“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” 

warren buffet

Wise words this week from Warren Buffet – a man whose willingness not to jump to the prior conclusions of others I much admire. He was the world’s wealthiest person in 2008, and Time Magazine rated him the one of the world’s most influential people in 2012.  How much more evidence do you need?

Over the years I have been able to witness this for myself when working with people in a training room.  It shows up most vividly when I give them a brief on an exercise and they find themselves unable to read it carefully enough to be able to carry it out properly.  This is especially likely to happen if I put them under a tiny bit of time pressure.

The phenomenon presents itself every time on the exercise I often use to get people to know each other and break the ice a bit.  They have 15 minutes to find out information from each other and then collate it on a flip chart.  The written brief I give them, which I explain carefully in detail and provide an opportunity for them to clarify, states that they have to find it out from…

‘……everyone in the room.’

Guess how many times they have taken that at face value?  What does “everyone in the room” mean:  all the humans in the room, including ME, by my reckoning.  I have been asked for my information on ONE occasion in 16 years.

They don’t read the brief.  When I point this out afterwards, most groups acknowledge that they don’t read things properly for three reasons:

  1. They’re in too much of a hurry
  2. They make assumptions (how difficult can this one be, guys?)
  3. They know too much (and therefore don’t bother to check).

I would add a fourth:  it’s a form of mental laziness, which is what I think lies behind Buffet’s assertion that “prior conclusions remain intact.”  We don’t read things properly, let alone get to the end of the sentence (wherein the real meaning, what I call the Golden Nugget, really lies), because we’re lazy.  And we talk too much and act too fast.  Instead of pausing, checking, clarifying, testing, we crash ahead, hoping and praying that what we do is more or less what was required.  It often isn’t, leading us to have to do it again.  It’s the opposite of Working Smart, whatever that is (? Working Stupid).

What we need is a healthy dose of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  He calls it System 2 – the brain processes which allow us to apply logic and rationality to decisions, and thus to overcome the tendency to jump to our “prior conclusions.”  It’s a brilliant book on the topic. He is completely in sync with Buffet on this.  “Even compelling causal statistics will not change long-held beliefs or beliefs rooted in personal experience.”   Let me give you one example, in the hope that it might inspire you to read it.

Campells soupShoppers in Iowa were offered Campbell’s soups at 10% off the normal price.  On some days the sign on the shelf said LIMIT OF 12 PER PERSON.  On other days it days NO LIMIT PER PERSON.  When the limit was in force shopper s bought an average of 7 cans each – twice as many as when there was no limit in force.  The assumption they made, of course, was that supplies would soon run out as they must be flying off the shelves.  They also allowed the number 12 to anchor their mindset about how many to buy.

The book is full of such examples, and despite your knowing that you are reading a book on the topic and recognize the role of SLOW THINKING, I suspect you will, as I did, fall into most of the traps he describes.

We’re all a bit mad, I conclude, and it’s getting worse.  We hardly have time to think, let alone reflect.  Someone told me last week he had forgotten what it’s like to read a book.  Minutes later he was massaging his hand, because he’d been writing notes as well, and this was another technique that had fallen into disuse.  I wonder what’s next:  forgetting how to talk?

Discussion around this topic with a group is therapeutic:  it’s nice to know we’re all in the same boat, and all as dysfunctional as each other.  Doesn’t exactly make the problem go away, though, does it?  I don’t have an answer for you, I’m afraid.  Do share if you’ve developed some strategies for slowing down which work and are sustainable.

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