Whether it’s the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, or last year’s BP oil spill, or the 2008 collapse of the housing market, or the difficulty the U.S. is having in Iraq and Afghanistan, the headlines on any given day should make us humble.
We humans make lots of mistakes, some terribly costly, and yet we continue to believe that we are smarter than we are.
We don’t even understand ourselves very well.
David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, has written a couple of excellent columns about overconfidence–see The Fatal Conceit from 2009 and, more recently, The Modesty Manifesto – and in his best-selling new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, he takes a broader and deeper look at how people and societies are shaped by “the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms.” Much of this, by definition, is invisible to us.
I’m a Brooks fan, so I went to hear him speak last week at The Aspen Institute in Washington. (Here’s the video.) He was funnier in person than he is in print. (“I know many people in the audience. I know you didn’t come here to hear me speak. You came to hear yourself speak. So I’ll try to be brief.) He told a few stories about politicians and how they have “phenomenal social skills,” yet they consistently underestimate the role of emotion, passion and irrationality when they make policy.
Efforts to reform schools neglect the emotional side of learning. “People learn from people they love, but if you mention the world love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like Oprah,” he said. “It’s just not a language we’re comfortable with here.”
He quoted an educator who told him that kids stay in school because of the ABC’s — athletics, band and cheerleaders — and yet “we’re cutting those things that attach students emotionally to school.”
In the business arena, “we had a financial regulatory system more or less based on the supposition that bankers were rational, self-interested creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse.” We know how that ended.
Policy-making is driven by “almost a dehumanized view of human nature,” Brooks said. “Why are the most socially attuned people on earth so socially unattuned when they get in theory policy-making role?”
The reason, he said, is that “we’ve inherited this view of human nature that we are divided selves…and that society progresses to the extent that reason, which is trustworthy, suppresses the passions, which are untrustworthy.”
The trouble is, reason can’t suppress the passions. “Emotions are not separate from reason,” he said. “Emotion is really at the center of how we think.”
“While the conscous mind writes the autobiography of our species,” Brooks said, “most of our thinking is below our our level awareness.
He cited one of my favorite examples of how the unconscious mind operates–the matter of names. People named Dennis are more likely than the rest of us to become dentists. Those named Lawrence gravitate towards the law. In a newsroom where I once worked, we kept a list of people (like the late Bill Headline) whose names matched their jobs. It became a long list.
There’s no harm done when Catherine Greener and Josh Green become environmentalists. That’s not so with the rampant problem of overconfidence, which is both hard-wired and intensified by today’s we-are-all-so-special culture. Look at this startling data, cited by Brooks in a book excerpt in The New Yorker:
Paul J. H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave questionnaires to more than two thousand executives in order to measure how much they knew about their industries. Managers in the advertising industry gave answers that they were ninety-per-cent confident were correct. In fact, their answers were wrong sixty-one per cent of the time. People in the computer industry gave answers they thought had a ninety-five per cent chance of being right; in fact, eighty per cent of them were wrong. Ninety-nine per cent of the respondents overestimated their success.
Surely this same overconfidence can be found in presidents, treasury secretaries and diplomats. As Brooks writes in The Social Animal:
In recent decades, the world has tried to export capitalism to Russia, plant democracy in the Middle East and boost development in Africa. And the results of these efforts are mostly disappointing.
The failures have been marked by a single feature: Reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature.
That’s not exactly right. An overly simplistic view of human nature can’t explain why Africans aren’t rice. Nor is it an adequate explanation for the failures of other policies cited by Brooks, including those designed to “reduce widening inequality,” “boost economic mobility” or “ameliorate the boom-and-bust-cycle of our economies.” But I do think that all these examples remind us the world is much harder to shape, and more complicated, than we typically imagine.
Speaking of which, I have a question: What are we doing in Libya? When did Congress and the American people debate the need to intervene? Why Libya, and not Yemen or Darfur or the Congo? How will we define success? As James Fallows writes today, “What happens then?” Or, as Peggy Noonan wrote the other day:
America has to be very careful where it goes in the world, because the minute it’s there–the minute there are boots on the ground, the minute we leave a footprint–there will spring up, immediately, 15 reasons America cannot leave. The next day there will be 30 reasons, and the day after that 45. They are often serious and legitimate reasons.
Yes, we are an overconfident species. That’s not a reason to be passive. But we need to remind ourselves–often–that we’re just not as smart as we think are.