Don't Believe Everything You ThinkDon't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking
by Thomas E. Kida

If you care about truth, then you have to care about being able to reliably differentiate between truth and falsehood. Figuring out how to do that, however, isn’t always easy. A major problem with this is the fact that many of our normal habits of thinking which appear to serve us well in day-to-day matters don’t really work when it comes to more complicated issues. There is little in modern culture which encourages people to do a better job with this task, and this harms us all.

Although the best skills can be developed through courses on formal logic and philosophy, they simply aren’t feasible for most people — they either aren’t readily available or are too difficult. Fortunately most people don’t need that level of skill, they just need to be better than they currently are. This can be achieved if a person is willing to invest some time and effort into studying some basic texts, then getting into the habit of applying the lessons from those texts to real life. The latter can be especially difficult, but at least there are several good books which people can use to start their efforts.

Thomas E. Kida, a professor in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, wrote such a book: Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking. As you can tell from the title, Kida’s focus is on six of the most common mistakes in thinking which people make across a wide variety of fields and issues. He doesn’t claim that these are the only ones, but they are the mistakes which he sees the most often and which he thinks leads to the most problems.

Mistake #1: We prefer stories to statistics. Even a bad story is preferred over great statistics, and this shouldn’t be surprising. We’re social animals, so whatever seems to connect us to others will have a bigger impact than cold, impersonal numbers. This leads us to making decisions based upon a single story which may not be representative of larger trends while ignoring the statistics that tell us about those trends.

Mistake #2: We seek to confirm, not to question, our ideas. Everyone wants to be right and no one wants to be wrong. This may be the primary driving force behind the fact that when people look at neutral evidence before them, they almost invariably focus on what seems to confirm what they already believe while ignoring what might count against their beliefs.

Mistake #3: We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events. Odds are that any randomly chosen person has no idea how odds, chance, and randomness affect their lives. People think that unlikely events are very likely while likely events are very unlikely. For example, people forget how large the numbers around them are — an event with a million to one odds against it will happen given a million tries. In New York City alone, this means that several such events could happen every day.

Mistake #4: We sometimes misperceive the world around us. We simply don’t perceive things happening in our vicinity as accurately as we think or might like. We see things that aren’t really there and we fail to see things that are. Even worse, our level of confidence in what we have perceived is no indication of just how likely we are to be right.

Mistake #5: We tend to oversimplify our thinking. Reality is a whole lot more complicated than we realize. Indeed, it’s more complicated than we can deal with — every analysis we make of what goes on must eliminate lots of factors. If we don’t simplify, we’d never get anywhere in our thinking; unfortunately, we often simplify too much and thus miss things we need to take into account.

Mistake #6: Our memories are often inaccurate. To be fair, this isn’t a mistake because we can’t help the fact that our memories are unreliable. The real mistake is in not realizing this, not understanding the ways in which our memories can go wrong, and then failing to do what we can to make up for this fact.

Again, as Kida notes these are not the only mistakes people make; but if you can make a habit of noticing and avoiding these, you’ll be well ahead of most people and doing far better than you were before. You can’t focus on just these, though. Instead you must keep in mind that the point is to become more skeptical and critical in your thinking and thereby more consistently distinguish the things most likely to be true from those which just aren’t worth our time.


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Copyright © 2007 by Craig Lee Duckett. All rights reserved
LAST UPDATED: September 25, 2006
September 25, 2006