What are we Good at? Assessing Probability where it Matters!

Warren Kinston 16. September 2012 11:00

You will read again and again in popular scientific articles that we human beings are not very good at handling probability.  It has become almost an article of faith.

John Kay, respected economist and academic, writes in the Financial Times (as noted here): “We do not often, or easily, think in terms of probabilities, because there are not many situations in which this style of thinking is useful."

Really?  Is that true?

Let's look at what you might have done today:  

You got up and chose clothes based on the probability of how hot or cold you thought it would be today.  You left earlier than usual for work based on assessing the probability that traffic density would be higher due to a public transport strike.  You considered how much time to give to an assignment, such that you had a high probability of finishing by the weekend deadline.  You chose a popular cafe for a business meeting after reflecting on the probability that there would be an empty table available.  You brought home your partner a bunch of flowers because you envisaged a high probability that she was going to be still mad as hell that you forgot her birthday yesterday.  After dinner, you ignored the TV based on assigning a high probability to your prediction that there would be a hundred channels of the usual rubbish.  Then you settled down with a new book recommended by a friend, but grabbed your latest MacUser magazine as well because you sensed there was a low probability that he appreciates your tastes.

Now re-read John Kay’s assertion. How would you assess its accuracy?  Is it useful to think in terms of probability?

Let’s look at what a more sensible and less academic popular science writer, Brian Clegg, has to say in his 2012 book The Universe Inside You (Ch.8): “Your brain just wasn’t evolved to work with .. arithmetic. ... Nowhere is this more obvious than dealing with probability and statistics.  Probability is involved in many of our everyday activities.”  He refers to many everyday activities!  So far so good.  Let’s now look at his examples of “everyday activities”.  The first is a game show ploy which contestants get wrong and which could be relevant if your goal is to be a hustler-cheater.  The second is the two-boy problem: “I have two children.  One is a boy born on a Tuesday.  What is the probability that I have two boys?”  Is that a challenge any parent ever faces?  His third example is about assessing the result of epidemiological screening, which comes down to a doctor misinforming a patient.

What do you conclude?  Has Brian Clegg convinced you that you can't handle probability in your everyday activities?

I conclude that people assess probability very well, amazingly well, when it comes to taking action, to doing things that they have to do or want to do.  We may not always be right—but that's what probability means: sometimes you are right, sometimes you aren't.  But we learn and adjust continuously.  People vary greatly in their capability to make accurate judgement of probabilities depending on the scope and complexity of the choice.  We know that and we are quite good at declining personal challenges that are far too complex for us.  Or to put it another way, we routinely assess the probability of whether or not we are likely to succeed in any particular job.  As an aside, the Nobel-prize winning scientists at Long Term Capital Management weren't up to the standard of the average person in that regard.  Their use of probability was a dead cert to bring down the entire global financial system: why? because they were out of touch with reality.  Not long after, the mathematical geniuses employed by the big banks achieved that goal.

The simple truth is that you do not use mathematics much, if at all, in the application of probability to issues in living that you understand and where you are personally committed.

Question: So where does mathematical probability apply in human endeavour? 

Answer: in Inquiry.  Action, remember, is Level-1 in the hierarchy of WillInquiry is Level-2.  Check it here.

Over tens of thousands of years we evolved to do.  We still exist to do.  However, a few thousand years ago, mankind discovered that better inquiry enabled more effective doing.  Centuries passed like a flash, and science developed with a dedication to Inquiry-L2 utterly apart from Action-L1.  It was worthwhile.  The resulting knowledge eventually permitted engineering and technologies which generated enormous benefits in activities of all sorts.

Mathematics turned out to be crucial to both science and engineering, and probability was amenable to mathematical treatment as part of mathematical statistics.  Scientists use probability-statistics all the time, even if not always correctly.  (Try Googling "misuse of statistics in science".)  But most of us are not scientists.  If scientific inquiry-L2 tricks like Brian Clegg's two-boy problem are posed to us, then of course we get them wrong.  Why should we get them right?  What does it matter?  Scientists have a superiority complex and love telling us how blind and stupid we are.  I would suggest you get John Kay or Brian Clegg into your shoes for a day and see how effective either of them are in completing your everyday tasks.  They wouldn’t even know which drawer you kept your socks in.

But why should we stop at affirming that people are not much good at disciplined Inquiry-L2

We can do better than that.  I would argue that we aren't much good at anything …

Change-L3 comes next in the Will hierarchy.  All the evidence suggests that we are truly awful at Change-L3.  Just Google "why people don't change" and you get over 4 billion hits.  There are over 200 million hits for "helping people change".  Without a taxonomic analysis, this one will be a tough nut to crack.

Moving on then to Experience-L4.  I'll admit there has been improvement since the psychodynamic revolution and New Age freedom gave us permission to focus on our feelings and fantasies, but I would say we are pretty weak.  By that, I mean being driven and manipulated by our feelings and impulses is the rule.  Whereas what we want is to handle them purposefully and beneficially within meaningful endeavors.  That is why biologists tell us that our «self» is an illusion, and life is driven by our animal inheritance.  Too often that is so true.

What about Communication-L5?  I think it is fair to say that we do a lot of communicating.  A lot.  But it is well to remember Wiio’s Law: Communication usually fails, except by accident.  Nuff said—members can check the THEE view.

Then comes Purpose-L6, which includes values and ethical rules.  Is «hopeless» a fair descriptor of the current human condition?  Why is the road to hell paved with good intentions?  Why do values that embody goodness create more conflict than cooperation?  Why do politicians’ promises persuade people again and again, despite their duplicity and irrelevance?  Over 30 years ago, a total confusion about whether or not «policy» even existed in a client organization became the trigger to my developing frameworks to bring sensible naming and order to the hundred or so related forms of purpose.  This work ultimately gave rise to my discovery of the Taxonomy, THEE

Finally, Willingness-L7.  Most of us probably have no trouble being willing or being reluctant.  Of course, aware willingness is probably not as common as it could be.  It’s far too easy to proceed through life on automatic—robot-like, or simply herd with the crowd and follow orders from a myriad of inescapable authorities, bureaucrats and busy-body know it all's.  So perhaps low marks apply here also—I'll let you be the judge.

So there we are: you and I are pretty good at doing-L1 what we have to do, at least on a limited scale of our own choosing—and probability assessment is intrinsic and natural here.  We are not much good at operating in the next 6 higher levels.  These form the mental superstructure that makes sure that what we do, our endeavours, are what we should be doing and that they get done properly.

Don’t worry.

We can learn—even scientists and academics—but it requires trust (highest level in Willingness-L7.)



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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