On staying within your circle of competence

In his far from mediocre book Risk Intelligence, Dylan Evans describes a professional backgammon player by the name of J.P. “He would make a few deliberate mistakes to see how well his opponent would exploit them. If the other guy played well, J.P. would stop playing. That way, he wouldn’t throw good money after bad. In other words, J.P. know something that most gamblers don’t: he knew when not to bet.” He knew which opponents would force him out of his circle of competence, and he learned to avoid them.

Excerpt from: The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life by Rolf Dobelli.

On the Knowledge Illusion

How does a zipper work? Rate your understanding on a scale from 0 (no clue) to 10 (easy-peasy). Write the number down. Now sketch out on a piece of paper how a zipper actually works. Add a brief description, as through you were trying to explain it very precisely to someone who’d never seen a zipper before. Give yourself a couple of minutes. Finished? Now reassess your understanding of zippers on the same scale.

Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, researchers at Yale University confronted hundreds of people with equally simple questions. How does a toilet work? How does a battery work? The results are always the same: we think we understand these things reasonably well until we’re force to explain them. Only then do we appreciate how many gaps there are in our knowledge You’re probably similar. You were convinced you understood more than you actually did. That’s the knowledge illusion.

Excerpt from: The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life by Rolf Dobelli

On how higher prices increase joy but not happiness

How much pleasure do you get from your car? Put it on a scale from 0 to 10. If you don’t own a car, then do the same for your house, your flat, your laptop, anything like that. Psychologists Norbert Schwarz, Daniel Kahneman and Jing Xu asked motorists this question and compared their responses with the monetary value of the vehicle. The result? The more luxurious the car, the more pleasure it gave the owner. A BMW 7 Series generates about fifty percent more pleasure than a Ford Escort. So far, so good: when somebody sinks a load f money in a vehicle, at least they felt a good return on their investment in the form of joy.

Now, let’s ask a slightly different question: how happy were you during your last car trip? The researchers posed the question too, and again compared the motorists’ answers with values of their cars. The result? No correlation. No matter how luxurious or how shabby the vehicle, the owners’ happiness ratings were all equally rock bottom.

Excerpt from: The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life by Rolf Dobelli

Confusing chauffeur knowledge with real knowledge

After receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart: ‘It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit n the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That’d give us both a bit of variety.’ Planck liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: ‘Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it.’

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions by Rolf Dobelli

On Why we Should Seek out Disconfirming Evidence when Formulating a Theory

No professionals suffer more from the confirmation bias than business journalists. Often, they formulate an easy theory, pad it out with two or three pieces of ‘evidence’ and call it a day. For example: “Google is so successful because the company nurtures a culture of creativity.” Once the idea is on paper, the journalist corroborates it by mentioning a few other prosperous companies that foster ingenuity. Rarely does the writer seek out disconfirming evidence, which in this instance would be struggling businesses that live and breathe creativity or, conversely, flourishing firms that are utterly uncreative. Both groups have plenty of members, but the journalist simply ignores them. If he or she were to mention just one, the storyline would be ruined.

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

Why Analysing Successful Brands and Looking for a Recipe for Success may be Misleading

A quick hypothesis: say one million monkeys speculate on the stock market. They buy and sell stocks like crazy, and, of course, completely at random. What happens? After one week, about half of the monkeys will have made a profit and the other half a loss. The ones that made a profit can stay; the ones that made a loss you send home. In the second week, one half of the monkeys will still be riding high, while the other half will have made a loss and are sent home. And so on. After ten weeks, about 1,000 monkeys will be left — those who have always invested their money well. After twenty weeks, just one monkey will remain — this one always, without fail, chose the right stocks and is now a billionaire. Lets call him the success monkey.

How does the media react? They will pounce on this animal to understand its “success principles”. And they will find some: perhaps the monkey eats more bananas than the others. Perhaps he sits in another corner of the cage. Or, maybe he swings headlong through the branches, or he takes long, reflective pause while grooming. He must have some recipe for success, right? How else could he perform so brilliantly? Spot-on for twenty weeks — and that from a simple money? Impossible!

Also known as: Outcome Bias.

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

On the Power of Loss Aversion in Healthcare

For this reason, if you want to convince someone about something, don’t focus on the advantages; instead highlight how it helps them dodge the disadvantages. Here is an example from a campaign promotion breast self-examination (BSE): two different leaflets were handed out to women. Pamphlet A urged: “Research shows that women who do BSE have an increased change of finding a tumour in the early, non treatable stage of the disease”. Pamphlet B said: “Research shows that women who do not do BSE have a decreased chance of finding a tumour in the early, more treatable stage of the disease.: The study revealed that pamphlet B (written in a “loss-frame”) generated significantly more awareness and BSE behaviour than pamphlet A (written in “gain-frame”).

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

“Statistics Don’t Stir Us, People Do”

In another experiment, psychologist Paul Slovic asked people for donations. One group was shown a photo of Rokia from Malawi, an emaciated child with pleading eyes. Afterward, people donated an average of $2.83 to the charity (out of $5 they were given to fill out a short survey). The second group was shown statistics about the famine in Malawi, including the fact that more than three million malnourished children were affected, The average donation dropped by 50%. This is illogical: you would think that people’s generosity would grow if they know the extent of the disaster. But we do not function like that. Statistics don’t stir us; people do.

The media have long known that factual reports and bar charts do not entice readers. Hence the guideline: give the story a face.

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

Brilliant Examples of How Poorly Set Targets Lead to Unintended Consequences

In 1947, when the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, archaeologists set a finder’s fee for each new parchment. Instead of lots of extra scrolls being found, they were simply torn apart to increase the reward. Similarly, in China in the nineteenth century, an incentive was offered for finding dinosaur bones. Farmers located a few on their land, broke them into pieces and cashed in. Modern incentives are no better: company boards promise bonuses for achieved targets. And what happens? Managers invest more energy in trying to lower the targets than in growing the business.

Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli