I first had the opportunity to hear Daniel Kahneman speak in a cramped lecture theatre. This was 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 now have a renewed interest in if his ideas can help us understand why we fail to change.

Substitution of difficult questions

I am struck by a particular finding in his work, which may (at least partly) explain why we fail to change in our lives. Kahneman finds 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 predators?

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

Mental shotgun behind why we fail to change

The original questions are admittedly difficult to answer and require assessing many complex issues.  That is all the more reason to be careful! Substitution might work fairly well sometimes, but it can also be dangerous and lead to serious errors. Particularly, when the stakes are high.

Kahneman attributes substitution 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.  This includes 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. And, this could easily distract us from the original question, if we are not careful.

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”.

Understanding why we fail to change helps us

Substitution also has implications for my work as a coach. It raises the importance of really challenging people to dig deep, particularly when dealing with tough questions. The answer to why we fail to change really lies in an unwillingness to really recognise what is potentially very uncomfortable.

The starting point for all change is, then, an acknowledgment of our current reality. And, if we are not vigilant of unconscious substitution, we risk never fulling engaging with those important questions. Questions, though undoubtedly more difficult to answer, could have a profound impact on our lives.