Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 108
Here's two excerpts from a book I recently read, "The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds," by Michael Lewis:
Later, when he was a university professor, Danny would tell students, “When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.” That was his intellectual instinct, his natural first step to the mental hoop: to take whatever someone had just said to him and try not to tear it down but to make sense of it. The question the Israeli military had asked him—Which personalities are best suited to which military roles?—had turned out to make no sense. And so Danny had gone and answered a different, more fruitful question: How do we prevent the intuition of interviewers from screwing up their assessment of army recruits? He’d been asked to divine the character of the nation’s youth. Instead he’d found out something about people who try to divine other people’s character: Remove their gut feelings, and their judgments improved. He’d been handed a narrow problem and discovered a broad truth. “The difference between Danny and the next nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine psychologists is his ability to find the phenomenon and then explain it in a way that applies to other situations,” said Dale Griffin, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “It looks like luck but he keeps doing it.”
By changing the context in which two things are compared, you submerge certain features and force others to the surface. “It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified. Thus, similarity has two faces: causal and derivative. It serves as a basis for the classification of objects, but is also influenced by the adopted classification.” A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.
Amos’s theory didn’t exactly contribute to the existing conversation about how people made judgments of similarity. It took over the entire conversation. Everyone else at the party just circled around Amos and listened. “Amos’s approach to doing science wasn’t incremental,” said Rich Gonzalez. “It proceeded by leaps and bounds. You find a paradigm that is out there. You find a general proposition of that paradigm. And you destroy it. He saw himself doing a negative style of science. He used the word a lot: negative. This turns out to be a very powerful way of doing social science.” That’s how Amos would begin: by undoing the mistakes of others. As it turned out, other people had made some other mistakes.