Book Summary: Mindware by Richard E. Nisbett

Are you looking for a book summary of Mindware by Richard E. Nisbett? You have come to the right place.

I jotted down a few key insights from Richard E. Nisbett’s book after reading it.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

What is Mindware About?

Mindware shows how to reframe common problems in such a way that these powerful scientific and statistical concepts can be applied to them.

We don’t have conscious access to all the unconscious processes in our minds, which are often the triggers for our decisions and choices.

This is a comprehensive guide to the many ways that we make bad decisions, misunderstand situations and get the data wrong, but also a reminder that our unconscious mind can and does work for us if we can let it.

Who is The Author of Mindware?

Richard Eugene Nisbett is an American social psychologist and writer. He is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Mindware Book Summary

Before he was known to a wider audience, the social psychologist Richard Nisbett already had a strong academic following.

In 1977, he wrote what became a widely cited psychology article with T. D. Wilson, ‘Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes’. They discussed mental processes when it comes to making choices and our emotions can’t be consciously accessed. Malcolm Gladwell has described him as being one of his major influences. 

Nisbett’s 1993 book Rules for Reasoning is a terrific examination of experimental investigations of reasoning and, in particular, the abstract rules we rely on, and whether or not we can learn to change the unconscious choices we make. It is to be hoped that some enterprising editor will be reissuing this book soon.

Mindware is a comprehensive guide to the ways in which our conscious thoughts don’t always line up with the unconscious processes that are actually driving our decisions. The result is that we don’t always have access to the inner workings of our mind, any more than we do to the inner workings of our kidneys or endocrine system.

Some trivial examples of this come from what are called ‘incidental stimuli’: people writing down items from a catalogue using a green pen will choose a higher proportion of green items than those using an orange pen; rhyming phrases are more persuasive than those that don’t rhyme; we place more trust in a message if it is written in neat handwriting; the colour of the walls in a job interview room can affect the outcome. These are all proven experimental findings that reveal the complexity of our mental processes.

The cover blurb suggests that this book is a guide to how to think more clearly. That isn’t strictly speaking accurate. Instead, it is an excellent guide to the many ways we get things wrong and always do, and how some awareness of these unconscious processes may help us to avoid unclear thinking in specific instances. 

In particular, Nisbett does talk about how to use rules of inference more clearly in everyday life, by learning how to frame a problem clearly.

Nisbett begins the book by talking about some of the unconscious processes that get in the way of framing everyday problems clearly. For instance, a lot of our thinking relies on ‘schema’: we associate a fancy restaurant with a range of attributes such as ‘quiet’ or ‘elegant’ and often reach snap decisions using only the schema, without actually looking into the details.

The same applies when it comes to stereotypes – for instance when we reach snap decisions about people we meet. 

The more we are aware of our reliance on schema and stereotypes, the more we can learn to put them aside when necessary.

It’s also important to be aware of some of the irrelevant factors that affect people’s decisions: judges are more likely to grant someone parole after lunch than in the morning. People who are given a warm coffee when they meet someone are more likely to see that person as affable and pleasant.

It’s also worth knowing that the unconscious mind can often help us to resolve problems that we can’t immediately solve consciously. People who sleep on a decision about a purchase tend to make better decisions and people studying for a test often perform better after putting the work to one side for a while before returning to it.

The second part of the book gives a fascinating exploration of cost/benefit analysis: Nisbett points out some of the mistakes we all tend to make when trying to weigh up pros and cons. For instance, we are prone to the ‘sunk costs’ fallacy, in which we ‘throw good money after bad’ rather than accept the time or effort we have already put in has been wasted. 

This explains why people will often continue to sit through a terrible movie rather than walk out of the cinema and, at a more serious level, expensive government projects can be continued when the rational decision would be to walk away. 

Nisbett also looks at our regular failure to factor ‘opportunity cost’ (the notional costs incurred by turning down other opportunities) into the equation and the ways in which ‘loss aversion’ (the way in which our fear of a certain loss can outweigh the hope of an equal but opposite gain) can lead us to poor decisions.

The book also goes into great detail about statistical errors and the sorts of irrational fallacies that afflict people who design and carry out experiments.

There is a particularly interesting discussion of ‘multiple regression analysis’, a technique often relied on in the Freakonomics, which Nisbett refers to as ‘eekonomics’ with his tongue in his cheek. 

The basic idea of multiple regression analysis is to ‘correct’ the data, removing unwanted or irrelevant variables so that the resulting data set only varies with the dominant variable we are trying to isolate. It is a notoriously unreliable process that can often amount to little more than guesswork. It is hard to truly identify and eliminate every factor that might affect a study.

Nisbett’s style can be dense and at times his writing is quite technical. This book is not always as accessible and easy to read as some more populist titles. If you have read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, you might feel that this is covering much of the same ground. But it is undoubtedly an interesting read, and an authoritative book by an expert in his field.

Further Reading

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