So, have you figured out a way not to stare at the marshmallow?
I actually wrote about procrastination as a response to having to write the book. That’s what was going on in my life. We were in the early process of getting a book deal and I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me, keeping interesting blog posts going up and sitting down every night making sure I had a book coming out. While I’m keeping a job.
I know I can work for about two hours before I want to punch the screen and run through the fields. They make computer programs to do this for you but I’ve been able to get away with some self control – I make sure I don’t do any social media for two hours. And I don’t do any non-on-topic browsing for those two hours. Then I sit down and write in two-hour bursts.
And there’s an old trick given to me by my first psychology professor, the Premack principle – you always reward yourself after doing something you didn’t want to do. I get to play video games or go on social media for 30 minutes. Then I start over again. It’s an ongoing struggle. It will never stop. You’ll be 85 and saying ‘I don’t wanna take the pills...’
There are also a few life-and-death brain delusions that people might want to know. You write about something called the normalcy bias, which can make people not rush to save their own lives – you mention cases of 9/11 World Trade Center workers who shut down their computers, put on their coats and slowly made their way to the exit instead of running.
You hear about people who just stand around and die when a ship sinks or a building is on fire. There’s a window to survive and a lot of people don’t; they just sit there.
When if comes to something scary, or dangerous, or life-threatening, the first thing we want to believe is that things are not dangerous or scary. We really try to convince ourselves that everything is okay. We go through a predicable series of reactions. You hear an explosion in your building – you don’t immediately jump up and go, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ No one does that unless they’ve been trained, which is why it’s important to take the drill seriously. They teach you to get past your normalcy bias.
Otherwise, you just look around and try to gather information from the people around you. If you’re still alarmed, then you’ll try to contact friends and family. Evolutionarily speaking that makes sense, you’re going to try and make sure the people you love and share genes with are ok. And see if they know anything.
Eventually, maybe, if enough things alert you to how bad the situation is, you act. The problem is in some situations, like an air disaster or floods, you don’t have enough time for that.
You write that those 9/11 victims were “begging for the world to return to normal be engaging in acts of normalcy.”
I know that’s true. The eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over us. I had my whole family in my house. Some had come up from the Mississippi Gulf coast, some down from up north – I’m sure they wish they hadn’t. So the eye passed over us. We were without power for 10 days. When the power went out I was making a grilled cheese sandwich. We watched a movie the night before. We were doing normal stuff because we wanted normal stuff to be possible.
Then, there’s the bystander effect, which we may have seen in the recent case of the Chinese toddler who died after being hit by vehicles and ignored by passersby.
It’s a natural tendency. There’s a lab experiment in which a student is writing a test and someone yells “Help!” in the next room. If the student is surrounded by actors told not to respond, the student doesn’t, for minutes. If he’s alone, it only takes 5 or 6 seconds.
You end the book with a doozy, something called the “fundamental attribution error.” We keep making the mistake of thinking people who do bad things are crazy or evil without looking at their environment.
There’s the superstar 1971 study by Philip Zimbardo (in which students were put into a prison setting as guard and prisoners and turned on each other). Forty years later you have Abu Ghraib. If you give people power and don’t watch them, they do bad things with it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.