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Artificial intelligence, natural stupidity

Psychologist Amos Tversky, with Daniel Kahneman, collaborated not on artificial intelligence, but on the study of natural stupidity.  Their research into cognitive biases eventually became recognized in an emerging field of behavioral economics.  In hindsight, I can claim to have received an “A” in a Ph.D. course taught by the winner of a Nobel Prize in economics.

In my first cycle of doctoral studies, I was guided at UBC by my supervisor Ken MacCrimmon into a PSYC546 “Seminar in Psychology Problems”, which was led by Danny Kahneman.  This course was offered shortly after the 1982 publication of the book Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky.  With Kahneman at UBC in Vancouver, and Tversky at Stanford University in the San Francisco Bay Area, the back-and-forth flights to visit each other was frequent.  I uncovered more about the relationship between the two psychology professors in reading The Undoing Project. That book describes a difficult history of university faculty offers, not only around the two collaborators, but also the accommodation of wives Barbara Gans Tversky and Anne Treisman.

In late 1977, after Danny had told him that he wasn’t returning to Israel, word spread through academia that Amos Tversky might leave, too.  […]  Harvard University quickly offered Amos tenure, though it took them a few weeks to throw in an assistant professorship for Barbara. The University of Michigan, which had the advantage of sheer size, scrambled to find four tenured professorships — and, by making places for Danny, Anne, and Barbara, also snag Amos. The University of California at Berkeley, which left Danny with the clear impression, when he made overtures, that he was too old to be hired, prepared to offer a job to Amos. But no place moved quite so dramatically as Stanford.  [….]

… the Stanford Psychology Department went to the Stanford president and said: We have none of the usual paperwork. No recommendations or anything else. Just trust us. Stanford made Amos an offer of lifetime employment that afternoon. [….]

Stanford showed not the slightest interest in Danny. “There’s a practical issue,” said [psychology faculty professor Lee] Ross. “Do you want two guys doing the same thing? And the cold fact is we got the full benefit of Danny and Amos just by hiring Amos.” Danny would have loved for them all to go to Michigan, but Amos clearly had no interest in anyplace but Harvard or Stanford. After Harvard and Stanford had ignored him, and Berkeley had let him know that he would not be offered a job, Danny accepted a position beside Anne at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. He and Amos agreed they would take turns flying to visit each other every other weekend. [Lewis 2016, Chapter 11, pp. 222-224]

In the UBC 1983-1984 Winter Session, I was a doctoral student in Danny Kahneman’s class .  I remember Amos Tversky coming to the class.  He led a few discussions.  I hadn’t appreciated that collaboration between the two professors had already effectively ended.

At the end of 1979, or perhaps in early 1980, Danny began to talk to a young assistant professor at UBC named Dale Miller, sharing his ideas about the way people compared reality to its alternatives. When Miller asked about Amos, Danny said that they were no longer working together.  [….]

Amos continued to fly to Vancouver every other week, but there was a new tension between them. Amos clearly wished to believe that they might collaborate as they had before. Danny did not.  [Lewis 2016, Chapter 11, p. 232]

And, in the 1983-1984 seminar, I couldn’t have foreseen the accolades that these professors would later get.

Amos was in Israel on a visit in 1984 when he received the phone call telling him that he’d been given a MacArthur “genius” grant. [….]  The only work of Amos’s cited in the press release was the work he’d done with Danny. It didn’t mention Danny.  [Lewis 2016, Chapter 12, p. 236] [….]

[In 1996], Amos called Danny. He’d just received some news. A growth that doctors had discovered in his eye had just been diagnosed as malignant melanoma. The doctors had scanned his body and found it riddled with cancer. They were now giving him, at best, six months to live. Danny was the second person he’d called with the news. Hearing that, something inside Danny gave. “He was saying, ‘We’re friends, whatever you think we are.’” [Lewis 2016, Chapter 12, p. 255] […]

Amos told very few people that he was dying, and, to those he did tell, he gave instructions not to spend a lot of time talking to him about it. He received the news in February 1996. From then on he spoke of his life in the past tense.  [Lewis 2016, Coda, p. 262] […]

[Economist Peter] Diamond wanted to let Amos know that he was on a very short list for the Nobel Prize in economics, to be awarded in the fall [of 1996]. But the Nobel Prize was awarded only to the living. [Lewis 2016, Chapter 12, p. 263] […]

Danny remained at Princeton, where he had gone to escape Amos. […] Then, in the fall of 2001, Danny received an invitation to visit Stockholm and speak at a conference. Members of the Nobel Committee would attend, along with leading economists. All the speakers but Danny were economists. Like Danny, they were all pretty obviously under consideration for the prize.  [Lewis 2016, Chapter 12, p. 265] […]

All potential winners were aware of the day the call from Stockholm would come, in the early morning, were it to come at all. On October 9, 2002, Danny and Anne sat in their home in Princeton, both waiting and not waiting.  [….]

Then the phone rang.  [Lewis 2016, Chapter 12, pp. 265-266]

The awarding of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economic sciences to Kahneman was considered revolutionary.  Kahneman was an psychologist, not an economist.  Recognition of this branch of research within the discipline of economics wouldn’t be formalized until 2017, with the awarding of the Nobel prize in 2017 to Richard Thaler.

Thaler and Kahneman met in 1977, at Stanford University. Thaler, who had obtained his Ph.D. in 1974, was still finding his way as a researcher, while Kahneman and his fellow-psychologist Amos Tversky had already identified many of the systematic biases that they would become famous for. These included anchoring (the tendency to rely too heavily on initial information); confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret evidence as supporting preëxisting beliefs); and loss aversion (feeling the pain of losing ten dollars more intensely than the joy of winning ten dollars). “We spent a lot of time walking the hills discussing things,” Kahneman recalled of Thaler. “He already knew a lot of things that didn’t fit in the orthodox economic framework. What he got from us was the theoretical framework to fit them into.” [Cassidy 2017]

Tversky passed away in 1996.  The few videos of him (in 1981) available on the Internet are serious, and don’t reflect his sense of humour.  Yet, web sources back to 2001 claim that Tversky said:

My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; me, I study natural stupidity.

This seems reasonably ascribed to him, but is an undated and unsupported citation.  As his legitimacy rose posthumously, that sentence was given more credence in economics [Frank, 2011; Frank and Mason, 2011].

In 2016, a version of the quote was formally referenced by Michael Lewis back to 1983, in the context of the type of research in which Tversky and Kahneman collaborated:

[In the late 1970s, superintendent of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Miles Shore] found Danny and Amos together in August 1983, in Anaheim, California, where they were attending the American Psychological Association meeting. Danny was now forty-nine and Amos forty-six. They spoke with Shore together for several hours and then, for several hours more, separately. They walked Miles Shore through the history of the collaboration, starting with their early excitement. “In the  beginning we were able to answer a question that had not been asked,” Amos told him. “We were able to take psychology out of the contrived laboratory and address the topic from the experiences all around us.” Trying to pin them down on the question they thought they were answering, Shore asked if their work fed into the new and growing field of artificial intelligence. “You know, not really,” said Amos. “We study natural stupidity instead of artificial intelligence.”  [Lewis 2016, Chapter 12, pp. 220-221, editorial emphasis added]

In 2017, Lewis provided a slightly different quotation in an interview, reflecting the playfulness between the psychologists.

Lewis: Danny is a fertile source of ideas. So he’s really generative. And it’s not that Amos isn’t capable of being generative, but Danny is off-the-charts generative. He’s almost the poetic or novelistic mind in the room. And Amos is the diamond cutter. Amos is a pure analytical mind, who sees levels of abstraction in Danny’s ideas and generalizes them and formalizes them, so that they can be tested and expressed in a way that is academically respectable.

But I think what they actually are doing is they’re laughing at stupid things people do.

And Amos was asked once by somebody who said, “Does the work you and Danny do have any bearing on artificial intelligence?” And Amos said: “I’m much more interested in natural stupidity than I am in artificial intelligence.”

And I think that they felt that it wasn’t a mocking spirit in which they operated, they were laughing also at themselves. At the sort of thing that they did that struck them as irrational, and they were mining that for gold. They have really a rattle bag of ideas that they end up trying to classify.  [Lewis 2017, 9m25s-10m25s, edited in transcript, emphasis added]

My career has led me through artificial intelligence technologies.  Like Tversky and Kahneman, my pursuits could be described as orienting more towards the natural stupidity in human systems.  While they worked at the level of psychology of individuals, I’ve tended more towards the organizational level, often mediated through collaborative information technologies.

When I embarked on graduate studies, my focus was on decision support systems, “a concept of the role of computers within the decision-making process”, as semi-structured tasks [Keen 1980].  Ken MacCrimmon suggested that at UBC I explore not from the Management Information Systems perspective that I had seen at MIT, but instead alongside his research into Taking Risks: The Management of Uncertainty.

I left UBC in 1984, and joined IBM Canada in 1985.  This  changed my trajectory from academic research towards action and practice, with a strong scholarly foundation in the background.  Through the IBM assignments with Metaphor Computer Systems circa 1988, and with the IBM Advanced Business Institute circa 1999 with Stephan Haeckel publishing Adaptive Enterprise, the technologies of the PC revolution and the Internet led me into another world.  Rather than pursuing behavioral economics, I became immersed in the systems sciences.

University of British Columbia, Permanent Record, David Ing, August 1984
University of British Columbia, Permanent Record, David Ing, August 1984


Cassidy, John. 2017. “The Making of Richard Thaler’s Economics Nobel.” The New Yorker, October 10, 2017.

The Economist. 2002. “All Too Human,” October 10, 2002.

Frank, Robert H. 2011. “Why Worry? It’s Good for You.” New York Times, May 14, 2011, sec. Economy.

Frank, Robert H., and Paul Mason. 2011. “Robert H. Frank: The Darwin Economy.” Web Audio. BBC Analysis. London School of Economics.

Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. 1982. Judgment under Uncertainty Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press.

Kahneman, Daniel. 2003. “Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics.” American Economic Review 93 (5): 1449–75.  Alternate search at

Keen, Peter G. W. 1980. “Decision Support Systems : A Research Perspective.” Working Paper 54. Centre for Information Studies Research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Sloan School of Management.

Lewis, Michael. 2016. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. WW Norton & Company.

Lewis, Michael. 2017. The Men Who Started a Thinking Revolution Interview by Stephen J. Dubner. MP3 audio.

MacCrimmon, Kenneth R., and Donald A. Wehrung. 1986. Taking Risks The Management of Uncertainty. New York: The Free Press. Alternative search at

Smith, Deborah. 2002. “Psychologist Wins Nobel Prize.” Monitor on Psychology 33 (11): 22.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. 1974. “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” Science 185 (4157): 1124–31.  Alternate search at

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