If Donald Trump can be elected President, a specific word used less often adjectively – and most assuredly not in conversations in the West Wing prior to January 20th, 2021 – should be afforded a wide berth in usage and form. My suspicions of non-usage would hold true under the most rigorous of examination … as would your wonderment.
Any casual observer of Presidential speeches over the past 4 years bears this out. It is not a personal attack on his character or a dip into my political pool of ideas. This is simply a listener’s ear reflecting on the words heard. His words were simple, repetitive, disjunct, unfocused, and possibly the least inspiring I’ve ever heard from a President in my lifetime. Before you throw me into the deep end, I do have positive, conservative presidential planks upon which I stand.
Today is about word usage. A “thing” the Donald did not latched onto and probably had no capacity to do so. It wasn’t in his character. He’s a rather strange business guy who happened to win the Electoral College, but not the popular votes, with a simple MAGA message. You can argue “marketing genius”, and I’d be hard-pressed to deny you a victory. Hey, I applaud the effort. None of the other candidates had the gumption to do what he did. America wanted a change … and, boy, we got one.
Anyway, my word? Heuristics. Show me one instance when this was spoken at, in, or above 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and I’ll admit my fault posthaste. What I won’t apologize for is my so titled “You’re A Heuro” wide berth usage.
Making an educated guess here. You may – or may not – have ever heard of a heuristic technique to problem solving … but you’ve done it thousands of times. It’s, practically, the easiest way through human anti-OCD dilemmas such as when to add ingredients to boiling water, pinches and dashes vs micro-measuring, and the investing rule of 72. On a more personal level, my monthly checkbook high wire act follows this noun’s wonderful guidance on a 30-day cycle because pennies don’t zero out in my three-ring checkbook circus.
Simply stated, we use this technique to shortcut … to estimate … to approach problem solving that is not supposed to be perfect or rational. We can reach a short-term goal that is sufficient this way without the need for exactness or perfection. In a two-word phrase: “Mental Shortcuts” … The true definition of what we just saw f..ou ..r years …well, more on this shortly.
In the 1970’s, researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman identified three key heuristics that help us problem solve: representativeness, anchoring and adjustment, and availability. I’m glad Tversky and Kahneman narrowed the field down to these three ’cause the sands of time in my hourglass move quickly through.
Remember the show, “The Paper Chase”? James T. Hart enters law school to study contract law under the professorship of Charles W. Kingsfield. Musty old buildings and hazy early morning button down sweaters hung perfectly off the shoulders of young students whose lineage included Wall Street lawyers expecting perfection from their offspring. Professor Kingsfield, actor John Houseman, spoke eloquent, exacting words down to his opening remarks after the theme song: “You teach yourselves the law but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.”
Strange to me then, but not now. The word mush. Every time I watched the show, this word was emphasized by Mr. Houseman. Of course it was … every time. Duh? I can hear it as I type. Thirty words above – over and over – scripted in brilliance for a show built around a fictitious law school embedded in my mind. … and mush sticks! I never missed a season or episode. “Mr. Haaart”, as Professor Kingsfeld would say, Thomas Craig, Willis, Elizabeth, and Jonathan – all the characters contractually bound to my evening’s entertainment. A professor’s thick English accent echoes in a teenager’s recall inside my, uhm, older skull. When I hear an older gentleman speak with an English accent, he must be brilliant and of high stature. He must be filling young skulls full of mush somewhere … somehow. I know it without any further examination. He fits a category familiar in my mind. This is Representativeness heuristic.
In as much as I don’t want to use him as an example, I must. U-turn into politics here (if politics is even the word …). It’d be harder to insert a used car salesman here, believe me – and that’s sayin’ a lot. One phrase, “We’ll build the wall and Mexico will pay for it!”. Using that as an anchor along with all the other git-with-me slogans, he ascended to the highest office upon a horse … and saddled us with some really sloppy language along the path. I’m no Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, or Alcott here, but I do know more than four adjectives, so judgement is available to me.
From that lofty promise, and woke to the reality that Mexico wasn’t going to write a single check, Trumpers swerved into weird trade theory that, oh, the money will come via excess deals favoring the ole U.S. of A. With that, cement began to pour and photo-ops continued up and until the day before the inauguration of a new President. The wall more unfinished than completed. Arguably, this should be the motto of his Presidency.
Setting that goal during his campaign was lofty and an anchor. Really, at the time a far-fetched, unattainable one … and he probably knew it. He also knew – being a marketing “guy” – that setting a high water mark makes lesser promises look good even though they are well above reasonable. This isn’t genius. It’s a sales technique. It was a way to become President when the country wanted change for the sake of change. In fairness, Barack Obama was able to ascend to the presidency through the message of change, but his path wasn’t through deception. It was grass roots change at a fundamental level.
President Trump set an anchor, adjusting goals and expectations from there. Most of these, however, ended up being far above rational and reasonable which, in the end, cost him a second term. As the coronavirus crisis hit us, he doubled down and raised the bar, defying the science, ignoring Governors’ requests for a unified response, PPE distribution errors, lack of a world-wide cohesive strategy with allies, .. on and on … When we needed a leader with specific goals and expectations and not a salesman, he failed.
Setting a high starting point in a negotiation can lead to wonderful results – a higher settling price, for example. Starting lower most often results with a different, lower outcome. I get The Donald’s initial enthusiasm. As a reality star entering the race against 15 other candidates, he had to sell himself to America as a candidate, not just a t.v. personality. As Melania reportedly said to him, “If you do this, you know you’ll win …” and win, he did. He just never stopped being that salesman. Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic.
Oh boy, the news. Geesh. Aaaand… Facebook. The more you see, the more you’ll see. If you happen across an increase of cute puppy adoption news stories, chances are good more cute puppies will seem to cross your path in the coming days. We see what we expect to see based on recent related events and situations in our lives. If you don’t think the news effects your life, think again.
We used to practice affirmation cards in sales years ago. These little one phrase “Get up and go …” words and incentives to increase blood flow all the way through the contract signing pens used to complete quota-satisfying regional manager’s goals. I never quite realized I was using the Availability heuristic technique because – between shaving the few whiskers I had and trying to plan my work-arounds with a big, black Ford Thunderbird – there was little time to go deeper into Earl Nightengale’s quotes other than: “You become what you think about”. I thought about the huge gas and oil expense about to be burned up in my tank and the number of “no’s” ahead on the other side of closed doors.
Fortunately, doors began to open after a few years and I enjoyed my career. Also, what was frequently in front of me did influence what I saw. You are urged to quickly arrive at a conclusion based upon a number of related events or situations that come to mind. You may over/under estimate the probability of something happening in the future, however, so be careful how you evaluate the information.
There’s a lot of information here. Less descriptive than I prefer. I like puppies, rainbows, and unicorns more than politics, 70’s t.v. shows, and dead motivational speakers. Heuristic is a great word, and if I accomplished one thing – that being your increased awareness of this one magical term … it was well worth sacrificing two early morning hours.
You’re my heuro for putting up with this today. I write because I need to. Make good decisions today. We can’t all be President, but we can certainly solve our problems in a practical way. Not guaranteed to be perfect, the heuristic techniques we use every day help us through the immediate problems we face.
I’ll end with my favorite. “Live the story you want to tell”. A bit of mush to feed the soul? You bet, “Mr. Haaaart”!