Apparently there has been a referendum in the UK in the last few days. As a company we don’t have a position on that - for a very good reason which I will come to later. If you want to find out what that reason is, feel free to skip to the end and ignore everything in-between.
Still here? Good. I thought I would look at some of the issues raised from an analytical thinking perspective. Not all of them, as there are far too many for a single blog post, but a few. Firstly, the campaign was rubbish. Both sides told lies and half-truths and in doing so made it harder to make an informed decision. However, given that political lying is hardly a new phenomenon, I think we all should be able to discount and see through those lies. This leads me onto the first point: Parity of Reasoning. What I mean by that is simply adopting the view that although you may have your beliefs about which was the right way to vote and which was not, the mere fact that you hold those beliefs does not make you right. Unfortunately, you are capable of being wrong and you probably are wrong more often than you like to think. And not just you. We all are. So treat the genuinely held views of the other side with some respect. They hold their views just as strongly as you do. Since the vote was very evenly split, some of those people will be your family, friends and colleagues. It is a sign of emotional maturity to disagree with someone, even to profoundly disagree with them, yet still respect them and their right to hold opposing views.
Unfortunately, it does seem to be the case that some disappointed Remainers are seeking to undermine the result by saying that those who voted to leave did so for the ‘wrong’ reasons. Some, for example David Lammy MP, are even seeking to have the result ignored because technically the referendum was not legally binding. It might be worth considering what consequences there might be if Parliament, which is already held in low esteem, ignored the, admittedly marginal, will of the people in such a way.
Another point made by disappointed Remainers is that the young, who voted to leave by a margin of 3 to 1 have been let down by the old who overwhelmingly voted to stay. This is a strange argument. It only makes sense if those making it think that those who voted to leave did so not because they believed it was the right thing to do but because they wanted to sabotage the interests of the young. This violates the principle of Parity of Reasoning, treating the views of the young as inherently more worthy of respect than those of the old. To see how unacceptable this way of reasoning is, imagine arguing that the views of a particular race, sex or sexuality should be treated as more worthy of respect than those of another. Unless a case can be made that there is a distinction between the young and old that wouldn’t apply to different races or different sexes or different sexualities, then this argument fails. This would be an argument in favour of discrimination against one group of people due to an inherent quality of theirs (their age) and not as a result of a choice they have made (they don’t choose to be old). As such, this argument has a high, and I would say insurmountable, burden to overcome.
I think we can also infer that there is a phenomenon that I am going to call Parity of Deceit. Both campaigns offered us lies, half-truths and obfuscation. Those familiar with confirmation bias will know that we are more likely to see the lies of those we disagree with and ignore, forget and fail to notice those told by our own side. But those lies were still there. Given the way the result went only the lies told about what would happen in the event of Brexit will be exposed. So, while the Brexiters are dialling back on the likelihood of reducing immigration and the possibility of there being extra money for the NHS, the Remainers too are dialling back on the likelihood of a punishment budget and reduction of pensions. Also, consider the counterfactual case. Fewer claims were made about what would happen if we had voted to remain given that that was the status quo option, but different sets of lies, again told by both sides would have been exposed. These lies, then, should not undermine the validity of the result.
I feel I should say something about some of the claims made by the campaigns. One thing that I found frustrating was when Michael Gove (Brexit) said that we should dismiss the opinions of experts. My view is that there are some areas where expertise is appropriate and should be listened to and some where it should not. If, in despair at the result, you hopped onto the first plane you could find out of the UK, you should probably listen to the pilot and cabin crew, letting them get on with the flying. That is their area of expertise. However, they have absolutely no expertise on whether you are afraid of flying, where you want to fly to or whether you want to go anywhere at all.
Two things follow from this. One is that experts can comment on certain matters. In the referendum, experts commented on the economic prognosis and the majority expert view - in fact the view of the vast majority - was that a leave vote would have negative economic consequences. I am not sufficiently qualified as an economist to assess whether their views were well founded or not. In fact, without devoting a large amount of time and study to that dismal science I am not sure anybody could. However, I do feel qualified to make a meta-induction about those predictions and it is this. Economic projections are based on computer models. These models look at past events as well as the consequences of those events and extrapolate to make future predictions. The more data that the model has the more accurate it is likely to be. It is for this reason that an opinion poll that takes the views of a large number of people is more likely to be accurate than one that takes the views of half a dozen. Or why drugs companies test their drugs on a large number of people before marketing the drug. Or why weather forecasts take data points from all over the world rather than just looking out of the window. However, in the case of the Referendum, there is no analogous sample from which to extrapolate. No country has left the EU or any similar organisation before. Two, much smaller countries left the predecessor organisation, the EEC, one being Algeria (as a result of becoming independent from France), the other being Greenland. Both of these countries are so different from the UK in terms of size, demography, industrial development and so on that nothing useful can be learned from their experience. So these economic experts are relying on a sample size of zero from which to extrapolate their predictions. Therefore, in my view, unless a counter-case can be made to this point, we can provisionally treat those expert predictions as useless. In order to see that, we have had to think at, if you like, a higher logical level than that used by the experts themselves which may be why they were all happy to make such predictions: they stuck to the paradigm that they knew. But as Einstein said, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’.
This does not mean that there will not be negative economic consequences, nor does it mean that we might not be able to identify other reasons why there might be such consequences. For instance, we might conclude on the basis of increased tariffs that trading with the rump-EU might be more difficult. As I understand it though, increased tariffs are not a certainty, merely a possibility.
The other point about experts is they cannot determine what we should care about. It may be that for Leavers being outside the EU provides non-economic benefits that outweigh any economic costs. These benefits might either be objective - such as a measurable reduction in immigration - or they might be purely mental - and therefore very difficult to measure. How do you measure a diminution in GDP which means that your income is reduced by say £100 per year against a feeling like, ‘we have got our country back from the unelected Brussels bureaucrats ’?
Economic arguments certainly do not outweigh all others. George Osbourne’s predictions of a mild recession, increased taxes and the end of protected pensions were mildly apocalyptic. Suppose that he had been chancellor in 1939. Would he have argued that since defeating Hitler would mean immense economic hardship, which it undoubtedly did, that we should not have fought him? I would hope not. Sometimes there are factors that will trump the economic arguments.
The use of the word trump brings me onto another point: the Bad Company Fallacy. Donald Trump appears to have been in favour of Brexit. The Remain campaign, in this case in the person of David Cameron, argued that Isis and Vladimir Putin would be in favour of Brexit, the implication being that we should therefore vote Remain. This is simply an example of the bad company fallacy. There is an argument here but it is a little more nuanced. The argument in favour of leaving is a good argument irrespective of who makes it or who accepts it, as is the case with an argument to remain. The more nuanced argument is that it may well be the case that the consequences of Leave are in the interests of countries like Russia and ISIS. A divided Europe may be good for them. This is undoubtedly one factor to consider, but it should not be treated so simplistically.
Black and White Thinking: this is seeing a binary choice as a choice between extremes. Leaving will not merely be a little worse, but it will be an absolute disaster - economic collapse, chaos, impoverishment and the loss of millions of jobs. Staying will lead to economic stagnation, the end of Britain, the end of parliamentary democracy and 70 million Turkish immigrants. While these outcomes are conceivably possible the chances of them coming to pass are minute. It is much more likely that not a huge amount will change. Here an analogy may be appropriate. Germany and France are remaining in the EU. They are both broadly similar to the UK in terms of the size of their economies, their population and their area. Neither are likely to lose their democratic or economic status even though one is doing very much better economically than the other. Similarly, there are many countries outside the EU, such as Norway, Japan, Canada and New Zealand that do very well for themselves.
One interesting factor is the phenomenon of Bregrexit - the discovery by some who had voted to Leave that when the result was announced that they didn’t really want to Leave at all: ‘it was a protest vote’, ‘I didn’t think my vote would count’. This brings me to another cognitive bias - the extent to which we think our current self is the fully developed version of ourselves, that our views are now settled, complete and correct, and that they won’t change in the future. This, despite the fact that we know that our views have changed in the past - in fact we often look back on the cringeworthy choices our younger selves made with embarrassment and regret. We are not very good at knowing our future selves. David Cameron said a number of times during the campaign that if the vote went for Leave he would stay on and see the UK through the withdrawal process. Yet on the morning of the result he announced he would resign and allow someone else to do ‘that shit’. Was he lying throughout, or was he simply not very well acquainted with his future self? This is a problem because this is one situation where how we feel about a decision is relevant to the decision itself. If we add 219 to 562 and find that the answer is 781 we are unlikely to be bothered one way or the other. On the other hand, we require our government to do certain things that are supposed to make us safer, richer and ultimately happier. So if we find that our decision to leave makes us feel unhappy when we had not anticipated that it would do so, that is, in my view, a relevant consideration. Perhaps, on that basis another vote should be taken - should our current selves be bound by a decision taken by our past selves? Could we really face another referendum? What about Bregremain - those who regret voting for Remain?
I said that I would deal with why we as a company don’t take a position on Leave or Remain. One reason is that I think it is vital for people to make up their own minds, that it is the duty of those of us who live in democratic countries and who are sufficiently interested in such matters to decide for ourselves. There are already enough people out there trying to influence you one way or the other. I believe I have made a contribution by helping people to develop their skills of analysis (see my book, How to Think on our publications page). The main reason though is as follows.
One of the reasons that I became involved in the broad area of what might be called personal development, not the only reason by any means, but one of them, is that over time I became increasingly convinced of the inability of politicians to solve many of the problems that we encounter. It is an undoubted fact that no politician, at least in their role as a politician, has produced a life saving drug, a great work of art, an innovative piece of technology or made a scientific discovery. These are all produced by individuals or groups of individuals pursuing their own goals and interests. At best politicians can set the stage to allow such developments to take place, as Kennedy did for the moonshots in the 1960s or at the very least they can get out of the way so that they do not preclude such innovations from happening.
My view is that many of the problems that we entrust to our politicians can be better solved by taking control of our own development as human beings. If we can all ensure that we look after our bodies and brains so that we are as fit and healthy as we can be, if we can learn to think so that we make good decisions that are in our best interests, if we can commit to being as well-educated and well-informed as we can possibly be, then we can take power over our own lives and the amount we have to rely on politicians of any political hue can be vastly reduced.
If you are lucky enough to be living in a Western democracy, these options are generally available to you. You should be able to live a fulfilled life whether you live under a government of the right or the left and whether you live in the EU or not. Be thankful that that is so. If you lived in a country where information, travel, interaction with others or the exchange of ideas is restricted either as a result of deliberate policy or through the lack of economic development that would not be the case.
It has been found that those who believe that they are in control of their own destiny generally have better life outcomes than those who believe that their fate is determined by factors outside of their control. By taking steps to control your destiny you are taking steps to lead a better life, hopefully both for yourself and for those around you. So, if the vote to leave has left you holding your head in despair, do something positive: accept it, move on and make the best of it, or alternatively do your bit to have it overturned and reconsidered. Either way, you are taking control.
Gary Lorrison, 26 June 2016
Knowing that someone else can do something or has done something can hugely affect whether you believe it is possible that you can do it. This is why the first person to do something is lauded but the second is often forgotten. Humans were on this planet for 200,000 years before any of them successfully climbed Mount Everest. Now 100-200 people climb it every year, but we only remember the names of the first - Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay The four-minute mile barrier was broken in Oxford in 1952 by Sir Roger Bannister. These days, it would be an unusual mile race that did not have at least one athlete finishing in under four minutes, but it is Roger Bannister’s name that is forever associated with the mile.
These same considerations apply with mental feats. If you know someone else can do something you are more likely to do it yourself because you know it can be done. You are also more likely simply to have a go at a challenge if you know someone else is capable of doing it.
One mental challenge is to become a memory grandmaster. As of 2014 there are 149 memory grandmasters in the world. To become one you have to memorise 1,000 random digits in an hour, memorise the order of ten packs of shuffled cards, also in an hour, and memorise the order of one pack of shuffled cards in under two minutes.
On the subject of card memorisation, the record for memorising one pack of cards is 21.19 seconds or 2.5 cards a second. This record is held by a German, Simon Reinhard.
This is just the tip of the memory iceberg. There are many other amazing feats that have been recorded over time. Paul Morphy, an American chess player, could reputedly recall every game he had ever played and was capable of playing multiple blindfold games simultaneously.
Cardinal Caspar Mezzofanti, who lived in 18th century Italy, was a polyglot who was able to speak over 30 languages fluently. Given that fluency requires between 10,000 and 30,000 words, he would have known upwards of 300,000 words, possibly as many as a million.
Devout followers of various religions will completely memorise their respective holy books. Muslims who memorise the Qu’ran are called Hafiz. Shas Pollak Jews could not only memorise the Babylonian Talmud of more than 5,000 pages, but they were able to state where on the page a particular word appeared.
Possibly the most outstanding feat of memory, as well as arguably the most pointless, is the memorisation of pi. For those who have forgotten their maths, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is an irrational number which means that it has an infinite number of non-repeating digits after the decimal point. It begins 3.14159 26535 and continues forever without any pattern emerging that would make memorisation easier. Computers have calculated it to 13 trillion decimal places.
In 2005, Chao Lu of China recited pi to 67,890 decimal places from memory. It took him over 24 hours. A year later Akira Haraguchi of Japan recited it to 100,000 decimal places, although his record was not ratified. There are probably more useful things that you can do with your memory. Especially since it is possible to calculate the circumference of the entire universe to the accuracy of a single sub-atomic proton using just the first 39 digits of pi.
This leads on to my final point. You do not have to be super-intelligent to have a super memory. In fact, many great memorisers were of average or below average intelligence. Many a time it is more a matter of application and determination rather than talent. The pi memorisers spent many years in their pursuit. This fact alone might demonstrate that intelligence and memory are not necessarily related. You might think that spending years memorising pi is not the most intelligent way of passing your limited time on this planet and you may well be right! It does, however, show what is possible if you have sufficient determination.
In the democratic west it seems we are going through a political crisis. We dislike our politicians and, worse, we dislike our political systems. This is dangerous. Where political systems are held in contempt the opportunity arises for demagogues and dictators to emerge.
Political systems exist to make our lives better. If they fail to do that then we may as well do without them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be happy with the systems themselves but surely we should feel more well-disposed towards them than we currently do. People who live in countries with oppressive regimes yearn for the freedoms that democracy brings - so we should surely hope that our democratic regimes can inspire pride in the way they work.
Why, then, do we feel such contempt for the political system? I’m sure that there are a number of reasons, but one must have to do with the fact that many of us, rightly at least some of the time, view our politicians as dishonest and inauthentic. They don’t say what they really think, they don’t answer questions and they don’t keep their promises. This is true whatever party they belong to. The only politicians who are popular are those who come across as “unspun”, who say what they think and do what they do irrespective of what people think about them.
One reason for this malaise is a lack of respect by politicians, by the media who report them and by us who vote for them for the rules of good analytical thinking. The aim of analytical thinking is to get to the truth. By getting to the truth we make better decisions. This, therefore, should be vital in politics. Of course, we won’t always get those decisions right but even in cases where we go wrong, we can console ourselves that we have done our best and that our reasoning was as good as it could have been, given the knowledge we had available at the time.
However, all too often other considerations take priority over good analysis. Too often in politics the priority appears to be to beat one’s opponent rather than make the right decision. A good policy may not be implemented because it was proposed by an opponent. So the country suffers because the benefits to the politician and the benefits to the community as a whole are in conflict.
What, then, can we do about this? One thing we can all do is demand of our politicians that they respect the rules of analytical thinking and publicise each and every occasion where they do not. We must keep them honest.
The media does not help. Newspapers and other organisations have their own agendas. These agendas may well not be those of the people as a whole and for organisations supposedly devoted to reporting the truth, their commitment to that truth can often be marginal at best. We must demand better of them and until they improve, we must treat whatever they say with scepticism. For a democracy to function well, its people must be well informed. We should demand that our media organisations publish only the truth. As for our politicians, so must we require from our media the highest standards of analytical thinking.
Finally, we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility. The decisions taken by politicians affect us all, so we should all take an interest in them. The democratic experiment that was Ancient Athens required the participation of all its citizens: because any citizen might have to speak in public, it was considered necessary that they all be educated in the arts of rhetoric and critical analysis.
We should hold ourselves to the same standard. Not only should we ensure that we take an interest in the decisions that affect our lives, we should aim to ensure that our views on those decisions are underpinned by the highest quality of analysis of which we are capable. We should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we would hold our politicians and our media. As such, it is absolutely essential that we are familiar with the techniques of analytical thinking and that we should apply them in all aspects of our lives.
There are a number of ways in which our thinking can go wrong. One of these are mistakes due to what are known as cognitive biases. These are mistakes that the brain is hard-wired to make. It might seem odd that the brain is set up to make mistakes, but of course it evolved to solve the problems and challenges that would have confronted our distant ancestors living as groups of hunter-gatherers. These would in all likelihood have been problems concerned with immediate short-term survival such as finding food, shelter, avoiding dangerous predators as well as living long enough to find a mate and to procreate.
In the rich west, we have largely solved these kinds of problems, but we still inhabit the same brains and bodies as early humans. We are therefore not designed to solve the difficult reasoning problems that confront us now. Our brains take short cuts and arrive at quick. effective and practical solutions. Thinking through abstract problems is not really what they are designed for and we are lucky that we can do it at all.
An area where our brains let us down is thinking about risk and probability. One aspect of this is reflected in the kinds of stories that are covered by the news media. They give disproportionate coverage to one-off events that result in large numbers of deaths, such as plane crashes, while ignoring the fact that more deaths occur in car crashes because each individual car crash is responsible for only one or two deaths.
This can lead to poor decisions. After plane crashes more people drive. This actually increases risk. It is much more likely that we will be killed driving to the airport than on the plane to our destination. It also distorts government policies. Since these large accidents are more newsworthy, they garner attention and politicians, responding to what is in the news, feel pressured to act. If they acted rationally, however, they would respond to the greatest threats to life rather than the most newsworthy ones.
Another point worth noting is that accidents, terrorist atrocities, even wars, while tragedies for the individuals involved, have virtually no effect on humanity as a whole. The only day this century that the human population has not risen was the day of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which 230,000 people died. The human population is currently rising at about 75 million people a year or 205,000 a day. This means that none but the most extreme events have any noticeable effect on the number of people on the planet.
I thought I’d share with you one of the reasons that I think this is so important.
We humans have been blessed in our brains with the best computer that the universe has so far produced and it has enabled us to have lives filled with so much more opportunity than our ancestors. Without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you like this now. However, we are in many ways still subject to a huge number of selfish primitive urges and if we’re not careful, we might end up ruining the world just at the point where we really should be able to understand it and use it for everybody’s benefit.
As far as I am concerned the only way to solve the problems we have all created is by thinking about them. This can be hard, sometimes unrewarding and take time. It can be so tempting to go for the easy solution and this pursuit of the easy solution in my view is one of the factors that leads to the terrorist acts that seem to plague the world right now.
I suspect that part of the mindset that produces these acts is the belief that it would be so much easier if a particular group of people, whether those of a different religion or political persuasion, just ceased to exist or was cowed into submission. This, aside from the devastating pain and hurt this causes, is as a result of lazy thinking. Actually solving the problem of us all living together is hard, really hard - so much easier to just get rid of people who are different from us. This is why it is so important to commit to developing the brain / mind. We should be trying to solve these problems in such a way that everyone is able to live the life that they would aspire to live.
I’d be interested to hear what anybody else out there thinks.
We have two types of temporal memory: long-term and short-term. Clearly if you want to remember something for a long time, you should do whatever you can to shift the idea into long-term memory. There are many ways of making memories stick, but one factor to bear in mind is that the trace theory of memory suggests that most memories tend to fade over time and this is certainly what we all seem to experience.
When we encounter something new, we will forget a large proportion of the detail within the first twenty-four hours. Over the next few days, weeks and months we will forget even more although the rate at which we forget will drop off. Eventually, there will come a point when we only remember a small amount of the initial detail, but that small amount will be quite resilient. It is unlikely that we will forget any more.
To combat this fall off in recall, one thing you can do is to review information regularly in your mind. If you review the experience immediately after you have it, the following day, and then schedule a series of further reviews at increasing intervals - say after a week, then a month, then three months and six months, this will help fix all the details in your long-term memory and you will be unlikely to forget it any more.
It makes sense that we would all like to read more quickly than we actually do. There will always be more information out there that we would like to know, more books to be read. One solution to this is to read more quickly. The question is, to what extent is this possible?
As with any human activity, people will have a range of abilities. Some will naturally read faster and understand more of what they read than others. However, with training it is possible to increase reading speeds.
In speed reading competitions people are tested to see how quickly they can read an unfamiliar passage and are then questioned on it to see how much of it they have understood. In these competitions reading speeds of between 2,000 and 3,000 words per minute with comprehension are often recorded. This is about five to eight pages of a novel. The physiology of the eye suggests that it is unlikely that we can read much faster. However, given that most people only read at 200 to 400 words per minute, increasing your reading speed to even 1,000 words per minute (3 pages) would be a huge improvement.
Exams can be one of the most stressful situations that we find ourselves in. Stress and memory are not good bedfellows. We are more likely to remember what we want when we are stress free and relaxed.
One of the causes of exam stress is the fear that we will forget everything before we have the chance to commit it to paper. This is one situation in which mind maps are ideal. Their use of key words, key ideas and the logical connection of related concepts makes them a perfect aide memoire for exam situations.
They can be used for revision: when revising make an initial mind map of all the information you want to learn and then revise by putting that mind map to one side and attempting to reconstruct it. When you have done this, compare your new mind map to the original to see the areas where you are strong and those areas that require further attention.
In the exam itself, spend the first few minutes doing quick-fire mind maps of the question you intend to answer. This should be a kind of memory dump. This will mean that you have all the information you need to recall on the page in front of you and so your mind will be freed up to concentrate on the questions themselves without the added stress of trying to remember.
When we debate a problem one of the factors that can underpin a disagreement is a mutual failure to understand what precisely is being discussed. The person speaking may intend a word or phrase to mean one thing and the listener may understand it to mean something else.
The problem arises because it will generally be obvious to the speaker what they intend their words to mean and it will be equally obvious to the listener that their words have another meaning. We understand words in part by the web of associations they create in our minds but this web will differ from person to person. To some people picturing the word spider will bring them out in a cold sweat, while for others it will conjure up associations of an interesting and harmless animal. It is this difference in associations that can lead to misunderstandings in the meanings of words.
If you suspect that someone you are debating with might mean something different from what you understand, ask them to stipulate what precisely it is that they mean. Point out to them that simply because it is obvious to them what they mean, this does not mean that it will be obvious to everybody else.
We would all like to think of ourselves as rational human beings, but our brains can often let us down. We can reach conclusions based on our prejudices or because we are tired, hungry or emotional, or because we only see what is in front of us but fail to see what is not there but should be.
Try taking a friend or family member out for a walk with you. Walk at a slightly faster pace than normal. Then ask them to perform a not too easy but not too hard mental calculation such as 14 x 13. You will probably find that they stop talking, slow down or even stop momentarily while they try to work it out.
Even for a relatively straightforward mental problem like this our brains can easily get overloaded meaning that we cannot carry on with a straightforward task such as walking. When thinking about any problem which involves ascertaining the truth about a situation, or considering a course of action or pondering what is the right thing to do, allow your brain space to think. Go for a quiet walk where you will be undisturbed and try to think through the problem in an even-handed and unbiased way.
The answer by the way is 182.