Imposing Order

In his The Undoing Project (205-8), quotes two lengthy passages from a 1972 lecture by Amos Tversky on “Historical Interpretation: Judgment Under Uncertainty.” Both describe how historians trick themselves into seeing inevitability:

In the course of our personal and professional lives, we often run into situations that appear puzzling at first blush. We cannot see for the life of us why Mr. X acted in a particular way, we cannot understand how the experiemental results came out the way they did, etc. Typically, however, within a very short time we come up with an explanation, a hypothesis, or an interpretation of the facts that renders them understandable, coherent, or natural. The same phenomenon is observed in perception. People are very good at detecting patterns and trends even in random data. In contrast to our skill in inventing scenarios, explanations, and interpretations, our ability to assess their likelihood, or to evaluate them critically, is grossly inadequate. Once we have adopted a particular hypothesis or interpretation, we grossly exaggerate the likelihood of that hypothesis, and find it very difficult to see things any other way.

We can explain a set of facts after the fact. We are poor predictors:

All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain why did happen with a great deal of confidence. This ‘ability’ to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle, flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact that we couldn’t is taken as an indication of our limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the world. All too often, we feel like kicking ourselves for failing to foresee that which later appears inevitable. For all we know, the handwriting might have been on the wall on along. The question is: was the ink visible?

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