4th October 2012 - David McRaney
David McRaney is the author of You Are Not So Smart and the mind behind youarenotsosmart.com. In this guest blog for Foyles, he explains some of the hidden mental processes that guide our decision-making, revealing that we are are far more irrational and deluded than we know.
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You have a kneejerk sense of pride when you dabble with a smartphone, deftly launching a video of a dog on a trampoline to your roommate while you sit in the sky on the other side of the planet. It is hard not to feel a bit smug when you consider how many people are alive after a lifetime of cheese sticks thanks to double-bypass heart surgery. We did this, you might think. We are an amazing species.
Yet, that pride collapses when accidentally dial your boss over drinks and complain about work. That shared sense of accomplishment dwindles when you stand in your kitchen wondering why you are standing in your kitchen. As you watch your weight go up or notice your savings evaporate, it makes you wonder how humans can seem so smart as a species and so dumb as individuals.
The answer is simple. You are not so smart. You struggle daily with a collection of biases and delusions, irrational conclusions and faulty beliefs that develop as naturally as moustaches and infants. It is all thanks to completely normal processes inside that goofy brain you inherited. You share a brain with people who used it to build things like pyramids - which are amazing - but who also buried people inside those pyramids with gold so they could have spending money in the afterlife - which now seems ridiculous.
This is what my book, You Are Not So Smart, is all about. It is a celebration of self delusion and of all the interesting and scientifically quantified ways you succumb to it.
You assume all you need to navigate the modern world is a firm grasp of the facts, a rational approach to life, and a devotion to reason instead of emotion. While those things are all dandy and worth your aspirations, they are also a source of undeserved confidence. No matter how educated or philosophically agile you become, you will still lock your keys in your car. No matter what you achieve or how much fame you acquire, you will feel the shame of a late-night ice cream binge. Worse still, you will fall prey to things like hindsight bias, procrastination, groupthink, priming, and learned helplessness. The reasons why each of these waits dormant inside your head are explored one at a time in the book along with many others.
Let's look at one of my favourite examples. Scientists once set up a study in a department store designed to keep the subjects unaware they were being studied. The psychologists set up four displays of stockings side by side, and asked passing shoppers if they would mind rating the different brands and choose their favourite. The majority of the passersby said they preferred the stockings farthest to the right. When the scientists asked why, the people explained. Some said it was because of the texture, some said the colour, some said the quality of the fabric, and so on. Everyone had an explanation for their choice, but they were lying. What they didn't know was that the stockings were all the same. They weren't different brands at all. What people truly preferred was the position of the display, because as previous studies had shown people tend to prefer the right-most selection in a series of choices. Unaware that this was the real reason why they chose what they chose, and unaware that all the stockings were identical, the subjects made up a story and then proceeded to believe it.
Psychologists call it a confabulation, an unintentional lie that you believe is true. You do this all of the time, explain why you feel what you feel or do what you do, even though you often have no way of knowing the true source of your mental state. The explanation is sometimes close to the truth, but often it is a delusion, and those delusions are what I love to explore.
One of the questions I get asked a lot concerning my book is whether or not I've become some sort of rational superbeing, incapable of delusion, devoid of bias or fallacious reasoning. People ask me this because You Are Not So Smart is about how exquisitely delusional every owner of a human head tends to be moment to moment, and better yet, how easily and often these head owners deny their own muddy thinking. It makes sense then that you might think the person who wrote that book must have a leg up on the average person when it comes to thinking and thinking about thinking.
Of course, the answer is no. The curriculum vitae of my ridiculous assumptions is particularly impressive, but the fact that people routinely ask this question is a wonderful thing to me because it means people still believe such a state is possible even after I've written so many paragraphs explaining that it isn't. You can't get rid of these things. They are permanent features of human consciousness and reasoning.
It is a seductive notion, the idea of genius, the concept of perfection. In a world full of crashing markets and sexual scandals, political tomfoolery and superstitious explanations, it is a comforting thought to believe one could read enough books and design a tight-enough regimen to rise above human foible. We look to people like Einstein and marvel at their minds. Yet Einstein tried to get his estranged wife to sign a contract to clean his clothes regularly, provide him with scheduled meals, and to cease speaking upon request. Einstein was a human, and humans remain mostly irrational when no one is looking, no matter how good they get at being rational on paper.
You Are Not So Smart is about the scientifically catalogued and altogether wonderful ways you delude yourself every day in order to stay sane. Inside you'll learn about cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and faulty heuristics. You'll see how Confirmation Bias fills your bookshelves with texts that confirm your assumptions and make you change the channel away from shows that disagree with your beliefs. You'll see how The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy fuels conspiracy theories and causes you to create patterns where there is only noise. You'll see how the Affect Heuristic causes you to vote for people with symmetrical faces and velvety voices despite what they say into microphones.
Most of all, you'll learn an important lesson. You can't be rid of these mental stumbling blocks, but you can learn to recognize how these components of the mind work and be prepared for when they fail. You can't strengthen your head in preparation for a bike race, but you can wear a helmet. Similarly you can't magically rid yourself of self delusion - believe me I've tried - but you can be ready for when you fall. That's what I hope you gain from this book - that while you read about the classic lessons in psychology and the latest research, you'll learn to laugh at your own expense.
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