Thinking: It’s Not

Nothing is as frightening as ignorance in action.  –Goethe

Nearly a year ago, after reading our blog, Habitual Striking vs. Mindful “Stucking,” one of our regular blog readers asked a formidable question: “So how did you learn to think?” Business people spend a great deal of their time thinking about how to solve problems and make decisions. Furthermore, thinking was at the center of Dan’s business as a consultant. That meant it needed to be spot-on and really smart. As a result, his thinking was driven by a mish-mash of psychological issues: fear, insecurity, curiosity and a profound need to achieve.  But our answer to that reader is formidable, not least because of very human weaknesses, but also because business thinking about problem solving and decision making have gone through a number of stages over the past fifty years.  

More than that, effective thinking is really hard, even for scientists and philosophers. It requires putting aside our own prior beliefs, taking the time to evaluate the quality—and the meaning—of the evidence in front of us and carefully weighing it. But parking our own agenda and staying objective is just not the human way.

  • We’re swayed by anecdotes regardless of our education—and especially when a report or a decision is prefaced with an anecdote or two. Rhetoricians understand that stories—anecdotes–are the most powerful persuaders. That makes stories useful–and also dangerous. You can lie with statistics, but a well-chosen anecdote (mini-story) inevitably does the job better.
  • We’re overconfident. Surveys and studies from as far back as the eighties reveal that though 60% of people would claim they were moderately or well-informed about a subject, far, far fewer of the same group would be able to answer the most elementary questions about a given subject. Questioning ourselves or others seems to touch upon feelings that are very primitive, making such challenges fraught with difficulty and requiring an artistic approach.
  • We’re heavily biased by our prior beliefs. Research consistently shows that when research supports a people’s bias, they are generous in their evaluations. But when research goes against their belief, they reject it and “slam” the findings. Once more, this is dangerous conversational territory to challenge.
  • We’re seduced by statistics, irrelevant mathematical equations and chemical formulas. Rhetoricians and persuaders have known for years that math and statistics exert an unusual power on the thinking processes of most people. You’d think that with all the popular warnings about numbers people might be forewarned, but that just isn’t the case. In today’s technology, for example, algorithms exert a completely unwarranted control over thinking. We conclude that few know how to assess the validity of numbers.
  • Being smart or well-educated just isn’t enough. The best thinkers suffer from very human foibles that undermine their thinking. Dealing with a smart person’s cognitive machinery requires a great deal of conversational savvy—unless, that is, you want to get burned alive.

Research: Priti Shah, et al,  What makes everyday scientific reasoning so challenging.

[Part 2 focuses on the best thinking models, both from the past and for today. In part three, we’ll be making some specific suggestions for better thinking and problem solving.]

–Dan Erwin & Liam O’Dea

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