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The Linda problem and a celebrity death case

Let me ask you a question. Imagine a 25 year old guy named Raju. He is from a village in north India, son of farmer parents. He is a recent graduate. His entire schooling was in Hindi medium.

Now if just with this information, I ask you to guess which of the two options below is more likely / probable, what would you pick? Just go by your intuition – this is not a trick question or anything.

  1. Raju has a VC funded startup
  2. Raju has a VC funded startup and the startup is around farming / improving lives of farmers

If you choose 2, you are not alone. Also, your decision is illogical.

The probability of Raju having a startup will always be higher than the probability of Raju having a startup and that startup to be of a particular type.

What I presented to you is a modification of the Linda problem from Daniel Kahneman (DK). DK was awarded the Nobel prize in Economics in 2002. In 2011 he published the book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (TFS). He explains the Linda problem in chapter 15 (imagine a lady named Linda instead of Raju – similar options, different profile). This book by the way, is part of my recently curated reading list.

So what do we learn from this experiment?

The reason most people choose 2 is because the ‘intuition’ (system 1) takes over the logical part of the brain (system 2). This is pretty much the premise of the whole book:

  • System 1 – fast but intuitive – is outside our control (what we feel intuitively is what we do, we cannot not feel it)
  • System 2 – logical – slow

OK, now let me ask something similar as the opening question, but with a small twist.

If you had to guess which of the below two scenarios is more likely / probable, which one will you pick?

  1. Raju is a teacher
  2. Raju is a teacher and Raju’s favourite colour is blue.

In this scenario, you know that 1 is more likely – simply because only one condition has to be met (while for II, two conditions have be to met – so less likely).

How come this time, the logical part of your thinking (system 2) prevailed?

Well that’s because, this time around, there was not enough trigger for your intuition to respond – you could only think logically.

What triggered your intuition the first time around (so much so that you couldn’t think logically – even when the logic was obvious) was exploiting the stereotype associated with startup founders – they are mostly well educated urban people. So instinctively something felt odd about Raju being a startup founder. The trigger was by design.

Your triggered system 1 tells you “a startup in the agriculture sector doesn’t feel all that odd now, does it? Raju has a farming background after all”. And so it feels more ‘plausible’ even when it is less ‘probable’. That’s the beauty (and in some sense, the danger) of plausible stories – they make it easy for you to ignore the ‘slow’ (but rational / logical) system 2.

If you found this insight interesting, do read the book. It has 400 pages. The first 100 pages are essentially about the theory and basics of system 1 (intuition) and system 2 (logic). The rest 3/4th of the book then uses the theory to explain many things / experiments (like the Linda problem), in crisp and small chapters.

I want you to now think about the applicability of the Linda problem in the ongoing press-coverage of the SSR death case.

Do you think it’s possible for an anchor or a writer to trigger your system 1 to make every ‘plausible’ story seem ‘probable’? Let me list down three stereotypes.

  • Stereotype 1 – Bollywood is a toxic place where getting depressed is common, especially when you are an outsider.
  • Stereotype 2 – If a man stops being in touch with his family after entering into a relationship with a woman, the woman uses his money and eventually leaves him abruptly – she is definitely not a good woman.
  • Stereotype 3 – The world in general and mostly men love attacking and trolling women simply because they are women.

To be honest, the third point above is not so much of a stereotype as much of a fact. One can find enough proxies for such women-bashing behavior in the male dominated society, including data as proof.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I observed three different sets of people, triggered by three separate reasons, who then propagated their intuition.

First came the “Bollywood is toxic, let’s talk about mental health” advocates who wrote and wrote about their issue. The issue may be valid but the news was just a medium for them to propagate their theories.

Then came the mean girlfriend proponents – their triggered intuition made it easy for them to troll Rhea (which is ongoing).

And as a reaction to the above, the triggered feminists took over, pointing out how patriarchal and women-bashing this society is (which by the way it is, just that this stance altogether ignores the logical reason – the system 2 – which made the family request for an investigation of the Rhea angle in the first place). It’s a bit sad that nobody from the family has done anything to ask the trolls to keep quiet. I guess for the family, news-pressure is more helpful (in terms of maximizing the chances of justice to Sushant) even when it comes at the cost of propagating women-hatred.

DK says something nice in his book. Since system 1 (intuitive thinking) is outside our control, the best that we can do is to learn to identify the danger sign – something which most of us have managed to apply to the well known Müller-Lyer illusion.

Müller-Lyer illusion

By knowledge we know that both A and B are of the same length (and we know we can cross-check it) but there is nothing that we can do about that weird feeling that B just looks longer. What we have done is, we have learnt to identify when not to trust our instinct (if two lines that we are comparing have fins, then intuition will lead to wrong answer).

As a society, we must strive to achieve the same when we consume news. We can do better. I can only hope.

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