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But What About Dr. Freud?

Freud had strong notions about these distortions. There are creatures in the black lagoon of the unconscious and these creatures reveal a tentacle from time to time, or an exhilarating swirl in the dark waters. Symptoms indicate their presence—a joke that falls flat because it is surprisingly aggressive, a sudden melancholy on your birthday. Bringing those creatures to light was Freud’s idea of mental health. On Planet Kahneman you won’t find Freud, though. Suffering isn’t derived from emotion, but from routine failures of judgment.

When you check off and give names to bias in decisions, the mind doesn’t need therapy; it needs hacking. The primary tools of hacking are skepticism and data gathering. The particular problem is to take real world data into account. Meditation offers a similar effect, because when we meditate our prejudices can fall away and our capacity to notice increases. This might include more realism about outcomes.

Unwarranted Optimism About Outcomes

Distortions come into play in any situations in which we make plans or scenarios of the future. Such situations always have a high degree of uncertainty. They might include: getting married, buying a car, buying earthquake insurance, electing a president, invading a foreign country, taking up meditation, and finding the meaning of life.

We are astonishingly poor at predicting outcomes for all these decisions. For example, did your financial analyst predict the housing market crash? Mine didn’t either. I remember old men telling me, between moments of coughing, that when they volunteered for the First World War in August 1914, everyone said it would be over by Christmas. The Iraq War? I read predictions that crowds would throw flowers at U.S. troops. Overconfidence is the usual way countries go to war. There is now some discussion about whether to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.

Unwarranted optimism about outcomes means not only that we are poor at predicting, we are poor at being wary about our predictions. This is because of the illusion of understanding. We like a good story and choose data that confirms the story. This also means we keep our financial adviser even though he lost us a lot of money. Here is another heuristic:

The Halo Effect

Once I was brought in to work with a school district. The district was well funded with talented teachers and a solid board, but it was in turmoil. Teachers were isolated from each other and some had fallen into writing nasty anonymous letters to other teachers. Secretaries were gleefully withholding supplies from teachers they didn’t like. It wasn’t clear whether bringing me in was a sign of desperation or merely evidence that no one was at the helm.

When I had lunch with the superintendent he looked the way a leader should look—an ex-physical education teacher, tall, attractive, like a well-dressed cowboy. He spoke gravely and with conviction and made occasions feel dignified. He wasn’t focused on education or leadership, though. He trusted his gut, meaning that he didn’t consult on initiatives, and major decisions had to be remade. He told different stories to different people. But he was very good at looking like a leader.

We all have a mental set, a bias about what a leader might look like, and if someone fits it well, we are reluctant to check it out. Kahneman calls this particular bias a halo effect. One feature that’s easily available to us (looks like a leader) affects our estimation of other abilities that are harder to assess (knows how to lead). We could find the data to check such abilities but we often don’t. Our impression has become ours, like a purchase, and we don’t want to surrender it.

When the situation in that school system became clear it started to correct itself. This is what meditation and inquiry hope to bring about—more reality. Nothing happened except that information was shared, then the teachers became unified, the board grew more curious, and gradually the ship righted itself.

The virtue of inquiry is that it comes up with questions like, “Even though he looks great, what does he think about education and does he know how to listen?” Inquiry tests our initial impressions and Kahneman is a strong advocate for it. This deconstructive approach is one of the things that makes Buddhism popular among those who want to understand the mind without believing things offensive to reason.


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