The Topic: The Illusion of Knowledge

The Guest: Christopher Chabris

The Episode: iTunesDownloadStitcherRSS – Soundcloud

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.)

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The Topic: Attention

The Guest: Daniel Simons

The Episode: iTunesDownload – RSS – Soundcloud

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.

The Misconception: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.

The Truth:
The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.

A woman goes out to a club wearing stilettos and a miniskirt with no underwear. She gets pretty drunk and stumbles home in the wrong direction. She ends up lost in a bad neighborhood. She gets raped.

Is she to blame in some way? Was this her fault? Was she asking for it?

People often say yes to all three in studies asking similar questions after presenting similar scenarios.

It is common in fiction for the bad guys to lose and the good guys to win. It is how you would like to see the world – just and fair. In psychology the tendency to believe this is how the real world actually works is a known cognitive bias called the Just-World Fallacy.