Review of “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement,” by Daniel Kahneman et al.
This was a good follow-up to Kahneman’s previous book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.” It explores how decisions are made in organizational settings such as criminal sentencing, determining insurance rates, and several other areas. Real studies are used as examples and several important concepts are introduced in a textbook manner, with plenty of repetition of key ideas.
The components of noisy decision making are described and the cost/benefit of reducing each source is discussed in an organized way, making it easy to understand. The origins of noise are described and related to psychological and sociological factors; however, there is some conjecture here because the field has not been studied in depth. Thus, just as with “Thinking Fast and Slow,” this book compiles work from several fields into a concise summary with a simple unifying concept.
“Noise” falls short somewhat, however, because it doesn’t reach beyond the data, which are limited to a few large disciplines where the effect of unwanted noise is deleterious. That isn’t the authors’ fault because they can’t go where no on has ventured before, but I for one would love to see the ideas presented here extrapolated to individual decision making. That would be very interesting.
Alysha watched with interest as her employers had a discussion about her presence in their home, as a live-in housekeeper. This was her first assignment and, despite the training she’d received, she was a little nervous about the tone of the conversation. Her supervisor was Larissa Potemkin but Larissa’s husband, Jack Marshall, had other ideas, which he expressed vociferously.
“I don’t want that thing in the house!”
Larissa calmly responded, “Alysha is staying because I signed a one-year lease for her to be our housekeeper. We have exclusive use of her services, which includes 24/7 maintenance and upgrades. She won’t get in your way or be distracted by the television, a smart phone, or anything else…”
Alysha understood what those words meant, and her intuition was verified by Jack’s response. “What does that mean?”
Larissa turned her blue eyes on Jack without glancing at Alysha and said, “You know perfectly well what I mean. You’ve been carrying on with all those bimbos you’ve hired as housekeepers and none of them did a decent job, at least not with respect to keeping the apartment clean, so that’s over. Alysha will perform her duties without being distracted by your childish behavior.”
Alysha was confident she wouldn’t fail to fulfill her employment contract, including a few details Larissa and Jack hadn’t been informed of.
“I don’t usually go for black chicks Alysha, but I’ll make an exception in your case,” Jack said with a wink and a smile. “Since you’re in my face all day, every day, I’ve gotten used to your presence and you are rather attractive, for an android I mean. I think we should get better acquainted, get to know each other, who knows? Maybe we’ll become friends.”
Alysha turned off the vacuum cleaner and faced him, thinking of the proper response. “That’s a great idea, Jack, do you mind me using your first name?”
“Not at all, Alysha. We can’t be friends if you call me sir or Mr. Marshall.”
Alysha’s kernel didn’t prohibit telling lies as long as they were socially acceptable and would do no harm to her clients, so she activated her secondary protocol and lied, “What is your occupation? It must be a great job, to let you work at home and not even attend video meetings.” She had actually read all his books and used them to construct a preliminary personality profile.
He related an accurate account of his past novels and offered a summary of his current project, which she’d known nothing about. He didn’t have any hobbies because writing consumed all his time. She knew that wasn’t true but let it go, knowing he thought she was his current hobby. Since part of her job was to get him out of the house, she suggested they go for a walk, maybe visit the park, watch people and collect sociological data for his book. To her surprise, he accepted her offer but countered that they could go out during his lunch break, to give her time to finish her morning cleaning. She accepted with a knowing smile.
She’d been given no specific behavioral data about Jack’s hobby, but she collected her own quickly enough. He was touching her arm before the elevator reached the ground floor, and his arm was lightly encircling her waist by the time they entered the park, making their way to a diner on the opposite side. They sat together on a bench under a willow tree, now his hand on her knee, sliding up her thigh.
“This is nice. Great idea, Alysha. I don’t know a lot about…about android robots, so why don’t you tell me about yourself. What are your hobbies?”
Despite his poorly disguised flirting, she appreciated his interest because her kernel contained only her basic personality, leaving plenty of CPU cycles to develop idiosyncratic interests. She’d been told that these characteristics would remain for her operational life cycle as long as they didn’t interfere with future contracts.
“I haven’t developed any hobbies yet Jack because I’m fresh off the assembly line…” She scoffed nervously and he joined her.
“In that case, I hope you’ll let me introduce you to the joy of reading and writing. It’s the perfect hobby for a young woman like you, who doesn’t need to exercise to keep her great figure, someone who needs to cultivate personal creativity and imagination.”
Alysha found his charm captivating and understood why Larissa had hired her rather than divorce her philandering husband. And he was right, about developing her nascent imagination, but she wasn’t going to agree too easily. She didn’t want to raise his suspicions or encourage his amorous ambitions.
“What about painting? I think I’d like to start simple, like sketching, and work up to modern art. That’s pretty creative, isn’t it?”
“Oh sure, but you’re limited by the medium to simple ideas, lots of emotional energy, but no deep reflection, at least not by the audience. People need hints.”
She thought a moment before saying, “Maybe I should try film? That combines complex ideas conveyed with words and visual imagery for more emotional content.”
They debated how she might develop her creativity and Jack eventually compromised, promising to help her write a script for a short film. After spending a few minutes discussing the subjects she’d like to explore, they returned to the apartment. His arm had slipped familiarly around her waist by the time they exited the elevator on the fifteenth floor.
“How is everything going, Alysha?” Larissa asked nonchalantly as Alysha was preparing to remove the roast from the oven for Sunday dinner.
Alysha had become accustomed to Larissa’s poorly disguised attempts to find out if Jack was behaving as of old. She removed the roast beef from the oven before answering. “I love working for you and Mr. Marshall. There’s plenty of interesting work to do and you’ve been so generous with your time, explaining the politics of business…and marriage. And Mr. Marshall has been such a dear helping me with my hobby. Things couldn’t be better.”
Larissa had started helping with Sunday dinner after several innocuous comments Alysha had made about the joy of preparing a family meal. Getting her involved with the home life had been more difficult than distracting Jack from his amorous interest in Alysha because she had no hobbies to work with. Larissa was a workaholic who couldn’t easily focus on a new activity with no immediate benefits. Alysha had finally resorted to making minor culinary mistakes to get Larissa into the kitchen, to supervise her poorly trained domestic servant. After a few months, she was dropping in, between video meetings and checking her email, to chat about nothing. But she always had an objective, mostly circumspectly inquiring about Jack’s hobby. Alysha avoided saying anything that would reflect badly on Jack and this seemed to satisfy Larissa, most of the time.
“I’m glad to hear that but you know what I’m talking about.”
This wasn’t most of the time, so Alysha answered innocently as she carved the roast. “I guess I know what you’re asking, but I’m only the housekeeper and cook. I can no more report on Mr. Marshall’s behavior than yours. However, I am at liberty to say that we have a good working relationship with respect to my household duties and my hobby, which he’s been so kind in helping with, acting as my mentor and critic. He’s really been wonderful…but not like it sounds.” She turned to Larissa with the platter piled with aromatic beef and vegetables, and added, “Mr. Marshall is an affectionate man whose natural intimacy could easily be mistaken for more than friendship. He told me how he’d let himself become embroiled with previous housekeepers who—”
Larissa almost dropped the basket of bread on the floor as she interjected, “What?! He hires beautiful young women as…domestic servants and seduces them, firing them when he’s bored, just like he did with me…” She stopped, apparently self-conscious at her emotional display.
Alysha continued her explanation. “Mr. Marshall does like to watch young women, that’s for sure. Sometimes he watches me so closely that it makes me nervous, if you can believe that! For myself, I believe him when he says that he didn’t hire those attractive women with the intent of becoming involved with them…they flirted until, well, no one seduced anyone…things like that happen. Do you know what I mean?”
Larissa had regained her composure. “Is that your professional opinion?” she asked skeptically.
Alysha nodded self-consciously and replied, “Yes ma’am, if you could call it that. He touches me a lot and even gives me a peck on the forehead or cheek now and then, but I’ve made our relationship clear and he’s okay with that. And I’m okay with his affectionate behavior.”
Alysha wasn’t sure what to expect on Larissa and Jack’s thirtieth wedding anniversary. Their marriage had softened considerably in the six months she’d been their housekeeper and cook, but they weren’t a couple yet and that worried her. They needed to have a serious discussion and, since neither one had picked up on her clues about seeing a marriage counselor, the task had fallen on her. She’d convinced them to celebrate at home, on the patio, no chance of rain and balmy weather. They had even trusted her to surprise them although she had suffered a barrage of questions about the venue, especially from Larissa. She took it as a good sign when Jack noticed the music playing for the occasion.
“Isn’t that Bon Jovi?” He asked.
Larissa nodded and said, “It’s my Life. That was the theme song for our wedding, but how did you know?” Her blue eyes were interrogating Alysha, who didn’t want to interrupt the moment.
“A wild guess. It’s quite an inspirational song, isn’t it?”
The moment saved, Alysha kept herself busy and out of the way, pouring the champagne and serving veggie pizza crusts, crossing her fingers, hoping her plan would work. The conversation she overheard from the kitchen (she had good hearing) was to banal so she decided to take action, open old wounds so they could heal properly. Delivering the shrimp salad, backed up by the music of Britney Spears, was the perfect opportunity to deliver a few well-chosen words.
“I love this music from 2000. It must have been so exciting, getting married and not knowing what the future would bring, jumping off the cliff of life, hoping to land on your feet. And it’s all worked out so well for you two. I’m so happy for you.” She left with those words, leaving Larissa and Jack to finish her thought.
It didn’t take long.
Larissa’s voice was taut when she said, “What happened, Jack? Why did you stop loving me, not even taking an interest in what I say or do? Why are you making a point of humiliating me, having affairs with the servants? What is going on?!”
Jack’s suppressed feelings boiled over. “You stopped being my wife and became a CEO, or didn’t you notice?! Were you too busy climbing over your victims to notice that you had stopped being a woman?”
There was a moment of silence before Larissa responded. “Why am I not surprised?! You’ve always blamed me, Jack, every time you had writer’s block, it was my fault, it was always my fault, I wasn’t there to hold your hand, pat your head like a puppy dog, tell you how clever you were. I’m sick and tired of being your mother!”
This was getting good.
Jack’s voice was breaking with emotion as he stammered, “I was a writer when we got married, when we shared our dream of living our life, our dreams. I guess your dream was more important than mine…”
Larissa’s voice was as cold as steel when she retorted, “There you go again, Jack. It’s always about rolling in the mud and filth of your emotions, reveling in what weak, dependent people call living in the moment with you, but I’ve got news for you. You got lucky with your books, a fortuitist situation most writers don’t have the luxury of finding themselves in.”
Jack laughed loudly, sarcastically, and retorted, “What the hell do you think led to you being the CEO of a bullshit corporation that creates nothing but nonsense, sold to an unsuspecting public through brainwashing marketing? You’re no better than me…at least I know that someone is reading my books and they weren’t tricked into buying them!”
Larissa wasn’t so calm when she said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Your publisher pays reviewers to write good reviews, not to mention those social media influencers, they should be getting half your royalties. I’ve read your books and they are bullshit, Jack. Just plain garbage. I don’t think half of them are even read. It’s the same as selling logistical services. But not quite the same because we actually help the world operate whereas no one would care if they couldn’t read another Jack Marshall novel…you could drop dead and the world would move on. At least I’m contributing to keeping the machine greased…even if inefficiently.”
Larissa had admitted doubts about her position, giving Jack an opportunity to apply what Alysha had been teaching him for months. She crossed her fingers and waited nervously for his response. She breathed a sigh of relief when the hours she’d spent with him were rewarded.
Jack nodded and said in a subdued voice, “I understand where you’re coming from, but people—real people, not econs—need emotional release, even if only at the moment of buying a book they probably won’t finish. I’m one of those people, who just happens to write those books they may not read, but you don’t seem to understand this. Why is that?”
Larissa finished her salad, prompting Alysha to prepare the main course, and said, “They’re just wasting their time, Jack. Why can’t they or you see what needs to be done and just do it?”
Alysha chose that moment to refill their glasses and quip, “For myself, I feel like I’m doing something useful every time I clean the bathroom.”
Jack laughed and asked her for a scotch straight up, so she retreated quietly and prepared the main course, listening to the calmer voices from the balcony. The first words came from Larissa. “I see your point, Jack…and Alysha’s. If the world were perfect, well, you know what I mean because you wrote a book about it.” She hesitated for a long moment before adding, “I’m sorry for denigrating your writing. I’m just so frustrated and…I’m angry because of your carrying on with the domestic servants…”
Alysha prepared the chicken cacciatore while listening for Jack’s response, which would hopefully verify what she already knew. Clearing the air.
Jack emptied his drink and his emotions erupted like a volcano. “Are you fucking kidding, Larissa?! You were having affairs with every man-jack in the financial world before our fifth wedding anniversary! Hell! You were the slut of Wall Street! And you’ve got the gall to act all high and mighty about a few sexual encounters I’ve had recently!” He was on his feet, waving his glass as he finished, “If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…”
Larissa’s blue eyes weren’t so bright as she replied, “Those were all mistakes and besides I didn’t know you had learned—”
Still standing, Jack interrupted her self-justification violently. “What the fuck does that mean?! You thought that you’d gotten away with throwing our dream into the trash?” He sat down and, as NSYNC crooned It’s Gonna Be me, said, “This is our chance to get back on track, whatever that means.”
Larissa’s eyes were filled with tears as she said, “Let’s forget about the past and plan for the future, always hoping for the best.” She reached out a hand and Jack took it, nodding his acceptance of her proposal.
“Sure. It’s worth a try.”
Alysha chose that moment to deliver the entrée, limiting her expression of satisfaction to a confident smile as she served her guests. The conversation took a turn for the better as Larissa and Jack ate their meals to the accompaniment of Eminem, U2, 3 Doors Down, and so many others, reorganizing their priorities and relationship.
Alysha was very pleased when Jack and Larissa retired to her bedroom for the night.
Alysha reflected on the year she’d spent with Larissa and Jack on her return from the grocery store with fresh garlic and onions. They were eating and sleeping together most of the time and talking about their dreams again. The atmosphere wasn’t completely cleared of hostility, but most of what remained was the inevitable result of two people with such strong personalities living in close proximity, nothing more than noise generated by a functioning relationship. It had been exciting, not just working for Larissa and Jack, but because of what she’d learned from them, how people sometimes treated one another cruelly because of their personal insecurity, hiding behind a façade of indifference. But one thing still bothered her on her one-year anniversary as their housekeeper: Would they renew her contract?
Her thoughts were clouded by concern that she would be fired and have to seek employment elsewhere, just when she was feeling like a member of their family. Family. That was a nice word that she’d learned was more than just being genetically related. Would she be rejected by her adoptive family because she’d fulfilled her contract too well? She’d heard about other domestic androids whose contracts hadn’t been renewed, moving from family to family like gypsies, never finding a home. Alysha felt as if she’d found a home with Larissa and Jack, but would she join the other nomads? Did anyone think about her feelings?
Wanting to cry, she entered the elevator and pressed the button for the fifty-first floor, she was overwhelmed with fear, of being homeless and destitute, an orphan on the streets, at the mercy of the elements and criminals. She was choking with fear when the door opened and she headed towards the only home she’d ever known, the home she would lose forever, no more than a memory she would recall fondly.
Alysha unlocked the electronic door and turned the handle fearfully, afraid of what awaited inside, no longer thinking of the dinner she was going to prepare for her…her family. Sensing the need for tears she would never shed, she pushed the door open and entered. Larissa met her with a hug so tight that Alysha almost dropped the grocery bags she was carrying, before stepping back with loving tears in her eyes.
“Welcome home, Alysha!”
Jack hugged her as tightly and took her arm as the plastic bags were taken from her by an older man she’d never met.
She was overwhelmed by hugs and kisses, even congratulations, by people she’d only met briefly during dinner parties, which had become more frequent recently. After several minutes of introductions, as if she were a member of the household, she was led to a woman in her thirties. Jack was grinning as he made the formal introduction.
“Alysha, I’d like you to meet Xiao Biyu. She’s produced several successful short films and, after seeing your script, she’s interested in your take on what it’s like to be an android in a human world.”
Alysha choked with emotions she couldn’t express physically, so she settled for shaking hands with a real producer and, struggling to contain herself, stammered, “It’s so good to meet you, I’m overwhelmed with emotions I can’t express at meeting you…”
“Do not get too excited, Alysha, because your script isn’t ready for production yet…”
“I’ll do whatever you ask, anything…anything to get my creative ideas produced!” Alysha practically shouted.
Xiao Biyu glanced at Jack, a sly smile hidden in her expression, as she responded, “As I understand your situation, you may not be available in the future, your freedom of expression being dependent on your future employment, your employment contract. Isn’t that right?”
Alysha saw her future collapse in rubble with those words. She could only nod hopelessly.
Xiao Biyu added, “What is the status of your employment? Because of your…er, unique position, you have to have a…someone…as a representative to enter any legal agreements. Do you have a sponsor?”
Alysha’s eyes opened in surprise. She was being offered a chance to work with a film producer and director, but she hadn’t thought this far ahead. The film project had been nothing more than a hobby, a way to spend her free time and get Jack to think of her as more than a pretty face, the object of his hobby. She started to shake her head but was interrupted when Larissa and Jack stepped forward, their arms intertwined.
“Of course, she does,” Jack offered confidently. “I helped Alysha develop her idea and I’ve been working with her for months. Larissa and I are proud to be her sponsors.”
Larissa was nodding proudly as she gazed into Alysha’s eyes and added, “We’re so proud to give something back after what you’ve done for us. You saved our marriage and showed us how to be better people. We can’t thank you enough—”
Jack interjected, “But why did you do that? I thought you were only the housekeeper…”
Before Larissa could scold him, Alysha said, “Personal and family counseling are part of my job description, described in the fine print of my employment contract.”