Animal Wise by Virginia Morell.Our seeing, hearing and remembering are all influenced by the sum of our experiences. How do we really form opinions? According to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, it’s all in your head. He and his wife were out for dinner with another couple and his wife referred to a mutual male friend and said that, “He is sexy.” She went on to say something really bizarre – “He doesn’t undress the maid himself!” Very, very odd thought Dr Kahneman and tried to make sense of the latest statement. In fact the wife said, “He doesn’t underestimate himself!” Dr Kahneman admitted that the single word ‘sexy’ (and slight hearing impairment) had created a context within which he found it possible to hear a sentence that fit the context extremely well.

How much control do we typically assert when we form opinions, or are our senses tricking us? To what extent are we influenced by outside forces that seek to manipulate our senses into seeing the world the way they want us to? What is interesting about the dinner conversation at Dr Kahneman’s table was that he never doubted what he had heard, he knew what his wife said. There was no question about it. The only question was, why on earth she said such a bizarre thing?

Why do we think we know things and why we are so confident in what we think we know? What does it mean to know? Is it the absence of doubt and the truth of the belief? We tend to believe that someone knows something, if the fact is true.

The world is complex and ambiguous. How do we deal with it? According to Daniel Kahneman, there are ways that can help deal with that complexity and ambiguity and do better in the world.

The first step is to get a realistic idea about how the mind is actually working so we can take that and use it to improve our everyday thinking.

We are operating under less-than-ideal conditions, so we have to rely on shortcuts in order to be able to navigate the world. We often use heuristics – simple, efficient rules to form judgments and make decisions.

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on examples that come to mind when evaluating a concept or decision. It operates on the notion that if something can be recalled quickly, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled. Subsequently, under the availability heuristic people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward the latest news.

The media is extremely important in shaping our perceptions and the decisions that we make. We tend to hear about deaths: shark attacks, plane crashes and terrorist attacks. We don’t hear in the daily news much about the people who died of asthma or heart disease. Therefore we have enormously skewed perceptions of how common these types of deaths are. When you’re bombarded every night in the media by these things, it has a big impact. If there’s a relatively minor event that happens such as a tremor and you have this news agency that blows it out of proportion, then people start to freak out a little bit more, which then feeds more coverage, which results in people freaking out a little bit more. It cascades. These are availability entrepreneurs, news agencies are making a living out of availability cascades. It’s extremely important to consider where we’re getting our information and what sort of information we’re exposing ourselves to because that fundamentally shapes the way that we perceive the world. If all we’re doing is surrounding ourselves with second-rate news, then we’re at the whim of these news agencies.

In order to improve our everyday thinking – the ability to think more clearly, argue better, reason better, to be more analytical and read more carefully; Daniel Kahneman has advice for us. Merely telling people how to do something is not going to turn them into experts, and repeatedly telling them the same thing is not going to help. It takes a lot of practice, supplemented with feedback. Pick a few areas and then in those situations that you recognize where you’re prone to make a mistake, slow yourself down. Do not expect that you can generally increase the quality of your thinking because you really cannot. However if there are repetitive mistakes that you are prone to make and if you learn the cues surrounding the situation, then you can learn to eliminate them. Also recognize situations where you can’t do it alone, where you need someone else’s advice because alone you make a mistake.

humor: What would a sick rooster say?  cough-a-doodle-doo!