From my perspective of working in the intersection of two very different professions, medicine and design of the built environment, I’m frequently surprised by the resistance of each group to embrace concepts from the “other side.” After pondering the reasons for this disconnect for years, I have recently gained new insights from research in the field of behavioral economics.
Would you like to have more effective design solutions or less friction with your boss and co-workers? Would you like to be wealthier, have broader interests, and be a more attentive friend, spouse, parent, or child? If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then read on but pay attention as you do.
Surprisingly, studies designed to reveal the rationality of people’s thinking when they’re making financial decisions also shed light on why highly educated people can be resistant to new points of view. Furthermore, this fascinating literature also provides a framework to understand communication blockades and self-induced friction points in our personal, work, and community lives.
A pioneer in this field is Dr. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who studies hidden and conflicting biases in human thinking. As a Jewish child living in Nazi-occupied France, he was fearfully walking home after curfew one night when he encountered a threatening looking SS guard. Daniel was terrified of the worst possible outcome when the guard called him over, embraced him gently, and tearfully gave him money from his wallet. This early experience indelibly convinced Dr. Kahneman that people are indeed complex.
His subsequent research revealed unconscious distortions in our thinking; biases that repeatedly lead to poor decisions underlying common human errors. Unfortunately, these distortions tend to occur most frequently when they can cause the most damage.
What are these underlying biases, and what can we do to lessen their impact? Apparently, we have two very different mental personas — System 1 and System 2 — that guide our thinking. System 1 is effortless, fast, and impulsive. It’s ready to save us from real or perceived dangers as it takes unconscious, mental shortcuts that lead us to decisions based on past sensations (both good and bad) and easily remembered experiences. This process is compelling but not an objective base for good decision-making.
System 2 is slower and effortful, requiring mental energy to pay attention and gather rational information before coming to a conclusion. While we believe System 2 is usually in charge, research has shown that System 1 governs our behavior 95% of the time unless we exert conscious control over this “wild child.”
One of the most damaging impacts of System-1 thinking occurs when we are faced with a new idea, unfamiliar situation, or novel challenge. Impulsive and over-protective, this thinking mode over-exaggerates the potential for negative outcomes while minimizing our awareness of possible positive outcomes. You do not take a good new job because you fear losing the stability of your current one. You stay in a terrible relationship because your fear of losing familiar dynamics is more powerful than imagined advantages with a more compatible partner. Or, perhaps you shy away from learning new approaches because your confidence in being an “expert” might be threatened. These powerful System-1 messages can keep us quite stuck.
Here is an example of System 1 in control of your conversation:
Before your spouse says a word, you’ve already decided what they’re going to say. Without a single sentence completed, you’ve assumed how it will end and have chosen your response and next step.
Conversely, System-2 thinking requires you to hold your tongue, pay close attention, and suspend preconceived judgement. Unfortunately, it’s slower to engage and requires considerable mental energy, self-awareness, and a true desire to understand a perspective outside of your own.
What can you do to combat the allure of lazy and often misguided System-1 thinking and thereby enjoy the rewards of mind-expanding System 2? Here are some strategies that I (try to) use to quiet System 1 so that System 2 can (hopefully) broaden my perspective:
Read books and take courses in topics that are outside of my discipline;
Talk to Uber drivers and people in airplanes, focusing on what I can learn from them rather than on how I can sound impressive; and
When having conflict with a colleague or family member, try to truly understand their perspective rather than focusing on how to win the argument.
While these strategies may seem trivial or obvious, consider that Dr. Kahneman, the psychologist who revealed our two warring mental personas, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 and is now considered one of the top 10 influential economists in the world.