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The Cobra Effect

Second-Level Thinking

Second-level thinking is a form of mental model that makes us map out the complex implications of the various decisions under consideration.

This helps us take into account the limitations of our minds and separate the signal from the noise.

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The Cobra Effect

The Cobra Effect

https://nesslabs.com/cobra-effect

nesslabs.com

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Key Ideas

The Cobra Effect

Most of us have a simple, cause-to-effect relationship with our surroundings and the events that unfold in our lives. We try to solve problems using a linear-thinking model, resulting in inconstant consequences. This is known as The Cobra Effect.

The Cobra Effect can be avoided by keeping away from linear and sequential thinking, which often intuitively feels like the right methodology to solve a given problem.

Origin of The Cobra Effect

The term ‘Cobra Effect’ originates from Colonial India, which was under the rule of the Britishers. To tackle the problem of the growing number of cobras, the British government announced a bounty on every dead cobra. Enterprising locals started breeding cobras and kept on claiming the bounty reward. When the Britishers realized this and stopped the reward, the snakes were set free, increasing the population in the city.

This anecdote revealed that a linear, logical solution could also make the problem worse.

Understanding Dynamic Systems

A dynamic system has two types of feedback loops:

  • Positive Feedback: This feedback loop keeps the coveted effect in progress.
  • Balancing Feedback: Also called negative feedback, this loop keeps the system in a balanced state.

Instead of assuming that a dynamic system is a chain of linear events, we need to step back and look at the big picture and try to understand the complex feedback interactions.

Applying Mental Models

It is impossible to accurately predict all potentialities in any proposed decision, as the amount of information we have is almost always inadequate.

Mental Models are cognitive constructs in our brain, which like an algorithm, can help us minimize any unwanted consequences while making a choice.

Second-Level Thinking

Second-level thinking is a form of mental model that makes us map out the complex implications of the various decisions under consideration.

This helps us take into account the limitations of our minds and separate the signal from the noise.

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Unintended consequences

Because we mostly react instead of think, our actions are based on insufficient information. We grab for a solution without thinking deeply about the context of the problem: e.g: We try to cheer up a depressed person by making her realize that her life is not that bad and that the sun is shining, only to find out we have made her even more depressed. She now feels guilty about her feelings, worthless, and more alone in her unhappiness.

Tactical hell

You find yourself embroiled in several struggles or battles. You seem to get nowhere but you feel like you have invested so much time and energy already that it would be a waste to give up. You have actually  lost sight of your goals. Instead it has become a question of asserting your ego.

You need some detachment and perspective. Remind yourself that winning an argument or proving your point really gets you nowhere in the long run.

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Systems thinking

Is a way of seeing the world as a series of interconnected and interdependent systems rather than lots of independent parts. 

As a thinking tool, it seeks to oppose the reductioni...

Systems

...are sets of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system's objective.

The 3 main systems at play
  • Social systems: rules and structures, created by humans, that keep society functioning.
  • Industrial systems: all manufactured material world, created to facilitate human needs.
  • The ecosystem: which provides all the natural services (clean air, food, fresh water, minerals and natural resources) needed for the other two systems to exist.
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Desire and pleasure

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Potential clinical application

We cannot explain away our minds by brain mechanisms. Brain mechanisms are part of our minds.

Understanding that desire and dread, for instance, share the same brain operations, could help ease schizophrenia symptoms by restricting a particular dopamine neuron that produces fear.

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Hanlon's Razor

This mental model states that most actions made by people need not be categorized as malicious or intentionally bad, but simply a sign of incompetence and acting out of fear.

Many poor decisions and actions are not intentional but due to ineptitude. By following this mental model, we untie ourselves from unnecessary negativity and work towards a solution.

Relativity

The mental model of relativity states that everyone's outlook, viewpoint and perspective are different from ours.

The same situation is looked in different ways by people, and understanding these variations can help us toward a meaningful dialogue with them. We can diffuse any inherent conflict by hearing out and identifying what we understand, making the other person feel listened to.

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Mindfulness is not a magic panacea

The inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction proclaims that mindfulness may "be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple of hundred years...

Mindfulness has been repackaged

Although mindfulness originated from Buddhism, it has been stripped from most of its teachings. 

What remains is nothing more than a self-help tool to help one get used to the very conditions that caused the problems. While is it a noble aim to reduce stress and anxiety, it is more important to acknowledge and address the underlying cause of the suffering.

The message of the mindfulness

The message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause is in our mind - a "thinking disease" or a kind of attention deficit disorder. 

Rather than discussing how attention is monetized and manipulated by corporations, mindfulness advocates to view the crisis as an internal battle. The result is that we meekly retreat into the private sphere without critically engaging with the causes of suffering in the structures of power and economic systems of capitalist society.

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Understanding the world through mental models
Understanding the world through mental models

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Compounding

Compounding is exponential growth. We tend to see the immediate linear relationships in the situation, e.g., how one test diagnoses one person.

The compounding effect of that relationship means that increased testing can lead to an exponential decrease in disease transmission because one infected person can infect more than just one person.

Probabilistic thinking

In the absence of enough testing, we need to use probabilistic thinking to make decisions on what actions to take. Reasonable probability will impact your approach to physical distancing if you estimate the likelihood of transmission as being three people out of ten instead of one person out of one thousand.

When you have to make decisions with incomplete information, use inversion: Look at the problem backward. Ask yourself what you could do to make things worse, then avoid doing those things.

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Risk Compensation
Risk Compensation

Risk protection is normally done to minimize the harm a particular activity can do to us. There are various things we do to reduce our risk, to make ourselves safer.

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Risk Compensation Effects
  • When automobile safety laws were introduced, the drivers started taking more risks while driving, leading to more pedestrian accidents.
  • Children (and even adults) take more physical risks while playing a sport with protective gear.
  • Safety features like Anti-lock brakes in vehicles ended up increasing the accidents for taxi drivers in Germany
  • Child-proof caps on medicine bottles made parents careless about their being opened by kids, including the ones which don’t have the safety feature.
The Carelessness Effect

Having a safety device in place, and armed with the knowledge that we can push the envelope a bit, the appetite for risk increases.

  • People who have an emergency fund in place tend to be less careful about their investments.
  • People wearing a face-mask in this global pandemic feel like they are safer in crowded places (It’s a face mask, not an Iron Man suit).

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Developing mastery

Fun is the experience of developing mastery. When we acquire new skills and recognize valuable patterns, our brains reward us with a shot of pleasurable sensations. 

Games and learning

Games are optimal learning environments:

  • Feedback loops are short, fast and adapted to your skill level.
  • Challenges grow as you develop new skills.
  • Failures are learning opportunities because every time you make a mistake, you get a hint about how you can do better next time.
Boredom and learning

Boredom is what we feel when our brain decides that there's nothing worth learning. It's the brain searching for new information.

And even games become boring at some point because they eventually run out of things to teach you. That's when you stop playing.

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Externalities

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The First Law of Ecology

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Negative Externalities

They can occur during the production or consumption of a service or goods. Calling something a negative externality can be a way of avoiding responsibility.

If a factory pollutes nearby water supplies, it causes harm without added costs to the factory. The costs to society are high and are not reflected in the price of whatever the factory produces. Even if pollution is taxed, the harmful effects still remain.

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Meta-Learning

It's knowing how to learn. Learning itself is a skill, and knowing how to do it well is an incredibly valuable advantage.

Merely acquiring information is not learning....

Learning has 2 phases

Learning is a two-step process:

  • Read/listen: feeding ourselves new information.
  • Process and recall what you’ve just ‘learned’: connecting new materials to what we already knew.
Remembering the right things

You should not waste your time by committing unimportant details to memory. 

Your focus should be on understanding the bigger picture, on how things relate to each other.

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