We're all familiar with the idea that we harbor sub rosa desires that inform our decision making, but more recently researchers have upped the experiential ante, pointing out that our senses routinely betray us as well. Experimental psychologist Daniel Simons, for example, amply demonstrated this inability to see what is right in front our noses in September at the IdeaFestival. Even when the relevant facts are in theory available to make an informed decision, we act against our own best interests all the time, thwarted by a buggy biology that is maddeningly inconsistent and all-too suggestible.
That's good news.
In a Jonah Lehrer review of Daniel Kahneman's just-published book on human irrationality, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Lehrer points out that the author himself understands the deep gap between act and - when we're aware of it - intention.
Kahneman, of course, knows all this. One of the most refreshing things about 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' is his deep sense of modesty: he is that rare guru who doesn’t promise to change your life. In fact, Kahneman admits that his decades of groundbreaking research have failed to significantly improve his own mental performance. 'My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy'—a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task—'as it was before I made a study of these issues,' he writes. As a result, his goals for his work are charmingly narrow: he merely hopes to 'enrich the vocabulary that people use' when they talk about the mind.
Kahneman has won the Nobel Prize. But what's so interesting is that the prize was for economics, and his insights have informed the developed an entirely new field called behavioral economics. Struck by how until very recently economists viewed humans as rational, self interested beings with perfectly transparent motives, he says, quoted in another review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, "I had not appreciated the profound difference between our intellectual worlds. To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable."
Elsewhere, in this TED video, Kahneman describes other traps we fall into when thinking about the future, which we invariably forecast using past experiences. The end result is that "it's two very different things" to be happy about your life and happy in your life, he says. And going all Sybil on us, he describes how our remembering and decision-making self can, sadly, drag our experiencing-self through new experiences that it would never choose were it not leaning so heavily on the past. Watch the video.
Progress and personal happiness have never been tied to certainty and the presumption that we get it right. Getting it wrong is the basic human condition. And it's always been through trial and error and the belief that the next step won't be the last that we make discoveries. That's characteristic of science, of course, but in our personal lives as well. The good news, as Kahneman says, is that we're "neither fully rational nor completely selfish." As long as we're moving forward, the truth will always be incomplete.