The Brain and Probabilities

The brain is a wonderful machine with an impressive computing power. We can make sense of complex information effortlessly and almost instantly. But it has one big flaw: it does not understand probabilities.

When presented with information, the brain tries to explain it by building a coherent story out of it. To do so quickly, it relies on some shortcuts, which largely ignore probabilities. So the story you get isn’t necessary the most probable, but instead the cheapest it could construct, as long as the story remains plausible.

One of the shortcuts is to trade availability of information for probability (availability heuristic): the information you can recall quickly is deemed more probable than other information. As a result, the probability of sensational events inflates while the probability of mundane events shrinks.

Another of the shortcuts is to only consider what is visible and extrapolate from there (all there is is what you see): only the visible information is considered, without even considering that something could be missing from the picture. Somebody looking nice will be considered a nice person, unless additional negative information about him is given.

The brain tries so hard to build a story that it will see patterns even in random data. It will infer causality very quickly, and with very little. As Kahneman puts it, the brain is “a machine for jumping to conclusion”.

It important to remember the dinstinction between plausible and probablewhen it comes to judgment, because we’re taking decisions all day long.

You hear a project was using a new methodology and was very successful with it so you want to use it as well? Beware the survivorship bias. You don’t know how many projects used the methodology and failed…

You think the biggest risk in your project is a distributed attack from China? Beware the availability heuristic. Your biggest risk might be to not have proper input validation…

You see bug reports for your teams and start detecting a pattern? Beware the law of small number. Your sample size might be too small…

Our brain is hardwired to tell us stories. So it’s very hard to improve on our handling of probabilities. Often, we’re simply not aware that probabilities are at play. And even when we are, it’s really hard to change our instinct in some cases: if you flip 9 times a coin and  got 9 times head, the probability to get tail on the 10th flip is higher, right? Well, actually not. But it’s hard to not feel otherwise.

So, the best remedy is to default to a healthy skepticism and accept that the outcome of many situations in life is simply the result of chance. It might sound like fatalism but it isn’t at all. Your actions will influence the outcome of many situations, but you don’t know how. Don’t buy the first plausible explanation your brain tries to sell you, it’s probably not the right one.


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