Notes on Thinking, Fast and Slow: The Slog of Statistics

When your kids first start learning to read, it takes a lot of effort. They have to remember the sounds that each letter makes, they have to combine those sounds together, and then try to figure out what word that combination of sounds actually is. Reading, at first, is slow and almost painful process.

Then one day, you’ll be driving along in your car, and you’ll hear from the car seat in the back, “SPEED LIMIT 55”. “EXIT 25B”. “CARPOOL LANE”. And then your kids have this sudden realization:

“Oh my goodness. I can’t stop reading! I can’t stop reading everything!

* * *

Reading the first two parts of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow flew by for me in a flash. Part III, however, was a bit of a slog. This section covers the various ways humans fail when it comes to statistical thinking. Kahneman notes that ideas like regression to the mean are among the most difficult for human beings to grasp. Kahneman does a pretty good job simplifying the issues, but it still takes some effort to understand.

To be honest, I took a couple of naps while working through that section. The best part, though, is that Kahneman explains why statistics are so tiring to work with.

We have two systems of thought, labeled System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, intuitive, effortless and automatic, while System 2 is slow, deliberate, and effortful. System 2 thinking uses up a lot of mental energy. Often, that effort seems not worth the trouble, so System 2 often just lazily accepts the intuitive suggestions from System 1, and moves on.

Unless you have a lot of practice in statistics, statistical thought is entirely a function of System 2. It’s slow. It takes effort and concentration. It requires a lot of mental energy to think in a statistically accurate way. It tires us out. We take naps afterwards.

* * *

When your kids first start reading, it’s a System 2 process. It takes effort and concentration. But with practice, the System 1 gets trained to do it. System 1 is effortless and automatic. You can’t turn it off, ever. Once you learn to read, you can’t ever look at a sign again and NOT read it.

* * *

Most of us don’t encounter statistics enough in our daily lives for it to be transformed from a System 2 process to a System 1 process. For us, statistical thinking will always be a tough slog. But reading books like Kahneman’s can at least give us enough experience to recognize when proper statistical thinking is called for. When the stakes are high, we can understand just enough to say, “my gut feeling is X, but let’s run through the numbers to make sure”, instead of just accepting X.

Notes on Thinking, Fast and Slow: The Hot Hand

Chapter 10 of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers familiar ground to anyone who follows sports statistics. The chapter addresses two of the major mistakes humans make when dealing with statistical informtion: ignoring small sample sizes, and seeking out patterns in outcomes that are actually random chance.

At one point, he discusses the “hot hand theory”, where it is shown that basketball players do not actually have streaks where they get hot; the streaks we observe are pretty much what we would statistically expect from a random distribution of shots, given a player’s overall shooting percentage.

That, too, is familiar territory to people who follow sports statistics. But recently, I came across something new (to me, anyway) about this topic. What has been missing from the discussion is an explanation about why the outcomes of human performance is distributed randomly.

Suppose you had a very precise pitching machine. It throws the exact same pitch to the exact same location every single time. And yet, a human batter facing that machine and those pitches would not hit the ball with the exact same result each time. Why not?

You might just chalk it up to, “we’re humans, not robots.” But that’s not really an adequate explanation, is it? Which part of human mechanics introduces the randomness in our performance?

A good explanation for the randomness in our performance can be found in this Ted Talk by Daniel Wolpert. At about five minutes in, he explains that the chemical transmission of nerve signals from our brains to our muscles and back is extremely noisy.

When we use a machine metaphor to describe our bodies, we make assumptions about our systems that aren’t accurate. The signals that our bodies send aren’t nearly as clean as the electronic signals our computers send to its peripheral devices.

Think about someone you know who is hard of hearing. Or about having a conversation in a noisy restaurant. What happens in those conversations? Often you can’t hear every word, so you have to make a guess based on context as to what was actually said. You are forced to fill in the gaps with guesses based on past experience. And sometimes those guesses are wrong.

And because the noise disrupts the signals randomly, our guesses are wrong randomly. If we could somehow replace our nerves with copper wires or fiber optic cables, though, our performance failures would be reduced significantly.

Notes on Thinking, Fast and Slow: Chili Davis

I got a Kindle today, and one of the first books I bought was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a book more than this one, a summary of how the human mind works by the leading scientist in the field. I plan on making some notes on this book as I read it.

Here’s the first one. Yesterday, I wrote this on Twitter, about the Oakland A’s hiring of Chili Davis as their new hitting coach.

I approve of Chili Davis as A’s hitting coach, since I liked him as a player & I have no other way to know what makes a good hitting coach.

Right in the very first chapter, Kahneman discusses this kind of mental error. He describes an executive who decides to buy Ford stock because he likes Ford cars. He doesn’t take into consideration at all whether the stock is currently priced correctly.

The executive’s decision would today be described as an example of the affect heuristic, where judgments and decisions are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning.

Kahneman goes on to explain that when we lack the skills to answer a question, what we often do is answer a different question instead. I don’t have the skills or knowledge to know whether Chili Davis would be a good hitting coach. But I know the answers to some other similar questions. Was Chili Davis a good hitter? Yes! Was Chili Davis a likable player? Yes!

So my mind naturally decides to substitute the answers for the questions I can answer for the question I can’t. And the odd thing is, we often don’t notice ourselves that we’ve performed this question substitution, so we often feel very confident in our answers, without just cause.

I feel very happy about the choice of Chili Davis as the A’s hitting coach. I feel quite confident that he will do a great job. Logically, I know that this is just a kind of cognitive illusion. But knowing how the trick works doesn’t seem to make the trick stop working. I still feel happy and confident about Chili Davis as the A’s hitting coach.

The Foundations of Success

One of the things that’s prevented me from blogging more is that I haven’t spelled out the foundations of the arguments I want to make. I find myself first having to explain the foundations, which makes my articles too long and time-consuming for me to complete. So I want to spell out those things that I have come to believe first, so that I can just link to them later. Here’s the first one:

Success, in pretty much any field, is a two-step function:

  1. Understand what quality is
  2. Insist on it

The first is a matter of education and experience. The second is a matter of character and hard work.

If you fail, it’s usually because you fell short on one of these, or both.

Look at Steve Jobs. Jobs obviously embodied this idea. He knew what quality meant to him, and he would insist on it, even if he had to be a jerk in the process.

But quality isn’t just artistic quality. Bill Gates has also been very successful, but heavens knows that understanding artistic quality has never been among his strengths. But I’d argue that Microsoft had a different definition of quality. They defined it in terms of ubiquity. They explicitly said that their goal was to get their products on every desk in the world. And so Microsoft organized itself in such a way to achieve quality as they defined it. Nobody was better than Microsoft at making sure their products were able to get on every desk in the world. I’ve worked in the computer distribution industry and seen them at work. They’re absolute geniuses at distribution.

Understanding quality doesn’t necessarily mean a conscious understanding of quality, though. You don’t have to be able to verbally explain your definition of quality. It can be a “gut feel” of what is good and what isn’t. But if your “gut feel” of quality doesn’t correlate with actual quality, you won’t succeed.

You can also insist on quality without being a jerk like Steve Jobs. I’ll bet that the reason Steve Jobs clashed with so many people is that while he insisted on making quality products, he didn’t bother, like most other people, to insist on behaving like a quality human being. He would probably accept that trade-off. Most of the rest of us probably wouldn’t. That’s probably why there are so few Steve Jobs. Insistence is hard.

There are some things you can’t insist on. If I decided today to become a world-class soccer player, I could maybe come to understand how to do that. But I couldn’t insist on it. I’d have to go back in time to when I was about 7 years old and start practicing. It’s too late for that. When you truly understand quality you will also understand when you are incapable of achieving it.

We can feel free to dismiss or ignore people who can’t or won’t bother to understand quality, or don’t care enough about it to insist on it. I’m not physically capable, at age 45, of becoming a great soccer player. Maybe I was at age 10, but back then, I didn’t care enough about it to insist on it. Therefore, then as now, nobody bothers to write essays about my soccer skills, and nobody should. It’s not worth talking about.

Where things get really interesting are when:

  • Multiple understandings of quality collide
  • An environment is so new that there’s no way to know what quality is, so you have to experiment and figure it out as you go along

That’s the kind of stuff worth talking about.

On Evil

There are few characters in all of literature more evil than Shakespeare’s Richard III. In the very first scene of the play, Richard comes right out and declares that he is a villain. He then proceeds to spend the rest of the play alternating between describing the evil he’s about to do, and doing that evil. He cares nothing about the damage he does to the people around him. He murders anyone who gets in his way: his enemies, his friends, his closest ally, his brother, his wife, and his two nephews–both children. He’s a monster.

Yet he’s also intelligent and, in the hands of a good actor, both charming and funny. I recently saw Kevin Spacey perform in Richard III at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. At times, Spacey’s impeccable comic timing had the audience in stitches.

It was both an amazing and a disturbing performance. The play would have no life, no value, if it were just a laundry list of evil actions. But, thanks to the genius of Shakespeare, and the talents of an accomplished actor, we find ourselves entertained by evil, impressed by evil, charmed by evil, laughing at evil, laughing with evil. We, the audience, can’t help ourselves.

What does this say about us? Does our ability to enjoy evil condemn us as evil ourselves?

* * *

What, dost thou scorn me for my gentle counsel?
And soothe the devil that I warn thee from?
O, but remember this another day,
When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow,
And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!

–Queen Margaret, in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I, Scene III

Only one character in Richard III recognizes from the start that Richard is a bad man: old Queen Margaret. She had suffered this kind of treachery before. But when she tells people about the evil before them, nobody chooses to consider she might be right. They dismiss her as just a crazy old lady. Nobody really wants to confront such an uncomfortable idea. And so an evil man continues to roam free, to do more damage to people’s lives.

Sound familiar?

* * *

“You manage things. You lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership.”

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was one of the pioneers of computer science. She is credited with coining the computer terms “bugs” and “debugging”. One of the bugs she felt had crept into late 20th century society was that our educational institutions stopped teaching leadership, and started teaching management instead.

If you think about her quote in relation to the Penn State scandal, you can easily see how this thing went wrong. When organizations get large, when millions and billions of dollars are at stake, human beings become abstractions. People aren’t people anymore. They’re assets, or resources, or targets, or obligations, or liabilities, or potential lawsuits.

This thing at Penn State went horribly wrong because this thing became a thing. It became something to manage, an issue to deal with. And every time the buck got passed along the management chain, the issue became less person-like and more thing-like.

Penn State failed because they had management, not leadership. They had managers, not leaders. They failed because they didn’t have anyone who could tell the difference.

* * *

It’s very de-motivating to work in an environment where you can see all the brutal facts, but those in power are not confronting those brutal facts. And you want them confronted because you want to be part of something great.

Jim Collins, on “How the Mighty Fall”, his study of how great enterprises unravel.

Evil is repulsive. So it’s natural to want to repel it, to look away, to ignore it, to hope it’s not really there, to hope it will go away. Shakespeare recognized that human behavior 500 years ago. We’re still just as human today.

But the only way to defeat evil is to not repel it too quickly. If you dismiss or rationalize away the brutal facts you face, you only displace those brutal facts temporarily. They’re still there, lurking in the background.

Wise leaders must have the courage to let that evil in, just long enough to examine it, to understand it. That’s dangerous. You don’t want to be seduced by the temptations of evil yourself, and you don’t want to become a victim of it. But it must be done. It is wise, not evil, to want to study the likes of Richard III. It is wise to try to take lessons from the failures at Penn State. Otherwise, there will certainly be more victims whose hearts are split with sorrow.


As a first step in trying to get myself to write more and shorter blog entries, I have set up a link blog, at

For this, I set up a bunch of “If This Then That” tasks over on Every time I mark a favorite on Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Delicious, Tumblr, Flickr, or Google Reader, IFTTT will take that content and create a blog entry on my linkblog.

Next, I hope to create a tool where I can click a button on the linkblog, and it will grab the linkblog entry content and include it for a new post on this blog. Then all I have to do is add some short commentary without doing any time-consuming work of cutting, pasting, saving and so forth. All I’ll have to do is my normal reading of my feeds, and click the “favorite” button whenever I see anything I might want to comment on.

On Becoming a Better Blogger

I have five unfinished blog posts in my editor, and another three or four in my head. But I can’t seem to get any of them done.

There’s been a rash of events recently that’s left many people trying to make sense of. Steve Jobs. Al Davis. Game 6. Occupy Things. Libya. The Euro mess. And most recently, Penn State.

I’d like to be a better blogger, and be able to comment in a timely and interesting manner on such things. But I usually end up trying to tie too many things together into one story, and it takes me forever. And then they wither on the vine, too late to be plucked.

I am reminded of a triathlete I read about. He was told by his coach that he’d never be a champion until his worst event became his best. That turned out to be the case.

I probably need to suck for awhile to gain some mastery of my weaknesses in this medium. I need to practice, to experiment, to learn the short, quick hit. I need to learn how to let the *blog* tie my themes together, instead of the *entry*.

Apologies, then, in advance, for whatever sucky stuff I may subject you to in the near future.

Now, Ken, hit the damn Publish button.