Summary Thinking and deciding (Baron)
1. Basics about thinking
Thinking is an important thing in the daily lives of human beings. Thinking affects the goals we choose, planning our lives and the decisions we make. We want to achieve good thinking and we also want others to achieve that. This can be seen as rational thinking. In this case, rational thinking doesn’t mean a kind of thinking that denies emotions and desires, but it means a kind of thinking we all want to do, if we were aware of our best interests and in order to achieve our goals. Everyone wants to do something that will help them achieve their goals. Goals are things you want to achieve and they are therefore the criteria by which you evaluate everything about your life.
There are three types of thinking: thinking about decisions, thinking about beliefs and thinking about our personal goals. We think when we are in doubt of these things and we will be better of later if we think well in these situations. Decisions can be seen as choices of action: what to do or what not to do. We make decisions to achieve goals and our decisions are based on beliefs about what actions will achieve the goals. Our decisions may also attempt to satisfy the goals of others as well as our own goals. Decisions can be about small matters, but also important matters. There are simple decisions containing one goal and there are complex decisions with more goals. Decisions depend on goals an beliefs. When people think about belief, they think to decide how strongly to believe something or which of several beliefs is true. Beliefs can vary in strength. When we make a personal goal, we make a decision that affects future decisions. All these actions, personal goals and beliefs can be the result of thinking, but they can also come about in other ways. It seems that we are born with certain goals, like satisfying physical needs. Laughing at a joke does also not result from a decision (unless it was a fake laugh). It also looks that we are born holding the belief that our space has three dimensions.
The search-inference framework
There is a framework for thinking about actions, personal goals and beliefs. This framework asserts that thinking consists of search and inference. We can search for certain things and we can make inferences about them. This is exactly what students do when they try to pick a free course to follow. They search for a course and think about and/or ask about the course to figure out if they really should take it on. Thinking begins with doubt and it involves a search directed at removing the doubt. Thinking can also be seen as a kind of exploration. People search for three kinds of objects: possibilities, evidence and goals. Possibilities are possible answers to the original question and these are possible resolutions of the original doubt. Possibilities can come from inside yourself or from the outside (suggestion by a friend). Goals are criteria by which one evaluates possibilities. When thinking begins, some goals are usually present, but additional goals usually need to be sought. Goals have a motivational force, we try to achieve them. We also apply them when we make judgments. Evidence is the belief or potential belief that helps you determine the extent to which a possibility achieves some goal. There is also a process of inference, in which each possibility is strengthened or weakened. Goals determine the way in which evidence is used. The more important the goal, the more important the evidence.
Judgment is important throughout this entire summary. Judgment is the evaluation of one or more possibilities with respect to a specific set of evidence and goals. When we make decisions, we can judge whether to take an option or not or we can judge the desirability of that option, relative to other options. We can judge whether a belief is true or we can judge whether to accept a belief as a basis of action. We can judge whether to adopt a goal and we can judge how strong it should be relative to other goals. Judgment refers to the process of inference. Each piece of evidence has a certain weight to it and people can judge the weight of each piece of evidence independently of other pieces. The weight of each piece has an influence on the strength of the possibility as a means of achieving the goal. The use of evidence to revise or not revise strengths of possibilities is the end of all the search processes. This is the face called interference. An example of how these elements work together is the following: you want to buy a car and try to decide between two different ones (possibility). One of the cars is big and heavy (evidence), so your concern for safety (goal) makes the size a virtue (positive weight), but your concern with the mileage (other goal) makes the size a detriment (negative weight).
Planning is like decision making, but it does not result in immediate action. There are some plans that are simply decisions about certain actions to be carried out at a later time, like what you are going to do next Sunday. Long-term plans produce personal goals and these become the goals for later episodes of thinking. If you have a certain career goal, this goal will affect decisions about education. Thinking about plans does not have to extent only over the period during which the plans are in effect. Experiences may revise our plans, because experience provides new evidence. We can create new goals or give certain goals up.
Thinking and beliefs
Thinking about beliefs involves making decisions to strengthen or weaken possible beliefs. One of the goals is to bring certain beliefs in line with the evidence. Beliefs that fit the evidence are beliefs that correspond best with the world as it is. These beliefs are most likely to be true. If a belief is true and if we hold that belief because we have found the right evidence and have made the right inferences, then we know something. This means that thinking about beliefs can lead to knowledge. There are a few types of thinking about beliefs that fits in the search-inferences framework:
Diagnosis: the goal of diagnosis is to discover what the trouble is. An car engineer wants to know what’s wrong with a car and a doctor wants to know what’s wrong with his patient. The thinker has only partial control over the search of evidence. There is some evidence that is provided without being requested and certain requests that can be obeyed may be limited. The goal of this type of thinking is usually never changed (your goal of this type of thinking is always to figure out what the trouble is).
Scientific thinking: the scientific world consists of a lot of testing of hypotheses about the nature of certain phenomena. The possibilities are the hypotheses the scientists considers. Experiments and observations form the evidence. The search of goals is under the thinker’s control and goals are often changed. In experimental science, there is the limitation of control over the evidence-search phase.
Reflection: reflection is the work of linguists, mathematicians and others who try to arrive at rules or principles on the basis of evidence gathered mostly from their own memories rather than from the outside world. The search for evidence is more under the control of the thinker than in the previous two types.
Insight problems: the solution of puzzle problems. These types of problems is what much of the psychology of thinking concerns itself with. Many of these types of puzzles are used in intelligence tests. The thinker usually only controls the search for possibilities.
Predictions: prediction of future events is like reflection, but the goal is fixed. The evidence often consists of memories of other situations the thinker knows about. Student A passed the exam, and student B is a lot like student A, so student B will probably also pass the exam.
Behavioural learning: in almost every aspect of our lives we learn what kind of influence our behaviour has on ourselves or others. The results of this learning are beliefs about what works best at achieving what goal in what situation. These beliefs can serve as evidence for the making of plans and these provide personal goals for later decisions.
Learning from observation: this are all the instances in which we learn about our environment from observation alone, without experimentation. You see that certain actions are followed by certain events. The evidence is not under the thinkers control, but the choice to attend to this evidence or not is under the thinkers control.
Thinking involves search and search for possibilities is nearly always present. Our search is directed by the goals, possibilities and evidence already at hand. Our goals give the most essential direction. Possibilities direct our search for evidence for or against possibilities. We can find objects in two general ways: recall from our memory or the use of external aids (other people, written sources). Without knowledge, thinking is just empty. Thinking helps us to learn and the more we learn, the more effective our thinking becomes. We may recall items or rules for producing what we seek (like a formula that tells us how to calculate the things we seek). We can learn rules directly or we can invent them ourselves through a thinking process of hypothesis testing or reflection. Recall or external aids do not always give us exactly what we want, but we may transform that what we get in different ways to make it applicable for our situation. This is the mechanism of analogy.
There have been many analogies in history and with different standards. An example of a modern analogy is Rutherford’s analogy between the structure of an atom and the structure of the solar system. This is all about the relationships among elements: the sun (nucleus) is more massive than the planets (electrons) and attracts them so they revolve around it. Certain relations between an element of one domain and that of another domain are irrelevant to the goodness of the analogy. Alchemists made analogies with shifting bases. So superficial appearances rather than relations among elements. They used to match celestial bodies with colours on the basis of appearance (sun with gold, moon with white) and also on the basis of other relations (Jupiter with blue, because Jupiter was the god of the sky). For metals, Saturn was matched with lead on the basis of speed (Saturn is the slowest planet, lead is the heaviest metal, so the slowest). Young children’s analogies are like alchemists’ analogies and not like modern scientists’ analogies. Standards of reasoning may be acquired through schooling.
Knowledge, thinking and understanding
The next section will review some ideas about knowledge from cognitive psychology.
Systems of beliefs that result from incomplete thinking are called naïve theories. They are naïve because they are superseded by better theories. The scientific theories of today will also be naïve in light of theories yet to be devised. Young children think that the earth is flat, just like ancients thought. Unless instructed otherwise, these are natural views for children to hold. When children hear new things about astronomy, they modify the structure as little as possible to accommodate the new information. For example, when a child is told that the earth rotates around the sun and later is asked what the earth is, he or she might point towards the sky and say that the earth is up there and rotating around the sun. The earth he or she learned about could not be the world he or she already knew. When the modern view is finally adopted, the change is radical. Concepts are replaced with new concepts. The relationships among the concepts also change. The new system explains different phenomena.
Naïve theories may be not completely harmless and they may also have some advantages. According to a research, people in the United States hold two different theories of home heat control. The physically correct theory is the feedback theory. According to this theory, the thermostat simply turns the heat on and off, depending on the temperature. Once the thermostat turns to the desired temperature, it will kick off automatically. It will kick on and off to keep it at that temperature. There are many people that hold a different view, the valve theory. The thermostat can be seen as the gas pedal of a car. The higher you turn it up, the more heat goes in the house and the faster the temperature changes. When people come in a cold house, they turn the temperature way up and turn it down after the house is warm enough (if they remember). The feedback theory is technically correct, but also has a couple of drawbacks. For instance, when it is really cold outside, thermostats need to be turned up higher to maintain the same feeling of warmth. This is easily explained by the valve theory. The feedback theory does not completely explain why the temperature should be turned down when one leaves the house.
In academics, there is a distinction between understanding and just memorizing things. Max Wertheimer was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology and directed our attention to the problem of understanding. As an example, he used to formula for finding the area of the parallelogram, A = b ∙ h, where A is the area, b is the base and h is the height. Wertheimer looked at students who learned this formula, but he saw that they did not understand it. They could apply it in familiar cases, like with a normal parallelogram. But they refused to apply the formula to new cases, like a parallelogram depicted standing on its side. This was not among the original examples they had studied. Learning without understanding will result in transferring it to cases where it did not apply and not transferring it to cases where it does apply. Wertheimer thought there was a connection between understanding and solving problems oneself. You will understand why the solution is the solution. Learning with meaning will result in better remembering than learning without meaning.
So what is understanding? Some say that understanding involves goals or subgoals. According to Perkins, understanding involves three things: the structure of what we want to understand, the purpose of the structure and the arguments about why the structure serves the purpose. The structure is the design, like the use of a formula. The arguments can be seen as evidence from the search-inference framework. Certain things we are asked to learn are not well supported and can be replaced or improved. Students who insist on understanding do not just learn things because they are told that certain things are the truth. Understanding must be renewed as we become more sophisticated with arguments.
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