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
Interpretations
Assumptions
Stereotypes

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.

Depression’s Interesting Effect on Decision-Making

confusionHow does depression affect decision-making? In a word: negatively. That’s not a big surprise. But why do depressed people have a harder time making decisions? According to the results of a recent study reported in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, one reason is that people who are depressed have more difficulty accessing their intuition. In my last post, Intuition: Knowing without Knowing How We Know, I said that intuition as the result of the associative thinking of System 1 (our unconscious), which constantly sees patterns and connects dots our conscious brain (System 2) is unaware of.

Intuitive—or associative—thinking is good for making short-term predictions and for everyday decision-making. And it’s everyday decision-making that depressed people report having difficulty with. Instead of accessing or relying on their intuition, they use the rational, logical, and linear thinking of System 2, which is considerably slower.

Over-relying on System 2 thinking often results in “analysis paralysis,” which I’ll be covering in my next post. System 2 attention is limited and easily depleted, so if we have to rely on it for every little decision we make, we will quickly run out of steam. We won’t be able to make any decision, large or small.

Another thing the study revealed is that depressed people are more likely to ruminate. Maybe it’s this tendency to ruminate that disrupts a person’s access to intuition.

In a post on rumination last month, I wrote:

Rumination feels like problem-solving, but it actually prevents us from solving problems because it keeps us focused on negative events and emotions. We continue to dwell on our problems instead of attempting to resolve them. Rumination disrupts our self-regulation. Because we want to feel better, we try to distract ourselves or turn to immediate gratification. Rumination also increases stress levels and has a negative effect on our general health.

Rumination is a low level of thinking in which one thought leads to another but never to a solution or a conclusion. Rumination occupies mental space and System 2 (conscious) attention, which is already in short supply.

So depression may at least partially be a matter of using, or getting stuck in, the wrong kind of thinking. Intuition—otherwise known as jumping to conclusions—isn’t infallible by any means, but in terms of ordinary, everyday decisions, it is generally reliable. And when it’s wrong in those situations, the stakes tend not to be high enough to lead to major negative consequences.

System 2 thinking is slow, effortful, and deliberate. It’s great for solving complex problems and for long-range or strategic planning. It isn’t the best choice for the hundreds of quick decisions we normally need to make every day. It’s easy to understand how someone could become mired in the quicksand of System 2 thinking and feel mentally paralyzed.

Some suggestions on curtailing ruminative thinking can be found here. Hopefully, the link between a tendency to ruminate and the loss of access to intuitive thinking will lead to greater insight into depression and more treatment options for those experiencing it.

Intuition: Knowing without Knowing How We Know

associative thinkingIntuition goes by many names: hunch, gut feeling, instinct, inkling, inner voice. Malcolm Gladwell refers to it as “rapid cognition.” Cognitive psychologist John Bargh calls it “automatic processing.”

No matter how we label it, what intuition is is the ability to “know” something without knowing how we know it.

One thing intuition is not is magical or mysterious or superior in some way to rational, logical thinking. It’s just different. The world is not divided into people who are intuitive and people who are not. We all rely on intuition every day.

Intuition is the result of the associative thinking that takes place in the unconscious (System 1). The unconscious sees patterns and connects dots our conscious brain (System 2) isn’t even aware of. It operates quickly and it’s always on. That’s because, by the way, it’s what keeps us alive. And keeping us alive is what our brain is designed to do. System 1 makes rapid-fire assessments and communicates them to System 2. When we become consciously aware of one of those assessments, we call it intuition. We could also call it jumping to conclusions.

Jumping to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence is important to an understanding of intuitive thinking. System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions. —Daniel Kahneman

System 1 reacts exactly the same way (jumps to conclusions) whether we have a clue or not. So sometimes its assessments are accurate and sometimes they’re not. Intuition is good for making short-term predictions when it’s based on training, experience, and practice. But even when the training, experience, and practice are in place, intuition is not good for making long-term predictions or forecasts. There are just too many unknown variables for it to account for.

There are a number of potential problems related to relying on intuition. One is that System 1 processing is highly context-dependent. That means that whatever is going on at the time—the weather, our state of mind, the time of day, the last thing we ate—can influence our thoughts. So an intuitive assessment reached under one set of temporary circumstances could be entirely different from the one reached under a different set of circumstances.

Another problem is that good intuition in one area of our lives where we have expertise doesn’t carry over to other areas where we don’t have comparable expertise.

A third and bigger problem with intuition is the strong feeling of confidence it often engenders, whether or not that confidence is warranted, because that sense of confidence is all too easy to confuse with clarity.

What You Can Do:

Don’t automatically assume your intuitive guesses are accurate across the board. Just because you feel confident about something doesn’t mean you’re right. If you are skilled or knowledgeable in an area, your intuition is more likely to be accurate—at least when it comes to short-term predictions. But if  you have no particular skill or knowledge, your intuition isn’t any better than a wild guess.

As Kahneman says, “Do not simply trust intuitive judgment—your own or that of others—but do not dismiss it, either.”

Additional Reading: How Important Is Your Need to Be Right? and Do You Confuse Clarity with Certainty?