The Thing About New Year Resolutions Is…

2017It is that time of the year when people are planning what to do on December 31, as well as their New Year resolutions. The New Year resolutions tend to be tricky things. Even though they are largely never implemented, many people never stop making them or continue making them over many years.

There is this inherent belief that come what may we will follow the resolution this time around. It doesn’t matter that we have abandoned many New Year resolutions over the years that have gone by. Or to put it slightly differently, there is a certain amount of optimism built into making New Year resolutions, year after year.

As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person—you already feel fortunate. An optimistic attitude is largely inherited, and it is part of a general disposition for well-being, which may also include a preference for seeing the bright side of everything.”

And this optimism essentially ensures that we keep making new year resolutions year and year. This general optimism about things spills over to other areas of life as well. In fact, many years back, there was a very interesting piece of research carried out by two American psychiatrists, Caroline Preston and Stanley Harris. They asked drivers to rate their skill, ability as well as alertness, the last time they were driving.

As Jason Zweig writes in Your Money and Your Brain about this research: “Just under two-thirds of drivers said they were at least competent as usual. Many described their most recent drive with terms like “extra good” or “100%.””

The trouble was all this did not make any sense. The researchers Preston and Harris had conducted all their research interviews on drivers who had started in their own cars but ended up in an ambulance, after an accident. “68% of these drivers were directly responsible for their crashes, 58% had at least two past traffic violations,… and 44% would ultimately face criminal charges,” writes Zweig. This after, only five out of the 50  drivers, admitted to the researchers for even being partially responsible for the crash.

This shows the general human tendency to be optimistic and overconfident about many things in life. In fact, a later survey with drivers who had a clean driving record, found that 93% of them felt that they were above-average drivers.

This optimism about oneself reflects in other areas of life as well. In fact, Zweig provides a very interesting example of how when he asks people about their savings while making speeches, they think that they save 1.8 times the average person. Of course, this is not possible.

On the flip side, optimism and overconfidence have positive aspects as well. It is the engine that keeps capitalism going. The larger point being that if people knew their odds of succeeding (or rather failing) while initiating a new thing, in many cases they would never do it at all.

As Kahneman writes: “More often than not, risk takers underestimate the odds they face, and do not invest sufficient effort to find out what the odds are. Because they misread the risks, optimistic entrepreneurs often believe they are prudent, even when they are not. Their confidence in their future success sustains a positive mood that helps them obtain resources from others, raise the morale of their employees, and enhance their prospects of prevailing. When action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing.”

Ultimately, any country goes from being a developing country to being a developed country, only if there are enough entrepreneurs out there dreaming about building a company and in the process creating jobs. Hence, optimism and overconfidence does have a role to play in everyday life.

The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on December 28, 2016

Overconfidence of the ‘Bengaluru’ entrepreneur

flipkartThe last time I was in Bengaluru in late January and early February, almost everybody I met either wanted to be an entrepreneur or had already become one. I know I am stretching the truth here, nevertheless, the enthusiasm for entrepreneurship that I saw in Bengaluru is clearly missing in Mumbai, where I live, and Delhi, the city where my extended clan does.

A major factor that is needed for an individual to become an entrepreneur is “overconfidence”. As Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich write in Why Smart People Make Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: “If people were not overconfident…significantly fewer people would ever start a new business…That their optimism is misplaced—that they are overconfident—is evidenced by the fact that more than two-thirds of the small businesses fail within four years of inception.”

It is worth clarifying here that overconfidence here does not mean arrogance. So what does it mean? As Belsky and Gilovich write: “What research psychologists have discovered about overconfidence is that most people—those with healthy egos and those in the basement of self-esteem—consistently overrate their abilities, knowledge, and skill, at whatever level they might place them.”

The entrepreneurs work along similar lines. In fact, research shows that even when entrepreneurs are told that their chances of survival are small, they don’t believe in it. As Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States is about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that statistics apply to them. A survey found that

American entrepreneurs tend to believe that they are in a promising line of business…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.”

Given that a whole host of Bengaluru denizens have worked in the United States or know someone who has, it is hardly surprising that the American way of doing things, has caught on, in the city as well. Nevertheless, this overconfidence works in several sways. It encourages people to become an entrepreneur in the first place. Further, it helps them to keep running the business in the face of all odds.

As Kahneman writes: “One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles…[The] confidence [of the entrepreneurs] in their future success sustains a positive mood that helps them obtain resources from others, raise the morale of their employees, and enhance their prospects of prevailing. When action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing.”

On the flip side overconfidence also leads many entrepreneurs to launch businesses without any business model in place. Take the case of the Indian ecommerce companies, many of which are headquartered in Bengaluru. A significant number of these companies are operating without any business model, backed by an unending amount of private equity and venture capital money that has been pouring in.

The money that keeps pouring into these companies shows the ability of the entrepreneurs to keep raising money from investors in the hope of their companies making money someday. And this couldn’t have happened without them being overconfident.

As Kahneman explains: “Inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid. However, optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers.”

Given this, at this point of time, ecommerce is the flavour of the season, and anyone raising points about the viability of the entire sector, is usually shouted down upon. Nevertheless, as Warren Buffett said during the course of the dotcom bubble which burst in 2000, “but a pin lies in wait for every bubble.” And that is something worth remembering here as well.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on Sep 30, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)