Book Notes: Nonsense: the power of not knowing


  • Michel Thomas – taught 5 years of French in 5 days – BBC doc “The Language Master”
    • war hero, spy, concentration camp survivor
  • stare at a cuneiform tablet, draw a blank – can’t be confused w/o a foothold of knowledge
  • “we can be calmly certain in our ignorance”
  • uncertainty caused by ambiguity – emoptional amplifer
  • tourism, science museums, brainteasers – we like uncertainty when it’s carefully curated
  • uncertainty beyond these realms feels unsafe
  • tech should give us more time, but multiplies our options
    “squeezes our share of the world”
    drowns us in information, simplest decisions uncertain
  • managing uncertainty is becoming an essential skill
  • How well do you deal with unstructured problems, new situations?
  • Jobs that can be turned into algorithms won’t come back
  • Scientific interest in ambiguity focuses on “need for closure” – “desire for definite answer” – Arie Kruglanski – attempts to understand Naziism – certainty v ambiguity intolerance
  • Our need to conquer the unresolved can be exaggerated in some people and certain circumstances
  • when need for closure is high, we revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, deny contradictions
  • thomas: the power of context to open/close mind.


  • Absolute ad campaign
  • Trick cards (reversed colors) show mind papering over anomalies – distaste for ambiguity under pressure – minds fill in gaps, dissolve discrepancies – preconceptions distort experiences.
  • Every day automatically we rely on small conjectures about the world to function
  • strong assumed relationships are automatically foisted upon us
  • The misspelled words in a paragraph story/effect
  • “The fundamental problem of life is the overwhelming complexity of being” – Jordan Peterson
  • have to constantly stem the deluge, eradicate info, the “miracle of simplification”
  • Our expectations/assumptions constantly bend & warp the world we see
  • Absolut campaign hinted at connections & formed captivating little puzzles
  • Story of Mad Libs
  • Goran Nerhardt, thesis on nature of humor
  • Surprise critical to mad libs humour – but to be funny, the surprise has to mean something
  • Laughter is a testament to our sense-making minds – we “get the joke” and are happy about it
  • assimilation – When children try to understand a mysterious phenomenon, they extend a concept they already have about the way the world works
  • accomodation – when challenged by an inconsistency, had to adjust the way they saw the world
  • propensity for shutting down endless deliberation allows us to move on with our lives.


  • Travis Proulx, social psychologist, studies how disorder can stimulate behaviors that seem unrelated.
  • people seek a sort of homoeostasis between uncertainty and clarity
  • confusion motivates search for new patterns
  • confusion leads to avid affirmation of ideals
  • “when prophecy fails” – led to idea of cognitive dissonance – two conflicting cognitions
  • if we feel responsible for doing something we bleieve to be wrong, we sometimes resolve dissonance by changing our minds to align with past actions
  • if people have a reason to blame for their discomfort (misattribution of arousal) they won’t make this change
  • lots of arguments about cognitive dissonance theory. 2014 Proulx et al had broader theory
  • humans have a central meaning-making system that responds to incoherence in a predictable sequence
    1) some event disturbs sense of order/consistency
    mismatch/error between what is/should be
    anything unexpected – good or bad – alarm
    2) heightened vigilance, anxiety, alertness, seek new information – abstraction
    collect clues from environment
    3) behavioral approach system takes over, soothes angst
    pushes toward commitment to an idea or course of action – assimilation, accomodation
    one way we respond to lingering anxieties after assimilation: find comfort in social groups, passionately emphasize our ideals – affirmation
    intensification of beliefs – “swim back to friendly shores”
  • “dissonance reduction may explain as much as 60% of our day to day behavior”


  • 15% of Americans will experience a natural or human-made disaster in their lifetimes
  • afterward, double dose of anxiety: (1) world doesn’t feel as safe, 92) assumptions about world less certain
  • feeling threatend is often all it takes to raise our desire for certainty
    “it merely has to challenge how we see the world”
  • disasters can amplify feelings, move people toward certainty
  • as uncertainties add up, they ultimately accelerate our drive toward certainty
    when pressures pile up, windows slam shut & lock
  • small amounts of stress affect our willingness to dwell in uncertainty
  • some exit through dogmatism, others through deference
  • urgency vs permanency: urgency–attain closure quickly; permanence–maintain closure as long as possible
  • urgency: people jump to conclusions
  • under time pressure, greater trust than usual in close friend, less trust in anonymous strangers
  • tensions feed group desires for absolutes
  • “when stressful noise present, group less tolerant of any info that conflicted with their beliefs”
  • human nature faced with acute threats craves decisiveness
  • in climate hwere indecision is chronically unpleasant, opinions on both sides of controversy amped as people flee uncertain ground in between
  • in less predictable world, people jump to conclusions or entrench existing views
  • what we need in turbulent times is adaptability & calculated reevaluation
  • uncertain times can be painful, but also by definition they are eras of change
  • to defeat ill effects of urgency:
    (1) foster greater awareness of situational need for closure at a particular juncture
    (2) keep the consequences of decisions salient at the right moment
    in other words: be aware that we tend to jump to conclusions, and keep in mind the costs of the jump
  • when making decisions, consciously monitor stress level. rushed, tired, problems all affect our judgments
  • urgency can be good when it moves us to action


  • Branch Davidians in Waco
  • Our desire for certainty surges in high-pressure situations & dwindles in comfortable ones
  • People have different levels of discomfort with ambiguity & disorder
  • need for closure quiz!
  • Yom Kippur War study
  • “negotiating a good deal requires handling confusing/contradictory measures without getting emotional, assuming too much, or fixating on tidbits”
  • Noesner, “Stalling for Time”–FBI hostage negotiator
  • Effective negotaitions req marathon patience
    “people who deal fairly effectively in the areas of gray–uncertainties, ambiguities”
  • “If you can’t control your own emotions, how can you expect to try to control someone else’s?” –Negotiators
  • “Test of 1st rate intelligence is the ability to hold 2 opposed ideas in mind at the same time & still retain the ability to function” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent.”
  • thinking about ambivalence causes a form of cognitive dissonance, risks the same pitfalls
  • “crises require systematically imaginging a variety of explanations and options”


  • story of Torrey’s non-cancer
  • misdiagnoses are unfortunately common
  • “core predicament of medicine is uncertainty”
  • “culture of medicine has little tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty”
  • as patients become more informed & aware, had to become aware of how ambiguity can undermine rational analysis
  • ordering a test provided an escape from thinking about ambiguity – no further discussion
  • most jump to conclusions without asking what else could this be?
  • unclear or inconclusive test results lead people to order more tests. “investigation momentum. adverse to ambiguity under stress”
  • medical testing “just to be safe.” medical uncertainties are especially emotional
  • need to break the momentum of testing and grapple with ambiguity


  • story of hemline fashion and predicting fads
  • ambiguous choices are those where odds of success are unknown because the rules of determining the outcome are unclear
  • The Two Urns: ambiguity aversion
    urn1 has unknown mix of red/black balls. urn2 has 50/50 mix.
    most people given the choice prefer to pull from urn2 – even if urn1’s mix could favor them
  • even when precise odds exist, if they are unknown, then we treat the decision as ambiguous
  • few big decisions have entirely known odds
  • “high performing companies often have more in common with bankruptcies than mediocrity”
  • committed strategies either win big or lose big
  • ambiguity from “how long it takes to make/send products to shelves” (why Lean STartup works so well–removes ambiguity)
  • grocery stores reduced uncertainty over what you purchased – you picked your own items
  • we stockpile buffers against ambiguity
  • build to order in Toyota reduced ambiguity
  • rather than predict customer needs, build a system for rapid reaction
  • Zara, fast fashion, designers fail quickly and inexpensively
  • “he was never satisfied with what he already knew”
  • being humble & flexible is one thing
    constructing a business model predicated on not knowing is another
  • “showed forecasters were so bad at predicting fads & trends that he could build the biggest fashion retailer by admitting he couldn’t predict fads”
  • success based on not knowing the odds

A few rules:

  • be careful not to misinterpret ambivalence as duplicity
  • we can’t always resolve ambiguity with more info
  • need for closure is a powerful force
  • need to stay calm in the face of ambiguity
  • craft methods to react quickly vs trying to predict


  • Story of Ducati
  • failure can be a good thing, success can be detrimental
    but there is a third way where neither success nor failure has a starring role
  • “innovation drags you into the realm of ambiguity”
  • need to encourage innovation. only way to survive in outsourcing/algorithm world
  • building basic skills vs transfer learning
    basic skills teaches you the basic “how” of doing something – how to hit a golf ball
    transfer teaches you how to be innovating in changing situations – different golf courses, situations
  • rote learning = university lecture
  • “The problem is not with the lecture, but with the idea that receiving information is the key part of learning.” Dominic Lukes
  • “in a work place, the really valuable skill is to be able to approach a problem that doesn’t have a single right answer.” Claire Cook
  • lectures don’t highlight the necessity of stumbling, errors, and luck
  • “Lang’s classrooms are a testing ground for thinking–not accumulating facts much of the world has access to at any time.”
  • techniques to prepare students to face uncertainty
    a) ask students to find/identify mistakes
    b) have students argue on behalf of unfamiliar positions
    c) give students tasks they’ll fail at
  • “designing for productive failure” – insert mistakes – give less feedback – allow to fail – use failure to prepare for uncertainty
  • comfort with confusion, ability to admit when wrong,w illing to take risks – these are all emotional skills
  • “in a bad mood, people run to the familiar
    in a happy mood, lose taste for the recognizable”
    upbeat turns confusing into interesting
  • Myers et al, studies on when people learn from failure & when they don’t
  • “it was a mistake to deflect blame for failure. Also a mistake to be too self-congrulatory if you got it right.”
    early victories led Ducati to stop learning
  • “You look at the data when you want to understand what’s going wrong
    You don’t look at the data because you wnat to understand why you’re performing well.”
  • “People are more likely to respect causal ambiguity when they fail than when they succeed.”
  • Hedonic bias: we take credit for success and ding-ding-ding-blame-others for failure
  • improvements depend on accepting that we have more to learn
    errors fuel an unfreezing process. successes make us complacent.
  • we should scrutinize success just as much as failure
  • Steve Jobs: “danger arises with successful first products–when we don’t know why they were successful.”
  • Pixar: embraced doubts. Postmortem after every success. Catmull on “The Hidden”–what you do & do not know–have to discover
  • Popper: actively try to refute your theory of the world
  • Kuhn: when contradictions pile up & lead to abandonment of prevailing theory
  • “Lasting knowledge earns its keep by allowing itself to be persistently questioned”


  • Airtime cards (mobile phones) to send $ home led to M-PESA
  • How to shed preconceptions and find new uses for tools / inventions?
  • Story of “speaking telegraph”
  • Innovation usually happens when an inventor grasps the potential of an existing tech’s previously neglected function
  • Anne Williams, history of puzzles
  • puzzles, painting – “rebellions against closure” – require us to really see
  • We don’t actually see a tree. Given the hypercomplexity of the world, we “notice an approximation of a tree.”
    We recognize a tomato without fixating on its unique colors and shades.
    “We have to reduce the messy world to manage it.”
  • But recognition = closure, marks end of thinking, looking, listening
  • This prevents innovation & invention
    • we are recognizing the conventional function of soemthing automatically
    • shuts us off from unconventional uses
  • almost all innovations have two-step process
    (1) notice obscure feature of object, (2) build solution based on feature
  • generic parts technique – break object down into component pieces/functions
  • “Bell’s inventiveness drew its strength from his extraordinary capacity to be puzzled”
  • “the capacity to be puzzled is indeed the premise of all creation, be it art of science”
  • Edison’s tendency to conceive seemingly endless variations in the design for a particular device
  • Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet
  • moving beyond existing conceptual categories & importing solutions from other domians seems central to innovation
  • “How does this work? Is there another way to do this? Does it have to happen that way?”
  • The successful inventory requires two traits:
    (1) wide horizon – analogous solutions
    (2) understand things deeply – really know how things work – unafraid of obvious questions
  • inventors – broad & deep. specialists – deep, not broad. dabblers – broad, not deep.
  • inventors always looking to escape the narrowing assumptions of daily language
  • by invneting methods to reveal the possible solutions (variants) we’ve overlooked, up our odds of finding new solutions to old problems.


  • Jerusalem. Hand-in-hand schools. Bilingualism.
  • Positive correaltion between bilingualism and creativity.
  • Damion & Simonton, The Wiley Handbook of Genius.
  • “Culture is a shared warping of the world – a communal papering-over or collective denial of ambiguity.”
  • lots of mental work switching languages = better control over attention
  • intermixing languages = code-switching
  • when a person is bilingual, all concepts have representations in both languages
    but the representations cannot be identical
    the concepts must therefore be open and flexible
    which contributes to open & flexible people
  • “they make funny translations – I think that it enables them to have a wider outlook on life”
  • 2011 study suggests roots of prejudice can bet raced to general cognitive outlook characterized by hunger for certainty
  • “we are all stereotypers.”
    we simplify to avoid complexity, ambiguity.
    culture determines the “style” with which we simplify.
    positive snap judgments simplify as much as negative ones do.
    generous or judgmental, it’s still a simplification.
  • none of us completely escape our own mental maps of the world
    we can sample from other cultures, discover new ways of seeing
    “begin to triangulate truth”
  • life is too short. inevitably there remain “vast areas where are mental models are poorly informed.”
    be generous & acknowledge the gaps
  • “In art, & maybe just in general, the idea is to be able to be really comfortable with contradictory ideas.” George Saunders
  • William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity
  • “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain
  • Five As
    assembly – take uncertainties in life & create something out of them


  • Folks reported their personalities were starkly different from previous decade
    yet foresaw little change ahead.
    We always think we’ve settled into ourselves, and we’re always wrong.
    “this idea that we shouldn’t treat the unresolved as resolved, was Chekov’s wisdom.”