22 December 2011

Kahneman Explains Our Love of Irrelevant Issues

One of the great mysteries of life is how we manage to waste so much time in political debate, dialogue, and coverage on issues that are – at best – of marginal importance. I think I finally found the answer to why in Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

One concept Kahneman shares has to do with our tendency to substitute easy questions for hard ones. For me, this explains why so much air time in politics is taken up with questions of little consequence. 

Kahneman gives an example of an analyst who bought stock in Ford. Asked why, the analyst replied that he'd just been to a car show and left convinced that Ford "sure can make great cars." As Kahneman points out, the real question when buying stock is whether or not the stock is undervalued. But the analyst substituted that difficult question for the simpler question of whether Ford was making good cars. All of us, when faced with a difficult question, tend to substitute a simpler - albeit irrelevant - one. 

It seems to me that the big question in politics should be, How do we improve quality of life for more people? That’s a big question and answering it is one that isn’t easy. No one can feel confident about their ability to answer it.

By contrast, the little and largely irrelevant questions – silly questions best characterized by whether or not we should be able to burn the flag – are ones for which we have clear answers as long as we have strong opinions. Answering these questions leave us feeling confident in our own judgment. Answering the big questions, by contrast, makes us feel uncertain. For most of us, we prefer feeling confident to feeling inadequate. The result? We choose questions because of how they make us feel rather than what their answers will do to improve the world.

And that’s a pity. Just think what we could do with all the attention paid to politics if it were focused on real, albeit difficult, questions. 

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