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Are We Hardwired for Easy Answers?

Reid Hastie, a professor at the University of Chicago (must admit, my MBA alma mater) in behavioral science, wrote that “We know there was no single cause or event that set in motion the [financial] crisis and that the truth is complex and multicausal.  So why do we keep seeking easy answers?  It may be that we are hardwired to do so.”

Hastie notes that as humans our thinking patterns (what he calls the ‘narrative’) give us a way to understand complex problems and events.  (Perhaps this why when faced with many choices, we tend not to make a decision.)  Unfortunately, what we consider in those narratives do not tell the ‘full story and convey a false sense of understanding and control.’  While we might think we could have intervened and controlled the outcome, in fact, our narratives are missing the essential properties of true ‘causal explanations.’

We all acknowledge that many of life’s events and outcomes are not due to a single cause and that the ‘truth is complex and multicausal.’  Yet we keep seeking easy answers.  Perhaps that’s where the hardwiring does us in.

For all of us, we have two modes of thought:  visual and narrative.  Universal and developed early in our lives, we become experts in using each.  What is not universal is the ‘highly structured thinking processes that underlie the kinds of analysis needed for logical and mathematical thinking.’  This is where we can get into simplistic thinking and draw the wrong conclusions.

Despite being able to interpret our environments more accurately and faster than any software can recognize an object, our thinking often supplants more analytical thinking when we should be looking ‘for more than a good story.’  Not only is thinking in the narrative easier than the less natural analytic alternatives, ‘it is often persuasive when used to make arguments to others’ and gives us a false sense of ‘understanding and control.’  Moreover, the summaries create illusions which last for a long time, giving us the belief that we understood and reasoned to a degree not warranted, a habit we tend to repeat.  We continue to make poorly informed decisions.

Mr. Hastie and his colleague Benjamin Rottman have used the ‘mathematics of causal reasoning‘ to replace ‘expert intuition about causes.’  Applying Bayesian Causal Networks, which are nothing more than a graphic depiction with an explicit requirement that the relationships be causal, they found that humans ‘discount’ or ‘explain away’ multiple causes which are independent of one another.

By being eager to using discounting — which is an error on our part — humans ignore the complex interactions of multiple events.  “This habit can get us into trouble when we’re reasoning about complex events caused by multiple factors.”

Because we desire a coherent, well-formed story, ‘the next time you hear one — or how a simple explanation describes an important event — remember this:  we have an appetite for simple narratives, and just like diets rich in fats and sugars, they are to be avoided for our long-term health.’

From a coaching perspective, it is critical that coaches not reason too simply; rather, spend time understanding what drives a client’s behavior and even draw out a simple graph of all the influences that affect behavior and outcomes.