Podcast 037: 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.

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Show Notes

  • Mensa International is the largest and oldest “high I.Q.” society in the world, established in 1946. After speaking at their conferences (regional and national) several times, Kit and I both joined.
  • 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).
  • Wikipedia does a decent job describing the Scientific Method.
  • Einstein, as part of the general theory of relativity, said that light would be affected by gravity. He was proven correct.
  • In this episode I read some of Wikipedia’s article on what thought “is”.
  • Using a bit of ash to make a sugar cube ignite from a match is an example of catalysis.
  • Pyrex, or borosilicate glass, was introduced in the U.S. by Corning. I missed a step in my off-the-cuff description: it was another later glass product, Corningware (Pyroceram) in the 1950s, that was discovered by accident, and didn’t break when dropped. That discovery, which came when S. Donald Stookey was working on a different project, was when Stookey accidentally heated a sample to a much higher than desired temperature, and it came out of the furnace with a milky white hue. When he dropped it, it bounced, rather than shattered. Now sold under the Corelle brand, the lids — to make them clear — are made from borosilicate — Pyrex. Corning later came up with Gorilla Glass, a hardened (but very thin) and scratch-resistant glass now used in smartphones.

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Randy: Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the Podcast companion to the ThisIsTrue.com newsletter with the mission to promote more thinking in the world. I’m Randy Cassingham.

Kit: I’m Kit Cassingham.

Randy: Rather than discussing a story from the This is True newsletter, this week is another installment of the Thinking Toolbox, where we talk about how to improve our thinking. Even if you believe you already think quite well, what we talk about in these segments can help you teach others how to improve their thinking. The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast37

We’ve done several different installments of the Thinking Toolbox, but this week we’re going to back up a little and talk about what thinking is, because frankly I’ve seen people who aren’t quite clear on the concept …as perhaps illustrated by the stories each 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. Really that’s the dumb belief! 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. In fact, Kit and I have a niece who is severely developmentally disabled, and 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.

Kit: And I have seen some highly intelligent people not think very well.

Randy: Exactly. We’re both in Mensa, and I’m not saying that to brag, I’m saying that to make a point….

Kit: We have the exposure to a wide range of people.

Randy: Yes. What we’ve seen often in Mensa is — obviously these people have a high I.Q. — that doesn’t mean that they have any common sense whatsoever.

Kit: Well common sense isn’t the same as thinking.

Randy: I know that, but people think that if you’re smart, you ought to be able to do anything! You ought to be able to know what to do next. And it doesn’t necessarily compute.

Kit: Oh we know everything! I had somebody poke fun at me for being in Mensa, saying — she asked some math question and I said “I don’t know, let me find a calculator” — and she goes, “You’re in Mensa, you should have that.”

Randy: You know, just because you have a [high] I.Q. doesn’t mean you know everything or can do everything. I’m very good at words; I’m not great at numbers. I don’t have a great math ability.

Kit: You can do math, though.

Randy: I can, and I can estimate things in my head very quickly….

Kit: Very well, yeah.

Randy: So I can get the gist of it, even if I can’t get the exact number without a calculator, but you know, I’ve got a calculator too.

Kit: Right: And you’ve also touched on something: that there are different areas of intelligence. You can be musically intelligent, or artistically intelligent….

Randy: And that’s probably been the biggest criticism of I.Q. tests, because they don’t necessarily pick up that kind of intelligence.

Kit: Well, and if you live in the streets of a big city, you’ve got a street intelligence that is valuable. More valuable than words and math and music might be.

Randy: Yeah: you might know how not to get robbed, for instance.

Kit: Or hurt. You might know how to sustain your life in a variety of ways.

Randy: Yeah, absolutely. And 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. And here’s a story from early 2000 that illustrates why perfectly intelligent people believe they are not capable, while at the same time perfectly 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.”

Kit: Ohhhh!

Randy: I recall you didn’t actually like that tagline back in 2000.

Kit: Well do you blame me?

Randy: Why, that I’d have to ask you what I’m not good at?

Kit: I wasn’t even your wife in 2000, so….

Randy: This is true.

Kit: So it wasn’t a personal reaction of you dissing me, but I don’t like the way that sets up relationships. That wives are always pointing out their husband’s faults.

Randy: Well it is a stereotype, and that’s where I was getting the humor.

Kit: I know that’s a stereotype that you were having fun with. [But] sometimes in enjoying the stereotype, you perpetuate it. But it is true that when you are close to somebody — it could be a spouse; husbands are spouses you know —

Randy: This is true.

Kit: …or a good friend, a family member, they do see things that you don’t.

Randy: Absolutely, and that’s part of the point. You know I was going for the laugh on that one, but there are things to think about, like you just said.

Kit: And that’s what we’re doing! We’re thinkin’ today.

Randy: So 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 now known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect to provide credit to both Dunning and his Cornell-based co-researcher, Justin Kruger. You can find this 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 the New York University Stern School of Business.

Dunning, especially, is amazed how much the idea has spread. He said recently “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 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!

Kit: You know, some of the research I’ve done with ADD has taught me that one of the traits for an ADDer is that they don’t have a realistic view of themselves, that they can have an inflated opinion of their abilities.

Randy: Or vice versa.

Kit: Right.

Randy: Well, and I think that’s just another example of things that might be heightened in ADDers, but not necessarily unique to ADDers.

Kit: Exactly. Good point. Yeah.

Randy: Now, he does have a good point that people kind-of hear the one-liner summary of this paper and don’t really know it, so I actually have a copy of his original 14-page paper and 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 log time — not since 2000 — so I’m going to put that on my reading list and go through it again.

But I want to emphasize the main point: when you don’t know much about a subject, you 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 probably aware that your knowledge just scratches the surface, and there’s probably a lot you don’t know. And that is indeed a side effect of thinking about it!

Kit: Ah hah!

Randy: You like that?

Kit: I do!

Randy: So that’s just part of thinking. So now that you know about this, here’s a trap that Dr. Dunning says that people fall into. While some people 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.” In other words, it’s a tool to think better yourself, not to judge the thinking of others. And that’s a huge lesson and why I think you should read the paper!

Kit: You know, I’ll add that to my list for when I get back.

Randy: Yeah. My recollection from, you know, it’s 2018 so that’s 18 years ago — yikes! — so it’s been a long time and I’ve forgotten the details of the paper, but I found this more-recent commentary that he made and I thought you know, that’s going to bring me back to this paper and read it again.

Kit: Well and I see several traps that people fall into, and I’ll just enumerate them. One is that people’s emotions override their ability to think, and they—

Randy: Very often. That’s what I call “reacting, rather than thinking.”

Kit: OK, I like that … so they still “think” that they’re thinking, but they’re reacting, they’re….

Randy: Their emotions take precedence.

Kit: Right. So another one is, that people are so confident in their “logical thinking”…

Randy: …That may be based in emotion.

Kit: Well, or false information or whatever, but if they think it, “therefore it is true.” I saw a bumper sticker years ago that said, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Which was a lightbulb turned on for me, it’s like, “Ohhh. Just because I think it doesn’t mean it is true.” It just means I’m thinking it.

Randy: Right. It might be true for you, but may not be for the rest of the world.

Kit: And it may not be true for me. It’s just something that my brain started chattering about, and I overheard it, and said it — I don’t know.

Randy: Well this phenomenon was already known before Dunning and Kruger. For instance, 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 lessors, even objective experts in their fields that disagree with them.

So what’s the lesson here? Results matter, and the way you can tell if the results are valid is to test them, to validate them, by repeating studies to see if they hold up. Which you might recognize as the Scientific Method, which by design is self-correcting: when an idea doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, you come up with a new hypothesis and test that. If it does hold up, you’re not done: you add to it and test again. That’s why we’re still testing Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Einstein said that for instance if, if X is true, then we should be able to see Y do this — a prediction. So for instance, during solar eclipses, if light is subject to gravity, as Einstein theorized, we should be able to see the light from distant stars bend around the blacked-out sun. And sure enough, we do see that. We don’t take Einstein’s word for it just because we think he was a genius.

Kit: One, you’ve got to always be testing. But two, we have new tools—

Randy: To test the theories.

Kit: …to re-test.

Randy: So OK, now that we have 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 know 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 make predictions about what will happen in the future when given certain conditions, and 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?

Kit: It’s a good question.

Randy: So we need to think about it a little bit. But despite all that, 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 intelligence will intuitively know that the robber didn’t think enough about where his actions will almost inevitably lead.

Kit: You know, sometimes I find myself saying, “Well I think X.” In reality, I feel X. And so I think — here I go again! — that thinking and feeling can get confused in our minds — which contributes to the lack of thinking.

Randy: And that goes right back to what we were talking about earlier—

Kit: Emotion.

Randy: Emotions getting in the way. And if we look at some of the artistic explorations of “logic,” like Mr. Spock, he wants to get rid of emotions because that clouds logic, that clouds his thinking. And occasionally, there was episodes where he had the “alien spores” hit him, and it brought out his emotions. And he was upset, which is another emotion, that it was interfering with his thinking. So it’s very interesting to see how people have explored this idea.

Kit: And hopefully we will continue to explore it.

Randy: Yep. So 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, [or] consider.” And that one simple word 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 frazzled from too much thought.”)
  • 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.”

Kit: That’s a pretty impressive list. And…

Randy: Obviously they thought about it for awhile.

Kit: Yeah. They had several people thinking about it for awhile. That helps confuse and clear up the issue. Thank you.

Randy: Yeah it does. It really does. 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.

Kit: Fascinating!

Randy: And this is why, when I introduce the Thinking Toolbox segments, that I say that you should listen even if you believe you’re already a great thinker: I’m wanting you to listen anyway. And I say that the tools will help you help others learn how to think more, and that’s true, but 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 the likelihood is, listening and, yeah, thinking about the Thinking Toolbox episodes will help you improve, 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. And that’s good for the world.

Kit: As you were talking, I was …thinking that keeping an open mind is important for thinking.

Randy: Absolutely!

Kit: I’ve attended a few conferences, classes, whatever, and the leader has said, “I want you to keep an open mind. Take everything in. The moment you say ‘I already know that,’ you’ve closed the door to any new information.” And I’m now translating that to say, “You’ve quit thinking” as soon as you say “I know that.”

Randy: Yeah, and we go back to the Scientific Method that we were exploring — was Einstein right, does this happen as he predicted? — and you know, the answer “no” is just as valid a result as the answer “yes.”

Kit: Absolutely. Absolutely!

Randy: So that’s not the end of the story. If the answer is “no,” then you say, “Then what should have happened, or why didn’t it happen,” and that expands your knowledge as you explore those questions.

Kit: Well, and it takes you down two paths. I want to continue looking for the “yes” answer, or “ooh, this ‘no’ is very interesting,” and you pursue that path of “what makes that work?”

Randy: Right, because maybe you did your experiment wrong. Maybe you set up something that you didn’t realize was giving you a false negative.

Kit: In science class in junior high, the teacher said you have to write down everything you did. And tells the story of a scientist who did write down everything he did — except he forgot to mention that he was smoking a cigar. It turns out that a little bit of the cigar ash went into his experiment, and changed the results, so it’s no wonder nobody else could reproduce what he had done.

Randy: Right, and people think ash is just the remnant of something that burned, which it is. But you know you can’t light a sugar cube on fire with, say, a match or a lighter, but if you put a little bit of ash on it, like from a cigarette or a cigar, it will catch fire.

Kit: No I had no idea.

Randy: The ash acts as a catalyst, so it can have a very dramatic effect. It changes the pH, it changes all sorts of things, and sure enough, something as simple as an ash falling off a cigarette can change a scientific result.

Kit: Well and a lot of products — I can’t name any of them at the moment — but I have heard of products that were the result of mistakes in experiments. And they liked what it did so well that they either turned to that only, or somebody took that research over and produced things with the “mistake.”

Randy: Right — Pyrex glass is an example of that.

Kit: Ah! Thank you!

Randy: That it was baked too long, and the guy who was doing it thought he had just made a terrible mistake, and then he accidentally dropped it, and it bounced instead of shattering. [See Show Notes for a correction.]

Kit: Well, I had some classmates drop it, and it does shatter! It can shatter.

Randy: He said, “Well why didn’t that break?” And look what it led to.

Kit: Yeah. Lots and lots of….

Randy: Well, it’s a direct descendent to the Gorilla Glass that we have on our cell phones, that keeps it from breaking.

Kit: Oh! All right.

Randy: So a negative is also something important. So if you have a story to tell about how you learned to think better, or otherwise wish to comment, let us know on the Show Page, at thisistrue.com/podcast37.

And remember we’re going to be taking a break here and there while Kit’s out of town, so don’t worry if we miss an episode next week or whenever — I don’t have a full plan in mind about when I can do episodes and what I’ll be talking about, but just wanted to let you know, so just stayed tuned.

Kit: Keep on keepin’ on.

Randy: I’m Randy Cassingham.

Kit: I’m Kit Cassingham.

Randy: And we’ll talk at you later.

[Easter Egg]

1 thought on “Podcast 037: 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, a 22-minute 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 you have to be super-intelligent to be able to think. Nope. -rc

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