Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Protect Yourself by Using These Seven Powerful Cognitive Tools

Denise D. Cummins

Worldwide, we are becoming more tribal in our thinking, but we define our tribes differently than we did in the past. In the 21st century, we define our tribes in terms of shared beliefs rather than through shared genes. A person who shares our beliefs is one of “us”, someone who can be trusted. A person who doesn’t share our beliefs is one of “them”—an outsider we hold in suspicion.

The clear and present danger of tribal thinking is that it can be used to manipulate us. We dispense with the necessity of testing the truth of what our tribes tell us. We dismiss reported facts that clash with the beliefs of our tribe precisely because they clash with the beliefs of our tribe. Rather than seeking and weighing evidence, we ask: Does this benefit my tribe or not? We come to see other “tribes” as harming “us” or “our” way of life, usually by assuming they are somehow unfairly accessing “our” resources.

The hope of higher education is the broadening of young minds in order to inoculate them against regression to this very primitive form of thinking. Yet education has failed to achieve that lofty goal. Republicans’ misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education, and Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn.

Why does higher education fail so miserably? The reason is that most students gravitate to areas of study that appeal to those who think like they do, and they remain well insulated within their particular areas of study. Pre-law majors study logic. Science majors study experimental design. Business majors study economics. And none of them knows what tools other students are learning in other fields. When they graduate, they are painfully naïve at solving the diverse kinds of problems that characterize life outside their well-insulated educational bubbles.

The key to reasoning well is having a bigger cognitive toolbox. Lawyers must understand how to evaluate the risks and benefits of getting vaccinated. Scientists must understand how economic policy impacts their household income. And business majors must understand how to discern good evidence and sound arguments from snake oil sale pitches.

There are seven tools that should be in everyone’s cognitive toolbox, and everyone should be fluent in how to use these tools to solve the problems in different areas of our lives. These methods are:

1. Logic: How to tell a sound argument from a fallacy.

2. Moral judgment: How to tell right from wrong.

3. Analogical reasoning: Seeing connections among old problems you already know how to solve and new ones that seem insolvable at first.  

4. Scientific reasoning: How to figure out what causes what, and what to do about it.

5. Rational choice: How to correctly choose what is most likely to give you what you most want.

6. Game theory: What to do when you’re not the only one making choices.

7. Creative problem solving: How to successfully search for solutions to unwanted situations

These are the main methods of inquiry used by experts to solve problems and set policy in politics, economics, science, and business. They are the tools everyone must learn to empower themselves to avoid being taken advantage of by our inborn faulty reasoning biases.

About The Author

Denise D. Cummins

Denise D. Cummins is a cognitive scientist, author, and elected fellow of the Association for Psychological Science in recognition for her research on thinking and decision-making....

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