Taken for Granted
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Hey, WorkLife, it's Adam Grant, season four is right around the corner, but today I wanted to share a special conversation in our Taken for Granted series. I'm talking to Daniel Kahneman. Danny won a Nobel Prize in economics. He's been named one of the most influential economists in the world, but he's not on board with that. Oh, my God, no. The behavioral economist. I'm not any kind of economist. Danny is one of the great psychologists of our time, actually, of all time. You may have read his influential book, Thinking Fast and Slow. And he has a new book, Noise, coming out later this spring with Cass Sunstein and Olivier Sebti from. This is taken for granted by podcast with the TED Audio Collective, I'm an organizational psychologist, my job is to think again about how we work, lead and live. This conversation with Danny challenged one of my core beliefs about intuition. It also gave me a new way of thinking about which ideas are worth pursuing. Since Danny is an expert on decision making, I thought I'd start by asking about what we're seeking in so many of our decisions. You've spent a lot of your career studying happiness and related topics. And really, for the first time in my career, I started to wonder why are we so obsessed with happiness as psychologists? You know, I'm all for people leading enjoyable, satisfying lives. But if I had to choose, I would much rather have people focus on character and, you know, trying to build their generosity, their integrity, their commitment to justice, their humility. And I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about whether you think we've lost our way a bit and character has been too little in focus or too far in the background or whether you think happiness deserves the attention it's gotten? Well, I think my focus would be neither happiness nor character. It would be misery. And I think that there is a task for society to reduce misery, not to increase happiness. And when you think of reducing misery, you would be led into very different policy directions. You would be led into mental health issues. You would be led into a lot of other problems. So reducing misery would be my focus. Character and happiness or misery are not substitutes. The idea which has been accepted both in the UK and in many other places, other than quite a few other countries by now, is that the objective of society? The objective of policy should be increasing human welfare or human well-being in a in a general way. I think that's a better objective for policy than increasing the quality of the population's character. I think it's a better objective. I think it's it's a more achievable objective, except I would not focus on the positive and I would focus on the negative. And I would say it is the responsibility of society to try to reduce misery. And let's focus on that. We speak of length and not the shortness and we speak of happiness, the dimension is labeled by its positive poll. And that's very unfortunate because actually increasing happiness and reducing misery are very different things. I agree. And it's interesting to hear you say that reducing misery is more important than promoting happiness. In some ways, that feels like a critique of the positive psychology movement. It is. And tell me a little bit more about why. Well, I think the positive psychology movement has in some ways a deeply conservative position. That is, it says let's accept people's condition as it is and let's make people feel better about their unchanging condition. You know, there has been some critique of positive psychology along those lines. I'm not I'm not innovating here. But I think that focusing on changing circumstances and dealing directly with misery is more important and is a worthy objective for society than making people feel better about their situation. Yeah, I mean, I think it certainly tracks with how I think about, in general, bad being stronger than good and the alleviation of misery contributing more to the quality of people's lives than, you know, some degree of elevating of of the amount of joy that they feel. But I also wonder at times if this is not a false dichotomy, that if you want to make people happy, it's awfully difficult to do that if you don't pay attention to the misery or suffering that they might experience. Well. Actually, we once did a study in which we we were measuring how people figure, how much of the day are people in different states positive or negative? And it turns out that people are in a positive state on average, 80 percent of the time, more than 80 percent of the time. That is on average, people are on the positive side of zero. Now, look at, say, the 10 percent of the time that people spend suffering. Overall, most of the suffering is concentrated in about 10 to 15 percent of the population. So it actually is not the same people that you would make less miserable or happier. Those are different populations. And the question is, where do you direct the the weight of policy and what you pay more attention to? Very interesting. I like it, so you're basically saying, look, if we have scarce resources, whether those are financial or time or energy, we want to concentrate on the group of people who are suffering as opposed to those who might be languishing. You know, it seems to me that to some extent we have been trapped by words. I mean, it's the word happiness which seems to stand for the whole dimension. And and and I think this is leading to some policies, actually, this failing to lead to policies that would that would really be directed at increasing human well-being by decreasing misery. Yeah, I think so, too. And it's something I've thought about a lot at work. Given given the hat I wear most often is organisational psychologist, I feel like the obsession with employee engagement has really missed the mark. I don't go to work hoping that I'm going to be engaged today. I hope that I'm going to have motivation and meaning and that I'm going to have a sense of well-being. And I wonder if if one of the effects that the pandemic has had on a lot of people and a lot of leaders in workplaces is to get them to recognize, you know, what we need to care about people's well-being in their lives, not just their engagement at work. Well. I thought that, you know, I'm not an expert. This is your field, not mine. But I thought that engagement has is close to feeling good at work. I mean, we whether it's the responsibility of workplaces to deal with people's well-being in general, I agree that it's they're responsible for dealing with people's well-being at work. And that doesn't seem to me to be very different from trying to make people engaged and happy with what they are doing. So I'm a bit curious to hear more about the dichotomy of the distinction that you're drawing between engagement and will be my interpretation of engagement, whether it's fairly close to wellbeing at work. Yeah, I think I think in large part it depends on which conceptualization and measure of engagement we're talking about. But one of the one of the more interesting patterns in the literature that that's gotten me thinking quite a bit is that it's possible to be an engaged workaholic. And this this has been differentiated recently from being a compulsive workaholic. You know, are you are you working a lot because you find it interesting and worthwhile, or are you doing it because you feel guilty when you're not working and you feel kind of obsessed with the with the problem that you're trying to solve? And I think that one version of engagement is probably healthier than the other. And I associate wellbeing much more with, you know, with being an intrinsically motivated workaholic than with a compulsive workaholic, even though both are highly engaged. I agree. You know, I worked for a while with Gallup. I was consulted with Gallup many years ago. And their concept of engagement, I think, was a positive concept. One of the criteria that I remember for people being happy at work is having a friend at work. So clearly, at least, their concept of engagement, which is the one the only one that they know much about, is by and large a positive concept. And certainly the word we don't want people to be compulsive, although. Although I don't know how to describe myself, for example, when when I work hard or when I used to work very hard, was I doing so compulsively, was doing so out of intrinsic motivation? I think both I was intrinsically motivated and I was compulsive about. So I'm not sure of the distinction that you're drawing between being compulsive and being intrinsically motivated. Well, I like to call it a look at ambivalence there, because I think it speaks to the point that you raised earlier, which is that, you know, positive emotions and negative emotions can coexist. You can work because you're passionate about it and because you feel bad if you're not doing it. That's right. I want to ask you about the joy of being wrong. The place I wanted to begin on this is to ask you, when you were growing up or earlier in your life, how did you handle making mistakes? Hesitating because I can't it's not that I didn't make any mistakes, I certainly made many, but I wasn't very impressed by my mistakes. I mean, they were not very salient in my life. So if you're asking about my earlier, you know, as a student and so I don't have much to report that I have an interest as a researcher, I found my mistakes very instructive. And and there were sort of positive experiences. By and large. It's such an odd thing to hear you say, because most of us, most of us experience pain, not pleasure. When, you know, when we find out that we're wrong or we discover that we've made a mistake. So how did you arrive at a place where you found that to be a teachable moment? Well, you know, those are situations in which you are surprised. I really enjoyed changing my mind because I enjoy being surprised and I enjoy being surprised because I feel I'm learning something so that it's been that way. I've been lucky, I think, because I think you're right, that this is not universal, the positive emotion to correct and mistakes. But it's just a matter of luck. I mean, I'm not, you know, not claiming high moral ground here. It's it's fascinating to watch, though, because I've seen your eyes light up and, you know, it's it's it's palpable when you when you discover that you were wrong about a hypothesis or a prediction, you look like you are experiencing joy. And I've started to think a lot about what prevents people from getting to that place. And I think a lot of it is for so many people, they get trapped in either a preacher or a prosecutor mindset of saying, you know, I I know my beliefs are correct or I know other people are wrong. And at some point their ideas become part of their identity. And I know even scientists struggle with this. Right. I think at least when I was trained as a social scientist, I was taught to be passionately dispassionate. But I know a lot of scientists who struggle with detachment, and you don't seem to. So how do you keep your ideas from, I guess, becoming part of your identity? Well, I think that. I mean, this is going to sound awful. I have never thought that ideas are rare. And, you know, if that idea isn't any good, then there is another that's going to be better. And I think that is probably generally true, but not generally acknowledged. So that for people to give up on an idea may in many cases lead to a sort of panic. If I don't have that idea, then what do I have? Who am I if I don't have that idea? So being less identified with your ideas is also associated, I think, with having many of them just discovering that most of them are no good and trying to to do the best you can with a few that are good. So it's seeing ideas as abundant rather than scarce. That's what makes it easier to stay detached. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I used to tell my students ideas are a dime a dozen. I mean, don't overinvest in your old ideas. And so I used to encourage my students to give up. At a certain point, I suddenly never wanted to read a dissertation by a student with a chapter that would explain why the experiment failed. So that was the kind of advice that I would give them. Think of another idea. Do you ever worry about getting too detached? I think, for example, about messenger RNA technology, which was seen as, I think a joke for a long time, and if not for the courage and tenacity of a small group of scientists who persisted with it anyway, we might not have a covert vaccine right now. Oh. I think well, in the first place, science, like many other social systems, doesn't thrive on everybody being the same. So you may have some advice that is good for some people. And it's clear that some people who are irrationally persistent achieved great successes. And indeed, if you look back at the great successes, you will generally find that there is some irrational persistence behind them and irrational optimism behind them. That doesn't mean that when you are looking from the other side, that irrational optimism or irrational persistence are good things to have. So the expected value of it might be negative, although when you look back every big success you can trace to some irrationality. Well, that goes beautifully to one of my favorite ideas of yours, that we look at successful people and we learn from their habits, not realizing that we haven't compared them with people who failed, who had many of the same habits. And I wanted to, I guess, ask you a broader question, which is having put these kinds of decision heuristics and cognitive biases on the map. Which one do you fall victim to the most? Is that confirmation bias? It sounds like maybe not. I just wondered which of which of the biases that you've documented is your greatest demon. All of them, really. All of them, except, as you said, confirmation bias. By the way, people are close to me find this irritating. That is that whenever they have a problem with someone, I automatically take the other side and try to explain that someone might be right after all. So I have that contrarian aspect to what I am. This reminds me a little bit of a possibly apocryphal story that I think told to to every doctoral student in social science these days, which is that not long after you won the Nobel Prize for your work on Decision-Making, there was a journalist who asked you how you made tough decisions and you said you flip a coin. Is this true? No. OK, good. Absolutely. I'm really I've never flipped a coin to make a decision in my life. The version of the story I heard was that you would flip the coin to observe your own emotional reaction and figure out what your biases were. I might have said that this is one of the benefits of flipping a coin, but I personally have never used that. But it's true that. Flipping a coin would be a way of discovering how you feel if you didn't know earlier that I still believe, I feel very relieved to know that because I was worried about you, given all you know about decision making, making important life choices with a coin toss. Welcome back to Taking for Granted and my conversation with Danny Kahneman. He was just setting the record straight that as an eminent scholar of decision making, he does not make decisions based on a coin toss. So how does he make decisions? Well, when I look back at my life, it's been a series of things that, you know, ultimately I made decisions, made life choices clearly, but I did not experience them. As decisions, I have very little to say, describing myself about making decisions, in part because I have really strong intuitions and I follow them usually. So the decision doesn't feel hard if if you know what you are going to do and if you know yourself and you're going to do it anyway, it doesn't feel very hard. I have to say, Danny, I'm a little shocked to hear you say that you follow your intuition because you have spent most of your career highlighting all the fallacies that come into play when we rely on our intuition. Well, you really have to distinguish the judgment from decision making. And most of the intuitions that we've studied were fallacies of judgment rather than decision making. And second, my attitude to intuition is not that I've spent my life, you know, saying that it's not good enough in the book that we're right and just finished writing. Our advice is not to do without intuition. It is to delay it. That is, it is not to decide prematurely. And not to have intuitions very early, if you can delay your intuitions, I think they're are your best guide probably about what you should be doing. OK, so two questions there. One is how the other is why, well, you delay your intuitions, you know. No, I'm talking about formal decisions, decisions that might be taken within an organization or a decision that an interviewer might take in deciding whether or not to hire a candidate. And he had the advice of delaying intuition is simply because when you have formed an intuition, you are no longer taking in information. You are just rationalizing your own decision or you're confirming your own decision. And there is a lot of research indicating that this is actually what happens in interviews, that interviewers spend a lot of time. They make their mind up very quickly and they spend the rest of the interview confirming what they believe , which is really a waste of time. Yes. Yes. So the idea of delaying your intuition is to make sure that you've gathered comprehensive, accurate, unbiased information so that then when your intuition forms, it's based on better sources, better data. That is that what you're after? Yes, because I don't think you can make decisions without there being endorsed by your intuitions. You have to feel conviction. You have to feel that there is some good reason to be doing what you are doing, so ultimately intuition must be involved. But if it's involved, if if you jump to conclusions too early or jump to decisions too early, then you are going to make avoidable mistakes. Well, this is an interesting twist on, I guess, how I've thought about intuition, especially in a hiring context, but I think it applies to a lot of places. My advice for a long time has been, don't trust your intuition, test your intuition, because I think about intuition is a subconscious pattern recognition. And I want to make those patterns conscious so I can figure out whether whatever relationship I have detected in the past is relevant to the present. And it seems like that's what what you've argued as well when you've said, look, you know, you can trust your intuition if you're in a predictable environment, you have regular practice and you get immediate feedback on your judgment. I think the tension for me here is I don't know how capable people are of delaying their intuition. And I wonder if if what might be more practical is to say, OK, let's make your intuition explicit instead of implicit early on so that then you can rigorously challenge it and figure out if it's valid in this situation. I've been deeply influenced by something that I did very early in my career. When I was 22 years old, I set up an interviewing system for the Israeli army. It was to determine suitability for combat units. And the interview system that I designed broke up the problem so that you had fixed rates that you were interviewing about, you're asking factual questions about each trade at the time and you were scoring each trade once you had completed the questions about that trade jumping in here, because this is such a cool example, but it needs a little explaining. Danny created a system for interviewers to rate job candidates on specific traits like work ethic, analytical ability or integrity. But interviewers did not take it well. They really hated the system. When I introduced it and they they told me I mean, I vividly remember one of them saying, you're turning us into robots. Danny decided to test which approach worked best. Was that their intuition or their ratings from the data? The answer was both their ratings plus their intuition, but not their intuition at the beginning, their intuition at the end, after they did the ratings, that is, you read those six straight and then close your eyes and just have an intuition how good you think the soldier is going to be. When the data came back, it turned out that that intuition at the end was the best single predictor. It was just as good as the average or the sixth straight, and it added information. So, wow. You know, I was surprised, you know, I just was doing that as a favor to them, letting them have intuitions. But the discovery was very clear. And we ended up with a system in which the average of the six traits and the final intuition had equal weight. It sounds like what you recommend then concretely is for a manager to make a list of the skills and values that they're trying to select on to to do ratings that are anchored on those dimensions. So, you know, I might judge somebody who's coding skills if they're a programmer or their ability to sell if they're a salesperson. And then I might also be interested in whether they you know, they're aligned on our organizational values. And then once I've done that, I want to form an overall impression of the candidate, because I may have picked up on other pieces of information that didn't fit the model that I had. I think that's about right. It's such a powerful step that I think should bring the best of both worlds from algorithms and human judgment. There's something that's a little puzzling to me about it, though, which is why are managers and people in general so enamored with intuition? I think it's because people don't have an alternative. It's because when they try to reason their way to a conclusion. They end up confusing themselves. And so the intuition wins by default, it makes you feel good. It's easy to do and it's something that you can do quickly, whereas careful thinking in a in a situation of judgment where there is no clearly good answer, careful thinking is painful, it's difficult, and it leaves you in a state of indecision or in a state or even if one option is better than the other. You know that the difference is not something you can be sure of, whereas when you go to the intuitive route , you'll end up with all, you know, with overconfident certainty and feeling good about yourself. So it's an easy choice. I think you you wrote about this topic at length and what some have called your magnum opus , thinking fast and slow. I'm wondering what you've rethought since you published that book. Well, um. You know, there were there were things I published in that book that were wrong. I mean, you know, literature I quoted that didn't hold up. Now, the interesting thing about that is that I haven't changed my mind about much of anything. But that is because changing your mind is really quite difficult. That is Dan Gilbert has a beautiful word equal that unbelieving and unbelieving things are very difficult. So I find it extremely hard to unbelieve aspects of Pozza thinking fast and slow, even though I know that my grounds for believing them are now much weaker than they were. But the more significant thing that I have begun to rethink. Is that thinking fast and slow, like most of the study of judgment and decision making is completely oblivious to the individual differences. And all my career I I made fun of anybody was studying individual differences. I say I'm interested in main effects. I'm interested in characterizing the human mind. But it turns out that when you go into detail, people, those studies that you have, it's not that everybody is behaving like the average of the study. That's simply false. There are different subgroups were doing different things. And and life turns out to be much more complicated than if you were just trying to explain the average. So the necessity for studying individual differences is, I think the most important thing that I have rethought and, you know, doesn't have any implications for me because it's too late for me to study individual differences. And I wouldn't like doing it anyway. It's not my style. But I think there is much more room for it than I thought when I was writing, thinking fast and slow. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is the choices you make about what problems and projects to work on. I'm not a good example for anybody. I really never had a plan. A more or less followed my nose and I did many things that I shouldn't have done. I wasted a lot of time on projects that I shouldn't have carried out, but. No, I've been lucky. Well, I think that that's probably an encouraging message for a lot of us, that the idea is, is this an area where there is gold? And I'm going to look for it. I mean, that's that's an idea. And formulating a new question to an idea in my book, I'm going to use that this is an area where I think there might be gold and I want to look for it. Such a nice reframe. So, Danny, you mentioned in your new book, Noize, one of my favorite ideas when I read Noise was the idea of the inner crowd. And I wondered if you could explain that there have been two lines of research by Bulan Besner and by her Twigg. And asking people the same question. On two occasions or in two different friends of mine, and it turns out that when you ask the same question like an estimate of the number of airports, when you ask people the same question twice separated by some time, then they tend to give you a different answers. And the average of the answers is more accurate than each of them separately. Also, in the case that the first answer is more valid than the second, and it's also the case, the longer you wait, the better the average is, the more information there is in the second judgment that you make. You know, what it indicates is clearly that what we come up with when we ask ourselves a question is we are sampling from our mind. We are not extracting the answers from our mind. We are sampling an answer from our mind. And there are many different ways that that sample could come out. And sampling twice, especially if you will make them independent sampling twice is going to be better than sampling once. This is this is one of the most practical, unexpected decision making and judgment perspectives that I've come across in the last few years, in part because it says, I don't always need a second opinion if I can get better at forming my own second opinions. Oh, you know, I think as we say in that chapter sleepover, it is really very much the same thing that is sleepover. And just wait. And tomorrow you might think differently. So the advice is out there reinforcing it, maybe useful. Your collaboration with Amos Tversky is obviously legendary, there's a whole Michael Lewis book about it. Is there a lesson that you took away from that collaboration that's informed either how you choose your collaborators now or how you work with the people on your team? I think that one really important thing in is. It's to be genuinely interested in what your collaborator is say, and, you know, I am quite competitive. I'm also quite competitive. We were not competitive when we worked together. The joy of love, of collaboration for me always was that. But that almost that was more with them than with almost anyone else. I would say something and he would understand it better than I had. And that's the greatest joy of collaboration. But in my other collaborations, taking pleasure in the ideas of your collaborator seemed to be very useful, and I've been lucky that way. On that note, almost anyone who's ever won a Nobel Prize has complained that it hurt their career. And I've wondered what the experience has been like for you or I mean, it hurts people's career if they're young. You know, I got mine when I was 68, and for me it was a net loss. Why does it get people in trouble if they get it earlier? Oh, you know, there are a variety of ways that this can happen in the first place. It's very destructive. I mean, people start taking you more seriously than they did and hanging on your every word and a lot of nonsense like this. And if if you begin to take yourself too seriously, that's not good if you take time away from your work. To to do what you are invited to do when you get a Nobel, which is a lot of talking and a lot of talking and think that you don't know much about, that's a loss. And then if it makes you self-conscious that everything that you have to do has to be important. That's a loss. So there are many different ways, I think, in which getting a Nobel early is a bad idea is not the best gift. I was at a good age to get it because I had some years left in my career and it made many things much easier having a Nobel and it made the end of my career more productive, I think, and and happier than it would have been otherwise. Taken for granted as part of the TED Audio Collective, the show is hosted by Adam Grant and it's produced by TED with Transmitted Media. Our team includes Colin Helmes, Credit, Dan O'Donnell, Constanza Gelada, Joanne DeLuna, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint and Ben Chang and Anna Feeling. This episode was produced by Dan O'Donnell.