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Lie Witness News
Much of what we think of as “self-knowledge” is ongoing self-interpretation.
As I like to say, on our best days, wearing the right sort of spectacles, squinting and tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, focused, assertive truth-tellers. However, on many days, all too much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, short-sighted, partisan, arrogant, easily distracted confabulators. This week’s TBL focuses on confabulation.
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The Joshua Tree was released 36 years ago this week.
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Lie Witness News
We are surprisingly ignorant of why we do what we do. Our explanations are sometimes wholly fabricated, and almost certainly never complete. But that’s not how it feels. Instead, it feels like we know exactly why we do what we do. This is confabulation: A mostly self-delusion whereby we guess at plausible explanations for our choices and then regard those guesses as introspective certainties.
As Koen Smets so pithily put it, “We are bamboozled by biases, fooled by fallacies, entrapped by errors, hoodwinked by heuristics, deluded by illusions.” Worst of all, these weaknesses are largely opaque to us. They leave no cognitive trace.
Make sure confabulation is on your list.
Jimmy Kimmel has a terrific semi-regular feature on his late-night television show called Lie Witness News, wherein his crew asks people about non-existent events or people and waits for a series of often hilarious, fabricated (confabulated) responses. Watch an example below, about a fake crisis in a fake country.
Those who confabulate are often highly confident about what they claim to “know,” evidence notwithstanding. Its more extreme forms are caused by brain damage or dementia.
But we are all susceptible to it.
Research has shown that prodding people to answer when they don’t know often results in a confabulated response. Add a television camera and the desire for “15 minutes of fame” by providing an apparently well-considered answer must make the likelihood of confabulation strong indeed.
Most of our choices and actions in life relate to our ongoing opportunity to impress people or serve people. Confabulation, obviously, is an example of the former.
Already famous people confabulate, too. Even though it rained during Donald Trump’s inaugural address, he later told an inaugural ball crowd that the rain “just never came” until he finished talking and went inside, at which point “it poured.” Similarly, the former president famously and falsely insisted the crowd at his inauguration dwarfed President Obama’s inauguration crowd, and forced Press Secretary Sean Spicer to lie about it to the press corps. The first acts of his presidency were confabulations.
It’s hard to top Mr. Trump in this area, but he’s hardly alone. For example, in unscripted remarks, President Biden accused Facebook of “killing people” because of the misinformation spread on the social media network about coronavirus vaccines, a charge he had to walk back.
Morten Kringelbach, an Oxford neuroscientist, suspects that confabulation is often routine. According to him, one intriguing possibility is that we simply do not have access to all the unconscious information on which we base our decisions, so we create fictions upon which to rationalize them (and try to make ourselves look good).
That’s a remarkable addendum to the narrative fallacy – our tendency to look backward and create a pattern to fit events and to construct a story that explains what happened along with what caused it to happen. We all want to present ourselves as smart, informed, and articulate observers of the world. Accordingly, we’d rather fake it than be seen as ignorant.
This willingness to delude ourselves may help to explain the research which shows that what people think or claim their investment returns were and what those returns actually were have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Nearly everyone claims to have done much better in the markets than they have.
We risk making ourselves look far more like idiots to try to look less like idiots.
We often get our explanations partly right, correctly identifying conscious and deliberate causes of our behavior. Unfortunately, our general excess certainty means we mistake “partly right” for “right” and fail to recognize the influence of the unconscious, or guard against it.
We choose jobs, for instance, partly on careful deliberation about career advancement, location, pay, and other things we care about. However, that choice is also influenced by a host of factors of which we are unaware. For example, people named Dennis or Denise are more likely to become dentists, while people named Virginia are more likely to locate to (surprise!) Virginia. More problematically, people will convince themselves to take a less desirable job if it allows them to perpetuate their affinity biases.
A related and perhaps even bigger issue is choice blindness. Choice blindness is part of a cognitive phenomenon known as the introspection illusion, whereby people incorrectly believe that they fully understand the roots of their emotions and thoughts while also believing that other people's introspections are largely unreliable. Careful research in this area demonstrates that people are all too willing to miss glaring mismatches between their intentions and outcomes, while nevertheless being prepared to offer introspectively derived reasons for why they chose the way they did. We will even defend a choice just because we think it’s ours.
Bottom Line: Much of what we think of as “self-knowledge” is ongoing self-interpretation. Our on-the-fly adjustments can be so quick and so facile that we don’t recognize a change as change.
In one experiment, subjects were shown pairs of cards with pictures of faces on them and asked to choose the more attractive. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the person showing the cards was a magician who routinely swapped the rejected card for the selected one. The subjects were then shown the rejected face and asked why they picked the way they did.
Usually, the swap went completely unnoticed. When that happened, subjects came up with all sorts of elaborate explanations relating to the rejected faces for their (nonexistent) choices – about hair color, the look of the eyes, or the assumed personality of the substituted face. We readily misremember what we did as well as why we did it and then confabulate explanations under conditions where we cannot know why we made a particular choice.
One famous study provided a display of four identical items of clothing and asked subjects to pick which they thought was of the best quality. Four out of five participants picked the garment on the right (a typical tendency). Yet, when asked why they made the choice they did, the answers were always confabulations since the items were identical. The answers focused on the alleged fineness of the weave, a richer color or superior texture. The likely reason is that we often make our decisions subconsciously but rationalize them in our consciousness via pure fiction, or confabulation.
One intriguing study found that we can be convinced we reported symptoms of mental illness that we had never mentioned and, as a result, we can actually start believing we suffer from those symptoms.
It is surprisingly common for stroke patients with paralyzed limbs to deny there is anything wrong. These patients often make up elaborate tales to explain away their problems. One patient, for example, had a paralyzed arm, but claimed it was normal. Yet, when cash was offered to patients with this type of problem, promising higher rewards for tasks they couldn’t possibly do – such as clapping or changing a light bulb – and lower rewards for tasks they could, the patients would always attempt the high pay-off task, as if they genuinely had no idea they would fail.
This result is indicative of problems every experienced trader has had to deal with. These include the common tendency to hang onto losses too long or even to double down on them, our willingness to create after-the-fact (and potentially dangerous) explanations for what happened that have little (if any) basis in fact, and the misremembering of our intentions when things don’t turn out as expected.
As Richard Feynman famously said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
It’s really tough to learn from our mistakes – which can be crucial to investment and life success – when we don’t even recognize what our mistakes were, much less understand why we made them and what they mean, suggest, and portend. As if life weren’t already hard enough….
Totally Worth It
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Problem: If 5 balls are placed at random into 5 buckets, what is the probability that exactly one bucket remains empty (from Mathigon)? Answer below.
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This is the best (and most fun) thing I read this week. The grisliest, unless it was this. The sweetest. The coolest (also cool). The most creative. The most depressing. The most intriguing. The most shocking. The best reminder. “I view the humanities as very hobby-based.” Quite the haircut. How-to log off. The “Pessimism of Disbelief” in markets. Stalin/Putin. Munger thread. RIP, Topol. The Big Lebowski turned 25. Worthy cause.
There are more than four times as many hedge funds as there are Taco Bells and as many as there are Burger Kings.
A Quebec court held that Canadians have a “God-given, Charter-enshrined right” to give each other the middle finger.
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Problem: If 5 balls are placed at random into 5 buckets, what is the probability that exactly one bucket remains empty?
Solution: There are 5 to the power 5 (= 3125) possible way of arranging five balls in five buckets. The only way to leave one bucket empty is if a second bucket has two balls, and the other three buckets have one ball each. There are five ways to pick an empty bucket. Next, there are four ways to pick the bucket with two balls. There are “5-choose-2” = 10 ways to pick the two balls that get doubled up in the same bucket. There are 3 x 2 = 6 ways to distribute the remaining three balls in the remaining three buckets. Thus, there are 5×4×10×6 = 1200 arrangements with exactly one bucket empty. So, the probability is 1200/3125 = 38.4 percent.
The TBL Spotify playlist, made up of the songs featured here, now includes 250 songs and about 17 hours of great music. I urge you to listen in, sing along, and turn up the volume.
That’s a terrific new country song that mentions “them damn Padres.” Twenty days ‘til Opening Day.
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“Kant had it right about the stars above and the truth within. The last light the nonbeliever will see will not be the dimming of the sun. It will be the dimming of God. Everyone is born with the faculty to see the miraculous. You have to choose not to.”
“Mercy is the province of the person alone. There is mass hatred and there is mass grief. Mass vengeance and even mass suicide. But there is no mass forgiveness. There is only you.”
~ Cormac McCarthy (The Passenger)
Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.
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Issue 145 (March 10, 2023)