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The Future is Bright

Optimize Blog - December 12, 2016 - 0 comments

In last week’s blog we bemoaned the lack of wisdom in the world but at Optimize we believe in the credo that we shouldn’t criticize anything unless we are prepared to change it. So, what can be done? Some are now campaigning for a new kind of education that teaches people how to think more effectively, alongside more traditional academic tasks. But frankly we just need to be a little less stupid. Here are a few tips that we think can improve our level of thinking and thereby the quality of our decision making:
1. Recognizing our blind spots
The leadership team at Enron were famous for thinking that they were the smartest people in the room. It’s something called “illusory superiority” and this phenomenon is particularly inflated among the least able. In your defence, you might claim that you once had an impressive performance at a pub quiz and if so, you get the double whammy as you are now suffering from “confirmation bias” – the tendency to only pick evidence to support your viewpoint. Still unconvinced? Then psychologists would claim that you are suffering from the “bias blind-spot” – a tendency to deny flaws in your own thinking.
But don’t be too hard on yourself as the reality is that we all suffer from some subconscious biases, clouding everything from the decision to buy a house to your views on the Trump presidency. Fortunately, psychologists are finding that people can be trained to spot them but the bad news is that there are about a 100 potential blind spots to consider……..
2. Humility goes a long way
The 18th Century poet Alexander Pope once wrote “A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday,” – wise words indeed. To psychologists today, that kind of thinking is considered a core personality trait known as “open-mindedness”. Among other things, it measures how easily you deal with uncertainty, and how quickly and willingly you will change your mind based on new evidence. It’s a trait that some people find surprisingly hard to cultivate, yet the moment of self-deflation pays off in the long term.
Intellectual humility comes in many other forms – but at its centre is the ability to question the limits of your knowledge. On what assumptions are you basing your decision? How verifiable are they? What additional information should you hunt out to make a more balanced viewpoint? Have you looked at examples of similar situations for comparison? Going through those steps may seem elementary, but consider this, all the research shows that people behaving like this outperform those who are less ready to own up to their ignorance.
3. Be your own coach
If self-deprecation isn’t your strong suit, there is a simple strategy to deflate those biases and that is to pick the exact opposite standpoint, and start arguing against your convictions. That internal argument can puncture many of the most resilient biases – such as overconfidence, and “anchoring” – the tendency to be convinced by the first piece of evidence that floats your way. A similar, but distinct, tactic might involve putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining their viewpoint.
4. Imagine “what if…”
Perhaps one of the biggest issues with our education systems is that we are not taught to use our basic intelligence to be practical, or creative. Many curriculums still don’t necessarily train the kind of flexibility needed in the ‘real world’. One way to develop those skills could be to re-imagine key events. It may sound fanciful, but the point is that it forces you to consider the different eventualities and form hypotheses.
Young children help hone that kind of “counterfactual thinking” when they play pretend, which helps them to learn everything from the laws of physics to social skills. We don’t tend to practise it deliberately as an adult – but you might find that it helps broaden your mindset when grappling with the unexpected.
5. Be Pragmatic
Distraction and absent-mindedness can be the downfall of the best of us. When wrestling with complex situations, it is easy to forget the basics. At a hospital, for instance, a list of five bullet points reminding doctors of basic hygiene reduced 10-day infection rates from 11% to 0%. A similar checklist for pilots, reminding them of the basic procedures for take-off and landing, seemed to halve American pilot deaths during World War Two. Whatever your profession, those facts are worth considering before you assume that you know it all already.
Practice these steps, and you might just find that you start to find talents that were previously unrecognized.

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