A Way to Be Wrong Called Loss Aversion

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The hunter makes a hole in a coconut. Bigger than Monkey’s hand, smaller than Monkey’s fist. The hunter fills the coconut halfway with rice—Monkey’s favorite food—and stakes it tight to the ground. Monkey happens by, reaches into the coconut, and grabs a fistful of rice.

Now Monkey is stuck. Now the hunter returns. Will Monkey drop the rice and escape? Maybe not. Maybe Monkey wants rice too much. Monkey is in danger of dying from loss aversion. She bears risk of capture to avoid the pain of losing a fistful of rice. She is caught by her thinking before she is caught by the hunter.


Loss Aversion. Evolution designed your brain for survival, not self-awareness. GumptionadeDan and Amos both want to see their Jumbos play the Bombers—bitter rivals—tonight. They both live in the same suburb, about an hour’s drive from the Fudge Forum, home of the Jumbos. Dan bought his ninety-five- dollar ticket to the game this morning. Amos bought his a few months ago. It starts to snow around 4:00 p.m. It is soon obvious there will be dangerous weather tonight. The Jumbos and the Bombers will play the game, but Dan and Amos face the disappointment of missing it.

Which of them is more likely to risk the drive? That is to say, which of them is more likely to be wrong? Having bought his ticket this morning, Dan will chase his ninety-five dollars through a blizzard, notwithstanding the fact that on any other weeknight, ninety-five dollars would not be enough to get him to drive all the way downtown and back in a light drizzle.

Dan fails to stop and ask himself two simple questions: “Would I drive through a blizzard if I had been given this ticket?” He would not. “Then why would I do it now?” After all, a ticket is a ticket, regardless of where it came from. That is so logical. People are so psycho-logical.

Dan starts toward downtown and ends up being dropped off at home at 4:00 a.m. by the state police, his car abandoned on the highway, not having gotten within ten miles of the game.

The force of loss aversion made Dan’s imagined pain of regret loom large in his unconscious mind. He accepted great risk to avoid this loss. Wrongness. Where was his common sense? Where was his gumption? Where, Monkey, where?


In December 1965, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons reached number three on the Billboard chart with “Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got).” This is a cry that originates deep in the human unconscious. Loss aversion was—and is—a subset of death aversion.

To stay alive, Your Hairy Ancestor had to survive the process of getting food and shelter. Loss of food threatened death by starvation. Loss of shelter threatened death by exposure. Movement invited attack by other survivors, including saber-toothed tigers and fellow proto-humans. Replacing lost necessities was uncertain at best and fatal at worst.

The threat of loss received a more powerful response than the opportunity for gain among those individuals who survived long enough to be your ancestor. Reference points laid down a million years ago influence your intuitive response to modern threats, including threats that are more symbolic than actual.

Such as the loss of a ninety-five- dollar Jumbos ticket. Not a life or death matter, but you would think so by what happened. Why don’t you have more common sense? Why can’t you tell the difference between real and symbolic threats? Why this wrongness?

Because, as Leonard Mlodinow neatly put it, evolution designed your brain for survival, not self-awareness.


Learn more about ways to be wrong to get yourself on the path to being right more often.


[i] “Monkey is in danger...” - Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1974),303.

[ii] Which of them is more likely to risk the drive? [Chasing Losses]. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011), 343.

[iii] …evolution designed your brain

A Way to Be Wrong Called Anchoring

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You and several other people are sitting in a room. At the front of the room is a numbered game wheel, the kind you see at a fair. A man spins it. The wheel is rigged to stop on 65. You are not told this.Anchoring, a way to be wrong

It stops on 65. The man asks everyone to write down that number. He then asks you to answer a few questions, including this one: “What percentage of UN member states are African?” [i]

The answer that you and the others give averages out to 45%. The average answer of a different group of people, who saw the wheel land on 10, was only 25%.


The wheel stopped on                            Resulting Estimate of African UN member states

65                                                                                                 45%

10                                                                                                  25%

Like most of us, you have a weakness in your thinking called anchoring. You can be influenced by an irrelevant number on a game wheel. Your logic about African states and the UN is psycho-logic.


Disinterested speculation about the UN is one thing, but would anchoring ever affect an important personal decision? Yes. A woman whose maiden name is Brown is more likely to marry another Brown than a Smith or a Jones, despite the fact that there are more Smiths and Joneses out there. People are anchored to their own name. [ii]


It’s not helpful to be influenced by irrelevant reference points. It’s just normal.

Your brain does a lot of work without asking your permission. It’s good that you don’t forget to breathe. But anchoring and other glitches in your automatic thinking weaken your common sense.

Here is a checklist to help you overcome these glitches and make better decisions right now.

Learn more about ways to be wrong to get yourself on the path to being right more often.



[i] What percentage of UN member states are African? Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011), 119–20. 130 

[ii] People are anchored to their own name. Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 19.

Pull Up The Anchor Before You Set Sail

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The Simple Key to Success That Almost Everyone Overlooks: Pull Up Your Anchor Before You Set Sail

Man muss immer umkehren” (Invert, always invert) [i]

-Mathematician Carl Jacobi (expressing the idea that many hard problems can be solved by turning them upside down)


“If my job was to pick a group of ten stocks in the Dow Jones Industrial Average that would outperform the average itself,” Warren Buffett once said, “I would try to pick the ten or fifteen worst performers and take them out of the sample and work with the residual.” [ii] He inverts to solve a hard problem. Warren Buffett starts towards success by first noticing and removing failure.

"Pull up your anchor before you set sail" Robert B. O'Connor, GumptionadeYou are the captain of your ship. For heaven’s sake, pull up your anchor before you set sail. You want to have more money? Look first at how to spend less. Making more money depends a great deal on factors outside of your control. Spending less does not. Start there. Invert.

You want to lose weight? Look first at how you gain weight. Do you eat too much when you are upset? Do you drink soda? Do you require that dieting be painless? Invert. Start your weight-losing plan by identifying and removing your worst weight-gaining behaviors.

You want your best customers to spend more? Look first at how to prevent them from spending less. Find out what they don’t like about doing business with you and remove that. Then add things they might buy.

How can you find someone to love you? Start by removing the things that make you hard to love.

Invert your normal behavior. Instead of looking for what might work, look for what hasn’t. Look for the predictable causes of failure. Start with a To-Don’t list.

Pull up your anchor before you set sail.



[i] “Man muss immer umkehren” (Invert) “Wikipedia contributors, “Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Accessed March 18, 2015.

[ii] “…pick the ten or fifteen worst performers and take them out of the sample, and work with the residual.” Frederick F. Reichheld, The Loyalty Effect (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), 190.

The Shortcut to Happiness: Be Less Miserable (part 2)

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Competitive cyclists will tell you that the best way to ride faster is not by strengthening your leg muscles.  The best way to ride faster is to lose weight: lighter bicycle or lighter cyclist, either one will do. Remove what is holding you back before you add anything.

The most reliable way to increase your happiness is to remove something from your life that makes you unhappy. I gave twelve candidates for removal in my post of October 24, 2014. Here are twelve more:

12 More Reliable Ways to Be Miserable

  1. Never be wrong.
  2. Worry about things you cannot control.
  3. Don’t forgive yourself, or anybody else.
  4. Be bored.
  5. Refuse any sort of exercise.
  6. Do not count your blessings.
  7. Never laugh at yourself.
  8. Go into debt to buy luxuries.
  9. Covet what you don’t have.
  10. Pay no attention to what you eat.
  11. Don’t help other people.
  12. Compare yourself with others.

Life gives you your portion of misery regardless of what you do. Eliminating additional, self-inflicted misery is the simplest way to be happier.


The Shortcut to Happiness: Be Less Miserable (part 1)

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Much is written and said about how to be happy. Practice your faith. Spend time with people who care about you. Get a dog. Count your blessings. Help somebody. Cultivate a hobby. Laugh more.

Good ideas, all. But they may not work for you. The most reliable way to increase your happiness is to be less miserable: remove something from your life that makes you unhappy.

Here are some candidates:

12 Reliable Ways to Be Miserable

  1. Live for praise and gratitude.
  2. Commute a long way to work by automobile.
  3. Expect people to change.
  4. Don’t get really, really good at some little thing.
  5. Isolate yourself from others.
  6. Spread yourself a mile wide and an inch deep (aka “crazy busy”).
  7. Be full of regret.
  8. Stay in a toxic relationship
  9. Don’t sleep enough.
  10. Live in the past, or the future.
  11. Procrastinate on the important things.
  12. Find a job you don’t enjoy and stick with it (bonus: abusive boss)

Life gives you your portion of misery regardless of what you do. Eliminating additional, self-inflicted misery is the simplest way to be happier.

Saving Apollo 13 – The Gumption of Gene Kranz

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“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Two days into its flight, Apollo 13, about two hundred thousand miles from Earth and rocketing toward the Moon at two thousand miles per hour, had suffered a catastrophic explosion of oxygen tank number 2. “We had a pretty loud bang,” Commander Lovell radioed to Mission Control.[i]

Like blood pouring from a wound, glowing vapor gathered outside the spacecraft’s service module as its oxygen supply emptied out into space. Oxygen needed for breathing. Oxygen needed to generate the power to control the ship at all, let alone to fly it back to Earth. Apollo 13 and the three souls inside began to drift out of control, pushed around by unidentified forces.[ii] The engineers on the ground and the astronauts stuck halfway between the Earth and the Moon quickly realized that their mission was no longer lunar exploration but survival. The fastest way home required three days of flying.  The fastest way home required three days of breathing.

The world looked up at the sky in wonder and worry. Then the gaze shifted to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. Everyone inside the space center looked to the one person responsible for the men and machines of Apollo 13: flight director Gene Kranz. With the whole world watching and the president on line 1, Kranz was responsible for everything that happened next, for all efforts to prevent three astronauts, men he knew and liked, from asphyxiating and floating off into space forever.

Flight director Kranz called his direct reports to his station in the crowded and stunned command center. After the data confirmed that the situation was as dire as it seemed, Kranz asserted his full authority over and responsibility for the mission.

He issued three orders to his team on the spacecraft and on the ground:

  1. Keep cool;
  2. Solve the problem; and
  3. Let’s not make the situation any worse by guessing.

If there was any chance at all of salvaging the mission and saving the men’s lives, a full command of all the facts and options was vital. The team quickly became too busy applying their talents and experience to the data and exploring options to experience any of the distorting influences of guilt, fear, or panic. This approach generated two lifesaving outcomes. First, neither the astronauts nor Mission Control did anything to make the desperate situation worse. Second, they made astonishing use of the means at hand to fashion a rescue vehicle out of a broken spacecraft and its lunar landing module.

The three astronauts left the large command module and powered it down to save electricity for the flight back. The attached small lunar landing module became their lifeboat. To conserve power and water, Apollo 13 switched to the guidance system intended to enable the lunar module to land on the Moon. The flight trajectory was changed so that the Moon’s gravity would slingshot the disabled spacecraft back to Earth without using the damaged engines.

Engineers on the ground helped the astronauts figure out how to jury-rig a lifesaving device for removing carbon dioxide from their air supply, using a space suit air hose as a filter holder. They also invented a protocol for an in-flight power-up of the command module section of the spacecraft, something never before achieved or even envisioned.

About one hour before the end of the sixth day of traveling, Apollo 13 landed in the South Pacific, and was collected by the USS Iwo Jima. All hands onboard had been saved.

The astronauts’ lives were preserved by gumption: courage + resourcefulness + common sense (“let’s not make it worse by guessing”), demonstrated by Gene Kranz and taken up and copied many times over by the astronauts and Mission Control.


Notes: [i] We had a pretty loud bang”: Gene Kranz, Failure Is Not an Option (New York: Berkley Books, 2000), 311.[ii] …pushed around by unidentified forces: Ibid. 312.


Genius is not Gumption

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Gumption is courage + common sense + resourcefulness. Geniuses often lack gumption, particularly the common sense component (Tiger Woods, Vincent van Gogh, Marie Curie, and Bobby Fischer, for example).

Genius is an endowment. A few people are born with it. Some fraction of those people find themselves in a family or field where their genius is recognizable and applicable.

The rest of us can be inspired by the likes of Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, George Washington, Mozart, Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Paul McCartney, Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, and others. But we ought not to hold ourselves up to them, lest we become discouraged. As the Earl of Lytton once wrote: “Genius does what it must and talent does what it can.”[i]

Their colossal accomplishments are not a testimony to gumption but instead to a unique combination of inherited genes, a superhuman appetite for hard work—and phenomenal luck. You cannot successfully imitate this combination.

Mark Twain tells us to forget the idea that “Franklin acquired his great genius by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting ’til morning … these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it.”[ii]

Genius, by the way, is not usually transferable outside of its niche.

Michael Jordan retired from basketball and joined minor league baseball’s Birmingham Barons. He achieved an on-base percentage of only .289 in his one season. He returned to basketball and won another three NBA championships.

Linus Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research on chemical bonds published when he was thirty. For his heroic and unstinting work as a peace activist—during which time he told Senator Joe McCarthy to go to hell—he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. In the 1970s Pauling produced widely followed medical advice— including a national bestseller, Vitamin C and the Common Cold—on the power of vitamin C to cure colds, the flu, and even cancer.

Pauling was mistaken. His ideas about vitamin C were—with some hesitation, given Pauling’s accomplishments—resisted by scientists at the time and have never been proven valid. This made him, in the words of physician Paul Offit, “a man who was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.”[iii]  But still a genius.

Sir Isaac Newton lost ?20,000 ($4 million in today’s money) in 1720 speculating on stock in the South Sea Company Newton said: “I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men.” Least of all could he calculate his own lack of common sense.


Genius is not gumption.



[i]Genius does what it must and talent does what it can”: Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, English dramatist, novelist, and politician (1803–73),_1st_Earl_of_Lytton. Retrieved August 13, 2014.

[ii] “…these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it”: Mark Twain, The Late Ben Franklin, 1870, quoted in Blooms Classic Critical Views: Ben Franklin, Edited by Harold Bloom (New York: InfoBase Publishing, 2008), 56.

[iii] Pauling was…“arguably the world’s greatest quack”: Paul Offit, “The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements,” The Atlantic, July 19, 2013;

Sheriff Andy Taylor Had Gumption

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As used in American English, gumption is an old-timey, folksy word that conjures up a picture of a plainspoken person with a lot of common sense, spunk, and spirit. People with gumption—often seemingly unsophisticated characters who happen to be wiser and more clearheaded than the rest of us—are staples of folklore the world over.

This classic role was played to great effect by the American humorist Will Rogers (“Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as Prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”).

A more recent example of gumption that resonated strongly in American popular culture was Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, the central character of the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. Andy’s unassuming, folksy persona gave cover to a courageous and resourceful master of human nature who quietly and effectively functioned as the guardian of his eccentric community. Some of Sheriff Taylor’s best work was guarding the self-esteem of the anti-Andy, his incompetent, timid, and superbly grandiose deputy, Barney Fife.

I think Sheriff Taylor would agree with Robert Pirsig’s definition of gumption in his 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  “psychic gasoline,” fuel for getting work done. “If you are going to repair a motorcycle,” he wrote, “an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool.”[i] But the motorcycle he is writing about is, as he says, “primarily a mental phenomenon.” And, as he also makes clear from the very beginning, “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.’”[ii]


Notes:[i] “If you are going to repair a motorcycle…” Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1974), 303. [ii] “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.”: Ibid. 325