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Presence of Mind: Why You Need It, How You Can Have It

A crucial thinking disposition that could make you smarter

In Spring 1984, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post was waiting in a hotel in Tripoli, Libya. He was promised an interview with the leader of the country, Muammar Gaddafi, but he was getting impatient. He finally decided to go to downtown Tripoli and started talking to people. He learned that, just a few days before, two university students were publicly hanged for writing anti-Gaddafi slogans on a wall. He immediately realized that this was a story much more significant than anything he would learn from Gaddafi himself, published the story, and left the country before getting into trouble. He was there to interview Gaddafi, he kept his eyes and ears open, he got out of there with a better story. He had displayed a similar presence of mind a few years earlier when he and Carl Bernstein started investigating a burglary in Washington, D.C. and ended up uncovering the Watergate affair.

Magic Johnson has the highest assists per game average in NBA history. He kept catching opponents off guard and delighting fans by finishing off a play in a completely unexpected way. Every play is subtly different for a player who pays attention to these differences. Magic Johnson was exceptional in responding to these differences and going off script to create unexpected opportunities. He displayed an unparalleled presence of mind on the basketball court.

Brandon Wong/Unsplash
Source: Brandon Wong/Unsplash

Presence of mind is about recognizing when the usual response to a situation is not adequate. Following a course of action makes sense under a certain set of circumstances. Behavior should change when circumstances change, but that requires presence of mind.

Following routines and scripts switches off presence of mind but there are ways to break the routine. A good piece of music is full of fresh ideas and surprises but not from the point of view of the performer who has played it many times. When the freshness of these moments is lost to the performer, the playing sounds dull to the listener. Pianist Leon Fleisher recommends a clever workaround, which also helps the musician engage with the music on a deeper level. Fleisher’s recommendation is about generating alternatives to what was composed: Find a moment where the music takes an unexpected turn. Replace that part with a different musical idea, perhaps one that is more conventional. Play the music with this replacement a few times. Now the original composition will sound fresh and interesting again.

In decision making too breaking the routine might involve generating alternatives. In October 16, 1962, President Kennedy learned that the Soviets secretly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, a country only 93 miles (150 kilometers) away from the US. After a meeting with his staff it looked like the President should select one of three options: (1) taking out the missiles only, (2) taking out the missiles and the Soviet airplanes, (3) invading Cuba. The decision was important because any military conflict between the US and the Soviet Union could escalate into a catastrophe: by 1962 each side had achieved the capability to destroy the other side in a nuclear war.

Kennedy’s handling of the crisis is considered a success not because he selected the best among these options but because he eventually crafted a better, albeit counterintuitive, option. In a crisis a strong tendency is to act now and do something quickly. Consistent with this tendency, all of the three options that Kennedy initially considered were responses to the question “What do we do now?” He ended up questioning this approach, however, and adopted a different one: announcing a naval blockade of Cuba and starting negotiations with the Soviet leader Khrushchev, essentially delaying action and giving Khrushchev room for maneuver, which paid off as Khrushchev announced six days after Kennedy’s blockade announcement that they would withdraw the missiles.

You might have met highly intelligent people who tend to make terrible decisions, which is a sign of good algorithmic skills (high IQ) but poor reflective skills. Reflective thinking initiates or structures subsequent thinking. Presence of mind is a reflective skill or a thinking disposition. If we understand and cultivate it, we can become smarter even given our existing algorithmic capabilities.


Langer, E. J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2000). The construct of mindfulness. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 1-9.

Langer, E., Russel, T., & Eisenkraft, N. (2009). Orchestral performance and the footprint of mindfulness. Psychology of Music, 37(2), 125-136.

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). Distinguishing the reflective, algorithmic and autonomous minds: Is it time for a tri-process theory? In J. St. B. T. Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.), In two minds: Dual processes and beyond (pp. 55–88). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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