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Thinking better, about baseball and everything else

"Thinking, Fast and Slow" might help you win more arguments on SSS in the new year

David Banks

In June 1985, Bill James wrote a letter to Amos Tversky, an esteemed psychologist and a pioneer in the field of behavioral economics:

The baseball analyst whose work was then being blithely ignored by professional baseball people had wanted help answering a question that vexed him: Why were baseball professionals forever attempting to explain essentially random and therefore inexplicable events? "Baseball men, living from day to day in the clutch of carefully metered chance occurrences, have developed an entire bestiary of imagined causes to tie together and thus make sense of patterns that are in truth entirely accidental," James wrote. "They have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings. It includes ‘momentum,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘seeing the ball well,’ ‘slumps,’ ‘guts,’ ‘clutch ability,’ being ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ ‘not being aggressive’ and my all time favorite the ‘intangibles.’ By such concepts, the baseball man gains a feeling of control over a universe that swings him up and down and tosses him from side to side like a yoyo in a high wind." It wasn’t just baseball he was writing about, James continued. "I think that the randomness of fate applies to all of us as much as baseball men, though it might be exacerbated by the orderliness of their successes and failures."

Tversky was a long-time collaborator of Daniel Kahneman, another esteemed psychologist. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 largely for "prospect theory", which he developed with Tversky. Unfortunately, Tversky had passed away in 1996 and Nobel Prizes cannot be award posthumously.

I don't know whether Tversky responded to James' letter. What I do know is that Kahneman wrote a book that, at the very least, answered James' question. Written as a career-spanning summary and application of his (and Tversky's) research, "Thinking, Fast and Slow" should put to rest any belief that human beings act rationally.

The book is long (close to 500 pages) and is not the lightest of reading but it is intended for the lay reader. It's certainly a whole lot more readable than "academic books" and a reader is sure to learn at least a few things about the mistakes we make in our thinking and decision-making and how to correct (or at least recognize) them. But one of the many amusing anecdotes in his book:

[C]onsider what Kahneman calls the “best-known and most controversial” of the experiments he and Tversky did together: “the Linda problem.” Participants in the experiment were told about an imaginary young woman named Linda, who is single, outspoken and very bright, and who, as a student, was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice. The participants were then asked which was more probable: (1) Linda is a bank teller. Or (2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. The overwhelming response was that (2) was more probable; in other words, that given the background information furnished, “feminist bank teller” was more likely than “bank teller.” This is, of course, a blatant violation of the laws of probability. (Every feminist bank teller is a bank teller; adding a detail can only lower the probability.) Yet even among students in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, who had extensive training in probability, 85 percent flunked the Linda problem. One student, informed that she had committed an elementary logical blunder, responded, “I thought you just asked for my opinion.”