On this morning's walk, I was listening to one of Tim's podcasts from June 2020 (I came to the series relatively late and am catching up on earlier episodes). In it, he admits that he himself did not step back and think about the implications when he first found out about the pandemic and, as a result, assumed, for example, that he would have money coming in from gigs over the summer. He compares this with other, more disastrous occasions when people did not change from their planned activity, despite evidence that they needed to (for example, in the remarkable case of the tanker Torrey Canyon, which he covered in his very first podcast).
What lesson did I learn from this cautionary tale? If Tim Harford, someone who spends his working life thinking about this kind of thing, did not change his behaviour in the face of one of the common errors and biases he describes, is it likely any of us will? Is there actally any point to this kind of information? I confess, I quickly forget most of the specific cognitive biases within days of reading about them (in part because there seem to be so many).
I think the answer is that these tales and books are valuable - but not in the life changing way they tend to be presented. They're partly worthwhile because they are very engaging. They tell us about the human condition and why we make so many mistakes. And hopefully, even if we all, Tim included, fail sometimes to learn the lessons, there are a few underlying motifs that those of us who are fans are likely to pick up on at least some of the time:
- Be aware of human failings (yours included)
- When you hear a piece of information that may be important to you, question it and dig deeper
- Be prepared to change your viewpoint
- Think before you act, even if guided by an expert (or GPS)