Psychologist Explains the Engine of Capitalism

Governments often believe that most jobs are created by small businesses and that governments should encourage job creation. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses, “the engine of capitalism” in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. The remainder of this post is direct quotes from his book.

Optimistic individuals play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the political and military leaders—not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks. They are talented and they have been lucky, almost certainly luckier than they acknowledge. They are probably optimistic by temperament; a survey of founders of small businesses concluded that entrepreneurs are more sanguine than midlevel managers about life in general. Their experiences of success have confirmed their faith in their judgment and in their ability to control events. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: the people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize….

The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. A survey found that American entrepreneurs tend to believe they are in a promising line of business: their average estimate of the chances of success for “any business like yours” was 60%—almost double the true value. The bias was more glaring when people assessed the odds of their own venture. Fully 81% of the entrepreneurs put their personal odds of success at 7 out of 10 or higher, and 33% said their chance of failing was zero….

One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles. But persistence can be costly. An impressive series of studies by Thomas Åstebro sheds light on what happens when optimists receive bad news. He drew his data from a Canadian organization—the Inventor’s Assistance Program—which collects a small fee to provide inventors with an objective assessment of the commercial prospects of their idea. The evaluations rely on careful ratings of each invention on 37 criteria, including need for the product, cost of production, and estimated trend of demand. The analysts summarize their ratings by a letter grade, where D and E predict failure—a prediction made for over 70% of the inventions they review.

The forecasts of failure are remarkably accurate: only 5 of 411 projects that were given the lowest grade reached commercialization, and none was successful. Discouraging news led about half of the inventors to quit after receiving a grade that unequivocally predicted failure. However, 47% of them continued development efforts even after being told that their project was hopeless, and on average these persistent (or obstinate) individuals doubled their initial losses before giving up. Significantly, persistence after discouraging advice was relatively common among inventors who had a high score on a personality measure of optimism—on which inventors generally scored higher than the general population. Overall, the return on private invention was small, “lower than the return on private equity and on high-risk securities.” More generally, the financial benefits of self-employment are mediocre: given the same qualifications, people achieve higher average returns by selling their skills to employers than by setting out on their own. The evidence suggests that optimism is widespread, stubborn, and costly.

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