By on September 22, 2016

Nassim Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has authored a series of books he labels Incerto, that Amazon tells us is “an investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand.” The best known work in the series is “The Black Swan,” which teaches that highly improbable things happen frequently. His most recent work is “Antifragile,” which explains how successful systems deal with the random disorder of reality.

A recent essay by Taleb on Medium talks about how a small minority* of just 3 or 4 percent of a greater population can force accommodations by the majority. Taleb uses a broad range of examples — business, cultural, political, religious and culinary — to make the point that if a minority is large enough and intransigent enough in its needs or wants, that what it wants in specific doesn’t really matter to the majority, that minority’s wishes will prevail.

What does this have to do with cars? How many customers really want an illuminated vanity mirror in their sun visor?

Using the examples of kosher or halal food, there are maybe 15 million Jews and Muslims in the United States, less than 5 percent of the total population — and not all Jews keep a kosher diet nor do all Muslims only eat halal.

While I happen to care very much that all of Hershey’s candy products made in Hershey, PA, are kosher, there are hundreds of millions of Americans who don’t care one way or another. The cost of paying for rabbinic supervision and certification that the products are kosher is relatively minimal when amortized over their entire production. However, it wouldn’t make financial sense to produce and inventory two different Zero bars, one certified as kosher and one without the little symbol on the package.

So I get to buy a kosher candy bar, more than 70 percent of the lamb meat imported to the UK from New Zealand is halal, and my son — my only son, Moshe, whom I love — was just able to buy his wife a nice refrigerator that comes with Sabbath mode, even though the vast majority of consumers don’t care about any of those things.

Paul Elio, the founder of startup Elio Motors doesn’t wear makeup so he has no need for a lighted mirror in his car. He knows, however, that about half of his potential customers do wear makeup and he wants to offer a lighted mirror as an option on the Elio trike. To offer that option, or something like a heated seat, it’s cheaper over the long run to make a single version of the wiring harness that has all the connectors needed for potential options than it is to make multiple variants of said harness and make sure you install the correct harness in the correct car. On a multi-thousand dollar purchase, most consumers don’t care if there is two or three hundred dollars worth of infrastructure they don’t know about.

Taleb even brings up the automobile industry. He says:

Another example: do not think that the spread of automatic shifting cars is necessarily due to the majority of drivers initially preferring automatic; it can just be because those who can drive manual shifts can always drive automatic, but the reciprocal is not true

Once you have a critical mass of 3–4 percent, that can be enough to shift a market — or a culture. As it happens, there happened to be huge customer demand for automatic transmissions before they were widely available because way more than 4 percent of the population had trouble shifting a manual transmission — including the guy who ran GM, Alfred Sloan. Taleb’s point perhaps unintentionally ignores the fact that “the majority of drivers” wasn’t the same as “the majority of consumers.” Before automatics, by definition, 100 percent of drivers could shift a manual. However, the quick acceptance of the automatic (I’ll have to check Aaron Severson’s Ate Up With Motor, but I think Oldsmobile had a 92-percent take rate a year or two after their its Hydramatic was introduced) and today’s almost complete dominance of automatic transmissions supports Taleb’s point. Driving an automatic inconveniences no stick shift enthusiast, at least from a practical standpoint.

Since the majority of drivers today cannot drive a stick shift, manual transmission fans may exceed 4 percent of the driving population, but since what they like does affect other drivers, they don’t have the leverage that Taleb’s intransigent minorities have, so the manual transmission is likely going away. Stick shift enthusiasts are on the wrong side of Taleb’s theory: what they want or need indeed impacts the general population and companies have to manufacture and inventory variants that are more expensive than making everything the same. Car companies have many incentives to discontinue manual transmissions.

Taleb’s theory can apply to option packages. Not everyone wants feature A, but enough people do that it’s a factor in some purchases, transactions that would be profitable. Not everyone wants feature B etc. Manufacturing and stocking individual variants is expensive, so if you want navigation, you’re going to have to get a lighted vanity mirror.

* Taleb uses the word “minority” in its original definition, a subset of a larger population, not a politically correct term for racial, ethnic, or religious groups.

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68 Comments on “Nassim Taleb Explains How Minorities* Dictate You Purchasing a Lighted Vanity Mirror...”


  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    “Not everyone wants feature A, but enough people do that it’s a factor in some purchases, transactions that would be profitable”

    Hence the electronic lock in the Spark.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    This issue with this, as it relates to automobiles, is when offered the take rate of manuals has to be at least 3% else they would have been eliminated years ago. Yet, the manual still faces a slow extinction despite the dictating minority.

    • 0 avatar
      ...m...

      …likely because the end purchasers are dissociated from the manufacturers by dealerships…

    • 0 avatar

      The point is this: every manual driver can operate an automatic-transmission car. Not all automatic drivers can operate a manual-transmission car. So, when 3-4% of drivers /need/ an automatic because they cannot drive a manual, the automatic wins out, even though only a minority /needs/ it. Manual drivers are not being disadvantaged by the proliferation of an automatic transmission.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        they’re really being disadvantaged by the fact that most people drive out of necessity and not desire, and a clutch pedal with gear shift is just an additional needless hassle.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Ah but this contradicts the premise of the article.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        That is why car dealerships down rate manual transmissions on trade in. They can sell an automatic to virtually anyone. Why have a product on the lot that only 4% will want?

        • 0 avatar
          cognoscenti

          On the private party open market, this can be reversed. Certain models with manual transmissions (think: Jack’s Accord) are sought out and sell for a premium. Right now, I’m shopping for a 2011 BMW E90 M3 with a manual transmission and Competition Package. Do you know how many of them came to the United States? 335. Meanwhile, there are thousands of models with flappy paddles available. You can bet your checkbook that I will end up overpaying.

  • avatar
    319583076

    The cognitive dissonance in this article is giving me a headache.

  • avatar
    ...m...

    …but, like, my cars don’t have lighted vanity mirrors…

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      If you drive and buy ten year old used cars that were anything but top of the line models, you won’t find the lighted mirror. In a few years, even ten year old base models will have them.

      Air conditioning, power steering and brakes, remote side mirrors, and electric windows are all pretty much standard, even in places like the northeast, where air conditioning was unwanted.

      It’s cheaper to build with all the “popular” options as standard – that’s the way Japanese automakers made inroads in the American market. Some items like ABS pretty much require power assisted brakes.

      Now the start/stop button to replace the ignition key, once considered a luxury item, is becoming standard. I hate it because I nearly got into an accident in one of GM’s faulty engine mount cars, but avoided it by simply turning off the engine with the ignition key. Hold down the button for three seconds in a panic situation doesn’t work.

      The problem I see is that the increased complexity is going to kill the “keep the car for 10-15 years” strategy. The repair expense is going to send even Chevrolets to the junkyard with perfectly good bodies and drivetrains, just like BMWs and Mercedes.

  • avatar

    The ideas presented above make some sense, except when what the minority wants is in direct opposition to the majority.

    I have no use for a sunroof or moon roof (I find the flickering light from overhead distracting), but I think every car I’ve owned since 1987 has had one. If you want a higher trim level, the better radio, leather seats, bigger engine, or whatever, you’re getting the roof opening whether you want it or not. Most people want them, and people like me will put up with them by just no using them.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      That’s kind of the point of the article. If you keep the sunshade closed, you’ll never see the flickering, and you’re not inconvenienced. (Headroom for tall people in small cars with sunroofs may be a different matter.)

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        Do you lose any headroom in cars designed to have a pano glass roof, versus just the sunroof, or a solid roof?

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          Yes, because the infrastructure needed for the sunshade takes up some space. Tall people will notice it at the sides of the pano roof (which has a much smaller opening inside than you would think from seeing the outside).

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I think the only pano roof car I’ve been in was a new ES350. And in that I was too busy noticing the poor quality of the door cards and buttons to notice any roof issues.

          • 0 avatar
            Kyree S. Williams

            No, not in my experience, and we’ve owned four cars with panoramic sunroofs, a 2012 Sonata, a 2014 Jetta SportWagen, a 2015 Golf SportWagen and a 2011 BMW X5.

            The tracks for the sunroof and the sunshade are pretty much unobtrusive, and the sunshade rolls up at the rear of the car.

            What you do lose is a sunglasses holder in the overhead area, just ahead of the rearview mirror, since that’s typically where the electric motor for the sunroof is.

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          Yes – being ridiculously long-waisted, this is something I am painfully aware of. A sunroof is a sunroof, with the rare exception of those that open over the top, they all decrease headroom by an inch or two. The panoramic sunroofs are longer, but they are not usually any wider, so the edge of the roof is usually directly over the center of the drivers skull. I guess a McLaren with a center driving seat would have more headroom with a sunroof though!

  • avatar
    ArialATOMV8

    The downside of this strategy is that it limits our posibilities.

    Due to the US importation 25 year rule, Americans are limited on what is offered. For example, a few of my friends would love a brand new UTE. However, due to our importation restrictions, and the fact that Americans dislike UTE’s (Remember the Baja?) their preference cannot be met in this market. By the time their 25 year old car is eligible for importation, it’s age, cost to maintain, and value would definitely not be practical for a DD.

    Because of this are we all going to be stuck with the same type of car, a grey Toyota Camry that is autonomous? No but, our ability to express yourself is limited.

  • avatar

    At some point, you need to include things in cars as it is expected, and the cost for the lit vanity mirror is minor compared to the 40-50k you are asking for the car.

    I never cared about the vanity mirror, but as someone who “does the suit” for work, it is helpful for that last tie straighten or hair check….and I’m a typical boy, could usually care less.

    The vanity mirror would only be a problem if missing. Mama gets into prospective purchase, sees no mirror, this could cause a sale / no sale, and for the $2 it costs….better not to lose a sale.

    Managers ordering cars is why we get ten shades of silver, autoboxes only, and no sport packages on the lot. Look at any Euro maker’s home pages…you get a thousand colors, and a lot more engine-trans options. Want a baby blue VW manual ? A honda in Green, manual, with a big engine….no problem in the Euro style custom build world…you just need to wait, which is totally different from the I need a car TODAY and we expect a $40k machine to be there just waiting.

    • 0 avatar
      garuda

      If you could care less, then why don’t you?

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        By now, we all know the expression “could care less” actually means “couldn’t care less.” Let’s not be pedantic…

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          But how did it get that way in the first place?

          • 0 avatar
            Kyree S. Williams

            There are three theories I’ve heard for that. The first is that “I could care less”, especially when said incredulously, is a sarcastic way to say “I couldn’t care less.”

            The second is that “I could care less” is actually a response to “No one could care less than I”. Because if someone said that, you might respond. “Actually, *I* could care less (than you or anyone).”

            The third and most-likely scenario, is that enough people used the expression without thinking that the words were easily swapped and it came to be known as meaning the same thing either way.

            The “improper” form is even in a Beyoncé song…”Single Ladies”:

            I got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips
            Hold me tighter than my Deréon jeans
            Acting up, drink in my cup
            I could care less what you think…

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I always thought she said “Wearing my very own jeans.”

            It went along well with the independence theme!

          • 0 avatar
            Kyree S. Williams

            I routinely butcher song lyrics in my head, so I had to look it up way back when.

            There is some praise-dance song my mother used to listen to called Shackles, wherein the first line of the chorus is “Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance.”

            I, in my infinite wisdom, thought the song was saying, “Take a shotgun to my feet so I can dance.”

            I mean, it makes sense, right? If someone took a shotgun to your feet, you’d dance (in pain).

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            You dance real good when you’re bleedin!

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      you don’t have to buy off the lot, you know. you *can* special order a car. if a dealer gives you stick about it, find another dealer.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        Nice choice of words.

        Of course, when ordering a car, you can often lose out on inventory deals, but some automakers (BMW and Audi in particular) lend themselves to ordering cars and will make it as easy as possible.

        Contrast that with the European model, where buyers travel to the dealership and see a few examples of a particular model, but then have to place an order and wait for their new car…and pay more.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    ” Driving an automatic inconveniences no stick shift enthusiast, at least from a practical standpoint.”

    listening to them whine about it, you’d think it was tantamount to being waterboarded.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    This gets weirder when the difference between a model with feature X and one without that feature is just a software patch.

  • avatar
    VoGo

    There are vehicles that sell in sufficient quantity that the manufacturer can offer a good deal of customization. Take the Honda Accord, for example. While other manufacturers of competing midsize sedans have stopped offering manual transmissions (MT), the Accord continues to. The sales that Honda gets from the MT crowd may be relatively small – in the tens of thousands, but it is additive. Most of these people would get a Mazda6 or other competitor if Honda didn’t make a stick.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      Honda can offer a few sticks because they struggle with CAFE less than most. When manual cars are tested for fuel economy, the shift points are the ones chosen in 1973, while automatics shift when they’re programmed to. As a result, manuals are in low gears far too long to compete with automatics at rated fuel economy, even if they get better mileage in the real world. That’s the missing factor killing manuals.

  • avatar
    kosmo

    I don’t agree with all of Taleb’s claims, but his writings REALLY make you think. He’s worth a read, even if it’s just a “Look Inside” on Amazon’s website.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Actually, Taleb’s “Black Swan” says quite the opposite. Improbable events are actually quite rare, but when they do occur, he posits that they can have a very large effect. On the bell curve, he calls these extremes “fat tails”, outliers at either end of the curve. Such events can be for good or ill. But their infrequency and unpredictability can loom large. One example he might site is the global financial meltdown of 2008.

  • avatar
    mikedt

    I’d argue that the number of people who want a lighted vanity mirror is not small. The number of males who want a lighted vanity mirror might be pretty small (I can go days at a time without looking at myself), but it’s probably safe to say the majority of women drivers find that light highly desirable.

    Not too long ago only the passenger seat got the light, then auto companies came to the realization that women drive/buy cars too. Now the light is on both sides.

    “Minorities” had nothing to do with this.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The Europeans use regulations to keep the manual transmission alive, as a driver who passes the driver test with an automatic is issued a license that is restricted to automatics only. That won’t be changing anytime soon.

    Of course, the US is different, so this won’t impact most of what is sold in the US. But there are enough other markets in the world that Americans won’t be able to kill off the manual, either.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Well *I* want an illuminated vanity mirror in my sunvisors!

    Right before I hop out of the car somewhere I use it to make sure there’s no Beech-Nut or Grizzly on the front of my dentures!

    I hardly think I’m alone in this.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Oh come on, you can do better than this. The headline asserts that only a minority of buyers of vehicles with lighted vanity mirrors actually want that feature, but then you provide no support for that argument.

    I know this is just a snarky automotive blog site, but a bit more intellectual rigor would still be nice.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      That was my thought.

      No lighted vanity mirror would be a deal-breaker for any woman I’ve ever been with. And I’m not sure I’ve ever had a car without one (at least on the passenger side), going back to my middle-trim ’87 Taurus — I don’t know where this idea is coming from that it’s a new feature.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    Always nice to see a Ronnie Schreiber article. But it’s confusing to bring the example of manual/automatic transmissions into this. Pch101 rightly indicates that global regulations and tastes have a role in determining the availability of that feature.

    However, this article does cause me to mourn the soon-to-be extinct manual window. And I never knew about Sabbath mode! (sounds like a chord progression in death metal)

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      In Costa Rica in 2012 I saw very few cars with automatic transmissions. But I also saw exactly one American car in the week I was there. Therefore I’m not sure what effect any worldwide preference for manual transmissions has on their availability in the United States with the additional hassles manufacturers have to go through to sell vehicles in this market.

  • avatar
    DevilsRotary86

    A few points:

    “What does this have to do with cars? How many customers really want an illuminated vanity mirror in their sun visor?”

    Jesus, my mother. I think the first thing she said when she saw my wife’s ’07 Fit was “why doesn’t the passenger side have a vanity mirror? Couldn’t you have found a car with one?” Mom, we liked this car and didn’t care about the lack of mirror.

    “was just able to buy his wife a nice refrigerator that comes with Sabbath mode”

    You actually made me google what a refrigerator with Sabbath mode was. I had no idea.

    Now for the subject at hand directly. I drive manual transmission cars. I have never bought anything other than a manual transmission car in almost 20 years. Yes, I can drive an automatic transmission car, but I don’t want to and I certainly wouldn’t pay money for it. They are all generally awful. The only Automatic Transmission that I thought was decent was VW’s DSG. Other than that exception they are all infuriating to drive. I am on the wrong side of Mr. Taleb’s theory, and I don’t care. It’s my money I am spending; I will get what I want.

    Hypothetically if all cars are automatic then the car becomes nothing more than a tool to get a job done; nothing more or less. I will simply buy whatever tool is most cost effective. I guess that would probably be a lightly used Toyota Prius C. I guess I could commute with Uber too. I would just have to find a new hobby. Disappointing, but I would live.

    But thankfully that hypothetical world doesn’t exist yet. I have a new Mustang with a manual (I know, won’t shut up about it). I know that manuals will become increasingly rare in the future so I know what I need to do. Take good care of the Mustang and make it last for decades if possible.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      I like Mustang, so you have at least one person willing to listen. :)

      If all manuals really go away, and it’s hard for me to imagine Mustang or Miata or MINI not to offer one, that would be my cue to get an electric car.

      • 0 avatar
        DevilsRotary86

        ” it’s hard for me to imagine Mustang or Miata or MINI not to offer one”

        It’s hard to imagine, but they eventually won’t offer manual, or the model will be discontinued.

        Mustang, MINI, Corvette, Miata, Wrangler. Mark my words, one of those 5 will be the last car to offer a proper manual transmission.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Type carefully – the edit function is acting up.

  • avatar

    The big difference between lighted mirrors and Kosher/Halal food is that while most people might not buy a car based on the light-up sunvisor mirror, it’s still something lots of them will use and find useful. Unless you are an observant Jew/Muslim, Kosher/Halal food confers no benefit.

    On the subject of mirrors, my previous vehicle – a 2006 Ranger – had no mirror on the driver’s side and a (non-lit) one on the passenger side. I guess they assumed that the truck would be driven by men who didn’t care about their looks, but their female passengers would. While I’m not particularly vain, mostly because I resemble a Furby, it’s nice to be able to make sure I don’t have any food in my beard every now and then.

  • avatar
    tommytipover

    drives a manual transmission equipped car with un-lighted vanity mirror and proud of it!

  • avatar
    George B

    Never underestimate market power of the tiny minority of people who women who won the genetic lottery, keep in good physical shape, and are in the narrow age range of peak attractiveness. Whole civilizations are build based on the competition among men to enjoy sex with this small part of the population. Therefore, cars will have lighted vanity mirrors, leather seats, and the prestigious badge if men perceive a competitive advantage in buying those features. Human males are like bowerbirds. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowerbird

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I have a manual transmission with no lighted vanity mirror in my old S-10 but my other vehicles have automatics and heated seats. I don’t mind the lighted vanity mirror or even the power windows and locks as much as the disappearance of the manual transmission. I have become less interested in most vehicles since most of them look about the same and many lack styling. Maybe that is a good thing. Many of the lowest trim models have standard features that were optional years ago.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I beg to differ on the wiring harness idea. Today, if you don’t have the option, you probably don’t have the wiring for it either. Copper is expensive today, and ultimately with JIT inventory and delivery the cost of producing multiple different harnesses is the suppliers dilemma, not the car makers. The build process is probably all but totally automated too, so they just leave off what the car THAT harness is going into doesn’t have.

    In the 90s it sure was true though – my ’95 Land Rover is a zero option super base model truck, even has a stickshift. But the wiring is there for every single thing it didn’t come with, from heated power seats to fog lights to rear A/C to Homelink to sunroofs, even the light that would light up the auto tranny selector wire and connector is there! Must be 10lbs of extra copper in that thing. Has made it easy to add back in a few things.


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