Short one today. This is just about some tools I use for thinking.

The world is a complicated place and constantly presents us with problems that often contain many more layers of complexity than appear on the surface. This has been the human condition since we crawled out of the trees and stuck our heads above the grass on the Serengeti. Yet in the modern age, our lives – our communication, identities and especially livelihoods – are increasingly based on abstract constructions, rather than tangibles. We live in an age of symbols, and symbol manipulation, that require forms of abstract reasoning to really understand competently.

The problem? Abstract reasoning is hard, and it’s not really taught at all. The closest I ever got to it in my schooling was in philosophy classes (which, although ultimately valuable, were also mind-numbingly boring) and, more practically, on the college debate circuit, where it’s weaponized for advantage. Around that time, I realized that I tended to fall back on a list of certain heuristics – basic frameworks for conceptualizing an issue or problem – to understand and communicate about the facts around me. These heuristics aren’t always suited to every situation, but they tend to reveal much more truth than they conceal.

Here’s a list of the heuristics that I’m talking about:

  • 80/20 rule
  • Diminishing marginal returns
  • Occam’s razor
  • Path dependence

Once you’re aware of these heuristics, you start to see them everywhere: at work, planning a big project; at home, choosing a vacation; on your computer, trying to debug an application. You also see them play out in public policy, in business and politics, even in sports.

These are meaningfully very different, but often confused with, cognitive biases (ex. Dunning-Kreuger effect, fundamental attribution error, normalcy bias). Studying cognitive biases is fascinating too, because once you understand them, you also recognize them everywhere. Recognizing these in my own thinking/actions is something I’m trying to improve. I don’t think most of us fully grasp just how deeply we humans are still very much slaves to our own easily manipulated, lizard-brain psychology that’s much more attuned to escaping predators and mating than almost anything else.

I wish that more people understood the heuristics above, and how they tend to manifest in the world around us. I think it would help people grapple with complicated topics in a more rational way. Are there other similar heuristics that you use/know about that I should add? Let me know, and I’ll update here!


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