Tag: William James

The Impoverishment of Attention

“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”

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Focus matters enormously for success in life and yet we seem to give it little attention.

Daniel Goleman‘s book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, explores the power of attention. “Attention works much like a muscle,” he writes, “use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

To get the results we want in life, Goleman argues we need three kinds of focus: inner, other, and outer.

Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A (person) tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

How we deploy attention shapes what we see. Or as Yoda says, “Your focus is your reality.”

Goleman argues that, despite the advantages of everything being only a click away, our attention span is suffering.

An eighth-grade teacher tells me that for many years she has had successive classes of students read the same book, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Her students have loved it— until five years or so ago. “I started to see kids not so excited— even high-achieving groups could not get engaged with it,” she told me. “They say the reading is too hard; the sentences are too complicated; it takes a long time to read a page.”

She wonders if perhaps her students’ ability to read has been somehow compromised by the short, choppy messages they get in texts. One student confessed he’d spent two thousand hours in the last year playing video games. She adds, “It’s hard to teach comma rules when you are competing with World of WarCraft.”

Here is a telling story. I was in a coffee shop just the other day and I noticed that when two people were having a conversation they couldn't go more than a few minutes without picking up their phone. Our inability to resist checking email, Facebook, and Twitter rather than focus on the here and now leads to a real life out-of-office. Sociologist Erving Goffman, calls this “away,” which tells other people “I'm not interested” in you right now.

We continually fight distractions. From televisions on during supper, text messages, emails, phone calls … you get the picture. This is one reason I've changed my media consumption habits.

It feels like we're going through life in a state of “continuous partial attention.” We're there but not really there. Unaware of where we place our attention. Unconscious about how we live.

I once worked with the CEO of a private organization. We often discussed board meetings, agendas, and other areas of time allocation. I sensed a disconnect between where he wanted to spend his time and what he actually spent time on.

To verify, I went back over the last year of board meetings and categorized each scheduled agenda item. I found a substantial mismatch; he was spending a great deal of time on issues he thought were not important. In fact, the ‘scheduled time' was almost the complete inverse of what he wanted to focus on.

Goleman also points to some of the implications of our modern world.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts, like triaging email by heading, skipping much of voice mails, skimming messages and memos. It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean.

In 1977, foreseeing what was going to happen, the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon wrote:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

William James, a pioneer of modern psychology, defined attention as “the sudden taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”

We naturally focus when we're lost. Imagine for a second the last time you were driving in your car without your GPS and you got lost. Think back to the first thing you did in response. I bet you turned off the radio so you could increase your focus.

Goleman, paraphrasing research, argues there are two main varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional.

The sensory distractors are easy: as you read these words you’re tuning out (our sponsor and all of the text on the right). Or notice for a moment the feeling of your tongue against your upper palate—just one of an endless wave of incoming stimuli your brain weeds out from the continuous wash of background sounds, shapes and colors, tastes, smells, sensations, and on and on.

More daunting is the second variety of lures: emotionally loaded signals. While you might find it easy to concentrate on answering your email in the hubbub of your local coffee shop, if you should overhear someone mention your name (potent emotional bait, that) it’s almost impossible to tune out the voice that carries it— your attention reflexively alerts to hear what’s being said about you. Forget that email. The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go—or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry.

The more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we do.

To focus we must tune out emotional distractions. But not at all costs. The power to disengage focus is also important.

That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life’s emotional waves.

Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can, for example, leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. At clinical extremes it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (touch the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.

We've all seen what a strong selective focus looks like. It's the couple in the coffee shop mentioned above, eyes locked, who fail to realize they are not alone.

It should come as no surprise that we learn best with focused attention.

As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections. If you and a small toddler share attention toward something as you name it, the toddler learns that name; if her focus wanders as you say it, she won’t.

When our mind wanders off, our brain activates a host of brain circuits that chatter about things that have nothing to do with what we’re trying to learn. Lacking focus, we store no crisp memory of what we’re learning.

Goleman goes on to discuss how we connect what we read to our mental models, which is the heart of learning.

As we read a book, a blog, or any narrative, our mind constructs a mental model that lets us make sense of what we are reading and connects it to the universe of such models we already hold that bear on the same topic.

If we can't focus we'll have more holes in our understanding. (To find holes in your understanding, try the Feynman Technique, which was actually an invention of George Eliot's but I'll save that for another day.)

When we read a book, our brain constructs a network of pathways that embodies that set of ideas and experiences. Contrast that deep comprehension with the interruptions and distractions that typify the ever-seductive Internet.

The continuous onslaught of texts, meetings, videos, music, email, Twitter, Facebook, and more is the enemy of understanding. The key, argues Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is “deep reading.” And the internet is making this nearly impossible.

There is, however, perhaps no skill better than deep and focused thought. “The more information that’s out there,” says Tyler Cowen, author of Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, “the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.” Deep thought must be learned. In order to do that, however, we must tune out most of the distractions and focus.

Goleman reminds us that some of this too was foreseen.

Way back in the 1950s the philosopher Martin Heidegger warned against a looming “tide of technological revolution” that might “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be … the only way of thinking.” That would come at the loss of “meditative thinking,” a mode of reflection he saw as the essence of our humanity.

I hear Heidegger’s warning in terms of the erosion of an ability at the core of reflection, the capacity to sustain attention to an ongoing narrative. Deep thinking demands sustaining a focused mind. The more distracted we are, the more shallow our reflections; likewise, the shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be. Heidegger, were he alive today, would be horrified if asked to tweet.

The rest of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence goes on to narrow in on “the elusive and under-appreciated mental faculty in the mind's operations” known as attention and its role in living “a fulfilling life.”

William James on Habit

William James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits.
William James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits.

daily rituals by mason currey

In his book, Daily Rituals, Mason Currey explores William James's thoughts on Habit.

“Recollect,” (James) wrote, “that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action — and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser — never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number.” The importance of forming such “habits of order” later became one of James's great subjects as a psychologist.

In 1892 James delivered a lecture to teachers in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was eventually incorporated into his book Psychology: The Briefer Course. James argued that the “great thing” in education is to “make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding or regretting of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my hearers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.

Mason adds, “James was writing from personal experience—the hypothetical sufferer is, in fact, a thinly disguised description of himself.”

In his 2006 biography of James, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson wrote:

James on habit, then, is not the smug advice of some martinet, but the too-late-learned, too-little-self-knowing, pathetically earnest, hard-won crumbs of practical advice offered by a man who really had no habits—or who lacked the habits he most needed, having only the habit of having no habits—and whose life was itself a ‘buzzing blooming confusion' that was never really under control.

We know a few of James's tendencies. In Daily Rituals Currey writes:

He drank moderately and would have a cocktail before dinner. He stopped smoking and drinking coffee in his mid-thirties. … He procrastinated. As he told one of his classes, “I know a person who will poke at the fire, set chairs straight, pick dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation—simply because that only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests.”

Currey got me wondering more about James. With a bit of research, I discovered that in 1887 he penned Habit, a short book exploring the philosophy and psychology of habit (available for free in google books and archive.org)

Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results. … The great thing, then, in all education, is to make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and to guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.

James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits.

The Acquisition of a new Habit

The first is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.

Don't Allow an Exception until the new habit is Rooted in your Life

The second Maxim is: Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right. As professor Bain says “The peculiarity of the moral habits, contradistinguishing them from the intellectual acquisitions, is the presence of two hostile powers, one to be gradually raised into the ascendant over the other. It is necessary, above all things, in such a situation, never to lose a battle. Every gain on the wrong side undoes the effect of many conquests on the right. The essential precaution, therefore, is so to regulate the two opposing powers that the one may have a series of uninterrupted successes, until repetition has fortified it to such a degree as to enable it to cope with the opposition, under any circumstances. This is the theoretically best career of mental progress.”The question of ‘tapering-off,' in abandoning such habits as drink and opium-indulgence, comes in here, and is a question about which experts differ within certain limits, and in regard to what may be best for an individual case. In the main, however, all expert opinion would agree that abrupt acquisition of the new habit is the best way, if there be a real possibility of carrying it out. We must be careful not to give the will so stiff a task as to insure its defeat at the very outset; but, provided one can stand it, a sharp period of suffering, and then a free time, is the best thing to aim at, whether in giving up a habit like that of opium, or in simply changing one's hours of rising or of work. It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.

Act on Every Resolution you Make

A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set' to the brain.

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Baker Street

“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”
— W. H. Auden

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When it comes to using our minds, we all want to learn how to think like SherLock Holmes.

mastermind - how to think like sherlock holmes

Maria Konnikova's book, Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, takes a deep look at Sherlock Holmes's methodology to develop the habits of mind that will allow us to mindfully engage the world.

Holmes has a step up on most people. “For most of his life, he had been honing a method of mindful interaction with the world.” To him, this was a skill that came naturally. “What Sherlock Holmes offers isn't just a way of solving a crime. It is an entire way of thinking. … It is an approach born out of the scientific method that transcends science and crime both and can serve as a model for thinking, a way of being, even, just as powerful in our time as it was in Conan Doyle's.”

The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that, ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.

Ellen Langer, in the 1970s demonstrated that mindfulness could even improve “judgment, character, and will.”

In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking — something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.

But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal. Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.

Never mistake mindlessness for mindfulness. “We have to move from passive absorption to active awareness. We have to engage.”

Engagement

As children, we are remarkably aware. We absorb and process information at a speed that we’ll never again come close to achieving. New sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new emotions, new experiences: we are learning about our world and its possibilities. Everything is new, everything is exciting, everything engenders curiosity. And because of the inherent newness of our surroundings, we are exquisitely alert; we are absorbed; we take it all in. Who knows when it might come in handy?

But as we grow older, the blasé factor increases exponentially. Been there, done that, don’t need to pay attention to this, and when in the world will I ever need to know or use that. Before we know it, we have shed that innate attentiveness, engagement, and curiosity for a host of passive, mindless habits. And even when we want to engage, we no longer have that childhood luxury. Gone are the days where our main job was to learn, to absorb, to interact; we now have other, more pressing (or so we think) responsibilities to attend to and demands on our minds to address. And as the demands on our attention increase—an all too real concern as the pressures of multitasking grow in the increasingly 24/7 digital age—so, too, does our actual attention decrease. As it does so, we become less and less able to know or notice our own thought habits, and more and more allow our minds to dictate our judgments and decisions, instead of the other way around.

Pitfalls of the Untrained Brain

One of the things that characterizes Holmes's thinking —and the scientific ideal—is a natural skepticism and inquisitiveness toward the world. Nothing is taken at face value.

It’s awfully easy to get tripped up. In fact, not only do we believe everything we hear, at least initially, but even when we have been told explicitly that a statement is false before we hear it, we are likely to treat it as true. For instance, in something known as the correspondence bias (a concept we’ll revisit in greater detail), we assume that what a person says is what that person actually believes—and we hold on to that assumption even if we’ve been told explicitly that it isn’t so; we’re even likely to judge the speaker in its light.

Daniel Kahneman believes there are two systems for organizing and filtering knowledge: system one and system two. System one is real-time. Think about the way we recognize speech or make an intuitive decision. This system makes judgments and decisions before our mental apparatus can consciously catch up. System two, on the other hand, is a slow process of thinking based on critical examination of evidence. Konnikova refers to these as System Watson and System Holmes.

In essence it comes down to one simple formula: to move from a System Watson- to a System Holmes-governed thinking takes mindfulness plus motivation. (That, and a lot of practice.) Mindfulness, in the sense of constant presence of mind, the attentiveness and hereness that is so essential for real, active observation of the world. Motivation, in the sense of active engagement.

“Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.” — W. I. B. Beveridge in The Art of Scientific Investigation

And of course applying these skills is incredibly difficult, when our brains want to default into quick, intuitive, thinking.

It is most difficult to apply Holmes’s logic in those moments that matter the most. And so, all we can do is practice, until our habits are such that even the most severe stressors will bring out the very thought patterns that we’ve worked so hard to master.

Of course what you allow into your brain is the starting point for how we think. And whether we think intuitively (system one) or more rationally (system two) what's in our head affects our decisions.

Respect the attic
As Holmes tells Watson, “I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

When I first heard the term brain attic, all I could picture in my seven-year-old head was the cover of the black-and-white Shel Silverstein book that sat prominently on my bookshelf, with its half-smiling, lopsided face whose forehead was distended to a wrinkled triangle, complete with roof, chimney, and window with open shutters. Behind the shutters, a tiny face peeking out at the world. Is this what Holmes meant? A small room with sloped sides and a foreign creature with a funny face waiting to pull the cord and turn the light off or on?

As it turns out, I wasn’t far from wrong. For Sherlock Holmes, a person’s brain attic really is an incredibly concrete, physical space. Maybe it has a chimney. Maybe it doesn’t. But whatever it looks like, it is a space in your head, specially fashioned for storing the most disparate of objects. And yes, there is certainly a cord that you can pull to turn the light on or off at will. As Holmes explains to Watson, “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.”

That comparison, as it turns out, is remarkably accurate. Subsequent research on memory formation, retention, and retrieval has proven itself to be highly amenable to the attic analogy.

Attics have two components: structure and contents.

This sounds a lot like Charlie Munger's view of elementary, worldly wisdom: storing key ideas on a latticework of mental models.

Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does…

It’s like the old saying, ”To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models.

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

Konnikova carries the systems (Watson and Holmes) into how we remember.

Our default System Watson attic is jumbled and largely mindless. Gregson may have once known about Van Jansen but has lacked the requisite motivation and presence to retain his knowledge. Why should he care about old cases? Holmes, however, makes a conscious, motivated choice to remember cases past; one never knows when they might come in handy. In his attic, knowledge does not get lost. He has made a deliberate decision that these details matter. And that decision has, in turn, affected how and what – and when – he remembers.

Cultivating knowledge

To cultivate our knowledge actively, we need to realize that items are being pushed into our attic space at every opportunity. In our default state, we don’t often pay attention to them unless some aspect draws our attention—but that doesn’t mean they haven’t found their way into our attic all the same. They sneak in if we’re not careful, if we just passively take in information and don’t make a conscious effort to control our attention—especially if they are things that somehow pique our attention naturally: topics of general interest; things we can’t help but notice; things that raise some emotion in us; or things that capture us by some aspect of novelty or note.

It is all too easy to let the world come unfiltered into your attic space, populating it with whatever inputs may come its way or whatever naturally captures your attention by virtue of its interest or immediate relevance to you. When we’re in our default System Watson mode, we don’t “choose” which memories to store. They just kind of store themselves—or they don’t, as the case may be.

Observation
Before we include something into our brain attic we must first observe it. Konnikova writes:

Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.

In his book, The Art of Scientific Investigation, W. I. B. Beveridge writes:

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

Paying Attention Is Anything but Elementary

Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another. Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in that same room. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity. Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time. One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other — or others — more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out. Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.

Attentional blindness, paying attention to one thing at the expense of another, is often how pickpocketing works. Yet all is not lost.

The Holmes solution? Habit.

The Holmes solution? Habit, habit, habit. That, and motivation. Become an expert of sorts at those types of decisions or observation that you want to excel at making. … If you learn first how to be selective accurately, in order to accomplish precisely what it is you want to accomplish, you will be able to limit the damage that System Watson can do by preemptively teaching it to not muck it up. The important thing is the proper, selective training — the presence of mind — coupled with the desire the motivation to master your thought process.

No one says it’s easy. When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free attention; it all has to come from somewhere. And every time we place an additional demand on our attentional resources — be it by listening to music while walking, checking our email while working, or following five media streams at once — we limit the awareness that surrounds any one aspect and our ability to deal with it in an engaged, mindful, and productive manner.

Take a Step Back
To think we also need distance.

One of the most important ways to facilitate imaginative thinking is through distance. In ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ a case that comes quite late in the Holmes-Watson partnership, Watson observes:

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage. I remember that during the whole of that memorable day he lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus. For my own part I had none of this power of detachment, and the day, in consequence appeared to be interminable.

Forcing your mind to take a step back is a tough thing to do. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem that you want to solve. But in reality, the characteristic is not so remarkable either for Holmes or for individuals who are deep thinkers. The fact that it is remarkable for Watson (and that he self-admittedly lacks the skill) goes a long way to explaining why he so often fails when Holmes succeeds.

Not only does distance facilitate imaginative thinking but it also helps counter short-term emotions.

A final thought on Mindfulness comes from Sam McNerney. Referencing a recently published paper by Erika Carlson, a PhD candidate at Washington University, he writes:

Carlson proposes that mindfulness, defined as “paying attention to one’s current experience in a nonevaluative way,” may provide an effective means for acquiring self-knowledge. The “mindful” individual, as opposed to his introspective peer, does not analyze or interpret nor does he ask questions that lend themselves to intricate narratives that confirm his intuitions. As Carlson puts it, “[mindfulness] involves noticing thoughts and emotions as they arise without elaboration or rumination. This kind of detached observation… allows people to experience fairly aversive thoughts and emotions as temporary events rather than experiences that require a response or an explanation.”

How can we achieve mindfulness? Carlson mentions two strategies that both stress observation over questioning and introspection. The first is nonevalution observation, which encourages people to consider information even if it threatens the ego. Carlson cites a study that primed participants with morbid thoughts about their death. The researchers noted that the typical response to “mortality salience” is to hunker down, bolster self-esteem, and defend your worldview. However, individuals who scored higher on tests of mindfulness “defended their worldviews less, thought about death longer, and suppressed negative thoughts about death less.” An observant ego, in sum, is a healthy ego.

Second, we should pay attention to all the available information in a given moment (i.e., all thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). If this sounds obvious consider that compared to untrained individuals, people with mindfulness training preform better on conflict monitoring tasks, orientation tasks, standardized tests and working memory tasks.* Like impartial spectators, they consider all of the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes was a great read.

Editor's note: Follow your curiosity to The Art of Observation.

3 Things You Should Know About the Availability Heuristic

William James

There are 3 things you should know about the availability heuristic:

  1. We often misjudge the frequency and magnitude of events that have happened recently.
  2. This happens, in part, because of the limitations on memory.
  3. We remember things better when they come in a vivid narrative.

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There are two biases emanating from the availability heuristic (a.k.a. the availability bias): Ease of recall and retrievability.

Because of the availability bias, our perceptions of risk may be in error and we might worry about the wrong risks. This can have disastrous impacts.

Ease of recall suggests that if something is more easily recalled in memory it must occur with a higher probability.

The availability heuristic distorts our understanding of real risks.

When we make decisions we tend to be swayed by what we remember. What we remember is influenced by many things including beliefs, expectations, emotions, and feelings as well as things like frequency of exposure.  Media coverage (e.g., Internet, radio, television) makes a big difference. When rare events occur they become very visible to us as they receive heavy coverage by the media. This means we are more likely to recall it, especially in the immediate aftermath of the event. However, recalling an event and estimating its real probability are two different things. If you're in a car accident, for example, you are likely to rate the odds of getting into another car accident much higher than base rates would indicate.

Retrievability suggests that we are biased in assessments of frequency in part because of our memory structure limitations and our search mechanisms. It's the way we remember that matters.

The retrievability and ease of recall biases indicate that the availability bias can substantially and unconsciously influence our judgment. We too easily assume that our recollections are representative and true and discount events that are outside of our immediate memory.

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In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes:

People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.

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Nobel Prize winning Social Scientist and Father of Artificial Intelligence, Herbert Simon, wrote in Models of My life:

I soon learned that one wins awards mainly for winning awards: an example of what Bob Merton calls the Matthew Effect. It is akin also to the phenomenon known in politics as “availability,” or name recognition. Once one becomes sufficiently well known, one's name surfaces automatically as soon as an award committee assembles.

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According to Harvard professor Max Bazerman

Many life decisions are affected by the vividness of information. Although most people recognize that AIDS is a devastating disease, many individuals ignore clear data about how to avoid contracting AIDS. In the fall of 1991, however, sexual behavior in Dallas was dramatically affected by one vivid piece of data that may or may not have been true. In a chilling interview, a Dallas woman calling herself C.J. claimed she had AIDS and was trying to spread the disease out of revenge against the man who had infected her. After this vivid interview made the local news, attendance at Dallas AIDS seminary increased dramatically. Although C.J.'s possible actions were a legitimate cause for concern, it is clear that most of the health risks related to AIDS are not a result of one woman's actions. There are many more important reasons to be concerned about AIDS. However, C.J.'s vivid report had a more substantial effect on many people's behavior than the mountains of data available. The Availability Heuristic describes the inferences we make about even commonness based on the ease with which we can remember instances of that event

While this example of vividness may seem fairly benign, it is not difficult to see how the availability bias could lead managers to make potentially destructive workplace decisions. The following came from the experience of one of our MBA students: As a purchasing agent, he had to select one of several possible suppliers. He chose the firm with whose name was the most familiar to him. He later found out that the salience of the name resulted from recent adverse publicity concerning the firm's extortion of funds from client companies!

Managers conducting performance appraisals often fall victim to the availability heuristic. Working from memory, vivid instances of an employee's behavior (either positive or negative) will be most easily recalled from memory, will appear more numerous than commonplace incidents, and will therefore be weighted more heavily in the performance appraisals. The recency of events is also a factor: Managers give more weight to performance during the three months prior to the evaluation than to the previous nine months of the evaluation period because it is more available in memory.

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There are numerous implications for availability bias for investors.

A study by Karlsson, Loewenstein, and Ariely (2008) showed that people are more likely to purchase insurance to protect themselves after a natural disaster they have just experienced than they are to purchase insurance on this type of disaster before it happens.

Bazerman adds:

This pattern may be sensible for some types of risks. After all, the experience of surviving a hurricane may offer solid evidence that your property is more vulnerable to hurricanes than you had thought or that climate change is increasing your vulnerability to hurricanes.

Robyn M. Dawes, in his book Everyday Irrationality, says:

What is a little less obvious is that people can make judgments of the ease with which instances can come to mind without actually recalling specific instances. We know, for example, whether we can recall the presidents of the United States–or rather how well we can recall their names; moreover, we know at which periods of history we are better at recalling them than at which other periods. We can make judgments without actually listing in our minds the names of the specific presidents.

This recall of ease of creating instances is not limited to actual experience, but extends to hypothetical experience as well. For example, subjects are asked to consider how many subcommittees of two people can be formed from a committee of eight, and either the same or other subjects are asked to estimate how many subcommittees of six can be formed from a committee of eight people. It is much easier to think about pairs of people than to think about sets of six people, with the result that the estimate of pairs tends to be much higher than the estimate of subsets of six. In point of logic, however, the number of subsets of two is identical that of six; the formation of a particular subset of two people automatically involves the formation of a particular subset consisting of the remaining six. Because these unique subsets are paired together, there are the same number of each.

This availability to the imagination also creates a particularly striking irrationality, which can be termed with the conjunction fallacy or compound probability fallacy. Often combinations of events or entities are easier to think about than their components, because the combination might make sense whereas the individual component does not. A classic example is that of a hypothetical woman names Linda who is said to have been a social activist majoring in philosophy as a college undergraduate. What is the probability that at age thirty she is a bank teller? Subjects judge the probability as very unlikely. But when asked whether she might be a bank teller active in a feminist movement, subjects judge this combination to be more likely than for her to be a bank teller.

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Retrievability (based on memory structures)

We are better at retrieving words from memory using the word's initial letter than a random position like 3 (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973).

In 1984 Tverksy and Kahneman demonstrated the retrievability bias again when they asked participants in their study to estimate the frequency of seven-letter words that had the letter “n” in the sixth position. Their participants estimated such words to be less common than seven letter words ending in the more memorable “ing”. This response is incorrect. All seven letter words ending with “ing” also have an “n” in the sixth position. However it's easy to recall seven letter words ending with ing. As we demonstrated with Dawes above, this is another example of the conjunction fallacy.

Retail locations are chosen based on search as well, which explains why gas stations and retail stores are often “clumped” together. Consumers learn the location of a product and organize their mind accordingly. While you may not remember the name of all three gas stations on the same corner, your mind tells you that is where to go to find gas. Each station, assuming all else equal, then has a 1/3 shot at your business which is much better than gas stations you don't visit because their location doesn't resonate with your minds search. In order to maximize traffic stores must find locations that consumers associate with a product.

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Exposure Effect

People tend to develop a preference for things because they are familiar with them. This is called the exposure effect. According to Titchener (1910) the exposure effect leads people to experience a “glow or warmth, a sense of ownership, a feeling of intimacy.”

The exposure effect applies only to things that are perceived as neutral to positive. If you are repeatedly exposed to something perceived as a negative stimuli it may in fact amplify negative feelings. For example, when someone is playing loud music you tend to have a lot of patience at first. However as time goes on you get increasingly aggravated as your exposure to the stimuli increases.

The more we are exposed to something the easier it is to recall in our minds. The exposure effect influences us in many ways. Think about brands, stocks, songs, companies, and even the old saying “the devil you know.”

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The Von Restorff Effect

“One of these things doesn't belong,” can accurately summarize the Von Restorff Effect (also known as the isolation effect and novelty effect). In our minds, things that stand out are more likely to be remembered and recalled because we give increased attention to distinctive items in a set.

For example, if i asked you to remember the following sequence of characters “RTASDT9RTGS” I suspect the most common character remembered would be the “9” because it stands out and thus your mind gives it more attention.

The Von Restorff Effect leads us to Vivid evidence.

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Vivid Evidence

According to William James in the Principles of Psychology:

An impression may be so exciting emotionally as to almost leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues; and thus originates a pathological delusion. For example “A woman attacked by robbers takes all the men whom she sees, even her own son, for brigands bent on killing her. Another woman sees her child run over by a horse; no amount of reasoning, not even the sight of the living child, will persuade her that he is not killed.

M. Taine wrote:

If we compare different sensations, images, or ideas, we find that their aptitudes for revival are not equal. A large number of them are obliterated, and never reappear throughout life; for instance, I drove through Paris a day or two ago, and though I saw plainly some sixty or eighty new faces, I cannot now recall any one of them; some extraordinary circumstance, a fit of delirium, or the excitement of hashish would be necessary to give me a chance at revival. On the other hand, there are sensations with a force of revival which nothing destroys or decreases. Though, as a rule, time weakens and impairs our strongest sensations, these reappear entire and intense, without having lost a particle of their detail, or any degree of their force. M. Breirre de Boismont, having suffered when a child from a disease of the scalp, asserts that ‘after fifty-five years have elapsed he can still feel his hair pulled out under the treatment of the ‘skull-cap.'–For my own part, after thirty years, I remember feature for feature the appearance of the theater to which I was taken for the first time. From the third row of boxes, the body of the theater appeared to me an immense well, red and flaming, swarming with heads; below, on the right, on a narrow floor, two men and a woman entered, went out, and re-entered, made gestures, and seemed to me like lively dwarfs: to my great surprise one of these dwarfs fell on his knees, kissed the lady's hand, then hid behind a screen: the other, who was coming in, seemed angry, and raised his arm. I was then seven, I could understand nothing of what was going on; but the well of crimson velvet was so crowded, and bright, that after a quarter of an hour i was, as it were, intoxicated, and fell asleep.

Every one of us may find similar recollections in his memory, and may distinguish them in a common character. The primitive impression has been accompanied by an extraordinary degree of attention, either as being horrible or delightful, or as being new, surprising, and out of proportion to the ordinary run of life; this it is we express by saying that we have been strongly impressed; that we were absorbed, that we could not think of anything else; that our other sensations were effaced; that we were pursued all the next day by the resulting image; that it beset us, that we could not drive it away; that all distractions were feeble beside it. It is by force of this disproportion that impressions of childhood are so persistent; the mind being quite fresh, ordinary objects and events are surprising…

Whatever may be the kind of attention, voluntary or involuntary, it always acts alike; the image of an object or event is capable of revival, and of complete revival, in proportion to the degree of attention with which we have considered the object or event. We put this rule into practice at every moment in ordinary life.

An example from Freeman Dyson:

A striking example of availability bias is the fact that sharks save the lives of swimmers. Careful analysis of deaths in the ocean near San Diego shows that on average, the death of each swimmer killed by a shark saves the lives of ten others. Every time a swimmer is killed, the number of deaths by drowning goes down for a few years and then returns to the normal level. The effect occurs because reports of death by shark attack are remembered more vividly than reports of drownings.

Availability Bias is a Mental Model in the Farnam Street Mental Model Index