THE GENTLE ART OF PESSIMISM

Who wants to hear bad news?

Who wants to work with a bunch of pessimists?

We are surrounded by constant reminders to be upbeat and positive at work.

Yet this may be another example of human hardwired biases that lead us all into comfortable self-delusion writes Ben Yagoda in ‘The Atlantic’ this month.

He takes us through dozens of the unconscious biases (apparently there are over 180) from which we all suffer.

The subject of cognitive biases and faulty heuristics emerged in the ‘70s as social scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, and ‘Nudge’ with Richard Thaler) wrote about their research.

Kahneman introduced us to the notion of System 1 and System 2 thinking, and showed how these built- in judging errors are all neatly nestled in the System 1 part of our brains.

Are these biases unalterable?

Some of them do seem to get us into hot water time and time again.

The optimism bias for example is responsible for us all consistently underestimating both cost and time for just about every project in which we are ever involved.

Kahneman feels that it may be impossible to effect any changes on System1.

He suggests taking conscious counter-acting steps.

Check in with others outside our projects and organisations, for example. (An outsider might see what we are unable to imagine let alone acknowledge.)

Or adopt a procedure or checklist.

There is a simple process (an idea from another cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein) that might just save us.

He recommends a project ‘pre-mortem’.

Ask some of the team to imagine the task in hand going horribly, horribly wrong and write it all down.

It helps the team think ahead more realistically.

‘Pessimist’ is a label that so deeply out of fashion that our optimism bias is surely enjoying maximum influence.

The description ‘carrying out a pre-mortem’ might just save the day. And us.

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