Posted by: MC | July 29, 2013

Wolves, Humans and the Errors of Fast Thinking

Wolves in Yellowstone, Doug Smith


So, a few years ago a Nobel Prize winning economic scientist named Daniel Kahneman took a pretty astonishing look at cognitive, biological and psychological habits of minds faced with the need to make judgments or decisions.  His observations show up in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow

Needless to say, there’s a lot in this book.  One powerful trend Kahneman found in human decision making indicates that when we make quick judgments on about anything we, more often than not, make errors.  For example, when English speakers were asked whether the letter ‘K’ is more likely to be the first or third letter in a word (think about this for a minute…), all sorts of people said first – even though the letter shows up lots more frequently in the third position.

The primary interest Kahneman has in this line of inquiry isn’t as superficial as expectations for letter placement, but rather the way culture affects cognition.  Fundamental to his investigations were questions like:  Why are racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and other significant biased judgment systems so persistent?  How do these oppressive systems take hold when they just don’t fit the behavior or character of their targets?  Why are they so central to the way Americans interact no matter their politics or group affiliation?  Significantly, Kahneman’s research “traced these errors to the design of the machinery of cognition rather than the corruption of thought by emotion.”

Turns out, it’s the way we think that’s the problem.  When we think too fast, we head straight for fear and embattled opposition.  When we think slower, life together and alone goes much, much better.

In keeping with the oddity of someone so recognized for economic brilliance writing about “the machinery of cognition,” I learned about Kahneman’s book from a naturalist and conservation writer.  Gary Ferguson  was speaking in Big Sky, Montana last week on the history of Americans’ relationship with wilderness.  One of the things Ferguson is known for is his writing about the return of  the wolf to the Yellowstone National Park, the largest generally intact ecosystem in the temperate climates of the world. 

Ferguson describes the extreme volatility of relations between wolf advocates and those people in Wyoming and Montana who believe the wolves must be pursued to extinction.  The vast scientific evidence holds no sway for the groups organized for killing wolves.  Among that evidence are clear demonstrations that only 5% of wolves harm anything except elk and hurting people is almost unheard of.  Add to that the clear evidence that wolves are important to maintaining healthy elk herds, preventing elk starvation and protecting tundra and other grasslands from overgrazing and thus serving vital functions for the health of our planet’s air and water.  In the interests of range health, this precise balance of grazing and herd movement has been the model for ranching innovations in holistic land management (EX:C blog, THINGS THAT FALL FROM THE SKY)

When Ferguson finished his talk last week, people lingered.  We were thinking a bit more slowly with the rich information he had shared.  We wanted to talk.  Robert Goerge and his family are spending their summer in Big Sky and had come to hear what Ferguson had to say.  Goerge is a researcher in public policy as it affects children, families and their communities.  He was thinking about the problem of wolf data and its communication.  “The overwhelming evidence is that wolves are vital to the health of ecosystems.  It’s just crazy not to base our policy and practice on what we know.  We hurt ourselves as much as any wolf.”  Goerge’s point echoes Kahneman — without good information people are left to the biases of fast thinking and thus to errors in judgment and decision making.

Later, and likely because both Goerge and I are social scientists, the two of us zeroed in on another target for the problem of fast thinking.  Both of us have devoted our careers to the social wellbeing of people in community.   Goerge works from the quantitative end of things.  I work from story – or more specifically, from the voices and words of people living their lives (100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change).  Goerge’s focus is public policy, mine is civic engagement and direct social service.  To my mind, the findings from our respective work are not just complimentary they could have vastly greater impact together than they do alone.

Goerge and I had just met.  In our conversation, the wolves had led us to urban families and communities and the harm that comes from data-poor intuition bias.  Despite our distinct research perspectives we’ve both seen this disconnect as more of a rule than an exception in both social policy and service.

This is the way it goes.  Pretty much by definition, both practice and data are scripted by scholars.  Most of these scholars are in higher education, but all such researchers and theoreticians are quite well socialized to the culture of what has often been referred to as the Ivory Tower.  They are a necessarily exclusive group.  What Robert Goerge and I have both seen and worked to open up across our careers is the disturbing habit of super educated people with loads of theoretical knowledge who author policy and sanction social service practices without any consideration for the interests, concerns and realities of the people and communities on whom these will be imposed.

Fortunately, there are notable and comforting exceptions like Goerge and his research colleagues at University of Chicago.  These scholars are listening.  They’re influencing policy makers.

This is what it comes to.  Listening.  Listening to people – to the children, adults and families who ARE the communities of this globe.  It comes to listening to elk, to wolves, to the tundra, to the air and water.  And all this listening – it’s not just nice, it’s vital.

Surely we can see the danger in sticking with fast thinking, snap judgments, and decisions devoid of careful thought.  Errors of this kind seem only to portend destruction.  Listening is the antidote.  The decision remains ours.

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