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Weekly 3: To be right more, be wrong less


Idea Journal Weekly 3

August 9 · Issue #151 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

You can increase your odds of being right by decreasing your odds of being wrong. Here are three ways to do that.
(~3 min read)

#1. Shave off unnecessary assumptions
Economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow that if you don’t simplify your assumptions, you can fall into a trap he calls the “conjunction fallacy.”
Here’s a test using a fictitious woman named Linda: 
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations. 
Which is more probable? 
  1. Linda is a bank teller. 
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. 
Kahneman notes that when he used “the Linda problem” in an experiment, most people answered that number 2 is more probable. 
But that’s impossible unless all bank tellers are also active in the feminist movement.
The fallacy comes up because the probability of two events in conjunction is always less than or equal to the probability of either one of the events happening alone.
The trick to avoiding the conjunction fallacy is to simplify your assumptions.
One way to do that is with a technique called Okham’s razor
Okham’s razor suggests that the simplest explanation of a given situation is most likely to be true. 
You’re shaving off unnecessary assumptions.
#2. Step outside yourself to see more objectively
Authors Sheila Heen, Bruce Patton, and Douglas Stone write in their book Difficult Conversations that a technique called the “third story” can help you see conflicts more objectively. 
In any conflict between two people, there are two sides of the story. But there is also a third story: this is the story that an impartial observer would tell. 
For example, say you’re involved in some conflict, disagreement, or negotiation. Now imagine that there’s a complete recording of the situation. 
What would an impartial observer listening to or watching that recording say was happening? 
How much would they agree with your story? 
How much would they agree with the other person’s story?
As the authors put it: “The key is learning to describe the gap – or difference – between your story and the other person’s story.
Yet the point of using the third story isn’t only to increase your empathy for others. 
You also want to be wrong less often.
If you can articulate the other person’s point of view, even if it conflicts with your own view, then you’ll be less likely to make biased and incorrect judgements.
#3. Test your beliefs and opinions
Computer science professor and linguist Michael Covington acknowledges that epistemology can seem like a stuffy academic subject, but he argues that it’s relevant in everyday life.
Epistemology is simply the study of how to acquire knowledge by observing the world around us. 
The goal of epistemology is to believe things that are true, and not to believe things that are false. 
To help ensure that your beliefs and opinions are accurate, they should be based on evidence whenever possible. 
Here’s a summary of how to do that: 
  1. Propose some belief or opinion 
  2. Try to prove it
  3. Then try to disprove it
Many of us skip the last step, but it’s important. 
Why is it important? 
Because in order for you to be confident that some belief or opinion is accurate, it has to be testable. There should be some way that you could tell if it were false.
For example, say you believe that all dogs are brown. It’s your job not only to look for brown dogs, but also to look for dogs that aren’t brown.
As Covington points out: “this looks like science, but is actually applicable to thinking about almost anything.”
Quote of the week
“ … error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions.”
- Author and researcher Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From
Other Weekly 3 issues about being right and wrong
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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