How You Really Make Decisions

Horizon: How You Really Make Decisions - Professor Daniel Kahneman

Horizon: How You Really Make Decisions – Professor Daniel Kahneman Photo: BBC

Neil Midgley reviews an episode of Horizon, which revealed that humans are nowhere near as rational as we think we are

Horizon: How You Really Make Decisions (BBC Two) spent much of its precious hour not on psychological science, but on pointless general views of New York and London. There were a lot of street scenes, an interlude featuring a bike, and quite a lot of violin music. All this wasted energy meant that, once the programme had dangled its fascinating thesis in front of its audience, it then didn’t offer enough proof in support.

Professor Daniel Kahneman is an eminent psychologist, and has won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioural economics. Kahneman’s theory is that human beings are nowhere near as rational as we think we are – and that, in fact, most of our decisions are made by a separate, more intuitive psychological system, which is biased both by our species’ evolution and by our own previous experiences.

So we humans are apparently guilty, for example, of “confirmation bias” – that is, we tend to make new decisions that fit with our old ones. Horizon had gained access to a training centre for spies, near Washington DC, where a simulation was said to bear this out. The programme asserted that the trainees didn’t give enough weight to new facts – but, frustratingly, didn’t explain where those poor guinea pigs had gone wrong.

Then there was our tendency towards “loss aversion”, which was said to have played a role in the financial crash. One psychologist said that, if we truly understood loss aversion – which causes us to make bad financial decisions, in predictably biased ways – we could design better institutions and better regulation. Better in what way? No answer to that one – it was time, instead, for a slow-motion montage of people looking thoughtful.

By the end, my conclusion was that Horizon’s producers had underestimated their viewers. Of course, I may just have watched too many bad science documentaries, and thus be simply guilty of confirmation bias. But my view seems pretty rational to me.


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