January 27, 2011
If I could add one required course to every student’s education, it would involve learning the skill of comparing. You might think that comparing alternatives is the domain of common sense, but it isn’t. It takes actual training. People who study law, engineering, economics, psychology, and business get different subsets of that training. But many people get none. And it’s one of the most important skills that we humans need. Every decision involves some sort of comparison.
In our current system, the skills you need to compare alternatives are broken into little pieces and spread across several disciplines. A business student might learn about the time value of money while the psychology student is learning about confirmation bias. The math major is studying statistics while the religion student is learning that people will believe just about anything if the context is right.
My hypothetical curriculum for a course in Comparing might include the following topics:
Time value of money
The illusion of fairness
Considering the source of the information
Considering the wider context
Limits of human perception
Famous Lies and Hoaxes
If I may overgeneralize for a moment, most disagreements have at their core one or more of these four basic causes:
1. People have different information
2. People have different selfish interests
3. People have different superstitions
4. People have different skills for comparing
Of the four causes for disagreement, one is king over the other three. People with strong skills in comparing alternatives can quickly identify in each other where they have differences in information and in selfish interests, and that can be enough to suggest ways to reach agreement, or at least accommodation. (People with skills in comparing generally don’t engage in debates about superstition.)
Lacking the basic skills needed to compare alternatives, two people with different information and a couple of drinks can argue all night long and produce nothing but bad feelings. The same goes for people with different selfish interests and different ethical/moral standards. But people with good comparison skills can quickly find common ground. In our increasingly complex world, where different cultures are colliding, we’ll all need a lot more talent for making the right comparisons.
Consider the budget debate in the United States. Every knowledgeable observer recognizes that the solution involves both deep cuts in expenses and higher taxes on those who can afford it. And yet our elected officials have framed the issue as one of higher taxes or not, and budget cuts or not. Politicians get away with false comparisons because the majority of voters are not trained in the skill of comparing. Borrowing a strategy from Gandhi, we need to become the change we seek in the government. Leaders will only make rational comparisons, and therefore rational decisions, when they know that the voters can tell the difference.