What are the Intellectual Ideas Everybody Should Know?

Most academic concepts have fairly narrow usage. You can draw analogies between fields, but these connections usually rest on you understanding both sides of the metaphor sufficiently well.

Consider the Fresnel equation in physics. With some effort you might be able to draw an analogy between this equation and another domain. But I’d doubt you could say that understanding the equation led to overflowing insights in history or art.

However, hidden within all the ideas with tenuous crossover implications, there are rare ideas which seem to illuminate far beyond what they were originally designed to explain.

The problem, of course, is that academic subjects are generally pursued in isolation. Each profession learns the paradigms and tools of their trade and only borrows from other schools of thought when those ideas are directly relevant to research. Specialization, not general purpose thinking, is the norm.

With that, I’d like to pose the following question: what are the intellectual ideas you’ve mastered, which have broad scope in understanding the world?

My Picks for Powerhouse Ideas

I’ll kick off the discussion with my picks for ideas which everybody should know.

1. Evolution and Natural Selection

This is an idea everyone has an opinion about, but few people really understand. Once understood, however, the analogy is powerful for explaining how complex systems develop and change over time. Languages, businesses, technology, social customs and diets are just a few of the areas which borrow similarities to biological evolution.

Some resources I recommend which show the breadth of the idea:


2. Bayes’ Rule

Bayes’ Rule has been described as the secret of the universe. It is a simple mathematical formula which helps you calculate the probability of an event. On the surface, just a formula you would memorize and apply on an exam and immediately forget. But going deeper, you can see how it may even be the basis of all rational thought.

The best introduction to the rule is Eliezer’s guide: An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem, although the implications of this snippet of mathematics may take you years to unravel.

3. Economic Efficiency

In 1776 Adam Smith wrote On the Wealth of Nations, which would later become the foundation for modern economic theory. He laid out the basics of how automatic forces guide and improve our material existence.

The idea of efficient markets is a controversial one, if only because there are many instances when the forces Smith recognized can break down. But that doesn’t make the idea any less powerful as an explanatory concept. Just because we rarely see ideal spheres on frictionless planes, doesn’t mean classical mechanics isn’t useful for explaining motion.

Some resources:


4. Signalling and Game Theory

Along with evolutionary psychology, signalling is perhaps the best single theory for explaining human behavior. The basic idea is that we take actions not only for their direct consequences, but to communicate and deceive others who have imperfect information.

Game theory is a useful intro topic since understanding the basics of static and dynamic games, and getting the mathematical intuition behind them, makes it easier to fully see signalling play out in everyday life.

5. Biases and Heuristics

The field of biases and heuristics in psychology is a popular one nowadays, with websites like LessWrong dedicated to the art of human rationality. Even if it is a popular field, that doesn’t downplay its importance. By understanding the errors humans make in reasoning, we can at least understand our frailties, even if we cannot fix them.

As an aside, I considered myself well-versed on this topic before reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, however even I found dozens of new insights, so I strongly recommend reading the book even if you’ve been exposed to this concept previously.

6. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

I picked this one as a last concept, not because it is universally useful, but because of how profound the result is. Basically, Gödel proved logically that there exist true things which can never be proven, or alternatively, that there are truths which can never be known.

If you’re feeling like going down the rabbit’s hole, I suggest this book: Gödel’s Proof.

Now It’s Your Turn

I’ve given my shortlist, now I want yours. What’s an intellectual idea that you feel everybody should know? Bonus points for any ideas that are largely removed from pop psych or self-help. Please give your idea, along with why it is so broadly useful, in the comments.

  • Andrea

    For me, hands down, it’s the topic of cognitive dissonance and self-justification. It explains SO MUCH. It might fit under your topic #5 since this topic is intimately related to biases. See Carol Tavris & Elliott Aronson’s book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) — it’s definitely one of those books that has rocked my worldview.

  • Henry

    These are some of the many books that have help me grow intellectually by leaps and bounds:

    Purple Cow

    Blueprint to a billion

    Influence: The psychology of Influence

    Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell
    Mystery of Banking by Milton Friedman

    Race & Ethnicity:
    Ethnic America White Liberal, Black Redneck
    My name is Loco, and I am racist
    Yellow cab Fever

    The Dictator’s Handbook

    and many other that will be too long to enumerate.

  • Aaron

    Some suggestions by me are:

    1 – How genes work, i.e. by producing proteins that have an effect somewhere in our bodies, mostly while we develop in the womb. Basic, but avoids a lot of potential for misunderstanding when people talk about what is or is not genetic.

    2 – Boundary conditions can be weird: for example, everyone knows a person or dog is alive but a rock isn’t; however, with viruses it’s difficult to say. Likewise, at what exact point from earth does the atmosphere end? Keeping these in mind can help avoid a lot of confusion when labels get applied to things that aren’t very well defined.

    3 – Spacetime – Time can be thought of as just another dimension we travel through.
    3a – The arrow of time – time is really just entropy occurring (that’s what we think of as time going ‘forwards’.

    4 – GSTOR – The General and Special Theories of Relativity. General is the idea that timespace is affected by mass (causing what we call gravity). Includes weird ideas like black holes.
    Special describes the idea that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant and that there are no privileged frames of reference – except that of light.

    5 – Two individuals reasoning from the same premises with the same desires or priorities should always reach the same conclusion. If they do not, either one has made a mistake, there is a different premise somewhere, or they have different desires/priorities.

    6 – If you are shown a picture of a clock and someone asks ‘What do you see?’, the answer is NOT ‘A clock’. The answer is, ‘A picture of a clock.’

  • Sam

    The Conceptual Metaphor–our ability to think about something is our ability to relate it to something we have already thought about; conversely, all everything we can think about can be decomposed into constituent metaphors relating it to our physical experience. This I think gets to the heart of why something like physics is so generative; it gives us a formally rooted understanding of the empiric constituent (space, time, motion, conservation) that allow us to understand new info. This is good, quick, and foundational, though I would also reccomend his book on mathematics


    The Function—we can think of anything as a black box which takes inputs and converts them to outputs, or effects. We can treat it as an object (the box) or the set of procedures within the box. Very good for partitioning things you already understand from things you don’t but still would like to think usefully about, as well as delineating levels of activity; we know biological systems are composed of atoms, but we don’t need to use quantum physics to model population dynamics. If you’re down for a little comp sci, I would reccommend chapters 2 and 3 of this book, available online:


    The Pragmatic Maxim—“Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.” Related to the above point from Wittgenstein, (but home-grown American!). Nuff said.

  • http://www.goalsontrack.com Harry @ GoalsOnTrack

    Great ideas. I recently read Seneca and learned about looking differently at death and illness, or rather how to effectively deal with fear of death and illness. For fear of death, what’s absurd about the fear is that when we die, we simply return back to whatever state we were in before we were born. It makes no sense to fear what comes after death and feel indifferent to what comes before birth.

    To deal with dread/fear of illness and pain, it’s wise to know that for illness it can only harm our body, make our body uncomfortable, but never really have any impact on our mind and spiritual state, unless we let it. And for pain, what’s good about it, if it’s a small but intermittent pain, it’s only a negligible annoyance which allows us large chunk of time of being without it. If it’s a big and severe pain, we will experience it very briefly, because it will either end by itself or we will pass out which is probably protection provided by nature. In either case, pain and illness are not major things to be fearful about.

  • http://classroomtlc.com Cameron Goble

    Bloom’s Taxonomy. Best road map to skills mastery I’ve ever seen.

    My focus in life is helping people teach better–nicely compliments your focus of learning better, Scott–and I’m always amazed at how clear a sequence of learning activities becomes when I bring in Bloom. I learned about Bloom in my own days as a teacher, but when I go back to school, Bloom is how I make sure I really get what I’m trying to learn.

    So, so very powerful from both sides of the desk. Bloom’s is like a GPS for skills acquisition: it gets you straight there, step by step, from wherever you’re at.

  • Mariya

    To me, existentialism is a very basic idea, but a very powerful one. Kierkegaard had it right when he said that we can only depend on ourselves to have a rich and meaningful life, but this doesn’t seem to permeate. Many people would prefer to blame some external force for something that is entirely in their control.

  • Dane
  • Nissim Nabar

    A couple of more basic things that can affect the way you think:

    Mathematical Induction and Recursion. Both slightly computer science related but I think they have a lot to teach us in general.

  • http://cupidselves.com Christina

    Some good stuff here. I can see I’m not nearly geeky enough. :-) My reading list has just been greatly expanded- thanks!

    I agree with those who recommend a basic course in statistics. It changed my life!

    Something I’ve also found very useful: Occam’s Razor – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor “The razor states that one should proceed to simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power.” It eliminates most conspiracy theories, and keeps us from extrapolating too much from too little information- something the media loves to do.

  • Lluis

    I am surprised no one has mentioned good, old thermodynamics. Those simple, little 3 rules explain every process of energy exchange, i.e. every single process we have ever observed, be it physical, chemical, evolutionary, economical, social, intellectual…

    “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its area of applicability. Therefore the deep impression that classical thermodynamics made upon me. It is the only physical theory of universal content which I am convinced will never be overthrown, within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts.”
    – Albert Einstein

  • Amanda

    So funny that you posted this – I was just thinking about how different my mindset has been since my first Soc class (back in the day) on signaling. I definitely agree with what you posted, as well as with the folks who promoted Heisenberg. I think a basic understanding of the major religions is really helpful, and perhaps even a cursory reading of their major texts would be, too. Simply because so much of culture is based on them (and next time someone cracks a Jonah and the whale joke, you’ll get it haha).

    Game theory in general..no game theory learning is ever wasted.

  • http://adamfrantisekkollar.blogspot.sk korinka

    I actually wondered if people who were commenting really thought about this ideas and their application in practice. Some did and some not. There are a lot of good ideas to exploit and learn about.
    I would like to add something for myself. So:
    1. Thinking about our thinking (metathinking – what people often do not do) and questioning – lateral, critical thinking, obsessive research and deliberate practice
    2. Exploitation of human work force/ how to use and manipulate personal knowledge and how to protect your own rights (if you are not self-made billionaire – if you disagree with our policy – we can replace you – on your work post there are many people waiting)
    3.Techniques how to protect yourself against other people (self-preservation and persuation of other people – it can have connection with biological evolution and natural selection)
    4. Exploitation of human senses and non-verbal communication – like design of information – eyetracking and usage of it in marketing, using of music rhytm and its control, exploitation of touching and smelling, gestures and conceptual integration in mathematical talk – Springer, creating false memories and their usage
    5. Social influence and social psychology – Robert Greene
    6. Interface design – Aza Raskin and Jeff Raskin
    7. Internet censorship and hacking (slowing web pages, and how to view web pages that you are not authorised to view)
    8. Information navigation and making step by step manuals to simplify information

  • John Maynard

    When describing the idea or ideas everybody should know or understand, I strongly suggest accessibility , and it’s demonstration in the everyday world. That being said my mind went to Feynman’s hope that the following should always be remembered by humanity, that all matter is made of atoms. Ok , so we are more looking at a shelf that has other established works on it, I like Hegel’s “Phenomonology of Spirit” but it is not for everybody, I do recommend “Relativity” because it is broadly relevant, and even the cosmological constant , Einsteins “greatist blunder” is only increasingly relevant. It is clear that what is being sought is a singular principle that might underlie most disciplines is the topic, if so, it likely should be mathematics along the lines of Turing or Goedel is an appropriate choice, but I believe most of us can use a good description of theodynamics, in fact thermodynamics would be an efficient course for all people

  • Miguel Gomez

    For me, the idea that everyone should know is about investing:
    It is impossible to reliably and consistently beat the market. Over 2 thirds of actively managed mutual funds failed to outperform their benchmark and 88% of all US Hedge Funds failed to outperform the S&P 500 in 2012.
    Every six months, S&P publishes the SPIVA scorecard that keeps track of this (http://us.spindices.com/resource-center/thought-leadership/spiva/).
    And yet, 85% of the money in mutual funds in the US is in actively managed funds. Why? The illusion that “they can beat the market” and “protect you in bad times” that all mutual fund firms sell.
    The same happens with individual investors. Over and over, they get “hammered” by the market, instead of embracing it.
    Some authors on the subject:
    -Larry Swedroe: http://www.amazon.com/Larry-E.-Swedroe/e/B000APJJ8O
    -Dan Solin: http://www.amazon.com/Daniel-R.-Solin/e/B001IGOH3Q/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1359058832&sr=1-1
    -John C Vogle: http://www.amazon.com/John-C.-Bogle/e/B001H6NWEM/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1359058880&sr=1-1

  • http://theinspiredday.com/about Melanie Wilson

    I have a Ph.D. so I’ve read and studied a lot, but the most important idea I’ve ever learned is: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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  • Alan

    Here’s a good article with links to some core concepts from various disciplines at the bottom:


  • http://adamfrantisekkollar.blogspot.sk korinka

    There are powerful ideas but people forgot to mention one the most powerful intellectual idea and that is being good, have conscience, be ethical, respect moral values and rights of others, maintain peace, do not exploit / misuse the idea of humanity by science, respect diversity because people are different and we can learn from everybody, being polite, sincere, gentle, modest, honest, listening, caring about weaker, doing good deeds, thinking before speaking, conflict resolving. There are a lot of good you can do for this world so think for yourself.

  • http://lifewhack.com/ Peter Ewin Hall

    A book I read last year called “Bounce, the talent myth” by Matthew Syed was excellent – really dispelled the myth of being born naturally talented.

  • Dan

    A handful off the top of my head:
    1. Thermodynamics. The role of Gibbs free energy in complex systems. Systems at equilibrium/disequilibrium. Chaos and phase changes complex systems. Emergence.
    2. Systems dynamics modeling. Nonlinear systems. Donella Meadows, “Leverage Points”.
    3. Exponential growth. Doubling periods. Rule of 70. Limits to growth.
    4. Interest-based negotiation. Positive-sum games. Variations on Prisoner’s Dilemma.
    5. “To learn is to create.” – At de Lange
    6. Organizational learning. Double-loop learning.
    7. Operant conditioning. Horse whispering. Parenting lightly from infancy to invite health, self-initiated learning, and motivation.
    8. Soil science. Microbiota in living systems and roles they serve.
    9. Psychology of magical thinking, confirmation bias, etc.. in ideology, religion, etc..

  • Steve Bithell

    How about Green’s Theorem, because it was such a stroke of genius (even through it’s a 2D version of Stoke’s Theorem), and the Pareto (80/20) Rule, because it’s so useful?

  • http://mikhailklassen.com Mikhail Klassen

    All excellent ideas that will change the way you see the world.

    But I think this one was missed, perhaps because it was too obvious:

    Compound interest.

    Most people are scared off by basic math and they miss out on this simple, powerful idea that can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment income, or save thousands of dollars in debt over the lifetime of a mortgage.

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  • Stanislav

    I was very impressed by the idea of metasystem transition and cybernetic approach to human evolution, worded by Valentin Turchin in his book “The Phenomenon of Science” in general.

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  • Andrew

    Falsificationism, the problem of demarcation, and FiLCHeRS.

    The Principle of parsimony, Occam’s Razor, and the ‘burden of proof’.

    Educating oneself about the formal ‘scholarly methods’.

    Bloom’s Taxonomy.

  • Alex

    There’s an infinite amount of concepts out there that no mind has even brushed the surface of. The potential in this idea is limitless. Though it is important to understand all that has been understood for the individual it’s just as important that we focus on things relevant to expanding our knowledge as a group of intellectual thinkers. There is so much more out there that we have the opportunity to learn. The excitement from that potential should motivate us to keep thinking about and developing theories. Innovation is what keeps us moving forward.

  • o p bohrey

    Normal distribution and bell curves in statistics should be included here bcoz of its universal applicability.

  • Titan

    I don’t think he’s here to save all of us, just a few.

  • bobango

    Scott: I read your articles religiously. With
    respect to your archive reissue on Intellectual Ideas Everyone Should
    Know, I would propose as another important idea: Queuing Theory.

    Here is a link to a really well written summary on this
    topic: http://www.wired.com/2014/07/whats-up-with-the-other-line-is-always-faster/

    This problem creeps up on us every day of our lives.
    The resolution is counterintuitive because we are humans, not computers.

    Bob Sweeney
    Memphis, TN