When What You See Is All There Is

This simple puzzle had my mind in knots: A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

As I read the problem while hastily chowing down a chicken salad sandwich, the number 10 came to mind. The ball costs 10 cents.

Wrong. Do the math and you’ll quickly discover that the ball costs 5 cents; the bat costs $1.05.

The problem is featured in psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” As it turns out, I wasn’t the only human on Earth that had trouble with this puzzle.

As Kahneman writes in the book, more than 50 percent of students at Harvard, MIT and Princeton had the same intuitive answer as I did. At less selective universities, the rate of failure to the question was more than 80 percent.

I even tossed up the question to my girlfriend, who is working toward her Ph.D. in psychology at Northwestern University. She looked at me, and without much thinking gave the same answer I did: 10 cents.

When I told her she was wrong and that I couldn’t fathom how, she quickly jotted down the algebra to get the correct answer.

It perfectly sums up the thesis of “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

According to Kahneman, the human brain uses two systems to process information. System 1 is fast, automatic, emotional, intuitive and subconscious. System 2 is slow, effortful, logical, calculating and conscious. My automatic answer was System 1 on display. My girlfriend’s second effort represents System 2.

It’s the interplay between these two systems that dictates how we view the world and make decisions, and there are a host of cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking.

After highlighting several decades of research, Kahneman suggests that people place too much confidence in human judgment. All too often, people are irrational and overconfident in their view of the world, which leads them to make poor decisions.

Consider another example from the book. In 1983, Kahneman and his research partner, Amos Tversky, created an imaginary character named Linda: “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.”

They then asked people the same question: Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is in the feminist movement.

Roughly 85 percent chose option No. 2, even though it is logically impossible — if the second option is true, so is the first. Rather than relying on relevant facts, Kahneman writes, the brain becomes distracted by stereotypes to the point where it will lean on them despite them being illogical. 

So what does this mean for talent management? Whether you agree with Kahneman, talent managers constantly rely on emotion and intuition to drive their decision-making.

How we view the world has tremendous influence on how we evaluate talent as well as how we view our own professional development.

Kahneman’s book reminds us that often it’s important to step back and recognize the inherent flaws in our intuitive thinking; that to find a solution to a problem or assess a viewpoint, it’s worth putting in the extra effort to engage our System 2 — even when the answer appears obvious.

Had my girlfriend not written out a simple equation, I may have let my woeful intuitive judgment get the best of me.

And who knows where my chicken salad sandwich would’ve ended up.