The Bias for the Short-term


We all know how difficult it is to practice long-term thinking. Indulging yourself with  crappy food, allowing too short sleeps or skipping  your exercise and to go for a beer with your friends instead  are just some examples of the deeds where short-term interest wins the long term.

My colleague from Germany, Dr. Pero Micic, has published a interested book where he casts some light over the fact, why short term prevails over long term. The answer is interesting while it is also quite obvious: Things that happen here and now have a lot more emotional content. It is the affection that buys us to prefer here and now over long-term.  The art of the long view - an illustrious phrase by futurist veteran Peter Schwarz - is hard to master because it involves much more our rational side than our emotional. Emotions often seduce us from sacrificing for the altar of the long-term gain in order to eat the apples now.

This is also something that a french anthropologist - turned thereafter to american marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille insisted in his seminal work on Cultural Code:  The behavior of the people cannot be explained on the basis of their rationality. The decision making becomes only transparent when you add emotions and something Rapaille called our reptilian mind, which is essentially what we call in everyday language as gut feeling: things that we know although we really don't  know how or why we know them. Anyway, when we decide what car to buy or which spouse to choose, this gut feeling - intuition - often has the last word.

Long-term future is hard to think or comprehend: it is essentially an abstraction. And that is the reason why it loses the battle of attention when we are deciding upon something. But Pero Micic comes with solution: let's try to make long-term emotional, something we also feel and not just think. Because if we can do it , then our affections are awakened, the more distant future becomes real and we may  bring the long term into now. Somehow we have to reward our complex emotional system while dealing with abstract issues of the future.

It is hard for us to understand or accept that even the hardest decisions in business are always emotionally loaded. While we can say that figures decide it is the emotional assertion of the figures that convinces us to make decision.

I still remember very well when I was, back in 2007,  in the middle of recruiting process that led to become senior executive in Allianz, world largest private insurance company. I talked to the member of the board and tried to make sense how I could be of help to them. So I asked him a question: what is - according to him - the greatest bias in the current thinking of the board? The answer was shot back   immediately: short-term thinking and everything else that comes with it: not able to see long-term trends and assess their impact on company. In that very moment I knew I had a mission in the company.

Finally, there is a very close connection between affections and behaviors. Emotions are much more likely to move us to change our behavior rather than abstract rational thinking. That is why changing anything in the organisation -or in your personal life, for that sake - will happen so much easier if there are strong emotions attached.  We humans -after all - can make decisions that are good to us only if we connect long-term benefits with the emotional rewards of the present.