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Tag: Reading

The power of thinking without thinking

Blink: the power of thinking without thinking is another book by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers: the story of success I just read a few days ago. He is a good writer: he knows how to explains theories with examples and stories that creates resonance to audience. And he knows how to write bestsellers: books should be easy to follow and not too lengthy. This book Blink is a fine example: it’s a less-than-300-page small book.

Compared with Subliminal, this book does not contain too much diving into how human brains work. Instead, it’s all about plain but intriguing stories. It starts by talking about spotting a bogus statue at first sight; then it discusses about how to predict divorces by analyzing how couples talk to each other; then it comes to why we fall for people’s appearances, how newbie police fails to read people’s minds, etc.

This book brings up a theory called “thin-slicing”: getting the big picture without actually going through the whole picture, but through taking a small part of descriptive samples and inferring the correct result using these samples. Thin-slicing is an ability that only through years of practice can it be possessed. It is a state that spontaneous and correct judgement occurs to you even though your consciousness has yet participated in the process. This ability becomes an integrated part of yourself, just like the instinct to avoid coming cars. It doesn’t necessarily deal with reasoning: your success of getting the correct answer does not guarantee that you know exactly why. If you are forced to give reasons, you may not come up with correct ones and they may hazard your first-sight judgement. To reason means to use your conscious mind; but thin-slicing is from deeper than the consciousness — it comes from the unconsciousness of your brain.

However, thin-slicing may not always give us correct results. We usually trust those who are good looking, while this sometimes leads to unpleasant endings, such as choosing the handsome Warren Harding as the president of the US and who make the worst president in US history; Most white people and including some black people, think under their consciousness that the white is a superior; Many treat women as inferior. These are the unconsciousness that we need to prevent, otherwise we are not able to focus on the aspects that really matters.

In summary, use the unconsciousness, but use it properly. Train the mind, so that the pattern recognition engine in our brains gets recognizing what is important and what is not, so that in a blink of time, we can make the best decision without thinking (using our conscious mind).


What sets outliers apart

There is a famous quote from Einstein that goes “genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work”, and the book Outliers: the story of success proves it correct. As many knows that Einstein has an IQ of around 150, however, IQ is not the definite factor towards success, but rather, IQ is not important at all once it reaches a threshold — as long as you have an adequate intelligence, it’s other aspects that really matters. Those aspects include hard work, social savvy, upbringing and the culture one comes from.

This book tells a story of a man named Chris Langan with an IQ of 195, but he ended as as a bouncer at a bar for the most of his life. He is smart, so smart that he understands Principia Mathematica at the age of 16. But he never knows how to deal with people. He lost his scholarship because his mother forgot to fill a form for him and after he confronted his dean he concluded that the professors do not care about the students. And so he quitted. By contrast, the father of atomic bombs, Oppenheimer is not as smart, but he processes a great practical knowledge. He knows how to get away with punishment after trying to poison his tutor at  Cambridge. He also persuaded General Groves to let him participate in the Manhattan Project, despite his poisoning record and affiliations with Communists. It’s obvious that both Langan and Oppenheimer are smart, but in a way they could not be more different in aspects other than intelligence.

The author also elaborates how important diligence is. It’s known that for one to become good at something, he/she has to spend at least 10,000 hours on it. Bill Gates had more than 10,000 hours of experience with computers before he dropped out; the Beatles had more than 10,000 hours of practice before they made a real hit; the same with Steve Jobs, Bill Joy (cofounder of Sun Microsystems), Eric Schemidt, etc. As the book puts it, “no one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich”.

However, as important as diligence is, it’s equivalently important to have the ability of seizing opportunities. The computer gurus are typically born in mid 1950s (Bill Gates 1955, Paul Allen 1953, Steve Ballmer 1956, Steve Jobs 1955, Eric Schemidt 1955, Bill Joy 1954);If you look at Chinese Internet gurus, same intersting facts: year in which the founder is born: Baidu 1968, Alibaba 1964, Tecent 1971, Netease 1971, Sina 1969, Sohu 1964, why? Because they all had their 10,000 hours of practice when the personal computer revolution began in 1975 (or internet starts to become popular in China in mid 1990s). It did not happen only in computer industry, but also in other industries such as law, manufacturing, and so on.

The culture you are from and the upbringing shape your thinking and behaviours and in the end how successful you are. It takes three generations for Jews to transform from tailors and garment industry workers to doctors and lawyers. Success is not magic; it’s the hard work passed along generations to generations. Asians are better at mathematics because our ancestors have to calculate carefully when growing rice; and asians are more diligent because our ancestors have to put the hours in hard work so as to survive.

Next time when someone asks how could Chinese economy grow so fast, show him how Chinese work.

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The unconsciousness rules our lives

When my girlfriend asks me if I had vegetables for dinner, my usual answer would be “no, but I had fruits”, upon hearing this she always teases me that I cannot differentiate fruits from vegetables. Well, yes and no – of course I can distinguish them in my conscious mind; but in my unconscious mind, I can’t.  That is, although I know that they are different, deep under my consciousness my animal instinct always categorize food as either meat or nonmeat – thus tricking me into treating fruits and vegetables as interchangeable.

Phenomena like this seem trivial but they happen again and again in our daily life, often without being noticed. Psychologists think our brain is a two-tier system that works like two entire railway systems. These two generally operates independently of each other but they are also connected at various points. The more fundamental tier is our unconscious mind, which deals with our basic animal functions like sensing and safely responding to the external world; on top of the unconscious lies the consciousness, which deals with our rational thoughts and set us apart from other animals. In our daily life it is actually the unconscious that processes more information. Scientists estimate that the human sensory system sends to the brain about eleven million bits of information per second, while we can only handle somewhere between 16 and 50 bits per second. The rest go unnoticed and are processed by the unconscious to produce a much simpler abstraction of information so that our conscious mind is not overwhelmed.

As a result of this two-tier brain system, when something happens, the reality we perceive is not really what we have sensed, but rather what the sensory system detects plus what we think happened. Here’s the catch. Our unconscious mind may trick our conscious mind into thinking about what may have never happened. For example, when listeners in one study hears “it was found that the *eel was on the axle”, where the asterisk stands for a cough/noise covering the sound, listeners thinks they hear “wheel”. If “axle” is changed into “table” they hear “meal”; and with “orange” as the last word listeners hear “peal”. So in a way our brain “invents” reality rather than “senses” it.

This also happens to our memory system. Even though sometimes we think we remember things, the memories may not be accurate. There has been an example of a victim remembering the wrong person as the rapist, even though she saw the rapist’s face under good light condition. She committed the mistake the first time when the police asked her to identify the rapist from several potential criminals and she chose the one that best matched the rapist from her memory. And after that she kept reinforcing the idea that the one she had identified was really the criminal. The problem is that the real criminal never appeared in the lineups, thus resulting her to remember what she wants to believe in – the decision she made when forced (by herself) to identify someone as the criminal.

However, our unconsciousness is not all that bad. It helps us to tell if a person is happy or angry without thinking about it. It also helps us to be social. When we communicate, we always give away nonverbal cues, and we are quite good at deciphering these hints. For example, even if we mute the sound and cover the subtitles when watching a movie, we will still be able to get a relatively accurate clue about what is really going on. Moreover, animals are even better at reading our nonverbal cues. That is probably why sometimes we think our pets actually understand our words – in reality they don’t, but they are good (in particular dogs are better than us) at understand our social signals like emotions.

The unconscious also helps us categorizing things, keeps us in faith of groups we belong to and share the group’s compassion in the face of enemies. Furthermore, it keeps us confident about ourselves. In fact we are often overly confident and overestimate ourselves. Our desire of feeling good about ourselves leads us to have unconsciously biased behaviors. For example, researchers found that in the US people with the same surname are more likely to get married. That is, Browns are more likely to marry Browns; and Smiths are more likely to marry Smiths. The researchers explained that even something as seemingly meaningless as our names could make us feel good and form an opinion in favor of ourselves. This may also explain why in Apple many senior managers have Steve as their first names; and in Amazon many Jeffs hold senior positions.

Another study show that 94% of college professors think their work is above average. Obviously at least 44, or almost half of them overestimate themselves. This human character is a blessing rather than a flaw, since evolution designed the human brain not to accurately understand itself but to help us survive. Feeling good helps our ancestors to endure hunger, coldness and diseases. Even today, this still works. Take the placebo effect for example, patients that are given sugar pills but are told the pills are effective to treat their diseases feel significantly better – sugar pills with a different label actually cures or alleviate pains. They do not in any way alleviate pains in the physical level, but rather, it is our unconsciousness that tricks and treats us.

As we evolve along the long history, our animal instincts have been kept or even further developed while our rational thinking progresses. The conscious part is what tells us apart from animals. However, animals can survive with little or without much consciousness; while no animals can survive without unconsciousness, neither can humans. Understanding the unconsciousness means more than just survival, but also means better coordination with the conscious, better understanding of ourselves as humans, and really following our hearts.

The book Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior is quite fascinating. It provides an extensive range of psychological experiments to support the idea, and explains theories in a great sense of humor. Below are some excerpts and notes from the book.

When the author tries to prove to his mother that a tortoise is primitive by waving his hands to it and it ignores him, his mother argues: “Your kids ignore you, and you don’t call them primitive creatures.”

Smiths are more likely to marry Smiths: people have a basic desire to feel good about themselves, and therefore we have a tendency to be unconsciously biased in favor of traits similar to our own, even such seemingly meaningless traits as our names.

The Pepsi paradox: Pepsi tastes better than Coke in blind tests; while people still prefer Coke when they have a choice. Wine tastes better with higher price labels. Stockings with a particular scent sells better. Detergent with yellow and blue box is more effective. Many of our basic assumptions about ourselves and the society are false.

The human sensory system sends the brain about eleven million bits of information per second, while we can only handle between sixteen and fifty bits per second.

The human mental system is a two-tier system comprised of an unconscious tier and a conscious tier. The unconscious tier is more fundamental. It developed early our evolution, to deal with basic necessities of function and survival, sensing and responding to the external world. Most nonhuman species can survive with little or no conscious thought, but no animal can exist without unconsciousness. Scientists estimate that we are conscious of only about 5% of our cognitive function, the other 95% goes beyond our awareness.

If a animation is shown in front of one eye and a static picture is shown in front of the other, you will only be aware of the animation, even if the static picture is pornographic (but you will probably make a correct guess if you’re forced to). PS. in academia they sometimes take “highly arousing erotic images” from the International Affective Picture System, which contains a range of pictures from sexually explicit material to mutilated bodies to pleasant images of children and wildlife.

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