The Art of Thinking Clearly

The Art of Thinking Clearly is not a how-to book. It is more of a compendium of cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are common ways of thinking and the ones that get attention are the ones that are wrong. In some respects, the book is similar to Predictably Irrational which popularised behavioural economics. Where Predictably Irrational dives deep into a small number of relational behaviours the art of thinking clearly touches briefly on 99 ineffective thought processes. The aim is to raise awareness of thinking patterns to help the reader think more clearly.

Social dynamics and behaviours have aways interested me. Reading people and predicting responses to situations is a common strength in dyslexics. For me, the little talent I have in this space is all learned. I have always considered myself to be quite logical and I find people behave unpredictably. I’ve found it hard to build my internal rule set of social norms and how these differ in different contexts. My first helpful resource to learn more about this was when a former boss explained people are not rational and give me a copy of Games People Play.

My top biases (in book order):

1: “Survivorship bias” and “Swimmers Boddy” illusion

I have grouped these two together due to the similarities. These are both examples of confusing correlation with causation. They are also the reason so many self-help articles are unintentionally misleading.

We might look at newspaper headlines of high school dropouts come entrepreneur millionaires. They are the survivors: we don’t hear of the drop outs that got nowhere. Triumph is more visible than failure.

Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because of their training. They are great swimmers because of their physiques which they have then trained in the pursuit of swimming. There are attributes that lead to selection which impact on the results of the events after selection. If you don’t have those attributes you might not get those results with the same approach. This is the reason your well toned personal trainer might not be able to replicate their results with you.

2: Clustering Illusion – Why we see shapes in the clouds

The human brain is a pattern matching machine. If the brain can’t find a pattern it might impose one. Back in the mists of time, this was an evolutionary advantage. People that could quickly spot patterns leading to opportunities or avoid danger they were rewarded with the opportunity to live long enough to reproduce. When it looks like there is a pattern in something consider if it could just be chance.

3: Sunk Cost Fallacy – Why you should forget the past

As part of my training to become a project manager and to review projects, we were drilled repeatedly about sunk cost fallacy. Just because you have invested £1m does not mean spending another £1m on a project is a good idea.

In the book, the example given is attending a movie. Paying for a movie is no reason for sticking through it. In this case, the need for cognitive closure may be at hand too – see Made to Stick. If the investment made so far is the prime reason for continuing STOP! Only your assessment of the future costs and benefits matter.

4: Incentive Super Response Tendency – Never pay our lawyer by the hour

The great Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets improved”. However, management by measurement can present challenges. To control rat infestation, French colonial rulers passed a law – for every dead rat, the catcher would receive a reward. Many rats were destroyed but many were bred for this purpose. When managers are being paid for hitting targets the targets are lowered and energy is expended in gaming the system. People respond to incentives by doing what is in their best interest. Behaviour changes quickly when there are incentives in play.

Good incentives comprise both intent and reward. The reward need not be financial. For the Crusades the incentives were: if you come back alive you could keep the spoils of war, if you died you went to the afterlife as a martyr. A win-win for those in the game.

5: Regression to Mean – The dubious effect of doctors

Back pains, a record period of weather, bad performing stock – they go back to the mean of their own accord. Most successful stocks for the past three years will not be the most successful for the coming three years. This can make assessing the impact of changes hard if there is no control to compare against.

6: Outcome Bias – Never judge a decision by its outcome

We tend to evaluate decisions based on their results, rather than the decision process. How should we evaluate the Pearl Harbor attack? History tells us there was plenty of evidence that an attack was imminent. However, only in retrospect does the evidence paint a clear picture. At the time there was a mass of contradictory signals. To assess the quality of the decision we must use the information available at the time. Bad decisions can have good outcomes, good decisions can have bad outcomes.

7: Social Loafing – Why teams are so lazy

The power of two horses pulling a coach is not twice the power of a single horse. On average when two people pull together each only contributes 93% of what they could. And this drops off rapidly for each additional person. This explains why committees never get anything done.

Social loafing occurs when the individual contributions of the group are not evident. The bigger the team the smaller the individual contribution. Why invest effort if it is unnoticed? We hide behind team decisions and diffuse responsibility.

8: False Causality – Why you should not believe in the stork

Children who grow up in houses full of books do better in life than those who grow up with fewer books. Before rushing to the bookstore read on. Educated parents tend to place a higher value on their children’s education, more than uneducated parents. Educated parents tend to have more books in their homes. Correlation is not causality. On the Spurious Correlations site to can browse a collection of examples of false causality and also discover your own correlations from the data set available.

9: Alternative Blindness – Why it is never just a two-horse race

This is my dyslexic super power. When people are struggling to decide between option A and B I’ll often suggest option P that is better all round. We systematically forget to compare options to other options not readily apparent. In negotiation training, this is the BATNA – best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Forget about a rock and a hard place and go sit on the lush green grass. There are more paths open then you first think.

10: News Illusion – Why you should not read the news

My first introduction to this concept was Tim Ferriss and the “low information diet“. Tim suggests confronting information overload by a blackout of information that is not critical. The time liberated can then be employed in deep dives getting a balanced view on topics of value. We are incredibly well-informed, yet we know incredibly little. News has been engineered to be attention-grabbing and easy to digest. In an era of fake news, it might not even be true.

As covered in Made to Stick and Moonwalking with Einstein our brains like shocking, lewd, scandalous, people based stories with simple messages. We struggle to process abstract and complex information. So news gives us the former, hold back on the latter and if it meets the publisher’s agenda then all the better.

Take this simple challenge: from the news you have read in the last week which aspects helped you make better decisions? Has it helped you to think more clearly? How much time did you spend reading the news? Is that a good return on investment for your most precious asset?

Want more?

If this has got you hungry to find out more there is an overview of all the 99 biases presented in the book or head over to Amazon and buy a copy of The Art of Thinking Clearly (paper, kindle and audio versions available).

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