Science of Thought

Answering the Wrong Question & the Science of Thought

Sometimes, when we are asked a question, we instead answer a different question.

In his fantastic book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ Dr Daniel Kahneman identifies that we have 2 systems of thinking.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and often without control. System 2 allocates attention and concentration to effortful mental activities and calculations.

System 1 is our default setting. It is constantly drinking in data and information without us even knowing. System 1 can do things like detect hostility in a voice, simple mathematics, drive a car, recognise faces and differentiate between two sounds, things like that. Sometimes our attention is required but usually not.

System 2 is for our highly diverse operations and all require our attention. Completing complex calculations, focusing on a single voice in a noisy room, parking in a very narrow car space, filling out a tax form, things like that.

So now that we know there are two ways we think, and that System 1 is dominant in all aspects of life (home and work), let’s have a closer look at how it works.  I’m going to show you all a puzzle. I don’t want you to think about the answer, just the first thing that pops into your mind. Ready?

  • A Bat and Ball cost £1.10.
  • The Bat costs £1 more than the Ball
  • How much does the Ball cost?

The number that came into your mind is, of course, 10. What’s interesting about this puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing and wrong. If the ball is 10p, the bat must be £1.10, a total of £1.20.

The correct answer is 5. Even if you worked out the correct answer – did you immediately think of 10 and then discard it? If you did, it was System 1 answering first and then System 2 taking over once you realized it was a little harder than first glance.

Because of how we think, we have a tendency to jump to conclusions, and we answer easier questions if we have a hard question.

Now let’s take a real example in business:

No matter where I go, one of the area’s that tends to struggle more with performance is Complaints. And the simple reason for this is that complaints could be about anything. In some places, no two complaints are alike. The variation you get between cases can be huge.

One of the questions I ask managers of a complaints area is “Can you measure how long it takes to complete complaints?” The answer I always get is some variation of ‘No’. Too complicated. Too hard. Too variable. Not fair on staff.  How long is a piece of string? Sometimes a complaint takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 7 hours!

But what is really happening here is that managers are answering a slightly different question. System 1 has taken over and substituted the question for “Is it easy to measure the time it takes to complete a complaint?”

To which the answer is ‘No’. It’s not easy, but it certainly can be done.

So sometimes, we answer the wrong question and therefore get the wrong answer.

I’d highly recommend you read Thinking, Fast and Slow – it’s a fantastic book about the very science of thought.