Bats, Balls, and Biases

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally to us and it isn’t easy.

In some instances, we equate difficult with boring. In fact, after reading the short paragraph above, you may already be bored. Critical thinking? Who cares and why bother?

Well, for one thing, it’s possible that improving your critical thinking skills might help you become a better person. But more importantly, it might help you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. That’s because good critical thinking skills are essential if you want to master the art and science of change. And unless you master the art and science of change, you’ll continue to be stuck with whatever the status quo happens to be—or to become.

On the BIAS

We all view what happens in the world and what happens to us through our own individual perspectives (our mental models). That means we are all biased.

Here’s an easy way to remember bias:

Beliefs and Values

Beliefs are ideas or principles we have come to accept as true.
Values are our personal principles or standards.
Interpretations are explanations or understanding.
Assumptions are suppositions: what we take for granted or assume.
Stereotypes are generalizations and oversimplifications.

All of these elements operate in the background (System 1) so we aren’t usually consciously aware of them. Being biased is the normal state of affairs. We don’t have to make an effort to be biased. We have to make an effort to become aware of our biases so we have a fighting chance to act in our own best interest rather than automatically.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is that we think of the conscious part of the brain (System 2) as “I.” Yet it’s the biased unconscious part of the brain (System 1) that usually runs us. It takes no time or effort to come up with a System 1 reaction or response to a situation, question, or event because System 1 is fast, vast, and always on.

As Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Everybody recognizes the difference between thoughts that come to mind automatically and thoughts that you need to produce. That is the distinction.

System 1 has an answer for everything. And its answers are correct often enough to lull us into accepting them unconditionally most of the time. But you’re not going to get change from System 1; you’re going to get same old/same old.

In addition to understanding our own biases, we also need to develop the capacity to know when it’s OK to go along with System 1’s response and when it isn’t. Well-developed critical thinking skills can help us make important decisions and solve significant problems by allowing us to effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Do I need an umbrella?

If you look outside and observe rain falling, you could safely jump to the conclusion that you need to take an umbrella with you when you go outside. You would not increase your chances of making the best decision by checking the weather report on your smartphone (getting more information) or analyzing your interpretation that rain falling means you’re likely to get wet if you go out in it.

How much does the ball cost?

On the other hand, you may not want to count on the first response that comes to mind as an answer to the following question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you jump to the conclusion that the ball costs 10 cents, you would be wrong—no matter how confident you might feel about your conclusion.

That’s because if the bat costs one dollar more than the ball and the ball costs 10 cents, the bat would cost $1.10 for a total of $1.20. So the correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05 for a total of $1.10.

Did you do the math, so to speak, or did you jump to the quick—and erroneous—conclusion? If you jumped to the wrong conclusion, how confident did you feel about your answer? And does it make you feel any better to know that between 50% and 80% of college students also come up with the wrong answer.

Y Is for Yesses

Your unconscious shrugs off neutral or positive news or experiences, sometimes barely registering them, and hones in on the negative. You have a stronger emotional reaction to negative stimuli, which increases the likelihood you’ll remember it. Since it takes less time for negative experiences to get stored in memory, your unconscious has more negative memories to draw on than positive ones when it’s evaluating information. And negative experiences affect you longer. As Rick Hanson famously says:

Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

That’s because your brain’s main concern is your survival, so it’s primed to detect threats. Positive things may indeed help you survive. But negative things can kill you. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to expect and prepare for a possible threat than to be surprised or ambushed by one.

It’s easy to forget you’re operating with essentially the same brain your ancestors on the savanna had—a brain that doesn’t necessarily deal effectively with the stimulation, stressors, and sheer volume of information you have to contend with in modern daily life.

The brain is, first and foremost, a survival tool, and the way that it has found to be most effective at guaranteeing survival is through the threat and reward response. Put simply, your brain will cause you to move away from threats and move toward rewards. —Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work

This may not seem particularly problematic until you realize that, in additional to actual survival needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) and actual physical threats, each of us has personalized our threat-detection system to include situations we have defined as threatening. And once your brain gets the idea that something is a threat, it responds as if it is facing a literal threat to your physical survival.

Your brain automatically looks for what isn’t working: the threats, the slights, the hurts, the things that fall apart or don’t go your way. And because the unconscious part of your brain uses associative thinking, it is all too easy to get on a negative track and stay there. One thing leads to another, or one similar thought reminds you of another similar thought, and before you know it, your mood and your attitude have soured, and your ability to refocus your attention has evaporated.

Count Your Yesses

You can’t stop your brain from noticing the negative, and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But neither do you have to give in to it. The advice to count your blessings comes to mind, but I find blessings to be a loaded word on several levels. I prefer to count my yesses. It’s an effective way to turn the tide when I notice I’ve mentally starting traveling along that road to nowhere.

Although I tend to be pretty optimistic and upbeat, the first thing I noticed when I began this practice was how much easier it is to count my nos. Because the nos are brought to our attention by System 1, the part of the brain that is always on and processes 11,000,000 bits of information at a time, they come to mind immediately and automatically. Counting yesses, on the other hand, requires intention, which is a function of System 2, the conscious part of the brain that is slow, lazy, and easily depleted.

That’s why when you’re tired, stressed, or sick—or when life has dealt you some kind of blow—you simply have less System 2 attention available. It’s easy, then, for the nos to get the upper hand. I remember when I experienced a bout of food poisoning. For several days, the nos were abundant. While I observed the downward trend in my thoughts, I understood what was happening. I was pretty sure my perspective would shift once I got better (which it did), so I didn’t let the nos carry me too far downstream.

It’s easy for one no to outweigh many yesses, so much so that we may not even notice the yesses when they occur. A Facebook friend used to post what she called “The Daily Yes.” It was a good prompt for me because it was my cue to pay attention to what’s juicy and zesty and working in my life—to who and what has said yes to me and who and what I’ve said yes to.

Don’t Let the Nos Foil Your Plans

The negativity bias can really wreak havoc on your attempts to meet your goals, master a challenge, or change an unwanted habit. Your brain is more likely to point out all the things you don’t do—or don’t do as well as you could or should—while ignoring your successes. Along with repetition and perseverance, change requires a cheerleader, not a critic scolding you from the peanut gallery.

If you allow the negativity bias to run unchecked, you’re likely to believe there are more nos than there actually are—and that they mean something. You’re likely to perceive anything that doesn’t work or turn out the way you planned as evidence that something is wrong with you or with your plan instead of using it as feedback to help you adjust your course.

Any time you’re trying to change the status quo is a good time to be intentional about counting your yesses. 

Note: Counting your yesses isn’t the same as positive thinking. Although positive thinking sounds like a good idea, it may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Nor is positive thinking the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

T Is for Thinking

What exactly is thinking? It turns out this is an area where you can’t trust dictionaries to provide meaningful definitions. If you consider the various definitions of the word—or the process—you’re likely to either be confused or to grab one that fits your existing concept so you (and your not-necessarily-thinking brain) can move on.

I don’t want to get philosophical about it, but I think there’s value in acknowledging the confusion. Being able to think clearly and effectively is essential for anyone who wants to lead a satisfying and meaningful life. It’s the difference between using your brain and letting your brain use you.

Warning! Metacognition* Ahead.

One definition equates thinking and opinion. But that source also equates opinion and judgment, so my opinion is that their thinking is sloppy and can’t be trusted. Are they referring to opinions and judgments rendered as a result of careful deliberation or are they referring to off-the-cuff (and often off-the-wall) moment-to-moment opinions and judgments that result from jumping to conclusions based on little or no evidence?

Another source says thinking is the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts. This sounds reasonable, but I’m not sure what they mean by “using one’s mind.” Based on the way the two parts of the brain work, we know that the majority of thoughts we have are suggestions from System 1 (the unconscious) rather than the result of conscious deliberation.

Yet another definition equates thinking with having a conscious mind. But there’s a difference between consciousness and both the contents of consciousness (what you’re aware of—see above) and conscious processes. You’re conscious of all kinds of things you’ve never given any particular thought to.

For example, I’m aware that I dislike the color pink and rainy climates. I’m also aware that I’m suspicious of people who prefer rainy climates. But I’m not under the impression that any actual thinking was involved in the development of those so-called “thoughts.”

How Do I Think?
Let Me Count the Ways.

Some of the confusion undoubtedly results from the fact that, as with memory, there are so many different types of thinking that the term needs adjectives to clarify and differentiate them. Variations on the theme of thinking include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Associative thinking
  • Ruminative thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Default-mode thinking
  • Counterfactual thinking
  • Overthinking
  • Positive thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally and isn’t easy. In order to make an important decision or solve a significant problem, you need well-developed critical thinking skills so you can effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Associative thinking is the process System 1 (the unconscious) uses to link one thing (thought, idea, experience, etc.) to another. Associative thinking is much faster than logical, linear thinking, and there are times and places when quick, non-reflective responses are required. But there are some built-in problems with associative thinking. It sacrifices accuracy for speed, so the patterns it sees and the connections it makes don’t always lead to useful conclusions. It doesn’t discriminate very well, preferring clear-cut distinctions rather than shades of gray. And it takes numerous cognitive shortcuts known as cognitive biases.

Ruminative thinking is the tendency to passively think about the meaning, origins, and consequences of negative emotions (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). One negative incident or thought leads to another, and the escalating intensity of negative thoughts can result in depression, aggression, or even an increase in physical pain. You can ruminate about situations, other people, or about yourself (self-rumination). Rumination can feel like problem-solving, but all it does is keep you focused on the problem. The danger is that it can become a habit—and habits are notoriously difficult to change.

Creative thinking (or creativity) is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things. This is less a talent or gift than an approach to life, and it provides many rewards apart from the products of creativity. Creative thinkers are less likely to be bored, more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and are very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life. The key to creative thinking is to know when to use logical, linear (System 2) thinking and when to use associative (System 1) thinking.

Counterfactual thinking is thinking that runs counter to the facts. It consists of imagining outcomes other than the ones that occurred: the way things could have been—or should have been—different from the way they turned out.  Being able to imagine different outcomes is an enormous evolutionary and practical advantage. It’s integral to being creative or inventive and in not continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Counterfactual thinking can be either functional (helps you figure out what to do next time) or nonfunctional (leads to blame, stress, anxiety, etc.). And it can be either upward (how could things have gone better?) or downward (how could things have gone worse?).

Default-mode thinking is the opposite of mindfulness. Although you can sometimes direct your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on, at other times it just wanders along a winding path on a trajectory of its own. That’s because whenever you’re not focused on an external task—and even sometimes when you are—the network of brain structures referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN) is active. Mind wandering isn’t the same as being distracted. In fact, default mode thinking is essential for consolidating memory and maintaining your sense of self (who you are).

Overthinking is often the result of believing you can fully determine—or even guarantee—an outcome based on the amount of thinking you do about it. It often consists of making multiple lists of pros and cons, running through if/then scenarios, trying to gather as much information as possible, or attempting to approach an issue from every conceivable angle. This is not an effective approach to planning or decision making because thinking more or thinking harder doesn’t lead to clarity, only to confusion and possibly a headache. Too much logical, linear thinking can be as bad as too little.

Positive thinking is usually defined as a mental attitude that accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. Supposedly, positive thinking can help you succeed and better deal with life’s upsets and challenges. However, a considerable amount of research has come to a different conclusion, which is that positive thinking may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Positive thinking isn’t the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.

*Metacognition means thinking about thinking as opposed to reacting to it or being at the effect of it. The part of the brain that runs you most of the time (the unconscious) initiates both thoughts and actions that serve to maintain your personal status quo. So if you want to change the status quo, you need to determine what kind of thinking you’re doing—or what kind of thinking is “doing” you.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

M Is for Mental Model

Your brain maintains a model of the world that represents what’s normal in it for you. The result is that you experience a stripped-down, customized version of the actual world. To a great extent, each of us really does inhabit our own world. But it would be incorrect to say that we create our reality; rather, our brain creates our reality for us.

Consciousness is a way of projecting all the activity in your nervous system into a simpler form. [It] gives you a summary that is useful for the larger picture, useful at the scale of apples and rivers and humans with whom you might be able to mate. —David Eagleman

Much, if not most, of what you do, think, and feel consists of automatically generated responses to internal or external stimuli. And it isn’t possible to consciously mediate all of your responses. It wouldn’t even be a good idea to try.

But how does your brain do it? How does it decide what to prune and what to allow into your consciousness? It would be highly inefficient if it had to process all of this data bit-by-bit. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to since it operates by association, which is much faster, and by filtering incoming data through the model of the world it constructs that represents what’s normal in it for you.

Built by Association

System 1, the unconscious part of your brain, uses associative thinking to develop and maintain your model of the world. However, there are some problems with associative thinking. For example:

  • It sacrifices accuracy for speed.
  • It doesn’t discriminate very well.
  • It takes cognitive shortcuts (aka cognitive biases).

Your mental model can—and sometimes does—lead to erroneous conclusions and inappropriate responses. It’s the job of consciousness (System 2) to check the impulses and suggestions it receives from System 1, but consciousness is slow, lazy, and easily depleted. Most of the time, it’s content to go along with System 1, which means it’s susceptible to cognitive biases. By definition, cognitive biases are distortions or errors in thinking. They actually decrease your understanding while giving you a feel-good sense of cognitive ease.

Confirmation bias is the easy acceptance of information that validates what you already believe. It causes you to selectively notice and pay attention to what confirms your beliefs and to ignore what doesn’t. It underlies the discomfort you feel around people who disagree with you and the ease you feel around people who share your beliefs.

Information that confirms what you already believe to be true makes you feel right and certain, so you’re likely to accept it uncritically. On the other hand, you’re more likely to reject information that is inconsistent with what you already believe or at least you hold inconsistent information up to greater scrutiny. You have different standards for evaluating information depending on the level of cognitive ease it generates.

Evidence has precious little impact on any of us if it conflicts with what we believe simply because the cognitive strain of processing it is too great. To a very real extent, we don’t even “see” conflicting evidence. While total commitment to your particular worldview (mental model) makes you feel more confident, it narrows—rather than expands—your possibilities. That means it limits your powers of discernment, your ability to increase your understanding of the world around you, and your creative potential. It closes the world off instead of opening it up.

Your Particular Model of the World

In addition to helping you navigate the world, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, assumptions, biases, etc. that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you make of it all. Your mental model is the result of your genes and your experiences, of both intention and accident. Your brain has been constructing your particular model of the world since your birth, and it is continually updating and modifying it—most of the time entirely outside your awareness.

But while the contents of your mental model determine what you think, feel, do, and say, you can’t search them—or follow a bread-crumb trail backward through them—to find out precisely which aspects (and when and how they came to be) give rise to any specific facet of who you are and how you react now.

The significance of your mental model in your life can’t be overstated. Although you aren’t consciously aware of it, your mental model circumscribes not only every aspect of your present experience but also what is possible for you to do and be. It determines what you see and how you see the world, both literally and figuratively, as well as how you see yourself.

So it stands to reason that you won’t be successful in making long-lasting changes to your behavior, beliefs, or attitude unless you are able to change your mental model.

Changing the Status Quo

The often-quoted statement is true: we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. If you want to live a fuller live, if you want to be more effective or useful or loving in the world, you first need to recognize that your greatest constraints are imposed by your own mental model.

You can’t do away with your mental model—or “think outside the box,” since the box is your mental model. But you can expand it through learning, through exposing yourself to new situations, people, and ideas, and through physical movement. You can grow new neurons and generate new neuronal connections and pathways. Those new neuronal pathways represent alterations to your mental model, a change in your status quo to a new normal for you.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

L Is for Luck

Plans, practice, and preparation are all useful, even essential, if you want to accomplish anything significant in life. But no matter how rock-solid they are, your plans, practice, and preparation cannot immunize you against random occurrences, aka luck. Your luck in a given circumstance may be good or bad, but by its nature it isn’t predictable.

A good definition of luck is:

The chance happening of fortunate or adverse events.

It’s important to recognize that, statistically speaking, random events occur far more often and have a far greater impact on us than we recognize. Events outside our control will occur. When everything goes according to plan or falls into place, we can thank our lucky stars. But we can’t count on being lucky. And we can’t take credit for luck.

The fact that luck is something we can’t control automatically casts it in a bad light. Both the nature of it and the outcome are uncertain and uncertainty gives the unconscious part of our brain the heebie jeebies. We prefer to operate under the illusion of control, maintaining our belief that we can influence outcomes even in the face of significant irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Thus there are people who believe they create their own luck. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur. And in some circumstances that’s true. You can’t necessarily take advantage of advantageous circumstances if you don’t know how to respond or are not prepared to do so. You can, to an extent, be ready to open your arms to random good fortune—which would certainly be more welcome than bad fortune.

Estimating Impact

However, good fortune does not always lead to good outcomes. Take lottery winners, a group that has been the subject of numerous studies. Not everyone who wins the lottery ends up worse off than they were before—but a surprising number of winners do. And most report being no happier after winning than people who didn’t win.

Our beliefs about outcomes are strongly affected by one of the cognitive biases we’re afflicted with. This one is known as the impact bias, and it has two parts. We think we know whether a future potential event will affect us in a positive or in a negative way. And we’re usually pretty good at getting that prediction right. We also think we know how large or small that impact will be and how long it will last. That’s where we often miss the mark by anticipating that both good and bad events will affect us more—and for longer—than they actually will.

Something that is pretty predictable is that you’re more likely to overreact to bad luck when you aren’t fully committed to your current plan of action. If you’re more or less going through the motions, it won’t take much to blow you off course or permanently derail you. You might think what you’re up to is just not meant to be or that you don’t have what it takes.

That’s why it’s critical to get very, very clear about your desired outcome ahead of time. If you have a strong commitment to what you’re going after, you’re more likely to consider bad luck a bump in the road. Maybe it’s a small bump or maybe it’s an enormous boulder. Nevertheless, you’ll be more inclined to figure out how to navigate around it and continue on your way if you really want what’s on the other side and if you know the next steps you need to take.

Enter the Black Swan

Sometimes luck, good or bad, has a relatively minor effect. On the other hand, luck—in the form of what Nassim Taleb calls Black Swans—can be life-changing. Taleb describes a so-called Black Swan this way:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

The majority of swans are white, so black swans are unexpected. As Taleb says, on September 10, 2011, the events of September 11 were not reasonably conceivable. If they had been, something could have been done to prevent them.

A Black Swan event can permanently alter your course or at the very least make it vastly more difficult to pursue. But you can’t anticipate such events or know whether they will be positive or negative. What you can be certain about is what is meaningful to you. If the course you’re on is massively disrupted, you will still have the knowledge of what’s important to you, even if you have to find a completely different way to create it in your life.

If there’s something you want to do and the main thing holding you back is uncertainty, try imagining a world where all is preordained, everything is known in advance, and there is no possibility of surprise. Is that really a world you’d want to live in?

You can’t predict the future no matter how much your brain wants you to believe you can. Although you can—and should—plan ahead, it’s important to remember that the path from here to there is rarely a straight line. Randomness and luck often play a larger role in both process and outcome than we’d like to acknowledge.

In the long run, how you respond (persevere) in the face of setbacks and random events is more important than achieving instant or quick success. And you can take all the credit for persevering.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.