Do you have the art of thinking clearly?

You’re probably a rational person, right? You’re probably pretty good at assessing your own abilities, too. Unfortunately, this is pretty unlikely! But don’t worry, you’re in good company: we are all far less rational and far more capricious in our decision-making than we believe ourselves to be.

Like it or not, our brains are a mishmash of shortcuts and rules-of-thumb that helped our ancient ancestors avoid becoming lion lunch and stay alive long enough to pass on these traits to posterity.

These days, however, these shortcuts lead to many fallacies and biases that hurt us more than they help us.

In “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, author Rolf Dobelli explains some of the main traps you probably fall into every single day, and along the way provides you with tips on how to steer your way around them and start thinking clearly.

Do you feel that you have a pretty realistic grasp of your abilities? That, while others might delude themselves into overestimating their abilities, you don’t? If so, you aren’t alone: we all tend to view ourselves through rose-tinted glasses.

Research has shown that we are overconfident in many areas of life.

For example, studies have shown that 84 percent of Frenchmen consider themselves to be above-average lovers. In reality, it’s only possible for 50 percent to be considered “above average,” since, statistically speaking, 50 percent should rank higher and the other half should rank lower.

Similarly, research has shown that 93 percent of US students ranked themselves as “above-average” drivers, and 68 percent of University of Nebraska faculty ranked their own teaching abilities in the top quartile.

These numbers show that the majority of us rate our abilities higher than they probably are.

Not only that, but we also mistakenly attribute successes to our own abilities and failures to external factors.

Researchers even tested this by having a group of subjects take a personality test, and then assigning arbitrary scores to the tests. When the subjects were later interviewed, they found that those with “good” scores believed that the test results had fairly reflected their true abilities, thus successfully assessing their great personalities.

Those who received “bad” scores, however, found the ratings to be useless, and that the test itself ‒ and not their personality ‒ was garbage.

Have you ever had a similar experience? If you got an A on a high school exam, for example, you probably felt that you were responsible for your success. If you flunked, you probably thought that it wasn’t your fault, and that the test was unfair, or some other circumstance caused your failure.

Knowing this, you should therefore be aware of our tendency to overestimate our knowledge and attribute all our success to our own skills. A good way to overcome this might be to invite an honest friend out to coffee and ask for their candid opinion on your strengths and weaknesses.

Have you ever thought about why people at casinos throw their dice harder if they want a high number, and gently if they need a low one to win big?

These gamblers are suffering from the illusion of control – i.e., the belief that we can influence things that we in fact cannot control.

The illusion of control offers us hope: if we believe that we can exert some kind of control over our situation, then we can better endure life’s many sufferings.

This was demonstrated in one study in which subjects were placed in booths to test their acoustic sensitivity to pain. Amazingly, they could withstand significantly more noise if the booth was equipped with a red “panic” button.

The button, however, had literally no function. Participants simply had the illusion that they were in control of the situation, and were thus able to endure more pain.

So it would make sense that “placebo buttons” are installed in all sorts of areas in order to create an illusory but ultimately useful sense of control.

For example: those buttons you press at the crosswalk at a busy intersection? Most do nothing more than simply give us the feeling that we are influencing our situation – making it easier for us to wait for the light to change.

The same is true for some “door-open” and “door-close” buttons in elevators, which often aren’t even connected to the electrical panel!

Furthermore, in addition to having much less influence than we think, we are also quite overconfident about our ability to make predictions.

Consider, for example, this ten-year study that evaluated 28,361 predictions from 284 self-described professionals across a number of fields, such as economics. These “expert” predictions were only marginally better than the predictions made by a random forecast generator.

It’s therefore in your best interest to be critical of predictions and to focus your energy on a few things of importance that you truly can influence.

When a soloist at a concert puts on a particularly riveting performance, it’s not uncommon for someone in the audience to spontaneously burst into applause. Suddenly everyone else joins the chorus – including you! But why?

This is due to a phenomenon called social proof, which makes us feel like our behavior is correct when it matches other people’s.

In fact, social proof is rooted in the genes of our ancestors, who copied others’ behavior to ensure their own survival.

Imagine, for example, that you’re traveling with your hunter-gatherer friends, and they all suddenly started sprinting. If you decided to act individually by staying put and pondering whether the creature staring at you is really a lion, then you’ll end up being lion lunch, and thus exit the gene pool.

If, however, you follow your group without hesitation, then you’ll have a better chance of surviving another day. And since following others was a good survival strategy for our ancestors, it is still deeply rooted in us today.

One consequence of this “herd instinct” is that the more people follow an idea, the better we believe that idea to be. We see examples of this everywhere: from fashion and diets to stock market panic and collective suicides.

Moreover, we don’t just do the same things as the group; we also change our opinions in order to stay part of the group.

This kind of social proof is called groupthink. You can see it at work, for instance, whenever we bite our tongue in a meeting because we don’t want to be the naysayer who points out flaws in the commonly accepted reasoning and disrupts group unity.

A perfect example of this was the demise of the world-class carrier Swissair: they had built a strong consensus about their success that suppressed even rational reservations, and they therefore missed the warning signs of the imminent financial danger that ultimately led to their demise.

Do you consider yourself a good judge of character, whose first impressions of people often prove true later? Many people think this way about themselves, but in fact, it’s likely that they are just the victims of confirmation bias.

In actuality, we all suffer from confirmation bias, i.e., the tendency to interpret new information in such a fashion that our previous conclusions remain intact. Indeed, it is so common that it is even said to be “the mother of all misconceptions.”

One example of confirmation bias in action is when we peruse our favorite news sites and blogs on the internet for analysis of recent events, forgetting, however, that our favorite sites mirror our own values.

In doing this, we inevitably find communities of like-minded people, thus further entrenching our convictions.

In addition, confirmation bias causes us to accept external information about ourselves that matches our existing self-image, and then unconsciously filter out everything else.

This bias is the reason people believe that pseudosciences such as astrology and tarot-card reading work so well: we can’t help but see the many applications to our own lives in their universal descriptions.

To explore this phenomenon, the psychologist Bertram Forer crafted fake personality readings from a mishmash of different astrology columns from various magazines, and then gave them to his students under the pretence that they were individual, personalized assessments. Afterwards the students were asked to rate these “personalized” descriptions, and on average judged them to be 86 percent accurate!

This study indicated that we interpret information so it corresponds to our pre-existing self-image, and has since been aptly named the Forer effect.

Knowing that we are unconsciously influenced by our confirmation bias, we should instead set out to find contrary opinions and evidence in order to form more balanced convictions.

Check out my related post: Can you get rid of the bias in your head?

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