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WYSIATI

February 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Here is a simple task for you –  read the lines below.

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Now take a paper and pencil (or copy-paste the 6 statements below on your computer and type next to each statement, if that’s easier ).

Rank the likelihood or probability of the 6 statements listed below on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being the most likely, and 6 being the least likely. This is very important, so please complete the task before reading further:

Linda is a teacher in elementary school.

Linda works in a bookstore and takes yoga classes.

Linda is active in the feminist movement.

Linda is a bank teller.

Linda is an insurance salesperson.

Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

 Kahneman book

Done with the ranking? Good. Now compare the rank that you assigned to the fourth and the sixth statement.  If you assigned a lower likelihood (higher number on the 1-6 scale) to the ‘Linda is a bank teller’ statement than to the last statement (‘Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement’), then voila, you’ve just conceived a mathematical improbability.  Think about it – in any scenario, a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement MUST be a SUB-SET of a bank teller (remember studying Venn diagrams in school?) and hence must have a lower probability rank. For example, the probability of existence of a black cat in the universe HAS to be lower than the probability of existence of a cat. Always.

The Linda problem is among the most famous (and controversial) ones in the history of psychology, and was developed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (who won the Nobel Prize in Economics despite not being an economist, and is generally considered as the most eminent psychologist alive), and his colleague Amos Tversky. Wherever they administered it, the set of responses that they got was universal in its disregard for the basic laws of probability (and some of their respondents included renowned statisticians too). Still not convinced? Are you frowning, sceptical with the reasoning? Again, very typical. Like the Muller-Lyer illusion or the Monty Hall problem, it’s one of those scnearios where, in Kahnemans’s words, the fallacy (in our thinking) remains attractive even after we recognize it for what it is.

In his brilliant and fascinating book  “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Kahneman coins a term called WYSIATI, which expands as ‘What You See Is All There Is’. WYSIATI is about coherence and intuition, and explains how we are able to think fast and make sense of partial information in a complex world. However, it also explains many of our biases and judgements, and our tendency to use heuristics in situations when more thoughtful consideration of all probable scenarios will yield completely different outcomes.

I was reminded of the WYSIATI effect in the context of two recent, high profile stories involving sporting icons -

A couple of days after Lance Armstrong’s now famous “I’ve had enough” press release made headlines all over the world, I had an interesting email exchange with a couple of friends . I was somehow never too interested in or inspired by Armstrong, for whatever reason. Maybe he was too much of an intense personality for me, maybe the occasional news reports I had read over the years about widespread doping in the cycling world had a sub-conscious effect, etc. Anyway, I was fairly convinced that he had pulled a desperate, last-ditch PR stunt. And then I came across this superb post in The Science of Sport blog which put to rest whatever benefit of doubt I might have given him.

It’s a long read, but highly recommended. The author, sports scientist Ross Tucker, offered a point—by-point rebuttal of all the martyr-sounding claims that Armstrong made in his press release, and these eloquent arguments have been since validated by all the happenings in the Armstrong saga from then on, culminating in the Oprah melodrama.

I sent the link to this article that same day to a couple of friends, who I knew were Armstrong fans. A’s reaction to my email was passionate, almost hurtful, and so very typical of many other Armstrong fans that I know. Let some Gods be, was the way he ended our series of emails that day. He of course, has since modified his views after the USADA revelations. But the point here is, so many of us, when faced with the question of ‘Is Lance Armstrong guilty of cheating by taking illegal drugs? ’, answered it based on what we saw  – his inspiring battle against cancer –  which was not at all relevant to the question which was asked. WYSIATI at work? I remember Yuvraj Singh making a statement later, even after the USADA later stripped Armstrong of all his Olympic medals, to the effect that he will always be his hero.

Btw, an aside on heroes – N, who was the other friend on that Armstrong email thread, expressed it well –  It’s hard becoming a hero. Even harder to remain one, she said. Amen.

Next, Oscar Pistorius.  My reactions on this one has been another manifestation of the WYSIATI effect . When I first read about the tragedy, I was instinctively ready to swallow the burglar theory completely.  To me, he was the heroic amputee who overcame extraordinary odds, and the image of him proudly striding in that Olympic stadium was the only one that influenced my thoughts. Then of course, all the other stuff started coming out.. the use of steroids and  their effect on mood swings, his history with guns, etc.  This Slate article that I read today pretty much sends him to the gallows.

So on Oscar Pistorius, this is where I now stand.  If it’s a conversation over beer with friends, I would be inclined to wager that the  he shot his girlfriend in a steroid induced fit of rage or whatever,  and I don’t really buy the burglar angle. Because my opinion is just that, an opinion. It doesn’t count for anything else.

But if I am a jury member in South Africa, I would want every piece of evidence unearthed from that night in that house, I would want to listen very carefully to every possible argument that the prosecution and the defence team makes, see every witness on the stand.. and only then cast my vote. Because as a jury member, the stakes are very high, and I would very careful about not falling into the WYSIATI syndrome.

So remember, WYS is probably not ATI. But if you want to see it on display, just tune in to any conversation about Narendra Modi these days..  guaranteed to produce WYSIATI-itis in plenty. On both sides of the fence.

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