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Education Bookcast

Sep 6, 2021

This episode feels almost nostalgic, as it is a return to the theme of the roles and interactions of the conscious and subconscious mind, something which I focused on early in the podcast and came out strongly in my main series on expertise (around episode 20). It also shares some relation to books on the topic of cognitive biases on the one hand, and the complexity of the world on the other.

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has two main points to make: firstly, that ignorance and cognitive biases often outperform knowledge and "clear thinking"; and secondly, he proposes a way in which gut feelings work.

On the first point, Gigerenzer points us to some experiments which are convincing of their point but difficult to know how to make use of. It turns out that, in tasks like guessing which of two cities has the larger population, if you've heard of one but not the other, the one you've heard of is probably more populous. This requires that you are "somewhat ignorant" - you know one city but not the other - as if you are completely ignorant (not heard of either) or somewhat knowledgeable (heard of both) then you can't use this trick. It seems very impractical to try to reach a perfect state of mild ignorance in everything in order to use this trick, and you would have to give up the benefits of knowledge in order to do so... Nevertheless, the theoretical point is well made.

On the second point, Gigerenzer proposes that gut feelings are simple rules that cut out most of the information, and they often make use of an algorithm called "take the best". The algorithm works like this: you compare whether the available options in the most important feature, then the next important feature, and so on, until in one of the comparisons one of the options is clearly better, at which point you choose that one. So, for example, if you're choosing a restaurant, maybe you first think about the food, but two places both have good food; then you compare atmosphere, but both atmospheres are good; then you compare price, and find one is considerably cheaper, so you go there.

Overall Gigerenzer's work makes a welcome contribution to thinking about the nature of intuition. Probably the most insightful idea is that gut feelings use simple rules, because that way they can cut out the noise and make decisions easier. Richard Dawkins apparently once claimed that when we catch a ball we must be implicitly solving partial differential equations; Gigerenzer shows that this is probably not what happens.

Enjoy the episode.



Phenomenology of learning / relation between conscious and subconscious mind: 7. The Practicing Mind by Thomas Sterner; 9. The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey; 10. Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi; 17. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; 49. The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin; 64. What Bruce Lee taught me about learning

Mental architecture: 79. What learning is; 80. The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters

Expertise: 18. Bounce by Matthew Syed; 20. Genius Explained by Michael Howe; 22. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; 24. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Expertise in "wicked" domains: 98. Range by David Epstein; 108. Expert Political Judgement by Phillip Tetlock

The world is complicated: 113. The Hidden Half by Michael Blastland

Cognitive biases: 11. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; 12. "Picture yourself as a stereotypical male" by Michelle Goffreda