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Book Notes: “Loserthink” by Scott Adams

Summary

Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America by Scott Adams (2019) is a book about avoiding ineffective ways of thinking and embracing more productive alternatives. The term “loserthink”, coined by the author, refers to those unproductive ways of thinking that we all fall into (often unconsciously). Many readers will know these more familiarly as “cognitive biases”: mental shortcuts and blindspots that hinder rational thinking. Adams uses the pejorative “loserthink”, believing that negative terms discourage undesirable behavior.

To think effectively, Adams recommends looking to other disciplines and adopting the most effective techniques from those fields (this is familiar territory for fans of Charlie Munger). Much of the book is devoted to discussing different professions and their thinking models: economists, psychologists, artists, scientists and others. In each of these chapters you learn the elemental conceptual frameworks that experts in a given field use to process information and make decisions. For instance, the chapter titled “Think Like an Economist” is concerned with identifying incentives and understanding how they impact the actions and agendas of participants in a given situation.

I’ll admit that I approached Loserthink with some degree of skepticism. While I think Scott Adams is a smart and talented person, I am leery of his political ideas. This sort of predisposition on my part is–in some way–the very kind of loserthink Adams wants to counteract. Here’s the thing: Whether or not I agree with Adams’ politics is irrelevant. If you're willing to set aside ego and personal bias, you'll come away with some important lessons from this book. This is a worthwhile and timely read for people on both ends of the political spectrum.

Pros: Adams writes clearly and directly. One of the most accessible, no-nonsense books on cognitive biases and mental blindspots I’ve read.

Cons: Adams loves coining his own terminology for concepts and phenomena (for instance: “Adams Law of Slow Moving Disasters” and even "Loserthink"). At times you need to filter Adams through the selfsame thinking models he recommends.

Verdict: 8/10


Notes & Highlights

Chapter 1: What is Loserthink?

  • Most of us have never learned or been taught how to think effectively.
  • “Loserthink isn’t about being dumb, and it isn’t about being under informed. Loserthink is about unproductive ways of thinking.”
  • “Clear thinking is somewhat rare…if you don’t have experience across multiple domains, you’re probably not equipped with the most productive ways of thinking.”
  • Adams rationalizes using the mocking term “loserthink” as a way to discourage unproductive thinking. He does acknowledge the terminology “cognitive bias” but eschews it in favor of his nomenclature. “If you have a negative word for something, it’s easier to avoid it than if you don’t.”
  • Adams takes care to avoid labeling a person as stupid: “Stupid refers to a person whereas loserthink applies to the technique.”
  • “If all you know is how many times someone hit a target, it is loserthink to judge how accurate they are. You also need to know how many times they missed.” [me: Survivor bias & Wald’s bullet holes]
  • “One thing I can say with complete certainty is that it is a bad idea to trust the majority of experts in any domain in which both complexity and large amounts of money are involved….fraud is nearly guaranteed.” [me: I’m wary of 100% certainty statements, but am including this b/c it appears to be an important assumption made by the author]
  • Adams skepticism about climate change is informed by his cross-domain skill/knowledge “stack” and prior history with other consensus driven scientific policy decisions. Specifically: nutrition (e.g. the misguided “fat is bad” policies), peak oil, the ozone layer, the Y2K bug.
  • “Whenever you have money, reputations, power, ego, and complexity in play, it is irrational to assume you are seeing objective science.”
  • “Your experience, and therefore filters on a topic, can get you to very different opinions compared to other smart people using the same set of facts.”
  • “Mental prison: the illusions and unproductive thinking that limit our ability to see the world clearly and act upon it rationally.” [me: again he substitutes/introduces a negative term for what others might call cognitive biases.]

Chapter 2: Political Warming

  • Everyone lives in their own “bubble” of reality.
  • It’s easy to recognize other people’s bubbles. It’s not as easy to recognize your own bubble.
Our old understanding of reality is rapidly dissolving. Fake news and conspiracy theories have become the building blocks of what we mistakenly believe to be the world we live in. Any two of us can look at the same evidence and have entirely different interpretations of what it all means. Politicians, businesses, and even scientists routinely mislead us, Not always, and not necessarily intentionally, but often enough that we generally can’t be sure what is true and what is not.
  • “People who manage the news have to do what works best for profitability…the business model of the press changed from presenting information to manipulating brains.”
  • Adams doesn’t paint the situation he describes as “evil” but rather as the consequence of capitalism. He describes a business model that rewards “brain manipulation” over reporting accuracy.
  • “When you measure what works, and you are managing a public business, you are highly incentivized to follow profits…”
  • “If you buy into the full-scary narratives promoted by either the political left or the political right, you’re probably experiencing loser think. A more useful way to think of the political news is that nearly every major story is exaggerated to the point of falsehood, with the intention of scaring the public.”
  • “Being absolutely right and being spectacularly wrong feel exactly the same.”

Chapter 3: Thinking Like a Psychologist

  • “We humans think we are good judges of what others are thinking. We are not. In fact, we are dreadful at it.”
  • “90 percent of the criticism I receive involves strangers incorrectly assuming what I must be thinking.”
  • “The impact of all this faulty mind reading is that you and I are often penalized for what other people think we are thinking.
  • “If you are certain you know the inner thoughts of a stranger, that’s a sign you might have too much confidence in your opinion.”
  • “Verbal gaffes are fairly normal for people running for office. My bias is to prefer ordinary explanations [e.g. gaps in knowledge] as opposed to extraordinary ones [e.g. conscious racisms], assuming the facts support both views.” [me: similar to Hanlon’s Razor or the “fundamental attribution error”/correspondence bias]
  • Keep these two rules in mind:
[1.] If your opinion depends on reliably knowing another person’s inner thoughts, you might be experiencing loserthink.
[2.] If an ordinary explanation fits the facts, but you have chosen an extraordinary interpretation instead, you might have too much confidence in your opinion.
  • Branding other people as evil—including as apologists, racists, trolls, etc.—is a form of loserthink.
  • Rather than being evil, a better explanation is that “people have different ideas of how to reach a greater good in this world.”
  • “If you call people who want everyone to have good healthcare a bunch of socialists, or you call people who want strong immigration control racists, you are not part of the rational debate. People who have good arguments use them. People who do not have good arguments try to win by labeling.”
  • Adams takes issue with applying Occam’s razor to everyday life: “In science, the simplest explanation that fits the facts is preferred. In life, we are all under the illusion that our explanations of things are the simplest ones.”
  • Psychological projection occurs when people defend themselves against their own impulses/behaviors by denying their existence in themselves and attributing them to others. Adams takes issue with the lay-person’s ability to properly diagnose this phenomenon.
  • “No matter the topic, all sides typically believe they have the right facts and the other side is delusional…being right and being wrong feel exactly the same to all of us. We can’t tell the difference. If we could, everyone would agree on everything important.”
  • “If you think ego is who you are, as opposed to a toll you can dial up and down as needed, you might be experiencing loserthink.”
  • “Effectiveness is more important than ego.”
  • “Our egos control us through fear, and often that fear is an illusion.” Adams suggests that we put ourselves in embarrassing situations more often (good practice to see that you’ll survive it) and that we notice how little other people’s embarrassments mean to us (which is also how much our embarrassments mean to them).
  • Our brains are “flaw finders” that force us to focus our energy and attention on what’s wrong in the world. Indulging this tendency will distract you and make you crazy.
  • “When you combine a human brain that is wired to notice problems with a press that is incentivized to present stories involving huge problems, you can easily start imaging that the world is falling apart in a variety of fatal ways. And that worldview might limit your ability to appreciate all the things going right.”
  • “Intentionally seek out positive thoughts and stories, which I sometimes call managing your mental shelf space.”

Chapter 4: Thinking Like an Artist

  • “A defining characteristic of artists is that they tend to have strong powers of imagination…continually remind yourself that the most likely explanation for many—if not most—situations in life is something you didn’t imagine.”
  • “In politics too, people can support the same candidate for wildly different reasons. To imagine people like a person or a place for the same reasons is a serious lack of imagination and a denial of the most common experience in our shared reality.”
  • “If you can’t imagine any other explanation for a set of facts, it might be because you are bad at imagining things.”

Chapter 5: Thinking Like an Historian

  • History is “filtered through politics and distorted to the point of being misleading if not outright untrue, except for the basic facts such as names and dates.”
  • “Every government invents its own version of history to brainwash their population. We are raised to assume we are the lucky ones who learn accurate history while evil leaders elsewhere are duping their citizens.” [me: cultural bubbles in addition to our own individual ones]
  • “If you believe you learned an accurate version of history in school, you are probably wrong.”
  • “Trouble happens when people try to manage events in the present to fix the past. That isn’t possible. You can’t fix the past, and trying to do so generally won’t lead to anything good.”
  • “From a persuasion perspective, history can be a useful tool. If I can make you feel guilty for something your demographic group did to mine, I might be able to influence you in a way that is good for me.. But don’t make the mistake of believing that history matters in situations in which all it does is limit how you think about your options. History doesn’t have to control you.”
  • “Focusing on the past when the present offers sufficient paths to success is loserthink. It is better to focus on your own systems for success, and when you succeed, watch how winning fixes most problems.”
  • “We humans are not good at knowing which history is the one that will repeat. Life is messy and complicated, and the situations we encounter often remind us of multiple histories. But which of those histories is the one that is predictive?”
  • “When you do see history apparently repeating, ask yourself if you needed to know history to make your prediction…”
  • Instead of using the slippery slope argument, look for forces and counterforce to predict how far a thing will slide. “If there are no offsetting forces, then yes, things will keep going in one direction forever. But that’s rare. Usually a counterforce pops up as a reaction, or it is already in place.”

Chapter 6: Thinking Like an Engineer

  • “Whenever you are talking to an expert in any realm, be aware that the next expert is likely to tell you the work done by the last expert looked like a monkey pound ding a keyboard with a banana…if experts are routinely skeptical of other experts, shouldn’t you be skeptical of experts too?”
  • “Engineers are trained to find practical solutions to problems even when emotions and politics are pushing untrained minds in the wrong direction.”
  • Non-engineers tightly couple the solution to a problem with the cause of the problem (which isn’t always the best path to a solution).
  • “Engineers learn to remove emotions from their decisions, and that allows them to find the best solution without being limited by the question of who is at fault.”
  • Avoid analyzing complicated situations with multiple variables in play and attempt to identify a single, decisive variable. We engage in this “single variable illusion” but oversimplifies complex problems.

Chapter 7: Thinking Like a Leader

  • “Persuasion is at least half of what a leader does all day.”
  • “Truth has two important dimensions: 1) accuracy, and 2) direction.” Adams argues that, of the two, direction is the more important (accuracy is secondary).
  • Example: “A doctor might say that improving your diet will add twenty years to your life, even though you might live only another five years. The doctor is still directionally accurate in the sense that pursuing a better diet improves your odds of a healthy life.”
  • “Humans have a reflexive distaste for inaccuracy and lies. And we dislike people who traffic in such factual inaccuracies.”
  • “Any leader who hopes to move the minds of the public will soon learn their facts and reason are poor tools for doing so…humans are irrational creatures who mistakenly believe they use logic and reason to arrive at decisions. The reality is that we routinely make irrational decisions and then try to rationalize them.”
  • “People who disagree with you so often appear to be not just wrong, but totally bonkers. And importantly, they think exactly the same about you.”
  • “For many types of truth, directional accuracy is all you need.”
  • “We all want to live in a world in which facts and reason, along with empathy and ethics, of course, influence our decisions, and nothing else gets in the way. But we don’t live in that world.”
  • “It is loserthink to take political hyperbole literally.”
Thomas Edison had a goal of inventing a practical light bulb. But his goal would have been useless without a system to achieve it. His system involved continuously testing different approaches until one of them worked. Had Edison been too specific about his goals, insisting on using one type of filament or developing one type of bulb, he would have failed. His system was permissive, in the sense that he didn’t know what exact solution would be the best. He discovered the best solution by using his system.”
  • “Leaders understand that a good system involves doing something on a regular basis to improve your odds of good outcomes, even if you don’t know exactly what the outcome will be.” [me: reminds me of Annie Duke’s “Thinking in Bets” where she separates decision-making (which you can control) from results/outcome (which you cannot always control).]
  • “Favor systems over goals whenever that is practical. A goal gives you one way to win, whereas a system can surface lots of winning paths, some of which you never could have imagined.”
  • Example: There are many ideas for improving healthcare in the USA. People want to pick the “best” one and implement. Adams claims you cannot pick a best one because you don’t know what the best solution is. Instead, test small, learn and then make an informed decision.

Chapter 8: Thinking Like a Scientist

  • “Sometimes coincidences tell you something useful. But 90 percent of the time they mislead you. Never be too confident about an opinion that depends solely on interpreting a coincidence.
  • “The most common situations in which coincidences can be misleading involve your career and your personal life. When the topic has an emotional element, and you are already primed to believe something to be true, expect the environment to serve up lots of false signals.”
  • Avoid using individual situtations (anecdotal evidence) to represent an overall pattern or trend.
  • Ask the question: “What if the opposite is true?” And actually go through the process of considering and working that idea out. Adams uses the example of Charlie Munger who, instead of asking how an investment might succeed, would understand what failure would look like.
  • “If you are genuinely trying to understand the world, please avoid judging entire groups by their worst members.”
  • “Rarely is it possible to prove something isn’t true. But sometimes we can prove things are true.”

Chapter 9: Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

  • When dealing with personal inertia, identify the smallest possible step you can take and then do it. Break the project into smaller “micro steps.” Each action makes the next action easier (momentum).
  • Adams scorns the “stay in your lane” mentality that some advise. Cites Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the two influential politicians didn’t “stay in their lanes.” (Obviously the author also switched lanes in his own career)
  • “The smartest plan for life is to leave your lane as often as you can to pick up skills that will complement your talent stack. The more skills you have, the more valuable you will be, although you won’t necessarily know in advance where it will take you.”
  • The best way to approach new skills: “I don’t know how to do that, BUT I can figure it out.”
  • “Successful people seem to believe they can steer their fate by their actions. Whether they are right about that or not, it’s a winning mindset. People who think they control their situations will put more effort into doing so.”
  • “People who are consistently unsuccessful often believe they are victims of life.”
  • “Most [science] experiments fail. Many published scientific papers turn out to be wrong, or at least imperfect. But you only need a small percentage of rightness in all of that science to move society forward. It doesn’t matter how many times science is wrong so long as sometimes it is right and the good stuff sticks around.”
  • Put another way: “No one cares how many fish you didn’t catch. They only care about the ones you did.”
  • “Luck is attracted to action and energy; it doesn’t come looking for you on the couch.”
  • Find ways to test your assumptions in small, measured ways while avoiding harm to others. The alternative is overconfidence (via large, unrealistic projects) or inaction (doing nothing).

Chapter 10: Thinking Like an Economist

  • “People who understand economics can more easily spot hoaxes because money drives human behavior in predictable ways.” [me: think in terms of “incentives” and where the benefits of a situation are flowing]
  • Adams writes that bad behavior will happen almost 100% of the time if you have this combination of variables:
1. There is money to be made from the bad behavior.
2. The odds of detection are low
3. Lots of people are involved
  • “When people ask you if the ends justify the means, they are trying to frame themselves as the moral player in the conversation while framing you as the unethical weasel. Don’t answer the trick question. Instead, restate the question in this form before answering: I think you mean: Are the benefits greater than the costs?
  • A good decision-maker considers all the relevant costs and all the benefits, including moral and ethical considerations.
  • On being able to generate meaningful debate through comparison: “Two economists would likely isolate the point of disagreement—a fact in dispute, for example—and commit to researching that fact further. Non-economists usually go in a different direction.”
  • Compared to nothing: “If you are not explicitly comparing your preferred plan to the next best alternative, you are not involved in rational thinking.”
  • Halfpinions: “If your opinion considers only the benefits or only the costs of a plan, you might be in a mental prison.
  • Analyze the short-term and long-term implications of a decision. Politicians and the public rarely consider ALL the costs and benefits about major issues. Avoid only focusing on the present or only focusing on the future.
  • Time value of money: “A dollar you have today is worth a dollar. But a dollar you might get in the future, if things go as predicted (which is rare), is worth a lot less.”
  • Consider the alternatives: “If you have only one mortal risk, it might make sense to spend huge amounts of money to drive that risk to zero. But if you have multiple mortal risks, it might make more sense to allocate your money across several risks.”
  • Confusoplies: “If you find yourself experiencing certainty in a complex situation, you are probably experiencing loserthink.”
  • Straight-line predictions: “A terrible way to predict the future is to assume things will keep going the way they have been going…the alternative is predicting ‘surprises’ along the way, and that would be absurd. If we could predict surprises, they wouldn’t be surprises.”

Chapter 11: Things Pundits Say That You Should Not Copy

  • Don’t mimic pundits. Pundits are advocates rather than objective observers. They don’t [always or exclusively] argue from the perspective of reason.
  • Moral equivalency: “As a matter of good manners, try to resist comparing someone’s cancer with your pimple, or comparing a death in someone else’s family to an expired carton of milk in your fridge. It isn’t a crime against humanity; it just isn’t good manners. And it is rarely persuasive.”
  • Word-thinking: “If you find yourself reengineering the meaning of common words to make your case, you might be engaging in what I call word-thinking…word-thinking involves trying to understand the world, or trying to win a debate, by concentrating on the definition of words.”
  • Examples of word-thinking that are vague and highly-subjective (unless specifics are brought into the argument): “Normalize”, “problematic.”
  • The hypocrisy defense: “Refusing to admit your errors, or your team’s errors, locks you into a team sport mentality…you’re more focused on the fight than the fix.”
  • Fairness: “Arguing for fairness is loserthink because no two people will agree on what it looks like.”
  • Analogies: Analogies are bad for persuasion and prediction. They are good for describing concepts and for humor.
  • Friction: “Adding friction to any human choice will reduce the number of people making that choice.”
  • Mentioning is not comparing: “If two or more items are mentioned in the same conversation, that doesn’t mean anyone is comparing them for relative value.”
  • “For big, complicated political questions, ‘doing your own research’ is a waste of time.” Adams argues that we are prone to confirmation bias and have difficulty determining which experts are credible.
  • “Never be yourself if you can make yourself into something better through your conscious actions. You are what you do.”
  • “If you’re calling someone a coward, you probably aren’t saying anything useful…the problem with labeling terrorists and mass murderers of any kind as cowards…is that it diverts attention from any kind of deeper analysis that would be helpful.”
  • “If your response to a disagreement is to assign your opponent a dismissive label, you have surrendered the moral and intellectual high ground…” Examples of dismissive labels: apologist, narcissist, fascist, globalist, racist and socialist.
  • “The evil cousin of ‘Why didn’t you do it sooner?’ Is the question ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’…there is no good answer because you always could have called sooner, texted sooner, or done something sooner. There is no such thing as being soon enough.”

Chapter 12: The Golden Age Filter

  • “You have been sold a negative view of the future because of the business model of the press.”
  • Poverty: In 1966 the global poverty rate was at 50%, by 2017 the number was at 9%.
  • Housing: Advances in home-building systems, 3-D printing, home-kits and nonstandard living arrangements are lowering the cost of housing.
  • Education: Online learning is revolutionizing education. Current obstacle to traditional learning is degree/certification piece. Expect this to change in the future.
  • Crime: Technology is solving crime at a higher rate than ever: video surveillance, smartphones, digital trails, DNA evidence.
  • World Peace: Wars less likely in the future due to the following:
1. Mutually assured destruction keeps working.
2. Conquest is no longer economical.
3. Guerrilla resisters have access to better weaponry.
4. Economic war is a better substitute for physical war.
  • Climate Change: Adams is confident that human ingenuity and technology will solve the problem (e.g. CO2 scrubbing, fusion power, etc.)
  • Unemployment: Adams anticipates that other developments, like better online education and work-anywhere type jobs will give workers greater flexibility in changing careers and retooling.
  • Healthcare: Adams cites telemedicine, smartphone testing/diagnostics, big data and continued medical breakthroughs for cost and treatment improvements in the future.
  • Race relations: Adams believes this has been and will keep improving due to social mobility, minority success and increasing interracial marriage (to name a few things).
  • “The business model of the press guarantees you will see more negativity than the facts support. Things are often better than they seem, especially in the long run.”

Chapter 13: How to Break Out of Your Mental Prison

  • “The mindset of you can do anything was a tremendous advantage for me…”
  • “If you allow the opinions of unsuccessful people in your culture to hold you back, you’re engaged in loserthink. If you can learn to think of yourself as free from the cultural gravity of your peers, it will pay off in the long run.”
  • “If you can’t figure out how to do a task the right way, do it the wrong way and watch how quickly you get free advice.”
  • How Adams ranks priorities:
1. You
2. Family
3. Friends
4. Employer
5. Town/city
6. Country
7. World
  • “Your first priority should be you. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be much use to anyone else. But hurry up—the world has lots of problems and maybe you can help.”
  • “The single biggest error that humans make in their decision-making is ignoring relevant context…that problem can be fixed simply by broadening your information sources. But a bigger problem comes from not knowing what you don’t know.”
  • Adams recommends waiting 48-hours before forming a new opinion about something new (in order to fill in any missing context or information).
  • “We live in a world in which it is dangerous to ignore the advice of experts, but it is almost as dangerous to follow their advice. The trick is to know when the experts are the solution and when they are the jailers of your mental prison.”
  • “News that is reported by the same news outlets on both the left and right is probably true. If you only see a story reported by news sites that lean in one direction, it probably isn’t true.”
  • Recommended books about human rationality:
Influence—by Robert Cialdini
The Power of Habit—by Charles Duhigg
Thinking, Fast and Slow—by Daniel Kahneman
Win Bigly—by Scott Adams
  • “To think more effectively, improve your fitness, diet, and sleeping.”
  • Adams recommends judging others by their responses to their mistakes, rather than for the mistakes themselves.
  • Adams recommends the following steps for responding to mistakes:
1. Fully acknowledge the mistake and its impact.
2. Display genuine-looking remorse.
3. Explain what you plan to do to make amends.
4. Explain how you plan to avoid similar mistakes.
  • The Forty-Eight Hour Rule: “Everyone deserves forty-eight hours to clarify, apologize for, or otherwise update an offending statement.”
  • “When you see an ‘unbelievable’ story in the press that is based on interpreting someone else’s meaning, it is generally fake news. Wait for the clarification to see if there is a perfectly ordinary explanation.”
  • The Twenty-Year Rule: “It is loserthink to judge people by their much younger selves. People change. And they usually improve.”

Chapter 14: How to Break Others Out of Their Mental Prisons

  • Persuasion through better facts and reasoning rarely works.
  • “People are confident in their own abilities to understand the world. That confidence should be your target…”
  • Persuasion takes time and will not occur in a single attempt.
  • “Chip away at their sense of confidence about their opinions first, to weaken the prison walls until they can punch their way out on their own.”
  • The Magic Question: “State ONE thing you believe on this topic that you think I do NOT believe.”
  • For people with laundry lists of reasons for an opinion: “Ask for their strongest point only, and debunk it if you can. Target their undue confidence, not their entire laundry list.”
  • “Agree with people as much as you can without lying, and you will be in a better position to persuade.”
  • “Don’t argue the weeds of a debate. Dismiss the trivial stuff and concentrate on the variables that matter. That gives you the high ground.”
  • “Ask people with opposing opinions to describe what the future would look like if their view of the world were to play out. Does it sound reasonable?”
  • If people try to read your mind, call it out or tell them exactly what you think. Don’t let others impose their (incorrect) reading or assumptions of the situation.
  • To get to better answers you need to ask better questions. Framing a question correctly is critical.


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