Literary Links: Critical Thinking and Decision-Making

From picking a pair of shoes to wear to the office to buying a house, we are constantly faced with the challenge of making decisions. It’s an everyday process that can be surprisingly difficult and may cause feelings ranging from mild irritation to painstaking agony. Humans are also not particularly skilled at making choices; we frequently employ flawed logic that we’re incapable of recognizing. Ironically, we don’t often examine the thought processes that result in our choices. Luckily, there is an abundance of recently published books that do the hard work for us! There are so many titles out now that it was, as you might expect, a challenge to decide which to present here.

A Field Guide to Lies coverIn the current era, we have so much information at our disposal. With just a few clicks or taps on a screen, we can usually find answers to any inquiry. Yet our internet searches often yield so many results that they’re difficult to parse. In “A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age,” Daniel J. Levitin examines the tactics most media outlets use to simplify scientific and statistical findings to readers, and how our interpretations of this information are often flawed. The book gives readers a guide to distinguishing reliable information from distortions, lies and misinformation.Thinking in Bets cover

On the other hand, we often encounter situations in which we are lacking some crucial information. How can we make a good decision when we don’t have all the facts? In “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts,” Annie Duke introduces us to a kind of decision-making that shifts away from the need for certainty. Using examples from sports, business and politics, Duke shows us how to think strategically about the odds of success, allowing us to be more confident decision-makers in times of uncertainty.

How to Think coverLike Annie Duke, Alan Jacobs also believes that flawed thinking comes from the propensity for quick decision-making. He explores this topic in “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odd.” Thinking is inherently a slow and complicated process, and there are many things that prevent us from doing it in the current era. We receive a constant barrage of information from the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but we have no time to critically evaluate it. When we encounter conflicting ideas, confirmation bias can kick in, leading to deeper and deeper divides. Jacobs discusses the cognitive processes of thinking and introduces methods for being self-aware and open-minded, so that we avoid reacting and begin thinking. Elastic cover

Artificial intelligence conjures up the idea of a robot takeover, but what if technology improves our thinking skills instead?  Even when we recognize our cognitive weaknesses and flawed thinking, at the end of the day, we’re still mistake-prone humans. In “AIQ: How People and Machines Are Smarter Together,” Nicholas G. Polson and James Scott examine the algorithms computers use to make quicker, more accurate and less biased decisions. They posit that we can use such algorithmic thinking as a complementary asset to humans’ existing knowledge and expertise.

When coverAlgorithmic thinking is an important part of cognition, but it is somewhat limited in an ever-changing world. “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change” taps into what author Leonard Mlodinow believes is a human affinity for novelty and our aptitude to be quick on our feet as we encounter new challenges and shifting physical and social landscapes. The ability to generate new ideas and solutions to problems is crucial in our dynamic world.

For many of us struggling thinkers, our decisions end up being not so much a question of “if” but “when.” We often linger before taking a risk or pick randomly for less weighty matters. Ultimately, we make these timing decisions based on guesswork, but there is a science to timing that Daniel H. Pink explores in “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” There may be optimal moments to take a snack break, quit a job or start a new one.  Maybe a better understanding of this science will enhance your decision-making and lead to better outcomes.