What you see is all there is, WYSIATI, is one of the problems you have. It’s one of the problems we all have. It has to do with the way the brain shows too strong a preference for information available in the immediate environment over information not in the immediate environment. Ever been stuck in a meeting where you are trying to to generate ideas and the same things keep popping up? That’s just our brains spinning their wheels in the immediate environment. It’s one of the heuristic techniques our brains are prone to rely on. It’s one–one of many–of our foibles as a species. And the fact that we keep running meetings in the same way suggests that we have a desperate need to become more aware of it.
But we probably won’t.
Daniel Kahneman has been researching the way way people think and make decisions for years. As a young officer in the Israeli Defense Forces armed with a fresh B.Sc. in psychology, he screened recruits for officer training using the leaderless group challenge. As they struggled under the hot sun to complete some sort of task involving getting over a barrier, he watched them and took notes on the performance of the individuals. He checked boxes and gave high ratings to kids who took charge and organized their fellow soldiers. But the artificial nature of the test, and the fact that all ratings were based on one observation made him suspicious of the limitations–or more correctly, the tendencies, the bad habits–of our minds. As a rater, he began to suspect how powerful WYSIATI is and how it muscles aside any doubts of how things could be with the same recruits on a different day. For a while he was very happy and very confident with his ratings. But that confidence itself made him suspicious. He began to see it an an illusion, an illusion of validity the mind presents us with. It is seductive because hey, we’re busy and we’ve got an important job to do. We let our brains go with their little shortcuts. We avoid the hard work, the hard thinking. This was the first of many illusions he uncovered or encountered in his career and he goes through his experiences with each one in delightful and insightful detail.
It has been a long and illustrious career (including a Nobel prize), and the amount of research and discovery here is impressive. This book is more than just a pop psychology best seller. There really is a lifetime of wisdom here and you would be well to read it. A lot of the content has been covered elsewhere, that’s true (see my reviews of The Invisible Gorilla and Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, for example, or take a look at You are Not So Smart by David McRaney). But I don’t know of any book that is as comprehensive as this one in explaining our limitations. In a series of five units he covers a lot of ground and a lot of years of research. He introduces us to the two thinking systems of the brain, the fast, automatic System 1 and the slow, careful, and reluctant (lazy) System 2. In the second part, he talks about the ease with which some thinking occurs (metaphorical thinking, associative thinking, and causality) and why it is so difficult for us to think in different ways (statistically, for example). In the third part, he really dresses humanity down. Our bad habits, ignorance, and unwarranted overconfidence get addressed nicely and this section is great fun to read. Later sections take the book in a different direction–economics. I found them to be less engaging than the earlier parts after a while, with the exception of the part about the experiencing self and the remembering self near the end, which is also the topic of a TED talk he made in 2010.
As a teacher and as a human I found a lot to think about here. Awareness of the tendencies we have is really our only weapon against the habits of our thinking processes. Each chapter ends with little lines of dialog, little bits of wisdom or little rules for being diligent. Print them out and pin them all over your cubicle or kitchen. It might be ultimately a little hopeless, but there are much much worse ways to make use of paper. This book will convince you of that.