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Thinking Fast and Slow and Being a Devil’s Advocate

Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote what is considered by the NY and LA Times, Economist, and Wall Street Journal, one of the best books of 2011. In Thinking Fast and Slow

:  He uses questions to understand the brain, for example: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

The answers illustrate that we have two thinking processes operating in our brain; an intuitive process, what Kahneman calls system one.  This system is the faster of the two, highly intuitive, strongly influenced by biases, easy narratives, and emotions.  Our eyes dilate when we use the other process, system two, that is the intellectual effort expended when we calculate probabilities, untie logic knots, and contemplate complexity.

For most of human history, particularly in the west, we have believed that emotions and rational intellect were two similarly strong horses drawing the chariot of our decision making. Kahneman has turned that image on its side.  Emotions and intuition are faster, with greater endurance and a tremendous power to influence system two. There are not two similar horses.  There is just one horse, system one, and then there is a rather lazy, clever cat that tries to convince you it is another horse. Kahneman’s conclusions have profound impact on the way I grade papers, set rules and consequences for my kids, and trust my personal decisions.

In one experiment, experienced German judges were inclined to give a shoplifter a longer sentence if they had just rolled a pair of dice loaded to give a high number.  Do the numbers that come into my immediate attention (calendar dates, checkbook balances, house numbers) influence the time limits I place on plans or consequences?

In another experiment, participants were told about an imaginary young woman named Linda, who is single, outspoken and very bright, and who, as a student, was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice. The participants were then asked which was more probable:

1) Linda is a bank teller, or

2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The overwhelming response was that #2 was more probable; in other words, that given the background information furnished, “feminist bank teller” was more likely than “bank teller.” This is, of course, a blatant violation of the laws of probability. (Every feminist bank teller is a bank teller; adding a detail can only lower the probability.) Even among students with extensive training in probability (for example Stanford’s Graduate School of Business), 85 percent flunked the Linda problem. Convenient narratives lull our system two into complacency.  We humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy narratives of the past, the present and the future and believing they are true.

I share this book with a huge warning.  When you begin to start seeing your thoughts in terms of mental shortcuts and biases and Kahneman’s finding that awareness is not sufficient to overcome them, you begin to doubt your decisions. It gives you a great language to challenge your children’s decisions (“you are suffering from a framing effect”) but they use it right back and challenge yours.  The roots of our decisions remain locked in our unconscious, Thinking Fast and Slow makes this evident. It is those outside of us who can see our irrationality, as we are hard wired to be blind to our own failings.

The Catholic Church has a person titled “a devil’s advocate,” a person who comes in from outside the community for the purpose of discrediting all the facts quoted by the people biased in favor of declaring someone they love a saint. Devil’s advocates are, in the wake of revelations left from the tsunami of Kaneman’s research, absolute necessities if we are to come to rational decisions in the complexity of today’s decision making.

When do we serve as our child’s devil’s advocate?  For my part, I ask why and challenge all assumptions when I hear;

  • I am not worthy
  • I am not smart enough
  • I don’t feel welcome
  • I am afraid to lose
  • I will only fail
  • They are not worthy
  • There’s no purpose

When do you make your kids retrace their thinking?  What questions do you ask?  What information do you give them? Do they invite you as their devil’s advocate?

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  1. […] trying to understand how to motivate myself and my child to action. It was a great complement to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow reviewed last month.  The Heath’s metaphor for what Kahneman called System One and System […]

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