Author David McRaney has some bad news for those of us who think we’re pretty together, cognitively speaking: We probably spend a lot of time confirming our own biases by reading copacetic newspapers and websites. We think we’re skeptical, but we’re prone to believe horoscope-style niceties about ourselves. And even though we think we’re good, moral beings, we’re just as likely to do bad things as the next guy.
Mr. McRaney’s new book, You Are Not So Smart is a romp through some of the major findings in the field of psychology aimed at pointing out the self-delusions most of us harbour but aren’t humble enough to notice.
The journalist and social media director, who has been blogging for two years on the topic, writes that even when we think we’re engaging in deep introspection, we “miss many influences, accumulating on your persona, like barnacles on the side of a ship.”
He talked about some of those pernicious barnacles from his home in South Mississippi.
What’s the granddaddy of self-delusions?
Confirmation bias holds everything together. Thinking your opinions are the result of objective analysis, when they’re not. It flavours our unbreakable belief that our behaviour follows from attitude, when actually our attitudes follow from our behaviours. We like to make up stories. But we’re unreliable narrators.
How’s that related to what you call “consistency bias”?
We don’t like to feel like we are inconsistent. We tend to think we’ve always had the same attitudes and beliefs about the world. People tend to say they’ve always felt X, X being what they feel in that moment.
When you go back and look there always seems to be some discrepancy. Researchers have done this with relationships. They ask people in the middle of a break-up, ‘How do you feel about each other?’ Then a year later they ask them again and if they’ve reconciled, they’ve always loved each other. If they’ve now decided to part ways and they don’t like each other any more, they say, ‘Yeah, I could really tell back then that she wasn’t for me or he wasn’t for me.’
Like when someone says they know on their wedding day that they shouldn’t have married the person.
We redact and edit our past so we can be consistent.
The why is where it gets messy and complicated but there’s probably something to do with cognitive dissonance and perception and the need to keep a high, beautiful self-esteem going.
A number of the delusions you explore explain people as consumers. You say brand loyalty, for example, is more about reinforcing a choice you’ve already made than actually loving the product. We love to bemoan evil corporations, but we’re complicit.
That’s really where the rubber meets the road in a lot of this stuff. Whenever you think about psychology, you have to remember that it’s a really young science. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t been doing this kind of research for a long time when it comes to selling things. For instance, the fewer items you put out on display, the less chance the consumer is going to feel buyer’s remorse. And Apple is the greatest genius at this because they offer good, better, best and that’s it. The reason is you sit there thinking, did I just spend all that money on a computer? You think, I only had three options and I picked the best one. Instead of looking for a camera and you go on Amazon and there are 10,000 choices. You might think, I don’t know if I got the right one.
Then there’s the “anchoring effect.” What’s that?
One way it’s used everyday is in restaurants, especially high-end restaurants: You look over the menu and everything’s about the same price, then there’s this one meal that’s $45 or $55 and you’re like, ‘That’s crazy, I’m not spending that.’ The only reason that’s on the menu is as a decoy to make you see the other prices as reasonable. Because they’ve set the anchor price.
Even telling you this or me writing about it doesn’t mean that I have any power against it.
So do you play spot-the-anchor at restaurants with friends or tells dinner party debaters how they’re deluded?
It’s like natural selection. I’ve learned things that will give me social capital and the things that will make people say... shut up. I do it all the time. But it’s on social media where I have to keep myself in check because people will say, ‘This is the first time in 600 years it’s 11/11/11’ and I’m like ‘...based on an arbitrary...’ wait, why am I doing this? I’m just going to make somebody hate me.
So, events like that aren’t as special as we think? We love one-in-a-million coincidences.
My favourite way to look at it is something called the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy – honestly, because it has an awesome name. It comes from the idea of a cowboy shooting at the side of a barn, over and over again. It fills up with bullets. Then, he walks over to the barn and paints a bull’s-eye over where the bullet holes clustered. So he can look like he’s a crack shot.