I picked this up in the new Kahneman book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He describes a common characteristic of reasoning heuristics: rather than answer a difficult question, they substitute a simpler question with a more readily available answer. This is a common failure mode.

Later that evening, my wife made a comment about an article she was reading on diagnosing depression. I immediately thought, "I'm pretty sure I've never been depressed." The speed of my response was a red flag. Did I really just scan the past 10 years of my adult life for depression symptoms? Or did I answer an easier question: "Am I depressed right now?" With a mouth full of delicious toast, the available answer was, "I feel great!"

I think this technique is a good fit for the 5 Second Level, though it may need a name that indicates what to do rather than what to avoid doing. Hug the Query is close, but taken. The cover blurb for the skill is: take notice when you easily and swiftly answer a question, and double-check that you actually answered it.

Here are a some more examples from the book:

  • Target question: How much would I contribute to save an endangered species?
    Heuristic question: How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?
  • Target question: How happy are you with your life these days?
    Heuristic question: What is my mood right now?
  • Target question: How popular will the President be six months from now?
    Heuristic question: How popular is the President right now?
  • Target question: How should financial advisers who prey on the elderly be punished?
    Heuristic question: How much anger do I feel when I think of financial predators?
  • Target question: This woman is running for the primary. How far will she go in politics?
    Heuristic question: Does this woman look like a political winner?



10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:32 AM
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Name suggestion: "Remember What You're Asking"

[-][anonymous]11y 0

Why substitute an easily answerable question? That seems like the opposite of what you should be doing--you don't want to prompt your brain to give cached answers, you want it to switch to Type 2 reasoning to compute the answer. This view is further argued in Your inner Google and Cached Thoughts.

Why substitute an easily answerable question?

This looks like a description of common behavior, so you can notice when you're falling into it, and consider switching to Type 2 reasoning.

Yup. That's why I don't like the name that I used in the title - it describes behavior that you should avoid. "Not substituting the question" isn't catchy enough. Added a sentence in the main post to hopefully clarify.

"Know to empty caches" perhaps?

How popular will the President be in six months?

Not very.

"Am I actually answering the question?" "No, because actually answering it requires knowledge of what the President plans to do in the next six months, how the media is likely to react to what he does in the next six months, some idea of the probability of outside events (terror attack, victory in war, natural disaster) that would influence his popularity, and knowledge of when the elections take place in America, none of which I actually have."

So what question was I answering?

"What have you heard about Obama recently, with extra weight on any sources you remember as American."

This is a bad example because a major error is people taking too much of an inside view.

Good point. As well as "how do I feel about the president?" being the wrong question, historical trends for presidential popularity when entering an election year, etc., are probably reasonably good predictors. Presidential popularity isn't anti-inductive like a market.

I was going to point out that in this case substituting the question was actually rational behavior. There is no way of knowing what is going to happen in the next six months to influence it, it could be positive or negative, but whatever does will adjust his popularity from whatever it is right now; so whatever his popularity is right now will probably be a better prediction of what it will be in six months than whatever fantasy either a supporter or opponent might come up with.