While reading The Art of Thinking Clearly(aff. link), about the myriad ways we all engage in fuzzy thinking, don’t be fooled by the short and seemingly simple chapters. This is not a quick read and perhaps it is best spread out piece-by-piece over a few months and shared with others for discussion. After all, our attention spans are short and we each have only so many thinking units to spend each day.
While the author provides multiple, brief examples of each of the 99 (yikes) cognitive biases that we all have to some degree, perhaps the best exercise is to figure out our own practical real life examples to make sense of the concepts.
Mr. Dobelli invites us to engage in a sort or “cognitive humility” that is a process of recognizing our own tendencies, with the goal of making better choices. This process has the potential to improve both personal experiences and business life. To be clear, not everything Mr. Dobelli presents is to be taken entirely to heart, or to brain; he chose what to focus on in his book, but we each can discern our own weak points. Here is a sampling of three biases as they may apply to business practices.
Chapter 5 – Why You Should Forget the Past: Sunk Cost Fallacy
Mr. Dobelli uses the example of he and his wife being at a terrible movie and he wants to leave early, whereas she wants to stay because they paid for it. And on a large scale, he cites the Concorde – Britain and France both continued to invest in the supersonic aircraft business, despite losing enormously, because national pride was at stake among other factors, over a period of 30 years. Another historical example could be a war that went on much too long.
For a small and agile business, there are many opportunities to practice “the art of letting go.”
Whether it’s a clunky, expensive system, an employee who simply isn’t a good fit, or a project that is more of a distraction and attention dilution than a success — a breakup may be in order. According to the clear thinking method Mr. Dobelli proposes, the costs incurred to date don’t matter – only an assessment of future benefits should factor into strategic planning.
Chapter 25 – The Calamity of Conformity: Groupthink
In his MOOC, Scaling Up without Screwing Up, Stanford business professor Huggy Rao emphasized that scaling debacles happen because of silence, because of what is unsaid in the organization. This might be due to groupthink – the tendency to maintain like-minded comradery at all costs and to keep dissenting viewpoints hushed.
“Question tacit assumptions, even if you risk expulsion from the warm nest.”
One of Mr. Dobelli’s examples is the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba under the Kennedy administration. This was a humiliating cluster “fug” (term thanks to Huggy Rao!) brought on by a dangerous trifecta of psychological traits exhibited among President Kennedy and his advisors: a false belief in invincibility, an illusion of unanimity, and fear of being the naysayer who ends up banished from the group. On a small and personal scale, when honesty trumps popularity, more success may come our way.
Chapter 96 – Drawing the Bull’s-Eye around the Arrow: Cherry Picking
In our attempts to create a cozy level of groupthink, we may tend to emphasize the evidence that we deem to be the most important, while downplaying information and perspectives that contradict our beliefs. This shows in the images that we share on social media, whether they are cause-motivated or the personal brand we cultivate. This is not to dismiss the genuine sharing and connections we seek with one another, but it is an awareness check.
“Anecdotes are a particularly tricky sort of cherry picking.”
In a recent episode of The Daily Show, there is a clip of a politician telling an “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of…” story to further his agenda. Cut to a goofy manufactured graphic of the politician as a burly and folksy “Anecdote Man!” and Jon Stewart’s trademark wry face.
There you have it: Jon Stewart and his team, cherry picking images and examples of cherry pickers!
We all indulge in selective bias because it can make for more compelling stories and we are trying to convince others of something.
Thinking about our biases from time to time is a solid practice and holds us accountable to our communities and ourselves.