Mental pitfall: Domain Specificity

January 14th, 2008

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Today, we will continue with the series on common mental pitfalls that can lead to fallacious reasoning (see Common mental pitfalls that leads you astray for a compilation of this series of articles).

The topic we will cover today is Domain Specificity. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, he wrote,

By domain-specific, I mean that our reactions, our mode of thinking, our intuitions, depend on the context in which the matter is presented.

This is how our brain is hard-wired to operate.

An example of making a domain-specific error is,

Statisticians, it has been shown, tend to leave their brains in the classroom and engage in the most trivial inferential errors once they are let out on the streets.

That is why some people can easily solve problems in social situations but when the problems is expressed in an abstract logical format, he or she is lost. Others have the opposite problem. This explains why analogies and metaphors are very powerful in aiding understanding. This is because they are very effective at translating a story from one context to another, which enables us to process it in a more familiar framework.

Is there a way to avoid this common pitfall? We are afraid we do not really have an answer to this. But at the very least, the first step is to be aware of this common weakness.