The Wonders of Thinking Twice

What does it take to change the way you think?isa playing chess

In the last blog I wrote about the observations of how people “trick” one another as a response to internal anxiety and or perhaps to maintain a habitual emotional state.

This month I will review a book, Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counter Intuition by my son-in-law Michael Mauboussin.  The goal: understanding the challenges in becoming more rational.

This book fits with how Bowen thought about becoming a more integrated individual by integrating the feeling and thinking system.  In addition learning about how we make decisions is crucial to anyone mental health.

Murray Bowen wrote: Man’s ability to think, his intellectual system, is a function of the newly added cerebral cortex, which has developed last in his evolution, and which is the main difference between man and the lower forms of life.  The emotional and the intellectual systems have different functions, but they are interconnected, each influencing the other.[1]

One example of the effort to integrate feelings and thinking is Bowen’s move from psychoanalytical thinking to seeing and describing the family as an interactive system.

Bowen was able to move away from his on going training in psychoanalysis, to focus on the patient, and broaden his observations to the relationships between family members.  He spent 12 years and over 10,00 hours observing families, in his version of family psychotherapy with two or more family members, before he considered he had developed a way of understanding the family and as an emotional system.[2]

purlple flowers consta rica_JPG

Of course Bowen was the first person to develop a theory about the family as a system. It should be easier for the rest of us.

By directly observing families as they relate to each other a whole new world of clinical data came into view.  This information did not fit with the still dominant medical/individual modal.  More fundamentally Bowen’s interest was not confined to the nuclear family.  He wanted to get beyond Freud’s use of Greek plays to explain internal dynamics. By emphasizing the interlocking nature of the family over the generations he saw how families were a part of evolution. As he noted any system is dependent on the functioning of the larger system of which it is a part.  This linked observations of a living system to the biological sciences.

The role of the psychotherapist also underwent enormous change. Bowen regarded himself as a “consultant” in family problems for the initial problems and then as a “supervisors“ of the family effort over the long-term process. This was along way from the method of provoking change through the well-described steps in the individually -focused transference.

You can imagine the difficult in training psychiatrists to become non-participant observers and to regard the family as a phenomenon. This was learning to think twice about the acceptable way of understanding psychotherapy.  This was a fundamental alteration in the way of thinking.

The overall goal became to “help family members become system experts who could know the family system so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of outside experts, if and when the family was again stressed.”[3]

Bowen spent years training people to move from thinking about the individual to thinking about the system of relationships and to mange self in the outside position.  His overview of the problem was that,  “the psychotherapist is trained to hear, understand and identify and to form a therapeutic relationship with the patient.” [4] The transference “cure” is very different from being a consultant to the family.

The challenge is for the “consultant” to learn from the family and to allow the family to learn from the consultant while still the consultant remain free enough to relate to any family member at any time.

This is a formidable task due both to the way our brains work and due to the predictable resistance. Family members can trip up the consultant, especially if he or she is trying to think with the family in a disciplined way, rather than agree with the blame game or heal the family, as in the transference.

Bowen highlighted the overall problem in understanding how we think or how the emotional system functions.  Man has done less well when his intellect is directed at himself. The main problem in learning the secrets of emotional illness lies more in the way man denies, rationalizes and thinks about emotional illness. [5]

Perhaps his words will offer solace to those who are willing, again and again to embrace the beginners mind.  After all being rational is often blocked by emotional system.  By understanding how to be more rational this will enable us to function emotionally. Being rational and seeing how to think well about the future is a skill well worth spending time to develop.

wood stacked

In his new book Think Twice, Michael Mauboussin aims to give investors and business people a clear exposé of how our brains can trick us. I give this useful book 5 stars as it enables any motivated person to be aware of mental traps giving us a bag full of tools to make better decisions. Of course the really big question is how long will it take for any of us to learn to Think Twice?

We all get in the habit of understanding decision making from our own perspective. I am Michael Mauboussin’s fan and his mother-in-law so take what I say as you will.  I have also spent the 34 years of my professional life working as a family therapist and in so doing have learned about the challenges of thinking rationally

Sherlock Holmes was a master of looking at the facts and calculating reasons leading him to solve all kinds of problems.  He could observe and make sense of many clues that most people missed. Emotions and preconceived ideas never hindered his judgment.  Sherlock was a fictional character. His author, Colon Doyle had his own issues with rational thinking.[6] Over the ups and downs of ones life it is harder for our rational thinking to remain clear.

Poor decisions can provide clues about significant hidden biases or hidden emotional pressures either of which can overpower our more rational side. Most of us know that stress contributes to poor decision-making. Of course if the people you love die, or if you get divorced, you might not be at the top of your rational game.  But now we know that it is just not stress or mental illness that creates the conditions for poor decision-making, it’s the way the brain has evolved from ancient humans and their environments which contributes to the way we make decisions.

Now, by pausing to Think Twice, it becomes possible for us to avoid many irrational “slippery slopes” that we simply couldn’t see before we stopped to think twice.

Mauboussin sweeps away worries about being neurotic or stressed-out as the only cause of poor decision-making, and notes that learning to be rational is a challenge for us individually and as a society. We do not value introspection, flexibility or the ability to properly calculate evidence sufficiently to test for these rational abilities in standard IQ tests. The pressure is on for individuals to understand the brain’s vulnerabilities and to see our mistakes without negative judgment.

After reading the book once, I read it twice. My goal: make this information work in my life. Chart the appearance of these mental traps with examples from my life and the news media.

If rational thinking is to increase we have to notice how our brain immediately responds to clues. By looking carefully at these clues and wondering about their impact on us we can often re-think any problem.  Pride goes before the fall if we tend to see each situation as unique and ignore the statistical similarities in problems.  Mauboussin asks what happens when companies merge.  A large percentage of mergers do not work but people still think, “My merger will be different”.

Our brain follows an old path without the practice of seeing our situation compared to many others, or the inside, outside views as Mauboussin calls them.

It requires less energy for the brain to reduce the number of alternatives, or for one’s behavior to be shaped by incentives, or to cling to the words of experts and/or to follow the crowd.  It is difficult for us to see the extraordinary influence of the crowd, family, colleagues and society on us. It is hard for us to see that to be wise we need to maintain our autonomy in the crowd.

Professional investors and business people will have an incentive to turn Mauboussin’s book into a disciplined course to increase anyone’s ability to recognize and apply these lessons.  But I would like to see a version of his ideas available for middle – school children. Learning how your brain functions early on would be a wise investment for young minds.

As easy as it is to read the book once, if you put the book down without making the ideas yours, the book will not have done its job.    Some may say, “I read the book now, of course, I will be more aware and rational.”  If only it were that simple.

Mauboussin observes how the wizards of the world have been led astray.  Of course anyone can allow his or her guard down. People can easily trust the wrong doctors, brokers or experts.  As he notes, even highly trained financial experts, the best people at NASA and psychologists like Stephen Greenspan, author of Annals of Gullibility, can be fooled by the brain’s easygoing, automatic ways.  Greenspan lost 30% of his money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Word to the overconfident: both smart and ordinary people can be tricked by not thinking twice in a disciplined way.

It would be one thing if just one or two of us were irrational, but since we live in a highly interactive world a lot of people can join an irrational bandwagon.  Societal irrationality has a long history. Mark Twain noted: “History may not repeat itself but it rhymes a lot.” He would have enjoyed the examples in this book of how the brain tricks itself.

Most of us can find stories of not thinking twice in the news everyday.  In the chapter, “Unintended consequences: Feed an Elk, Starve an Ecosystem,” a decision made in 1886 led to complex problems for the entire Yellowstone national park.   Do you think this focus on fixing only a part a system might be a fluke?  Think again.

The New York Times, September 20, 2009, tells us how health officials in Egypt focused on getting rid of pigs to diminish the spread of swine flu. Brains were tricked. The complex system was ignored and this lead to a different health crisis for Egyptians.  Cairo now has tons of garbage in the streets that the pigs use to eat

Fixing one problem and not comprehending the system-wide affect reflects the kind of blindness, which led to the decision to let Lehman go. Those very smart decision makers awoke to finding the financial world about to topple over. By the time they realized how interconnected the system had become it was too late. Seeing the system rather than one or two bad guys is still a stretch for most of us.

Mauboussin, a synthesizing detective, gathers knowledge demonstrating how the brain works its short-cut thinking magic. As a system thinker he points out the difficulty in understanding complexity when one believes in such sacred cows such as:

(1) Seeing problems as unique and not seeking the statistical outside viewpoints.

(2) The way we are programmed by events to have tunnel vision and reduce options.

(3) The inconsistent performance of experts in predicting the future.

(4) The dominant role of cause and effect thinking even in complex systems.

(5) The inability to see the difference between cause and correlations. There are a lot of churches in high crime areas but churches do not cause crimes.

(6) The difference between skill and luck, and harder yet understanding the implications that what goes up will come down, or revision to the mean.

(7) One of my favorites is what Mauboussin calls “the grand Ah-Whooms” or the tipping point in non-linear systems. Water boiling is a phase transition as are traffic jams and stock market crashes.

All of these concepts are hard for people to understand, much less master, without practice.   As Mauboussin notes: “ Our brains are not wired for the process of moving from preparation to recognition. Indeed typical decision makers allocate only 25% of their time to thinking about the problem properly and learning from experience.”

People are more comfortable looking at the outcomes, which can be due to chance, rather than taking time to understand the process of decision-making.  It is more automatic for us to decrease the number of discrepant ideas and to limit the number of people to whom we listen.

The individual and the group march toward a quick consensus. This will remain a formidable intellectual/emotional stumbling block in solving complex issues.  But the bright side is that we will all be together in harmony and happy in the short term.

Mauboussin helps us understand, recognize and even appreciate our vulnerabilities with humorous explanations. He reassures us that we can become more rational by recognizing the traps and applying tools to better cope with the realities of life.  Many of his ideas about being more rational are not such hard medicine. Best of all, those who take his work seriously will become more autonomous in the maddening crowd.

Preparation offers us an early warning system. Mauboussin suggests: 1) keep a decision journal, 2) have a checklist and 3) be aware of the brain’s tendency to take clues from the environment leading us into back alleys.   He explains that there is a clear path through the tangled web of deceit the brain weaves as it tries to interpret how to quickly understand and respond well to its environment.  We may prefer short cuts to the more difficult, time and energy consuming, unfeeling calculations needed to see risk and properly access outcomes. However, now we have a well-written guide to being able engage the process of thinking Twice.

My take away is to understand the ancient roots of irrationality as they surface in my day-to-day life. Perhaps this will help retool my brain, reducing my deep need to feel good and to be right at the expense of long-term solutions to complex problems.

Many thanks to Judy Ball for again, excellent attention to details in her editing.


[1] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 197

[2] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 152

[3] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 157

[4] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p 157

[5] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 198

[6] After the death of his wife Louisa in 1906, and the death of his son Kingsley, his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law (one of whom was E. W. Hornung, the creator of the literary character Raffles), and his two nephews shortly after World War I, Conan Doyle sank into depression. He found solace supporting Spiritualism and its alleged scientific proof of existence beyond the grave.


  1. thanks for this book review-I have ordered the book and perhaps I will have to wait to read the answers to my questions: how did Mr Mauboussin discover the mental traps? are these traps similar to “reactivity” in the way bowen describes reactivity? the decision journal, will I find I don’t make decisions and that I go along with the crowd.
    want to underline your question how long will it take for me to learn to think twice. my study of bowen theory has
    been an effort to not react but rather to think and it has been a long haul.
    I am working with a couple that so want to fix a piece of the marital situation-it is hard not to join them in this instant fix.
    thanks for your thinking
    mary louise

  2. Mary Louise:

    Thank you for your feedback and good questions about how Mauboussin developed his interest and the difference between reactivity in Bowen Theory and “mental traps.”

    The brain is wired to respond to clues in certain predetermined ways, this can lead to interpersonal emotional reactivity, as in prejudice about cultural differences, but most of what Mauboussin writes about has to do with the way we automatically make decision based on perception of stimuli.

    Reactivity in Bowen theory has more to do with NOT being an objective observer and therefore acting out unresolved emotions which are “programmed” into each of us in our family of origin. If you want to you can check in Bowen book on page 540 about what goes into person to person relationships. Of course I think that being a better observer and controlling ones own emotional reactiveness makes major sense on the road to better interpersonal decisions.

    Also as far as collecting facts we do not know that much about how our social actions influence our biology. See (

    As to how Mauboussin came to focus on how we make decision, I extracted his answer from an interview he gave below.

    “A: I started my career as a big believer in models and finance theory. And I still think those things are really important. But over time I came to recognize that what makes for great investors—and corporate managers, for that matter—is not their ability to crunch numbers, but rather their ability to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty. Remarkably, decision making is the most important facet of investing and is probably the least taught aspect in business school.

    My “a-ha” moment came at an investment and behavioral finance conference a few years back. Like they do at most of these conferences, the professors ran little experiments to demonstrate various decision making principles, and offered small prizes for the attendees who did best. The first contest was about overconfidence and calibration, and I won. I got a t-shirt. The second one was about thinking about the decisions of others, and I won that one, too. Now with about 70 attendees, it would be fair to say that it was unlikely I would win both contests out of sheer luck.

    But I have a confession to make: I had seen variations of these exercises before, and when I first tried them I did really poorly. Embarrassingly poorly. But then I learned the principles, and how to deal with those types of decisions. So even though I didn’t know the answers to those exact exercises, I knew how to think about them.

    When Dick Thaler, a foremost behavioral economist, tossed me the t-shirt after I won the contest, he grumbled, “You don’t deserve this, you knew what was going on.” And I thought: “That’s right, and that’s the point!”

    As Bowen theory puts it the degree of unresolved emotional attachment towards one’s parents is a function of how one reacts to others, or as Bowen said we are “programmed” in our family of origin.”

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