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Weekly 3: Seeing past the superficial

Summary: Look beyond the obvious. Solve the real problem. Unmask hostility. (~4 min read)

Idea Journal Weekly 3

January 26 · Issue #123 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Look beyond the obvious. Solve the real problem. Unmask hostility. (~4 min read)

#1. What’s obvious isn’t always what’s most important
In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, author Rolf Dobelli writes that we often give eye-catching and prominent information more attention than it deserves.
This tendency is called the “salience effect,” and it can skew our thinking and behavior.
Dobelli uses the following stories to illustrate this point:
Imagine that two men rob a bank and arrested shortly after. We later learn that they’re Nigerian. Even though no ethnic group is disproportionately responsible for bank robberies, this salient fact distorts our thinking.
Or, say someone who’s Armenian commits murder.
In both cases, because their immigrant status is salient, we believe that this is what’s responsible for the crimes instead of other influential factors. 
Yet these other influential factors also exist among non-immigrants. For example, if we’re American we forget that other Americans can also be influenced by these same factors.
That the majority of immigrants lead lawful lives is forgotten. 
This is in part how prejudices form. 
When we later hear references to Nigerians or Armenians in other contexts, it can be easier to recall these negative incidents because of their salience.
Dobelli acknowledges that overcoming the salience effect can be hard. But we should, “Gather enough mental energy to fight against seemingly obvious explanations.”
#2. Looks alone have limited effect
Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham writes in an essay that many startup founders are led astray by doing things that are “superficially impressive.”
Instead of trying to look corporate, his advice is to figure out what the real problem is and solve that.
After all, “the product is what wins in the long term.”
For Graham, Reddit is a classic example of this approach. 
When it first launched, “it seemed like there was nothing to it.” To many people, the site’s minimalist design seemed like no design at all. 
But Reddit solved the real problem: to tell people what was new on the internet, and otherwise get out of the way.
#3. Look behind people’s masks
In his book The Laws of Human Nature, author Robert Greene reminds us that “people are generally trying to present the best possible front to the world.”
This means that they will tend to hide their antagonistic feelings, desires for power and superiority, and insecurities. They will use words to hide their true feelings, and facial expressions that others assume mean friendliness.
In Greene’s view, your task is to look past the distractions and become aware of those signs that “leak out automatically, revealing something of the true emotions beneath the mask.“
Imagine the following scenario:
Someone in a group dislikes you, whether out of envy or mistrust. But in the group context, they can’t express their feelings overtly because they will look bad – they want to be seen as a team player.
So they engage you in conversation, smile at you, and even seem to support your ideas.
You might occasionally feel that something is off, “but the signs are subtle and you forget them as you pay attention to the front they present.”
Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, they obstruct you or display an ugly attitude.
The mask has come off.
And while it might seem like a surprise at the time, people’s hostile or resistant actions never come out of the blue. There are always signs before they take action.
But as Greene puts it: “The problem is not only that we are not paying attention but also that we inherently do not like conflict or the thought of conflict.”
He suggests using the following two “decoding keys” to help identify such hostility earlier on:
1. Body language: Compare people’s body language toward you versus their body language toward other people.
For example, someone will be noticeably friendlier and warmer toward other people, and then put on a polite mask with you. In a conversation they can’t help showing flashes of impatience and irritation in their eyes, but only when you talk.
Greene notes that people “will tend to leak out more of their true feelings, and certainly hostile ones, when they are drunk, sleepy, frustrated, angry, or under stress.”
2. Reactions to your good news: If you suspect that someone is envious of you, Greene recommends talking about the latest good news for you without appearing to brag.
You’re looking for “microexpressions of disappointment on their face.”
Quote of the Week
“There is more going on beneath the surface than we think, and more going on in little, finite moments of time than we would guess.“
- Writer Malcolm Gladwell, as captured in his TED biography
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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