New Year’s resolution: get smarter.
I do not like this quasi-obsession with making promises for new beginnings whenever January 1 shows its face on the first page of a new calendar. I do not think they last, these attempts to become a new person in a new year. Most of the classical New Year resolutions die out about the time we do not have to think twice before dating correctly our correspondence.
At the same time, as humans we are blessed with the capacity to learn throughout our lives, to train our minds and bodies to achieve new feats. This is exciting, and a motivation into itself to do that which is the most typical for the first days of the New Year: to appraise the past and think about the future.
I want therefore to ask: how has 2011 been for you? For me, to quote Umair Haque’s blog entry at HBR, it’s been the best and worst of times. I got my first monograph published, started a new and very exciting research project and became assistant professor at the university I liked best in my region. At the same time, my health reminded me that without paying attention and care to my body it will decay much faster than it should. On top of this, my personal life has been going through some most unpleasant downs.
How could this be? Leaving luck to the side, how could I manage some things so well and some others so poorly? An answer came to me during the winter break when I got my hands on the best book I read last year, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The Nobel Prize winning author writes in a language meant for the non-specialist reader about how our minds work when we make decisions in conditions of uncertainty. I will not spoil you the pleasure of reading the book for yourselves, but to summarize the main point, it appears that more often than not we reach systematically wrong decisions because we rely too much on our intuitive, unconscious, low-energy cost thinking and we do not activate our statistical, conscious and highly demanding mode of thinking.
Our brain tricks us in relying too much on autopilot driving, even when we do not have enough information about the road conditions and the destination point. It does that in order to save energy, according to a law of least effort. Most of the time this works out fine, but when too many things are unknown, we are bound to default on routines, and thus not evaluate a new situation appropriately.
Kahneman gives a personal example to which I, and many of us teachers, immediately could relate to. When grading student exams consisting of two essay questions, he normally would read through and give points to the first question in one student booklet and then move on to the second question. This had been his grading style for a long time. At some point though he realized that the grade he put on student’s first question almost always influenced the grade he was likely to give for the second question, regardless of the actual quality of the essay. The grader’s brain was “primed” to judge the second text in light of the first one. In order to improve exam grading, Kahneman forced himself to read the first question from all students, grade it, and only afterwards take up question number 2. As he writes in the book, this was done at great expense of energy on his part, as the brain constantly wanted to revert to the first, less costly, method.
The second way to grade exams is the smarter one, the more just one, but also the more laborious. This is where the word “resolution” comes into play. As I warned the reader at the very beginning, I do not want to make false promises to myself in this new year. But I do want to be more resolute in using my conscious, analytical thinking. There are some tricks to get us going along this path, some easier to adopt than others: eat turmeric and chocolate, sleep more, learn a new language. Get smarter, as they say. And not just about grading.