You’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Steven Johnson has produced a book that serves as a valuable response to that celebration of spontaneity. Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most makes more sense to me as someone who has written about our need for conversations in the American “public square,” our use of information to solve problems and reduce polarization, and our responsibilities as producers and consumers of journalism in service to society’s pursuit of wisdom. I plan to ponder Johnson’s book. I Didn’t Read It, But I Did Respect the Author on Book-TV (#DRIBDRAB) when I watched him in mid-September.
Johnson said he sees the irony in the eight-year gestation period this book required after he first started taking notes on the subject. The result is a connection-making resource whose assessment of how we think—and how we should think—incorporates insights from neuroscience, psychology, probability theory, philosophy, and even literature. He suggests every high school student should take a similarly interdisciplinary course covering our thought processes at their best; it’s crucial preparation for what he calls the occasional “full-spectrum decisions” in our lives. We need to know these decisions will take some time and will benefit from a substantial mental toolkit.
This is a secular book. I don’t know whether Johnson would mind this additional suggestion: A Catholic or other faith-based school could expand this course into an exploration of “discernment,” a promotion of one’s spiritual toolkit alongside one’s mental abilities, and a revelation that the sciences, liberal arts, and humanities all belong in our high-stakes syllabus. Students and their families need this reminder today as the tendency in planning one’s college career is to emphasize particular, narrow fields of study rather than the full spectrum of learning that prepares us for those full-spectrum decisions.
Those decisions include such questions as whom one should marry, where one should live, and which job one should take. There are many variables to be considered in each of these judgments whose consequences are profound for oneself and others.
Yet, in many people’s minds, “the science of complex decision-making has been stagnant for 250 years,” Johnson points out. Most people use one form or another of the standard “pros and cons” table of two lists—an approach that is seen explicitly described in writings from more than two centuries ago.
This is where Johnson’s book starts making a world of difference. He notes that decision-making theory actually has become much more advanced in recent decades. Instead of focusing on a “whether or not” choice about one single option, today’s updated scholarship urges us to make “which one?” choices after we have expanded the number of options and made prudent predictions about the directions in which each of them will point.
Importantly, echoing the recommendations in Pope Francis’s message on journalism for the 2018 World Communications Day, this expansion of choices and insights requires welcoming a diversity of inputs from people with different perspectives. It demands a consciousness of future consequences, not merely a snap judgment about what solves the immediate problem immediately. It requires us to think imaginatively and purposefully, perceiving where bad decisions might lead and generating alternatives that can create more freedom and clearly better outcomes. The reading of great novels, Johnson points out, boosts our imagination by helping us see how a variety of characters in different situations handled their life choices in distinctive ways, with a range of results.
We often trap ourselves inside one story, our own self-centered and pre-shaped narrative, he warns, when actually we need to spin many stories that incorporate the possibility of good or bad or even “weird” outcomes. (For a related exploration of maximizing our freedom to choose wisely, sometimes by thinking outside the box, check out the “Ted Radio Hour” program on “Decisions.” That recent NPR show, especially its discussion of “choice architecture,” reveals how careful we should be in managing our decisions and our contexts for making them.)
Saint Francis of Assisi was all about generating alternatives so as to nurture good decisions. He accepted God’s call to “rebuild my church.” At first, he expressed his acceptance in a personal, material-centered, arguably narrow way—namely, by repairing a broken-down church building. But God set him free to view his mission more imaginatively, allowing both constructive sacrifice and contrarian joy, and even a willingness to look “weird” in the eyes of others so as to offer them truly “alternative” information and formation. Embracing the Gospel, with its wealth of stories about good choices and bad choices, and especially about the overriding choice to pursue Christ’s peace and human wholeness, he cultivated “full-spectrum decisions” based on a full-spectrum toolkit.
His litany of remedies is expressed in the much-loved Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which is very Franciscan even though it was not written by the saint. That source of connections between the City of Man and the City of God, with its ability to transcend the instinctive, self-centered “pros and cons” way of thinking, must have influenced Pope Francis in his World Communications Day message on journalism. As I say in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, the Pope concluded his message with a paraphrase of the Peace Prayer focused on news as an aid, not an obstacle, in society’s pursuit of healing and peace.
The flow of news, when it is prudently managed and shared generously, with a love for people and their diverse stories as well as an accountability to past, present, future, and the timeless, with the goal of seeing connections and starting conversations, can be an excellent tool for society’s decision-making. It might even help us realize that more of our decisions are more important to more people than Johnson assumes in his book. Whereas the “Blink” approach is well-suited to the mind frame of breaking news, speed, and excitement, the “Farsighted” approach is the better one for discerning about things that matter—and, more basically, respecting communication because things do matter.