Cognitive blunders and thinking clearly

The human brain is an incredibly powerful phenomenon. It’s able to uncover the secrets of the distant past and the far flung corners of the universe. It can calculate bewildering mathematical formulae and engineer skyscrapers. But it is also far from perfect. Our brains have evolved in a particular way. They have history. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli explores many of the ways in which our brains can hinder rather than help our thinking.

First of all, The Art of Thinking Clearly is a bit of a misnomer. The book consists of a list of around 100 different fallacies and cognitive blunders that are presented in a loosely connected, aphoristic style. One could perhaps intuit an art of thinking clearly form this list, but it is largely absent from the book.

The basic thesis that Dobelli is trying to hammer home is that we humans overestimate our intelligence on a routine basis and in manifold ways. We place an immense amount of trust in authority, our own preconceived notions, and just following the crowd. All these, and about 95 other cognitive missteps, can cause us to think false things without even being aware of it. He is somewhat pessimistic, admitting that it may be impossible to truly overcome our cognitive shortcomings. Still, by being aware of the common pitfalls, we are more likely to see reality as it is, not as we would wish it to be.

While a novelist by trade, Dobelli is an avid reader and student of the social sciences. Each chapter incorporates at least one academic study. The amount of research on display in the book is quite impressive and is probably its greatest strength. From confirmation bias to the Zeigarnik effect, there’s a ton of very interesting information packed into this short book.

All this is useful enough, but Dobelli has trouble following his own rules. Snide comments abound, and the whole book is suffused with a feeling of cynicism. Dobelli is also very self-confident in his own worldview, clearly unable to “kill his darlings” as he advocates.

Even more critically, the book lacks a cohesive thread. Reading through it, you’re constantly looking for something that will tie it all together, something that will raise it above the level of a list of fallacies, something that—never comes. Certainly, the different chapters reference and, in some cases, directly build off each other. But the Art of Thinking Clearly promised in the title never manifests itself.

These issues do not ruin the book overall, but do make it a more burdensome read. The book is very good as a reference for a wide array of fallacies, heuristics, and biases. If approached from this perspective, it is well-researched, pithy, and fairly comprehensive. It is definitely a good introduction to researching these topics and will give you a lot of directions to explore for further research.

The Art of Thinking Clearly is available for purchase here.

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