Review – The Art of Thinking Clearly:
The title of The Art of Thinking Clearly may provoke some wrong assumptions about the book’s content. It is NOT a self-help about mental training or concentration techniques. Author Rolf Dobelli collected a lot of logical fallacies – expectations or assumptions people intuitively make that are illogical or unhelpful – with a brief description and some typical examples for each. Originally, these were published as a weekly newspaper column. I read the German version describing 52 of those fallacies with one short chapter dedicated to each one. There is a second part with 52 more chapters which I have not read yet. The English version of The Art of Thinking Clearly condenses the content of both volumes into 99 chapters. With that out of the way, here is the review.
People are bad a thinking. This is not our fault, it’s evolutionary. Bears ate all those cavemen that took too long to reflect on a situation and consider possible actions. We are descendants of people that ran when everybody else ran, agreed to the group consensus, were quick to form an opinion and had a slight tendency to panic. Today, in a world of relative safety, we would greatly benefit from being more thoughtful and analytical. But we inherited brains that prefer a good story to a statistic fact.
When I read The Art of Thinking Clearly for the first time, I recognized most of the fallacies in my own thoughts and behaviors. Falling for these biases is very human, and learning where the pitfalls of irrationality are is the first step to avoid them. From the 52 fallacies, these are my “favorite” three:
I’ve talked about this before. How likely is it to become a famous rapper, sports idol or businessperson? The answer is that we don’t really know. People that have musical talent but never make it big, that excel in junior league and then just quit and get a job, people that have a great idea for a product that they never put into practice, those are nearly invisible. Survivors get all of the attention, but few even look for in those who tried something unsuccessfully. This is one of the reasons to be careful with self-improvement and success literature (including The Art of Thinking Clearly). The authors of Think and Grow Rich and its successors have interviewed many successful people for their secrets, but omitted to look for unsuccessful people doing the exact same thing.
Imagine a million people who invest in the stock market, buying and selling more or less randomly. After a few years, 1000 people always made profitable investments. Then, after some 20 years, there will be exactly one person who without fail chose winning stocks. This person will be filthy rich, and finance press and media will swarm them asking for their trade secrets. And he or she will definitely have trade secrets to attribute their success to, while, in fact, they did nothing different from the 999,999 other people they started with. People are terrible at separating skill and luck portions of a given outcome, and therefore very likely to attribute too much to skill (especially in self-evaluation).
Other examples are the influence of a CEO on company performance (matters not nearly as much as an you would think) and hedge fund profitability (higher profitability is often achieved by taking more risk, which is usually a bad thing). In her book Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke expands on outcome bias in poker and business decisions, and talks about strategies to circumvent this fallacy.
Sunk cost fallacy:
If you were overseeing a big development product with a budget of €10 Mio. for five years, and after 4.5 years and €9 Mio. already spent your competition releases a superior product at a cheaper price, should you spent the rest of your budget to finish the project? The answer is, of course not, because the conceived product would not be competitive. The fact that 90% of the projected time and budget have already been spent is absolutely no compelling argument to senselessly spent the remainder.
But people don’t like the feeling that they made a mistake, and we want our actions to make sense, to fit into an overarching narrative. For this reason we feel attached to the enterprises we invested in and throw good money after bad. This is also the explanation why costs of public projects tend to explode – politicians are even more averse to admitting past mistakes than the average person, and they don’t throw their own money.
This fallacy is exceptionally tragical, because we glorify our past mistakes by continuing them. The costs are huge. We squander money (“we’ve invested so much in this project, if we cancel it now, all will be lost – although the project outcome is no longer desirable”), happiness (“we’ve been together for so long, it would be wrong to leave him/her now – although the relationship has been unhappy for years”), and time (“I worked so hard for this degree, I have to finish it – although it won’t help me reach my true goals”). We even waste human lives (“so many soldiers have died already, if we stop the war now, their sacrifice would be in vain – so let’s send more people to their death”).
What else do you get?
There are 49 more biases, fallacies, and pieces of irrationality in The Art of Thinking Clearly. These include the swimmer’s body illusion, the self-serving bias, the tragedy of the commons, and the base-rate neglect. Not all are equally good and interesting, there are some redundancies, but none is just padding the page numbers. All are well-written, entertaining, with great examples and (German version only) feature great illustrations by Birgit Lang. And not to be mistaken, Dobelli does not really give solutions how to avoid each fallacy, but he recommends having a list of those handy as a checklist to tick off before important decisions.
I think The Art of Thinking Clearly is important, becaus it helps overcome our biological limitations. Our brain is simply not carved out to cope with phenomena like stochastics or exponential growth. It feels more rewarded by winning a discussion than by finding the truth. And it prefers stories over facts. If we can force our brain to skip the simple heuristics it loves to employ and instead be reasonable, everything gets better for everyone. As individuals, we can make sound decisions for our relationships, careers and investments. And as a society, we would greatly benefit from reduced prejudice, panic and silliness. In conclusion, read this book. Or even better, read some of the books that it quotes.
- Your brain has been optimized for a world that is very different from the one we now live in.
- You are intuitively irrational.
- Knowledge of biases and logical fallacies is necessary to avoid them.
Rolf Dobelli is a book author and regular contributor for several newspaper columns, most known for his publications on logical fallacies and mindfulness. He is the founder of getAbstract, a company providing brief executive summaries of non-fiction books and literary classics. He has a website.
dtv Verlagsgesellschaft (1. Mai 2014)