How To Improve Sense Making In A Chaotic World


After reading a recent piece by Zat Rana (a writer I follow), I stumbled upon the above video on sense making in the current climate of fake news plaguing the general population. Zat himself is writing a series on this very topic, in fact.

Anyway, as with many important and enlightening media, I come across online, I’d like to write a reflection to solidify those concepts for myself and future reference. A bonus would be helping others as well in the process.

Sense making is basically processing second or third-hand information to navigate the world and make decisions that don’t harm yourself and the people around you.

I didn’t mention “decisions that benefit yourself”, because no one will make decisions that don’t benefit oneself, at least in the short-term. Most decisions made by anyone will either directly benefit oneself now or later.

So, why is sense making important? Another way to think about it is, why would sense making be not important? It’s in our best interests to make informed decisions regardless the matter – it’s self-explanatory why making good decisions generally lead to a better lived life.

Although it’s much more relatable and applicable to Americans, I highly recommend watching the entire 90-minute video because there are many concepts that are applicable to the Asian context, and the Singaporean context.

Every day, we’re bombarded by information, mostly irrelevant and useless (or even harmful), and if we don’t train our ability to make sense of everything and understand what’s important to make good decisions, we’ll eventually harm ourselves with too many bad decisions.

Out of the many concepts and principles covered in the video, I’ll share the few most relevant and actionable ones an individual can take away to make better sense of the nonsense in the world right now.

Don’t just read one source

It sounds ridiculously simple and obvious, and it is painfully so, but many of us don’t practise reading multiple sources to understand a matter, issue, or topic. Most people don’t scroll past page 1 of the Google search results page when searching for anything, and you can bet most people just click on one result that confirms their bias or seems like the most logical answer.

That’s why the Search Engine Optimisation industry (a service to help businesses rank their websites on the first page of Google’s search results page for a specific search term) is huge, and many businesses spend a lot of time and money to vie for the first page.

Now, if it’s just making a simple decision of buying tissue boxes on Lazada (a pseudo-Amazon in Singapore, majority owned by Alibaba group), the negative impact would go as far as getting subpar face tissues.

However, if it’s regarding a political, economic, or social issue or topic, it’s definitely not in our best interests to just read one source on the internet. And we shouldn’t just read our one and only “trusted” source, we should seek alternate sources that report various perspectives.

Most issues and topics have many dimensions to them, especially when it involves a certain scale, impacting hundreds, thousands, or even more. Just reading one source would just give us a fraction of complete story, often favouring just a small group of people.

Think of it this way: How many reviews would you read when deciding to buy a pack of tissue boxes versus a computer, television set, or car? I’m using an extreme example to illustrate the importance of understanding an issue that involves a portion of the population, but you get the idea.

Seek to understand what you disagree with

Even after reading multiple sources, it’s only natural and human to want to relate to a version of the story that we find easiest to relate with, and therefore agree and root for. But that’s also where many biases would distort our perception of the issue.

And that’s actually what’s increasingly happening because of the rise of “viral content” around a topic of contention. Viral videos purely for entertainment are a different thing altogether, and they pose other problems such as addiction to social media, but we’ll focus on outright harmful content that “hijacks” viewers’ brains and elicit emotional responses.

Extreme views tend to be the “recipe” for such viral content, be it in the form of text or moving media, because of how most people will outright disagree and the minority who agree, feel validated for their own extreme views.

It’s why the headline news are usually very shocking in nature, although news outlets would prefer the term “newsworthy”. Extreme stories are uncommon, and that’s precisely why they garner the most engagement from the public.

Not many would engage with mundane yet salient topics that affect our future in 10 to 20 years (take climate change or political issues for example).

Apart from extreme and viral content, we prefer consuming the affirming and familiar to feel good. Plus it’s easy, anyway – we don’t need to put in too much effort to think and possibly change our way of thinking. That’s just how our brain is wired.

However, that’s also how echo chambers are formed, collective or individual. We can get too obsessed with what we think is right and the truth, holding it so dearly that anyone or anything that suggests otherwise, is our enemy.

Needless to say, when we’re in an echo chamber long enough, we create our own bubble and we reject all external ideas. The consequences can be as bad as violence, ignorance, and even war, as suggested in the video on sense making.

We don’t know most things

The simple solution is then to admit and accept that what we know about most things in the world are wrong or at least, partially wrong. It’s fine to not know everything, and that’s the only way one would seek more knowledge to inform oneself better for future decisions.

Everything around us is constantly changing and evolving, and it’s only foolish to think what we know from a few years ago is still absolutely relevant right now, or even the Holy Grail of truth.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the only way to improve our understanding of issues and topics around us, is to accept that we still have more to learn about them.

When we think of ourselves as all knowing about a topic, is when it’s almost certain that we will fall victim to our own biases, subconsciously. And that’s also when we stop learning and perceiving everyone else as our inferior.

As a result, we won’t be able to make sense of anything around us, making increasingly bad decisions for ourselves and those around us, eventually even causing harm. The worst would be to cause harm to ourselves and not knowing why and how.

And it’s only through accepting our ignorance around most matters, would we improve our sense making and decision making, allowing us to lead a good life of meaning.

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

– Socrates

About the author

Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.

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by Vance Wong


Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.