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“Cognition” refers to thinking activities such as problem solving, learning, decision making, and imagining. “Meta-Cognition” refers to thinking about thinking. The science of psychology, over the last 150 years, has learned a lot about human thinking. If you are reading this blog post, the chances are pretty good that you are a human being. Although there are important individual differences in how people solve problems, learn, make decisions, and use their imaginations, there are also huge similarities. To the extent that you understand your own thinking, you can use that knowledge to do a better job of problem solving, learning, decision making and using your imagination. 

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Here are a few examples that you may already be aware of. I really like chocolate. And I really like almonds. Chocolate-covered almonds are one of my very favorite foods. I know this about myself. I also know that I am easily distracted. I’m not the sort of person who begins to write a blog post, thinks about chocolate almonds and then stops writing to rush out to the store and buy a package. In fact, there is almost no activity that I can be engaged in which I would interrupt in order to go buy chocolate almonds no matter how much I craved them. On the other hand, if there were a bowl of chocolate almonds right beside me, in easy reach, I would definitely reach over and grab some whenever I paused in my writing. So, how do I use the knowledge about my own behavior to control my own behavior? 

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I don’t often buy chocolate almonds. It’s very easy to simply not go to the part of the grocery store where these little devils hang out. If I walk by, I know that they will start singing to me like the Lorelei of legend: “Come get me! I am so tasty. Get me now. Please. I want to go home with you.” But I can’t really hear them that well beyond about five feet. Probably this is because they have a very rudimentary vocal apparatus. 

I do buy them perhaps once a month and when I do buy them I put them in a closed drawer so they are mainly out of earshot. Then, I will have a few and get back to work. I may not have them for days at a time. If, however, I put them in a bowl right beside my computer, I am fairly certain that I would eat the whole box the first day; indeed, quite possibly in the first hour. 

This is an example of using what I know about how I think about things to think about arranging the environment to my own long-term benefit. 

Another example, which I may describe in more detail later, is the so-called “Primacy Effect.” This is known in popular terms as the power of “First Impressions.” If your first experience with something — whether it’s dogs, cats, Chinese food, or computer programming — is negative, it will be difficult to overcome that later. This is not only true of emotional reactions. It’s also true about what you recall about something. 

Suppose that you meet someone named Joseph Josephson at a party and John has a beard and long black hair. Perhaps you talk to Joseph for ten minutes. You meet Joseph a few months later at a tennis match and now he is clean shaven and has short hair. You play tennis with him for an hour. A few months later, someone happens to ask you if you know Joseph Josephson. Chances are, an image will pop into your head of Joseph with long black hair and a beard. Of course, sales people, politicians and wise people applying for jobs make use of this and want to make a “good first impression.” Since you now know that first impressions are particularly important, you can use this knowledge about how people think to make sure that first impression is a good one. 

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You can also use that knowledge to help modify your own thinking and decision making. Suppose someone comes to you for a job interview and the first thing they do when they walk in your office is trip over a chair and spill their papers on the floor. That’s unfortunate! It is quite natural to immediately conclude that they are unsuited for the job. At this point, you could remind yourself though that this is only a first impression and that you should not let it color your judgement about whether they are the best candidate for the job. You probably won’t be entirely successful in not letting it cloud your judgement, but you will be somewhat successful. 

As I explain in The Winning Weekend Warrior, you can also use the “Primacy Effect” in sports. For example, if you are serving in tennis doubles, if you mainly want to hit a flat serve and stay back after serving, you might serve a kick-serve and follow it to the net a few times at the beginning. Even if you never do this again, your opponents will continue to be “looking for” that kick serve and may prepare their return on that basis. 

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When it comes to evaluating candidates for jobs, you must also be wary of the “Halo Effect.” If you find out something good about a candidate, it will tend to cloud your judgement about other aspects of their qualifications, even if that “good thing” is likely irrelevant to the job. A physically attractive candidate will tend to be judged as more qualified overall even if the job has nothing to do with physical attractiveness. But now that you know this about human judgements (and therefore also your judgements), you can take steps to minimize the “Halo Effect.” It may help, for instance, if you specifically judge candidates on several dimensions of background or experience. The more “objective” you can make the criteria, the less susceptible the judgments are to the “Halo Effect.” So, if the candidate is very attractive, for example, if you simply say whether they are suitable for the job, there will be a relatively large impact of their attractiveness. On the other hand, if you are asked to separately rate the candidate on Work Experience, Educational Background, Appearance, and Relevant Skills, the Halo Effect from their physical appearance will tend to be mainly (but not wholly) focused on the “Appearance” factor. If you answer even more specific and objective questions such as: “Does the candidate have an advanced degree?” or “Does the candidate have more than two years programming in C?” the “Halo Effect” is further minimized. 

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One of the most common ways that people use meta-cognition is simply to write things down. You and I both know that we have a tendency to forget. Most of us, therefore have paper or electronic calendars. We don’t typically rely on our own memory to keep track of a complex schedule of appointments. Why? Presumably, we do this because we know that we are likely to forget an appointment if we rely on our brains. Most of us do not bother to put our own birthday on the calendar because we realize that we are quite aware of it and not likely to forget. People who celebrate Christmas often do not bother to put that date on the calendar either. We know that it would be rather hard to forget! Similarly, many people who go grocery shopping and buy milk, eggs, and bread every week do not bother to put it on the list. If your aunt Mary is coming to visit and she requires soy milk, you probably will put that on your shopping list. You realize (through meta-cognition) that this is an item you are likely to forget. 

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These are just a few examples. Findings about human cognition abound. You can use these findings to do a better job in your own thinking; you can use those same findings to help you in competitive situations in predicting what others will do. If you are interested in more such findings about psychology, you might find these fascinating and well-written books of interest.

Thinking Fast & Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely  


Holiday Gift Ideas: 

For busy professionals who wish to live a long and healthy life: Fit in Bits shows many ways to work exercise into otherwise sedentary activities. 

For amateur athletes who would like to win more, The Winning Weekend Warrior focuses on strategy, tactics, and the mental game for all sports including tennis, golf, softball, etc. 

For Sci-Fi fans, Turing’s Nightmares presents 23 short stories that explore the practical and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence. 

For those interested in what it was like to grow up in mid-America in the 1950’s, Tales from an American Childhood recounts early memories and then relates them to contemporary events and issues.