You are Unaware of How Unaware You Are

IdeaConnection Interview with David McRaney, Author of You Are Not So Smart
By Vern Burkhardt
"Stories make sense on an emotional level, so anything that conjures fear, empathy, or pride will trump confusing statistics." You Are Not So Smart, page 144

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What has been the reaction of people to the message 'you are not so smart'?

photo of David McRaneyDavid McRaney: People love the message, and I think that's because it immediately resonates as being the truth you've always suspected about yourself and others, but now scientists are quantifying that truth. The second thing that usually happens, what I get asked after someone has read some of my work, is, 'How do we stop doing these things.' I then get to explain that even the guy who wrote the book can't stop being biased or deluded, but knowing this before going into new situations is the key.

VB: We like to think we are rational human beings but you advise that a lot of our emotions, ways of thinking, and behaviors relate back to what it took to survive as primates millions of years ago. We haven't evolved as much as we would like to think?

David McRaney: Well, evolution is very, very slow in human terms. Many of our behaviors and the physical properties of our brains are presumably the same as those of our ancient, stone-ax wielding ancestors. So our thoughts, behaviors and emotions are influenced by pressures from another time period. A turtle crossing the road will hunker down when a car approaches because that behavior kept millions of its ancestors alive long enough to mate. Today, that behavior still works much of the time, but in some instances it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Our heads are full of this sort of stuff.

We point to culture when we want to believe we are rational, logical, and full of reason. Culture and education exist thanks to plasticity – that wonderful adaptive mechanism which saves us from the glacial pace of evolution. We can learn and unlearn, and once written language was invented we could learn and unlearn from all the people who lived before us. So, we tend to look at a heart stint or a Roomba and feel a sense of pride, but ask yourself how well you actually understand science, medicine, and technology. If you traveled back to medieval times, what could you offer those people from your time period? If everyone above the age of five died off in a flash, what sort of world would those children create? In the absence of our cultural inheritance, we're not much different than people 10,000 years ago.

VB: In You Are Not So Smart you say, "You are unaware of how unaware you are." What is the implication of this?

David McRaney: We tend to believe we know the source of our thoughts, behaviors and emotions, but a great deal of research suggests otherwise. When we can't explain our own behavior, we don't shrug and move on, we confabulate – we lie to ourselves without realizing it is a lie.

For instance, one study had customers in a department store rate panty hose. The researchers set up four displays side-by-side and had people choose their favorite. The majority of people picked the one farthest to the right, and when asked why, the choosers explained how they liked the texture, the color, or whatever. They each had a story as to why they liked that pair better than the others. Of course, they were actually all the same panty hose. People actually preferred the position, not the product, but no one said the position factored into their choice. We make choices and assumptions like this all the time and live out our lives never knowing the truth.

We are constantly observing our own behavior and then explaining it in a way which corresponds to whatever positive self-image keeps us sane. These narratives are sometimes spot on, and sometimes pure fiction. Either way, they build up and become the story of who we are. When you look back on your life, those stories are you, but you remain blissfully unaware of how inaccurate they are.

VB: Can we train our minds to be more aware?

David McRaney: You can't prevent yourself from being startled or recoiling your hand from a hot stove. Similarly, there is no way to expunge cognitive biases, heuristics, or fallacies from the mind. The best we can do is learning to recognize when they appear and when they are likely to be a problem. This can then lead to better personal behavior and decision-making. Hopefully, once this filters into being common knowledge it will also influence policy and politics.

VB: What do you think the potential is for human awareness?

David McRaney: There is a movement underway for sure. Every year I see more books and more websites focused on the foibles of the mind, and on the latest research in neuroscience. We're starting to see more scientist communicators and celebrity scientists in the mainstream. I think we're entering a new era in which our old image of rationality is being challenged. What it means to be a normal person is constantly being redefined.

VB: When talking about 'comfirmation bias' you say, "In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well." What lessons does this have for us if we wish to become more creative?

David McRaney: We invented science because our natural way of understanding and explaining what we experience is terrible and prone to error. What is thunder? Every culture had an explanation before we had science because when you have zero evidence every assumption is basically equal. We tend to try to confirm our assumptions naturally, but science is a tool to disconfirm our assumptions by carefully eliminating every possibility until only a few remain.

In creative pursuits you can play around with that knowledge of yourself and others. I tend to think you'll get more out of life by challenging your assumptions than by reinforcing them.

VB: Why do we take our own opinions so seriously and guard them so aggressively?

David McRaney: The research suggests we need to be able to believe in ourselves, in our agency, in order to roll out of bed and take on the world. We need to be able to reasonably predict our own actions and our effectance before we venture forth in any pursuit. So, we tend to protect our world-view and our cultural models of reality. That's the water we swim in. Without that context, we lose our ability to make decisions. Without our opinions we lose point A and thus can't proceed to point B.

VB: Would you talk a bit about the 'Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy'?

David McRaney: The TSF is a form of pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is one of the most powerful tools human beings possess. We're better at it than just about every other animal, but we also can't turn it off. A light socket looks like a face. A cloud looks like a horse. We have a hard time accepting that something is just a random pattern of noise without picking it apart and placing order on top of it.

Imagine a cowboy shoots the side of a barn until it is pocked with dozens of holes. Those holes will naturally cluster in some areas. If the shooter then paints a bull's-eye over the cluster, it would look like he was a great shot.

The bull's-eye is human order and meaning painted over natural randomness. When people notice clusters in life, they tend to put meaning over them and then try to prove the meaning is valid. For instance, when we learned there were far more cases of autism in children than we first suspected, some people reacted by assuming something that happens at the age most children are diagnosed must be the cause. Since most kids are vaccinated at the same age they are diagnosed, the vaccines became the bull's-eye. It corresponded with another pattern. But, science says to beware; correlation is not necessarily causation. The real cause was much simpler. Doctors had become better at recognizing and diagnosing the disorder, so more cases appeared than in years previous. It is something many people are still unwilling to accept.

VB: Does the 'primal' drive for order explain why so many people are attracted to conspiracy theories?

David McRaney: It plays a significant role. Conspiracy theories are a perfect storm of cognitive biases swirling around a basic distrust of authority. Once a person subscribes to a conspiracy theory, pattern recognition will only add energy to the storm because people seek to prove their assumptions are correct and ignore evidence to the contrary by assuming it is planted by agents of the conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are like ant death spirals. Ants follow pheromone trails, and sometimes that will lead to a chain of ants going in a circle. Eventually, a whole colony of ants will form a whirlpool, each ant following the other until they all die. The system that serves them well in most instances, and has done so for millions of years, gets stuck in a loop.

A conspiracy theory is a mental loop. It feeds itself by labeling contradictory evidence as proof someone is trying to throw you off the trail, and any absence of evidence as proof someone is hiding something.

VB: What might be some of the implications, in the business world, of your comment, "The stupid monkey part of your brain wants to gobble up candy bars and go deeply into debt."

David McRaney: We are terrible at delaying gratification, and we are terrible at predicting and planning for the future. Yet, our ability to do those things at all is what separates us from the other apes.

The research suggests the better you are at delaying gratification the more successful you will be in life, starting even as a toddler. You will never be able to turn off your primal desires and urges, but you can learn to be better at avoiding situations in which they will be a problem. In any professional setting you should arm yourself with as many weapons as you can muster to keep the stupid monkey at bay.

VB: Given that 'normalcy bias' is "pretending everything will continue to be as fine and predictable as it was before a crisis", how do you explain panic behavior such as stampedes of people in stadiums?

David McRaney: Usually, normalcy bias keeps people still and causes them to refuse to act when they ought to act because they aren't receiving the necessary cues from their peers that something awful is happening. In many dire situations, people actively avoid searching for those cues in order to comfort themselves. The result is inaction.

Stampedes, mobs, and such occur when more people than would naturally gather in a single location respond to a cascading wave of panic cues they can't avoid.

In a way it's the same system, just under different circumstances.

VB: "…introspection is not the act of tapping into your innermost mental constructs but is instead a fabrication." Can we learn to use introspection to see how we are fabricating and thus avoid its pitfalls?

David McRaney: Much of Eastern philosophy and modern interpretations of that philosophy is focused on introspection in order to get away from being concerned with the self and its issues. The problem with this, of course, is whatever you experience during meditation will require some sort of explanation, and the explanation is just as likely to be a confabulation as anything else because you must exit meditation to tell that story. Even if you could deeply introspect, you'd be looking at the interplay of vast systems of neurons and chemical reactions. It wouldn't make sense to the higher level of words and schemas.

My advice? You can't think your way to right action; you must act your way to right thinking.

VB: "It's simply easier to believe something if you are presented with examples than it is to accept something presented in numbers or abstract fact." Would you talk a bit about this?

David McRaney: We put more faith in an anecdote than a statistic. As social animals, we just don't think in statistics. They don't make sense intuitively. But, a story does.

Let’s say I have a card deck. If a card has an even number on one side then it must be red on the opposite side. I lay out four cards showing 3, 8, red, brown. Which card or cards must you flip to prove I’m telling the truth. I’ll give you $1,000 if you can answer correctly.

Now, imagine this scenario. You are a cop inspecting a bar for underage drinking. The rule is that you must be 21-years-old to drink. There are four people, and you know the following. One is 18, one is 21, one is drinking water, and one is drinking whiskey. Which patrons should you ignore? See? That's easy.

Both are the same logic puzzle, but the one couched in a social situation is much, much easier to follow and solve.

Likewise, you are far more likely to die in a car wreck than in a school shooting or a terrorist attack, but which makes the more interesting story in the news? That which makes for a better story, that which alerts your social awareness, will be more available in memory, and thus it will affect you more when making decisions and forming opinions.

VB: "Stories make sense on an emotional level, so anything that conjures fear, empathy, or pride will trump confusing statistics." Do you think this explains why some bad decisions are made in business and other parts of our lives?

cover of You are Not so SmartDavid McRaney: Definitely. Just about everything politicians do, they do because of compelling stories and personal anecdotes. If you want to sway opinion, tell a good story. Numbers are inert and dead.

VB: Does it surprise you that some brands create fierce loyalty in their customers – especially in areas where the differentiation of products is not large?

David McRaney: When it comes to buying and owning, a slew of delusions come into play. The endowment effect pops up when you feel like the things you own are superior to the things you do not. In one study, a group of subjects was asked to estimate the value of a water bottle, and then one person in the group was allowed to keep it. Later, when the scientists asked the winner to offer it up for auction, the price went up. If the group said it was worth $5, then the new owner would offer it back for $8 – even though it was free. Ownership adds value.

Choice supportive bias swoops in when you feel discomfort over an expensive purchase. You might spend months researching televisions, comparing and contrasting all the different qualities of every model on the market, but once you settle on one option you then look back and rationalize your actions by believing your television was the best of all the televisions you could have possibly picked. In business, this was well understood before it was proven in a lab. To prevent buyer's remorse savvy retailers offer a limited number of options.

Apple creates fanboys more than any other company because it has not only defined its philosophy, but has made this philosophy public and offered consumers a chance to join in. Apple gives you the option to create the person you think you are through choosing to align yourself with the mystique of its products. Apple advertising rarely mentions how good their computers are. Instead, they give you examples of the sort of people who purchase those computers. Whether they are great products or not are considerations that come after you see yourself as the sort of person who would own one.

What gets lost in arguments over tech gadgets and their reality distortion fields is that consciousness itself is a reality distortion field. Every brain in every head is cut off from objective reality by the limitations of subjective experience. What you decide to believe about the slivers of information coming in through your flawed and blurry senses is always affected by your personal reality distortion field, your sense of self.

Modern companies ask you whether or not you see reality through a certain lens they endorse. If you do, you buy in and then defend the choice.

VB: In your book you describe a number of types of fallacies. Do they explain some of the behaviors of the politicians in the U.S. and other countries, for that matter?

David McRaney: Fallacies are a constant force in every person's life, and politicians are no exception. Politicians tend to look back on history when making decisions, which is terribly unscientific. There's no control group in history. Was dropping the atomic bomb the right move? We can never know because we can't run through the events a second time and choose another option.

The most dangerous fallacy for politicians is either the just world fallacy or the sunk cost fallacy. The just world fallacy is to believe the people who suffer from poverty, homelessness, addiction, or sexual violence made poor choices and are thus responsible for their fates. The truth is far more complex and nuanced.

The sunk cost fallacy is the tendency to stay the course and keep pumping money and effort into a project just because you've already spent a lot of time, money, and effort and don't want to feel as if it was a waste.

VB: "…you are far more vulnerable to suggestion when the subject of the conversation is you." Do you think that knowing this and the other ways we delude ourselves will make us less susceptible to deluding ourselves? Can we consciously unlearn our own delusional tendencies?

David McRaney: You can't unlearn it, but you can learn to recognize when you are in a situation which will play on your weaknesses. For instance, when the menu at a restaurant offers several very expensive meals, know that they do that to make the other items seem cheap by comparison. They are using the anchoring effect to create a frame of reference, a context. If you know this, you can try to delete those items from your comparisons.

VB: "For a group to make good decisions, they must allow dissent and convince everyone they are free to speak their minds without risk of punishment." Would you talk about this in terms of team dynamics?

David McRaney: When making a decision as a group, often in the presence of a leader, people often hide their dissent. When they look around, they falsely assume everyone else is in private agreement with the public notions, and they are the only person with dissenting feelings. That's groupthink in a nutshell.

There are several ways out of this. One is to assign a person whose job is to find problems with everything and make them public. Another is to take breaks and form smaller groups before coming to a decision. Another would be to allow anonymous feedback that the leader isn't allowed to see.

VB: You say that "in a real social way" we can only keep up with between 150 and 230 other people. Is it possible to constantly "groom" that many people?

David McRaney: Not really, but you can keep tabs on that many people, know when they are sick, having a baby, or if they have a new job, and technology has expanded the limits of what we can naturally maintain. Realistically, most people only groom about 20 or so people; that's the people with whom you share secrets and agree to help move.

VB: Many thought leaders about innovation advise that you should fail early and often, and learn from these failures. Do you think this is possible for most of us given what you describe as the 'self-serving bias'?

David McRaney: Yes, because you learn when you fail. Your brain physically changes as you progress toward a new skill. If you pick up a basketball and throw it at a hoop and it goes right in, you learn nothing. If you keep throwing it, and it keeps missing, an unconscious adaptation starts to transform your mind at the synaptic level, and that is separate from the story you conjure up to explain why you can't make the shot.

VB: "Whenever you venture into uncharted waters with failure as a distinct possibility, your anxiety will be lowered every time you see a new way to blame possible failure on forces beyond your control." Should entrepreneurs stating up new companies take heed?

David McRaney: Definitely. We are prone to something called self-handicapping. That's when a person stays up all night before a big test, or goes out drinking before a job interview. They are creating an alibi for their failure by handicapping their abilities before a challenge. It's a way to protect yourself in case you fail. Know that before any seriously challenging moment or project, this is something you'll feel motivated to engage in. Take heed.

VB: "Memory is imperfect, but also constantly changing." Would you talk a bit about this?

David McRaney: We have an intuition that memory is a recording, and remembering is just playing that recording back. Nope. Memory is more like a big box of Lego blocks. Experience is creating things from those blocks and then tearing them apart again. When you remember, it's as if you go back to that box and try to put the creation back together again as best you can. It won't be perfect, and it won't be the same every time.

Memory is highly permeable and malleable. The way you remember a moment from the past is influenced by the person you are today, by the context of the situation you are now within, and so on.

If you saw a car accident, and I asked you how fast the cars were going when they collided, you would give me a different number than if I asked how fast they were going when they bumped. The wording of my question changes the way you recreate the experience. If I recorded how you felt about the war in Iraq in 2001, and asked you today what you said back then, you would likely describe opinions closer to how you feel now than how you felt then.

VB: "The research into cultural cognition is new, but these studies suggest that Western culture is less concerned with context and more concerned with the center of attention, which means it is possible Westerners are more susceptible to both change blindness and inattentional blindness." Would you explain?

David McRaney: Change blindness and inattentional blindness describe the assumptions we make about our ability to pay attention to our senses. We have an intuition that everything coming into our senses is recorded, that we miss nothing from moment to moment. But, in the lab, psychologists can ask people to count the number of passes of a ball between a few people and then have a man in a gorilla suit moonwalk between them. People often never see the gorilla, and find it very difficult to accept that it was ever there. That's inattentional blindness. We don't see what we don't attend to, yet we are unaware most of the time to what we are and are not attending. Another experiment has someone turn in a form to a person behind a desk, and when the person ducks down to hand the person a receipt, another person stands up. Many people never notice the switch.

This tendency, though, might be different depending on the culture from which you sprang. Subjects from Eastern cultures tend to pay more attention to context and background images in a photograph or piece of art while Westerners tend to pay more attention to the central subject or the focal point. It follows that Westerners may then have a harder time paying attention to the forest because their culture encourages them to spend more time concerned with the trees.

VB: Do you think it is good for us to understand the 48 ways we delude ourselves, which you talk about in your book?

David McRaney: Oh yes. It's essential. My book is about self delusion, the kind quantified by science, the kind every brain deals with. It's an overview of established knowledge that I feel should be in the instruction manual for operating a human body – just like the stuff we recently added about trans fats and cigarettes.

VB: How has it changed you and your approach when dealing with others?

David McRaney: Researching and writing about this side of psychology has definitely changed the way I make decisions and think about thinking. My wife and I will often mention the sunk-cost fallacy or confirmation bias in everyday situations. It also makes me more tolerant of people, yet less tolerant of institutions that should know better, that should pay attention to what science has to say.

Author David McRaney discusses 48 ways we can delude ourselves. These are worth learning about because an informed mind is a prepared mind, albeit even then the author suggests we are not so smart. For example, "…you want to be right about how you see the world, so you seek out information that confirms your beliefs and avoid contradictory evidence and opinions." (page 29)

David McRaney's Bio:
David McRaney received a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007.

Since February 2008 he has worked WDAM-TV as head of convergent journalism and new media, and is responsible for all Web-based content. In this role he is responsible for all non-broadcast communication and communication tools. One of his many accomplishments has been co-creator and producer for "The Green Couch Session" during the time period October 2009 to July 2011. This was a weekly television music program showcasing performances by artists in the Pine Belt region, an area between New Orleans and Birmingham.

David McRaney's awards include being named one of the top 10 college journalists in the nation that earned a $10,000 scholarship from the Scripps Howard Foundation in 2006. He is a two-time winner of the William Randolph Hearst Award, once for feature writing and once for opinions writing. He was also the recipient of the 2007 Elliot Chaze Journalism Scholarship and the 2006 Mississippi Press Association's awards for best photo and story combination and best general news story, the South Eastern Journalism Conference award for opinions writing as well as winning the on-site competition in the same category, the 2007 MPA awards for both the best general interest column and best news story, the 2006 MPA Collegiate award for best feature story, the SEJC award for special event reporting for work covering Hurricane Katrina, and the 2009 Mississippi Associated Press award for Best Television News Web Site

David McRaney is the author of You Are Not So Smart (2011).

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