041: What is Thinking?

In This Episode: The question is harder to answer than you …think! But really, what IS thinking? Plus, if you use the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” to judge other peoples’ thinking, you’re doing it wrong — says Dr. Dunning.

041: What IS Thinking?

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Show Notes

  • To help support Uncommon Sense, see the Patron’s Page, or the form in the sidebar.
  • My story on the Dunning-Kreuger Effect is here (or you can use the easier-to-remember https://thisistrue.com/dke). You can download the original 14-page journal article here (PDF, 500K).
  • In this episode I read some of Wikipedia’s article on what thought “is”.


Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

Even if you believe you already think quite well, you can use what’s in this episode to help teach others how to improve their thinking.

Let’s get down to basics, because frankly I’ve seen many people aren’t quite clear on the concept …as perhaps illustrated by the stories in the newsletter every week. To me, though, the most important part of the idea is illustrated by letters I get from readers that start along the lines of, “I’m not a big thinker because I’m not all that intelligent.” And you know what? I hate that self-depreciation, because if that’s what you believe, you’re setting yourself up for failure: you’re setting a belief that you don’t have the capacity to improve — and if you believe that, you’re wrong.

Unfortunately I get that from both men and women, but more often women, and it’s my opinion that this message is a societal bug: it’s misinformation, such as the concept that women aren’t good at math and science. So let’s make this clear: you don’t need some sort of abnormally high I.Q. to think, or to improve your ability to think. For instance, my wife and I have a niece who is severely developmentally disabled, and she and her family visited us last week. We’ve seen that her ability to think has significantly improved over the years, and if she can do it, trust me: you can too.

Also, we’ve all seen highly intelligent people who do not think very well, at least some of the time. In fact I’m very sure that some of the people I write about in This is True who do really dumb things are absolutely not stupid, but in fact could probably qualify for Mensa, if they’re not already actual members!

Yet many people think that if someone is smart, they ought to be able to do anything! They ought to be able to know what to do next, no matter how complex the problem. Just because someone has a high I.Q. doesn’t mean they know everything or can do everything. I’m very good at words; I’m not great at numbers. My math ability is spotty: I’m very good at estimating numbers, but have a such a terrible time getting exact answers I don’t even try to balance my checkbook. I therefore made what I think is a smart decision: that I’d hire someone else to do my bookkeeping since there are people who are as good with numbers as I am with words. They can not only do that sort of work faster than I can, and more accurately, they actually enjoy it! It’s simply a different kind of intelligence.

As I’ve said repeatedly in This is True, and in blog posts, we all do dumb things sometimes. The corollary is, we can all learn to think better, no matter how smart we are — or aren’t. And here’s a This is True story from early 2000 that illustrates why perfectly intelligent people believe they are not capable, while at the same time incapable people so often screw up as we see in TRUE’s stories week after week. I titled it, “Even Your Best Friends Won’t Tell You”:

Sure there are a lot of incompetent people around. The problem is, they don’t know it, says Dr. David A. Dunning, a psychology professor at New York’s Cornell University, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He says that the reason they don’t know is that the skills people need to recognize incompetence are the same skills they need to be competent in the first place. Thus the incompetent often end up “grossly overestimating” their own competency, even when they’re making a mess of things. At the same time, very competent people tend to underestimate their abilities. Dunning notes such studies create a unique danger for the researchers. “I began to think that there were probably lots of things that I was bad at and I didn’t know it,” he said.

And my tagline on the story was, “If you want to know what they are, just ask your wife.”

This now-well-known phenomenon of overestimating your ability if you’re not so capable, or underestimating your ability if you are quite capable, is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, to provide credit to both Dunning and his Cornell-based co-researcher, Justin Kruger. You can find that story on the web site at thisistrue.com/dke (for Dunning-Kruger Effect). I’ll also link to it from the Show Page. Dr. Dunning is now a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Kruger is a Professor of Social Psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Dunning, especially, is amazed how much the idea has spread. He said recently he “thought the paper would never be published” because, he said, “It really doesn’t fit the usual structure of a modern-day research psychology finding. A wise editor who got it and good reviewers showed me wrong there. I am struck just with how long and how much this idea has gone viral in so many areas.”

So in other words, the very intelligent and competent Dr. Dunning, who studied this phenomenon intently, completely underestimated the impact of his own study. It’s remarkable that he fell into the same trap he was discussing in a scholarly paper!

With his hindsight, he has a good point that people kind-of hear the one-liner summary of this research, and don’t really know the details, so I have a copy of his original 14-page paper. I’ll put the link for it on the Show Page, and I encourage you to read it. I actually haven’t read it in a long time — not since 2000 — but it’s on my reading list to go through it again.

Still, I want to emphasize the main point: when you don’t know much about a subject, you may figure what you do know is all you need to know — that maybe you’re some kind of expert. But when you actually know quite a bit about a subject, you’re more aware that your knowledge just scratches the surface, and there’s a lot more you don’t know. And that is indeed a side effect of thinking about it!

Now that you know about this, here’s a trap that Dr. Dunning says people fall into. While some use his findings to condemn the thinking ability of other people, that’s the wrong lesson to draw, he says. “The presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect, as it’s been come to be called, is that one should pause to worry about one’s own certainty, not the certainty of others,” he says. In other words, it’s a tool to think better yourself, not to judge the thinking of someone else. And that’s a huge lesson and why I think you should read the paper!

So how is it that smart people do dumb things? First, what I’ve talked about before: they “react, rather than think” — their emotions get in the way. Emotions can quickly get out of control, and take precedence.

Putting the Dunning Kruger filter on things, let’s look at another example: the vast majority of people say they’re better-than-average drivers …even though that’s obviously impossible. And no surprise, narcissists tend to think they’re super-intelligent and infallible, and anything that goes wrong is the result of interference by their lessers, even objective experts in their fields that disagree with them.

So with this basis of understanding, let’s talk about thinking. We as a society talk about thinking all the time, and we believe we know it when we see it, and can identify a lack of thinking when someone does something dumb. But there’s actually not consensus on what thinking really is. We do agree that thinking allows us to interpret and make sense of the world, and to model how we believe the world to work, and thus can make predictions about what will happen in the future when given certain conditions. Then we can set goals for what we want to do in the future based on where we are now and where we want to be then. But how well do those plans pan out in real life?

We can be pretty clear on what the lack of thinking will bring someone. If someone decides to rob liquor stores for a living, as we’ve seen from time to time in This is True, most anyone with a modicum of thought will intuitively know that the robber didn’t think enough about where his actions will almost inevitably lead.

When I came up with the idea for this episode, I looked in Wikipedia to see what it said “thought” was. The word comes from the Old English, meaning “to conceive of in the mind, [to] consider.” That one simple word, “thinking,” can have a multitude of meanings. Let me go through their list. “Thinking” can mean:

  • a single product of thinking or a single idea (as in, “My first thought was ‘no.’”)
  • the product of mental activity (as in “Mathematics is a large body of thought.”)
  • the act or system of thinking (as in “I was tired from thinking all day.”)
  • the capacity to think, reason, imagine, and so on (as in “All her thought was applied to her work.”)
  • the consideration of or reflection on an idea (as in “The thought of death terrifies me.”)
  • recollection or contemplation (as in “I thought about my childhood.”)
  • half-formed or imperfect intention (as in “I had some thought of going.”)
  • anticipation or expectation (as in “She had no thought of seeing him again.”)
  • consideration, attention, care, or regard (as in “He took no thought of his appearance” or “I did it without thinking.”) [Boy, isn’t that the basis of a lot of This is True stories!]
  • judgment, opinion, or belief (as in “According to his thought, honesty is the best policy.”)
  • the ideas characteristic of a particular place, class, or time (as in “Greek thought.”)
  • the state of being conscious of something (as in “It made me think of my grandmother.”)
  • tending to believe in something, especially with less than full confidence (as in “I think that it will rain, but I am not sure.”)

With a list like that, and I’m sure listeners could come up with more, it’s not really surprising that so many people have trouble with thinking, and even defining what it is we’re talking about when we say “People need to think more.”

Thinking involves a lot of academic disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, artificial intelligence, biology, sociology, and cognitive science. If you haven’t “thought” about how complex the whole thing is, well, we loop back to overestimating our own knowledge in the first place, as Dunning and Kruger pointed out back in 2000.

And this is why, when I introduced this episode, I said that you should listen even if you believe you’re already a great thinker. I have said that the discussions in the Uncommon Sense podcast will help you help others learn how to think more, and that’s true: the real bottom line is, no matter how well you think, you’re not an absolute expert in the fields of linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, artificial intelligence, biology, sociology, and cognitive science, so by definition you can’t possibly know everything there is about thinking. And either do I. So the likelihood is, considering these ideas will help you improve your thinking, almost by definition. I can tell you that just by planning out these episodes, I learn new things, and my thinking improves a little bit every time.

So resist the urge to say “I already know that,” here or elsewhere. That’s closing the door to new information: maybe the speaker you’re listening to or the book you’re reading is simply laying groundwork so they can introduce new ideas to build on what they and you already know.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast41, and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments section.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

Comments Note

Since this is a redo, comments start with those made on the original post — the dates are correct.

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12 Comments on “041: What is Thinking?

  1. I was surprised that, given the title, the conversation did not discuss the interaction between the “I” and ideas. I think it worth considering that this is a 2-way interaction.

    I guess I don’t quite understand your point. No, this brief podcast doesn’t cover every possible aspect of “What is Thinking” — surely it’s obvious that it can’t. It was intended to (yep!) provoke thought about the complexity of the topic, and to counter some misconceptions about it, such as the myth you have to be super-intelligent to be able to think. -rc

  2. The timing of this is interesting. I’ve been watching a new show on Netflix, supported by the NY Times and Netflix, in which the doctor who has been writing a “medical mysteries” column for the Times weekly for many years uses the internet to try to crowdsource diagnoses for people who have rare conditions that no doctor has been able to diagnose, usually for years. And of the first three episodes that I’ve watched, two of them revolve around the brain and both patients stand to possibly lose their ability to think coherently or, in one case, remember.

    So I’ve realized I’m not an expert on the act of thinking — but I’m very aware of what happens when even a small portion of that ability is lost! I’ve seen dementia in my parents. And I’m forced to realize that virtually *everything* we do as humans revolves around the ability to think, and losing even a bit of that ability undermines our sense of self rather profoundly. I find myself regularly disturbed by just the simple and extremely mild occasional temporary memory loss that comes from aging, so I can attest to how problematic it can be. (The usual way I deal with it is forget about it for a couple of minutes and the brain immediately produces the missing thought. It works very well!)

    I don’t think I underestimate my own abilities too much, except in the area of math, which is based on the fact that I just don’t *like* to do it so I act like I can’t, but I also have a strong tendency to heap scorn on people who overestimate their abilities. So clearly I have some work to do to avoid that bias. Your story forced me to look at that more closely in myself, which is probably all to the good.

    Thanks for all the definitions of thinking, and for giving me some rather profound food for thought!

  3. J.P. Guilford identified 144 “factors of Intellect”. I first saw this some decades ago, and came to understand (a little) about how “idiot savants” operate. I found Clare Graves’ work on value levels to be very explanatory as to how people use their minds. Beck and Cowan’s “Spiral Dynamics” develops his work very well and explains a lot about how and why various people and societies/cultures live as they do. (The stage or level of the values we hold is reflected in many of our life choices, loyalties, behaviors; Competitive vs. Collaborative, Dominant vs. Obedient, etc.)

  4. The list of definitions of thinking conflated “thought”, a noun, with “think”, a verb, and “thinking”, the participle form of that verb, frequently using them interchangably. Even some of the examples cited presented a form different from the definition they were meant to exemplify.

    I submit that a thought (let’s call it an intangible product of mental activity) is not the same as thinking (the exercise of considering, evaluating, or deciding). This inconsistency is probably not significant and did not diminish the value of the overall discussion but did distract me from the flow in that section. Dealing with the three terms seperately in subsections may have allowed the thoughts therein to flow more logically.

    Otherwise a good piece.

    The point that I made at the end of the list was, “thinking” can mean so many things it’s hard to define it clearly, and “I’m sure listeners could come up with more” and thus the list was not meant to be exhaustive. It was more to be …a thought exercise. -rc

  5. We don’t actually ever interact with the “real” world (other than physical collisions), but a 3D cartoon we make up in our minds, from the collected electrical signals from our senses. Lazy beings that we are, we tend to simplify the cartoon as much as possible to coast through it in order to avoid the aforementioned physical collisions, and collect as much of the necessary food, water, clothing and sex as our personas deem necessary. I find it instructive that Wikipedia mentions that “NARRATIVE…is a constructive format…it is thought by some to be the fundamental nature of the self.”

    Since we don’t really exist in the past anymore — it isn’t really there, and we don’t, can’t, know the future, the only reality we have of who we are, is the story we tell ourselves of what happened in the past (whether it really happened in the past or not) and what we think might happen in the future — in other words, the, I guess, 4D (3D and time) animated cartoon we make up in our minds. It is all about the narrative. Our narrative drives our decisions, and our emotions.

    James Gleick ended his book “The Information” concluding that the Universe was actually only endless information, but he was somewhat at a loss to determine how to glean meaning from that. I can answer that: Narrative.

  6. It works in the other way too. I grew up being told, any time I didn’t live up to expectations (which was straight As or at least honor roll), was that I was so smart, it had to be my fault, that I didn’t even try. To be honest, all too often, I didn’t. They could make me sit at a desk, but they couldn’t make me work. I’d sit in the back of the room and doodle or read a sci-fi book. I’d read the textbook for the class in the first couple of weeks and then coast on that for tests.

    Other than a couple of years in Jr Hi, school was always a bore. The last grade I finished was 10th. I left home at 16 and bummed around the country for years.

    When I decided to go to college at 22, I did a double concurrent major in electrical and mechanical engineering. It was the first time I ever felt really challenged. The first year was like taking two classes for every one I got credit for, making up for what I hadn’t taken in high school. Then the material itself pushed me. The curriculum for the school I went to (Speed Scientific School at the University of Louisville) was almost all math and science plus, with the double major, I usually took a pretty heavy course load. The 18 hours of required general ed classes I could still coast in, but I did actually study for tests when I was taking them for a grade instead of pass/fail. Those were probably the best five years of my life.

    Then I graduated and things started falling apart. Personal life and the like, then a major car accident, then a major birth defect turned up. But whenever anything was bad, and even now, many decades later I still hear the same echo. If I don’t excel at anything between my ears right off the bat, then I must not be really trying. “I should be able to figure this out,” no matter what “this” is. “I’m not dedicating myself.” I’m being lazy.” “You know you can do it if you really care.” The “You’re so smart.” never goes away. I really wish it would.

  7. “self-depreciation“ would that be also or instead “self-deprecation”?

    “Depreciation” in this context is defined as “An instance of disparaging or belittlement,” while deprecation, an “expression of disapproval,” is much too mild for the concept I was trying to evoke. Thus: “instead [of]”. -rc

  8. Brain cells move information between themselves. To get the next cell in the chain to receive and act upon the information being presented, an opiate-like substance is released with it called an Endorphin. The next cell gets a “high” from processing the information which is why the brain repeated behaviors…to get high. The more endorphin released, the more the cell “pays attention” to the signal. Since this processing causes the euphoria of “well being”, it is this processing that makes us feel an overall sense of happiness.

    But if there is a problem with the cell’s ability to process endorphins, the process changes. If there are not enough receptor sites on the cell, the “volume” is always low and the brain cells will have to initiate more activity to make up for the deficiency (Hyperactivity of that endorphin processing). It will also have difficulty focusing when needed.

    There are three main processing endorphins. Dopamine, associated with external sensory signals, Nor-Epinephrine which is involved with emotional processing, and Serotonin that is involved with internal processing of information. The last one is what we associate with “thinking”.

    There are two types of people in the world. One sees a rock and thinks “That is a cool rock! I wonder what kind it is? I could use it for a door stop…or use it in the fireplace and chimney I want to build one day!” The other person sees the rock and says “Huh…a rock.” and moves on with their life not giving it a second thought. The first person’s brain cells are compelled to process more Serotonin so it initiates the activity that releases it. Comparing memories to each other in the frontal cortex of the brain…and getting high, that is “thinking”.These are the people who either go on to use this skill to do great things, or are haunted by it and use alcohol and drugs to anesthetize themselves.

  9. Wow, reading “Diane from Kentucky”‘s comment really brought back some memories. I was told in Junior High School that I had a really high I.Q., and from then on all I heard at home was “You’re so smart… (why aren’t you rich?) or (why can’t you?) or (why don’t you?) or (why didn’t you?)” and so on, especially from my mother (my father was more easy-going, probably because he had few pretensions. My mother wanted to be whatever she thought as elite, and wanted us kids (I have two sisters, one older and one younger) to know it. Whenever she felt threatened, we got a sarcastic comment like the above.

    As a result, my performance has always been spotty… my fault for not overcoming that refrain that was drilled into me daily, I guess. I still think of myself as smart, but am beginning (in my 70s) to realize that “smarts” ain’t everything!

    That is definitely part of my message. -rc

  10. I got a chuckle out of your comment that most people think they’re an above average driver. Having raced cars and taught race car driving, I’ve run into that person more than once. Unless they learn quickly that they’re not, it doesn’t end well.

  11. Thanks for reminding me I need to read this paper again!

    Betsy is right though — the expression is “self-deprecation”, with ‘depreciate’ deriving from the Latin for price/cost.

    “Self-deprecation” might be right for whatever you’re using it for, but as I clearly said, I’m going by dictionary definitions — which I went to the trouble to quote — and “self-depreciation” is much closer to my intent. -rc

  12. There is almost always more than one word to describe a concept. That’s where the writer’s art comes in: choosing one word over another to convey a subtle difference. In this case it’s not all that subtle as Randy clearly pointed out to Betsy. I don’t want to read formulaic writing (I have a hearing problem and have to read the transcript rather than listen to the podcasts), and appreciate that Randy adds flavor to his work. It takes a real pedant (evidently needed: “a person who adheres rigidly to book knowledge without regard to common sense.” –Random House) to push for the humdrum. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “self-depreciation” in this context, and you can take that from a retired English teacher.


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