One of my students in Risk Management at the University of Chicago beat me to a reading of Daniel Kahneman’s recently-released “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 418 pp.).
A young man of few words but crystalline insights, he brought to class this terse review of Kahneman’s reprise of four decades of ground-breaking research into the flaws and fallacies embedded in judgments and choice-making:
“Too long” – he was typically pithy. “But brilliant.”
Right, on both counts. Start with the second:
Modern English literature would have been impossible without the works of Shakespeare, if few others. The same, going back to the 1970’s: Kahneman and his late collaborator, Amos Tversky, opened whole new fields of inquiry and perception into human behavior.
Thanks to their pioneering work, we have the means to be both entertained and informed by the lessons in “Moneyball” (both the movie and Michael Lewis’s book), such as the stubborn clinging to soon-to-obsolesce folk verities by the talent scouts gathered in Billy Beane’s baseball clubhouse in Oakland.
And we can appreciate being rightly agog at the singular slogan of the credit crisis, the feckless pronouncement of Citigroup’s Chuck Prince in the summer of 2007, that “as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.”
More broadly, Kahneman and Tversky gave us the means to identify – and desirably to comprehend, although that is subject to much doubting skepticism – whole categories of sub-optimal decision-making. Consider such influences as:
- Herd behavior – and the entire population of mutual fund advisors, unable to distinguish the dubious quantity of talent in their performance from the simple effects of random luck.
- The compulsion to construct compelling if entirely unreliable stories based on tiny bodies of data – and the daily flood of the commentators’ vacuous “explanations” for insignificant price moves in the securities markets.
- The whole industry of prediction models that are blind to their in-built exposures to rare but catastrophically destructive events – thinking, with sorrow and anger, of the graveyard population of financial structures, from Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to the Icelandic banks and the Irish real estate market, right on down to the “repo-to-disaster” at MF Global.
As for my student’s first words – Kahneman’s editor falls into the genre’s too-familiar pattern of over-stuffing between the covers. To be sure, the book is worth its price for its two appendices alone – Kahneman and Tversky’s landmark papers on the irresistible reliance on heuristics and biases, and the assessments of risk appetite and aversion in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.
But it fails to distill and sharpen, for just one example, the unappreciated significance of regression to the mean in cases where hindsight attribution of causation is a cause of systemically erroneous decision analysis.
That’s by way of quibble, for Kahneman has brought about a worthwhile trade-off: in exchange for any loss of readers deterred by an over-weight hundred pages, he has gained the achievement of a career-spanning reference work, to become dog-eared on the desks of those of us who will hope in small ways to pass his genius on to the next generation of the students of risk.
This will be by way of valedictory to a difficult and challenging year -- to wish all readers a healthy and peaceful 2012 – even if the new year bids fair to be no less volatile and unpredictable than the old.
January marks this blog’s fourth birthday – celebrated in anticipation that inevitable new eruptions of corporate malfeasance, the capacities of regulators for continued mischief-making, and their continuing and frustratingly ineffective inter-actions with issuers and auditors, will all continue to provide material worth addressing.
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