Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Psychology of Human Misjudgment

This is from a talk given by Munger at Harvard in 1995 on the subject of human misjudgment and the system of psychology that Munger came up with to better understand it.

Not a short or easy read but worth it.

Excerpt:
Although I am very interested in the subject of human misjudgment - and lord knows I've created a good bit of it - I don't think I've created my full statistical share, and I think that o­ne of the reasons why I tried to do something about this terrible ignorance I left the Harvard Law School with.

When I saw this patterned irrationality, which was so extreme, and I had no theory or anything to deal with it, but I could see that it was extreme, and I could see that it was patterned, I just started to create my own system of psychology, partly by casual reading, but largely from personal experience, and I used that pattern to help me get through life. Fairly late in life I stumbled into this book, Influence, by a psychologist named Bob Cialdini.... Well, it's an academic book aimed at a popular audience that filled in a lot of holes in my crude system. In those holes it filled in, I thought I had a system that was a good-working tool, and I'd like to share that o­ne with you.

And I came here because of behavioral economics. How could economics not be behavioral? If it isn't behavioral, what the hell is it? And I think it's fairly clear that all reality has to respect all other reality. If you come to inconsistencies, they have to be resolved, and so if there's anything valid in psychology, economics has to recognize it, and vice versa. So I think the people that are working o­n this fringe between economics and psychology are absolutely right to be there, and I think there's been plenty wrong over the years.


In this talk Charlie Munger goes through more than 20 different standard causes of human misjudgment. He updated them in Poor Charlie's Almanac. The update is organized around 25 different psychology-based tendencies.

Considering the length of the original talk I happened to choose an excerpt from the 5th standard cause:

Where you see in business just perfectly horrible results from psychologically-rooted tendencies is in accounting. If you take Westinghouse, which blew, what, two or three billion dollars pre-tax at least loaning developers to build hotels, and virtually 100% loans? Now you say any idiot knows that if there's o­ne thing you don't like it's a developer, and another you don't like it's a hotel. And to make a 100% loan to a developer who's going to build a hotel...[Laughter] But this guy, he probably was an engineer or something, and he didn't take psychology any more than I did, and he got out there in the hands of these salesmen operating under their version of incentive-caused bias*, where any damned way of getting Westinghouse to do it was considered normal business, and they just blew it.

That would never have been possible if the accounting system hadn't been such but for the initial phase of every transaction it showed wonderful financial results. So people who have loose accounting standards are just inviting perfectly horrible behavior in other people. And it's a sin, it's an absolute sin. If you carry bushel baskets full of money through the ghetto, and made it easy to steal, that would be a considerable human sin, because you'd be causing a lot of bad behavior, and the bad behavior would spread. Similarly an institution that gets sloppy accounting commits a real human sin, and it's also a dumb way to do business, as Westinghouse has so wonderfully proved.

Oddly enough nobody mentions, at least nobody I've seen, what happened with Joe Jett and Kidder Peabody. The truth of the matter is the accounting system was such that by punching a few buttons, the Joe Jetts of the world could show profits, and profits that showed up in things that resulted in rewards and esteem and every other thing... Well the Joe Jetts are always with us, and they're not really to blame, in my judgment at least. But that bastard who created that foolish accounting system who, so far as I know, has not been flayed alive, ought to be.


The updated written version found in Poor Charlie's Almanac is also called The Psychology of Human Misjudgment. It is much more formal and organized than the original talk.

Adam

* Incentive-Caused Bias is the title of another one of the standard causes of human misjudgment covered in another section of his talk...these psychological tendencies all interact.
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