A few days after Hurricane Katrina erased the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I traveled down there in a truck with my uncle and aunt-in-law to help them salvage what they could from their home.

They lived close to the beach, just off the highway that runs parallel to the ocean through Gulfport, Biloxi, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, and Waveland. Katrina ravaged them all, tossing boats into neighborhoods, trees into houses, and houses into the streets. At the minimum, if you lived there, your home took in a few feet of the Gulf of Mexico leaving behind a crusty imprint on the lower half of your walls and deposits of goop on your toilets and in your bathtub. Looking at the imprint, you could rewind the events in your head based on the height of the water line. Beneath that line, everything was ruined, all piled up in the kitchen or the living room or in a hallway closet through some strange quirk of physics.

Before we had names for them or a science to study their impact, the people who could claim the most expertise on biases, fallacies, heuristics and all the other recently popularized quirks of human reasoning were scam artists, con artists, and magicians.

On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we discuss the folk practitioners of cognitive science with magician and scam expert Brian Brushwood. In the conversation, we explore a wide-range of ideas from how card tricks can be a gateway to better critical thinking to why most psychics end up tricking themselves into believing in their own bullshit. We also discuss why people fall for scams of all sizes, how to avoid them, and why most magicians can spot a fraudster a mile away.

Is psychology too WEIRD?

That’s what this episode’s guest, psychologist Steven J. Heine, suggested when he and his colleagues published a paper revealing that psychology wasn’t the study of the human mind, but the study of one kind of human mind, the sort of mind generated by the kinds of brains that happen to be conveniently located near the places where research is usually conducted.

When you hear about “subjects” in a psychology paper, those subjects are almost always North American college undergraduates or students from Australia or the UK, members of a cohort many scientists now label as the WEIRDest people in the world, short for Western, Education, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic – the kind of people who make up less than 15 percent of the world’s population.

In the late 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman was a graduate student working on an unexplored aspect of behaviorism.

Psychology had already tapped into the power of rewards and punishments to shape behavior, and conditioning as a whole was coming into sharp focus, but Seligman and his colleagues wondered if learning in this way could be sped up through preparation.

You’ve likely seen this idea portrayed in movies. In the Karate Kid, for instance, our hero spends weeks sanding the floors and waxing the car of his sensei thinking it is all some kind of endurance and frustration test to see if is willing to stick around and learn sweet martial arts moves. When Mr. Miyagi finally started teaching him how to block punches and kicks, Daniel-san was able to learn those techniques rapidly because all that boring, repetitive busywork had prepared his body to make similar motions.

Seligman wondered if an animal could be prepared to learn something before it actually experienced the learning process. The hypothesis was that if you prepared an animal ahead of time, it would learn faster than if you had not. To explore this, his team did a sort of Pavlovian exercise in which they played a tone and then shocked dogs with electricity so that those animals would learn to connect the tone to the experience. The idea was that in the future those dogs could be conditioned more easily than dogs that had never been taught to fear electric shocks after hearing a sound. This is, of course, not something that would happen in a modern lab. Psychology is a lot less cruel and creepy now. But be warned, the next stage was even more more cruel and more creepy.

From Dilbert to Fight Club to Joe Versus the Volcano, the world of white-collar drones and managerial ineptitude has long been a goldmine for parody.

The soul-sucking details are so ubiquitous and familiar that in addition to the British and the American versions of The Office, there are also versions in Chile, France, Germany, Israel and Sweden – there’s even a version just for French-Canadians. Each is shades apart, reflecting the differences in culture, but each is also broadly similar in making light of the drudgery and silliness that comes from spending your waking hours hovering near a computer and taking your lunch at your desk.