I like to write about the irrational nature of human thinking because it reminds me that I don’t have all the answers figured out, and it reminds me that I often make decisions that feel like the best decision in the moment, but likely isn’t the best decision if I were to step back to be more considerate. Daniel Kahneman writes about instances where we fail to be rational actors in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, and his examples have helped me better understand my own thinking process and the context in which I make decisions that feel logically consistent, but likely fall short of being truly rational.
In one example, Kahneman describes humans as narrow framers, failing to take multiple outcomes into consideration and focusing instead on a limited set of salient possibilities. He writes, “Imagine a longer list of 5 simple (binary) decisions to be considered simultaneously. The broad (comprehensive) frame consists of a single choice with 32 options. Narrow framing will yield a sequence of 5 simple choices. The sequence of 5 choices will be one of the 32 options of the broad frame. Will it be the best? Perhaps, but not very likely. A rational agent will of course engage in broad framing, but Humans are by nature narrow framers.”
In the book Kahneman writes that we think sequentially and address problems only as they arise. We don’t have the mental capacity to hold numerous outcomes (even simple binary outcomes) in our mind simultaneously and make predictions on how the world will respond to each outcome. If we map out decisions and create tables, charts, and diagrams then we have a chance of making rational decisions with complex information, but if we don’t outsource the information to a computer or to pen and paper, then we are going to make narrow short-term choices. We will consider a simple set of outcomes and discount other combinations of outcomes that we don’t expect. In general, we will progress one outcome at a time, reacting to the world and making choices individually as the situation changes, rather than making long-term decisions before a problem has arisen.
Deep thinking about complex systems is hard and our brains default toward lower energy and lower effort decision-making. We only engage our logical and calculating System 2 part of the brain when it is needed, and even then, we only engage it for one problem at a time with a limited set of information that we can easily observe about the world. This means that our thinking tends to focus on the present, without full consideration of the future consequences of our actions and decisions. It also means that our thinking is limited and doesn’t contain the full set of our data that might be necessary for making accurate and rational choices or predictions. When necessary, we build processes, systems, and structures to help our minds be more rational, but that requires getting information out of our heads, and outsourcing the effort to technologies beyond the brain, otherwise our System 2 will be bogged down and overwhelmed by the complexity of the information in the world around us.
Yesterday I wrote about our tendency to view situations and decisions in the world as binary, and how the reality of the world is often more complex and nuanced than our decision making structures would suggest. Michael Bungay Stanier offers a way to get beyond binary views in his book The Coaching Habit. His solution is simply to ask the question, “And what else?” to get new ideas flowing and to break out of the simple this-or-that mentality that so many of us often stumble through.
In his book he writes, “…What would happen if you added just one more option: Should we do this? or This? or not? The results were startling. Having at least one more option lowered he failure rate by almost half, down to about 30 percent.
When you use, “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.”
As almost everything in Bungay Stanier’s book, his advice and research is geared around professional and business coaching situations, but the takeaways can be expanded upon and used in more areas of life. His research shows that businesses perform much better when they consider a third option and are willing to look beyond the binary perspective. It is reasonable to think that other areas of our life would improve if we became better at recognizing when we were in a binary mindset and asked ourselves if there was a different option or even if we didn’t have to make a decision at all. When we start to become more comfortable with slightly larger perspectives, by making a choice between three options rather than just two, we start to see that the world has more possibilities than we originally recognized, and we start to be able to live a little more flexibly. Recognizing that our vision is limited, especially if we only give ourselves two possibilities for how the world is shaped, is key for growth and learning. Asking what else is a first step to challenge our thoughts and begin to expand our worldview.
One of the things I try hard to stay away from is believing that any given situation is ever just a binary — a this or that, one thing or the other, situation. There is a lot of nuance in our lives and in almost any situation we have multiple options available to us that often exist on a continuum. Very rarely in our life is something either a yes or no decision and very rarely can anything be defined as a purely either/or option. Whether it is parenting styles, diets, exercise, politics, or cooking, we almost always live somewhere in a middle place defined by lots of gray. But this makes life complex, and our brain likes finding patterns, so we tend to reduce things to binaries to create simpler realities for our minds to sort out.
Michael Bungay Stanier looks at what this tendency of ours leads to in the world of business in his book The Coaching Habit and references research from Chip and Dan Heath in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Their research looked at a business study from Paul Nutt who found that 71 percent of organizational decisions within a company were treated as binary, either this or that decisions. In the world of business, where a company needs to be competitive and make strategic decisions toward the future, nearly three fourths of all decisions were approached simply yes or no questions, cutting out middle ground options and narrowing the choices and potential alternatives available to managers and leadership. Bungay Stanier continues to quote the research from Nutt in Chip and Dan Heath’s book by saying that teenagers make decisions based on binaries at roughly equivalent levels.
To make better decisions in our lives we have to recognize that the world is not black and white. Someone is not either good or evil. Any given thing is never 100% perfect or terrible and we need to approach the world with much more nuance for real decisions, actions, and outcomes to make sense. If we fail to make broader considerations and look at more options, then we limit the possibilities around ourselves. Our decision making will be reduced if we chose to see the world and our next steps as either/or decisions and we won’t develop an accurate picture of the world around us. This is a challenging way to approach the world, and we sound less sure of ourselves, but we develop a more reasonable and compassionate view of other people and events in the world when we can live with more nuance and avoid the temptation to reduce everything to binaries.