Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking

Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking

by Richard E. Nisbett


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374112677
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/18/2015
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Richard E. Nisbett is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and one of the world's most respected psychologists. He has received the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Association and many other national and international awards. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why and Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count have won multiple awards and have been translated into many languages.

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Tools for Smart Thinking

By Richard E. Nisbett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Richard E. Nisbett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-11267-7


1. Everything's an Inference

Without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions ... We are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema.

— Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved

First baseball umpire: "I call 'em as I see 'em."

Second umpire: "I call 'em as they are."

Third umpire: "They ain't nothin' till I call 'em."

When we look at a bird or a chair or a sunset, it feels as if we're simply registering what is in the world. But in fact our perceptions of the physical world rely heavily on tacit knowledge, and mental processes we're unaware of, that help us perceive something or accurately categorize it. We know that perception depends on mental doctoring of the evidence because it's possible to create situations in which the inference processes we apply automatically lead us astray.

Have a look at the two tables below. It's pretty obvious that one of the tables is longer and thinner than the other.

Obvious, but wrong. The two tables are of equal length and width.

The illusion is based on the fact that our perceptual machinery decides for us that we're looking at the end of the table on the left and the side of the table on the right. Our brains are wired so that they "lengthen" lines that appear to be pointing away from us. And a good thing, too. We evolved in a three-dimensional world, and if we didn't tamper with the sense impression — what falls on the eye's retina — we would perceive objects that are far away as being smaller than they are. But what the unconscious mind brings to perception misleads us in the two-dimensional world of pictures. As a result of the brain's automatically increasing the size of things that are far away, the table on the left appears longer than it is and the table on the right appears wider than it is. When the objects aren't really receding into the distance, the correction produces an incorrect perception.


We aren't too distressed when we discover that lots of unconscious processes allow us to correctly interpret the physical world. We live in a three-dimensional world, and we don't have to worry about the fact that the mind makes mistakes when it's forced to deal with an unnatural, two-dimensional world. It's more unsettling to learn that our understanding of the nonmaterial world, including our beliefs about the characteristics of other people, is also utterly dependent on stored knowledge and hidden reasoning processes.

Meet "Donald," a fictitious person experimenters have presented to participants in many different studies.

Donald spent a great amount of his time in search of what he liked to call excitement. He had already climbed Mt. McKinley, shot the Colorado rapids in a kayak, driven in a demolition derby, and piloted a jet-powered boat — without knowing very much about boats. He had risked injury, and even death, a number of times. Now he was in search of new excitement. He was thinking, perhaps, he would do some skydiving or maybe cross the Atlantic in a sailboat. By the way he acted one could readily guess that Donald was well aware of his ability to do many things well. Other than business engagements, Donald's contacts with people were rather limited. He felt he didn't really need to rely on anyone. Once Donald made up his mind to do something it was as good as done no matter how long it might take or how difficult the going might be. Only rarely did he change his mind even when it might well have been better if he had.

Before reading the paragraph about Donald, participants first took part in a bogus "perception experiment" in which they were shown a number of trait words. Half the participants saw the words "self-confident," "independent," "adventurous," and "persistent" embedded among ten trait words. The other half saw the words "reckless," "conceited," "aloof," and "stubborn." Then the participants moved on to the "next study," in which they read the paragraph about Donald and rated him on a number of traits. The Donald paragraph was intentionally written to be ambiguous as to whether Donald is an attractive, adventurous sort of person or an unappealing, reckless person. The perception experiment reduced the ambiguity and shaped readers' judgments of Donald. Seeing the words "self-confident," "persistent," and so on resulted in a generally favorable opinion of Donald. Those words conjure up a schema of an active, exciting, interesting person. Seeing the words "reckless," "stubborn," and so on triggers a schema of an unpleasant person concerned only with his own pleasures and stimulation.

Since the 1920s, psychologists have made much use of the schema concept. The term refers to cognitive frameworks, templates, or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it. The progenitor of the modern concept of schema is the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. For example, Piaget described the child's schema for the "conservation of matter" — the rule that the amount of matter is the same regardless of the size and shape of the container that holds it. If you pour water from a tall, narrow container into a short, wide one and ask a young child whether the amount of water is more, less, or the same, the child is likely to say either "more" or "less." An older child will recognize that the amount of water is the same. Piaget also identified more abstract rule systems such as the child's schema for probability.

We have schemas for virtually every kind of thing we encounter. There are schemas for "house," "family," "civil war," "insect," "fast food restaurant" (lots of plastic, bright primary colors, many children, so-so food), and "fancy restaurant" (quiet, elegant decor, expensive, high likelihood the food will be quite good). We depend on schemas for construal of the objects we encounter and the nature of the situation we're in.

Schemas affect our behavior as well as our judgments. The social psychologist John Bargh and his coworkers had college students make grammatical sentences out of a scramble of words, for example, "Red Fred light a ran." For some participants, a number of the words — "Florida," "old," "gray," "wise" — were intended to call up the stereotype of an elderly person. Other participants made sentences from words that didn't play into the stereotype of the elderly. After completing the unscrambling task, the experimenters dismissed the participants. The experimenters measured how rapidly the participants walked away from the lab. Participants who had been exposed to the words suggestive of elderly people walked more slowly toward the elevator than unprimed participants.

If you're going to interact with an old person — the schema for which one version of the sentence-unscrambling task calls up — it's best not to run around and act too animated. (That is, if you have positive attitudes toward the elderly. Students who are not favorably disposed toward the elderly actually walk faster after the elderly prime!)

Without our schemas, life would be, in William James's famous words, "a blooming, buzzing confusion." If we lacked schemas for weddings, funerals, or visits to the doctor — with their tacit rules for how to behave in each of these situations — we would constantly be making a mess of things.

This generalization also applies to our stereotypes, or schemas about particular types of people. Stereotypes include "introvert," "party animal," "police officer," "Ivy Leaguer," "physician," "cowboy," "priest." Such stereotypes come with rules about the customary way that we behave, or should behave, toward people who are characterized by the stereotypes.

In common parlance, the word "stereotype" is a derogatory term, but we would get into trouble if we treated physicians the same as police officers, or introverts the same as good-time Charlies. There are, however, two problems with stereotypes: they can be mistaken in some or all respects, and they can exert undue influence on our judgments about people.

Psychologists at Princeton had students watch a videotape of a fourth grader they called "Hannah." One version of the video reported that Hannah's parents were professional people. It showed her playing in an obviously upper-middleclass environment. Another version reported that Hannah's parents were working class and showed her playing in a run-down environment.

The next part of the video showed Hannah answering twenty-five academic achievement questions dealing with math, science, and reading. Hannah's performance was ambiguous: she answered some difficult questions well but sometimes seemed distracted and flubbed easy questions. The researchers asked the students how well they thought Hannah would perform in relation to her classmates. The students who saw an upper-middle-class Hannah estimated that she would perform better than average, while those who saw the working-class Hannah assumed she would perform worse than average.

It's sad but true that you're actually more likely to make a correct prediction about Hannah if you know her social class than if you don't. In general, it's the case that upper-middle-class children perform better in school than working-class children. Whenever the direct evidence about a person or object is ambiguous, background knowledge in the form of a schema or stereotype can increase accuracy of judgments to the extent that the stereotype has some genuine basis in reality.

The much sadder fact is that working-class Hannah starts life with two strikes against her. People will expect and demand less of her, and they will perceive her performance as being worse than if she were upper middle class.

A serious problem with our reliance on schemas and stereotypes is that they can get triggered by incidental facts that are irrelevant or misleading. Any stimulus we encounter will trigger spreading activation to related mental concepts. The stimulus radiates from the initially activated concept to the concepts that are linked to it in memory. If you hear the word "dog," the concept of "bark," the schema for "collie," and an image of your neighbor's dog "Rex" are simultaneously activated.

We know about spreading activation effects because cognitive psychologists find that encountering a given word or concept makes us quicker to recognize related words and concepts. For example, if you say the word "nurse" to people a minute or so before you ask them to say "true" or "false" to statements such as "hospitals are for sick people," they will say "true" more rapidly than if they hadn't just heard the word "nurse." As we'll see, incidental stimuli influence not only the speed with which we recognize the truth of an assertion but also our actual beliefs and behavior.

But first — about those umpires who started off this chapter. Most of the time we're like the second umpire, thinking that we're seeing the world the way it really is and "calling 'em as they are." That umpire is what philosophers and social psychologists call a "naive realist." He believes that the senses provide us with a direct, unmediated understanding of the world. But in fact, our construal of the nature and meaning of events is massively dependent on stored schemas and the inferential processes they initiate and guide.

We do partially recognize this fact in everyday life and realize that, like the first umpire, we really just "call 'em as we see 'em." At least we see that's true for other people. We tend to think, "I'm seeing the world as it is, and your different view is due to poor eyesight, muddled thinking, or self-interested motives!"

The third umpire thinks, "They ain't nothin' till I call 'em." All "reality" is merely an arbitrary construal of the world. This view has a long history. Right now its advocates tend to call themselves "postmodernists" or "deconstructionists." Many people answering to these labels endorse the idea that the world is a "text" and no reading of it can be held to be any more accurate than any other. This view will be discussed in Chapter 16.

The Way to a Judge's Heart Is Through His Stomach

Spreading activation makes us susceptible to all kinds of unwanted influences on our judgments and behavior. Incidental stimuli that drift into the cognitive stream can affect what we think and what we do, including even stimuli that are completely unrelated to the cognitive task at hand. Words, sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells can influence our understanding of objects and direct our behavior toward them. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending.

Which hurricane is likely to kill more people — one named Hazel or one named Horace? Certainly seems it could make no difference. What's in a name, especially one selected at random by a computer? In fact, however, Hazel is likely to kill lots more people. Female-named hurricanes don't seem as dangerous as male-named ones, so people take fewer precautions.

Want to make your employees more creative? Expose them to the Apple logo. And avoid exposing them to the IBM logo.

It's also helpful for creativity to put your employees in a green or blue environment (and avoid red at all costs). Want to get lots of hits on a dating website? In your profile photo, wear a red shirt, or at least put a red border around the picture. Want to get taxpayers to support education bond issues? Lobby to make schools the primary voting location. Want to get the voters to outlaw late-term abortion? Try to make churches the main voting venue.

Want to get people to put a donation for coffee in the honest box? On a shelf above the coffee urn, place a coconut like the one on the left in the picture below. That would be likely to cause people to behave more honestly. An inverted coconut like the one on the right would likely net you nothing. The coconut on the left is reminiscent of a human face (coco is Spanish for head) and people subconsciously sense their behavior is being monitored. (Tacitly, of course — people who literally think they're looking at a human face would be in dire need of an optometrist or a psychiatrist, possibly both.)

Actually, it's sufficient to just have a picture of three dots in the orientation of the coconut on the left to get more contributions.

Want to persuade someone to believe something by giving them an editorial to read? Make sure the font type is clear and attractive. Messy-looking messages are much less persuasive. But if the person reads the editorial in a seafood store or on a wharf, its argument may be rejected — if the person is from a culture that uses the expression "fishy" to mean "dubious," that is. If not, the fishy smell won't sway the person one way or the other.

Starting up a company to increase IQ in kids? Don't call it something boring like Minnesota Learning Corporation. Try something like FatBrain.com instead. Companies with sexy, interesting names are more attractive to consumers and investors. (But don't actually use FatBrain.com. That's the name of a company that really took off after it changed its drab name to that one.)

Bodily states also find their way into the cognitive stream. Want to be paroled from prison? Try to get a hearing right after lunch. Investigators found that if Israeli judges had just finished a meal, there was a 66 percent chance they would vote for parole. A case that came up just before lunch had precisely zero chance for parole.

Want someone you're just about to meet to find you to be warm and cuddly? Hand them a cup of coffee to hold. And don't by any means make that an iced coffee.

You may recall the scene in the movie Speed where, immediately after a harrowing escape from death on a careening bus, two previously unacquainted people (played by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) kiss each other passionately. It could happen. A man who answers a questionnaire administered by a woman while the two are standing on a swaying suspension bridge high above a river is much more eager to date her than if the interview takes place on terra firma. The study that found this effect is one of literally dozens that show that people can misattribute physiological arousal produced by one event to another, altogether different one.

If you're beginning to suspect that psychologists have a million of these, you wouldn't be far wrong. The most obvious implication of all the evidence about the importance of incidental stimuli is that you want to rig environments so that they include stimuli that will make you or your product or your policy goals attractive. It's obvious when stated that way. Less obvious are two facts: (1) The effect of incidental stimuli can be huge, and (2) you want to know as much as you possibly can about what kinds of stimuli produce what kinds of effects. A book by Adam Alter called Drunk Tank Pink is a good compendium of many of the effects we know about to date. (Alter chose the title because of the belief of many prison officials and some researchers that pink walls make inebriated men tossed into a crowded holding cell less prone to violence.)


Excerpted from Mindware by Richard E. Nisbett. Copyright © 2015 Richard E. Nisbett. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I: Thinking About Thought,
1. Everything's an Inference,
2. The Power of the Situation,
3. The Rational Unconscious,
Part II: The Formerly Dismal Science,
4. Should You Think Like an Economist?,
5. Spilt Milk and Free Lunch,
6. Foiling Foibles,
Part III: Coding, Counting, Correlation, and Causality,
7. Odds and Ns,
8. Linked Up,
Part IV: Experiments,
9. Ignore the HiPPO,
10. Experiments Natural and Experiments Proper,
11. Eekonomics,
12. Don't Ask, Can't Tell,
Part V: Thinking, Straight and Curved,
13. Logic,
14. Dialectical Reasoning,
Part VI: Knowing the World,
15. KISS and Tell,
16. Keeping It Real,
Conclusion: The Tools of the Lay Scientist,
A Note About the Author,
Also by Richard E. Nisbett,

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