Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thinking, Faster than all those Slow People

I’ve been working my way through Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s compilation of decades of work exploring the ways biases and heuristics affect people’s decision-making.  It’s a fascinating book, with interesting applications to many other fields, including law, and is well worth a read.

Kahneman wants to alert his readers to the limitations of their own decision-making, in hopes that we can better understand and account for the ways we’re not quite as rational as we would like to think.  But as I read, I’m discovering a strong temptation to apply his insights in a rather different way.  Kahneman’s insights can ameliorate the cognitive dissonance I otherwise would feel when I realize that an intelligent person has very different views than I do.  To put the point slightly differently, Kahneman helps me forgive people for not understanding the world quite as well as I do.  “It’s not that they’re unintelligent, or that I’m wrong,” I can tell myself.  “Their thinking is just distorted by the (fill in the blank) bias.  Who could blame them?”

This is great!  And it can be helpful not just in professional situations, but also in personal ones.  Or at least I think it should.  But then this kind of stuff happens:

Meg (my wife): (watching HGTV) Do you think we should remodel…

Me: No.

Meg: …the upstairs bathroom to look like that?

Me: No.

Meg: It looks great.

Me: No it doesn’t.  That’s just the halo effect.

Meg: The what?

Me: The halo effect.  The designer has a strong chin, biceps three times larger than mine, and a subtle whiff of sensitive metrosexuality.  That makes you like him.  And because you like him, you like his bathroom design.  Look, it’s explained right here on page...

Meg: We’re remodeling the bathroom.

Or this:

Meg: Did you let Ethan play with my phone?

Me: Yes.

Meg: He just put it in the dog’s water dish.

Me: Well, yes, he did.

Meg: So… should we let him play with my phone?

Me: Sure.


Me: Look, you’re falling victim to hindsight bias.  Just because a bad outcome occurred doesn’t mean it was an unreasonable decision.

Pause.  Dark look.

Me: It’s explained right here on page…

Meg: Don’t you have something else to read?


So perhaps these wonderful features of Kahneman’s book (features which, I should stress again, are exactly the opposite of the effect he hopes to create) aren’t quite so wonderful. 

Nevertheless, I suspect I’m not the only one having these issues.  Kahneman’s work (often the articles he co-authored with Amos Tversky) frequently appears in legal-academic literature.  Quite often, it seems to me, it comes up when authors are explaining why other people don’t realize the failings of their policy preferences, and haven’t adopted the more enlightened view that just happens to be held by the author.  I haven’t done any sort of systematic survey, and my perception could be just a little bit of the availability effect at work.  But it still leads to an idea.  Perhaps the psychologists and behavioral economists should add one more bias to their ever-growing list.  We could call it Kahneman-Induced Bias, and it would refer to situations in which time spent with cognitive bias theory reinforces rather than reduces a reader’s reluctance to consider the possibility that he or she might be just plain wrong.

- Dave Owen

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