Tag Archives: thinking

2 Fundamental Reasons Why People Don’t Like Change

fear of change

I grew up in a traditional environment that had a strong bias against change. For example, the main social changes of the last 50 years were rejected, technological change was often deemed suspicious, and the good old days were definitely preferred to the depressing modern times.

But since then, I’ve noticed that this bias in favor of the status quo is strong everywhere. Granted, our world is changing faster than ever, but truth be told, only a handful of change agents are responsible for that.

People resist change for political, sociological and psychological reasons. Today I’ll dwell on the latter and show that resistance to change runs really deep.

Here are the two culprits responsible for this situation:

  1. Fear: Humans are hardwired to initially dislike unfamiliar stimuli
  2. Laziness: Humans use System 1 (an automatic mode of thinking) by default

First, people unconsciously prefer things for no other reason than their being familiar with those. This phenomenon is called the mere-exposure effect and has been studied extensively.

Of course, for our ancestors, this made sense. As the psychologist Gary Marcus says, what great-great-great-grandma knew and didn’t kill her was probably a safer bet than what she didn’t know. Similarly, those who stuck to the well known tended to outlast those ventured too far into uncharted territories.

Fear of the unknown and attachment to the familiar might once have helped us adapt, but now we’re stuck with this unconscious bias. This explains why incumbents are typically favored in an election, and why people often accept and even defend systems that truly threaten their self-interest (slavery, communism, apartheid, etc.).

Second, people instinctively rely on a cognitive process, System 1 (see my post on the topic), that discourages change.

Yes, we’re lazy and often prefer using heuristics (mental shortcuts) rather than deliberate thinking. For example, instead of analyzing the costs and benefits of a change, we’ll apply this simple rule: “If it’s in place, it must be working.”

This reliance on System 1 explains why we’re creatures of habit, and why it’s so hard to break away from routines and comfort zones. It’s true that habits increase efficiency, but they also impede improvement and innovation.

You can always change for the better; so be on the look out for those improvement opportunities. More than anybody else, peak learners must avoid inertia and embrace change.

People don’t naturally think like scientists (but peak learners should)

learners as scientists

One of my close friends definitely prefers “being right” than being accurate. He has lots of opinions and theories on everything, but if you show him evidence that contradicts one of them, he’ll put the full weight of his reasoning power to discount your evidence.

As it turns out, we’re all like him to a lesser or greater extent, and this flies in the face of the popular theory of discovery-based learning, which posits that students intuitively learn like scientists.

What does it mean to learn like a scientist?

It means you’re an active creator of your own learning, and you do this by

  1. exploring your environment,
  2. generating ideas about how things work,
  3. testing those ideas and
  4. changing your model accordingly.

In other words, scientific thinking is about coordinating evidence (things you observe) and theory (ideas about how those things work).

So, for people to think like scientists, they need at least to be able

  1. to distinguish theory and evidence and
  2. to update their theory in the light of new evidence.

As many studies have found, untrained people are bad at both.

After reading Researcher Deanna Kuhn’s study, you’ll indeed notice that people easily blur the difference between theory and evidence in everyday life.

Let me give you the simplest example. When you see people smile, you probably take this as evidence that they’re happy, right? But the thing is, you can’t see happy; happy is a theory. It may look like a safe theory, but it’s still a theory.

But even when theories don’t get confused with facts, shifting theories to match facts doesn’t come naturally for most people. As Lord, Ross and Lepper’s classic study showed, when they come across a fact that contradicts their theory, people will often ignore it or interpret it in a biased way (confirmation bias).

Of course, as evidence accumulates, people will eventually adjust their theory accordingly, but that process often occurs unconsciously; unlike scientists, people don’t actively review their models (Kuhn).

With information currently flowing from all directions, critical thinking is more needed than ever. But thinking like a scientist is an acquired skill, and a difficult one at that. And if you want to become a peak learner, you have no choice but to develop that skill.

The best first step you can take in that direction is to set your ego aside and ask yourself: “What would show me I’m wrong?”

The Two (Almost Opposite) Ways of Learning: System 1 and System 2

humans' dual cognitive processor

In my recent posts, I’ve insisted on the importance of deep thinking. I even said that there’s no peak learning without effective thinking.

Well, this is not exactly true.

In some cases, thinking can actually hamper your learning. The popular Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book (Blink) to show that deliberate thinking often reduces performance.

Really? How can that be?

That’s because humans have two separate learning mechanisms, often called System 1 and System 2. In fact, this idea of a dual process is applied to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, social cognition, reasoning and decision-making.

By the way, the prominent psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on this topic, which he summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive and unconscious. It’s an old system based in the limbic system and shared by all animals. Thanks to this system, babies learn languages, you fine-tune your movements when playing a sport or musical instrument, and you update the map of your city without being aware of it.

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, logical and conscious. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex, and enables you, for instance, to learn foreign languages, change a behavior and operate a new machine.

Of course, we take pride of System 2, which has produced most of our culture, knowledge and expertise. In comparison, we often look down on system 1 as primitive and prone to error.

But brushing aside System 1 like I’ve done so far in this blog is wrong. This system is fast, powerful and most of the time reliable. Unlike System 2, it can process tons of information at the same time.

Many studies have shown that experts mostly rely on pattern recognition (S1) rather than analysis (S2) to solve typical problems. That’s why experienced doctors, chess masters and top football players are so quick at spotting the best solution, and that’s also why musicians’ and athletes’ performance suffers as soon as they start thinking about it.

In certain domains, peak learners need to move beyond academic learning, and turn their system-2 analytic skills into system-1 intuitive expertise.

Why the Gap Between the Educated and the Illiterate is Growing

people no longer read

Recently, I attended a conference on the future of the book. The speaker made the distinction between two kinds of readers, namely shallow and deep readers.

Shallow readers typically grab information on the go and consume it on electronic devices. Deep readers, on the other hand, practice slow reading and like to pause to reflect on the text they’re reading.

One type of reader, the speaker said, is growing in number, while the other is in sharp decline. Can you guess which is which?

Deep reading is losing ground for the most part because it’s increasingly hard to find distraction-free spaces (and yes, those are getting scare because deep reading is less popular). Even university libraries seem to shy away from guaranteeing the three prerequisites for deep reading, namely withdrawal, attention and silence. Rather, the big trend is for multimedia areas, team rooms and coffee shops.

What’s the consequence of this shift?

The speaker at the conference wasn’t the timid type. He argued that the old divide between the educated elite and the illiterate masses is making a comeback. People are losing the necessary skills to integrate written knowledge effectively.

Yes, my friends, you’ve read me right. The ideal of the democratization of education is taking a blow.

To me, this is overly alarmist. Neither do I agree with Nicolas Carr that Google is making us stupid.

That being said, there’s room for concern. Whether this is a modern problem or not, few people fully engage with written knowledge. Most are merely interested in getting information.

Deep reading enables you to transform information into knowledge.

Knowledge is information that has become part of your understanding and experience. If you don’t take the time to connect the dots and integrate what you read, you’re not really learning.

So find a quiet spot, dive into your reading and become a peak learner.

3 Reasons Why Winning the Attention War Is Vital for Peak Learners

how to optimize attention span

The great deep-thinking blogger Cal Newport thinks he’s tough because he’s not on Facebook ;-). Get this, I don’t even have a cellphone or smartphone. I’m not saying never, but I can’t afford that thing just yet. It consumes too much attention.

For knowledge workers, attention is the most vital thing in the world.

If you can’t use your processing power (aka attention) strategically, you’ll never grow, professionally and personally.

When it comes to highlighting the upside of exercising your attention muscle, most bloggers point to the increase of general productivity. Obviously, if you can’t focus your attention on your goals, you can kiss them goodbye.

Today let’s go deeper and look at cognitive output. Sustained attention is the power that enables you to think deeply. In other words, elaborate mental operations are impossible if you can’t hold your attention and dismiss distractions.

But why should you care about deep thinking?

For three reasons. Deep thinking produces high value, enhances your learning capacity, and provides profound satisfaction.

Deep thinking is radically different from everyday rule-based thinking that allows you to function in the world and make a living. Only deep thinking can produce creative breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and solutions to complex problems. Simply put, deep thinking will turbo-charge your value (personal intellectual capital).

Deep thinking will also make you a better learner. As Cal explains in many posts, reaching expert level in anything requires deliberate practice, and deep thinking is the ultimate mental deliberate practice. The higher you get in Bloom’s learning taxonomy, the more demanding the cognitive activities become.

Finally, producing great insights and output won’t only advance your career, it will also provide you with a sense of worth. The feeling following fruitful cognitive effort is simply great.

But there’s bad news; most of us are losing the attention war (look at the length of my paragraphs). The average attention span is apparently contracting.

Let me finish with the good news though. You can easily learn to control your attention. Practice going deep on a topic in your head. Uninterrupted. This means every 8 seconds (the current average attention span) you need to make the conscious effort to stay on that topic.

If you can do that for one hour, you’ll hold one of the major keys to peak learning.

You Want To Be a Peak Learner? Find Where You’re Stupid

what is stupidity

“That was stupid of me!” If you aren’t saying that to yourself at least once a week, you’re not getting as smart as you could.

When do I feel stupid?

Whenever I don’t operate optimally. Either due to a failure to plan correctly, to think effectively, or to find an obvious solution.

It’s cliché to say that you learn from your mistakes, but this is different. Most people don’t even register their own stupidity, and when they do, they quickly sweep it under the rug.

What is stupidity anyway? 

Einstein said it best when he defined it as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So doing something stupid doesn’t mean you have a low IQ; it means you’re not learning from experience (yes, I’m an incremental theorist).

Stupidity is a failure to change, to adapt.

As the paleoanthropologist Rick Potts explains, what has taken us from caves to rocket science is our gradual ability to adapt to variation itself. In other words, we became increasingly allergic to inflexibility (read: stupidity).

Feeling stupid is a signal.

Don’t shy away from noticing your own stupidity, and welcome the unpleasant feeling it creates like a straight-shooting messenger. Receptiveness (self-awareness) is indeed the prerequisite first step of any learning.

So whenever you act stupid or fail to act smart, don’t shake your head in disbelief and rush to forget about it. Rather, grab that info and course correct. This is the be-all and end-all of learning.

How To Create Teachable Moments

perfect teachable moment

What is a teachable moment? How do you provoke such a moment in the classroom, the office and the playroom?

(pause)

This is usually how I start my class. Question. Silence.

A teachable moment is often defined as an unplanned opportunity to offer insight to learners.

I don’t agree. You can plan teachable moments. As a teacher, trainer or parent, you should try to create them all the time.

How do you do that?

First, you need to grasp this fundamental principle: learning happens when thinking happens.

So what’s the easiest way to make learners think?

Here’s my two-step recipe:

  1. Ask a thought-provoking question.
  2. Wait.

Your thought-provoking questions must bring about vulnerability and curiosity, and they best achieve that goal when they start with how and why.

In Globalization, Lifelong Learning and The Learning Society, the education expert Peter Jarvis explains that learning can’t occur without a tension or disjuncture. He describes a disjuncture as a situation when our unthinking harmony with our world is disturbed, or when our past experiences are no longer sufficient to cope automatically with the situation.

This is exactly the kind of situation your questions must create.

The second step is as important, but very often omitted. You must give learners time to think about your questions. If you answer your own questions right away like I used to do, the whole process becomes worthless.

Waiting for the learner to come up with an answer often feels awkward, but that’s where the gold is found. As Jarvis shows, learning occurs when sudden changes or novel situations make people stop in their tracks, because they don’t know automatically what to do or how to respond.

That’s your teachable moment.

People don’t remember much of what they’re taught unless they stop and think. Asking (ourselves) questions is key here. So peak learners must do like kids. Never stop asking why.