Science is revealing more and more about how our minds work. Understanding the latest thinking will make you smarter and improve the decisions that you make.
Here, the author and expert on applied cognition, KJP Sheedy, reveals how understanding our Thinking Paradigms can improve our lives and society.
By KJP Sheedy
What skill does your favourite motivational speaker share with an internet troll writing click bait for profit?
No one quite knows how your brain works but we do have some good insights into how you actually use it. The way that we all deploy our brainpower, the “thinking paradigms” that we use consciously and unconsciously, are quite well understood by science. However, this understanding is not yet common knowledge. This learning gap presents an opportunity, and a threat. First on a personal level, then on a societal level.
These insights can be learned and applied to influence the decisions we make. The individuals who learn these techniques first will have an advantage over everyone else. Communities or groups who do this will have a jump on other groups of people who are slower off the mark. Frankly, the populists and the demagogues are already on the case. They hit learning first, inserting concepts of national and social division into the public narrative, encouraging mob thinking. Already there is evidence of this sophisticated manipulation by some of the bad guys. It is painfully clear that more negative outcomes are very likely to occur. The power of Thinking Paradigms to influence is proven and the good guys need to step up now and to avoid losing a first mover advantage.
Even if your intentions are good, perhaps you find this exhortation to take advantage of other people’s laziness or lack of education uncomfortable? You would prefer to take this valuable knowledge and share it with your fellows for the benefit of all? If that is the case, you really do have to educate yourself quickly. Because there are quite a few folks around who don’t have your good nature and, if they get their heads around this new idea first, they will have the wherewithal to take advantage of your fellow humans, and of you.
And relax! Breathe! The previous paragraphs are designed to trigger and exploit some powerful Thinking Paradigms in the reader. The text uses the Framing, Risk Reward, and Availability Paradigms in an effort to motivate you to learn about good thinking, and bad. And it is very deliberately negative in tone.
Notice that the issue is framed as having a high risk of negative outcomes, rather than saying; ‘there is an excellent chance that the world will be a better place if more people learned to think about thinking’. This is because a negative risk is more motivating than a potential benefit. I have used words like ‘populist’ and ‘mob’ to trigger cascades of associations and bring to mind other negative concepts. The mental availability of these concepts makes you more likely to believe that the threat described is a valid one. I have even used a bit of the ‘Miltonian’ language that hypnotists use in an attempt to trigger subliminal associations. These are generally more effective when spoken instead of being written. However, using written phonetic associations, like ‘Frank’ (Franco) and ‘hit learning’ (Hitlerian) in close conjunction with direct triggers like ‘populist’ and ‘demagogue’ can sometimes help to exploit the Availability Paradigm. In this case to make the reader a little bit more convinced that this threat is real.
You might be sufficiently aware of how you think not to have been taken in while your Thinking Paradigms were being tweaked in the opening paragraphs, but I expect you were still affected. You might have found the negative pitch irritating rather than motivating but none of us can be immune to this type of stimulus because we all use our brains the same way. These paradigms are present and active when any human is thinking and making decisions, large or small. A little self-awareness means that we can use these powerful patterns to improve our thinking capabilities and to avoid being tripped up.
The ability to exploit common Thinking Paradigms to get a desired reaction has been used for millennia by world leaders. More recently, it’s a skill employed by the creators of fake news and for-profit online clickbait. The technique is natural, ubiquitous, and morally neutral. It is the intent of the user that makes it right or wrong.
I believe that It is everybody’s responsibility to learn how we use our brains so that we can be better at the most important human activity, thinking. Yes, there are risks that these techniques can be exploited for negative ends. They are being exploited right now via fake news and xenophobic politics, and they always have been. However, we do understand them better now and the more people who understand how they and others really use their brains the less manipulation will occur. This thinking about thinking will lead to more good thinking, and so on. It is a virtuous circle. That is the reason why I wrote the book “Good Thinking, and Bad: Using the science of cognition to make better decisions.” It is also the reason why I plan to give free copies to school libraries, funded by copies sold.
You don’t have to go online to Amazon.co.uk or Waterstones and buy my book. (You see what I’m doing there?) But I do hope you will be motivated to do a little research into the last few decades of discoveries in cognitive science and to spread the good news. We can make the world a slightly better place by learning to be more aware of good thinking, and bad.
Q&A with applied cognition expert KJP Sheedy
The London Economic (TLE): You’re a serial entrepreneur with a string of successful businesses under your wing. Tell us more about your career progression and rise to success.
KJP Sheedy (KS): I started my career as a Chartered Architect working in Dublin and London. By accident I ended up in the mobile telephony industry and then, more by design, I became a partner in a big four consultancy. Always in the background my wife and I would work on entrepreneurial projects. It was a serious hobby. It was interesting, fun, and potentially profitable. Eventually the background activities became full time. Now I have a classic ‘portfolio career’. I have been involved in mobile apps, restaurants, and various property investment activities. Most recently I have become involved with the rapidly growing care industry. My first measure of success is always being happy, and there is no doubt that having a good income facilitates happiness! It is all about having a clear target on where and who you want to be, then each decision is easy. I have certainly been a bit lucky and that has been helped by the four lucky behaviours. Being Alert; Bouncing back; Trusting my Intuition; and Thinking Positively.
TLE: Good Thinking and Bad is described as a ‘toolbox for improving thinking’. Is it a self-help book or a popular science title, or both?
KS: Good question! Pearson, a potential publisher in the earlier development of my book, had a problem with this overlap. It is easier to market when you fit to a standard, single genre. However, this overlap is really what the book is all about. I’m setting out how the latest science can be translated into action to improve thinking and therefore make better decisions. Most self-help books are strong on what you should do without providing any ‘why’, without compelling reasons or explanations that will support and reinforce the actions you need to take. Many popular science books leave the reader with the feeling ‘that is interesting, but so what?’. I believe I have bridged that gap.
LE: Who in the wider business community would most benefit from your book?
KS: Anyone who is responsible for recommending and taking decisions with a business impact will find this book useful. In particular, where these decisions are being made with input from a team the identification of which Thinking Paradigms are in play and knowing how to get the best out of these paradigms is very useful. That is what the book is all about. It will be most useful if making strategic choices is a key part of your job description, typically for people in senior roles. Anyone who is responsible for high value complex sales or purchasing activity may well be familiar with some of the content. However, I believe anyone with management responsibilities will find it valuable.
LE: How do you define the term ‘entrepreneur’ and what are the five key skills every successful entrepreneur will possess?
KS: The science is pretty clear on this. A successful entrepreneur is simultaneously overconfident and paranoid. They are convinced that they can make a business idea work and that other people will want to buy their better widget. They are also paranoid that the big idea might not work and that they will be embarrassed and lose their stake. That combination delivers the optimism to make the big bet and win support, and the obsessive need and work ethic to get every detail right. The successful entrepreneurs are the lucky ones, but human nature means we underestimate the role of luck in our success, and we overestimate the luck behind other people’s success. So there are three key traits; be overconfident, be paranoid, and be a bit lucky. Two key skills to add to this are; the capacity to deal with ambiguity and a good head for numbers.
LE: Can you explain the mind techniques in your book which you say can make us smarter?
LE: Not in 100 words, that is why I wrote a 70,000-word book! But seriously, the essential technique is to be self-aware. To be aware of which Thinking Paradigms are working in your favour and which might be tripping you up at each stage in every important decision that you take. At first this self-awareness is uncomfortable, like when you are learning anything. Taking up golf or starting the piano. But, just like those tasks, enough practice makes the activity almost unconscious, you can shift it from effort-thinking to auto-thinking mode. You can concentrate of the golf course, or on the music, and forget about the tools and techniques. Then you can really perform.
TLE: How long would it take the everyman to improve his/her thinking and become smarter?
KS: Positive results are immediate. Remember that you are not learning new ways to think. You already have these powerful tools and you are already using them every day. The moment that you become aware of how the Thinking Paradigms work and where they are most likely to be of benefit, and where they might trip you up, you are being smarter. For example, readers of the book often have an ‘aha moment’ when they understand the Narrative Paradigm (the way we fill in the gaps between facts to make coherent stories). They can see how this helps them to create solutions, and how sometimes we are all clever enough to fool ourselves with a good story.
TLE: Are you planning any clinical research?
KS: Ido have some plans in place to do clinical research on the science of empathy in the medium term. I’m looking for clinical experts to partner with me on this fascinating subject.
TLE: You state that our set of Thinking Paradigms have been honed through evolution. Is the nation getting smarter or more stupid?
KS: Some scientists believe that the nation’s (and the world’s) IQ has is increasing slowly over the last few decades. However, the Thinking Paradigms we all use have been developed over millennia and they will not change in any measurable way in the course of a lifetime. What will change is our understanding of these paradigms. With that increase in understanding we are getting smarter, getting better at using the intelligence that we already have. It is like farming. Humans have been doing it since pre-history. The basics of farming have not changed, but our scientific understanding has massively increased the productivity of farming. The basics of our Thinking Paradigms have not changed but the application of scientific understanding, and of new tools like Artificial Intelligence, means that the productivity of our thinking is dramatically improving.
TLE: In an age of technological advances and instant communications, where our thoughts are immediately shared with the world, it could be argued that we as a society are thinking less and less. To what extent has technology generally and the advent of instant messaging services/social media specifically impacted our ability to make considered decisions and/or affected the evolution of critical thinking?
KS: Subjects like this have always been emotive stuff. The start of a revolution is always troublesome. Socrates was against the new-fangled technology of writing. He said, “[with writing ] you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth”. Instead he was a fan of discourse, or conversations, to truly understand anything. Funnily enough social media is really a conversation, when compared to writing a letter. I believe that the medium of communication does not affect the quality of the content. Instead it is the sheer volume of communications, most of which is trivial, that is the problem today. We will eventually learn to deal with this. In the same way a peasant coming from the countryside to the city in the industrial revolution learned to cope with the increase in stimulation that was initially overwhelming. In this mature industrial age, 7% of the world’s population lives in the 50 largest cities which produce 40% of global GDP. Likewise, our thinking will be even better when this technological revolution in thinking matures.