Writings on psychology have the power to surprise, shock, and inspire awe in us, all in equal measures. And ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’ by Rolf Dobelli, novelist, entrepreneur, does exactly the same thing. This is a nice easy to read book on psychology that deals with how the human brain thinks and in the process often makes us take irrational logic defying decisions. Our brain is trained to think in a particular way and most of this thinking is primarily based on the way our ancestors thought about and addressed problems. Our ancestors obviously were hunters-gatherers living in dense forests and their life challenges were entirely different from the modern life pressures that we are subjected to today. In the last several thousand years and in particular in the recent 200-300 years the level of advancement, in every walk of human life, witnessed by a generation has probably been the highest in the entire human history. The impact of all this has been massive and highly significant.
We no longer need to slog and live under the same harsh living conditions and threats as our ancestors once lived under. However, the long and constantly on-going human evolutionary process – of which we are all but a small part – is far from complete. Based on the changes in our life patterns – as compared to that of our ancestors – we have been exposed to in the recent times our human organism has been trying to adapt to the new conditions. Of course it hasn’t succeeded entirely as can be said by the increasing prevalence of lifestyles diseases like Diabetes etc. Such diseases weren’t present in the homo sapiens of the past era. While the body has been trying to adjust, the adaptation of the brain has been rather slow. Our minds still have the old hunter-gatherer thought process of quick decision making and responding to threats by way of ‘flight’. Of course, the modern day thinking requires, more often than not, that we slow down and deeply and carefully analyze rather than make quick decisions.
It is this dichotomy and the very slow evolution of our brain to think differently between slow careful analytical thinking and fast but not too careful thinking – that gives rise to lot of our thinking errors. In the psychological terms the thinking errors are often termed as ‘cognitive biases’. These cognitive biases are so deeply ingrained in us that they can almost be considered as part of our DNA. Going through the common thinking errors and trying to understand how and why our brain responds to things in a particular way opens up new awareness about when we are more prone to making thinking errors. More awareness will hopefully help us pro-actively take actions preventing the errors from occurring or at least from repeating.
Let’s consider the error of ‘Survivorship bias’, this error tells us that we need to be wary of our success and not give too much attention to the fact that some of our traits might be similar to those of other highly successful people. And this illusion of similarity of traits shouldn’t blind us into thinking we are on our way to glory. The odds are, such similarity is more a result of coincidence than actual commonality between the success factors. Furthermore, visiting stories of some of the failed but equally promising stars from the past will throw more light on the fact that most of the failed people probably possessed exactly the same traits as us have and they were equally successful in their initial days. So in essence, we should be wary of our initial success in any endeavour and consider it more as beginner’s luck than real talent – talent takes very long to develop and deliver.
Another common error that we all might be able to relate to more easily is the ‘Swimmer’s Body Illusion’. Let’s see an example of this cognitive bias in action from the cosmetics industry. We all are aware that beautiful models advertise cosmetics and thus, many consumers believe that these products will make them beautiful. But a careful will tell us that it is not the cosmetics that make those selected to feature in the advertisement model-like. Quite simply, the models are born attractive and only for this reason they are suitable candidates for cosmetics advertising. Beauty is a factor for selection for a modelling assignment and not the result.
And then we have the gem of an error called ‘Scarcity Error’. I am sure we all have been exposed to it to some degree. When we realize that a thing is scare and will soon go out of sight, we tend to value it too highly and are willing to pay a very steep to acquire it. Let’s consider the situation in the real estate market. How often we walk into an estate agent’s office and are informed that someone has already shown a keen interest in the property we have liked. Further the other imaginary person will be making an offer anytime. All of this is done to indirectly make us believe that this property will soon be out of market and so now is the time to acquire this scarce property. More often than not there is never that ‘someone’ who has shown any interest whatsoever in the property but the ploy invariably works and people end up buying that property in a rush a much higher price. Of course if one is aware of this fallacy in thinking then chances are that he will assess the product or services solely on the basis of price and benefit and not whether the item is disappearing or anyone else has shown interest in it.
The book is packed with nice examples and advice like this and is a good place to remind ourselves of some of the common but easily avoidable thinking errors that we tend to commit every now and then. Despite these sure positives where the book misses the real trick, is in originality. So, as much as the book lists an impressive total of 99 cognitive biases what it lacks is clearly original thoughts and ideas. None of the biases discussed in the book will be new to any discerning reader and follower of psychology. All the concepts have been lifted from the works of known psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Taleb is not exactly a psychologist). If one is to note how many times Kahneman has been referenced in the book, it is fair to say that Rolf has been very heavily influenced by Kahneman. Now to be fair, the author does mention at the beginning of the book that the book is a personal checklist of the various cognitive biases which he turned into a compilation for this book. Additionally the list is by no means an exhaustive list of biases. Finally, as Rolf has listed all the 99 biases while not taking far too many pages, there isn’t any attempt to get into any sort of depth on any of the biases, just 2-3 pages on each bias is all that we get to read.
For lovers of psychology who also like brevity this is an ideal book that will help them touch upon some of major cognitive biases that have now known for centuries or those that have been recently understood and added to the list through the latest research of the past 3-4 decades. This book offers a whistle-stop highlight tour of some of the human thinking fallacies. This book is surely a neat quick reference guide on the most common thinking biases that we generally encounter.
Rolf Dobelli is a Swiss author and businessman.
This book is available in many formats. So go ahead and read it!