Arriving at Beginner's Mind: Daniel Kahneman's Story
Aug 24, 2010
In the mid-1960s, Daniel Kahneman lectured to a group of Israeli air force flight instructors about how rewarding positive behavior works and punishing mistakes doesn't.
An irritated flight instructor gets up and says, "I've often praised people warmly for beautiful executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse. And I've screamed at people for badly executed manuevers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don't tell me that reward and punishment doesn't work." Other flight attendants agreed.
In an aha-moment, that ultimately led to his Nobel Prize in 2002, Daniel Kahneman realized a startling fact: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.
How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomena called regression towards the mean. That is, in any series of random events, an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed by, due purely to chance, a more oridinary one. So student pilots all had a certain ability to fly the planes; with training, their skill level was improving slowly but not noticeable from one manuever to next. Any especially good or bad performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. If a pilot made an extraordinarily good landing, odds were that he'd perform worse the next day; and if his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had no benefit. On the other hand, if the pilot made an extraordinarily bad landing, odds were that he'd perform better the next day; and if his instructor had punished him, it would appear that the critcism did him some good. The apparent pattern would be: student does well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor yells at student, student improves.
While those instructors in Kahneman's class thought screaming was a powerful education tool, in reality it made no difference at all.
When I was growing up, I often heard the story of a dog under a king's chariot thinking that his manuevers are causing the chariot to turn; but that dog mistook correlation for causation. Kahneman's story reminds me that our certainy about causation is often suspect too. With causation and correlation both out of the window, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki's practice seem just right: "We must always strive to keep a beginner's mind."