Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Think101x The Science of Everyday Thinking

I recently completed a course on edX called "Think101x The Science of Everyday Thinking", which was pretty cool. Here is their wrap-up video, which captures key expert insights on how we might go about starting to improve our thinking. See below for the full transcript:


"Over the last year, we've traveled right across the planet to talk to some of the best people
in the world about the science of everyday thinking. Starting right here in Australia,
we talked to Ian Frazer about vaccinations, flew to New York to chat with Danny Kahneman
about intuition and rationality. We went to England to talk to Susan Blackmore about consciousness
and her out-of-body experience, and to Arizona to chat with Richard Nisbett about the person and the situation.
Yes. They'd never been asked their advice for how people can improve their everyday thinking, so we asked them.
Start with your intuitions. Watch yourself. Feel those intuitions coming up and question them.
At least part of the answer is a healthy skepticism. Let's see some proof. I want to see some evidence.
A key feature of storage in our memories is that that's a process of linking up any new
information with what we already know. In fact, rather than thinking of your memory
as some sort of box or tape that the more you have in it or on it, the less room you have
—actually, memory storage creates capacity for additional storage. The more knowledge
you have in some domain, the more ways there are to link things up and hook things up.
The best way to think about, "Will I be able to do something well in the future," is to
simulate it in the present. Without a good simulation, we're really going to make a lot
of mistakes about our own abilities and how we will perform in the future.
One is to recognize that we know much less than we think we know. People who think they've
got everything figured out are almost always wrong.
Understanding the scientific process—the fact that you can make a hypothesis, or call
it a guess, if you like, and then test it, and then at the end of the testing be reasonably
confident about whether your guess was correct or not—that is the basis for making decisions about things.
That's the message that I would always leave people with.
Pick a few areas and pick a few things where you want to change what you're doing. Focus
on those. I mean, do not expect that you can generally increase the quality of your thinking
because I think you really cannot. If there are repetitive mistakes that you're prone
to make, if you learn the cues, the situations in which you make that mistake, then maybe
you can learn to eliminate them.
Do not just read things that make you happy because people agree with you. Challenge yourself by stepping outside that.
Just because it's expressed in confidence, in detail, with emotion, it doesn't mean it's
really a true memory. Without independent corroboration, you can't know for sure.
There are a lot of ways in which we could be biased as consumers. From little things
that really shouldn't make a difference—like I was describing earlier, the name of the
wine. That's something very subtle that could impact the consumer.
Read, read, read, read and more reading.
It's also that we're playful with the things that we approach. It helps take something
that might be just a random pile of data typed on papers, laying on the table, and turns
it into something that is real because internalizing it means that you bring it into your head.
People make all kinds of errors because they can't think statistically. They make all kinds
of errors where they don't understand the need for a control group in something.
I mean, 28 people took a weight loss program, and nearly all of them lost weight.
Well, what was the control group for that?
Very clearly, the single best predictor of how good you are is how much you know about
the domain, not what problem-solving skills you bring to bear on it. We began there. That was wrong.
Paying attention to the message of Danny Kahneman's book is a starting point—and that is, there
are many, many sources of error or bias that we learn about in psychology. The message
is: when we're doing one of the tasks that we know that people have difficulty with or
are subject to particular biases, just take a little time, reconsider it.
The equivalent to not pressing the send button when you've written a message that you're not sure about.
It's a good idea just to stop and take a little time and reflect.
I mean, I'd like to think that in general, thinking about the fact that you can test
things yourselves and asking questions about that, that that applies to anything in life,
and so even just the realization, "Can I ask a question about this," and, "How would I
test this if I wanted to find out?" I think it applies to anything.
The kind of advice that I give people about making better decisions is to be careful about
what information you allow yourself to consider. If you're a forensic scientist and you want
to avoid being influenced inappropriately by extraneous information, make sure you don't know that information.
Aside from the obvious: exercise, good diet, get a good night's sleep... No, I don't know
what my research says about that. Part of what it is, if you're thinking about, say,
Danny Kahneman's recent book on thinking fast and slow, there are certain situations you
see outlines where the thinking fast really gets you into trouble, but it also in many,
many situations where it gets you out of trouble, where thinking slow would not. There's not a simple panacea here.
To be honest, I think actually what helps you more is common sense. The problem is that
common sense isn't very common—to use the old phrase. Lots of the time, people cling
to their hopes, and their wishes, and their dreams. They think that without putting much
effort in, these things will somehow come true. That's often underlying a lot of actual
belief in the paranormal and a lot of the self-help literature as well.
If psychology tells us anything, it's for the most part, success is associated with hard work.
In terms of every day thinking, I would say you've got to put the time in. There's no shortcuts here."

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