The Art of Thinking Clearly

“The Pope asked Michelangelo: ‘Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?

Michelangelo’s answer: It’s simple. I removed everything that is not David."

Thinking more clearly and acting more shrewdly means adopting Michelangelo’s method: don’t focus on David. Instead, focus on everything that is not David and chisel it away.

In our case: eliminate all errors and better thinking will follow.

10 Mental Pitfalls to Avoid

Statue of David

1. The Overconfidence Effect

We systematically overestimate our knowledge and the ability to predict – on a massive scale.

What’s surprising is this: experts suffer even more from overconfidence than laypeople do.

If asked to forecast oil prices in five years’ time, an economics professor will be as wide of the mark as a zookeeper will. However, this professor will offer his forecast with certitude.

2. The Self-Serving Bias

We attribute success to ourselves and failure to external factors. This is the self-serving bias.

How can we dodge the self-serving bias? Do you have friends who tell you the truth – no holds barred? If so, consider yourself lucky. If not, do you have at least one enemy? Good. Invite him or her over for coffee and ask for an honest opinion about your strengths and weaknesses. You will be forever grateful you did.

3. The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is most dangerous when we have invested a lot of time, money, energy or love in something. This investment becomes a reason to carry on, even if we are dealing with a lost cause. The more we invest, the greater the sunk costs are, and the greater the urge to continue becomes.

4. The Rosenthal Effect

In 1965, the American psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted a noteworthy experiment: teachers were told of a (fake) new test that could identify students who were on the verge of an intellectual spurt – so called ‘bloomers’.

Twenty per cent of students were randomly selected and classified as such. Teachers remained under the impression that these were indeed high-potential students. After a year, Rosenthal discovered that these students had developed much higher IQs than other children in a control group. This effect became known as the Rosenthal effect (or Pygmalion effect).

Raise expectations for yourself and for the people you love. This increases motivation.

5. Authority Bias

Over the past decade, airlines have also learned the dangers of the authority bias. In the old days, the captain was king. His commands were not to be doubted. If a co-pilot suspected an oversight, he wouldn’t have dared to address it out of respect of – or fear of – his captain.

Since this behaviour was discovered, nearly every airline has instituted ‘Crew Resource Management’ (CRM), which coaches pilots and their crews to discuss any reservations they have openly and quickly. In other words: they carefully deprogramme the authority bias.

6. Groupthink

Where a group of smart people make reckless decisions because everyone aligns their opinions with the supposed consensus.


No one wants to be the naysayer who destroys team unity.

If you ever find yourself in a tight, unanimous group, you must speak your mind, even if your team does not like it.

7. Introspection Illusion

How pure and honest is internal reflection? The Swedish psychologist Peter Johannson allowed test subjects to glimpse two portrait photos of random people and choose which face was more attractive. Then he showed them the preferred photo up close and asked them to describe the most attractive features.

However, with a sleight of hand, he switched the pictures.

Most participants failed to notice and proceeded to justify, in detail, why they favoured the image. The results of the study: introspection is not reliable. When we soul-search, we contrive the findings.

8. The Primacy Effect

Without thinking about it too long, decide who you prefer. Alan is smart, hard-working, impulsive, critical, stubborn and jealous. Ben, however, is jealous, critical, stubborn, impulsive, hard-working and smart. Who would you prefer to get stuck in an elevator with?

Most people choose Alan, even though the descriptions are exactly the same. Your brain pays more attention to the first adjectives in the lists, causing you to identify two different personalities.

Try to avoid evaluations based on first impressions. They will deceive you, guaranteed, in one way or another.

9. Over-Thinking and Heuristics

If you think too much, you cut off your mind from the wisdom of your feelings. This may sound a little esoteric but it is not. Emotions form in the brain, just as crystal-clear, rational thoughts do.

Yarn Idea

A rule of thumb might be: if it is something to do with practised activities, such as motor skills or questions you’ve answered a thousand times, it’s better not to reflect to the last detail. For such purposes, we have heuristics, mental shortcuts that are clearly superior to rational thought.

And finally…

10. The Planning Fallacy

Every morning, we compile a to-do list. How often does it happen that everything is checked off by the end of the day? Always? Every other day? Maybe once a week? If you are like most people, you will achieve this rare state once a month.

In other words, you systematically take on too much.

So why are we not natural-born planners? The first reason: wishful thinking. We want to be successful and achieve everything we take on. Second, we focus too much on the project and overlook outside influences. Unexpected events too often scupper our plans.

Extracts copyright Rolf Dobelli.

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