Who’s doing your thinking? You think you are. True enough, it’s your neurons firing off. But first, consider the way that other people’s thinking led you to where you are today. All your studies in school. All the norms you picked up from family and society. Then, start noticing how other people’s thinking literally shapes your day-to-day life — everything from the fashion you wear to your choice to sock away savings in a 401(k).
Thanks to Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler and others, there’s a growing body of knowledge about how the brain sizes up various situations and determines what action to take. Collectively, these researchers spent decades studying how people make decisions. It turns out we’re not the adept decision-makers we fancy ourselves to be. We miss cues. We miss-calculate. Which raises the question, can we get better at thinking and decision making?
President Obama thought we could. In 2015, he signed an Executive Order titled, “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.” It aimed to expand the reach of learnings in behavioral science into the realm of policy setting — beyond the traditional applications of the private-sector in advertising. A 2017 feature in The New Yorker describes how a small federal team leveraged behavioral science to help address the Flint water crisis.
But back to thinking and your brain
How can research in behavioral science make you a better decision maker? Understanding specific and natural shortcomings we all have puts you on alert. With a bit of understanding about how you — and everyone around you — processes information and ideas, you can begin to catch yourself. Then, you can do it differently, more logically, more grounded in real reality. It can also open your eyes to the ways you’re unwittingly played by others when you think you’re the one in control of your decisions. The Undoing Project, Nudge, and Thinking, Fast and Slow are all bestsellers that explore behavioral science and decision-making.
If, like me, you’re curious about how to apply behavioral science to up-level the thinking of an entire group of people, skip straight to a fourth book, Outsmart Your Instincts. A team from the consulting firm Ideas To Go did the heavy lifting. They break down eight cognitive biases that impede innovative thinking. For each, there’s a set of exercises designed to outwit the heuristics (rules of thumb) that typically govern the brain’s thought process.
Just be aware. It’s about to get very interesting! Things will look different — in front of your eyes and behind them — as you contemplate how your brain has been wired to cope with the ever-evolving complexities of human existence.