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.

  • anthonynlee

    I was definitely going for Godel’s theorem…..but you got to it first….my next choice is an obvious one I think;
    Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle, probably for many of the same reasons as Godel. On a subatomic level it shows how limited our knowledge of our universe can be. It also illustrates how things are not as we believe we understand them.
    In fact, Heisenberg’s ideas along with Schroedinger make us question how much we really can even know. They make us question if reality (from the human perspective) is as we perceive it, or if it is merely a construct of consciousness.

  • Corey McMahon

    One “big” idea that has changed the way I think about the world is Nassim Taleb’s notion of “black swan”-type events.

    The gist of the idea is that history is dominated by a small number of high impact events, that these events are not predictable before the fact (because of stochasticism), and that because of biological limitations in the way our minds compute probabilities and deal with randomness, we’re incapable of truly understanding this when making decisions about the future.

    Interestingly his work incorporates many of ideas you’ve listed above: evolution (stochastic tinkering), probabilistic models, efficiency in the markets, physical limits to knowledge (heuristics and biases) as well as philosophical limits to knowledge (uncomputability).

    Recommended reading:

    http://www.amazon.com/Fooled-R

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Blac

    http://www.amazon.com/Antifrag

  • Franklin Chen

    There are so many things everyone should know… maybe there should be an educational curriculum based on these as a kernel, rather than the random assortment of disconnected busywork that school often seems to be.

    Just off the top of my head, a few here (I could come up with a dozen more at least):

    – Newton’s theory of gravity, revolutionary because who would have thought that our jumping up and coming back down has anything to do with the earth going around the sun?
    – basics of the theory of universal computation (and I would unify this with Gödel’s work, and actually elide Gödel in favor of the mathematically equivalent Turing halting theorem)

  • Trent Fowler

    Polymath extraordinaire Eric Raymond actually discussed this in a blog post on Generative Science, his word for scientific ideas whose concepts enable a person to understand other fields in greater detail. The idea is that all scientific and philosophical ideas are worth learning about, but if your goal is to attain broad understanding, some ideas should be prioritized. Mathematics, physics, economics, and evolutionary biology were his top picks, as ideas from these will shed light on ideas from other fields.

    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=4139

  • Joshua Skaja

    Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The act of measuring alters the thing being measured.

  • Jim Stone

    I would also say that an understanding of market efficiency should be supplemented with an understanding of the main critiques of Capitalism. I wish those on the left would understand the former more, and that those on the right would understand the latter more.

  • Anthony Pak

    When I started reading your post, I immediately thought of “System Dynamics”, which is sometimes associated with “Systems Thinking”. My first exposure to these concepts were from Electrical Engineering, looking at feedback loops, stocks, flows, and time delays. I later read Donella Meadow’s book “Thinking in Systems”, which showed how these concepts could model many different types of systems including ecological, economic, and population.

    In one of the last chapters of the book, she used some System Dynamics concepts to describe her “12 Leverage Points – Places to intervene within systems”. It’s essentially a ranked list on how you can have the greatest impact in a system. After being exposed to these concepts, I see stocks, flows, feedback loops, and delays everywhere in the world.

    Wikipedia article on System Dynamics
    http://www.donellameadows.org/

    12 Leverage Points
    http://www.donellameadows.org/

  • Sex Beast

    Mystery’s Pickup artist … I mean … that guy is great man . Mystery can explain stuff like no one else . Peacock theory is mind boggling , I’ve study it for a long time !!

  • mat

    Probably the constructal law, which is quite recent and applies to many fields (biology, geophysics, human sciences, economy, …).

  • Radhika

    Basic statistics and probability, at least an introductory course. I’m currently taking this course, and the relevance to real life is outstanding. If people took the time to learn and apply these things, gambling would firstly be less of an issue, and consumers would be more aware of the corporate scams. Statistics helps assess value (monetarily and otherwise) to objects, events, etc.

    This wasn’t very articulate, as I haven’t exactly completed the course yet or have achieved mastery in this discipline of Statistics, but I still believe it is important.

  • Iulia

    Very interesting article (as always!), I’ll have to read some more about those. I was thinking the Pareto Principle is good to know too, it applies to so many things!

  • jack

    great post! great thoughts! great examples as well! i will have to sit down and think about some concepts later, but i just wanted to say this is a great idea for a post, and i hope that others follow in your footsteps and post concepts of their own. however, i do think that these ‘intellectual ideas’/concepts deserve more than a paragraph excerpt. you should pick atleast one that you feel most strongly about and actually go into detail about how this has influenced your perspective on the world. give us some specifics on what the theory says and how it can be applied in other realms. that way, if we arent familiar with what concept the person is talking about, we will be able get an idea about it and decide whether or not to learn about it on our own.

    thanks for posting!

  • Christian

    For me the #1 will be Systems Thinking. I learned a lot about populations, human body functions, grasped economy’s working, politics and mass media with this framework in mind.

    • Meadows, Donella: Thinking in Systems
    • books by: Luhmann, Niklas

  • Andy

    Social psychological results relating to conformity and authority like those of Solomon Asch (line length experiment) and Stanley Milgram (teacher/learner electrical shock experiment). You might include this in the bias/heuristics or signalling category, but I think they merit separate mention for how striking the results are. Also worth noting: the conformity effects largely disappear in people who are educated about the effects!

  • Christian Kleineidam

    Chaos Theory:
    You can’t understand a complex system if you just understand how all the parts fit together. You actually have to study the complex system.

    A lot of people with a reductionist worldview fail to understand the idea.

    Cybernetics:
    Trying to understand things on the system level is good.

  • Beauford Dalaroo

    Automaticity and Social Intelligence

    http://homepages.abdn.ac.uk/c….

    This is the link to Bargh and Chartrand’s concise and rhetorically effective demonstration that your perception and thoughts are automated.

    Sam Harris’ book Free Will uses the concept of automaticity to show how free will is an illusion and damaging to our views concerning responsibility and empathy.

    http://socialintelligencelab.c

    This links to an interesting project combining economics with psychology to study our collective intelligence. Personally, I push the theory of social intelligence to claim that individually, we’re idiots; collectively, we are intelligent.

  • JB

    Now these are the kind of posts I like to see!

    Approximations & Applied Mathematics

    http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/mat

    Not really an idea but the use of science and mathematics gives you powerful tools to do really cool stuff that couldn’t be done otherwise. I took this course for self-study and I found incredibly enjoyable and useful for actually testing out ideas I have in the real world. Someone defined mathematics as “making the invisible, visible” and this course is a first step into seeing the abstract part of nature.

    *Note: this course requires 1st year calculus and physics

  • Brandon Horn

    I’d second every one of the ideas presented so far, but being a computer guy, I’d have to say that one of the most important fundamental skills I ever learned was functional decomposition. It may be a bit on the basic side for this discussion – but the ability to break down any problem into smaller steps is arguably as important as the ability to read. (Not to malign the Chaos Theory suggestion – but I think the prevalence of people who see a problem and just give up is way higher than those who use reductionism to oversimplify a complex problem.)

    I’d probably also expand the Bayes’ Rule to include more probability and statistics. Being able to understand the relative likelihoods of things like “dying in terrorist attack” vs “dying in an automobile accident” vs “dying by vending machine” would hopefully dramatically improve decision making.

    Thanks a ton for the pointer to Godel – I’d heard of the theorem and given it a glance, but never the deeper analysis it seems to deserve, and so far the rabbit hole is most intriguing. (Mmm… red pills are tasty…)

    Other ideas that have messed with my head of late (and that I wish more people knew about):

    Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem – basically a mathematical proof of the old adage “you can’t please all the people all the time” – it has dramatic (and often depressing to me) connotations for social preference functions and the role of society and government.

    Hume’s Is-Ought Problem – I’ve been wrestling with this one for quite a while, and while I’m still not sure I totally grok the idea, it certainly wreaks havoc with my search for a normative ethical system.

  • Josh

    The basic workings of a computer and programming:

    I think that once you understand these things, you can see that much of it applies to areas like management, construction, scheduling, and planning.

    Computers are so complex that it is impossible to do things like write a website without several “layers of abstraction”. What we get from these is to be able to write an application without having to worry about what is happening in the binary or the logic circuits. We can write a web application without having to worry (too much) about how the information is going to be split into packets and sent to client computers.

    Likewise, we can work in different layers of abstraction. We can write a paper (or blog post) without having to worry about spelling every word correctly. After that, we can step down a layer of abstraction and spellcheck.

    Learning programming is a very good life skill, I believe. When programming, you learn about offloading work to other parts of the program.

    If you’re writing a program to calculate the balance of several bank accounts with compound interest, you don’t want to have to write out statements to calculate interest and add it to the balance for each account. All you want to do is get the current balance and interest rate and give it to someone else to do all the work. In programming, this is known as calling a function (or class or method depending on the language). In life, that’s called delegating. No one wants to have to micro-manage, and no one wants to be controlled by a micro-manager.

  • Lucas

    There have been monster discussions on this topic on MetaFilter. I was browsing them yesterday and quickly filled a giant amazon wishlist of books.

    http://ask.metafilter.com/1844

    And (the most favorited MeFi discussion of all time):

    http://ask.metafilter.com/7110

  • Momo

    SUPERB POST!!

    Love this. Perhaps do a similar post for programming/hacking?

    For Economics I would suggest Kham Academy’s Economics videos (https://www.khanacademy.org/sc… and Mankiw’s Principles Of Economics. These two resources will give you all the fundamental ideas of Economics in a fun and easy to understand way.

  • Spaulding

    Good list.

    Add the Scientific Method and Logical Fallacies, maybe some psychology.

  • Jim Stone

    Hi Scott. I agree that Bayes Theorem, Evolution, and biases and heuristics should be in there. Your other suggestions are good, too, though I’m not sure how useful Godel’s theorem is — as you conceded 🙂

    I would add a few:
    1. Hume’s dictum that “is” does not imply “ought” (the Naturalistic Fallacy).
    2. The notion that correlation does not imply causation. (We hear this all the time. Yet we still get drawn in when someone presents a graph with two parallel trends with nothing but the suggestion that one factor caused the other)
    3. People should spend time watching random time series and get a feel for randomness, and how easy it is to mistake noise for signal. Signal is much more difficult to come by than we would like — especially when testing hypotheses in the health fields. We should really respect the null hypothesis much more than we do.)
    4. Wittgenstein’s dictum that meaning is determined by use not reference (except with names) helps us muddle through a lot of verbal disputes that don’t have much substance. (It’s also related to understanding human communication in terms of signalling).
    5. The relationship between fractal branching processes, power laws, and the Pareto principle.

  • Josh

    What about determinism vs. free will? Check out Sam Harris’ book or search for one of his YouTube talks about it.

    http://www.amazon.com/Free-Wil

  • dag

    I highly disagree with you (what is extremely rare).

    Since some years ago I’m getting to know how similar things are, so a single concept can shape many ideas which seem different. And they’re actually different, but you can think through them once you understand the concept they stem from. I’m more convinced each year that lots of thinks are understandable if you really grasp the original concept (LOTS, not just a handful). Of course, you’ll still need to know something about each field, but nobody expects miracles!

    I’ll try to explain it very briefly with and example I know well. It’s the concept of ‘rhythm’.

    I learned this concept in an academical way while studying my bachelor in architecture, though it’s true it was fully taught to me in private classes instead of getting it from the university. It’s more difficult to domain than what people think, and it has a lot of subtleties. Mind you, once I could fully grasp the concept, I was also able to apply it to poetry in my own way. Architecture and poetry are way different… in their ways of expression, but some of the artistic and even structural concepts are shared. What is more, I could apply the concept to the guitar, even though I’m not good at it and my knowledge of music is tiny. Because of it I can’t ‘explore’ the concept in music, but I think I can ‘understand’ it, and it’d surely help me if I was interested in developing my musical skills.

    Anyway, online platform Coursera offers a course about Game Theory. I’m not familiar with the concept. Is it really worthwhile?

  • dag

    I’ve read again the introduction of your article and I think you may misunderstand my previous post. Perhaps the concept of rhythm is mostly tied to arts, but there’re others which are not. The way of managing an idea, I mean, the mind control over the idea and the will and method needed to develop it properly is the same, no matter if we’re talking about arts, studying History following a specific concept or theory, designing a television or starting to run a bussiness.

  • Alex Vermeer

    The procrastination equation, a summary of the sources of human motivation, is a big one for me. I thoroughly enjoyed Piers Steel’s book by the same name.

    > Bayes’ Rule . . . although the implications of this snippet of mathematics may take you years to unravel.

    So true.

  • Shawn

    Basics of temperature, pressure and volume and how they interact. These three variables provide the base for human survival, as well as being part of our everyday lives in cooking and machines. They also inform the processes that drive our Sun and give the wide range of sizes, compositions and environments in our Solar System, as well as the universe beyond.

  • Sean

    Epigenetics. It’s still a brand new field, and new research is being done all the time. Basically, it’s the idea that a person’s environment can affect their gene expression. These genetic markers have also been found to be hereditary (the article I read was about smoking and how genetic markers caused by smoking were still present in the germ cells 20 years after the person had quit).

    I think this is a powerful idea. Not only does it refine society’s understanding of what role genes play in our lives, but also how we can influence our genetic expression by controlling our environment. While people can and are genetically predisposed to certain traits, epigenetics suggests that we have more control over our gene expression than we think. By changing one’s habits, that person can change what genes that are expressed, and possibly even what genetic markers they pass to their children.

    As I said above, it’s a new area of research, and one I am not an expert in. But I think it’s a fascinating area of research that lends itself nicely to the idea of self-improvement.

  • Mike

    I think two things have been left off the list that are incredibly important.

    * Statistics
    I don’t know anyone who has every looked forward to taking a statistics course, but understanding that “people who do X are 50% more likely to get stomach cancer” can be an essentially meaningless and not scary statement is important. Understanding that causation and correlation are different (but not exclusive, as the internet seems to think these days) is important.

    * Probability
    Even the basics of this can help understand things that are built upon it, like Evolution.

    As for Game Theory, yes, absolutely essential because it’s counterintuitive stuff at first, and then when it clicks into place, you see how your thinking has been biased by people who want to make things easy to understand.

  • George Millo

    I absolutely second the recommendations for evolutionary theory and economics. I don’t think I can exaggerate just how much studying those two fields has shaped my thinking and the way I view the world. And I think Economics in One Lesson should be compulsory reading for everyone of voting age.

    Two very simple ideas I think everyone should be aware of are the Moralistic Fallacy and the Naturalistic Fallacy. They’re incredibly simple concepts to get your head around and it’s just sad how many people (including people in powerful or influential positions) constantly violate them.

    Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N

    Or Ryan Holiday had a nice short post about them years ago:
    http://www.ryanholiday.net/wis

  • Ryan T

    I would say in the idea of a heirarchy of evidence and clinical trials basics in regard to medicine. Besides being essential in contextualizing health information, it completely changed my understanding of evidence in academic fields in general. And of course, an understanding of certain topics in statistics (a topic mentioned in the previous suggestions) is necessary to go in depth in this topic as well.

    some links to get started:
    http://www.ebmpyramid.org/samp
    http://www.badscience.net/
    http://www.testingtreatments.o
    http://www.plosmedicine.org/ar

    excellent book on the progress in the topic http://www.amazon.com/Taking-M

  • Juan Alonso

    – The idea of measuring something is to reduce our uncertainty, not to get an exact answer. Anything that has an impact will change reality in some way, and, therefore, become measurable.
    – If something can’t be measured then it doesn’t matter. It’s easy to make suboptimal decisions when faced with objectives that involve soft concepts that are traditionally thought to be hard to measure like quality, happiness.

    These are two of the most valuable ideas that I have recently faced. For more information read “How to Measure Anything” by Douglas W. Hubbard.

  • Ian Warburton

    How about some Zen?

  • Gambler

    One of my favorite posts Scott!

    Coolidge effect, Honeymoon period, bonding behaviors and Karezza
    If you are or want to be in a monogamous relationship these concepts are TOTALLY CRUCIAL! Otherwise you will probably (statistics don’t lie and nobody who gets married wants to end up divorced) break up with your partner / divorce or if you are religious, you will stay and live together, but feel unhappy.
    Myself I am single and I find those concepts to be of great value to me as well.

    Sources:
    book Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow by Marnia Robinson
    her website: http://reuniting.info/
    site of her husband: http://yourbrainonporn.com/

  • Luiza

    When I read the title I though: Pareto’s Law!
    The 80/20 concept can be adapted to virtually anything.
    I even have my own Pareto’s Law adaptation to my life. As I work in science field, it is related to the number of experiments you do and the number of results the yield to you. So in short: 20% of your experiments will represent 80% of your results. Therefore (and sadly, but this actually happens) only 1/5 of your experiments will be usefull and used on a research paper.
    Now, you could consider expanding each of these topics on your blog, since the references you gave are already too especialized and not reachable for someone that is outside that particular field.
    Congratulations for the post!
    Luiza.

  • Sam

    Nietzsche’s “Death of God” as it is a cornerstone of modern philosophical writing and much of current intellectualism. Really a turning point in Western thought.

  • JL

    Great post once again. I would suggest adding an understanding of series (especially infinite series) to the list. I dont think an understanding of series will help you much with your day to day life. But an understanding of series will open many doors to understanding some very useful concepts.

  • GM

    A good intro to Gödel and why it is important (applied to the startup world) is http://skibinsky.com/godel-inc

  • Ari

    I would recommend to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Benoit Mandelbrot books about fractals.

    From the Wikipedia page of Mandelbrot,

    “Nassim Nicholas Taleb states that Mandelbrot “had perhaps more cumulative influence than any other single scientist in history, with the only close second, Isaac Newton”. Taleb adds, “He was the only teacher I ever had, the only person for whom I have had intellectual respect. But there was something else that made him magnetic: he was a raconteur with a profound sense of historical context….”

  • Noemie

    What about Lavoisier? – father of modern chemistry
    “Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme”.
    For those who don’t speak French, it translates to”Nothing is lost, nothing is created, all is transformed. “

  • Yael, Tel Aviv

    I second Epigenetics, and add `the central theory in biology`: DNA>RNA>Proteins. If I had to summarize the single most imprtant idea from 1st year of Biology B.Sc., it would be that path. Many people are often confused when it come to talking about DNA, and clearing things about how that process works is important. After saying that, the concept of epigenetics builds on top, explaining how different things in our body and our lives effect this path.

    Besides that, I would add string theory. Not because it has been proven, but because of the outstanding implications it has (in the philosopical, even theological fields), meaning how everything is trully one and the same.

  • RT Wolf

    Great post. I learned this idea from Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, who said that 80-90 big ideas help explain the world.

    Personally, I’m going to offer something different from everyone else’s science/math based answers ate point out a psychological/ontological mental model: http://www.mind-manual.com/blo

    In short: we normally see the world as being made up of objects because we are the children of the enlightenment. But stories, our bodies and our ancestors saw the world as being made up of order and chaos, predictability and uncertainty. I’ve taken three years and I’m still finding ways this applies to the world around me.

  • Alex

    There are two ideas I haven’t mastered, but are intellectually important to how I understand the world.

    1. “The Medium is the Message” by Marshall McCluhan. His insight was that technology is an extension of the human body; thus, we evolve through our technology. The car is an extension of the foot, so with the invention of the car, our perception of the world changes – humans change. (More concretely, language is a technology that guides perception). With electric media (like TV and the Internet), people are transformed from the printing age such that intellectual and public events become felt simultaneously, in comparison with the printing age when the private perspective handled these things. These insights are important for understanding the difference in people who lived in the past, as well as for charting how the world will change in the future.

    2. The Unschooling Critique of School by John Holt. Holt contends that because compulsory school exists, learning is perceived by most people to be separate from regular life, and that it is a commodity “you get” rather than a process you do. His critique is a concrete example of a greater principle, which is that a shadow always exists. Because you have have something, there must be something you don’t. Coca-Cola cannot be both “classic” -and- “young” because to be one is to forgo the other. Any institution involves this sort of tradeoff, and being aware of this tradeoff helps one see beyond how institutions currently exist.

    Marshall McCluhan – http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.c
    John Holt – http://www.swaraj.org/shikshan….

  • Eng Wen

    Feynmann suggested that the most important thing to know to reconstruct modern scientific knowledge is this: that stuff is made of atoms.

  • Pablo

    Right now, as a student in business engineering, some of the ones that have impacted me the most are Systems Thinking (read: http://www.amazon.de/The-Art-i… by Frederic Vester). It opens your mind to analyzing reality as a whole and seeing the connections before you take deterministic actions. You realize that the way to solve a problem long term (key term: sustainability) may not be the most obvious one, because when you affect something in a system it changes other variables as well, and the key is to make a system stable instead of growing out of control (think the problems that we face due to an exponential growing economy (partially introduced by A.Smith), that cannot be sustained on the long run.)

    The second one is the Problem Solving Cycle. Similarly, it’s a set of steps you go through to analyze and solve a problem (where it makes sense) methodically instead of approaching it chaotically in order to improve your chances of getting better results. One little aspect of project management, I think applicable practically everywhere.

    Then, I must say psychology and biology are big influencing factors for me for the context of our life. Understanding our “genes”, our biological characteristics as humans and our psychological needs helps us understand why we do what we do the way we do it. Ultimately, we perceive reality through our own lens, through our senses, the ways our brains function, our capacities as humans. So learning about our context gives us a better understanding to explain a lot of reality or how to deal with things or why we do what we do.

  • GammaRay

    I like the idea of limits in Calculus. Basically, with limits, you are saying that you don’t really know what is going on at some distant point, so you will approximate by observing what is happening when you are near that point or as you approach that point.

  • Rosie

    I like Hobson’s choice – life has a habit of designing choices as no choices

    I like every action has a reaction – whether its molecular or part of our life

    Da vinci – took maths to art by dividing the body parts into mathematical ratios of each other. In order to draw a perfectly proportioned person .

  • Stephen Bank

    The Euthyphro Dilemma: Does God want us to act morally because it would be moral, or do we have to act morally because God wants us to.

    That might sound arcane, but I think it’s extremely important to how we should see the world. If you believe in God, then it forces you to come up with some non-religious foundation for morality. If you don’t believe in God, it makes you realize that God wasn’t essential for morality to begin with, and your atheism is orthogonal to moral skepticism.

    Collective Action Problems: I realize that this would fall under the general heading of game theory, but I think they’re important independently of concerns about signalling (which is also very important!) If you don’t understand collective action problems, you won’t really understand traffic, pollution, evolution, political institutions, et cetera.

    Theory of the Firm: Corporations are a huge part of our lives and our society. They’re also really weird. I don’t mean that in a positive or negative way. I just mean that economics 101 doesn’t explain why or how corporations would come to exist. When you realize that’s a problem, and you understand that firms probably exist to solve market failures, it changes how you see corporations completely.

    The Golden Rule: I hear this a pretty good thing to know as well.

  • 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.

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