le 22 janvier 2013
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 28.
The main argument: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes is as popular today as when he was created back in the late 19th century. This comes as no surprise, of course, since there is just something about Holmes' peculiar qualities--his keen observation, clever imagination, and incisive reasoning capabilities--that is both awe-inspiring and inspirational. We admire Holmes for cutting through the errors of thought that are so common to us in our daily lives (and that are reflected in Holmes' sidekick, Watson). And yet we recognize that there is nothing in Holmes' thought that is entirely out of reach for us. Indeed, his qualities are not so much superhuman as human plus: human qualities taken to their extreme. Still, human qualities taken to their extreme are intimidating enough, and we may find ourselves doubting whether we could ever really think like Sherlock--even if we put our minds to it. But for cognitive psychologist Anna Konnikova, we should think again.
Holmes' prowess, Konnikova argues, rests no so much in his mental powers as in his mental approach. Specifically, Holmes has succeeded in making his thought methodical and systematic--essentially bringing the scientific method and scientific thinking to his detective work. This is an approach to thinking which, Konnikova argues, we can all practice. More importantly, it is an approach to thinking that can extend well beyond sleuthing. Indeed, it is a general approach that can help us get at the truth in virtually any arena, as well as help us solve virtually any problem. It is simply a matter of bringing a little science to the art of thought--and it is this very thing that Konnikova aims to help us achieve in her new book 'Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes'.
Konnikova breaks down Holmes' method into 4 parts: 1. Background knowledge; 2. Observation; 3. Imagination; and 4. Deduction. To begin with, Holmes keeps an extensive and well-organized knowledge base to help him solve new cases. What's more, he is vigilant in ensuring that he is ever assimilating new and important information that could help him in the future. Second, Holmes uses careful, mindful, and unbiased observation to glean what is important about the various characters and circumstances of each case. Next, Holmes uses the evidence that he has gathered--in conjunction with his far-reaching (though disciplined) imagination--to formulate multiple scenarios that could explain the mystery. Finally, Holmes uses his acute powers of reasoning to cut away the scenarios that just don't hold up, until ultimately there is but one scenario left: the only one that is possible, however improbable.
While this approach seems straightforward enough, it is easier said than done. Indeed, our minds can and often do go wrong at any one of the steps. Konnikova construes it like this: our minds have two distinct modes of thought. The first of these modes operates quickly and automatically. It is our default mode, in that it is the one that we rely on as a matter of course. While it may be quick and effortless, it is also very error-prone. Our second mode of thought is slower and more deliberate. It has the potential to be far more accurate than our default mode, but it takes effort, and this is effort that we often aren't willing to expend. Still, Konnikova contends that activating the second mode is worth the effort. What's more, the more we employ this mode of thought, the more habitual and the less effortful it becomes. (These modes of thought correspond to System 1, and System 2 in Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', though Konnikova refers to them here as our Watsonian and Holmesian systems).
At each step of Holmes' method, Konnikova points out the errors of thought that our Watsonian system is wont to draw us into (as exemplified by a series of psychological experiments). In addition, she points out numerous tricks and pointers that can help us use our Holmesian system to best advantage in order to overcome these errors (exemplified by still other psychological experiments). In the end, it is really a matter of being ever mindful and careful in our thinking, and this is something that we could all certainly do more of.
Readers of Kahneman's 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' will no doubt recognize many of the experiments talked about here. However, unlike in Kahneman's book, Konnikova makes much more of an effort to explain how we can overcome the errors of our Watsonian system (system 1). I found these efforts to be worthwhile for the most part (4 stars). Also, I found Konnikova's style easy enough to follow; however, I would not say that I was a huge fan of it: it comes across as patronizing at times, and she does engage in a fair bit of repetition. Still a good and worthwhile read. A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Monday, January 28; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.