Book Cover

Chapter 6, Norms, Surprises, and Causes, continues the deep dive into System 1 thinking. As noted before, System 1 thinking continually is active nearly all of the time making snap decisions based on associated that it has constructed. In Chapter 6 Kahneman asserts that the main role of system one “is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it.” The Associative Machine (Chapter 5) defines one mechanism the brain uses to construct a model of the world around us.  

Surprises occur when something occurs that is outside of that model. The other morning a person got into the elevator I was riding. This is a very normal activity, there was no surprise until after stepping into the elevator he stopped and continued to stare into the back of the elevator. He turned around and faced the right direction only when we arrived at the next floor. His actions were not very normal and I had a low probability of predicting this type of behavior.   Another form of surprise are things that are normal but not very probable. For example, someone calling my home phone that isn’t a telemarketer would fall into this category.

One of the interesting discussions in the chapter was on how a single surprise occurrence may make the same occurrence seem less out of the ordinary if it happens again. Kahneman uses the example of two car fires he and his wife observed at the same spot (on what I believe was the New Jersey Turnpike). The car fire was a surprise the first time but was far less surprising the second. If my father calls on my home phone once, it would be a surprise. If he then calls again a month later it would be far less surprising. It takes very few repetitions to make something feel normal.  This is a useful piece of knowledge if you are trying to change the behavior of an organization or team. Very few repetitions are needed to make something feel normal which changes the mental model of the people involved. Note — this cuts both ways, not everything that becomes normal is the behavior you want to appear normal. For example a team, I have observed for years held daily scrums/stand-ups at 8 AM, everyone attended like clockwork. One day one the members wandered into the meeting at 8:10. Because it was a surprise, it was remarked upon and the behavior did not repeat for a week.  The second time no one remarked or held the person to task. Over the next few weeks, being late became the norm rather than the extreme exception.

Another interesting useful observation from the chapter is that things that confirm advanced expectations are perceived as normal even if they’re not.  Expectations prime System 1 thinking to assess and classify an outcome as the normal, which is a form of confirmation bias. This is one reason why it is always good to have someone else review and/or test your work. A year ago, while my wife and I were out walking the dog, we spotted an owl in a hole in a tree (one of two owls I have seen in the wild). It was quite startling even though I have seen pictures of owls in positions like this in books. I now have an expectation that I will see an owl in this tree or a tree like it again. The next time I see an owl in a tree I will perceive the event as normal even though it is not . . . at least in my neighborhood.

When something doesn’t fit into what our brain has defined as normal our System 1 thinking will detect an abnormality and kick System 2 thinking into action. As noted in earlier chapters, when System 2 kicks in our cognitive load and level of focus increases making it more difficult to communicate and parse extraneous information.  Norms allow individuals and groups to understand the vast amounts of shared information which allows quick and efficient communication. System 1 uses norms to fill in the meaning of words and ideas within a range of possible values. For example, when I use the word Scrum in a software development department, almost everyone has an understanding of what that means even though in practice there are a myriad of minor variations.  

A third important idea in this chapter is that System 1 provides causal interpretations. Humans assign causes for things even when we have limited information about what happened and why.  We link fragments together to develop a coherent story that will allow us to assign a cause. When describing an event in which the cause is an important component the teller must control the narrative so that the listener lands on the correct cause.  This is a critical concept if you have to sell (and we all sell) an idea.

Chapter 6 is a gold mine of concepts in how System 1 thinking can be used in changing how an organization or team members interact to deliver value.

Final Note: For those of you that have asked about the broken tooth.  I had a root canal last week. The dentist spent 90 minutes drilling and poking around in my mouth.  I am still sore! Assuming no further complications I will the tooth capped in a few weeks and this event will be behind me.  

If you do not have a favorite, dog-eared copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow, please buy a copy.  Using the links in this blog entry helps support the blog and its alter-ego, The Software Process and Measurement Cast. Buy a copy on Amazon,  It’s time to get reading!  


The installments:

Week 1: Logistics and Introduction

Week 2: The Characters Of The Story

Week 3: Attention and Effort

Week 4: The Lazy Controller

Week 5: The Associative Machine

Week 6: Cognitive Ease