When Things Suddenly Happen: The Black Swan Theory

Posted on April 21, 2012 in Specials

By Tarun Cherukuri:

Imagine that you placed two gold coins on the first square of a chess board. If you kept doubling the number of gold coins for each and every square, how many coins do you think will be there on the last square (64th)?

18000000000000000000 (18 followed by 18 zeroes)

Can you imagine that number in your head? I mean we can all visualize 2 birds, 5 trees, 10 buildings, a few hundred people, even a few lakhs and crores of money (Our politicians seem to have the acumen to deal in many more zeroes than us citizens though!).

Malcolm Gladwell articulates this cognitive principle of ‘Tipping Point’ brilliantly through a lot of social examples. His main idea in the book is how little unprecedented things can actually create a social movement and the factors which lead to that critical mass for the movement to explode. To further break it down, human mind does not have the cognitive ability to comprehend geometric progressions or in other words, big socially impactful movements (read World Wars, computer, internet etc.)

There are a few other mathematical theories to highlight the same principle (Long Tail, Butterfly effect etc.) but I will focus on one which really appealed to me – The Black Swan theory

The Black Swan Theory or Theory of Black Swan Events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that some events happen and takes all of us by surprise, like the name used to represent the theory. It is very rare that we come across a Black Swan in our life. The legend goes that the English did not believe such a thing existed till they came across one. Therefore, it is only in hindsight that we do come to terms with the facts of the event.

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain three concepts:

– The tail events which are extremely rare and highly improbable but not impossible. There exists a small probability of occurrence of such events in sciences and social sciences which happen to shape new frontiers.

– Given the low probability of occurrence of such events, which is usually less than 1 in a million, it is difficult to use mathematical models to predict them.

– Because of the nature of rarity and uncertainty of such events, the psychological biases of human minds are towards low occurrence-high impact events.

Black Swan Events were characterized in his book The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as “black swans”–undirected and unpredicted. He cites the examples of World Wars, personal computer, Internet, 9/11 to prove his point.

Therefore, there are three major takeaways from a Black Swan event. First, that nothing in the past can potentially anticipate the possibility of its occurrence. It is clearly outside the realm of regular expectations and an outlier on a probability distribution. Second, most black swan events carry an extreme impact on society. Third, in spite of our inability to predict such events, human mind tends to find causal links to such an event in hindsight. The author argues that almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives can be explained through these events.

In my opinion, this is how change and social movements happen. We must surely reason on a daily basis. We must definitely plan for the uncertain future. We must ardently strive to achieve our planned goals. But we cannot predict our Black Swan moments. Life is purely probabilistic. And, at the tail of such a probability distribution is a black swan event waiting to happen in our lifetime. Therefore, we must believe at some level that high impact change is possible. It might not be around the corner and predictable, but there is some mathematical argument to believing the impossible is probable as well.

So ask yourselves, what is the ‘Black Swan’ moment that you can ‘probably’ dream of? What can you do to tip the scales of change in India?

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