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.

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“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.

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.

It’s a good time for science-y things. Over the last few years, at least in the USA, the media empires and content hamlets have discovered that people like reading articles and watching videos about the things scientists are doing. In an age skeptical of agendas, unsure about where best to get a daily ration of awe and wonder, right now pop-science is a trusted source.

This has upset some very educated people who know a lot more about how science really works than the average consumer of popular media. I continue to read a variety of curmudgeonly opinions from public thinkers on things like Cosmos, Radiolab, Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, I Fucking Love Science, and the tidal wave of YouTube channels devoted to the kind of programming that used to be the staple of The Discovery Channel. I disagree with the curmudgeons who prefer less gloss and more bar graphs (I think we can enjoy both), but that’s not where I’m headed with this post. Allow me to drop a quote to escape this tangent and move on.

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.

The Topic: Survivorship Bias

The Guest: Megan Price

The Episode: Download iTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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.

Megan PriceTo 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 Group who 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.

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 my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Ken Rose who submitted a recipe for a classic Italian biscotto. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Italian biscotto

Links 

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Megan Price at HRDAG

HRDAG

The Original Survivorship Bias Story

Ed Yong on the Violin Study

The Violin Study