Michael Moynihan: Reading 'Fast and Slow' and overcoming your biases

It’s slightly unnerving, on reading the book, to realise how illogical our decision-making can be, but it’s also hugely instructive
Michael Moynihan: Reading 'Fast and Slow' and overcoming your biases

Sig Mejdal, an assistant general manager with the Baltimore Orioles, is full of praise for Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Our columnist takes a look at why the book is popular - and how some people can't overcome their biases to accept the book recommendation. Picture: Rich Pilling

It's now several years since an inter-county manager recommended a book to me — Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

(No, it wasn’t the manager you’re thinking of. No, not him either.)

A one- or two-sentence book describing the book is a tall order, but in essence Kahneman, a Nobel-winning psychologist/economist, points out how our inherent biases and prejudices affect our decision-making.

It’s slightly unnerving, on reading the book, to realise how illogical our decision-making can be, but it’s also hugely instructive.

Exposing those biases can make them easier to overcome, and that in turn has made it a very popular tome in professional baseball, I see.

In that sport millions of dollars are spent on players, so managers and coaches are using Thinking, Fast and Slow to try to shed themselves of their biases as they appraise talent.

Sig Mejdal, an assistant general manager with the Baltimore Orioles, told The New York Times: “Pretty much wherever I go, I’m bothering people, ‘Have you read this?’

“From coaches to front office people, some get back to me and say this has changed their life. They never look at decisions the same way.”

Others in the sport — general managers, executives of all stripes — chimed in with their agreement in the article, praising the book to the skies.

To me, this is intriguing for a few reasons. First off, it aligns with the perennial hunt for a silver bullet, the magic key that will unlock the secret and help your team to succeed.

The need to find what is, when all is said and done, a short cut. This is understandable. We’re all guilty of trying to impose a narrative on the chaos, in sport as much as anywhere else.

Many years ago I spoke to Munster’s Jerry Flannery about winning the European Cup in Cardiff, and the famous TV shot of people cheering in Limerick and how it lifted the team when screened in the stadium in Cardiff...

As nicely as he could, Flannery pointed out that while that was a good angle for a journalist, winning a title isn’t reducible to an event that could be labelled a plot point in a screenplay. Teams and athletes win through dedicated training, unglamorous repetition, gradual improvement: Not as sexy as a camera shot and not as amenable to a narrative, but true nonetheless.

This is something I think of quite a lot when I see sportspeople praise the influence of certain books. A classic example was James Kerr’s book on the All Blacks, published a few years ago.

Kerr deserves banishment to Mars for popularising this infernal ‘sweeping the sheds’ notion alone, but the flurry of references to his book seems to have eased somewhat, and I wonder if the Flannery principle is partly responsible: that New Zealand’s rugby success is not based on a few hyper-general bromides about management, but is based on a far deeper and less easily explained culture.

Of course, in the modern world we may have to move away from books altogether.

It would be interesting, say, to see how current athletes draw sustenance from something like the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, as an excuse for acting the ghoul — er, demanding the highest possible standards from everyone on the team.

Or perhaps that’s my fault, exercising what Daniel Kahneman might call my Jordan bias, in which a prior expectation that an athlete will prove hard going proves difficult to shake.

It’s not as if Daniel has all the answers, either. In the interests of full disclosure, Sig Mejdal, the Baltimore Orioles official quoted above, confessed that his recommendations aren’t always embraced wholeheartedly: “... others have said, ‘Sig, thanks, but please don’t recommend another book to me.’”

Which of course is bias, pure and simple.

Tiger and the media

Best wishes to Tiger Woods in his recovery from a serious car crash last week. Faithful readers will know your columnist is neither a golf fan nor a worshipper of the Tiger, but I don’t wish him any ill, either. I’m not a monster.

Workers move a vehicle after a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods last week. Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez

Workers move a vehicle after a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods last week. Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez

What interests me isn’t so much the coverage of Woods’s accident as the coverage of that coverage. He’s risen to such single-name, category-dominating status that the actual event itself — his car crash — is not just news, but there’s an appetite for exactly how that news is disseminated.

(An illustrative study in headline contrasts: The Chicago Tribune’s ‘How the media covered golfer’s crash’ on one hand, The New York Post’s ‘Coverage of Tiger Woods ‘accident’ ignores reality in favour of reverence’ on the other.)

Which makes it hardly surprising to learn Woods himself is involved in the broader process. I mentioned the Netflix Michael Jordan documentary, or test of stamina, elsewhere on this page.

That platform now has another big-name sports documentary available, this time on Pele, which leads me to surmise whether visual hagiography is the last box to be ticked by the global sports superstar.

(And to surmise whether it tells you something about all of us at this stage of lockdown that after the 10-episode Jordan death march last year, the Pele documentary is just one standalone episode, a brisk one hour and 48 minutes.)

Anyway, HBO broadcast a Tiger Woods documentary a couple of months ago (Another headline, this one from CNN: ‘Tiger Woods documentary: ‘He’s not going to like this sh*t at all’’). When he crashed last week the golfer was on his way to film a documentary of his own entitled Tiger Woods: My Game.

What does that tell you? It’s not just the news about the crash, or even the news about the news about the crash. It’s about the documentary which will inevitably fold all that news into one package. With full editorial control for the subject, of course.

How much is too much?

This is not a disingenuous question, but when it comes to charging kids for training, how much is too much?

I ask because a pal got in touch to say his child’s underage GAA team were quoted a figure for 10 training sessions by an accredited physical trainer which brought him up short and made me spit out my morning coffee.

A qualified trainer, a full panel of players, a vital component of physical preparation, 10 separate sessions — but €3,500 for the entire package sounds pretty stiff to me.

Or is it? Maybe according to the market it’s perfectly reasonable, but multiplying that figure by the number of underage teams in a club, the number of clubs in a county... is it time for GAAconomics II, the sequel?

Or, like the Giant Rat of Sumatra, is this a story for which the world is not yet prepared?

Roth v Laing

The arrival of March means we edge a little closer to the arrival of the Philip Roth biography by Blake Bailey.

I don’t know if Roth’s been cancelled yet, particularly given the creepy yarn which surfaced last year involving him and William Styron acting the nobber in Dublin 40 years ago, but I’ll probably still get it.

Everybody by Olivia Laing is out next month too — billed as an investigation into bodies with appearances by Nina Simone, Christopher Isherwood, Andrea Dworkin, Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, Malcolm X, and Wilhelm Reich.

Another for the list.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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