The Affect Heuristic & What My Children Teach Me

It’s amazing how children (and their books) can teach you things.

One of my big things as a father of two girls is to overly emphasize gender equality, because there will be others who push the other way. One day, my youngest told me that girls couldn’t be rock stars, only singers.

“No,” I said “people of all shapes and sizes can be rock stars.” Then I smiled knowing I had done my job.

“Even squares?” My youngest asked.

Ha, I thought, “no dear” I said, “a square can’t be a rock star.”

My kids teach me things all the time.

A second lesson came from the children’s book D.W. The Picky Eater. In it, the main character declares her disgust for certain foods and demonstrates the affect heuristic, that is, when we let our likes and dislikes play a lead role in how we view the world. D.W. doesn’t like food with eyes or foods which are green – so she doesn’t enjoy the way it tastes. Or so she thinks until the end of the book where she discovers she does in fact, like spinach.

I grew up like this in regards to Disney. The Disney name was synonymous with little kids and once I was old enough to have opinions, I was old enough to see that I wanted nothing to do with childish things. I’m really quite stupid that way sometimes. Now I like Disney. I’ve even been there without my kids.

This was clearly the affect heuristic in action. I disliked Disney World not for any reason that would have to do with the actual theme park like the food, rides, or attractions. I disliked it because it was a kid thing.

I was thinking about this while writing up my notes from reading Thinking Fast and Slow because the big picture takeaway from that book is to think about where my biases lay. Finding biases are hard, it’s like finding a snake in tall grass, but if you know when to stop, and what to look for, you’ll have a better chance of spotting them. If you don’t, you’ll never see them.

And we need to build systems because in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes that we do a really bad of noticing when we do a bad job of decision making. His term is that we have a strong “what you see is all there is” framing in our mind. He gives the example sentence, “Jamie approached the bank.” In your mind you had a picture of this but was Jamie a girl or boy? Was it a river bank or one with money. You moved on to read this sentence without thinking about those other options and you never would have if it wasn’t addressed and you wouldn’t have known you didn’t think about them.

For D.W. and me, this means to question why we judge something as good or not good. D.W. can think about green foods and ask herself, do I dislike eating this because of the taste or the way it looks? I can pause to think about why I choose this or that, and ask if I’m making the right choice.


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