Be cognitively humble by Annie Murphy Paul

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Be cognitively humble

"Quite possibly the best fish and chips in central London." "Probably the oldest pub in Oxford." "Might well be the finest Indian curry in Euston."

These are signs I saw on my travels through Britain this past week—advertisements promoted by the restaurants themselves, mind you, not lukewarm reviews on Yelp.com. They struck me in part because they're so different from the blatantly boastful ads common in the U.S., and also because they seemed like minor examples of a weighty virtue: cognitive humility.

I first encountered that term in the syllabus of a course taught by David Brooks. Brooks, the New York Times op-ed columnist, has for the past couple of years taught a course called "Humility" at Yale, my alma mater. The purpose of the course, according to its description in the catalog, is to study "traditions of modesty and humility in character building and political leadership," and to explore "the premise that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness."
 
Last spring, Brooks asked me to come in and talk to his students on the day they were to consider humility from a cognitive perspective: that is, what it would mean to recognize our own mental limits. The undergrads had read Daniel Kahneman's bookThinking, Fast and Slow, a very accessible and enjoyable account of the psychologist's work on cognitive biases. I shared with them a couple of my own pieces, on avoiding overconfidence and overcoming the "curse of expertise."

I found myself thinking of that class again this week; there's nothing like stumbling around in a foreign country (even one where they speak English) to make you aware of your own limitations. Exposure to other cultures (whether through travel or through encounters in everyday life) is one way we can keep ourselves cognitively humble; such experiences invariably remind us that our own perspective on the world is limited, and only one among many. Learning new skills is another sure way to promote cognitive modesty: it's useful to feel yourself an inept beginner again, especially if you've gotten too used to being competent.

And lastly, we can apply Kahneman's own strategy for "debiasing" judgments: simply, to consider alternative scenarios or outcomes. Often we are so sure that things will work out the way we expect that we fail to account for other possibilities. Consider-an-alternative is quite possibly the best way to maintain our cognitive humility—in London, or anywhere else.

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