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confirmation bias

Coronavirus and Critical Thinking

Let me ask you a simple question: What’s the crime rate in your neighborhood?

To answer the question, you’ll need to do a fair amount of research. You might dig through police reports, census data, city government publications, and so on. It’s a lot of work.

But our brains don’t like to work. As Daniel Kahneman writes, “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats. They can do it, but they prefer not to.”

So, instead of answering the original question, we substitute a simpler question: How much crime can I remember in my neighborhood?

If we can remember a lot of crime – if it’s top of mind — we’ll guess that our neighborhood has a high crime rate. If we can’t remember much crime, we’ll guess that we have a low crime rate. We use our memory as a proxy for reality. It’s simple and probably not wholly wrong. It’s good enough.

Let me ask you another simple question: How dangerous is coronavirus?

It’s a tough question. We can’t possibly know the “right” answer. Even the experts can’t figure it out. So, how does our mind work on a tough question like this?

First, we use our memory as a proxy for reality. How top of mind is coronavirus? How available is it to our memory? (This, as you might guess, is known as the availability bias). Our media is saturated with stories about coronavirus. We see it every day. It’s easy to recall from memory. Must be a big deal.

Second, the media will continue to focus on coronavirus for several more months (at least). In the beginning, the media focused on the disease itself. Now, the media is more likely to focus on secondary effects – travel restrictions, quarantines, etc. Soon, the media will focus on reactions to the virus. Protesters will march on Washington demanding immediate action to protect us. The media will cover it.

The media activity is known as an availability cascade. The story keeps cascading into new stories and new angles on the same old story. The cascade keeps the story top of mind. It remains easily available to us. When was the last time we had a huge availability cascade? Think back to 2014 and the Ebola crisis. Sound familiar?

Third, our minds will consider how vivid the information is. How scary is it? How creepy? We remember vicious or horrific crimes much better than we remember mundane crimes like Saturday night stickups. How vivid is coronavirus? We see pictures everyday of workers in hazmat suits. It’s vivid.

Fourth, what are other people doing? When we don’t know how to act in a given situation, we look for cues from our fellow humans. What do we see today? Pictures of empty streets and convention centers. We read that Chinatown in New York is empty of tourists. People are afraid. If they’re afraid, we probably should be, too.

Fifth, how novel is the situation? We’re much more afraid of devils we don’t know than of devils that we do know. The coronavirus – like the Ebola virus before it – is new and, therefore, unknowable. Health experts can reassure us but, deep in our heart of hearts, we know that nobody knows. We can easily imagine that it’s the worst-case scenario. It could be the end of life as we know it.

Sixth, is it controllable? We want to think that we can control the world around us. We study history because we think that knowing the past will help us control the future. If something scary is out of our control, we will spare no expense to bring it back under control. Even a small scare – like the Three Mile Island incident – can produce a huge reaction. At times, it seems that the cure may be worse than the disease.

What to do? First, let’s apply some contextual thinking – both current and historical.

  • Current context — compared to other current threats, how bad is coronavirus? As of early February 2020, coronavirus has killed slightly more than 1,100 people worldwide. This compares to 80,000 deaths from plain old ordinary flu in the 2017-2018 flu season in the United States alone.
  • Historical context – compared to previous outbreaks of novel viruses, how bad is coronavirus? Here we might compare coronavirus to Ebola and SARS. To date, coronavirus has killed more people than either Ebola or SARS. So, perhaps coronavirus is more dangerous. But let’s also remember how the stories or Ebola and SARS developed and how they ended. Both started with an outcry that led to near panic. Then the story stopped. We regained control. It’s likely that the coronavirus story will end the same way.

So, what to do? You’re much more likely to succumb to plain old ordinary flu than you are to be infected by coronavirus. So, get a flu shot. Then do what the old British posters from World War II told us all to do: Keep calm and carry on.

Delayed Intuition – How To Hire Better

On a scale of 1 – 5, is he technically proficient?

Daniel Kahneman is rightly respected for discovering and documenting any number of irrational human behaviors. Prospect theory – developed by Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky – has led to profound new insights in how we think, behave, and spend our money. Indeed, there’s a straight line from Kahneman and Tversky to the new discipline called Behavioral Economics.

In my humble opinion, however, one of Kahneman’s innovations has been overlooked. The innovation doesn’t have an agreed-upon name so I’m proposing that we call it the Kahneman Interview Technique or KIT.

The idea behind KIT is fairly simple. We all know about the confirmation bias – the tendency to attend to information that confirms what we already believe and to ignore information that doesn’t. Kahneman’s insight is that confirmation bias distorts job interviews.

Here’s how it works. When we meet a candidate for a job, we immediately form an impression. The distortion occurs because this first impression colors the rest of the interview. Our intuition might tell us, for instance, that the candidate is action-oriented. For the rest of the interview, we attend to clues that confirm this intuition and ignore those that don’t. Ultimately, we base our evaluation on our initial impressions and intuition, which may be sketchy at best. The result – as Google found – is that there is no relationship between an interviewer’s evaluation and a candidate’s actual performance.

To remove the distortion of our confirmation bias, KIT asks us to delay our intuition. How can we delay intuition? By focusing first on facts and figures. For any job, there are prerequisites for success that we can measure by asking factual questions. For instance, a salesperson might need to be: 1) well spoken; 2) observant; 3) technically proficient, and so on. An executive might need to be: 1) a critical thinker; 2) a good strategist; 3) a good talent finder, etc.

Before the interview, we prepare factual questions that probe these prerequisites. We begin the interview with facts and develop a score for each prerequisite – typically on a simple scale like 1 – 5. The idea is not to record what the interviewer thinks but rather to record what the candidate has actually done. This portion of the interview is based on facts, not perceptions.

Once we have a score for each dimension, we can take the interview in more qualitative directions. We can ask broader questions about the candidate’s worldview and philosophy. We can invite our intuition to enter the process. At the end of the process, Kahneman suggests that the interviewer close her eyes, reflect for a moment, and answer the question, How well would this candidate do in this particular job?

Kahneman and other researchers have found that the factual scores are much better predictors of success than traditional interviews. Interestingly, the concluding global evaluation is also a strong predictor, especially when compared with “first impression” predictions. In other words, delayed intuition is better at predicting job success than immediate intuition. It’s a good idea to keep in mind the next time you hire someone.

I first learned about the Kahneman Interview Technique several years ago when I read Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast And Slow. But the book is filled with so many good ideas that I forgot about the interviews. I was reminded of them recently when I listened to the 100th episode of the podcast, Hidden Brain, which features an interview with Kahneman. This article draws on both sources.

Skeptical Spectacles and the Saintliness Rule

My skeptical spectacles are on high alert.

My skeptical spectacles are on high alert.

Manti Te’o is a linebacker for Notre Dame and widely regarded as one of the best players in college football. During the past season, a story emerged that his girlfriend had leukemia and lingered near death. She died just before a big Notre Dame game. But Te’o was loyal to his teammates and played through his heartbreak to help Notre Dame win the game and go undefeated in the regular season.

It’s a great story. Unfortunately, it’s not true. The girlfriend never existed. The blogosphere has been obsessing over whether Te’o is the perpetrator or the victim of the hoax. I have a different question: why did we believe the story in the first place?

I think we were fooled by Te’o for the same reasons we were fooled by Lance Armstrong, Greg Mortenson, and Bernie Madoff. We were active participants in the deception. We wanted to believe their stories. I’m an avid cyclist and I certainly wanted to believe Armstrong’s story. What a great story it was. It gave us faith in our human ability to overcome great obstacles. So I fell prey to confirmation bias. Consciously and subconsciously, I attended to evidence that confirmed my beliefs. I ignored evidence that contradicted them. When Armstrong finally came clean, I felt he cheated me. I also realized I cheated myself. I had a double dose of regret.

Of course, there are people whose marvelous stories don’t need embellishment. Mother Teresa certainly comes to mind. She’s already beatified and seems well on her way to sainthood. Nelson Mandela was probably politically expedient from time to time but, by and large, the legend fits the man. Jackie Robinson wasn’t a perfect man but he really did do what he was famous for. (Hmm … why am I having difficulty identifying a contemporary white male to put in this category?)

So, how do we distinguish between those who claim to be saintly and those who actually are? Here’s my proposed Saintliness Rule. When a story makes someone sound saintly, put on your skeptical spectacles. Use your filters that help you suspend belief (as opposed to disbelief). Be patient, review the evidence, be doubtful. Be skeptical but not cynical. After all, there really are some saints out there.

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