don’t take these examples as gospel, and before quoting them, please look to Kahneman’s original text!)

Kahneman’s work can be considered an academic counterweight to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. Gladwell set out, I think, to suggest that we should trust our intuition (albeit that many of the examples he wrote about seemed to be based around what happens when intuition goes wrong. Policemen shooting innocent men, for instance).

Kahneman, a prolifically able psychologist (and Nobel prize winner in economics, for his work on behavioural economics), sets out to describe how the mind works, describing the unconscious, instinctive, intuitive brain – his “system 1” – and the conscious, analytical brain – “system 2”. System 1 is much faster and cheaper to run than system 2, and this is why for most things we are happy to let system 1 get on with it. His book is full of fascinating stories that illustrate how system 1 can lead us to make some very counter-intuitive decisions, often his own expense.

I started the book very sceptical. Despite all the evidence Kahneman provides, what he describes just didn’t sound like me. I’m analytical, rational, sensible. But he also describes how just about everyone thinks that, too. And left to its own devices, system 1 seems to get us into several bad habits.

For instance, it makes us bad at estimating things, particularly our own (and others’) expertise. Kahneman tells a story of how he was part of a team writing a new curriculum for a psychology course. After several months when they though they were making good progress, he asked another member of the team, who had a lot of experience of the process, how long it should take. The answer was something like “a good team will take a couple of years”; and when asked whether this was a good team, the answer was a resounding “no”! This was a team made up of very rational people – psychologists and educationalists – who frankly should have stopped right there and seen what they could change to achieve a better result. But instead, despite the insight they had received, they ploughed on as if nothing had changed. When Kahneman left the project several years later, it still hadn’t been completed.

In another situation, he describes undertaking leadership assessments for the Israeli army. He understandably decided to validate the process, to see whether the assessments predicted future success as a leader in the army. They didn’t. The predictions were no better than chance. And yet Kahneman continued his work assessing candidates, despite knowing that it was a complete waste of time.

His work in behavioural economics lead to Kahneman working with some stockbrokers. He looked at the firm’s remuneration and bonus structure. Analysing individuals’ results, he showed that success was random: and hence the large bonuses paid for results were completely unwarranted. He told the board, producing his evidence. The board, of course, did nothing, because their whole belief system (and the firm’s culture) was based rewarding success. No one accepted his evidence; they – the experts – knew better than the statistics.

Another story that really stuck with me it’s how bad system 1 is at assessing memories. It only recalls the last experience of something, rather than the totality of that experience. So if you’ve been listening to a piece of music on vinyl, for instance, and it ends with a scratch, you remember the scratch and not the forty minutes of pleasure that came before it. In an experiment to test this, subjects preferred an extended period of pain that ended in a reduction of pain rather than a much shorter period of pain that ended suddenly. System 1 remembers the pain at the end rather than the totality of the pain. The lessons here for anyone designing any process involving customers are rampant. Make it end with a smile!

I think these four simple stories illustrate how irrational even seemingly rational, analytical people can be. This is painful – these are people like me – but it is a valuable lesson, too.

I think the best lesson is to stop and think. This brings the conscious, rational system 2 to the fore. It is harder work, and slower, than letting system 1 determine our actions, and maybe not always appropriate. But it also leads to better, more mindful outcomes. (For instance, it may well be why people who keep “gratitude lists” report being happier – because they are bringing their conscious mind to bear, rather than letting system 1 remember only those last painful moments. There seem to be real benefits to keeping a journal or diary: it helps us to bring an active dimension to our otherwise irrational intuitive minds.)

Another Fine Mess

I was thinking a bit more about the current economic crisis – let’s face it, it is all over the news, even if I didn’t want to, I’d be thinking about it – and what people were saying about hedge funds a couple of weeks ago.

One of the things that was discussed but I hadn’t mentioned was Long Term Capital Management. LTCM was a large hedge fund in the mid-1990s. It featured two Nobel prize winners amongst its founders – Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, who devised methods of valuing options and financial derivatives – as well as some of the biggest names on Wall Street. They had super-whizzy mathematical models to manage their investments, and they made spectacularly large amounts of money.

These were the financial superstars of the 1990s. They were the heroes of the time; and they had excessive hubris: they thought they couldn’t go wrong. They invented the ways hedge funds work.

They also invented the way hedge funds go bust – involving similarly spectacular large amounts of money.

Their basic strategy involved fixed interest arbitrage – which I think means they traded in government bonds of the major economies, using their models to spot small but profitable differences in different markets: they needed leverage to amplify those small returns. As more people invested, increasing the fund’s capital, they took on more and more risk to maintain their profits – they were leveraged about 25 times, with liabilities of $125bn and equity of $5bn.

In May and June 1998, LTCM made losses as a result of market turmoil stemming from the Asian financial crisis which reduced their capital; in August and September, the Russian financial crisis hit, and LTCM had to sell assets into falling markets. Clients wanted to free their capital, and LTCM faced a liquidity crisis – a run on the bank, if you will.

They went bust, and had to be rescued by a bailout organised by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York of $3.6bn spread across fourteen US and European banks.

Fundamentally, LTCM’s models, and the positions they took as a result of them, should have made the fund a lot of money, but the Asian and Russian crises created adverse trading conditions, and capital fled to safety, leaving LTCM high and dry. As Keynes said, “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”.

What is interesting is the similarities between LTCM and hedge funds today – and, more pertinently, the broader financial crisis we find ourselves in:

  • high leverage
  • large off balance sheet positions
  • resulting lack of transparency
  • external stimuli (bursting bubbles)
  • capital flight
  • thereby increasing liquidity
  • asset sales into falling markets

with the fund – or bank – going bust as a result.

The thing is, despite all the rocket-science mathematical models and financial engineering, this isn’t rocket science. This is what has happened time and time again. John McFall MPwas on 5Live this morning explaining why the Treasury Committee was competent to grill UK banking chiefs about their role in the crisis: and he replied with a list of previous crises his committee has reported on.

So why were shareholders, markets, governments and regulators so taken aback when the same thing has happened, yet again? Why have they not learned from past financial crises – their own past experience?

(The story of LTCM is told in When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management, by Roger Lowenstein.)


Wikinomics has the subtitle “how mass collaboration changes everything”. I’m not sure that it proved its point, but it made interesting reading.

(In true Web2.0 fashion, the authors have a Wikinomics blog, too; I’m just writing about their book now.)

It is all about collaboration and openness, and how the authors believe that these two principles will changes the way organisations and people will work. They provide lots of interesting stories and examples of how organisations have embraced openness and collaboration in many forms, how users forced collaboration on organisations (and how it would have been better if those organisations had been open in the first place), and how the world is changing forever, however hard some organisations struggle against it.

It is a fascinating, compelling vision.

But I am not sure I really buy it. It all sounds a bit like the arguments given by those prophets of the dotcom boom in the late 1990s – the internet was changing the way the economy works, the future of organisations is being changed forever, yadayada. I don’t doubt the power of user-created content, collaborative working and open-source developments leading to new, exciting business models which change the way people chose to live and work.

But I am doubtful that these models will really wreak the havoc described, or will prove as solid as they may need to be to survive.

The authors are also consultants, and the book suffered from consultants’ myopia: they picked examples which supported their arguments. I couldn’t help thinking of the examples that have failed; and the Economist attributes the open, collaborative supply chain as a cause of worker unrest and a strike – an example praised in Wikinomics.

“Six Degrees”

This is a post I wrote elsewhere in February 2008.

I recently read a book called Six Degrees: The New Science of Networks, by Duncan Watts. Whilst he might be describing his educational successes, the book is actually about networks: the name comes from the idea that everyone can be linked to anyone else in the world in just six steps – “six degrees of freedom”. (Watts actually demonstrates how this theory is actually very poor indeed – the idea stems from an experiment by controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram, and a very poor experiment it appears to have been.)

I found it a fascinating book, particularly since we are now all part of an online, connected world. It was full of lots of interesting stuff – true, not a great deal of it seems to have stuck in my brain, but it was interesting whilst I was reading it…
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“The Corporation”

This is a post I wrote elsewhere, in June 2007. I am trying to work out whether the turmoil in the economic and financial markets over the last year make me want to revise my views…

“The Corporation” was a film which was turned into a book, by Joel Bakan; or maybe it was the other way around. A film described as “the thinking man’s Fahrenheit 9/11”. I’ve not seen the film; but I have read the book.

It describes how large companies – the multinationals, the global firms that are so economically active and powerful – are by their nature dysfunctional, set up to solely to meet the short term needs of shareholders by means fair and foul – the book focuses on the foul – and how, based on medical definitions, if they were people they would be defined as sociopathic.
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