Thinking 101 By Woo-Kyoung Ahn: Book Review


19th Dec'22
Thinking 101 By Woo-Kyoung Ahn: Book Review | OpenGrowth

Thinking 101, the pathbreaking psychology book by professor Woo-Kyoung Ahn. At Yale University, Woo-Kyoung Ahn holds the title John Hay Whitney Professor of Psychology. She worked as an assistant professor at Yale University and an associate professor at Vanderbilt University following her graduation with a doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She won Yale's Lex Hixon Prize for outstanding social science instruction in 2022. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science, and the National Institutes of Health has financed her study on cognitive biases.


Following are 3 essential takeaways from Woo-latest Kyoung's book, Thinking 101: How to Reason Better to Live Better.


1. We can make mistakes in judgment even when we mean well


book and coffee


Let's begin with a mistake known as confirmation bias. It is the propensity to support existing beliefs. Imagine someone who takes echinacea for sore throats believing it to be a typical cold remedy. He or she typically feels better in two to three days. It appears reasonable for him to continue believing that echinacea treats the common cold because the information he has acquired strongly supports it.


What would happen if he does not take echinacea the next time he gets a sore throat is a crucial piece of information that is absent, though. If he continues to feel better in a few days, echinacea is probably not the cause of his recovery. Therefore, if this person never investigates what would occur if he stopped taking echinacea, he is engaging in confirmation bias.


That is precisely how the unethical practice of bloodletting endured for 2,000 years in western society. Every time someone became ill, the healers poured out their anger in an attempt to heal them. The majority of patients improved, but they didn't experiment to see what would happen without bleeding. Confirmation bias can occur even when good intentions are present.


The planning fallacy is yet another mistake in reasoning. It occurs when we don't account for the time, money, and effort needed to do a task. Almost everyone is accountable for this. There are instances of very amazing planning errors. The Big Dig highway building project in Boston took ten years longer than anticipated and went 19 billion dollars over budget. A scaled-down version of the Sydney Opera House was originally planned to cost $7 million, but it ultimately cost $102 million and took ten years longer to build than anticipated.

The planning fallacy is notable for occurring even when it would be in our best interests to produce the most accurate estimate. It is obviously highly stressful to miss deadlines and budget targets, and nobody likes to spend more time and money than necessary as a result of bad preparation.


2. The by-products of adaptive cognitive processes include thinking mistakes


woman reading a book


Starting with an analogy, We have an innate desire for high-calorie foods, which is beneficial for survival when there are few resources available. The same urge to consume high-calorie foods, meanwhile, can lead to weight gain. Our cognitive systems are developed to find solutions to challenges that aid in survival, but the same mechanism backfires in other situations, which causes many thinking blunders.


Let's discuss the concept of metacognition as an example. Knowing whether you are knowledgeable about something, like whether you can swim, is what this is. You can perform a mental simulation of swimming even if you haven't gone swimming in years. You can swim if it flows smoothly in your thoughts. Metacognition is crucial for life because it stops us from trying to accomplish things we are incapable of doing, like flying. Things that seem simple to us mentally are typically simple to perform.


Fluency can be used for metacognition, although doing so can lead to the planning fallacy. We plan by doing a task in our imaginations, which usually goes more smoothly in our heads than it would in reality. Consider making a list of the people you want to buy gifts for as you prepare your Christmas shopping. The work feels like it will go smoothly once you have a list of the recipients and gifts. You only need to buy presents, but because of this, you don't account for the time required to finish the job. Ironically, research has shown that people tend to underestimate the completion time, even more, the more explicit and detailed a plan is.


Confirmation bias is just another illustration of how adaptive cognitive systems produce thinking errors. Let's say you visit a grocery store two kilometers from your home and discover that the apples are good. To prevent confirmation bias, you might try a different supermarket the next time you need apples, but you might as well return to the first one where the apples were good. It's a form of confirmation bias, but it's more effective and less dangerous. It is preferable to stick with what you know than to explore unknown possibilities when the goal is to get by with things that are adequate. Confirmation bias results from our need to conserve energy and reduce danger.


3. Common mistakes in reasoning can have devastating repercussions


books on the floor


Let's begin with a positive illustration of my personal confirmation bias. My four-year-old kid once questioned me as to why a yellow traffic light is referred to as a yellow light. I explained to him slowly that the reason it was named a yellow light was that it was yellow. He then informed me that it was orange. I told my son, no way, while I pondered whether my husband failed to inform me that he was color blind. I rechecked it and saw that it was orange since he insisted on it. I had been picturing it as yellow up until that moment because that is what everyone had been calling it. Take an unbiased look at the traffic signal yourself the next time you encounter one.


As long as I am getting ready to stop, seeing a yellow light as orange doesn't harm anyone. We constantly interpret the world in light of our prior knowledge. Without that, we are unable to understand it. However, this adaptive cognitive function also contributes to the persistence of prejudice and stereotypes in society.


Researchers looked at the gender pay difference in one study. Participants were distinguished university science academics who were asked to evaluate a potential laboratory management candidate. The same resume was sent to each professor in this study, with the exception that John's name appeared on half of them and Jennifer's name on the other half. Despite the fact that Jennifer and John both had the same credentials, John was assessed as being much more competent and employable. As a result, John received an average income that was $3,500 or 13% greater than Jennifer's.


Such bias is especially harmful due to a vicious loop. Because of confirmation bias, these academics will continue to think that men are superior to women in science if John is appointed and likely does well in his position. Prejudice based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other factor might have a similar effect.


The framing effect is another illustration of how thinking mistakes can have very detrimental effects. People are influenced by the way options are presented. For example, ground beef that is 85% lean tastes better, is healthier, and has less fat than beef that is 15% pure fat. Furthermore, the framing impact may decide life or death. In one study, a sizable majority of lung cancer patients decided to have surgery after being informed that they would have a 90% survival rate if they did so. However, just 50% of patients in a different group decided to have surgery after being informed that there was a 10% possibility they would pass away from the procedure.




I urge everyone to spend some time studying cognitive biases, discussing how we may improve, and not striving for perfection when being good enough is OK.


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A student in more ways than one. Trying to feed her curiosity with news, philosophy, and social commentary. 


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