Rex and Albert: meet Romeo and OJ

In Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman introduces System 1 and System 2. Unlike the left-brain / right-brain pseudoscience, this distinction has some merit. It represents much of what we know about how the brain processes things. System 1 stands for the slow and deliberate, while System 2 stands for the automatic and unconscious. These systems have very anonymous names because we don't know very much about them; in scientific terms, it's just two different responses, which underlies, among other things, much of behavioral economics. To avoid confusing them, some people have come up with the clever names Rex and Albert. Rex conjures up images of a T-Rex, whereas Albert hopefully (after having heard it the first time, at least) makes you think of one of the most foremost physicist of all time. I'll let you guess which System belongs to which. Now who's Romeo and OJ?

In statistics there's something called Type I and Type II error. Now, unlike System 1 and System 2, these are very well understood. Other names for these are false negative and false positive, which, if you are anything like me, is equally confusing. It requires effort to think through what exactly is false. If you haven't heard of these before, they come up when you have a hypothesis (i.e. a guess) and a test (i.e. something which will tell you if you are right or not) for that hypothesis. A false negative is when you think your hypothesis is wrong but it in fact isn't, and a false positive is when you think your hypothesis is right but it isn't. The first is letting someone of the hook when they are guilty, and the second is putting a innocent person in jail.

Talking about this with some good people at Hacker School - hat tip to Jamie Brandon and Darius Bacon for spawning the conversation - I tried to think of some characters that were illustrative of these types of errors. OJ Simpson is probably the most stereotypically guilty-but-not-convicted person alive today. He's an example of a false negative error. He even wrote a book called If I did It. All the events surrounding the story, were they to be stories in some fiction, have a sort of comical air over them, like he's flaunting the system.

On the other hand you have someone like Romeo in Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet. If you don't know how it ends I'm going to spoil it right now: Romeo thinks Juliet is dead and, not being able to live without her, commits suicide. It turns out she wasn't in fact dead, and when she finds Romeo dead - really dead - she kills herself. Now, if Romeo wouldn't have falsely believed that Juliet was dead, everything would've been just fine. Romeo is like the innocent being put in jail for something he didn't do, something that wasn't true.

The point of this exercise isn't to replace the formal vocabulary. It's simply to work out some tricks that allow us to be more confident in informal situations. So next time you are talking about how you should sit down and actually think about a problem you are having, you can say that you've gone alberting. And the next time someone is advocating a lynching for someone who might be innocent, you could remind them of the tragedy of Romeo.

PS: If anyone has any other suggestions for terms like these I'd love to hear about them.