I first had the opportunity to hear Daniel Kahneman speak in a cramped lecture theatre when I was a fresh faced economics undergraduate grappling with the ideas of so called human rationality. Now, reading Kahneman’s latest book, Thinking Fast and Slow, I can’t help but feel that I should have paid more attention then!

I am struck by a particular finding in his research on heuristics and biases, which I believe (at least partly) explains why so many of us find it difficult to effect change in our lives. Kahneman found that when faced with a difficult question, if a satisfactory answer is not found quickly, we have a tendency to find an easier related question to answer instead. He calls this process of answering one question in place of another “substitution”. And the worry is that substitution is going on in our lives without us being aware of it! Kahneman provides the following as examples of how we might substitute:

Question: How popular will the president be six months from now?
Substitution: How popular is the president right now?

Question: How should financial advisers who prey on the elderly be punished?
Substitution: How much anger do I feel when I think of financial predetors?

Question: How happy are you with your life these days?
Substitution: What is my mood right now?

The original questions are admittedly difficult and to arrive at a well considered answer requires us to deal with other complex issues.  While substitution might work fairly well sometimes, it can also be dangerous and lead to serious errors, particularly when the stakes are high.

Kahneman attributes the substitution tendency to what he calls the “mental shotgun”. Our brains are very good at carrying out many computations at one time. For example, when our eyes are open, our brains generate a 3D representation of what we see, including shapes of objects and their positions in space. When we make voluntary judgements however, we may compute more than we want or is needed. Kahneman finds that our control over intended computations is far from precise – hence the use of the word shotgun.

The point here is that an intention to answer one question may automatically evoke another, which could then easily distract us from the original question, if we are not careful.

So, what does this all mean for change?

Effecting change invariably requires us to first ask and then answer difficult questions about our lives, careers, relationships and belief systems. A bias towards substitution could lead us to answer an easier question instead of the one we had originally asked ourselves, without us realising. This could then lead to a completely different course of action (or inaction) than would otherwise have resulted!

For example, rather than grapple with the question “what would I really like to do in life/work”, we might inadvertently respond to the easier question “what do I see myself doing based on my current competencies”. Another example might be; “how happy am I about my career generally” being substituted with “how do I feel about the project I am currently working on”.

Substitution also has significant implications for my work as a coach. It highlights the importance of sufficiently challenging the coachee to dig deep, particularly when dealing with tough questions.

I believe the starting point for all change is an awareness and acknowledgment of our current reality. If we are not vigilant of unconscious substitution, we risk never fulling engaging with those important questions, which though undoubtedly more difficult to answer, could have a profound impact on our lives.