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How to Ask the Right Questions

How the simple act of asking questions can reduce bias.

Photo: Marco Bellucci
http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcobellucci/3534516458/
Our minds are simply not to be trusted. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, we're all at the mercy of a voluminous set of cognitive biases that distort our thinking: we routinely ignore evidence that contradicts our preexisting beliefs, we think anecdotally rather than statistically, we're overly influenced by even brief messages that are unrelated to a question we're asked to consider, and we routinely exaggerate the effect of changed circumstances on our future well-being, to name just a few of the ways our thinking goes wrong. In short, it's amazing that we ever get anything right at all.

But we do. Despite all the ways our thinking goes wrong, many of us still manage to lead successful, happy lives. What explains this apparent contradiction? I would suggest two things: first, though many of us may find happiness despite operating under the influence of cognitive bias, the less influenced by such biases we are the happier we're able to become (acting and reacting to the way things are rather than the way we mistakenly believe them to be leads to better decision-making, for example). And second, many of us have discovered a simple technique that reduces the influence of our biases and employ it regularly: we ask questions.

It's not that we're incapable of escaping our biases. It's that it takes effort to do so. Fast thinking, according to Kahneman, which is easy, is also hugely biased. Slow thinking, which is hard, is less so. One key to engaging in slow thinking is to constantly question the conclusions of our fast selves.

Not that it isn't hard. And not that I'm recommending we question everything. That wouldn't only be utterly exhausting but also entirely unnecessary ("do I really need to brush my teeth now?"). Instead, I'm offering the same advice I offer to physicians-in-training: avoid the danger of coming to early closure when considering a symptom complex by always asking yourself what else could cause your patient's symptoms when getting the right answer matters. (Sometimes, believe it or not, it doesn't matter as when, for example, I don't know what's causing a patient's foot pain, but I know it isn't dangerous, it's improving on its own, and Tylenol makes it feel better.)

Asking myself the next question is a technique I've found helps me reduce the influence of my cognitive biases. By slowing myself down and challenging my assumptions, holding fast to the idea that what I think is the obvious answer may not be, I often find flaws in my reasoning that weren't at first apparent. It's a laborious process, but if I want my conclusions (and therefore my actions) to have the greatest chance of being good ones, there's no other way to go. Luckily, I like reexamining my thinking (I don't so much like other people doing it, I have to confess, so I try to do it for them).

The benefit of this method is that it's simple, mostly (though not entirely) obviating the need to recognize just which biases may be tripping us up. The key is having the attitude that the faster we come to a conclusion the more likely it is that our biases have brought us to it and therefore the more likely it is to be wrong. Once we think we have the right answer and are done thinking, we need to ask ourselves if there are any considerations we've left out, if there are entirely different ways to think about the question before us, or if the answer might not be something else entirely, even the exact opposite of the one we've accepted as true. For when we pause to question our first assumptions, they often crumble like a house without a foundation.

One thing that helps is maintaining a continual, healthy dose of skepticism about everything. We should be especially interested in questioning ideas everyone accepts as unquestionably true. It may require a certain amount of scorn for peer pressure, as well as a willingness to be wrong oneself—but being wrong oneself has a hidden benefit: it teaches us to cling to ideas loosely. Even though we can't prevent ourselves from becoming overly attached to our own ideas, if we make a habit of remembering that everything we think may actually be wrong and fight to prevent ourselves from becoming too invested in being right, we can keep our minds open to the process of continually questioning everything. Though life may be too short to do this all the time with literally everything, it will help keep us open to doing it when we should. Because to dismiss even a modicum of doubt without exploring it fully may just be to cheat us out of discoveries that lead to improvements in our lives we hadn't imagined were possible.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

April's Top 25 Reads