A Short Lesson On First Principles Thinking

A while back, Elon Musk revealed that his success is based on a special way of solving problems called first principles thinking.

In this type of problem-solving method, you don’t rely on old ways of doing thinks (analogies), but instead you rethink the problem from the ground up. You go back to the fundamental assumptions that underpin the problem and try to see what other possible directions could be followed.

However first principles type thinking is not natural to most humans. The human mind evolved in order to promote survival. This favored speed and efficiency in the thinking process and not a slow, thorough evaluation.

Barriers to first principles thinking:

In order to reach quick decisions in a world of uncertainty, the human mind uses heuristics, or shortcut methods to solving problems. In most cases, these result in good enough answers, but there are instances when heuristics fail. These failures are called cognitive biases.

If you want to know more about cognitive biases, check out my series on critical thinking and my cognitive biases framework:

How to be a critical thinker

My Cognitive Biases Framework

There are two main cognitive biases that make it harder for you to solve problems using the first principles method: the Einstellung effect and functional fixedness.

These two effects are not bad things in themselves. They do promote fast thinking and an efficient way of doing things. For most tasks this is the best way to proceed. In most cases, you want to follow best practices and do things using the tried and tested method.

Daily practice of the same moves reinforces them in the brain. More and more synapses between specific neurons are built up, which helps you to pass on the information faster between them and to be able to execute these moves faster and better (and after a significant amount of practice often even without thinking about them, just by instinct).

This is what makes experts so good at what they do. Their heuristics become automatic and since they have been in these situations many times before, they can execute almost effortlessly.

However there is also a problem. Once these neural pathways connecting different neurons are built up, it is hard to pass around them and to do things differently. When one neuron lights up, the other ones connected to it light up too.

That’s why for example functional fixedness is so strong. If you have a hammer and the only thing you have ever done with it is to pound in nails, then you will only see one use for the hammer. You might become really good at pounding in nails with a hammer, but you will fail to see the other potential uses of the hammer.
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A Framework For Cognitive Biases: More Types Of Cognitive Biases

It’s another great day on the savannah. You wake up as the sun is beginning to rise up above the horizon. A cool breeze starts blowing in from the east.

You get all your tools ready as you start preparing for another day of tracking and hunting on the vast grasses of the East African plains.

This probably would have been a typical scene for you, had you been born about 200 thousand years ago.

You would have had to struggle every day in order to survive, by finding food, battling enemies, and generally staying out of harm’s way.

Life wasn’t easy in those days. You were not guaranteed to make it to the next day, so you had to hustle hard and always be on alert.

Luckily, you had inherited a set of internal tools embedded deep in your brain that are the result of millions of years of evolution.

Those are your best bet for surviving and prospering. They drive you to want to achieve more, to struggle on, but also to take in all the different information coming into your brain from your senses and then make a decision.

These decisions need to be made quick and in an efficient manner. They could mean life or death and plus you don’t have too much energy to spare.

The internal tools I am talking about are called heuristics, shortcut ways to coming up with a solution to a problem and then acting upon it.

Psychologists and researchers have started to study them more intensely in the past few decades and have drawn up quite a list.

I had already discussed how I sat down and decided to make sense for myself of all these long lists of heuristics and the cognitive biases coming out of them.

Yes, these heuristics come up with good solutions most of the time, but can fail spectacularly as well some of the time. These failures result in cognitive biases.

In Part 1 of the Cognitive Biases Framework, I discussed the first category of biases that I found, ones I grouped under the “The world is centered around me” problem.

I further divided up this category into two main sub-categories: “I have an ego” and “I am a social animal”.

Yes, you do believe that the world is centered around you, and you do have an ego. And yes, you are a social animal. 馃檪

The cognitive biases in these categories are meant to manage your drive for survival and reproduction based on potential risks.

2) I need to make the correct decision based on the information available.

However in order to survive and reproduce, you need to be able to manage all kinds of different information, interpret it, and then make a decision on a future course of action based on this.

Let’s get back to a prehistoric nature scene.

What do you see? What should you be seeing? Where is the danger? Where is the potential food?

Information overload! Too much information!

Wait, do you hear that sound? What could it be? Should you be scared? Is it nothing? Too little information!

You try to search in your memory. Yeah, you heard that sound before. Probably nothing.

What happened? You were bombarded with inputs from your senses and subconsiously a decision needed to be made about which of these inputs are important and which should not be paid attention to.

You focused in on some sounds, but unfortunately you did not have any more information to make any reliable conclusion. So your brain raced to find analogies to that sound in its memory.

Then based on all these things, your brain came to a decision: No danger imminent, continue on.

What made this decision possible? Information!

While the category described in Part 1 was about your relationship with other people, the category described here is about your relationship with information.

The brain uses different types of inputs as information in order to create patterns, and then get meaning out of these patterns. These processes are the source of many cognitive biases.

Why do many of these patterns turn out to be wrong? The answer once again has to do with risk.

Going back to our ancient savannah, imagine walking around in the tall, yellowish-colored grass. You hear a sound, and see the grass in front of you ruffle a bit.

You are missing information. There are two possible courses of action.

Your brain does not form a pattern, does not associate the sound and ruffle with anything and you continue on walking straight. Or, the brain makes a pattern, surmises that it could be a dangerous animal, and you decide to take out your spear and backtrack slowly and carefully.

Choose your own adventure!

What if it turns out that you did not form a link between the ruffle of the grass and anything and continued on walking, but walk straight into the mouth of a hungry lion! Big mistake!

On the other hand, if you formed a pattern and backtracked out of potential danger, you walked out of harm’s way. Even if there was no lion in the grass and the pattern you created was false, you are still alive and this mistake didn’t cost you much.

The risk of not making a pattern and turning into lunch meat is much bigger than making a pattern that turns out to be false.

This is why cognitive biases have a tendency to happen.

There are some basic principles about how you and your brain works in the context of information. These principles have a big effect on how these cognitive biases take place.

Principles:

Your brain tries to find meaning.

Your brain works by forming associations.

You brain works by drawing analogies.

What you see is all there is.

The emotions you feel at the moment have a huge impact on how you perceive a situation.

The way your brain stores memories is not perfect.

It has been said that humans are storytelling animals. Telling stories is one of the most ancient and most popular ways of conveying information. We are all suckers for a good story.

The reason why stories are so powerful is because they connect the dots smoothly. Things happen in sequence and there is always a cause and an effect.

This type of structure conveys meaning very well, and that’s the most important thing humans are looking for: meaning.

What all the different cognitive biases dealing with information have as a common denominator is that they are giving you some sort of an explanation (a meaning) for all the different things that are happening.

This is the basic principle from which all the other principles derive. Your brain tries to determine this meaning by forming associations between different elements.

These associations can then be stored in your memory, so that it can be used at a later date as well. The way your brain is set up is that synapses form between neurons, which then links them together. When they wire together, they fire together too!

Another principle behind how the brain works is that it likes to form analogies. For example if it has a hard question to answer, it might substitute that by forming an easier question which is similar and answering that.

To put all this in context, you need to understand that the brain usually works only in a limited context and largely devotes itself to the present moment (the now).

For the brain, what you see is all there is, which Daniel Kahneman calls the WYSIATI principle.

The future is unpredictable, and in order to get there you still need to deal with everything that is happening now! 馃檪

The WYSIATI principle states that the brain deals with its immediate surroundings and what it can get out of them, with things it knows. It doesn’t concern itself with things it doesn’t know.

If it doesn’t know something, it just makes it up. Basically, your brain fills in the blanks with its best guesses.

To make decisions quickly, your brain relies on emotions. So the emotions you are perceiving at the moment have a huge impact on how you react to the situation.

Of course, another important element for any type of decision is the ability to store memories and then recall them as needed. The way this happens in the brain can be quite messy and is another source of cognitive biases.
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A Framework For Cognitive Biases: What Types Of Cognitive Biases Are Out There?

The internet has changed our lives in many ways, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. What the events of last year, such as Brexit and the US Presidential campaign, have exposed is the way that the structural flaws of the human brain can be taken advantage of using the internet.

What is encouraging is that these problems have gotten wider play and people are starting to take measures to combat them. Luckily, we can already build upon a wide range of research and solutions in this area, many of them developed because of similar large-scale failures of human rationality.

One of the most basic principles of traditional economics is the assumption that humans are rational actors always striving to maximize their own benefits.

I remember sitting in Econ 101 class and sort of scratching my head at this. In my experience, most humans were very far from rational actors. Actually, I have seen people literally shoot themselves in the foot more times than I can count.

Then the economic crisis of 2008 arrived and all these theories came crashing down. Most economists realized that humans are not so rational after all, and behavioral economics suddenly exploded onto the scene.

However, behavioral economics is nothing new and had been around for a while, but it was not really the prominent paradigm for most economists.

Already in the 1950s, Herbert A. Simon, an economist and psychologist (a polymath really), proposed the idea of “bounded rationality”. In this model, humans are only partially rational, and this rationality is limited by difficulties in formulating complex problems and in processing different types of information.

Many of the basic concepts in behavioral economics are based on the work of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. They noticed that there are specific patterns inherent in human decision-making.

The two big terms that they came up with are “heuristics” and “cognitive biases“. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that humans take in order to solve problems and then take action based on these solutions.

Most of the time, these mental shortcuts come up with a good solution. This then allows you to go about your daily life and navigate the world.

However, things are not perfect and sometimes these mental shortcuts come up with the wrong solution. This is called a cognitive bias.

Why do you behave in this way? All of this can be explained using evolutionary psychology.

Humans, just like any organism, are the product of millions of years of evolution. Their bodies and minds adapted due to pressures coming from their environment.

Not in a direct way, but indirectly. Due to random mutations, certain ways of behavior would arise. If these behaviors allowed the organism in question to survive long enough to reproduce, then they would propagate to their descendants.

This is the basis of evolutionary theory. An individual doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be good enough to survive.

There are two main goals hardwired deep down into your brain: survival and reproduction. These two things are what drives your existence.

Imagine the everyday environment of your ancient ancestors, living somewhere on the vast savannas.

There are many dangers present. At any time of the day or night, a saber-toothed tiger could jump out of the bush and want to eat you, or a little snake could bite you and poison you.

In order to survive in such an environment, you need to be able to take in vast amounts of information through your senses, determine what is significant and what isn’t, and then make quick decisions based on this.

Is that noise you are hearing just wind beating against the sand or something more sinister? Is that shadow just a figment of your imagination or a lion heading your way?

These were the main things that your brain developed to analyze. However there are some constraints to this entire process.

The two basic principles behind the way your brain works are speed and efficiency:

1) You need to make quick decisions based on outside stimuli. So speed is important.

2) You should not expend too many resources, and so you need to do things in the most efficient manner possible. You never know when and from where your next dinner will come from, so saving energy is a priority.

In order to make decisions quickly and efficiently, your brain developed mental shortcuts. That’s where heuristics come from.

However, if your brain developed to make decisions to ensure your survival, why does it fall for cognitive biases? The answer here is costs.

By saying costs, I mean the potential pay-out of making the right and wrong decision.

Let’s go back to the prehistoric savanna in order to illustrate. You are walking on your way home from a successful hunt, your kill strapped to your back. You are walking alone, since you got held up and your companions went on ahead of you.

Then suddenly you hear a noise coming from behind a rock nearby. Quickly, your brain goes into overdrive. What could it be?

If it judges it to be nothing of concern and you pay no attention to the noise, but suddenly a lion jumps on you, you are dead meat. You have become a source of protein and essential fats (and maybe some carbohydrates too) for an entire lion family.

Hopefully, you die quick and don’t get to experience the joys of getting dismembered by a pride of lions, the alpha male and his harem of females, together with their baby cubs.

However, if you judge it to be danger and take out your spear while running away from the place, but then realize that it was nothing, there is no mortal cost to you. Sure, you got a bit sweaty, but you are still alive to hunt another day.

You see what I am getting at? It is much more costly if you judge something to be of no importance, when it is in fact significant, than it is if you judge something significant and there is nothing there.

In the first instance, you die, while in the second one, you continue on living and potentially pass on your genes. Your brain is wired to err on the side of caution.

This is where cognitive biases come from. Your brain evaluates thousands of stimuli from the outside every second, and sometimes it makes mistakes.

However that mistake doesn’t matter if it doesn’t kill you. What matters is that that specific way of solving problems and making decisions keeps you alive the rest of the time.

The brain looks at these different pieces of information and tries to make patterns out of them. If a wrong pattern emerges, it is called a cognitive bias.

One thing that I have noticed is that since now the study of cognitive biases is very popular, psychologists keep on coming out with newer and newer types of these almost every day. Sometimes many of these are very similar.

It’s hard to keep track of all of them. So I decided to sit my ass down and simplify things for myself. At the end, I came out with a small framework to help me make sense of cognitive biases.

I have based this framework on some of the things discussed above. Survival and reproduction are the two main goals that drive human existence.

Heuristics or mental shortcuts developed in order to help humans survive long enough to reproduce. These mental shortcuts need to be fast and efficient.

The inputs they work with are different types of information. This information comes from outside stimuli gathered by your senses or from storage (memories) in your brain.

The problem is that you need to construct all this information into some sort of meaningful patterns. Only once you have this meaning, can you make decisions.

I have broken down all these different cognitive biases into two basic categories arising from two fundamental ideas:

1) The world is centered around me.

2) I need to make the correct decision based on the information available.

The first fundamental idea is that you think that the world is centered around you. No matter how altruistic you are, there is still at least a bit of solipsism inside of you.

This idea shapes your inner thought patterns and your relationships with the people around you.

The second fundamental idea comes from the fact that you need information as inputs in order to make a decision.

Sometimes there is a lot of information around you and you need to determine which of it is significant. Sometimes, there is not enough of it and you need to determine what to do in the face of uncertainty.

Oftentimes, the relevant information may not be present at that moment in your environment, and you might need to pull it out of your memory.

Almost all of the main cognitive biases work within these two categories.

However, you also need to keep in mind that you cannot put all the biases into neat little boxes (otherwise you would be committing a cognitive bias 鈽 ). Some biases belong in several categories and combine elements of each.

Here is the framework broken down and explained:
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Epictetus – The Wisdom Of A Stoic Master: The Secrets To Living A Good Life Revealed

One of the most important questions we ask ourselves is about the way we should live our lives. What is really important and how should we act?

Luckily, there is guidance available and some of the most profound thoughts on this were formed already two thousand years ago.

These words of wisdom were uttered by a man named Epictetus, who went on to influence the lives of some of the most powerful men of his era, all the way up to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Yet this man was born a slave and supposedly had one of his legs maimed by a former cruel master, so that he always walked with a limp. This did not detter him from living a good life and achieving happiness.

Epictetus was not a theoretical philosopher living in his own world, but instead tried to make his philosophy down-to-earth and practical. This advice can be taken and applied in the real world as a guide for your day-to-day life.

His powerful words served as inspiration for many people undergoing hard times. Picture this: a man sitting in a prison with no knowledge whether he will ever get out.

The man could feel no hope, but instead his thoughts are turned inwards and draw inspiration from Epictetus.

There is a great similarity to the tale of Boethius and his reflections on life that I already wrote about. However the year is 1967 and the man is James Stockdale, an American pilot captured by the Vietnamese and put in a prisoner of war camp.

Stockdale credited the works of Epictetus for showing him the way on how to survive this ordeal. If these words could guide a man in such desperate times, just imagine what they could do for you.

We know the philosophy of Epictetus primarily through the works of his pupil, Arrian. Arrian noted down the teachings of Epictetus in two surviving works: “The Discourses” and “Enchiridion”, which is the Greek word for handbook.

It is the “Enchiridion” which is the most easily accessible work, as it is short and contains many practical lessons for your own life. It doesn’t take long to read, but can really change the way you view life in a very fundamental way.

All people search for happiness, but they usually go about it in the wrong way. They don’t realize that happiness can only come from within, from things that you have control over.

What are the things that you have control over? Your thoughts and your actions.

The main idea of the Stoics was that you should live a simple life, where you don’t concern yourself with things that you cannot control, and instead focus on the things that you can.

The world is what it is, random things will happen, and they might block your progress. Learn to accept it.

Living a simple life, where you act in a disciplined way, and where you act in accordance with your moral principles (virtue), will lead you to happiness.

For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.” Epictetus

Below are some of the main lessons from the “Enchiridion”:
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Don’t Argue About The Tactics, If You Don’t Have A Strategy In Place

Sometimes people argue about the little things, while missing the big picture.

Many people will be familiar with this situation. At work, frequently the time is spent in endless meetings, arguing over things which at the end don’t really matter.

People like to argue over tactics, without actually having an overall strategy in place.

Strategy vs. Tactics

Do you know what you want to achieve in this life and how you will do it? Does the place you work for have a clear vision of what it wants to do and how it wants to achieve it?

Most people don’t. And amazingly neither do most places of work.

Sure, you might spend countless hours arguing with your boss on whether you should do Action A, but no time is spent reflecting how doing Action A is supposed to contribute to whatever the ultimate goal is.

It’s amazing that people or places of work don’t have a clear strategy in place.

Strategy is something that is often misunderstood and rarely spelled out. Yet, having a clearly defined strategy is often the difference between success and muddling along in chaos.

If you were building a house, would you first define what it will look like and how you would build it, or would you first try to decide whether you need shovels and what length they should be?

If you want to build a house, you first need to determine what it will look like and how you will build it. Only then can you decide what types of tools you will build it with.

This is the essence of the strategy vs. tactics debate.

To help you better understand what each of the two terms means, you need to keep in mind that both words originally come from the military sphere.

In every military campaign, the goal is to win the war. However there are different strategies that you can adopt to do that.

You can rely on tanks and the blitzkrieg like the Nazi Germans did at the beginning of WW2 or on guerrilla warfare as many of the resistance groups did under occupation.

This is what falls under the term strategy. Each strategy then implies some tactics.

For example, if you are a guerrilla fighter, your tactics would consist of sabotage and small skirmishes. While if you are a tank commander who is tasked with implementing the blitzkrieg strategy, your tactics would consist of grouping tightly together large numbers of tanks and quickly overwhelming the enemies with them using speed and surprise maneuveurs.

If you are an MMA fighter, and you decide to implement the ground and pound strategy, then your tactics would consist of setting up your opponent with punches and kicks, and then in a surprise moment, bringing them down in order to control them and hit them with a barrage of punches as you sit on top of them.

Military is not the only sphere where the terms strategy and tactics are used.聽 Today these two concepts are used for example in business. The meaning stays the same, just the domain changes.

In terms of running a business, Alfred Chandler, a management researcher, defined strategy like this:

Strategy is the determination of the basic long-term goals of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals.

Resources are limited and you need focus in order to achieve your goals. Strategy gives you that focus.
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How To Make An Impact In This World? The Secrets To Success From A World-Class Scientist

Almost everyone dreams of hitting it big, of becoming someone who makes a difference and changes the world. The reality is that most people will never make the type of impact that they want to make and instead will live very ordinary lives.

That’s not always a bad thing, but wouldn’t it be great if your wildest fantasies came true? As a kid, you probably dreamt of becoming an astronaut, a record-breaking athlete, or a world-class scientist.

What things do you need to do in order to rise up to the top of your field and actually make a difference? I recently ran across the transcript of a talk given by Richard Hamming, an American mathematician whose work changed the computing industry.

In the talk he outlined some of the things he learned from working with numerous world-class scientists and the way these lessons could be applied in your life and your work.

While most of his lessons come from the scientific field, they can be applied in any type of field that you are in. The lessons are universal:

Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn’t do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant?

I’m not going to define it – you know what I mean. I will talk mainly about science because that is what I have studied. But so far as I know, and I’ve been told by others, much of what I say applies to many fields. Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields, but I will confine myself to science.

One of his first jobs was at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project as a programmer who created the machines that helped the physicists calculate all the different equations they were using to create the A-Bomb.

There he started noticing the things that the top guys did and what made them different from all the rest.

At Los Alamos I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business. I saw I was a stooge. I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. And to put the thing bluntly, I was envious. I wanted to know why they were so different from me.

I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe: he was my boss. I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.

The part on observation is very important. If you want to succeed, you need to be a keen observer of the things around you. Look, analyze, and then implement. Observe what is happening around you, ask yourself questions and analyze why some things work and others don’t, take out lessons and implement them in your own work.

In his speech, Hamming noted that the first thing that you need to do is to drop your modesty and become ambitious. You should say to yourself: “Yes, I want to do first-class work.

This type of goal is what creates the drive needed for rising to the top. As I noted in the article on how chimps rise to the alpha (leadership) position, ambition is the first trait of someone who becomes a leader.

This trait is important for motivation and drive. Without it, you would just end up drifting through life, with no goals, no motivation and no willpower to better your situation.

From the speech we can notice a pattern emerging: ambition, motivation, drive. Each one creates the other. Drive is one of the things that differentiates the great ones from the just mediocre ones:

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive.

Hamming goes on to talk about luck. Yes, luck is important, but you still have to prepare the conditions necessary in order for luck to strike. Here the quote “luck favors the prepared mind” sums up the situation perfectly.
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Paradigm Shifts, Creative Destruction And How You Change The World

Most people pass their entire life doing things the same way, never considering that it is not the only way of working. Yet sometimes things change and the old ways don’t work anymore. That’s when you need to step up in order to survive.

Aesop’s Fables have been told to kids for thousands of years to teach them moral lessons and help them navigate in a complicated world. One such fable is that of “The Crow and the Pitcher”.

The allegory starts off with a crow flying around on a hot, dusty day. The crow is exhausted from thirst, but keeps on circling in the sky, eyes alert, but struggling to find anything to drink.

Finally, he spots a pitcher. Excited, he descends down to it, only to discover that it contains very little water.

He puts his beak into the pitcher, hoping to be able to reach at the water, but can’t. He tries pushing it over, but it doesn’t fall. He attempts all kinds of different ways to get at the water, but no success.

Then an idea pops into his head. He collects stones nearby and stacks them next to the pitcher.

Picking them up with his beak, he starts dropping these stones into the pitcher, one by one. Slowly, but surely the water level starts rising and gets a little higher with each stone thrown in.

Finally, he puts in the last few stones, and the water level in the pitcher rises high enough for him to put his beak into it and drink.

There are several moral lessons to be learned from this little story. Hard work, persistence and ingenuity are all things that ancient commentators saw as the things you were supposed to take out of it.

The little crow failed several times, but got back up and tried in a different way, persisting where others would have given up. He was also smart in noticing how the world works around him and applying that to solve the problem. The crow had a goal and didn’t stop until he achieved it.

One moral stands above the rest though: necessity is the mother of invention.

Old ways of doing things didn’t work any more. The crow tried all the traditional ways of getting at the water, but not one of them worked.

In order to survive, he needed to start thinking outside the box.

As a result of that little incident, the crow experienced an internal paradigm shift. However this was not only a change in how he views the world, but a change in how he works in the world.

He realized that he didn’t need to rely only on his own body to do things, but that he could use other objects lying around to help him perform different jobs better.

The crow became a tool user.

The story is not far from the truth, in fact modern crows have been studied and have exhibited similar problem-solving and tool-using techniques.

Once you learn that you don’t need to rely on what nature gave you in order to do your daily activities, but instead can pick up different objects in your vicinity and use them to help you, it’s a huge revelation and it completely changes the way you live.

You expend less energy, and need less resources to do daily things. You can also do new things, things you have never been able to do before.

It opens up a world of possibilities. Possibilities that had been closed to you before.

Chimpanzees and other primates have also been seen using tools in the wild. Different groups use different tools and techniques, which means that it is not an instinctual behavior, but instead a learned one.

It has been observed how when one individual discovers a new technique to do a certain activity, the technique spreads to many of the other individuals in the community. This new way of doing things completely changes their lives.

They experience a paradigm shift.

Technological Revolutions and Paradigm Shifts

When our ancestors picked up tools for the first time, they also experienced the first technological revolution.
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Paradigm Shifts, Scientific Revolutions And How You See The World

People are conditioned to see a certain way, believing it is the only way to look at things and don’t even consider the possibility of a different explanation for what they are seeing.

Plato illustrated how this works in in his work “The Republic” using an imaginary dialogue between Socrates and his pupil, Glaucon. This dialogue is called “The Allegory of the Cave”.

Imagine being a prisoner chained inside of a cave. You have been in this situation since you were born, and your chains prevent you from moving, so that even your head is in a fixed position.

There are others chained in the cave with you, but since you cannot move your head, you cannot see them directly. You can only see the wall in front of you.

Behind your back is a fire that is burning bright and between that fire and your back is a raised walkway and a wall. Hidden behind this wall are the puppet masters, who often hold up puppets above their heads.

The shadows of these puppets are projected on the walls of the cave, and so the only thing that you can see are these shadows.

Of course as a chained and immobile prisoner, you do not know this. You think that these shadows are real. They are your reality.

Since you have nothing to do, you would be bored often and to pass the time start playing games with the other prisoners.

You and the others would start trying to guess which shadow would appear on the wall next. Sometimes, some of the prisoners would predict (guess) correctly and all the other guys would praise them and think that they are so smart for being able to do this.

Imagine then, that one day somehow your chains get lose and you manage to free yourself. Now you are able to turn around, and even flee the cave.

The moment you turn your head for the first time, you would probably get a big shock. Your eyes would be hurt by the bright fire and things would be hazy.

You would see a big disconnect between what you thought was real and what was starting to emerge in front of you. You would probably not believe your eyes and instead turn back around to look at what was familiar to you, the shadows.

Then, as you are getting back to your reality, someone takes you and drags you out of the cave, outside into the real world. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing and the green of nature is all around you.

You would be angry at the guy who dragged you out and start feeling a lot of pain. Not being accustomed to light, the sun would temporarily blind you and cause you even more pain.

However, slowly, your eyes would start getting accustomed to the light. First you would only see hazy shadows everywhere, but little by little, the images would start getting clearer.

For the first time, you are able to see real people all around you. You realize how wrong you were about reality when you were in the cave, and start reasoning about all this in your head.

Armed with all this knowledge, you now want to return to the cave and free your fellow prisoners, not just physically, but also intellectually.

You go back to the cave, but as you enter, your eyes are now not used to seeing in such darkness and you are temporarily blinded again.

You try to explain to your fellow prisoners what you saw outside, but they don’t believe you, think that you are mad, and at last try to kill you. They feel much more comfortable in their version of reality, than in the real world.

The prisoners were living their entire lives believing in a certain way and thinking that what they see is what the world is really like. They came up with explanations of how this works and held them as truth.

They interpreted what they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears in one way and did not accept the view that it could be otherwise. They were focused on this one reality and way of seeing things, that they could not comprehend that there could be another way of seeing the world.

Have a look at the picture below. What do you see?

Have a look again. What do you see?

Is it a duck? Or a rabbit?

Most people at first only see only one of these things. They either see a duck or a rabbit. Which one of these was it for you?

Now go back to the picture. Can you see the other image? If you saw a duck, can you see the rabbit or vice versa?

Most people after a while, can refocus and reframe their thinking and see the other image. After a point, some can even see both images basically at the same time.

Yet at the beginning, they only saw one and not the other! It’s all a matter of perception.

Paradigm shifts

This type of reframe is what is called a paradigm shift.
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Dunbar’s Number: Find Out How This Little Number Governs Everything You Do

There is one little number that is key to most of your major problems. When you learn about this number, you will realize what the main culprit of your frequent despair is.

What is this magical, all powerful number? Wait for it… wait for it… it’s 150!

WTF?

Dunbar’s number is the number of people you can maintain a stable and meaningful social relationship with, and is based on some calculations done by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and psychologist.

This is how he came up with the number:

I was working on the arcane question of why primates spend so much time grooming one another, and I tested another hypothesis 鈥 which says the reason why primates have big brains is because they live in complex social worlds. Because grooming is social, all these things ought to map together, so I started plotting brain size and group size and grooming time against one another. You get a nice set of relationships.

It was about 3am, and I thought, hmm, what happens if you plug humans into this? And you get this number of 150. This looked implausibly small, given that we all live in cities now, but it turned out that this was the size of a typical community in hunter-gatherer societies. And the average village size in the Domesday Book is 150 [people].

What he is saying is that the psychological make-up of humans is geared towards living in a community of around 150 (plus or minus) people. This is the number that is observed in hunter-gatherer societies around the world, but also the average number of people that have lived in villages up until modern times.

Chimps also confirm this number, with the largest chimp community in the wild, the Ngogo group in Uganda, numbering around 200 individuals (but most other groups being even smaller – around 50 to 60).

In such communities, you know everyone, you interact with everyone and know a lot about them. You can observe other people in your community and learn much about who they are and how they do things.

You can also form much closer links and bonds with them. Contrast this to how people are living in the cities of the modern world.

People are everywhere, yet it seems that most people are feeling more isolated than ever. Less and less people have deep relationships with other people. Rates of depression are skyrocketing.

The reason for this is found in Dunbar’s number. In cities, on a daily basis you encounter many more people than this in different types of situations.

It is impossible to form stable relationships with most of them. You only interact in very limited situations and don’t get to know them well.

The social relationships between people are broken. In one instance you are together with one group of people (for example at work), at another instance you interact with another group of people (for example in an after-work class), but these interactions are often shallow.

In the meanwhile, you also pass countless other people in the streets. All these different combinations add to the complexity and your brain usually isn’t able to handle this in an optimal way. There is a huge disconnect.

People are trying to substitute this void with social media, but deep down it isn’t working.

Maria Konnikova writes that the core of human bonding are face-to-face shared experiences. This is getting replaced by supposedly shared experiences online:

We do have a social-media equivalent鈥攕haring, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did鈥攂ut it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It鈥檚 like a comedy that you watch by yourself: you won鈥檛 laugh as loudly or as often, even if you鈥檙e fully aware that all your friends think it鈥檚 hysterical. We鈥檝e seen the same movie, but we can鈥檛 bond over it in the same way.

This means most relationships in the modern world are quite superficial. This type of online interaction also kills your real life social skills:

As Dunbar states:

In the sandpit of life, when somebody kicks sand in your face, you can鈥檛 get out of the sandpit. You have to deal with it, learn, compromise. On the internet, you can pull the plug and walk away. There鈥檚 no forcing mechanism that makes us have to learn.

That’s why narcissism seems to be growing.

The main reason for this is that the number of people we have to deal with on different levels in this world is way above the 150 Dunbarites.

David Wong, in an excellent post on what he calls the “monkeysphere” illustrates what happens:

Most of us do not have room in our Monkeysphere for our friendly neighborhood sanitation worker. So, we don’t think of him as a person. We think of him as The Thing That Makes The Trash Go Away.

Most humans become just statistics barely even registering on your radar. The further away they are, the less you care.
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