On a sunny day in early August, my wife Agnes Vishnevkin and I came to a Rationality Dojo in Columbus, OH. Run by Max Harms, this group is devoted to growing mentally stronger through mental fitness practices. That day, the dojo’s activities focused on probabilistic thinking, a practice of assigning probabilities to our intuitive predictions about the world to improve our ability to evaluate reality accurately, and make wise decisions to reach our goals. After learning the principles of probabilistic thinking, we discussed how to apply this strategy to everyday life.
We were so grateful for this practice in early September, when my wife and I started shopping for our new house. We discussed in advance the specific goals we had for the house, enabling us to save a lot of time by narrowing our options. We then spent one day visiting a number of places we liked, rating each aspect of the house important to us on a numerical scale. After visiting all these places, we sat down and discussed the probabilities on what house would best meet our goals. The math made it much easier to overcome our individual aesthetic preferences, and focus on what would make us happiest in the long run. We settled on our top choice, made a bid, and signed our contract.
This sounds like a dry and not very exciting process. Well, we were very excited!
Why? Because we were confident that we made the best decision with the information available to us. The decision to get a new house is one of the biggest financial decisions we will make in our lifetime. It felt great to know that we could not have done any better than we did through applying the principles of probabilistic thinking and other rationality-informed strategies. Of course, we could still be wrong, there are no guarantees in life. Yet we know we did the best we could – we grew less wrong.
These strategies are vital for improving our thinking because our brains are inherently irrational. Research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and other fields from the middle of the twentieth century has discovered hundreds of thinking errors, called cognitive biases. These thinking errors cause us to make flawed decisions – in finances, relationships, health and well-being, politics, etc.
Recently, popular books by scholars such as Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, Chip and Dan Heath, and other scholars have brought these problems from the halls of academia to the attention of the broad public. However, these books have not focused on how we can address these problems in everyday life.
So far, the main genre dedicated to popularizing strategies to improve our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns has been in the field of self-improvement. Unfortunately, self-improvement is rarely informed by science, and instead relies on personal experience and inspiring stories. While such self-improvement activities certainly help many, it is hard to tell whether the impact comes from the actual effectiveness of the specific activities or a placebo effect due to people being inspired to work on improving themselves.
However, research in the last decade, from Keith Stanovich, Hal Arkes, and others revealed that we can fix our thinking, sometimes with a single training. For example, my own research and writing shows how people can learn to reach their long-term goals and find their life meaning and purpose using science-based strategies. This scientific approach does not guarantee the right decision, but it is the best method we currently have, and will improve in the future with more research.
Yet a budding movement called Rationality has been going through the complex academic materials and adapting them to everyday life, as exemplified by Rationality Dojo. This small movement has relatively few public outlets. The website LessWrong is dedicated to high-level discussions of strategies to improve thinking patterns and ClearerThinking offers some online courses on improving decision making. The Center for Applied Rationality offers intense in-person workshops for entrepreneurs and founders.
For example, if I want to exercise more, I would take a rational approach to it. Rather than just a vague resolution, I would outline my specific goals for exercising, such as decreasing my weight by 20 percent. I would then evaluate the various exercises to see which ones targeted weight loss, and commit to one. I would then set up mechanisms to motivate me, such as publicly announcing my intentions, creating a social commitment to go with a friend, tracking the times I go, and rewarding myself for each successful visit.
As another example, say I wanted to become a more moral person and do more good in the world. I would evaluate specific steps to do so, such as giving more to charity. After making that determination, I would set aside a specific sum of money per year to give to charity, for instance 10 percent of my income. Next, I would research what are the charities that do the most good for my dollar in a cause area I am most passionate about, such as education. For the last step, I would choose a charity that I see as doing the most good and donate that money.
All of these steps are informed by specific research-based strategies for making and implementing decisions rationally to maximize the possibility of achieving our goals. You do not have to be nudged by policy makers and CEOs. Instead, you can be intentional and use rationality to make the best decisions for your own goals! Consider how much you can benefit from adopting similar strategies, and share this article with others so that they can benefit as well: they will be grateful to you.
Featured photo credit: Decisions via flickr.com