My guest today has studied the latest research in decision making theory and formulated a better approach. His name is Steven Johnson, his latest book is Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, and today he walks us through how to move beyond listing pros and cons to using a more effective 3-step decision making process. We begin our conversation discussing how most people make decisions and how it hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. Steven then walks us through the phases of a better decision-making methodology, including developing a more creative map of the possibilities before you, accurately predicting the outcomes of those options, and questioning the narratives you have about your choices. Steven then makes the case that reading novels and watching quality television shows can be a great way to train our brains in the skill of decision making. We end our conversation discussing what the raid on Osama bin Laden can teach us about making good decisions.
- Why the standard pros/cons list is outdated
- Steven’s own experience making complex life choices
- Why decision making is so important
- How one of the great urban parks in America was lost before it was ever built
- Benjamin Franklin’s “moral algebra”
- Why it’s so important to think of 2nd and 3rd order consequences of decisions
- What is “mapping” in decision making?
- How to get better at predicting decision outcomes (and how to use those predictions)
- How reading novels and watching TV can help you make better decisions
- What the Osama bin Laden raid can teach about decision making
- How to avoid groupthink in making important decisions as a group
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
- Darwin’s Pros and Cons of Marriage
- Using Mental Models to Make Better Decisions
- Think Like a Poker Player to Make Better Decisions
- The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
- The Importance of Where You Live
- Collect Pond
- How to Make a Decision Like Benjamin Franklin
- On Grand Strategy
- Decision theory
- How to Wrestle With a Difficult Decision
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- “Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.)”
- Why Men Should Read More Fiction
- Fiction for Men (As Suggested by AoM Readers)
- Middlemarch by George Eliot
- My interview with William McRaven (who orchestrated the bin Laden raid)
Connect With Steven
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. How do you make the biggest decisions you face. The ones that have significant consequences that can change your life. Choices like whether to get married, move, attend a certain college, take a particular job, and so on. If you’re like most people, you just kind of wing it and maybe draw up a basic pros and cons list. My guest today has studied the latest research in decision making theory has formulated a better approach. His name is Steven Johnson, his latest book is “Far Sighted: How To Make The Decisions That Matter The Most” and today on the show he walks us through how to move beyond listing pros and cons to using a more effective three step decision making process.
We begin our conversation discussing how most people make decisions and how it hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. Steven then walks us through the phase of a better decision making methodology including developing a more creative map of the possibilities before you, accurately predicting the outcomes of those options, and questioning the narratives you have about your choices. Steven then makes the case that reading novels or watching quality television shows can be a great way to train our brains the skill of decision making.
We end our conversation discussing what the raid on Osama Bin Laden to teach us about making good decisions. After the shows over check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Farsided.
Steven Johnson welcome to the show.
Steven Johnson: Hey thanks. I’m delighted to be here.
Brett McKay: You’ve got a new book out “Farsided: How We Make The Decisions That Matter The Most”. Curious, how did you get started thinking about decision making or the philosophy and science of decision making? You’ve written all about you know where ideas come from, this idea of emergence, innovations that got us to where we are now. What got you thinking about decision making?
Steven Johnson: You know, this project I have been working on for a really long time. It’s actually the longest kind of incubation period of any of my books which is maybe appropriate for a book that in some ways is about long term thinking and decision making. I started actually working on it originally right after my book “Where Good Ideas Come From” came out about the patterns of innovation. I think I started taking notes on it in 2011 or something like that.
It was really sparked by two things. One a story from history and one a story from my own personal life. The story from history is this … in “Where Good Ideas Come From” I had a whole long riff about Darwin and his notebooks. These incredible personal notebooks that Darwin maintained, particularly during the 1830s … late 1830s as he was developing the theory of evolution. It’s a beautiful case study in watching a mind kind of come up with a radical new idea and that’s why I’d written about it.
I knew from that research that there’s a kind of a comical moment in those notebooks where Darwin takes up two facing pages of his notebooks, kind of interrupts his scientific musings and starts wrestling with another question which is a little bit more intimate which is should he get married. He basically creates this pros and cons list of you know pro-marriage and anti-marriage. It’s kind of comical and it’s funny to read it now because some of them are kind of like “Well, if I get married I might have children” but then on the other hand he says “I might have to give up the clever conversation of men in clubs” which I thought was pretty funny.
I thought about it and was like you know the pros and cons list is the one technic that most of us actually learn in adjudicating a complicated choice in our lives. Here it was you know almost a hundred … that was 1837, 1838 when he was doing that so here we are you know 150 years later and we’re still using the same techniques. I was like “Surely there must be you know some interesting science and research into how to make complicated decisions. Maybe there are better tools than just making a pros and cons list.”
The personal story was right at that point in my life I was wrestling with my wife with this equally complex choice which is we were … it was my kind of version of a mid-life crisis. I had gotten obsessed with the idea that we should move to the west coast. We’d lived in New York our entire adult lives and I was getting sick of winter and needed more nature in my life. I really wanted to move to the Bay area and I tried to persuade my wife that we should make this big momentous choice for us and for our kids.
She was appalled at this idea. It was not something she wanted to do at all. Her friends are in New York and whatever. We had this long back and forth. I started thinking about you know how do we make these kinds of … that’s a choice that the consequences of which will you know reverberate for decades in both our lives and our kids lives and how do you make a choice like that? What’s the best approach when the stakes are so high?
I put those two things together and then I figured there would be a really good book to write about that. Then I kept getting distracted with other projects and I kept taking notes in the background for it and finally put it front and center a couple of years ago and here we are.
Brett McKay: As you said in the book, this is an important topic because everyday we’re making decisions. Small ones but even really big ones that will affect the rest of our lives like where do I got to college, should I take out a loan, should I buy a house, what job should I take. No one really tells you how to go about making these decisions you just sort of wing it often times.
Steven Johnson: Sometimes I think you don’t even actually make a decision where there should be a decision made right. For instance, where do you live right? That, in our case, we had a period of time where we actually put that front and center and said “Let’s decide. What city, what part of the country you know suburbs versus city, country side versus city you know … all that kind of stuff. What country do we wanna live in? We actively had a decision like that. I think actually most people don’t have a kind of cross roads moment in their life where they really decide where they wanna live. It just is something that happens to them. You know, they stay at home where they were born or they stay where they … they go to college, they stay near their college or they move somewhere kind of accidentally when they’re 22 and they get stuck there.Some of the most important choices in life we don’t even make. Which is weird.
Trying to recognize and also trying to differentiate between the choices as you say that we do make day in and day out that actually aren’t that significant that don’t require the kind of deliberation that I’m talking about in the book and the technique that I talk about in the book. It’s fine to make you know what you’re having for dinner even you know 99% of the decisions you make at work don’t require this much thought, but when you do confront a choice that really does have significant long term consequences to take time out to do some of the exercises that I talk about in the book I think is a really healthy thing to do.
Brett McKay: You give this great example to start the book off of decisions being made that have lasting consequences but people weren’t really making decisions. They were just doing whatever they though was the next best thing. This is the story of Collect Pond in Manhattan.
Steven Johnson: Yeah. I should say the book is both about personal intimate decisions like should I get married or should I move to California, and also group decisions, collective decisions, business decisions but also planning. There’s a lot of urban planning in the book for instance. That’s why I started with this story about Collect Pond. It’s a crazy story. There was for many many years, for centuries, for millennia, there was a fresh water pond in lower Manhattan … what became Manhattan, which was actually really the only major source of drinkable water in lower Manhattan because the East River and the Hudson River are tidal estuaries so they’re very salty.
The native Americans lived there and then the early Dutch settlers you know relied on Collect Pond for drinking water and it was apparently very beautiful. There was a kind of rocky hillside next to it and people would skate on it in the Winter and it was a kind of lovely part of early New York life, but you know New York being what it was and continues to be, people started you know dumping their garbage there and old dead you know barn yard animals and the occasional murder victim and some tanneries opened up that started polluting it with chemicals and all that stuff.
By the 1770s, 1780s it was just a stinking hole basically as it was described at the time. Basically the city tried to decide whether maybe we should turn it into a park but they were like “It’s too far north no one will ever live around that place” which was ridiculous because if you know Manhattan this is below Canal Street basically. They kind of trashed their plans to build a park and then they basically just decided to fill it in and get rid of the pond. They built some housed over it but they done a poor job at the land fill and the houses started to kind of decay and all these noxious smells came out and people fled from the neighborhood. That neighborhood became the legendary Five Points neighborhood. The first kind of famous slum in New York City where “Gangs of New York” was set and all these things.
It was all because they just kind of didn’t know what to do with this beautiful natural resource and if they had built that park, that would be today one of the great urban parks in the world right. It probably would have survived for five hundred years or longer. This beautiful lake in the middle of lower Manhattan. You can think of it almost as like a five hundred year mistake that they made. That they failed to capitalize on this wonderful natural resource.
Part of what I’m trying to argue in the book is actually, as pessimistic as we can sometimes be, we wouldn’t’ make that same mistake as cavalierly as we did back in the 1790s, early 1800s. You know we are actually better at kind of planning decisions like that and looking at natural resources in big cities. We’ve advance the art of making those kinds of choices in many ways. All of us can learn from the way in which we’ve advanced that art and that science.
Brett McKay: Before we get to some of the advances we’ve made in decision making theory, let’s talk about sort of the development of that. You mentioned for most of human history probably we’ve been using the pros and cons list. You also highlight cases of individuals who were a little more sophisticated with their decision making. Benjamin Franklin sort of developed a decision calculus when he was a young man.
Steven Johnson: Yeah, he called it moral algebra. Which is actually the title of the first chapter which I think is such a great phrase. He basically proposed a pros and cons like list, but he had one correction to it which is really important. Which is he had a kind of rudimentary scheme for what we now call weighting, IE giving a weight to each of the values that are listed in your pros and cons list. The problem with the pros and cons list if you’re just like write up a list of pros and write up a list of cons you know, and whichever one is longer that gives you your answer, that doesn’t really work because presumably some of the things on the list are more meaningful to you or more consequential than other things on the list.
Think about Darwin’s pros and cons list. Having children presumably was more important to him than clever conversation of men in clubs right. I mean maybe he really like his conversation but I think knowing what we know about Darwin he was actually more interested in the kids. When we kind of list the different kind of assets we can’t have them all have the same magnitude or the same weight right. We have to have some way of measuring that.
Franklin proposed this system where you create your list and then you kind of cross out ones that are equal in weight to you. Then you look at the remaining ones. That actually doesn’t … that helps a little bit, but it doesn’t really get to the issue. There are now much more advanced versions in a sense where you give a score to each or the different values that you’ve ranked and you say “Okay this one on a scale of one to ten this one’s a nine, this one’s a two, it’s important but it’s not that important.”
The other problem with the pros and cons list is it really only works well when you’re looking at one option right. Should I get married or not, but what if you’re looking at a choice where there are five options. The pros and cons list effectively doesn’t scale up to handle a choice with multiple variables, multiple alternatives.
Brett McKay: You can’t do that with the weighted scale.
Steven Johnson: Yeah yeah. There’s a technique that’s … I talk about it kind of at the end of the book, something that’s called a values model or linear values model that is actually used in environmental planning, urban planning in some cases. It’s the kind of thing you actually really build in a spread sheet. It’s funny, here’s some choices in life like should I get married where maybe you don’t wanna create a spread sheet.
Brett McKay: If you were Darwin you probably would have.
Steven Johnson: Yeah, sit you perspective spouse down and say “Look darling, I’ve run the numbers here and it looks very promising for us.” Other decisions I think could be like that. Where should we live I think is one of the things. What you do is you create a list of all the different places you might wanna live and then you create a list of the values that are important to you in your life and then you kind of score each of those values in terms of how important that value is. You know, happiness … access to nature is more or less important than good schools, et cetera. Then for each of the options you’re looking at you give it a score for each of those values. You say “Hey, I think if we move to the country we’ll have more access to nature and much worse restaurants” and you score it all out and you basically multiply the weight or magnitude of each value by the score for each option and add it all up and you get an answer.
It’s not always the … for some people I think that kind of approach is maybe too mathematical for an important life choice and it’s maybe not the last stage of the process, but it’s a way of visualizing all of the things that are at stake in a complicated choice. In the book I call these kinds of choices I call them full spectrum choices because they involve so many facets of what it is to be alive right. Where you live right, that involves your economic issues, that involves you know the future education of your kids, that involves things like nature and your friends and you politics. Do you wanna live in a side bar culture or a car centric culture. I mean just all these different elements. I
It’s just really hard to keep all that kind of coherent in your head, and so creating a kind of matrix or grid like this and in a sense kind of running the numbers on it I think is a really good tool for helping you see it all in one place.
Brett McKay: There’s also with these complex decisions there are second order and third order consequences that you don’t think about right. With like the Collect Pond it’s like “Well, if we throw in the dead animal carcass” they don’t think well the water is not going to be drinkable. Then they don’t think “Well, the waters not drinkable if they cover it up, and then if we have to cover it up then we build houses, but then the houses are going to sink”. You don’t think about those things typically.
Steven Johnson: You know, this is one of the things that I didn’t fully wrestle with when I first came up with the idea for this book. It became increasingly important to me as I researched it and wrote it which is that really when you’re making a complex long term decision whether it’s a civic decision or personal decision or business decision, a huge part of it is about predicting the future right. This book is … a third of it is about prediction because anytime you’re making a choice like that you’re making a prediction. I think if I choose this that in five years things will turn out this way.
It sent me down this little rabbit hole like “Okay, well what do we know about prediction? What are places where people have gotten better at predicting?” Many books have been written in fact about how we predict and how bad we are in general about predicting the future. As you say, a lot of that prediction process is trying to imagine consequences that don’t initially appear to you. There’s a great quote, one of my favorite quotes in the book from Thomas Schelling the noble laureate who among other things kind of half invented game theory and other things. He has this great quote that more or less is “The one thing a person cannot do, however brilliant they are, is write up a list of things that would never occur to them.”
I love that because that is in a sense what you’re trying to do when you’re making a really complicated choice. It’s like “Okay, I know there’s a blind spot here. There’s something in the future that I’m not anticipating. That I’m gonna choose this path and I’m gonna get blindsided by this development down the line.” Part of it is just going through these exercises to try and see around those blind spots and to get better. No one has a perfect crystal ball, but there are techniques that make people more aware of the alternatives and potential consequences than they would just with their initial impression.
Brett McKay: You said that we’re getting better at decision making. We’ll talk about some of the ways that we’ve gotten better and some case studies. Where is this thinking happening? Where is the development of these processes happening is it interdisciplinarity, is it cross between behavioral science, economics, [crosstalk] theory, philosophy, what’s going on there?
Steven Johnson: This is one of the reasons why the topic was so interesting to me. I do tend to work in a very multidisciplinary way and part of what I try to do in my books is to show connections between disciplines. I tend to jump around. Actually it’s funny when I was a kid … not a kid when I was in college and I knew that I wanted to write books I used to tell people like “I’m gonna write these books that jump around from discipline to discipline and no one will know where to put them in the book store because they won’t fit any category.” Then I ended up growing into that person and becoming that kind of author and I realized now that’s a terrible way to write books because nobody knows where they’re suppose to go in the book store. Nobody knows where to find them.
It turns out with decision theory it does draw upon all these different kinds of disciplines. There’s a bunch of kind of management theory right. The one place where people are taught how to make decisions is sometimes in business school. There’s a lot of research from you know psychology and kind of group psychology. Some interesting findings from hard core kind of neuro science like about how the brain actually makes decisions and also philosophy and literature. There’s a lot of wonderful kind of probing look kind of analyses of people making decisions that show up in fiction, in novels. I think there’s a lot to learn from those kinds of interior portraits of other people. Even if they’re made up, watching somebody else through the lens of a great novel making a choice is a wonderful … it’s almost kind of practice for us to rehearse the decisions that we actually make in our own lives by reading novels.
Brett McKay: We’ll get into that little tactic to make better decisions. Let’s talk about sort of broad overview of this process that you found, that you see happening when groups of individuals are making complex decisions. This first process you call it mapping. What does that look like?
Steven Johnson: You know mapping we’ve in a sense begun to touch on which is the idea of there are so many different variables and values that are at play in a full spectrum decision. Part of your job in this initial stage is not to try and kind of narrow things down and make your choice. Have an initial phase where you’re just trying to identify as many factors that could be relevant to this choice. All the different kind of planes of existence that would be implicated by moving to California or opening up this new branch of your business or whatever it is that you’re weighing.
The other key part of this phase that most people don’t do is to spend time in this opening stage trying to identify other options that you might not have initially considered. This is based on some great kind of management theory research by a guy named Paul Knott who is a scholar of corporate in the kind of 70s, 80s, early 90s. He analyzed hundreds and hundreds of actual real world decisions that people made and interviewed people extensively about their process or their lack of process as it normally was. Then he went back and interviewed people to find out did the decision work out, were they happy with the results in the end. What he found was that most people did not have an initial mapping phase where they tried to identify other options that they could potentially explore.
The way Knott described it is most decisions were what he called whether or not decisions. Should we do this or not, there was just one option on the table. It was just a binary choice. Those people in the long run ended up more likely than not to be unhappy with the outcomes of their choice, but there was a subset of people who actually did add this early kind of mapping phase where they tried to have really a kind of a creative kind of brainstorming process where they tried to identify other options. Yeah, we’re looking at option A, but let’s try and identify options B and C and D and then we’ll make our choice. The folks who did that were more likely than not to be happy with their choice in the end. A significant kind of bonus in terms of the outcomes by adding that phase, even if they ended up going with option A, the one that they’d originally looked at. They were making a more informed choice, they understood more of the variables by going through this kind of process.
It’s a very simple rule. Knott describes it as change your decision from a whether or not decision to a which one decision. It’s a very elemental kind of idea but I think that’s a great exercise to do in this kind of initial mapping phase.
Brett McKay: The initial actually is just trying to get a big … don’t eliminate things. Don’t eliminate options, you’re actually trying to grow options which I think would be counterintuitive because you’re like “Well, I’m trying to make a decision, I’m trying to narrow things down but you’re telling me the first step is actually make more choices available.”
Steven Johnson: Yeah. It has a lot of overlap with some of the stuff I’ve written about innovation. It’s a similar process. People talk about when you’re trying to be creative that you have a divergence and a convergence phase. The divergence phase is that you’re not trying to narrow it down on the final answer. You’re trying to just generate options and come up with lots of ideas, no idea is too stupid, that kind of mode and liberate yourself during that period to contemplate lots of different things and not try and find the answer. Then late on go back and weed through everything and try to figure out what really is the right choice.
Brett McKay: Are you also in this phase exploring all the possible consequences as well or are you just looking at possible decisions?
Steven Johnson: That’s really, I mean this could be a good transition. That’s really the prediction phase right. You’ve identified five top kind of contenders for what you might wanna do. Let’s say you’re moving so we’ve identified these five cities that might be interesting as options that we can move to or rural areas, whatever, it doesn’t have to be cities right. Then you gotta thing about what would happen if we moved to each of these five? That’s where you’re really moving into a prediction stage. Where you’re kind of analyzing what really will be the consequences of this path versus this path versus this path. In my book I kind of shift … there’s a shift from mapping to predicting at that point.
Once you get to predicting you’re effectively in a kind of a story telling mode. It’s a very narrative process it’s interesting. In a way, it’s a very creative process because you’re trying to imagine these. You’re trying to make a list of things that would never occur to you as Tom Schelling put it, you’re trying to imagine consequences that might not occur to you originally. There are a bunch of useful exercises here. I mean, this is where you draw upon some of the techniques that have sometimes been called scenario planning right. Kind of a corporate techniques where you bring in people to look at the next five years of your market say and or the world that you’re selling your products in.
The important thing is that you tell multiple stories in this phase. All of us make predictions when they get excited about something. When I was excited to move to California I had this beautiful story like “We will take hikes in the Redwoods every day. The children will get outdoorsy and they’ll never play video games again.” You know that kind of feeling. We always make these predictions but the point is to challenge them right. Whatever prediction you have is somewhere wrong and it’s probably too optimistic if you’re excited about this and it’s probably too negative if you’re not excited about it. What scenario planners do is they tell multiple stories so that we can kind of imagine multiple outcomes.
One kind of short hand way to do this, which I think is pretty cool, is you’re facing a choice. Tell three stories about you know the option you’re looking at. One where things get better, one where things get worse, and one where things get weird. I think there’s something that the exercise of trying to imagine what the weird scenario would be, even if it doesn’t come to pass, it force you to kind of get outside of your expectations and to challenge your assumptions and to perceive new possible futures that you might not have otherwise imagined.
Brett McKay: I imagined the map being in predicting steps. They’re not discreet. They’re probably going on all at the same time. You mapped, then you start doing the prediction stuff, doing the story telling or red teaming for example in the military where you kind of play this out, kind of simulating it. Then you actually start seeing new stuff pop up that you otherwise wouldn’t’ have seen during the initial mapping phase.
Steven Johnson: Yeah. I think there is an inevitable kind of bleeding back and forth. I think trying to keep yourself in that framework in general where you’re like going through the … a lot of this depends on your kind of temperament and your thinking style right. Some people are very organized and they really wanna have the phases. Some people are more creative and the lines are going to be blurrier. Another kind of group of people that actually I didn’t really address in the book but it’s come up a lot in kind of book tour conversations which always happens with a book. There’s something in your blind spot that you didn’t see in your writing. People who suffer from the kind of opposite problem who spend too much time deliberating.
Generally in the book I’m making the argument for slowing down and trying to see all the different variables, but there is a class of people who get paralyzed because they just wanna overthink everything. For those people I think actually the phases are really nice because you can kind of use them as a way of delineating or demarcating basically stages in making the choice. Like “Okay, look I’m going to spend a week mapping this thing. Then I’m going to spend a week predicting this thing. Then I’m going to spend the last week actually making the decision. Then I’m going to be done with it.” Having that clarity, having a distinct process with kind of markers over time I think can really help people like that who tend to get just stuck overthinking everything.
Brett McKay: When you’re making the prediction, what are you looking for? Are you just looking for things that are more likely to happen based on all the scenarios you run and the story telling you run? You have to use those predictions to ultimately make that decision right.
Steven Johnson: This is one of the things that human beings are really bad at. There’s a great line from Amos Tversky who you know did all the work that lead to Kahneman’s famous “Thinking Fast and Slow” book. He has a line about humans. He says humans and probability … that human beings basically have three settings for probability. It’s gonna happen, it’s not gonna happen, and maybe. That’s all we can do. Trying to kind of really imagine, like thinking rigorously about like “Okay, what is the likelihood that this comes to pass. Is it a 20% chance? Is it an 80% chance? Or how confident do I feel about this outcome. I think this could happen, but I really don’t know.” Trying to measure those things in the way that we predict is really important.
The other thing with certain kinds of choices that is very important is kind of low probability but highly catastrophic outcomes. I have a whole riff in the book about the way that … kind of the algorithm that Google’s self driving car project uses in making all these kind of short term decisions as it’s driving around. One of the things that it does is it’s constantly looking at the situation and saying “Here are the various things that could happen given where I am in the road.” It ranks them both in terms of probability but also in terms of I’m thinking they call it risk magnitude. How bad would be if this happens. There’s a high probability if I swerve a little bit to the right here that I will ding the car to the right and scratch you know the side of my door. There’s a very low probability that if I swerve a little bit to the left that I will kill a pedestrian in the sidewalk you know to my left. That has a huge risk magnitude right. That’s a terrible thing. Even if it’s very low probability I’m going to avoid that.
There is a whole other sets of exercises you can do if you’re inclined to do this kind of thing and kind of mapping out what is … are there any really catastrophic down sides to one of these paths that are so catastrophic that even if they’re low probability I should avoid them.
Brett McKay: When you talk about, you give the example of should we send signals out to aliens. Low probability but it could be catastrophic if they answer.
Steven Johnson: I went down a crazy rabbit hole with that. I wrote a long piece for the Times magazine about this. This is a question of should we … instead of just listening for signals from outer space should we, now that we’ve identified planets that are actually out there that might potentially harbor life, should we be targeting those planets with messages saying “Hey we’re here, we’re humans. We’re on Earth-
Brett McKay: What’s up.
Steven Johnson: Is anybody living at this address?” There’s a lot of people that think we should and then there are a lot of people that think “Oh my god they’re going to immediately kill us with a death ray of some sort.” You know, Elon Musk is very worried about this. Stephen Hawking was very worried about this before he died. I find that a very interesting kind of choice because one it deals with the existential threats or risks as we were talking about, but too it’s the ultimate long term decision because the transit time for that information given the speed of light in some cases we’re talking about you make the choice to send the message and the consequences of that choice would not be visible for 10,000 years or 50,000 years or something like that. I think it may be the longest term decision that human beings are capable of making. I can’t think of another choice where there would be an actual result that would kind of show up 50,000 years later. Hey, we figured out you know whether this turned out well or not.
Brett McKay: Not my problem.
Steven Johnson: Yeah not our problem. Anyhow, that’s the whole. There’s a longer version of that, kind of the astronomy of it and the astrophysics of it all is pretty interesting as well.
Brett McKay: I wanna go back to a point you made earlier about one thing we can do to sort of fine tune our decision making ability. We can do the mapping where we’re trying to see more options than we otherwise thought there were. Then we can do some prediction where we run some scenarios out, maybe do some red teaming, maybe do an experiment. If you’re a start up, maybe just do a little ad play right, and you can see how people respond to it. Then making the decision itself you talked a lot about reading novels can actually help us fine tune our ability to make decisions. Right now I’m reading … what am I reading right now. “Comanche Moon” by Larry McMurtry. How can reading “Comanche Moon” help me make better decisions?
Steven Johnson: Well you know it’s funny one of those things where if you write about community suddenly it creates this lens that you look at everything through. One of the things that I realized in writing the book is that so many of the best points in stories, in novels, but also I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of in a way the equivalent of a novel in our age which is in a great long format television shows. The Wire and Madmen and Sopranos and all those shows. The moments where you really are leaning forward and just being drawn into the narrative is when a character faces a complicated choice and a full spectrum choice. One of the ways in which we evaluate I think implicitly great narratives is does it bring in the full range of human experience in the choices the characters are forced to make? If it doesn’t, then it’s just kind of superficial and not that interesting. If it does if feels like art.
For instance, again this is TV not novels, but we’ve just been watching Friday Night Lights, the great kind of Texas football show, one of the greatest TV shows of all time. We were watching it with our kids, with our teenage kids, and it’s an amazing show to watch with them because every episode someone in fact normally often multiple you know characters are wrestling with a hard choice where there’s pressure from their peers or the town is doing something or they’re trying to stay true to their ethics but their challenged because of their situation.
I was in the middle of writing Farsided as we were trying this and I was like “This is such a great show” because we watch these people and often what they end up doing, the thing that makes the narrative interesting is that they figure an original surprising solution to the choice, that hard choice that they confronted. Seeing somebody make a creative solution that solves the problem that they are wrestling with, that’s the pay off. It’s like “Oh, it’s a chase scene and he escaped from the bad guy” it’s like “Oh you know the coach figured out a way to keep that player on the team while still managing his relationship with his wife”. It’s great drama right. In a novel, I think a novel can do that even in some ways better because it gives you access to the interior life of the character.
I talk a lot about “Middlemarch”, arguably the greatest novel ever written in the English language I would say. You see there’s a big choice at the center of it that Dorothea Brook has to make and you see her, because Eliot is such a great novelist, you see Dorothea wrestling with this choice and all of it’s complexity. I just think what that does is as I said kind of at the beginning of our conversation you know when we see great fiction in a narrative like that the choices that people are making are not themselves our choices right.
We have different issues presumably. Most of us are not high school football coaches or whatever. When we run these kind of simulations of other people’s lives and particularly when we can see into the kind of inner monologue that people have when they’re making a complicated choice, it’s almost like going to the gym right. It’s like an exercise of your mind, like practicing making choices. Thinking about the implications so that we then turn to our own lives, we’ve had that rehearsal for it.
That’s one of the great arguments for having stories I think in our lives. Having complex stories so it gives us a kind of a practice for our own experiences.
Brett McKay: You use the Osama Bin Laden raid that happened a couple of years ago as an example, as a case study of an organization, a large organization, multiple organizations using this process you laid out. Can you highlight some of the things that they did for example to map, how did they take those mappings to make predictions, and then make that decision ultimately? Just a few highlights.
Steven Johnson: I wanted to put that story in there because you know we tend to celebrate the results of great decisions for understandable reasons. In that case the result of the decision was a daring moonlit raid you know over at Pakistan where they actually do manage to kill the great villain of our time. It’s understandable why you would celebrate that part of it. Before that set of events happened, something else critically important had to happen which is that people had to make the decision of what to do. They actually had to make two decisions. They had to decide is this mysterious figure that we’ve identified in this compound in Pakistan outside of Ahmadabad. Is that Osama Bin Laden and then once they reach reasonable confidence that it was, what should we do? What should we do about it? Should we bomb it? Should we send people in to get him out? Should we try and keep him alive? You know, a whole range of different things.
That process was a nine month process. It was explicitly considered as a process using as you said a lot of the techniques that I talk about in the book. We don’t talk about that enough right. That was the thing that set up the whole success of the raid is that they had gone through and looked at all the different options and thought about it really carefully. Unlike earlier military decisions like weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war, the Bay of Pigs, the rescue attempt to the hostages in the Carter administration. They specifically tried to challenge their assumptions. They had a kind of initial mapping phase where for instance they had one kind of brainstorming process where they were trying to just come up with as many possible crazy ways that they could figure out of identifying who this mysterious guy was in the compound.
If you read the list of them, and that’s kind of reproduced in the book, some of them are just incredibly stupid. They’re going to set up a loud speaker system to say like “This is the voice of Allah. Leave the compound.” It would have never worked, but they were in that kind of divergent stage where they were trying to just propose ideas to get around this mystery basically, solve this mystery.
The other thing was, and this is really important, kind of group decisions. They went through a number of different exercises to challenge their assumptions and to make sure that they weren’t’ victims of group think where everybody gets around the room and people just naturally have a tendency to kind of align with each other. Whatever seems like the most likely explanation the room kind of gravitates towards that. People get increasingly confident that that choice is the right one. They were constantly being asked to challenge their assumptions to evaluate their confidence. All the things that we’ve talked about at every step of the process.
I wanted to spend some time with that narrative one because it’s a great story and creates a little bit of a through line through the book, but it’s also … you think about the questions we ask when we elect our leaders or when we’re contemplating who should be our leaders in government or in a business or whatever. You know I watched a lot of the presidential debates. I’ve watched many many presidential debates in my life, and I don’t remember anyone ever saying as a question “How do you go about making decision? What’s your method?” If you think about it, that is the most important part of the job right. You’re going to elect someone who’s going to make decisions in governing the country and they better be good at it. If they’re bad at making decisions they shouldn’t be running the country.
I wanted to kind of focus on that as an example of leaders that actually did go through these exercises and did use that kind of deliberative process in a case where there was a really positive outcome in the sense that the goals most Americans I think would agree were realized.
Brett McKay: Steven, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Steven Johnson: Well I have kind of an old fashioned website at stevenberlinjohnson.com hosted at Medium but just stevenberlinjohnson.com. This is my middle name Berlin like the city in Germany. Then I’m Stevenbjohnson at Twitter. Those are good places to start.
Brett McKay: Alright well Steven Johnson thanks so much for your time it’s been a pleasure.
Steven Johnson: I really enjoyed it, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Steven Johnson. He’s the author of the book “Farsided: How To Make The Decisions That Matter The Most” it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website stevenberlinjohnson.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.IS/farsided where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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