In a commencement speech he gave during his son’s graduation ceremony last month, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. wished his audience bad luck, betrayal, loneliness, failure, pain and unfair treatment, among other misfortunes. He explained that he would want the new graduates to personally experience these on occasion to ensure that they learn the value of good luck, loyalty, friendship, sportsmanship, fairness and compassion.
Here’s that part of his speech:
This is a wise perspective on how people should not take for granted the advantages and privileges they enjoy. The advice also makes sense from a point of view of human learning and decision making. Our research and that of other cognitive psychologists suggest that we are masters at learning from personal experience. The downside, however, is that we often fail to truly understand things that lie beyond it. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls this syndrome “what you see is all there is.”
The curse of personal experience
Society venerates experience. We want leaders with outstanding track records, government officials who have worked in relevant departments, and veteran football coaches. Experience is deemed a sine qua non for an accurate understanding of the world. The process of learning through experience comes so naturally to us that we often feel confident and at ease with experience-based decisions that require little explicit thought.
Yet this innate ability comes at a cost. Experience can be filtered or distorted in a wide variety of ways. We may be missing crucial evidence or be exposed to irrelevant information, which inevitably cloud our judgment. Stereotypes and misperceptions subsequently can get reinforced and calcify. Biased experience leads to biased intuition about reality.
There’s really nothing to match the experience gathered by having personally observed or lived through a certain situation. We immediately get attuned to a problem if we suffer from it ourselves. For instance, many influential people found or fund organizations that help solve a pertinent issue, often because they or people close to them are personally affected by it.
Learning from non-occurrences
Unfortunately, personal experience is limited. Things that we don’t experience personally are bound to be discounted or ignored to a certain degree. For example, not being disabled and not being able to encounter many people with a disability during one’s daily life leads to an underestimation of their prevalence, concerns and issues.
Can we then learn from others’ experience to avoid the difficulties of learning by doing? Internet is full of helpful advice on how we should take advantage of others’ misfortunes and knowledge to save time and effort. While research suggests that this is indeed possible, there may be a caveat. If we perceive ourselves to be better than others, we may be tempted to believe that we won’t fail as others would. Hence, others’ misfortunes can actually lead us to become overconfident about our own chances of success.
We thus need to find a way to correctly take into account the wide variety of unwanted experiences that are thankfully beyond our own. In our previous post, we wrote about the late cognitive psychologist Hillel Einhorn, who called these events “non-occurrences:” things that we don’t have that we would not want to have. Bad luck, betrayal, loneliness, loss, pain and unfair treatment often enter into this category. Until we develop this ability, however, we can only hope that our loved ones, next generations and future leaders personally experience them on rare occasions and in a way that drives them to prevent these from happening to others.