Fallacies, Illusions, and Biases (Part 2)

I’m working my way through Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly by reading a few sections each morning. Below are my notes on sections 12-23. Read 1-11 here.

  1. “It’ll-get-worse-before-it-gets-better” fallacy: A variant of confirmation bias. If the problem gets worse, the prediction is confirmed. If the situation improves unexpectedly, the customer is happy and the expert attributes it to his prowess. Look for verifiable cause-and-effect evidence instead.
  2. Story bias: We tend to interpret things with meaning, especially things that seem connected. Stories are more interesting than details. Our lives are mostly series of unconnected, unplanned events and experiences. Looking at these ex post facto and making up an overarching narrative is disingenuous. The problem with stories is that they give us a false sense of understanding, which leads us to take bigger risks and urges us to take a stroll on thin ice. Whenever you hear a story, ask: Who is the sender, what are his intentions, and what does this story leave out or gloss over?
  3. Hindsight bias: Possibly a variant on story bias. In retrospect, everything seems clear and inevitable. It makes us think we are better predictors than we actually are, causing us to be arrogant about our knowledge and take too much risk. To combat this, read diaries, listen to oral histories, and read news stories from the time you are looking at. Check out predictions from the time. And keep your own journal with your own predictions about your life, career, and current events. Compare them later to what happened to see how poor of a predictor we all are.
  4. Overconfidence effect: We systematically overestimate and our ability to predict on a massive scale. The difference between what we know and what we think we know is huge. Be aware that you tend to overestimate your knowledge. Be skeptical of predictions, especially from so-called experts. With all plans, favor the pessimistic scenario.
  5. Chauffeur Knowledge: There are two types of knowledge: Real knowledge (deep, nuanced understanding) and Chauffeur knowledge (enough knowledge to put on a show, but understanding to answer questions or make connections). Distinguishing between the two is difficult if you don’t understand the topics yourself. One method is the circle of competence. True experts understand the limits of their competence: The perimeter of what they do and do not know. They are more likely to say “I don’t know.” The chauffeurs are unlikely to do this.
  6. Illusion of Control: Similar to placebo effect. The tendency to believe that we can influence something over which we have absolutely no sway. Sports, gambling, etc. Also: Elevators, cross walks, fake temperature dials. This illusion led prisoners (like Frankel, Solzhenitsyn, etc) to not give up hope in concentration camps. Federal reserve’s federal funds rate is probably a fake dial, too. The world is mostly an uncontrollable system at the level we currently understand it. The things we can influence are very few.
  7. Incentive Super-Response Tendency: People respond to incentives by doing whatever is in their best interest. Extreme examples: Hanoi rats being bred, Dead Sea scrolls being torn apart. Good incentive systems take into account both intent and reward. Poor incentive systems often overlook and even corrupt the underlying aim. “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.” Try to ascertain what actions are incentivized in any situation.
  8. Regression to Mean: A cousin of the “It’ll-get-worse-before-it-gets-better” and the Illusion of Control fallacies. Extreme performances are often interspersed with less extreme ones. There are natural variations in performance. Students are rarely always high or low performers. They cluster around the mean. Thinking we can influence these high and low performers is an illusion of control.
  9. Outcome Bias: We tend to evaluate decisions based on the result rather than the decision process. This is a variant on the Hindsight Bias. Only in retrospect do signals seem clear. When samples are too small, the results are meaningless. A bad result does not necessary indicate a bad decision and vice versa. Focus on the reasons behind actions: Were they rational and understandable?
  10. Paradox of Choice: A large selection leads to inner paralysis and also poorer decisions. Think about what you want before inspecting existing offers. Write down the criteria and stick to them rigidly. There are never perfect decisions. Learn to love a good choice.
  11. Liking Bias: The more we like someone, the more we are inclined to but from or help that person. We see people as pleasant if (a) they are outwardly attractive, (b) they are similar to you, or (3) they like you. This is why the salesperson copies body language and why multi-level marketing schemes work. Advertising employs likable figures in ads. If you are a salesperson, make people like you. If you are a consumer, judge the product independent of the seller and pretend you don’t like the seller.
  12. Endowment effect: We consider things to be more valuable the moment we own them. If we are selling something, we charge more than we ourselves would spend on it. We are better at holding on to things than getting rid of them. This effect works on auction participants, too, which drives up bidding. And late-stage interview rejections. Don’t cling to things, rather view them as the universe temporarily bestowing them to you.

Fallacies, Illusions, and Biases (Part 1)

I’m working my way through Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly by reading a few sections each morning. Here are my notes on the first 11 sections (Confirmation Bias had two sections, which I’ve only noted as one below):

  1. Survivorship bias: You overestimate your probability of success because you only see success stories. You find common threads in success stories and think they are the answer. Both ignore the failures because those stories aren’t told. When you are a survivor you think, “I did it! Everyone else can!” Look for counter examples and failures to overcome it.
  2. Swimmer’s body illusion: Swimmers usually choose swimming because they have good physiques. Swimming doesn’t necessarily cause good physiques. Harvard has a rigorous vetting process and skilled, driven people tend to get in. They’d likely be successful without Harvard. This may actually be a subset of the survivorship bias. (You don’t see ugly models selling makeup or fat swimmers because they don’t tend to last long in the business. Dumb people don’t make it though Harvard’s screening, so won’t bring down their salary numbers after 4 years.)
  3. Clustering illusion: Our brains are pattern and meaning recognizing machines. First regard patterns as pure chance. If there seems to be more, test it statistically.
  4. Social Proof: We are hardwired to copy the reactions of others. In the past it was beneficial for survival. Remember to look for links. Popular does not equal best on objective measures. “If 50M people say something foolish, it is still foolish.”
  5. Sunk Cost Fallacy: Investments of time or money to date don’t matter. Only future benefits or costs count.
  6. Reciprocity: The allure of both positive and negative reciprocity is so strong that it is best to avoid saying yes in the first place if it is something you don’t want.
  7. Confirmation bias: The tendency to interpret new information so it becomes compatible with your existing beliefs. We filter out disconfirming evidence. Look for disconfirming evidence and give it serious consideration. “Murder your darlings.”
  8. Authority bias: When making decisions, think about which authority figures are influencing your reasoning. Challenge them.
  9. Contrast Effect: Things seem cheaper, prettier, healthier, better, etc in contrast to something else. This is how magicians and con men remove your watch: Press hard in one area so you don’t feel the lighter touch of removing your watch. This is also why it is easy to ignore inflation. Compare things in individual cost/benefit calculations, not in contrast to an “original price” or what they are framed against.
  10. Availability bias: We create a picture of the world using the examples that most easily come to mind. This creates an incorrect risk map in our heads. We attach too much likelihood to flashy outcomes. We think dramatically, not quantitatively. We tend to focus on what is in front of us, whether or not it is the most important question. We can overcome it by getting others’ input with different experiences and expertise.

Taking Control of Our Attention

Recommendation: What Is Technology Doing To Us? Tristan Harris on Sam Harris’s podcast 

Tristan is a former Design Ethicist at Google and studied at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. His work highlights the design patterns in technology that grab our attention, pull us back in, and addict us. These designs are not only manipulating us, but they are making us unhappy.

Learn what these patterns are so you can recognize them and take back control.

I’m getting increasingly interested in this topic. Taking a long break from social media, turning off almost all phone notifications, and deleting all addictive apps from my phone has had a positive impact on my reading & thinking time. Breaking the typical pattern of waking up and surfing social media before getting moving for the day has made my mornings better, too.

Two related topics I’m interested in pursuing:

  1. Decreasing my cognitive load. Getting things off my mind so I can focus on what matters.
  2. Making myself less susceptible to advertising.

If you have any books, articles, or podcasts I should check out on these topics, let me know!


Putting Daily Drawing On Hold

I’m putting my daily drawing exercises on hold. They tax me more than I want in terms of both time and mental focus. Instead of a fun creative exercise, pushing through these at the end of long work days ends each day on a low note.

I made decent progress in the past three weeks, but at a high cost. Instead of spending more cycles each day on drawing, I’m going to work on it on weekends when I’m relaxed and can dedicate a few hours at a time to it.

I stretched myself too thin and it is taking its toll. Right now my priorities are:

  • Physical and mental health. This means continuing my Starting Strength routine, walking more, turning off work in the evenings to spend more time with Amanda, meditating, cooking more instead of eating out, reading, and going to bed earlier.
  • Work. Make sure I recharge more each night so I can focus and work on hard problems at work.dd

Learning to Draw, Day 6: Pure Contour Exercise

Today I read a section on childhood drawings and then did another exercise to help me shift my perception: Pure Contour Drawing. 

I put my pencil on the paper pad, scrunched my hand together, turned so I couldn’t see the paper, and then tried my best to draw the creases I saw in my hand while a 5 minute timer was running. 

It yielded a strange result, but the point was to intensely focus on edges (in drawing, that is where two items come together) to the exclusion on everything else. Over the 5 minutes, the world drifts away as you get lost in the complexity of your scrunched palm. 

Tomorrow: A modified version of this with the viewfinder and my whole hand. 

Learning to Draw, Day 5: Upside Down Tufted Titmouse

Today was the last upside down copying exercise: Picking a line drawing on your own and copying it. I searched around for a few minutes on Google Images and found a drawing of a Tufted Titmouse from SuperColoring.com.

Here is the upside down comparison:

And the rightside up comparison:

I felt my focus shift a few times, which was interesting. Whenever I stopped to take a drink of my coffee, it was gone. But shortly after, I was able to zoom back in on small details and get back to copying them. I forced myself to disregard the eye and beak, and just focused on them as shapes. I found the feet to be very difficult, though. I think I got caught up thinking about them as feed. I think they turned out worse than the rest of the drawing.

This was easier than the last two days, partly because it is less complex, and partly because I’m enjoying it more.

Tomorrow I’m reading a section on childhood drawing development and doing a “pure contour” drawing exercise.

Learning to Draw, Day 4: Upside Down Knight

Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain recommends copying 2-3 line drawings upside down to get a sense of how it feels to shift to a different way of seeing. Today I copied a line drawing of a knight on a horse by an unknown German artist.

It was easier than yesterday’s drawing, though it took me just as long. I didn’t leave enough room for the helmet and the proportions are still off, but I think I did a decent job overall.

Here is the upside down comparison:

And the rightside up comparison:

Learning to Draw, Day 3: Copying Upside Down

Yesterday I had about 30 pages of information about the brain and how it works and a short symmetrical vase (an optical illusion made out of two face profiles) drawing exercise to do. That took up the whole hour I set aside with only a few squiggly lines on a piece of paper to show, so I didn’t think it was worth a post.

Today’s exercise was 99% drawing: Copying Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky upside down to force my brain to see lines and shapes instead of a face, hands, etc. To shift your brain into a different way of seeing. I had to fight myself a few times when I was working on the hands and face, but I ultimately slowed down and focused in on the individual lines and shapes that composed them.

This exercise took me well over an hour and was very difficult. I almost gave up once when I spent 15 minutes drawing a detailed section, only to realize I had miscalculated and it was far away from where it needed to be. I’ve never had so much mental anguish over using an eraser.

Here is the upside down comparison:

And here is the rightside up comparison:

I know the proportions and spacing are pretty off in places, but I was surprised at how it turned out. It was much better than I expected. I’m glad I didn’t give up. (I really was close. I swore, pulled my shirt up over my eyes, and shouted about how difficult it is. Not my best moment today.)

Learning to Draw, Day 1

This month I’m learning to draw. This is a skill I’ve never had. I once thought that there are analytical people and artistic people, but I’m no longer willing to accept that. Just like swimming or writing is a particular skill that can be taught and learned, drawing and calculus are both skills that can be taught and learned. I already know calculus (all the way through real analysis), so it is time to learn to draw.

My guide this month is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’m going to post my progress here.

Today was my pre-instruction drawings to establish my starting point and have something to gauge my progress against.

I had to do three drawings:

  1. A self portrait drawn while looking in the mirror
  2. Someone else (or a photo of them) from memory alone, nothing on-hand to reference
  3. My hand

Here they are:

My self-portrait. I framed it up correctly from my perspective. Impossible to get a photo of the same perspective.

1 (1).jpg

Amanda, with the photo I had in mind:

My hand:


I want to eventually draw illustrations for blog posts and pause to draw plants while I hike.

I have a long way to go, but I can’t get worse than I already am. The introduction to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain emphasizes that learning to draw is actually more about learning different ways of seeing than it is about learning how to hold a pencil. I’m hoping to learn those different modes of seeing over the next 29 days!

Forget Daily “Work/Life Balance”

Forget about daily work/life balance. Juggling too many things at once leads to stress and poor performance. Trying to balance everything by offsetting stuff with other stuff just leads to too much stuff. Set your priorities for each day (or each week or part of each day) and focus intensely on those few things.

Working 9-5 and ignoring work outside of those hours is suboptimal. Ignoring your personal life from 9-5 is suboptimal, too. Our energy, focus, and priorities don’t match up with traditionally scheduled hours.

Sometimes, like this past week, I have an intense push to get some curriculum changes out at Praxis. I spent less time with Amanda, cooked less, and read less than I’d like to. Trying to balance all of those things would have led to performing poorly at all of them. Instead, I got the curriculum work wrapped up this week by working a lot more than 8 hours a day and I’m unplugging for most of the weekend to spend time with Amanda.

Other weeks, I have fewer deliverables, so I spend more time reading in the morning to learn more and gain inspiration before I start working. Some weeks I focus on writing more or working on personal projects. This month I’m taking time every day to meditate and learn to draw.

The point is to deliberately pick a few things you want to do, own the tradeoffs, and intensely focus on those items.

I’m fortunate enough to have a very understanding spouse who tends to work in a similar way. Not having guilt about focusing on work at 11pm on a Wednesday is helpful. On days where one or both of us need to focus on work, we make the most out of the time we do get together: early mornings, late evenings, and time between calls. We focus on that time, even if it is short, and make it count.

Don’t try to balance everything every day. Do a few things each day, but do them well.

January-June 2017 Self-Improvement Projects

Every month I do a PDP – a personal development project. These PDPs are either theme or project-based and I must do something specific every single day to further that project or theme.

Here’s what I’ve done so far this year:

  • January: Circadian rhythm fasting. Fast for 13-16 hours starting after dinner each day. Try to have dinner as close to sundown as possible.
  • February: Continue fasting and complete a Whole 30 – eating only real fruits, veggies, and meats for 30 days straight. No sugar, dairy, grains, additives, or desserts.
  • March: Read for at least an hour every day
  • April: Writing a valuable blog post every single day, either on cooklikechuck.com, cagrimmett.com, Medium, or the Praxis blog.
  • May: (Still in progress) I began May by deciding to launch LeonardRead.org, but then I pivoted because I decided that it would be better to build the website later this year when FEE has completed their digitization of LER’s journals. I didn’t know that was a work in progress until talking to someone there. So then my self-improvement this month became a series of mishmash items:
    • This Microblog project
    • Staying off of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit. I’ve been posting to Facebook and Twitter via Buffer, but I’ve successfully kept myself logged out of the services so I don’t fall down the rabbit hole of mindlessly surfing. I removed those apps from my phone and I keep WasteNoTime installed in my browser to keep me in check. It has been great so far. I’ve spent more time reading real books instead of surfing.
    • Going through 10 Days to Faster Reading. Currently two days in.
  • June: (planned) I’m planning on developing drawing skills in June. My textbook will be Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I have all of the tools I need, and I plan to draw every day in June. I’ll keep a log of my progress and post it here.

I’ve been feeling stuck with some creative issues at work and decided to try a new tactic today: 

  • I spent 30 minutes digging into what specifically I was stuck on instead of just the general “I’m Stuck.” 
  • I picked one of the items on that list and turned it into a question. 
  • I wrote that question down and repeated it in my head a few times. Then I grabbed my notebook and a pen and went for a walk. 
  • I thought about the question while I walked and stopped along the way to write down what I was thinking. The ideas started flowing and I got a whole notebook page down about that particular question. 

I go for a walk every day, but I usually listen to a podcast instead of using it to focus on a particular question. Defining the question beforehand and leaving my headphones at home allowed me to focus without my mind turning to whatever the podcast was about. 

A Reminder to Meditate

Reminder for myself: Meditation is good. Every time I do it I feel better afterward. Doing it continually leads to longer periods of contentment and focus. I tend to not want to meditate when I’m having a tough time because it is easier to complain and shut down than it is to clear my mind and deal with the problems at hand. But I must turn to meditation, especially when things are tough. It helps every time.

When Stopping Makes Sense (and when you need to get back to work)

I’m all about committing and being relentless about pushing through tough situations no matter what comes up. Stopping because something is hard, you are tired, you don’t feel well, or it isn’t fun is unacceptable. Collect yourself and get back to work. 

That said, there is one situation in which stopping makes sense: When you realize what you are doing doesn’t match your goal. 

I had a conversation with Amanda yesterday about her daily project this month. (We each do daily projects each month.) We dug into why it wasn’t going so well and it turns out that the daily actions she decided to take weren’t having the outcome she expected. It wasn’t coming anywhere near fulfilling her overall goal of building her personal brand. 

In situations like this, sticking with it just to check off that box or say you kept your commitment doesn’t make sense. In fact, it hurts because you are wasting valuable time. 

When you run into a situation like this, pivot. Find something that better matches your goal (or problem you are trying to solve) and pivot immediately. Amanda came up with a new project that she is starting tomorrow. 

Take a step back, clear your head, analyze the situation, and pick the best path forward. Don’t keep doing something that isn’t useful just because you don’t want to look like a quitter. 

Be honest with yourself, though: Is your original plan really not advancing your goal, or is it just harder than you expected? If you are feeling some resistance, you might just need to push harder.