Sunday, September 30, 2012

You are not so smart

I've just finished reading "You are not so smart", by David McRaney. Like "Bad Science", by Ben Goldacre, it is a must read. Basically, the point of the book is that we're all self-deluded. It lists and explains forty-eight misconceptions (cognitive biases, psychological phenomena, etc.) or, to put it another way, "lies we tell ourselves everyday".

What follows is a summary of the book, including the introduction to each chapter ("misconception" and "truth" parts - note that these are actual excerpts from the book, not something I wrote myself), links to Wikipedia and, if available, to

1. Priming
THE MISCONCEPTION: You know when you are being influenced and how it is affecting your behavior.
THE TRUTH: You are unaware of the constant nudging you receive from ideas formed in your unconscious mind.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You know when you are lying to yourself.
THE TRUTH: You are often ignorant of your motivations and create fictional narratives to explain your decisions, emotions, and history without realizing it.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.
THE TRUTH: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions.

THE MISCONCEPTION: After you learn something new, you remember how you were once ignorant or wrong.
THE TRUTH: You often look back on the things you’ve just learned and assume you knew them or believed them all along.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You take randomness into account when determining cause and effect.
THE TRUTH: You tend to ignore random chance when the results seem meaningful or when you want a random event to have a meaningful cause.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.
THE TRUTH: Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Your fight-or-flight instincts kick in and you panic when disaster strikes.
THE TRUTH: You often become abnormally calm and pretend everything is normal in a crisis.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.
THE TRUTH: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up.

THE MISCONCEPTION: With the advent of mass media, you understand how the world works based on statistics and facts culled from many examples.
THE TRUTH: You are far more likely to believe something is commonplace if you can find just one example of it, and you are far less likely to believe in something you’ve never seen or heard of before.

THE MISCONCEPTION: When someone is hurt, people rush to their aid.
THE TRUTH: The more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person will help.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You can predict how well you would perform in any situation.
THE TRUTH: You are generally pretty bad at estimating your competence and the difficulty of complex tasks.

12. Apophenia
THE MISCONCEPTION: Some coincidences are so miraculous, they must have meaning.
THE TRUTH: Coincidences are a routine part of life, even the seemingly miraculous ones. Any meaning applied to them comes from your mind.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You prefer the things you own over the things you don’t because you made rational choices when you bought them.
THE TRUTH: You prefer the things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are more concerned with the validity of information than the person delivering it.
THE TRUTH: The status and credentials of an individual greatly influence your perception of that individual’s message.

THE MISCONCEPTION: When you can’t explain something, you focus on what you can prove.
THE TRUTH: When you are unsure of something, you are more likely to accept strange explanations.

THE MISCONCEPTION: When you argue, you try to stick to the facts.
THE TRUTH: In any argument, anger will tempt you to reframe your opponent’s position.

THE MISCONCEPTION: If you can’t trust someone, you should ignore that person’s claims.
THE TRUTH: What someone says and why they say it should be judged separately.

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.

THE MISCONCEPTION: We could create a system with no regulations where everyone would contribute to the good of society, everyone would benefit, and everyone would be happy.
THE TRUTH: Without some form of regulation, slackers and cheaters will crash economic systems because people don’t want to feel like suckers.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You choose to accept or refuse an offer based on logic.
THE TRUTH: When it comes to making a deal, you base your decision on your status.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are skeptical of generalities.
THE TRUTH: You are prone to believing vague statements and predictions are true, especially if they are positive and address you personally.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are too smart to join a cult.
THE TRUTH: Cults are populated by people just like you.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Problems are easier to solve when a group of people get together to discuss solutions.
THE TRUTH: The desire to reach consensus and avoid confrontation hinders progress.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Men who have sex with RealDolls are insane, and women who marry eighty-year-old billionaires are gold diggers.
THE TRUTH: The RealDoll and rich old sugar daddies are both supernormal releasers.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You calculate what is risky or rewarding and always choose to maximize gains while minimizing losses.
THE TRUTH: You depend on emotions to tell you if something is good or bad, greatly overestimate rewards, and tend to stick to your first impressions.

THE MISCONCEPTION: There is a Rolodex in your mind with the names and faces of everyone you’ve ever known.
THE TRUTH: You can maintain relationships and keep up with only around 150 people at once.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Both consumerism and capitalism are sustained by corporations and advertising.
THE TRUTH: Both consumerism and capitalism are driven by competition among consumers for status.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You evaluate yourself based on past successes and defeats.
THE TRUTH: You excuse your failures and see yourself as more successful, more intelligent, and more skilled than you are.

29. The Spotlight Effect (
THE MISCONCEPTION: When you are around others, you feel as if everyone is noticing every aspect of your appearance and behavior.
THE TRUTH: People devote little attention to you unless prompted to.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You believe your opinions and decisions are based on experience and facts, while those who disagree with you are falling for the lies and propaganda of sources you don’t trust.
THE TRUTH: Everyone believes the people they disagree with are gullible, and everyone thinks they are far less susceptible to persuasion than they truly are.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Venting your anger is an effective way to reduce stress and prevent lashing out at friends and family.
THE TRUTH: Venting increases aggressive behavior over time.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Memories are played back like recordings.
THE TRUTH: Memories are constructed anew each time from whatever information is currently available, which makes them highly permeable to influences from the present.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are a strong individual who doesn’t conform unless forced to.
THE TRUTH: It takes little more than an authority figure or social pressure to get you to obey, because conformity is a survival instinct.

THE MISCONCEPTION: If you stop engaging in a bad habit, the habit will gradually diminish until it disappears from your life.
THE TRUTH: Any time you quit something cold turkey, your brain will make a last-ditch effort to return you to your habit.

THE MISCONCEPTION: When you are joined by others in a task, you work harder and become more accomplished.
THE TRUTH: Once part of a group, you tend to put in less effort because you know your work will be pooled together with others’.

THE MISCONCEPTION: When your emotions run high, people can look at you and tell what you are thinking and feeling.
THE TRUTH: Your subjective experience is not observable, and you overestimate how much you telegraph your inner thoughts and emotions.

THE MISCONCEPTION: If you are in a bad situation, you will do whatever you can do to escape it.
THE TRUTH: If you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Your opinions of people and events are based on objective evaluation.
THE TRUTH: You translate your physical world into words, and then believe those words.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You rationally analyze all factors before making a choice or determining value.
THE TRUTH: Your first perception lingers in your mind, affecting later perceptions and decisions.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You see everything going on before your eyes, taking in all the information like a camera.
THE TRUTH: You are aware only of a small amount of the total information your eyes take in, and even less is processed by your conscious mind and remembered.

THE MISCONCEPTION: In all you do, you strive for success.
THE TRUTH: You often create conditions for failure ahead of time to protect your ego.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Predictions about your future are subject to forces beyond your control.
THE TRUTH: Just believing a future event will happen can cause it to happen if the event depends on human behavior.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are one person, and your happiness is based on being content with your life.
THE TRUTH: You are multiple selves, and happiness is based on satisfying all of them.

44. Consistency Bias (
THE MISCONCEPTION: You know how your opinions have changed over time.
THE TRUTH: Unless you consciously keep tabs on your progress, you assume the way you feel now is the way you have always felt.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Knowing a person’s history makes it easier to determine what sort of person they are.
THE TRUTH: You jump to conclusions based on how representative a person seems to be of a preconceived character type. Your

THE MISCONCEPTION: Wine is a complicated elixir, full of subtle flavors only an expert can truly distinguish, and experienced tasters are impervious to deception.
THE TRUTH: Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You know how much control you have over your surroundings.
THE TRUTH: You often believe you have control over outcomes that are either random or are too complex to predict.

THE MISCONCEPTION: Other people’s behavior is the reflection of their personality.
THE TRUTH: Other people’s behavior is more the result of the situation than their disposition.

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