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The wrong question

Accept no substitutions

Kahneman posits that our mind is organized into a fast-thinking (intuitive, reflexive) part and a slower-thinking (logical or “think it over”) part.

Rod MachadoDo you remember the cartoon showing a high school student taking an eye test at the DMV? It displays a customer service agent holding an eye chart listing the numbers 45, 55, and 65, followed by the letters MPH. The agent asks the student to read the chart followed by the student saying, “55 mph, 65 mph, and 75 mph.” Clearly, the speed limit the student sees is not the speed limit he thinks.

According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow, each of us does something similar when we attempt to answer a difficult question. It turns out that the difficult question we’re asked (or we ask of ourselves) is often different from the question we think about as we formulate an answer.

Kahneman posits that our mind is organized into a fast-thinking (intuitive, reflexive) part and a slower-thinking (logical or “think it over”) part. Since most of us have an intuitive opinion about most things, the fast-thinking part is naturally inclined to offer a quick response to any question we encounter. On the other hand (or cranial lobe), it takes time and effort for the slower-thinking or logical part to thoughtfully answer a difficult question.

Thinking is hard work, which is why the slow-thinking part of our mind often behaves like a couch potato; it’s lazy. This explains why the fast-thinking part often takes the lead in attempting to answer any question we encounter, even if it’s a difficult one.

But what happens when the fast-thinking part of our mind encounters a question that’s either too difficult or too abstract—or it lacks sufficient information upon which to intuit an answer? No problem. It simply formulates a similar but easier question to answer, all without our being consciously aware that it has done so. Kahneman calls this process substitution. Unfortunately, the substitution of an easier question for a difficult one might not provide the information we originally sought.

For example, suppose you see a nick on the leading edge of your propeller. The risk-assessment question the FAA wants you to ask is, “What is the risk associated with operating an airplane with a nicked propeller?” Estimating the probability of a propeller blade fracture is a very difficult question to answer with any precision. After all, the FAA doesn’t maintain a “likely to crack off” statistical database for propeller nicks of variable sizes, shapes, dimensions, locations, and so on.

When we encounter a question of this complexity, the fast-thinking part of our mind often substitutes an easier question for us to answer. It might, for instance, substitute the question Do I know of other pilots who have flown with a nick in their airplane’s propeller? The fast-thinking part can more easily intuit an answer to this similar but easier question. Unfortunately, the answer tells us very little about the risk of operating with a nicked propeller.

If that weren’t disturbing enough, Kahneman suggests that the fast-thinking part of our mind is more likely to generate substitute questions that reflect our current emotional state. Suppose you ask yourself, “Do I feel competent to make this flight?” This question requires introspection and a fair amount of careful thinking. It’s not an easy question to answer. That’s why we are likely to unknowingly substitute an easier question in its place, such as what is my mood right now?

While your mood might have some effect on your competence, it’s certainly not more important than the quantity and quality of your recent training. If you are not aware that you’ve failed to answer your original question, then you’ve likely failed to properly evaluate your ability to fly safely.

Herein lies the problem for pilots. We must be aware of the tendency for the fast-thinking part of our mind to substitute easier and less relevant questions for the ones we originally asked. This is why we should check for substitution every time we encounter any question, especially those deserving serious contemplation.

We need to ask ourselves whether we’ve obtained the information we originally sought. If the answer is, “No,” then we should ask the original question again.

Said another way, accept no substitutions.


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