In This Episode: The question is harder to answer than you …think! But really, what IS thinking? Plus, if you use the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” to judge other peoples’ thinking, you’re doing it wrong — says Dr. Dunning.
041: What IS Thinking?
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- My story on the Dunning-Kreuger Effect is here (or you can use the easier-to-remember https://thisistrue.com/dke). You can download the original 14-page journal article here (PDF, 500K).
- In this episode I read some of Wikipedia’s article on what thought “is”.
Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.
Even if you believe you already think quite well, you can use what’s in this episode to help teach others how to improve their thinking.
Let’s get down to basics, because frankly I’ve seen many people aren’t quite clear on the concept …as perhaps illustrated by the stories in the newsletter every week. To me, though, the most important part of the idea is illustrated by letters I get from readers that start along the lines of, “I’m not a big thinker because I’m not all that intelligent.” And you know what? I hate that self-depreciation, because if that’s what you believe, you’re setting yourself up for failure: you’re setting a belief that you don’t have the capacity to improve — and if you believe that, you’re wrong.
Unfortunately I get that from both men and women, but more often women, and it’s my opinion that this message is a societal bug: it’s misinformation, such as the concept that women aren’t good at math and science. So let’s make this clear: you don’t need some sort of abnormally high I.Q. to think, or to improve your ability to think. For instance, my wife and I have a niece who is severely developmentally disabled, and she and her family visited us last week. We’ve seen that her ability to think has significantly improved over the years, and if she can do it, trust me: you can too.
Also, we’ve all seen highly intelligent people who do not think very well, at least some of the time. In fact I’m very sure that some of the people I write about in This is True who do really dumb things are absolutely not stupid, but in fact could probably qualify for Mensa, if they’re not already actual members!
Yet many people think that if someone is smart, they ought to be able to do anything! They ought to be able to know what to do next, no matter how complex the problem. Just because someone has a high I.Q. doesn’t mean they know everything or can do everything. I’m very good at words; I’m not great at numbers. My math ability is spotty: I’m very good at estimating numbers, but have a such a terrible time getting exact answers I don’t even try to balance my checkbook. I therefore made what I think is a smart decision: that I’d hire someone else to do my bookkeeping since there are people who are as good with numbers as I am with words. They can not only do that sort of work faster than I can, and more accurately, they actually enjoy it! It’s simply a different kind of intelligence.
As I’ve said repeatedly in This is True, and in blog posts, we all do dumb things sometimes. The corollary is, we can all learn to think better, no matter how smart we are — or aren’t. And here’s a This is True story from early 2000 that illustrates why perfectly intelligent people believe they are not capable, while at the same time incapable people so often screw up as we see in TRUE’s stories week after week. I titled it, “Even Your Best Friends Won’t Tell You”:
Sure there are a lot of incompetent people around. The problem is, they don’t know it, says Dr. David A. Dunning, a psychology professor at New York’s Cornell University, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He says that the reason they don’t know is that the skills people need to recognize incompetence are the same skills they need to be competent in the first place. Thus the incompetent often end up “grossly overestimating” their own competency, even when they’re making a mess of things. At the same time, very competent people tend to underestimate their abilities. Dunning notes such studies create a unique danger for the researchers. “I began to think that there were probably lots of things that I was bad at and I didn’t know it,” he said.
And my tagline on the story was, “If you want to know what they are, just ask your wife.”
This now-well-known phenomenon of overestimating your ability if you’re not so capable, or underestimating your ability if you are quite capable, is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, to provide credit to both Dunning and his Cornell-based co-researcher, Justin Kruger. You can find that story on the web site at thisistrue.com/dke (for Dunning-Kruger Effect). I’ll also link to it from the Show Page. Dr. Dunning is now a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Kruger is a Professor of Social Psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Dunning, especially, is amazed how much the idea has spread. He said recently he “thought the paper would never be published” because, he said, “It really doesn’t fit the usual structure of a modern-day research psychology finding. A wise editor who got it and good reviewers showed me wrong there. I am struck just with how long and how much this idea has gone viral in so many areas.”
So in other words, the very intelligent and competent Dr. Dunning, who studied this phenomenon intently, completely underestimated the impact of his own study. It’s remarkable that he fell into the same trap he was discussing in a scholarly paper!
With his hindsight, he has a good point that people kind-of hear the one-liner summary of this research, and don’t really know the details, so I have a copy of his original 14-page paper. I’ll put the link for it on the Show Page, and I encourage you to read it. I actually haven’t read it in a long time — not since 2000 — but it’s on my reading list to go through it again.
Still, I want to emphasize the main point: when you don’t know much about a subject, you may figure what you do know is all you need to know — that maybe you’re some kind of expert. But when you actually know quite a bit about a subject, you’re more aware that your knowledge just scratches the surface, and there’s a lot more you don’t know. And that is indeed a side effect of thinking about it!
Now that you know about this, here’s a trap that Dr. Dunning says people fall into. While some use his findings to condemn the thinking ability of other people, that’s the wrong lesson to draw, he says. “The presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect, as it’s been come to be called, is that one should pause to worry about one’s own certainty, not the certainty of others,” he says. In other words, it’s a tool to think better yourself, not to judge the thinking of someone else. And that’s a huge lesson and why I think you should read the paper!
So how is it that smart people do dumb things? First, what I’ve talked about before: they “react, rather than think” — their emotions get in the way. Emotions can quickly get out of control, and take precedence.
Putting the Dunning Kruger filter on things, let’s look at another example: the vast majority of people say they’re better-than-average drivers …even though that’s obviously impossible. And no surprise, narcissists tend to think they’re super-intelligent and infallible, and anything that goes wrong is the result of interference by their lessers, even objective experts in their fields that disagree with them.
So with this basis of understanding, let’s talk about thinking. We as a society talk about thinking all the time, and we believe we know it when we see it, and can identify a lack of thinking when someone does something dumb. But there’s actually not consensus on what thinking really is. We do agree that thinking allows us to interpret and make sense of the world, and to model how we believe the world to work, and thus can make predictions about what will happen in the future when given certain conditions. Then we can set goals for what we want to do in the future based on where we are now and where we want to be then. But how well do those plans pan out in real life?
We can be pretty clear on what the lack of thinking will bring someone. If someone decides to rob liquor stores for a living, as we’ve seen from time to time in This is True, most anyone with a modicum of thought will intuitively know that the robber didn’t think enough about where his actions will almost inevitably lead.
When I came up with the idea for this episode, I looked in Wikipedia to see what it said “thought” was. The word comes from the Old English, meaning “to conceive of in the mind, [to] consider.” That one simple word, “thinking,” can have a multitude of meanings. Let me go through their list. “Thinking” can mean:
- a single product of thinking or a single idea (as in, “My first thought was ‘no.’”)
- the product of mental activity (as in “Mathematics is a large body of thought.”)
- the act or system of thinking (as in “I was tired from thinking all day.”)
- the capacity to think, reason, imagine, and so on (as in “All her thought was applied to her work.”)
- the consideration of or reflection on an idea (as in “The thought of death terrifies me.”)
- recollection or contemplation (as in “I thought about my childhood.”)
- half-formed or imperfect intention (as in “I had some thought of going.”)
- anticipation or expectation (as in “She had no thought of seeing him again.”)
- consideration, attention, care, or regard (as in “He took no thought of his appearance” or “I did it without thinking.”) [Boy, isn’t that the basis of a lot of This is True stories!]
- judgment, opinion, or belief (as in “According to his thought, honesty is the best policy.”)
- the ideas characteristic of a particular place, class, or time (as in “Greek thought.”)
- the state of being conscious of something (as in “It made me think of my grandmother.”)
- tending to believe in something, especially with less than full confidence (as in “I think that it will rain, but I am not sure.”)
With a list like that, and I’m sure listeners could come up with more, it’s not really surprising that so many people have trouble with thinking, and even defining what it is we’re talking about when we say “People need to think more.”
Thinking involves a lot of academic disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, artificial intelligence, biology, sociology, and cognitive science. If you haven’t “thought” about how complex the whole thing is, well, we loop back to overestimating our own knowledge in the first place, as Dunning and Kruger pointed out back in 2000.
And this is why, when I introduced this episode, I said that you should listen even if you believe you’re already a great thinker. I have said that the discussions in the Uncommon Sense podcast will help you help others learn how to think more, and that’s true: the real bottom line is, no matter how well you think, you’re not an absolute expert in the fields of linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, artificial intelligence, biology, sociology, and cognitive science, so by definition you can’t possibly know everything there is about thinking. And either do I. So the likelihood is, considering these ideas will help you improve your thinking, almost by definition. I can tell you that just by planning out these episodes, I learn new things, and my thinking improves a little bit every time.
So resist the urge to say “I already know that,” here or elsewhere. That’s closing the door to new information: maybe the speaker you’re listening to or the book you’re reading is simply laying groundwork so they can introduce new ideas to build on what they and you already know.
The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast41, and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments section.
I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
Since this is a redo, comments start with those made on the original post — the dates are correct.
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