Tools for Thinking

Written on March 30, 2011 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in Arts & Cultures & Societies

A few months ago, Steven Pinker of Harvard asked a smart question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

The good folks at Edge.org organized a symposium, and 164 thinkers contributed suggestions. John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, wrote that people should be more aware of path dependence. This refers to the notion that often “something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.”

For instance, typewriters used to jam if people typed too fast, so the manufacturers designed a keyboard that would slow typists. We no longer have typewriters, but we are stuck with the letter arrangements of the qwerty keyboard.

Path dependence explains many linguistic patterns and mental categories, McWhorter continues. Many people worry about the way e-mail seems to degrade writing skills. But there is nothing about e-mail that forbids people from using the literary style of 19th-century letter writers. In the 1960s, language became less formal, and now anybody who uses the old manner is regarded as an eccentric.

Evgeny Morozov, the author of “The Net Delusion,” nominated the Einstellung Effect, the idea that we often try to solve problems by using solutions that worked in the past instead of looking at each situation on its own terms. This effect is especially powerful in foreign affairs, where each new conflict is viewed through the prism of Vietnam or Munich or the cold war or Iraq.

Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University writes about the Focusing Illusion, which holds that “nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” He continues: “Education is an important determinant of income — one of the most important — but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10 percent. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad of other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.”

Continue reading in The New York Times


Rita April 1, 2011 - 2:03 am

Is the trick to non-path dependence equal to not allowing oneself to fall into routines?

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