Have you ever wondered what makes a pundit a pundit? I mean really! Is there pundit school or a degree in punditry? Given what I hear, I can only imagine that what would be conferred upon graduation is a B.S. of different, more effluent sort. I mean REALLY!


I am certain that many of you have heard the rhetoric spewed by many of the talking heads on television and talk radio. This is true regardless of their alleged political ideology. And even more alarming, it seems to me, is that the more bombastic they are, the more popular they are. A pundit is supposed to be an expert – one with greater knowledge and insight than the general population – and subsequently they should possess the capacity to analyze current scenarios and draw better conclusions about the future than typical folk.


However, what we typically hear is two or more supremely confident versions of reality. You name the issue, be it anthropogenic global warming, health care reform, the value of free market systems, virtually no two pundits can agree unless of course they are political brethren.


Have you ever wondered if any one has ever put the predictive reliability of these so called experts to a test? Well, Philip Tetlock, a psychology professor at UC Berkley, has done just that. In 1984 Tetlock undertook such an analysis and his initial data was so so alarming (everybody had called the future wrong with regard to the cold war and demise of the USSR) that he decided to embark on what was to eventually become a two decade long quantitative analysis of, and report card on, the true predictive capabilities of professional pundits.


In 2005 Tetlock published his findings in his book, Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know? The results were again surprising. He analyzed the predictions made by over 280 professional experts. He gave each a series of professionally relevant real life situations and asked them to make probability predictions pertaining to three possible outcomes (often in the form of things will: stay the same, get better, or get worse). Further, Tetlock interviewed each expert to evaluate the thought processes used to draw their conclusions.


In the end, after nearly twenty years of predictions and real life playing itself out, Tetlock was able to analyze the accuracy of over 82,000 predictions. And the results were conclusive – the pundits performed worse than random chance in predicting outcomes within their supposed areas of expertise. These experts were able to accurately predict the future less than 33% of the time and non-specialists did equally as well. And to make matters worse, the most famous pundits were the least accurate. A clear pattern emerged – confidence in one’s predictions was highly correlated with error. Those who were most confident about their predictions were most often the least accurate. He noted that the most confident, despite their inaccuracy, were in fact the most popular! Tetlock noted that they were essentially blinded by their certainty.


Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide wrote of Tetlock’s study and stated “When pundits were convinced that they were right, they ignored any brain areas that implied that they might be wrong. This suggests that one of the best ways to distinguish genuine from phony expertise is to look at how a person responds to dissonant data. Does he or she reject the data out of hand? Perform elaborate mental gymnastics to avoid admitting error? He also suggested that people should “ignore those commentators that seem too confident or self assured. The people on television who are most certain are almost certainly going to be wrong.”


You might be surprised that the vast majority of the pundits actually believed that they were engaging in objective and rational analysis when drawing their conclusions.


So, experts, rationally analyzing data, drawing conclusions with less than random chance accuracy? One has to question either their actual level of expertise or the objectivity of their analysis. Tetlock suggests that they are “prisoners of their preconceptions.”


This begs the question: Is this an error of reason or an error of intuition? Jonah Lehrer suggests that this error is actually played out as one cherry picks which feelings to acknowledge and which to ignore. Lehrer noted: “Instead of trusting their gut feelings, they found ways to disregard the insights that contradicted their ideologies… Instead of encouraging the arguments inside their heads, these pundits settled on answers and then came up with reasons to justify those answers.


Chabris and Simons in the The Invisible Gorilla discuss why we are taken in by the pundits despite their measurable incompetence and why they likely make the errors that they do. The bottom line is that such ubiquitous errors (made by novices and experts alike) are in fact illusions of knowledge perpetrated by intuition and further that we are suckers for confidence.


First of all, our intuitive inclination is to overly generalize and assume that one’s confidence is a measure of one’s competence. Such an assumption is appropriate in situations where one personally knows the limits of the individual’s capabilities. When it comes to pundits, few people know the supposed expert well enough to accurately assess whether he or she is worthy of their confidence. Regardless, people prefer and are drawn toward confidence. Our intuitive attraction to, and trust in confidence, sets us up for error. It is the illusion of confidence.


Chabris and Simons then review numerous stories and studies that “show that even scientific experts can dramatically overestimate what they know.” They demonstrate how we confuse familiarity with knowledge – and that when our knowledge is put to the test “…our depth of understanding is sufficiently shallow that we may exhaust our knowledge after just the first question. We know that there is an answer, and we feel that we know it, but until asked to produce it we seem blissfully unaware of the shortcomings in our own knowledge.” They add:

And even when we do check our knowledge, we often mislead ourselves. We focus on those snippets of information that we do possess, or can easily obtain, but ignore all of the elements that are missing, leaving us with the impression that we understand everything we need to.


So what can we safely conclude?


For certain, we should be aware of the limits of our knowledge and be ever vigilant so as to remain skeptical about what other experts espouse (particularly if they come off as being very confident). Tetlock suggests that responsible pundits should state their predictions in measurable terms – so that they are subject to analysis – both for error correction/learning and accountability purposes. Further he discusses the importance of placing predictions within error bars denoting the probability of accuracy. Chabris and Simons contend that only through rational analytic thought can we overcome the illusion of knowledge. We have to stave off our intuitive inclination to trust bold, black and white predictions; we have to accept that complicated issues demand complicated solutions; and that predicting the future is very difficult. As such, we need to get more comfortable with probabilities and become more skeptical of certainties. As for the pundits – they are not worth listening to – they are almost always wrong – and all they really do is polarize the process and the nation. We need to inform one another of this – and ultimately make an active rational choice to stop victimizing ourselves.



Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. New York: Random House.

Lehrer, J. (2009). How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Menand, L. (2005). Everybody’s an Expert. The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1?printable=true

Tetlock, P.E. (2005). Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know? Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Over the last couple months I have submitted posts proclaiming the potency of intuition. One of my major resources has been Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Among Gladwell’s tenets, the most prominent was the power of intuition and its relative supremacy, in certain situations, over rational thought. I have also heavily referenced Jonah Lehrer’s, How We Decide. Lehrer argues that there is not in fact, a Platonic Dichotomy that establishes rationality in a supreme and distinct role over intuition. Instead, he suggests that emotion plays a key role in making decisions, much more so than has historically been acknowledged. Lehrer, however, uses more scientific scrutiny and relies more heavily on research than does Gladwell.


Currently I am reading The Invisible Gorilla by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris. These cognitive psychologists are best known for their Invisible Gorilla study illustrating selective attention. These authors appear to be on a mission to resurrect rational thought by highlighting the inherent weaknesses of intuition. Gladwell in particular comes under scrutiny by these authors for his alleged glorification of rapid cognition.


Not only have Gladwell’s hypotheses come under attack, so to has his journalistic approach. Simons and Chabris efficiently deconstruct a couple of Gladwell’s anecdotes as examples of illusions manifested by intuition. Contrary to the message of Blink, Simons and Chabris contend that intuition is inherently problematic and detail automatic illusions that spring forth as manifested by the adaptive unconscious.


Anecdotal evidence is inherently flawed yet amazingly compelling. Gladwell, they acknowledge, is a master story teller, and he uses this talent to effectively support his contentions. They argue, however, that he falls prey to the very illusions of intuition that he is ultimately celebrating.


Jonah Lehrer seems to escape Simons’ and Chabris’ scrutiny – yet this may simply be an artifact of release date. How We Decide was released in 2009 while Gladwell’s Blink was released in 2007. Whereas Blink appears on the surface to be a celebration of intuition, Lehrer instead puts a microscope on the brain and the interplay of reason and emotion. He identifies the regions in the brain thought to be involved in these functions and highlights the research that systematically debunks the notion of reason and emotion being distinct epic foes battling it out for supremacy. Lehrer does not seem to celebrate the relative power of intuition over reason, but instead makes it clear that emotion, acting as a messenger of intuition, actually plays a crucial role in reason itself.


Rarely are parts in complex systems clearly distinct. Dividing brain function into dichotomous terms like reason and intuition is just another example of a flawed human inclination to pigeon hole nature or make issues black and white. Although Gladwell puts a more positive spin on intuition than has historically been the case, he also makes an effort to identify at least some of its shortcomings. Lehrer brings into focus the complexity and interconnectedness of the system and dispels the traditional dichotomy. Simons and Chabris scientifically scrutinize the Gladwellian notion of the supremacy of intuition. Their skeptical message lacks the sex appeal of thinking without thinking, but it is very important just the same. I look forward to detailing parts of The Invisible Gorilla in the weeks to come.




Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J., 2010. The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.


Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.


Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


Believe it or not, freewill, to a large extent, is an illusion. For the most part, what you do, as you go through your day is based on decisions made outside of your conscious awareness. Many of these decisions involve a complicated and largely unconscious interplay among various brain regions that each struggle for control of your behavior.


One has to be careful to avoid anthropomorphic tendencies when trying to understand this epic struggle. It is not as though there are specific Freudian (Id, Ego, Superego) forces at play, each with a specific and unique mission.  In reality it is more like chemical warfare going on in your brain – where neurotransmitters are released by those relevant brain centers based on current environmental circumstances (what your senses perceive in the world), your previous experiences in similar circumstances, and your treasure trove of knowledge. The subsequent emotions triggered by those neurotransmitters are then weighed out in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in what has essentially been a tug of war involving varying measures of reinforcement and punishment.


Most of us are unaware of this neurological process and are under the illusion that we go through life making rational reason-based decisions. Although we may live within this illusion, the people who layout super center floor plans or produce advertisements know the truth. This discrepancy in knowledge makes you vulnerable. They use their knowledge of how the brain works in a manipulative and concerted effort to help you part ways with your hard earned money. It is not really a conspiracy, it is just an effort to gain a competitive advantage. It’s business.


Following is an abbreviated explanation of the brain systems in play and then an expose of how marketers use our brains against us. This information is drawn from Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book entitled How We Decide.


First there is the dopamine reward pathway. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that serves a number of important functions in the brain. One of its most cogent roles is played out as a result of activation of the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). When the NAcc is activated it floods the brain with dopamine and we as a result experience pleasure. Desire for an item activates the NAcc. Being in the presence of the desired item activates it further. The greater the arousal of the NAcc the more pleasure we experience. It is your NAcc that is responsible for the happiness you feel when you eat a piece of chocolate cake, or listen to your favorite song, or watch your sports team win an exciting game (Lehrer, 2009).


Then there is the insula – a brain region that produces among other sensations, aversive feelings. In a New York Times article on the insula, Sandra Blakeslee (2006) noted that this center “lights up” in brain scans when people feel pain, anticipate pain, empathize with others, see disgust on someone’s face, are shunned in a social settings, and decide not to buy an item. In many cases we avoid exciting the insula as it is the system that produces the unpleasantness of caffeine or nicotine withdrawal and the negative feelings associated with spending money.


Super stores are designed to excite your NAcc and quiet the insula. You can’t help but notice when you walk into a Target, Walmart, Lowes, or even Pier 1 Imports just how much stuff is there – most of which you do not possess. Just by entering the store you have aroused your NAcc and the associated cravings.  Lehrer (2009) notes:

Just look at the interior of a Costco warehouse. It’s no accident that the most coveted items are put in the most prominent places. A row of high-definition televisions lines the entrence. The fancy jewelry, Rolex watches, iPods, and other luxury items are conspicuously placed along the corridors with the heaviest foot traffic. And then there are the free samples of food, liberally distributed throughout the store. The goal of a Costco is to constantly prime the pleasure centers of the brain, to keep us lusting after things we don’t need. Even though you probably wont buy the Rolex, just looking at the fancy watch makes you more likely to buy something else, since the desired item activates the NAcc. You have been conditioned to crave a reward.”

He further noted:

“But exciting the NAcc is not enough; retailers must also inhibit the insula. This brain area is responsible for making sure you don’t get ripped off, and when it’s repeatedly assured by retail stores that low prices are “guaranteed,” or that a certain item is on sale, or that it’s getting the “wholesale price,” the insula stops worrying so much about the price tag.  In fact, researchers have found that when a store puts a promotional sticker next to a price tag – something like “Bargain Buy!” or “Hot Deal!” – but doesn’t actually reduce the price, sales of that item still dramatically increase.  The retail tactics lull the brain into buying more things, since the insula is pacified.  We go broke convinced that we are saving money.”

I hypothesize that the frequently redundant catalogs that routinely fill our mailboxes from retailers like LLBean and Lands End work on our brains much like super centers do.  They excite the NAcc with idealized images modeled by perfect pretty people.  They pacify the insula by noting improved features, sales, and deep discounts on closeouts.  The necessary use of credit cards, Lehrer (2009) notes, has an additional inhibitory affect on the insula.  When the insula is calm and you are primed with dopamine, the pleasure center has a disproportional amount of control.  You may think you have complete rational control over this – but all this takes place outside of your direct awareness and plays out as feelings that guide your behavior.  I further hypothesize that online retail stores work in a similar way (although for some the insula may be aroused by security issues pertaining to using a credit card online).  Regardless, substantial marketing attempts by companies like EMS, REI, Victoria’s Secrets, LLBean, Bath & Body Works fill my in box, always hoping to draw in my NAcc and pacify my insula and subsequently open my wallet.  You have to guess that the amount of money devoted to catalogs and internet marketing pays off for these companies or they wouldn’t do it.


Being aware of one’s neurology and how we are manipulated may help us mediate these unconscious forces and thus help us make better decisions.  I myself try to avoid Malls and stores like Target because of the feelings they create in me.  And for this very reason, I’ve stopped routinely looking at catalogs.  I try to shop based only on need – not want.  I’m making progress – but it is hard – these patterns have been in place and reinforced for a long time.




Blakeslee, Sandra. 2007. Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/06/health/psychology/06brain.html?emc=eta1&pagewanted=all


Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


For nearly as long as humans have been thinking about thinking, one of the most intriguing issues has been the interplay of reason and emotion. For the greatest thinkers throughout recorded history, reason has reigned supreme. The traditional paradigm has been one of a dichotomy where refined and uniquely human REASON pitches an ongoing battle for control over animalistic and lustful EMOTIONS. It has been argued by the likes of Plato, Descartes, Kant and and even Thomas Jefferson that reason is the means to enlightenment and that emotion is the sure road to human suffering (Lehrer, 2009).


This Platonic dichotomy remains a pillar of Western thought (Lehrer, 2009). Suppressing your urges is a matter of will – recall the mantras “Just say no!” or “Just do it!” My guess is that most people today continue to think of the brain in these terms. Until recently even the cognitive sciences reinforced this notion. Only through very recent advances in the tools used to study the brain (e.g., fMRI) and other ingenious studies (e.g., Damasio’s IGT) has any evidence been generated to place this traditional paradigm in doubt. As it turns out, emotion plays a very crucial role in decision making. Without it, our ability to reason effectively is seriously compromised. I have long believed that feelings and emotions should be under the control of our evolutionary gift – the frontal cortex. Reason, after all, is what sets us apart from the other animals. Instead it is important to understand that we have learned that these forces are NOT foes but essentially collaborative and completely interdependent forces.


The implications of this recent knowledge certainly do not suggest that it is fruitless to employ our reason and critical thinking capabilities as we venture through life. Reason is crucial and it does set us apart from other life forms that lack such fully developed frontal cortices. This part of the outdated concept is correct. However, we are wrong to suppose that emotion with regard to decision making lacks value or that it is a villainous force.


Jonah Lehrer, in his book, How We Decide discusses this very issue and notes that: “The crucial importance of our emotions – the fact that we can’t make decisions without them – contradicts the conventional view of human nature, with its ancient philosophical roots.” He further notes:


“The expansion of the frontal cortex during human evolution did not turn us into purely rational creatures, able to ignore our impulses. In fact, neuroscience now knows that the opposite is true: a significant part of our frontal cortex is involved with emotion. David Hume, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who delighted in heretical ideas, was right when he declared that reason was the “the slave of the passions.”


So how does this work? How do emotion and critical thinking join forces? Neuroscientists now know that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is the brain center where this interplay takes place. Located in the lower frontal cortex (the area just above and behind your eyes), your OFC integrates a multitude of information from various brain regions along with visceral emotions in an attempt to facilitate adaptive decision making. Current neuroimaging evidence suggests that the OFC is involved in monitoring, learning, as well as the memorization of the potency of both reinforcers and punishers. It operates within your adaptive unconscious – analyzing the available options, and communicating its decisions by creating emotions that are supposed to help you make decisions.


Next time you are faced with a decision, and you experience an associated emotion – it is the result of your OFC’s attempt to tell you what to do. Such feelings actually guide most of our decisions.


Most animals lack an OFC and in our primate cousins, this cortical area is much smaller. As a result, these other organisms lack the capacity to use emotions to guide their decisions. Lehrer notes: “From the perspective of the human brain, Homo sapiens is the most emotional animal of all.”


I am struck by the reality that natural selection has hit upon this opaque approach to guide behavior. This just reinforces the notion that evolution is not goal directed. Had evolution been goal directed or had we been intelligently designed don’t you suppose a more direct or more obviously rational process would have been devised? The reality of the OFC even draws into question the notion of free will – which is a topic all its own.


This largely adaptive brain system of course has draw backs and limitations – many of which I have previously discussed (e.g., implicit associations, cognitive conservatism, attribution error, cognitive biases, essentialism, pareidolia). This is true, in part, because these newer and “higher” brain functions are relatively recent evolutionary developments and the kinks have yet to be worked out (Lehrer, 2009). I also believe that perhaps the complexities and diversions of modernity exceed our neural specifications. Perhaps in time, natural selection will take us in a different direction, but none of us will ever see this. Regardless, by learning about how our brains work, we certainly can take an active role in shaping how we think. How do you think?




Gladwell, M. (2005). ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ Little, Brown and Company:New York.


Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


The capabilities of our adaptive unconscious are really quite amazing. In an earlier post, entitled Intuitive Thought, I covered the general relative strengths of this silent supercomputer running outside of our awareness. It has long been believed that rational thought, the application of logic and reason, over intuition, is the key to a successful life. One wonders, given the recent revelations about the importance of emotion and intuition, how reasoning capabilities would fair in a head to head (pun intended) competition with emotion?


Believe it or not, a research team from the University of Iowa devised a rather ingenious way of holding such a competition. In 1994 neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, Antoine Bechara, Daniel Tranel, and Steven Anderson developed the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) to facilitate the identification of decision-making errors in individuals with prefrontal cortex damage. Both Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) highlight this study in their powerful books on how we think. The IGT website describes the IGT as “a computerized experiment that is carried out in real time and resembles real-world contingencies. The task allows participants to select cards from four decks displayed on-screen. Participants are instructed that the selection of each card will result in winning or losing money. The objective is to attempt to win as much money as possible.” Sounds straight forward – although there is a catch. The participants are not aware that the decks are rigged in such a way that two decks consistently offer modest cash advances ($50) and rare penalties. These are the “good decks.” The two other decks, the “bad decks,” provide bigger advances ($100) but also devastating penalties ($1250). Playing the good decks is a slow but sure road to substantial winnings. The bad decks lead to disaster.


As participants began selecting cards, they tended to draw from all four decks (in a random fashion). However, as card selection proceeded and the consequences of their choices were realized, on average it took the typical participant about 50 cards before they started exclusively drawing from the “good decks.”  After drawing 50 cards, most participants developed a hunch that there were deck specific patterns in rewards and penalties and they began responding to those patterns. But It took on average about 80 cards before the typical subject could explain why they favored the good decks. That is 80 draws before most people concluded, rationally and logically, that there were good and bad decks.


In their original study, Damasio and his colleagues were interested in the emotional responses the subjects had to the task.  Participants were hooked up to a machine that specifically monitored their stress response (nervousness and anxiety) associated with each and every card selection.   What they discovered was that their subjects responded emotionally to the bad decks long before they changed their behavior or developed any rational understanding of the card distribution. On average most subjects exhibited a stress response to the bad decks after ten draws, a full 40 draws before their behavior changed and 70 draws before they could identify the reason for avoidance of the bad decks. Lehrer noted that “Although the subject still had little inkling of which card piles were the most lucrative, his emotions had developed an accurate sense of fear. The emotions knew which decks were dangerous. The subject’s feelings figured out the game first.”


On the IGT, neurotypical individuals almost always came out well ahead financially. Ultimately the emotions they experienced associated with draws from the various decks clued them into the correct responding pattern. However, individuals who were incapable of experiencing any emotional response – typically due to damaged orbito-frontal cotices – proved incapable of identifying the patterns and often went bankrupt. As it turns out, our emotional responses serve a very crucial role in good decision making – much more so than reason and logic. Again from Lehrer: “When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win.” The adaptive unconscious and the associated underlying emotional capacity of the brain serve an essential role in the decision making process. “Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.” (Lehrer, 2009).


It really is quite amazing that we strive for, and so greatly value, rational thought as a savior of sorts; yet it is our intuition and emotions that really serve as our most effective advisers. The acceptance of the inferiority of rationality is literally and figuratively counter-intuitive. Of course this does not mean we should devalue rationality and go with all our impulses. There are limits and dangers associated with such thinking, and our emotions are kept in balance by our reasoning capabilities. It is crucial that we understand the capacity and strengths of both reason and intuition, as well as their downfalls. I am devoted to this pursuit with growing passion and will continue to share my insights.




Gladwell, M. 2005.  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York


Lehrer, J. 2009.  How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


In my post entitled Intuitive Thought I mentioned that rational thought is slow and arduous. I also mentioned in Spinoza’s Conjecture that vague or confusing information is processed in a portion of the brain that also processes pain and disgust. Rational thought, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact we are not very good at it. According to Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, “People are naturally curious but they are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, people will avoid thinking.


Willingham delved into this reality in his intriguing article “Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking.” He suggests that we are good at certain types of reason (relative to other animals), but that we are much better at other brain functions like seeing and moving. Both of these capabilities are highly complex; however, they are relatively automatic and we tend to take them for granted. We don’t have to think to see or generally to ambulate. A massive portion of our neurological terrain is dedicated to these activities because seeing and moving are actually much more complicated than working out a complex physics problem for example.


Working out novel and/or complicated problems requires concentration and the complete dedication of one’s attention. Think about a personal situation that necessitated solving an important and novel problem involving numerous and complicated variables. Recall how difficult and slow the process was – and how it demanded single minded dedication and supreme concentration. Do you remember how disruptive distracting stimuli became? Personally, I recall a complicated wood working project where for the life of me I could not work out the solution. Another situation that stumped me recently was trying to navigate the streets of Paris. Oy vey! Between the language difference that made reading street signs difficult, the meandering streets, and the uniform buildings I had a difficult time.


When the solution is not quickly evident or one lacks experience in solving similar problems, novel and complicated scenarios can become frustrating and downright unpleasant. Extraneous distractions can completely short circuit problem solving.


Another complication associated with thinking is that it is uncertain and even prone to error. So let’s see, slow, arduous, and error prone – not much of a selling point for rational thought.


These realities are responsible for us tending to avoid thinking when we can get away with it. So if this is true, how do we get through life? The answer is that we rely to a significant extent on memory including the adaptive unconscious. Willingham states:

“For the vast majority of decisions you make, you don’t stop to consider what you might do, reason about it, anticipate possible consequences, and so on. You do take such steps when faced with a new problem, but not when faced with a problem you’ve already encountered many times. That’s because one way that your brain saves you from having to think is by changing. If you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic; your brain will change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it.”

In other words, exposure and repetition brings the task into the realm of the intuitive brain – the fast and frugal mind behind the locked door. And this adaptive unconscious is entirely dependent on memory.


Memory, it is important to note, is a multidimensional function involving working memory and long-term memory. This is a simplification of the process mind you, but it will do for this discussion. Working memory houses the information that is the focus of your active attention regardless of the source of that information (e.g., drawn from the immediate environment or recollections of past events). These memories are within your awareness and are the focus of your attention. Long term memory, which lies outside your awareness functions as a vast warehouse of your factual and procedural knowledge.


When you need the details contained in long-term memory, you pull them from this passive warehouse into your active working memory. Thinking, as we know it, occurs when there is a collaborative effort combining input from the environment with knowledge stores from your long-term memory. Successful thinking requires effective strategies for combining these two sources of input. In other words, you have to know how to think – how to problem solve. This procedural knowledge is essentially a recipe that is itself stored within long-term memory.


It is complicated, but this is why we do better when tasked with familiar problems – because we have experiential knowledge and procedural knowledge that we can readily employ. Novel problems tend to be more challenging because we lack a recipe and/or cogent memories to assist us in problem resolution.


This is why practice is so important when one wants to become proficient at something – repetition increases efficacy, ease, and ultimately how automatic subconscious responding can become. Learning to ski, golf, or drive a car are initially quite difficult (a lot of novel thinking is mandated) but as one gets more and more practice these skills become more refined and fluid.


It is important to note that effective thinking is dependent not on just having procedural knowledge (a recipe) but also on having factual knowledge. So although critical thinking is important, it is equally critical to be knowledgeable. Being widely read and having a vast storehouse of knowledge is crucial to effective thinking and is likely to make snap judgments more accurate and rational thought faster, more precise, and less arduous.


The finite capacity of our working memory is yet another factor that impinges on one’s ability to think. Most of us are familiar with the experience of information overload, which is indicative of an overloaded working memory. I experience this phenomena after two full days at a professional conference or even when trying to solve multiple digit long division in my head. For example try diving 753 by 13 in your head. This is difficult because we are not adept at storing much organized data in working memory. Anyways, if working memory is overloaded, one’s ability to think is compromised.


So why is it that despite the arduous nature of rational thought, that we are drawn to mental challenges? Why do people enjoy games like chess, suduko, crossword puzzles, framegames, and so on? Why, if we’re not good at thinking, do we seek out mental challenges that actively engage thinking? Willingham suggests that “mental work appeals to us because it offers the opportunity for that pleasant feeling when it succeeds.”


Success is the crucial variable within the pursuit of mental challenges. Problems that are either too easy or too difficult are unlikely to be attended to. Puzzles that challenge, but that do not overtax one’s capacity are likely to offer that reinforcing “pleasant feeling” associated with success. In reality this is a behavioral paradigm. Again, Willingham notes:

“…when you size up a problem as very difficult, you are judging that you’re unlikely able to solve it, and therefore unlikely able to get the satisfaction that would come with the solution. So there is inconsistency in claiming that people avoid thought and in claiming that people are naturally curious – curiosity prompts people to explore new ideas and problems but when they do, they quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, people stop working on the problem if they can.”

Willingham’s intent in his article was to help teacher’s understand that learning is hard and frankly aversive for many students because of how they are taught. He provided specific strategies for helping teachers plan appropriately and teach in a way that fosters a love of learning. The key is finding that magical Goldilock’s Zone – where the work is neither too easy or too hard – it needs to be just right.


Developing an understanding of these concepts is crucial for anyone interested in learning, teaching, or in becoming a more effective thinker or doer. Here are just a couple of things to “keep in mind:”

  • Read a lot – build the stores in your long-term memory
  • Experience a lot – build those same stores.
  • Diversify your exposure. Expand your stores.
  • Practice a lot – if you want to get better at a particular skill – practice, practice, practice!
  • If something is too hard – don’t give up. Instead back up a bit – work on fundamental skills – refine your procedural skills. Find your level of competence and slowly raise the bar.


We need not be victims of evolution and the subsequent configuration of our brains. Just as we can proactively upgrade our adaptive unconscious, so too can we adapt our rational thought.


Willingham, D. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking. American Educator. Spring Issue. http://archive.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring2009/WILLINGHAM%282%29.pdf