Gambler’s Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

Gambler's Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

The Gambler’s Fallacy is the misleading belief that the probability of a specific occurrence in a random sequence is dependent on preceding events—that its probability will increase with each successive occasion on which it fails to occur.

Suppose that you roll a fair die 14 times and don’t get a six even once. According to the Gambler’s Fallacy, a six is “long overdue.” Thus, it must be a good wager for the 15th roll of the dice. This conjecture is irrational; the probability of a six is the same as for every other roll of the dice: that is, 1/6.

Chance Events Don’t Have Memories

In practical terms, the Gambler’s Fallacy is the hunch that if you play long enough, you will eventually win. For example, if you toss a fair coin and flip heads five times in a row, the Gambler’s Fallacy suggests that the next toss may well flip a tail because it is “due.” In actuality, the results of previous coin flips have no bearing on future coin flips. Therefore, it is poor reasoning to assume that the probability of flipping tails on the next coin-toss is better than one-half.

Gambler's Fallacy: Chance Events Don't Have Memories A classic example of the Gambler’s Fallacy is when parents who’ve had children of the same sex anticipate that their next child ought to be of the opposite sex. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) was the first to document the Gambler’s Fallacy. In Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1796,) Laplace identified an instance of expectant fathers trying to predict the probability of having sons. These men assumed that the ratio of boys to girls born must be fifty-fifty. If adjacent villages had high male birth rates in the recent past, they could predict more birth of girls in their own village.

There Isn’t a Lady Luck or an “Invisible Hand” in Charge of Your Game

The Gambler’s Fallacy is what makes gambling so addictive. Gamblers normally think that gambling is an intrinsically fair-minded system in which any losses they’ll incur will eventually be corrected by a winning streak.

In buying lottery tickets, as in gambling, perseverance will not pay. However, human nature is such that gamblers have an irrational hunch that if they keep playing, they will eventually win, even if the odds of winning a lottery are remote. However, the odds of winning the jackpot remain unchanged … every time people buy lottery tickets. Playing week after week doesn’t change their chances. What’s more, the odds remain the same even for people who have previously won the lottery.

Gambler’s Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913

Gambler's Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913 The Gambler’s Fallacy is also called the Monte Carlo Fallacy because of an extraordinary event that happened in the renowned Monte Carlo Casino in the Principality of Monaco.

On 18-August-1913, black fell 26 times in a row at a roulette table. Seeing that that the roulette ball had fallen on black for quite some time, gamblers kept pushing more money onto the table assuming that, after the sequence of blacks, a red was “due” at each subsequent spin of the roulette wheel. The sequence of blacks that occurred that night is an unusual statistical occurrence, but it is still among the possibilities, as is any other sequence of red or black. As you may guess, gamblers at that roulette table lost millions of francs that night.

Gambler’s Fallacy is The False Assumption That Probability is Affected by Past Events

The Gambler’s Fallacy is frequently in force in casual judgments, casinos, sporting events, and, alas, in everyday business and personal decision-making. This common fallacy is manifest by the belief that a random event is more likely to occur because it has not happened for a time (or a random event is less likely to occur because it recently happened.)

  • While growing up in India, I often heard farmers discuss rainwater observing that, if the season’s rainfall was below average, they worry about protecting their crops during imminent protracted rains because the rainfall needs to “catch-up to a seasonal average.”
  • Gambler's Fallacy in soccer / football penalty shootouts In soccer / football, kickers and goalkeepers are frequently prone to the Gambler’s Fallacy during penalty shootouts. For instance, after a series of three kicks in the same direction, goalkeepers are more likely to dive in the opposite direction at the fourth kick.
  • In the episode “Stress Relief” of the fifth season of the American TV series The Office, when the character Jim Halpert learns that his fiancee Pam Beesley‘s parents are divorcing, he quotes the common statistic that 50% of marriages wind up in divorce. Halpert then comments that, because his parents are not divorced, it is only reasonable that Pam’s parents are getting divorced.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is a Powerful and Seductive Illusion of Control Over Events That are Not Controllable

Don’t be misled by the Gambler’s Fallacy. Be aware of the certainty of statistical independence. The occurrence of one random event has no statistical bearing upon the occurrence of the other random event. In other words, the probability of the occurrence of a random event is never influenced by a previous, or series of previous, arbitrary events.

Idea for Impact: Be skeptical of most judgments about probabilities. Never rely exclusively on your intuitive sense in evaluating probable events. In general, relying exclusively on your gut feeling or your hunches in assessing probabilities is usually not a reason to trust the assessment, but to distrust it.

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire People tend to have contempt for ideas that they disagree with. What’s worse is the possibility that some people, when presented with information that goes against their beliefs, may not only snub their challengers, but also double down on their original viewpoints. Cognitive psychologists call this the backfire effect.

For instance, voters have been shown to judge the political candidate they support even more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In the same way, parents opposed to vaccinations have been shown to become more convinced of their alleged apprehension that vaccination causes autism after reviewing studies showing that vaccinating their kids is the best course of action.

The backfire effect explains why, when people argue against conflicting information strongly enough, they wind up with more supportive arguments for their cause, which further aligns them with their preexisting positions.

The backfire effect is related to confirmation bias—the rampant propensity to seek, interpret, synthesize, and recall information in a way that substantiates one’s preconceptions. For instance, when people read an article that describes both sides of an issue, they tend to select that side that they happen to agree with—thus reinforcing their viewpoints.

See also: the phenomenon of group polarization explains why people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs.

The Power of Counterintuitive Thinking

“The All-embracing quality of the great virtue follows alone from the Tao … Only with Tao can follow the right path,” wrote Laozi in Tao Te Ching.

Translated roughly as “the way of integrity,” the Tao Te Ching is mostly a work of maxims of varying length; but it frequently quotes traditional poems, songs, and hymns.

'Tao Te Ching' by Stephen Mitchell (ISBN 0061142662) While the normative meaning of the word ‘Tao’ is just “path” or “way,” the text’s dominant theme is the spirit or quality of mind one needs to cultivate.

Here’s a verse from Tao Te Ching that advocates the power of counterintuitive thinking:

A good soldier is never aggressive;
A good fighter is never angry.
The best way of conquering an enemy
Is to win him over by not antagonizing him.
The best way of employing a man
Is to serve under him.
This is called the virtue of non-striving!
This is called using the abilities of men!
This is called being wedded to Heaven as of old!

Incentives Matter

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators The bedrock premise of economics is that incentives matter. This is a powerful device because it applies to almost everything that humans do.

Changes in incentives—monetary and nonmonetary—can sway human behavior in foreseeable ways.

For instance, if a resource becomes more expensive or scarce, people will be less likely to choose it. Higher prices will reduce the quantity of goods sold. Fewer people visit outdoor recreational areas on chilly and rainy days. Whenever fuel prices soar through the roof over a prolonged period, consumers buy less gasoline—they eliminate less important trips, carpool more, and purchase fuel-efficient cars.

Incentives Shape Behavior

If the payback from a specific choice increases, people are more likely to choose it. Students focus in classes when their professors declare what course material will be on the examinations. Pedestrians are more prone to leaning down and picking up a quarter than they would a penny. Traditional incentive systems for executives give rise to corporate “short-termism”—executives’ annual bonuses are often awarded for achieving targets that are insubstantially linked to long-term value creation.

Incentives shape behavior. The economics of wrongdoing and crime suggest that fines be increased to offset the rewards from lawbreaking—for example, traffic fines for speeding are typically doubled in construction zones. Ryanair, Ireland’s pioneering discount airline, purposefully uses exasperating fees for checked bags, airport check-ins, and printing boarding passes to “reshape passenger behavior” and focus on getting passengers punctually to their destinations with the least overhead costs.

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions The “incentives matter” framework of economics explains why bad behavior happens whenever the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and reprimanded are low.

People will scheme—even perpetrate fraud—to achieve the incentives they’re offered. If targets are impracticable and employees realize that they can achieve those targets by cheating, then they will cheat.

Incentive structures are partially to blame for the recent Wells Fargo accounts scandal. Even if Wells Fargo established incentive arrangements with the best of intentions, it tied a substantial percentage of employee compensation to immoderate sales targets. This compelled employees to open millions of sham bank accounts and credit cards in customers’ names, infringing on their trust, and costing them millions of dollars in fees for services they did not willingly sign-up for. As this case makes obvious, incentives intended to stimulate people to do their best can sometimes push them to do their worst.

Idea for Impact: A Little Incentive Goes a Long Way

Incentives matter. They influence choices that humans make. Changes in incentives influence their choices. However, designing effective incentives is a painstakingly difficult problem. Do not underestimate or ignore potential undesired results—increase in dishonest behavior, over-focus on one area while overlooking other parts of the business, imprudent risk-taking, deterioration of organizational culture, and diminished intrinsic motivation.

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking

Many High-IQ People Tend to Be Overthinkers: They Incessantly Overanalyze Everything

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking There’s this old Zen parable that relates how over-analysis is a common attribute of intelligent people.

A Zen master was resting with his quick-witted disciple. At one point, the master took a melon out of his bag and cut it in half for the two of them to eat.

In the middle of the meal, the enthusiastic disciple said, “My wise teacher, I know everything you do has a meaning. Sharing this melon with me may be a sign that you have something to teach me.”

The master continued eating in silence.

“I understand the mysterious question in your silence,” insisted the student. “I think it is this: the excellent taste of this melon that I am experiencing … is the taste on the melon or on my tongue …”

The master still said nothing. The disciple got a bit frustrated at his master’s apparent indifference.

The disciple continued, ” … and like everything in life, this too has meaning. I think I’m closer to the answer; the pleasure of the taste is an act of love and interdependence between the two, because without the melon there wouldn’t be an object of pleasure and without pleasure …”

“Enough!” exclaimed the master. “The biggest fools are those who consider themselves the most intelligent and seek an interpretation for everything! The melon is good; please let this be enough. Let me eat it in peace!”

Intelligence Can Sometimes Be a Curse

The tendency to reason and analyze is a part of human nature. It is a useful trait for discerning the many complexities of life. It’s only natural that you could go overboard some times and over-analyze a point or an issue to such a degree that the objective becomes all but moot.

Don’t get me wrong. Intelligence is indeed a gift. But intelligence can trick you into thinking you should be overthinking and calculating everything you do. The more intelligent you are, the more investigative you will be. The more your brain analyzes people and events, the more time it will spend on finding flaws in everything.

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn’t Matter

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn't Matter Many intelligent people tend to be perfectionists. Their overanalysis often cripples their productivity, especially by leading them to undesirable, frustrating, and low-probability conclusions that can limit their ability to understand reality and take meaningful risks.

Intelligent people are too hard on themselves and others—family, friends, and co-workers. They can’t settle for anything less than perfect. They tend to be less satisfied with their achievements, their relationships, and practically everything that has a place in their life. What is more, many people with speculative minds hold idealistic views of the world and lack a sound acumen about coping with the practical world.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Make Everything Seem Worse Than it Actually is!

Thinking too much about things isn’t just a nuisance for you and others around you; it can take a toll on your well-being and on your relationships.

Check your tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything. Don’t twist and turn every issue in your head until you’ve envisaged the issue from all perspectives.

Sometimes it does help to overthink and be cautious about potential risks and downfalls. But most times, it’s unnecessary to ruminate excessively. Don’t make everything seem worse than it actually is. Set limits and prioritize. Learn to let go and manage your expectations.

To avoid overthinking, use my 5-5-5 technique. Ask yourself if your decision will matter 5 weeks, 5 months, and 5 years in the future. If your answer is ‘no,’stop stressing yourself out!

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

What’s the size of the market for razors in China? How many golf balls does it take to fill a Boeing 747 aircraft? How many piano tuners are there in the world?

Non-standard problems such as these are called “Fermi problems” after the distinguished Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–54.) Fermi delighted not only in creating and solving them, but also in challenging his fellow scientists with similar problems.

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

Physicist Enrico Fermi Was a Master of Guesstimation

Fermi was celebrated for his ability to make fast, excellent approximate calculations with little or no concrete data. In one well-known example, when the first atomic bomb was detonated during the Manhattan Project, Fermi dropped a few scraps of paper as the shock wave from the detonation passed. After some coarse calculation, Fermi estimated the power of the blast from the motion of the scraps as they fell. Fermi’s guesstimate of 10 kilotons of TNT was remarkably close to the now-established value of 20 kilotons. Even though Fermi’s estimate appears 50% off, it was a reasonable order-of-magnitude estimate.

Fermi believed that the ability to guesstimate was an essential skill for physicists. A good way to solve physics problems—and complex problems in any line of work—is by coming up with simple shortcuts to make approximate, but meaningful, calculations.

Teaching Physics Students the Fermi Way of Contemplating Open, Non-Standard Problems

Based on Fermi’s technique, at the beginning of many physics courses, professors pose problems such as “how many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Such questions require students to employ quick reasoning and unsophisticated numerical methods to attack problems without the knowledge of any core physics concepts.

The historical emphasis on the order-of-magnitude calculation was propelled by the lack of computing power available to solve complex problems. Such approximate calculations were considered necessary to decide if an onerous and lengthy full-blown calculation was required.

Classic Fermi Problem: Number of Piano Tuners in the City of Chicago

'Guesstimation' by Lawrence Weinstein (ISBN 069115080X) Fermi problems are typically restructured by breaking them up into smaller problems that are easier for the students to approach than the original problem.

The challenge of estimating the number of piano tuners in the city of Chicago is the classical example of a Fermi Problem. A problem-solver guesstimates the total population of Chicago, then the fraction of families in Chicago that may own a piano, and the frequency of piano-tuning, the time it takes to tune a piano, and so on. This sequence of thinking, accompanied by a few conversion factors, can lead to an adequate assessment of the number of piano tuners in Chicago.

Back-of-Envelope Calculations for Fermi Problems

The Fermi technique is so popular that math buffs organize competitions in Fermi’s honor. Contestants are asked to estimate unusual assessments (the fraction of the surface area of the United States that’s covered by automobiles, the number of cells in the human body, the number of pizzas ordered this year in the state of California, for example) as closely as they can.

One distinctive feature of Fermi problems is that precision is impossible to achieve quickly, but it’s easier to arrive at a fast estimate of the range for the right answer. Before investing a big effort to measure something with precision, problem-solvers can estimate the answer approximately—and only then determine if it’s sensible to do the extra steps to calculate the accurate answers.

The Ability to Guesstimate: A Key Problem-Solving Aptitude

The ability to reach first-order estimations is an important skill in daily life. In a world where we are continuously bombarded with qualitative and quantitative information (and disinformation,) acquiring a solid grounding in numeric literacy has almost become an important intellectual obligation.

'Street-Fighting Mathematics' by Sanjoy Mahajan (ISBN 026251429X) Many problems are too complicated for you to come up with an accurate answer immediate. In analyzing such problems, precision may be impossible, but you can quickly estimate a range for the right answer. Guesstimation enables anyone with basic math and science skills to estimate virtually anything quickly using realistic assumptions and elementary mathematics.

Microsoft, McKinsey Consulting, Google, Goldman Sachs, and many leading businesses use guesstimate questions in job interviews to judge the ability of the applicants’ intelligence, their flexibility to think on their feet, and to apply their numerical skills to real-world problems.

Idea for Impact: Use Effective Guesstimation Techniques Before Undertaking a More Complete and Formal Investigation

Learn to do a first approximation of value and then, if the problem merits, refine your estimate further for much nuanced decision-making. Before putting much effort into calculating anything with precision, make a rough estimate of the answer, then decide whether it’s worth investigating further.

In my line of work as an investor, for example, I use fund manager Eddy Elfenbein‘s “simple stock valuation measure”:

Growth Rate/2 + 8 = PE Ratio

Let me emphasize that this is simply a quick-and-dirty valuation tool and it shouldn’t be used as a precise measure of a stock’s value. But when I’m first looking at a stock and want to see roughly how it’s priced, this is what I’ll use.

For example, let’s look at Pfizer ($PFE). Wall Street expects the company to earn $2.34 per share next year. They also see the company’s 5-year growth rate at 2.79%. If we take half the growth rate and add 8, that gives us a fair value P/E Ratio of 9.40. Multiplying that by the $2.34 estimate gives us a fair price for Pfizer of $21.98. The current price for Pfizer is $22.98, so it’s about fairly priced.

Let’s look at IBM ($IBM) which has a higher growth rate. Wall Street sees IBM earning $16.61 next year. They peg the five-year growth rate at 10.58%. Our formula gives us a fair value multiple of 13.29, and that multiplied by $16.61 works out to a value of $220.75. IBM is currently at $201.71.

Recommended Resources for Guesstimation

If you’re interviewing with one of those companies that use guesstimate questions in job interviews, or if you’re interested in developing your ability to make rough, common-sense estimates starting from just a few basic facts, I recommend the following learning resources:

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

The Lekha Sutta, an aphorism of the historical Buddha that has been preserved orally by his followers, identifies three distinct ways that anger manifests in individuals:

  • Firstly, the Buddha refers to the individual who is like an inscription on a rock. His anger stays with him for a long time; it does not war away by wind or water.
  • Secondly, the Buddha relates an individual who is habitually angered, but whose anger does not stay with him for a elongated time, to an inscription in soil that rubs away by wind or water.
  • Finally, the Buddha identifies an individual who is like water. When he is spoken to or treated rudely, he stays impervious, pleasant, and courteous—in the vein of an inscription in water that disappears right away.

Here’s a translation of the Lekha Sutta from the Pali by the eminent American Buddhist monk and prolific author Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

'Dhammapada: A Translation' by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (ISBN B000K6C8NG) And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.

Idea for Impact: Learn to Corral Your Anger and Manage Your Emotions

Like everything else in the world, anger surfaces and passes away, restoring your previous sense of calm and stillness. Not identifying the nature of anger and allowing it to take over your state of being can lead to disastrous outcomes. Verse 222 of the Dhammapada (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) states,

When anger arises,
whoever keeps firm control
as if with a racing chariot:
I call a master charioteer.
    Anyone else,
    a rein-holder—
    that’s all.

Anger destroys careers. It destroys relationships. As long as you lack the capacity to withstand negative emotions such as anger, you will be at a marked disadvantage in life.

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.