Make Yourself Smarter By Making Yourself Uncomfortable

Making people think more rationally can be achieved by breaking their expectations.

For example, you might change the obituaries to seem as though people are happy about the death. You might replace some of your dinner guests plates on labor day with halloween versions. Or you might see a wedding with a green dress, purple tux, and gears on a cake.

These all seem like odd scenarios, but they’ve been done. What’s more, in each situation, people made less irrational impulsive decisions, even when those decisions had nothing to do with the specific scenario.

The researchers call it cultural disfluency.

“Cultural disfluency arises as a result of a mismatch between culture-based conscious or nonconscious expectation and situation, cuing a switch in processing style from associative to rule-based systematic processing.” — James Mourey

Most of the time people go along on autopilot, we rely on our habits to guide us while our minds can travel somewhere else.

I think this is a good thing, we can’t think of everything we do all the time, it’s why we have habits in the first place, to free our minds for more important tasks.

So as long as our environment is predicted successfully, and our habits go unhindered, there’s no reason for us to pay anymore attention. We become free to think about our goals, our troubles, or to simply let our imagination go wild.

Slow Thinking Is Uncomfortable Thinking

Thinking Fast and SlowThis idea was also a large part of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

He called system 1 our intuitive, automatic pilot, while system 2 is us, our problem solving, complex thought providing selves.

System 1 is the unknowing star of the show, feeding us it’s immediate reactions or ideas so pervasively that we often don’t question or even notice it.

While most of the time this works well, it falters through it’s use of heuristics.

Example 1:

Question: A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. If the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Answer: If the thought of $0.10 jumped to mind, that was your system 1 feeding you the wrong answer. The correct number is $0.05.

Example 2: 

Answer these questions honestly:

1. How many dates have you been on in the last year?

2. How happy are you with your life on the whole?

What did you use to judge how happy you are? It turns out that when the questions are in the opposite order to above, there’s no correlation, but in this order, people tend to define their happiness based on the number of dates they’ve been on.

This is an example of priming, where an initial stimulus affects later behavior.

The participants unknowingly had their system 1 use the result of an easier question — the number of dates — to replace one that’s much more difficult to answer.

The Dangers of Overconfidence

The key in these scenarios is that people most often went along with the automatic intuitions, they rarely stopped to question themselves. Why not? Because there was no alarm bell, there was nothing telling the brain that something is wrong.

This effect is dangerous and riddles our lives more than you might think.

It means you are constantly bypassing things that might be important, but because your intuition or gut reaction is that there’s nothing of note, you go ahead and believe it.

Adam Alter notes in Drunk Tank Pink that people prefer to invest in stocks whose listing on the market is easy to pronounce.

Drunk Tank Pink“A stock with a simpler, fluent name will tend to rise above its disfluently named counterparts for the same reason that a fluently named person might attract law-firm promotions: stock purchasing is inherently risky, and fluency inspires a sense of comfort and familiarity that tempers the inescapable fact that even low-risk stocks sometimes go bust.” — Drunk Tank Pink

Research into fluency has shown that people believe in something that is easy to perceive, not because they can see or read something more clearly and therefore judge it more accurately, they simply believe it because it was easy.

Memories are notably fallible, yet many of us will place more confidence in a memory or belief based simply on how easy it is to call to mind.

“We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true.” — Thinking Fast and Slow

How sure can you be that when you read or listen to someone, that you’re not making unconscious presumptions? How sure are you that you shouldn’t be questioning something right now?

“… our moral feelings are attached to frames, to descriptions of reality rather than to reality itself.” — Thinking Fast and Slow

Like the initial study, Kahneman notes that the only way for you to know if the intuitive system 1 is correct is to slow down and put in the mental effort. Which can be achieved by breaking system 1’s predictions, the moment you know you were wrong is the moment your system 2 kicks into gear.

“There is no simple way for System 2 to distinguish between a skilled and a heuristic response. Its only recourse is to slow down and attempt to construct an answer on its own, which it is reluctant to do because it is indolent.” — Thinking Fast and Slow

To Think or Not to Think

And so it becomes a conundrum of balance. You can’t possibly think about everything all the time, but you’d be misadvised to go through life totally on autopilot.

For the most part, habits and your autopilot provide an important way for you to get by with little energy and effort, freeing you to tackle more important issues. Generally, the errors you make in this time won’t be severe.

But there also need to be moments when we become aware of our misdirection, we need to know when we’re most likely to succumb to an erroneous intuition.

“The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision.” — Thinking Fast and Slow

Making yourself uncomfortable is not something you’re likely to want very often.

Kahneman notes that system 2 is lazy and in some cases painful, thinking hard is unpleasant. While intuition is nice, system 1 is easy, energy efficient, and we like it.

But let’s say we do want to think harder more often. How can we achieve that?

Anything that forces you outside your comfort zone can work, for example:

  • Read text in an unclear font
  • Use your opposite hand
  • Argue against points even when you agree
  • Add more complexity to everyday situations

How confident are you right now in what you think of your intuition? How about in your own beliefs and memories?

Do you think you can stop and question yourself when you need to?

It might sound easy now, but that’s likely because you’re reading about it, it’s in your head. You think you understand because you’ve read this post, but that ease is not representative of truth, change will take more than a belief.

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