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Coherence Busting explained

In Action Science workshops I teach a technique I call Coherence Busting. To understand why it is useful I ask the audience to imagine themselves making a proposal: “While you are talking you notice the main stakeholder — the person in the audience you most hope to persuade — glance at their watch. What do you do?”

I ask this question to allow the audience to experience the decision-making heuristics that Daniel Kahneman describes in this book Thinking, Fast & Slow. Kahneman models our consciousness as being two systems, our fast, automatic, unconscious System 1 and our slow, deliberate, effortful System 2. Part of what makes System 1 fast are the shortcuts it uses. Two of these shortcuts consistently arise with the watch example. The first is that we  assume that a coherent story must be correct. The second is that we limit the facts to what we can immediately recall, a process Kahneman calls What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).

These two shortcuts are displayed in the watch scenario.

We unconsciously construct a coherent story for what the glance means — for instance “she has somewhere else to go”. This story is based on first thoughts of what the glance might mean (WYSIATI). The coherence in our story give us the sense that our story is true. We then design our actions in response to a story we made up. This is the key lesson of the watch example: We feel as though we are responding to the reality of the situation, because WYSIATI and coherence cause us to mistake our single plausible story for the truth.

This is why we need Coherence Busting.

With the watch example, I ask the audience to describe what they think the glance means. After I have harvested the normal stories from the audience (“they’re bored”, “their attention has drifted”, “they are running short of time”) I ask them to consider other possible meanings of the glance, all of the possible reasons, even wildly implausible ones (“they have their plan for world domination written on their hand”). Now the audience generates dozens of possible reasons: it is a nervous habit, they were admiring their new watch, there could have been an alert on a smartwatch, maybe an itch on their wrist, and lots more. What makes this Coherence Busting is not just that there are lots of options but that the options are mutually incompatible. Once we can imagine conflicting explanations we are not longer trapped by the original coherent story. These options were always there, but it requires invoking System 2, our conscious and effortful thought process, to bring them to the surface. That’s not something we do when we feel we already have a good explanation. So what would trigger us to use Coherence Busting?

I’ve found Coherence Busting a useful tool to reach for when I recognize that I’m frustrated. A common pattern for me is to get frustrated when I can’t come up with a justifiable explanation for the other person’s actions, when I don’t like the explanation that System 1 has suggested for me. When I recognize that pattern I try and think of at least three incompatible motivations for why they might be behaving the way they are. The technique of Coherence Busting is a way of reminding myself that there are infinitely more possibilities than I have considered. It allows me to let go of the story I’ve made up about the other person. It reminds me that if I want to understand what the other person is thinking, I’m going to have to get out of my head and into theirs — probably starting with asking them a genuine question about what they are thinking.

Much of my work with Action Science is learning the skill of asking good questions. Coherence Busting reminds me to use those skills.

(Thanks to Douglas Squirrel for helping develop Coherence Busting. See more of our work together at and the London Action Science Meetup.)

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