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Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality.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. Last time I wrote about heuristics (click here), we looked at three of the 17 different error categories: satisficing, temporizing, and availability. Let’s look at four more today.
Affect — what’s your first response? What’s your initial impression? What does your gut tell you? These are all questions about your affect heuristic — more commonly known as gut feel. System 1 usually has the first word on a decision. If you let System 1 also have the last word on the decision, you’re making an affect-based decision. It may be a good decision — or maybe not. If you want to double check the accuracy of your affect, you need to fire up System 2. People with “poor impulse control” often stick with System 1 only and don’t engage System 2.
Simulation — if it’s easy to imagine a given outcome, then it’s more likely that outcome will occur, right? Not necessarily. At least in part, it depends on how good your imagination is. Salespeople can use simulation to very good effect: “Imagine how you would feel in this new suit.” “Don’t you think it would be great to drive a car like this?” “Imagine what other people will think of you when they see you on this motorcycle!” Simulation simply invokes your imagination. If it’s easy to imagine something, you may convince yourself that it’s actually going to happen. You could be right or you could be a victim of wishful thinking. Before you make a big decision, engage System 2.
Representation — “She looks like my ex-girlfriend. Therefore, she probably acts like my ex-girlfriend.” You notice that there’s a similarity between X and Y on one dimension. Therefore, you conclude that X and Y are similar on other dimensions as well. You’re letting one dimension represent other dimensions. This is essentially a poor analogy. The similarity in one dimension has nothing to do with similarities in other dimensions. Generally, the more profound a similarity is, the more likely it is to affect other dimensions. Physical appearance is not very profound. In fact, it’s apparently only skin deep.
Us versus Them — “The Republicans like this idea. Therefore, we have to hate it.” Unfortunately, we saw a lot of this in our recent elections. In fact, politics lends itself to the us versus them heuristic — because politics often boils down to a binary choice. Politics is also about belonging. I belong to this group and, therefore, I’m opposed to that group. This is often referred to as identity politics and is driven by demonstrative (as opposed to deliberative) speeches. In warfare, the us versus them heuristic may be good leadership. After all, you have to motivate your troops against a determined enemy. In politics, on the other hand, it smacks of manipulation. Time to fire up System 2. (For my article on demonstrative and deliberative speeches, click here).
Do you see yourself in any of these heuristics? Of course you do. All of us use heuristics and we use them pretty much every day. It’s how we manage “reality”. Unfortunately, they can also trick us into mistakes in logic and judgment. As you become more aware of these heuristics, you may want to engage System 2 more frequently.
To prepare this article, I drew primarily on Peter Facione’s Think Critically. (Click here)