Reflections by the poolside

I have described previously the two systems for thinking that we all have and introduced the idea of thinking about thinking:

By practicing thinking about thinking and making it a habit, we can learn to more frequently and more easily use our System 2 to double-check the immediate outputs of our System 1, correcting cognitive errors, reducing biases and thereby making better decisions.”

Thinking about thinking, which is also called “metacognition”, is something that some people are better at doing than others. Steve Fleming, an academic researcher into consciousness based at New York University, and his colleagues conducted a study in which they varied the difficulty of a task so that all the participants in the study were performing at the same level, in this case making a correct response about 70% of the time, irrespective of their ability to do the task.

The researchers then assessed the ability of the participants to judge their own performance; that is, they assessed the participants’ metacognition.  The researchers found that although performance on the task was the same for all the participants, their ability to judge their own performance varied widely, as shown in the chart below.

Blog 12 media Steve Fleming chart

Importantly, whatever our natural level of ability to think about thinking, many researchers into consciousness and cognition believe that this is an ability that can be improved with practice. In an article in New Scientist, Steve Fleming says of metacognition: “[If] it’s being able to accurately reflect on … whether you made a good decision, then training could give it a boost.”

How can we improve our ability to think about thinking?

I believe that there are three things that are required for us to become good at thinking about thinking:

  • First, we should develop a good theoretical understanding of how our thinking works and what factors can influence our thinking and our decision-making.
  • Next, as for any skill that we want to develop, we must practice!
  • Finally, we must make sure to learn consciously from our practice, to deepen and refine our understanding of our thinking and that of others.

For the first step, there are many good books and interesting articles on the subjects of consciousness, cognition and decision-making, and of course there is also this website, in which I aim to summarise and make easily available the key insights from a large amount of scientific research.

The second step, practice, is the one that people find the hardest to do in my experience. Why? Because practice takes time and we are all very busy. One way to get started is to deliberately set aside some time that you will use to think about thinking. For example, book five or ten minutes of reflection time following every meeting that you have, so that you have time to review how the meeting went and how your thinking was before you rush on to your next meeting. After a while, you will get into the habit of thinking about thinking and it will become something that you do automatically, both during meetings as well as after them.

Ultimately, we want to be able to assess our own thinking in order to be able to make better decisions. However thinking about thinking can be practiced on others in preparation for our critical self-assessment. As an example: while on holiday, I observed a lifeguard at a public pool in France clearing leaves from the pool even though the pool was half-empty and closed to the public. I immediately began to wonder whether his action was one or some combination of:

  • A rational decision, because the pool will be refilled overnight and re-opened to the public tomorrow.
  • The result of boredom (an emotional state) driving an irrational action.
  • The result of being stuck in a habit (i.e. a default).
  • An example of following rules or procedures even when they become meaningless or unhelpful (something about which I will write in a future blog entry).

Blog 12 media pool

What opportunities do you have to practice thinking about thinking by observing the people around you?

Finally, to get the most from our practice, we need to take the time to learn consciously in order to improve our future performance. The key here is to get feedback or information about the outcomes of our decisions so that we can rigorously assess our performance. So when practicing thinking about thinking, we should try to gather information with which we can assess whether our thinking about thinking was correct. One way to do this is to ask others for their perceptions and experiences.

I didn’t ask the lifeguard in France why he was clearing leaves from a pool that was half-empty and closed to the public, but if I had been willing to interrupt my lunch then I certainly could have done.

What opportunities do you have to get feedback on your thinking about thinking from the people around you?

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