Undoing Needed because Mental Illusions Impact Us

I just finished Michael Lewis’s great book, “The Undoing Project“.

This insightful book helped me better understand the groundbreaking work completed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that includes their Prospect Theory.  It also outlined how their work led to the development of Behavioral Economics and the undoing of many traditional areas.  It probably was more meaningful to me because I read it after reading and learning a lot from other work that was done by Daniel Kahneman (see Unique Well-Being Influences of Experience and MemoryEmotions Drive Actions: Create a Strong Positive Picture and others).

I believe I will have many more posts about this book as I learn and connect more.  One of the most interesting things I got from the book was the metaphor of illusions Michael Lewis used.  Just as the picture below causes us to believe these lines are of different sizes, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated how our mind has what could be called mental illusions that cause us to believe things are different than what we think they are.

Kahneman and Tversky did not call them mental illusions but Heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts or things our minds do automatically to draw a conclusion.  These mental shortcuts are innate in us and occur without us knowing, therefore these mistakes happen and we don’t believe they happened.   This is much like the above picture, in that we do not believe they are the same size even though we know they are because of the picture below.  Thus it is an optical illusion.

They demonstrated how our mind has mental illusions or biases and they identified these as those heuristics.  In one of their original linked 1974 Science article, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases , they outlined their initial findings.  For this article they described the Representativeness, Availability, and Anchoring heuristics. Their studies and many that have followed have demonstrated the prevalence of these biases and the impact these biases have on our lives.

For the representativeness heuristic they demonstrated how people ignore base rates, or likely outcomes, and are biased by a narrative or a story when the story is representative of a different outcome.  Their findings demonstrated, as have many studies since, that prior probabilities will be neglected in favor of a representative description provided.  This therefore then causes a mental illusion.

In expanding this finding, it can be understood how people can be misled or manipulated if these biases are understood.  Their original studies provided a situation where there were 100 people, 70 of which were lawyers and 30 engineers.  Despite knowing this, after a description was given of a random member of that group of 100 that was representative of a lawyer or an engineer, those initial 70-30 base rate probabilities were ignored.  The participant instead used the description or story to predict which profession the random participant held – lawyer or engineer. If no description of a random participant was provided, people correctly used the base rates provided to make their prediction.  If this summary is not clear due to its brevity, I encourage you to read the book or the many examples of these studies provided online.  Overall these studies demonstrated an innate mental bias we have related to stories or descriptions over known probabilities.

In another finding, their studies demonstrated the availability heuristic. This heuristic shows a bias for that which most easily can come to mind because we were recently made aware of it .  When something is on the mind because we are thinking about it,  it is available. People then overestimate the occurrence of what is on their mind because it can easily be imagined.  For example, think of how people changed their beliefs about the likelihood of shark attacks in the 70’s after the  Jaws movie or the likelihood of a plane hijacking after 9-11 as compared to before.  This is also something for us to be aware of so we can understand more about why we think the way we do.  While it may seem confusing, as was mentioned in the book, optical illusions are used to help us understand how the eye is tricked and understanding how mental illusions work should help us better understand how we think and how our brain works.

While there is much more to discuss, another interesting finding that current research has replicated and shown to be true is anchoring.  That is how an initial idea will anchor or create a starting point and how that anchored starting point is created without our awareness.   All the estimates we make come from an initial value and this initial value alters or adjusts our future estimates. Their initial tests demonstrated people would guess, when just given 5 second showing, a calculation of 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 would be much higher than 1 x 2 x 3 x 4x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8 even though they are equal. This bias plays a large role in many situations in life, such as when determine what to pay for something.  If you go back to look, you will see that both calculations have to be equal, despite our initial thoughts of an estimated total.

This post just touches on their pervasive ideas about how we think when uncertain as described in Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project.  My future posts will discuss how these ideas can be used.  I strongly encourage you to learn about and think how these ideas can be used to generate comprehensive improvements by creating pervasive, reciprocal, selfish, selfless, synergistic interactions so everyone and everything benefits.

Below is a link to a short clip of many by Michal Lewis about this book, I encourage you to explore!


I look forward to hearing about your successes.

Be Well’r,
Craig Becker

Be selfish, selfless, & synergistic so everyone and everything benefits!


14 thoughts on “Undoing Needed because Mental Illusions Impact Us

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s