The Biases That Cost a Genius His Fortune

By

Sandy Clarke

3rd May 2020

4 min read

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If we were asked to think of the greatest scientific mind to ever have lived, there’s a good chance that Isaac Newton’s name would come to mind.

The English physicist had enough quirks to show that there is indeed a fine line between madness and genius: thankfully, Newton’s discoveries place him firmly in the ‘genius’ camp.

After all, he was the first scientist to formulate the idea of gravity as a universal force; he invented Calculus (in his spare time!) as well as the first reflecting telescope; and, he also managed to lose his life savings. More than once.

OK, so the last point was hardly an achievement. If anything, it was a pretty sizeable failure, a lesson that one of the greatest minds of all time missed out on learning the first time around.

One of Newton’s most famous quotes is his claim that:

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.

On the surface, it sounds like the mind of a genius judging the other 99 per cent; however, Newton was well aware of his limitations in understanding what we all struggle to grasp: our own mind.

The year was 1720, the stock market was enjoying its first bubble. Isaac Newton had invested shares in South Sea Company, which he subsequently sold, pocketing a total of GBP7000 (about RM1.8 million in today’s money).

As the bubble and the hysteria grew, Newton re-invested his money later in the year at a much higher price, losing the equivalent of around RM6 million today. After investors lost their fortunes, a Parliamentary investigation later found that the directors of the company had ‘circulated false claims of success and fanciful tales of South Sea riches’.

The great Isaac Newton had been duped by what was, essentially, an elaborate Ponzi scheme. The genius of his time could indeed understand the ‘motion of heavenly bodies’, but he failed to understand a simple premise of human nature: the cleverer we think we are, the surer we become. Consequently, we rarely question our actions and behaviours, many of which are driven not by our intellect, but by our emotions.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was an extraordinary man – but a man, nonetheless, susceptible to his own prejudice, perceptions, and bias. Regardless of our levels of intelligence, it remains that the person we are most able to fool is ourselves. We buy into our opinions, views and outlooks and take them to be absolute, and this is something that legitimate advertisers and scammers alike are well aware of.

This is why self-awareness is critical for all of us to develop, and especially for those of us who hold leadership positions. We each possess a mind that is influenced by several biases that function to protect our survival; however, as our civilisation has advanced, these biases often serve against rather than for our best interests.

Interestingly, research has suggested that the more rational we believe ourselves to be, the more sure we become in believing that our actions, and the decisions and chances we take, are the right ones. Consequently, we become closed off even to our own scrutiny which, as Newton discovered all too late, can cost us a great deal.

In cultivating self-awareness, it’s important that we recognise two important facts about how our minds work:

  1. We’re naturally wired for efficiency, and so the mind prefers to process data quickly, which means that, in our assumptions, we can miss out on vital information that would lead us to making better decisions.
  2. Our efficiency leads to the cultivation of bias. We all have our biases, but some people are less aware of them than others. The less aware we are of a particular bias, the more susceptible we become to its drawbacks.

Isaac Newton was a brilliant scientist; however, in all his human glory, he was also rash when it came to making a quick dollar and, as he found out, genius is no match for greed. Left unchecked, our biases can lead us to spectacular failures. Let’s take a look at three psychological biases that were at play in Newton’s case:

1. Anchoring

Think of this as a ‘first impressions’ bias. In Newton’s case, he made a sizeable profit from his initial investment and so felt that he was onto a good thing. As a result, it was impossible for him to think about the potential risks of reinvesting, and his greed ended up costing him a fortune.

How to avoid: Whenever you’re making any big decision, ask yourself: am I rushing into this? What are the consequences? Am I being pressured? What is the current situation, regardless of my past judgements?

2. Overconfidence

The philosopher Socrates proclaimed himself the wisest of all men, because he knew the limitations of his knowledge. As for the rest of us, we’re often too sure of what we think we know. Research studies suggest that entrepreneurs are most susceptible to this bias, as they tend to disregard potential risk and overestimate their knowledge.

How to avoid: Ask yourself, “How sure am I about what I know?” Our egos are powerful, and so we’re easily led into thinking we’re smarter than we actually are. For example, if we’re in a room of 50 people, how many of us would honestly say we are below-average? It’s not that we should put ourselves down, but rather develop the humility to acknowledge that we know much less than we think.

Read: Why Smart People Are Prone to Making More Mistakes

3. Gambler’s Fallacy

This bias occurs when we expect a particular outcome to happen base on preceding events. For example, if you win two or three bets in a row, you might think you’re onto a ‘winning streak’ and therefore play a bigger hand in the next round.

A simpler example is that of a coin toss: if, after six tosses, the coin has ended up ‘heads’ every time, you’ll likely expect ‘tails’ to land on the seventh toss, despite the odds always remaining the same at 50-50.

How to avoid: Rather than looking for patterns that don’t exist, research indicates that this bias is less likely to occur when people make decisions in isolation, rather than taking into account past information. So, for example, when betting on a coin toss, it would be futile to think that six ‘heads’ in a row means that the next toss must be ‘tails’. Past coin tosses are irrelevant – it always remains a 50-50 chance.

In summary, it is only by developing the habit of looking at our weaknesses frankly that we can protect ourselves from avoidable pitfalls.

Read also: Sir Isaac Newton: Lessons of Leadership

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