Intuitions That Mislead Us

One of my recent readings has been the late Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. (Flatiron Books, 2018).  It is a fascinating read, loaded with valuable insights.

Hans Rosling asked chimpanzees to answer 13 multiple-choice questions about the state of the world.  Each question had three choices (A, B & C).  For each question, he provided each chimpanzee with three bananas, with stickers on each for A, B and C.  Whichever banana a chimp picked up first indicated their response to the question.  Not surprisingly, the chimps scored 33% correct, outscoring 90% of humans asked the same questions.  Rosling’s book provides an in-depth exploration of why this happened.

He attributes humans’ poor performance to ten human instincts that mislead us and trap us in outdated world views.

  • The gap instinct – Separating things into two opposing sets, e.g., us and them, rather than seeing a continuum
  • The negativity instinct – Focusing on negative outcomes, e.g., in the news, causing expectations of the worst
  • The straight-line instinct – Projecting linear trends rather than understanding countervailing forces
  • The fear instinct – Fearing unlikely outcomes that our ancestors my have experienced but are now very unlikely
  • The size instinct – Focusing on large numbers rather than calibrating them against baselines such as using per capita estimates
  • The generalization instinct — Automatically categorizing and generalizing, possibly stereotyping; look for differences within groups and similarities across groups
  • The destiny instinct – Assuming innate characteristics determine destinies; transformations are occurring across societies; slow change differs from no change
  • The single perspective instinct – Preferences for single causes and solutions; single perspectives likely miss the essence of problems; multiple perspectives needed
  • The blame instinct – Tendencies to seek clear, simple reasons for bad outcomes, often attributed to human actions within systems that facilitate these bad outcomes
  • The urgency instinct — Desires to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger; leading to fear, stress, and far too often bad decisions and actions

He explains how factfulness can be applied in education, health, business, journalism, and politics.  His overall argument is that a fact-based world view combined with refined critical thinking can help overcome these debilitating instincts.  We can outsmart the chimpanzees.  By the way, he never actually ran that experiment.  The outcome was completely predictable without enticing chimps into eating so many bananas.

Rosling’s discussion of ten instincts that regularly mislead us reminded me of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), a wonderful integration of his many years of research with Amos Tversky on psychological heuristics and biases, findings that I have long tracked.  It is quite interesting how people steadfastly mislead themselves, resulting in unfortunate decisions and consequences.

These ten instincts frequently undermine business strategies by fostering bad assumptions about future market situations, including an enterprise’s presumed competitiveness in that future.  I address this in great detail in my books Start Where You Are: Matching Your Strategy to Your Marketplace (Jossey-Bass, 1996) and Don’t Jump to Solutions: Thirteen Delusions that Undermine Strategic Thinking (Jossey-Bass, 1998).  It is all too common for executives teams to ignore current facts, often because it is socially unacceptable to admit what is happening.

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