Just a few weeks after watching the movie, my Vanity Fair magazine arrived with an article “The King of Human Error” by Michael Lewis. Lewis wrote the book Moneyball on which the movie was based. He wondered why baseball executives who spend their well paid careers evaluating talent still end up making so many blunders. Lewis failed to answer this question in his book so he looked to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who spent a lifetime conducting research in the field of cognitive psychology as to how human decision making can be distorted under conditions of uncertainty. In 2002, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work (Tversky died in 1996 so he was ineligible for the Nobel).
The Vanity Fair introduction to Kahneman’s book was so intriguing that I immediately went out and purchased my own copy. In a very engaging and easy-to read-style, Kahneman uses his decades of research to discuss how our intuition can get in the way of our conscious thinking. He categorizes our way of thinking into System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the quick, mostly unconscious way of making decisions based on intuition. Faced with 1000s of decisions in a day—both great and small-- we rely on System 1 thinking for many of those choices because it is quick. System 2 is the systematic, deliberate, conscious way that we come to a reasoned decision. Under heavy System 2 processing, our eyes will dilate, our glucose level drops, and stress increases especially if a time constraint is involved. System 1 can provide amazingly fast spacial and pattern recognition; it is the basis for “expert intuition.” System 2 is the more time-consuming approach we use to compute complex math equations and solve logic problems. (Note System 1 and System 2 are constructs or “nicknames” that Kahneman developed to represent “automatic system” and “effortful system,” respectively.)
So you are all thinking right now, why did Pamela go through this lengthy introduction and what does this have to do with the Icelandic horse? Well as I am reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, I challenged myself to apply these cognitive biases to my own thinking about horse training, Icelandic horse “history,” Icelandic horse evaluations, pricing of Icelandic horses, marketing of horse training, and much more. I found that my intuitive thinking often gets in the way of my rational consideration of these topics. Let’s look at examples.
Pamela’s Question 2: At age 4, the head of a horse will weight approximately (adapted from Pop Quiz, Equus, p.16):
Question 3: So let’s take another example from Kahneman. “How many murders occur in the state of Michigan in one year?” (Kahneman, p. 45)
But let’s break down the statements and use some System 2 thinking. When I re-read the paragraph and really think about it, the phrases “in 1100 AD” and “disease control” kind of jump out at me. And if I remember my scientific history correctly, current modern thinking about disease control did not develop until the mid- and late 1800s as scientists began to understand how cholera, small pox, anthrax, bubonic plague, and other diseases were spread from animal to animal (or animal to person in some diseases). Up to that point, disease was regarded as being caused as a punishment by God, unbalanced humors, unidentified miasmas, witchcraft, and other factors. Stating that horses were forbidden to enter Iceland at that time due to “disease control” does not agree with my understanding of the history of science--slim though that may be.
o let’s circle back to Brad Pitt and Moneyball. Roger Ebert described the movie as “a smart, intense and moving film that isn't so much about sports as about the war between intuition and statistics.” Almost every day, we will find ourselves in a similar “war” as we make decisions about how we select trainers and training methods, respond to equine-related marketing , make health care decisions, and buy and sell our Icelandic horses. Kahneman’s work in Thinking, Fast and Slow provides thought provoking examples of cognitive psychology research that we can apply to make better decisions to win this war—or at least some battles. And maybe I should only watch Brad Pitt’s more light hearted movies so I don’t get started with all this thinking stuff!