Daniel Kahneman is not very hopeful when it comes to our ability to avoid cognitive errors. Toward the end of his book Thinking Fast and Slow, a book all about cognitive errors, predictable biases, and situations in which we can recognize such biases and thinking errors, Kahneman isn’t so sure there is much we can actually do in our lives to improve our thinking.
Regarding his own thinking, Kahneman writes, “little can be achieved without considerable effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”
Kahneman’s book is fantastic in part because of his humility. It would be easy to take a book on illusions, cognitive errors, biases, and predictable fallacies and use it to show how much smarter you are than everyone else who makes such thinking mistakes. However, Kahneman uses his own real life examples throughout the book to show how common and easy it is to fall into ways of thinking that don’t actually reflect reality. What is unfortunate though, is how hard it is to actually take what you learn from the book and apply it to your own life. If the author himself can hardly improve his own thinking, then those of us who read the book likely won’t make big changes in our thinking either.
“The upshot is that it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors,” Kahneman continues. While we might not be able to improve our thinking simply by knowing about cognitive errors and being aware of predictable biases, we can at least recognize them in others. This can help us be more thoughtful when we critique or gossip about others (something we all do even if we claim we don’t).
Beyond improving the way we gossip or judge others, Kahneman’s research and his book are incredibly valuable for anyone who is in a design focused role. If you are creating a layout for a webpage, a seating arrangement at a restaurant, or the standard operating procedures for a company, you have an opportunity to design and develop a process and flow that takes cognitive errors and predictable biases into account. Because it is easier to observe others making mistakes than to observe those mistakes in ourselves, we can watch for situations where people are led astray, and help get them back on course. We can develop systems and structures that take our biases and cognitive errors into account, and minimize the damage they may do. We can set the world up to help guide us in a reasonable way through our cognitive errors and biases, but only if we know what to look for.