Category Archives: Situations/stressors


I finally read Antifragile by Nassim Taleb that was published in 2012. It has much interesting stuff, but the overall concept does not sell. The premise is that the opposite of fragile is not robust, but antifragile. I was not convinced that anything is antifragile except chaos. That hunter gatherer society was probably the most antifragile possible. Of course, Taleb would say it is Beirut. However, as usual, he makes some great points including how smart and well read he is (See post Dancing with Chance for more on Taleb).  I think the antifragile idea was just to give him a big concept for the book. He says rock stars and restaurants are antifragile. Huh?

Fukishima was not a black swan. A bunch of risk calculations were cobbled together and the standard deviations turned out to be off on several dimensions. All of a sudden 1 in 1,000,000 became 1 in 30 and it happened.  This leads to the so called barbell strategy for investing. You place the vast majority of assets in the safest possible places and then take much risk with just a few assets. Taleb believes that the assets of seeming moderate risk tend to be those where risk can be miscalculated the most. I agree with him. It reminds me of my favorite financial planner who tells me that a particular asset mix has a 95% chance of proving adequate to get my wife and I through our lives comfortably. If the 5% chance happens, I need a story to tell my wife or a letter to the file. I need to do better than that even if that means changing how we define comfortable.

He says that you need the people making predictions to have skin in the game, but he also points out that smart people make bets where the downside is small and the upside is huge. Is that skin in the game?

I strongly agree with him that detailed forecasts of the future are a sad joke, but that does not mean to me that we should not do our best to plan for the future. I believe that we can avoid many of the worst alternative futures.

He suggests that David Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage is crazy because governments actually try to implement it and then bad things happen.  So if Portugal puts all its production in wine and none in cloth and demand for wine goes down, that is a problem. It seems to me that he misses the point that trade is advantageous overall and that everyone has something to contribute.  Finally he does admit that Ricardo is right.

Taleb and I agree that the relationship of the USA and Saudia Arabia makes no sense and that has only gotten more true since the book was published. Stability and reducing uncertainty are nice goals, but if you have to sacrifice everything else to achieve them, you will ultimately experience major instability and uncertainty. You need the correct level of stability. When things appear very stable and there seems to be no uncertainty, you can bet that something bad is being papered over.

Taleb also agrees that humans are not that good with nonlinearity (See post Nonlinear). Nonlinearity is either convexity or concavity (or sometimes both). In such situations small changes in one input can result in very large changes in harm or benefit. You do not want to operate in nonlinear ranges where harm can increase geometrically. That goes for building bridges or stockpiling N95 masks.

I agree that modern does not equate with good for humans. The navigators in our navy need to be able figure out where they are with charts and a sextant and not just GPS. Human society would be more robust if we all knew how to cook a little and garden a little and sew a little.

The book really makes one point well. If you want to survive you need backup/redundancy. A longer view has its downsides but if survival is a goal you need to be saving for the future. That is not sufficient for survival since a black swan can get you regardless, but it is necessary. That goes for the Texas power grid or pandemic response or your family finances.

Taleb’s maxim for the book is:

Everthing gains or loses from volatility. Fragility is what loses from volatility and uncertainty.

The glass on the table is short volatility.  In Taleb’s option trader lingo, this means that the glass on the table will survive best if no one even comes into that room. As Taleb notes, time is volatility. Over time things will happen in that room and they could all be bad for that glass.

The glass is dead; living things are long volatility. Taleb states:

The best way to verify that you are alive is by checking if you like variations. Remember that food would not have a taste if it were not for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without uncertainty, and an ethical life is not so when stripped of personal risks.


Coronavirus Math

Early 2020 is a truly Interesting time for decision making. We have learned what an inexact science risk communication is and had Robin Hogarth’s statement reemphasized:

“Human achievement is lower when there are nonlinearities in the ecology.” (What has Brunswik’s Lens Model Taught?).

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Denver Bullet Study

This post is largely a continuation of the Kenneth R Hammond post, but one prompted by recent current events. My opinion on gun control is probably readily apparent. But if it is not, let me say that I go crazy when mental health is bandied about as the reason for our school shootings or when we hear that  arming teachers is a solution to anything. However,  going crazy or questioning the sincerity of people with whom you are arguing is not a good idea. Dan Kahan (See my posts Cultural Cognition or Curiosity or his blog Cultural Cognition) has some great ideas on this, but Ken Hammond actually had accomplishments and they could help guide all of us today. I should note also that I was unable to quickly find the original sources so I am relying completely on: “Kenneth R. Hammond’s contributions to the study of judgment and decision making,” written by Mandeep K. Dhami and Jeryl L. Mumpower that appeared in  Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 2018, pp. 1–22.

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Why do almost all people tell the truth in ordinary everyday
life? […] The reason is, firstly because it is easier; for
lying demands invention, dissimulation, and a good memory
(Friedrich Nietzsche, page 54, Human, All Too Human:  A Book for Free Spirits, 1878)

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”  (Pres. Donald Trump, discussion with Russian diplomats, May 10, 2017).

This post is based on the paper:  ” ‘ I can see it in your eyes’: Biased Processing and Increased Arousal in Dishonest Responses,” authored by Guy Hochman, Andreas Glockner, Susan Fiedler, and Shahar Ayal, that appeared in the  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, December 2015.

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Emotions and Health Decision Making

shared_decision_making_smallThis post is based on a paper by Rebecca Ferrer, William Klein, Jennifer Lerner, Valerie Reyna, and Dacher Keltner: “Emotions and Health Decison-Making, Extending the Appraisal Tendency Framework to Improve Health and Healthcare,” in Behavioral Economics and Public Health, 2014. I note that Valerie Reyna is one of the authors of fuzzy trace theory (see post Fuzzy Trace Theory-Meaning, Memory, Development and subsequent posts.) which I find interesting.

The authors use the appraisal tendency framework (ATF) to predict how emotions may interact with situational factors to improve or degrade health-related decisions. The paper examines four categories of judgments and thought processes as related to health decisions: risk perception, valuation and reward-seeking, interpersonal attribution, and depth of information processing. They illustrate ways in which a better understanding of emotion can improve judgments and choices regarding health.

The ATF assumes that specific emotions give rise to corresponding cognitive and motivational processes that are related to the target of the emotion (i.e., the situation, person, or other stimulus that elicited the emotion). In contrast to theories that predict how broad mood states (positive or negative) may influence judgment and decision making, the ATF offers specific predictions for how discrete emotions will influence judgment and decision making (See Tables 1 and 2).

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What to do about emotion?

passionThis is the second post based on a paper: “Emotion and Decision Making,” that is to appear in the 2014 Annual Review of Psychology. It was written by Jennifer S. Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Karim Kassam.

David Hume: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Still, most of us have made some bad decisions under the influence of emotion. There are unwanted effects of emotion on decision making, but as Lerner et al note, they can only sometimes be reduced.

The strategies to reduce unwanted effects broadly take one of two forms: (a) minimizing the magnitude of the emotional response (e.g., through time delay, reappraisal, or inducing a counteracting emotional state), or (b) insulating the judgment or decision process from the emotion (e.g., by crowding out emotion, increasing awareness of misattribution, or modifying the choice architecture).

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Delay into Doubt

doubtimagesContinuing on the delay theme, this post is based on the paper: “Delay, Doubt, and Decision:  How Delaying a Choice Reduces the Appeal of (Descriptively) Normative Options” written by Niels Van de Ven, Thomas Gilovich, and Marcel Zeelenberg, that appeared in Psychological Science in 2010.
The authors examined whether choosing to delay making a choice between a focal option and an alternative tends to make people subsequently less likely to choose what they would otherwise have chosen. They based their efforts on a regularity in elections in the United States that is known as the incumbent rule. It refers to the fact that undecided voters who end up casting ballots tend to vote against the incumbent. One analysis found that in 127 of 155 national, state,
and municipal elections, the majority of undecided voters went for the challenger. This may seem a little odd since decision researchers have documented a status quo bias in people’s
choices—a bias to stick with the status quo option rather than try something new. So why do undecided voters not favor the incumbent? Van de Ven et al contend that undecided voters
interpret the fact that they have yet to decide as information that calls into question the wisdom of picking the incumbent. Given that the incumbent is typically the more psychologically prominent candidate, and that people know they often follow an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule, they may wonder why they have not already resolved to vote for the incumbent. In other words, they propose that the experience of doubt is experienced as doubt about the incumbent.

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Judgments Under Stress

hellodaveKen Hammond wrote a book, Judgments Under Stress, published in 2000.  He was clearly frustrated with how the field of psychology dealt with stress and used his book as a vehicle to change the discussion.  Hammond really wants to talk about constancy while stress is a constancy disruptor. Hammond’s mentor, Egon Brunswik, saw constancy as the essence of life.  Hammond asserts that the orientation of the organism is directed toward maintaining stable relations with the environment, and that disruption of those stable relations is the definition of stress.

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