Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Psychology of Human Misjudgement: Reward and Punishment Tendencies

Charlie Munger is Warren Buffett's right hand man at Berkshire Hathaway. Over the next few weekends, we'll be summarizing the text he authored titled "The Psychology Of Human Misjudgement", where he describes some of man's tendencies. By understanding and learning from these tendencies, we better equip ourselves to avoid psychological biases when investing.

In this chapter, Munger discusses the super powers of incentives. While he believes everyone understands how important incentives are, he also believes that everyone (including himself) constantly underestimates its powers. Munger takes the reader through examples at several companies (including Fedex, Xerox, GE, and Westinghouse) where aligned (misaligned) incentives powered (impeded) the firm's effectiveness. According to Munger, the most important rule in management is "Get The Incentives Right!"

An important consequence of the power of incentives is human bias caused by the very same incentives. This causes even generous and caring individuals to be able to rationalize to themselves even the most immoral and callous of behaviours. Munger's examples of this "cognitive drift" in action include a doctor murdering his patients, salesmen/brokers selling products their clients don't need, and management consultant reports that conclude with the advice "This problem needs more management consultant services."

Munger suggests some antidotes against falling prey to such bias: fear advice that, if implemented, is good for the advisor, learn the basic elements of your advisors trade, and doublecheck/disbelieve much of what you're told.

As powerful as incentives are, it is a puzzle to Munger that the topic is not discussed in academic textbooks devoted to psychology. Economists have long studied its powers, as incentives form the basis of many economic theories. Economists have also long used the term "agency costs" to describe a firm's costs due to the disconnect between manager and owner incentives. For example, a sales force paid only in commissions may be more efficient than a salaried sales force, but will also be more difficult to keep moral. As such, incentive systems make tradeoffs between costs and efficiency gains.

Read the other misjudgments here!


Phil Hendrix said...

I've tried to find the text you mentioned, but have been unable to. Can you confirm title or provide link? Thank you.

Phil H.

Saj Karsan said...

Hi Phil,

Here's one version.