In the fall of 2004, a European media mogul invited me to Munich to partake in what was described as an ‘informal exchange of intellectuals’. I had never considered myself an ‘intellectual’ – I had studied business, which made me quite the opposite, really – but I had also written two literary novels and that, I guessed, must have qualified me for such an invitation. Nassim Nicholas Taleb was sitting at the table.
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At that time, he was an obscure Wall Street trader with a penchant for philosophy. I was introduced to him as an authority on the English and Scottish Enlightenment, particularly the philosophy of David Hume. Obviously I had been mixed up with someone else. Stunned, I nevertheless flashed a hesitant smile around the room and let the resulting silence act as proof of my philosophical prowess. Straight away, Taleb pulled over a free chair and patted the seat. I sat down. After a cursory exchange about Hume, the conversation mercifully shifted to Wall Street.
We marveled at the systematic errors in decision making that CEOs and business leaders make – ourselves included. We chatted about the fact that unexpected events seem much more likely in retrospect. We chuckled about why it is that investors cannot part with their shares when they drop below acquisition price. Following the event, Taleb sent me pages from his manuscript, a gem of a book, which I commented on and partly criticised. These went on to form part of his international best-seller, The Black Swan. The book catapulted Taleb into the intellectual all-star league.
Meanwhile, my appetite whetted, I began to devour books and articles written by cognitive and social scientists on topics such as ‘heuristics and biases’, and I also increased my email conversations with a large number of researchers and started to visit their labs. By 2009, I had realised that, alongside my job as a novelist, I had become a student of social and cognitive psychology. The failure to think clearly, or what experts call a ‘cognitive error’, is a systematic deviation from logic – from optimal, rational, reasonable thought and behaviour. By ‘systematic’ I mean that these are not just occasional errors in judgement, but rather routine mistakes, barriers to logic we stumble over time and again, repeating patterns through generations and through the centuries.
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