Friday, July 9, 2010

Thinking Dispositions

While recently reading a review of Keith E. Stanovich's book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The psychology of rational thought called “A Taxonomy of Bias: The Cognitive Miser”, I was struck by this section:

[T]he reflective mind embodies various higher-level goals as well as thinking dispositions. Various psychological tests of thinking dispositions measure things such as the tendency to collect information before making up one's mind, the tendency to seek various points of view before coming to a conclusion, the disposition to think extensively about a problem before responding, the tendency to calibrate the degree of strength of one's opinion to the degree of evidence available, the tendency to think about future consequences before taking action, the tendency to explicitly weigh pluses and minuses of situations before making a decision, and the tendency to seek nuance and avoid absolutism.

There are seven tendencies discussed.  I’ll call them out to make them explicit, rephrasing them as “best practices”:

  1. Collect information before making up one's mind
  2. Seek various points of view before coming to a conclusion
  3. Think extensively about a problem before responding
  4. Calibrate the degree of strength of one's opinion to the degree of evidence available
  5. Think about future consequences before taking action
  6. Explicitly weigh pluses and minuses of situations before making a decision
  7. Seek nuance and avoid absolutism

Ben Casnocha wrote about the type of people who make breakthroughs when they are young.  Jonah Lehrer covered the subject from another angle.  Tyler Cowen covered the subject here.

All of these made me question what type of person I am.  I believe that I am a conceptual innovator.  I generally do not like the tedium of being an experimental innovator, although I will do so for certain specific subjects (like games that require one to build and defend over time and then deploy to achieve game-winning goals).

Here is my evidence.

On the seven tendencies mentioned above, I am very weak.  I frequently “rush in where angels fear to tread”, trusting to my courage and God’s grace to carry me through.  (I learned at a young age that “God takes care of fools and little children.”  At age 36, I now distinctly fall into the former category)  I have been a “know-it-all” for decades, rarely questioning what I say for truth.  I believe that I have a better way of doing things, and I can never seem to explain exactly how I know it—it is intuitive.  In reality, I am making a lot of simplifying assumptions, and holding as axioms a lot of ideas that aren’t really axioms.

My recent and most vivid memory of my fearless/stupid tendency came during a trip to Jamaica a few years ago.  Kathy and I decided to take a zipline canopy tour with Chukka Caribbean Adventures.  Somehow, we ended up nearest the first zipline while listening to the safety instructions, and I was chosen to cross the river first.

Now, a person strong in the above tendencies might think the following in that moment: I paid for this and am going to do it; I don’t want to look silly in front of my wife or all of these strangers; I don’t want to look like a wuss in front of the two guys leading us through this adventure; there are two ziplines I am connected to for safety; the other guy is on the other end and will make sure I land safely; and so on.

I didn’t do any of that.  I stepped forward, said to myself, “What the hell”, and jumped forward.  As I zipped across, I managed to look around for a couple of seconds at the people on inner tubes floating by below me before I diverted my attention back to the problem of stopping (which ended up being trivial).

How did I end up like this?  Am I a genius to whom things come easily, or am I intellectually lazy?  My opinion is that that I am some of both.

When I was in the sixth and seventh grades, my IQ was tested twice.  The results were imbalanced:  I scored around 140 for left-brain activities, and around 120 for right-brain activities.  The doctor conducting the test described it approximately thus: “His left-brain is a Cadillac, and his right-brain is a Volkswagen.”  (I drive a Volkswagen Jetta at the moment, so I’m not sure whether this is complimentary or not.)  The imbalance, however, was not the problem.  My reaction to this information was the problem, and it would impair my long-term development.

You see, I believed that I was a genius, like Mozart.  I believed that it was enough that I would simply absorb and use knowledge.  If something didn’t appeal to me, then I didn’t care about it, as I was probably smart enough already to handle it.  Result:  I didn’t do a lot of homework until I got to college and realized I wasn’t going to go anywhere unless I really learned the material.  So much of education and learning is about repetition, the kinds of things that experimental innovators do well at.

The truth is that I cultivated my intellectual laziness for more than a decade.  It cost me my grades, nearly cost me a chance to go to a good college and to qualify for an engineering major.  I learned a lot in my first years in college and on the job, but most importantly I learned that I do usually have to work hard to learn.  As a result, I have learned to blend conceptual innovation with experimental innovation:  I grind through daily work, but I still let my mind wander whenever I get a chance hoping to spark my creativity and leap ahead; I teach myself statistics and modeling, higher-order economics, business and accounting, and law, and put all of these into practice.

Now I look at the seven tendencies, and I realize how much farther I still have to go.  Kathy is a very good example, though, so I have a role model to observe.

I think the lesson for others is to not let innovative tendencies overwhelm experimental tendencies.  The super-geniuses at extreme poles of these tendencies might disagree, and perhaps be hindered by not treating these mutually exclusively.  But for the rest of us, I’m willing to bet that we need both tendencies to survive and thrive.

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