SPP: I noticed that you actually have a blog of the same name you are not www.youarenotsosmart.com. David: Right.
SPP: So it seemed you started to write their first prior to writing for the book. How did you come up with the idea for the book? And then how did you come up with the idea for writing for the blog as well?
David: Well I never actually thought this would be a book it was just a fun side project. I work in new media and I’ve been a journalist for awhile. And when I was in college I thought I was going to be a psychologist for the first two years. So I studied a lot of psychology, I took a lot of classes, had lots of notes and lots of things that I could remember that stood out to me; things that gave me the greatest epiphany. It always seemed to be the things that knocked me off my pedestal or through me for a loop.
So those were all sort of things that I would bring up at parties or long trips, much to the chagrin of my friends. Being a Debbie Downer with psychology I learned quickly wasn’t a good way to keep friends or have people to help you move. But I thought it was still fun stuff and I wanted to write about it in a way that was fun and interesting and not so purely academic it had a lot of real world examples.
And at first the blog started out as just being one of those blogs that point to interesting things on the internet, but the more I wrote about it the more I learned about it, and the more I spent trying to fill out the blog entries and make them longer, have more research, point to more studies. And that has led to the popularity of the blog and that led to some offers to turn into a book. And so the book is about half of it is the blog, expanded, revised, polished up, re-researched, that sort of thing. And the other half was completely new material that I went and researched and wrote about just for the book.
SPP: David got to say first that I absolutely love your book. I’m currently considering getting my Masters in Psychology and your book is basically a conglomeration of everything that’s interesting, in my opinion at least, about the way that we think and things like that. So I just wanted to let you know that upfront.
David: Oh thanks man.
SPP: No problem. And again the book is called “You Are Not So Smart”, which is catchy. And on the front it talks about why you have too many friends on Facebook, and just a lot of relevant things. So the first thing I wanted to ask you in your book you talk about 48 Misconceptions Most People Have about Our Way of Thinking as Humans. Basically this comes across as 48 mistakes we make on a daily basis.
And as I mentioned L love the book but it kind of depressed me because you realize how flawed we are. I wanted to ask you why are we so flawed I mean if we’re this fantastic creature why are we given so many problems? And then are these actual problems or are these just survival mechanisms that are no longer relevant?
David: It’s a mix of a lot of different things. One definitely is that a lot of this stuff is pattern recognition that has served us well in the best situations; it’s recognizing the agency behind things that may not have any agency at all. Then a lot of the things that are evolutionarily sound as strategies of thinking, strategies of perception, but now in modern borrowing there’s no apocalypse or a worldwide food surge or something, we don’t use these things as much as we need to, as much as we use to.
So a lot of that stuff is fallen to that. And the other stuff that I read about the biases and the characteristics, these are more often the brain sacrificing accuracy for speed, which is something we tend to do a great deal. And that also I guess is evolutionary and we think about it as served as well coming up to this point. I do avoid prescriptive advice in the book. For one thing I’m just not qualified to give it, and for the other the point I’m trying to make is that you’re unaware of how unaware you are. And you’re an unreliable narrator the story of your life and that means you’re naturally hindered with thinking in certain ways and not in others.
And the world around us, not just the grand scale of politics and technology and everything, but also on our personalized. The world we live in is a product of dealing with those delusions and not necessarily overcoming them. And I think we would be better served that we childproofed our home, had childproofed our lives against these delusions instead of trusting ourselves to be able to overcome them. Because if you make it difficult for children to harm themselves instead of trying to just talk some sense into them and we outsmart them, then we probably outsmart our future selves in the same way.
So I’m saying you wouldn’t build a car for a person with four legs and so let’s not make any conversations on the idea that there are people who aren’t greedy who aren’t procrastinators, who will abstain from sex just because they should or who will save for retirement just because they should. My philosophy, you can take it or leave it this is the way I look at it, is like we should base our decision of laws and policies on our real selves and not our better angels. And we should attempt to change and use science to do that. But recognize that’s a slow going process.
SPP: So you have a trailer for your book, I guess you would call it a trailer on YouTube and your site, and it talks about procrastination. And I mean Chris will completely agree with me on this and I’m one of the biggest procrastinators. And I never really knew why and your explanation of the now you versus the future you really cleared that up for me. Could you go ahead and kind of explain to our listeners what you meant by that?
David: When I knew that I had gotten a book deal I knew that my own procrastination was going to be the one thing you’ll have to overcome. And I had all these preconceived notions about what procrastination was and I thought why not just use that as a topic and let’s dive into it. And when I was digging up all the studies about procrastination I realized it kept coming back to me that it wasn’t laziness it was more of not having an adequate strategy to deal with your future self, and I use future self, present self to describe something that psychologist call present bias.
Present bias is when you assume that the person you are now all the warmth and desires and the failings and the intention that you have at this very moment are going to be the same ones you have in a week or a month or when you get off work today. And that’s just not true we are very influenced by our environment, we’re very influenced by what is affecting us from minute to minute. And it feels like we’re a consistent person we tend to change over time.
So a study that really made that make sense to me was a study into how people, I use Netflix as my example because I know that my Netflix queue is always chalked full of stuff that I should be watching but that I sacrifice every night for stuff that’s fun over stuff that I just saw in the list, and I go for something listed in the queue. The study was I had to pick three movies to watch over the course of three days. Like one movie today, and then two days another, and then a couple of days another. And that they gave them this bank of movies they had to pick from. And some of them were low brow, and this is the scientist talking, some were low brow and some were high brow.
The low brow ones were things like “The Mask” or “Speed”, and the high brow ones were things like “The Piano” or “Schindler’s List”. Now everyone who picked the high brow movie as one of their three, or more often than not they would, but they would always pick it as the third movie. So it was one of those things like I know these are nutritious and good for me but I would rather have a candy bar right now. And when would change the study to say “Let’s pick a movie, you have to watch all three movies back-to-back.” People tended to not even pick “Schindler’s List” anymore they would just pick three candy bars.
And that’s something that we as human beings are succumbed to; it’s called a Time inconsistency. We think that we in the future we’re going to be really awesome and good to ourselves or we’re going to eat the salad but when we get there we eat the chocolate cake. And it’s not really a weakness it’s just a failure to think about thinking.
The other great example that really drives it home is the Mitchell experiments where they had children, they gave them a marshmallow and they also gave them a bunch of other treats too, but the marshmallow’s the one that’s the most interesting. They would give them this giant marshmallow, I mean these are little children, and they would say “Okay you can have two marshmallows. We’ll give you this one and another if you can wait a certain amount of time like five minutes. I’m going t walk out of the room and then when I come back if the marshmallows still there you get two.”
Well not all the kids could take it. A lot of kids before the experiment even touched the doorknob they ate the marshmallow. But what was more interesting was the difference between the two groups of kids who were trying not to eat the marshmallow. Some of them stared at it and smelled it and licked it and thought about it, and the other group of kids they would spin around in a chair, and they would bang their head against the table, they’d slap their face, they’d sing little songs, they would do everything they could to not think about the marshmallow.
Now either the study was more about delayed gratification and the study showed that over time the kids who could delay their gratification were the ones who ended up having better jobs and careers and better marriages and making more money, and all that kind of stuff, less likely to be drug addicts and such. But the part that I found most interesting was that how did they delay gratification? Well the trick was not to stare at the marshmallow, because you can’t trust yourself to start at it. You had to come up with strategies to avoid staring at it.
So knowing that we take the sure in the moment and knowing that we have to outsmart ourselves because we can’t trust our future self to give us what we want. I talk about procrastination the sense of having a strategy to outsmart your future self. That’s a person in the future that’s going to be you and you can’t trust them.
SPP: Now that’s awesome. I really wish that, I know you said you didn’t put any prescribing notions in there, but for this chapter at least just how to overcome that because I’m terrible with it.
David: Yes that’s it. I mean that’s my strategy. Like I know I can’t trust myself to start playing video games or getting on social media when I have a deadline. So I use its called Premack’s Principle where before you can do something that you want to do you have to do something that you don’t want to do. And they make programs that will turn off the internet for a certain period of time or they make programs they will limit certain Web sites. And you can go that far if you have to but it’s all about thinking about thinking or thinking about your future self.
SPP: If you made Jon download a program that turned off the internet he would literally cease to exist. So I don’t think he can quite go that far.
SPP: I actually have one installed on my computer and I used it once and it just, I mean it did exactly what it was supposed to do, and I hated that.
SPP: But anyways, David you mentioned when talking about procrastination how we are affected by our environment more than we realize. And you tend to dive into that topic throughout the book. And one of those you talk about is called Priming which is, I’ll let you kind of explain it a little better, but one of the things I took away from that is you say if you neglect your personal space and allow clutter and chaos to creep in it will affect you and allow clutter into your life. And we’ve talked in the past how this idea relates to making your bed every morning and how that leads to a more productive peaceful day. So can you describe priming? And then do you think things like making your bed do lead to a more productive day? And what is the science behind this?
David: Well priming is one of the creepiest things a scientist has revealed. The easiest way to think of it is if you’ve got to work in flip flops and shorts versus going to work in a nice fitted suit with a tie, does it affect your behavior? Do you become more professional when you wear professional clothes or do you wear professional clothes to put out a sense of professionalism? Well science says that priming is always affecting us. Maybe just a little bit here and there but enough over time to really push our behaviors, really push our decisions to change the way we see the world.
The study that cracks me up and that I have in the book is they do a different study and another award that we like okay here’s some refreshments. Why don’t we tally up the results, and they give you a crumbly, crumbly cookie. And what they were really doing was the scientist behind the mirror watching this person eat the crumbly cookie and at the table got peppered with crumbs. Now they wanted to see how often people cleanup their mess. And they found that if they was a faint sense of cleaning fluid in the room, a faint scent of some sort of cleaning product, people were much more likely to clean up their crumbs, so they were primed by that smell to think oh yeah this is a clean place, maybe I should keep it clean. Another study that had people, part of the study they had to remember a sin from their past, remember something from their past they were ashamed of, something they wished they could go back and change that they regretted. And they said in the study they had to give people an opportunity to wash their hands before moving onto the next part of the study. Some people washed, some people didn’t, and at the end of the study they said “Would you do a favor for their researcher?” You’re not getting any extra money or any extra points, but this would be a great favor to us you just have to do another study with us.”
So the people who did not wash their hands they were like 75% likely to say yes than the people who did wash their hands. And the idea of the researcher were saying they have subconsciously they’ve been primed to think that they had cleaned away their sins and didn’t need to do the favor to feel like they were good people. To get rid of the nasty thought they got from the sins of their past. And other studies, this has been in other books and I mentioned it briefly in mine, when people have to do word puzzles, and they’ll say I talk about them most they do word puzzles that have words in the word bank like briefcase, fountain pens, stuff like that, conference table.
And then they have those people perform a negotiating task. The people who got neutral objects like whale and backpack they would tend to be a very fair in their negotiation. But the people who had done word puzzles that had briefcases and fountain pens in them they could either be very aggressive and try to maximize their profit. Because they’ve been primed, every object, everything around you, every thought, every object, every piece of entertainment it’s going to cause this cascade of association throughout your brain. And your brain sort of is like flexing its muscles getting ready to run. It already has a little bit of the information there ready to go and you think more quickly in the direction that you’re already primed to think. And we don’t realize that this stuff actually works much better when we’re unconsciously primed, but it’s always pushing us around and changing our behaviors.
SPP: That is one of the creepier things in science. I mean just to think that there are outside environments that cause us to act and behave one way or another. I mean you take that into that whole thing of this information getting into the wrong hands people can do completive evil, which you think about like commercials and advertising and stuff like that, and you start to see that those things show up there.
David: When the lady is making the Rice Krispie Treats with her mom and her children their priming you to think about whenever you did stuff like that with your parents, so that you will have a nice positive thought about the Rice Krispie Treats. Now is that bad? I mean from the advertiser’s perspective, from the manufacturer’s perspective, they’re like what’s wrong with feeling good about things.
So yes it can go either way and it just is. And I try to point that out a lot in the book that these are just the way we are and whatever positive or negative results come from succumbing to these things or from using these things, that that’s beside the point.
SPP: Now last month was the anniversary of September 11th and there was a lot of documentaries on about what people did on that day that were in the towers and how calm they were coming down the stairs, and all that kind of stuff. I mean of course you had the people that did have to rely on instincts, but one of the chapters that you write about is the Normalcy Bias and this is our brain acting like things are normal instead of panicking. On 9/11 a perfect example was people were walking down the stairs and you said they were basically begging the world to return to normalcy or to return to normal by engaging in the acts of normalcy…
SPP: Can you explain to our listeners really what the normalcy bias is?
David: We all know about freezing whenever we’re scared and that’s called Bradycardia, that’s pretty much all mammals and well almost all creatures do this. This is when you’re trying to avoid being eaten because you know if that if you freeze. So people do that they can even induce that in a lab by just showing you pictures of injured people. People their muscles tends the heart rate will plummet. So they’re preparing the freeze in case the predation hardly set the speculation of why you’re freezing.
And there’s also Thanatopsis which is when animals pretend to be dead by freezing. So those two things aside what I’m talking about is normalcy bias, and that is when you’re in a situation it’s called Negative Panic by first responders and people who worry about traffic flow and people are escaping a stay or whatever. In any really giant ambiguous, bigger than life emergency, mile wide tornado, hurricane, ship sinking, building on fire, flood, a lot of people mill around and don’t do anything.
And they keep searching for meaning and searching to get enough evidence to get alarmed past the point where they will be able to escape. A big scary dangerous and life threatening thing when it comes around the first thing we want to do is believe that things are not dangerous or scary or life threatening. And by attempting to convince ourselves that everything is okay we engage in acts of normalcy.
So people will tend to just walk around and say “Hey what’s going on?” Light a cigarette, talk, make a phone call and talk to a friend and family. Keep trying to gather information because you really do want to get alarmed in case it is real, but you don’t just jump to the alarm state. You move slowly through a series of steps. And if enough things make you alert and you get enough warnings or, and I talked about in the book, that if you’ve done enough drills and you’ve trained yourself, if you’ll go through that series of checking that series of engaging in acts of normalcy, you will go through that really quickly. And you will go to the alarm state faster.
You can’t stop yourself from doing the whole cognition perception, comprehension thing, but you can go through the steps faster because you’ve prepared yourself by going through a practice running up time. That’s why fire drills actually do work. So normalcy bias is a weird thing that comes around. People in terrible events when you have every other reason to think otherwise you will just go well maybe it’s not that bad, maybe I could stick around, maybe I could ride this out. And people who do that sometimes they face really dark consequences.
SPP: Now has there been any research done or have we figured out why those first responders that are the ones, the first to react, what goes through their mind? I mean you said they go through all the steps I guess more quickly than others, but is there something that just kicks in, in these people’s brains that tells them “I need to react and I need to do it right now?”
David: I don’t know. I haven’t do any research into specifically what the first responders are thinking. I know that the person I talk about in the book, a researcher named Johnson, he talks about how training over and over again tends to make what seems like a complex situation to a person who never trains seeing something wrote and simple. And it’s just being their job to go straight to an alarm state, straight to a state of action. It’s like Johnson in the book talks about it’s like playing an instrument.
So you go from, if I just hand you a guitar and say “Here play a C chord. No look here’s how it works you put yoru finger here, you put your finger here.” And you may have never picked up a guitar and it seems like the most complicated thing in the world and it hurts, but if I hand you a guitar after showing it to you and you practice for five minutes suddenly he starts to unfold and it could seem simpler.
So Johnson that first responders they train so much that they’re not afraid of the situation. They know what to look for. They move quickly through the steps, unlike other people who are calling that day they just wanted to sit in the office and played solitaire on the computer, and all of a sudden what is this? So I don’t know for sure but that’s my speculation on that.
SPP: You know you talk a lot about the conscious versus the unconscious mind or brain. That’s kind of what drives a lot of our problems is we don’t realize what we’re thinking or what’s happening. And sometimes it seems like you might want to air on the side of the unconscious because this is the part of our brain that’s had the longest time to evolve and make the most adaptations…
SPP: …it appears that it may be more trustworthy. If this is the case is it a better idea to go with your gut or your intuition when it comes to making decisions? Are we more easily deceived when we move the thought process to our conscious mind?
David: I try not to step on John O’Lair’s toes too much in the book because he wrote the greatest book on this topic that I’ve read and that is how we decide? And he talks a lot about how the unconscious mind has built the emotional mind. He’s had a lot longer time to evolve than the rational mind. And then you also have people like Malcolm Gladewell who say that you should really, really trust your gut reactions. But I think that the science is not 100% in favor of that because there are many times when your gut reaction is really good and it’s something that you can trust, but it’s usually after you’ve done a lot of research or you have a lot of experience in what it is that you’re contemplating. When you’re complete new about something, when you’re completely a novice in the situation your gut reaction is it’s going to be based off of something else. It could be priming, it could be any number of the biases that I talk about in the book, it could be based off of faulty information or false premises.
So you have to be careful when trusting your gut 100%, especially in a very novel situation. Now this may throw a snake in your lap and go with your got and you say throw it away. That’s good. That’s all the things I write about serving you well. But if you, this is for instance Steven Levitt in “Freakonomics” talks about how people aren’t very good at judging the statistical danger of something like a gun versus a swimming pool, because he might think that a gun were dangerous. Statistically a child is much more likely to be harmed by a swimming pool than a gun in a home that had both. So yes going with your gut can be a good thing but it also can be really faulty and it gets situational and its nuanced.
SPP: You also talked about how we do things to create a positive self-image for our self. Why do you think that we are so scared of either having a negative self-image, or even not knowing things. Like we’re so terrified we’ll make things up even if it’s not right and it’s to get us to a point where we trust ourselves and our thought process. Why do you think that is?
David: Based off of what I have researched I see that it comes up over and over again in the literature that we are very, very concerned with self-esteem. And we use a number of things to keep that self-esteem rolling along and at its maximum power. Self- esteem plays right into self-efficacy and self-efficacy makes us attempt things over and over again, even if we’re failing to the point that we eventually will do something. We’ll eventually succeed. People who give up too soon maybe people who don’t believe in their efficacy and it’s because their self-esteem may be not as pumped up and out of control as others. It can obviously go too far but a healthy dose of self-elusion is sometimes necessary to get out of bed in the mornings. I think that you can fight back the endless forces that are pushing against you whenever you try to make your way through the world.
We each have a self-esteem model that is built around whatever it is we believe is important to our peers and to ourselves. It could be based off of morality, it could be based off of education, intelligence, athleticism, whatever it is that we use as a metric for our own self-esteem we tend to see ourselves as above average in that thing. And when we are threatened by the world or by our own observations and we see that maybe that’s not so true we’ll work pretty diligently to bring ourselves back up above the water. I don’t think it’s always a bad thing.
Most animals do what they do. We have that extra Meta cognition where we think about our thinking. And when we do that we look back on our own behaviors we tend to look back on them as an outside observer. And when we write that story about our lives we inflate it, we embellish it to make it even better and more interesting than maybe it was in the moment. It probably all plays back into the keeping that self-esteem0 high so we’ll feel effective and self-effectiveness really serves us well.
SPP: Now David just from hearing you speak it sounds like you enjoy tech and gaming with a term new that’s definitely one of those gaming terms that have been coined as of recently. But one of the sections in your book is Brand Loyalty.
SPP: And how you mentioned how men will argue about anything to protect their egos, even if it’s the smallest thing. And there tends to be a lot of brand loyalty in expensive tech toys. So I have to ask you this, because Chris and I have this eternal debate going on all the time, are you a Mac or a PC guy?
David: I have in my day job as a guy who works in the media I use PCs and when I write and I do creative things I tend to use Mac, I have Mac at home. But then my entertainment system is run through a home theatre PC that is a PC.
David: So I kind of go back and forth. When I want to , it depends on what I want to do with it, and I totally get the reality distortion field. I’ve seen people go from proponents of let’s build a gaming machine out of a pizza box, to talking about intuitive user interfaces overnight after buying a Mac. And it’s hard not to when you drop that much money on something and not defend it and defend the velocity behind it. I think that’s one of the great genius things that were done, either by Steve Jobs or by the marketing team there in Apple is that they allow you to buy into the philosophy of the brand before you buy into the utility of the product.
I’m one of the people I believe that everybody has a reality distortion field and it’s one of those things where they just sort of embraced it and said “Sure okay, Steve Jobs’ has a reality absorption field. Do you like it? If you like it then let’s put out advertising that points to that.” He shows the PC guy and the Mac guy standing side-by-side. And for some people that’s offensive and for some people that’s very incentivizing because they’re like hey, I’m not like that guy in the cubicle. I want to be the artist, I want to be the whatever. So I would say a little bit of both but lately the more I devote time to writing the more I’ve been a Mac guy.
SPP: I’m the same way. I’ve got my home theatre PC hooked up. I’ve built my own PC for gaming and when I want to do creative things, whether it being podcasting or digital editing of photos, videos, etc it’s Mac. And I’ve been trying to explain to Chris that it’s definitely superior in that sense for doing creative things.
SPP: I like to be able to hit Control C and I like my Microsoft Excel. That’s just what I do.
David: Yes you use what works for you and don’t get too caught up in the war with other people over what’s better, because I mean it’s okay to like something for an irrational reason. But I try to tell people that you like everything for an irrational reason so there’s no reason to suddenly stop now and go all right I like PCs because you can get in there and fiddle with the pieces. Yes that’s good and if that’s what you want to do then please do buy that.
SPP: Yes. Well I guess if you’re book teaches us anything it’s it might even be just not to think because I’m going to get it wrong anyways, right.
David: I was hoping to give you humility – I think that we are connected not only in what we’re capable of but also what we tend to stumble over. And I just keep trying to tell people let’s not create decisions or policies that point to when it comes to trying to create policies around abstinence only programs. They all assume that people are going to look at the statistics and facts and go “I probably should sustain from having sex before marriage.”
David: And that just ignores the fact that people aren’t going to do that. They’re not going to logically look at a situation and go “I should probably avoid this.” So you know just accept the fact that we’re all flawed and then if we know what those flaws are going in then we can have an even better sense of ourselves and have a better commonsense.
SPP: David, thank you so much. I mean it was great talking to you. The book was fantastic to read. Again the book is “You are Not So Smart”. And I just wanted to give you a chance to direct our listeners to your Web site or anything else you might be working on right now.
David: Yes. Everything is up at www.youarenotsomart.com. Some stuff for the book is on there. I’ve written a lot of stuff sense the book. I keep getting better at this and writing longer and longer pieces that take much longer to read and write. And you can always go to www.youarenotsosmart.com and check them out.
SPP: Great. All right well thanks again for being on this show. It’s been a lot of fun and best of luck in the future.
David: Thanks a bunch.