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Elvis Chidera

The Problem of Thinking Too Much — Paper Summary

summary, paper1 min read

Today's summary is about a paper written by Persi Diaconis in 2003.

The problem is this: We can spend endless time thinking and wind up doing nothing — or, worse, getting involved in the minutiae of a partially baked idea and believing that pursuing it is the same as making progress on the original problem.


  1. In every area of academic and more practical study, we can find simple examples that on introspection grow into unspeakable “creatures.” The technical details take over, and practitioners are fooled into thinking they are doing serious work. Contact with the original problem is lost.

  2. An example is given in the paper: It started with the simple problem of predicting binary outcomes and then thinking about the underlying physics and dynamics which ended up making things messy.

Some Rules of Thumb

Rule of thumb used by author’s friends in their decision-making:

  1. Other things being equal, finish the job that is nearest done.

  2. Don’t waste time on obscure fine points that rarely occur.

  3. If a lot of smart people have thought about a problem [e.g., God’s existence, life on other planets] and disagree, then it can’t be decided

A Psychological Tip

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind, and you’re hampered by not having any, the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find, is simply by spinning a penny.

No — not so that chance shall decide the affair while you’re passively standing there moping; but the moment the penny is up in the air, you suddenly know what you’re hoping. — Piet Hein

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