Certainty and the turkey problem

Sonnie Bailey

23 March 2017

We all take lessons from the past and apply these to making predictions about the future.

This is both appropriate and necessary in many situations.

The difficulty is that sometimes the lessons we learn aren’t the right lessons.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes this memorably as “the turkey problem”:

“Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race… On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.”

What is sobering about this example is that the turkey’s “feeling of safety reached its maximum when the risk was at the highest”.

It’s not just that the turkey’s experience didn’t have any value. To the contrary, it had negative value. 

Food for thought.

It’s definitely the case that experience brings confidence. But we need to temper our confidence with the knowledge that sometimes we can be wrong, and the very experience that has made us confident can be detrimental to us.

Certainty can be dangerous. We can all be turkeys.

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