Finding Mindfulness in the Kitchen

I love to cook.  I’m self-taught, I have no professional experience, and I doubt that I have the chops to survive in a restaurant environment.  But I love it all the same.  My interests and heartstrings are tugged in a lot of different directions when I cook, but the most consistent sentiment I experience is a connection to life: to the Earth, to farmers and purveyors, to past generations, to my current community, to family.

Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany) is the fantastic memoir of Bill Buford, who left his job as an editor at The New Yorker to dive into the world of professional kitchens, pasta making, and ultimately, to learn the craft of butchery in Tuscany.  It is a beautiful tribute to those cooks in the world who choose to master craft, and by mastering craft, develop a deeper love for life around them.

The book follows Buford through kitchens of different locations, sizes, and intensity.  At every turn, though, Buford focuses his attention on what he can learn from the moment and from his teachers.  The unifying thread he stitches through these vignettes is a mindful attention to the emotional and human experience of cooking.

Lessons of Mindfulness in the Kitchen

On developing mindfulness in the kitchen:

I once asked Mario [Batali] what I could expect to learn in his kitchen….

He thought for a moment. “You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness.  You’ll discover how to use your senses.  You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says.  You’ll hear when something is cooked.  You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

On the simple pleasure of making good food:

The satisfactions of making a good plate of food are surprisingly varied, and only one, and the least important of them, involves eating what you’ve made.  In addition to the endless riffing about cooking-with-love, chefs also talk about the happiness of making food: not preparing or cooking food but making it…. The simple good feeling …might be akin to what you’d experience making a toy or a piece of furniture or maybe even a work of art – except that this particular handmade thing was also made to be eaten.  I found, cooking on the line, that I got a quiet buzz every time I made a plate of food that looked exactly and aesthetically correct and then handed it over the pass to Andy….

These are not profound experiences – the amount of reflection is exactly zero – but they were genuine enough, and I can’t think of many other activities in a modern urban life that give as much simple pleasure.

On the melancholy ways that food ties us to each other, ancestors, and mortality:

Betta’s tortellini are now in my head and my hands. I follow her formula for the dough—an egg for every etto of flour, sneaking in an extra yolk if the mix doesn’t look wet enough. I’ve learned to roll out a sheet until I see the grain of the wood underneath. I let it dry if I’m making tagliatelle; I keep it damp if I’m making tortellini. I make a small batch, roll out a sheet, then another, the rhythm of pasta, each movement like the last one. My mind empties. I think only of the task. Is the dough too sticky? Will it tear? Does the sheet, held between my fingers, feel right?

But often I wonder what Betta would think, and, like that, I’m back in that valley with its broken-combed mountain tops and the wolves at night and the ever-present feeling that the world is so much bigger than you, and my mind becomes a jumble of associations, of aunts and a round table and laughter you can’t hear anymore, and I am overcome by a feeling of loss. It is, I concluded, a side effect of this kind of food, one that’s handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity, that you end up thinking of the dead, that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality.

laying_out_the_pasta_at_our_albergo_in_tripoli_art-iwmartld2924
Laying Out the Pasta at Our Albergo in Tripoli, by Edward Ardizzoni

On reaching higher planes of achievement through mastery and listening to your own voice:

This, it told me, is what you have to do to learn this craft: you keep having to be a slave – to not one master but several, one after another, until you arrive at a proficiency (whatever that might be) or your own style (however long it takes) or else conclude that, finally, you just know a lot more than anyone else.

On the connection of the kitchen to the natural cycle of planting, growing, harvesting:

The evening was interminable and I remember little about it, except for a brief exchange with Enrico about his olive oil.  I wanted to know why it was so good.

“There are two reasons,” Enrico said.   “When I pick and what I pick.  Nothing else matters.”

Heat is an important reminder to us to slow down, pay attention, and experience the feeling of what we’re doing.  Pair with Thoreau’s advice on escaping busyness through walking and my post on protecting your time for important work.

Enjoy this post?  My weekly newsletter has extra articles, updates, and book recommendations that I do not post on the blog.  Sign up here and see what you’ve been missing.

Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

I keep notes in a lot of places.  I have Moleskine notebooks with thoughts, sketches, business notes, to do lists, and snippets of prose in my briefcase everyday.  I have older notebooks that are full and aging on bookshelves in different rooms.  I have a box of note cards with quotes from books I’ve read that make up my commonplace book.  I have an electronic archive of articles and photos I’ve clipped from the web in an Evernote file.  As a keeper of notes, I do puzzle over the source of the compulsion to record the instant moment, our impressions of the past, the hopes for the future.  Why do we write things down?

Why Do We Write Things Down?

I found simple and wonderful insights into this question in Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” part of her 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  The essay was written nearly fifty years ago, but feels perfectly modern, arguing that a notebook allows us to return to our former selves and visit, if just for a little while.

joan didion on keeping a notebook
Joan Didion, 1970

Didion begins by describing the moment when she found a random story scribbled into a notebook.  She asks herself why she wrote it in the first place:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Keeping a Notebook Lets Us Remember How We Felt

Didion supposes that her instinct to record is not shared by all, and that her compulsion is borne of some underlying anxiety.

I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Didion begins to peel back psychological layers when she admits that “the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.”  Instead, she says that her recordings were about “how it felt to me.”

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.

The Beauty of Visiting Our Own Histories

Didion ultimately admits that the practice of keeping a notebook is inward-facing.  While she imagined that “the notebook is about other people,” she admits that the point was always to “remember what it was to be me.”

Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”

Didion’s best advice to us is to never overlook the value in “remembering what it was to be ourselves.”  As she says, “It all comes back.”

Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice.

Intuitively, I’ve always felt that my notebooks were about remembering ideas so that I could return to the facts of times past.  Didion convinced me in this short essay that I was completely missing the point.  I returned to some old notebooks this week and realized that in reading the entries, I can’t recall the factual details of events or entries.  But the feeling of who I was, what was important, why I was writing was as clear as the day I wrote them.

Didion ultimately reminds us that, “it is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.”

The entire collection of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is full of similar insight and wit, touching on self-respect, morality, and marriage.

Recognizing and Using Anchoring Bias in Negotiation

We can’t see the world as it actually is, without the filter of our own minds.  We can train ourselves to be better at recognizing that filter, and what impact it has on our views, analysis, and decisions.  Remember, context is everything.

What is Anchoring Bias?

Anchoring bias is the phenomenon that occurs when we are over-influenced by certain information, and allow it to serve as a reference “anchor” for our future judgment.  Here are some examples:

  • A manager is upset when she believes that her project is running 40% over budget, but then pleased when she learns the project is only 20% over budget.
  • A buyer is thrilled when he negotiates the purchase price of a house at $10,000 less than asking price.
  • When a prosecuting attorney seeks a sentence of 5 years, the defendant’s attorney suggests and secures 4 years from the judge.

What’s wrong with each of these situations?  Each individual has won a small victory by “beating” the first number in the negotiation.  But each has also ignored the most important piece of information: the base rate. The outcomes above may feel like “wins” at first glance, but are they good outcomes when you compare them to goals? 20% over budget is still over budget.  The home buyer can’t tell if the purchase is a good or bad deal without deciding what the house is actually worth.  We can’t tell if 4 years in prison is a good or bad outcome unless we know the crime, the strength of the case, and the maximum possible sentence.  Context and the goal matter.

Avoid Anchoring Bias by Keeping Your Goals in View

Avoiding anchoring bias requires attention on three things:

  • Remember your goals – outcomes are measured by how close they match your goals, not by how close they match the opening bid.
  • Remember the base rate – outcomes are measured by their absolute value, not by comparing value to the opening bid.
  • Adjust your assessments with new information – Values change, so don’t forget to update your goals and value assessment when you receive new information. Don’t mistake a dynamic situation for a static one.

Using Anchoring Bias to Your Advantage

Have you ever watched a  talented catcher make a pitcher look better than he is?  If you watch closely, after catching a ball on the edge of the strike zone, a good catcher will quickly snap his glove back into the strike zone.  By anchoring the ball to the strike zone, he can influence the umpire to call some errant pitches as strikes.

Your negotiating opponent is susceptible to anchoring bias just like you are.  So use it to your advantage.  If you are selling something in a negotiating context (a house, a car), set your opening bid high so that your buyer’s expectations are set high, and so the buyer feels like he has “won” the negotiation when you ultimately sell for your real goal.  When you are buying, do the opposite.

Above all, consider your choices and make your decisions based on what you want to achieve.  Tactics are empty without a comprehensive strategy, so remember your goals and constantly reassess those goals in light of new information that you receive in dynamic settings.

Drawing Philosophy from Physics: Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lectures

Why Does the Universe Act as It Does?

Why does the world behave as it does?  Why do planets go around the sun?  Why do satellites travel in elliptical orbits?  Why?  To any parent of a young child, the rabbit hole of endless questions will sound familiar.  Although your preschooler seems to be never satisfied with answers, we often reach a point in mature life, when we stop asking questions and instead accept the visible world around us as stable and obvious and unchanging.  If we can resist this tendency to stop questioning, we realize that the chain of explanation never ends.

I left hard sciences behind when I chased Dickens down the path to an English degree and Atticus Finch to law school.  But I’ve kept up a casual interest in physics and cosmology topics since.  During a recent dinner party conversation with friends more accomplished in scientific fields than I, I commented that one of my recurring frustrations with law practice is the fungibility of argument and the lack of firm answers.  My (uninformed) view was that scientific study must offer a respite from a world of uncertainty and imprecision. One friend recommended that I read Richard Feynman’s Cornell University lectures, telling me that even among the work of Noble laureate physicists, “there is no ‘there,’ there.”

Richard Feynman on What Scientists Do

In 1964, the then 46-year old physicist Richard Feynman gave a series of seven Messenger lectures at Cornell University.  They were then transcribed and published under the title The Character of Physical Law. Feynman would win the Nobel Prize the next year for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which tied together all the varied phenomena present in light, radio, magnetism, and electricity.  The lectures had been established as a course “on the evolution of civilization for the special purpose of raising the moral standard of our political, business, and social life.”

On their face, Feynman’s lectures provide a broad overview of major topics of physics and scientific inquiry: gravitation, conservation, symmetry, past and future, and probability and uncertainty.  At the heart of each of these lectures, however, are the unifying questions of “what does a scientist do,” and “how does a scientist know what he’s doing is valid?”

Through these lectures, Feynman explains that scientists find explanations satisfying when they cease to be random but instead rely upon a generalized, unifying law. Recalling our opening question, “why do the planets go around the sun?,” Feynman explains that all objects travel in a straight line when left alone, but when that unchanging motion is combined with a gravitational force – the law of gravitation – the result is an ellipse and a planetary orbit.

Doubt and the Beauty of Nature’s Fabric

Feynman’s lectures contain an unexpected and marvelous surprise by acknowledging and embracing the role that doubt and uncertainty play in our relationship with the Universe. While I came to this book expecting concrete explanations and unraveled mysteries, Feynman makes the point again and again that while we may have figured out how the Universe works, we can have no insight into why it works the way it does.

In pondering the mathematical reality of gravity, that gravitational force between two objects is directly proportional to their masses, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, Feynman states that there is no way to understand this mystery other than with mathematics.  The formula, F=M1M2/r2 explains the reality of gravity, but with no further explanation of the mechanism.  This can cause frustration, until we accept that the same impenetrable problem of mathematical truths is universal:

If this were the only law of this character it would be interesting and rather annoying.  But what turns out to be true is that the more we investigate, the more laws we find, and the deeper we penetrate nature, the more this disease persists.  Every one of our laws is a purely mathematical statement in rather complex and abstruse mathematics.  Newton’s statement of the law of gravitation is relatively simple mathematics.  It gets more and more abstruse and more and more difficult as we go on.  Why?  I have not the slightest idea.  It is only my purpose here to tell you about this fact.

Feynman encourages us to become comfortable with doubt throughout the seven lectures. Once we become comfortable with the existence of doubt, we can appreciate what it is that can be said for certain about the known laws of the Universe.  First, they are simple. Feynman makes this point about gravity:

But the most impressive fact is that gravity is simple. . . . It is simple, and therefore it is beautiful.  It is simple in its pattern.  I do not mean it is simple in its action – the motions of the various planets and the perturbations of one on the other can be quite complicated to work out, and to follow how all those stars in a globular cluster move is quite beyond our ability.  It is complicated in its actions, but the basic pattern or the system beneath the whole thing is simple.  This is common to all our laws; they all turn out to be simple things, although complex in their actual actions.

Second, the laws of the Universe are constant and (pun intended) universal.  Our lives contain information streams of such complexity that for all our ability to decipher them, they might as well be random.  And yet, beneath the visible chaos are simple patterns.  We know this to be true because of the universality of these systems:

Finally, comes the universality of the gravitational law, and the fact that it extends over such enormous distances that Newton, in his mind, worrying about the solar system, was able to predict what would happen. . . ., where [a] little model of the solar system, two balls attracting, has to be expanded ten million million times to become the solar system.  Then ten million million times larger again we find galaxies attracting each other by exactly the same law.  Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.

Multidisciplinary Thinking and the Universe of Ideas

On a basic level, Feynman’s lectures discuss the laws of physics and the mathematical underpinnings of those laws.  But the reason that Feynman is so compelling on these topics is that he understands the greater human point to the intellectual struggle.

Feynman notes that, “we have a way of discussing the world, when we talk of it at various hierarchies, or levels.”  At the most basic level are the fundamental laws of physics.  Next are the properties of substances, such as surface tension or the manner in which they might bend light.  Continuing to increase in complexity are collections of phenomena, such as a weather storm or a star.  Next lie things like a muscle twitch, or nerve impulse, which is an “enormously complicated thing in the physical world.”  Beyond that lie the organization of matter in even more elaborate complexity, like living beings.  Finally are the highest level concepts, like man, history, evil, beauty, and hope.

Feynman asks us to consider what is the most beautiful, perfect, and mysterious?  Is it the world of greatest complexity, or the most fundamental laws?

Which end is nearer to God?  Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws?  I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavor to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways….

And I do not think either end is nearer to God.  To stand at either end, and to walk off that end of the pier only, hoping that out in that direction is the complete understanding, is a mistake.  And to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake.

It is, according to Feynman, those who are struggling to understand the world from both extremes who are making meaningful progress towards insight.

The great mass of workers in between, connecting one step to another, are improving all the time our understanding of the world, both from working at the ends and working in the middle, and in that way we are gradually understanding this tremendous world of interconnecting hierarchies.

If you haven’t jumped down the rabbit hole of Feynman’s writing yet, don’t wait any longer.  I think Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is a great place to start, but you can’t go wrong with any choice.  Pair with Richard Feynman on the Value of Straight Talk.

Join my weekly newsletter for extras that I don’t post on the main site.  Sign up here and see for yourself.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: Harvard Physicist Lisa Randall on Our Place in the Universe

If there is a connecting theme in my intellectual pursuits, it is the goal of finding connections between ideas that open up a new window of perception and expose some hidden truth. Harvard physicist Lisa Randall has written a stunningly beautiful example of the creativity that comes from the study of the intersection of great ideas, in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe.

Did Dark Matter Cause the Extinction of the Dinosaurs?

Sixty-six million years ago, an object the size of a small city crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  The cataclysmic event, known as the K-Pg Extinction, killed off the dinosaurs and 75% of the remaining life on Earth. Randall’s book presents a hypothesis that seems simple, but quickly reveals massive complexity: that “dark matter might ultimately (and indirectly) have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaur.”

To test this theory, Randall weaves an explanatory narrative that is approachable enough for readers unfamiliar with cosmology and particle physics, but thorough enough to satisfy the more curious.  Dark matter makes up 85% of the matter in our universe, but we cannot see or touch it.  It interacts with gravity, but not with light or visible matter. The theory that Randall and her colleagues have advanced is that the K-Pg impact was caused by a comet passing through a disk of dark matter on the horizon of our galaxy. When the cosmic wrecking ball touched the dark matter, it was deflected toward Earth and its dinosaur inhabitants.  It left a changed world, the death of the dinosaurs, and new evolutionary opportunities for mammals and their descendants.

The book succeeds on a fundamental level for its historical explanation of the theories of dark matter and the extinction event. But Randall excels in using this scientific explanation as a point of departure for bigger themes about the limits of our perception and our place in the Universe.

We See Very Little of the Universe

Our powers of observation are weak and contain massive blind spots.  As Randall reminds us, “the Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen – and likely never will.” The dark matter that Randall studies composes up to 85% of the matter in our Universe, and yet no one has ever seen it, or felt it, or heard it.  Physicists know that it is there because of its gravitational pull, but otherwise have been unable to conduct experiments on it.

At first mention to the uninitiated, this idea might seem contrary to the natural order. Why would there be matter that we cannot see or touch?  Randall points out that this is nothing more than a bias on our part in favor of overestimating our capacities:

People ask how it can possibly be that most matter – about five times the amount of ordinary matter – cannot be detected with conventional telescopes.  Personally, I would expect quite the opposite…. Why should we have perfect senses that can directly perceive everything?  The big lesson of physics over the centuries is how much is hidden from our view.

We rely on our senses every day.  Without confronting evidence to the contrary, we fall into the easy trap of believing that we can perceive and understand all around us.  But our blind spots are huge, and making sense of our relationship to the Universe requires us to confront this point and embrace uncertainty.

Telescopic image revealing the gravitational pull of dark matter.
Telescopic image revealing the gravitational pull of dark matter

Finding Freedom in the Cosmic Order

The greatest lesson I found in Randall’s book is the realization that we are central to nothing in the Universe of any cosmic significance, and that there is unparalleled freedom in embracing our insignificance.

Between 1500 and 1950, humanity fought against, and then accepted, three great intellectual revolutions.  First, Copernicus taught us that we are not the center of the Universe.  Centuries later, Darwin taught us that we are not the center of life on Earth. Shortly thereafter, Freud taught us that we are not even at the center of our own minds. Randall proposes that modern physics should cause us to undergo a “Fourth Revolution,” in which we realize that our fundamental physical makeup is not aligned with the majority of the Universe:

Not only is the Earth not physically the center of the Universe, but our physical makeup is not central to its energy budget – or even to most of its matter.

Theists sometimes advance an argument for intelligent design that supposes that the fact that the Universe is “something,” rather than “nothing,” is of some cosmic significance tending toward the existence of God.  At the very least, they argue, it is evidence that the Universe is not a random occurrence.  According to Randall, the idea that “something” is special doesn’t hold true under mathematical scrutiny.

One question I frequently hear is why there is something rather than nothing…. I just think something is more likely.  After all, nothing is very special.  If you have a number line, “zero” is just one infinitesimal point among the infinity of possible numbers you can choose.  “Nothing” is so special that without an underlying reason, you wouldn’t expect it to characterize the state of the Universe.

At first glance, one might consider these notions of insignificance to be depressing or saddening.  I don’t. One of the unavoidable conclusions of any consideration of the K-Pg event is that death and destruction lead to new life.  The K-Pg comet destroyed the dinosaurs and three-quarters of the Earth’s life, and yet without that extinction, it is likely that birds, mammals, and humans would never have had the evolutionary opportunity to exert their influence on the world.  As Randall puts it, “extinctions destroy life, but they also reset the conditions for life’s evolution.”

It’s worth remembering that the K-Pg extinction was not the first time the Earth had experienced an extinction event.  In fact, it was the Fifth Great Extinction.  Four times before, the Earth and its cosmic environment turned hostile to its global set of inhabitants, destroying and paving the way for new evolutionary paths.  We are the beneficiaries of the K-Pg extinction.  And if Randall’s theory is true, our entire race’s birth, development, and eventual extinction are the product of the seemingly random interaction of a comet and a disk of imperceivable dark matter on the edge of our galaxy. That random collision, some 65 million years ago, is responsible for the Mona Lisa, Hamlet, the Magna Carta, Taco Bell, and the Macarena.  All is Stardust, after all.

These things, of course, have a finite life.

In another four billion years or so, the Sun will turn into a red giant, and a few billion years after that, it will burn out completely.  According to current models, no forms of Earth-bound life – simple or complex – will survive in that distant future.

So what do we make of this?  The conclusion I keep returning to is that the bad day at the office doesn’t matter.  A disappointing outcome on a business deal doesn’t matter.  The things that cause  stress and anxiety and jealousy, that make me compare myself and my accomplishments to those of other people, that make me feel like I have failed in some way – they don’t matter.  They are of such infinitesimal consequence that they are not worth mental energy or focus.  The time we have is short and beautiful, and we should fill it with all of the love and charity and teaching and learning that we can.

I don’t know if Lisa Randall considered this type of impact when she wrote her book.  I have to believe that she considered its possibility.  In relying on lessons from cosmology, particle physics, biology, environmental science, geology, and contemporary culture, she has created a multidisciplinary masterpiece that gives a markedly unique perspective on our place in the cosmos.  Highly recommended.

 

Avoiding the Trap of Association Bias

We call ourselves rational.  We believe that we are capable of making informed and unbiased decisions between competing options.  But we are often blind to the psychological pull we feel to the familiar and the pleasurable and the opposite aversion we have to unpleasant experiences.

Association Bias Causes Us to Make Mistakes

Our past positive and negative experiences unconsciously cause us to make mistakes in our future decision-making.  Peter Bevelin explains in Seeking Wisdom:

We automatically feel pleasure or pain when we connect a stimulus – a thing, situation or individual – with an experience we’ve had in the past or with values or preferences we are born with.  As we’ve learned, we move towards stimuli we associate with pleasure and away from those we associate with pain.  We most easily associate to the event whose consequences we have experienced most often and the ones we easily remember.  The more vivid or dramatic an event is, the easier we remember it.

This may seem obvious on its face, but let’s think about the consequences.  Your impulse to move towards pleasurable experiences and away from painful experiences can cloud your judgment if you’re unconsciously making decisions based on an item or person’s mere association with something we like or don’t like.  If a vendor you work with treats you to a steak dinner and cocktails once a month, you’re more likely to buy from him, even if his prices are too high or his product of poor quality.

Association Bias Causes Us to Miss Opportunities

If you are presented with an opportunity, but it reminds you of a past negative experience, you will have an unconscious bias against the new opportunity unrelated to its present value.  For example, if you experienced a loss in a particular business sector or project type, you’ll be inclined to avoid similar projects, even if the underlying market conditions or personalities involved have changed.

Judge Things on Their Own Merits, Not Associations

You’ll make better decisions if you can develop the habit of identifying positive or negative stimuli that you associate with each of your options.  Your past experiences are context dependent.  Whether past experiences were positive or negative likely was a product of variables including time, circumstance, personality, emotion, psychology, and market.  As these variables change, a stimulus that you associate with pain or pleasure is not guaranteed to cause the same pain or pleasure today.  It takes work and attention to evaluate things on their own merits instead of on their packaging.

Using Mental Models to Make Better Decisions

One of the goals I have with Country of Quinn is to explore in depth different ways of thinking about our world – how to observe, compare, process, and analyze the world. These tools are called mental models.  They are the best ideas from the key disciplines in life.  You can learn and use these to improve your decisions and predictions.

What are Mental Models?

The idea of mental models originated in philosophy. American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce postulated in 1896 that we make our determinations of truth by first making mental assumptions, and then running thought experiments on those assumptions and the relations between those assumptions.  Fifty years later, Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik proposed that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underlie explanation.  They are similar to an architect’s building model, the models of molecules you used in chemistry class, and the diagram of a physics problem.  The model is not reality, but it helps us understand reality.

Mental Models Help Us Make Better Decisions

Our toughest decisions usually involve predicting future outcomes in complex scenarios with multiple unpredictable variables in play.  How do you filter out unnecessary or distracting data to test your predictions?  When we reason or make a tough decision, we are using mental models (either consciously or unconsciously).

We believe that something is true if it remains true under all imagined circumstances. To test this, we try to imagine counter-examples.  If the premise remains true, we test it from different angles or disciplines.  As a conclusion holds true over all of the tested models, our confidence in the conclusion’s correctness strengthens. On the other hand, if a model shows a weakness in our conclusion, we can then adjust the conclusion.

One of the important qualities of a mental model is that it acts as a filtering device – it intentionally causes us to engage in selective perception, where we can focus on a narrow set of information for the purpose of testing.  The use of multiple mental models to test an idea or a decision allows us to examine different aspects of a problem or scenario, and ideally, to make a sound decision.

feedback loop for decision making

When we operate without the use of a mental model, we are trapped in a reactive feedback loop.  We exist in the real world.  The world provides us sensory feedback.  We rely on that feedback to make a decision.  Our decision impacts the world and changes it in some way.  This leads to more feedback, and more decision.  And yet in scenario, there is no foundation for our decisions other than our raw experience.  In other words, there is no improvement, no change, no learning.

A mental model changes this and introduces learning to our experience.

When you add a mental model,mental models for decision making
you introduce decision-making
rules to the decision.  This means
that you rely not only on environ-
mental feedback to make your
decision, but also upon controlled
decision-making rules that are
based on the mental model.  What’s
more, you can adjust and improve
your mental models based on the
feedback you get from your decision.

Mental models help you make better decisions and get smarter.

 

A simple example highlighting the difference between these two loops is a thermostat.  A simple thermostat that turns the heat on in your house whenever the temperature drops below 68 degrees is a feedback loop.  If you have one of the exciting new Nest learning or “smart” thermostats, it asks, “Why am I set to 68 degrees?  Is there a better temperature for the moment?”  It uses environmental feedback to improve its decision-making rules.

Mental Models You Can Use

Cataloguing and explaining mental models is too great a task for one simple post.  Charlie Munger explains that this is a life-long process.

You have to learn all the big ideas in the key disciplines in a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life. If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look to your right and left and you’ll think “my heavenly days, I’m now one of the few competent people in my whole age cohort.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.

Psychology teaches us ideas of cognitive bias such as confirmation bias, availability bias, anchoring bias, or survivorship bias. Financial study teaches us about sunk cost, time value of money, and competitive advantage. Neuroscience and biology teach us about meta-cognition, feedback loops, and reciprocity effects.

I’ll be creating a dedicated page for discussion of mental models here.  I’ll be writing new posts, at least one per week, discussing these models with ideas on how you can use them in your decision-making.