YANSS 042 – Reducing Unconscious Biases and Prejudices With Rubber Hands and Virtual Reality

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The Topic: Bodily Resonance

The Guest: Lara Maister

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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One of the more unsettling recent scientific discoveries is the fact that your behavior is influenced every day by unwanted, unconscious social and cultural biases.

Sure, you accept that some people think in certain ways that you don’t because they’ve absorbed cultural norms that you didn’t, but what about your own mind? It can seem as if once you’ve recognized your own contributions to racism and privilege you should then be able to proceed with a clean slate, rebooted with the awareness of your own ignorance, but free from it.

The evidence suggests it isn’t that easy. The desire alone doesn’t seem to remove prejudice from your thoughts and actions. In experiments where subjects were asked to identify an image within two seconds and to mark it as either a gun or a tool, subjects were much more likely to mistake tools for guns if they first saw a black face before making the call. If shown a white face beforehand, those same people made the mistake in reverse, mislabeling guns as tools. In another line of research, scientists found that people trying to make fair and unbiased decisions in the justice system are just as susceptible. Those researchers wrote that in court cases “involving a white victim, the more stereotypically black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.”

The seeds of bigotry and xenophobia were planted in your brain long ago, and though you can consciously desire to be unbiased when it comes to race, religion, age, politics, and all the other social phenomena that glom people together – those things have already molded the synaptic landscape in your head. Undoing that in an effort to reduce prejudice will take time. The good news is that neuroscientists are, right now, working on how that undoing might be accomplished at the individual level.

Lara MaisterIn this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast we sit down with cognitive neuroscientist Lara Maister who has married two fascinating and somewhat bizarre lines of research, one from psychology which reveals the unsettling truth behind hidden racial biases, and another from neuroscience that reveals how easily you transfer feelings of ownership from your familiar flesh onto inanimate objects and virtual-reality models.

Listen as Maister describes how she measured people’s implicit racial attitudes, and then reduced the strength of those unconscious, automatic, undesirable cognitive processes by mentally placing those same subjects in avatars designed to look like members of groups and subcultures to which the subjects did not belong. For those who would like to see less prejudice in the world, the results were equal parts encouraging and trippy.

Can changing your body, even just for a few minutes, change your mind? Can a psychological body transfer melt away your long-held opinions and unconscious prejudices? Maybe so. Learn more about this and other strange psychological phenomena as cognitive neuroscientist Lara Maister describes her unconventional experiments in the latest episode.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about scientists reducing prejudices and unconscious biases through mindfulness meditation.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of the book, “You Are Not So Smart,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Jeszica Rose who submitted a recipe for jeszicookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

jezsicookieLinks and Sources

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Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Changing Bodies Changes Minds: Owning Another Body Affects Social Cognition

Lara Maister’s Research

White More Likely to Misidentify Tools as Guns When Linked to Black Faces 

Split-Second Decisions and Unintended Stereotyping

Looking Deathworthy
Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts
Capital-Sentencing Outcomes

Drunk Tank Pink

Mindfulness Mitigates Biases You May Not Know You Have

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias

The Rubber Hand Illusion – Horizon: Is Seeing Believing?

YANSS 040 – Monkeys, Money, and The Primate Origins of Human Irrationality with Laurie Santos

The Topic: The Monkey Marketplace

The Guest: Laurie Santos

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Monkey Business

Lions love catnip.

They will roll around and lick and do all the things a house cat does when handed a toy filled with the psychedelic kitty-cat plant. Not all big cats are equally susceptible to the plant’s chemical powers, and within a single species some respond more than others, including house cats. I bet it’s a real bummer to learn your pet cat is immune to catnip, but that’s genetics for you.

This cross-species sharing of behaviors among cats goes beyond tripping balls after huffing exotic spices. Big cats from the wilderness, like jaguars and tigers and leopards, exhibit many of the same behaviors you see every day in tiny cats who live in human apartments and backyards around the world. That cute little kneading of the paws? Yep. That weird face rubbing thing. Same. If you’ve been to a zoo and watched big cats at play, you’ve probably noticed many similarities there as well. They share a common ancestor a few million years back, and some things got passed down to both lines in their bodies and in their brains. They aren’t identical though, natural selection tinkered with them separately and got different results, otherwise you’d see more people in the park walking pumas on leashes.

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YANSS 039 – Unconscious learning, knowing without knowing, blind insight and other cognitive wonders with guest Ryan Scott

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The Topic: Blind Insight

The Guest: Ryan Scott

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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What is the capital of Bulgaria? If you don’t know, just take a guess. Seriously, any answer will be fine. Even Bolgonia – I won’t know, just say something so we can move on.

Ok, now, what is the capital of Italy? Are you sure about that?

Now take a moment and think about your own thinking. How confident are you right now that your guesses are correct? Very confident? What about being wrong? Can you feel an intuition about your own wrongness? If so, can you also feel the strength of that intuition? Maybe you don’t feel like one of your answers is a guess at all (especially if you live near Bulgaria). Maybe you feel that way about both answers. If you feel that way, how confident are you that you aren’t guessing and that you know for sure you know what you know and that you know what you know is a fact?

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YANSS 038 – How the Halo Effect Turns Uncertainty into False Certainty

The Topic: The Halo Effect

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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It’s difficult to be certain of much in life.

Not only are you mostly uncertain of what will happen tomorrow, or next year, or in five years, but you often can’t be certain of the correct course of action, the best place for dinner, what kind of person you should be, or whether or not you should quit your job or move to a new city. At best, you are only truly certain of a handful of things at any given time, and aside from mathematical proofs – two apples plus two apples equals four apples (and even that, in some circles, can be debated) – you’ve become accustomed to living a life in a fog of maybes.

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YANSS 037 – Drive, Motivation, and Crowd Control with Daniel Pink

The Topic: Motivation

The Guest: Daniel Pink

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A scene from Office Space - 20th Century Fox

A scene from Office Space – 20th Century Fox

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Why do you work where you work? I mean, specifically, why do you do whatever it is that you do for a living?

I’m pretty sure that you can answer this question. The average person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, spends between 11 and 15 years of his or her life at work. On the high end, that’s about a fifth of your time on Earth as a person capable of enjoying pumpkin pie and movies about robots. That’s a lot of time spent doing something for reasons unknown, so I doubt you would lift your shoulders and offer up open palms of confusion when it comes to this question. I’m just not so sure that the answer you come up with will be correct.

You probably know all about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards and the other behavioral motivations like your basic drives for food, sex, and social acceptance as well as the pursuit of pleasure over pain and the quest for your other emotional needs. You know that intrinsic rewards satisfy these desires directly, while extrinsic rewards are usually tokens you can later trade for satisfaction. So, knowing all of this, it’s likely very easy for you to explain your motivations for attending all those meetings and answering all those emails before putting on all those shoes after shaving all the those places before commuting all those miles. Still, I’m not sure I believe you.

Two of my favorite studies in psychology illustrate why I’m a bit skeptical about your justification for your actions – the story you tell yourself and others when wondering why you do what you do.

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YANSS Podcast 036 – Why We Are Unaware that We Lack the Skill to Tell How Unskilled and Unaware We Are

The Topic: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Guest: David Dunning

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A scene from NBC's "The Office"

A scene from NBC’s “The Office”

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Here’s a fun word to add to your vocabulary: nescience. I ran across it a few months back and kind of fell in love with it.

It’s related to the word prescience, which is a kind of knowing. Prescience is a state of mind, an awareness, that grants you knowledge of the future – about something that has yet to happen or is not yet in existence. It’s a strange idea isn’t it, that knowledge is a thing, a possession, that it stands alone and in proxy for something else out there in reality that has yet to actually…be? Then, the time comes, and the knowledge is no longer alone. Foreknowledge becomes knowledge and now corresponds to a real thing that is true. It is no longer pre-science but just science.

I first learned the word nescience from the book Ignorance and Surprise by Matthias Gross. That book revealed to me that, philosophically speaking, ignorance is a complicated matter. You can describe it in many ways. In that book Gross talks about the difficulties of translating a sociologist named Georg Simmel who often used the word “nichtwissen” in his writing. Gross says that some translations changed that word to nescience and some just replaced it with “not knowing.” It’s a difficult term to translate, he explains, because it can mean a few different things. If you stick to the Latin ins and outs of the word, nescience means non-knowledge, or what we would probably just call ignorance. But Gross writes that in some circles it has a special meaning. He says it can mean something you can’t know in advance, or an unknown unknown, or something that no human being can ever hope to know, something a theologian might express as a thought in the mind of God. For some people, as Gross points out, everything is in the mind of God, so therefore nothing is actually knowable. To those people nescience is the natural state of all creatures and nothing can ever truly be known, not for sure. Like I said, ignorance is a complex concept.

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YANSS Podcast 035 – Sunk Costs and the Pain of Vain

The Topic: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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Every once in a while you will ask yourself, “I wonder if I should quit?”

Should you quit your job? Should you end your relationship? Should you abandon your degree? Should you shut down this project?

These are difficult questions to answer. If you are like me, every time you’ve heard one of those questions emerge in your mind, it lingered. It began to echo right as you woke up and just as pulled the covers over your shoulders. In the shower, waiting in line, in all your quiet moments – a question like that will appear behind your eyes, pulsating like a giant neon billboard until you can work out your decision.

Oddly enough, as a human being, that decision is often not made any easier when quitting is the most logical course of action. Even if it is obvious that it is no longer worth your time to keep going, your desire to plod on and your reluctance to quit are both muddled by an argumentative loop inside which you and many others easily get stuck.

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YANSS Podcast 034 – After This, Therefore Because of This: Your Weird Relationship with Cause and Effect

The Topic: The Post Hoc Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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When I was a boy, I spent my summers with my grandparents. They, like many Southerners, had a farm populated with animals to eat and animals to help. It was everywhere alive with edible plants – fields of corn and cucumbers and peas and butterbeans and peanuts, and throngs of mysterious life from stumps claimed by beds of ants to mushroom fairy rings, living things tending to business without our influence.

Remembering it now, I can see the symmetry of the rows, and the order of the barns, the arrangement of tools, the stockpiles of feed. I remember the care my grandmother took with tomatoes, nudging them along from the soil to the Ball jars she boiled, sealing up the red, seedy swirls under lids surrounded by brass-colored shrink bands. I remember my grandfather erecting dried and gutted gourds on polls so Martins would come and create families above us and we wouldn’t suffer as many mosquito bites when shelling peas under the giant pecan tree we all used for shade.

For me, the wonder of that life, even then, was in how so much was understood about cause and effect, about what was to come if you prepared, took care, made a particular kind of effort. It was as if they borrowed the momentum of the natural world instead of trying to force it one way or the other, like grabbing a passing trolley and hoisting yourself on the back.

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YANSS Podcast 033 – The psychology of forming, keeping, and sometimes changing our beliefs

The Topic: Belief

The Guests: Will Storr, Margaret Maitland, and Jim Alcock

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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Put your right hand on your head. Unless you are near a mirror, you can no longer see your hand, but you know where it is, right? You know what position it is in. You know how far away it is from most of the other things around you. I’m using the word “know,” but that’s just for convenience, because you don’t actually know those things. That is, you can’t be 100 percent certain your hand is on your head. You assume it is, and that’s as good as it is going to get – a best guess. We’ll come back to that. You can put your hand down now.

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YANSS Podcast 032 – Seeing willpower as powered by a battery that must be recharged

The Topic: Ego Depletion

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on "It's Me or The Dog" on Animal Planet

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on “It’s Me or The Dog” on Animal Planet

One of my favorite tropes in fiction is the idea of the perfect thinker – the person who has shed all the baggage of being an emotional human being and could enjoy the freedom and glory of pure logic, if only he or she could feel joy.

Spock, Data, Seven of Nine, Sherlock Holmes, Mordin Solus, Austin James, The T-1000 – there are so many variations of the idea. In each fictional world, these beings accomplish amazing feats thanks to possessing cold reason devoid of all those squishy feelings. Not being very good at telling jokes or hanging out at parties are among their only weaknesses.

It’s a nice fantasy, to imagine without emotions one could become super-rational and thus achieve things other people could not. It suggests that we often see emotion as a weakness, that many people wish they could be more Spockish. But the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio suggests that such a thing would be a nightmare. In his book, “Decarte’s Error” he describes patients who, because of an accident or a disorder, are no longer able to feel silly or annoyed or hateful or anything else. If they can, those feelings just graze them, never taking hold. Damasio explains that these patients, emotionally barren, are rendered powerless to choose a path in life. They can’t ascribe value to anything. Their world is flat. Despite remaining very intelligent and able to carry on conversations, they no longer make good decisions. Former business owners will lose all their money on bad investments. People who used to work from home will become lost in constantly reorganizing their shelves. Not only are their decisions flawed, but reaching conclusions becomes an excruciating process. When Damasio handed one of these patients two pens, one red and one blue, and asked him to fill out a questionnaire, the man was lost. To choose red over blue using logic alone took about half an hour. Every pro and con was listed, every branching possibility of future outcomes considered. Damasio wrote that “when emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.” Judgments and decisions corrupted by bias and passion are the only way we ever get anything done.

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