One of the books that made an enormous impact on me is Thinking Fast and Slow, by former Israeli Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman (I am on my fourth reading). Kahneman shows how most of our decisions are made intuitively or with little or no processing, relying on experience and presumptions we have built up over time.
- Kahneman demonstrates that most of these presumptions lead us astray. They come in the form of cognitive biases, of which tens have been identified. The Status Quo Bias is our preference for the current state of affairs. A related bias is the Endowment Effect, which explains why people are more likely to retain an object they own than acquire the same object when they do not own it. These biases illustrate that we actually convince ourselves, through observations and judgment calls, that a specific object or situation is better, even when it clearly is not. The Present Bias is in play when considering a trade-off between two future moments; we are biased to more heavily weigh the one closer to the present. When asked whether they would prefer to have, say, $150 today or $180 in one month, people tend to choose the $150, even though giving up a 20% return on investment is a bad move.
The net effect of this is that we consistently misinterpret information, make wrong assessments and hence wrong decisions.
One of the things we do naturally is answer a more difficult or complex question by actually answering an easier question without realizing it. Asked whether a Shabbaton was a success, we might answer, “Yes, a hundred students showed up.” The question had to do with the goals of the Shabbaton but the answer had to do with level of recruitment.
To resolve this, several decision making theories have been advanced. Let’s take one, Kristina Guo’s DECIDE model, published in 2008, which has six parts (I have added elements of Pam Brown’s approach in parentheses):
- Define the problem (and outline your goal);
- Establish or Enumerate all the criteria (constraints);
- Consider or Collect all the alternatives (gather data);
- (List all the alternatives, evaluate the pros and cons of each one and then)
Identify the best alternative (and decide to go with it);
- Develop and implement a plan of action (do this immediately); and
- Evaluate and monitor the solution (learn and reflect).
In my experience, a kiruv organization miss one or several of these steps. This is especially true for Part 4, the process of collecting and listing all the alternatives, and then evaluate the pros and cons of each one and then deciding on a best alternative. A mekarev might say to himself, “How am I going to recruit for a _________ program this semester,” without questioning what the goal of the program is and trying to establish what alternatives there might be. This is especially perplexing given the fact that the populations we are targeting are moving targets. Yesterday’s student is different in substantive ways from today’s. And tomorrow again, things will be different. Think Gen Z.
After seeing how widespread cognitive biases really are in the field, a lack of professionalism will not just lead you to choosing the alternative that might not be the best; it will allow you to be gloriously wrong while you convince yourself that you are absolutely on the right track.
 Kahneman own decision making theory, developed with fellow Israeli Amos Tversky, is called Prospect Theory. This however is a theory which is more applicable to the marketplace than to kiruv, and in fact won Kahneman the Nobel prize for economics.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the Education Director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and a senior advisor to Olami. Many of Rabbi Edelstein’s foundational publications addressing the world of Kiruv appear on OlamiResources.com: Series on Kiruv and Chinuch, Commentary on Chumash and Yom Tovim, The Laws of Outreach, as well as contributing articles.