The art of thinking clearly — Summary

Learn how irrational our behavior is, and use that knowledge to make better decisions.

Let’s start to analyze our thinking and search for flaws in our reasoning.


Studies have shown that we tend to overestimate our abilities. The result is obvious, thinking that we are already at our destiny, we fail to put in the necessary work.

For example, 84% of Frenchmen consider themselves to be above average lovers, 93% of US students ranked themselves as above average drivers, and 68% of Nebraska University’s faculty ranked their own teaching ability in the top quartile.

Do you spot the error? Above average means above 50%. So in all those examples, there is a big percentage of people who must be wrong.

Accepting success and negating responsibility

Another irrational thing we tend to do is attributing positive outcomes to our capabilities, and blaming negative outcomes on external circumstances. Researchers tested this by having two groups of subjects take a personality test and then arbitrarily assigning good or bad scores.

Students with positive outcomes believed that the test results were fair, and reflected their abilities. Students who received bad scores, however, found the test was garbage and didn’t reflect their personality.

A good way to overcome our misjudgment is to learn to listen to honest feedback and to learn from it without taking it personally.

The Illusion of Control

We need hope to endure and overcome life’s many difficulties. The illusion of control can provide us with such (false) hope. One study perfectly demonstrated this. Subjects were exposed to an acoustic sensitivity test inside booths. Amazingly, they were able to withstand significantly more noise when there was a red “panic” button in the booth.

The button, however, had no function at all, it just gave the participants the illusion of control and thus made them able to endure more pain.

So you might think it would make sense to put those buttons in more places of our daily lives? Well, those buttons you press at the crosswalk, remember those? Most of them don’t work. They give us the feeling that we are influencing our situation and making the waiting time easier. Many door-open and door-close buttons in elevators aren’t connected to the electric panel.

Social proof

Humans rely a lot on social proof. One typical example is when everybody starts to burst into applause at an event, once someone starts applauding.

Social proof was an important survival factor for our ancestors. Whenever their hunter-gatherer friends started sprinting because of the fear of a wild animal, everyone else better started sprinting too because otherwise, their genes might not stay in the gene pool.

Naturally, this behavior got imprinted deeply into our genes and is observable in many places today. The more people like something, the better we think it must be. This can be seen in fashion, online market, and even collective suicides.


Groupthink is part of the “herd behavior” and happens whenever we change our opinion about something because everyone else thinks a certain way.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is something most of us are victims off. Don’t you? Well think again, most of us tend to interpret new information in such a way that it fits into our previous conclusions and beliefs. The confirmation bias is so common that it is called “the mother of all misconceptions.”

One typical example is when we examine the internet for recent events, forgetting that most of our online feed is a mirror of our values and interests. In other words, our social media accounts and other feeds will likely consist of things we already believe and know, thus further entrenching our convictions.

The filtering out of external information often happens completely subconsciously. That’s the reason why superstitions such as astrology and tarot card reading work so well, we can’t help but associate them with events and feelings in our life.

To prove this point the psychologist, Bertram Forer crafted fake personality readings from a mishmash and different astrology columns from various magazines and then gave them to his students under the pretense that they were authentically personalized.

Students rated the descriptions 86% accurate afterward. The study indicated that we interpret information so that it corresponds to our pre-existing self-image, the effect is now known as the Forer effect.

How to counter the confirmation bias? We should strive to search for contrary opinions and evidence. This will allow us to form more balanced convictions.


We tend to value things which are scarce. In one experiment subjects were either given an entire box of cookies or two cookies. The subjects who received only two cookies rated them much more highly than the other group. Businesses take advantage of this by artificially creating scarcity. They put up phrases such as “only today” or “while supplies last” in order to get people to buy more.

The contrast effect

We tend to compare things to make an opinion about them. This is why a person who stands next to an extremely attractive person appears less attractive than they really are. Or why businesses put up signs with a previous price which was much higher than the actual one. People automatically appreciate the price more if they see that the item (supposedly) was much more expensive.

Illusion of attention

We often think that we notice everything happening around us, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. A Harvard study demonstrated this. Subjects watched a video of students passing basketballs back and forth and were asked to count how many times the players in white T-shirts passed the ball. Later they were asked if anything unusual caught their attention.

Half of the viewers didn’t notice anything unusual, unaware of the fact that in the middle of the video someone dressed as a gorilla walked across the room pounding his chest.

We also tend to remember things which happen at the beginning and end of a stream of information, forgetting what comes in the middle.

Primacy effect

The primacy effect happens when we attribute more importance to an event, only because it happened earlier. Take this question as an example. Who would you rather be stuck in an elevator with, Allan, who is smart, ambitious, good looking, critical and jealous? Or Ben, who is jealous, critical, good looking, ambitious and smart?

Most people choose Allan, even though the descriptions are identical.

The recency effect

The recency effect happens because recent events are fresher in our memories. We thus remember them more vividly and attribute more importance to them.

Attractiveness in decision making

We find mystical, exotic and attractive explanations more interesting than the more likely ones. This tendency is exploited by the media through carefully crafted headlines which lead people to want to know more and click on them, thus the term “click-bait.”

This is also why professionals are trained to not fall into this misjudgment. Doctors, for example, are taught not to be seduced into thinking that a symptom might be caused by some exotic disease. Instead, they always investigate first the most likely ailment.

The paradox of choice

The paradox of choice consists of our inability to make a choice if we are confronted with too many options. It was demonstrated in one supermarket where researchers set up a stand with different jelly samples for people to try and then buy at a discount. The experiment was conducted over two days, with 24 types of jelly on the first day and only 6 on the second.

The results showed that people purchased 10 times more jelly on day 2, indicating that too much choice inhibited their ability to make decisions and thus they opted not to buy anything.

Willpower depletion

As explained deeply in the book Willpower, our ability to make choices is like a muscle. One study showed that the male brain, confronted with an overwhelming variety of potential partners, like on an online dating site, reduces the criterion to a single thing, physical attractiveness.

Another study presented two groups with pairs of items. One group had to deliberately choose which item they preferred. The other group simply had to write down their thoughts about the items.

Immediately after that, they had to put their hands in ice-cold water for as long as possible. The first group wasn’t able to hold their hands as long in the water as the second group because they had exhausted their willpower in the decision making choosing the items.

To take advantage of our limited willpower, we can prioritize our decisions, making first the most important ones.

The halo effect

Beauty, social status, age, etc. all produce different impressions in us and we tend to judge people by those impressions. For example, we automatically tend to regard good-looking people as more pleasant, honest and intelligent. That misjudgment is called the halo effect. This effect has been studied in schools and workplaces. Attractive people tend to have easier professional lives while good-looking students tend to get better grades from their teachers.


Our decisions are notably influenced by emotion, even if we think that we are perfectly rational. This can cause major problems in areas where rationality is highly important.

Markets, for example, are influenced by the amount of morning sun as one study found. When the sun shone first thing, the stock market rose during the day, indicating that positive emotions triggered by the sunshine influenced the flow of billions of dollars.

Thoughts: We think we are better than we are, and we delude ourselves through a variety of biases. To overcome those flaws in reasoning, we have to become aware of them, and then take a conscious effort to overcome them.

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Also published on Medium.

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