woensdag 5 november 2014

Levinas and Kahneman

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman had just graduated when in 1955 as a conscript into the Israeli army he was commissioned to set up a new interview system for the entire army. The interviews were meant to produce a picture of the recruits and to judge whether these were suited for the officer training.

The existing system did no longer satisfy, because it gave the interviewers freedom to do what they found most interesting, which was to learn about the dynamics of the spiritual life of the interviewee. Ánd because the overall assessment of the recruit by the interviewers was decisive for the final decision, while scientific evidence indicated that such assessments were unreliable.

Kahneman attacked both objections. Instead of free interviews he opted for standardized, factual questions. And instead of interview summaries he preferred statistical summaries of seperately assessed characteristics of the recruit. The final score for fitness for combat tasks would be calculated using a standard formula, without further interference by the interviewers.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman justifies his choices as follows. “By focusing on standardized, factual questions I hoped to fight the halo effect, whereby favorable first impressions affect judgments later on. I told the interviewers that they did not have to worry about the future adjustment of the recruit to life in military service. Their only task was to get the relevant facts about their past and to use that information to score each personality dimension. ‘It is your job to provide reliable data’, I told them. Just leave the predictive validity to me’, by which I was referring to the formula that I would draft to combine their specific scores”.

Then he continues: “Among the interviewers an uprising almost broke out. These intelligent young people found it hard to accept that they were instructed by someone who was barely older than they were, to turn off their intuition and to concentrate fully on dull factual questions. One of them protested by saying: “You make robots of us!” That’s why I came up with a compromise. “If you do the interview exactly as I have said, then I will satisfy  your desire: then close your eyes, try to imagine the recruit as a soldier and give him a score on a scale from 1 to 5.”

The new interview procedure proved to be a significant improvement with respect to the old one. The sum of the six ratings predicted performance of the soldiers much more accurately than the summary reviews of the previous interview method, although still far from perfect. They were advanced, says Kahneman, from ‘totally useless’ to ‘somewhat useful’.

At the same time Kahneman observed, to his surprise, that the intuitive judgment formed by the interviewers at the time of the closed eyes, also satisfied very well, even as well as the sum of the six specific scores. He tells: “A general lesson I took from this episode was that one should not just rely on intuitive judgments – either of yourself or of others – but also that one should not automatically reject them.”

The question I ask myself in this story of Kahneman is: does the blindfolded intuition actually  function as a sop? Doesn’t he actually believe it? Should employees just accept that formulas are used and that they can not develop their creative involvement?

Kahneman is skeptical indeed. He believes that we in general grossly overestimate our own intuitive skills and expertise and human knowledge. And that therefore sober observations and measurements which are laid down in algorithms and formulas are preferable. Regardless whether it comes to the assessment of recruits, the prediction of wine prices or valuation of a painting.

Such a view easily provokes the kind of resistance that we already encountered above: “We are made into robots!” What then remains of our highly personal individuality and creativity? Do not our lives become dull and impersonal?

I do understand the resistance, but yet I tend to share Kahneman’s view. The reason is that  I am sufficiently soaked in the skepticism which also Levinas displays opposite the euphoria of the highly personal thinking which is so pleased with itself but permanently produces illusions. However much the glorification of the creative individual fits into the romantic society we still are, Levinas’s and Kahneman’s skepticism thereabout is very much in place. So, let Kahneman use his sop, because we can do without a lot of our self-righteous euphoria.

What can nót miss is a different kind of vividness. Namely that of the authentic encounter with another human being or beings. I even think that fulfillment of that desire can make redundant a lot of overly focused attention on individuality in our society. When it comes to that deficit Kahneman leaves us, apart from the sop, empty-handed. Because he speaks little about such encounters between people.

Levinas even more.

Also see Levinas and Empathy