How to Make Better Decisions in a Post-Truth World.
The one thing we are never short of nowadays is information or “expert” opinion. Last year was a landmark year for many reasons. The US election and Brexit re-affirmed the need to challenge everything. The polls failed us yet again and fake news pervaded our lives like never before. Even in the business world, there is always a statistic that “proves” the efficacy of a product or service. Those at the forefront of decision-making face a mind-boggling array of choices and perspectives. One of the key skills that will unlock success is an instinctive ability to quickly process the information available to us.
Mindware by Richard Nisbett provides an overview of a lot of tools for smart thinking. The book is a collection of ideas from specialist books on many people’s reading lists like, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow“. The kind of books I always feel guilty for not spending more time internalising. Mindware, covers a great breadth of tools for smart thinking strung together by a simple narrative.
Thinking about thought
Our perception of the world is filtered through a series of mental processes we are unaware of. There are subconscious, social and situational influences that affect our understanding. Nisbett provides insightful tips on how to check our biases. Tools to become more aware of these unconscious influences on our own behaviour. He covers a lot of ground in the behavioural sciences like framing, heuristics and context blindness. My favourite take-away was to start taking advantage of the free labour of the unconscious mind.
Nisbett reminds us we’re all quite lazy. Some brands and organisations understand this. They present us with fewer choices to make the best option the easiest choice. He contends that this can spare people from making bad decisions. Explain why option “A” is best and why options “B” and “C” should be considered. While Nisbett believes “choice is over rated”, there are many examples of these techniques being misused. Dark UX, for example, is the process of making the easiest option the worst choice for people. Knowing if these techniques have been applied ethically adds more complexity to decisions making. Being an active thinker is key to navigating some of these pitfalls. Becoming conscious of the endowment effect, sunk costs (time and money) and crowd influence are other ways to avoid making bad decisions. Tools like cost-benefit analyses, can in many instances, improve our chances of success.
Statistics & Experiments
Disraeli famously said there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”. Often we rely on statistics, survey data or Multiple Regression Analysis (MRA) to create knowledge. All these techniques are useful but can reveal false positives. Experiments (or randomised controlled tests) are the best way to validate hypotheses. In a world where “facts” are freely espoused, experiments are the gold standard to creating meaningful knowledge.
Conducting experiments is not always possible. Through codifying life and using statistical principles we can minimise the errors we make. The law of large numbers, standard deviation, correlation and prediction will be familiar to many. Yet, research revealed by Nisbett shows that even those trained in statistics sometimes fail to apply them to real life scenarios. He encourages us to frame everyday life events in a way that makes statistical sense. It’s easy to forget the law of large numbers and the fundamental attribution error when assessing a person’s performance. For example, judging someone’s performance in one event is not a good indicator of actual performance. We all have to make quick assessments and judgements in life. By applying some basic statistical principles we can improve our interpretation of what is happening around us.
I personally found the discussion on reasoning helpful, as I hadn’t thought about this since my university days. For a Westerner, logical reasoning is deeply ingrained into how they think. This has had huge advantages on Western scientific thought, but it is not flawless. Easterner’s dialectical approach to reasoning prompts attention to the influence of contextual factors. Dialectical reasoning is more accepting of change and contradiction. This can reveal more enlightened conclusions, especially when applied to human behaviour. Both methods of reasoning have their pros and cons and the real power is understanding and using the two frameworks to critique each other.
There’s a lot in this book and I would recommend it to anyone. Some of the ways to think smarter have series of books dedicated to them. The attraction of Mindware is having all this thinking in one book and making it easy to understand. Buying and reading this book is the easy bit. The hard work comes afterwards when we’re agreeing with each other in our comfortable social echo-chambers.