Editor's Letter: When the frame of reference shifts

The successes of football coach Joe Paterno and political leader Silvio Berlusconi now seem like failures in light of their neglect of more important obligations.

The record books haven’t changed. This week, just as last week, Joe Paterno has won more major college football games than any other coach in history. Silvio Berlusconi is still Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since Benito Mussolini. But Paterno’s firing from Penn State last week, for failing to deal forthrightly with an assistant’s alleged pattern of sexual assault on children, makes his stellar record all but meaningless. And Berlusconi’s political longevity now seems more a curse than an achievement. When he was forced to resign last week, having presided over an economy that grew more slowly over the last decade than any others but those of Zimbabwe and Haiti, Romans celebrated with a conga line and a public rendition of the “Hallelujah” chorus.

Paterno and Berlusconi are very different characters, of course. But both their fates remind us of how success can be revealed as failure when the frame of reference shifts. We shake our heads at how Paterno’s dedication to his team evidently made him miss higher obligations, and we roll our eyes at how Berlusconi’s self-dealing led him to neglect Italy’s economy. But as Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman lays out in his new book (see Books), we all have reason to mistrust our powers of judgment. When we think intuitively, in what he calls System 1, we’re prone to make snap judgments that frame problems irrationally. To counter that, we need to engage System 2, the deliberative thinking that improves our odds of seeing the whole picture. I’ll bet both Berlusconi and Paterno are now engaging in some rueful System 2 thinking. If they’d done it earlier, maybe their successes would be intact.

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