We understand a topic well when we can explain it to someone else who's not familiar with it and cannot provide feedback and give us additional insights. Because we're forced to make sense of it for it to make sense to them. But we don't need to have someone else to talk with to make it work.
Thinking things through is a good exercise to experiment. In other words, we learn by thinking. Galileo used what we call thought experiments to formulate his heliocentric theory, which holds that Earth moves around the Sun at great speed. Galileo demonstrated that falling objects must fall at the same rate regardless of their masses by sharing logical reasoning.
In Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche (discourses and mathematical demonstrations), Galileo says:
Salviati. If then we take two bodies whose natural speeds are different, it is clear that on uniting the two, the more rapid one will be partly retarded by the slower, and the slower will be somewhat hastened by the swifter. Do you not agree with me in this opinion?
Simplicio. You are unquestionably right.
Salviati. But if this is true, and if a large stone moves with a speed of, say, eight while a smaller moves with a speed of four, then when they are united, the system will move with a speed less than eight; but the two stones when tied together make a stone larger than that which before moved with a speed of eight. Hence the heavier body moves with less speed than the lighter; an effect which is contrary to your supposition. Thus you see how, from your assumption that the heavier body moves more rapidly than the lighter one, I infer that the heavier body moves more slowly.
Thought experiments had a pivotal role in science. Einstein used thought experiments to formulate new theories. One such thought experiment was the prediction of Gravitational Waves 100 years ago ― their existence has now been confirmed.
How a thought experiment works is we consider a hypothesis, theory, or principle for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. The common goal of a thought experiment is to explore the potential consequences of the principle in question. In ancient Greece, a thought experiment was the oldest pattern of mathematical proof.
Psychologist Tania Lombrozo says, “the process of trying to explain to yourself is a lot like a thought experiment in science.” People are very motivated to explain things that happened in their experience. This is one of the reasons why conversations work well. Explanations are about the past, things that have happened. We look at the past to predict the future ― see what we've learned, why something worked, and how we did it.
We're extremely engaged in the process because it helps us learn and infer things. When we talk about learning, we typically mean looking things up, reading about a topic, attending a class, or observing something. These are all external inputs. New data and information coming from a source other than us.
But explaining is about us being the source. Says Lombrozo:
It exhibits a phenomenon that I refer to as learning by thinking. This is the phenomenon where sometimes you can come to learn something or understand something new in the absence of any external data or input from another person. The way this relates to explanation is through an experience that I think most people have had, which is the experience of coming to understand something better as a result of explaining it to yourself.
We engage in the same practice that scientists use to gain new insights. Do we use explanations to arrive at some form of truth? Are there instances when we mislead ourselves? Do we reinforce our beliefs and misconceptions?
In a set of studies, Lombrozo wanted to find out if we use thought experiments to arrive at an abstract generalization like an underlying principle from a particular concrete case. Children are pretty bad at extracting the moral of a story. They usually learn something concrete like a detail from an Aesop's Fable, which for adults carries a moral lesson.
When the researchers prompted children with questions to provide explanations however, they were more successful in finding the abstract moral. The process of explaining helps us make sense of situations that are different on the surface, but hold similar qualities. For example, we can transfer “patience is a virtue” from the context of watching a plant grow from a seed to finishing a big project at work.
Thinking out loud
“Perhaps creating something is nothing but an act of profound remembrance.”
[R. M. Rilke]
Writers often remark that they don't know what they're thinking until it's down on the page. Characters take a life of their own. With social media becoming so common, we have a mix of sharing to communicate and posting to think out loud.
Do we relate to each other or are we relating to ourselves and our experience? This is an interesting line of thinking when we seek to understand what kind of experiences people have with a business or a brand, how they think about experience at an emotional level. Emotion is the driver in commercial decisions, even for big ticket items. We then rationalize post hoc.
Our personal culture has a role in how much or little we use the process of explaining before making a future prediction, like a purchase. Along with our prior beliefs, the larger social culture also has a role in determining what we accept as functional explanations about how the world works.
Cognitive development researcher Deborah Kelemen has found cultural differences in how people accept certain kinds of explanations vs. others for natural phenomena. Where it's predetermined by a higher power or the effect of a cause we can point to scientifically, for example.
Cultural differences are also responsible for how we should interpret product and service reviews. Experienced travelers have learned to discount some of the negatives in European hotel reviews based on the nationality of other travelers.
People are usually fairly good at telling if the discontent was driven by a specific bad experience as the symptom of a business practice or a different baseline expectation ― for example an American traveler used to spacious rooms and amenities booking a room with double occupancy and finding it cramped and expensive. Which is interesting because when we become businesses we have a harder time reading the comments with the appropriate grain of salt ― and respond and learn accordingly.
Social media has a reinforcing effect on the type of explanations we're most likely to provide for things. We still use the process of explanation in the same ways, but we anchor our explanations in prior beliefs ― social pressure and repetition have a role in writing some of them.
Liking simple explanations
When we see something being successful online, we typically see simplicity at work. People prefer simple explanations for things, it makes them plausible thus good. In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman says:
People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.
The work of trying to explain different cases in which something happens is harder than that to find one common trait to two situations and use that to explain both. This may not make for a good explanation, but it makes it simple and more desirable. Which is why it gains better acceptance.
Having said that, our ability to infer information with little data is still unmatched. We are impressive learners. To solve problems in those cases, we use Bayes' rule. In statistics we take the information we have and prior beliefs, and update them based on the new information. We don't do it explicitly, we have a way of thinking in that direction. When we explain things to ourselves based on new observations about the world we update our beliefs in the process.
Motivation determines whether we're trying to persuade, use something that is convenience (as in the simple, thus plausible case), or get as quickly as possible to something that is right enough and possibly not precise long-term.
Mental models and heuristics
Mental models are explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. They're based on fundamental assumptions and represent situations that are possible. We rely on counter-examples to refute invalid inferences or things that are not true.
Win-win situations are an example of a mental model that has withstood the test of time.
Like all models, they can be useful when taken appropriately. For a model to work, it needs to be both useful and reliable.
Rory Sutherland says we use heuristics as shortcuts to understand complex things. In Europe, for example, we use mini roundabouts to keep traffic moving, instead of stopping it. It works based on a simple heuristic ― if anything comes from the right, you stop.
In business it's wise to have principles and use rules of thumbs rather than just follow best practices. The reason is that principles are based on most practice, our own explanations of beliefs and information that applies to our situation.
Learning to take “no” as a question is a good rule of thumb.
A rule of thumb that says, “when you see the system and not just the individual pieces you increase your chances of winning” works because it helps us uncover the relationships.
Thinking is the process of trying to explain to ourselves to learn, says Tania Lombrozo. In conversation at the Edge# she talks about her research into causal reasoning, aspects of language, aspects of how we think about other people's minds, aspects of how we think about social structure.
In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman explains the relationships between System 1, the intuitive system, which is much faster, and System 2, the conscious, rational, sequential thinking. We have come to worship the second in the West and under-appreciate the first for problem solving.