Evolution has gifted us the most complicated entity yet found on Earth: our minds. But in many ways the mind is also a clumsy, cobbled together contraption with many predictable flaws.
In his new book Professor Gary Marcus of New York University likens the mind to a ‘kluge’ – an engineering term meaning a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.
To combat the ‘klugey’ nature of our minds, Professor Marcus provides 13 quick techniques based on psychological research to help us combat its inherent flaws in decision-making.
1. Whenever possible, consider alternatives
Our brains are not good at evaluating evidence dispassionately. Force yourself to generate alternatives. Research has demonstrated the value of counter-factual thinking: thinking about the opposite helps us make better decisions.
2. Reframe the question
Our memories are highly contextual so the background to any issue we consider has a huge impact on how we view it. Politicians, advertisers and other influencers use framing extensively to persuade us of their point of view. You can fight back by reframing their propositions.
3. Correlation doesn’t equal causation
An oldie but a goldie. There’s a clear correlation between foot size and being richer, owning your own house and having a better education. On the other hand people with smaller feet are often still struggling with potty training. Guessed it yet? People with small feet are usually children, so of course they have less money, don’t own their own houses and, haven’t been to school yet. Correlation doesn’t equal causation.
4. Never forget the sample size
When we think about someone and a few seconds later they call us, is that evidence of ESP? Consider the sample size. How many times have you thought about that person in the past year? How many times have they called you in the last year? What first seems like a freak occurrence soon starts to look inevitable. Sample sizes are easy to forget.
5. Anticipate your impulsivity
The best of intentions often break down in the face of vicious temptation. People find it difficult to predict just how far off course their emotions can pull them (e.g. the projection bias). Use any method you can to counter your impulsivity: cancel the credit card, join a Christmas Club, avoid the confectionary store. It’s all about planning ahead.
6. Make contingency plans
Humans are better at concrete goals; abstract goals like ‘read more’ or ‘lose weight’ get lost in the mix. Substitute these with: ‘read this book by next Tuesday’ and ‘don’t buy any junk food on the weekly shop’.
7. Make important decisions when relaxed and rested
What, I need to explain this?
8. Weigh costs against benefits
Common advice but actually quite tricky to do. Research shows that our minds prefer to consider either costs or benefits; taking both into account takes considerable effort. Professor Marcus points out that one factor we often forget is the ‘opportunity cost’: when we do one thing, we can’t be doing something else. When I watch TV the benefit might be relaxation and enjoyment but the cost is that I can’t be reading that mind-improving book that’s being lying around for weeks.
9. Imagine your decision will be spot-checked
When we think someone will check up on us we make more cognitive effort, leading to better decision-making. Even if no-one is checking up on you, imagine their reaction if they did: would you be proud of your decision?
10. Distance yourself
When making decisions we are influenced by whatever thoughts and emotions are swirling around in our heads at that moment. Help distance yourself by thinking about how this decision will affect you in the future. Big decisions are always better made after a night’s sleep. Again, it’s common advice but it can be surprisingly difficult to distance yourself.
11. Beware the vivid, personal and anecdotal
It’s so easy for us to be swayed by vivid or personal stories that we may ignore more considered, scientific evidence. Remember that our minds are naturally fascinated and influenced by the sensational at the cost of quotidian. Look carefully at the information source – are you being manipulated?
12. All decisions are not equal
Some decisions are more important than others. Not all decisions warrant effortful deliberation: sometimes it’s better just to choose and be done with it. The trick is knowing which is which – experience should provide strong clues.
13. Be rational!
Sounds vacuous, right? But Professor Marcus argues that research suggests just reminding ourselves to think rationally could help us make better decisions. Consciously trying to think rationally will also help activate all the other techniques described here. Our memories being what they are, this is no bad thing.
Published: 15 May 2008