Back when I was studying psychology in college, I got a hold of a book by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases) that would change the way I think about thinking; but not fast enough.
I was reading this book on a Greyhound bus to New York City in the early eighties when New York City was a very rough place. I was supposed to transfer at the Port Authority Terminal. The people on the bus talked incessantly about how we were entering a war zone. When I arrived, I had a good two hours to wait until my next bus came. To kill time, I went to a coffee shop, bought coffee and a package of cookies. The only place to sit was sharing a table with a very large, muscular black man. The seat was not taken, so I sat down, placed my bag on the table, fished out my book, put the bag on the floor, and sipped my coffee.
The book was a dense, scholarly tome all about how we make snap judgements based on what the authors called heuristics, or shortcuts. All these shortcuts lead to errors a lot of the time, but we keep on using them because the alternative is to consider our options in a painstakingly rational, reasonable, and very thorough manner that, for most day-to-day situations, is too damn slow.
Being a budding shrink, I was very interested in how I could correct the faulty logic and fight the prejudices of my clients by citing the cognitive errors this book was teaching me. I had come across the book by accident. No one was teaching from it at the time and no one was using it with their clients. I would be the first, I thought. I would invent a new school of psychotherapy.
I looked up from my book to see the man sitting across from me reaching over to open my package of cookies. He took one and ate it without ever asking if he could have one.
I’ve never been the type to back down, but I was in a strange place and the man was frankly scary. I quickly decided I would not confront him. Nor did I want to flee the table and leave the cookies for him. I reached over and took one of the cookies for myself.
He looked at me. I looked at him as steely-eyed as I could. He took another one. We continued like this until the cookies were gone. When he left, without a word, he grabbed the empty wrapper and threw it out. I thought, “Well, he may be a thief, but at least he’s a neat one.” I now had my own story of the crime ridden bus terminal and considered myself lucky to have survived.
It wasn’t until it was time to leave that I reached down for my bag and saw that I had knocked my package of cookies on the floor. I had been eating his.
Kahneman and Tversky would have said that my error was due to three common heuristics: anchoring, availability, and the sunk costs fallacy.
When the people on the bus talked about how dangerous New York was, or when the media presented large, muscular black men as dangerous, this tuned me in to the possibility of danger. If the talk on the bus was more about the wonders of New York and if the portrayal of black men was more positive, it would have been harder for me to reach my conclusion that he was stealing my cookies.
I made a judgement about the probability that he was a thief on the basis of how easy it is to think of examples. Again, look at how black men are portrayed. Also, I could only see one package of cookies.
The Sunk Costs Fallacy
Once I committed myself to eating those cookies it was harder for me to reconsider my action than it was before I took the first one. That’s because I already had lot invested in the action.
I never did start that new school of psychotherapy; but, I guess it’s not too late. Amos Tversky died and Daniel Kahneman went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for this very work. It’s still largely ignored in the shrink community. Maybe that’ll change because Kahneman more recently wrote a bestselling book called, Thinking, Fast and Slow.