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How Mentally Strong People Make Wise Decisions

How Mentally Strong People Make Wise Decisions

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

President and Co-Founder at Intentional Insights; Disaster Avoidance Consultant

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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