Book review: The Art of Thinking Clearly

When I picked up a copy of the book The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli I was expecting an insightful guide into making effective decisions, a ‘how-to’ to clearly think things through. As a mental ruminator, I was intrigued to learn how to calm the circling thought process and instead focus on a more precise way of decision-making.

The book didn’t deliver this as such, but unexpectedly, it was still incredibly helpful and insightful. A more accurate title ought to have been ‘How Not to Think’ as it works its way through 99 common cognitive fallacies and biases, all of which negatively affect how we think. This is what Dobelli refers to as via negativa, or eliminating or reducing certain ways of bad thinking so that what is left is better thinking (explained only at the end of the book).

Title and initial assumptions aside, it was a fascinating read. Real life examples demonstrate each of the thinking habits we’re all prone to. Dobelli spends around three pages for each of the 99 biases and relates most to the world of business and work, backed up by scientific and psychological research. For professionals wanting to understand why and how they come to certain decisions in their working life (and indeed their personal life), this book will give you the reasons and explanations. It also provides tips on how to challenge each of these biases – albeit over just a single, concluding paragraph. But, to me, the meat of the content is bringing about self-awareness of our mental shortcuts and making more conscious decisions by via negativa.

The short of it is: we’re all descendants of people who needed to think quickly by using shortcuts so to literally save their lives. Sabre-tooth tiger coming this way – no time to think, just run. I have an opinion that differs from the clan’s consensus – no time to think, just conform for the sake of survival so to not be excommunicated (which means certain death). The people who stopped to reflect and think before making a decision were more likely to die off one way or another, removing that way of thinking from the gene pool. Those who thought quickly based on mental shortcuts despite it being irrational, illogical or immoral lived, and consequently established the gene pool from which we were all born.

Thankfully, modern life is different now but the comparative sudden change has meant our way of thinking, evolved from our quick-thinking ancestors, hasn’t caught up. It’s still ‘instinctive’. Not all shortcuts are bad; the book explains that thinking uses a great amount of energy and in turn decreases willpower and motivation. Relying on shortcuts, our ‘gut instincts’, to make decisions that have minimal consequences means we save our energy for bigger problems should they arise.

The book touches on other fallacies that haven’t necessarily been inherited, for example: ‘framing’, where we may automatically think a food product that is ‘98% fat free’ is better than one that has ‘1% fat’ despite the former containing more fat; or ‘clustering illusion’, how the mind prefers symmetry and patterns, so much so that it actively and sometimes falsely find patterns and meaning in something that is completely coincidental, lacking any sort of pattern or mathematical significance; or ‘social proof’, the fact that if 50 million people think something is true, it does not, in itself, make it true.

There were a few other biases that stood out to me that I feel will particularly help professionals in their careers and day-to-day worklife:

Hedonic Treadmill – the highs that come with successes and accomplishments are short-lived, as are the lows that come with failures and losses. We can spend years reaching a goal, yet the positive feelings once it’s been achieved last only a month or two before we reset to our default state of happiness. Promotions, new cars, pay increases, new qualifications – we think these will make us happy but we soon revert back to the general humdrum of life, looking for the next high. It is far better to avoid the things that will make us less happy: the jobs we wouldn’t like to do, the income we wouldn’t prefer to live on.

Action bias – in order to get ahead, to succeed and to achieve, we feel we need to be in action and busy. We need to be doing something even if the fruits of our efforts are futile, or worse, counter-productive, as the thought of not doing something means lack of progress to us, which isn’t always the case. We need to be more aware of the times when action will actually provide progress, or if reflection and taking no action is the best action to take. In a professional context, being busy for the sake of being seen that you’re doing something may be counter-productive. Don’t give in to knee-jerk reactions and take time to gather – and challenge – the facts before taking any action (including inaction).

Loss aversion – we are more averse to losing something than gaining something. In fact, the feeling of losing something is twice as impactful as the feeling of gaining something of equal value or importance. In a professional context, if you are responsible for change management, communication, negotiation, motivation or something that requires people to be on board with your actions, don’t rely on the old faithful tactic of ‘what’s in it for me?’; instead, remind them what they might lose if they don’t support you.

Availability bias – we rely more on the information that we already know and/or are more easily to conceive, including generalisation, without considering other, conflicting information or testing the information’s accuracy. Management information like reports and stats are easy to produce to confirm your suspicions for why something bad has happened – if it proves your theory, then no further information is sought despite that further information shedding a different light on the reasons why this bad thing happened. It’s similar to confirmation bias but relies less on seeking only specific answers that support your theory, and more on the answers that are convenient and readily available. To counter this, speak with more people who think differently to you who can show you a different perspective to issues.

These are just a few biases that really made me stop and think but the remaining 95 were just as interesting to learn about. If you enjoy understanding how the mind ticks, intrigued by cognitive patterns and want to be more aware of the risky shortcuts your mind has established to make decisions without any effort, this is definitely worth a read.

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