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(Sean Murphy/Thinkstock)
(Sean Murphy/Thinkstock)

You probably think you know all about self-delusion Add to ...

Now, that’s a great metaphor and one of my favourite mental stumbling blocks because it’s so easy to describe. You can say this is also why people say things like deaths always come in threes. Which is crazy because there have been billions of deaths up until now and someone’s dying every couple of seconds, so obviously death is a continuous process but we tend to draw a bull’s eye around a meaningful number and three tends to be a meaningful number in our culture.

We’re desperate for patterns?

The brain is a pattern-recognition machine. That’s how we escaped nature and built civilization. We recognize signal and separate it from noise. When you’re in the middle of a party and everyone’s talking you can listen to one voice. We sort chaos into order at all times and we’re keen on trying to find order in any pattern. You can’t just look at a cloud and say, ‘What an interesting lump of air molecules’ you have to say, that looks a lot like a bear. Or, especially a face. We have face-recognition software built in.

We’re built to recognize when things line up and it’s difficult for us just to say it’s coincidence because since we also love to create narratives about things, we like to apply stories to when coincidences line up.

In the Second World War when the Germans were bombing England, there were places – it was random – that the bombs didn’t hit. If you took out a map and put push pins where the bombs landed, they naturally clustered in some areas and not in others. People began to think, ‘Maybe we have spies living among us and they obviously live in the places where the bombs aren’t falling.’ Something that’s good for us and has helped us for millennia can make us turn around and see patterns where there aren’t any.

Not that this is a self-help book, but what would be the most useful place to start to shift their thinking?

Procrastination: I don’t think I’ve written anything with more hits and sharing because we all experience it. Steve Jobs was a procrastinator. Albert Einstein. You cannot stop wanting to procrastinate.

What I outline in the book is that it’s not laziness that’s doing this, it’s “present bias.” You believe that the person you are now is going to be the person you are later.

You think that the person who makes all the plans and sees things clearly and knows what to do now is the person who is going to face these decisions when you get to that point. In study after study, if you ask someone which is better, the cupcake or the salad, they say the salad. And then you ask them, in an hour, if I give you that choice which one are you going to pick? You say the salad. Then, when you sit them down, people are more likely to pick the cupcake.

You write that people can look at their Netflix queue for an example of this.

I put my own list of saved movies on my blog: Those are great movies and documentaries that I should watch and that will make me a better person. And then in the moment I’m going to watch, yeah, I’m going to watch Family Guy.

The person picking the movies is not the person facing the choice of what to watch.

They did a study with a bank of movies, many of them labelled lowbrow (which I wouldn’t do because I love so much lowbrow stuff) like The Mask or Speed. It also had things like The Piano and Schindler’s List (movies that were current at the time). They gave people the option to pick three movies to watch over the course of a few days. Most people did pick Schindler’s List, but they chose to watch it third. When they were told they had to watch them back-to-back, people didn’t pick Schindler’s List at all. They’d just pick three fun movies.

You have to fight the desire for instant gratification. You’re always going to do it even if you know you do it. I wrote about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test, which asked kids to hold off eating a marshmallow placed in front of them. Children who were able to delay gratification ended up being the people who were more successful in life, in the way we consider people successful. They had better marriages, higher-paying jobs and more education. The correlation suggests that being good at delaying gratification means that you’re good at thinking about thinking.

The kids who succeeded weren’t the ones with the most willpower. They were the ones who didn’t even look at the marshmallow. Kids who failed the test were the ones who thought they were more in control then they really were. They’d stare at it. Smell it. They’d say, ok, I’ll just lick it and put it down. The kids who succeeded would bang their head on the table, slap their face, turn around and around in their chair. They knew they couldn’t’ trust themselves so they came up with strategies to outwit themselves. That’s how you get around procrastination. You cannot face it head on, it’s impossible. You can’t stare at the marshmallow. You have to outsmart the future you.

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