Cognitive Illusions

I read an article today about the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. I find his theories regarding the ‘conjunctive fallacy’ really interesting. Kahneman started his life as a psychologist observing soldiers performing team exercises in the Israeli army. These exercises were supposedly designed to judge which individuals would make good leaders. Men were judged on their performance on the day and the ones deemed to be appropriate officer material were put forward for training. What Kahneman discovered was that the data gathered by the observers did not often match up to the evidence of the chosen men’s behaviour and performance over the following months of training –  i.e that the judgements made on that particular day were not necessarily true. Despite the evidence, this method of observing and choosing candidates continued and did so because the notion that a person who shows leadership ability at that moment of observation is therefore a ‘leader’ is a persuasive but strangely irrational assumption.

Oliver Burkeman, who wrote the article in the Guardian about Kahneman’s new Book Thinking, Fast and Slow, described this subjective process, masquerading as a rational one, as our judgement being ‘warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.’ He gives a good example of this; people are asked about a nephew’s girlfriend; she is described to them as someone who is artistic and poetic; with this limited information they are also asked if she is more likely to be studying Chinese Literature or Business Studies. Most people answer ‘Chinese Literature’ although statistically there will be a greater number of business studies students, so more probably she will be one of those. The majority of us ignore the probability for the answer that ‘feels’ right: she’s artistic and poetic and those qualities, based on our own assumptions, would be associated more with a student studying Chinese Literature. Our answer might appear to be logical but it is not.

Kahneman writes,

Subjective confidence in a judgement is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgement is correct…declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.

He calls these slips in perception cognitive illusions and we are all guilty of them. This interests me a great deal for two reasons. The first is that I have been applying for jobs where I too have taken part in team observation, exercises as subject to problematic evaluation as the ones that Kahneman’s studies encountered and yet still used to decide if a candidate is right for a job. The second because these ideas also speak a great deal of how our own judgements of each other can be so woefully skewed, despite our own sense of certainty.

Burkeman ends his article with some sound advice:

If we can’t hope to correct such biases in any lasting way, we can perhaps seek to cultivate some humility about the limits of our mental powers. Being the puppet of subtle psychological influences we cannot even recognise is annoying. But at least we can try to remember that that’s what’s likely to be happening. Well, it’s a start.




  1. Christine Croft said,

    November 17, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Hi Maria, I saw this too,very interesting!

  2. luckyloom1 said,

    November 17, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Hi Chris, yes, the new book looks worth a read. Hope you are well lovely one! XXX

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