The art of thinking clearly.

There’s a book I think should be in every bathroom:

The book lists 99 common cognitive errors:

systematic deviations from logic – from optimal, rational, reasonable thought and behaviour. By ‘systematic’ I mean that these are not just occasional errors in judgement, but rather routine mistakes, barriers to logic we stumble over time and again, repeating patterns through generations and through the centuries.

As well as being informative, it’s written in short chapters that can be read independently and randomly. It’s perfect for most toileting needs. You can attend to business while sharpening your brain up a bit. Oh, and it’s cheap.

The thing I find most fascinating about cognitive errors is that you can’t just get over them once; as soon as you think you’re done with them and stop hunting them down, the little blighters crop back up. Thinking that you’ve beaten them forever is a surefire way of harbouring them; not only you won’t be on the lookout, but your ego will fight any attempt at identifying them.

Cognitive errors become even harder to vanquish when they are normalised in a community. With enough community support, these brain bugs can turn into The Right Way to look at certain subjects. Everyone thinks like that, so that must be the right way of thinking; right? Vanquishing them can become a fight against the identity of the community, with any attempt at shining the light on these errors treated as an attack on the community itself.


There are a few cognitive errors that are particularly prominent in the self-defence community. My personal bugbears are:

Survivorship bias. Some people go through difficult events and thrive. They may emerge much stronger, in fact; not only stronger than they were before, but also stronger, in some respects at least, than the average person. That’s just grand. However, if we look around enough, we will likely find an equal or greater number of people who went through similar events and got seriously mangled in the process, physically or psychologically. Alas, those people don’t often go on to become “experts” on the issue, because they’re kept too busy dealing with their shit. The successful survivors are more publicly prominent;. Some go on to lecture others on the transformative beauty of hardship. People buy into that, not realising that the successful survivors may be outliers, and that, statistically, most people who go through the same kind of trials just get horribly fucked up and occasionally die.

(There are a couple of addenda to this. Successful survivors cannot possibly begin to know how things would have been for them had those events not taken place. They may be able to compare them to their past selves, but they cannot compare themselves to an alternative, present self that went through different experiences. They may also be unaware of how narrow a squeak they went through; how much luck and coincidence went into their success, how easily it may have gone the other way.)


Effort Justification. When we put a lot of energy into a task, we tend to overevaluate the results. Some self-defence training can be pretty hardcore; it sucks time and money, and can result in pain or even injuries. That doesn’t, in and of itself, mean that it’s any good. It could well be that we’re pissing away our resources towards achieving something that is inherently worthless, or simply does not suit us. The only measure of our results should be our results, independently of our costs.

This cognitive error is particularly difficult to deal with when people have acquired skills or experience through horrible hardships. They may believe that what they have is worth inherently more than what anyone else has simply because it cost them so much. That’s not necessarily true. People may be able to pick up the salient lessons from second-hand experience, particularly when those lessons largely amounts to “don’ts”. As Will Rogers said, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” The lesson – do not pee on the electric fence – is the same, and it’s worth the same regardless of how it’s acquired. Admittedly, self-defence situations are hardly ever that simple, but similar considerations often apply and are generally disregarded.


Déformation professionnelle. “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails,” said Mark Twain. People who carry self-defence at the forefront of their mind may be more likely to spot self-defence issues when they come up; however, they can also spot them where they don’t exist. Everyone is a potential predator, every conflict is a potential self-defence issue, every interpersonal problem is a red flag, every attempt at negotiation is a boundary violation. This attitude can keep people safe, but can also make them incredibly difficult to get along with.


Authority bias. It is so because the Grandmaster Sensei Sifu Guru says it is so. I must do what the Leaders say, because they ‘re always right. I personally loathe this kind of attitude in general. As well as completely shutting down people’s critical processes, it can lead them to do all sorts of stuff they wouldn’t even consider if they were, yannow, actually thinking; following orders can be very liberating, and with disastrous consequences. I dislike it even more under four specific circumstances:

  • The authorities in question are quite obviously not universally embraced, yet they are treated as if they were so. This becomes particularly obvious to me when people wave their holy books under my nose; it seems to escape them that, as they’re not my holy books, they might as well be waving copies of “Winnie-the-Pooh” for all the good it’s doing to their assertions. The same kind of attitude is very prominent in self-defence. If the people subscribing to it aren’t willing to accept that the authorities they refer to are only authorities for them, this can create a spectacularly annoying communication barrier. Sometimes when someone says “Such-and-such says X,” “So what?” is the obvious answer; but it never seems to help conversations move on.
  • The authority is not an authority in the field at hand. People are generally not experts at everything. Someone may be the world’s leading expert in one subject, and not know a damn thing about anything else. Ok, so you embrace Rory or Geoff or Marc or whoever else as your lord and saviour; but please, please at least bear in mind that they may not be expert on brain surgery, particle physics, hydroponics, embroidery, and so on. They are actual people with actual human limitations, not spouts plumbed directly into the Fount Of All Knowledge.
  • I’m the fucking authority. Seriously people, just don’t. I’m a blogger. The only qualifications required for this post are an ability to type and a willingness to post. Nothing is so because I say it’s so. Do not take anything I say as gospel. I don’t.
  • I’m the fucking authority, and get (mis)quoted at myself to disprove a statement I’m making. I love it when that happens.


There’s a whole other lot of biases that crawl all over self-defence, in the same way that they crawl all over all other fields. Buy the book. Put it in your loo. You won’t regret it.


2 thoughts on “The art of thinking clearly.

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