One of my favorite jokes from the early 1980s goes like this:
God appeared to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir, telling them that they must warn their people that he plans to destroy the world in three days.
President Reagan appears on national TV and says, "My fellow Americans, I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is a God. The bad news is he will destroy the world in three days."
Premier Gorbachev goes on Soviet television and announces "Comrades, I have bad news and worse news. The bad news is there is a God. The worse news is he plans to destroy the world in three days."
Finally, Prime Minister Shamir addresses the people of Israel, saying, "Good people of Israel, I have wonderful news and better news! The wonderful news is that there is a God! The better news is that there will never be a Palestinian state!"
I always thought that story was funny as a commentary on how politicians "spin" the facts, depending on who is telling the story.
What I never realized was how blind we are to reality!
I've been reading a fascinating book by famed psychologist Daniel Kahneman called "Thinking, Fast and Slow." The book is about how the human mind works and flaws in human decision making. I picked the book up to gain a better understanding of my own decisionmaking mechanisms and biases. But I am also discovering how easily the mind can be tricked and made to believe things that are not true.
The book caught my attention because it argues that people frequently don't make rational economic choices, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom. As a financial advisor, I thought this would be important information to know.
As someone who never took a course in psychology, even the elementary examples of how the mind can be tricked is fascinating. One example is to ask someone how many animals of each kind did Moses take into the Ark?
As your mind races to answer the question, it may never occur to you that the answer is zero. Noah gathered the animals, not Moses! The number of people who detect what is wrong with this question is so small, Kahneman say, it is known as the "Moses illusion."
Kahneman offers the hypothesis that the mind is composed of two systems, which he calls System One (fast thinking) and System Two (slow thinking). To demonstrate the workings of fast thinking, he shows a picture of an angry woman.
You instantly and effortlessly recognize the woman's facial features as that of anger. He then asks you to multiply 17 by 24 in your head. Coming to an answer takes some effort and concentration (slow thinking) before you recognize the correct answer, which is 408. What the book is about is the relationship and interaction between these two systems.
So what does a book on psychology have to do with living with cancer? Actually, quite a lot, especially when we are talking about the relationship between fast and slow thinking and human perception and decisionmaking. The book is filled with cancer examples and common misperceptions by both patients and doctors alike.
It occurs to me that people have the widespread belief that breast cancer is a more prevalent and deadlier form of cancer than it actually is. Kahneman's book provides an explanation for such misperceptions with what he calls the availability heuristic.
The basic idea of the availability heuristic is that the more frequently you hear about something, the more easily instances can be recalled. The more easily something is recalled, the more likely it is to be judged "large" by the fast system.
After reading this book I realized how easily our minds can be persuaded that something false is true and visa versa.
No wonder we have the expression "spin doctors" for people who try to get into our head to influence our decisions. It's easier than I ever would have imagined.