Loserthink is about identifying and avoiding unproductive ways of thinking. In Loserthink he covers how changing media profitability impacts the news, mental prisons and how to break out of them, and encourages adopting the best thinking from different professions to avoid being fooled. Key insights:
The media are profit not truth seeking, and use split A/B testing to fine-tune click-bait articles that appeal to their audiences
Loserthink describes any type of thinking that is unproductive or ineffective – pretending we can predict what others are thinking for example
You need to try and break out of your own mental prison(s), getting others to do so is hard but possible
Think like a psychologist – avoid ad hominem attacks and use rational arguments
Think like an artist – be more imaginative when trying to explain things
Think like a historian – knowing history can help you see where it may or may not repeat
Think like an engineer – be skeptical about experts and look to prove things for yourself
Think like a leader – it’s more important to be directionally correct than numerically accurate
Think like a scientist – beware of coincidences, they are far less common than you realize
Think like an entrepreneur – believing you are in control of your destiny is a winning strategy
Think like an economist – look to see if incentives are driving human behavior or decisions
Full title: Loserthink: How Untrained Brains are Ruining America. By Scott Adams
Length: 256 pages, or 6 hours and 58 mins on Audible
Key insight 1: The changing media landscape – understanding political warming
Adams talks about how capitalism and technology have changed news/opinion media. Technology has lowered barriers to entry as online reporting is much cheaper than print media (i.e. newspapers). News organizations must now split revenues not only with new entrants such as online only papers, but also with Google and Facebook for advertising revenues. Thus all media organizations are now chasing a smaller and more niche target market. Think of how different the target markets that Fox News, CNN, and National Public Radio (NPR) are chasing.
Further, technology enables split A/B testing of media stories with the version that generates the most activity leading (A/B testing is where two versions of a story are presented randomly to people, and whichever gets the most activity becomes the default version). Thus the hyper partisan nature of both Fox and CNN reporting is simply these organizations getting better at engaging these respective audiences.
Adams observers that the media becoming more partisan – seeking to ‘manipulate brains’ as he calls it – isn’t a result of an evil plot but rather the inevitable consequence of capitalism and technology on the media landscape. Those media organizations that change and adapt have the profits to continue in business; those that don’t go bust and leave the marketplace. The media business model changed from presenting information to manipulating brains. In this world it is easy to live our lives in an information bubble in which we think we can see everyone else’s bubbles, but often can’t see our own. From Adams:
“The inevitable outcome of the press having a business model that rewards brain manipulation versus accuracy is what I call political warming. As the press becomes increasingly skilled at stimulating the emotion centers in our brains, one should expect the public to be in a continuous state of fight-or-flight anxiety. We’re more scared and angry than I imagine we ever have been, at least since World War II. And that means bigger storms ahead in the form of protests and divisiveness.”
“Our old understanding of reality is rapidly dissolving. Fake news and conspiracy theories have become the building blocks of what we mistakenly believe to be the world we live in. Any two of us can look at the same evidence and have entirely different interpretations of what it all means. Politicians, businesses, and even scientists routinely mislead us, Not always, and not necessarily intentionally, but often enough that we generally can’t be sure what is true and what is not.”
Adams cautions us not to get too invested in the big stories that pushed hard by either side of the media landscape – unless of course they are both pushing the story and it sounds similar (i.e. natural disaster reporting). From Adams:
“If you buy into the full-scary narratives promoted by either the political left or the political right, you’re probably experiencing loser think. A more useful way to think of the political news is that nearly every major story is exaggerated to the point of falsehood, with the intention of scaring the public.”
In a somewhat funny explanation, he notes that for hyper-partisan media organization “being absolutely right and spectacularly wrong feel exactly the same.”
Key insight 2: Understanding ‘Loserthink’
Here are a few examples of unproductive thinking – loserthink.
1. Incentives influence outcomes. Charlie Munger who is Warren Buffet’s investing partner at Berkshire Hathaway famous said “Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome.” He was talking about how incentives related to pay, fame, progress, or other goodies influence people’s behavior. Not realizing this is so, is a form of loserthink. Whether it is Republicans stating that lower corporate taxes increase employment (they do a tiny bit, but companies mostly boost share prices by doing share buybacks), or Democrats wanting to extent the voting franchise to 16 year olds (it increases their vote as young people overwhelmingly vote progressive); often all you need to do is understand the incentives to understand the thinking or reasoning behind an idea. From Adams:
“Whenever you have money, reputations, power, ego, and complexity in play, it is irrational to assume you are seeing objective science.”
2. You don’t know what other people are thinking. Any more than they know what you are thinking. From Adams:
“If your complaint about other people involves your belief that you can deduce their inner thoughts, you might be in a mental prison. We humans think we are good judges of what others are thinking. We are not. In fact, we are dreadful at it. But people being people, we generally believe we are good at it while also believing other people are not.”
3. The world is not falling apart. Have you heard any doom and gloom stories on the news lately? Of course. How about good news stories about declining poverty rates and increasing child education in the third world? Not so much. Adams again:
“When you combine a human brain that is wired to notice problems with a press that is incentivized to present stories involving huge problems, you can easily start imagining that the world is falling apart in a variety of fatal ways. And that worldview might limit your ability to appreciate all the things going right.”
4. Is that coincidence significant? We think as humans we are good at recognizing patterns or coincidences, and even better at interpreting their meaning. We are not. We can’t tell the difference between a pattern that predicts something useful and one that doesn’t. Except we think that a significant outcome and the pattern that preceded it are related – but it is a memory bias because we don’t remember all the times it didn’t work. From Adams:
“Sometimes coincidences tell you something useful. But 90 percent of the time they mislead you. Never be too confident about an opinion that depends solely on interpreting a coincidence.”
5. Could the opposite be true? When confronted with a curious proposition in your personal or professional life ask if the opposite could be true? Is it possible that lowering corporate taxes doesn’t lead to substantially lower employment? Adams again:
“Always ask yourself if the opposite of your theory could be true. Doing so keeps you humble and less susceptible to bias until you get to the truth of the situation.”
If you ignore incentives, believe you know what others are thinking, think the world is falling apart, rely on patterns and coincidences, or aren’t curious about the alternative proposition; then you might be engaged in some form of loserthink.
Key insight 3: Breaking out of mental prisons – yours and others
Breaking out of your own mental prison. Here’s a few statements from Loserthink that Adams recommends to avoid or break out of your mental prison.
“If you allow the opinions of unsuccessful people in your culture to hold you back, you’re engaged in loserthink. If you can learn to think of yourself as free from the cultural gravity of your peers, it will pay off in the long run.”
“Your life priorities in order should be 1) you, 2) family, 3) friends, 4) employer, 5) town/city, 6) country, and 7) world. Your first priority should be you. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be much use to anyone else. But hurry up—the world has lots of problems and maybe you can help.”
“The 48 Hour Rule: Everyone deserves forty-eight hours to clarify, apologize for, or otherwise update an offending statement.”
“The 20 Year Rule: It is loserthink to judge people by their much younger selves. People change. Andthey usually improve.”
“The single biggest error that humans make in their decision-making is ignoring relevant context…that problem can be fixed simply by broadening your information sources. But a bigger problem comes from not knowing what you don’t know.”
“If you have a strong opinion about a proposed plan but you have not compared it to the next best alternative, you are not part of a rational conversation.”
“If your opinion considers only the benefits or only the costs of a plan, you might be in a mental prison.”
“If you find yourself experiencing certainty in a complex situation, you are probably experiencing loserthink.”
Breaking others out of their mental prisons. Adams states that persuasion by presenting better facts and reasoning rarely works. He recommends to “chip away at the sense of confidence about their opinions first, to weaken the prison walls until they can punch their way out on their own.” For complicated arguments with long lists of reasons Adams says “Ask for their strongest point only, and debunk it if you can. Target their undue confidence, not their entire laundry list.” Some other ideas:
“Don’t argue the weeds of a debate. Dismiss the trivial stuff and concentrate on the variables that matter. That gives you the high ground.”
“Ask people with opposing opinions to describe what the future would look like if their view of the world were to play out. Does it sound reasonable?”
Finally, Adams proposes a Magic Question, “State ONE thing you believe on this topic that you think I do NOT believe.” This puts the onus on your protagonist, and their argument is undermined if they state an opinion you don’t hold.
Other insights from Loserthink
4. Thinking like a psychologist. “If you call people who want everyone to have good healthcare a bunch of socialists, or you call people who want strong immigration control racists, you are not part of the rational debate. People who have good arguments use them. People who do not have good arguments try to win by labeling.”
5. Thinking like an artist. “A defining characteristic of artists is that they tend to have strong powers of imagination…continually remind yourself that the most likely explanation for many – if not most – situations in life are something you didn’t imagine.”
6. Thinking like a historian. “We humans are not good at knowing which history is the one that will repeat. Life is messy and complicated, and the situations we encounter often remind us of multiple histories. But which of those histories is the one that is predictive?”
7. Thinking like an engineer. “Whenever you are talking to an expert in any realm, be aware that the next expert is likely to tell you the work done by the last expert looked like a monkey pounding a keyboard with a banana…if experts are routinely skeptical of other experts, shouldn’t you be skeptical of experts too?”
8. Thinking like a leader. “Truth has two important dimensions: 1) accuracy, and 2) direction” with direction being the more important. As an example, a doctor might say that improving your diet will add twenty years to your life, even though you might live only another five years. The doctor is still directionally accurate in the sense that pursuing a better diet improves your odds of a healthy life.
9. Thinking like a scientist. “The most common situations in which coincidences can be misleading involve your career and your personal life. When the topic has an emotional element, and you are already primed to believe something to be true, expect the environment to serve up lots of false signals.”
10. Thinking like an entrepreneur. “Successful people seem to believe they can steer their fate by their actions. Whether they are right about that or not, it’s a winning mindset. People who think they control their situations will put more effort into doing so.” Adams recommends the attitude of “I don’t know how to do that, BUT I can figure it out.”
Bonus 11th. Thinking like an economist. “People who understand economics can more easily spot hoaxes because money drives human behavior in predictable ways.” Adams notes that you can expect bad behavior almost 100% of the time if you have factors in play: 1) there is easy money to be made, 2) odds of detection are low, and 3) many people are involved.
Why you should read this book if you’re under 30
Compared to 50 years ago the world has become a lot more complicated. Folks have to navigate changed family structures, complex and insecure career options, and a vastly more politicized world made more complex by partisan media (CNN/Fox, or ABC/Sky). More than ever it’s important for you to learn how to think correctly for yourself, and to see through other folks’ flawed arguments – i.e. loserthink. This book will help you make real progress on the journey to understanding the world better.
Relationship to other Eruditeable books
#2 – Factfulness. This book has some overlap with content in Loserthink in relation to thinking more logically around facts and figures.
#6 – The Righteous Mind. This book focuses on morality as another way to view the world, especially in relation to political matters.
#18 – The Personal MBA. This book provides a quick run-down on running a business, which Loserthink covers in his section on Thinking Like an Entrepreneur.
#20 – Influence. This book provides a good overview of the essential marketing and persuasion techniques used in business and politics.
About the author
Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, and the author of several nonfiction works of satire, commentary, and business. He is also a trained hypnotist. His Dilbert series came to national prominence through the downsizing period in 1990s America and was then distributed worldwide. Adams worked in various roles at big businesses before he became a full-time cartoonist in 1995.
He writes in a satirical, often sarcastic way about the social and psychological landscape of white-collar workers in modern business corporations. In 2015, Adams famously predicted Trump would win the Republican nomination and the presidency based on Trumps unusual ‘talent stack’ and his use of persuasive language.