In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast we sit down with my friend and one of my favorite journalists, author Will Storr, whose new book just hit the shelves here in the United States. It’s called Selfie: How We Became so Self-Obsessed, and What it is Doing to Us.

The book explores what he calls “the age of perfectionism” — our modern struggle with our many modern pressures to meet newly emerging ideals and standards that tell us if we are falling short of the person we ought to be – and how that struggle to be that person is an impossible task. As he says in the book, “perfectionism is the idea that kills,” and you’ll hear him explain what he means by that in the interview.

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Common sense used to dictate that men and women should only come together for breakfast and dinner.

According to Victorian historian Kathyrn Hughes, people in the early 19th Century thought the outside world was dangerous and unclean and morally dubious and thus no place for a virtuous, fragile woman. The home was a paradise, a place for civility, where perfect angelic ladies could, in her words, “counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere.”

When was the last time you changed your mind? Are you sure?

In this episode we explore new research that suggests for the majority of the mind change we experience, after we update our priors, we delete what we used to believe and then simply forget that we ever thought otherwise.

In the show, psychologists Michael Wolfe and Todd Williams, take us though their new research which suggests that because brains so value consistency, and are so determined to avoid the threat of decoherence, we hide the evidence of our belief change. That way, the story we tell ourselves about who we are can remain more or less heroic, with a stable, steadfast protagonist whose convictions rarely waver — or, at least, they don’t waver as much as those of shifty, flip-flopping politicians.

Little did the champions of the Enlightenment know that once we had access to all the facts…well, reason and rationality wouldn’t just immediately wash across the land in a giant wave of enlightenment thinking.

While that may be happening in some ways, the new media ecosystem has also unshackled some of our deepest psychological tendencies, things that enlightenment thinkers didn’t know about, weren’t worried about, or couldn’t have predicted. Many of which we’ve discussed in previous episodes like confirmation bias, selective skepticism, filter bubbles and so on. These things have always been with us, but modern technology has provided them with the perfect environment to flourish.

In this episode, we explore another such invasive psychological species called active information avoidance, the act of keeping our senses away from information that might be useful, that we know is out there, that would cost us nothing to obtain, but that we’d still rather not learn. From choosing not to open open bills, visit the doctor, check your bank account, or read the nutrition information on the back of a box of Girl Scout Cookies, we each choose to remain ignorant when we’d rather not feel the anguish of illumination, but that same tendency can also cause great harm both to individuals and whole cultures when it spreads through politics, science, markets, and medicine. In this show, you’ll learn how.

We aren’t treating tribalism as a basic human drive, but that’s what it is. Fast food lowered the cost to satisfy a basic drive, and we grew fat. Then we figured it out. Social media lowered the cost to exhibit tribal behaviors, and we are growing apart. But we can figure this out too.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we spend time with political scientist Lilliana Mason and psychologist Dan Kahan, two researchers exploring how our tribal tendencies are scrambling public discourse and derailing so many of our best efforts at progress — from science communication, to elections, to our ability to converge on the truth and go about the grind of building a better democracy.

This episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast is about progress, how we invented it as an idea and then went about pursuing it on-purpose.

Our guest is University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer. I wanted to talk to Ada because she wrote this brilliant, fun, illuminating essay earlier this year titled On Progress and Historical Change which felt like had been written specifically to address my exact confusion.

Historians, she writes, are careful to avoid a teleological frame of mind they sometimes call “Whig history,” in which we look back at our ignorant pasts and compare it to our amazing present and then assume there is an ultimate goal to all of this activity, an end-state of perfection, a strange attractor pulling us toward the ultimate purpose of all human effort. The truth is that it is a lot more complicated than that.

In the essay, she reveals the problems with thinking in this way and asks, “Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?”

In the episode, you’ll hear her address all these questions and more, and I promise it will leave you feeling optimistic, but also a bit more realistic.