Like so many teenagers, I once believed that “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” I could take control, think for myself, and guide my own destiny.
It’s a wonderful thought and I really want to believe it’s true. But I keep finding more and more hidden persuaders that manipulate our thinking in unseen ways. In some cases, we manipulate ourselves by mis-framing a situation. In other cases, other people do the work for us.
Consider these situations and ask yourself: Are you the boss of you?
In The Century of the Self, a British video documentary, Adam Curtis argues that we were hopelessly manipulated in the 20th century by slick followers of Freud who invented public relations. Of course, video is our most emotional and least logical medium. So perhaps Curtis is manipulating us to believe that we’ve been manipulated. It’s food for thought.
(The Century of the Self consists of four one-hour documentaries produced for the BBC. You can watch the first one, Happiness Machines, by clicking here).
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. It’s 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.
Do generals commit adultery more often than, say, elementary school teachers?
The way we answer this question says a lot about the way we think. If you’ve been reading about American generals recently, you know that a lot of top ranking officers have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. The facts are easily available to you. You can recall them quickly. Indeed, they’re very likely top of mind. (One of my students asked, in mock horror, since when have generals taken orders from their privates?)
On the other hand, when was the last time you read about cheating primary school teachers? It’s probably been a long time, if ever. Why? Because stories about cheating teachers don’t sell many newspapers. Stories about cheating generals seize our attention and hold it. It’s a great way to sell newspapers, magazines, and TV shows.
So, it’s easy for you to remember stories about cheating generals. It’s much harder to remember stories about cheating teachers. Based on your ability to remember relevant cases, you might conclude that generals do indeed stray more often than teachers. Would you be right? Maybe … but maybe not. All you’ve really done is search your own memory banks. As we all know, memory is fallible and can easily play tricks on us.
When we’re asked a comparative question like generals versus teachers, we often try to answer a different question: how many cases of each can I readily recall? It’s an easier question to answer and doesn’t require us to search external sources and think hard thoughts. Though it’s easy, it’s often erroneous.
I think I saw this phenomenon in action during the recent presidential election. My friends who supported Obama tended to talk to other people who supported Obama. If you asked how many people would support Obama, they could readily retrieve many cases and conclude that Obama would win. Of course, my friends who supported Romney were doing exactly the same thing — talking with or listening to other Romney supporters. I heard one person say, “Of course Romney will win. Everybody hates Obama”. I suspect that everybody he talked to hated Obama. But that’s not the same as everybody.
Relying on easily available information can help create the political chasms that we see around us. If you read a lot of articles about intransigent Republicans, you may conclude that Republicans are more intransigent than Democrats. That may be true … or it could just be a product of what you remember. Similarly, if you read lots of articles about Democrats undercutting the military, you might come to believe …. well, you get the picture.
What should we do? First, remember that the easy answer is often the wrong answer. It depends on what we remember rather than what’s actually happening. Second, start reading more sources that “disagree” with your point of view. All information sources have some degree of bias. Reading widely can help you establish a balance. Third, study up on statistics. It will help you understand what’s accurate and what’s not.
By the way, this post is adapted from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, easily the best book I’ve read this year. You can find it here.
(Note: I’ll teach a class on Applied Critical Thinking during the winter term at the University of Denver. Some of my teaching material will show up here in posts about how we think. They’ll all carry the tag, Applied Critical Thinking, so you can find them easily).