Representativeness Questions for Type and Culture

thinking fast and slow kahnemannDaniel Kahneman won the Nobel Peace Prize  in Economic Sciences for his work in psychology. His book, Thinking Fast and Slow challenges the rational model of judgment and decision making. The following is an adapted transcript I made from the audio version: "The representativeness heuristic is involved when someone says, “she will win the election. You can see she is a winner.” Or “he won’t go far as an academic. Too many tattoos.” 

Prediction by representativeness is not statistically optimal. Take the movie Moneyball, for example, where player success is forecast in part by build and look. Billy Bean selected players by their statistics of past performance and enjoyed superior success.

Judging probability by representativeness has important virtues. The intuitive impressions that it produces are often indeed usually more accurate than chance guesses would be. On most occasions, people who act friendly are, in fact, friendly. People with a PhD are more likely to subscribe to the NYT than people who ended their education after high school.

(In many cases) there is some truth to stereotypes that govern judgments of representativeness, and predictions that follow this heuristic may be accurate. In other situations, the stereotypes are false, and the representativeness heuristic will mislead. Especially if it causes people to neglect base rate information that points in another direction. Even when the heuristic has some validity, exclusive reliance on it is associated with grave sins against statistical logic. 

One sin of representativeness is an excessive willingness to predict the occurrence of unlikely, low base rate events. Here is an example. You see a person reading the NYT on the NY subway. Which of the following is a better bet about the reading stranger?

  • She has a PhD
  • She does not have a college degree

Representativeness would tell you to bet on the PhD, but this is not necessarily wise. You should seriously consider the second alternative, because many more non-graduates than PhDs ride in NY subways.

And if you must guess whether a woman who is described as a shy, poetry-lover, studies Chinese literature or business administration, you should opt for the latter option. Even if every female student of Chinese literature is shy and loves poetry, it is almost certain that there are more bashful poetry lovers in the much larger population of business students." 

What does this mean for Type and culture?

Does the representativeness of ESTJ types in managerial positions mean we expect all managers to have ESTJ preferences? Does the representativeness of punctual Germans condition us to expect every German to be punctual?

As for the managers, it's perhaps safer to say that the job description shows a need for skills and behaviors often associated with extraverted Thinking preferences. As a manager, you will distribute resources, make plans, break them into manageable pieces, delegate them effectively, and you'll need to know how much time you have to fit in all the action steps. Anyone can do those things, they just probably come easier to someone with Te preferences. This goes back to tailoring interviews to search for capability instead of doing the unethical thing and taking a type assessment as exclusion criteria.

As for the Germans, punctuality is a stereotype. Granted, all stereotypes exist because there's at least a grain of truth in them. But just like any other stereotype, they become a problem when you insist on them, e.g. after you've met a German who is always late, you still expect them to be punctual.

I invite you to challenge some of your thinking, make sure you have all the information you need to make sound decisions, and keep an open mind about people. They're so complex, they might surprise you.