The truth is, we're not as smart as we think we are.
Back in 1995, a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks in Pittsburgh in broad daylight without bothering to wear a mask or a disguise. When police tracked him down and arrested Wheeler later that night, they showed him surveillance videotapes of himself committing the crimes. Wheeler reportedly was astonished. “But I wore the juice,” he told the police. Wheeler apparently believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face had rendered it invisible to video cameras. Cornell University psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning, in a 1999 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, cited the hapless criminal as example of what since has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger
effect. That is, people who are incompetent often tend to think that they're really good at things. “Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,” they wrote.
But even if you wouldn’t think of giving yourself a lemon-juice invisibility treatment, don’t laugh too uproariously. The truth is, generally, we’re not as smart as we think we are. Our beleaguered brains, faced with the daunting task of making sense of the incredibly complicated world around us, employ a variety of tricks to enable us to selectively interpret reality, draw conclusions and make decisions, and to do it without feeling hopelessly overwhelmed. These tricks give us the confidence to do everything from make a game-winning shot in basketball to investing our savings in the financial markets. But there’s a downside to this wonderful feeling of hubris. Our frontal lobes, the brain region where our
decision-making abilities are believed to reside, can be a bit like an eager salesman at a disreputable used-car lot on the bad side of town. They’ll tell us what they think we sense to hear, based either upon our desires and beliefs, or things that we’ve seen before. That effect, called cognitive bias, frequently leads us astray, and sometimes can cajole us into making catastrophically bad choices.
None of this is meant to knock the human brain, which is a pretty amazing piece of equipment, even if it often gets things wrong. A 2012 study by Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of four adult male brains revealed that, on average, they contained 86 billion neurons. Those cells work together to handle multiple memories, which gives us the capacity to cram a huge amount of data into our noggins. Northwestern University psychology professor Paul Reber, writing in Scientific American, estimated the brain’s storage capacity as equivalent to 2.5 petabytes of computer memory. If your brain were a TiVo, you’d have to leave your TV set running 24-7 for 300 years to fill that much space.
But that’s also the problem. You don’t have the time or energy to learn anywhere close to the amount of information that your brain is capable of storing. It’s often said that the last person ever to master all the scientific, historical, philosophical and artistic knowledge of his time was
Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BC, when there was a lot less to know. In today’s vastly more complicated world, we tend to be specialists who are knowledgeable about one field but startlingly ignorant of the basics in others. A 2011 University of Michigan study, for example, found that in 2008 only 28 percent of Americans had enough basic knowledge about science to understand articles in the New York Times science section. It’s a safe guess that most of us don’t know much about how the gadgets we use every day—from smart phones to microwaves, to the electronics under the hoods of our cars—actually work. For that matter, as a survey of students at a prestigious university revealed, most couldn’t correctly draw a functioning bicycle.
But our brains conceal from us that we don’t know everything, by pretending that we do. “Your brain tends to think it’s smarter than it actually is,” explains National Public Radio senior science correspondent Shankar
Vedantam, author of the 2010 book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. This phenomenon, he explains, is called the Illusion of Knowledge, and it’s a necessary part of our self-protective mechanism. “The world can be a big, scary place…the last thing you need is to be reminded how little of it you understand. In many respects
the illusion of knowledge is necessary to keep you from being paralyzed by the fear of not knowing where the water goes when you flush the toilet or how email works. For all you know, little green men come and take your message from your computer and carry it across town to your friend.”
Our brains do such a good job of convincing us that we’re all-knowing, in fact, that we also are dangerously prone to something called the overconfidence effect, in which we’re sure that we’ve picked the right answer, even when we really are just guessing and don’t have a clue. According to Vedantam, overconfidence may be an evolutionary adaptation that helped our ancestors to survive in a hostile environment. He explains: “If there was a rustling in the bushes nearby—it's a lot safer for you to assume it's a wolf and react accordingly—than to say 'I don't know' and try and determine exactly what's making the bushes shake. If you're wrong, it's no big deal. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
The overconfidence effect is just one of the many cognitive biases—basically, glitches in our decision-making process—that can cause us to make what later may seem like incredibly dumb choices. Another of these is anchoring, in which we rely too heavily upon one trait or piece of information when making a decision. You succumb to that bias if you go to a used-car lot and pick a car because it shows relatively low mileage on the odometer, while ignoring the rust and grinding sound the transmission makes. Another common bias is the availability heuristic—that is, overestimating the importance of a piece of information because you’re familiar with it. For example, you might disregard scientific evidence that links tobacco to health problems, because your grandfather was a heavy smoker and lived to a ripe old age—even though he may have been an exception to the norm. Another common glitch is confirmation bias, our brain’s tendency to pick and choose information that suits our preconceptions. New Scientist writer Dan Jones
cites the example of people who believe that great rock stars are doomed to die at the age of 27, because that happened to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain—while ignoring the countless examples of other musicians who’ve exceeded that expiration date.
We’re also vulnerable to what Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the illusion of validity.
Our brains take information and shape it into a storyline that help us make sense of reality, and we tend to believe that story because it sounds good to us, even if we don’t have any evidence it actually is true. As a young officer in the psychology branch of the Israeli army, Kahneman recalled in a 2011 New York Times article, he and colleagues had groups of soldiers struggle to drag a large log and lift it over a six-foot-high wall, so they could observe what personality traits emerged during the task. Those who showed patience, persistence and a willingness to lead were judged to be good candidates for officer school, while those who showed anger or weakness were deemed less qualified. The psychologists believed strongly in the test, so much that they had trouble accepting it when the training school’s commanders showed them that their predictions had turned out to be pretty much worthless.
“This was a perfect instance of a general rule that I call
WYSIATI,‘What you see is all there is.’” Kahneman explained. “We had made up a story from the little we knew but had no way to allow for what we did not know about the individual’s future, which was almost everything that would actually matter.”
Adding to those biases is the factor of fatigue—that is, the more choices we are compelled to make, the higher our rate of making errant decisions becomes. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that the more choices subjects made in the course of a day of shopping at the mall, the worst they performed on math problems. Given that, it’s a wonder that we ever get anything right.
- How a phone call is transmitted
- Home heating system
- How a flashlight works
- How energy is generated
- 1How energy is generated
- 2How a phone call is transmitted
- 3Home heating system
- 4How a flashlight works
- Cell phone in bath can't electrocute
- No static on FM Radio
- Car engine works by explosions
- Microwave heats food inside-out
- 1Car engine works by explosions
- 2Microwave heats food inside-out
- 3Cell phone in bath can't electrocute
- 4No static on FM Radio
- Psychic healing
- Haunted houses
- 2Haunted houses
- 4Psychic healing
|Explanation Ego||Least-Known Facts||False Beliefs|
Brain: The Complete Mind is both a practical owner's manual and a complete guide to the brain's development and function.
Don't let your brain's trickery keep you down.
As the article above details, we’re all vulnerable to cognitive biases—the various tricks and shortcuts that our brains use to speed up and streamline our decision making process, but which often lead us to erroneous conclusions. And that’s a drag, because it’s hard to imagine that any of us wants to be wrong, whether it comes to solving a simple word puzzle or making a momentous investment decision. But fear not. Jeremy Dean, founder of PsyBlog and author of the 2013 book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick, offers this advice on how to avoid some of the most common flaws embedded in our decision-making process.
1. Don’t just go with what you’re familiar with. In many if not most cases, making a decision usually present us with two options: Stick to whatever we already have, or opt for change. And our minds have a powerful inclination to stay with the familiar. In a 1988 article in the ominously-named Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, researchers William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser noted that status quo
bias, as it is called, is especially powerful when it comes to picking things such as health insurance plans and retirement programs. But that bias can lead us to accept mediocre results. “It's hard to change because it involves more effort and we want to avoid regretting our decision,” Dean notes. “But there is better value out there if you're prepared to look.”
2. Look down the road. We’re also vulnerable to a bias towards the present, because humans prefer to get their pleasure right now, and postpone the consequences, a phenomenon that economists call hyperbolic discounting. As evidence, Dean cites a 1998 study by Dutch business researchers, who found that when subjects were offered a choice of what snack foods they would receive in a week when they were hungry, they chose healthy items such as fruit; when they were offered a choice for the afternoon of the study, in contrast they tended to pick junk food. As Dean
points out, this bias often causes consumers to accept marketing deals for cell phones and other products that offer an up-front discount, even if higher costs are waiting to smack us in the face later. “One way to get around this is to think about your future self when making a purchasing decision,” he writes. “Imagine how 'future you' will see the decisions of 'present you'. If 'future you' wouldn't like it, don't do it.”
3. Accept that you make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to undo them. When we make a bad choice, we tend to be reluctant to undo it. Instead, to alleviate our discomfort, we may even actually try to convince ourselves that it was the right decision—a process called post-purchase rationalization. (If you dropped a bundle on a gigantic, gas-guzzling Hummer, for example, you might have told yourself that it would come in handy, in the event that civilization collapsed and you had to go off-road to avoid rampaging
hordes of zombies.) But let’s face it—some purchases are just dumb. If you have buyer’s remorse, don’t be afraid to return a product and get a refund, or sell it on eBay to someone for whom it might be a better bargain.