Woo-Kyoung Ahn, THINKING 101

Subtitled: “How to Reason Better and Live Better” (Flatiron Books, Sept 2022, 276pp, including 21p of acknowledgements, notes, and index)

Here’s another short book, read the same month as yesterday’s Robert Charles Wilson book though it was published a year earlier, that needs only a brief summary. It’s the latest in a long line of books occupying the boundaries between psychology and self-help that identify our various cognitive biases, and in this case supplies suggestions for overcoming or avoiding them. It’s heavily laden with anecdotes and summaries of studies, many familiar from other books on these topics. I’ll focus on her suggested remedies, and a couple cautionary notes.

Ch1, The Allure of Fluency: Why Things Look So Easy
That is, things seem easier than they turn out to be; people overestimate their own abilities. Countermeasures: Try things out first, before committing. Plan things out in detail, by breaking into subtasks, but add 50% to the schedule.

Ch2, Confirmation Bias: How We Can Go Wrong When Trying to Be Right
About the 1960 experiment that proved humans are *not* logical and rational. When we commit this, most of the time we never know we’re wrong. The bias is adaptive; it allows us to be ‘cognitive misers’ and not overthink, but rather to be a ‘satisficer’. Countermeasures: Consider two mutually exclusive hypotheses and try to confirm both. And sometimes, randomize decisions.

Ch3, The Challenge of Causal Attribution: Why We Shouldn’t Be So Sure When We Give Credit or Assign Blame
Perceiving every link in a chain of causes as the key leads to absurd conclusions, and blame. We tend to blame actions over inactions, when outcomes are equivalent. So: Avoid overthinking, e.g. “Why me?” That only leads to depression, and doesn’t solve problems. Distance yourself from the situation. Realize that all questions are ultimately unanswerable.

Ch4, The Perils of Examples: What We Miss When We Rely On Anecdotes
A common warning is that anecdotes are not evidence; any one anecdote is likely misrepresentative, even dangerous. We don’t intuitively understand the law of large numbers, regression toward the mean, or Bayes’ theorem. Author provides examples of all three. Corrective: try to find the same principle across multiple stories (anecdotes); tell multiple stories (Jesus did).

Ch5, Negativity Bias: How Our Fear of Loss Can Lead Us Astray
People give more weight to negative news than to positive news. The same situation can be worded differently to get different reactions (e.g. 20% chance of losing vs 80% chance of winning). So: beware the framing effect; recast an issue in different ways. E.g., don’t let the endowment effect keep you from canceling free trial memberships.

Ch6, Biased Interpretation: Why We Fail to See Things As They Are
Partly due to confirmation bias, how we interpret new information to fit preconceived notions. Or to save face, protect family of political beliefs, and so on. Corrective: Cognitive behavioral therapy [[ Lukianoff and Haidt discuss this in THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, another recently read book I haven’t written up here. ]], to de-bias negative thinking styles. Understand that other people have wildly different views than yours about the same things. Some things, just don’t discuss them.

Ch7, The Dangers of Perspective-Taking: Why Others Don’t Always Get What’s Obvious to Us
This follows from previous topic, with examples of a party game to identify wines. We assume our spouses know things about us that they don’t. Interesting study that shows how difficult it is to learn how to take another’s perspective. Corrective: don’t let others guess what you think; tell them.

Ch8, The Trouble with Delayed Gratification: How Our Present Self Misunderstands Our Future Self
Familiar studies about getting one marshmallow now, or two later, and equivalent situations. Many people are willing to wait, but only in circumstances where they feel like they have power. One method for evaluating such situations: try to imagine your future situation in as much detail as possible. Still — here’s a cautionary note — this doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing to sacrifice for the future. Some people never do succeed; worrying about succeeding can lead to anxiety disorder. Some societies, e.g. in Europe, are realizing you don’t have to work so hard all the time. Rethink priorities once in a while.

Why do people want to think better? One answer: to outsmart everyone else. But — another cautionary note — doing that won’t create a better world. A better world is a fairer one, and for that we need unbiased thinking. We should be fair to ourselves. And we should be fairer to others. It takes time to break in new ways of thinking.


So: a perfectly decent book that I probably didn’t need to read. Best suited for those unfamiliar with the entire topic of cognitive biases.

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