Thursday, September 13, 2012

"People ... do not want to think probabilistically"

Highly recommended profile Obama's Way by Michael Lewis:
Vanity Fair: ... “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically. [emphasis mine]
See also Bounded cognition.

Here's a great interview with Michael Lewis, who shadowed Obama off and on over an 8 month period.


Rusty Shackleford said...

"So you wind up dealing with probabilities."

A funny way of saying "you wind up making it worse".

5371 said...

Poetic justice that Lewis's oily paean to Obama the liberator of Libya appeared in the week when everyone got a good look at those liberated Libyans

SethTS said...

I think you're distorting this a bit ... the line about probabilities and 'feigning total certainty' is from Lewis, not Obama.

For such a smart blog, you attract a lot of atavistic Obama haters. Maybe just sampling bias: commenters vs readers.

Stephen Hsu said...

Oops, I guess I failed to notice where the quotes ended. I thought that Lewis, in the audio interview, attributed the comment to Obama, but I could be wrong.

Re: Obama hate, I don't get it. Lewis has always (in my judgement) been a straight shooter and I've been reading his stuff since Liar's Poker.

Obama's reasoning sure beats the Gog and Magog logic of his predecessor!

Richard Seiter said...

I think much of the Obama hate (and Romney hate) we are getting right now hardly qualifies as well thought out. I'm reading Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" and it definitely has some ideas which resonate with my observations as a political spectator.

I had missed the quote end as well. Unless it is a pretty clear paraphrase, I think Lewis overstepped by writing those last two sentences at the end of the quote without clearly indicating it was his own opinion.

I enjoyed the description of the decision making process behind the Libyan intervention (though recent events definitely impact perception of how that worked out). I was encouraged to hear this:

The president may not have been surprised that the Pentagon hadn’t sought to answer that question. He was nevertheless visibly annoyed. “I don’t know why we are even having this meeting,” he said, or words to that effect. “You’re telling me a no-fly zone doesn’t solve the problem, but the only option you’re giving me is a no-fly zone.”

SethTS said...

I read the quote here in the same way, then listened to the pod cast waiting expectantly for the context around Obama talking about "probabilistic" reasoning, but when it arrived it was Lewis saying to Lopate that "people being led don't like to think probabilistically". That brought me back here to double-check and only then did I realize the quote had terminated before those sentences.

In seeking to 'hang out' with Obama for a long-form piece, Lewis was looking to do what John Hersey had done with President Truman. I don't think that kind of a project works unless the writer decides in advance that they're ok with a fundamentally sympathetic portrayal. Going native with a subject is going to make it hard to go home and write a lot of hostile criticisms. But the reason to do such a piece is not to evaluate a President relative to his predecessors, but to bring home something *real* about the job called The Presidency and how the rest of us relate to it.

Stephen Hsu said...

Nice catch. I listened to the Lewis (audio) interview last night while falling asleep and made a mental note to track down the probability reference in the article, because it seemed to be a pretty sophisticated observation for a politico. But I guess I messed up the attribution :-|

stevesailer said...

I've never seen much evidence of Obama having a strong quantitative turn of mind. Verbal, yes, quantitative, no. David Maraniss's exhaustive biography of Obama up through age 27 paints him as basically having the skill set of a creative writing professor.

RKU1 said...

Well, over the years I've gradually concluded that journalists who write first-hand accounts about powerful, famous people tend to lie and distort an awful lot. Sometimes in favor of their subject, sometimes against, all depending upon their expected audience.

I greatly fear that poor Michael Lewis is probably not immune to this failing.

SethTS said...

'Sophisticated' is a word I would be inclined to reserve for people capable of such reasoning. But there are less articulate variants: people can gain a lot of power through a purely intuitive understanding of the 'poker odds' without being introspective about how they do it.

stevesailer said...

I've read Lewis's article now. It's a piece of access journalism. The decisionmaking process that got us into this mess in Libya is related uncritically. And nothing quantitative from Obama except that "30 to 40 percent chance" quote form above.

Anonymous said...


Libya and Lebanon are different places.


Bobdisqus said...

Steve Attribution aside, as much as the left would like to frame the debate that way Obama will not be running against Bush. I think given his Bain experience it is safe to say that Romney is far more likely to think about issues probabilistically than Obama. Awareness or at least acknowledgment of the possibility of unintended consequences is not the natural preserve of progressives. I am no Bush fan, but it seems a bit beneath your intellect Steve to accept the Gog and Magog story as actually being revealing of his thought process rather than just bad metaphor.

Jeff said...

I may be incorrect in my memories, but I believe that Milgram remarked that the most unsettling aspect of his famous study was that not a single subject ever demanded to see the occupant on the other side of the wall. Sure some people refused to participate after they became uncomfortable with the notion of shocking an unseen individual, but evidently, not a single person demanded to see the person on the other side of the wall to verify their healthy and condition.

The issue is germane, because how many people actually accept that the President must "play the odds" or "think in probabilities" in order to further the best interests of his fellow citizens. Quite frankly, when the Presidency is maintained by a man of tremendous moral fiber with a vision to both natural and constitutional law, he doesn't really need to play the odds. Surely, we are all the worse for a situation where an executor is able to play the odds with our lives. That is the fundamental issue; it is philosophical in nature and I fear that few people have the genetic disposition to turn from big man rule.

botti said...

Interesting that the voices of reason in the discussions of whether to keep out of Libya appear to have been Gates & Biden! No mention apparently of whether the rebels were associated with al-Qaeda, or the ethnic cleansing of black libyans that followed Gaddafi's demise (I guess Samantha Power didn't think of that).

"There is a lot of horrific video footage clearly showing public lynchings in Benghazi (link to graphic description of some of the footage). including at the rebel HQ, beheadings of blindfolded prisoners and interrogation of prisoners, including in hospitals.The myth of black mercenaries leads to lynchingsOther evidence of the massacres of black people, which include the lynchings and murder of black soldiers of the Libyan army, guest workers from other African countries and dark-skinned Libyan civilians include a report from the BBC on 25 February which cited a Turkish construction worker as saying:“We had 70-80 people from Chad working for our company. They were cut dead with pruning shears and axes, attackers saying: ‘You are providing troops for Gaddafi.’ The Sudanese were also massacred. We saw it for ourselves.”On 27th February Nick Meo of The Telegraph reported from Al-Bayda that he had been shown mobile phone footage of a ‘captured mercenary‘ (presumably he means black person with a uniform) lynched from a street lamp as well as a ‘black African hanging on a meat hook."

ChaceRapid said...

A lot of people would like to be seen as "sophisticated," so they attempt to "think probabilistically," even though they don't really know the probabilities or how to properly reason with them. I find it particularly ironic that people in finance would talk this way, given recent history. (I'm guessing that the book in question was published well before 2008.)
I should also say that probabilistic reasoning in medicine by practicing clinicians suffers from a pernicious circularity, inasmuch as much of the statistics they propose to rely on are derived from the outcomes of their own decision-making, as recorded in medical records. They are tempted to feed those statistics back into their judgments on individual cases, precisely because of the complexities and uncertainities they face, and sheer work (= money and time) that can go into properly assessing an individual case on its own merits.

Pincher Martin said...

Michael Lewis is a great writer. He's funny. He writes moving narratives about sympathetic characters. He excels at finding a hook to some real-life story that few people would typically find that interesting. What's Liar's Poker about? Just some kid who gets a job at Salomon Brothers right before it almost goes belly-up. Big deal. But Lewis uses that slight experience to write a great book, filled with unexpected humor and wonderful characterizations.

Lewis has one major flaw as a writer. He is almost never right about the big picture. That is, the lessons he seems to want to impart to his readers don't match up with the wonderful stories he tells. His sympathy for his real-life characters overwhelms his weak judgment. Or as Andrew Ferguson puts it, "Lewis is often played for a chump by the people he writes about." And even when he isn't necessarily sympathetic to his characters (John Gutfreund hated Liar's Poker, and how he was portrayed in it), Lewis is usually way off the mark in the conclusions he draws.

Politics is also not an area of strength for Lewis. One of his early (and forgettable) books was called Trail Fever. In it, Lewis describes going on the campaign trail in 1996 to follow around the Republican candidates who were competing for the right to run as the party's nominee against Clinton. Lewis is quite funny in the book. But he has a taste for the bizarre and unusual over the meaningful, which probably explains why he got so caught up in Morry Taylor's quixotic quest for the presidency - a man I hadn't even heard of until I read Lewis's book even though I follow politics closely. There's nothing wrong about Lewis's focus in the book, of course, except that Lewis wants to justify his sympathy for Taylor as having some greater meaning about politics in America.

I laughed a lot when reading Trail Fever, but I can't remember a single interesting or true observation about politics Lewis made in the book. But at least I laughed. I can forgive a writer a lot when he makes me laugh. This Vanity Fair article is merely vapid. Where's the humor? I guess it was hard for Lewis to be funny when he's crouched down like a sycophant.

Kevin Kind Songs said...

There are a few ways to talk about this. Any human capability descended from prior animals and was selected, albeit millions of years ago, so it's a feature of animal brains.

By definition, all living things are very good Bayesian calculators or they would be dead. Animals need to be exceptional probabilistic behaviors, thinking seems trivial, if only to feed themselves multiple times a day. So the human brain inherited great probabilistic skills -- largely instinctive and unconscious and occurring in milliseconds.

The statement more speaks to resistance to public discussion/talk portraying decision making as logical vs emotive. That's an empirical question.

Let me add that increasing good evidence, in fact, is showing that our minds don't consciously think about what we do. Consciousness and even emotions seem to not be causal of behavior. So likely the non-verbal signals of a leader are more determinant -- as is true for all other animals.

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