Experience: Kind vs. Wicked
If you ever played tennis, or whenever you watch professional players, you realize that one has to make many decisions on the court. It’s a complex and uncertain game, hard to learn and perfect. But it has one crucial advantage. In tennis, like in most other sports, we typically learn the right lessons from experience.
Unless we close our eyes and ears, we can clearly observe what actions have which consequences. There are hundreds of interactions, which provide immediate, accurate, and abundant feedback to everyone involved. Professional players also have coaches, who provide objective assessments. And the rules of the game don’t suddenly change. Gravity doesn’t stop operating in the middle of a match.
This doesn’t guarantee, of course, that everyone playing tennis will be a champion. But tennis offers decision-makers a kind learning environment. This means that the lessons gained from experience are reliable.
Unfortunately, life and business are rarely like tennis.
In How We Know What Isn’t So, psychologist Thomas Gilovich writes, “The world does not play fair. Instead of providing us with clear information that would enable us to ‘know’ better, it presents us with messy data that are random, incomplete, unrepresentative, ambiguous, inconsistent, unpalatable, or secondhand.”
In fact, many of our important investments and strategies show their results after considerable delay.
Some feedback in life is downright misleading and sometimes we just simply misinterpret things. But we don’t often have coaches that help us correct these.
And look at recent game-changers, like the personal computer, the internet, COVID-19. Such events alter the rules so much that hard-earned experience becomes obsolete.
Hence, in most life circumstances, we are up against wicked learning environments, where our experience is constantly subject to various filters and distortions. Experience still leads to learning, of course, but there is no guarantee that its lessons are reliable.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that we have difficulty differentiating between kind and wicked learning environments. Whatever we learn through observation and participation appears to be the reality. In Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman dubs this syndrome: “What you see is all there is.
As a result, we may think we learned the right lesson, even when we actually didn’t. Given how key our experience is to who we are and what we do, this is a fundamental issue in how we learn about and perceive the world around us.
So, what to do?
To make better decisions, it would be a good idea to determine how wicked a learning environment is, which would entail asking two main questions:
- Is there something important missing from my experience that I need to uncover?
- What irrelevant details are present in my experience that I need to ignore?
This doesn’t mean that we should disregard experience. Yet only by doubting its reliability can we hope to accurately understand the situations we face and learn the right lessons for future decisions.
Based on our book The Myth of Experience with Robin M. Hogarth, and adapted from our Psychology Today blog . Also there’s a video adaptation: