5 Lessons From How We Know What Isn't So On Becoming A Stronger Critical Thinker

5 Lessons From How We Know What Isn't So On Becoming A Stronger Critical Thinker
Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

Humans are silly.

The very mechanisms that make us adaptive to our environment also lead us to self-deception. Tom Gilovich (funnily enough, a Professor at Cornell University where I study) explores our self-deceptive nature in his book How We Know What Isn't So.. He reveals several cognitive, social, and motivational factors that cause us to believe things that "just aren't so."

In this article, I will explore five lessons I learned from the book on how to beef up your critical thinking muscles (without steroids!).

Lesson 1: Consider The Opposite

A couple of years ago, I got entranced by fasting. My lord and savior, Andrew Huberman, touted its benefits on one of his podcasts, and I wanted to try it out. So, I read books like Fast This Way and The Complete Guide To Fasting, as well as many articles and videos.

After assembling my research, I noticed something interesting: I had found zero negative information for fasting.

It's not that it wasn't there. Many problems can come from fasting, like worse muscle protein synthesis, body dysmorphia, and puberty issues. But I purposefully shied over these.

I was under one of the most powerful universal human biases: confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias makes us seek out, consume, and interpret information that validates our beliefs in a confirming fashion. In other words, if we believe something is false or wrong, we tend to look for and overvalue confirmatory evidence. I thought fasting was good because of Huberman, so I searched for confirmatory information of its goodness (definitely a word).

Yet, disconfirming evidence is just as informative, if not more so, than positive evidence.

Disconfirming evidence proves something is not the case. Confirming evidence can only make it more likely something is the case. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in The Black Swan, knowing there are 1,000,000 white swans would still be insufficient to prove the hypothesis that black swans don't exist. But a single disconfirming black swan sighted would prove they do.

How can we fight against confirmation bias?

Like with all our biases, the trick is not to eliminate them. They serve adaptive, useful functions in our lives. The trick is to consider the opposite in situations where we are especially likely to be deceived by confirmation bias.

When first developing an opinion on something, it's especially important to consider the opposite.

What evidence is there against this? What information am I not considering? As you accrue more evidence for something in an unbiased fashion, the less you have to consider the opposite (although you should never be entirely against changing an opinion except that of peanut butter being the best food). Looking back at my fasting experience, I should have considered the opposite side of fasting since it was my first time diving into the research.

I would have come out with a more holistic and informed perspective.

Lesson 2: Consider The Incentive And Age Of The Information You're Consuming

In my writing, I constantly juggle the dilemma of creating from the heart or creating for the ruthless God of content creation, the algorithm.

I'm aware this article probably won't do well because book summaries aren't the most engaging topic. But I don't care. I love creating book summaries because they help me understand information more deeply.

This dilemma touches on a deeper tendency of human nature Gilovich talks about in the book: people tend to change stories to be more entertaining, immediate, and self-interested.

Can you blame us! We want to be known as good conversationalists who give valuable information. The problems come when people aren't aware of this.

It's of utmost importance to consider the incentive and age of the information you consume.

Let's explore this question inside of short and long form media.

Short-form mediums are generally more entertaining, attention-grabbing, and immediate than long-form mediums. Why? Because the algorithms push short-form content based on virality and temporality. This means creators of short-form content aren't directly incentivized to make content that can actually help you in the long term. If it helped you solve your problem too well, you would no longer consume short-form content.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his book with the same title, creators on short-form platforms don't have skin in the game. Their incentives in the content creation game don't align with the incentives of the people consuming the content.

However, long-form mediums like podcasting and books do have skin in the game.

Podcasts and books don't spread through virality in the same way short-form content does. Instead, they spread primarily through word of mouth. This means they are incentivized to actually entertain and solve your problems in a meaningful, lasting way. Otherwise, nobody would share them.

Why do you think I'm creating a summary of Gilovich's book?

This brings us to one of the most time tested and valuable rules you can use to consume information: the lindy effect.

The Lindy Effect states the longer a piece of information has been out and is still being consumed, the more timeless and important it likely is. Time is the great leveler.

AAAAnnnnddd all of these reasons are why you should check out my podcast Personal Knowledge Management With Aidan Helfant. I'm just kidding. I won't turn this into a blatant promotion (although the link is right there).

Lesson 3: Not Everything Has Meaning Or Order

Let's say I flipped a coin ten times. X is for heads, and O is for tails. Which of these results do you think is more likely?




You likely said the first result is much more likely, but they both have the same chance of happening.

You believe the first one is more likely because it looks more random than the second. When flipping a coin, we expect an even distribution of heads and tails. But probability doesn't give a crap what you expect!

True probability is chaos.

It behaves as randomness does, randomly, jumping and skipping like a kangaroo.

Humans are pattern-seeking missiles with a constant need to find meaning and order in everything. We have evolved because if we couldn't categorize a tree as a tree, tiger as tiger, or food as food, we wouldn't survive in the world.

Most of the time this is good for us, but sometimes it causes us to find meaning or order in completely random things.

One of the funniest ways this shows itself is through the "hot hand" in basketball. It's that thrilling moment when a player seems unstoppable, sinking shots left and right. You'd swear they have just gone SuperSayan, and their hair turns every color of the rainbow. It seems logical to keep feeding them the ball.

But here's the kicker: according to Gilovich's research, this whole concept might just be a mirage in the desert of randomness.

When a player hits several shots in a row, our inner storytellers kick into high gear, weaving a narrative of a player "heating up." But what we perceive as a hot hand is often just the normal ebb and flow of probability. A few consecutive successes?

Pure chance, not a mystical basketball power.

This doesn't just live rent-free in the minds of basketball fans; it has real implications. Around the world, people look at the stars and see a pot, a bear, or, in some cases, a shopping cart. People wake from dreams believing they have just received a prophecy from God. And my personal favorite, people read a fortune cookie that goes "you will encounter an obstacle today," and believe they have just been given a divine prophecy.

The solution is realizing not everything has meaning or order.

Something things just are. Sometimes, the stars are just stars, your dreams are just wacky, or your fortune cookie is stupid.

Lesson 4: Like Doesn't Always Go With Like

Let's play a game. I'll describe a person to you, and you tell me what you think their college major and personality are. Okay, this person loves playing tabletop roleplaying games like Gloomhaven and Balder's Gate 3. They have a passion for narrative and non-fiction writing every morning and love reading sci-fi, fantasy, and classic novels at night.

What do you think?

I wouldn't be surprised if you said something along the lines of an English major introvert with an addiction to energy drinks and procrastinating. Actually, it's me. But unlike your prediction, I'm a highly extroverted psychology major who also loves resistance training, tennis, and extreme athletic events like the 90-mile Adirondack Canoe race.

Yup, get Uno reverse carded.

You fell for the representative heuristic, which is essentially when people assume "like goes with like."

It's the cognitive shortcut of judging the probability of something by its similarity to a category rather than its actual probability. The things I mentioned represent an English major introvert, but never did you ask yourself how many English major introverts there are compared to Psychology majors in the world?

A simple yet effective way to combat the representativeness heuristic is to employ the "Why" technique, which I call the "Are you being a silly technique." This involves asking ourselves "Why?" we're making a specific assumption and then seeking additional information like the actual base rate of something in the population.

For example, in the above situation, it would have been helpful to ask yourself, what's the most common college major? Even though the attributes I describe would point to an English major, probability would disagree. This applies to any situation in life.

Lesson 5: Create A Challenge Group

Let's play another game. Tell me an opinion or yours?--Woah, you don't like pineapple on pizza what's wrong with you?! I'm just joking, it can be anything. Great, now what percent of people do you think agree with this opinion?

According to Tom Gilovich, you will estimate a higher percentage of people agree with you than actually do.

This is because of the false consensus affect, the tendency for people's own beliefs, values, and habits to bias their estimates of how widely others share such views and habits. This doesn't mean we believe the majority of people feel the same way we do, but we generally will overestimate how much people do.

There are those who believe that socks with sandals is a comfortable, even trendy choice, and assume that others must secretly agree, despite the fashion faux pas stigma. They proudly venture forth, convinced they're trailblazers in the silent majority. Meanwhile, the fashion-conscious populace might beg to differ, reserving this look for the privacy of their homes.

How do we fight this?

According to Gilovich, we can create a challenge group, a group of people who will respectively challenge us on our beliefs. The more diverse and open-minded your challenge group, the better, because then the more perspectives you will get from the population.

For example, in my friend group, I have a 50-year-old Information Scientist friend with a house, an asexual Indian friend from Karnataka, and a Filipino friend from British Columbia, to name a few. All of these people hold drastically different views on the world, making them the ideal challenge group. Talking to them has drastically broadened my perspective of the world and made me a much more open-minded and critical-thinking human being.

Find your own challenge group.

Don't create an echo chamber for yourself by only hanging out with people of the same age, beliefs, and path in life. Explore, and find people who are willing to question you. It may be comfortable, but you'll grow all the more for it.

Can You Ever Know What Isn't So?

Becoming a critical thinker is a lifelong journey.

It's not like there's a moment where you put your flag in the ground and say in triumph, "it's done, I no longer have to critically think." Therefore it's impossible to know with full certainty what isn't so. The very mechanisms that make us adaptive to our environment also prime us for self-deception.

By learning the 5 lessons from How We Know What Isn't So, you are more prepared than most to navigate this self-deception. Start now. Ask of this very article, is this so? I hope it is. Otherwise, I've given you quite a bit of bad information.

But that's the whole spirit of critical thinking.