Book Review: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

"I don’t make predictions. I never have, and I never will." – Tony Blair


Rolf Dobelli’s book, The Art of Thinking Clearly briefly explains common human behaviors which can be interpreted as illogical behaviors. This book is a database of human biases, fallacies and illusions. The title of the book is misleading since people may think that it is a self-help book containing advice on “clear thinking”. It is NOT. A more apt title would be “Human cognitive biases, fallacies and illusions”. But then will it sell?

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

Dobelli uses simple, direct and engaging writing to explain 99 human cognitive behaviors in individual chapters spanning 2 to 3 pages. What I like most about the book is that it is full of interesting quotes, stories and anecdotes. It makes reading pleasant and entertaining. Each chapter provides a brief overview of the bias, overview of relevant scientific studies and finally author’s own advice on the matter. You should take the advice with a grain of salt unless of course you want to become a world-class jerk.

In The Art of Clear Thinking, Dobelli claims that most of our biases are the result of human evolution. Assume that you are born thousands of years ago and you are walking in a forest with your friends. Suddenly all your friends start running. You wouldn’t stop and think before running after them unless you want to end up as lunch for the resident Tiger. People who did think for long quickly exited from human gene pool! Dobelli claims that these behaviors are no longer useful in the modern world where logic and reasoning is the king. However in the epilogue, he admits that he himself doesn’t follow his own advice. Thinking is too tiring to be done every time you need to make a decision!

The Art of Clear Thinking is heavily influenced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books (Antifragile, The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness). This has lead to allegations of plagiarism by Taleb. Taleb claims that Dobelli not only picked ideas but also sentences from Taleb’s works. Taleb’s accusations are here and Dobelli’s response is here. Other influences on the book are ideas by Warren Buffet and the book Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman. There are also plenty of references to scientific studies on human behavior, some of which are very interesting! (See – Marshmallow Test Video and Monkey Business Illusion).

I think it is important for key decision makers to be aware of human cognitive biases. Many of the logical decisions we make can have disastrous effects if we are not aware of these biases. Here is a classic example from the book (Never pay your lawyer by the hour),

In 1947, when the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, archaeologists set a finder’s fee for each new parchment. Instead of lots of extra scrolls being found, they were simply torn apart to increase the reward. Similarly, in China in the nineteenth century, an incentive was offered for finding dinosaur bones. Farmers located a few on their land, broke them into pieces and cashed in. Modern incentives are no better: company boards promise bonuses for achieved targets. And what happens? Managers invest more energy in trying to lower the targets than in growing the business.

Similarly I see confirmation bias every single day on my Facebook feed. People share complete lies without even doing a cursory check for its accuracy simply because it conforms to their beliefs.

For a happy, contended life we should be able to control our thoughts and behaviors. Take for example, the paradox of choice. Beyond a level, more choice doesn’t translate to better life or more happiness. Rather it can lead to unhappiness and stress! Another one of the human weaknesses is our tendency to fall into Hedonic treadmill. The more we achieve, the more we want. The happiness from our possessions are very short lived. These are some of the fallacies covered in the book. But then it is precisely these human imperfections which makes us human. It is the same weaknesses which creates heroes. We need to be aware of our cognitive imperfections, but in many cases our “gut feel” is better than logical thinking. Sometimes we simply don’t have the time for logical thinking!

One thing that I don’t like about the book is the lack of sources and references at the end of the book. An online link for sources is given in the book which no longer works. Authors must ensure that everything part of the book remains in the book since there is no incentive for the publisher to keep online pages available.

Review Summary

The Art of Thinking Clearly is an excellent and entertaining book providing a good overview of human cognitive behaviors. With plenty of anecdotes, stories and quotes, this book is an ideal book to read during your travels. This book can make you aware of human biases which may positively affect your decision making.

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."

My Rating: 8/10

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November 23, 2014 | Posted in Opinion No Comments » | By Jayson Joseph

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