How to Learn More Effectively Through Social Learning

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Extended Mind" by Annie Murphy Paul. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Want to know how to learn more effectively? How can you use social learning to improve your skills?

According to Annie Murphy Paul, one way to learn more effectively is by engaging more intentionally with our social relationships. In The Extended Mind, she claims that we can become stronger thinkers by imitating others and bonding with a team.

Keep reading to learn more about how to learn more effectively, according to Paul’s advice.

Learning More Effectively With Others

If you imagine a genius scientist or philosopher, you may picture someone sitting alone, lost in thought, slowly formulating their world-changing ideas entirely in their head. However, truly effective thinking could look very different. In The Extended Mind, science writer Annie Murphy Paul argues that by engaging intentionally with our social relationships, we can access more sophisticated and productive forms of thought. If you want to know how to learn more effectively, Paul suggests two strategies for enhancing your thinking with the help of other people: imitating others and bonding with a team.

In this article, we’ll describe these two strategies for learning more effectively by leveraging your social relationships, based on the advice in Paul’s book, The Extended Mind.

Learn by Imitating Others

If you want to learn more effectively or accomplish a goal, Paul suggests closely imitating a highly skilled expert. Humans are naturally proficient imitators: As children, we learn everything about navigating the world by imitating those around us. Thus, imitating an established expert is one of the most effective ways to learn and succeed.

Strategic imitation involves more than mimicking exactly what someone else does—most of the time, imitation requires you to interpret experts’ actions and adjust them to suit your specific situation. To do this effectively, you must understand not only what the experts do but also why they’re doing it.

For example, if you want to become a sci-fi screenwriter, Paul might suggest writing a story that imitates Star Wars. If you just imitate it superficially and write a story about a farmer named Luke who befriends robots, your movie probably won’t be very good—because you don’t understand why Star Wars succeeded. However, if you dig deeper and imitate the qualities that make Luke Skywalker a compelling character, your story will be more likely to succeed.

According to Paul, once you master this kind of imitation, you can learn from a wide range of experts in fields that aren’t obviously connected to your work. For instance, if you’re elected to public office, you could study how successful investors decide which companies to bet on to learn how to make high-stakes decisions.

(Shortform note: In Range, David Epstein argues that the more superficially unrelated an analogical case study is (while still matching your situation at a deeper level), the more likely it is to spark creative, useful ideas. For example, if you’re elected to public office, you may want to study the decision-making of record label talent scouts or professional Magic: The Gathering players—something as far away from your role as possible, while still incorporating decision-making elements.)

When Imitating, Don’t Be Fooled by Randomness

It’s more difficult than it seems to learn by imitation. One reason for this is that you can never know for certain which decisions led to someone’s success. In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we vastly underestimate the amount of randomness at play in the world; thus, when we see someone achieve wild success, it’s typically due more to luck than skill. When one person succeeds in a given field, we fail to consider the many more people who made the same decisions and still failed due to bad luck—this is a mental error called survivorship bias. Imitating these “experts” can lead us to copy useless behaviors and unwittingly overestimate how likely we are to succeed.

With this in mind, Taleb argues that success is more about mitigating the risks of failure than copying the skills of experts. To mitigate risks, first, recognize that anything you assume to be true might be totally incorrect. You can still try to deduce the deeper purpose behind experts’ decisions; just don’t be overconfident in your interpretations and consequently take unnecessary risks. Second, anticipate rare, random events as if they’re bound to happen. Because people underestimate the probability of improbable or “impossible” events, you can find success by being one of the few to correctly predict it.

Learn by Bonding With a Team

Finally, Paul explains that we can learn more effectively by bonding with a team. Our neurobiology changes drastically when we see ourselves as part of a group of people like us, in ways that often make it easier to accomplish goals. When you’re sufficiently bonded, you’ll have an easier time communicating with teammates, empathizing with them, and learning from them. When you’re in the same room as a team and working together to accomplish a task, that task feels more important, and you’ll deploy more focused attention to accomplish it.

(Shortform note: Although bonding with a team has many benefits, as Paul details, it also has a dark side. In The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo describes how humans’ morals are drastically shaped by their immediate surroundings. In particular, we instinctively sacrifice our individual morals to satisfy the expectations of those around us, especially those we see as part of the same group as us. Thus, while bonding with a team is a good way to learn more effectively, it can also make you less likely to protest if the group wants you to do something immoral. Stay aware of this risk, and if necessary, leave your group to find one that shares your morals.)

There are many ways you can form these bonds with others—Paul asserts that just about anything that makes it feel like your team is one entity will activate your group-oriented cognitive skills. For example, you’ll naturally feel closer to your team if you all take your lunch breaks together or agree to wear casual attire on Fridays.

(Shortform note: In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek claims that as a leader, you can promote this kind of productive, fulfilling group bonding by demonstrating to your subordinates that you’re putting their needs over your own. This is because the root of group bonding is the neurochemical oxytocin, which your brain releases when it senses that you can trust the people around you. Showing those around you that they can trust you gives them oxytocin, which encourages them to be more empathetic to their fellow team members. This creates a chain reaction of group bonding.)

How to Learn More Effectively Through Social Learning

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Annie Murphy Paul's "The Extended Mind" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Extended Mind summary:

  • Why you don't need to withdraw into your mind to achieve optimal cognition
  • Cognitive strategies and habits that will help you better understand complex ideas
  • How gesturing with your hands helps you think better

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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