Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

This book, by Psychologist Angela Duckworth, was very illuminating. I had heard of this book before thanks to having read Carol Dweck and Heidi Grant Halvorson’s books, but I wish I had read this one before them because I feel that it provides the foundational basis for those other two authors delve into with mindsets. Halvorson and Duckworth’s books together seem to give a more concise and efficient view on how to pursue goals. Dweck details the self-conceptions and lists anecdotal examples.

The most striking matter I’ve found about this book doesn’t really relate to the book per se. I’ve discovered that a lot of the more “official” reviews, such as the New Yorker, are being utterly pretentious and vilifying this book based on arguments that Angela Duckworth never made or even implied. I was shocked to see the radical difference between the contents of the book and the disparaging reviews that were being dishonest in their representation of both her research and her as a person. I was in disbelief until I read her perspective on her TEDTalk in her own book where she mentions, in much nicer words than I’m describing, how the CEO of TED basically asked her to dumb down her information to the public about her findings. The TEDTalk and the arguments against her feel and sound like they’re calling her bluff about nonsense the public has heard before, specifically because she was requested to tone down the information. So, it’s unfair. It’s unfair of us to judge her based on her TEDTalk and those shockingly disingenuous reviews. I wouldn’t honestly be saying this had I not done the same prior to reading her book on a whim.

Long story short: this book isn’t about education policy and never claimed to be. This book is for individuals and parents who want to learn what encourages people to find a passion, how to learn to work at that passion for a long term, and how we internalize a greater purpose for ourselves and others by following through with commitments that we feel strongly about. Grit was never about making kids better with grades. Nevertheless, this can only apply to grades, if kids care about the classes they take, but this book is more oriented towards extracurricular activities and encouraging them in kids early, it was never about trying to force kids to be passionate or persevere in grades on subjects they don’t care about. Duckworth even explains the problems trying to force people to be passionate about subject matter that they don’t care about.

In Duckworth’s book, her interviews and general research have found that people who are very successful in their careers didn’t simply find their passion from one incident. They discovered tidbits or gained encouragement from loved ones multiple time. As Duckworth puts it: Again, and again, and again. People might be happy to know that there isn’t a specific parenting style, you just shouldn’t devalue or tell your child the interest is bad, if you want to encourage their growth. Moreover, even if a child follows with an activity the parent has misgivings about like joining a music band, evidence shows that sticking to it for more than a year (generally 2 years) is likely to encourage them to stick to future goals when they discover a new passion. In the long term, the “grit” mindset of following through with your intrinsic passion can have long-term benefits. Also, much of the passion and perseverance doesn’t come from pushing through adversity, but rather being encouraged to follow your intrinsic motivation. Children need encouraging parents and teachers, we need encouraging friends, and – most of all – we need a sense that what we’re doing is meaningful for both ourselves and a greater society. I began realizing that a lot of the passion in the passion and perseverance rubric could apply to the immediate feedback loop that video games give people. Generally, we can immediately ascertain gains and losses and the techniques for how to improve are either instructed in the game itself or can be found from tips online. Having a community of friends to talk to about games like Dragon Quest or Dragon Age is self-reinforcing.

I’m somewhat hesitant to jot down a list of the crucial parts of her research, because I’m often afraid that I’m simply not giving this book and it’s author due credit by paraphrasing and potentially taking her out of context. I’m particularly hesitant because of how thoroughly people have insulted caricatures of her work instead of the work itself. When people begin counting terminology and the number of times a word was used, I begin to question whether they had ever even read her book at all. I was really disappointed with so many reviews that conflate Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth’s research with their personality characteristics. This isn’t even isolated to women or even people who exist in the present-day. I just keep spotting this same pattern and when I read someone’s work, it’s largely incredibly different from what accusers espouse that their work  contains. I don’t want to contribute to that form of misinformation, even if subconsciously, and I don’t like taking someone’s words out of context as I see so often done.

I’ll just jot down certain specific quotes that I felt were key points in the book and align them with the overarching information that the book was explaining in bold text so people can judge for themselves.

The major overarching theme is underlined and specifics are placed underneath those umbrella concepts:

Developing a Passionate Interest

How Does Passion Start?

When it comes to lining up our occupations with what we enjoy, how come so many of us miss the mark? And does my dad’s success offer a counterexample to the passion argument? What should we make of the fact that, by the time I came along, my father’s work really was his passion? Should we stop telling people to follow your passion and, instead, tell them to follow our orders? I don’t think so. In fact, I see Will Shortz and Jeff Bezos as terrific inspirations for what work can be. While it’s naive to think that any of us could love every minute of what we do, I believe the thousands of data points in those meta-analyses, which confirm the commonsense intuition that interest matters.

Nobody is interested in everything, and everyone is interested in something. So
matching your job to what captures your attention and imagination is a good idea. It may not guarantee happiness and success, but it sure helps the odds. That said, I don’t think most young people need encouragement to follow their passion. Most would do exactly that—in a heartbeat—if only they had a passion in the first place. If I’m ever invited to give a commencement speech, I’ll begin with the advice to foster a passion. And then I’ll spend the rest of my time trying to change young minds about how that actually happens. -Page 98.

Passion takes time, so give it time:

A few months ago, I read a post on Reddit titled “Fleeting Interest in Everything, No Career Direction”: I’m in my early thirties and have no idea what to do with myself, career-wise. All my life I’ve been one of those people who has been told how smart I am/how much potential I have. I’m interested in so much stuff that I’m paralyzed to try anything. It seems like every job requires a specialized certificate or designation that requires long-term time and financial investment—before you can even try the job, which is a bit of a drag. I have a lot of sympathy for the thirty-something who wrote this post. As a college professor, I also have a lot of sympathy for the twentysomethings who come to me for career advice.

My colleague Barry Schwartz has been dispensing counsel to anxious young adults for much longer than I have. He’s been teaching psychology at Swarthmore College for forty-five years. Barry thinks that what prevents a lot of young people from developing a serious career interest is unrealistic expectations. “It’s really the same problem a lot of young people have finding a romantic partner,” he said. “They want somebody who’s really attractive and smart and kind and empathetic and thoughtful and funny. Try telling a twenty-one-year-old that you can’t find a person who is absolutely the best in every way. They don’t listen. They’re holding out for perfection.” “What about your wonderful wife, Myrna?” I asked. “Oh, she is wonderful. More wonderful than I am, certainly. But is she perfect? Is she the only person I could have made a happy life with? Am I the only man in the world with whom she could have made a wonderful marriage? I don’t think so.” A related problem, Barry says, is the mythology that falling in love with a career should be sudden and swift: “There are a lot of things where the subtleties and exhilarations come with sticking with it for a while, getting elbow-deep into something. A lot of things seem uninteresting and superficial until you start doing them and, after a while, you realize that there are so many facets you didn’t know at the start, and you never can fully solve the problem, or fully understand it, or what have you. Well, that requires that you stick with it.” After a pause, Barry said, “Actually, finding a mate is the perfect analogy. Meeting a potential match—not the one-and-only perfect match, but a promising one—is only the very beginning.”

Interest, Discovery, Successive Rediscovery, and Positive Feedback from Loved Ones:

To the thirty-something on Reddit with a “fleeting interest in everything” and “no career direction,” here’s what science has to say: passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening. Let me explain. First of all, childhood is generally far too early to know what we want to be when we grow up. Longitudinal studies following thousands of people across time have shown that most people only begin to gravitate toward certain vocational interests, and away from others, around middle school.

This is certainly the pattern I’ve seen in my interview research, and it’s also what journalist Hester Lacey has found in her interviews with the “mega successful.” Keep in mind, however, that a seventh grader—even a future paragon of grit—is unlikely to have a fully articulated passion at that age. A seventh grader is just beginning to figure out her general likes and dislikes.

Second, interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world. The process of interest discovery can be messy, serendipitous, and inefficient. This is because you can’t really predict with certainty what will capture your attention and what won’t. You can’t simply will yourself to like things, either. As Jeff Bezos has observed, “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves.” Without experimenting, you can’t figure out which interests will stick, and which won’t. Paradoxically, the initial discovery of an interest often goes unnoticed by the discoverer. In other words, when you just start to get interested in something, you may not even realize that’s what’s happening. The emotion of boredom is always self-conscious—you know it when you feel it—but when your attention is attracted to a new activity or experience, you may have very little reflective appreciation of what’s happening to you. This means that, at the start of a new endeavor, asking yourself nervously every few days whether you’ve found your passion is premature.

Third, what follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention—again and again and again.

For instance, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins told me that it was watching space shuttle launches on television in high school that initially inspired his lifelong interest in space travel. But it wasn’t just one launch that hooked him. It was several shown in succession over a period of years. Soon enough, he started digging for more information on NASA, and “one piece of information led to another and another.”

For master potter Warren MacKenzie, ceramics class in college—which he only took, initially, because all the painting classes were full—was followed by the discovery of A Potter’s Book by the great Bernard Leach, and then a year-long internship with Leach himself.

Finally, interests thrive when there is a crew of encouraging supporters, including parents, teachers, coaches, and peers. Why are other people so important? For one thing, they provide the ongoing stimulation and information that is essential to actually liking something more and more. Also—more obviously—positive feedback makes us feel happy, competent, and secure. Take Marc Vetri as an example. There are few things I enjoy reading more than his cookbooks and essays about food, but he was a solid-C student throughout school. “I never worked hard at academics,” he told me. “I was always just like, ‘This is kind of boring.’ ” In contrast, Marc spent delightful
Sunday afternoons at his Sicilian grandmother’s house in South Philly. “She’d make meatballs and lasagna and all that stuff, and I always liked to head down early to help her out. By the time I was eleven or so, I started wanting to make that stuff at home, too.” As a teenager, Marc had a part-time job washing dishes in a local restaurant. “And I loved that. I worked hard.” Why? Making money was one motivation, but another was the camaraderie of the kitchen. “Around that time I was sort of a social outcast. I was kind of awkward. I had a stutter. Everyone at school thought I was weird. I was like, ‘Oh, here I can wash dishes, and I can watch the guys on the line [cooking] while I’m washing, and I can eat. Everyone is nice, and they like me.’ ”

If you read Marc’s cookbooks, you’ll be struck by how many friends and mentors he’s made in the world of food. Page through and look for pictures of Marc alone, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many. And read the acknowledgments of Il Viaggio Di Vetri. It runs to two pages with the names of people who made his journey possible, including this note: “Mom and Dad, you’ve always let me find my own way and helped guide me through it. You’ll never know how much I appreciate it. I’ll always need you.” Is it “a drag” that passions don’t come to us all at once, as epiphanies, without the need to actively develop them? Maybe. But the reality is that our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement. – Page 103.

Don’t Rush a Passion:

For now, what I hope to convey is that experts and beginners have different motivational needs. At the start of an endeavor, we need encouragement and freedom to figure out what we enjoy. We need small wins. We need applause. Yes, we can handle a tincture of criticism and corrective feedback. Yes, we need to practice. But not too much and not too soon. Rush a beginner and you’ll bludgeon their budding interest. It’s very, very hard to get that back once you do. – Page 108.

Helpful tips to develop a Passion for Young Adults and Adults:

If you’d like to follow your passion but haven’t yet fostered one, you must begin at the beginning: discovery. Ask yourself a few simple questions: What do I like to think about? Where does my mind wander? What do I really care about? What matters most to me? How do I enjoy spending my time? And, in contrast, what do I find absolutely unbearable? If you find it hard to answer these questions, try recalling your teen years, the stage of life at which vocational interests commonly sprout. As soon as you have even a general direction in mind, you must trigger your nascent interests. Do this by going out into the world and doing something. To young graduates wringing their hands over what to do, I say, Experiment! Try! You’ll certainly learn more than if you don’t!

At this early stage of exploration, here are a few relevant rules of thumb taken from Will Shortz’s essay “How to Solve the New York Times Crossword Puzzle”: Begin with the answers you’re surest of and build from there. However ill-defined your interests, there are some things you know you’d hate doing for a living, and some things that seem more promising than others. That’s a start. Don’t be afraid to guess. Like it or not, there’s a certain amount of trial and error inherent in the process of interest discovery. Unlike the answers to crossword puzzles, there isn’t just one thing you can do that might develop into a passion. There are many. You don’t have to find the “right” one, or even the “best” one—just a direction that feels good. It can also be difficult to know if something will be a good fit until you try it for a while. Don’t be afraid to erase an answer that isn’t working out.

At some point, you may choose to write your top-level goal in indelible ink, but until you know for sure, work in pencil. If, on the other hand, you already have a good sense of what you enjoy spending your time doing, it’s time to develop your interest. After discovery comes development. Remember that interests must be triggered again and again and again. Find ways to make that happen. And have patience. The development of interests takes time. Keep asking questions, and let the answers to those questions lead you to more questions. Continue to dig. Seek out other people who share your interests. Sidle up to an encouraging mentor. Whatever your age, over time your role as a learner will become a more active and informed one. Over a period of years, your knowledge and expertise will grow, and along with it your confidence and curiosity to know more. Finally, if you’ve been doing something you like for a few years and still wouldn’t quite call it a passion, see if you can deepen your interests. Since novelty is what your brain craves, you’ll be tempted to move on to something new, and that could be what makes the most sense. However, if you want to stay engaged for more than a few years in any endeavor, you’ll need to find a way to enjoy the nuances that only a true aficionado can appreciate. “The old in the new is what claims the attention,” said William James. “The old with a slightly new turn.” In sum, the directive to follow your passion is not bad advice. But what may be even more useful is to understand how passions are fostered in the first place. – Page 114.

Gritty Journalist Anecdote; Passion as a Compass:

‘Screw it, this is what I’m going to do.’ I set out a very deliberate path that was possible, because the journalism industry was very hierarchical, and it was clear how to get from A to B to C to D, et cetera.” Step A was writing for Oxford’s student newspaper, Cherwell. Step B was a summer internship at a small paper in Wisconsin. Step C was the St. Petersburg Times in Florida on the Metro beat. Step D was the Los Angeles Times. Step E was the New York Times as a national correspondent in Atlanta. Step F was being sent overseas to cover war stories, and in 2006—just over a decade since he’d set himself the goal—he finally reached step G: becoming the New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief. “It was a really winding road that took me to all kinds of places. And it was difficult, and discouraging, and demoralizing, and scary, and all the rest. But eventually, I got here. I got exactly where I wanted to be.” As for so many other grit paragons, the common metaphor of passion as fireworks doesn’t make sense when you think of what passion means to Jeff Gettleman. Fireworks erupt in a blaze of glory but quickly fizzle, leaving just wisps of smoke and a memory of what was once spectacular. What Jeff’s journey suggests instead is passion as a compass—that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be. Page 60.

Passion as a Compass forming a Life Philosophy:

Pete realized he didn’t have one and needed to: “If I was ever going to get the chance to run an organization again, I would have to be prepared with a philosophy that would drive all my actions.” Pete did a lot of thinking and reflecting: “My life in the next weeks and months was filled with writing notes and filling binders.” At the same time, he was devouring the books of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who won a record-setting ten national championships. Like a lot of coaches, Pete had already read Wooden. But this time, he was reading Wooden and understanding, at a much deeper level, what the coaching icon had to say. And the most important thing Wooden said was that, though a team has to do a million things well, figuring out the overarching vision is of utmost importance. Pete realized in that moment that particular goals—winning a particular game, or even a seasonal championship, or figuring out this element of the offensive lineup, or the way to talk to players—needed coordination, needed purpose: “A clear, well-defined philosophy gives you the guidelines and boundaries that keep you on track,” he said. Page 61.

Having a Life Philosophy

Goal-Oriented Passion:

At the bottom of this hierarchy are our most concrete and specific goals—the tasks we have on our short-term todo list: I want to get out the door today by eight a.m. I want to call my business partner back. I want to finish writing the email I started yesterday. These low-level goals exist merely as means to ends. We want to accomplish them only because they get us something else we want. In contrast, the higher the goal in this hierarchy, the more abstract, general, and important it is. The higher the goal, the more it’s an end in itself, and the less it’s merely a means to an end. In the diagram I’ve sketched out here, there are just three levels. That’s an oversimplification. Between the lowest and the highest level might be several layers of mid-level goals. For instance, getting out the door by eight a.m. is a low-level goal. It only matters because of a mid-level goal: arriving at work on time. Why do you care about that? Because you want to be punctual. Why do you care about that? Because being punctual shows respect for the people with whom you work. Why is that important? Because you strive to be a good leader. If in the course of asking yourself these “Why?” questions your answer is simply “Just because!” then you know you’ve gotten to the top of a goal hierarchy.

The top-level goal is not a means to any other end. It is, instead, an end in itself. Some psychologists like to call this an “ultimate concern.” Myself, I think of this top-level goal as a compass that gives direction and meaning to all the goals below it. – Pg. 62.

Prioritize Your Goals:

What I mean by passion is not just that you have something you care about. What I mean is that you care about that same ultimate goal in an abiding, loyal, steady way. You are not capricious. Each day, you wake up thinking of the questions you fell asleep thinking about. You are, in a sense, pointing in the same direction, ever eager to take even the smallest step forward than to take a step to the side, toward some other destination. At the extreme, one might call your focus obsessive. Most of your actions derive their significance from their allegiance to your ultimate concern, your life philosophy. You have your priorities in order. -Page 64.

Forming Your Goal Hierarchy:

Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time. Furthermore, this “life philosophy,” as Pete Carroll might put it, is so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity. In very gritty people, most mid-level and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal. In contrast, a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures. Here are a few ways a lack of grit can show itself. I’ve met many young people who can articulate a dream—for example, to be a doctor or to play basketball in the NBA—and can vividly imagine how wonderful that would be, but they can’t point to the midlevel and lower-level goals that will get them there. Their goal hierarchy has a top-level goal but no supporting
mid-level or low-level goals: This is what my good friend and fellow psychologist Gabriele Oettingen calls “positive fantasizing.” Gabriele’s research suggests that indulging in visions of a positive future without figuring out how to get there, chiefly by considering what obstacles stand in the way, has short-term payoffs but long-term costs. In the short-term, you feel pretty great about your aspiration to be a doctor. In the long-term, you live with the disappointment of not having achieved your goal. Even more common, I think, is having a bunch of mid-level goals that don’t correspond to any unifying, top-level goal: Or having a few competing goal hierarchies that aren’t in any way connected with each other: To some extent, goal conflict is a necessary feature
of human existence. For instance, I have one goal hierarchy as a professional and another as a mother. Even Tom Seaver admits that the travel and practice schedule of a professional baseball player made it hard to spend as much time with his wife and children as he would have liked. So, though pitching was his professional passion, there were other goal hierarchies that obviously mattered to him. Like Seaver, I have one goal hierarchy for work: Use psychological science to help kids thrive. But I have a separate goal hierarchy that involves being the best mother I can be to my two daughters. As any working parent knows, having two “ultimate concerns” isn’t easy. There seems never to be enough time, energy, or attention to go around. I’ve decided to live with that tension. As a young woman, I considered alternatives—not having my career or not raising a family—and decided that, morally, there was no “right decision,” only a decision that was right for me. So, the idea that every waking moment in our lives should be guided by one top-level goal is an idealized extreme that may not be
desirable even for the grittiest of us. Still, I would argue that it’s possible to pare down long lists of mid-level and low-level work goals according to how they serve a goal of supreme importance. And I think one top-level professional goal, rather than any other number, is ideal. In sum, the more unified, aligned, and coordinated our goal hierarchies, the better.

Assessing Goals:

Indeed, giving up on lower-level goals is not only forgivable, it’s sometimes absolutely necessary. You should give up when one lower-level goal can be swapped for another that is more feasible. It also makes sense to switch your path when a different lower-level goal—a different means to the same end—is just more efficient, or more fun, or for whatever reason makes more sense than your original plan. On any long journey, detours are to be expected. However, the higher-level the goal, the more it makes sense to be stubborn. Personally, I try not to get too hung up on a particular rejected grant application, academic paper, or failed experiment. The pain of those failures is real, but I don’t dwell on them for long before moving on. In contrast, I don’t give up as easily on mid-level goals, and frankly, I can’t imagine anything that would change my ultimate aim, my life philosophy, as Pete might say. My compass, once I found all the parts and put it together, keeps pointing me in the same direction, week after month after year.

Inculcating Grit Habits to Form Grit Culture

Positive Self-Talk:

Carol also explains that the brain is remarkably adaptive. Like a muscle that gets stronger with use, the brain changes itself when you struggle to master a new challenge. In fact, there’s never a time in life when the brain is completely “fixed.” Instead, all our lives, our neurons retain the potential to grow new connections with one another and to strengthen the ones we already have. What’s more, throughout adulthood, we maintain the ability to grow myelin, a sort of insulating sheath that protects neurons and speeds signals traveling between them. My next suggestion is to practice optimistic self-talk. The link between cognitive behavioral therapy and learned helplessness led to the development of “resilience training.” In essence, this interactive curriculum is a preventative dose of cognitive behavioral therapy. In one study, children who completed this training showed lower levels of pessimism and developed fewer symptoms of depression over the next two years. In a similar study, pessimistic college students demonstrated less anxiety over the subsequent two years and less depression over three years. If, reading this chapter, you recognize yourself as an extreme pessimist, my advice is to find a cognitive behavioral therapist. I know how unsatisfying this recommendation might sound. Many years ago, as a teenager, I wrote to Dear Abby about a problem I was having. “Go see a therapist,” she wrote back. I recall tearing up her letter, angry she didn’t propose a neater, faster, more straightforward solution. Nevertheless, suggesting that reading twenty pages about the science of hope is enough to remove an ingrained pessimistic bias would be naive. There’s much more to say about cognitive behavioral therapy and resilience training than I can summarize here. The point is that you can, in fact, modify your self-talk, and you can learn to not let it interfere with you moving toward your goals. With practice and guidance, you can change the way you think, feel, and, most important, act when the going gets rough. As a transition to the final section of this book, “Growing Grit from the Outside In,” let me offer one final suggestion for teaching yourself hope: Ask for a helping hand. A few years ago, I met a retired mathematician named Rhonda Hughes. Nobody in Rhonda’s family had gone to college, but as a girl, she liked math a whole lot more than stenography. Rhonda eventually earned a PhD in mathematics and, after seventy-nine of her eighty applications for a faculty position were rejected, she took a job at the single university that made her an offer. One reason Rhonda got in touch was to tell me that she had an issue with an item on the Grit Scale. “I don’t like that item that says, ‘Setbacks don’t discourage me.’ That makes no sense. I mean, who doesn’t get discouraged by setbacks? I certainly do. I think it should say, ‘Setbacks don’t discourage me for long. I get back on my feet.’  ” Of course, Rhonda was right, and in so many words, I changed the item accordingly. But the most important thing about Rhonda’s story is that she almost never got back up all by herself. Instead, she figured out that asking for help was a good way to hold on to hope.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (pp. 192-194). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Learned Industriousness:

So, it appears that sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and sometimes it does the opposite. The urgent question becomes: When? When does struggle lead to hope, and when does struggle lead to hopelessness? A few years ago, Steve Maier and his students designed an experiment nearly identical to the one he and Marty Seligman had conducted forty years earlier: One group of rats received electric shocks, but if they turned a small wheel with their front paws, they could turn off the shock until the next trial. A second group received the exact same dose of electric shocks as the first but had no control over their duration. One crucial difference was that, in the new experiment, the rats were only five weeks old— that’s adolescence in the rat life cycle. A second difference was that the effects of this experience were assessed five weeks later, when the rats were fully mature adults. At that point, both groups of rats were subjected to uncontrollable electric shocks and, the next day, observed in a social exploration test. Here’s what Steve learned. Adolescent rats who experienced stress they could not control grew up to be adult rats who, after being subjected to uncontrollable shocks a second time, behaved timidly. This was not unusual— they learned to be helpless in the same way that any other rat would. In contrast, adolescent rats who experienced stress they could control grew up to be more adventurous and, most astounding, appeared to be inoculated against learned helplessness in adulthood. That’s right— when these “resilient rats” grew up, the usual uncontrollable shock procedures no longer made them helpless. In other words, what didn’t kill the young rats, when by their own efforts they could control what was happening, made them stronger for life.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (pp. 187-188). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Because his wife was a teacher, Bob had the opportunity to try short-term versions of the same experiments with children. For instance, in one study, he gave pennies to second and third graders for counting objects, memorizing pictures, and matching shapes. For some children, Bob rapidly increased the difficulty of these tasks as the children improved. Other children were repeatedly given easy versions of the same tasks. All the children got pennies and praise. Afterward, the children in both conditions were asked to do a tedious job that was entirely different from the previous tasks: copying a list of words onto a sheet of paper. Bob’s findings were exactly the same as what he’d found with rats: children who’d trained on difficult (rather than easy) tasks worked harder on the copying task. Bob’s conclusion? With practice, industriousness can be learned. In homage to the earlier work of Seligman and Maier on learned helplessness, where the inability to escape punishment led animals to give up on a second challenging task, Bob dubbed this phenomenon learned industriousness. His major conclusion was simply that the association between working hard and reward can be learned. Bob will go further and say that without directly experiencing the connection between effort and reward, animals, whether they’re rats or people, default to laziness. Calorie-burning effort is, after all, something evolution has shaped us to avoid whenever possible.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (pp. 239-240). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Deliberate Practice and The Hard Thing Rule:

In our family, we live by the Hard Thing Rule. It has three parts. The first is that everyone— including Mom and Dad— has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice. I’ve told my kids that psychological research is my hard thing, but I also practice yoga. Dad tries to get better and better at being a real estate developer; he does the same with running. My oldest daughter, Amanda, has chosen playing the piano as her hard thing. She did ballet for years, but later quit. So did Lucy. This brings me to the second part of the Hard Thing Rule: You can quit. But you can’t quit until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other “natural” stopping point has arrived. You must, at least for the interval to which you’ve committed yourself, finish whatever you begin. In other words, you can’t quit on a day when your teacher yells at you, or you lose a race, or you have to miss a sleepover because of a recital the next morning. You can’t quit on a bad day. And, finally, the Hard Thing Rule states that you get to pick your hard thing. Nobody picks it for you because, after all, it would make no sense to do a hard thing you’re not even vaguely interested in. Even the decision to try ballet came after a discussion of various other classes my daughters could have chosen instead. Lucy, in fact, cycled through a half-dozen hard things. She started each with enthusiasm but eventually discovered that she didn’t want to keep going with ballet, gymnastics, track, handicrafts, or piano. In the end, she landed on viola. She’s been at it for three years, during which time her interest has waxed rather than waned. Last year, she joined the school and all-city orchestras, and when I asked her recently if she wanted to switch her hard thing to something else, she looked at me like I was crazy. Next year, Amanda will be in high school. Her sister will follow the year after. At that point, the Hard Thing Rule will change. A fourth requirement will be added: each girl must commit to at least one activity, either something new or the piano and viola they’ve already started, for at least two years. Tyrannical? I don’t believe it is. And if Lucy’s and Amanda’s recent comments on the topic aren’t disguised apple-polishing, neither do my daughters. They’d like to grow grittier as they get older, and, like any skill, they know grit takes practice. They know they’re fortunate to have the opportunity to do so. For parents who would like to encourage grit without obliterating their children’s capacity to choose their own path, I recommend the Hard Thing Rule.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (pp. 241-242). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Grit Culture:

How do you know you’re part of a culture that, in a very real sense, has become part of you? When you adopt a culture, you make a categorical allegiance to that in-group. You’re not “sort of” a Seahawk, or “sort of” a West Pointer. You either are or you aren’t. You’re in the group, or out of it. You can use a noun, not just an adjective or a verb, to describe your commitment. So much depends, as it turns out, on which in-group you commit to. The bottom line on culture and grit is: If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (p. 245). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Internalized Grit Culture:

Short-term conformity effects are not what excite me about the power of culture to influence grit. Not exactly. What excites me most is the idea that, in the long run, culture has the power to shape our identity. Over time and under the right circumstances, the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own. We internalize them. We carry them with us. The way we do things around here and why eventually becomes The way I do things and why. Identity influences every aspect of our character, but it has special relevance to grit. Often, the critical gritty-or-not decisions we make— to get up one more time; to stick it out through this miserable, exhausting summer; to run five miles with our teammates when on our own we might only run three— are a matter of identity more than anything else. Often, our passion and perseverance do not spring from a cold, calculating analysis of the costs and benefits of alternatives. Rather, the source of our strength is the person we know ourselves to be.

James March, an expert on decision making at Stanford University, explains the difference this way: Sometimes, we revert to cost-benefit analyses to make choices. Of course, March doesn’t mean that, in deciding what to order for lunch or when to go to bed, we take out a pad of paper and a calculator. What he means is that, sometimes when making choices, we take into consideration how we might benefit, and what we’ll have to pay, and how likely it is that these benefits and costs will be what we think they’ll be. We can do all of this in our heads, and indeed, when I’m deciding what to order for lunch or when to go to bed, I often think through the pros and the cons before making a decision. It’s very logical. But other times, March says, we don’t think through the consequences of our actions at all. We don’t ask ourselves: What are the benefits? What are the costs? What are the risks? Instead, we ask ourselves: Who am I? What is this situation? What does someone like me do in a situation like this?

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (pp. 247-248). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

How to Begin Grit Oriented Behavior:

First, thinking of yourself as someone who is able to overcome tremendous adversity often leads to behavior that confirms that self-conception. If you’re a Finn with that “sisu spirit,” you get up again no matter what. Likewise, if you’re a Seattle Seahawk, you’re a competitor. You have what it takes to succeed. You don’t let setbacks hold you back. Grit is who you are. Second, even if the idea of an actual inner energy source is preposterous, the metaphor couldn’t be more apt. It sometimes feels like we have nothing left to give, and yet, in those dark and desperate moments, we find that if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, there is a way to accomplish what all reason seems to argue against.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (p. 252). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Grit Culture Anecdotes:

“You have to learn to get over bumps in the road and mistakes and setbacks,” he told me when I called to talk about the culture he’s built at JPMorgan Chase. “Failures are going to happen, and how you deal with them may be the most important thing in whether you succeed. You need fierce resolve. You need to take responsibility. You call it grit. I call it fortitude.” Fortitude is to Jamie Dimon what sisu is to Finland. Jamie recalls that getting fired from Citibank at age forty-two, and then taking a full year to ponder what lessons to take from the episode, made him a better leader. And he believes in fortitude enough to make it a core value for the entire JPMorgan Chase bank. “The ultimate thing is that we need to grow over time.”

Is it really possible, I asked, for a leader to influence the culture of such an enormous corporation? True, the culture of JPMorgan Chase has, with some affection, been described as “the cult of Jamie.” But there are literally thousands and thousands of JPMorgan Chase employees Jamie has never met in person. “Absolutely,” Jamie says. “It takes relentless— absolutely relentless— communication. It’s what you say and how you say it.” It may also be how often you say it. By all accounts, Jamie is a tireless evangelist, crossing the country to appear at what he calls town hall meetings with his employees. At one meeting he was asked, “What do you look for in your leadership team?” His answer? “Capability, character, and how they treat people.” Later, he told me that he asks himself two questions about senior management. First: “Would I let them run the business without me?” Second: “Would I let my kids work for them?”

Jamie has a favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote he likes to repeat: It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. And here is how Jamie translates the poetry of Roosevelt into the prose of a JPMorgan Chase manual, titled How We Do Business: “Have a fierce resolve in everything you do.” “Demonstrate determination, resiliency, and tenacity.” “Do not let temporary setbacks become permanent excuses.” And, finally, “Use mistakes and problems as opportunities to get better— not reasons to quit.”

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (pp. 253-254). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Final Thoughts on Grit

This book has been my way of taking you out for a coffee and telling you what I know. I’m almost done. Let me close with a few final thoughts. The first is that you can grow your grit. I see two ways to do so. On your own, you can grow your grit “from the inside out”: You can cultivate your interests. You can develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice. You can connect your work to a purpose beyond yourself. And you can learn to hope when all seems lost. You can also grow your grit “from the outside in.” Parents, coaches, teachers, bosses, mentors, friends— developing your personal grit depends critically on other people.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (p. 269). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Limitations of Grit:

As a psychologist, I can confirm that grit is far from the only— or even the most important— aspect of a person’s character. In fact, in studies of how people size up others, morality trumps all other aspects of character in importance. Sure, we take notice if our neighbors seem lazy, but we’re especially offended if they seem to lack qualities like honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness. So, grit isn’t everything. There are many other things a person needs in order to grow and flourish. Character is plural. One way to think about grit is to understand how it relates to other aspects of character. In assessing grit along with other virtues, I find three reliable clusters. I refer to them as the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intellectual dimensions of character. You could also call them strengths of will, heart, and mind. Intrapersonal character includes grit. This cluster of virtues also includes self-control, particularly as it relates to resisting temptations like texting and video games. What this means is that gritty people tend to be self-controlled and vice versa. Collectively, virtues that make possible the accomplishment of personally valued goals have also been called “performance character” or “self-management skills.” Social commentator and journalist David Brooks calls these “resume virtues” because they’re the sorts of things that get us hired and keep us employed. Interpersonal character includes gratitude, social intelligence, and self-control over emotions like anger. These virtues help you get along with— and provide assistance to— other people. Sometimes, these virtues are referred to as “moral character.” David Brooks prefers the term “eulogy virtues” because, in the end, they may be more important to how people remember us than anything else. When we speak admiringly of someone being a “deeply good” person, I think it’s this cluster of virtues we’re thinking about. And, finally, intellectual character includes virtues like curiosity and zest. These encourage active and open engagement with the world of ideas. My longitudinal studies show these three virtue clusters predict different outcomes. For academic achievement, including stellar report card grades, the cluster containing grit is the most predictive. But for positive social functioning, including how many friends you have, interpersonal character is more important. And for a positive, independent posture toward learning, intellectual virtue trumps the others. In the end, the plurality of character operates against any one virtue being uniquely important.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (pp. 273-274). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Effort Counts Twice:

If you define genius as being able to accomplish great things in life without effort, then he was right: I’m no genius, and neither is he. But if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being— then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, and so is Coates, and, if you’re willing, so are you.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (p. 278). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Overall, I enjoyed her book thoroughly, but I couldn’t personally identify with the parenting chapter and the chapter after it seemed like it was simply filling space with anecdotes. Angela Duckworth seems to write in a journalistic fashion just like Carol Dweck, they both utilize anecdotes to give people a more impressionable affect and it probably helps the average reader to remember more. I prefer Heidi Grant Halvorson’s more personalized writing style where she presents the reader with questionable assumptions about life and then presents the evidence to explain the reasoning behind why the research is valuable and how it can improve lives.

With all that said and shown, I give Angela Duckworth’s book:


Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert


This book is definitely worthy of its praise. Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert provides some of the most incredible insights on how we misjudge our own behavior in the future and even go as far as to misinterpret the past. There’s more depth in so many of these psychology books that I read that one simple review honestly doesn’t do them much justice, I highly recommend reading them yourselves. I sometimes wonder if even these concise explanations do them justice, since the books by the actual experts are better able to detail and explain the details far more clearly and effectively than I ever could. I’ve decided to take several critical portions to provide evidence of why this book is such a goldmine of information and should be purchased by any avid reader of human psychology.

This book comes in six parts and for the purposes of this review, I’ll also add my own personal feelings regarding each of the parts.

Gilbert begins the book in Part 1 about the lack of control and misunderstandings that we have on human behavior by explaining details about how we remember surprising events or beholding man-made wonders and how our brain recalls specific instances of a moment but not details between those moments. He goes on to detail the life of Phineas Gage. I had heard the tale before in other psychology books, but Gilbert goes into much greater detail and explains why this was fascinating to doctors and psychologists during it’s time. Phineas Gage was a foreman who had a pipe blow across his skull and through his brain. He survived the incident, but after being hospitalized and treated, he was never the same. His compassionate and cordial personality suddenly changed to fits of irritation, rudeness, and anger. After the accident, he would yell at people and generally treat everyone who knew him poorly. The case is often cited by psychologists because it’s demonstrable proof that we – as human beings – simply aren’t as knowledgeable about our behavior or as independently in control of our own behaviors as we’d like to believe ourselves to be. As a point of comparison, I recall New Atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris, in a debate about Heaven and a rewarding spiritual life, pointing out that people like the idea of seeing their grandma in Heaven for all eternity, but don’t seem to understand or even consider the fact that injuries to the brain can hurt your motor functions and even change your personality, yet people think they’ll be on some spiritual plane where their family is able to have full motor functions, consciousness, and hold the same set of personality traits when their brain is buried along with their physical bodies and has stopped functioning long ago. In the same sense, Phineas Gage’s life, and those like him, is irrevocable proof of the opposite. If your personality can so drastically change from physical damage to the brain – due to an accident of either chance or foul intent, it’s plainly unrealistic to believe you do have as much independence as you believe that you do or that your subconscious processes don’t influence your behavior. On the part of Phineas Gage, the parts of his brain that were damaged did influence calmness and compassion. It genuinely wasn’t his fault that he became what laypeople would chalk up as being an “asshole” to others.

Admittedly, I felt the book was going through several different parts without any coherent reason and felt it was sloppy. I took several months off reading it, because I had heard of Phineas Gage’s story before and I wasn’t sure if I was going to learn much of anything beyond what I had already read. The book did go into details of other studies covered, but upon closer examination after having finished reading, I realized I was being incredibly unfair. One such research material in another book, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, was – from what I recall – done by the researcher himself. Using it as reference isn’t a valid reason to put a book down, I had just felt bored by the prospect without just cause. I was happily proven wrong about my presumptions as I read further on and it did provide amazing insights on the subject matter. Looking back, Gilbert’s starting structure makes complete sense because of how the research material and explanations covers psychology, neuroscience, economics, and memory recall. Therefore, while the Part 1 seems a bit ridiculous, it’s actually not sloppy writing, but something that Gilbert had to place in Part 1 so that readers get a more complete understanding of the complex research and can learn from it. It simply wasn’t fair of me to judge the book on Part 1 alone and he had very good reasons for explaining and writing Part 1 in the manner that he did.

Part 2: Subjectivity begins explaining the various forms of happiness and how people routinely try to deceive themselves about what constitutes happiness by trying to find ways to ground the feeling by definition. It’s largely seen as an intuitive gut reaction; a “you-know-what-I-mean” feeling and definitions are problematic. Even if, for instance, people are dieting and we can reasonably refer to such people as unhappy while they’re dieting, it’s largely to increase future yields because people who diet are trying to make their lives more pleasant. Moreover, the worst conceit is virtue happiness which was first promoted by the Greeks and later the twist that Christian theologians had added of happiness not being a product, but a reward to be expected after death – i.e. death worship. Later theologians then asserted that the virtuous and pious life was itself fulfilling and happy, with the premise being that those who don’t walk the path of God were unhappy.

The intermixing usage of virtuous happiness and Christian theologians later defense that living for God made one happy led to some bizarre arguments that were simply indefensible. Philosophers and theologians alike, by muddling cause and consequences as Gilbert states, would argue that a pious believer being eaten alive by cannibals is happy while a Nazi war criminal basking in an Argentinean beach is not really happy. That’s because happiness is a word that is generally used to cite an experience, but not the actions that give rise to happiness. Gilbert goes on to further point out that we should admit when even astonishingly awful events make people happy. He asks the reader if it makes sense to say: “After a day spent killing his parents, Frank was happy”? Absolutely! We hope no such person exists, and we understand this Frank person is a horrible person, but if he says he’s happy and looks happy, is there any reason to doubt him?

Gilbert goes on to write: “Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions, and those actions can cause those feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively.” – it’s important to remember the nuance when we form an understanding of what happiness is and isn’t.

Can we distinguish the degree of happiness between people as a basis? Gilbert says we can’t tell and it’s because, even with side-by-side comparisons, we’re not having the same experiences at the same time. He points to research where two groups of people looked at a specific color of yellow paint with one group describing the yellow paint and the other being the “non-describer” group. They were then taken to a swathe of six different colored yellow paint and asked to pick the one they had just seen 30 seconds ago. The first interesting finding was that only 73 percent of those who hadn’t described the color could accurately select the color they had seen. The second, and shocking, finding was that only 33 percent of those who spent time to describe the color paint they had seen just 30 seconds ago were able to accurately identify the same color paint from the six different colors of yellow. Evidently, the describers verbal descriptions “overwrote” their memories. They didn’t remember the event that they had just experienced; they remembered what they said about what they experienced and their explanation wasn’t clear or precise enough to help them identify the same color painting 30 seconds later.

Gilbert points out that people simply don’t notice visual discontinuities due to their eyes jiggling every few seconds. In a study similar to the previous one, volunteers looked at text that LoOked LIKe tHis which alternated every few seconds to one that lOoked likE thIs every time their eyes jiggled away and the volunteers never noticed as they read the passages on the screen. In essence, and I’m paraphrasing now, our memories simply take snapshots of the most emotional parts of our experience with an event (such as going to a new diner), where we’ll remember the bad taste of the wine or the good taste of the food but not the before and after of how we arrived and left when nothing that affected us happened. We take these “snapshots” and reweave our memories of events. We’re not actually recalling; we’re fabricating memories based on the emotional snapshots of the experience that we’ve made. It’s why it’s hard to sometimes remember what year or what we did after a particular special memory like snapping photos at the Grand Canyon with our spouse/parents/children.

Moreover, we don’t seem to be aware when our gut reaction is simply giving us a false-positive. In a study where one set of volunteers were shown quiz-show questions, one group (quiz questions only) felt the questions were quite difficult. The other group (questions-and-answers) believed the questions were quite easy and believed they could have answered them had they never known the answers beforehand. Once the volunteers knew the answers, the questions felt simple (“Of course it was x – everyone knows that!”) and the volunteers (questions-and-answers) were no longer able to judge how difficult the questions actually were for those who didn’t share the knowledge of the answers. Gilbert mentions: “Studies such as these show that once we have an experience, we cannot simply set it aside and see the world as we would have seen it had the experience never happened.” and further says “Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see. This lens is not like a pair of spectacles that we can set on the nightstand when we find it convenient to do so but like a pair of contacts that are forever affixed to our eyeballs with superglue. Once we learn to read, we can never again see letters as mere inky squiggles. Once we learn about free jazz, we can never again hear Ornette Coleman’s saxophone as a source of noise. Once we learn that van Gogh was a mental patient, or that Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite, we can never again view their art in the same way.” (Stumbling on Happiness, pg. 49).

Gilbert points out that, as a result, we can be happy without knowing or having awareness of an experience that we’re missing in life. That conclusion genuinely shocked me. I had thought and believed the opposite for so long. Gilbert uses the examples of conjoined twins who have claimed to be happy and don’t wish to separate. We as a society may believe that they’re not truly happy because of the lack of independence, but how we gauge relative happiness and how they do is on different standards. They don’t know what it feels like to not have someone else always connected to them in life (even on personal matters like the bathroom), but that’s the point. Even if they were to agree to a separation and say they weren’t really happy before, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that they were right. They genuinely could have been happy as conjoined twins and their new experience simply gave them the opposite feeling when looking back on their lives. They may have genuinely been happier before the separation for reasons explained further on.

Chapter 3: Outside Looking In has Gilbert explaining why, despite the issues, the best indicator of a person’s emotional state is accepting their view. At the end of the day, only they can give us a measure of their personal happiness. Most deficits regarding this method can be cleaned-up by the Law of Large Numbers. Because using them as a basis for analysis is only a problem when we fail to recognize a glaring issue in the research study. Despite individuals having different subjective scales, the least flawed method to find the most accurate information is to understand the average of an experience.

Gilbert summarizes this point on page 70:

“The bottom line is this: The attentive person’s honest, real-time report is an imperfect approximation of her subjective experience, but it is the only game in town. When a fruit salad, a lover, or a jazz trio is just too imperfect for our tastes, we stop eating, kissing, and listening. But the law of large numbers suggests that when a measurement is too imperfect for our tastes, we should not stop measuring. Quite the opposite – we should measure again and again until niggling imperfections yield to the onslaught of data. Those subatomic particles that like to be everywhere at once seem to cancel one another’s behavior so that the large conglomerate of particles that we call cows, cars, and French Canadians stay exactly where we put them. By the same logic, the careful collection of a large number of experiential reports allows the imperfections of one to cancel out the imperfections of another. No individual’s report may be taken as an unimpeachable and perfectly calibrated index of his experience-not yours, not mine-but we can be confident that if we ask enough people the same question, the average answer will be a roughly accurate index of the average experience. The science of happiness requires that we play the odds, and thus the information it provides us is always at some risk of being wrong.” He essentially adds that if we wish to bet against it, then we need more of the same question to be answered by more respondents to prove otherwise. It’s the most credible way to measure happiness. We must know, after all, what religion, art, music, etc are good for. If not our personal happiness, then what would mattering to us even mean?

In the next chapter, In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye, Daniel Gilbert elaborates on how we store and use memory. This is explained in pages 78 – 79: “How do we cram the vast universe of our experience into the relatively small storage compartment between our ears? We do what Harpo did: We cheat. As you learned in the previous chapters, the elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory-at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”) or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating-not by actually retrieving-the bulk of the information that we experience as memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician’s audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.” Later on, Daniel writes in pages 79 – 80: “This general finding-that information acquired after an event alters memory of the event-has been replicated so many times in so many different laboratory and field settings that it has left most scientists convinced of two things. First, the act of remembering involved “filling in” details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously. Indeed, this phenomenon is so powerful that it happens even when we know someone is trying to trick us.” In essence, the meaning we give our feelings after an experience will be our interpretation of the event.

Later in the chapter, Gilbert details the issue of Realism within the human psyche. In this specific context, he means that we confuse our interpretation of the world for objective reality and that such a bias is instantaneous. In pages 88-89, in his own words, Gilbert elaborates: “According to this line of reasoning, we automatically assume that our subjective experience of a thing is a faithful representation of the thing’s properties. Only later-if we have the time, energy, and ability-do we rapidly repudiate that assumption and consider the possibility that the real world may not actually be as it appears to us. Piaget described realism as “a spontaneous and immediate tendency to confuse the sign and the thing signified,” and research shows that this tendency to equate our subjective sense of things with the objective properties of those things remains spontaneous and immediate throughout our lives. It does not go away forever, and it does not go away on occasion. Rather, it is brief, unarticulated, and rapidly unraveled, but it is always the first step in our perception of the world. We believe what we see, and then unbelieve it when we have to.
All of this suggests that the psychologist George Miller was right when he wrote, “The crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world.” The three-and-a-half-pound meat loaf between our ears is not a simple recording device but a remarkably smart computer that gathers information, makes shrewd judgments and even shrewder guesses, and offers us its best interpretation of the way things are. Because those interpretations are usually so good, because they usually bear such a striking resemblance to the world as it is actually constituted, we do not realize that we are seeing an interpretation. Instead, we feel as though we are sitting comfortably inside our heads, looking out through the clear glass windshield of our eyes, watching the world as it truly is. We tend to forget that our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected. In a sense, each of us is as counterfeiter who prints phony dollar bills and then happily accepts them for payment, unaware that he is both the perpetrator and victim of a well-orchestrated fraud.”

In a further chapter, The Hound of Silence, Gilbert specifies how we distort our own perceptions of future events by temporal distance. We confuse the vagueness of our thoughts on how an event will play out as realistic representations of that day. In pages 105 – 106, Gilbert explains:

“Seeing in time is like seeing in space. But there is one important difference between spatial and temporal horizons. When we perceive a distant buffalo, our brains are aware of the fact that the buffalo looks smooth, vague, and lacking in detail because it is far away, and they do not mistakenly conclude that the buffalo itself is smooth and vague. But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them. For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives? We all do this, of course. We agree to babysit the nephews and nieces next month, and we look forward to that obligation even as we jot it in our diary. Then, when it actually comes time to buy the Happy Meals, set up the Barbie playset, hide the bong, and ignore the fact that the NBA playoffs are on at one o’clock, we wonder what we were thinking when we said yes. Well, here’s what we were thinking: When we said yes we were thinking about babysitting in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the fact that the detail-free babysitting we were imagining would not be the detail-laden babysitting we would ultimately experience. Babysitting next month is “an act of love,” whereas babysitting right now is “an act of lunch,” and expressing affection is spiritually rewarding in a way that buying French fries simply isn’t.”

Gilbert explains later on that one simple trick can effectively manage this bias: think of the future event as if it was happening tomorrow instead of in the future. Doing so should aid you in figuring out all the mini-steps and requirements needed to act effectively for the event and provide more consideration for what you’ll be doing.

In further chapters, Gilbert goes onto explain prefeeling. Due to our bias for the present, we have a ubiquitous tendency to confuse our present emotions for how we’ll feel in the future. Prefeeling has some positives, Gilbert details a study in which people who used prefeeling to choose a poster instead of thinking over it for long were more satisfied with their choices than those who cogitated over the cost-benefits of how a particular poster would look with their apartment or house wall’s coloring. However, prefeeling has us “fill-in” the details of future events with our current emotional states and subconsciously bias us into believing that our present feelings of depression, happiness, or even boredom will continue in the future and even during future events that friends recommend to us – such as going to a party or concert or going to a new restaurant. We believe our current emotional state will remain the same regardless of the experience.

In the chapter Time Bombs, pages 145 – 146, Gilbert explains how our frame of reference – such as being a buyer and seller of a car – impact our feelings. He details the full effects of confusing the present moment for how we’ll feel in the future. He explains on page 147 in the Onward: “Because predictions about the future are made in the present, they are inevitably influenced by the present. The way we feel right now (“I’m so hungry”) and the way we think right now (“The big speakers sound better than the little ones”) exert an unusually strong influence on the way we think we’ll feel later. Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today. The reality of the moment is so palpable and powerful that it holds imagination in a tight orbit from which it never fully escapes. Presentism occurs because we fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.”

In the following chapter, Paradise Glossed, Gilbert explains how we ascribe meaning to ambiguous experiences  and how our minds generally form a preference on what the ambiguous stimuli means to us. We infer these meanings from context, frequency, and recency and often prefer that the ambiguous stimuli mean one thing rather than another due to our desires, wishes, and needs. As such, our brain tends to exploit the ambiguity of a stimuli for such preferable interpretations of the world.

Analogous to our physical immune system, our brains provide a psychological immune system that interpret incredibly negative events in a positive way. Generally speaking, this psychological immune system interprets events in ways that feel preferable to us after an incredibly negative experience so that we may derive meaning from it. This is why incidents of people who have been wrongfully jailed for decades, extramarital affairs, and debilitating injuries like the permanent loss of motor functions is interpreted positively with people feeling happier with their lives – these events reach a critical threshold where our psychological immune systems try to rationalize our experiences in a positive way. That is not to say that these are delusions or that it’s wrongful behavior, Gilbert is simply explaining the psychological process that is going on. Sure, losing an appendage is objectively worse than having avoided such a loss, but that doesn’t make our rationalizations and self-interpretations of those events any less meaningful or valuable. Gilbert mentions we need both a mix of reality and illusion to keep us going everyday and our psychological immune system interprets ambiguous events in a positive way to protect our emotions. Gilbert mentions that we have a general preference to give more thorough examinations and critiques to evidence that we dislike than to evidence that we find favorable. Gilbert mentions that this is essentially subconsciously cooking the facts for our own favored conclusions. However, just as important as that, we must feel as if the evidence is a discovery and not merely a self-delusion. When the information feels like a genuine discovery, we feel that we’re being honest with ourselves. It doesn’t work when we are dishonestly accepting a lie when the evidence that we value overwhelmingly disproves us. We like believing that we’re being honest with ourselves in these new discoveries and not dishonestly lying to ourselves and we do that be interpreting facts for our benefit.

Gilbert further explains the foibles of our psychological immune systems in pages 178 – 180 of the chapter Immune to Reality:

“Ignorance of our psychological immune systems causes us to mispredict the circumstances under which we will blame ourselves. Who can forget the scene at the end of the 1942 film Casablanca in which Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are standing on the tarmac as she tries to decide whether to stay in Casablanca with the man she loves or board the plane and leave with her husband? Bogey turns to Bergman and says: “Inside we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.”
This thin slice of melodrama is among the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema-not because it is particularly well acted or particularly well written but because most of us have stood on that same runway from time to time. Our most consequential choices-whether to marry, have children, buy a house, enter a profession, move abroad-are often shaped by how we imagine our future regrets (“Oh no, I forgot to have a baby!”). Regret is an emotion we feel when we blame ourselves for unfortunate outcomes that might have been prevented had we only behaved differently in the past, and because that emotion is decidedly unpleasant, our behavior in the present is often designed to preclude it. Indeed, most of us have elaborate theories about when and why people feel regret, and these theories allow us to avoid the experience. For instance, we expect to feel more regret when we learn about alternatives to our choices than when we don’t, when we accept bad advice than when we reject good advice, when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional, and when we fail by a narrow margin rather than by a wide margin.
But sometimes these theories are wrong. Consider this scenario. You own shares of Company A. During the past year you considered switching to stock in Company B but decided against it. You now find that you would have been better off by $1,200 if you had switched to the stock of Company B. You also owned shares in Company C. During the past year you switched to stock in Company D. You now find out that you’d have been better off by $1,200 if you kept your stock in Company C. Which error causes you more regret? Studies show that about nine out of ten people expect to feel more regret when they foolishly switch stocks than when they foolishly fail to switch stocks, because most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.
But why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions. When our action causes us to accept a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes an axe murderer, we can console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience (“Collecting hatchets is not a healthy hobby”). But when our inaction causes us to reject a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes a movie star, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because . . . well, there wasn’t one. The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune system can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward. As students of the silver screen recall, Bogart’s admonition about future regret led Bergman to board the plane and fly away with her husband. Had she stayed with Bogey in Casablanca, she would probably have felt just fine. Not right away, perhaps, but soon, and for the rest of her life.”

Further on, he explains the Inescapability Trigger on page 183:

“Intense suffering is one factor that can trigger our defenses and thus influence our experiences in ways we don’t anticipate. But there are others. For example, why do we forgive our siblings for behavior we would never tolerate in a friend? Why aren’t we disturbed when the president does something that would have kept us from voting for him had he done it before the election? Why do we overlook an employee’s chronic tardiness but refuse to hire a job seeker who is two minutes late for the interview? One possibility is that blood is thicker than water, flags were made to be rallied around, and first impressions matter most. But another possibility is that we are more likely to look for and find a positive view of the things we’re stuck with than of the things we’re not. Friends come and go, and changing candidates is as easy as changing socks. But siblings and presidents are ours, for better or for worse, and there’s not much we can do about it once they’ve been born or elected.  When the experience we are having is not the experience we want to be having, our first reaction is to go out and have a different one, which is why we return unsatisfactory rental cars, check out of bad hotels, and stop hanging around with people who pick their noses in public. It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience, which is why we love the clunker in the driveway, the shabby cabin that’s been in the family for years, and Uncle Sheldon despite his predilection for nasal spelunking. We find silver linings only when we must, which is why people experience an increase in happiness when genetic tests reveal that they don’t have a dangerous genetic defect, but not when the tests are inconclusive. We just can’t make the best of fate until it is inescapably, inevitably, and irrevocably ours.”

In essence: We’re more likely to do something and enjoy doing it when we limit our options and have no option than we would when given choices.

Gilbert goes on to further detail how unexplained events strike us as unusual and cause us to think about them more, thus a pleasant unusual experience is something we feel more joy in than an event we can explain away since we can stop thinking of them. Even in situations when an “explanation” doesn’t actually explain anything, this effect will happen since the event only needs to seem as though it was explained. By contrast, uncertainty can preserve and prolong happiness. When we don’t know why a person feels happy or angry at us – we question it more and why they felt that way and it’s a much more lasting impression.

Gilbert details in the chapter Once Bitten, about how our brains use facts and theories to make guesses on past events and the feelings we had of those past events. On page 206 – 208, in his own words:

“Our brains use facts and theories to make guesses about past events, and so too do they use facts and theories to make guesses about past feelings. Because feelings do not leave behind the same kinds of facts that presidential elections and ancient civilizations do, our brains must rely even more heavily on theories to construct memories of how we once felt. When those theories are wrong, we end up misremembering our own emotions. Consider, for instance, how your theories about something-oh, say, how about gender?-might influence your recollection of past feelings. Most of us believe that men are less emotional than women (“She cried, he didn’t”), that men and women have different emotional reactions to similar events (“He was angry, she was sad”), and that women are particularly prone to negative emotions at particular points in their menstrual cycles (“She’s a bit irritable today, if you know what I mean”). As it turns out, there is little evidence for any of these beliefs-but that’s not the point. The point is that these beliefs are theories that can influence how we remember our own emotions. Consider:

  • In one study, volunteers were asked to remember how they had felt a few months earlier, and the male and female volunteers remembered feeling equally intense emotions. Another group of volunteers was asked to remember how they had felt a month earlier, but before doing so, they were asked to think a bit about gender. When volunteers were prompted to think about gender, female volunteers remembered feeling more intense emotion and male volunteers remembered feeling less intense emotion.
  • In one study, male and female volunteers became members of teams and played a game against an opposing team. Some volunteers immediately reported the emotions they had felt while playing the game, and others recalled their emotions a week later. Male and female volunteers did not differ in the kinds of emotions they reported. But a week later female volunteers recalled feeling more stereotypically feminine emotions (e.g., sympathy and guilt) and male volunteers recalled feeling more stereotypically masculine emotions (e.g., anger and pride).
  • In one study, female volunteers kept diaries and made daily ratings for their feelings for four to six weeks. These ratings revealed that women’s emotions did not vary with the phase of their menstrual cycles. However, when the women were later asked to reread the diary entry for a particular day and remember how they had been feeling, they remembered feeling more negative emotion on the days on which they were menstruating.

It seems that our theories about how people of our gender usually feel can influence our memory of how we actually felt. Gender is but one of many theories that have this power to alter our memories.”

In the following chapter, Reporting Live from Tomorrow, on pages 216 – 217, Gilbert details why certain beliefs gain popularity over others in a society.

“If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. As it turns out, there are several such properties that increase a belief’s transmissional success, the most obvious of which is accuracy. When someone tells us where to find a parking space downtown or how to bake a cake at high altitude, we adopt that belief and pass it along because it helps us and our friends do the things we want to do, such as parking and baking. As one philosopher noted, “The faculty of communication would not gain ground in evolution unless it was by and large the faculty of transmitting true beliefs.” Accurate beliefs give us power, which makes it easy to understand why they are so readily transmitted from one mind to another.
It is a bit more difficult to understand why inaccurate beliefs are so readily transmitted from one mind to another-but they are. False beliefs, like bad genes, can and do become super-replicators, and a thought experiment illustrates how this can happen. Imagine a game that is played by two teams, each of which has a thousand players, each of whom is linked to teammates by a telephone. The object of the game is to get one’s team to share as many accurate beliefs as possible. When players receive a message that they believe to be accurate, they call a teammate and pass it along. When they receive a message that they believe to be inaccurate, they don’t. At the end of the game, the referee blows a whistle and awards each team a point for every accurate belief that the entire team shares and subtracts one point for every inaccurate belief the entire team shares. Now, consider a contest played one sunny day between called the Perfects (whose members always transmit accurate beliefs) and a team called the Imperfects (whose members occasionally transmit an inaccurate belief). We should expect the Perfects to win, right?
Not necessarily. In fact, there are some special circumstances under which the Imperfects will beat their pants off. For example, imagine what would happen if one of the Imperfect players sent the false message “Talking on the phone all day and night will ultimately make you very happy,” and imagine that other Imperfect players were gullible enough to believe it and pass it on. This message is inaccurate and thus will cost the Imperfects a point in the end. But it may have the compensatory effect of keeping more of the Imperfects on the telephone for more of the time, thus increasing the total number of accurate messages they transmit. Under the right circumstances, the costs of this inaccurate belief would be outweighed by its benefits, namely, that it led players to behave in ways that increased the odds that they would share other accurate beliefs. The lesson to be learned from this game is that inaccurate beliefs can prevail in the belief-transmission game if they somehow facilitate their own “means of transmission.” In the case, the means of transmission is not sex but communication, and thus any belief-even a false belief-that increases communication has a good chance of being transmitted over and over again. False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false propagate.
Some of our cultural wisdom about happiness looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief.”

Gilbert explains how we can use surrogates to understand our own emotional futures and why most people prefer to use imagination instead of the more useful tool of using other’s experiences as surrogates to know how we’ll feel in the future. Gilbert details why we have an aversion to this and the falsehoods we tell ourselves about uniqueness and the foibles of simply using imagination to think of a future experience that we have yet to experience:

On pages 224 – 225, 226-227, and 227-228, respectively. Gilbert details the shortcomings of our imagination:

“The idea sounds all too simple, and I suspect you have an objection to it that goes something like this: Yes, other people are probably right now experiencing the very things I am merely contemplating, but I can’t use other people’s experiences as proxies for my own because those other people are not me. Every human being is as unique as his or her fingerprints, so it won’t help me much to learn about how others feel in the situations that I’m facing. Unless these other people are my clones and have had all the same experiences I’ve had, their reactions and my reactions are bound to differ. I am a walking, talking idiosyncrasy, and thus I am better off basing my predictions on my somewhat fickle imagination than on the reports of people whose preferences, tastes, and emotional proclivities are so radically different from my own. If that’s your objection, then it is a good one-so good that it will take two steps to dismantle it. First let me prove to you that the experience of a single randomly selected individual can sometimes provide a better basis for predicting your future experience than your own imagination can. And then let me show you why you-and I-find this so difficult to believe.”

“No one can imagine every feature and consequence of a future event, hence we must consider some and fail to consider others. The problem is that the features and consequences we fail to consider are often quite important. You may recall the study in which college students were asked to imagine how they would feel a few days after their school’s football team played a game against its archrival. The results showed that students overestimated the duration of the game’s emotional impact because when they tried to imagine their future experience, they imagined their team winning (“The clock will hit zero, we’ll storm the field, everyone will cheer . . .”) but failed to imagine what they would be doing afterward (“And then I’ll go home and study for my final exams”). Because the students were focused on the game, they failed to imagine how events that happened after the game would influence their happiness. So what should they have done instead?
They should have abandoned imagination altogether.”

“Imagination’s second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future (which we explored in the section on presentism). When imagination paints a picture of the future, many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present. Anyone who has ever shopped on an empty stomach, vowed to quit smoking after stubbing out a cigarette, or proposed marriage while on shore leave knows that how we feel now can erroneously influence how we think we’ll feel later. As it turns out, surrogation can remedy this shortcoming too.”

“Imagination’s third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen-in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better (which we explored in the section rationalization). When we imagine losing a job, for instance, we imagine the painful experience (“The boss will march into my office, shut the door behind him  . . .”) without also imagining how our psychological immune systems will transform its meaning (“I’ll come to realize that this was an opportunity to quit retail sales and follow my true calling as a sculptor”).

On pages 229-232, Gilbert explains the issue with our incessant belief in uniqueness:

“Because if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average. Most students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student, most business managers see themselves as more competent than the average business manager, and most football players see themselves as having better “football sense” than their teammates. Ninety percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than-average drivers, and 94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be better-than-average teachers. Ironically, this bias towards ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average too. As one research team concluded, “Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy-not to mention more attractive-than the average person.”
This tendency to think of ourselves as better than others is not necessarily a manifestation of our unfettered narcissism but may instead be an instance of a more general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others-often for better but sometimes for worse. When people are asked about generosity, they claim to perform a greater number of generous acts than others do; but when they are asked about selfishness, they claim to perform a greater number of selfish acts than others do. When people are asked about their ability to perform an easy task, such as driving a car or riding a bike, they rate themselves as better than others; but when they are asked about their ability to perform a different task, such as juggling or playing chess, they rate themselves as worse than others. We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique. Even when we do precisely what others do, we tend to think that we’re doing it for unique reasons. For instance, we tend to attribute other people’s choices to features of the chooser (“Phil picked this class because he’s one of those literary types”), but we tend to attribute our own choices to features of the options (“But I picked it because it was easier than economics”). We recognize that our decisions are influenced by social norms (“I was too embarrassed to raise my hand in class even though I was terribly confused”), but fail to recognize that others’ decisions were similarly influenced (“No one else raised a hand because no one else was as confused as I was”). We know that our choices sometimes reflect our aversions (“I voted for Kerry because I couldn’t stand Bush”), but we assume that other people’s choices reflect their appetites (“If Rebecca voted for Kerry, then she must have liked him”). The list of differences is long but the conclusion to be drawn from it is short: The self considers itself to be a very special person.
What makes us think we’re so darned special? Three things, at least. First, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is. We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs. We all trust that behind those eyes and inside those skulls, our friends and neighbors are having subjective experiences very much like our own, but that trust is an article of faith and not the palpable, self-evident truth that our own subjective experiences constitute. There is a difference between making love and reading about it, and it is the same difference that distinguishes our knowledge of our own mental lives from our knowledge of everyone else’s. Because we know ourselves and others by such different means, we gather very different kinds and amounts of information. In every waking moment we monitor the steady stream of thoughts and feelings that run through our heads, but we only monitor other people’s words and deeds, and only when they are in our company. One reason why we seem so special, then, is that we learn about ourselves in such a special way.
The second reason is that we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Most of us want to fit in well with our peers, but we don’t want to fit in too well. We prize our unique identities, and research shows that when people are made to feel too similar to others, their moods quickly sour and they try to distance and distinguish themselves in a variety of ways. If you’ve ever shown up at a party and found someone else wearing exactly the same dress or necktie that you were wearing, then you know how unsettling it is to share the room with an unwanted twin whose presence temporarily diminishes your sense of individuality. Because we value our uniqueness, it isn’t surprising that we tend to overestimate it.
The third reason why we tend to overestimate our uniqueness is that we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness-that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are. Let’s face it: All people are similar in some ways and different in others. The psychologists, biologists, economists, and sociologists who are searching for universal laws of human behavior naturally care about the similarities, but the rest of us care mainly about the differences. Social life involves selecting particular individuals to be our sexual partners, business partners, bowling partners, and more. That task requires that we focus on the things that distinguish one person from another and not on the things that all people share, which is why personal ads are much more likely to mention the advertiser’s love of ballet than his love of oxygen. A penchant for respiration explains a great deal about human behavior-for example, why people live on land, become ill at high altitudes, have lungs, resist suffocation, love trees, and so on. It surely explains more than does a person’s penchant for ballet. But it does nothing to distinguish one person from another, and thus for ordinary folks who are in the ordinary business of selecting others for commerce, conversation, or copulation, the penchant for air is stunningly irrelevant. Individual similarities are vast, but we don’t care much about them because they don’t help us do what we are here on earth to do, namely, distinguish Jack from Jill and Jill from Jennifer. As such, these individual similarities are an inconspicuous backdrop against which a small number of relatively minor individual differences stand out in bold relief.
Because we spend so much time searching for, attending to, thinking about, and remembering these differences, we tend to overestimate their magnitude and frequency, and thus end up thinking of people as more varied than they actually are”

“Our mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as surrogates. After all, surrogation is only useful when we can count on a surrogate to react to an event roughly as we would, and if we believe that people’s emotional reactions are more varied than they actually are, then surrogation will seem less useful to us than it actually is. The irony, of course, is that surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one’s future emotions, but because we don’t realize just how similar we all are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.”

A truly fascinating read. I cannot recommend it enough. Amazing work by an amazing writer and psychologist.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

By far, one of the greatest books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Daniel Kahneman goes into such details for biases in availability, to substitution of hard questions to how we feel about such difficult questions, and how we try to find causes where there are none.

There is a plethora of riveting, academic, and simply phenomenal information that one can gain from this reading. Not only would a reader feel less worry about abnormal events such as terrorism, but may even gain a better understanding of mathematics too.

Kahneman’s book is divided into 5 parts that range from our cognitive biases such as biases of heuristics, to our biases of stories that we tell ourselves, our narrow focus and overestimation on abnormal issues without a proper understanding of probabilities, and the shocking difference between our actual experiences and how we remember them.

Examples include the overestimation of terrorist events because they’re far out of the norm compared to statistically more likely dangers such as car crashes, how we choose certain activities based on our recollection of how pleasurable or painful they ended instead of the length of time of the activity, and how we make financial decisions based on reference points from our previous socioeconomic status.

I probably sound like a fanboy but I think it might be accurate to say that I am a fanboy of this book. I highly recommend it to anyone. It is lengthy but the information is worthwhile. I cannot truly go into the depth of what this book covers. Try a free sample if you have a kindle.

Listed below is my understanding of certain aspects of cognitive biases that the book covers; understanding the issue is the first step to preparing defenses against it:

System 1: utilizes intuition.

System 2: Effortful/contemplative and lazy.

Base-rate fallacy, ignoring the percentage of people because the story sounds consistent with our automatic biases.

Anchoring: Moving slightly above or below a set standard that has been set. For example, realtors being given the price of 70,000 for a 90,000 dollar house and moving slightly above or slightly below the initial starting price despite it being far below the actual value of the house. Anchoring doesn’t work in circumstances in which the price or subject matter is immediately considered unreasonable such as asking 10,000 for a 90,000 dollar house.

Framing: How we set-up questions to get the answers we want. For example, food being described as 1% fat free versus 98% Fat.

Understanding talent: Talent is consistently performing an action, having constant feedback towards that action, and learning mini-skills to eventually raise their ability up to a higher level. A “talent” is a set of several learned mini-skills.

Cognitive ease: filling the gaps of what we don’t know with what we expect to be reasonable information. For example, believing that police officers are lawfully bound to protect the public despite this lacking legal basis. (More on that here: US Supreme Court declares police don’t have a constitutional duty to protect the public)

Cognitive ease usually consists of the following:

People being unable to understand how they previously defended arguments before they changed their mind.

Theory-induced blindness: Being unable to see the flaws of a theory until after one’s mind has been changed.

People try to find causes where there are none such as rural areas that have low populations having extremely low or extremely high cancer rates. Events are in a flux and life sometimes has a regression to the mean in just about every circumstance in life.

We have trouble distinguishing rumors from factual evidence because our system 1 absorbs them as if they’re equal.

We tend to have a planning fallacy, ignoring how many others are doing the same thing that we are and we try to ignore how statistics apply to our behavior and the behavior of people we know.

Overall, 5/5 stars. It has been a great pleasure to read. I cannot recommend it enough!