I don’t consider myself a curmudgeon. But every now and then my System 1 takes off on a rant that is entirely irrational. It’s also subconscious so I don’t even know it’s happening.
My System 1 wants to create a continuous story of how I interact with the world. Sometimes the story unfolds rationally. I use solid evidence to create a story that flows logically from premise to conclusion.
Sometimes, however, there’s no solid evidence available. Does that stop my System 1 from concocting a story? Of course not. I simply make up a story out of whole cloth. The story may well be consistent in its internal details but may also be entirely fictional. I use it to satisfy my need for a comforting explanation of the world around me. In this regard, it’s no different from a child’s bedtime story.
Though I refer to it as System 1, it’s actually my left brain interpreter that does the work. According to Wikipedia, “…the left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. … In reconciling the past and the present, the left brain interpreter may confer a sense of comfort to a person, by providing a feeling of consistency and continuity in the world. This may in turn produce feelings of security that the person knows how “things will turn out” in the future.”
Apparently, our desire for “feelings of security” is deep and strong. So strong, in fact, that our left brain interpreter may create a “contrived” story even in the absence of facts, data, and evidence. While the interpreter often interprets things logically, it “…may also enhance the opinion of a person about themselves and produce strong biases which prevent the person from seeing themselves in the light of reality.”
How often does the interpreter create completely contrived stories? More often than you might think. In fact, my left brain interpreter took off on a flight of fancy just the other day.
Suellen and I were driving to an event at the University of Denver. We were running a few minutes late. We were on a four-lane boulevard where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. But most people drive at 40 mph because the road is broad and straight. We got stuck behind a Prius that was driving at precisely the speed limit. Here’s how my left brain interpreted the event:
Damn tree-hugger in a Prius! Thinks he’s superior to the rest of us because he’s saving the planet. He wants to keep the rest of us in line too, so he’s driving the speed limit to make sure that we behave ourselves. What a jerk! Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know it’s rush hour? What gives him the right to drive slowly?
That’s a pretty good rant. But it has nothing to do with reality. I didn’t know anything about the driver but I still created a story to connect the dots. The story followed a simple arc: he’s a jerk and I’m an innocent victim. It’s simple. It’s internally consistent. It enhances my opinion about myself. And it’s completely fictional.
How did I know that I was ranting? Because I interrupted my own train of thought. When I thought about my thinking – and brought the story into my conscious mind – I realized it was ridiculous. It wasn’t his fault that I was running late. And who, after all, was trying to break the law? Not him but me.
I was certainly thinking like a curmudgeon. I suspect that we all do from time to time. I stopped being a curmudgeon only when I realized that I needed to think about my thinking. Curmudgeons may well think primarily with their left brain interpreter. Whatever story the interpreter concocts becomes their version of reality. They don’t think about their thinking.
When we’re with someone who is lost in thought, we might say, “A penny for your thoughts.” It’s a useful phrase that often starts a meaningful conversation. We might make it more useful by altering the wording. To avoid being a curmudgeon, we need to think about our thinking. Perhaps we should simply say, “A penny for my thoughts.”
It’s a tough world out there so I start every day by reading the comics in our local newspaper. Comics and caffeine are the perfect combination to get the day started.
In our paper, the comics are in the entertainment section, which is usually either eight or twelve pages long. The comics are at the back. Last week, I pulled the entertainment section out, glanced at the first page, then flipped it open to the comics.
While I was reading my favorite comics, a random thought popped into my head: “I wonder if I could use Steven Wright’s comedy to teach any useful lessons in my critical thinking class?” Pretty random, eh?
Do you know Steven Wright? He’s an amazingly gifted comedian whose popularity probably peaked in the nineties. Elliot was a kid at the time and he and I loved to listen to Wright’s tapes. (Suellen was a bit less enthusiastic). Here are some of his famous lines:
Given Wright’s ironic paraprosdokians, it seems logical that I would think of him as a way to teach critical thinking. But why would he pop up one morning when I was enjoying my coffee and comics?
I finished the comics and closed the entertainment section. On the back page, I spotted an article announcing that Steven Wright was in town to play some local comedy clubs. I was initially dumbfounded. I hadn’t seen the article before reading the comics. How could I have known? I reached an obvious conclusion: I must have psychic powers.
While congratulating myself on my newfound powers, I turned back to the front page of the entertainment section. Then my crest fell. There, in the upper left hand corner of the front page, was a little blurb: “Steven Wright’s in town.”
I must have seen the blurb when I glanced at the front page. But it didn’t register consciously. I didn’t know that I knew it. Rather, my System 1 must have picked it up. Then, while reading the comics, System 1 passed a cryptic note to my System 2. I had been thinking about my critical thinking class. When my conscious mind got the Seven Wright cue from System 1, I coupled it with what I was already thinking.
I wasn’t psychic after all. Was it a coincidence? Not at all. Was I using ESP? Nope. It was just my System 1 taking me for a ride. Let that be a lesson to us all.
Here’s a cute little joke:
The receptionist at the doctor’s office goes running down the hallway and says, “Doctor, Doctor, there’s an invisible man in the waiting room.” The Doctor considers this information for a moment, pauses, and then says, “Tell him I can’t see him”.
It’s a cute play on a situation we’ve all faced at one time or another. We need to see a doctor but we don’t have an appointment and the doc just has no time to see us. We know how it feels. That’s part of the reason the joke is funny.
Now let’s talk about the movie playing in your head. Whenever we hear or read a story, we create a little movie in our heads to illustrate it. This is one of the reasons I like to read novels — I get to invent the pictures. I “know” what the scene should look like. When I read a line of dialogue, I imagine how the character would “sell” the line. The novel’s descriptions stimulate my internal movie-making machinery. (I often wonder what the interior movies of movie directors look like. Do Tim Burton’s internal movies look like his external movies? Wow.)
We create our internal movies without much thought. They’re good examples of our System 1 at work. The pictures arise based on our experiences and habits. We don’t inspect them for accuracy — that would be a System 2 task. (For more on our two thinking systems, click here). Though we don’t think much about the pictures, we may take action on them. If our pictures are inaccurate, our decisions are likely to be erroneous. Our internal movies could get us in trouble.
Consider the joke … and be honest. In the movie in your head, did you see the receptionist as a woman and the doctor as a man? Now go back and re-read the joke. I was careful not to give any gender clues. If you saw the receptionist as a woman and the doctor as a man (or vice-versa), it’s because of what you believe, not because of what I said. You’re reading into the situation and your interpretation may just be erroneous. Yet again, your System 1 is leading you astray.
What does this have to do with business? I’m convinced that many of our disagreements and misunderstandings in the business world stem from our pictures. Your pictures are different from mine. Diversity in an organization promotes innovation. But it also promotes what we might call “differential picture syndrome”.
So what to do? Simple. Ask people about the pictures in their heads. When you hear the term strategic reorganization, what pictures do you see in your mind’s eye? When you hear team-building exercise, what movie plays in your head? It’s a fairly simple and effective way to understand our conceptual differences and find common definitions for the terms we use. It’s simple. Just go to the movies together.
In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has an interesting example of a heuristic bias. Read the description, then answer the question.
Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.
Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?
I used this example in my critical thinking class the other night. About two-thirds of the students guessed that Steve is a librarian; one-third said he’s a farmer. As we debated Steve’s profession, the class focused exclusively on the information in the simple description.
Kahneman’s example illustrates two problems with the rules of thumb (heuristics) that are often associated with our System 1 thinking. The first is simply stereotyping. The description fits our widely held stereotype of male librarians. It’s easy to conclude that Steve fits the stereotype. Therefore, he must be a librarian.
The second problem is more subtle — what evidence do we use to draw a conclusion? In the class, no one asked for additional information. (This is partially because I encouraged them to reach a decision quickly. They did what their teacher asked them to do. Not always a good idea.) Rather they used the information that was available. This is often known as the availability bias — we make a decision based on the information that’s readily available to us. As it happens, male farmers in the United States outnumber male librarians by a ratio of about 20 to 1. If my students had asked about this, they might have concluded that Steve is probably a farmer — statistically at least.
The availability bias can get you into big trouble in business. To illustrate, I’ll draw on an example (somewhat paraphrased) from Paul Nutt’s book, Why Decisions Fail.
Peca Products is locked in a fierce competitive battle with its archrival, Frangro Enterprises. Peca has lost 4% market share over the past three quarters. Frangro has added 4% in the same period. A board member at Peca — a seasoned and respected business veteran — grows alarmed and concludes that Peca has a quality problem. She sends memos to the executive team saying, “We have to solve our quality problem and we have to do it now!” The executive team starts chasing down the quality issues.
The Peca Products executive team is falling into the availability trap. Because someone who is known to be smart and savvy and experienced says the company has a quality problem, the executives believe that the company has a quality problem. But what if it’s a customer service problem? Or a logistics problem? Peca’s executives may well be solving exactly the wrong problem. No one stopped to ask for additional information. Rather, they relied on the available information. After all, it came from a trusted source.
So, what to do? The first thing to remember in making any significant decision is to ask questions. It’s not enough to ask questions about the information you have. You also need to seek out additional information. Questioning also allows you to challenge a superior in a politically acceptable manner. Rather than saying “you’re wrong!” (and maybe getting fired), you can ask, “Why do you think that? What leads you to believe that we have a quality problem?” Proverbs says that “a gentle answer turneth away wrath”. So does an insightful question.
Remember heuristics? They’re the rules of thumb that allow us to make snap judgments, using System 1, our fast, automatic, and ever-on thinking system. They can also lead us into errors. According to psychologists there are least 17 errors that we commonly make. In previous articles, I’ve written about seven of them (click here and here). Let’s look at four more today.
Association — word association games are a lot of fun. (Actually, words are a lot of fun). But making associations and then drawing conclusions from them can get you into trouble. You say tomato and I think of the time I ate a tomato salad and got sick. I’m not going to do that again. That’s not good hygiene or good logic. The upside is that word associations can lead you to some creative thinking. You can make connections that you might otherwise have missed. And, as we all know, connections are the foundation of innovation. Just be careful about drawing conclusions.
Power differential — did you ever work for a boss with a powerful personality? Then you know something about this heuristic. Socially and politically, it may be easier to accept an argument made by a “superior authority” than it is to oppose it. It’s natural. We tend to defer to those who have more power or prestige than we do. Indeed, there’s an upside here as well. Its called group harmony. Sometimes you do need to accept your spouse’s preferences even if they differ from yours. The trick is to recognize when preferences are merely a matter of taste versus preferences that can have significant negative results. As Thomas Jefferson said, “On matters of style, swim with the current. On matters of principle, stand like a rock”.
Illusion of control — how much control do you really have over processes and people at your office? It’s probably a lot less than you think. I’ve worked with executives who think they’ve solved a problem just because they’ve given one good speech. A good speech can help but it’s usually just one step in a long chain of activities. Here’s a tip for spotting other people who have an illusion of control. They say I much more often than we. It’s poor communication and one of the worst mistakes you can make in a job interview. (Click here for more).
Loss and risk aversion — let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s not change things … we might be worse off. Why take risks? It happens that risk aversion has a much bigger influence on economic decisions than we once thought. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about our unbalanced logic when considering gain versus loss — we fear loss more than we’re attracted by gain. In general terms, the pain of a loss is about double the pleasure of a gain. So, emotionally, it takes a $200 gain to balance a $100 loss. Making 2-to-1 decisions may be good for your nerves but it often means that you’ll pass up good economic opportunities.