Much more than sufficient unto the day is the self-delusion thereof. Study of the human subject is always rewarding, but lately, scientists have showered us with revelation, making an ironclad case that what we think we know is mostly dead wrong.
Yes, you guessed it: I’m reading Daniel Kahneman’s masterwork, Thinking Fast and Slow, and if you are not yet reading it, please dive in immediately. It teaches lessons we can’t afford to overlook, as I explain below.
Kahneman’s main rhetorical device is elegant and persuasive: drawing on a richly varied and revealing body of psychological research, he explains the contrasting operations of fast and slow thinking. “System 1” refers to the rapid, intuitive, guesstimating, easily influenced mental activity that enables us to take action without having to stop and think about each step. System 1 drives the car. “System 2” refers to thought that requires conscious cognitive effort, slowing things down. System 2 does complex math problems, reads blurry type, and follows printed instructions.
The two systems engage in a perpetual dance. Lazy System 2 easily defers to System 1, which always has plenty of pep and a daredevil willingness to wing it. As a consequence, System 1’s fancy footwork often controls decisions we’d like to think of as the product of carefully considered steps. System 1 swirls stereotypes, suggestions, fragments of information, and hunches into actions that aren’t really grounded in fact.
What’s more, System 1 is pliable in the extreme. Kahneman cites studies that show how judges’ sentences are influenced by the seemingly random mention of irrelevant numbers before a sentence is pronounced; how people put more money into honor jars in the coffee room at work if the wall is decorated with a painting of watchful eyes than with one of flowers; how mentioning something in the news can create a cascade that vastly inflates its significance; how real estate experts’ valuation of houses is anchored by the asking-price and professors’ valuation of student papers is anchored by previous grades. He shows how we doggedly extrapolate investment prospects from past performance, even though that is proven to be an unreliable guide; how the students who read early and show promise in elementary school are not necessarily the the most likely to succeed; and how the sports teams that win big one year are not the best bets for a second-year triumph.
All the usual disclaimers obtain, of course: mind how much you can legitimately extrapolate from an experiment. Notice that interpretations differ regardless of how elegant a study’s conduct and results. Remember that just because most people over-rely on System 1 in many situations, we aren’t machines: the capacity for System 2’s careful choice persists, and to varying degrees, individuals use it despite System 1’s seductions.
I’m not done with the book yet, and neither is this my first encounter with cognitive research. In fact, I eat it up. Over the last few decades, the work of Kahneman and other brilliant research psychologists has drawn back the curtain of self-deception that comes as standard equipment with each human brain, revealing the biases built into our minds. Only two-thirds of the way through reading Thinking Fast and Slow, I’m already overwhelmed by its implications. It’s dawning on me that this boon to human knowledge may surpass all others, potentially engendering deep and significant improvement in social relations.
That is, if we take notice and apply what we are learning, a prospect Kahneman advocates, even as he remains deeply skeptical about our ability or willingness to execute.
Thinking Fast and Slow is full of helpful real-world applications of this knowledge, all of which come down to the same thing: cultivate self-awareness, observe the workings of our own minds, bring the errors and omissions of that nimble automaton, System 1, to consciousness, and render choice in the place of unconsidered urge.
Shout it from the rooftops, I say. As a guide to living with the large brains our species possesses, I can’t improve on it. Today, one of Kahneman’s points has been skipping circles through my mind, and I will leave you with it.
We are enduring a long, drawn-out epidemic of advice books, which make advisors rich and give readers hope so long as the pages keep turning. In the organizational milieux where I often work, this material is especially thick on the ground: experts analyze the performance of various businesses and nonprofit organizations, extrapolating principles—”best practices” is a popular and remarkably empty category that peppers such pages—and offering promises that success will follow their diligent application.
The intrinsic flaw of these works is something I’ve written about many times. Advice books are written by winners at a point in their own trajectories where triumph casts a lovely pink glow over anything they care to say. Generally, they offer commonsense advice: plan carefully, work hard, take measured risks, choose good people, and so on. The trouble is, the same principles have been applied, and just as diligently, by countless losers in the same success sweepstakes. Unless a book comes bundled with the huge dose of luck that actually leads to success—good timing, the fortuitous coincidence of helpful events beyond one’s control, the sudden appearance of opportunity—applying its advice does little to ensure the desired outcome.
By tracking these phenomena through scientific studies, Kahneman makes an even more powerful point: in this genre, there is little correlation between advice and outcome. For example, he examines the companies chosen as exemplars in Jim Collins’ mega-bestseller Built to Last, a book that contrasts more and less successful companies’ performance, then attempts to explain how to emulate the winners. Only, if you fast-forward a few years after the the time-period covered in Collins’ book, even the winners don’t win. “On average,” Kahneman writes, “the gap in corporate profitability and stock returns between the outstanding firms and the less successful firms studied in Built to Last shrank to almost nothing in the period following the study … the average gap must shrink because the original gap was due in good part to luck, which contributed both to the success of top firms and to the lagging performance of the rest.” All these works that praise winners and purport to reveal their secrets are actually snapshots of a temporary condition, masquerading as a treasure-maps.
How superstitious we are, we who regard our own culture as the apex of rationality in human history: always seeking charms against the future, credulous in direct proportion to our hopes! I wonder how many of the foundations that have invested vast sums and countless hours in the vain attempt to systematize nonprofit success have similarly gone back to tote up the results of their efforts. Look around the country right now: even major cultural institutions whose leaders faithfully followed their advice are collapsing under the weight of their own ungrounded certainty. To be sure, there are funders who drive up their averages by jettisoning grantees whose short-term results fail to generate adequate reflected glory. But in the long term, whether observing those they have rejected or those in whom they have invested, they are just as likely to have guessed wrong as right.
We can learn a great deal about ourselves through scientific research, but the truth is that we cannot scientize human endeavor, reducing the conduct of a life to a set of rules. “Best practices,” “logic models,” “theories of change” bear the same relationship to a sustainable future as the sale of indulgences in medieval Europe bore to the guarantee of a place in Paradise. If anything beyond luck can increase our chances of success, it is the cultivation of readiness and relationship. Are we skillful, intelligent, adaptable, imaginative? Do we pay attention to other people and treat them with empathy and consideration? Are we honest in our dealings? Do we have an eye out for serendipity? These are the qualities that equip us to seize luck as it passes near.
The only reliable guideline for best practices and principles worth following, so far as I am concerned, is that they are intrinsically satisfying because they instantly expand the world’s stock of harmony, connection, kindness, vision, beauty, and meaning. Follow the Golden Rule (here’s a little essay on that subject); interrogate your assumptions; question appearances; embrace an experimental spirit; make yourself available to ecstasy; accept vulnerability; have a healthy respect for the instructive power of failure; show up fully, with all that you are; and associate to the greatest extent possible with others who do the same.
I have the idea that the results of Kahneman’s and his colleagues’ research can help us slow down and clear away the fog of illusion that is blocking our ability to see what is truly important. You know those three questions I ask all the time? Who are we? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered? The rest is chatter, designed to insulate us from whatever we fear. But of course, you and I know it: the opposite of fear is embrace.
Take it from the divine Abbey Lincoln: “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” It applies to ourselves, our work, our fellow beings, this best practice that surpasses all others. “Nature Boy,” written by the first hippie, eden ahbez, who had this second thought about the lyric:
“To be loved in return, is too much of a deal, and there’s no deal in love.”
He said it should read: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just to love, and be loved.”