Theory Induced Blindness

I read recently about Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s ‘theory induced blindness‘ that suggests that often our theories of how the world works, blind us to how the world really works. For some reason, I can’t find an original source for Kahneman saying this, but it seems pretty much in line with his wisdom on other matters. 

So here is my list of theory induced blindness that currently damages our ability to handle problems:

  • Free market economics, which suggests free markets are like gravity, a law of nature, rather than something that by definition needs rules and regulations of it isn’t a market
  • Rational economic man/woman theories, which suggest we behave rationally in line with economic theory, when clearly we often don’t
  • Climate change denial: to accept the data would mean accepting solutions you don’t like, so the theory is that its a liberal conspiracy
  • You can fix the US deficit without raising taxes (No one that I know of thinks you can fix it without cutting spending). I guess this is a spin off from the famous Laffer curve of the Reagan era that said that cutting tax rates raised revenue.
  • You can predict the Stock Market and stock picking mutual funds can do better than the market (70% don’t in a given year and the 25% that does better changes each year)
  • And I am sure my examples demonstrate I suffer from this too, but I do like this slogan from a mug for Economists:
Practice & Theory Mug
And Here’s Dan
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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Economic Conflict, Environmental Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Theory Induced Blindness

  1. Börje Vickberg says:

    Well if a theory is elegant, fairly easy to learn and compelling visible explain phenomena wins the happy followers. A supporter as learned and accepted the theory and started using it as a tool in their reasoning becomes easily lost . There will be psychologically very difficult to detect its flaws. One has a tendency to cling to their faith and to trust all the other experts who have accepted the theory. Observations on phenomena that do not fit with the theory tends to ignore. One can accept that there are explanations that you may not see . But there is nothing wrong with the theory. It’s very exhausting to do away with a conviction.
    It is a deeply human behavior and economists are not the only people who may suffer from theory induced blindness.
    How is it that it’s difficult to travel by train in Sweden in 2014 ? The theories that the “market” will find the appropriate solutions, and that competition is a good thing is seductive . These theories are combined with the perception that that in itself is a bad thing that the state owns and operates the enterprise. This creates blindness to the effects such that the maintenance is unprofitable , various entrepreneurial drive in each other’s way , it does not bear to remove snow from the rails and more. When the former Conservative leader and later Director-General points out , they beheaded the messenger. Observations on phenomena that do not fit with the theory disregarded.
    During much of the last century was marked by Sweden of the theory that a strong society would take care of the citizens. The couple Myrdal was influential in theory construction. Children who were judged to be in need of this was placed in the community designed orphanage. The idea was good because the theory was good . The testimony that signaled drifts did not impact. It’s very exhausting to do away with a conviction. With some difficulty in making society today apology and some of the victims compensated .
    This is a modest example of policy, One might say that it is in the policy mission to create theory -induced blindness. The story should scare us . Totalitarian regimes that legitimize itself with Nazi and communist theories have had a frightening ability to create and maintain blindness. North Korea is currently still . Talent and education is no panacea against theory -induced blindness. There are talented and educated people in Sweden who are living in the best of health with his blindness.

    In the sciences , there are , as Kahneman , shown theory induced blindness. This can sometimes go over using the power of thought , new discoveries or cross-fertilization from other disciplines. Then usually what is called paradigm shift occur and there is a change in scientific thought patterns and role models.
    The history of science is full of such . So while the political story that closely related to what religions have achieved.

    What are we blind to today? By definition , we can not see it . Among the so-called management fads , it would be a lot of theories that induce blindness. When weight of pee diapers are production targets in nursing homes, when police prioritize measurable trifles when patients unreflective become customers , then you are , if not blind , so at least purblind .
    When future consultants proclaims happily against hefty payment , what they see in their crystal balls , it’s time to insecure intellectually revolver. Mortgaging the future to support its theory is a proven method to create blindness. Much misery has been created in the names of the future utopia or eternal life.

    The concept of theory -induced blindness can be applied more generally.
    Borje Vickberg

    • Thanks @Borje Vickberg for your excellent comment. In my conflict work I use a number of tools to counter this problem. From Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment I use the idea of consciously applying multiple perspectives or paradigms to a problem, not just one. So I would in your rail example apply game theory, free market economics, welfare economics, decision theory and maybe my own conflict theories (see top of blog for info). I also use Bayes Theorem that suggests we mindfully look at any new piece of information to see how it should change our mind. And then I have a check list of my own around and mapping all we know about something by asking: what is it we know we know and what evidence is there? What is it we don’t know we know? What do we have in our mental files that is useful? What is it we know we don’t know? Our research agenda for this issue. And best of all our blind spots: what is it we don’t know we don’t know. Once I have this map of the subject I look for blank spots on the map. I try to think of the opposite world view. I think of my past errors and blind spots in similar situations. What is contrary to my self righteousness. Where haven’t I looked? What am I most afraid of finding in this area? So its not hard to do better in conflict in finding out what is real, though I remain sceptical and open to being wrong and learning from my mistakes. And in science I tend to follow Karl Popper who thought theories should be continually subject to attempts at disproof and never finally ‘true’ just heavily tested and so probably ok….

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