Health

Thursday 2 October 2014

Five ways to think more clearly

FLUSTERED: Zooey Deschanel stars as the ditzy Jess in New Girl...maybe Rolf Dobelli's book could give her a few tips

You have to fight against bias, says Anna Coogan, if you want to get ahead quickly

So what are you thinking right now? Because every little thought you have is the result of the most common influences in your life, be they your education, family, the media or friends. Mostly though, you're too busy doing stuff to think about the reasons you're thinking what you're thinking.

Rolf Dobelli is a 46-year-old Swiss novelist, entrepreneur and economic philosopher, who has dedicated his life to getting to the root of why you think the things you do. His book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, is about the simple errors we make in our day-to-day thinking, and how we need to ditch them to get ahead quicker.

His book depicts 99 dangerous decision-making errors and advises us on how to avoid them. Here are five which Dobelli believes are holding you back.

You think success comes easily

In daily life, because triumph is made more visible than failure, you systematically overestimate your chances of succeeding. As an outsider, you succumb to an illusion, and you mistake how minuscule the probability of success really is. This is the 'survivorship bias'.

Behind every popular author you can find 100 other writers whose books will never sell. Behind them are another 100 who haven't found publishers. Behind them are yet another 100 whose unfinished manuscripts gather dust in drawers.

You, however, hear of only the successful authors and fail to recognise how unlikely literary success is. The same goes for photographers, entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, Nobel Prize winners, television presenters and beauty queens. No one is interested in digging around in the graveyards of the unsuccessful. They're not visible. Thus you overestimate the chance of success. Thus you spend too much time on the wrong goals.

You think what's popular is best

Social proof, sometimes termed the herd instinct, dictates that individuals feel they are behaving correctly when they act the same as other people. In other words, the more people who follow a certain idea, the better (truer) we deem it to be. And the more people who display a certain behaviour the more appropriate this behaviour is judged to be by others. This is, of course, absurd. Social proof is the evil behind social bubbles and stock market panic.

It exists in fashion, management techniques, hobbies, religion and diets. So, be sceptical whenever a company claims its product is better because it is 'the most popular'. How is a product better simply because it sells the most units?

You think about new information only in a way which suits your opinions

The 'confirmation bias' is the mother of all misconceptions. It is the tendency to interpret new information so that it becomes compatible with our existing theories, beliefs and convictions. In other words, we filter out any 'disconfirming evidence' – new information that contradicts our existing views. This is a dangerous practice. One example: an executive team decides on a new strategy. The team enthusiastically celebrates any sign that the strategy is a success. Everywhere the executives look, they see plenty of confirming evidence, while indications to the contrary remain unseen or are quickly dismissed as 'exceptions' or 'special cases'. They have become blind to disconfirming evidence. If the word 'exception' crops up, prick up your ears.

You think good results are about hard work, not a selection process

Harvard has a stellar reputation as being a top university. Many highly successful people have studied there. So does this mean that Harvard is a good school? We don't know. Perhaps the school is terrible, and it simply recruits the brightest students around. Whenever we confuse selection factors with results, we fall prey to the 'swimmer's body illusion'. We believe a swimmer's body is the result of constant training, and not that a swimmer is a successful athlete because of his natural body shape. Likewise, we'll ask happy people about the secret of their contentment, and they'll often say, "You have to see the glass half-full rather than half-empty". These born optimists are selected to write self-help books, but for billions of people, their pieces of advice are unlikely to help.

You go with the first thing you think

Board members discuss what management has submitted – usually quarterly figures – instead of more important things, such as a clever move by the competition, a slump in employee motivation or an unexpected change in the customer's behaviour.

The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli, published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced €14.30

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