Errors, Biases, and Technology

In the book ‘The Undoing Project’, the author Michael Lewis dives into the history and work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.


Their work in the fields of decision sciences and behavioral economics earned Kahneman a Nobel prize as it helped shape how people think about decision-making under uncertainty (Tversky was deceased when the prize was awarded and Nobel prizes only go to those living otherwise he likely would have been honored alongside his longtime collaborator).

From their work, the concept of errors and biases in human decision-making sprang forth. They started with a few simple cases, but other researches have helped the field explode and have uncovered dozens of different phenomena.

*Note: It is likely that some or many of these are found in controlled lab experiments only and may not be particularly generalizable to human decision-making. That’s a different discussion.

Many people use these errors and biases to label humans as error-prone and not to be trusted, and claim decision-making should be handed to technology (possibly described as algorithms, analytics, automation, or AI — I just group them all under the term ‘technology’ here to help avoid confusion through different terms) as often as possible. The belief is that technology will act ‘rationally’ and ignore the situational context or framing and look at just the facts of the problem.

But Kahneman and Tversky weren’t studying these phenomena from the perspective of a weak human. They didn’t go in to identify human shortcomings; they were simply trying to figure out how the mind works.

They didn’t go in to identify human shortcomings; they were simply trying to figure out how the mind works.

Much like perceptual psychologists were able to understand how the eye works by studying optical illusions, Kahneman and Tversky hoped to better understand the human mind by knowing its limitations.

Indeed, while many consider these error and bias instances as human frailty, they are instead important characteristics that have allowed humans to be successful over many millennia. They are shortcuts that allow us to navigate a complex, poorly defined world. They help us avoid spending excess cognitive capacity on problems that don’t need it and give us the best chance at survival.