Sequence vs. cluster thinking

Sequence thinking and cluster thinking are two contrasting approaches to thinking about decisions. Holden Karnofsky, who introduced the distinction, characterizes the contrast as follows:[1]

Sequence thinking involves making a decision based on a single model of the world: breaking down the decision into a set of key questions, taking one’s best guess on each question, and accepting the conclusion that is implied by the set of best guesses (an excellent example of this sort of thinking is Robin Hanson’s discussion of cryonics). It has the form: “A, and B, and C … and N; therefore X.” Sequence thinking has the advantage of making one’s assumptions and beliefs highly transparent, and as such it is often associated with finding ways to make counterintuitive comparisons.

Cluster thinking – generally the more common kind of thinking – involves approaching a decision from multiple perspectives (which might also be called “mental models”), observing which decision would be implied by each perspective, and weighing the perspectives in order to arrive at a final decision. Cluster thinking has the form: “Perspective 1 implies X; perspective 2 implies not-X; perspective 3 implies X; … therefore, weighing these different perspectives and taking into account how much uncertainty I have about each, X.” Each perspective might represent a relatively crude or limited pattern-match (e.g., “This plan seems similar to other plans that have had bad results”), or a highly complex model; the different perspectives are combined by weighing their conclusions against each other, rather than by constructing a single unified model that tries to account for all available information.

Further reading

Karnofsky, Holden (2014) Sequence thinking vs. cluster thinking, The GiveWell Blog, June 10 (updated 25 July 2016).

decision theory | epistemology | model uncertainty

  1. ^

    Karnofsky, Holden (2014) Sequence thinking vs. cluster thinking, The GiveWell Blog, June 10 (updated 25 July 2016).