Jonah Lehrer suggests thinking can often serve to confuse us. He reports research where students had to rate different jams. They managed to come out with similar preferences to expert jam tasters. Then a similar group got the same exercise but with questionnaires to complete so they had to explain their decisions. They came out with a quite different set of preferences, the worst jam suddenly coming first. Apparently this effect is repeated with many other preference tests. Our capacity for confabulation – basically inventing rational explanations of our behaviour that have little to do with reality – is one of the most remarkable things about humans. I loved this comment by Lehrer:
We like to believe that the gift of human reason lets us think like scientists, so that our conscious thoughts lead us closer to the truth. But here’s the paradox: all that reasoning and confabulation can often lead us astray, so that we end up knowing less about what jams/cars/jelly beans we actually prefer. So here’s my new metaphor for human reason: our rational faculty isn’t a scientist – it’s a talk radio host.
As I’ve said before, we’re really rationalising rather than rational creatures. Of course it would just be confirmation bias for me to cite this in support of my view that far too many bits of coporate process exhibit far too much of this over-cleverness. (Don’t get me started on procurement processes).
Large tip of hat to Katie Chatfield who is becoming one of my favourite aggregators of novelty.