Advice of the Day: Don't Trust Blowhards

| Sun Oct. 23, 2011 4:55 PM EDT

From Daniel Kahneman, in an op-ed written on my birthday:

You should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about.

Good advice. Also, as I'm sure Kahneman himself would acknowlege, advice that's unlikely to have any impact at all on the real world.

The whole piece is good, but I have to confess that I was stumped by the following story. It's about a test of leadership ability that he and other psychologists supervised back when he was in the Israeli army:

One test, called the leaderless group challenge, was conducted on an obstacle field. Eight candidates, strangers to one another, with all insignia of rank removed and only numbered tags to identify them, were instructed to lift a long log from the ground and haul it to a wall about six feet high. There, they were told that the entire group had to get to the other side of the wall without the log touching either the ground or the wall, and without anyone touching the wall. If any of these things happened, they were to acknowledge it and start again.

A common solution was for several men to reach the other side by crawling along the log as the other men held it up at an angle, like a giant fishing rod. Then one man would climb onto another’s shoulder and tip the log to the far side. The last two men would then have to jump up at the log, now suspended from the other side by those who had made it over, shinny their way along its length and then leap down safely once they crossed the wall. Failure was common at this point, which required starting over.

I would like someone to make a cartoon animation of this. My spatial skills suck, and I simply can't visualize this. Or, more accurately, I should say that the visualization I have in mind seems impossible. If I'm understanding it correctly, failure wouldn't be "common" at the end point, it would be universal.

Then again, maybe these groups typically had a few really strong people in them. But if it were me, I'd recommend taking off someone's helmet, putting it on the ground and jamming the pole into it. See? The log isn't touching the ground. And I'd take off someone's shirt and drape it over the top of the wall and then lean the log against it. See? The log isn't touching the wall. And then we'd all climb over.

And I'd get chewed out for being a smart ass. But at least we'd be safely on the other side of the wall.