You don’t live in Lake Wobegon, I promise.

You must read David Brook’s book, The Social Animal. Now. Because you are making too many irrational decisions, letting your biases get the best of you, and spending way, way too much time picking out furniture.

Brooks’ thesis is that, as you may have guessed, we are not seven billion individual rational actors, building an efficient society like little worker ants.  We’re seven billion complicated, fallible, emotion-driven nodes in an all-encompassing social fabric. We are rational, to a point, and that point is our gut, our feelings, our instincts.  Which, according to Brooks, isn’t such a bad thing (10:48 in the video):

This research shows that…reason is often weak, our sentiments are strong, and our sentiments are often trustworthy.

Our instincts are usually correct (the first answer you pick on a test is usually right; the couch you think you want is probably the one you actually want, etc.), but not always.  We are susceptible to a pattern of mistakes — cognitive biases — that cause us to rely too much on our gut and not enough on truth.  Chapter 11 of The Social Animal uses a genius scene to show each of these biases — and how to overcome them — in real-time.  As a “teaser” (a new cognitive biases may indeed be tl;dr.  Copyright.), check out 12:55 in the vid:

We are overconfidence machines… Ninety-six percent of college students think they have above average social skills. But some people have the ability and awareness of their own biases.  They have epistemological modesty.  They are open-minded in the face of ambiguity.  They are able to adjust strength of their conclusions to strength of their evidence.  They are curious. And these traits are often uncorrelated with IQ.

So recognizing and overcoming your cognitive biases is as essential to a well-formed existence as being an empathetic, warm, socially balanced human.  For me that means:

  • Read as much (well-written pieces) as humanly possible, especially the stuff I don’t agree with
  • Be aware when familiarity and “confirmation bias” is over-influencing whether I support a candidate, like a person, or endorse an idea.
  • Avoid group-think/herd instinct
  • I’m not really sure what actor-observer bias is, but I’m pretty sure I do it.  So I try not to.
  • Move junk food to the highest shelf in the pantry since I’m pretty terrible at estimating my ability to resist temptation, and kinda short.

For a clear, useful guide to the biases, check out the graphic below (via Ritholtz)


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