Knowing your limits.

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The ideology preached in many management books, especially from the USA, is that everybody can achieve nearly everything very fast. Firstly, a book not addressing everybody would not sell so well. Secondly, many potential buyers would be put off buying a book pointing out that it may take many years or even be impossible to change what should be changed, or to fulfill a wish. Finally, the ‘great man’, exemplified by the dishwasher transforming himself into a millionaire, plays a more prominent role in the Western life philosophy, especially in the USA, than that in the East. On the other hand however, nearly everybody is aware that it needs at least a decade just to lay the groundwork for a professional activity let alone to become perfect. When it comes to personal traits and habit changes it is even more complicated. Unfortunately it is much harder to learn to play the piano when you are forty; it will take much longer than starting to learn in childhood and most likely the result will be modest. Success in any area is rarely ever a question of will and determination only.
 
With this background it is not astonishing that Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ was discussed in nearly all business and management media communities during recent months. Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on human irrationality and intellectual fallibility. That Kahneman as a psychologist received the Nobel Prize for economics already indicates the wide implications of his work. Together with Amos Tversky he demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we think much less than we think we do. Our judgment and decision making is deeply imprinted by biases and heuristics operating below the level of conscious reflection. If you intend to buy a movie ticket for $10 and at the counter notice that some minutes ago you had lost $10 from your pocket, you would buy the ticket anyway. However, if you lose the ticket itself, the probability that you buy another one is low. When people have the choice between receiving $1000 for certain or receiving $2500 with only a 50% probability the majority choose the former. However, if the choice is between losing $1000 with certainty versus losing $2500 with a 50% probability the majority prefers the latter. These examples demonstrate that our reasoning does not follow the logic of mathematical probabilities but is human. As humans we see in the lost ticket a ‘bad sign’ or ‘double investment’ and when it comes to gaining money we prefer to be on the safe side but when it comes to losing it we might engage in statistically unreasonable risk taking behavior.
 
Kahneman and others argue that our judgments are based on the interaction of two evaluative systems. ‘System I’ is based on the fast, automatic and intuitive application of acquired associations and metaphors without intentional control. ‘System II’ consists of our slow, effortful and mostly conscious cognitive operations. A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Your immediate response from System I may be ten cents. If you think about it carefully, the correct answer would be five cents.
 
In our daily lives we operate primarily on System I. We have to because we need its speed. If you had to plan every day ahead in detail it would never get started. Fortunately we have frames for the situations to come, routines for everyday tasks and schemata to categorize old and new events and people. Heuristics help us to get along with novelties, and biases tune our judgments. The price for the speed is accuracy. Consequently, System I may generously override problems which become noticeable only on second sight. Kahneman has become prominent by pointing out its limitations.
 
System II takes over when System I fails to respond successfully. One might simplify this by adding ‘nearly only’ because System II is troublesome and very limited in its capacity. It is a system we do not like to employ much. That we have to fall back on System II indicates that a real problem needs to be solved, or a barrier has to be overcome for which our routines and experiences are insufficient. We become aware of how difficult that often is. Thinking requires effort. It reminds us of the possibilities of human error and wakes up the pessimist in us. While System I in its fast efficiency gives us the illusion of mastering the world, System II reminds us that there are unknowns and uncertainties in this world and some of them cannot be tackled by analysis. In fact, as in the examples above, thinking may help to come to a better or the correct solution. However, these are comparably simple problems; most private problems are complex and have a multivalent emotional structure. Many professional problems address a space we know we cannot predict accurately, the future.
 
 A proverb influenced by the eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi advises ‘Go with the flow’. Most activities we really enjoy in life are flow experiences, situations in which System I works at its best and System II can rest. The perfect flow experiences give us a positive continuous joyful feeling of mastery and keep worries at bay.
 
Such perfect flow experiences are rare events, and overall we prefer to, and can, spend most of our life in System I where its error tolerance makes our life a fairly happy one. In most situations Daniel Kahneman and colleagues are not around to point out that we may be wrong. We will continue to believe that fund managers can beat the indexes and that the purchase of a self help book will really help. The fundamental problem is that we also try to explain ourselves out of System II. We create our ‘self’ by conscious reflection. However, in this construction we tend to ignore that what we will actually do is determined primarily by System I. This explains many phenomena from the failure of premonitions to differences in social perception.
 
The ‘dual system theory’ is obviously a bit pessimistic especially since there seems to be no escape from System I. Kahneman, certainly aware of his own findings, has repeatedly told stories about how he fell into this systems trap. With this background the possible way out is not to change yourself but change the situations with which you are confronted. Of course there will always be a ‘need for speed’ in professional and private lives, but many situations can be restructured to become less pressing. In the ‘discovery of slowness’ the two systems will find more balance. To read the great book by Stan Nadolny who coined the term may be a good start.