This is a review of Noise, A Flaw in Human Judgment by Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein.
The phrase “noise in decision making” brings to mind “random” error. Scientists, however, shy away from random error. Science is mostly about systematic error, except, perhaps, quantum physics. So Kahneman et al. conceive of noise as seemingly random error that is a result of unmeasured biases. For instance, research suggests that heat causes bad mood. And bad mood may, in turn, cause people to judge more harshly. If this were to hold, the variability in judging stemming from the weather can end up being interpreted as noise. But, as is clear, there is no “random” error, merely bias. Kahneman et al. make a hash of this point. Early on, they give the conventional formula of total expected error as the sum of bias and variance (they don’t further decompose variance into irreducible error and ‘random’ error) with the aim of talking about the two separately, and naturally, never succeed in doing that.
The conceptual issues ought not detract us from the important point of the book. It is useful to think about human judgment systems as mathematical functions. We should expect the same inputs to map to the same output. It turns out that it isn’t even remotely true in most human decision-making systems. Take insurance underwriting, for instance. Given the same data (realistic but made-up information about cases), the median percentage difference between quotes between any pair of underwriters is an eye-watering 55% (which means that for half of the cases, it is worse than 55%), about five times as large as expected by the executives. There are a few interesting points that flow from this data. First, if you are a customer, your optimal strategy is to get multiple quotes. Second, what explains ignorance about the disagreement? There could be a few reasons. First, when people come across a quote from another underwriter, they may ‘anchor’ their estimate on the number they see, reducing the gap between the number and the counterfactual. Second, colleagues plausibly read to agree—less effort and optimizing for collegiality, asking, “Could this make sense?”, than read to evaluate, “Does this make sense?” (see my notes for a fuller set of potential explanations.)
Data from asylum reviews is yet starker. “A study of cases that were randomly allotted to different judges found that one judge admitted 5% of applicants, while another admitted 88%.” (Paper.)
Variability can stem from only two things. It could be that the data doesn’t allow for a unique judgment (irreducible error). (But even here, the final judgment should reflect the uncertainty in the data.) Or that at least one person is ‘wrong’ (has a different answer than others). Among other things, this can stem from:
- variation in skill, e.g., how to assess patent applications
- variation in effort, e.g., some people put more effort than others
- agency and preferences, e.g., I am a conservative judge, and I can deny an asylum application because I have the power to do so
- biases like using irrelevant information, e.g., weather, hypoglycemia, etc.
(Note: a lack of variability doesn’t mean we are on to the right answer.)
The list of proposed solutions is extensive—from selecting better judges to the wisdom of the crowds to using models to training people better to more elaborate schemes like dividing the decision task and asking people to make relative than absolute judgments. The evidence backing the solutions is not always hefty, which meshes with the ideolog-like approach to evidence present everywhere in the book. When I did a small audit of the citations, three things stood out (the overarching theme is adherence to the “No Congenial Result Scrutinized or Left Uncited Act”):
- Extremely small n studies cited without qualification. Software engineers.
Quote from the book: “when the same software developers were asked on two separate days to estimate the completion time for the same task, the hours they projected differed by 71%, on average.”
The underlying paper: “In this paper, we report from an experiment where seven experienced software professionals estimated the same sixty software development tasks over a period of three months. Six of the sixty tasks were estimated twice.
- Extremely small n studies cited without qualification. Israeli Judges.
Hypoglycemia and judgment: “Our data consist of 1,112 judicial rulings, collected over 50 d in a 10-mo period, by eight Jewish-Israeli judges (two females) who preside over two different parole boards that serve four major prisons in Israel.”
- Surprising but likely unreplicable results. “When calories are on the left, consumers receive that information first and evidently think “a lot of calories!” or “not so many calories!” before they see the item. Their initial positive or negative reaction greatly affects their choices. By contrast, when people see the food item first, they apparently think “delicious!” or “not so great!” before they see the calorie label. Here again, their initial reaction greatly affects their choices. This hypothesis is supported by the authors’ finding that for Hebrew speakers, who read right to left, the calorie label has a significantly larger impact..” (Paper.)
“We show that if the effect sizes in Dallas et al. (2019) are representative of the populations, a replication of the six studies (with the same sample sizes) has a probability of only 0.014 of producing uniformly significant outcomes.” (Paper.)
- Citations to HBR. Citations to think pieces in Harvard Business Review (10 citations in total based on a keyword search) and books like ‘Work Rules!’ for a fair many claims.
Here are my notes for the book.