Culture

Slow Down, Everyone, You're Moving Too Fast

Three examples of when stopping to think would save businesses and society from a bad reaction.

Unsafe thinking zone.

Photographer: Jack Atley/Allsport

For Lucky Whitehead, the past two weeks must have been surreal. Whitehead, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, was released (that is, fired) by the team after reports surfaced that he had been accused of shoplifting in Virginia and then failed to show up for a court date, leading to the issuance of a warrant for his arrest. Whitehead protested that he had not been in Virginia at the time, but the team turned a deaf ear to his pleas. As matters turned out, he was telling the truth. The local police admitted that the suspect was somebody else, who had given them Whitehead’s name. No matter, said the Cowboys. He had been in trouble a little too often. The team did not want him back.

About the same time, Olive Garden was being forced to apologize, abjectly and publicly, for a threatening email to a pasta lover who was blogging about his experiences eating his way through the restaurant chain’s entire menu. Although the email purported to be from the legal department, it appears to have been generated by a bot that crawls the web looking for misuses of the company’s trademarks. The bot discovered the words “Olive Garden” pasted all over the blog, and the email followed. As a result, the chain was inundated by unfavorable publicity.

And then there’s this week’s wave of internet delight over the “news” that psychiatrists had been suddenly set free from the strictures of the Goldwater rule, the ethical precept that prohibits comment on the mental status of public figures whom the doctors themselves have never examined. But nothing of the sort had occurred. Social medianites (perhaps inspired by misleading headlines) had misunderstood a statement by the American Psychoanalytic Association, a group that is unrelated to the American Psychiatric Association, which promulgated the Goldwater rule.

What these examples have in common is that in each case the error stemmed from the felt need to act in haste. People acted from different motives, but they all reacted much too fast to news they should have taken time to digest. Outside the realm of the abstract, when we think fast, we tend to reason poorly.

Let’s consider our three examples.

Lucky Whitehead: The Cowboys, like most National Football League teams, were intent on separating themselves from any hint of scandal. Just a few years ago, professional sports were beleaguered by charges that they tended to soft-pedal or even cover up misfeasance by their players. Now they try to be squeaky clean, often releasing the accused long before the allegations have been investigated. 1  The predictable effect is to punish the innocent in the effort to get the guilty.

Olive Garden: Worried like every company about misuse of its trademarks but unable to police the vastness of the web, Olive Garden evidently uses a bot to find offending sites. Makes sense. But the rest of the process asks for trouble. The automatically generated threatening email is chilly and without any understanding of nuance. Had human beings been involved, and taken the time to think, they would have realized that the existence of the site -- it’s called AllofGarden.com (get it?) -- is a boon to the company. 2  Instead, what ensued was mockery and bad publicity.

The Goldwater Rule: One is not sure quite what to say. What actually happened was this: The American Psychoanalytic Association (abbreviated APsaA, which looks like a typographical error) informed its roughly 3,500 members via email that the group was not going to change its stance against commenting as an organization on public figures, and reminding them that the Goldwater Rule applies only to members of the American Psychiatric Association. This represented no change in policy by anybody, but news sites and social media erupted with delight at the tidings that psychiatrists could now comment on President Donald Trump’s mental status. If not for the felt need of editors to stay ahead of the information curve, reporters could easily have tracked down the truth before the story hit screens. As for social media, well, that particular barn door can never quite be closed. (APsaA made a desperate effort to slow down the storm on Twitter, but that cat had left the barn before they could get their boots on to clean up the spilled milk.)

All of these errors arose because of the felt need for instant response. Yet when we think fast, we reason poorly. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant 2011 best-seller “Thinking, Fast and Slow” divides our processes into what he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is swift and intuitive and almost unconscious in its responses; System 2 is cautious and plodding and analytical. System 1 has occasional advantages. For example, expertise gained through repetition resides there. (Think firefighters and chess masters.) But System 1 is also home to most of our cognitive biases. System 2 is engaged more rarely, and apparently requires more of our energy. (Kahneman describes it as lazy.) It is deliberative, weighing evidence and argument. It is the home of logic and reasoning, deductive reasoning in particular.

Of course we need System 1. Without it we would never be able to drive a car, judge a tone of voice or hit a baseball. But some decisions are important enough that they should always engage System 2 -- the part of the mind that reasons. Our three examples involve decisions on whether to discharge an employee, accuse a bystander of trademark infringement, 3  or share the “news” of a change in a major psychiatric policy. None is so trivial that it should be left to an immediate reaction.

Social media cannot be reined in. It exists in a sort of hemi-world where instant, often emotional, responses are the norm. 4  (Yes, you’re right, the president of the United States does provide the best example.) Politics, too, seems unlikely to be rescued from the grip of passion and instinctive response.

But businesses for profit like the Cowboys and Olive Garden should do better. The immediate costs of their errors for acting too fast may at first be cast on others, as Lucky Whitehead and a guy who just likes pasta found out. But the long-run cost is to reputation. And that’s something a business can’t afford to lose.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Usually not their stars, though.

  2. True, we are assuming that these are non-lawyer human beings.

  3. Yes, I count the bot as engaging System 1, not System 2, precisely because it is designed to react instantly to a particular pattern. This is not to say that all bots engage System 1.

  4. Also snark and trolling, both of which require some thought. But few social medianites are as good at either as they think they are. (That’s an example of snark, and in fewer than 140 characters, not counting this parenthetical.) And, yes, corporate snark, when done well, can attract positive attention.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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