Saturday, November 03, 2012

Thinking like Benjamin Franklin

By Gary Berg-Cross

There are many reasons to celebrate Ben Franklin – the “First American.”  We celebrate him as a complex man, with many and varied insights available in his voluminous writings. He provided wise counsel in difficult and confusing times.  Without the benefits we have now of the science of decision making he steered a wise course based on self developed ideas.

Known for promoting common sense early on his is Almanacs, Ben went on to some uncommon wisdom. He seemed to understand a core of irrationality in people even in an Enlightened age. He glimmered cognitive biases and how to slow down thinking to improve its quality. He steered around obstacles when even intelligent people like John Adams had blind spots and yielded to  confirmatory bias which lead to dead end arguments. He understood information overload & how human intellect can be overwhelmed by details and conflicting ideas.
He made thousands of wise decisions. How did he functionally bring his insights together to make a balanced decision?  He did it used a formal method called a Balance Sheet that allowed him to carefully compare alternatives with many factors considered that affect the decision. His was a cognitive arithmetic that summed up things in a realistic, hence balanced way. By way of history, Ben described the process  as advice to an English scientist friend on how to make an important personal choice:

“My way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. Then during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different time occur to me, for or against the measure. When I have thus got them altogether in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out five; and thus proceeding, I find where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly.” –Benjamin Franklin

Source: How to Make a Decision Like Ben Franklin

Franklin clearly understood the need to think deliberately He noted that one difficulty in making an important choice is because “all Reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time”

It might be worth noting (crassly) that in modern society your are more likely to run into Franklin’s Balance Sheet in a course on sales technique than in a History of Civics.  The “Balance Sheet” has been used by salesman for decades to guide prospect towards the a buying decision that the sales person prefers. 

This is the type of situation people face now in things like long election campaigns where we are sold a candidate. We find it difficult to accumulate reasons to support one candidate or another. 
I’ll leave it to the reader to try this for their choices they face. Over a period of time fill in your own column as thoughts occurred to you so that in Ben’s words:

“when each reason is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I judge better and less likely to make a rash step…”

Short memory: From Facebook sites

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