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Weekly Blog #45 - A few more thoughts on mental errors...

I have recently finished the book "The art of thinking clearly" by Rolf Dobelli. He's been collection 99 biases and fallacies with good examples and stories. I'd like to add a few highlights from the book in addition to my previous article on "How our mind plays tricks on us...".


Today's Top 6...

1. Stop reading the news!

The first one I picked is something that I didn't think would have any effect on me. It's called the "news illusion". We believe news is important, when in reality it is not, and is specifically designed to attract us, despite this.

How many articles - newspaper or any other form of information - do you read on average per week/per month/per year? Now think about how many articles have significantly contributed to life improvements, either financial, socially, or in any other way over the past year? Studies have shown that people were able to name 2(!) on average over the course of a year. In addition: how much time do you usually spend on reading the news? 15 Minutes per day? Now do the maths: 365 x 15 minutes = 5.475 minutes or just over 90 hours! 90 hours of productive work per year, that's almost 3 (work-)weeks of productive work or 3 weeks of quality time with your family that you could have instead...

So, decide for yourself: are news really that valuable or are they just a pastime that (especially right now) only contribute to an increasingly bad mood and unhappiness? If so, stop reading them!

2. Stick to your guns!

The second one is called "volunteer's folly" and describes the fact that even though we want to do good and engage more and more often in activities that help our community or our planet, volunteering our time is overall less efficient (because we do these things/jobs less effectively) than contributing our earnings for the equivalent amount of time.

Dobelli uses the example of building bird houses for the local community and compares it to the value added by a successful lawyer. Let's say the lawyer makes 250$ per hour. He's being asked by a friend - who is a forester - to join the local community to build bird houses. Four hours, next Saturday morning. Of course the lawyer says yes, because he wants to contribute. Good boy...

But think about this: He'll probably be able to build 4 bird houses in 4 hours - if he's somewhat capable of using saw, hammer and nails. If he'd exercise his profession instead, he would be making 1000$ in the same amount of time. How many proper carpenters could you hire for 4 hours to build the bird houses? Maybe 3 or 4? And even if there were only 2 very proficient ones, they'd probably build 1 bird hours every 15 minutes. Total output: at least 32 instead of the lawyers measly 4...

So, if you are asked to contribute to a social cause that requires specific skills - and you know someone who is much more skilled to do the same think, maybe contribute by financially supporting the cause and stick to your guns instead! You might not get the highest social score by your friends or community at first, but if these people have brains, they'll understand that you've contributed much more than any of them.

And by the way: there's only one exception that would justify social contribution without proper skills: celebrities.

3. Don't be too sure about yourself (or other "experts")!

Now I'd like to share a specific form of the so called "confirmation bias" - one of the most critical mental errors that we make. Confirmation bias means that we interpret evidence to support our existing beliefs. From the moment we are fixated on a specific outcome of what we do, we usually start picking up only bits of information that support our thinking - and dismiss everything else. This can be dangerous!

One example of the many variations of the confirmation bias is the "It-will-get-worse-before-it-gets-better fallacy". This can happen to us in many situations, even if we get a diagnosis from a clueless doctor or if we feel pain after doing some exercise. The problem with this: if the problem persists, the prediction is confirmed. If it improves, the expert (or yourself) can attribute it to his prowess and "knowledge".

Don't fall for it! Try to be open minded and always ask for a second opinion, especially if the outcome is critical for you health.

4. There has to be a reason!

The next one is the so called "because justification" - it explains why reason increases our compliance. It is very often that we need reason to get things done, especially things that we are not motivated enough to do.

Also, we explain a lot of things with "because", no matter how stupid the reasons might be. For example: !Why haven't you finished this task at work?" - "Because I didn't have the time to get to it yet!"... see? If you wouldn't be procrastinating, this whole conversation wouldn't even take place. The catch: the "reason" you've provided is usually sufficient to the one who's asked.

Dobelli used this example: A woman stands in line and needs to make copies. The first time she skips the line she says "May I... because I am in a hurry!". 94% of the people in line let her past. The second time (with a different group of people) she just said "May I... because I need to make copies!". Astonishingly, also over 90% of the people let her skip the line...

The because justification can be a very useful tool if you want to calm your boss, wife or someone else who's angry or wants something from you. But be careful if someone is using it on you!

5. This has to be the cause!

No. 6 describes why we try to explain every important event with a single cause: the "single cause fallacy" (wow, what a name...).

What's the SINGLE reason for the last stock market crash? Which SINGLE event was responsible for the first world war? Don't fall for it. It's always a set of circumstances that - if we are smart enough - can connect and which make up for a much better explanation than the ONE cause that's been repeated over and over again by media and others to simplify our complex world.

It's slightly similar to the "because" justification. Both make life a lot easier and therefore both belong to the "substitution heuristic" which states that our mind tends to replace something difficult with something much easier to cope with.

So, whenever someone points at a single source of malady that is responsible for their bad mood, the one reason for why the company failed of even the one reason for why someone specific succeeded, you have to take a step back and appreciate the fact that this person has fallen for the "single cause fallacy". He or she might need a little push in the right direction to realize that there is probably a set of reasons and steps that took place in the past which have led to the specific outcome.

6. The most idiotic emotion of them all!

The final one on my Top-6 list for today is "envy". Let's be honest: most of us feel it regularly. We envy our colleagues, bosses, neighbors, friends, people on Instagram... But let me tell you: it's ridiculous and a massive waste of time!

However, it is not your fault. Our ancestors developed envy for a very specific reason: Survival! They envied other hunter-gatherers for the food they had because food meant survival. They also envied them for shelter, their partners and other factors that contributed to our basic needs.

Today's envy is mostly not related to any of these basic factors. It's a slightly different form of envy that ultimately doesn't improve or contribute anything to our well being. The only circumstance that makes envy as an emotion tolerable is if you WANT to be what somebody else IS already. Yes, I am talking about a specific form of idols. But be careful, don't try to become someone else for a stupid reason (or a so called "secondary factor of greatness") like money, social status, prestige or a promotion.

Try to become WHAT this person is that you admire, not WHO this person is. Aim for health, knowledge and other mental abilities, a happy family life, friendship or meaningful work relationships instead!


Some more advice...

We cannot know what makes us successful or happy. Negative knowledge (what not to do) is much more valuable than positive knowledge (what to do). In other words: eliminate errors and better thinking will follow. In situations where consequences are large, try to be as rational as possible! In situations where the consequences are small, let intuition take over and save your effort, especially when you are in your circle of competence! However, realize that your circle of competence might be a lot smaller than you think (aka overconfidence bias...)!

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