May 19, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 17: Probabilistic thinking, self-deception, and naïve realism

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. Blind spots of the mind and naïve realism

"The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we, personally, do not have any. In a sense, dissonance theory is a theory of blind spots—of how and why people unintentionally blind themselves so that they fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behavior or their convictions.

​“Along with the confirmation bias, the brain comes packaged with other self-serving habits that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic, and unbiased. Social psychologist Lee Ross calls this phenomenon 'naïve realism,' the inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, 'as they really are.' We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way we do. If they disagree with us, they obviously aren't seeing clearly.

​"Naïve realism creates a logical labyrinth because it presupposes two things: One, people who are open-minded and fair ought to agree with a reasonable opinion. And two, any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren't, I wouldn't hold it. Therefore, if I can just get my opponents to sit down here and listen to me, so I can tell them how things really are, they will agree with me. And if they don't, it must be because they are biased." — From Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

This passage reminds me of a story David Foster Wallace told in his 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College:

"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"

Just as fish are unaware of the water they swim in, so too are we unaware of our blind spots.

2. Avoiding self-deception with probabilistic thinking

"Call this the self-belief model of success: If you convince yourself that you will succeed, you'll be motivated to attempt hard things and persist in the face of setbacks, such that eventually your optimism will be self-fulfilling. Conversely, if you acknowledge the long odds facing you, or contemplate the possibility of failure, you'll be too discouraged to try, and your pessimism will be a self-fulfilling​

"This is the biggest problem with the self-belief approach to motivation. Because you're not supposed to think realistically about risk, it becomes impossible to ask yourself questions like, 'Is this goal desirable enough to be worth the risk?' and 'Are there any other goals that would be similarly desirable but require less risk?' It implicitly assumes that you don't need to make any decisions; that you've already found the one right path, and there are no other options out there worth weighing.​

"The 'self-belief' model of motivation assumes that if you acknowledge the possibility of failure, then you'll be too demoralized or afraid to take risks. In that model, people who believe that failure is unthinkable are the ones who try the hardest to succeed. Yet in practice, things often seem to work the other way around—accepting the possibility of failure in advance is liberating. It makes you bold, not timid. It's what gives you the courage to take the risks required to achieve something big." — From The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef

We tend to ignore the probabilities when approaching goals with overwhelming optimism or stupefying self-belief. If you're familiar with self-help books, this advice will seem backward. The majority of them advise approaching the launch of a business, a career change, or relocation with unstoppable motivation. The theory is that our confidence will reflect in our actions, which will increase our chances of success. Although self-assurance is a characteristic that is necessary for the disciplined pursuit of anything, it can come at the expense of not thinking realistically about risk.

Nowhere is the lack of risk evaluation better documented than in the biographies of great entrepreneurs. We're already steeped in the availability bias since unsuccessful entrepreneurs rarely write memoirs. While the successful entrepreneurs represent one end of the spectrum, we don't hear much from those who fail. There are plenty of people who gamble away their day job on a 'sure thing’, only to lose their marriage, kids' respect, and home. The skill of probabilistic thinking can therefore prove to be one of the most valuable tools in our mental arsenal.

Practical Advice

1. Copying ideas to generate more

"When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was ‘the most important advice anybody ever gave me,’ Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. ‘He said that it's a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you're copying it, you're thinking about it, and it's giving you other ideas. And that's the way I work. And it's marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.’" — From Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

If you're a compulsive note-taker like me, you've probably experienced how writing down one idea leads to the spawning of many more. Maybe you start out with a one-sentence insight, but as you type, the idea blossoms into a spider web of possibilities. If this doesn't happen, Cage's advice of copying your thoughts, especially older ones, may help to jump-start your brain's synapses.

To capture these ideas before they become lost forever, I recommend having a 'quick capture' notes app on your phone, in the dock. I use Drafts on iOS, but the default notes app on Apple or Android devices will suffice. I also recommend keeping a paper notebook open on your desk to capture insights without friction.

In How to Think More Effectively, The School of Life suggests a handful of further benefits to writing ideas down:

"The most necessary tool for thinking is also the simplest: the notebook. We need a notebook because we can't contain what is important within the bandwidth of active memory. We can't keep in view what is significant within our amnesiac, misty, temperamental consciousness. The paper has to function as a secondary memory to pool us together; it will end up knowing more of who we are than we can ourselves actively bring to mind in the moment. Writing our thoughts down allows us to return to ideas when we have forgotten what we were trying to say and to see with greater clarity whether we have said it properly or not."​

2. Updating beliefs (avoiding absolutism)

"If you see the world in binary black-and-white terms, then what happens when you encounter evidence against one of your beliefs? The stakes are high: you have to find a way to dismiss the evidence, because if you can't, your entire belief is in jeopardy. If instead you see the world in shades of gray, and you think of 'changing your mind' as an incremental shift, then the experience of encountering evidence against one of your beliefs is very different.

"If you're 80 percent sure that immigration is good for the economy, and a study comes out showing that immigration lowers wages, you can adjust your confidence in your belief down to 70 percent. It may later turn out that study was flawed, or further evidence may come out showing that immigration boosts the economy in other ways, and your confidence in your belief may go back up to 80 percent or even higher." — From The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef

Galef argues in The Scout Mindset that recognizing when we were wrong makes us better at being right. Being wrong doesn't mean we did something wrong. Yet how we speak about reasoning mistakes suggests the opposite. When it comes to our beliefs, 'admitting' a mistake suggests that we should apologize. We could think instead of 'updating' a mistake, meaning we're revising a belief based on new evidence. Even this subtle shift in language can alter how we collect evidence and form beliefs. With the 'updating' approach, the process becomes less confrontational, removes embarrassment, and makes us less afraid to err in our thinking.

The updating method advises us to learn from future information by holding beliefs as percentages rather than absolutes. Our role should be that of a scout exploring new territory, not a soldier defending a fortress.​

Quotes to Ponder

1. Herbert Simon on how an abundance of options leads to a paralysis of action:

"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

2. Vaclav Havel on truth seekers vs. those who believe they've found the truth:

"Keep the company of those who seek the truth- run from those who have found it."

​Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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