Asking questions can help us reason and gain better understanding of things around us. Failure to reason can discourage first principles thinking.
Scenario 1: At a photocopy machine, people would let others cut in line when they said “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I go before you, because I have to make some copies?” People let the person go and failed to reason the line cutters.
Scenario 2: As adults, we learn that we should work hard because we are an integral part of the company. Employees tend to buy into this idea without asking why or how they are an integral part of the company. Are employees still integral part of the organization during an economic downturn?
We are more likely to comply with something or to learn something when we are given the ’why’ behind it. The ‘why’ strengthens our learning but can be dangerous as we will often learn and comply even when the reason behind it is false.
One way to jump from linear to non-linear results is to think in first-principles. First-principles thinking can be adopted by asking a lot of questions. It is often called ”reasoning from the first principles” by asking ”why?” The idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. This is a best way to reverse-engineer hard problems that are challenging to understand.
Aristotles used first-principles thinking to understand things around him. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”
In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements.
In 1970s, Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer conducted a study of the power of the word ”because.” Langer had participants request to break in on a line of people waiting to use a busy copy machine on a college campus. The researchers had the people use three different, specifically worded requests to break in line:
- “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?”
- 60% of people let the participant to break in line.
- “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
- 93% of people let the participant to break in line.
- “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”
- 94% of people let the participant to break in line.
Langer showed that when asking for a favor from a stranger, simply giving a reason for the request (because), even if it’s artificial (because I have to make copies), greatly increases the odds of the person complying.
Reasoning from first principles, rather than by analogy (previous experiences) can open up the door to learning, better work results, or prevent manipulation. First principles thinking can be easy to describe, but can be quite difficult to practice.
Why is reasoning necessary?
We love to have reasons as Langer's experiment proves people to comply. Therefore, make sure to share the reasons why the task is important before delegating. Charlie Munger shares the story of Carl Braun, the creator of CF Braun Engineering Company —
His rule for all the Braun Company’s communications was called the five W’s – you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn’t tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that’s a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they’ll understand it better, they’ll consider it more important, and they’ll be more likely to comply. Even if they don’t understand your reason, they’ll be more likely to comply. So there’s an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why.
Carl Braun knew the ideas got through when reasons for the ideas were meticulously laid out. Who was to do What, Where, When and Why.
However, reason-respecting tendency is so strong that a requester can give meaningless or incorrect reasons which will make a person on receiving end to comply with orders and requests. Langer's experiment again proves this point. Is ‘I have to make some copies’ really an important explanation for people to comply to let the person break in line?
Our need for making sense makes us believe in nonsense artificial reasons. It turns people are addicted to the word ”because” and are just looking for answers not the reasons or a better understanding of it.
Charlie Munger shared Reason Respecting Tendency bias in his famous lecture ‘Psychology of Human Misjudgement, —
There is in man, particularly one in an advanced culture, a natural love of accurate cognition and a joy in its exercise. This accounts for the widespread popularity of crossword puzzles, other puzzles, and bridge and chess columns, as well as all games requiring mental skill.This tendency has an obvious implication. It makes man especially prone to learn well when a would-be teacher gives correct reasons for what is taught, instead of simply laying out the desired belief ex cathedra with no reasons given. Few practices, therefore, are wiser than not only thinking through reasons before giving orders but also communicating these reasons to the recipient of the order. In general, learning is most easily assimilated and used when, lifelong, people consistently hang their experience, actual and vicarious, on a latticework of theory answering the question: Why? Unfortunately, Reason Respecting Tendency is so strong that even a person’s giving of meaningless or incorrect reasons will increase compliance with his orders and requests…This sort of unfortunate byproduct of Reason-Respecting Tendency is a conditioned reflex, based on a widespread appreciation of the importance of reasons. And, naturally, the practice of laying out various claptrap reasons is much used by commercial and cult “compliance practitioners” to help them get what they don’t deserve.
So what do you do to not get mis-influenced by intentional reasonings?
First Principles Thinking
To reverse engineer any complex problem use the first-principles thinking by breaking down the problem into basic elements and then reassemble from the ground up. Asking why can remove all assumptions and misconceptions. It leaves you with basic elements. Elon Musk is well known for using first principles mindset and shares his thoughts —
You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that and then see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work. And it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past. It’s harder to think that way, though.
I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.
Richard Feynman was also known for using first principles to understand the basics —
I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!
How to implement first-principles?
The Five Ws
The Five Ws are questions whose answers are considered basic in information gathering or problem solving. They are often mentioned in journalism, research and police investigations. Some authors also add a sixth question, how, to the list.
The last W is important because you can uncover a lot of details by asking “ Why” many times. The Toyota's “Five Whys” is a great example of a technique to help you apply second order thinking. Why did that problem happen? Then ask why five times. Why would we make that decision? Then ask why five times.
Socratic questioning was named after Socrates and is a form of disciplined questioning to explore complex ideas, get to the truth of things, to explore problems, uncover assumptions and analyze concepts and to distinguish what we know from what we do not know. According to Plato, one of his students, Socrates believed that ”the disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas.” This process stops from relying on gut and limits strong emotional responses.
- Getting students to clarify their thinking and explore the origin of their thinking. Examples: why do you say that? Could you explain further?
- Challenging students about assumptions. Examples: is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?
- Providing evidence as a basis for arguments. Examples: Why do you say that? Is there reason to doubt this evidence?
- Discovering alternative viewpoints and perspectives and conflicts between contentions. Examples: what is the counter-argument? Can/did anyone see this another way?
- Exploring implications and consequences. Examples: But if...happened, what else would result? How does...affect...?
- Questioning the question. Examples: why do you think that I asked that question? Why was that question important? Which of your questions turned out to be the most useful?
The Feynman Technique
Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman used to ensure he understood anything he studied better than anyone else. There are four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique:
- Choose a concept you want to learn about.
- Pretend you are teaching it to someone else in plain language.
- Identify gaps in your explanation and go back to the source material to better understand it.
- Review and simplify further in simpler terms.
Kids consistently push their parents with questions but the adults think it is stunning how quickly they learn. However, it is natural for kids to be curious and creative during their formative years because they are trying to understand the world around them. Adults choose not to be creative because they fail to reason. Busy is the enemy of adults and as we grow older, we rely on general convention but this puts blinders on perspectives and thoughts because we outsource our thinking to someone else.
To defy conventional wisdom, we must think for ourselves and reason from first principles. Analogies are great to understand a topic further, but they cannot replace the understanding of basic knowledge. Thinking in first principles won't imprison us with someone else's thoughts. Doing this will unleash creative and original thinking.
I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to. — Elon Musk
As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble. — Harrington Emerson
The idea is that reasoning from first principles is reasoning like a scientist. You take core facts and observations and use them to puzzle together a conclusion, kind of like a chef playing around with raw ingredients to try to make them into something good. By doing this puzzling, a chef eventually writes a new recipe. The other kind of reasoning—reasoning by analogy—happens when you look at the way things are already done and you essentially copy it, with maybe a little personal tweak here and there—kind of like a cook following an already written recipe. A pure verbatim recipe-copying cook and a pure independently inventive chef are the two extreme ends of what is, of course, a spectrum. But for any particular part of your life that involves reasoning and decision making, wherever you happen to be on the spectrum, your reasoning process can usually be boiled down to fundamentally chef-like or fundamentally cook-like. Creating vs. copying. Originality vs. conformity. — Wait but why
To understand is to know what to do. — Wittgenstein