The five cognitive distortions of people who get things done

I would call this speculative, but it is nonetheless of interest, let me pull from Jason Kottke:

This is a presentation and therefore missing a bunch of key context, but Michael Dearing’s The Five Cognitive Distortions of People Who Get Stuff Done is interesting reading nonetheless. The five distortions are:

1. Personal exceptionalism
2. Dichotomous thinking
3. Correct overgeneralization
4. Blank canvas thinking
5. Schumpeterianism

That last one is likely a head-scratcher to those of us without economics backgrounds; here’s what Dearing has to say about it:

Definition – sees creative destruction as natural, necessary, and as their vocation

Benefits – fearlessness, tolerance for destruction and pain

Deadly risk – heartless ambition, alienation


I knew it, arrogant little shits run the world

The big asterisk is "getting things done" in a narrow business sense. Do those traits help you get things done in other pursuits, for example in getting something agreed to in a committee, doing research raising a child, or writing a novel? Not so much...

"Personal exceptionalism"is pretty much necessary if you think anyone's going to read your novel.

Curious why you say "not so much". These are strong traits in a committee leader. It doesn't say that you're completely tactless and can't figure out compromise to get your black and white vision accomplished.

Doing research and writing a novel seem very similar. To be successful you need to have a somewhat out-sized view of the work you're doing and your place in it. I can't think that much has been accomplished by researchers or novelists who think their work is drudgery that will have little affect on the world.

Raising a child? These are pretty much the best traits for raising a child. Especially since it is unethical to do most forms of science on children so all decision making must be based upon inference, generalization and/or tradition.

+1. And a certain amount of exceptionalism is necessary to being a parent -- e.g. regardless of your view about the best way for society to organize schools in general, it's your job to see that YOUR kid gets a good education in particular.

Of course, many parents carry this belief in their kid's exceptionalism to an extreme (as any coach or referee of a youth sports team can probably tell you).

Horseshit. Where's any data? This dude's not a psychologist, he's a former Ebay employee with an MBA and the typical unsupported biz-speak pom-pom cheerleader MBA CEO-worship axe-to-grind.

You're largely correct -- but I think that too much wind hit your head while while traveling on Mitt Romney's car, so you did not hit on the correct criticism.

That is, the analysis of successes is oblivious to the variance of such personal strategies. The author is using the successful tail end of the distribution to infer something about the success of the strategy overall, which is simply incorrect.

It's also likely that the successful individuals invented some of the self-description narratives and general way of being _after_ they got successful, which makes such an analysis of successful people even more unreliable.

Incorrect overgeneralization - you must not get things done :-)

Huh, I recognize all of those. Neat.

I think the combination of #1 and #2 is most important, and their manifestation as extreme skepticism/agnosticism when you're not sure, complete confidence when you think you're right. It lets you act decisively on the best information available, but also change your views very quickly if you're given a good reason to do so.

I really thought we were past falling for such obvious survivorship bias.

Those slides leave much to be desired.

Almost sounds like George W. Bush, but only with the disadvantages.

Did he also have advantages???

Yeah. He KNEW he was a cocky prick.

Born to a rich and powerful family seems like a pretty significant advantage.

Ambition : the universal counter-argument to vision


It's not interesting reading.

I don't understand how the author reached these conclusions. There is a bullet point that says "2,190 days, 2,481 companies, 4,515 founders, 62 bets" which indicates that the conclusions are based on some data, but there is no discussion about the methods of data analysis.

Whoa-hoa that was some interesting reading!

A powerpoint. Couldn't you just tell them to watch "Wall Street" and "Other people's money" with Michael Douglas and Danny Devito respectively.

Everyone should watch Wall Street, a highly underrated movie, if that is possible. I heard that Oliver Stone was surprised at how well the bad guys were liked which is probably one thing that makes it such a great story.

I have to say, anything that surprises, and especially disappoints, Oliver Stone tends to please me...

Nice meme you got there. Be a shame if everyone else in the blogosphere started repeating it back in 2007.

Isn't "correct overgeneralization" a contradiction in terms? Wouldn't that just be a "correct generalization"?

Are you good enough for oxymoron to work for you?

This pseudo-scientific stuff seems like some Steve Jobs worshipper read the biography and wrote down the traits using fancy labels. This stuff is not even wrong.

"With ignorance and arrogance success is assured." -Mark Twain

Until we figure out how to actually do meritocracy this will stay righter than the commenters would like to believe.

talking whether the guy is "right or wrong" seems like a waste of wind. all that matters is how it helps me think about collaborating with others to get things done--e.g. collaborating with people who act like this kind of "do-er", being conscious of my own "do-er" mentality/behavior. it's not a rule (see above Alex K re variance), it just seems useful to help explain and to help think about how we set up systems around and systematically reward the behavior/approach he talks about...that result in colossal towers of largely irrelevant sh*t...e.g. our health care system that was built by systematically rewarding people who "get sh*t done" and ignoring the smell (i.e. costs, externalities...)

Yes. It rings true enough. For example, in academia people leave a ton of trash in their wake (often absolutely literally) because they are judged from above and externally on the 1% that they choose to present.

btw, can someone get done getting rid of the P.I.A. mouseover popups in the middle of the screen?

The words used by the author are misleading readers.

1. Personal exceptionalism = it has not been done before but I can do it.

2. Dichotomous thinking = it has not been done; it can be done.

3. Correct overgeneralization = gut reaction, instinctive thinking, expertise absorbed into intuition.

4. Blank canvas thinking = how can existing obstacles go away.

5. Schumpeterianism = every new solution is a destruction of prior accepted practice.

You are correct, but I wouldn't call it "misleading" so much as "failing to connect." The point is that people who suffer from depression often exhibit certain cognitive distortions, like: (1) it's all about me; (2) everything is black or white; (3) if it happened once, it will always happen; (4) I need to do it my own way. And these "distortions," while considered problems in the context of depression/anxiety/other social disorders, are actually positives in some environments.

just to continue the nit-picking. jd and ricardo are "right" enough, but...
i'd call it "incomplete" which is what I expect from any theory/explanation/rhetoric;
because it's up to me (and my local co-doers) to decide if/how to use it
(i.e. it's only going to mislead us if we give it power to lead;
and it's up to us to (decide if/how to) connect it...make sense/use of it in our context).
it's tool, not a rule.
i like Andrew's example above: "in academica..."
any other good forums on this sort of discussion as it relates to leadership and health systems?

Poker over the long term is probably as close to meritocracy as you can get; I believe this list applies well to the game's best players.

That's a volatile personality mix that probably creates more failures than successes, and is probably socially selected against in most situations. Probably results in a wider, flatter bell curve. Less likely to chug along at the median, more likely to flame out or to take off. Not to mention making somebody difficult to talk to or work with in the interim.

Is #3 a fancy way of saying "made a lucky guess"

I'm ashamed to invoke Godwin but just now I'm reading:

The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler [Paperback] Laurence Rees (Author)

And the characteristics feel somehow appropriate ...

Aren't these all characteristics that make one more likely to take a chance and try something? Ya don't get'er done if you don't attempt it.

Qualitative assessments of covariance can be difficult for many reasons, some of which have been mentioned above. Here are a few more that have been identified by psychologists (see The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making by Scott Plous, which is a great book on this topic and where most of this post comes from):

1) We don't always know all the data that we need to examine. In this case, to determine whether "Distortions" are related to "Successful" (shorthand here for "Getting Things Done"), we'd need to compare the ratio of Successful vs. Unsuccessful when Distortions are present to the ratio of Successful vs. Unsuccessful when Distortions are absent.

2) "Illusory Correlation" can lead us to see spurious correlations because one of the variables is more mentally available to us or expected. For example, when someone make a comment "X is sh*t. Y is a genius." (Dichotomous Thinking in the presentation) that sort of behavior can make a strong impression, which leads us to mentally overweigh it.

3) "Invisible Correlation" is when we fail to see variables that are important but not readily available to us. For example, the potential impact of neuroreceptor sensitivity, average hormone levels, or birth order on Getting Things Done.

4) Causality may not even be present or it may run in an unintuitive direction. How is the Dichotomous Thinking comment "X is sh*t. Y is a genius." related to Getting Things Done? Could it be that people who have already Gotten Things Done and have therefore risen to the top of a company hierarchy are more often socially "allowed" to make these sorts of statements than are those lower in the hierarchy, but who nonetheless still Get Stuff Done?

This isn't meant to be a comment on Michael Dearing (I worked with Michael on a couple of projects way-back-when, and he impressed me as extremely smart and intuitive). It's just hard to get qualitative covariance assessments right. Next up: "Does God Answer Prayers?"

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