Affect Heuristics

More on Affect Heuristics

For me, one of the easiest examples of heuristics that Daniel Kahneman shares in his book Thinking Fast and Slow is the affect heuristic. It is a bias that I know I fall into all the time, and that has led me to buy particular brands of shoes, has influenced how I think about certain foods, and has shaped the way I think about people. In his book Kahenman writes, “The affect heuristic is an instances of substitution, in which the answer to an easy question (How do I feel about it?) serves as an answer to a much harder question (What do I think About it?).”

 

The world is a complex and tricky place, and we can only focus a lot of attention in one direction at a time. For a lot of us, that means we are focused on getting kids ready for school, cooking dinner, or trying to keep the house clean. Trying to fully understand the benefits and drawbacks of a social media platform, a new traffic pattern, or how to invest in retirement may seem important, but it can be hard to find the time and mental energy to focus on a complex topic and organize our thoughts in a logical and coherent manner. Nevertheless, we are likely to be presented with situations where we have to make decisions about what level of social media is appropriate for our children, offer comments on new traffic patterns around the water cooler, or finally get around to setting up our retirement plan and deciding what to do with that old 401K from that job we left.

 

Without having adequate time, energy, and attention to think through these difficult decisions, we have to make choices and are asked to have an opinion on topics we are not very informed about. “The affect heuristic”, Kahneman writes, “simplifies our lives by creating a world that is much tidier than reality. Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy.” We substitute the hard question that requires detailed thought for a simple question: do I like social media, did I feel that the new traffic pattern made my commute slower, do I like the way my retirement savings advisor presented a new investment strategy. In each case, we rely on affect, our emotional reaction to something, and make decisions in line with our gut feelings. Of course my kid can use social media, I’m on it, I like it, and I want to see what they are posting. Ugh, that new traffic pattern is awful, what were they thinking putting that utility box where it blocks the view of the intersection. Obviously this is the best investment strategy for me, my advisor was able to explain it well and I liked it when they told me I was making a smart decision.

 

We don’t notice when we default to the affect heuristic. It is hard to recognize that we have shifted away from making detailed calculations to rely solely on intuitions about how something makes us feel. Rather than admitting that we buy Nike shoes because our favorite basketball player wears them, and we want to be like LeBron, we create a story in our head about the quality of the shoes, the innovative design, and the complementary colors. We fall back on a quick set of factors that gives the impression of a thoughtful decision. In a lot of situations, we probably can’t do much better than the affect heuristic, but it is worth considering if our decisions are really being driven by affect. We might be able to avoid buying things just out of brand loyalty, and we might be a little calmer and reasonable in debates and arguments with friends and family when we realize we are acting on affect and not on reason.
Mood, Creativity, & Cognitive Errors

Mood, Creativity, & Cognitive Errors

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman comments on research studying people’s mood and cognitive performance. He writes the following about how we think when we are in a good mood, “when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.”

 

We think differently when we are in different moods. When we are relaxed and happy, our minds are more creative and our intuitions tend to be more accurate. Kahneman suggests that when we are happy and when we don’t sense threats, our rational and logical part of the brain lets up, allowing our mind to flow more freely. When we are not worried about our safety, our mind doesn’t have to examine and interrogate everything in our environment as thoroughly, hence the tendency toward logical errors. A sense of threat activates our deep thinking, making us more logical, but also diminishing the capacity of our intuitive thinking and making us less creative, less willing to take risks with our ideas and thoughts.

 

The research from Kahneman about mood, creativity, and cognitive errors reminds me of the research Daniel Pink shares in his book When. Pink finds that we tend to be more creative in the afternoons, once our affect has recovered from the afternoon trough when we all need a nap. Once our mood has improved toward the end of the day, Pink suggest that we are more creative. Our minds are able to return to important cognitive work, but are still easily distracted, allowing for more creative thinking.  This seems to tie in with the research from Kahneman. We become more relaxed, and are willing to let ideas flow across the logical boundaries that had previously separated ideas and categories of thought in our minds.

 

It is important that we think about our mood and the tasks we have at hand. If we need to do creative work, we should save it for the afternoon, when our moods improve and we have more capacity for drawing on previously disconnected thoughts and ideas in new ways. We shouldn’t try to cram work that requires logical coherence into times when we are happy and bubbly, our minds simply won’t be operating in the right way to handle the task. When we do work is as important as the mood we bring to work, and both the when and the mood may seriously impact the output.
Performance and Mood

Performance and Mood

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic, but it comes at a time when companies are starting to radically re-think the work environments they set up for their employees. I worked for a time for a tech company based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, and saw first hand the changing thoughts in how companies relate to their employees. Every day wasn’t a party, but companies like the one I worked for were beginning to recognize how important a healthy, happy, and agreeable workforce is to productivity and good outcomes as whole. The pandemic has forced companies to think even more deeply about these things, and some blend of remote and office work schedules will likely remain for a huge number of employees. Hopefully, we will walk away from the pandemic with workplaces that better align with the demands placed on people today, and hopefully we will be more happy in our work environments.

 

Research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggest that adapting workplaces to better accommodate employees and help them be more happy with their work could have huge positive impacts for our futures. Regarding tests for intuitive accuracy, Kahneman shares the following about people’s performance on tests and their mood:

 

“Putting participants in a good mood before the test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy. An even more striking result is that unhappy subjects were completely incapable of performing the intuitive task accurately; their guesses were no better than random.”

 

Our mood impacts our thoughts and our thinking processes. When we are happy, we are better at making intuitive connections and associations. If we need to be productive, accurate, and intuitive, then we better have an environment that supports a relatively high level of happiness.

 

If our work environment does the opposite, if we are overwhelmed by stress and must deal with toxic culture issues, then it is likely that we will be less accurate with our tasks. We won’t perform as well, and those who depend on our work will receive sub-par products.

 

There is likely a self-perpetuating effect with both scenarios. A happy person is likely to perform better, and they will likely be praised for their good outcomes, improving their happiness and reinforcing their good work. But someone who is unhappy will likely have poor performance and is more likely to be reprimanded, leading to more unhappiness and continued unsatisfactory performance. For these reasons it is important that companies take steps to help put their employees in a good mood while working. This requires more than motivational posters, it requires real relationships and inclusion in important decisions around the workspace. In the long run, boosting mood among employees can have a huge impact, especially if the good results reinforce more positive feeling and continued high quality output. Changing work schedules and locations as forced upon employers by the pandemic can provide an opportunity for employers to think about the demands they place on employees, and what they can do to ensure their employees have healthy, safe workplaces that encourage positive moods and productivity.

Economics Suggests We Should Change Our Routines

Dan Pink looks at earnings calls for major companies in his book When. It turns out, for major companies reporting earnings on conference calls, scheduling for the early morning is best. Pink writes, “afternoon calls were more negative, irritable, and combative than morning calls.”

 

In the book, Pink explores how we react to the day and behave at different times. There are points where we are more and less likely to be energetic, alert, and focused, and times when we are more likely to be lethargic, irritable, and distracted. The takeaway from his research is that we should organize and schedule our days so that we are engaged when we need to be, handling the right tasks at the right time for our brain, and adjusting our schedules to fit our current states of being. Doing so would be a radical shift in how we think about the way we work.

 

We are still stuck in an economic model of jobs that better fits industrial assembly lines than knowledge work. When you needed someone on an assembly line pushing a button to make widgets, then it made sense to have 8 hour (or longer) shifts throughout the entire day to ensure that the factory could produce widgets. However, in a world where our output is dependent on our brain power, this model doesn’t work so well. Having someone work more hours doesn’t equate to more output. Additionally, if performance substantially declines during the day or if performance and behavior experiences wild shifts as we become hungry and tired, then we could have negative productivity. This is part of what is being explained by Pink with the earnings calls above.

 

Right before lunch and in the afternoon, the quality of calls was worse. People were less optimistic, less happy about the business, and company share prices were likely to take a hit. Our  bodies were overwhelming our rational brain power and hurting the companies. “Economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution.” What we need to do is recognize how our brains work and how they respond to the world so that we can organize our shifts and schedules in ways that actually help economic performance and productivity. As it is now, we have people work through long stretches where their brains are simply not primed for good economic productivity, and then we suffer with poor output. Rather than taking advantage of the natural cycles of the human brain and productivity to do good work, we push people to slug through the day and feel miserable about their low performance. Everyone is worse off in this system, but we could change it by better aligning our schedules with our circadian rhythms and body-clocks.

Peak, Trough, Rebound

Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing includes a lot of interesting information about time, how we think about time, and about how humans and our societies interact with time. The book is one of the books I recommend the most because it includes a lot of interesting ideas that Pink does a good job of combining in ways that can really help with productivity and organizing one’s day. We all deal with time and never have enough of it, and Pink helps us think about how to best manage and use our time.

 

One interesting study that Pink shares has to do with mood and affect throughout the day. A study of twitter showed a striking pattern among people across the globe. For most people, excluding night owls, we tend to have our peak of the day about 3 to 4 hours after we wake up. From there, we slowly trend downward until we hit the middle of our trough in the mid-afternoon. But, we rebound and our mood and affect improve in the late evening. Pink writes, “Across continents and time zones, as predictable as the ocean tides, was the same daily oscillation – a peak, a trough, and a rebound. Beneath the surface of our everyday life is a hidden pattern: crucial, unexpected, and revealing.”

 

The study Pink references shows that we are not simply continuously in the same mood and attitude throughout the day. We have a point where we are at our zenith, and best able to tackle the challenges that come at us. However, our energy drains, and our mood and attentiveness diminish. We become irritable and easily distracted, and we can see this happen through the adjectives and emotion included in people’s social media posts. Through breaks, and the end of the workday, however, our energy levels come back and we rebound, becoming happier and more creative. We get through the low part of our day and can be functioning human beings again. This isn’t just something that we sometimes feel, it is a clear pattern that is common to humans across the globe.

 

What I find so interesting about Pink’s book and why I have recommended it so much is that timing is everything for us. So much of our lives is impacted by the way we relate to time, but very few of us ever think about it. There are patterns all around us relating to time, but usually these patterns are hidden and unknown to us. When we look at them and understand them, we can start to adjust our days and how we schedule things that we do.

 

I find it incredible that we can look at people on twitter, and see their mood based on the adjectives and words used in their posts. What is even more incredible, is that we can watch the mood and attitude of a region change through a day, and change in a rhythmic pattern. If we want to be effective, and want to help others to be effective, we should think about these patterns and organize our days and activities in a way that corresponds to these patterns. I have tried to do that in my life, and find it helpful to set up my day so that I am doing particular activities in line with the peak, trough, rebound flow of my days. Timing is important, and should be a purposeful part of our days.