Lung cancer proved to be a handy example. Lung cancer doctors and patients in early 1980s faced two unequally unpleasant options: surgery or radiation. Surgery was more likely to extend your life, but, unlike radiation, it came with the small risk of instant death. When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery — which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds — only 54 percent chose the surgery. People facing a life-and-death decision responded not to the odds but to the way the odds were described to them.
All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle, flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact we couldn’t is taken as an indication of out limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the the world.
Amos talked about research then being conducted by one of his graduate students at Hebrew University, Baruch Fischhoff. When Richard Nixon announced his surprising intention to visit China and Russia, Fischhoff asked people to assign odds to a list of possible outcomes—say, that Nixon would meet Chairman Mao at least once, that the United States and the Soviet Union would create a joint space program, that a group of Soviet Jews would be arrested for attempting to speak with Nixon, and so on. After the trip, Fischhoff went back and asked the same people to recall the odds they had assigned to each outcome. Their memories of the odds they had assigned to various outcomes were badly distorted. They all believed that they had assigned higher probabilities to what happened than they actually had. They greatly overestimated the odds that they had assigned to what had actually happened.