by Sandy Ikeda
I’ve been thinking about the following from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness:
Experiments have demonstrated that the moment we encounter an object, our brains instantly analyze just a few of its key features and then use the presence or absence of these features to make one very fast and very simple decision: “Is this object an important thing to which I ought to respond right now? […] As such, our brains are designed to decide first whether objects count and to decide later what those objects are. This means that when you turn your head to the left, there is a fraction of a second during which your brain does not know that it is seeing a wolverine but does know that it is seeing something scary (Emphasis original, p.62).
This passage came to mind after reading Steve Horwitz’s comment on my coffeehouse post on “optimal distraction.” Steve had written:
I wonder Sandy whether there’s an evolutionary explanation for the apparent need to be “optimally distracted.” In particular, I wonder whether that tendency to look up every so often, esp. when someone new enters the shop, isn’t a residue of early humanity’s need to be constantly alert to animals in the nearby area. Perhaps our ability to focus was honed in those sorts of environments – we had to learn to screen out the background noise/movement from the real threats. Perhaps that’s why we can work in coffeehouses with the buzz of ambient noise, but the new person entering or walking in front of us becomes that “optimal distraction.”
The ability to take in and quickly evaluate an object is evidently just such an evolutionary adaptation. And there’s at least a superficial similarity between this phenomenon and what Israel Kirzner means by “entrepreneurial alertness.” Of course, there are important differences. Gilbert is talking about wolverines in the wild while Kirzner talks about $20 bills lying on sidewalks: the one is a threat, the other a potential benefit.
Another apparent difference is that for Gilbert it’s not just becoming aware of something, but being able to unconsciously process certain features of that something that somehow re-focuses one’s attention more directly onto the object itself. (In Michael Polyani’s terminology, your perception of something is shifting from “subsidiary awareness” to “focal awareness”). To a layman like me this sounds like a mysterious process, but it also sounds very much like what Kirzner is saying one does when exercising entrepreneurship – being able to pick out from the background that anyone else can see those things that indicate a profit opportunity and (instantly?) evaluate it – and it’s perhaps just as mysterious. So, I’m curious about whether the psychology literature to which Gilbert refers might shed light on the nature of entrepreneurial alertness in Kirzner’s sense.
Apologies for the vagueness of this post but I’m interested in what, if anything, others might think about this.