Attention to Detail [CF Article]

1 Like

People have done research for chess piece location memory. They put chess pieces on a board and let expert chess players and non-players look at the position briefly and try to remember what went where. For positions that are similar to real chess positions, the chess players perform much better. They have a big advantage and memory and attention to detail. But if the chess pieces are in random places on the board that look unrealistic for a chess game, then the expert chess players only remember about the same amount as other people. (I got this information from a chess expert talking about it in a chess video. I’m going by memory. The non-players might have been poor players who are familiar with the pieces. I don’t know who said it in which video, and I have not found or fact checked the original research.) Even great chess players, who devote their life to the game, struggle to remember exact details of chess pieces on a chess board when they aren’t given much time and the locations don’t fit patterns they’re used to. Memory is hard without either a bunch of time and effort or else some triggers, pattern recognition or other aids.

I think the research on chess you’re referring to was described in the book “Thought and Choice in Chess” by Adriaan de Groot. The experiments are described starting on p. 87 and they involved chess players with different levels of skill.

Is what I said OK or problematic when compared to the book? Besides it being experts and weak players.

What you said is okay compared to the book. The book includes a lot of discussion of thinking about chess not just memory of chess positions. The description of the memory results is in Section 61 on pp. 321-335.


Paying attention to detail is a process of observation. Observation is theory-laden. The available details depend on the knowledge being available. The key to good attention is in finding good detail selection criteria. Errors include missing important details and paying attention to wrong details. Common practical errors include focusing on the details involving social status or aspects of one’s own feelings and surroundings. Memory triggers can include pattern recognition (like chess positions) or logical progression in the order things (like a philosophical argument).

  • Practice can improve memory
  • Effectiveness of practice depends on frequency, reviewing and error checking
  • Two common error attention to detail errors: looking for gotchas (wrong details) and focus on big, deep, “interesting” ideas (missing important details)
  • Good long-term memory relies on organization of ideas into sections with sub-sections
  • Good attention to detail requires subconscious automatizations
  • The conscious mind needs support like notes or the subconscious

Getting good at attention to detail means convincing yourself that details matter. Having good attention to detail is similar to have a good thinking methodology. Good thinking methods make a bigger difference in the long-run than becoming persuaded by a few great ideas.

Regarding people wanting to talk about fancy, advanced, “deep”, “interesting” stuff:

From Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feyman! (italics and probably paragraph breaks missing):

After the dinner we went off into another room, where there were different conversations going on. There was a Princess Somebody of Denmark sitting at a table with a number of people around her, and I saw an empty chair at their table and sat down. She turned to me and said, “Oh! You’re one of the Nobel-Prize-winners. In what field did you do your work?” “In physics,” I said. “Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can’t talk about it.” “On the contrary,” I answered. “It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!” I don’t know how they do it. There’s a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it! She turned to talk to somebody else. After a while I could tell I was completely cut out of the conversation, so I got up and started away. The Japanese ambassador, who was also sitting at that table, jumped up and walked after me. “Professor Feynman,” he said, “there is something I should like to tell you about diplomacy.” He went into a long story about how a young man in Japan goes to the university and studies international relations because he thinks he can make a contribution to his country. As a sophomore he begins to have slight twinges of doubt about what he is learning. After college he takes his first post in an embassy and has still more doubts about his understanding of diplomacy, until he finally realizes that nobody knows anything about international relations. At that point, he can become an ambassador! “So Professor Feynman,” he said, “next time you give examples of things that everybody talks about that nobody knows about, please include international relations!”

Most people want philosophy to be a subject nobody knows anything about so they can say whatever and don’t have to actually learn a bunch of stuff. It’s different than e.g. physics where you have to learn a bunch of stuff in order to do it. (Though you can have armchair conversations about some aspects of quantum physics, without doing math or actually learning physics. Some people like that. Books like The Fabric of Reality encourage it and there was tons of it on the email list for that book.)

People who want to do fancy conversations without learning anything pick hard subjects with little standard, existing knowledge, on purpose, so it’s very hard to objectively correct them and say they are wrong about anything. Whereas with e.g. arithmetic or grammar, if they make a mistake, it can be clearly pointed out.