Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Taleb

Summary

  1. Taleb discusses why skin in the game is so important and drives much of human behavior. “Skin in the Game is about four topics in one: a) uncertainty and the reliability of knowledge (both practical and scientific, assuming there is a difference), or in less polite words bull***t detection, b) symmetry in human affairs, that is, fairness, justice, responsibility, and reciprocity, c) information sharing in transactions, and d) rationality in complex systems and in the real world. That these four cannot be disentangled is something that is obvious when one has…skin in the game.* It is not just that skin in the game is necessary for fairness, commercial efficiency, and risk management: skin in the game is necessary to understand the world.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Skin in the Game
    1. Do not mistake skin in the game as defined here and used in this book for just an incentive problem, just having a share of the benefits (as it is commonly understood in finance). No. It is about symmetry, more like having a share of the harm, paying a penalty if something goes wrong. The very same idea ties together notions of incentives, used car buying, ethics, contract theory, learning (real life vs. academia), Kantian imperative, municipal power, risk science, contact between intellectuals and reality, the accountability of bureaucrats, probabilistic social justice, option theory, upright behavior, bull***t vendors, theology…I stop for now.
    2. definition, what works cannot be irrational; about every single person I know who has chronically failed in business shares that mental block, the failure to realize that if something stupid works (and makes money), it cannot be stupid.
    3. Now skin in the game brings simplicity—the disarming simplicity of things properly done. People who see complicated solutions do not have an incentive to implement simplified ones.
    4. System that doesn’t have a mechanism of skin in the game, with a buildup of imbalances, will eventually blow up and self-repair that way. If it survives.
    5. We saw that interventionistas don’t learn because they are not the victims of their mistakes, and, as we hinted at with pathemata mathemata: The same mechanism of transferring risk also impedes learning. More practically, You will never fully convince someone that he is wrong; only reality can.
    6. Evolution can only happen if risk of extinction is present. Further, There is no evolution without skin in the game. This last point is quite obvious, but I keep seeing academics with no skin in the game defend evolution while at the same time rejecting skin in the game and risk sharing.
    7. It is much more immoral to claim virtue without fully living with its direct consequences. This will be the main topic of this chapter: exploiting virtue for image, personal gain, careers, social status, these kinds of things—and by personal gain I mean anything that does not share the downside of a negative action.
    8. No muscles without strength, friendship without trust, opinion without consequence, change without aesthetics, age without values, life without effort, water without thirst, food without nourishment, love without sacrifice, power without fairness, facts without rigor, statistics without logic, mathematics without proof, teaching without experience, politeness without warmth, values without embodiment, degrees without erudition, militarism without fortitude, progress without civilization, friendship without investment, virtue without risk, probability without ergodicity, wealth without exposure, complication without depth, fluency without content, decision without asymmetry, science without skepticism, religion without tolerance, and, most of all: nothing without skin in the game.
  2. Invert
    1. Systems learn by removing parts, via negativa.
    2. Via negativa: the principle that we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.
    3. The more robust Silver Rule says Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you. More robust? How? Why is the Silver Rule more robust? First, it tells you to mind your own business and not decide what is “good” for others. We know with much more clarity what is bad than what is good.
    4. The idea is fractal, in the sense that it works at all scales: humans, tribes, societies, groups of societies, countries, etc., assuming each one is a separate standalone unit and can deal with other counterparts as such. Just as individuals should treat others the way they would like to be treated (or avoid being mistreated), families as units should treat other families in the same way.
    5. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which I summarize as: Behave as if your action can be generalized to the behavior of everyone in all places, under all conditions.
    6. The principle of intervention, like that of healers, is first do no harm (primum non nocere); even more, we will argue, those who don’t take risks should never be involved in making decisions.
    7. Via Negativa: in theology and philosophy, the focus on what something is not, an indirect definition, deemed less prone to fallacies than via positiva. In action, it is a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do—subtraction, not addition, works better in domains with multiplicative and unpredictable side effects. In medicine, stopping someone from smoking has fewer adverse effects than giving pills and treatments.
  3. Artisans
    1. Anything you do to optimize your work, cut some corners, or squeeze more “efficiency” out of it (and out of your life) will eventually make you dislike it. Artisans have their soul in the game.
    2. Primo, artisans do things for existential reasons first, financial and commercial ones later. Their decision making is never fully financial, but it remains financial. Secundo, they have some type of “art” in their profession; they stay away from most aspects of industrialization; they combine art and business. Tertio, they put some soul in their work: they would not sell something defective or even of compromised quality because it hurts their pride. Finally, they have sacred taboos, things they would not do even if it markedly increased profitability. Compendiaria res improbitas, virtusque tarda—the villainous takes the short road, virtue the longer one. In other words, cutting corners is dishonest.
    3. Now, something very practical. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was the recommendation by a very successful (and happy) older entrepreneur, Yossi Vardi, to have no assistant. The mere presence of an assistant suspends your natural filtering—and its absence forces you to do only things you enjoy, and progressively steer your life that way. (By assistant here I exclude someone hired for a specific task, such as grading papers, helping with accounting, or watering plants; just some guardian angel overseeing all your activities). This is a via negativa approach: you want maximal free time, not maximal activity, and you can assess your own “success” according to such metric. Otherwise, you end up assisting your assistants, or being forced to “explain” how to do things, which requires more mental effort than doing the thing itself. In fact, beyond my writing and research life, this has proved to be great financial advice as I am freer, more nimble, and have a very high benchmark for doing something, while my peers have their days filled with unnecessary “meetings” and unnecessary correspondence. Having an assistant (except for the strictly necessary) removes your soul from the game.
    4. The skills at making things diverge from those at selling things.
    5. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Rabbi Hillel the Elder drawing on Leviticus 19:18.
    6. Simply: if you can’t put your soul into something, give it up and leave that stuff to someone else.
  4. Principal-Agent
    1. I have learned a lesson from my own naive experiences: Beware of the person who gives advice, telling you that a certain action on your part is “good for you” while it is also good for him, while the harm to you doesn’t directly affect him. Of course such advice is usually unsolicited. The asymmetry is when said advice applies to you but not to him
    2. So, “giving advice” as a sales pitch is fundamentally unethical—selling cannot be deemed advice. We can safely settle on that. You can give advice, or you can sell (by advertising the quality of the product), and the two need to be kept separate.
    3. Diogenes held that the seller ought to disclose as much as civil law requires. As for Antipater, he believed that everything ought to be disclosed—beyond the law—so that there was nothing that the seller knew that the buyer didn’t know. Clearly Antipater’s position is more robust—robust being invariant to time, place, situation, and color of the eyes of the participants. Take for now that The ethical is always more robust than the legal. Over time, it is the legal that should converge to the ethical, never the reverse. Hence: Laws come and go; ethics stay.
    4. Avoid taking advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless there is a penalty for their advice.
    5. Things designed by people without skin in the game tend to grow in complication (before their final collapse).
    6. There is absolutely no benefit for someone in such a position to propose something simple: when you are rewarded for perception, not results, you need to show sophistication.
  5. Scaling & Complexity
    1. Things don’t “scale” and generalize, which is why I have trouble with intellectuals talking about abstract notions. A country is not a large city, a city is not a large family, and, sorry, the world is not a large village.
    2. Today’s Roma people (aka Gypsies) have tons of strict rules of behavior toward Gypsies, and others toward the unclean non-Gypsies called payos. And, as the anthropologist David Graeber has observed, even the investment bank Goldman Sachs, known for its aggressive cupidity, acts like a communist community from within, thanks to the partnership system of governance. So we exercise our ethical rules, but there is a limit—from scaling—beyond which the rules cease to apply. It is unfortunate, but the general kills the particular.
    3. Scaling matters, I will keep repeating until I get hoarse. Putting Shiites, Christians, and Sunnis in one pot and asking them to sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire while holding hands in the name of unity and fraternity of mankind has failed.
    4. And that is what plagues socialism: people’s individual interests do not quite work well under collectivism.
    5. Groups behave differently at a different scale. This explains why the municipal is different from the national. It also explains how tribes operate: you are part of a specific group that is larger than the narrow you, but narrower than humanity in general. Critically, people share some things but not others within a specified group. And there is a protocol for dealing with the outside.
    6. A saying by the brothers Geoff and Vince Graham summarizes the ludicrousness of scale-free political universalism. I am, at the Fed level, libertarian; at the state level, Republican; at the local level, Democrat; and at the family and friends level, a socialist.
    7. The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in ways not predicted by its components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will almost never give us a clear indication of how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters are the interactions between such parts. And interactions can obey very simple rules.
    8. Human nature is not defined outside of transactions involving other humans. Remember that we do not live alone, but in packs, and almost nothing of relevance concerns a person in isolation—which is what is typically done in laboratory-style works.
    9. Groups are units on their own. There are qualitative differences between a group of ten and a group of, say, 395,435. Each is a different animal, in the literal sense, as different as a book is from an office building. When we focus on commonalities, we get confused, but, at a certain scale, things become different. Mathematically different. The higher the dimension, in other words, the higher the number of possible interactions, and the more disproportionally difficult it is to understand the macro from the micro, the general from the simple units. This disproportionate increase of computational demands is called the curse of dimensionality.
    10. Understanding how the subparts of the brain (say, neurons) work will never allow us to understand how the brain works.
    11. The underlying structure of reality matters much more than the participants,
    12. Volatile things are not necessarily risky, and the reverse is also true. Jumping from a bench would be good for you and your bones, while falling from the twenty-second floor will never be so.
  6. Antifragile
    1. Antifragile has been about the failure of the average to represent anything in the presence of nonlinearities and asymmetries similar to the minority rule. So let us go beyond: The average behavior of the market participant will not allow us to understand the general behavior of the market.
    2. What matters isn’t what a person has or doesn’t have; it is what he or she is afraid of losing. The more you have to lose, the more fragile you are.
    3. Statistics isn’t about data but distillation, rigor, and avoiding being fooled by randomness
    4. Now, crucially, time is equivalent to disorder, and resistance to the ravages of time, that is, what we gloriously call survival, is the ability to handle disorder. That which is fragile has an asymmetric response to volatility and other stressors, that is, will experience more harm than benefit from it. In probability, volatility and time are the same. The idea of fragility helped put some rigor around the notion that the only effective judge of things is time—by things we mean ideas, people, intellectual productions, car models, scientific theories, books, etc. You can’t fool Lindy: For time operates through skin in the game. Things that have survived are hinting to us ex post that they have some robustness—conditional on their being exposed to harm. For without skin in the game, via exposure to reality, the mechanism of fragility is disrupted: things may survive for no reason for a while, at some scale, then ultimately collapse, causing a lot of collateral harm.
    5. Alfonso X of Spain, nicknamed El Sabio, “the wise,” had as a maxim: Burn old logs. Drink old wine. Read old books. Keep old friends. The insightful and luckily nonacademic historian Tom Holland once commented: “The thing I most admire about the Romans was the utter contempt they were capable of showing the cult of youth.” He also wrote: “The Romans judged their political system by asking not whether it made sense but whether it worked,” which is why, while dedicating this book, I called Ron Paul a Roman among Greeks.
    6. Macroeconomics, for instance, can be nonsense since it is easier to macrobull***t than microbull***t—nobody can tell if a theory really works.
  7. Theory vs. Practice
    1. People can detect the difference between front- and back-office operators.
    2. We are much better at doing than understanding.
    3. Before we end, take some Fat Tony wisdom: always do more than you talk. And precede talk with action. For it will always remain that action without talk supersedes talk without action.
    4. If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life. And a solution to the vapid universalism we discussed in the Prologue: If your private actions do not generalize, then you cannot have general ideas.
    5. Rationality resides in what you do, not in what you think or in what you “believe” (skin in the game), and b) rationality is about survival.
    6. Your eyes are not sensors designed to capture the electromagnetic spectrum. Their job description is not to produce the most accurate scientific representation of reality; rather the most useful one for survival.
    7. Survival comes first, truth, understanding, and science later.
    8. Or as per the expression attributed to Hobbes: Primum vivere, deinde philosophari (First, live; then philosophize). This logical precedence is well understood by traders and people in the real world, as per the Warren Buffett truism “to make money you must first survive”—skin in the game again; those of us who take risks have their priorities firmer than vague textbook pseudo-rationalism.
    9. The axiom of revelation of preferences (originating with Paul Samuelson, or possibly the Semitic gods), as you recall, states the following: you will not have an idea about what people really think, what predicts people’s actions, merely by asking them—they themselves don’t necessarily know. What matters, in the end, is what they pay for goods, not what they say they “think” about them, or the various possible reasons they give you or themselves for that. If you think about it, you will see that this is a reformulation of skin in the game.
    10. It is therefore my opinion that religion exists to enforce tail risk management across generations, as its binary and unconditional rules are easy to teach and enforce. We have survived in spite of tail risks; our survival cannot be that random.
    11. How much you truly “believe” in something can be manifested only through what you are willing to risk for it.
    12. Risk and ruin are different tings. In a strategy that entails ruin, benefits never offset risks of ruin.
  8. Ergodicity
    1. Ergodicity holds when a collection of players have the same statistical properties (particularly expectation) as a single player over time. Ensemble probabilities are similar to time probabilities. Absence of ergodicity makes the risk properties not directly transferable from observed probability to the payoff of a strategy subjected to ruin (or any absorbing barrier or “uncle point”)—in other words, not probabilistically sustainable. Mediocristan:
    2. The fat tails argument: The more a system is capable of delivering large deviations, the worse under the axiom of sustainability, i.e., that “one should take risks as if you were going to do it forever,” only a logarithmic (or similar) transformation
    3. Even if their forecasts were true (they aren’t), no individual can get the same returns as the market unless he has infinite pockets and no uncle points. This is conflating ensemble probability and time probability. If the investor has to eventually reduce his exposure because of losses, or because of retirement, or because he got divorced to marry his neighbor’s wife, or because he suddenly developed a heroin addiction after his hospitalization for appendicitis, or because he changed his mind about life, his returns will be divorced from those of the market, period. Anyone who has survived in the risk-taking business more than a few years has some version of our by now familiar principle that “in order to succeed, you must first survive.” My own has been: “never cross a river if it is on average four feet deep.” I effectively organized all my life around the point that sequence matters and the presence of ruin disqualifies cost-benefit analyses; but it never hit me that the flaw in decision theory was so deep. Until out of nowhere came a paper by the physicist Ole Peters, working with the great Murray Gell-Mann. They presented a version of the difference between ensemble and time probabilities with a thought experiment similar to mine above, and showed that just about everything in social science having to do with probability is flawed. Deeply flawed. Very deeply flawed. Largely, terminally flawed. For, in the quarter millennia since an initial formulation of decision making under uncertainty by the mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, one that has since become standard, almost all people involved in the field have made the severe mistake of missing the effect of the difference between ensemble and time.*1 Everyone? Not quite: every economist maybe, but not everyone: the applied mathematicians Claude Shannon and Ed Thorp, and the physicist J. L. Kelly of the Kelly Criterion got it right. They also got it in a very simple way. The father of insurance mathematics, the Swedish applied mathematician Harald Cramér, also got the point. And, more than two decades ago, practitioners such as Mark Spitznagel and myself built our entire business careers around it. (I mysteriously got it right in my writings and when I traded and made decisions, and detect deep inside when ergodicity is violated, but I never explicitly got Peters and Gell-Mann’s mathematical structure—ergodicity is even discussed in Fooled by Randomness, two decades ago). Spitznagel and I even started an entire business to help investors eliminate uncle points so they could get the returns of the market. While I retired to do some flaneuring, Mark continued relentlessly (and successfully) at his Universa. Mark and I have been frustrated by economists who, not getting ergodicity, keep saying that worrying about the tails is “irrational.”
    4. A situation is deemed non-ergodic when observed past probabilities do not apply to future processes. There is a “stop” somewhere, an absorbing barrier that prevents people with skin in the game from emerging from it—and to which the system will invariably tend. Let us call these situations “ruin,” as there is no reversibility away from the condition. The central problem is that if there is a possibility of ruin, cost-benefit analyses are no longer possible.
    5. If you incur a tiny probability of ruin as a “one-off” risk, survive it, then do it again (another “one-off” deal), you will eventually go bust with a probability of one hundred percent. Confusion arises because it may seem that if the “one-off” risk is reasonable, then an additional one is also reasonable. This can be quantified by recognizing that the probability of ruin approaches 1 as the number of exposures to individually small risks, say one in ten thousand, increases.
    6. Another common error in the psychology literature concerns what is called “mental accounting.” The Thorp, Kelly, and Shannon school of information theory requires that, for an investment strategy to be ergodic and eventually capture the return of the market, agents increase their risks as they are winning, but contract after losses, a technique called “playing with the house money.” In practice, it is done by threshold,
    7. Let us return to the notion of “tribe.” One of the defects modern education and thinking introduces is the illusion that each one of us is a single unit. Thus, we see the point that individual ruin is not as big a deal as collective ruin. To use the ergodic framework: my death at Russian roulette is not ergodic for me but it is ergodic for the system.
    8. Every single risk you take adds up to reduce your life expectancy. Finally: Rationality is avoidance of systemic ruin.
  9. Other
    1. One debases a principle by endlessly justifying it.
    2. We retain from this first vignette that, just like Antaeus, you cannot separate knowledge from contact with the ground. Actually, you cannot separate anything from contact with the ground. And the contact with the real world is done via skin in the game—having an exposure to the real world, and paying a price for its consequences, good or bad. The abrasions of your skin guide your learning and discovery, a mechanism of organic signaling, what the Greeks called pathemata mathemata (“guide your learning through pain,” something mothers of young children know rather well).
    3. The knowledge we get by tinkering, via trial and error, experience, and the workings of time, in other words, contact with the earth, is vastly superior to that obtained through reasoning, something self-serving institutions have been very busy hiding from us.
    4. Rent-seeking is trying to use protective regulations or “rights” to derive income without adding anything to economic activity, not increasing the wealth of others.
    5. It is a filtering, nonsense-expurgating mechanism. I have no sympathy for moaning professional researchers. I for my part spent twenty-three years in a full-time, highly demanding, extremely stressful profession while studying, researching, and writing my first three books at night; it lowered (in fact, eliminated) my tolerance for career-building research.
    6. Same with real estate: most people, I am convinced, are happier in close quarters, in a real barrio-style neighborhood, where they can feel human warmth and company. But when they have big bucks they end up pressured to move into outsized, impersonal, and silent mansions, far away from neighbors. On late afternoons, the silence of these large galleries has a funereal feel to it, but without the soothing music. This is something historically rare: in the past, large mansions were teeming with servants, head-servants, butlers, cooks, assistants, maids, private tutors, impoverished cousins, horse grooms, even personal musicians. And nobody today will come to console you for having a mansion—few will realize that it is quite sad to be there on Sunday evening.
    7. If anything, being rich you need to hide your money if you want to have what I call friends. This may be known; what is less obvious is that you may also need to hide your erudition and learning. People can only be social friends if they don’t try to upstage or outsmart one another. Indeed, the classical art of conversation is to avoid any imbalance, as in Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier: people need to be equal, at least for the purpose of the conversation, otherwise it fails.
    8. This reasoning shows that sophistication can, at some level, cause degradation, what economists call “negative utility.” This tells us something about wealth and the growth of gross domestic product in society; it shows the presence of an inverted U curve with a level beyond which you get incremental harm. It is detectable only if you get rid of constructed preferences.
    9. We used to live in small communities; our reputations were directly determined by what we did—we were watched. Today, anonymity brings out the a**hole in people. So I accidentally discovered a way to change the behavior of unethical and abusive persons without verbal threat. Take their pictures. Just the act of taking their pictures is similar to holding their lives in your hands and controlling their future behavior thanks to your silence. They don’t know what you can do with it, and will live in a state of uncertainty.
    10. As far as I know, we only have one planet. So the burden is on those who pollute—or who introduce new substances in larger than usual quantities—to show a lack of tail risk. In fact, the more uncertainty about the models, the more conservative one should be. The same newspapers had lauded
    11. So true virtue lies mostly in also being nice to those who are neglected by others, the less obvious cases, those people the grand charity business tends to miss. Or people who have no friends and would like someone once in while to just call them for a chat or a cup of fresh roasted Italian-style coffee.
    12. Courage is the only virtue you cannot fake.
    13. Finally, when young people who “want to help mankind” come to me asking, “What should I do? I want to reduce poverty, save the world,” and similar noble aspirations at the macro-level, my suggestion is: 1) Never engage in virtue signaling; 2) Never engage in rent-seeking; 3) You must start a business. Put yourself on the line, start a business. Yes, take risk, and if you get rich (which is optional), spend your money generously on others. We need people to take (bounded) risks. The entire idea is to move the descendants of Homo sapiens away from the macro, away from abstract universal aims, away from the kind of social engineering that brings tail risks to society. Doing business will always help (because it brings about economic activity without large-scale risky changes in the economy); institutions (like the aid industry) may help, but they are equally likely to harm (I am being optimistic; I am certain that except for a few most do end up harming). Courage (risk taking) is the highest virtue. We need entrepreneurs.
    14. History is largely peace punctuated by wars, rather than wars punctuated by peace. The problem is that we humans are prone to the availability heuristic, by which the salient is mistaken for the statistical, and the conspicuous and emotional effect of an event makes us think it is occurring more regularly than in reality. This helps us to be prudent and careful in daily life, forcing us to add an extra layer of protection, but it does not help with scholarship.
    15. My lifetime motto is that mathematicians think in (well, precisely defined and mapped) objects and relations, jurists and legal thinkers in constructs, logicians in maximally abstract operators, and…fools in words.
    16. As Gibbon wrote: The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
    17. The main theological flaw in Pascal’s wager is that belief cannot be a free option. It entails a symmetry between what you pay and what you receive.
    18. Love without sacrifice is theft (Procrustes). This applies to any form of love, particularly the love of God.
    19. Simon formulated the notion now known as bounded rationality: we cannot possibly measure and assess everything as if we were a computer; we therefore produce, under evolutionary pressures, some shortcuts and distortions. Our knowledge of the world is fundamentally incomplete, so we need to avoid getting into unanticipated trouble. And even if our knowledge of the world were complete, it would still be computationally near-impossible to produce a precise, unbiased understanding of reality.
    20. The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival. Unlike modern theories by psychosophasters, it maps to the classical way of thinking. Anything that hinders one’s survival at an individual, collective, tribal, or general level is, to me, irrational. Hence the precautionary principle and sound risk understanding.
    21. Courage is when you sacrifice your own well-being for the sake of the survival of a layer higher than yours. Selfish courage is not courage. A foolish gambler is not committing an act of courage, especially if he is risking other people’s funds or has a family to feed.
    22. Never compare a multiplicative, systemic, and fat-tailed risk to a non-multiplicative, idiosyncratic, and thin-tailed one.
    23. Even economics is based on the notion of “revealed preferences.” What people “think” is not relevant—you want to avoid entering the mushy-soft and self-looping discipline of psychology. People’s “explanations” for what they do are just words, stories they tell themselves, not the business of proper science. What they do, on the other hand, is tangible and measurable and that’s what we should focus on.

What I got out of it

  1. Skin in the game is sharing in the outcomes and helps align behavior and incentives, mitigate principal/agent problems, and more. One of my favorite books of the year