Apr 072013


Note: This post will be published in the May-June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
Funny, how the cost of a ball can lead me to thoughts of the value of life itself.
Several recent books (Antifragile, The Power of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow) reflect upon the human brain and the vast amount of sensory data with which it is barraged. Even at this moment, there is nearly infinite visual, auditory, olfactory, savory and corporeal information bombarding you, and you will absorb, consciously and subconsciously, a minuscule percent. What fascinates me is how the mind can take in—by the nature in which you choose to notice— data that are disparate, incongruent, and misleading, and create what we believe is a coherent picture of the world. The question is, how often are the decisions we make, and the conclusions we draw, based on a truly accurate picture.
If I tell you that, together, a bat and ball cost $1.10, and that the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, can you tell me the cost of the ball? 10¢? Excellent! I’ll sell it to you for 10¢ because it cost half that. If the ball cost 10¢, the bat costs a dollar, which is only 90¢ more than the ball.
If I tell you the redwoods of California are less than 1200 feet tall, and then ask their average height, what would you say? Your estimate is likely much taller than if I began by suggesting instead, they are taller than 150 feet. In replicated experiments, the human brain gets “anchored” to the number first suggested and moves from there; down a small number of feet from 1200 feet or up a few from 150, suggesting answers that are closer to the anchor than to reality.
Did you know that most people, you perhaps, turn right as they enter stores? It is no coincidence the fruits and vegetables are typically the first thing you encounter. Placing healthy items in your cart as you begin your shopping allows you to feel slightly less guilty when you tuck candy and less healthy food in beside it. School cafeterias can change youthful diets simply by the placement of the menu choices.
In experiments, people who sense money in their immediate environment, become less generous in the ensuing moments. It’s true, even if we are not sure why.
All this suggests that whenever we make a decision, or draw a conclusion about the world, we should remember that our view is built on a foundation of limited, disparate information. The human mind will use that incomplete, narrow and inadequate evidence in fickle and often misleading ways.
Not long ago, I spoke with a woman who, the evening before, fell victim to a frail part of her humanity. She slipped into a very human pattern and subsequently said angry, hurtful things to her boyfriend. She knows him to be kind and loving; not at all deserving of the things she said. As a result she felt herself to be malicious and evil, and was tearfully questioning her value as a human being.
The two of us talked about what it means to be human; that everyone fails to live up to their ideals of perfection from time to time. Our brief conversation allowed us to build a relationship based on acceptance of our humanity, rather than judgment of occasional failure. When I asked her to peer more deeply into her world and see if she might find even a small bit of goodness and value, she paused and quietly admitted, “Maybe…just a little.” Then I asked if it’s possible the goodness within her is far larger than she was able to see at the moment, and the angry, worthless parts were much smaller. She paused again a bit longer this time and said “Yes, I think so.” Soon, she was eager to apologize to her boyfriend, work diligently to avoid future failures, knowing full-well that, being human nearly assures she will.
It matters little if we peer into the world, absorb limited, incongruent data, and conclude incorrectly that a ball is worth 10¢. But if we gaze into the world and find ourselves to be worth less than the majesty and radiance that existence itself bestows, it is time to reach out and find someone who can hold up a mirror that better reflects the beauty inherent in life.
See my related review of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow in the next post.
Apr 072013
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
One premise of Kahneman’s best-selling work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is that the mind operates as if it relies on two separate systems. “System 1” refers to our ability to look out into the world and draw an immediately coherent picture based on the data we take in. “System 2” is the cognitive, thoughtful ability we call into play when we realize System 1 is beyond its ability to conjure an answer. 2X2 is no problem for System 1, but 17X54 requires the aid of System 2.
Here is what gives me pause. System 2 is lazy; delighted to accept nearly any coherent picture System 1 conjures. We prefer not to think because thinking requires energy. You come home tired and the kids are fighting. System 1 will scan for immediately available data, take no more than a nanosecond to compare it to preconceived thoughts about your children and develop a picture of what happened: who did what to whom and their motivations for doing so. My father had a phrase to describe those moments… often wrong but never in doubt!
Throughout this work, the author illustrates myriad ways our brain chooses not to make decisions based on System 2’s careful consideration of relevant data. The stories we tell about how the world operates are limited at best. Kahneman says “our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
If you are a fan of, Built to Last, for example, the ability to assemble data and create a coherent picture of success is smoke and mirrors. Author of The Halo Effect, Phil Rozenzweig, concludes “stories of success and failure consistently exaggerate the impact of leadership style and management practices on firm outcomes, and thus their message is rarely useful.”
If you choose to read this work, be prepared. It is the fickle mind struggling to understand itself. You have to love the irony!