Thirty-Seven: Why do you go to work?
Our guest in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast is Daniel Pink, author of the book “Drive” and the host of the new National Geographic show “Crowd Control.” In Drive, Pink writes about how many businesses and institutions depend on folklore instead of science to encourage people to come to work and be creative. He explains that the greatest incentives, once people are paid a decent wage, are autonomy, mastery, and purpose – intrinsic rewards that workplaces can easily offer if they choose to change the way they incentivize employees. In Crowd Control, Pink explores how, by paying attention to what science tells us truly motivates people, we can change the way we do things from giving out speeding tickets to managing baggage claims at airports so that we alter people’s behavior for the benefit of everyone. In the interview Pink details what he’s learned from both projects when it comes to what truly motivates us.
Original Show Page: Motivation
Thirty-Six: The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Psychologists David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger put it like this, “In general, the perceptions people hold, of either their overall ability or specific performance, tend to be correlated only modestly with their actual performance.” We must manage our own ignorance when reflecting on any performance – a test, an athletic event, a speech, or even a conversation. Whether modest or confident, you often depend on the image you maintain of yourself as a guide for how well you did more than actual feedback. To make matters worse, you often don’t get any feedback, or you get a bad version of it.
In the case of singing, you might get all the way to an audition on X-Factor on national television before someone finally provides you with an accurate appraisal. Dunning says that the shock that some people feel when Simon Cowell cruelly explains to them that they suck is often the result of living for years in an environment filled with mediocrity enablers. Friends and family, peers and coworkers, they don’t want to be mean or impolite. They encourage you to keep going until you end up in front of millions reeling from your first experience with honest feedback.
When you are unskilled yet unaware, you often experience what is now known in psychology as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological phenomenon that arises sometimes in your life because you are generally very bad at self-assessment. If you have ever been confronted with the fact that you were in over your head, or that you had no idea what you were doing, or that you thought you were more skilled at something than you actually were – then you may have experienced this effect. It is very easy to be both unskilled and unaware of it, and in this episode we explore why that is with professor David Dunning, one of the researchers who coined the term and a scientist who continues to add to our understanding of the phenomenon.
Original Show Page: The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Thirty-Five: The Sunk Cost Fallacy
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 a argumentative loop inside which you and many others easily get stuck.
The same psychological hooks that cost companies millions of dollars to produce products obviously destined to fail can also keep troops in harm’s way long past the point when the whole war effort should be brought to an end. It’s a universal human tendency, the same one that influences you to keep watching a bad movie instead of walking out of the theater in time to catch another or that keeps you planted in your seat at a restaurant after you’ve been waiting thirty minutes for your drinks. If you reach the end of the quest, you think, then you haven’t truly lost anything, and that is sometimes a motivation so strong it prolongs horrific, bloody wars and enormously expensive projects well past the point when most people involved in efforts like those have felt a strong intuition that no matter the outcome, at this point, total losses will exceed any potential gains.
In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we explore the sunk cost fallacy, a strangely twisted bit of logic that seems to pop into the human mind once a person has experienced the pain of loss or the ickiness of waste on his or her way toward a concrete goal. It’s illogical, irrational, unreasonable – and as a perfectly normal human being, you act under its influence all the time.
Original Show Page: The Sunk Cost Fallacy
Thirty-Four: After This, Therefore Because of This
A few years ago, Bill Clinton bought and wore in public a magical amulet.
That’s right, magical amulet. There isn’t a single entry in those Foxfire books, not a solitary nugget of folk wisdom my grandparents could have offered up that is any less wacky than the Power Balance Bracelet. A band of silicone with a tiny hologram affixed to the side that, according to the manufacturer, enhances natural energy fields and provides balance to the wearer as he or she comes into resonance with the hologram. The result? Better athletic performance. Well, that’s what the company used to claim, but that was before they lost a $67 million lawsuit and had to publicly state, “We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct…” Now the company makes ambiguous claims about “Eastern philosophies.” You can find Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints endorsing the enchanted bracelets of power at the company’s website right now. He prefers the black collection made with “surgical grade silicone.”
The Power Balance bracelets were debunked thanks to scientific research, much of it conducted in Australia and Wales. The results showed that they had no more power than any other bracelet charged with meaning and supported by belief. No doubt, most of the contents of the Foxfire collection have yet to receive a similar level of scrutiny.
Who wore the power bracelets in their heyday? At least one former president, a slew of professional athletes, and one third of my uncles. Enough people to make the company more than $30 million in 2011, according to the Associated Press. Presumably, all of them intelligent, reasonable people who had no problem with the idea of a factory that employs wizards.
Still, the Power Balance bracelet is just another in a long line of magical items and alternative cures that people have fallen for since there have been people, and there will be many more thanks to the post hoc fallacy. After this, therefore because of this – that’s the fallacy. It’s a rule of thumb, a heuristic, that guided my grandparent’s farm, filled the Foxfire books, and for the most part got human beings out of the nomadic lifestyle and into yoga, but it isn’t perfect. Whether you go to the doctor for your cold, or you decide to eat a ball of cobwebs, or eat nothing but grapefruit for a week, your cold will get better. Which one then is the true cure? Maybe all of them. Maybe none. That’s our predicament. We are stuck with this weird brain that’s so bad at pinpointing cause and effect that one of us can run an entire country, give rousing speeches that change the world, yet not possess the skepticism required to prevent him from handing over $30 for a hologram with a magic spell inside.
On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, you’ll learn a lot more about the Power Balance Bracelet as we explore the post hoc fallacy, and how it leads to all sorts of things from pressing disconnected crosswalk buttons to rubbing your nipples with frozen cabbage.
Original Show Page: The Post Hoc Fallacy
Thirty-Three: Why do you believe things that other people don’t believe?
All you can ever know about your own body, or the world outside of it, is what your brain tells you, and your brain doesn’t tell you the truth. It just makes an approximation, it makes a model of the world. This is where belief begins. If you drill all the way down. If you dig until you reach the rock, your original faith, your central belief, is in your model of reality, the one generated by your brain. That is your terminal dogma: your faith in your internal representations of the world around you. It isn’t limited to ownership of your limbs or the belief that your hand is on your head when you place it there. Who is right, you ask, when your messengers arrive, the people telling you vaccines are harmful or those telling you that they are harmless? Who is right, the climate scientists or the politicians who distrust them? Locked in the skull, its only interaction with the world based on models and maps, your brain can only make best guesses that are good enough.
Our guest for this episode, Will Storr, wrote a book called The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. In that book, Storr spends time with Holocaust deniers, young Earth creationists, people who believe they’ve lived past lives as famous figures, people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, people who stake their lives on the power of homeopathy, and many more – people who believe things that most of us do not. Storr explains in the book that after spending so much time with these people it started to become clear to him that it all goes back to that model of reality we all are forced to generate and then interact with. We are all forced to believe what that model tells us, and it is no different for people who are convinced that dinosaurs and human beings used to live together, or that you can be cured of an illness by an incantation delivered over the telephone. For some people, that lines up with their models of reality in a way that’s good enough. It’s a best guess.
Storr proposes you try this thought experiment. First, answer this question: Are you right about everything you believe? Now, if you are like most people, the answer is no. Of course not. As he says, that would mean you are a godlike and perfect human being. You’ve been wrong enough times to know it can’t be true. You are wrong about some things, maybe many things. That leads to a second question – what are you are wrong about? Storr says when he asked himself this second question, he started listing all the things he believed and checked them off one at a time as being true, he couldn’t think of anything about which he was wrong.
Storr says once you realize how difficult it is to identify your own incorrect beliefs you can better empathize with people on the fringe, because they are stuck in the same predicament. They are just as trapped in their own war rooms, most of the time unaware that the map they use is, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert once said, a representation and not a replica. They are judging the evidence presented to them based on a model of reality, a map that they’ve used their entire lives, and you can’t just tell someone that his or her map is of a fantasy realm that doesn’t exist and expect them to respond positively. You can’t just ask a person like that to throw away that map and start over, especially if they’ve yet to realize it is just a map, and their beliefs are only models.
In this episode we ask experts where do our beliefs come from, how do we know where we should place our doubt, and why don’t facts seem to work on people? We explore the psychology of belief through interviews with Margaret Maitland, an Egyptologist, who settles once and for all whether or not aliens built the pyramids. We also speak with Jim Alcock, a psychologist who studies belief itself who explains how emotions and rationality combine to form our concepts of reality.
Original Show Page: Belief
Thirty-Two: Seeing willpower as powered by a battery that must be recharged.
Not only have psychologists recently reframed how we see the collaboration of reason and intuition, but they’ve learned that the part of us that deliberates and contemplates, the part of us that Freud would have called the ego, can become exhausted. There is a body of evidence that reveals the conscious and rational system – the slow one, the rider of the elephant – gets tired very easily and eventually goes passive. Every deliberate act seems to weaken the ability to perform another. Eventually, you begin to give up earlier, to rush to conclusions sooner, and to eat things that you shouldn’t. You watch movies on cable that you already own, censored and full of commercials, even though you could watch your own copy with minimal effort. You do things that seem very un-Spock-like.
If you think of these two systems as id and ego, the work of psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that the ego sort of runs on an internal battery, one that can be drained after heavy use, but recharges after rest and reward. If you don’t recharge it, you will find it difficult to keep your hand out of the cookie jar. He says that all sorts of things can lead to ego depletion, a state of mind in which your ego leaves its post and takes a nap, allowing the id and its emotions to take over. Depleted, you have poor willpower, self-control, volition, prosocial behavior, etc. Judges will even be less likely to grant parole until they’ve taken a break and eaten a sandwich.
In this episode we explore ego depletion and all the things that can cause it from feeling rejection to holding back tears to avoiding the temptation of cookies. Speaking of cookies…we also explore in this episode how psychologists have used cookies in novel ways to uncover the secrets of our minds. We examine the importance of cookies in psychological research from the work of Mischel to recent experiments that can cause normal people to steal confections and munch them like Cookie Monster in front of strangers.
Original Show Page: Ego Depletion
Thirty-One: Why do you sabotage yourself when trying to break bad habits?
Why do you so often fail at removing bad habits from your life?
You try to diet, to exercise, to stop smoking, to stop staying up until 2 a.m. stuck in a hamster wheel of internet diversions, and right when you seem to be doing well, right when it seems like your bad habit is dead, you lose control. It seems all to easy for one transgression, one tiny cheating bite of pizza or puff of smoke, and then it’s all over. You binge, calm down, and the habit returns, reanimated and stronger than ever.
You ask yourself, how is it possible I can be so good at so many things, so clever in so many ways, and still fail at outsmarting my own vice-ridden brain? The answer has to do with conditioning, classical like Pavlov and operant like Skinner, and a psychological phenomenon that’s waiting in the future for every person who tries to twist shut the spigot of reward and pleasure – the extinction burst, and in this episode we explore how it works, why it happens, and how you can overcome it.
Original Show Page: Extinction Burst
Thirty: If the brain is too slow to hit a baseball, then how does it become possible with practice?
You live in the past.
You don’t know this because your brain lies to you and then covers up the lies, which is a good thing. If your brain didn’t fudge reality, you wouldn’t be able to hit a baseball, drive a car, or even carry on a conversation.
You may have already noticed this through its absence. Sounds that come from very far away don’t get edited. Maybe you’ve been high in the bleachers at a sporting event and saw the crack of a bat or the crunch of a tackle, but the sound seemed to arrive in your head just a tiny bit later than when it should have. Sometimes there is a delay, like reality is out of sync. You can see this in videos too. If you see a big explosion or a gun shot from far away, the sound will arrive after the camera has already recorded the images so that there is gap between seeing the boom and hearing it.
The reason this occurs, of course, is because sound waves travel much more slowly than light waves. But if that’s true, why isn’t there always a lag between seeing and hearing? How come you can carry on a conversation with someone at the end of a long hallway even though the light that’s allowing you to see her mouth is arriving well before the sound of her voice?
You can talk to people across a distance because your brain holds on to light info, waits for the sound info to arrive, edits them so that they line up, and then it releases the combined information to your consciousness. But that all takes time, and that’s why sometimes you catch the brain in a lie.
It takes about 80 milliseconds for the brain to generate consciousness, to take all the information flowing in and construct a model of reality from moment to moment. You interact with that 80-millisecond-old model, the afterglow. Everything you think is happening now already happened 80 milliseconds ago, and you are just now becoming aware of it over and over again. Sounds that occur more than 30 meters away take longer than 80 milliseconds to get to your ears, and so those sounds don’t arrive in time to get stitched together with the visual information. It’s called the 80-millisecond rule. That’s why you usually see the lightning well before you hear the thunder. You live in the center of a sphere about 60 meters in diameter. In the center, sounds and sights line up perfectly. Anything farther out does not. It’s also why you can snap your fingers and it seems like the sound waves are moving at the same speed as the light waves. They aren’t. It’s a lie, a representation of reality that’s more useful than the truth.
Since you live in the past, it should be impossible to do things like hit a baseball or duck a punch, yet athletes do these sorts of things all the time. As our guest David Epstein explains in the latest YANSS Podcast, professional baseball players and boxers don’t have faster reaction times than the average human being. No human being can make the circuit from eyes to brain to muscles fast enough to hit a ball in midflight or avoid an oncoming fist. You can’t change those natural limits with any amount of practice. So how do they do it?
Epstein explain that practice strengthens intuition, not reaction times. Even among chess players, practice builds up a cognitive database that nonconsciously informs our decisions and reactions. Experience and mastery are demonstrations of a robust, well-trained unconscious mind that senses tiny cues in the environment and then prepares an action that will occur later, syncing up reality the way you stitch together sounds and sights. All sports are a display of brains predicting the future based on intuition built up by practice – brains compensating for lag by seeing what is happening now, before the ball is thrown, before the punch is launched, and making a best guess on what will happen later. We also talk about the 10,000-hour-rule, nature vs. nurture, and how come the best athletes seem to come from the smallest towns.
Original Show Page: David Epstein
Twenty-Nine: How do labels change us and change how we see others?
Consider these two phenomena – the Baker/baker paradox and the halo effect. The Baker/baker paradox describes how subjects in studies tend find it very difficult to remember last names like Farmer or Baker but find it very easy to remember that each person was a baker or a farmer. The last names are part of weak networks with few nodes while the professions are part of vast networks with constellations of nodes connected to ideas all over the mind. How many Farmers can you name? How many items can you name that you might find on a farm? The stronger the network, the easier it is to think about something, to remember it, and to feel whatever your culture and upbringing has primed you to feel about it. That’s why the halo effect is so powerful. In what is now known as The Hannah Study, subjects watched as a young girl answered a series of difficult questions correctly and a series of easy questions incorrectly. When asked to grade her performance as above or below average, the students were faced with ambiguity. They had to guess. Expecting this, scientists beforehand had shown half the students a video of Hannah playing in a posh, pristine playground, and the other half saw her playing in a fenced-in, overgrown schoolyard. The people who saw her in the nice neighborhood said she performed above average. The people who saw her playing in the bad neighborhood said she performed below average. The halos eliminated the ambiguity.
We are each born labeled. In moments of ambiguity, those labels can become halos that change the way people make decisions about us. As a cognitive process, it is invisible, involuntary, and unconscious – and that’s why psychology is working so hard to understand it.
Our guest for this episode is Adam Alter, a psychologist who studies marketing and communication, and his New York Times bestselling book is titled Drunk Tank Pink after the color used to paint the walls of police holding cells after research suggested it lessened the urge to fight. Alter’s book details the power of names, regions, accents, clothes, colors, skin tones, race and everything in between. Those things, he explains on the show, become symbols and labels, charged with meaning. Thanks to the networks they ping in our brains, labels and symbols, even colors, change the ways in which we think, feel and behave without us realizing it, he explains.
Original Show Page: Adam Alter
Twenty-Eight: Do crowds, mobs and riots reduce people to groups of irrational animals?
It is a human tendency that’s impossible not to notice during wars and revolutions – and a dangerous one to forget when resting between them.
In psychology they call it deindividuation, losing yourself to the will of a crowd. In a mob, protest, riot, or even an audience, the presence of others redraws the borders of your normal persona. Simply put, you will think, feel, and do things in a crowd that alone you would not.
Psychology didn’t discover this, of course. The fact that being in a group recasts the character you usually play has been the subject of much reflection ever since people have had the time to reflect. No, today psychology is trying to chip away at the prevailing wisdom on what crowds do to your mind and why.
This episode’s guest, Michael Bond, is the author ofThe Power of Others, and reading his book I was surprised to learn that despite several decades of research into crowd psychology, the answers to most questions concerning crowds can still be traced back to a book printed in 1895. Like most pre-scientific musings, the lessons it has handed down to history are mostly incorrect.
Original Show Page: Michael Bond
Twenty-Seven: Who are the new science communicators?
I recently collaborated with Joe Hanson of the YouTube channel It’s Okay to be Smart and helped him write an episode about pattern recognition.
The video is all about how our hyperactive order-generating brains can lead to us to incorrect assumptions, and how those assumptions can lead to widespread, social phenomena causing millions of people to do completely ridiculous and futile things, sometimes for generations. In our video, Joe talks about blowing in Nintendo cartridges to get them to work (totally pointless, and damaging), but you can substitute that behavior with a lot of other silly things that we did until science came along and tested to see if we were wrong.
I thought it would be great to bring him on the show and interview him in an episode all about the new science communicators, the people who grew up with Carl Sagan and Bill Nye, who are now watched by millions of people online as they explain everything from why some sounds are scaryto whether or not Spanish delivers more information per minute than does English. Most of those YouTube channels get more viewers per episode than any FOX News program. Many YouTube science shows, numbers-wise, are far more popular than Game of Thrones.
In this episode, we sit down with Joe Hanson, a biologist turned YouTube star, who runs the fantastic blog and channel, It’s Okay to be Smart. We learn what it is like to be part of the new wave of science communication, talk about science literacy, and discuss the ramifications of rubbing a beard with an infected chicken before conducting lab work.
Original Show Page: Joe Hanson
Twenty-Six: Is reductionism a dangerous idea when it comes to psychology?
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
You’ve heard the expression before. You’ve may have, like myself, smugly used it a few times to feel like you made an intelligent point in an office conversation. It’s one of those great comebacks that we’ve decided is ok to use in professional settings like congressional debates and televised political arguments about everything from gun control to foreign policy. But, it might surprise you to learn who wrote it, how young the above quote is, and why it was written in the first place.
The quote comes from psychologist Abraham Maslow, the psychologist most famous for his hierarchy of needs. He was recalling how he had asked scientists of the 1930s to think of things like empathy, compassion, awe, and beauty as aspects of the human mind that could be studied. In his era, it was unclear how you could use the tools of science to do anything other than reduce consciousness to measurable things like neurons and reflexes. Maslow said it was possible, and he blamed skepticism over such pursuits on the culture and tools of the time.
Maslow’s famous quote comes after he describes first seeing an automatic car wash, saying how marvelous and complex it seemed, but that he realized that in the end “everything else that got into its clutches was treated as if it were an automobile to be washed.” He wrote that if science couldn’t process the parts of the mind he was interested in studying he would “either to give up my questions or else to invent new ways of answering them.”
That’s the topic in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast – Maslow’s Hammer, a plea from humanist psychology to be very careful when reducing human beings to their basic chemistry and not to lose sight of what makes human beings so wonderful.
I first wrote about Maslow’s Hammer at Psychology Today, and in this episode I read portions of that essay.
Original Show Page: Maslow’s Hammer
Twenty-Five: How do the clothes you wear affect your perceptions and behaviors?
When you work from home, do you produce better results in pajamas or professional attire? Do casual Fridays damage productivity? Does a jeans-and-T-shirt startup have an edge over its business-casual competitor?
Researchers are just now getting to the bottom of questions like these. The answers depend on the symbolic power the particular item of clothing has in the mind of the particular wearer, but the answer to each question is never “not at all.”
Up until now, most psychological investigations into clothing have dealt with how clothes communicate status or facilitate rituals. For instance, if you put a person in a police uniform and have them ask questions or make demands you’ll get completely different results than if you had the same person wear a pirate costume. But what about the person in the uniform or the costume? Are the clothes affecting his or her behavior, thoughts, judgments, and decisions? The evidence collected so far suggests that yes, the clothes we wear affect our minds in ways we never notice. In fact, it’s likely the same person in the same situation in the same clothes will behave differently depending just on the color of those clothes.
In this episode of the YANSS Podcast we explore enclothed cognition, and I interview one of the researchers who discovered the phenomenon. Hajo Adam, a professor of management and researcher at Rice University’s School of Business, explains how he and Adam Galinsky, a business professor at Columbia University, conducted the studies that showed people wearing lab coats perform better on tests of mental ability than people wearing street clothes.
Original Show Page: Enclothed Cognition – Hajo Adam
Twenty-Four: How can psychology improve your sleep?
Some kinds of ignorance are less unsettling than others. Our lack of knowledge about things like black holes and quantum physics feels appropriate, even comforting. Though we are connected to those ideas by our very atomic makeup, the nescience doesn’t feel intimate unless someone like Richard Feynman explains why you should feel otherwise. There are other things, however, about which we know very little that do feel intimate. One of these things is the focus of this episode of the YANSS podcast – sleep. The phenomenon of sleep is just as unknown and mysterious and doggedly pursued by learned men and women as the invisible discothèques of the atomic world. Sleep is still behind a curtain of non-knowledge along with the constellation of phenomena that orbit it: dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and all the rest. Sleep is a fundamental part of being human, like eyes and ears and food and hugs – yet we know, in a scientific sense, practically nothing about it.
Consider these two quotes. William Dement, former dean of sleep studies at Stanford, a man with 50 years of research behind him, once told a reporter for National Geographic – “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.” Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi who studies sleep at The University of Wisconsin said at a conference of sleep scientists, “…despite the extraordinary tools we now have to investigate it, we still don’t know what it is for. In fact, we don’t know if it is for anything really.”
Even though we have yet to cross an ocean of understanding on this topic, the field of psychology has learned enough about how to increase the observable benefits of sleeping and dreaming to fill a book, and psychologist Richard Wiseman wrote that book. To learn more, we interview Wiseman who holds Britain’s Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology. Wiseman, a former magician, is the author of several books on psychology, is very active on YouTube, and a consultant for both MythBusters and Darren Brown. You can learn more about him at his website. His latest book is called Night School.
Original Show Page: Sleep – Richard Wiseman
Twenty-Three: What can you learn about political views from warring tribes of children?
In the 1950s, in an effort to better understand group conflict, a team of psychologists nearly turned a summer camp into Lord of The Flies.
The story of how and why it was so easy to turn normal boys into bloodthirsty, warring tribes (and how those tribes eventually reconciled and became peaceful thanks to brilliantly conceived cooperative exercises) can teach you a lot about a common mental phenomenon known as the illusion of asymmetric insight – something that helps keep you loyal to certain groups and alters the way you see outsiders.
Later experiments revealed that if you imagine people’s inner lives as icebergs with some things showing above the surface and some things hidden from view, that you have a tendency to believe most of your iceberg is hidden, while everyone else’s is mostly visible. Scaled up, you also believe this about the groups, cultures, and nations to which you belong – yours are nuanced and complicated, theirs are simple and transparent (and dumb).
This asymmetry of insight colors your interactions and decisions big and small. That’s what we explore in this inbetweenisode of the YANSS Podcast.
Original Show Page: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight
Twenty-Two: How do you see what is missing and overcome survivorship bias?
The problem with sorting out failures and successes is that failures are often muted, destroyed, or somehow removed from sight while successes are left behind, weighting your decisions and perceptions, tilting your view of the world. That means to be successful you must learn how to seek out what is missing. You must learn what not to do. Unfortunately, survivorship bias stands between you and the epiphanies you seek.
To learn how to combat this pernicious bias, we explore the story of Abraham Wald and the Department of War Math founded during World War II, and then we interview Wald’s modern-day counterpart, Megan Price, statistician and director of research at the Human Rights Data Analysis Groupwho explains how she uses math and statistics to save lives and improve conditions in areas of the world suffering from the effects of war.
After the interview, I discuss a news story about how very old violins twist the beliefs of expert musicians.
Original Show Page: Survivorship Bias | Megan Price
Twenty-One: Science as a tool that anyone can use
Hundreds of people over the centuries have slowly perfected a method, an invention, that continues to help humans leave the warmth of false certainty, embrace ignorance, and trade the fires of the stake for the fires that sent golf balls to the moon. If you are unacquainted with the basics of science, you will stumble around in the dark, flailing your hands, stumbling over cognitive biases, logical fallacies, weird heuristics, and so on. With science, with the tools and the tutelage of great teachers, a 9-year-old can drive through roadblocks of ignorance like the Dukes of Hazzard and make the entire species a percentage point smarter.
In this inbetweenisode, Christina Draganich explains how, as 21-year-old undergraduate, she came up with the idea to research placebo sleep, which led to a new scientific discovery, and she tells us how anyone with the right guidance can use science to expand our understanding of the natural world.
We also learn about new research that has identified a “continuity field” generated by the human brain to keep us from going mad.
Original Show Page: Inbetweenisode 3 | Christina Draganich
Twenty: What is the best way to understand the past and predict the future?
If you love educational entertainment – programs about science, nature, history, technology and everything in between – it is a safe bet that the creators of those shows were heavily influenced by the founding fathers of science communication: Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, and James Burke.
In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast we sit down with James Burke and discuss the past, the present, and where he sees us heading in the future. Burke says we must soon learn how to deal with a world in which scarcity is scarce, abundance is abundant, and home manufacturing can produce just about anything you desire.
James Burke is a legendary science historian who created the landmark BBC series Connections which provided an alternative view of history and change by replacing the traditional “Great Man” timeline with an interconnected web in which all people influence one another to blindly direct the flow of progress. Burke is currently writing a new book about the coming age of abundance, and he continues to work on his Knowledge Web project.
We also sit down with Matt Novak, creator and curator of Paleofuture, a blog that explores retro futurism, sifting through the many ways people in the past predicted how the future would turn out, sometimes correctly, mostly not.
Together, Burke and Novak help us understand why we are to terrible at predicting the future and what we can learn about how history truly unfolds so we can better imagine who we will be in the decades to come.
After the interview, I discuss a news story about how cigarettes affect the way your brain interprets cigarette advertising.
Original Show Page: The Future | James Burke and Matt Novak
Nineteen: Can the placebo effect fool you into believing you had a good night’s sleep?
How powerful is the placebo effect? After a good night’s sleep could a scientist convince you that you had tossed and turned, and if so, how would that affect your perceptions and behavior? What if a doctor told you that you had slept like a baby when in reality you had barely slept at all? Would hearing those words improve your performance on a difficult test?
In this episode we learn the answers to these questions and more as we explore how research continues to unravel the mysteries behind the placebo effect and how it can drastically alter our bodies and minds.
Our guest is Kristi Erdal, a psychologist at Colorado College who discovered placebo sleep along with one of her students, Christina Draganich. Draganich wondered if such a thing might exist after reading all the literature on placebos, and Erdal helped her create the research methods she used to test her hypothesis. Erdal’s page at Colorado College can be found here.
After the interview, I discuss a news story about how important eccentricity is when it comes to evaluating an artist’s work.
Original Show Page: The Placebo Effect | Kristi Erdal
Eighteen: The Benjamin Franklin method for dealing with haters
Benjamin Franklin knew how to deal with haters, and in this episode we learn how he turned his haters into fans with what is now called The Benjamin Franklin Effect (read more about the effect here).
Listen as David McRaney reads an excerpt from his book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” explaining the psychology behind the effect and how the act of spreading harm forms the attitude of hate, and the act of spreading kindness generates the attitude of camaraderie.
Original Show Page: The Benjamin Franklin Effect
Seventeen: What’s the harm in using alternative medicine?
Where is the line between regular medicine and alternative medicine? Are Eastern medicine and Western medicine truly at odds, and if so, who is right and who is wrong? What harm is there in using complementary or integrative treatments in an effort to improve wellness?
In this episode we discuss alternative medicine with Tim Farley, creator and curator of What’s The Harm, a website that tracks the harmful effects that result from seeking out alternative treatments and cures before, or instead of, seeking out science-based medicine. Tim is a software engineer and research fellow at the James Randi Foundation. He also created the website Skeptical Software Tools, and he tweets at @krelnik.
After the interview, I discuss a news story about morality within virtual reality.
Original Show Page: Alternative Medicine | Tim Farley
Sixteen: Why Conspiracy Theories Flourish
Who is pulling the strings? Who is behind the coverup? Who holds the real power, and what do they want? How deep does the conspiracy to control your mind go?
In this episode we discuss the history, social impact, neuroscience and psychology behind conspiracy theories and paranoid thinking.
Steven Novella is a leader in the skeptic community, host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He blogs at Neurologica,Skepticblog, and Science-Based Medicine.
Jesse Walker is the books editor for Reason Magazine and author of the new book, The United States of Paranoia, a Conspiracy Theory. Walker’s articles can be seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and many others. He blogs at The Perpetual Three Dot Column.
Listen as they explain why we love conspiracy theories, how they flourish, how they harm, and what they say about a culture.
After the interview, I discuss a news story about new evidence to support Dunbar’s Number.
Original Show Page: Conspiracy Theories | Steven Novella and Jesse Walker
Fifteen: An Excerpt from You Are Now Less Dumb
In this inbetweenisode I read an excerpt from my book, You Are Now Less Dumb, about a strange experiment in Michigan that tested the bounds of the self by throwing three very unusual men into a situation that won’t likely be repeated ever again by science.
In the next episode (posting next week) of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, neurologist Steven Novella and author Jesse Walker explain why we love conspiracy theories, how they flourish, and what they say about a culture.
Original Show Page: Narrative Bias
Fourteen: How Narratives Affect Behavior
In this episode we discuss the power narratives have to affect our beliefs and behaviors with Melanie C. Green, a psychologist who studies the persuasive power of fiction.
According Nielsen, the TV ratings company, the average person in the United States watches about 34 hours of television a week. That’s 73 days a year. Over the course of a lifetime, the average American can expect to spend a full decade lost in the trance spell that only powerful narratives can cast over the human mind.
What is the power of all the stories we consume through television? What about movies and books and comics and video games and everything else? How does it affect our beliefs and behaviors?
We discuss all of that and more with Melanie C. Green who is a social psychologist who developed the transportation into a narrative worlds theory that helps explain total story immersion and how it translates into influence over our real-world behaviors. Green is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. You can find her on Twitter using the handle @NarrProf or her website.
After the interview, I discuss a news story about research into how photographs can either enhance or dampen your memory depending on how you use them.
Original Show Page: Narratives | Melanie C. Green
Thirteen: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds
The very fact that you are reading this sentence, contemplating whether you want to listen to this podcast, means that you are living out a fantasy from a previous generation’s cyberpunk novel.
However you made it here, however you got these words into your brain, you did so by diving through data streams first cooked up by delirious engineers downing late-night coffees, wandering deep within rows of data tape unspooling from jerky, spinning platters.
We’ve been dreaming of this life for a long time, since before the vacuum tubes and punchcards of the ’40s, and now that we are here, some people are worried that the tech will, at best, make us lazy, and at worst make us stupid.
Is all this new technology improving our thinking or dampening it? Are all these new communication tools turning us into navel-gazing human/brand hybrids, or are we developing a new set of senses that allow us to benefit from never severing contact with the people most important to us?
That’s the topic of this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, and to answer these questions we welcome this episode’s guest, Clive Thompson, who is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. As the title suggests, he disagrees with the naysayers, and his book is an impressive investigation into why they are probably (thankfully) wrong. Thompson is a journalist whose work can be found published in Wired, The Washington Post, and the New York Times Magazine. You can learn more about him at his website.
After the interview, I discuss a news story about research into how the way you walk can encourage or discourage criminals to attack you.
Original Show Page: Technology | Clive Thompson
Twelve: The Dangerous Passion of Jealousy
Why do human beings experience jealousy, what is its function, and what are the warning signs that signal this powerful emotion may lead to violence?
Once reserved for the contemplation of poets and playwrights, jealousy is now the subject of intense scientific scrutiny. “Mate poachers abound,” explains this week’s guest, psychologist David Buss, who sayd that his research supports his hypothesis that human jealousy is an adaptation forged by evolutionary forces to deal with the problems of infidelity. Moderate jealousy, he says, is healthy and signals commitment, but there is a dark and corrosive side as well that follows a clear, predictable pattern before it destroys lives.
David Buss is a professor of psychology who studies human mating at The University of Texas at Austin. He his the author of The Evolution Of Desire: Strategies Of Human Mating, Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is As Necessary As Love and Sex, The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill, and Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge. You can learn more about him and his work at DavidBuss.com.
After the interview I try a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich and discuss a news story about research into societies in which women are more competitive than men.
Original Show Page: Jealousy | David Buss
Is your state of mind from one situation to the next drastically altered by the state in which you live? According to cultural psychologists, yes it is.
Studies show that your thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors in response to a particular setting will reliably differ from those of others in that same setting depending on where you spent your childhood or even where you spent six years or more of your adult life.
On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, we explore cultural cognition and the psychological effects of the region you call home on the brain you call yours.
Hazel Rose Markus is a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies the effects of culture, class, ethnicity, region, society, and gender on the concept of self and human psychology in general. She is the author of “Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are.” You can learn more about her at her website here.
After the interview I try out a cinnamon chocolate cookie and read a bit of psychology news about how reading good books can make you more adept at reading faces.
Original Show Page: Culture | Hazel Rose Markus
Ten: What Is and Is Not Normal Sexually?
If a world archery champion fell madly in love with the Eiffel Tower, who she considered to be a female, married the monument, and then went on to consummate her union with it, would you consider her a crazy person? How about perverted? Insane? What about a person who can only reach sexual climax by falling down stairs? What about a person who masturbates to wheelchairs or to a recently worn hearing aid?
Well, those people exist. But should we consider those people mentally ill whose sexual desires deviate from the norm? Given what science is telling us about sexuality, how should we adjust our thinking about perversion? That’s the topic we explore in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast. My guest is:
Jesse Bering’s new book is “Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us.” In it, he explores what is and is not normal, what is and is not perverted, and whether or not we should care about those things from a legal or moral standpoint. A former professor at the University of Arkansas and former director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast, Bering has written for Scientific American, Slate, New York Magazine, The Guardian, The New Republic, and Discover. His other books are Why is the Penis Shaped Like That and The Belief Instinct. You can learn more about Jesse at his website.
After the interview I read a bit of self delusion news and taste cinnamon cardamom snickerdoodle.
Original Show Page: Perversion | Jesse Bering
Why do we argue? What purpose does it serve? Is all this bickering online helping or hurting us?
Science thankfully has something to say about these questions, and what it has to say may even help explain reason itself. That’s the subject we explore in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.
My guests are:
Jeremy Sherman, an evolutionary epistemologist, which means he researches how humans evolved to make generalizations and draw conclusions from inconclusive data. At 24, he was an elder in the world’s largest hippie commune, but now he lectures at the Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville California and is a chief researcher at Berkely’s Consortium for Emergent Dynamics where he and others research how minds emerge from matter. He is now working on a book, “Doubt: A Natural History; A User’s Guide” and he blogs at Psychology Today.
Hugo Mercier is a researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research who shook up both psychology and philosophy with a paper published in 2011 titled, “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory” (PDF) that proposed humans evolved reason to both produce and evaluate arguments. Respected and well-known names in psychology like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt have both praised the paper as being one of the most important works in years on the science of rationality. You can find his website here.
After the long interview, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste an orange coconut chocolate chip cookie.
Origian Show Page: Arguing | Hugo Mercier and Jeremy Sherman
Eight: How do video games affect our minds?
In this episode of the YANSS podcast, we explore games and their potential to reveal our self delusions.
I interview Jamie Madigan, the curator of psychologyofgames.com, who writes about the behaviors and cognitions that games both exploit and uncover. It’s a great interview. We discuss everything from the motivational nudging in “Candy Crush Saga” to the power of endowed progress when endorsing people on LinkedIn. Please forgive us for geeking out so hard during it. I promise, non-gamers will learn plenty in this episode. Links to the things mentioned in the episode are at the bottom of this post.
After the interview, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a white chocolate oatmeal cookie.
Original Show Page: Video Games | Jamie Madigan
Seven: Is There Such a Thing as Common Sense?
How would you define common sense?
I like the American Heritage dictionary’s definition: “Sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment.” I like it because it’s describing something that doesn’t really exist, at least not in such a laudable form as that definition suggests. Faith in, and respect for, common sense is something that this entire You Are Not So Smart project is devoted to squashing.
Your common sense is informed by imperfect inputs decoded through biases and heuristics defended by logical fallacies stored in corrupted memories that are unpacked through self-serving narratives. Native good judgment? Well, sure, sometimes, but there’s a reason why we had to invent the scientific method. Native judgment is pretty unreliable.
My new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, spends many pages discussing superseded scientific theories and the implications that they bring up – stuff like humors and putting the Earth at the center of universe. You can read an excerpt here at Big Think: The Common Belief Fallacy.
The connection between common sense, superseded scientific theories, and becoming less dumb is the subject for this episode’s podcast. I interview Kevin Lyon, a biology teacher and friend who is one of those people who is so smart that you feel yourself becoming a better person just listening to him ramble. I think you’ll love this interview.
Show Page: Common Sense | Kevin Lyon
Six: Can Money Make us Happy?
Which would you rather have, a mansion the likes of Jay Gatsby, fully decorated and furnished or the memories of a month spent on the International Space Station? Would you rather own the kind of car they photograph for wall posters with doors that open in an unusual manner or spend a year practicing guitar for a chance to play a single show with the Red Hot Chili Peppers? How about $1,000 cash or a gourmet meal for you and your friends cooked by and enjoyed in the company of Gordon Ramsay? Assuming in each of these scenarios you can only have one and never have the other, which would you pick?
When asked similar questions, most people choose the tangible things over the experiences. The material items just seem more valuable in the long run, and cash always seems more practical than a fleeting indulgence. Yet the research says if you are seeking long-term happiness, nothing compares to unique experiences, even short experiences, even bad experiences. Over time, things lose their luster, but memories do not. Memories grow and spread inside your mind like a tree that can always be harvested of its fruit. They become a part of you, increasing in value as you age and continuously providing stories and smiles long after a nice car becomes just a way to get to Taco Bell or a nice house becomes the place where you watch Breaking Bad before going to bed.
It’s peculiar, your inability to predict what will make you happy, and that inability leads you to do stupid things with your money. Once you get a decent job that allows you to buy new shoes on a whim, you start accumulating stuff, and the psychological research into happiness says that stuff is a crappy source of lasting joy.
That’s just a small part of the book by this episode’s guest, psychologist Elizabeth Dunn. Happy Money, which she cowrote with marketing expert Michael Norton, is about the psychology of spending. They pored over the research into the relationship between money and happiness and came to the conclusion that if you want to be happy you should buy experiences. To maximize your happiness, make those experiences treats instead of routines, share them with others, buy them as far in advance of when you will enjoy them as you can, and avoid wasting money on objects that won’t affect how you will spend your time on the typical Tuesday.
They also point out that money itself loses its power to enhance your satisfaction with life once you reach a certain income level. Beyond $75,000 a year, in the United States, higher incomes only add very, very tiny bumps to overall happiness. The evidence suggests that the average millionaire CEO and her lawyer’s paralegal’s accountant’s dental hygienist are within a smidge of being equally happy day-to-day. If you make enough money to buy new tires when you need them, then you are probably not poor, and the research tells us that pretty much all versions of being not poor are basically equal, even being insanely rich.
Worse than all of this, if you do manage to become wealthy, they say you’ll take a hit to your overall happiness by losing the ability to enjoy simple pleasures. At least, that’s what happens on average, again, according to the research. The wealthier the person, the less likely he or she reports a desire to pause and enjoy the serenity of a waterfall, or the desire to go on a hike. That’s time that could be spent doing something that only the super-rich could do. Consider this: If you show one group of people a photo of a pile of cash and another group of people an interesting painting and then give both groups quality chocolates, the group primed to put money on their minds will enjoy the chocolate less than the other group. Who wants to be so rich that chocolate is no longer delicious?
We talk about all of this and hear her suggestions on how to pursue happiness using evidence-based spending advice in the interview. This is information that’s definitely worth your time to absorb.
Show Page: Spending Money | Elizabeth Dunn
Five: Why Do We Care About Selling Out?
Andrew Potter is the guest on this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast. He wrote the book The Authenticity Hoax and co wrote The Rebel Sell.
Both books present an upside-down view of the quest to avoid the mainstream and seek out the authentic. The books help explain how it came to be that so many people seem concerned about selling out both as a consumer and a producer. Most interesting though is Potter’s assertion that there really is no such thing as authenticity when you get right down to it. As he puts it, “there could never be an authenticity detector we could wave at something, like the security guards checking you at the airport.” Oh, and he says countercultures actually create the mainstream they rebel against.
According to Potter, a giant portion of modern people living in industrialized Western nations eventually notice just how much consumerism and conformity intrudes on their daily lives, and they seek release. The average person watching an interview of a reality television star on a 24-news-network following a musical performance by the latest winner of America’s Top Pawn Wife after a breakdown of what is trending on YouTube while commenting on an Instagram photo on Facebook on an iPad on a treadmill in the gym between advertisements for antidepressants and movies about mall cops who befriend talking ferrets will understandably feel a bit overwhelmed from time to time. The urge to walk away from all of that and get lost in the most obscure thing you can find, the most distant and untouched landscape you can visit, the least processed or marketed product you can put in your body, is strong and understandable and healthy, but Potter says it is ultimately futile.
For this segment of society “the search for the authentic is positioned as the most pressing quest of our age,” writes Potter. This urge leads to those things that have earned the most anti-mainstream adjectives like local, organic, artisan, indie, all natural, underground, sustainable, free trade, slow, holistic, green, and so on. Yet, that ideology, that quest for the authentic, is the very thing that causes the world to seem so unreal and staged. People can’t stop themselves from competing for status. It is branded into the side of the brain before you are born. As a primate, status hierarchies are a part of life, and when you remove yourself from the competition in the mainstream you just join the competition in the counterculture. As long as there are clusters of people bent on avoiding what is most popular, within those clusters people will compete for status through conspicuous consumption of art and fashion, music and movies, furniture and gadgets, signaling to insiders the quality of their taste or the ingenuity of their search for the authentic, and signaling to the outsiders that they are not one of them. Whether you are a Juggalo in Kentucky or a Kogal in Tokyo, the internal affairs cool police are always on the prowl for posers.
Potter explains that, yes, modern culture can be hollow and self-absorbed and obsessed with consumption, but the competitive pressure to be more real, more authentic, and less conformist is no less exhausting or misguided. It’s a fascinating and challenging point of view. I think you’ll like the interview.
Show Page: Selling Out | Andrew Potter
Four: Is The Self Real?
You are a pile of atoms.
When you eat vanilla pudding, which is also a pile of atoms, you are really just putting those atoms next to your atoms and waiting for some of them trade places.
If things had turned out differently back when your mom had that second glass of wine while your dad told that story about when he sat on a jellyfish while skinny dipping, the same atoms that glommed together to make your bones and your skin, your tongue and your brain could have been been rearranged to make other things. Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen – the whole collection of elements that make up your body right down to the vanadium, molybdenum and arsenic could be popped off of you, collected, and reused to make something else – if such a seemingly impossible technology existed.
Like a cosmic box of Legos, the building blocks of matter can take the shape of every form we know of from mountains to monkeys.
If you think about this long enough, you might stumble into the same odd questions scientists and philosophers ask from time to time. If we had an atom-exchanging machine, and traded one atom at a time from your body with an atom from the body of Edward James Olmos, at what point would you cease to be you and Olmos cease to be Edward James? During that process, would you lose your mind and gain his? At some point would each person’s thoughts and dreams and memories change hands?
The weird feeling produced by this thought experiment reveals something about the way you see yourself and others. You have an innate sense that there is something special within living things, especially people, and most especially yourself. Even if you are a hardcore materialist, you can’t prevent the little tug in your gut that makes you feel something might exist beyond the flesh, something not made of atoms. To you, living things seem to have an essence that is more than the sum of their parts.
He created an experiment in which scientists introduced a hamster to a group of 6-year-olds. The researchers told the children that the hamster had a marble in its belly, a missing tooth, and a blue heart. They also showed the hamster a picture, tickled him, and whispered in his ear – these events, the children believed, would be remembered by the hamster. Everything the kids learned about the furball was an invisible trait. The difference was some things were physical aspects and other things were mental states.
Next, they told the children that the scientists had invented a duplicating machine, and revealed two boxes. They then put the hamster in the first box, pretended to copy it, and opened both boxes revealing two identical hamsters. Unbeknownst to the kids, the second box already contained a twin. They asked the dazzled tikes if the copied hamster had all of the same qualities as the original. About a third said it had all, and a third said it had none, but the remaining third said that only the physical properties had been copied. The memories, they assumed, were impossible to duplicate. When they repeated the experiment with digital cameras, telling the kids the cameras had photos inside in addition to blue batteries. The kids saw no problems. The majority assumed everything in the camera could be copied, including the photos.
Hood’s experiment produced evidence to support the notion that at a certain age you begin to see minds and bodies as different things. As you grow up, you grow into believing in selves, in identities that are intangible and can’t be exchanged or copied at the atomic level. The problem, says Hood and other materialists, is that the self is generated by the mind, and the mind is generated by the brain, and the brain is just a sack of atoms, and atoms can be exchanged and rearranged, and maybe, one day, copied.
In this episode of the podcast, Bruce Hood talks about his book The Self Illusion and how ideas of materialism and dualism are being explored by modern science. Hood is a superstar of psychology and the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. I love this interview, especially the part where he talks about consciousness within an artificial intelligence.
Show Page: The Self | Bruce Hood
Three: Can You Lie to Yourself Without Knowing It?
As a motto for the sapient, “cogito ergo sum” is pretty fantastic. Every time I’m reminded of it, a twinge of pride flows through my veins. It makes me want to stand up straight and pronounce proudly to my cat, “I think, therefore I am,” and then take his blank stare and plaintive meow as confirmation of my vitality. To be human is to know you exist. It is to know you are, and to know you are you.
It’s fitting that Jules Cotard, a man who was a close friend of the philosopher Auguste Comte, would find a way to dull the edge of Descartes’ famous proclamation. In an era preceding automobiles and airplanes, Cotard transferred his interest in the philosophy of being into the medicine of being – neurology – and after serving as a military surgeon in 1870, Cotard joined a clinic that did what it could with the knowledge of the day. Cotard and others at the clinic treated those with what one lecturer at the time called “madness in all its forms.”
Cotard was one of the pioneers of neuroscience, connecting behavior to the physical locations in the brain. As he progressed in his career he became particularly interested in patients who exhibited aphasia, or difficulties with language. He would follow those patients past death to the autopsy table in search of the cause of their maladies, and he encouraged other doctors to do the same. Considering his background in philosophy, it must have been astonishing when he found a patient devoid of a sense of self. In 1880, Cotard introduced a newly identified medical condition to the world. He called it “delire des negations,” or negation delirium. Essentially, he had discovered a condition in which a person thought, “I think, therefore I’m not.”
He told an audience in Paris that sometimes when a person’s brain was injured in the just the right way that person could become convinced he or she was dead. No amount of reason, no amount of cajolative acrobatics could talk a person out of the fantasy. In addition, the condition wasn’t purely psychological. It originated from a physiological problem in the brain. That is, this is a state of mind you too could suffer should you receive a strong enough blow to the head.
There are about 100 accounts in the medical literature of people displaying what is now known as Cotard’s delusion. It is also sometimes known, unsettlingly, as walking corpse syndrome. If you were to develop Cotard’s delusion you might look in the mirror and find your reflection suspicious, or you may cease to feel as through the heartbeat in your chest is yours, or you may think parts of your body are rotting away. In the most extreme cases, you may think you’ve become a ghost and decide you no longer need food. One of Cotard’s patients died of starvation.
Cotard’s syndrome and its delusions are part of a family of symptoms found in other disorders that all share the same central theme – the loss of your ability to emotionally connect with others. It is possible for something to go very wrong inside your skull so that your brain can no longer feel a difference between a stranger and a lover. The emotional flutter of recognition no longer comes, not for your dog, your mother, or your own voice. If you were to see a loved one and not feel the love, you would scramble to make sense of the situation. Sans emotion, those things become impostors or robots or dopplegangers. If the connection is severed to your own image, it becomes reasonable to assume you are an illusion. Faced with such a horrifying perception, you will invent a way to deal with it.
What this reveals is your remarkable penchant for making shit up. For all of existence, there is an internal narrative upon which you cling, a story you construct minute-by-minute to assure yourself that you understand what is happening. Sufferers of conditions like Cotard’s delusion invent weird, nonsensical explanations for their reality because they are experiencing weird, nonsensical input. The only difference between these patients’ explanations and your own explanations is the degree to which they are obviously, verifiably false. Whatever explanations you manufacture at any given moment to explain your state of mind and body could be similarly muddled, but you don’t have fact checkers constantly doting over your mental health. Whether or not your brain is damaged, your mind is always trying to explain itself to itself, and the degree of accuracy varies moment to moment.
We call these false accounts confabulations – unintentional lies. Confabulations aren’t true, but the person making the claims doesn’t realize it. Neuroscience now knows that confabulations are common and continuous in the both the healthy and the afflicted, but in the case of Cotard’s delusion they are magnified to grotesque proportions.
One of the leading neuroscientists in our era, maybe the leading neuroscientist, is V.S. Ramachandran, and he is the guest in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast. I’ve included a transcript in the links, since the interview took place in a noisy room. It’s also in the lyrics section of the iTunes track. Ramachandran has written extensively about phantom limbs and paralysis as well as the confabulations often conjured by those who experience such problems. His research includes everything from mirror neurons to synesthesia, and you can find dozens of his fascinating lectures online. He is the director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Brain and Cognition, and he is the author of The Tell-Tale Brain and co-author of Phantoms in the Brain.
Show Page: Confabulation | V.S. Ramachandran
Two: Do We Mistake Familiarity With Knowledge?
Remember when the United States stock market crashed a few years back? You know, the implosion famously featuring credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations? Does it seem strange to you that all those experts who couldn’t predict the economic collapse are still on television giving advice and offering predictions?
The people who were wrong continue to work because they provide you with an illusion of knowledge, a belief that the market can be understood by one person, and that person’s understanding can become your understanding. They continue to claim insight into chaotic, impossibly complex nebulae of shifting data, and they continue to profess powers of divination even though research shows they are slightly less reliable than a coin toss. They can still get paid to squawk because they continue to make their claims with confidence. No one wants a sage who deals in maybes.
Take a look at those bicycles at the top of this post. Which one would you say is the most accurate portrayal of a real bike? Psychologist Rebecca Lawson once put together a study that revealed even though most people are very familiar with bicycles and know how to ride them, they can’t draw one to save their lives, and they can’t even pick a proper one out of a lineup. Despite this, most people rate their knowledge of how a bicycle works as being very good. Remember that when someone claims to understand something a bit more complicated, like a sub-prime mortgage. (This is a picture of a real bicycle.)
The illusion of knowledge is believing familiarity is the same as wisdom. You’ve probably felt it when trying to do something like fix a sink or explain to a child how taco shells are made. Just because you’ve become familiar with the operation and function of a thing doesn’t mean you truly understand how it works. For most of life, your understanding is only of the surface, the visible aspects that allow for a reasonable level of prediction. If you were teleported back to medieval times and placed outside a castle, what understanding could you offer those people from your own time?
This episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast is all about the illusion of knowledge, something this episode’s guest, Union College psychologist Christopher Chabris, wrote about extensively in The Invisible Gorilla which he co-authored with psychologist Daniel Simons. Their book not only covers the many ways you miss what is going on around you, but it also discusses how overly confident you become when reflecting on your own memories, perceptions, and understanding. The bit about Lawson’s bicycles is in there, and much more.
Show Page: Illusion of Knowledge | Christopher Chabris
One: Do we miss more than we realize?
The video above demonstrates the Monkey Business Illusion. It’s designed to fool both people who have and have not seen the selective attention test, a video on YouTube with over 5 million views.
The first post at You Are Not So Smart was about inattentional blindness. I had seen the selective attention test and the Test Your Awareness videos that were making the rounds on YouTube, and I knew inattentional blindness would make a great first topic. It is astounding to realize you’ve been lying to yourself about what gets into your brain through your eyeballs.
What is inattentional blindness? It’s missing something right in front of your eyes because you are paying attention to something else. What makes that a great topic for You Are Not So Smart is that this blindness is always part of experience, but you can spend a lifetime without ever knowing it happens. You tend to have an intuition and a belief that you see everything you are facing, and if something out of the ordinary was to happen, it would instantly grab your attention. Not so. Science has revealed you are basically blind to that which you are not attentive, yet your conscious experience and your memories don’t reflect this. That’s the epiphany that slams into your brain when you watch the original invisible gorilla video.
So, when I decided experiment with a You Are Not So Smart podcast, I knew I wanted to interview the scientists behind the invisible gorilla video, study, and book.
Their book covers the many ways you miss what is going on around you thanks to your imperfect senses, and it also breaks down your unrealistic confidence in both those senses and the memories they form.
The book is co-written by two psychologists, so I broke the interviews into two episodes. In episode one, I interview Daniel Simons. He is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois.
Show Page: Attention | Daniel Simons