The seven ideas

* Rational choice, which means making decisions aimed at producing the most desired outcome.
* Game theory, which involves making decisions which are affected by the simultaneous decisions of other people.
* Moral judgment, which includes identifying what is right and what is wrong.
* Scientific reasoning, which includes the use of reason to determine causality, and also the construction and testing of hypotheses.
* Logic, which involves discerning truth from a series of propositions.
* Problem solving, which means searching for solutions which produce a desired result.
* Analogical reasoning, which is about using one situation to help explain another.

From the Author

Why did you decide to write Good Thinking?

Over the course of my teaching career, I became aware of something rather alarming: Science majors know all about hypothesis-testing, philosophy majors know all about argumentation, and business students know about economic theories. But they know very little about research in disciplines outside of their majors. And then these bright and well-educated people are asked to evaluate proposed economic, legal, or medical policies, and sometimes even to vote on them. How are they to do that when there are holes in their knowledge bases where crucial pieces of information should be?

Was there anything that surprised you while you were researching and writing the book? Is there something you learned from it that you've incorporated into your own thinking?

The controversy over mammogram screening surprised me-that women were paying no attention to the science underlying the recommendations and were instead outraged over what they saw as a corner-cutting decision at the expense of their health. I incorporated that controversy into the book so that patients would better understand evidence-based medicine, how it is done, and what it means for their own lives and thinking about health.

When have you used some of these seven decision-making tools?

I use hypothesis-testing in my research on human reasoning and decision-making. I keep Bayes firmly in mind when evaluating medical screening recommendations or investment choices. And I seek Nash equilibrium when choosing weekend activities with my husband-that is, I rather do something together that is not my top choice rather than do my top choice by myself.

Some of these seven ideas have become hot topics in the last decade, like rational choice or game theory. But you also devote attention to the power of analogy, calling it "the core of cognition." Why does it have so much power?

The simple answer is that our minds seem to be wired that way. We tend to notice similarities among people and events, and then assume that what is true of one is true of everything that looks or seems the same. This is a very powerful strategy, but can lead to disastrous consequences (as in stereotyping). The upside is that analogy is a powerful means of making people understand things, because it helps them to see something unfamiliar in familiar terms. For example, when Ben Bernanke persuaded us to approve the bailout of the financial industry, he did so by telling us the banking industry was like an irresponsible neighbor who smoked in bed and set fire to his house in your neighborhood of houses made of wood. This was a very powerful and very persuasive analogy. And only time will tell whether it was the right analogy to draw.

You illustrate many times when our brains lead us to different conclusions than experts do. Why are we so prone to error?

One of the messages of the book is that when we reach a different conclusion than experts, we have not necessarily made an error. The market now is awash in books bemoaning human irrationality and stupidity. But I think that vastly undersells human intelligence. You can see this in the idea of rational choice. Most people don't appreciate that the core of economic theory is the concept of a rational agent where "rational" means "self-interested." When people "make mistakes" in economic game-based research, their "mistakes" don't focus solely on how they will benefit from a course of action but how it will affect others as well. This is considered "error" according to standard treatments of rational choice. Experimental economists have had to introduce the notions of fairness and inequity-aversion into economic theory in order to predict and explain how people behave. I don't think these concepts are evidence of "faulty" thinking, and I am not alone in that.

Editorial Reviews

  • Cambridge University Press Staff Pics: Top 5 Recommended Reading and Gifts, Dec, 2012
  • "an entertaining and accessible review of the classical theories of reasoning and decision making." -- Dr. Mike Oaksford, University of London
  • "...considers both the strengths and weaknesses of our mental machinery" Daniel L. Schacter, Professor of Psychology, Harvard
  • "In Good Thinking, psychologist and philosopher Denise Cummins reveals how economists, philosophers and other experts have helped to define what makes a decision rational or a judgment moral. She lays out the seven basic tenets that guide our critical thinking and explores tactics to correct faulty logic."--Victoria Stern, Mind Books Roundup, Scientific American, Nov, 2012
  • "By serendipity, I came across Good Thinking, and I am glad I did. I thought I had a fairly decent reading knowledge of Behavioral Economics, and I had not come across a number of ideas in this book. I have found Cummins' observations very useful additions on my work on financial decision-making under uncertainty. -- Charles Faulkner, featured in The New Market Wizards, The Intuitive Trader, and others as well as the author of several programs on metaphoric change.
  • "...a witty and articulate overview of critical aspects of human thought processes...The astute examples anchor the topics squarely in readers' everyday experience." --Dr. Richard Gerrig, Professor of Psychology and Psycholinguistics, SUNY at Stonybrook
  • "Good Thinking will take you on a quick and engaging tour of the landscape of human thinking, surveying the phenomena that psychologists and philosophers have found there." Keith Holyoak, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles
  • "... the book illuminates the strengths and the pitfalls of the ways people think; readers may be surprised at human cognitive fallibility ... offers a compelling discussion of the current work in cognitive neuroscience that reveals the neural complexities of thought process ... readers who choose to look at this interesting book will be making a good decision ... Recommended ..." B. C. Beins, Choice
  • "...Good Thinking is cleverly written and well pitched to a college- or university-level audience of undergraduates who would benefit from an excellent survey of concepts and theories that are not likely to be seen elsewhere in a single collection, and it represents some of the more powerful ideas that our intellectual culture considers as the basis for rationality. Virtually every idea in Good Thinking can be gotten elsewhere either in its original form or as part of extended volumes on a specific topic, but having them tied together in a single book written by a single hand gives more life and cohesiveness to the ensemble than might otherwise be the case ... a pleasant way to stimulate the appetite for more ... For some time to come, Good Thinking will be a relevant and useful resource for educators as well as those who seek to reflect on our Western thought traditions and their origins." Dr Donald MacGregor, Senior Research Scientist, Decision Science Research Institute, Eugene, Oregon
  • "Denise Dellarosa Cummins - philosopher and psychologist - explores the way experts across various fields argue and deal with very challenging issues that directly impact our lives ... A very interesting book for philosophical practitioners, mainly due to the author's interdisciplinary approach and ability to summarize relevant outputs from both human and neurosciences." Fernando Salvetti, Philosophical Practice: Journal of the APPA

Denise D. Cummins

Dr. Denise Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the prestigious Association for Psychological Science, and a prolific writer of scientific and popular articles on thinking and deciding. She also blogs for Psychology Today. In her spare time, she hangs out with her husband, daughters, horse, and dog--not necessarily in that order.