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Sean Murphy

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.

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.

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.