Prioritize potential problems rationally

You could be an oracle if you’d only apply some common sense. That’s the basic conclusion of this post. We often make decisions and rely on heuristics which are very powerful and can often be correct, but can also be distorted by our biases. We’re beset by cognitive distortions and perhaps the worst day-to-day offender is the confirmation bias. In a nutshell, that’s when we choose to only see the things that confirm our position and ignore the things that contradict our position. One example would be this: You walk toward your phone having decided to call a friend who you haven’t heard from in a month or two, at that moment your phone rings and it is that person. Your automatic reaction is that “Oh gee, we must be connected. I was thinking about you so fervently that you felt it and called me.” The friend says, “Oh yeah, must be, I didn’t even have a real reason to call, I just felt like I had to.” And the two of you continue with what you see as evidence of “something more”.

What never crosses either person’s mind is all the time you thought fervently about the friend and they didn’t call, all the times they thought fervently about you and you didn’t call, all the times they called and you hadn’t thought about them at all and all the times you called them and they hadn’t thought about you at all. Furthermore, neither of you think about all the other people you were both thinking about at the same time who either didn’t call you nor got a call from you. So in a given month, there may have been 1,000 missed “opportunities” and you may have been friends for a decade but when you dig into your memory, it has only happened once with that friend. So going by those 1,000 missed opportunities a month for a decade with one hit we are looking at a success rate of 1 in 120,000. This is of course a laughably small set of numbers I’ve chosen to illustrate this with. And I’m only counting one friend, if the same thing happens with all your friends and this “connection” has only happened a couple of times the real number would be a success rate of 1 in a few million. Probably a smaller success rate than winning the lottery (perhaps I exaggerate) but my point stands. We humans are held captive by many mental distortions and they affect our ability to make rational decisions.

I went off on a tangent there and it had nothing to do with the point of the noiseclass. What I was trying to illustrate was that your brain plays little games with you because you brain sucks at math. If your brain can betray you in such a laughably simple thing, imagine what it does to you when you’re doing something important like trying to make a meaningful decision on how to allocate your resources? There is a way to stack the odds in your favor. There’s a way to distance yourself from those curious quirks and make rational decisions. You can anticipate the most likely problems, determine the direction to take by having a proper scale of the issues and the probabilities of certain outcomes.

There is no magic to this, no secret, just plain and simple rationality. If you can do basic math and you are willing to devote any amount of thought, this is easy to do. The answers you get are neither guaranteed nor prophetic, but decisions can be made without any, or at least very little, confirmation bias and other cognitive distortions. There are many different skills or systems we can use in the day to day decisions as well as the major decisions around us. Today, I’m going to focus on how to anticipate problems and prioritize them so that you know where to focus your energy. For this we will learn to utilize the Likert scale. A very powerful technique for determining what problems are likely to occur and which should be addressed. I should note that the Likert scale is not the technique itself. The scale is actually a scale of attitudes that gives us an excellent opportunity to turn attitudes or feelings into numbers that we can compute. I will be drawing on Mind Performance Hacks for this because it explains it perfectly. I make no claims to the invention of this technique. It was first taught to me on a 5-point scale by a high school teacher, but I was reintroduced to it with a 7-point scale by Mind Performance Hacks. So props to Ron Hale-Evans the author and I’m sorry I don’t remember the name of the High School teacher.

So on to the scale. I’m going to use the example out of the Mind Performance Hacks book. We will use estimates of probability (Table 1) and estimates of how important something would be to someone (Table 2):

Table 1

Point Probability
1 Very Improbable
2 Improbable
3 Somewhat Improbable
4 Neither Probable nor Improbable
5 Somewhat Probable
6 Probable
7 Very Probable

Table 2

Point Importance
1 Very Unimportant if it happens
2 Unimportant if it happens
3 Somewhat Unimportant if it happens
4 Neither important nor unimportant if it happens
5 Somewhat important if it happens
6 Important if it happens
7 Very Important if it happens