March 7, 2014 6:12 pm

Templates for gaining wisdom

Can the ‘smart thinking’ genre deliver on its promises of personal improvement?
Auguste Rodin's sculpture 'The Thinker'©Reuters

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, by Gary Klein, Nicholas Brealey, RRP£12.99/PublicAffairs, RRP $27.95, 304 pages

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, by Nicholas Epley, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 272 pages

Trying Not To Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, by Edward Slingerland, Canongate, RRP£16.99/Crown, RRP$26, 368 pages

A year or so ago, browsing in a bookshop, I came across a shelf dedicated to “Smart thinking”. I had never seen this term used to describe a category of books before yet I instantly knew what it meant. Its elevation to official bookseller’s category is confirmed by the appearance of “Psychology/Smart Thinking” on the back jacket of Gary Klein’s new book, Seeing What Others Don’t, and by Penguin’s launch of its “Think Smarter” e-newsletter.

A crude but generally accurate definition of what makes a smart thinking book is anything you could easily imagine being the subject of a TED talk. The recipe is to find a leading expert and get him (alas, still more often than her) to write about an idea in his field that is interesting to a wider audience and which he believes – or at least claims – can help us change our lives for the better. It has been called intelligent self-help, but since most potential readers would not appreciate the implied association with the dumber varieties, “smart thinking” has a certain advantage.

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At their best, these books have facilitated a rich flow of ideas from specialists and academics whose work until recently was little known to the lay readership. There is no better example of this than Daniel Kahneman’s phenomenally successful Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), a book that distils a lifetime of research into one lucid volume.

Like all genres, however, smart thinking already has its own tired tropes that too many authors fall back on. Chapters open with intriguing anecdotes; jackets and introductions promise transformational revelations; authors weave in personal stories, with self-deprecating confessions of their own wrong turns and heartwarming memoirs of the hikes, spouses and little children that deeply moved them.

Sure enough, three new books heading straight for the smart thinking shelves all get off to shaky starts by following the standard template too closely. Psychologist Nicholas Epley delivers the usual oversell in the preface of Mindwise, when he promises to tell us “how to become wiser about the minds of others”, stating that his goal “is to improve your psychological vision”. Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian Studies, also finds himself offering the obligatory assurance that by reading his Trying Not to Try “you will gain new insights that you can apply to your own life”. Klein, meanwhile, tries too hard to give Seeing What Others Don’t a narrative drive, resulting in some painful prose: “At times I felt like a bull charging forward at a swirling cape, hoping to make contact with a shadowy matador.” But first appearances can be deceptive and it turns out that all these authors have a lot to say, and mostly say it well.

 

Klein’s tale may not be the gripping mystery story he tries to make it, but it is an insightful guide to insight. His aim to is redress psychology’s obsession with reducing errors in decision-making by finding out more about how we come up with positive insights. To do this, he avoids artificial lab-based experiments and focuses instead on a dossier he has built up over many years of real-life examples of insight.

This project requires him to fillet and discard several red herrings. Chief among those is the still-standard model of insight set out by Graham Wallas, co-founder of London School of Economics, in his 1926 book The Art of Thought. Wallas believed insight followed from a process of preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. Klein has no argument with the final stage, but finds that the first three are often absent. The paradigm of insight as a eureka moment is particularly misleading. “I suspect some insight researchers have gotten sidetracked by the ‘aha’ experience and have lost sight of the phenomenon they set out to study,” he writes.

For Klein, insight is simply “an unexpected shift to a better frame”, which can come quickly or slowly. This shift always requires us to either abandon or modify “anchors” – the beliefs, often implicit, that underpin the story we currently believe about how things work. What forces us to make this shift can be an awareness that the story contains contradictions; noticing connections, coincidences or curiosities that don’t fit the established narrative; or plain desperation as we find ourselves faced with an urgent problem we just can’t solve.

Klein has no easy answers as to how we arrive at such insights but he is particularly good at identifying the barriers to getting there, such as allowing ourselves to be gripped by flawed beliefs, a lack of experience, being too passive, or following excessively rigid modes of reasoning. If you think the antidote to this is simply having an open mind, Klein shows it’s much more complicated than that. Often, insights come to those who are very sceptical and critical. The right kind of “open” mind is not one that suspends judgment, but one that is playful and exploratory.

He also persuasively argues that many management systems, such as the once popular Six Sigma, stress the importance of error-reduction and minimising disruption, whereas insight requires making mistakes and can often be hugely disruptive. So, for example, systems may seek to increase efficiency by filtering out irrelevant data, but that assumes “we know in advance which data are relevant”.

Klein glosses over the importance of luck too quickly. But perhaps the most intriguing question left hanging is how important insight actually is. Although it’s always intellectually exciting when we make “an unpredictable leap”, much progress is made in a more gradual, incremental way. Indeed, Klein’s own book moves our understanding of insight forward by significantly adapting the story we have about it, not by offering a completely new one, and it’s none the worse for that.

 

In Mindwise, Nicholas Epley quickly drops the inspirational flourishes of his preface, clarifying in the first chapter that “The main goal of this book is to reduce your illusion of insight into the minds of others.” It’s an important aim that has the virtue of being realistic. The truth is that we are very bad at judging mental states of others, although we think we’re very good at it. For instance, one experiment suggested that “more time together did not make ... couples any more accurate” about what they thought about the other’s beliefs, preferences and desires, “it just gave them the illusion that they were more accurate”.

To correct this, folk wisdom recommends placing yourself in the other person’s shoes. But Epley cites one experiment that suggested “perspective taking consistently decreased accuracy”. The reason for this is that “if your belief about the other side’s perspective is mistaken, then carefully considering that person’s perspective will only magnify the mistake’s consequences”. I noticed a brilliant example of this recently when UK Independence party leader Nigel Farage expressed his concerns about a possible surge in immigration, saying: “If I were a Bulgarian, I would be packing my bags now, wanting to come to Britain.” When Channel 4 News took him to Bulgaria, however, the viewers saw – even if he did not – that most wanted to do no such thing.

Rather than trying to take another’s perspective, Farage should have followed Epley’s advice to get it, by the simple method of asking. Even here, however, we have to be careful. People are quite reliable when reporting what they want and think, but often reveal a lack of self-knowledge when they speculate as to why. Similarly, we are bad predictors of future behaviour, so asking people what they do is more revealing than asking what they would or will do.

Epley’s most powerful demonstration of the difficultly of seeing the world from others’ perspective is, however, inadvertent. He repeatedly uses baseball metaphors such as “we conclude that a person who started on third base actually hit a triple”, when he of all people ought to have realised this makes no sense to readers outside his home country. Perhaps he should use that as his endearingly self-deprecating anecdote when he is asked to give his well-merited TED talk.

 

Edward Slingerland seems acutely aware of the traps awaiting a smart thinking author, especially one whose task is to explain the importance of ancient Chinese thought for modern life. “I get a psychosomatic headache from people who glorify ‘the East’ as if it were an exclusive and unfailing source of spiritual wisdom,” he writes, and certainly succeeds in making sure you won’t be reaching for an aspirin after reading his book.

Slingerland’s subject is wu-wei (pronounced ooo-way), the kind of effortless action that only a true master achieves, and de (duh), the kind of charismatic power or aura that a practitioner of wu-wei exudes. He grapples with “the paradox of wu-wei”, captured in the book’s title, which seems to require us to try not to try.

The book focuses on four attempts to dissolve this contradiction. Two very similar approaches come from Chinese thinkers we now anachronistically bundle together as Daoists. Laozi advocated stopping trying altogether, while Zuangzhi suggested forgetting about our rational modes of understanding. On the other hand, Confucius taught that we had to try hard not to try, working on cultivating the virtues that would in the end become automatic. Mencius offered a more moderate version of the same idea: we should try, but not too hard, lending our better instincts a guiding hand while not “pulling on the sprouts” so much as to uproot them.

Ultimately, however, none of these provides a satisfactory answer because it is indeed a genuine paradox, an irresolvable contradiction at the heart of human existence. The best we can do, suggests Slingerland, is “to not push too hard when trying is bad, and not think too much when reflection is the enemy”. If we do that, “the flow of life is always there, eager to pull us along in its wake.”

There is an important insight connecting all three of these books, one that much smart thinking neglects. It is that you cannot reduce anything truly worthwhile simply to a technique you can learn and use to get your desired result. Rather, what is most profoundly rewarding always springs from deeply held values. Klein, for example, mentions that to gain insight, it is important that the thing we are thinking about flows from our own interests. Slingerland also says that wu-wei involves “the absorption of the self into something greater” than yourself, and it is our values that tell us what we truly believe is greater. And Epley’s account suggests that unless you genuinely value the perspectives of others, and not just those that conform to your own, you are not going to understand them. Really effective smart thinking is not, therefore, just a means to an end: it has to be rooted in what we see as ends in themselves, the values by which we live.

Julian Baggini will be discussing his book ‘The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think’ at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Tuesday 25 March (oxfordliteraryfestival.org)

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