Society doesn’t think ahead but we can trick ourselves into doing better

There are mental techniques to bypass our natural short-termism—and to defend our liberty, says Steven Johnson, author of “Farsighted”

HUMANITY IS SURROUNDED by testaments to its ingenuity, from skyscrapers and space travel to open-heart surgery. But it is a perplexing feature of human cognition that people are, at the same time, terrible at long-term planning and managing risk. Individuals smoke today, discounting their health tomorrow; factories pollute today, discounting the environment tomorrow.

Can we do better? Steven Johnson, a popular author of books on science and society, believes it is possible—if we improve the processes by which we make decisions. He explains how with insight, humour and captivating anecdotes in his latest book, “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most” (Riverhead, 2018). “The challenge”, he says, “is how you trick your mind”.

HUMANITY IS SURROUNDED by testaments to its ingenuity, from skyscrapers and space travel to open-heart surgery. But it is a perplexing feature of human cognition that people are, at the same time, terrible at long-term planning and managing risk. Individuals smoke today, discounting their health tomorrow; factories pollute today, discounting the environment tomorrow.

Can we do better? Steven Johnson, a popular author of books on science and society, believes it is possible—if we improve the processes by which we make decisions. He explains how with insight, humour and captivating anecdotes in his latest book, “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most” (Riverhead, 2018). “The challenge”, he says, “is how you trick your mind”.

One way to do that is to be open to outside views, such as those from the fringes or “extremes” of society. “A society where extreme positions are not granted a meaningful voice is a society incapable of fundamental change,” he writes. “Most significant social change first takes the form of an ‘extreme’ position. Universal suffrage, climate change, gay marriage, marijuana legalisation—these are all ideas that came into the world as ‘extremist’ positions, far from the mainstream.”

We interviewed Mr Johnson about why society is so bad at “farsight” and how to get better. After the transcript is an excerpt from the book, on how people at the fringes of New York became the activists behind converting an abandoned elevated railway line into the celebrated High Line park.

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The Economist: Why is it so hard for people and society to think in a “farsighted” way?

Steven Johnson: Complex long-term decisions are intrinsically challenging because they are “full spectrum” decisions: they involve a wide range of variables that interact in unpredictable ways. Think about a decision many people wrestle with: should I move from the city to the suburbs? You’re weighing the social implications of moving; the economic costs and benefits; the impact of the schools on your kids; the politics of living in a car-centric versus pedestrian society; the psychological impact of having more access to nature. You can’t just jot down a simple pros-and-cons list, because all of these questions have different weights to them, and each member of your family might feel differently about them.

The answers do not come naturally to us, which is why it is important to have a process, with distinct stages, where the decision is evaluated. One of the key stages—and one that is frequently overlooked—is an early stage where you investigate whether there are additional options beyond the one or two you started with. The management theorist Paul Nutt calls this going from a “whether or not” decision to a “which one” decision. He studied hundreds of real-world choices made by corporate executives and found that adding that simple, initial step led to a marked improvement in outcomes.

The Economist: Shouldn’t society by now have developed ways to improve our long-term, second-order-effects thinking? Why haven’t we created these institutions or methods?

Mr Johnson: One of the major problems is a simple one: the future has no natural constituency, particularly when we look out beyond a generation or two. This is particularly true in ageing societies like America and Britain, where the elderly vote at much higher rates than the young. But we should also remind ourselves that we are exercising capabilities for long-term thinking that are genuinely new ones. When you decide to buy one consumer product over another because of its carbon footprint, you are making an everyday choice that is shaped by concern about the state of the Earth’s atmosphere decades from now.

The recent debates about the potential threats from artificial intelligence looked ahead on a comparable time scale. This is a new talent for our species. There are many examples of societies that built structures or institutions that were designed to last centuries, but very few examples of societies wrestling with emergent problems that might not arrive for 50 years or a century or more. So it is no surprise we’re not all that good at it yet.

The Economist: What are some of the most promising techniques that society can use to bring people together to apply long-term thinking to problems?

Mr Johnson: The urban-planning profession has devised some wonderful techniques—design charrettes, stakeholder-value models—that enable diverse groups to contemplate options for their community and come to some kind of nuanced decision: should we build a park or a reservoir or a parking lot on this plot of land? They are a role model for the rest of us, which one reason “Farsighted” features a number of stories of successful (and disastrous) urban planning stories.

I was just visiting the d.school [design school] at Stanford and they had a course on AI where students were challenged to imagine second- and third-order consequences of their proposed innovations. It’s kind of a variation of the techniques that the scenario planners developed in the 1970s: if you’re contemplating a decision with long-term consequences, force yourself to concoct three different scenarios about how it turns out. One where things get better; one where they get worse; and one where they get weird. Just the exercise of trying to imagine the final one is incredibly useful, I find. These sorts of exercises should be a central part of any industry that fashions itself as “disruptive”.

The Economist: Perhaps we should give up on humans and let artificial intelligence do it for us? Certainly silicon chips will make better decisions than skeletal chaps, no?

Mr Johnson: There are already some fascinating experiments that suggest machine-learning algorithms can be better at certain kinds of prediction than humans—including one study that analysed a massive repository of data to predict “problem cops” on the Chicago police force. (Shades of the “pre-crime” from Minority Report.) But machines will have their own biases, of course. What we really need is a collaborative model.

It’s been demonstrated again and again in social-psychology experiments that diverse groups make better and more creative decisions than homogeneous groups. You can measure that diversity a number of different wars: age, gender, race, profession. But we will increasingly see that diversity expressed as human/machine diversity. We will still sit around the table as a group and try to make the right choice; it is just that we’ll have an AI at the table as well, contributing its own unique perspective on the decision at hand.

The Economist: You see in the arts and literature a way out. Explain.

Mr Johnson: Every complex choice—particularly the most personal ones—is unique; it is a distinct constellation of forces and variables, never to be repeated. So there are no easy, generalised rules that you can use in adjudicating these kinds of cases. The most important skill is to learn is the ability to see the decision in all its complexity, think through the potential consequences, map all of those different variables. And this is where I think art, and particularly the novel, gives us a wonderful kind of practice, a way of simulating life’s most challenging decisions before we actually make them.

When you read a book like “Middlemarch” and watch Dorothea Brooke wrestle with the torturous decision that is at the centre of that book, you get to see a mind from the inside, that is building a full-spectrum map of a complex choice: its political, social, emotional, financial, even (subtly, this is Eliot after all) sexual implications. The more rehearsals we get by reading that kind of literature, the more sophisticated our perceptions will be when we encounter comparable crossroads in our own lives.

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