Saturday, October 22, 2011

The illusion of skill

There was an extremely interesting article published by The New York Times, by Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. The article was titled "Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence", and tells how people think their success is due to skill, not luck. (And there is of course the other side of the coin, that people think that those who don't succeed are lazy or unskilled, even though it often is just a matter of luck.)

Kahneman tells of his study of "investment advisers in a firm that provided financial advice and other services to very wealthy clients". These advisers were confident that their performance is based on skill, not luck.

But what Kahneman found was very different. He compared correlations between the years and the advisers: "The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill."

This was very different from the understanding inside the company: "The advisers themselves felt they were competent professionals performing a task that was difficult but not impossible, and their superiors agreed."

And what happened when Kahneman reported his findings? Nothing: "Facts that challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide general facts that people will ignore if they conflict with their personal experience."

So, even though there were clear facts on the table showing "the firm was rewarding luck as if it were skill", nothing changed, as if everyone was blind to the truth. Or pretended to be: 'When we were done, one executive I dined with the previous evening drove me to the airport. He told me, with a trace of defensiveness, “I have done very well for the firm, and no one can take that away from me.” I smiled and said nothing. But I thought, privately: Well, I took it away from you this morning. If your success was due mostly to chance, how much credit are you entitled to take for it?'

So, do you think you are skilled, or have you just been lucky? That is a question worth thinking about.

Maybe it also applies to photography?


Andreas said...

No, it does not apply to photography as we practice it. We are skilled because we practice. We hone our skills. It applies to Art though. You know, the kind of occupation where one gets paid millions for conserving a big fish. Or not. Most of them not. Regardless of talent, skill or even mastery.

And it applies to management and politics :D

Markus Spring said...

Juha, in my eyes financial advisory is much less an art/skill/activity with predictable outcome than photography is. I avoid the term art here, is much too big a word for most cases where it's applied to nowadays and it probably takes generations until the dust settles and wheat is separated from the chaff.

To come back to financial advisory: on a level high enough it influences the markets and then becomes skill, albeit a horrible one, as we experience now. Kahnemann's study most probably was not targeting such extreme endeavours.

Photography for me is a very multi-faceted activity, involving many levels of both perceptual and visionary as well as technical levels. Any combination of them can lead to admirable results, complete lack of one component most probably will not. Yes, as Andreas said, skill is needed (and it's possible to develop and broaden it) in photography. Without it - visible quite often - good ideas can remain stuck at an inferior level, never reaching their full potential.

Too many words about theory, I came here because I expected skilled imagery, one with a deeper perception in it, and got rewarded. I dare to postulate: skill is here ;)

Juha Haataja said...

@Andreas: Maybe it applies to areas where it is very hard to say what impact you are making - so big rewards are given to make it feel like something worthwhile was done.

In practical matters, like nurses in hospitals, or teachers in elementary schools, motivation has to be internal. ;-)

Juha Haataja said...

@Andreas and Markus: You both demonstrate again and again that skill exists.

@Markus: I ordered a copy of Kahnemans book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", but at 500+ pages is will be a challenge to read.

Maybe it is in areas of high uncertainty that Kahneman's lessons apply most - and maybe even in such horrible scale is in the global economy. Is it a skill, or just roulette (with other people's money)?