Bonus – Rolf Dobelli – The Art of Thinking Clearly


Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Today, very, very exciting show for you. We have a gentleman whose work, I actually didn’t realize, but whose work I have been enjoying for years and years and years and I am enjoying acutely right now because he recently released in the U.S. a brand new book called The Art of Thinking Clearly which is absolutely fantastic and he is going to share with us some techniques we can use to enhance the clarity with which we think and he is none other than the Rolf Dobelli who is just a man to live up to, let’s say that.

He has got MBA, PhD. He is a bestselling writer and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Zurich Minds which is a community for some of the world’s most famed and distinguished thinkers, scientists and entrepreneurs. He also co-founded getAbstract which an awesome service that summarizes books in a really easy to digest format that I have enjoyed for years and he is a sailor and a pilot. So, Rolf, what don’t you do?

Rolf: That’s pretty much all I do, so the rest I don’t do. I don’t do mountain climbing, although I live in Switzerland and surrounded by beautiful mountains. I am not into extreme sports or anything; I am actually just a very calm guy.

Jonathan: It sounds like you are also into thinking clearly if I am accurate in that.

Rolf: I plan on thinking clearly [indiscernible 01:49] book, I actually starting making notes for myself and this then turned into a newspaper column in several countries and then into a book, but it was my personal project to try to mitigate these thinking errors, but I can tell you I still make some, hopefully less frequently than before, hopefully less [indiscernible 02:10] than before, but I still from time to time make thinking errors that’s because they are so deeply ingrained in our brains that it’s hard to get rid of those.

Jonathan: I have identified, so folks I am really personally enjoying Rolf’s book which is called The Art of Thinking Clearly and it’s a wonderful format. He has got 99 short chapters, each of which identifies one of these thinking errors and I got to tell you, obviously we talk about eating smarter, exercising smarter, empowering others and living better here on the show and when it comes to eating and exercise specifically, there is so much confusion and what I have observed and what Rolf’s book really shines a light on indirectly is so much of that is simply due to thinking errors in the way information is presented to us and the way sometimes we may digest information. So, I was hoping in today’s show Rolf we could go through five of your 99 thinking errors, have you explain them and then see how they may influence the eating and exercise realm.

Rolf: Sure.

Jonathan: Beautiful. All right, the first one which you start off the book, but that it is the second one in the book and it’s titled “Does Harvard Make You Smarter?: Swimmer’s Body Illusion.” Can you tell us a little bit about this thinking error?

Rolf: Yes, that’s actually a story that I have from my friend, Nassim Taleb, and I have a lot of ideas from him on how to avoid thinking errors, but the story goes as follows. He wanted to lose some weight, so he looked at tennis players and this is so upper-class thing, the joggers or extreme joggers, they don’t look happy. So, he finally settled on swimmers because he liked how they look.

You look at professional swimmers and they have this wonderful body and that’s a goal to aspire to. So, he goes and trains and goes swimming a couple of times a week and he realizes that this is a thinking error. It’s not because they train they have these beautiful bodies, but they have these great bodies that they are great swimmers because they are built that way. So, it has a huge genetic component in there.

So, it’s actually a selection criteria and not the result of training and the same thing goes with schools or business schools or even universities. So, for example, the question is “Does Harvard Make You Smarter?” It could be, but it could not be. It could just be the case that Harvard is a great selection criteria, great selection machine. They take the best students. No matter what they do, eventually they will turn out to be successful people, most of them will turn out to be successful people whether they go to Harvard or not, but looking back we then project into them that it was Harvard that made the difference. So, you have to be very careful between a selection criteria and the result of something.

Jonathan: Rolf, this is such a critical one. I cannot tell you when we think about our health because so many times Rolf I hear things like I see runners and runners seem to be slender, therefore running makes you slender when what you are saying here is or may be it’s that slender people are more likely to run because if you are morbidly obese, running is quite painful.

Rolf: That’s exactly. In many positive effects that you have, beauty or being slim or being successful or being very nice or very nasty person for that matter, it just could be a selection criteria, it just could be a selection process and not the result of doing something.

Jonathan: Please folks, please keep this in mind because so often people attempt to deceive us, a great example of this is any infomercial you see for these workout gadgets, right? They are trying to imply that because they use this workout gadget, they look a certain way when in reality, it’s the type of people who look that way often spend a lot of money on workout gadgets, so again it’s flipping it around. It’s like saying that basketball makes people tall rather than saying that tall people tend to play basketball more and it’s a very important distinction, right Rolf?

Rolf: Absolutely and we all just fall into it, the media falls into it and it’s actually hard to find out what the truth is. So, you would have to do a study with taking people randomly and letting them jog for a year and then see the effect and of course these studies are very expensive to do and nobody really has time to do them. So, we do the shortcut and say, “Okay, the joggers are all slim, therefore it’s the jogging they do,” but it could be the other way round.

Jonathan: Absolutely. Let’s move on to number two, which is actually number four in the book, another one that I just love and that is “If 50 million people say something foolish, it’s still foolish.”

Rolf: That’s Social Proof in psychology and Social Proof means we tend to copy the behavior of others and we tend to copy or imitate opinions of others. So, the more people have a certain behavior or the more people have a certain opinion, the more right that behavior or that opinion seems to us, which of course is completely foolish, but in the stock market you see this, everybody buys gold and everybody sells gold, everybody buys dotcoms and everybody sells dotcoms at the same time. So, following the crowd, following the other people is a sure way of losing money for example in the stock market or in business. So, following the crowd was a great behavior when we were hunter-gatherers.

If you go back into our evolutionary history, we have been on the planet, the way we kind of look, the kind of we are built for about 200-300 thousand years, not much change since then bodily, but we have been living in a completely different environment, very primitive environment, hunters-gatherers 50 people. So, let’s assume you are out there hunting with your buddies, with your five buddies that you have and all of a sudden you hear something in the bush and your friends just dash away, they run away, what do you do? You stand there and think independently if this animal may be just looking scary, but it could be a great protein source? No. You follow those guys.

So, those people who thought independently, probably ended up in the stomach of that animal and out of the gene pool. So, we are the direct descendants of people who follow other people, which is a great survival strategy in the past, but since we have civilization and eventually cities, and eventually we have now industrial revolution and thing, global markets and all that complicated [indiscernible 09:23] here, it doesn’t pay to follow other guys anymore. It pays to think independently. If 50 million people defend one position, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right position for you or generally it’s the right position. You have to think independently and act independently.

Jonathan: Rolf and I think the key distinction there is so profound and it’s not if 50 million people think something, we are saying that doesn’t make it right, we are also saying that it doesn’t make it wrong; we are saying rightness or wrongness is independent of how many people have the given opinion, correct?

Rolf: Exactly and you see this and I am sure you will have that in your book that’s coming out in January next year or in December this year, I am sure you will that you have so many wrong opinions about things, especially in diet, so many wrong opinions that 99 percent of the people just follow that opinion, but it might be wrong, but they follow it because the other guys follow it.

Jonathan: Rolf, that’s the key and I want to equip our listeners. If someone is telling you something in terms of what you should put into your body or what you should do to your body and these are things like when we talk about our body, this is biology. This is a studiable subject and quite easy to study and has been studied quite robustly. So, if the best arguments someone can come up with to get you to do something is a million subscribers can’t be wrong, yes they can, they absolutely can and they have been historically, billions of people have been wrong historically. Just think of all the errors and social injustices that entire civilizations have perpetuated over the years. So, especially when it comes to matters of biology, let’s stick to biology and not look to social proof, is that reasonable Rolf?

Rolf: Absolutely reasonable. Look at studies, if there are studies. If there is a scientific way of finding something out then go for the scientific way because that gets you close to the truth and in doing this, it’s just that it’s time consuming, it’s hard to do the scientific route. It’s you have to think, you have to read, you have to study for yourself, it’s not an easy process. It’s much easier to just follow the other people or follow a marketing message, but it’s wrong to do that. You have to think it through by yourself.

Jonathan: Rolf, have you noticed and forgive me, I am not all the way through your book yet. So, you may cover this later, but I have noticed that when someone does, for example, if I am having a discussion with someone and they say “Well, so many people do this, it has to be right.” In fact, when I hear that, that makes me think it’s wrong. Do you often see that? Is it if someone appeals to one of these logical fallacies, is that a good sign that we should run the other direction because if they were actually right, they wouldn’t use these. Does that make any sense?

Rolf: Yes, it makes it. You hear that a lot in business idea. So, somebody comes up with a great business idea or whatever business idea, it’s just mutual business idea and then the argument comes if this was the case then somebody will be doing it, a company would have that product or somebody will be providing this, but with that you would still be in the Stone Age with that idea. So, if you hear that arguments if it will be that way then everybody would do it or nobody would do it, that argument doesn’t count, it’s not an argument, so run the other way.

Jonathan: I love it. Talking about thinking independently and not just doing what other people do, it sounds like we also need to watch out for and this is chapter nine in your book, “Not just blindly bowing to authority or the authority bias.”

Rolf: Yes, that’s a tough one because authorities, we are always surrounded by authorities and authorities influence us and authorities could be when you are young, it’s rock stars. You can go back in time in the Middle Ages, it was bishops and popes or kings. Today, it’s health gurus or it’s central bank fed presidents or whatever it is, I have a check list. Whenever I am about to make a big decision, I have a check list.

In one point on my check list is am I in the presence of an authority right now? If that’s the case, I am not taking a decision. Then I am asking myself first how is that person influencing me and then I go on making a decision because in the presence of authorities, these could be doctors, these could be with the white coats, we tend to not think clearly, we then tend to just take their opinion. We have such an authority problem when a doctor for example with his white lab coat or a professor says something, we just don’t think independently anymore, we just believe these people and you have to fight that tendency.

Jonathan: Rolf, I know just in my little studies on psychology and influence, because I love this stuff just personally as a hobby that there were studies done that show this so clearly where you had taken individual dressed in street clothes and put them on a street corner and wait for there to be no traffic, but still not the traffic signal signaling that people should cross the stress and if you took someone in street clothes and had them cross the street, people wouldn’t necessarily follow them illegally crossing the street, but if you did the exact same setup and you took a man in a business suit or a woman in a business suit, just someone who is dressed as if they were an authority figure in some context and they cross the street illegally, people would consistently, more people would follow them across the street.

Rolf: Yes, it is. Dress and other symbols like kings have crowns and professors have white coats and dresses and these symbols are very important triggers to follow people. It really has an effect in psychology that’s why for example, I always laugh about on TV, I don’t watch TV anymore, but in the past when I watched TV, you see these commercials for drugs and clearly here is an actor dressed in a white coat and he is playing doctor, but you see that he is an actor, he is one of those commercial actors, he dresses in a doctor’s coat and it just makes a big difference how you dress, people [indiscernible 16:15] the message.

Jonathan: Rolf, before we move on to number four and five that I love to talk about on the show, just to again empower our listeners, I want to do a quick exercise where I want to stitch together the first three things we have talked about here which is the Swimmer’s Body Illusion, Social Proof and The Authority Bias because literally you will see all three of those at the same time in just about every single diet and exercise ad campaign because one, the first thing you will see is someone who is some sort of celebrity trainer and because they were celebrity or because they were on television that somehow makes them an authority in biology, which is obviously false, but being on television does not mean you understand biology and then they will say, “Look at how many people are doing this?” That is social proof which is not valid and then they will always show people who look a certain way thereby implying that they started to look that way because they did this program or took this pill which again is an illusion.

Rolf: Yes, correct. You summarized it very well.

Jonathan: Folks just watch out. There are a lot of people trying to manipulate you out there. All right, Rolf, for the next one…

Rolf: We wouldn’t have marketing if they couldn’t manipulate our brains. Marketing would not exist as [indiscernible 17:39] as an industry, it’s a huge industry, but if our brains would be logical, it just all these marketing people would be unemployed.

Jonathan: So, it’s good for the economy to not think clearly, is that what you are saying?

Rolf: No, no. I think they rather invent stuff than doing marketing. I have a problem whenever a product it needs marketing to sell and it really is deeply – something is deeply false with the product if you need a marketing machine behind it.

Jonathan: Fascinating. That’s actually a very, very interesting point. Rolf, let’s move on here to number 81 in your book which is “Why you go with the status quo – The Default Effect?”

Rolf: Yes, that’s another one of those 99 effects that our brain has. We have a hard time changing opinions. If you are not sure and especially the more informations we have, the more confused we are, we tend to stick with what we are already doing. It’s the easiest solution to do. Changing means effort, changing even an attitude means a lot of effort, so we tend to stick with what we have and if two options are presented to you. One is default and one is you have to change a little bit something, even just make a check mark on an internet page to get something a little bit different. He tends to stay with what the default setting is and the status quo for the most part is our default setting. We tend not to change.

Jonathan: Rolf, this to me a very insidious issue because what I find and it is emotion. Clearly, we are not purely rational being as we have talked about. Emotion plays a huge role in our thinking good or bad that is the reality because there is a very simple logical statement which is Einstein said, “Insanity is by definition is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” but that is really this default effect. We often just default to continue to do what we are doing, but if we are dissatisfied with that and what we do next is the same thing, it cannot possibly result in something different. If we want a different result, we have to take a different approach, but it sounds like because of the default effect, we generally don’t.

Rolf: Yes, that is correct, we generally don’t. It takes a lot of motivation to change action or to change behavior, even to change attitude and we tend to just be lazy in a totally normal sense. Once we are used to a certain way of thinking, once we are used to a certain behavior, we tend to stick with it and the older you get, the harder it is to change because our neurons, the stuffs in our brain, is just linked up in a certain way because we have been doing it over and over and over. It’s like when you start to play piano.

When you start to play piano, then your neural connections are pretty new for that piece of music, so you have to really train yourself and you have to get it in, but once you play piano the same piece over and over, eventually you don’t have to think anymore, it just comes automatic because the neural connections are built that way that you don’t have to actively think anymore, you just play the piece and the same thing happens as with any type of behavior that you repeat on and on and on, it just gets very strong and it’s hard to change and the more you do it, the harder it gets to change.

Jonathan: Rolf, one thing I am very curious to get your thoughts on is when we take this, the default effect, and we combine it with cognitive dissonance and may be even some other factors, we end up in an interesting state, let me give you a concrete example. If I am an “authority figure” and I have gone out and I have said, “You should eat a diet consisting of X” and I say that in a public forum and I say that with all confidence and it turns out that over the next 30 to 40 years, billions of dollars of research fail to prove that that is correct and in fact provide quite compelling evidence that it is incorrect. So, it’s easier to keep doing what I have already done as an “authority figure,” I have already put my neck on the line saying that this is correct, so if I contradict myself what’s going to happen. So, often we sometimes hear people continuing to perpetuate these things which researchers shown as basically false, is it possible when we combine all those effects? How does a person or can we even expect a person to change their mind at that point?

Rolf: Yes, but that has to do not with a cognitive error, that has to do with a status thing. So, once you built up, once you have invested so much energy into an idea and a brand and all of a sudden it gets proven wrong then you stick to it just not to lose status because once you admit that you have been wrong for 40 years, you will lose your credibility immediately, you are nobody, you are not getting any invitation to talks and forget writing a book, publishing a book, you are just done. So, then it’s actually for you a better strategy to just stick to your guns even if it’s wrong, just to keep your status a couple of years going and you see this a lot in science.

You have science programs where people have invested a lot of energy and money and time and part of their a lot of vested interest and these projects continue to get funded, although it’s proven that there is nothing coming out of that research, but it just keeps going because those guys [indiscernible 23:42] for their positions, at least until they retire. So, a lot of this has to do with status, keeping up with the status, the personal status.

Jonathan: Listeners, please bear that in mind because so often the more you learn about the actual science of eating and exercise, the more you will start to say like just how can these “experts” continue to say X when we are looking at literally hundreds of randomized controlled trials AKA the closest thing to truth that we can ever come to with the scientific method and they show not X to be true, like they literally show the opposite to be true, but just remember these authority figures may be sticking to their guns not because it’s correct, but because their financial livelihood depends on it. Is that fair, Rolf?

Rolf: Yes, that’s absolutely fair to have an incentive scheme, an incentive to stick with the wrong opinion. Otherwise, again, no more talks, no more invitations to TV shows and no more invitations to anything, they will be done. So, their livelihood depends on just continuing to preach their wrong message.

Jonathan: Rolf, the last thinking error I wanted to cover today with you because frankly if I had my [indiscernible 25:09] because these are wonderful, but the last one is “Those wielding hammers see only nails.”

Rolf: Yes, if you are used to solving a certain problem and you are an expert in something then you will attack any problem with that knowledge that you have with that expertise that you have. You will only see your perspective of things and not somebody else’s perspective. So, the things goes like if you are a hammer, every problems looks like a nail and the solution is just to hammer.

You see this a lot with experts, probably also in the health fields that they have a certain type of experience and then we will apply the same experience over and over and over to all problems and all issues that come about. It’s like consultants. You are a business consultant in a specialized field and you get to any situation you tend to apply the same procedure. Doctors do that too. If you are, let’s say you are a surgeon of a certain type; you will tend to do surgery, although another way of treating the patient will make more sense probably, but you tend to go with surgery because you are a surgeon.

Jonathan: Certainly, you illuminate 99 errors in thinking in your book, but what can we do to help, aside from understanding these, what can we help our minds, how do we think more clearly, how do we do this day to day besides just understanding the errors themselves?

Rolf: Step number one is to understand the errors themselves because then you are sensitive to those things. You see them coming, you see them getting – you see falling into these things much sooner or probably [indiscernible 27:15] you can analyze what you have done. So, it’s good to have names with those thinking traps, names help to remember them and to sensitize you of these things and the other one is I would say like you preach, go think for yourself, look at the studies and look at the evidence, it’s biology, it is science.

The human body is just one complicated thing, but it is biology at the end. We are made out of cells, we understand, we start understanding how these things work together. It’s a very complex thing, but we get closer, closer, and closer to real understanding of the human body. We are so much ahead of compared to 50 years ago or 500 years ago, but we understand now how the body works.

We are actually way more ahead of understanding the body than of understanding the economic system which is also a complex thing. So, we are about 200 years ahead with the body than with the economy. So, let’s use that knowledge that has been produced in the last decade. It is great knowledge, but we have to think independently and digest it and go for the fact.

Jonathan: Well stated Rolf. His name is Rolf Dobelli. His website is Dobelli.com and the book which I highly recommend which will help you to start thinking more clearly and interestingly enough will dramatically aid your health and fitness efforts because so much of the confusion out there is because people are simply trying to manipulate us. The book is called The Art of Thinking Clearly. It is available now. Rolf, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Rolf: Thanks so much for inviting me Jonathan.

Jonathan: Absolutely a pleasure. Listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did and remember; this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, think more clearly and live better. Talk with you soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Rolf Dobelli. In his own words:

The Art of Thinking Clearly

“Rolf received his MBA and PhD from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He is a serial entrepreneur, thinker and writer. He co-foundedgetAbstract, the world’s largest publisher of compressed business knowledge. He also founded ZURICH.MINDS, a community of some of the world’s most famous, distinguished thinkers, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs, including Nobel prize winner Kurt Wuthrich, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan), Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist), philosopher Daniel Dennett and many others. He regularly writes for Europe’s most esteemed newspapers, including Germany’s Die ZeitFAZ („Germany’sNew York Times“) and Switzerland’s Sonntagszeitung. From 2003 until 2008, Dobelli hosted a weekly television show about books and business topics on Bloomberg Television Germany. He has been quoted in The Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, Financial TimesHarvard Management Update and many other U.S. and European business publications.

Dobelli is best known as the author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, published by Carl Hanser Verlag, an instant success which spent 30 weeks (and counting) in the number one spot on Germany’s Der Spiegel Bestseller list. The book, now being translated in all major languages, will be published in English in the spring of 2013 by HarperCollins(North America) and Hodder (UK). Dobelli is member of PEN and serves on the boards of Life Science Zurich and Sosense. A pilot, sailor and Alpine snow skier, he has written six novels published by Diogenes. Critics and readers praise Dobelli as “a new voice in German fiction” and one of the few fiction writers who thoroughly understands the business world, from both an academic and a practical point of view. Rolf Dobelli does not consume news, with the exception of  the magazines The New YorkerScience andNature.”