What is Deformation Professionnelle? And why those wielding hammers see only nails
A man takes out a loan, starts a company, and goes bankrupt shortly afterward. He falls into a depression and commits suicide.
What do you make of this story?
As a business analyst, you want to understand why the business idea did not work: was he a bad leader? Was the strategy wrong, the market too small or the competition too large?
As a marketer, you imagine the campaigns were poorly organised, or that he failed to reach his target audience.
If you are a financial expert, you ask whether the loan was the right financial instrument.
As a local journalist, you realise the potential of the story: how lucky that he killed himself!
As a writer, you think about how the incident could develop into a kind of Greek tragedy.
As a banker, you believe an error took place in the loan department.
As a socialist, you blame the failure of capitalism.
As a religious conservative, you see in this a punishment from God.
As a psychiatrist, you recognise low serotonin levels.
Which is the ‘correct’ viewpoint?
None of them.
‘If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails,’ said Mark Twain
A quote that sums up the déformation professionnelle. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, named the effect ‘the man with the hammer tendency‘ after Twain:
‘But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models. And the models have to come from multiple disciplines – because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.’
Here are a few examples of déformation professionnelle
Surgeons want to solve almost every medical problem with a scalpel, even if their patients could be treated with less invasive methods.
Armies think of military solutions first.
Trend gurus see trends in everything (incidentally, this is one of the most idiotic ways to view the world).
In short: if you ask someone the crux of a particular problem, they usually link it to their own area of expertise.
So what’s wrong with that?
It’s good if, say, a tailor sticks to what he knows. The déformation professionnelle becomes hazardous when people apply their specialised processes in areas where they don’t belong. Surely you’ve come across some of these: teachers who scold their friends like students. New mothers who begin to treat their husbands like children.
Or consider the omnipresent Excel spreadsheet that is featured on every computer: we use them even when it makes no sense – for example, when generating ten-year financial projections for start-ups or when comparing potential lovers we have ‘sourced’ from dating sites. Excel spreadsheets might well be one of the most dangerous recent inventions.
Even in his own jurisdiction, the man with the hammer tends to overuse it
Literary reviewers are trained to detect authors’ references, symbols and hidden messages. As a novelist, I realise that literary reviewers conjure up such devices where there are none. This is not a million miles away from what business journalists do. They scour the most trivial utterings of central bank governors and somehow discover hints of fiscal policy change by parsing their words.
If you take your problem to an expert, don’t expect the overall best solution. Expect an approach that can be solved with the expert’s toolkit. The brain is not a central computer. Rather, it is a Swiss Army knife with many specialised tools.
Unfortunately, our ‘pocket knives’ are incomplete. Given our life experiences and our professional expertise, we already possess a few blades. But to better equip ourselves, we must try to add two or three additional tools to our repertoire – mental models that are far afield from our areas of expertise.
For example, over the past few years, I have begun to take a biological view of the world and have won a new understanding of complex systems. Locate your shortcomings and find suitable knowledge and methodologies to balance them. It takes about a year to internalise the most important ideas of a new field, and it’s worth it: your pocket knife will be bigger and more versatile, and your thoughts sharper.
The above article is from the book The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand cognitive biases. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!