Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking (Richard Nisbett)

Mindware: Tools For Smart Thinking (Richard E. Nisbett)

Richard Nisbett is a very influential social psychologist, and this book has earned high praise from colleagues:

"The bad news is that our intuitive ways of thinking about the world are wrong. The good news is that it isn't hard to set them right. Nobody knows more about these things than the psychologist Richard E. Nisbett, who has dedicated his life to understanding the shortcomings of the human mind and to finding ways to fix them. This book should be required reading at every university." (Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness)

The first wave of popular books on human irrationality focused on documenting our systematic biases, and had comparatively little to say about strategies for improving our thinking. In recent years I've seen more books that focus on such strategies, and this book is one of them.

Contrary to a skeptical view held by many in the field, Nisbett shows that instruction in reasoning and decision-making principles can be effective in improving people's thinking in real-world contexts. But they need to be taught in a different way than they are usually taught in college classrooms. As he says:

"The key is learning how to frame events in such a way that the relevance of the principles to the solutions of particular problems is made clear, and learning how to code events in such a way that the principles can actually be applied to the events."

Seeing how these ideas of "framing" and "coding" play out in the examples, is in my mind the most important contribution of the book.

The first section introduces background information on what we've learned about how our brains function to generate beliefs and decisions.

The second section focuses on choices and how to avoid common errors of decision-making.

The third section is about how to make categorizations of the world more accurately, how to detect relationships between events, and how to avoid seeing relationships that aren't there.

The fourth section discusses the contrast between formal logic as developed in the West, and what Nisbett calls "dialectical" reasoning, which is more pragmatically oriented and which Nisbett argues has been central to Eastern thought.

The fifth section is about scientific reasoning, and more generally about how we form good theories about some aspect of the world.

I have an urge to make a video course that pulls out and clarifies the key insights from this book. I think they're important, but I fear they may fail to register with readers who are new to this field, unless they're actively looking for them.

So I'll put that on my to-do list :)