The Understructure of Thought

Language imposes limitations. When we reason, we use language, whether symbolic or natural. But, our understanding, or, perhaps it is better to talk about it as an intuition, runs deeper than our reason.

A common example can be found in a terms like “creepy”, “janky”, etc. We use these terms when there is uncertainty, when something is unreliable or unpredictable. The “creepy” guy on the bus is one that could possibly do something unexpected and unwanted. The “janky” piece of equipment will fail when it is needed. But, if we were certain, if we were able to reason that this person or piece of equipment were bad in some way, we would move toward judgment. This person is a bad person and must be avoided. This equipment is faulty; it must be replaced. The creepy and janky imply that we aren’t certain, but we know more than our reason can tell.

Of course, some of what makes up our intuition is a worldview, which is faulty. For example, people will look for information that confirms their bias, such as using the “precautionary principle” with respect to vaccines due to some rationale, such as an untested vaccine platform or antibody enhanced infection. However, the precautionary principle has a bias, against the new.

There are other principles. You could also use a decision-making model that looks at a decision in terms of risk/benefit. But, this also has a bias. Being able to assess risk and benefits means you have relevant experience that allows for making a risk/benefit assessment. But, it is useless where we have no experience.

Another would be focusing on signal-noise ratio for processing information. High signal means you have a lot of precision in what you hear, but it also implies that you may be missing signal. When you’ve attenuated what you are listening to down to a level that screens out most noise, you are also likely screening out signal. Perhaps that lost signal makes a difference in judgment? High signal implies a value judgment based on prior experience. It implies a level on confirmation bias.

You could probably think of many different ways of thinking about information and making decisions, and most of them would favor the status quo. So, perhaps, one way to break the tendency is to look for ways of making decisions that favor options with more unknowns, where it is difficult to make an assessment based on our prior experience. Experience forms the understructure of our thought. Broadening our experience helps us change our thinking from the ground up. More experience inables more variability in our intuitions, which in turn change our more formal, “rational” thoughts.

We Are All Confident Idiots

“An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power (See: crisis, financial; war, Iraq). As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Ironically, one thing many people “know” about this quote is that it was first uttered by Mark Twain or Will Rogers—which just ain’t so.)

-David Dunning, “We are all confident idiots.” Pacific Standard. October 27, 2014.

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

Four problems that biases help us address:

Problem 1: Too much information.

Problem 2: Not enough meaning.

Problem 3: Need to act fast.

Problem 4: What should we remember?

-Buster Benson, “Cognitive bias cheat sheet.” Medium.com. September 1, 2016.

Recommend reading this in its entirety, but at minimum, it is worth a click through and scroll to the bottom to see the graphic. You can also purchase a poster of the cheat sheet.

The Minto Pyramid Principle for Writing

Barbara Minto‘s “The Minto Pyramid Principle” is a how-to guide for writing concise reports in a management consulting firm that has been around for years. I wrote a one sheet summary of her book over a decade ago that I still sometimes find to be a useful aid for writing. While it might be overkill for most writing we do, it is still a useful reference.

First Things First, Subject/Predicate

  1. What is the subject you are writing about?
  2. What is the question you are answering in the reader’s mind about the subject?
  3. What is the answer?

Make It a Story

  1. What is a situation where the Subject/Predicate can be illustrated?
  2. What problems complicate the situation?
  3. Do the question and answer still follow?

Find The Key Line or Take-Away

  1. What new question is raised by the answer?
  2. Will you answer it, inductively or deductively?
  3. If you answer inductively, what is your plural noun?

Always Do

  1. Dramatize the main idea using imagery.
  2. Imagine a doer – for analysis and writing.
  3. List all the points you want to make, then find relationships.

Rules

  1. Ideas at any level must always be summaries of the ideas below.
  2. Ideas in each grouping must always be the same kind of idea.
  3. Ideas in each grouping must always be logically ordered.

For Beginners

  1. Always try top down first.
  2. Use the Situation for thinking through the introduction.
  3. Don’t omit to think through the introduction.
  4. Always put historical chronology in the introduction.
  5. Limit the introduction to what the reader will agree is true.
  6. Be sure to support all key line points.

Initial Questions

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Where does it lie?
  3. Why does it exist?
  4. What could we do about it?
  5. What should we do about it?

Introductions/Openings

  1. Introductions are meant to remind not inform.
  2. They should contain the three story elements.
  3. Length of introduction depends on reader and subject.

Headings

  1. Never use only one element for a heading.
  2. Show parallel ideas in parallel form.
  3. Limit to the essence of thought.
  4. Don’t regard headings as part of the text
  5. Introduce each group of headings.
  6. Don’t overdo.

Critical Focus

  1. Question the order in a grouping – time, structure, or ranking.
  2. Question source(s) used in the problem solving process.
  3. Question the summary statement.
  4. Question your expression.

Structures for Evaluation

  1. Financial structure – consider strictly financial issues.
  2. Task structure – focus on how work gets done.
  3. Activity structure – focus on what needs to happen to create problem.
  4. Choice structure – bifurcate choices.
  5. Sequential structure – combination choice and activity structure.