Trigger Happy Blame

And Undeserved Rewards

Before we knew who was going to win the presidential election, Slate noted that he would end up being credited with the economic recovery now underway. That’s because our minds work by association, not logic.

We like to think that we can analyze the facts and draw conclusions about their consequences, and, sometimes, we can do just that. But that is the exception, not the rule. We generally prefer “thinking fast,” as Daniel Kahneman put it in his recent book (Thinking, Fast and Slow). We jump to conclusions that are obvious because they are right before our eyes.

That way of thinking was useful to us in the jungle when we had to respond to danger before it was too late – or to opportunity before it slipped away. It works less well in complex environments where many factors interact to create outcomes. And it exposes a bias we all share against the patience required to sift through the evidence and wait out events.

On the other hand, “thinking fast” often allows us to take advantage of our unconscious perceptions and thoughts, the raw ideas that have not been censored or smoothed out to fit our preferred conscious beliefs. These intuitions, frequently not clearly formulated, are based on real experience and they often are better guides to the truth.

But when we are responding to public events, bombarded by opinions that are driven by passionate hopes and fears, we revert to the blatant, obvious truths, defined by simple correlations. There is no time for “thinking slow.”

Elaborating on this point, Slate commented: “Whoever wins is poised to preside over a return to economic normalcy that’s bound to make any kind of basically competent governance look fantastic compared to the last decade of misery.” (See, “The Next President is Lucky.”)

This is not just true of voters and politicians. In the private sector, CEOs often get credit for results their predecessors planned, earning undeserved reputations as “turnaround artists” or “corporate saviors.” (And, of course, the reverse is true, as they can also take the heat for poor performances that were in the cards long before they assumed control.)
This principle operates in daily life as well, accounting for much of popularity in high school, reputation in professional communities, and success in business. In fact, unless there are clear standards for success and transparency in observing actual behavior, our evaluations of others are more likely than not to be driven by proximity and correlation.

And that does not usually prevent us from being certain we are right. The evidence, after all, is right there for all to see.