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But What About Dr. 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.