Notes from Capital Allocators: Tali Sharot

About Tali: Professor and author of The Influential Mind, The Science of Optimism, and The Optimism Bias

Humans have evolved to maximize positive emotion which is a reward for engaging behaviors which promote survival (sex, eating, social acceptance).

We have built-in biases which push us towards maximizing this emotional well being.

Comparing alternatives requires us to put a value on which actions will improve our well-being, but this is a significant task requiring us to continually weigh our immediate happiness vs future happiness. This is difficult comparison since it requires exchanging immediate, visible gratification for longer-term, invisible, and often compounded benefits. The cost of these decisions is not immediately visible, but the benefit is.

Tali’s research seeks to understand the mechanism by which our built-in biases confound these comparisons so that we can make the costs and benefits of our options more readily available or design nudges which push us towards better long term behavior in cases where we reflexively choose poorly for short term benefit in defiance of what we might actually want.

Optimism Bias

  • We paradoxically hold private optimism vs. public despair
    • “Machines are going to take everyone’s job; except mine”
    • “The market is going to crash, but I’ll be ready and willing to buy when they do”
  • We tend to learn less from things which give us negative feelings
    • We ignore them
    • We explain them away more easily rather than attributing our role to them.
  • We seek opinions which agree with our priors.
    • She cites a study where a group is discussing the value of real estate. When people were agreeing the pleasure centers of their brain light up.
These last 2 points conspire to boost the well-documentedĀ confirmation bias.

IsĀ the optimism bias adaptive?

Whether it’s adaptive or not depends on the consequences.

  • It’s not adaptive when it encourages you to take reckless risks
  • On the other hand if you are very motivated in a task because you are overconfident it may be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Home Country Bias

  • Driven by preference for control rather than the uncertainty that comes with investing in the unfamiliar. Sense of control is also shown to independently be a source of positive emotion.

Reducing Bias

The prescription for dealing with biases varies across individuals. How responsive individuals are to social rewards, anxiety-reducing rewards, risk tolerance all lives on a spectrum.

How can we combat confirmation bias?

  • Confirmation bias compels motivated reasoning. To counteract that find outside points of view that don’t share your priors.
  • Be aware of group dynamics especially our preference for agreeing.
    • For example, before a group discussion surrounding a decision, it is good practice to ask everyone to write their opinion down before the discussion.
  • Be aware of our tendency to confuse confidence for competence. [This reminds me of mimicry in nature. For example, several snake breeds are imposters of the venomous coral snake. Just as a true expert will spot an imposter, a coral snake will intimidate their copycat cousins.]
How can we encourage incremental actions whose benefit is unseen or far in the future?
  • Feedback. We can provide rewards for near-term milestones.
    • She gave the example of a display showing how many people at the hospital washed hands so employees are encouraged to increase the score. Seeing the score increase serves as a psychic prize.

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