I’ve been reading David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. The basic idea is fairly simple: we are not alone. How we interact with each other strongly influences who we are and what we become.
Often, however, we don’t recognize just how strong those social forces are. Many of them operate at subconscious levels. Citing Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy Wilson, Brooks estimates that our minds can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given time. But we’re only aware of 40 of them, at most. Wilson writes that, “Some researchers … suggest that the unconscious mind does virtually all the work and that conscious will may be an illusion.”
Brooks compares the conscious mind to a “… general atop a platform, who sees the world from a distance…” while the unconscious mind is “…like a million little scouts.” The scouts “… maintain no distance from the environment around them, but are immersed in it.”
Brooks also cites Daniel Patrick Moynihan in writing that “… the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.”
If you think that this sounds like System 1 and System 2 that Daniel Kahneman writes about (click here), well… you’re probably right. System 1 is always on, it’s automatic, and it makes quick decisions, often without your realizing it. System 1 is the default setting. Unless System 2 intervenes, System 1 will spin merrily along, running your life. While System 1 is right most of the time, it can make systematic mistakes.
While Brooks’ writing covers similar territory, he approaches from a different angle than Kahneman. He treats not only the influence of the two systems but also the influence of others. How we behave is remarkably influenced by other people.
I expect to write more about Brooks and Kahneman and how they compare. Today, however, I’ll just summarize some interesting tidbits that I’ve picked up from Brooks.
I hope these tidbits capture your imagination. They certainly have captured mine and I’ll write a lot more about Brooks and Kahneman in the coming weeks.
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 you know how you think? It’s both simpler and more complicated than you might imagine.
It turns out that we have not one but two thinking systems. One is fast, automatic, and doesn’t require much energy. The other is slow, requires a lot of energy, and activates only when needed. Both systems are naturally good at grammar. Neither system is good at statistics.
Why do we need two systems? Because much of our life is filled with routine. Rather than using our slow, energy-hungry system to deal with routine matters, we’ve developed a fast, energy-efficient system to handle daily activities. That’s why we can drive 50 miles and not remember any of it. That’s why we can enjoy a walk in the park while our mind is in some other universe — being creative no doubt.
Notice, however, that what’s routine to one person is exotic and complicated to another. What’s routine to an airline pilot would be complicated, confusing, and downright scary to me. We train our fast, energy efficient system with our experiences. As we gain experience, more things become routine. We can do more things on auto-pilot, while turning over the creative thinking to our energy-hungry system. That may be why Earl Weaver, former manager of the Baltimore Orioles, titled his autobiography, It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts.
Psychologists have named our two thinking systems — rather prosaically — System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast and always on. You can’t tun it off. System 2 engages at various times — especially when System 1 encounters something out of the ordinary.
System 1 knows the “default” value — if everything is routine, just select the default action. To select something other than the default value, you typically need to fire up System 2. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman tells a story about parole boards in Israel. For parole judges, the default value is to deny parole. Judges have to find something positive and think through their position to approve parole. As a result, you’re much more likely to be approved for parole if your case is heard right after lunch. Immediately after eating, the judges have a lot of fuel for their brains and find it much easier to activate System 2. Thus, it’s easier to override the default position.
While System 1 is critical to our daily living, it’s also prone to specific types of errors. Indeed, psychologists have cataloged 17 different classes of System 1 errors. As we probe more deeply into critical thinking, I’ll provide an overview of all 17 and will delve more deeply into a few of the more common issues. Each time I review the list, I can recall a whole host of errors that I’ve made. Frankly, I’ll probably continue to make similar errors in the future. By understanding the types of errors I might make, however, I can check myself and maybe activate System 2 more frequently. As you read through the 17 types of System 1 errors, think about your own experiences. If you have good examples, please share them.