Stoicism in Thinking Fast and Slow

Stoicism in Thinking Fast and Slow

“We spend much of our day anticipating, and trying to avoid, the emotional pains we inflict on ourselves,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. “How seriously should we take these intangible outcomes, the self-administered punishments (and occasional rewards) that we experience as we score our lives?”

 

Kahneman’s point is that emotions such as regret greatly influence the decisions we make. We are so afraid of loss that we go out of our way to minimize risk, to the point where we may be limiting ourselves so much that we experience costs that are actually greater than the potential loss we wanted to avoid. Kahneman is pointing to something that stoic thinkers, dating back to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, addressed – our ability to be captured by our emotions and effectively held hostage by fears of the future and pain from the past.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble – which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.” I think Kahneman would agree with Seneca’s mindset. In his book, Kahneman write that we should accept some level of risk and some level of regret in our lives. We know we will face regret if we experience some type of failure. We can prepare for regret and accept it without having to ruin our lives by taking every possible precaution to try to avoid the potential for failure, pain, and loss. It is inevitable that we are going to lose loved ones and have unfortunate accidents. We can’t prepare and shield ourselves from every danger, unless we want to completely withdrawal from all that makes us human.

 

Ryan Holiday wrote about the importance of feeling and accepting our emotions in his book The Obstacle is the Way. He wrote, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” Kahneman would also agree with Holiday and Taleb. Econs, the term Kahneman and other economists use to refer to theoretical humans who act purely rationally, are not pulled by emotions and cognitive biases. However, Econs are not human. We experience emotions when investments don’t pan out, when bets go the wrong way, and when we face multiple choices and are unsure if we truly made the best decision. We have to live with our emotions and the weight of failure or poor investments. Somehow, we have to work with these emotions and learn to continue even though we know things can go wrong. Holiday would suggest that we must be present, but acknowledge that things wont always go well and learn to recognize and express emotions in a healthy way when things don’t go well.

 

Kahneman continues, “Perhaps the most useful is to be explicit about the anticipation of regret. If you can remember when things go badly that you considered the possibility of regret carefully before deciding, you are less likely to experience less of it.” In this way, our emotions can be tools to help us make more thoughtful decisions, rather than anchors we are tethered to and hopelessly unable to escape. A thoughtful consideration of emotions, a return to the present moment, and acceptance of the different emotions we may feel after a decision are all helpful in allowing us to live and exist with some level of risk, some level of uncertainty, and some less of loss. These are ideas that stoic thinkers wrote about frequently, and they show up for Kahneman when he considers how we should live with our mental biases and cognitive errors.
Imagining Success Versus Anticipating Failure

Imagining Success Versus Anticipating Failure

I am guilty of not spending enough time planning what to do when things don’t work out the way I want. I have written in the past about the importance of planning for failure and adversity, but like many others, I find it hard to do and hard to get myself to sit down and think seriously about how my plans and projects may fail. Planning for resilience is incredibly important, but so many of us never get around to it. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, helps us understand why we fail to plan for failure.

 

He writes, “The successful execution of a plan is specific and easy to imagine when one tries to forecast the outcome of a project. In contrast, the alternative of failure is diffuse, because there are innumerable ways for things to go wrong.”

 

Recently, I have written a lot about the fact that our minds understand the world not by accumulating facts, understanding data, and analyzing nuanced information, but by constructing coherent narratives. The less we know and the more simplistic the information we work with, the more coherent our narratives of the world can be. When we have less uncertainty, our narrative flows more easily, feels more believable, and is more comforting to our mind. When we descend into the particular, examine complexity, and weigh competing and conflicting information, we have to balance substantial cognitive dissonance with our prior beliefs, our desired outcomes, and our expectations. This is hard and uncomfortable work, and as Kahneman points out, a problem when we try to anticipate failures and roadblocks.

 

It is easy to project forward how our perfect plan will be executed. It is much harder to identify how different potential failure points can interact and bring the whole thing crashing down. For large and complex systems and processes, there can be so many obstacles that this process can feel entirely overwhelming and disconnected from reality. Nevertheless, it is important that we get outside of our comfortable narrative of success and at least examine a few of the most likely mistakes and obstacles that we can anticipate. Any time that we spend planning ways to get the ship back on course if something goes wrong will pay off in the future when things do go wrong. Its not easy because it is mentally challenging and nebulous, but if we can get ourselves to focus on the likelihood of failure rather than the certainty of success, we will have a better chance of getting to where we want to be and overcoming the obstacles we will face along the way.