Thinking and Believing

Believe me—Daniel Kahneman got it right: we are more likely to find stories that support our beliefs than seek out evidence in the pursuit of truth.

Kahneman is a professor emeritus at Princeton University who wrote the best selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. His work is focused on the psychology of judgment and decision-making for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. His findings challenge the assumption of human rationality. Clearly, we are witnessing the truth of his work in today’s political fiasco: It is easier to believe than it is to think no matter how outrageous the beliefs may be. However, there can be dangerous consequences to this.

The psychological phenomenon is called confirmatory bias—the tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms beliefs while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.

The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. In the 2016 US presidential election, an unknown percentage of people believe that a totally unqualified fraud is going to ride into the White House as the Dark Knight and bring law and order to a hopelessly chaotic and violent society. The essence of the policies that would achieve this messianic mission is “Believe Me! – I can make America Great Again.“

Credit: annajasinski on Flickr |  License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Title: Bicycles, Ai Weiwei’s “Forever” exhibition, Berlin | Credit: annajasinski | Source: Flickr | LIcense: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Two of my favorite columnists wrote articles in today’s paper (NYT, 25 July 2016) addressing the Trump phenomenon in compelling fashion. Roger Cohen’s piece, entitled “Trump and the end of Truth,” begins with a quote from Tolstoy, who wrote about “epidemic suggestion” as a way to describe those moments when humanity seems gripped by a kind of mass hypnosis that no force can counter. These moments produce movements like the Crusades and World Wars I and II. Cohen suggests that choreography has become stronger than content. To me, the Republican National Convention was more like a World Wrestling Entertainment event than an opportunity to put forth substantive solutions to the challenges we are facing.

The convention was Orwellian in nature by providing a “totalitarian point of view that history is something to be created rather than learned.”[1]

The goal of the Republican “Reality Show” was to reinforce beliefs based on lies. Cohen laments that “facts are now a quaint hangover from a time of rational discourse, little annoyances easily upended.” He concludes that there is “a thirst for disruption at any cost.”

After digesting the bleak possibilities that Cohen so eloquently described, I read Paul Krugman’s perfect follow-up article, “Delusions of Chaos“, which counters Trump’s wild accusations about rampant violence overtaking our country with the actual facts about crime in America. For example, based on the evidence as measured by the murder rate, New York is now as safe as it has ever been going all the way back to the 19th century[2]. According to Gallup polls, Americans always seem to believe that crime is increasing, even when it is in fact dropping rapidly. Krugman acknowledges that

“it’s one thing to have a shaky grasp on crime statistics, but something quite different to accept a nightmare vision of American that conflicts so drastically with everyday experience.”

One could hypothesize many reasons for people accepting these lies as truth in this particular political campaign, but I want to focus on the broader issue that has plagued humans throughout history and may lead to another set of disastrous consequences in the future. If you want to learn more about the actual facts and the possible reasons re: the Trump phenomenon, read Krugman’s article. The point I want to make in this post is that believing is easier than thinking, and acting on beliefs alone results in decisions being made on flimsy fantasies instead of rigorous research.

In other words, humans are more willing to accept stupid stories than to do the work required to get to the truth.

That level of laziness always has been, always will be, and is currently the most dangerous risk we face.[3]

In my work as a consultant for organizations, I am always confronted with the disparity between what people want and what they need. While I have always pushed for what I believe they need (yes, I know I am also vulnerable to thinking my beliefs contain more truth than my clients’ beliefs), I have found most people to be more attached to what they want. For example, I have been preaching (yes, I am prone to that vice as well) that organizations need to create more collaborative and interdependent relationships. Preaching collaboration, however, is resisted by the majority of people who prefer to act independently. Being collaborative requires openness and willingness to consider different points of view. Being interdependent requires actively seeking ways to help others succeed. There is rigorous research to support the idea that collaboration and interdependence are more effective long-term strategies than acting independently. “Going it alone” doesn’t usually work out so well for anyone—think Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Mussolini.[4] So I have learned firsthand over the last 40 years that people are more likely to remain attached to what they want than be open to what they need. Unfortunately, most people want to hold onto comforting, but limiting beliefs; and, in my view, they need to challenge themselves by thinking more deeply about issues and digging for evidence.

Going back to the upcoming presidential elections, widespread support of Trump shows that people want an outsider who they think will take back the country and restore things to the way they used to be. They believe that this charismatic figure will overthrow an elitist, politically correct establishment and bring back white, male rule. What the country really needs is someone who can think collaboratively and interdependently to co-create solutions that work for everyone.[5]

What people want is exclusivity and superiority; what the world needs is inclusivity and humility.

As readers of my posts now understand well, I like scales. To me, the over-arching problem in the world is that scales have an inverse relationship to scalability. Scales enable us to imagine a range of possible outcomes and to determine the resources required to achieve levels 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale. Unfortunately, people tend to trivialize level 4 and level 5 goals (which require analysis, discrimination, and skills) and mitigate the content to level 2 through a degenerative process of reactive emotions, gross approximations, and empty concepts. If we use a scale to describe our current situation, it might look like this:

  • 5.0:      Substantive solutions based on rigorous research
  • 4.0:     Evidence based decisions to support the common good
  • 3.0:      Fact-based, rational dialogue
  • 2.0:      Belief-based confrontation and obstructionism
  • 1.0:     Bitter divisiveness and polarization based on flimsy fantasies

As you can see from the scale, the only way to get to level 3, 4, or 5 is through thinking. As long as most people cling to their beliefs, independent of how the world has changed and/or an emerging body of research would indicate, we are stuck at level 2. We can’t believe our way out of this mess. We need to think our way through.

This is not a democratic or republican issue. It is an issue that affects the whole world. As Paul Krugman wrote, “the question now is how many people are there who are determined to live in a nightmare of their own imagining.” My question is how much effort are we going to invest in thinking through our issues together instead of holding onto beliefs that have no merit in fact? I wish more people would listen to Kahneman and seek out evidence in support of the truth instead of finding stories to support their beliefs. The larger questions are always “Who do I believe?”, “What do I believe?”, and “Why do I believe it?” In this case, believe me—Vote Hillary!!

Further Reading:
[3] “The Morality of Normality,” 6/28/2016
[4] “Nietzsche, Nazis, and Now,” 12/11/2015

Also published on Medium.

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Ronny Donny
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Ronny Donny

I so wish EVERYBODY could read your posts! As usual, your comments are “right on” . I am very worried that there are way too many “believers” and not enough “thinkers”. Thanks for being you Ricky!

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[…] Yup, it’s true. America is #1 in guns per capita and not even in the top 100 in murders per capita. The NRA would have you believe that there are no problems with guns. In fact, they argue that there is an inverse relationship between guns and murder—their message is essentially, “The more guns, the less murder.” The evidence for this argument is a single statistic, isolated from its context. […]

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[…] Daniel Kahneman, tbe author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, makes the point that we are more likely to look for stories to support our beliefs (thinking fast) than we are to look deeply for evidence that leads us to truth (thinking slow). Beliefs are easy. Truth is more elusive. Skimming quickly doesn’t always translate into understanding deeply, particularly if you are skimming fake news. […]

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