Mindware tools for smart thinking by Richard E Nisbett
“Without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions…We are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema.” (Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved)
A serious problem with our reliance on schemas and stereotypes is that they can get triggered by incidental facts that are irrelevant or misleading. Any stimulus we encounter will trigger spreading activation to related mental concepts.
Want to someone you are just about to meet to find you to be warm and cuddly? Hand them a cup of coffee to hold. And don’t by any means make that an iced coffee.
Want to persuade someone to believe something by giving them an editorial read? Make sure the font type is clear and attractive. Messy looking messages are much less persuasive.
A book by Adam Alter called Drunk Tank Pink is a good compendium of many of the effects we know about to date. The most obvious implication of all the evidence about the importance of incidental stimuli is that you want to rig environments of those stimuli that will make you or your product of your policy goals attractive. It is obvious when stated that way. Less obvious are two facts:
1. The effect of incidental stimuli can be huge
2. You want to know as much as you possibly can about what kinds of stimuli produce what kinds of effects.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”.
A less obvious implication of our susceptibility to ‘incidental’ stimuli is the importance of encountering objects - and esp. people - in a number of different settings if a judgment about them is to be of any consequence. Vary the circumstances of the encounters as much as possible.
Consider the Trappist monks in two stories. Monk 1 asked his abbot whether it would be all right to smoke while he prayed. Scandalized, the abbot said, “Of course not; that borders on sacrilege”. Monk 2 asked his abbot whether it would be all right to pray while he smoked. “Of course,” said the abbot, “God wants to hear from us at any time”.
Our construal of objects and events is influenced not just by the schemas that are activated in particular contexts, but by the framing of judgments we have to make.
We often arrive at judgments or solve problems by use of heuristics - rules of thumb that suggest a solution to a problem. Several important heuristics were identified by the Israeli cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman. The most important of their heuristics is the ‘representativeness heuristic”. This rule of thumb learns heavily on judgments of similarity.
- Remember that all perception, judgments and beliefs are inferences and not direct readouts of reality
- Be aware that our schemas affect our construal
- Remember that incidental, irrelevant perceptions and cognitions can affect our judgment and behavior
- Be alert to the possible role of heuristics in producing judgments
The following injunctions can become part of the mental equipment you use to understand the world.
- The failure to recognize the importance of contexts and situations and the consequent overestimation of the role of personal dispositions is, I believe, the most pervasive and consequential inferential mistake we make.
- Pay more attention to context. This will improve the odds that you will correctly identify situational factors that are influencing your behavior and that of others.
- Realize that situational factors usually influence your behavior and that of others more than they seem to, whereas dispositional factors are usually less influential than they seem.
- Realize that other people think their behavior is more responsive to situational factors than you are inclined to think and they are more likely to be right than you are.
- Recognize that people can change.
Westerners identify the attributes of an object, assign the object to a category, and apply rules that govern that category of objects. The underlying purpose is often to establish a causal model of the object so that it can be manipulated for one’s own goals. The Eastern approach is to attend more broadly to the object in its context, toe the relationship among objects, and to the relations between object and context.
There are many implications for how we should function in daily life. Here are a few of the most important:
Don’t assume that you know why you think what you think or do what you do.
Don’t assume that other people’s accounts of their reasons or motives are any more likely to be right than are your accounts of your own reasons or motives.
You have to help the unconscious help you.
If you are not making progress on a problem, drop it and turn to something else.
Macroeconomists are not agreed on just how it is that people make decisions or how they should make them.
The more important and complicated the decision, the more important it is to do such an analysis
Even an obviously flawed cost-benefit analysis can sometimes show in high relief what the decision must be.
There is no fully adequate metric for costs and benefits, but it’s usually necessary to compare them anyway.
Calculations of the value of a human life are repellent and sometimes grossly misused, but they are often necessary nonetheless in order to make sensible policy decisions.
Tragedies of the commons where my gain creates negative externalities for you, typically require binding and enforceable intervention.
Extended resources that can’t be retrieved should not be allowed to influence a decision about whether to consume something that those resources were used to obtain.
You should avoid engaging in an activity that has lower net benefit than some other action you could take now or in the future.
Falling into the sunk cost trap always entails paying unnecessary opportunity costs.
Attention to costs and benefits, including sunken cost and opportunity cost traps, pays.
Loss considerations tend to loom too large relative to gain considerations.
We are overly susceptible to the endowment effect - valuing a thing more than we should simply because it’s ours.
We are a lazy species: we hang on the status quo for no other reason than that it is the way things are.
Choice is way overrated: too many choices can confuse and make decisions worse or prevent needed decisions from being made.
When we try to influence the behavior of others, we are too ready to think in terms of conventional incentives - carrots & sticks.
Observations of objects or events should often be thought of as samples of a population.
The fundamental attribution error is primarily due to our tendency to ignore situational factors, but this is compounded by our failure to recognize that a brief exposure to a person constitutes a small sample of a person’s behavior.
Increasing sample size reduces errors only if the sample is unbiased.
The standard deviation is a handily measure of the dispersion of a continuous variable around the mean.
If we know that an observation of a particular kind of variable comes from the extreme end of the distribution that variable, then it is likely that additional observation are going to be less extreme.
Accurate assessment of relationship can be remarkably difficult.
When we try to assess correlations for which we have no anticipation, as when we try to estimate the correlation between meaningless or arbitrarily paired events, the correlation must be very high for us to be sure of detecting it.
We are susceptible to illusory correlations.
The representativeness heuristic underlies many of our prior assumptions about correlation. If A is similar to B in some respect, we are likely to see a relationship between them.
Correlation does not establish causation, but it there is a plausible reason why A might cause B, we readily assume that correlation does indeed establish causation.
Reliability refers to the degree to which a case gets the same score on two occasions or when measured by different means.
The more codable events are, the more likely it is that our assessments of correlation will be correct.
Caution and humility are called for when we try to predict future trait-related behavior from past trait-related behavior unless our sample of behavior is large and obtained in a variety of situations.
Multiple regression analysis (MRA) examines the association between an independent variable and a dependent variable, controlling for the association between the independent variable and other variables, as well as the association of those other variables with the dependent variable.
Verbal reports are susceptible to a huge range of distortions and errors.
Answers to question about attitudes are frequently based on tacit comparison with some reference group.
Action speaks louder than words.
Conduct experiments on yourself.
Logic divests arguments of any reference to the real world so that the formal structure of an argument can be laid bare without any interference from prior beliefs.
The truth of a conclusion and the validity of a conclusion are entirely separate things.
Venn diagrams embody syllogistic reasoning and can be helpful or even necessary for solving some categorization problems.
Errors in deductive reasoning are sometimes made because they map onto argument forms that are inductively valid.
Pragmatic reasoning schemas are abstract rules of reasoning that underlies much of thought.
Some of the fundamental principle underlying Western and Eastern thought are different.
Western thought encourages separation of form from content in order to assess validity of arguments.
Eastern thought produces more accurate beliefs about some aspects of the world and the causes of human behavior than Western thought.
Western and Eastern respond in quite different ways to contradiction between two propositions.
Eastern and Western approaches to history are very different.
Western thought has been influenced substantially by Eastern thought in recent decades.
Reasoning about social conflict by younger Japanese is wiser than that of younger Americans. American gain in wisdom over their lifespan and Japanese do not and undoubtedly other eastern are taught about how to avoid and resolve social conflict. Americans are taught less about it and have more to gain they grow older.
Explanations should be kept simple (KISS)
Reductionism in the service of simplicity is a virtue, reductionism for its own sake cab e a vice.
We don’t realize how easy it is for us to generate plausible theories.
Our approach to hypothesis testing flawed in that we are inclined to search only for evidence that would tend to confirm a theory while failing to search for evidence that would tend to disconfirm it.
A theorist who can’t specify what kind of evidence would be disconfirmatory should be distrusted.
Falsifiability of a theory is only one virtue; conformability is even more important.
We should suspicious of theoretical contrivances that are proposed merely to handle apparently disconfirmatory evidence but are not intrinsic to the theory.
Science is based not only on evidence and well-justified theories - faith and hunches may cause scientists to ignore established scientific hypotheses agreed-upon facts.
The paradigms that underlie a given body of scientific work, as well as those that form the basis for technologies, industries and commercial enterprises, are subject to change without notice.
Different cultural practice and beliefs can produce different scientific theories, paradigms and even forms of reasoning.
Quasi-rational practices by scientists are cultural influences on belief systems and reasoning patterns, may have encouraged postmodernist and deconstructionist to press the view that there are no facts, only socially agreed-upon interpretations of reality.
The American poet Brewster Ghiselin collected into one volume a number of essays on the creative process by a variety of highly inventive people from Poincare to Picasso.