Decision Making – Three Strategies

Part 4: Decision Making Strategies

Now that we understand how the machinery, raw information and motivational states influence our decisions we will close our look at individual decision making by examining three of the most common decision making strategies that people use.  The three most common rules are: the weighted additive rule, the elimination by aspects rule and Satisficing.

Rule 1: The Weighted-Additive Rule: This rule involves knowing what the most important parts of a decision are relative to every other part of the decision. You then assign different weights to each part of
the decision (so that everything adds up to 1) and determine which decision “weighs” more and choose that one. For example, if you need to choose a hotel room then you list all the attributes of a hotel and weight how important each attribute is. For hotels you may be interested in amenities, price and location. You may think Price is most important so you weight it at .5 and then amenities are next with a .3 score and location is the least important attribute so you only give it a .2 weight. You would then look at several different hotels and rate them on each attribute. Add up their scores and then the hotel with the highest score is chosen. This rules relies on a holistic assessment of every option so that a weakness in one area does not disqualify the option. This rule is considered to be the best decision making rule by many experts.

Rule 2: Elimination by Aspects Rule:  Instead of evaluating every aspect of each option, you can simply set a minimum threshold for each attribute and drop options if they don’t meet the threshold. You compare each hotel only on the first attribute first and then if any don’t meet the threshold they are dropped from consideration. For example, if Price is given a .5 threshold and you examine a hotel that only scores a .3 you can drop that hotel without looking at any other aspect of it.

Rule 3: Satisficing: This rule is designed not to find the best possible solution but to find the first good enough solution. This is a useful rule to follow for everyday decisions that aren’t incredibly important. The process involves rank ordering the attributes of each option and determining a cutoff threshold. You then simply go through the list until you identify the FIRST option that is good enough. This rule will lead to inconsistent decisions as it relies on the order you evaluate each option in.

  • Marginal Costs of more information: Remember that searching for more information has diminishing returns. When you have 90% of the data on an issue the cost for gathering the last 10% will be far more than the cost of gathering the initial 90%. You therefore want to find the point where the biggest gap between the total benefits of more data and the total costs of gathering data is. You want to gather more information as long as the incremental benefits exceed the incremental costs.

Decision Making – Motivational Control Panel

Part 3: The Motivational Control Panel

The final part of the analogy to consider is the motivational states that influence our decisions.  Some of these include our emotional state, goals and values, regulatory focus, social and non-conscious influences and other factors such as the need to appear consistent.  Each of these factors will be examined in more detail, beginning with how emotions affect our decisions.

The traditional view of emotion is that it impairs rationality and decision making. However, recent research has shattered this myth and confirmed that emotions are ESSENTIAL to decision making.  For example, studies of the financial market show stronger performances during sunny days and when national sports teams do well. Emotion spills over from these events to influence decisions.

The Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has done a series of studies on what it is like to make decisions without emotion. He studied people whose brains had been damaged in a way that left them unable to process
emotions. Their brains were not damaged in any other way and they were otherwise high functioning people. What he found was that they could not make even the simplest decisions such as which restaurant to go to. They would list advantages and disadvantages for 20 minutes but never act on them. It appears that emotion plays a crucial role in mobilizing action and establishing a commitment to a choice. Emotions must therefore be seen as an integral part of decision making and not a hindrance to rationality.

The Appraisal Tendency Framework (ATF) was developed by Jennifer Lerner and suggests that different emotions influence our decisions in different ways. Generally speaking, negative emotions narrow our cognitive and behavioral responses while positive emotions tend to broaden them. This means that negative emotions will make us less open to new ways of thinking and behaving and positive emotions open us to new experiences.

A review of the research literature will yield the following general conclusions on how each emotion influences our decision making process:

i.) Anger:  When we are angry, we are more likely to see hostile intent from others in ambiguous situations and are likely to look for sources to blame. Anger makes us more punitive towards others, makes us think we will be more successful and thus more prone to take action. Anger predisposes us towards taking offense, having a sense of certainty and believing others are responsible for negative outcomes. Other studies find that anger makes you more likely to attribute behavior to character traits rather than situations, causes you to blame out-group members and to trust people less.
ii.) Fear:  When we are afraid, we are predisposed towards uncertainty and thinking we have less control over our lives than we otherwise would. Fearful people see greater risk in ambiguous situations. Fear causes us to make judgments that will reduce our uncertainty. It also causes our thinking to become more vigilant and deliberate so that we can deal with threat.
iii.) Sadness: Sadness influences us to seek out other rewards and change our circumstances. When we are sad we are more likely to make high risk high reward decisions.
iv.) Happiness: When we are happy we are more likely to see things as safe and to operate on auto-pilot.

Emotions can also affect our thinking by spilling over from their initial trigger situations into subsequent unrelated ones. For example, if an argument with your spouse makes you angry, you will be more likely to blame your coworkers if a project you worked on faces barriers later in the day. When emotion from an earlier experience influences a subsequent one, we call this incidental emotion.  For example, stock markets perform better on sunny days and decline when a country’s team loses the world cup.

Along with emotions, goals also influence our decision making.  A goal is a psychological representation of a desired end state.  The gap between reality and our desired reality creates a psychological tension that motivates action. Goals can reflect either intrinsic or extrinsic motives.  Intrinsic motives are a response to an internal reward or punisher such as hunger, boredom or guilt.  Extrinsic Motives are a response to external rewards or punishers such as money or praise from other people.  Research suggests that providing extrinsic motivators often kills intrinsic motivation. If you start getting paid for doing something you naturally love, you will stop enjoying it. In one study, parents who were fined for picking up their kids late actually picked them up late twice as often after the fine. The internal motivator (guilt) was being overridden by the external motivator (fine).

With respect to goals, how close you are to achieving a goal also affects your decisions.  If you think you are making progress towards a goal then you are more likely to continue working towards it. This is called the goal-gradient hypothesis and is illustrated in studies where people increase how much coffee they buy the closer they are to receiving a free cup.  However, sometimes the opposite is true and we let progress towards our goal give us permission to stop pursuing it. Research shows that this is likely to occur when our goals are not very well defined or don’t have well defined rewards.

We also let our desires influence our decisions and ignore evidence that might contradict those desires.  We engage in “reason giving” when we come up with reasons after we have made a decision to justify it.  In one study, students from several groups were about to take an exam and were given a choice to buy a vacation package now, pass on it or pay a 5$ fee to decide after the exam results. Most (60%) chose to pay the fee and wait for the exam results but the results didn’t matter. 55% of students chose to buy the vacation regardless of the exam results in every group. Thus, the exam results provided an excuse to go no matter what: if they failed the vacation was time to recuperate and if they passed it was time to celebrate.

The Pleasure principle suggests that we are motivated to approach rewards and avoid punishments. However sometimes our rewards are gains and sometimes they are avoiding losses. Similarly, sometimes punishers are the loss of opportunities and sometimes they are losses of what we already have. This means there are four different regulatory focuses that influence our decisions:

Promotion Motivations (Gains and Non-Gains)

1. Advancement (Gains): Sometimes our focus is on acquiring something that we believe will give us pleasure of make us happy such as more money, a vacation or a new relationship. People who tend towards this focus are motivated by advancement and achieving more happiness.
2. Opportunity Costs (Non-Gains): Sometimes our focus is on avoiding losing opportunities. You may do a good job at work because you don’t want to lose out on a promotion. People with this focus try and avoid feeling sad or unfulfilled at all costs.

Prevention Motivations (Losses and Non-Losses)

1. Security (Non-losses): Sometimes we are motivated to do something to avoid losing what we already have. You may go to work simply to avoid losing your job. People with this focus tend to be motivated by seeking security and calmness.
2. Losses: Sometimes our focus is on avoiding losing what we already have. You may be motivated to do a good job at work to avoid getting fired from a job you already have. People with this focus try to reduce threats and thus their own anxiety.

Research shows that people tend to prefer either a promotion (seeking gains and avoiding non-gains) or a prevention (Seeking Security or Avoiding Losses) orientation. This is called your “Chronic Regulatory Focus.”  Promotion focused people are influenced by appealing to what they will gain while prevention focused people are influenced by appealing to what they will avoid losing.

Human beings also have an innate need to appear consistent to oneself and to others.  Coherence refers to the idea that our behavior should be consistent with our beliefs. When we become aware of a mismatch between the two this creates a tension (cognitive dissonance) that we are motivated to relieve. Our decisions are influenced by our desire for coherence.

We also are motivated by the idea that our beliefs are supposed to be consistent with our behavior. .  The way to resolve dissonance is to either change our behavior to match our beliefs or change our beliefs to match our behavior.  The “Ben Franklin Effect” has been explained using the cognitive dissonance theory.  Research shows that if you ask someone to do a favor for you they will like you more. This illustrates
the dissonance principle because the person matches their beliefs to their behaviors (“I must like you since I am doing you favors.”)

We also have a tendency to attempt to appear consistent over time and this can lead to “Attitude polarization.”  This refers to the fact that once we commit to believing
something that belief tends to be stable or even strengthen over time. In one study, those with different views of capital punishment were given some balanced information to read and in the end the initial position
of almost everyone was strengthened and not moderated. Your need to appear consistent influences how you make decisions into the future.

We need to be careful that the need for consistency does not overpower the need for growth. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance” that one thing that prevents growth is our need to mold our present beliefs and behaviors to what we have said and done in the past. If you have been entirely consistent your whole life then chances are that you haven’t grown very much.

There are also many social influences on our decision making with three of the most common common influences being: reciprocation, social proof and authority.

i.) Reciprocation refers to the tendency for people to feel obligated to respond in kind when they are given something.  In one study response rates to mailed surveys responded by 50% when a 5$ gift was included. However, when people were offered 50$ after completing the survey response rates only increased by 23%. This is because the favor hadn’t been done yet so people did not feel the need to reciprocate while when they were given 5$ immediately they did feel the need to reciprocate.  The reciprocity norm only kicks in if we interpret what was given to us as a gift and if we believe the person was sincere. If we think we are being manipulated then we do not reciprocate.

The Door in the face technique involves first asking for a large favor likely to be rejected and then following up with a smaller request that you feel pressured to accept. This is because the person is “being generous” by meeting you halfway so you feel the need to make a reciprocal concession.  In one study, some students were asked to be chaperones on a day trip and only 17% said yes. Another group were first asked to volunteer two hours a week for two years and everyone said no. However they were then asked to chaperone for a day and 50% said yes.

ii.) Social proof refers to the fact that we tend to conform our behavior to social norms. Most cashiers know not to empty the tip jar because a half full jar indicates to others what social norms are. If people see lots of money in the tip jar then they will feel pressured to tip as well. If the jar is empty then they conclude that nobody tips and they don’t need to either.

iii.) Authority: People have a general tendency to be obedient to perceived authority figures. The opinions or directives of those who are in authority over us will have a strong influence on our decisions.  The Milgram experiments of the 60’s best illustrate our deference to authority. These experiments demonstrated that most people would deliver very painful electric shocks to strangers if someone in authority told them to.

And finally the last thing we will consider is subliminal influences on our decision making.  The word “liminal” means threshold and refers to the point at which something becomes conscious. When we are consciously focusing on something it is said to be supraliminal while if our brain is processing something we aren’t aware of it is called subliminal. Non-conscious influences are therefore things that can influence us that we aren’t consciously aware of.  Three studies will help illustrate these effects.

i.) Temperature: In one study, researchers found that when they asked people to pay to watch romance movies, more people did so when asked in a cold room. Temperature had influenced their decision but they were not aware of it.
ii.) Moral Cleanliness: In another study, people were asked to write about a time they had been dishonest and then to rate the attractiveness of various products. All products were rated the same, whether they wrote about being dishonest or not, except for cleaning products which were significantly more attractive after inducing a sense of being morally unclean. This was called the Lady Macbeth effect by the researchers.
iii.) Evaluative Conditioning: Evaluative conditioning occurs when you pair something neutral with something else that is really positive or negative and then that positivity or negativity spills over to the neutral target. In one study, pictures of sharks and then children were flashed for 14 milliseconds with the picture of a man. The man was rated as seeming much meaner when the shark picture flashed for just 14 milliseconds.

However, the effects of subliminal influencers tend to be mild and are stronger when we have no other information to go on.  In another study, the word “beef” was flashed 160 times to some moviegoers watching a 16 minute film. When asked how hungry they were after the show, those who had the word “beef” flashed were far hungrier than those who didn’t. However, this group did not want beef sandwiches any more than the group not exposed to the subliminal message. This study helps us understand that subliminal influences usually have small effects and are more influential when we have nothing else t influence us.

Decision Making – Raw Materials

Part 2: The Raw Materials

Now that we understand the machinery that we use to make decisions (the mind) we can now consider the information that the machinery processes.  This includes reference points, context, framing, variety, evaluability and halo effects.  I will now examine each of these factors in more detail.

When making decisions, we evaluate the options relative to a certain reference point. If we can’t find good reference points we will still pick arbitrary or unrelated ones to help us make a decision. A very simple example of a reference point is the pre-sale price of an item that is on sale. You compare the sale price to what the item usually costs to help make a decision about how good a deal you are getting. In another study, one group of students were asked to pay to attend a poetry reading while another group was offered money to attend.  When a new price for the poetry reading was given to both groups those asked to pay something attended and those initially offered money to attend refused to pay anything.  They were working from different reference points that influenced subsequent decisions.

  • Other research has shown we are less sensitive to changes in value as we move away from the reference point.  For example, in one study people were more likely to travel 20 minutes to save 5$ on a 15$ purchase than to save 5$ on a 125$ purchase.
  • Loss aversion means we are more sensitive to losses than we are to gains of  the same value.  If we lose 10$ we feel a more intense sadness than we feel an intense joy for gaining 10$.

Another variable to consider is the context within which we make decisions. For example, people evaluate two options differently when a third “decoy” option is presented.  In one study, men were rated less attractive after seeing an altered picture of their faces beforehand compared to when no altered picture was shown.   The compromise effect means that people are likely to avoid extermes and pick an option in the middle of a range of choices.  This means that the most and least expensive options are usually immediately ruled out when shopping.

  • The physical environment is another context within which we make decisions.  For example, Studies have revealed that people walk slower and are more patient when slow music is played in the background. They also spend more time sitting at their tables in restaurants and order more drinks.  In another study, those faced with a vote on tax increases were much more likely to vote yes if their polling location was a school compared to other buildings.

Similar to context, a frame refers to the language used to present a decision.  Four common frames include: Status Quo, Gain/loss, Opportunity Cost Neglect and Reasons to Reject/Choose.

i.) Status Quo: If you frame something as the “default”  option that is the one that people will prefer. Studies show people will pay for a higher costing plan if they are told it is the “default.”
ii.) Gain/Loss:  If you frame something as a gain then people will be risk averse and less likely to do it but if you frame it as a loss people will be more risk seeking to avoid the loss.
iii.) Opportunity Cost Neglect: An opportunity cost refers to the fact that when you make a decision, you lose out on the opportunities afforded by the options you rejected. Studies show that if you make people aware of the opportunity costs of their decisions, they are likely to change their decisions.  When making decisions, calculate the different costs between top choices and determine what you can do with
the difference between the highest and second highest cost items.
iv.) Reasons to Reject: When asked what you should reject, you will over-weight negative information but if you’re asked what to choose you will over-weight positive information. How the question is framed will lead to different decisions.

Variety or the number of options that you have to choose from also affects the decisions that you make.  When too many options are presented to us we often experience choice overload.  In one fascinating study, researchers gave people either 6 or 24 options of jam choose from. Many who were given the 24 jam option simply refused to make a choice as it became too difficult.  In another study, those told to buy a card from a shop with 25 options were more satisfied than those who bought the same card from a shop with 250 options. We tend to also be less satisfied with our choices after the fact when we had a large range of options.

However, having lots of choices is not always a bad thing and is desirable when you know exactly what you want, you have no idea what you want or if you are given decision tools. In one study, participants who were asked to think about what they wanted before given a large variety of options were happier with their decision than those simply presented with options without time to think about them.

Evaluability refers to how easy it is determine the quality of something. Things that are easier to evaluate are often given more weight than those that are harder to evaluate. This can cause us to make poor decisions because we can give greater weight to trivial things just because it’s easier to evaluate.  For example, in one study, people valued staff courtesy and the appearance of hospital facilities more than anything else. These attributes are important but probably not as important as the competence of the physicians. However, since cleanliness and friendliness of staff are easier to judge than the competence of a physician they are weighted higher.  In similar studies about which college to choose, students weighted the amenities (such as swimming pools) as being more important than school culture, professor competence and other harder to judge variables.

Whether or not something is easy to evaluate depends upon whether we have a reference to compare it to. Having a frame of reference means we have some experience with what we are evaluating to compare it to.  If you only have experience in a single hospital then you will have no reference points to make judgments.  Other common reference points include the behavior and beliefs of other people which you may take as a baseline and modify based on your experience.

Understand that you will tend to give disproportionate weight to what you can easily evaluate even if it is not important and try to correct for it. Be deliberate in seeking out reference points to make evaluations about things you have no experience with such as relying on the expertise of others.

And finally, halo effects also influence the decisions that we make.  A halo effects occurs when we have an overall impression of something and we let that overall impression influence how we evaluate specific attributes of it.   Halo effects work because, in the absence of detailed information, we use what we do know in order to fill in the gaps.  For example, if you have an overall impression of Jill that she is a great person, you will be likely to rate her higher when evaluating her job performance.  If you have a positive impression of the Coca cola brand then you will evaluate their drink better than if you just drank the exact same formula without the coke name.

Research shows that one of the most common halo effects occur with attractiveness. If we judge someone as attractive we tend to rate them higher on intelligence, kindness, friendliness and trustworthiness. We let the only information we have about someone (attractiveness) to inform how we view everything else about them.

In one study, researchers had customers evaluate the price of the same pen but in two different stores: wal-mart and a magazine shop in an airport terminal. When told the pen was from Wal-Mart and the price was 2.89$ customers said this was a good price but when told the same pen at the same price was from the magazine store they said the price was high. Halo effects explain the difference as people used their general impression (Wal-mart has good prices, magazine shops don’t) to fill in the details of something over which they lacked reference points (the pen).

The Psychologist Edward Thorndike noticed in his research that people’s evaluations of the individual characteristics of others were highly correlated. People see others as more consistent than they actually are.

Decision Making – The Cognitive Machinery

Part 1: The Cognitive Machinery

A.) Iceberg Analogy

According to the Cognitive Model, there are three levels of mental life with which we are concerned.  The deepest level of mental life is referred to as “Core Beliefs.”  These beliefs are the strongest held beliefs that person has and are “core” to their being.  Core beliefs are deeply ingrained and difficult to change.

The next level of mental life is “Rules for Living” which are sometimes called “Intermediate beliefs.”  Our rules for living often flow out of or are a response to our core beliefs.  These rules form our “shoulds” and “If…then” rules. Out of our rules for living come our “compensatory strategies” or ways that we protect ourselves from having our core beliefs activated.

And finally, the last level of mental life are our “Automatic Thoughts.”  Automatic thoughts are the surface thoughts that seem to automatically arise in our daily lives.  They are often unexamined but are not as deeply held as core beliefs and are easier to challenge.

CBT therapists often use the analogy of the iceberg to explain how the mind works.  Picture an iceberg that is mostly submerged in water but its top is floating just above the surface .  The bottom part of the iceberg that is completely submerged deep underwater can be compared to the core beliefs of the mind.  It is the deepest part of the iceberg and forms the core of its mass just as core beliefs are the deepest part of the mind and are core to our being.  Picture the middle part of the iceberg that is just below the surface, as your rules for living.  The middle part of the iceberg is sustained and held up by the core but it directly feeds into the surface.  The water within which the iceberg exists can be compared to conscious awareness.  The bottom and middle of the iceberg are completely submerged in water, suggesting that what they represent (core beliefs and rules for living) are largely unconscious or out of our everyday awareness.  And finally, picture the top part of the iceberg that is above water, as your automatic thoughts. Just as the iceberg is above water, so you are usually more conscious of your automatic thoughts.  They are the surface thoughts that are usually immediately noticed and stem from your rules for living and your core beliefs but you may not immediately connect them all together.

Let’s take a look at a typical example of a depressed person’s“Iceberg” or cognitive map around the situation of being invited to a social event by an acquaintance.

Automatic thought: I don’t want to go to this party.
Compensatory Strategy: If I avoid talking to new people then I can’t be rejected.
Rule for living: You should not talk to new people to avoid rejection.
Core Belief: I am unlovable.

As you can see, the thought that you are most likely to be aware of is simply: “I don’t want to go to this party.”  However, that thought arises from largely unconscious rules and core beliefs that you may not be aware are influencing you.  Also, you are probably unaware that the automatic thought is connected to a core belief.  This is why people often say they don’t know why they are feeling the way that they are.  Their mood is really a response to the core belief that they aren’t able to recognize and not the automatic thought.  The compensatory strategy here is a maladaptive attempt to prevent the core belief from triggering but again you may not have this awareness.  Your level of comprehension may simply be “I don’t like parties.”

B.) The Conscious and Subconscious Minds

As discussed in the iceberg analogy, there is a conscious part of the mind and a subconscious part of the mind, each of which have different purposes.

i.) The Automatic Unconscious Mind: This part of your brain runs automatically and effortlessly. It can perform multiple tasks at the same time and is responsible for screening out what comes to conscious awareness. This part of your brain does what it has been trained to do by your conscious mind. Many problems in life occur when this system has been trained to automatically respond in unhelpful ways.

ii.) The Effortful Conscious Mind: This part of your brain does not multitask but instead can only focus on one thing at a time. It is slow, deliberate and takes a lot of resources to use but you have more direct control over this part of our mind. A major purpose of this part of your brain is to choose what to train the automatic mind to do effortlessly. Much behavioral change occurs through using our conscious mind to retrain our subconscious mind’s automatic rules and reactions.

The Conscious mind can interact with the unconscious mind in 6 ways:

1. Approval: The conscious mind becomes aware of the unconscious mind’s response and allows it. For example, you notice your unconscious mind has chosen to become angry and then you choose to indulge that anger.
2. Override: The conscious mind becomes aware of the unconscious mind’s response and doesn’t allow it. For example, you notice that your unconscious mind has initiated an automatic anger response but you choose to suppress it.
3. Neglect: The conscious mind is too distracted or too tired to oversee the unconscious mind’s processes. For example, you haven’t slept much lately and are overloaded with stress so you don’t pay attention to how much you are eating.
4. Influence: The unconscious mind indirectly influences a decision of the conscious mind. For example, you get an urge for cake but choose to override that urge but later you eat something sweet anyways.
5. Informing: The conscious mind can make inferences based on how difficult it is for the unconscious mind to come up with information about something. For example, if you are evaluating someone and the unconscious mind is struggling to bring anything good to memory, you may conclude that the person isn’t very nice.
6. Solo Operation: This occurs when you are engaged in a new task that your unconscious mind has no experience with. This could involve learning a new skill or being in new situations. Your conscious mind must rely on itself and then train the unconscious mind over time.

Benjamin Libet’s research suggests that we our behaviors are not as consciously controlled as we once might have thought. His research concluded that it takes us half a second to become conscious of our brain activity. In a typical study, subjects would be asked to move their wrists and brain scans showed that half a second of brain activity was present before the person became aware of when they made the decision to move the wrist. Participants in these studies only became aware of the decision (as evidenced by brain signals) to act 200 msec before the action occurred.

It appeared that the motor cortex of the brain created the signal 300 milliseconds before the person was aware they had made the decision to move! This suggests that the unconscious brain makes decisions to act and then sends signals to our conscious brain afterwards. In other words, the decision has already been made before we become consciously aware of it. While we think we are making conscious decisions in the moment, our unconscious mind often makes decisions and then tells our conscious mind afterwards.

More recent studies from Alvaro Pascual-Leone have confirmed Libet’s earlier findings. In his studies, Pascual-Leone used transcranial magnetic stimulation to send electric signals to parts of the brain that would stimulate certain movements. He would ask participants to decide on what arm to move and then he would jolt the brain to signal the opposite movement. The person would then move the opposite hand but believed it was his/her choice!! When asked, the participants simply believe they changed their mind. This study implies that it is not unusual for unconscious processes to control our action and that we don’t even
notice when this is the case. Some decisions don’t appear to be made consciously but are instead controlled by subconscious processes that we simply become aware of afterwards.

The Implications for Behavior Change are very important.  If we want to change our behavior, then we can’t just rely on trying to make better conscious decisions. We need to instead address the system that is in control and that is usually the automatic unconscious part of the brain. The unconscious mind takes time and effort to condition to automatically act in certain ways. It took time to train the brain to automatically act in negative ways so it will take time to retrain the brain to automatically respond in healthy ways.

Commenting on this line of research, Professor Jordan Peterson says: “Action potentials occur in the brain before the person “decides” to make the movement.  This doesn’t mean there is no free will but simply that the decision was made long ago, and the moment of decision is automatically carried out.  There is a temporal gradient with free will as the more you look into the future the more control you have and the more immediate the time frame the less control you have. For example, when driving a car you don’t look right in front of you, it’s too late for choice.  You have to look farther down the road to plan a sequence of events.  You have free will when thinking far into the future and then your choices become constrained the closer to the present until it is deterministic in the moment.”

According to Peterson, “Consciousness is a mechanism for evaluating potentials before they become actualities. It is a mechanism through which you train new automatic behaviors. It is a mechanism to preprogram deterministic actions.  When doing something new, a lot of your brain is activated and then as you practice the amount activated is less.  It shifts from right to left and from frontal to posterior with less and less brain activation overall. Consciousness trains the unconscious to do things in an automated matter.”

C.) Habits

Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Motivation is what gets you started while habit is what keeps you going. Success or failure is based on the habits we learn. A Habit is a behavior we have trained our subconscious mind to perform automatically over time.  The conscious mind does this by training the unconscious mind to activate a response when it recognizes a reminder. This response is rewarded in some way which further solidifies the habit. There are three components of a habit:

1. Reminder (Stimulus): Habits are triggered by a reminder in ourselves or in our external environment.
2. Routine (Response): The Habit itself is an automatic behavior that we perform.
3. Reward: The habit itself needs to yield some kind of benefit in order to be solidified.

Habits are very important because they allow us to automatically perform regular, important behaviors without demanding too much energy or cognitive resources. If we could only use our conscious mind to do things we would be incredibly inefficient as the conscious mind is slow and requires a lot of energy to use.  Habits can be thought of as decisions that you have chosen to train yourself to automatically make in given
situations. They can be thought of as decisions you have already made in advance or have become so committed to that you have told your conscious brain not to worry about making that decision any more.

“Bad habits” arise when we have trained our subconscious mind to automatically respond in negative ways in response to people, places or things over time. To eliminate a bad habit, we must use our conscious mind to deliberately interrupt the negative routine and replace it with a new healthier routine.  Just as training your subconscious mind to perform the bad habit took time so too will the process of retraining take time.

It takes a lot of effort and energy to consciously monitor and control behavior. While this can be very effective in the short term, inevitably, conscious control will stop due to distraction, fatigue or boredom and the unconscious mind takes over by implementing learned habits.  When the unconscious mind takes over, it’s easy to be unaware of how often you are engaging in a bad habit. Writing down each time you engage in the behavior will eliminate unconscious repetitions over time.

You can’t turn off an existing associative link in your brain but you can create alternative links and make them stronger.  This is called “Alternative Behavior Associations.”  Instead of temporarily changing behavior through conscious control, you need to permanently change how your unconscious mind is wired by creating new automatic processes that are stronger than the old problematic ones. In one study, participants were asked to come up with new responses to triggers of bad habits. For example, instead of eating snacks when feeling anxious an alternative strategy might be eating an apple. Those who developed alternative responses were able to change behavior much better than those who did not. This strategy works because your brain begins to form new associations with the trigger and when the association is activated enough it overrides and replaces the old association.

Research shows that reinforcement is better than punishment for changing behavior. Begin by making a contract with yourself that if you engage in the new good habit you will give yourself a reward. Over time, this will allow you to create a new good habit. Remember, you aren’t trying to change your conscious behavior but instead you are trying to shape the behavior of your unconscious brain that takes over automatically. The key is to treat your unconscious brain like it is somebody else and to train it like it is somebody else.

D.) Intuition

Habits aren’t the only way that our subconscious mind operates but it also operates through what we often call: “intuition.”  Intuition refers to our ability to recognize patterns based on previous experience. Intuition is often our subconscious mind influencing our conscious mind in ways that are sometimes hard to articulate. Using Intuition involves analyzing a situation for key cues and comparing them to our past experience to find a pattern. We then match the current situation to patterns from our experience and reason by analogy about what to do.

Intuition is developed over time and it is what separates novices from experts. Experts have a lot of experience to draw on to compare new situations to while novices do not. Experts recognize patterns much quicker and just “know” what to do because their subconscious mind has been trained over years to respond in certain ways. Our intuition is only as good as we have trained it to be. If we have not developed it enough we can misread current situations by thinking they are the same as past situations we have been in. Intuition is also limited when we have completely new experiences as we have no prior experience to draw on.

Since our intuition involves using our subconscious minds, it can be very hard to articulate our reasons for wanting to act a certain way other than: “I have a gut feeling.” Intuition is best used in conjunction with conscious reasoning and analysis. Use your intuition to guide your reason but use reason to check your intuition as well.

E.) The Executive Resource

The energy that fuels your decision making is called the “executive resource” and you have a limited amount of it to use every day. The Executive Resource (brain energy) is used to fuel at least 4 different things.

1. Attention Control: This involves consciously directing your attention towards something and suppressing distractions.
2. Emotion Regulation: This involves choosing when and in what manner you will express emotions.
3. Impulse override: This involves suppressing urges and drives that are not conducive to goal achievement. You may be really hungry but may suppress the urge to eat because you are on a diet.
4. Behavioral Modification: This involves consciously choosing to change an automatic behavior that you usually perform.

Your executive resource is drained simply by using it. Whenever you exercise self-control by performing one of the four functions you deplete some of that limited resource that you have every day. This means that these four functions will be impaired until you can replenish the executive resource through sleep or eating. Unfortunately, all four functions use the same resource so engaging in too much focused attention is likely to leave you with little energy for controlling your emotions or behaviors. If you no longer have access to your executive resource then your automatic subconscious mind will take over and may do things you would not normally consciously do.

Making too many decisions in a day can lead to “decision fatigue” and the quality of subsequent decisions will be negatively affected.  Many studies prove that after people make decisions they perform worse on tasks that require use of the executive resource. For example, people who made more decisions while shopping performed much worse on a set of math problems than those who made fewer decision.

However, Researchers have also  compared self-control to a muscle in that after you use the muscle it becomes fatigued but when it heals it becomes stronger. In one study, people who exercised self-control for 2 weeks performed better on a self-control task than those who didn’t. After only two weeks of avoiding sugary foods, self-control was truly increased.   Self-control also increases with age.  The frontal lobes of the brain are associated with regulating behavior and impulses and aren’t fully developed until the age of 18-22 when self-control is known to greatly increase.

Your Words Matter

Your words matter and have a strong effect on how your body responds to what you are doing.  Words prime perception as research shows that if you can’t find your keys you are more likely to find them if you walk around saying “keys” over and over. By repeating what you are looking for, the visual system becomes more sensitive to the characteristics of a key and you are more likely to find it.

Changing how you talk about things influences your behavior. Specifically, you should use the word “don’t” rather than “can’t.” In one study, people who turned down desserts by saying: “I don’t eat desserts anymore” were more effective than those who said: “I can’t eat desserts anymore.” “I can’t do x” is associated with external controls while “I don’t do x” is associated with internal controls. Research also shows that if you want to reduce the amount of stress you feel about something, refer to yourself in the third person to “distance” yourself from it.

How you label ambiguous physical sensations also matters. In one study, those who labeled high arousal “anxiety” felt more fearful and performed worse in given tasks. In contrast, those who were told to label their arousal as “excitement” performed better and felt less afraid. If you are feeling stressed out, use the power of language to deliberately change how you feel. Instead of calling something a threat call it a challenge or an opportunity for growth. Those words will literally change how your amygdala reacts and what emotion you will feel.

Language has even been shown to affect Physical Fitness.  The language centers of the brain are connected to that part of your brain that regulates calorie expenditure. Studies show that if you call physical activity “exercise” you will lose weight and become more fit as compared to not labeling the same physical activity “exercise.”  Researchers told one group of room attendants their work was exercise and burnt calories and they told another group of attendants nothing. The group that started calling their work “exercise” became more fit even when they changed no other behavior!! If you call what are you doing “cleaning” your body won’t burn as many calories as if you call what you are doing “exercising.”

In a similar study people were given a milkshake that was 380 calories but one group was told it was an “indulgent” 620 calorie shake while the other group was told it was a “sensible” 140 calorie shake. Those who used the word indulgent reported feeling more “full” and their bodies even produce less Ghrelin (hormone that tells you that you are hungry). Amazingly, the body responded differently to the shake depending on what words you used to describe it.

Source: Outsmart Yourself

Strategy – Strategic Planning

Strategic Principles

There have been many great strategists that have lived throughout history that we can learn from.  From the Ancient strategists, we can learn these 5 principles today.

1. Any area in life that is dominated by thoughtless effort can be transformed through innovative tactics.  Pagondas taught us about forward defense or striking an enemy that is a long-term threat.  During one battle, the Athenians marched near Delium expecting their reinforcements to arrive but they never did. The Athenians then began to flee but Pagondas ordered the Thebans to attack them. Pagondas also innovated  by changing the commander’s position from the front lines to one in which he could survey the whole battlefield. This innovation won him many battles. The lesson here is to think on ways you can innovate on how things are normally done to gain an advantage.

2. All plans are temporary and must change in response to changing realities.  Sun Tzu taught us to view all of our plans as temporary and open to revision.  This is at the heart of strategic thinking as the opposite of this would simply be static thinking.  Does the strategic plan you created, even a short time ago still apply today?

3. Preparation is the heart of strategic capability. We prepare through training, discipline, hard work, and sound planning which are our strategic reserves. No preparation means no reserves. Vegetius wrote that strategy encompasses three elements: intentions, capabilities, and resources. He emphasized the importance of preparing in advance through training, discipline and hard work.

4. You must know your opponents. Knowing their strengths and weaknesses lets you avoid fighting losing battles and allows you to concentrate your resources on weak points.  From Hannibal we learn that superior strategy can defeat superior force. Hannibal defeated the Romans by using their habits and weaknesses against them.  In contrast, Thucydides used his  superior force to overwhelm his enemies.  In his famous Melian dialogue he argued that the Athenians superior might was all that was required to force compliance and ignored concepts like justice, reason or fairness.

5. Be bold and beat fortune into submission by having a bias towards action.  Machiavelli offered us these two principles.

From the modern strategists Napoleon, Jomini, Clausewitz and Forrest we learn the following principles:

1. Napoleon: From Napoleon we learn three principles: The central position, concentration of force and the indirect approach.  Napoleon was often outnumbered so he would maneuver his army to a central position between two opposing armies and drive a wedge between them. He would then battle one and distract the other with a masking force.  He would also concentrate overwhelming force at the right time and place which meant victory even with a smaller force.  Napoleon would also position a small force to draw out the enemy army and then march his main force to the enemy’s flank to gain an advantage in what is called the indirect approach.

2. Jomini: From Jomini we learn more about the concentration of force strategy.  Jomini suggested that you should maneuver the bulk of your forces to the decisive point on the battlefield and overwhelm the enemy quickly so that your whole force fights only part of the enemy’s force.

3. Clausewitz: Clausewitz said that conflict is a function of three variables: violence, chance, and political aims. The strategist must balance these three elements to achieve victory.

4. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a southern General who summed it up nicely: “Get there first with the most.” General Heinz Guderian led Hitler’s panzers across Belgium and France following the same principle as Forrest: applying overwhelming force at a single point and then pursuing an enemy relentlessly.

The British General John F.C. Fuller articulated the principles of war that are still in use today by many militaries and form the core of strategic planning. These principles are designed to ensure that you control the battlefield, pressure the opponent and resist the enemy’s plan to defeat you.  The principles of war include:

1.) Objective: Direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective. The objective must be clear for everybody who has anything to do with execution of it.  The army uses a METT-T framework that stands for Mission, Enemy, Troops, Terrain and Time Available to help with the objective.  You must know your goal, your resources, the enemy’s resources, the terrain and timeline.
2.) Offensive: Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Offensive action is the best way to accomplish the objective and we only play defense temporarily until we can seize the initiative again. The side that retains the initiative through offensive action forces opponents to react rather than allowing them to act.
3.) Mass: Mass the effects of overwhelming combat power at the decisive place and time. This is the concentration of force principle advocated by Jomini.
4.) Economy of force: Employ all combat power available in the most effective way possible; allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts. All of our resources should be deployed so that no part is not working towards the objective. We must be efficient with our resources at not deploy too many to secondary goals.
5.) Maneuver: Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power. Maneuvering means moving our resources in relation to an enemy’s to gain advantage. Maneuvering lets us decide where and when to engage and to set the terms of the battle in our favor.
6.) Unity of command: For every objective, seek unity of command and unity of effort. All forces are controlled by a single commander. Unity of effort means all forces coordinate when they are not part of the same command structure.
7.) Security: Never permit the enemy to acquire unexpected advantage. We must anticipate and plan for how our competitors will attack us. We must know our own weak points that need to be strengthened
and we must have up to date intelligence on enemy movements.
8.) Surprise: Strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which it is unprepared. Surprise is a force multiplier and essential for good strategy. There are 6 types of surprise: speed, intelligence, deception, application of unexpected force, operations security and tactical methods.
9.) Simplicity: Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders to ensure thorough understanding.
10.) Morale Maintenance: The will to fight and win must be maintained.

Strategic Intent

Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad coined the term “strategic intent” in 1989 in the Harvard Business Review.  Strategic intent is the big idea, dream or vision that you are working towards. Strategies need to have an inspirational vision at their core in order to fuel the work necessary to achieve them.  You need to articulate a long-term vision that goes beyond your current capacities and forces you to develop and accumulate resources to achieve. If you tailor your goal to your current capabilities this will simply maintain the status quo.

The Mythologist Joseph Campbell identified the archetypal story of the “hero’s journey” that has inspired every known society throughout history. Examples of this story include Prometheus stealing fire, Ulysses returning home after the Trojan War or the Quest for the Holy Grail.  The Hero’s journey is a good example of setting goals that outmatch your current capacity and necessitate growth.

Famous examples of grand strategy include John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.  JFK said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade….” and then this was achieved less than 10 years later.  Similarly,  MLK realized His dream of racial equality  through non-violent civil disobedience.

Strategy without intent is just soulless technique. Work without vision is simply drudgery so without vision we begin to atrophy and perish. Be bold and courageous in setting your goals and don’t settle for anything that doesn’t animate and excite you.

The Core of Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is facilitated by a founding myth and a mission statement.  The founding myth is a story about how the company was founded that exemplifies the goals and values of the organization. Apple computer’s founding myth is the story of two young men who started the computer revolution in a California garage. The mission statement anchors strategy and forms the basis for our strategic intent. It should be a bold and inspiring statement and not vague or routine. Coca Cola’s is: “To refresh the world; to inspire moments of optimism and happiness; to create value and make a difference.”

According to Michael Porter, strategic plans should take a decade or more to accomplish. A single fiscal year or planning cycle is usually not enough.  Planning can’t be reduced to a budget exercise: Do not reduce strategic planning to setting budgets or making financial forecasts. There are three planning fallacies to avoid when developing your strategy that include:

1. The Fallacy of Predetermination: This occurs when we are overconfident in our ability to predict the future. This leads us to developing rigid plans based on a single line of thought.
2. The Fallacy of Detachment: This occurs when planners remove themselves from the front lines. This is strategic formulation detached from implementation.
3. The Fallacy of Formalization: This occurs when strategic plans become too formal and abstract and just become binders on the shelf.

Strategic Planning can be broken down into 6 steps:

Step 1 Mission: Define your mission statement and purpose for existing.
Step 2: Objectives: Create clear, concise, achievable and measurable mid range objectives to accomplish your goal.
Step 3: Situation Analysis: Evaluate the internal and external environment within which you will operate.
Step 4 Strategy Formulation: Decide on what you will actually do to get from where you are to where you want to go. Allocate resources and decide who will implement parts of the plan.
Step 5: Strategy Implementation: Supervise how the strategy is going and revise as needed.
Step 6: Control: Develop a quality control mechanism to measure if the plan is working. Make adjustments as needed.

Organizations that Last – Jim Collins

In his book “Built to Last” Jim Collins examines what separates companies that have staying power from those that are here today and gone tomorrow.  According to Collins, visionary companies are the best companies in the world that have a long history of having positive impacts on the world.  He uses the analogy of time telling vs. clock building to show what separates companies that last from temporary companies.   Someone who can tell the time by looking at the sun is not as useful as someone who can build a clock for anyone to tell time. Charismatic leaders are like “time tellers” and when they leave you lose the function they provided. Companies that last engage in “clock building” that outlives the charisma of the leader.

Visionary companies concentrate first on the organization’s systems and values, then on products. HP and Sony both started with no specific product in mind.  Merck lived up to their value statement when they gave away a drug they spent millions to develop: “We try never to forget that medicine is for people. It’s not for the profits. The profits follow . . .” Like Merck, visionary companies tend to be more ideologically driven than profit-driven. Profit is like oxygen which is necessary for life but not the point of life.  Look to your internal compass for guidance, not the standards, trends, or fads of the outside world. Don’t ask,
“Is this practice good?” Ask, “Is this practice appropriate for us?”

Visionary companies have core ideologies which are basic precepts that say: “This is who we are; this is what we stand for; this is what we’re all about.” Procter & Gamble’s is to: “Product excellence, continuous self-improvement, honesty, and respect and concern for the individual.”  Wal-Mart’s is: “To provide value to customers, to buck conventional wisdom, to work with passion and commitment, to run lean, and to pursue ever-higher goals.”

An ideology consists of two ingredients: core values and purpose.

1. Core values are the organization’s enduring tenets and guiding principles which can never be sacrificed for financial gain. A value should be expressed as a simple statement.
2. Purposes are your organizations reasons for existing beyond making a profit and are more broad and enduring. For example, Robert W. Johnson founded Johnson & Johnson “to alleviate pain and suffering.” A purpose is bigger than a specific product and service and can be discovered by asking: “What is our reason for being? What would be lost if we ceased to be?”
3. Signals and Actions: Visionary companies employ a variety of signals and actions that continually reinforce the core ideology and stimulate progress.

Collins also found that successful companies create what he called “BHAGs” which is an acronym for big, hairy, audacious goals.   A good BHAG is clear, compelling, and serves as a unifying focal point. A BHAG should be so clear and compelling that it requires little or no explanation. It should fall outside the comfort zone and should require immense effort to achieve. It should be so exciting that it continues to stimulate progress even when leaders leave. And finally, a BHAG should be consistent with a company’s core ideology.

Visionary companies were also found to create “cult-like” cultures that indoctrinate employees through training programs. To create a cult-like culture, Collins advises us to try doing some of the following things:

• Training programs should have ideological and practical components. For example IBM set up programs to indoctrinate new hires.
• On-the-job socializing should be encouraged.
• Promoting from within instead of from without.
• There should be penalties for breaching ideology.
• Constant emphasis on corporate values and heritage, and tales of heroic deeds in the line of duty.

Visionary companies also never rest.  They  don’t ask, “How well are we doing?” They ask, “How can we do better tomorrow than we did today?” They run a race with no finish line.  Visionary companies consistently invest more into their companies (as a percentage of sales) than most other companies. They spend more on human capital as well. Merck, 3M, P&G, Motorola, GE, Disney, Marriott, and IBM have
all made significant investments in “universities” and education centers.

These same principles that create lasting organizations can be used to create a life of lasting meaning and purpose for individuals as well.

The Two Main Strategies

The two main strategies in business are cost-leadership and differentiation. A third strategy is to focus on a very specific market segment and then to adopt either cost-leadership or differentiation.

1. Cost-Leadership: With this strategy, you try to sell products or services at the lowest price possible and then make profits on volume. This involves trying to be more efficient with your resources than your competitors. Commodities and some other products rely on low-cost strategies because there aren’t really ways to strongly differentiate. For example, cement is cement and there’s isn’t really a way to differentiate except on price so profits are low and competition is fierce.

  • In WW1 everyone was using a low-cost strategy, trying to be more efficient with the same resources and tactics. It wasn’t until the British differentiated and made tanks that the war started to change.  In WW2 the allies used a low-cost and high volume approach and they defeated the Germans who had differentiated elite units. This made Americans believe the low-cost approach was best for a long time.

2. Differentiation: This strategy involves differentiating your products from competitors in ways that customer’s value. This is your unique selling proposition (USP) and should be a one-sentence description of
what you offer that few others can match.  Differentiating means specializing by adding functions and features that other competitors lack. This strategy relies on establishing a great reputation as a brand known for its quality.

  • During WW2 the allies won in the Pacific theater through differentiation (Atomic Bomb) so the Japanese believed this strategy was best for a long time.  Be careful of being too ambiguous in an attempt to appeal to everybody because ultimately your brand will become diluted and mean nothing.
  • Differentiating a Commodity: Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, chose to differentiate coffee by the way it is served. He charged more for it by choosing to serve it in a European style coffee house.

3. Focus: This strategy involves choosing a highly targeted market to focus on and then serving them through cost-leadership or differentiation. This strategy is kind of like a hyper-differentiation strategy as you want to deliver highly specialized products to very narrow market segments. An example might be an ethnic grocery store or producers of high-end cars.

Competitive Advantage

A competitive advantage refers to something that makes you superior to your competitors in some way. You need to develop competitive advantages that give you the edge in a competition. Many people think that competition is about doing the same thing as everyone else more efficiently and with higher quality. This is why the use of best practices and bench-marking has become so important.  However, if you do
nothing else but benchmark and copy competitors than you will never truly innovate.

blue ocean market is one that is uncontested and one in which your firm is differentiated in a meaningful way for your market. Red ocean markets are those with many competitors fighting over small profit margins with high stress. The red ocean is meant to evoke images of people fighting in close quarters.

The value curve shows how a company is doing according to an industry’s accepted factors of competition. For example, the car market factors would be: price, prestige, gas mileage, size, comfort, performance, longevity, safety and service.  Car companies try to differentiate on these factors to gain a competitive advantage over rivals.

However, some strategists argue that gaining a competitive advantage is better done through the Four Actions Framework.  This model challenges the assumptions of the value curve and asks questions intent on creating new competitive factors for unexplored market segments.  These questions can be thought of as 4 steps: Eliminate, Reduce, Raise, and Create.

(1) Which of the factors that the industry takes for granted should be eliminated?
(2) Which factors should be reduced well below the industry’s standard?
(3) Which factors should be raised well above the industry’s standard?
(4) Which factors should be created that the industry has never offered?

Another way of gaining a competitive advantage is through developing a personal brand.  Other people will label you so you should be deliberate in creating your own personal brand and take control of the process.  Your brand is your reputation and it’s what other people think of when they see you or hear your name. How can your brand give you a competitive advantage over others?

Strategy – The Intelligence Cycle

The Intelligence Cycle

Intelligence is not just information but analyzed information. It is the final product of a conscious and intentional process for gathering information about the resources, capabilities and intentions of ourselves and others.  There is a typical process for collecting, analyzing and disseminating information in business, politics and the military. For example, political candidates often do “opposition research” on their competitors and try to dig up dirt on them and wait to release it until the opportune moment the “October surprise” before the election.

Jan Herring, a former CIA analyst, has identified five types of intelligence analysis:

(1) Prevention of surprises by providing early warning
(2) Support of the decision-making process
(3) Competitor assessment and monitoring
(4) Planning and strategy development
(5) Support of the collection and reporting process

There are five main steps in the intelligence cycle:

(1) Planning and setting of priority intelligence requirements: The first phase involves determining what information you will gather and what to ignore. This keeps you from spending time on useless information.
(2) Collection: In this phase you actually collect the intelligence by consulting multiple sources including databases, witnesses, experts, scouting reports etc…
(3) Analysis: After the data is collected it must be analyzed and interpreted using such tools as PEST, the value chain, five forces or a SWOT analysis.
(4) Dissemination: After the information has been interpreted and turned into intelligence it must be disseminated throughout the organization. People need to know what the data means and how it informs strategy.
(5) Action: After the intelligence is planned, collected, analyzed and disseminated it is then acted upon. Intelligence is useless unless it is used to inform our strategy and our operations.

Part of the intelligence cycle is gathering information to know the terrain on which you are competing. All battles are fought on specific battlefields with characteristics that can be used to our detriment or to our advantage.  According to the geopolitical theorist Nicholas Spykman, “Geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent. Ministers come and ministers go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.”

Opponents interact with each other on battlefields and locations become important when resources are deployed to them.  Your position on the field of battle should not be left to chance. Select it beforehand, if possible.  Chess is a good example on the importance of terrain.  A chessboard has 64 squares with the center four squares being the most important and being the part of the terrain that each opponent tries to control. During the course of the game, the value of these squares change as the positions of the pieces change.

Similar to the center four squares of a chess board, the force that controls the high ground in a conflict has inherent advantages in combat as trying to “take the hill” is very difficult. Other geographical features like rivers, valleys and mountain provide natural barriers that can limit the opponents maneuvering. A good strategist asks: What potential sources of power exist on the battlefield? Does the terrain naturally enhance or degrade our strategy? Should you alter your tactics to utilize the terrain?

The US Military uses a method for analyzing the battlefield called Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB).  This process has four steps which include:

First, analyze the battlefield terrain: Identify characteristics that benefit you and ones that benefit the enemy. Identify what is known of the battlefield and what is currently unknown.
Second, analyze how the terrain affects operations: This includes examining terrain, weather, infrastructure, politics, civilians, local populations and demographics.
Third, evaluate your competitor: Determine how your opponent is likely to use the terrain.
Fourth, determine what your competitor will most likely do: Given what the competitor normally does and how the terrain may modify that behavior, what are its likely objectives and courses of action?

Other tools for gathering and analyzing intelligence include PEST, SWOT and Porter’s 5 Forces which will each be outlined below.

PEST stands for Political, Economic, Social and Technical analysis of the external environment. Part of strategic planning is gathering information on these 4 aspects of the external environment.

i.) Political: This includes the national, state and local government and the web of power relationships in our personal lives. What power relationships hinder or help you and how do laws affect you?
ii.) Economic: This includes market conditions such as number of firms in the market, demand for the product or service, existing quality and fee structure of services etc.…
iii.) Social: What long-term cultural factors are relevant to your business? What will be trendy soon?
iv.) Technological: How can you use technology to support what you do? Is it a threat? How do you mitigate?

Porter’s Five Forces is another tool for assessing the external environment that you are competing in.  Porter’s 5 forces include: buyer power, supplier power, intensity of rivalry, threat of substitutes, and threat of new entrants. Ask yourself the following questions: How much power do your customers have over you? How much power do your suppliers have over you? How intense is the rivalry with others in your industry? Are you forced into constant battles with them that affect your profit margins? How easily can your buyers switch to substitute products? What is the danger of new entrants in your industry?

A SWOT analysis focuses on both features of the external environment but also the internal environment of your life or organization.  SWOT stands for:

i.) Strengths: These are things that the firm is good at and should retain. (Internal)
ii.) Weaknesses: These are things that the firm is poor at and may need to outsource. As a general rule outsource functions you can’t do well but retain functions that are your core strengths. (Internal)
iii.) Opportunities: These are positive external factors that can be utilized to meet our goals. (External)
iv.) Threats: These are negative external factors that can hinder our goals and need to be dealt with.  (External)

After gathering information through the use of these tools and analyzing that information you can also conduct what is called a “scenario analysis” to plan for the future. A Scenario analysis involves repeatedly asking “What if?” and then constructing plausible futures that can be planned for.  This is similar to training, rehearsal or developing contingency plans.  To conduct a scenario analysis, follow the 8 steps outlined below:

1. First, identify the focal issue or decision. What do you already do and why? What do you want to do? What is your mission and objectives that arise out of that mission?
2. Second, what are the key factors in the local environment? What are your key indicators of success? What do you know about your customers, suppliers, competitors and other stakeholders?
3. What are the driving forces in the macro-environment? What do you know about the demographics of your market, industry growth, technological changes, activity of competitors, etc..
4. Rank the factors by impact and uncertainty: Take each factor you listed and then rank them according to how impactful they are and how uncertain they are. Examples might include uncertainty
around the US defaulting on its debt or public opinion on a green initiative.
5. Create a two by two matrix of impact (high or low) and uncertainty (high or low). Plot the factors onto the matrix.
6. Construct the Scenario narrative: Here you take the data and construct narratives about possible future scenarios.
7. Determine Scenario implications: Evaluate how each scenario will affect your current strategy and how you need to alter strategy to adapt.
8. Finally, identify and select leading indicators that alert you to the actual direction history is taking.

Part of a good scenario analysis is anticipating what are called “Strategic inflection points.”   Strategic Inflection Pointsare major changes that completely alter the landscape radically and quickly. Failure to respond to inflection points will lead to strategic failure. Change is more common than stability. However, we can become so set in our ways that we can forget this fact. Small changes are usually handled easily but large changes (inflection points) are usually more difficult to handle.

Andy Grove wrote about strategic inflection points in 1996 in his book called “Only the paranoid survive.” He spoke about dramatic changes that forces everyone to alter how they do things in order to survive. Inflection points will necessitate a change in strategy. Those who respond in the fastest way to the inflection point gain a competitive advantage over competitors until they adapt as well. This advantage will always be temporary as “best practices” begin to spread among competitors and a new norm is established.  For example, In business, strategic inflection points are usually technological changes, innovations or drastic changes to supply or demand. Other common changes include changes in regulations, customer preferences or big changes in the price of raw materials.

Strategy – Tactics & Problem Solving

Tactics and Problem Solving

A strategy is an overall plan while tactics are the actions taken to execute the plan. However, what is strategy to one person is tactics to another. For example, to a large corporation, the actions of each individual unit are tactics but to each unit those actions are strategy. Combat tactics can be useful metaphors for problem solving. Fencing is a combat sport that involves use of sabers to duel an opponent. The basic attacks can be used as a metaphor for strategy in other realms. The Basic Attacks of fencing include: Chest/Belly Cut, Head Cut, Flank Cut, Cheek Cuts, Lunges, Thrusts and the Fleche Attack (Running attack). Opponents attempt to parry attacks and attackers want to feint (pretend to cut one way but then go another) to deceive and achieve a hit.

The four major strategic maneuvers to consider are the frontal assault, the indirect assault,  turning the flank and a rear area battle.

1. The Frontal Assault: A frontal assault is an all-out attack on the enemy’s front lines. Usually the enemy has chosen the location of the battle and is well entrenched. This is a last-resort tactic.  On D-Day the allies launched a frontal assault on the French Coast but were able to hide the exact time and location of their attack. In business, the frontal assault would be akin to a price war. Two businesses compete directly through price and that’s it.  Frontal assaults should be avoided at all costs unless absolutely necessary. 7/8 frontal assaults failed in the civil war. It is estimated that attackers need 3x more strength to win a direct assault.
2. The Indirect Assault: This tactic involves making your opponent guess about where you are going to hit next by keeping equally attractive objectives in mind. Make your enemy split forces to defend everything.
3. Turning the Flank: This tactic involves maneuvering your forces to hit an enemy’s flank (where they are weak) which requires an immediate response from the enemy to survive. In business, attacking the flank could be attacking a specific market segment a competitor generally appeals to.
4. Rear Area Battle: This tactic involves sowing confusion amongst the enemy ranks by making them believe nowhere is safe. This makes opponents divert resources to areas they thought they had won.  In warfare, commandos are often sent behind enemy lines to kill commanders or disrupt operations. In politics, opponents can campaign in areas a candidate thinks are safe.

As a general rule, Do not fight battles that do not advance your strategy, even if you would win!

Another important tactic that help you achieve your strategic vision and defeat your opponents is that of strategic surprise. Strategic surprise occurs when we attack and disrupt an enemy’s mobilization, deployments and grand strategy. It is much harder than tactical surprise which is a surprise on a smaller scale with lower stakes.

Surprise is the gap between what we think is going to happen and what actually happens. Good competitors try to increase uncertainty for the enemy and even want to mislead them into thinking you are going to do something that you are not going to do.  Surprise is a force multiplier and greatly enhances our effectiveness and can give us an incredible short-term competitive advantage. For example, during WW1 the British invented the tank but their execution of this strategic surprise was poorly done. The British had only a small window of time to capitalize on the advantage given to them by weapons nobody else had and they did not fully utilize this time very well.

There are five major ways to surprise your opponents to gain an advantage that include:

1. Intention: This involves surprising the opponent about what we really intend to do. You want to make your opponent think that you intend to do things you have no intention of doing and you want to conceal your real intentions.
2. Timing: This type of surprise involves enacting your strategy on a different timetable than the opponent expects. It could mean striking the opponent earlier or later than he anticipates or enacting an important part of your strategy at an unpredictable time.
3. Place: This involves surprising the opponent concerning where you are going to attack. If the opponent knows where you are going to strike he can entrench and prepare defenses. If you strike where he does not expect, the advantage will be yours.
4. Strength: This involves surprising the opponent concerning how strong you really are. Generally speaking, you want opponents to underestimate you and you want to conceal your true strengths and resources. If they underestimate you, they won’t adequately prepare and the shock of you strength will cause more uncertainty for them.
5. Style: This involves striking an opponent in a way that they do not anticipate. This is like a catch-all category that can encompass a broad range of surprises. Tactical surprises can fall into this category or any other general surprise that doesn’t fit in the others.

Another tactic for enhancing your strategy is harnessing the power of “luck” or the correlation of forces.  During the cold war the Soviets used the term “correlation of forces” to calculate world power. It took into account the military, political, economic, social, moral and revolutionary forces at work in each country. The point is to determine the correlation of forces and utilize them to create your own “luck.” Some people seem to be “luckier” in life than others. However, what many call luck is simply intelligent placement within the environment to utilize the correlation of forces to one’s own advantage. “Good luck” is simply consistent behavior that increases the probability for utilizing the correlation of forces. “Bad luck” can be thought of as consistent behavior that decreases the probability for utilizing these forces.  The Roman Philosopher Seneca said that luck is what happens when “preparation meets opportunity.”

Max Gunther identified five different behaviors consistently practiced by “lucky” people that are almost never practice by those with “bad luck.”  These 5 behaviors include the following:

1. Networking: Lucky people actively seek to create and maintain friendly contact with other people. This is often called “networking” in the business world and it’s important because the more contacts you have the more opportunities you potentially have.
2. Lucky people act on their hunches. A hunch is something that you know but you can’t articulate how you know it. Lucky people act on hunches while unlucky people tend to ignore them.
3. Lucky people act boldly. The saying “fortune favors the bold” recognizes this fact. Bold people are more likely to create, seek out and accept lucky opportunities. They also don’t require certainty and are willing to take risks.
4. Lucky people get out of bad situations quickly. Lucky people can recognize when they are in a losing situation and don’t fall prey to sunk-cost effects or mindless inertia. If you are losing a tug of war with
a tiger, give him the rope before you lose your arm. Unlucky people simply stay in bad situations for too long.
5. Lucky people acknowledge Murphy’s Law: Those who are lucky acknowledge that a wide range of outcomes are possible and aren’t surprise when worst case scenarios occur. In contrast, unlucky
people expect everything to work out and are demoralized when things go wrong.

These Five “lucky” behaviors interact with the correlation of forces to determine how lucky you will be. While you have no guarantee, doing these five behaviors positions yourself to be in a situation more likely to create, recognize and respond to opportunities. Enhance your strategic plans by creating your own luck.

Stephen Covey, in his well-known book “Seven habits of highly successful people” outlines 7 habits that increase the change your plans will succeed.  Covey argues that we need to move away from a “personality ethic” which focuses on public image to a “character ethic” which focuses on the development of virtues that will lead to success.   The 7 habits that Covey suggests include:

Habit 1: Be Proactive: Take a proactive stance towards life and embrace your “response-ability” which is your ability to choose how you will respond to a given situation. People who aren’t proactive are passive and react to life events rather than being proactive. Your language matters so shift from using reactive language such as: “He makes me mad” to proactive: “I choose to get mad when he is around.” Focus on what you can control and not on what you can’t control. Reactive people focus on what is outside their control.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind: In everything that we do we should set goals about what the future looks like when we meet those goals. We should listen to our conscience to decide what values will guide us in reaching those goals. You also need to identify your center which is the source of your security, guidance, wisdom and power. People have many different “centers” or areas of ultimate concern that include: Spouse, Family, Money, Work, Possession, Pleasure, Friend, Enemy, Church, Self. None of these centers are optimal as we should adopt a principles-centered life which is basing our lives on timeless principles that work.

Habit 3: Put first things first: We must learn how to prioritize our lives so that we put what is most important above what is most urgent. We need to learn to act according to our values rather than our momentary desires and pleasures.  Important but not-urgent matters are usually the most important of all. Examine your life to see if you are spending too much time on the urgent but unimportant. Focusing on important and urgent matters all the time leads to burnout while focusing on “urgent but unimportant” matters usually means we are living according to the priorities of others. Focusing on
unimportant non-urgent activities means we are being irresponsible with life. Remember the Pareto Principle: 80% of the results in our organizations come from 20% of our activities.

Habit 4: Think Win-Win: There are six paradigms to human interaction that will be examined below.  The ideal is to go for win-win interactions with “win-win no deal” as a backup if you can’t agree on things.   This is possible when you adopt an abundance mentality or accept that there is enough for everybody. In contrast, most people operate from a scarcity mentality believing there are limited resources in a zero-sum game. This means if someone else wins then you lose.

1. Win-Win: Both people win as agreements are mutually beneficial to each party.
2. Win-Lose: When one person uses power, position or credentials to get their way at the expense of someone else.
3. Lose-Win: When one person is quick to please and appease by giving someone else what they want at their own expense.
4. Lose-Lose: When two win-lose people interact both people end up losing as nobody considers the other person.
5. Win: This involves getting what you want but not considering if other people have as well.
6. Win-Win or no deal: If you can’t make a mutually beneficial agreement then there is no deal.

Habit 5: Think first to understand, then to be understood: We must first use active listening to understand someone before giving our perspective. We jump too quickly to giving solutions before we truly listen and understand the nuances of the problem. Shift from listening in order to reply to listening in order to understand.  After active listening ,we must be able to communicate our ideas clearly and in the context of a deep understanding of the other person’s needs, concerns and perspectives.

Habit 6: Synergize: Once we understand and value the differences in others we can create synergies that open up new possibilities. A synergy occurs when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, planting two plants next to each other will cause their roots to co-mingle and improve the soil. To achieve synergies, focus on win-win and on understanding each other’s perspectives and needs. Then, treat meeting all needs as a problem to be solved. This is only possible when we value the differences in others.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw: To be effective, we must prioritize spiritual, physical, psychological and social renewal. In other words, we must take a holistic view of ourselves and develop and care for all parts of ourselves. We must exercise our bodies regularly, eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep. We must nurture our spirit by communing with the divine, living according to our values and finding meaning. We must nurture our minds through constant learning and stimulation. We must nurture our social selves by developing deep and meaningful relationships with others.

Strategy – Execution

Executing Strategy

Leaders are better at crafting a strategy than they are at executing that strategy. The hardest thing a leader can do is to execute a strategy that requires a change in human behavior. Edwards Deming said that anytime the majority of people behave a particular way the majority of the time it is the fault of the system and not the people.

Management Consultant Chris McChesney suggests that there are four disciplines for executing our strategic visions. These four disciplines include: focusing on the wildly important goals, acting on leading measures, keeping a compelling scoreboard and creating a cadence of accountability.

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important:  The Law of diminishing returns means we begin to achieve less as we focus on too many goals. You have to learn how to say no to good ideas as there will always be more good ideas than there is capacity to execute.  You have to determine what your “wildly important goals” are which are those goals that exist at the corner of “really important and not going to happen on its own.”   McChesney suggests identifying one WIG per team but it’s okay to have other “sustained” goals.  To accomplish a WIG, ask yourself, “what are the fewest number of battles necessary to win the war?” A good leader needs to translate strategy to the fewest number of executable targets on the front lines. Simplicity and Transparency are crucial to the execution of a strategy.

Discipline 2: Acting on Lead Measures (Leverage): Goals are lag measures which means they tell us what has been accomplished.  Lead measures are predictive of success and are influenced by the team.  For example, weight loss is a lag measure while diet and exercise are lead measures to achieve it. Every person who loses weight knows the data of calorie intake. There’s a big difference between knowing a concept and the data behind the concept. Data is hard to get but it’s like solving a puzzle and can be fun. Most people forget about it in three days.

Discipline 3: Keeping a Compelling Scoreboard (Engagement): People play differently when they are keeping score. People need to create their own scoreboards that are simple, highly visible, have the right lead and lag measures and tells them immediately if we are winning or losing. A good example of a scoreboard is a token economy. The biggest driver of morale is when a person feels they are “winning.” The first 3 disciplines create a winnable “Game.” Do the people who work for you feel like they are playing a winnable game?

Discipline 4: Creating a Cadence of Accountability: The last discipline involves holding weekly meetings to discuss the WIG and report on last week’s commitments and update the scoreboard.  You also need to make commitments for next week as well.  What are the 1-3 most important thingsyou can do that will have an impact on the lead measure?

Executing strategy is difficult which means that they often go wrong.  The five typical pathologies of executing a strategy include:

1.) Lack of responsibility: This occurs when those who are responsible for the strategy fail to connect planning to the assignment of specific tasks to people.

2.) Overreach: Overreach happens when plans are made that rely on everything going exactly right or when there is a mismatch between the plan and the capabilities of those executing it. Operation Market Garden in WW2 is an example. This also occurs when our plans do not factor in resistance from others.

3.) Communication and coordination breakdown: Constant communication is critical and breakdown can cause any plan to go wrong. The Charge of the Light Brigade is example where a group of British Cavalry were given vague orders to attack a group of guns but they went after the wrong ones and were slaughtered. Poor communication led to their deaths.

4.) Poor intelligence: Some strategies are crafted based on outdated intelligence and thus are doomed to fail. The British raid on Dieppe was based on outdated intelligence and thus failed.

5.) Inertia: Sometimes plans that aren’t working are adhered to purely out of inertia and a sense of investment. In the 1916 Battle of the Somme the British stuck to their plan of advancing even when the initial artillery barrage failed and this led to 60,000 British deaths.

Strategic Failure

While strategies often fail in execution, they can also fail due to problems at other stages of the strategic planning process.  For example strategic masquerade occurs when instead of creating a well developed
strategy we use slogans or standard operational techniques like bench-marking. These tactics do not lead to a competitive advantage.

Another common problem is strategic misalignment which can occur in three major ways:

i.) Internal misalignment: There can be a misalignment between the core parts of the firm leading to a mismatch in resources, capabilities and intentions.
ii.) External misalignment: Sometimes our strategy is no longer relevant because the external environment has changed but we fail to notice or adapt to it.
iii.) Fighting the last war: Generals are often accused of fighting the last war or looking to the past to inform strategy today. While the past should be learned from it shouldn’t’ be lived in. Strategies that overemphasize similarities between the past and the present are doomed to fail.

Other elements that conspire against sound strategy include group-think, bureaucratic politics, overconfidence,  loss of focus, and “great idea” people with a “can-do” attitude.

i.) Group-think occurs when unanimity is sought at all costs and critical thinking is discouraged.
ii.) Bureaucracy: Even when overall goals are shared there can be different opinions about what tactics to use to achieve it. Too much bureaucracy can bog down an organization and make it too sluggish to respond.
iii.) Overconfidence: This is the tendency to overestimate your own knowledge and judgment about a situation. We are too quick to think we truly understand situations and our strategies can be based on false impressions.
iv.) Fixed Mindsets: We see what we expect to see and our expertise can blind us to new realities.
v.) Failure to engage in critical thinking: critically evaluate your plans and be skeptical of them. Argue against your plan and take an opponent’s point of view. Use Situational logic: Ask yourself how this situation is unique instead of how it is similar to past events. Recognize your own limitations and biases and get other people’s opinions to control for any individual bias.

Strategy is not like an autopilot that you can just maintain without reviewing and revising. Strategies require follow through, the assignment of responsibility, avoiding overreach, maintaining clear communication,
nurturing effective intelligence and rejecting inertia in the face of new data. Execution is ultimately a function of strong and bold leadership, a propensity to take responsibility, and a system of control to bring the strategy to completion.

Critical Thinking – The Scientific Method

The Philosophy of Science

Science is a method that combines logic and empiricism to systematically test our beliefs about the world.  Empiricism means we derive knowledge from observing our sensory experience and logic means we use principles of sound reasoning to derive truth from those observations.  It rests upon a certain set of assumptions about the world that it takes for granted. Science is supposed to be transparent, rigorous and systematic so that it can correct for the biases of human nature.  Some of the major assumptions of science include:

1. Objective Reality: Science assumes there is an objective reality whose natural laws can be discovered. If there were no objective reality then we could not make observations about how it works.
2. Predictability: Science assumes the world is predictable and is thus controllable to some extent.  Science can be seen as a search for cause-and-effect relationships in order to be able to predict and control events/behavior.
3. Scientific Methods: Science is a collection of methods for testing out hypotheses in a controlled manner to determine cause and effect relationships.
4. Human Endeavor: Science is a method created and administered by human beings who are subject to bias and error.  This is why experiments need to be replicated and transparent for others to review.
5. Paradigms: Thomas Kuhn observed that science is conducted through paradigms which are overarching assumptions that determine what theories are developed and how they are tested.  New paradigms lead to new ways of doing science.
6. Provisional: Science is provisional which means that all conclusions are understood to be subject to change through further discovery and knowledge.
7. Connectivity: New theories have to connect with old theories by explaining what is already known.
8. Converging Evidence: A diverse range of methods and sources should be used to support your hypothesis. This protects you from relying too much on a single study that is subject to flaws.
9. Principle of Replication: Your hypothesis and the results of your experiment will not be accepted by the scientific community until it has been replicated numerous times.

Science is based on methodological naturalism which is the assumption that material effects must have material causes.  Thus, science itself rests on an unprovable assumption about the structure of reality.  However, this assumption defines the limits within which science is supposed to be used.  Science can say nothing about claims of the supernatural because it is beyond what science is capable of proving.  Thus, scientific claims need to be falsifiable which means they need to be capable of being proven false.  Russel’s teapot illustrates the importance of falsifiable claims in the realm of science. Imagine that someone claims there is a teapot that is in orbit around the sun right now.  You can’t really test the claim so you can’t prove that this teapot doesn’t exist.  Such a claim could be true but we would have to say it is outside the realm of science since it isn’t testable.

This is leads us to the Epistemological Limits of Science or the limits on what can be known through the scientific method.  Science deals only with the material world and can say nothing about the non-material world.  There are many questions in the world that are outside the realm of science and include: questions of value, aesthetics and moral judgments. Science deals with gaining empirical knowledge of nature while faith is concerned with areas of morality and judgment. Used properly, they are complementary and are tools for discovering knowledge in different areas of life.

Thus, when it comes to certainty, we have to realize that human beings are not capable of achieving certainty with anything. We can never be completely certain that what has occurred in the past will continue occurring in the future. We can make assumptions that the sun will continue rising every morning but we have no guarantee that this will always be the case. This understanding should help us be humble and recognize that our current views of truth are tentative and on our best estimates.

Scientific Methods

The Scientific Method can be broken down into 5 basic steps.

1) Select a problem and clearly define it.
2) Formulate a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a statement about something that may be true. It is usually concerned with investigating the relationship between variables such as: “Cigarettes cause lung cancer.”  A hypothesis generates predictions that are testable otherwise it is not a scientific hypothesis.  A theory is a set of related hypotheses designed to organize data and generate research.
3) Investigate the hypothesis: Review the data from other similar studies and then decide on how you will measure your variables and what research design you will use.  Variables are events, behaviors or characteristics that can vary such as hair color. Four main types of variables include situations, responses of people, individual differences of subjects and psychological processes. It is also important to establish operational definitions which is a definition of the variable in terms of how you will measure it. Abstract concepts need to be translated to concrete measurable terms in order to be tested.  Afterwards, conduct the study and then analyze the data.
4) Generate conclusions. The point of the study should be to disprove and not to prove your hypothesis. Review the results of the study and then generate conclusions.
5) Write the report so that others can review your work.

The alternative to the scientific method is relying on intuition or anecdotes. While intuition and anecdotes can be good starting points they are not particularly useful in proving cause and effect. If we only rely on our own intuition or on a few anecdotes then we will never move beyond our own inherent biases that prevent us from seeing the world as it truly is.   Scientific methods are designed to correct for the limitations of intuition and anecdotes.  Scientific methods fit into three categories: observational methods, experimental methods and quasi-experimental methods.

Observational methods allow observers to describe and analyze what they observe.  Observational methods are either quantitative and answer the question “How much?” or qualitative and answer: “What is it?”  Qualitative research is concerned with observing people in their natural settings to gather a lot of in-depth data that is reported through language.  In contrast, quantitative methods focus on measuring something specific using a large data sample.  Conclusions are made using statistical methods.  The following are the major types of observational methods:

  1. Naturalistic Observation: In these studies, researchers observe natural behavior in a particular setting over time (also called field work).
  2. Systematic Observation: While naturalistic observation collects data on a wide range of things, systematic observation tends to be more focused on observing just a few behaviors in a particular setting, which are typically analyzed using statistical methods.  This relies on accurate coding systems which are definitions of what is being observed that researchers agree on.
  3. Case study: A case study is an in-depth description of an individual in a particular setting.  Case studies cannot reveal cause and effect but can help us generate hypotheses.
  4. Archival research: This involves analyzing past research to answer questions instead of gathering new data.
  5. Surveys:  Surveys are questionnaires or interviews with many people designed to gather information.  Surveys usually gather information on attitudes/beliefs, demographics or behaviors.  Surveys are typically conducted over phone, mail, internet or by interviewing individuals or focus groups.
  6. Correlation Method: This method involves looking at whether 2 or more variables correlate or vary together. If they do, it might suggest a causal relationship but it might not.  Correlational methods cannot establish temporal precedence or which is cause and which is effect and it can’t rule out that some third variable is causing the correlation.  Mistaking correlation for causation is one of the most prevalent errors that human beings make.

Overall, observational methods can lead to the gathering of large amounts of data and do not involve interfering with natural behavior like laboratory manipulations do. However, these types of studies lack experimental control and are incapable of determining causation and only reveal correlations.  Surveys are subject to the social desirability response set which means giving responses that make a person look good to others instead of telling the truth. Surveys can also lead to poor data when unfamiliar jargon, vague terms, poor grammar or confusing phrasing is used.

Experimental methods are designed to correct for the limitations of observational methods by manipulating a variable and observing the outcome in a highly controlled way.   Experiments attempt to eliminate the influence of all third variables by making sure everything is the same between subjects except for the variable being measured.  Experiments differ in how they select research participants through either probability or non-probability sampling.  Probability sampling occurs when subjects are taken at random from a large enough sample size.  Non-probability samplingoccurs when subjects are taken from a small sample or if they aren’t randomly selected.  Probability sampling is best to ensure the results of our study generalize to the larger population the sample was taken from.

Any variable that cannot be held constant is controlled through random assignment of subjects to groups. Random assignment ensures that individual differences between people are just as likely to affect both groups being compared. Random selection means everyone in the population being studied has an equal chance of being included in the study as a whole.  This makes sure the people we are observing are representative of the larger population and do not differ in key ways.  The problem is that those who would volunteer for a study differ from those who would not.  Achieving true random selection is therefore quite difficult.

The Independent variable is the cause and the dependent variable is the effect. The independent variable is called independent because the participant has nothing to do with its occurrence.  We can establish temporal precedence by manipulating the independent variable and then measuring its effects (dependent variable). We typically measure beliefs, behaviors or physiological responses of people through self-report or through experimenter observation. The dependent variable should be sensitive enough to detect differences between people.  For example, asking people if they like something is less sensitive than asking them how much they like something on a scale from 1-10. Ceiling effects occur when tasks you give subjects are so easy they don’t reveal differences and floor effects occur when tasks are too hard.

We can determine co-variation of cause and effect through comparing our subjects to a control group who did not receive the intervention.  If the experimental group differs from the control group we can reason that the experimental manipulation is what caused the difference.  However, sometimes a third group is needed to rule out the explanation that it was the subjects beliefs that led to the change and not the intervention itself.  This group is called the placebo group which is based on the “placebo effect” which is the observation that believing one has been healed can actually heal a person.  Thus, to ensure the intervention is causing the effect both the control group and the placebo group should have different outcomes from the experimental group.

However, the high degree of control that experiments give us come with the price of creating an artificial environment that may not be generalizable to everyday life.  People act differently in a lab when they are being observed compared to how they would act in private anonymously.  Experiments can also be impractical or even unethical such as observing the effects of giving one group a treatment and withholding treatment to another.  When an experiment is done well in a lab it has internal validity but if those conditions are not similar enough to the real world it is said to lack external validity.  When it is unethical to do an experiment the best we can do is an ex post facto study or observing the effects of something after it has happened (such as comparing smokers to non-smokers).

Experiments are subject to other problems such as instrument distortions which occur when instruments used in the study change the behavior being observed (such as cameras).  The Hawthorne effect refers to the idea that when you know you are being observed you change your behavior.  The sample used to select subjects may not be random or may be too small and the experimenter has an incentive to confirm his own hypothesis.  This is why experiments rely on double-blind procedures which means the experimenters and the participants do not know which group got the treatment and which got the placebo.  This helps control for the experimenter’s bias.

Since performing perfectly controlled experiments is incredibly difficult, many researchers use quasi-experimental designs that sacrifice a degree of certainty for practicality.

1.) Single Case Experimental Designs: A single subject’s behavior is measured to establish a baseline and then the intervention is given and behavior is measured afterwards to see the results.
2.) ABA Reversal design: This design involves observing a baseline, giving a treatment and then stopping treatment to observe the baseline again to see if changes revert.  You can also do ABAB designs etc…
3.) Multiple Baseline designs: When it is unethical to stop giving an intervention (like a drug) you have to wait for the person to naturally change behavior and then observe. This can be done by measuring baselines across subjects,  across multiple behaviors of a single subject or the same behavior in multiple situations.
4.) One-Group Post-test-Only Design: This type of design lacks a control group. With this design we don’t know if the score on the test would have been equal, lower or higher without the treatment. An example is safety training and then filling out a test at the end and using that test to say the training worked if scores were high.
5.) One Group Pretest-Post-test Design: This type measures participants before the treatment and after it. This design fails to take alternative explanations into account. This is better than post-test only however.
6.)  Non-equivalent Control Group Design: In this design there is a control group but the participants in each group are not equivalent. We can’t be sure that outcomes aren’t due to these differences. Using volunteers in one group and non-volunteers in another might be an example.
7.) Non-equivalent control group Pretest-Posttest Design: Simply add a pretest to the previous design to make it a more useful design. Assignments to groups is not random so the two groups might not be equivalent.

When age is the variable being studied, three major designs are utilized:

1. Cross-Sectional Method: persons of different ages are studied at only one point in time. So comparing scores of 20, 30 and 50 year olds is an example. This is cheaper and more common but subject to cohort effects (events the group were all exposed to could have changed them all).
2. Longitudinal Method: The same group of people is observed at different points in times as they grow older. This can be used to see the effect of a personality trait in youth on how long a person lives for example. This approach is more expensive but more accurate and avoids cohort effects.
3. Sequential Method: First use the cross-sectional method and then the the individuals are studied using the longitudinal method. This is a mix of both methods with a mix of the costs and benefits of both.

Alternative Explanations

Even when we have a good experimental design, we still can’t guarantee we have determined cause and effect until we rule out the following alternative explanations:

1. History: Events that happen between the first and second measurements could interfere with the results. For example, in a study on relaxation techniques, a person finds out he was hired for a job between the first and second measurements and his increased relaxation could be due to this life change and not the intervention.
2. Maturation: People change over time, often get bored, tired or even wiser over time. Changes over time could be the cause of the outcome and not the treatment.
3. Testing: The pretest itself could sensitize people to know the effects of the study or make them more adept at the skill being tested.
4. Instrument decay: When a human observer is used to measure the dependent variable over time he may gain skill, become fatigued or change the standards on which observations are based.
5. Regression toward the mean: Statistically rare events or characteristics tend to regress towards the average over time. This could be the cause of the change and not the intervention.

Sampling Techniques

Sampling techniques allow us to draw conclusions about populations from a smaller group of people.  A populationconsists of every individual that is of interest to the researcher. A sample is a selection of people from a population that can be studied to allow us to make inferences about the whole population.

The inferences that researchers make about populations from their samples are done with a certain degree of confidence, called a confidence interval. This means that there is a certain percentage chance that the conclusions from the sample apply to the population as a whole.

Samples should be evaluated along two dimensions: sample size and representativeness.

i.) Sample Size: You need to study enough people so that your results will be generalizable. If your sample size is too small you will most likely leave out people with certain characteristics. The larger the sample size the more confident we can be in the results. The exact sample size needed is determined by a mathematical formula but a sample size of 150 people will be just as accurate as a sample of 1500 for a population of 15 million.
ii.) Representativeness: Your sample needs to accurately represent the population as a whole. This is achieved through random sampling as each person in the population has an equal chance of being included in the sample. If you do not use random sampling then the sample will be biased towards certain groups of people.  Samples are not representative if the sample frame does not match the population being studied.  For example, using a phone book to study the people in a city leaves out those not listed.  Similarly, not everyone responds to the researchers which further biases the results as those who respond differ from those who don’t in fundamental ways.  This leads to the volunteer problem which means that those who volunteer for studies tend to be more intelligent, educated, cooperative and better adjusted.

Test Validity and Reliability

Tests and measurements should be reliable or give consistent scores and valid which means they should measure what we are trying to study.  Measurement errors occur when you guess and got an item correct, if you knew the answer but didn’t respond correctly or if you simply mistakenly marked the wrong answer. Too many errors hurts the reliability of a measure.

To increase reliability, increase the number of questions on a test and make sure the questions aren’t worded ambiguously. Standardize the conditions of the test as well so that the instructions and location are always the same. Make sure you mark consistently across people as well. Tests should utilize questions of moderate difficulty and not questions that are too easy (floor effect) or too hard (ceiling effect).

There are 4 major types of reliability that include:

1.) Test-retest reliability: If a test is given at two different times they should yield similar results. If the results are similar then the test has test-retest reliability.
2.) Inter-rater reliability: Refers to whether raters agree on test results. Raters should agree on what they are observing.
3.) Internal consistency reliability: Does the person answer similar questions similarly? If so, this shows internal reliability.
4.) Split-half reliability: This is the correlation of an individual’s total score on one half of the test with the total score on the other half.

There are 8 major types of measurement validity that include the following:

1. Construct validity refers to whether the operational definition matches the theoretical construct. How you choose to measure a theoretical construct matters.
2. Face Validity refers to whether the test appears to be a good measure on its face. Overall, does it seem to measure what it is supposed to?
3. Internal validity refers to whether the experiment was conducted accurately using proper controls. If an experiment is done poorly then it lacks internal validity.
4. External validity refers to how generalizable the results of the measure are. If the conditions of testing are too artificial, the measure may lack external validity.
5. Conclusion Validity: refers to whether the conclusions drawn from the measure are valid and reasonable.
6. Convergent Validity: Refers to the degree to which similar measures agree with each other. Instruments that measure the same thing should agree with each other and when they do we say they have convergent validity.
7. Discriminant Validity: Refers to the degree to which the instrument can distinguish between two different measures. A test that measures depression should not correlate with one that measures hope.
8. Predictive Validity: This refers to how well the instrument can predict future performance. If a test tries to measure legal knowledge it should predict performance in the law profession.

Variable Scales

Variables differ in terms of their properties.  Some variables can only be named while others can be compared and mathematical operations can be performed on them.  Four properties to consider are: identity, magnitude, equal intervals and true zero.  Identity means you can indicate differences between variables.  Magnitude means you can point out relative differences and equal intervals mean the intervals have a particular value.  Finally, some variables have a true zero where all mathematical operations can be performed on them.  These four properties lead to four different scales we can use to measure variables:

1. Nominal Scales:This scale has the property of identity which lets you categorize and name things.  For example, football team names differentiate but don’t indicate a value.  Thus, mathematical operations can’t be used on these.
2. Ordinal Scales: This scale has identity and magnitude as they indicate a quality but the differences are relative and not absolute.  This means that the intervals are not even or consistent.  You can use this scale to rank from best to worst without knowing exactly how much better or worse something is.  You can’t perform mathematical operations on this scale either.
3. Interval Scales:  This scale has the properties of identity, magnitude and equal intervals.  The difference between intervals is consistent but there is no absoltue zero point.  The Celsius scale is an interval scale because 25 ºC is warmer than 20ºC but 20ºC is NOT twice as warm as 10 ºC.
4. Ratio Scales: This scale has all four properties so all mathematical operations can be used including ratios.  For example, ratio scales exist for measuring mass, length, duration and electrical charge.

Recognizing Pseudoscience & Expertise

Pseudoscience refers to beliefs and methods that claim to be scientific but that are actually not based on sound scientific principles. It isn’t an all-or-nothing category as there is a continuum that exists between perfect science and pseudoscience.  Most studies exist somewhere between the two extremes.  Here are 12 signs that indicate that a claim or study may be pseudo-scientific.

1. Motivated Reasoning and Rationalizing: Pseudoscience begins with a conclusion and works backwards to find evidence for it instead of following evidence to conclusions.
2. Disproving theories: Scientists try to disprove their own theories and consider alternate theories while pseudoscientists try to prove their theories correct.
3. Confirmation bias: Pseudoscientists only look for evidence that supports their theories and ignore any contradictory evidence.
4. Reliance on Anecdotes: Pseudoscientists use anecdotal evidence to prove their claims instead of relying on controlled observations of large sample sizes. They also use emotional appeals to defend their theories.
5. Core Principles: The core principles of pseudoscience tend to be based on a single case or observation rather than a larger set of carefully collected data.
6. Grandiose Claims: Pseudoscientists often make grand claims not justified by the conclusions. Scientists tend to be conservative and tentative in their conclusions while pseudoscientists often claim persecution in what is called “Galileo syndrome.”
7. Oversimplification: Pseudoscience gives simple answers to complex questions that distort the truth. Scientists simplify as much as possible but avoid oversimplifying to the point of distorting the truth.
8. Hostility to Criticism: Pseudoscientists are hostile towards criticism and usually claim to be victims of a conspiracy.
9. Scientific language: Pseudoscientists use scientific sounding terms that are vague while good scientists define terms clearly and precisely.
10. Anomaly Hunting: Pseudoscientists often search for anomalies to discredit existing theories but don’t approach their own claims with the same rigor.
11. Lack of Replication: Pseudoscience usually involves the work of a single person or a few individuals but the scientific community as a whole has not replicated the claims.
12. Dogmatic: Pseudoscience is dogmatic and unchanging while real science is provisional and changes as new evidence arises.

While it’s important to recognize pseudoscience, it’s also important to be able to evaluate experts.  The problem with this is that it takes an expert to truly be able to recognize another expert in the field.  This is because if you aren’t educated in a certain field then you don’t really know if what the expert is telling you is true or if it is his own opinion on the matter.  However, here are some general guidelines to help with the difficult task of evaluating an expert.

Is the person licensed in their profession?  What type of credentials does he have? Is the person considered mainstream or on the fringe? Have you compared his opinion with the opinion of another expert?  Is the person acting within the scope of his expertise or giving opinions on subjects he is not expert in?  Interestingly, much of the research has revealed that experts are not very good at predicting the future and the more confident an expert is the more likely he is to be wrong.  This is often referred to as the “arrogance of ignorance” as the less you know about something the more unaware you are of how incompetent you really are.  True experts know the limits of knowledge and admit when something isn’t known.  Whenever possible, try to figure out what the consensus in a field of experts is and try not to rely on any single expert unless you have good reason to.

Sometimes dissenting opinions are actually correct so they should be listened to with an open mind.  However, the evidence that a dissenting voice presents should be very strong to dismiss the consensus view on something.  Sometimes false beliefs have been spread over thousands of years so the consensus isn’t always correct.

Instead of investing your ego in any conclusion, instead learn to invest your ego in the process of critical thinking itself.  If you invest in the process then your ego won’t be damaged when a conclusion is dis-confirmed because you will take pride in the process of critical thinking itself.   The ultimate lesson of critical thinking is to embrace a humble attitude about what we know and what can be known and to try to understand and correct our natural biases and tendencies.

Evaluating Conspiracy Theories

Along with pseudo-scientific claims, we also need to be careful of conspiracy theories that are based on unsound reasoning as well. Humans seem to have an inherent tendency towards conspiracy thinking or believing that dark and powerful forces are working against their interests. However, conspiracy thinking is characterized by numerous logical flaws. Conspiracy thinking can be useful in moderate amounts as it prevents us from being naive and manipulated but taken to extremes it can be very harmful.

A conspiracy occurs when two or more people agree to act in secret to accomplish a malevolent purpose. A grand conspiracy is simply a conspiracy that is so large that they involve many different people and organizations working together over long periods of time.  Grand conspiracies usually involve the conspirators (an evil organization) and the conspiracy theorists who are the special people able to see the truth and whose purpose is to save the world.  Everyone else is considered a naive dupe who are “pawns” of the conspirators.

Conspiracies are a form of pattern recognition imposed upon disconnected events. It is a cognitive form of pareidolia where we seek to impose order on complex and random events.   Research has shown that when people are made to feel powerless they show enhanced pattern recognition.  Conspiracies may also satisfy the psychological need for esteem in the face of powerlessness.  Conspiracy thinking is usually tainted by the following logical errors:

1. Confirmation Bias: Only evidence that confirms the conspiracy is sought out and conflicting evidence is rejected.  Ambiguous evidence is always interpreted to support the conspiracy.
2. Fundamental Attribution Error:  Conspiracy theorists see all behavior as deliberate and reflecting evil character traits as opposed to looking at situational factors to explain events.
3. Closed Belief System:  Conspiracies are almost always incapable of being proven false as anything that happens can be spun as evidence for the conspiracy.  Any lack of evidence is seen as a cover-up.
4. Burden of Proof: Conspiracy theorists reverse the burden of proof by putting it on others to prove there isn’t a conspiracy which amounts to trying to prove a negative which can’t be done.
5. Moving the Goalposts: No matter how much evidence is provided, it’s never enough to refute the conspiracy theory as more evidence will be demanded.
6. Anomaly Hunting: Complex events will have details that are unexplainable and this will be given as evidence there was a conspiracy.
7. Naïve Assumptions: Conspiracy theorists are often naïve to what should really happen in reality such as assuming they know what debris from a wreckage SHOULD look like.
8. False Dichotomy: Conspiracy theorists often present only two options: either the official story is true or the conspiracy is true but there are always alternative explanations.
9. Widening the Conspiracy: Conspiracy theories are usually expanded over time to explain any conflicting evidence so that any who disagree are seen as part of the conspiracy itself.

Critical Thinking – Understanding The Biases of Human Nature

Needs that lead to Motivated Reasoning

Critical Thinking is about learning how to correct for your default mode of thinking and decision making.  The human beings’ default mode of thinking involves coming to conclusions for emotional reasons and then rationalizing those conclusion after the fact. There are four inherent psychological needs that will influence your beliefs and decisions.  These psychological needs include:

1. The Need for Control: Human beings are motivated to believe they have control over themselves, the environment and the events in their lives.  This need for control can be taken too far and can lead to either superstition or oversimplifying the world.

a.) Superstition: Superstition involves believing there is a causal relationship between unrelated events. In our search for control, we can misattribute the cause of something because we are motivated to feel in control now.  As a result, people develop all sorts of superstitious beliefs and behaviors that they believe keep them safe from danger but, in reality, do not really keep them safe. For example, many people believe that “knocking on wood” when talking about one’s good fortunes somehow prevents bad fortune from coming upon them.  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is actually superstition taken to extremes as the person develops a “safety behavior” that they feel compelled to enact repeatedly because they believe it keeps them safe from some obsessive fear.

b.) Simplicity: Humans also have a strong desire to simplify complex things so that they are understandable and thus controllable.  This can create problems when the simple model of the world we construct in our minds does not match the complex reality that we live in.  If we make decisions based upon a flawed and oversimplified view of the world then we fail to consider key details about the world and thus have sub-optimal outcomes.  Imagine what would happen if a heart surgeon performed an operation with a simple understanding of the heart and was ignorant to the details and nuances of how the heart works and interacts with the rest of the body.  Oversimplification, in this case, would lead to disaster just as oversimplifying the world in our own mind can also lead to disaster.  Oversimplification always leads to distorting or misrepresenting reality in our own minds and is often seen in all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing and other cognitive distortions.  Oversimplification leads to reductionism which occurs when we take a complex phenomenon and attempt to reduce it to something simple.  Stereotyping is another result of our attempts to feel in control by oversimplifying the world.  With stereotyping we take a complex individual who is difficult to understand and apply a simple label that is easy to understand but in the process distorts the reality of who that person is.

2. The Need for Meaning: Human beings also have a strong motivation to find meaning both in the universe and in their personal lives.  This means that sometimes we can impose meaning on things that don’t really have meaning or we can also derive meanings that are unhelpful to achieving our goals.

3. The Need for Self Esteem: Humans beings are also motivated to believe that they are good and competent people and want to be valued by others.  This motivation to be seen as good and valuable to others can prevent us from admitting mistakes that we make or the character flaws that we have.  We are motivated to distort the reality of who we are in order to prop up this idea of ourselves.

4. The Need for Consistency: The final need that motivates our beliefs and behaviors is the need to appear consistent both to oneself and to others.  When we become aware of an inconsistency we experience “cognitive dissonance” and are motivated to resolve the tension caused by such dissonance.  We sometimes engage in “special pleading” which means coming up with a reason why the inconsistency is okay for us but not for other people.

Along with these four psychological needs, we also have three inherent senses that motivate us as well.

1. Sense of Justice: We have an innate sense of fairness, reciprocity and proportionality.  When our sense of justice is violated we often become angry and are motivated to correct the perceived injustice.
2. Sense of Essence: We have an innate sense that everything, even inanimate objects, have some degree of agency and record their histories.  All cultures believe in spirituality which gives life to material things.
3. Sense of The Supernatural:  We also inherently believe that there is more to the world than meets the eye and feel a sense of connection with other things and to something greater than ourselves.

Flaws in Perception

Part of correcting for the biases of human nature is understanding the flaws in how we perceive the world. Many people assume that their brain is like a video recorder that just passively records experience but this is not true.  The brain actively constructs reality by paying attention to stimuli it deems relevant and disregarding stimuli it deems irrelevant. This means that you tend to see what you value and things you don’t value don’t make it past the brain’s filter.  There is simply too many stimuli in the world for your brain to be processing so it prioritizes and filters for efficiency.  This principle is illustrated in the following three examples:

1. Inattentional Blindness: We are blind to what we don’t pay attention to. In one famous study, people were told to pay attention to some people passing a ball on a basketball court and most people missed a gorilla walk through the court.
2. Change Blindness: This occurs when we don’t notice changes in our environment (sometimes huge ones). For example, in one study people interacted with an unfamiliar person and then they went out of view for a moment and a new person stepped in to act as if they were the original person. Most people didn’t realize they were talking to a completely new person.
3. Eyewitnesses: Eyewitnesses are not reliable due to our perceptual errors. They are subject to suggestion, filling in the blanks and are more confident than they should be.

Optical illusions illustrate how we construct reality.  An illusion occurs when the brain takes an incomplete picture of reality and “fills in the blanks” based on what it expects.  The brain is usually right but sometimes it is not.  Afterimages occur when we stare at something long enough and then turn away and can still see the image of it.  In what is called the McGurk effect, the brain even matches what it hears to the movements of a person’s lips, effectively changing what it actually hears to match information it has from the visual system.

If your brain was a passive tape recorder, it would actually function less well than it does.  For example, the brain synchronizes sights and sounds so that they appear to occur at the same time, even though they don’t.  When you clap, the light waves travel much faster to your brain than does the sound waves. However, the brain corrects for this difference automatically so that you perceive the sight and sound at the same time.

In conclusion, understand that perception is a construct of your brain based on a fraction of information it is able to process. Your brain does not passively record reality in perfect detail but instead must create it based on a small amount of information. Recognize that you can be fooled and that not everything you think you see is real.

Flaws in Memory

Like perception, our memory is also not a passive recording of events but has to be constructed and thus is subject to be altered over time by our beliefs and biases. Critical thinking involves being skeptical about our memories and recognizing their limitations.

People tend to naively assume that confidence in our memories means they must be accurate. However, the research shows that confidence in memory does not correlate with accuracy at all.  If people can recall vivid details they think it must be accurate, but the research doesn’t support this idea.

In what is called source amnesia, people are generally bad at remembering where they got information, even if they remember the information itself. This is problematic because it doesn’t allow us to critically analyze the source of information.

Also, in what is called truth amnesia,  we remember a claim but don’t remember whether it was a fact or rumor.  In one study, 40% of people misremembered a false statement as being true only three days after they were given the false information. They recognized the information but had not encoded whether it was true or not.

The research has also shown that we remember the emotional experience of an event but are not good at recalling details.  People have even been found to make up details if asked to do so.  There are three typical ways that our memories can become altered to fit the narratives we construct:

i.) Memory Contamination: Memory contamination happens when we add details we are exposed to after an event to the memory of the event itself. The research of Elizabeth Loftus revealed that people create false memories based on leading questions after the event.
ii.) Witness Contamination: Witnesses who hear each other’s memories tend to contaminate each other so that their memories fall in line with each other over time.
iii.) Forced Confabulation: This occurs when we think we remember something based on a leading question suggesting that a made up event occurred. In one study, people remembered seeing nonexistent scenes in a film if they were asked about those scenes afterwards.

The inability to recognize the flaws of memory has had truly disastrous consequences throughout history.  In 1988 Ellen Bass and Laura Davis wrote a book that suggested millions of people were repressing memories of abuse. This led therapists to suggest to clients that they were abused and many people fabricated memories of abuse which led to many false accusations.  In one study, people were asked to read a story that described eating popcorn in vivid detail. When asked about this experience later, many people believed they actually ate it. They created a memory of a false experience.

Other Memory biases include:

1.) Consistency Bias: We tend to overestimate how much our previous beliefs and behavior resembles our current beliefs and behaviors.
2.) Childhood Amnesia: Most people can’t remember anything before the age of four. In contrast, people remember more from adolescence and young adulthood.
3.) Context Effects: Many memories are only triggered in a certain context and we have trouble remembering things out of context.
4.) Self-Generation Effect: People are better able to remember things they generate as opposed to similar things others have generated.
5.) Google Effect: The tendency to forget information that can be found online.  Instead, people remember how to access information and not the information itself.
6.) Humor Effects: Funny information is more easily remembered.
7.) Spacing Effect: Learning and remember is better when spread out over time instead of in a single session.
8.) Leveling and Sharpening Effects: Leveling means you tend to forget details of a memory over time and sharpening means some details become exaggerated with each retelling of a memory.
9.) Levels of Processing Effects: the deeper you process and engage with the material the better your recall of it will be.
10.) Mood-Congruent Memory: We remember information that is concurrent with our mood. So if you are sad you will remember other things that make you sad.
11.) Peak-End Rule: People evaluate experiences according to the peak (best or worst moment) and how an experience ended instead of the averaging out the experience.
12.) Picture-Superiority Effect: Concepts learned by viewing pictures are better remembered than those learned by reading.
13.) Primacy and Recency Effects: Items near the end of a sequence are easier to remember followed by items at the beginning.  Items in the middle are the hardest to remember.
14.) Self-Relevance Effect: We tend to remember things that relate to ourselves better than other information.

In conclusion, do not naively trust your memories and always try to verify them with other sources of information. Your memory is a mental construction subject to bias, error and fabrication.

Pattern Recognition

Since human beings have an innate need for meaning, this tendency can lead us to impose meaning on things that are random as occurs in parediolia, data mining and hyperactive agency detection.

1.) Pareidolia: Pareidolia occurs when we try to impose patterns on random things.  We try to make the random understandable by fitting it within a pattern we do understand.  One example is when we see objects in the clouds and some ghost photographs are really just imposing order on random cloudiness in pictures.

2.) Data Mining: Data mining involves examining a large amount of data until a pattern is found amidst the randomness.  If you make your data set large enough, patterns will be found.  Astrology utilizes data mining as it looks at a vast amount of data until a random pattern will fit what is being looked for.

3.) Hyperactive Agency Detection: Humans have a tendency to see agency in randomness as occurs with conspiracy theories.  We often connect random events and assume a human agent orchestrated those events instead of recognizing coincidence and randomness.

Part of critical thinking is understanding your innate tendency to impose meaning on the world.  While this tendency has many benefits, we should simply be aware that sometimes we can impose agency on randomness.

Heuristics and Cognitive Biases

As human beings, we also use heuristics which are mental shortcuts that are useful in many situations but can actually be harmful in other situations. Similarly, a cognitive bias is a systematic deviation from what would be considered rational thinking.   Part of critical thinking is becoming aware of these heuristics and biases so that you can correct for them.  For a full list Cognitive Biases in Wikipedia

1.) The Effort Heuristic: We have a tendency to value things in proportion to how much effort it took to acquire those things.   This means we may value things of little objective value highly and may take for granted things which are of high objective value.
2.) Congruence & Confirmation Bias: We tend to only test out theories that will confirm our bias and avoid testing alternative theories.  With confirmation bias, we tend to find evidence that confirms what we believe and we automatically filter out or discount evidence that may challenge our beliefs.
3.) Mere Exposure Effect: We tend to like things better the more we are exposed to them.  This means that becoming familiar with something or someone makes you like it more.
4.) Choice-Supportive Bias: After we make a decision, we are prone to look back on that decision favorably and to devalue other options.  For example, choosing to buy a sweater will be seen as the clear best choice after buying it while the other options will seem less appealing.  Interestingly, people will even skip over their second best choice and go for their third choice if they do choose to reverse a decision because the tendency is to devalue the second-best choice.
5.) Wishful Thinking: We tend to accept ideas that are emotionally appealing even if there is no evidence to support such ideas.
6.) The Forer Effect: This occurs when we take vague or ambiguous data and interpret it to apply specifically to us.  This occurs in Astrology, where people see themselves in vague descriptions that anyone could fit into.
7.) The Ambiguity Effect: we prefer certain outcomes with lower rewards to uncertain outcomes with higher rewards.
8.) Anchoring Heuristic: We have a tendency to “anchor” our decisions around a single piece of information, usually the first piece of information we are given.
9.) Availability Heuristic:  This is the tendency to judge the probability of something according to how “available” an instance is in memory.  Rare events that are emotionally provocative are likely to to easily come to memory and thus seem more likely than they are.   The availability cascade occurs when an example is used repeatedly in public discourse which makes it seem more likely as well.
10.) Backfire Effect: The tendency to strengthen a belief after presented with dis-confirming evidence.  This demonstrates how resistant our beliefs are to change.
11.) Base-Rate Heuristics: The tendency to focus only on specific information about something and not the more general “base rate” information.  The “fundamental attribution error” is an example as it involves focusing only on the specific person’s motives and not the general information on how most people act in a given situation.
12.) Ben Franklin Effect:  Someone is more likely to do a favor for you if they have previously done a favor for you.  In contrast, receiving favors from others doesn’t have the same effect.
13.) Bias Blind Spot:  The tendency to assume one is less biased than other people.
14.) Bystander Effect: The tendency to assume other people will help in an emergency when surrounded by others.
15.) Courtesy Bias: The tendency to give socially approved opinions as opposed to one’s true opinion in order to avoid offending others.
16.) Curse of Knowledge: The tendency for more informed people to lose the capacity to view things from a less informed person’s perspective.
17.) Declinism: People have a tendency to view the past more favorably (rosy retrospection) and the future negatively (back in my day).
18.) Dunning-Kruger Effect: The tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their abilities and for experts to underestimate those abilities.
19.) The Endowment Effect: The tendency to give more value to things we own than to the same thing that we don’t own.
20.) Framing Effects: People will draw different conclusions given the same information presented in different ways.
21.) Functional Fineness: The tendency to use things in the way we have traditionally used them which can prevent creativity and innovation.   Similarly, we tend to use familiar methods/tools to solve new problems (if all you have is a hammer….everything looks like a nail.).
22.) Gambler’s Fallacy: The tendency to think that future probabilities are influenced by past events (I’ve flipped heads 3 times so tails should have a greater chance of occurring).
23.) Hindsight Bias: The tendency to see past events as being more predictable than they really were at the time.  Outcome bias involves judging a decision on the outcome instead of on the information one had at the time.
24.) Illusion of Control: The tendency to overestimate how much control we have over external events in our lives.
25.) Illusory Correlation: The tendency to believe that two things that are unrelated actually are related.
26.) Impact Bias: The tendency to overestimate the duration and intensity of future feelings.
27.) Sunk-Cost Effect: The tendency to increase investment in something you have previously invested in even when it is not yielding dividends. This is similar to loss aversion.
28.) Negativity Bias:  Humans have a tendency to recall negative events moreso than positive events.
29.) Normalcy Bias:  The refusal to react to a disaster that has never happened before.
30.) Observer-Expectancy Effect: The tendency for researchers to subconsciously manipulate experiments to confirm expectations.
31.) Overconfidence Effect: The tendency to be overconfident in one’s skills and knowledge.  For example, in one study, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.  Restraint bias refers to overestimating how likely one can resist temptation. Egocentric Bias involves giving oneself more credit for a group outcome than others would give.
32.) Planning Fallacy: The tendency to under-estimate how long it will take to complete something or to fail to anticipate setbacks.
33.) Reactance: The tendency to do the opposite of what you have been asked to do in order to preserve a sense of autonomy.
34.) Status Quo Bias: The tendency to want things to remain the same.
35.) Selection Bias: The tendency to notice things more often after becoming aware of them. For example, buying a type of car makes you see more of those cars on the road.
36.) Cheerleader Effect: The tendency for people to appear more attractive in a group than when alone.
37.) False Consensus Effect: The tendency to overestimate the degree to which others agree with you.
38.) The Halo Effect: The tendency to allow a person’s good/bad traits spill over to affect our judgment of other traits.  For example, attractive people are assumed to be better than average at everything.
39.) In-group Bias: The tendency to give preferential treatment to those you perceive as being in your group.  Out-group homogeneity means we tend to see outgrow members as being more similar to each other.
40.) Just-world hypothesis: The tendency to assume the world is just and that people always get what they deserve.
41.) Naive Realism: The tendency to assume that we see reality objectively and that all rational people agree with us and that those who don’t are lazy or stupid.
42.) Spotlight Effect: The tendency to overestimate how much other people are paying attention to you.
43.) Innate Innumeracy: Human beings are inherently bad at estimating probability and at dealing with large numbers.  Coincidence gets ever more likely the larger the data set we are examining but we think coincidence should be extremely rare.
44.) Retrofitting: This involves looking for patterns after time has passed from a large data set.  For example, people take the prophceies of Nostradamus and impose them on past events.  Scientific theories must be able to predict the future and not just explain the past.
45.) Regression to the Mean: This means that statistically rare events are likely to return to the average by themselves over time.  However, this makes us vulnerable to illusory correlations as we may think some third variable caused the regression when it didn’t.

Mass Delusions

Human beings are subject to delusions which are fixed beliefs that do not change even when the person is presented with overwhelming evidence that a belief isn’t true. Extreme delusions manifest in schizophrenia but everybody has some delusions.  Three of the most common delusions include paranoia, grandiosity and personal empowerment.  A “folie a deux” occurs when one person convince another person to accept a delusion.  Group delusions occur when charismatic leaders convince large groups of people to stop engaging in critical thinking and embrace conformity instead.  When multiple large groups of peopel adopt a delusion it is called “Mass delusion.”

Variations of mass delusions include community threats, which are an exaggerated sense of danger that leads to anxiety that permeates a society and symbolic community scares which are moral or existential threats such as witch hunts.  Mass hysteria involves mass delusions that cause psychogenic physical symptoms amongst a populace.  Urban legends are simply cultural fears that spread as rumors over the internet or by word of mouth.