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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

8 Things We Think We Can Do

Many of us live our lives as though any moment we could be whisked away to a bad Hollywood production in which we discover that the universe hangs in the balance and that only we can stop whatever malevolent force aligns itself against our planet’s survival.  We like to believe that hidden somewhere deep beneath our drab and unassuming persona is a secret potential, a power not unlike Neo’s in the Matrix; something that separates us from the mundane populace.

All I'm saying is Superman had nothing on this kid...

The truth is that none of us ever get that super power.  What’s more, even many of the powers or potential abilities we think we have are just as illusory as thoughts of telepathy or psychokinesis.  Our minds and our culture will often tell us that we can do something despite the vehement objection of science.

 #1) Recall Events

As any investigator will tell you, human memory is incredibly flawed.  If a hundred people witness a plane falling from the skies it is entirely possible that you could get 100 conflicting reports of exactly what happened.  Some will say that the plane aflame, some will say that one of the wings was missing, some will say that the plane was angling steeply downwards and others will even get the color of the plane wrong.

Unless you are a trained observer, you will almost certainly recall the details incorrectly.  We often make the mistake of thinking of our memory like a recording, as though a small camera in our eye is faithfully transcribing events to a little Tivo in our brains somewhere to be reviewed in the future.

"... I could've sworn those were the droids we were looking for."

The truth is nowhere near as neat and tidy.  The brain takes in real stimulus, but very often inserts details that it expects to find as well.  There is a common psychological test that you can try at home that will demonstrate this fact.  Start by reading the following list of words to a group of friends:

Tired, Bed, Rest, Pillow, Night, Blanket, Dream, Yawn, Nightmare, Relax

Now ask them to recall the 10 words.  Odds are that more than half the time somebody will recall the word “sleep”, which was not listed.  In fact, so potent is this pseudo-memory that many readers of this blog just had to go back and affirm that the word “sleep” did not appear on the list.

This phenomenon is well known to police-officers, private investigators and lawyers and countless scientific studies confirm our memories tendency to exaggerate or even fantasize when recollecting events.

 #2) Tell When Someone’s Lying

We can hardly fault people for thinking that they “know” when they’re being lied to.  Very often it’s pretty easy to tell and there are countless “scientific” models to support this belief.  We’ve all heard tidbits, actions that are supposed to indicate that somebody is being untruthful.  While these telltale signals do sometimes indicate deception, just as often they are a case of self-deception.

Some people might tell you that, for example, if a person touches their face while they’re talking to you it is an indication that you’re lying.  While it is true that many people do touch their face when lying, just as often this can be explained by an itch on the nose or a nervous tick.  These same people will say that if somebody’s lying they will look away when talking to you.  Again, this could indicate dishonesty, but it could also indicate something really interesting going on behind you.

None of these “pantomimes” truly indicate a lie.  At best, they indicate nervousness, but that can hardly be held as a universal signal of fraud.  Some people are just nervous when they talk.  Others might be made nervous because they feel like you feel like they’re lying.  Many people are nervous talking to police officers whether they are telling the truth or not.

Not even science can determine if someone’s lying.  The infamous polygraph does not measure truthfulness, but rather nervousness.  The results of a polygraph are inadmissible in court because they are so unreliable.  A politician, magician or lawyer can pass a polygraph while saying that the sea is yellow and they can walk on pudding.  Anybody who is comfortable with deception could do the same.  On the other hand, a nervous person could earn a negative result by correctly identifying their own name.

Inadmissable in a court of law.

 #3) Multi-Task

It was the buzzword of the 90s (if “buzzword” wasn’t the buzzword of the 90s, that is) and busy professionals the world over took to the idea like wildfire.  They took seminars and classes that promised to teach them the art of multi-tasking in hopes of increasing their productivity.  They talk on the phone while answering emails, taking notes and finishing a ship in a bottle.

The appeal of multitasking is obvious.  We have a finite amount of time each day and we always want to do more than time would allow.  Why shouldn’t we use the same block of time to accomplish several different tasks?  Well, there’s a solid reason not to, as it turns out: it’s impossible.  The human brain is physically incapable of multitasking and study after study confirms that.  When we try to do two things at once we do both poorly and we take as much time or longer than we would by splitting these tasks up.

How could this not be a good idea?

The reasons are pretty obvious.  The brain cannot focus in multiple directions.  Think about talking on the phone while typing out an email.  What you are actually doing is switching your focus from one task to the other.  You are certainly not saying one thing while typing another and if you are, odds are pretty good that words from the conversation will sneak into the email.  What actually happens in that instance is that your mind toggles back and forth between the two tasks.  Each time it does, it takes a second or two to reorient itself and get back into the groove of what it was doing.

On the flip side of that coin, the brain is extremely good at focusing on a single task.  Any task, whether physical or mental, will get easier and easier with repetition.  If you are answering a series of emails, email 4 will take less time than email 1 and email 9 will go even quicker.  Your brain shuts out external stimulus in order to singularly focus on the task at hand.  By inviting external stimulus you are actually subverting your brain’s  effort to maximize your efficiency.

 #4) Speed Read

Here is another one that has been promised to us by many a marketer.   Speed reading courses are offered at virtually every major learning institute in the nation so there must be something to this, right?  Well, as it turns out, not really.

While it is certainly true that some people read faster than others, it is patently absurd to believe that some course on speed reading can help you improve your speed.  Most people read somewhere around 300 words a minute (which seems incredibly fast, but if you time yourself you will almost certainly find that you are close to this range).  Reading a lot will steadily improve the speed at which you read, as will expanding your vocabulary.  Speed reading courses, not so much.

Now when you combine speed reading and multitasking...

The reason is that the methods these classes offer are absurd.  They will try to teach you to read without “subvocalizing”, which means that you read without sounding the words out in your head.  As logical as this sounds, it is also impossible.  The brain is not equipped to divorce reading from speaking and without some level of sub-vocalization you will have absolutely no comprehension of what you are reading.

The trick that keeps speed reading courses in business is the trade-off between speed and comprehension.  Studies have consistently shown that the upper limit for reading comprehension is somewhere around 600 words per minute.  While this is an impressive increase, it is obtained through practice, not through speed-reading courses.  They might help you learn to skim 1000+ words per minute but you will lose so much comprehension that it is rarely worth doing.

 #5) Distinguish Between Brands

Most of us first became aware of brand loyalty on a visit to grandma’s house.  She cooked breakfast, sure, but she had the wrong syrup on the table and that ruined everything.  Maple syrup may be maple syrup, but Mrs. Butterworth is not Aunt Jemima and that’s all there is to it.

A fine line seperates brand loyalty from
clinical insanity.

As children we are finicky about everything but surely we grow out of that at some point, right?  Again, not so much.  Even as adults most of us are extremely loyal to one brand over another even if the only measurable difference between the two is packaging.  If you have a preferred brand of bottled water, don’t even try to pretend this doesn’t apply to you.

But it goes far beyond people who think they can tell the difference between hydrogen and oxygen in an Aquafina bottle or an Evian bottle.  The majority of people cannot distinguish the difference between, for example, Coke and Pepsi.

Again, you can try this test at home.  You’ll need at least half a dozen test subjects but the more you have, the more effective the test will be.  Start with a bottle of Pepsi, a bottle of Coke and a bunch of small glasses.  Pour two cups (careful to insure that nobody saw which soda went into which cup) then ask your friends to try each and figure out which is which.  You will most often find that their results are no better than a coin flip.

A bit of deception can make the experiment far more telling.  With half of your subjects, pour Coke or Pepsi into both glasses and you’ll find that more often than not they will perceive a difference.  They might even say that one is delicious and the other is nasty, despite the fact that they are drinking the exact same beverage from the exact same bottle in the exact same kind of glass.

 #6) Ignore Race

Ever since the wave of political correctness hit us in the 90s many people have been fond of saying that they “don’t see race” or that they “treat everyone the same”.  As laudable as this is, it is also patently absurd.  Unless you are blind, you see race.  Assuming you’re a human being using the same kind of brain as the rest of us, you also make subtle, even subconscious determinations based on race.

"I know, what if we all wore robes so nobody
could tell what race we were?"

To narrow this down to race is somewhat unfair.  The truth is that your brain simply registers whether people are similar to you or dissimilar to you and acts accordingly.  We can, of course, override our brain’s natural tendency toward racism, but to pretend that we overlook race altogether is baseless and arrogant.  It is little different than saying “I don’t feel pain” or “I don’t use words.”

A telling example of this occurred several years ago when a study found that NBA officials were more likely to call fouls against people of the opposite race.  White refs were more likely to call fouls on black players and black refs were more likely to call fouls on white players.  There was an uproar in the media about this and the NBA stepped out and condemned the findings loudly and vociferously.  Of course, sociologists and psychologists who were familiar with the way the brain worked were busy trying to explain that this should come as a surprise to nobody, but they were easily drowned out by the circus that was society’s reaction to these findings.

It should be noted in fairness to NBA refs that this does not indicate that NBA refs are racist.  We are not all innately racist, but our brains do categorize people by race.  Denying this means squandering the only real opportunity you have to overcome it.

 #7) Be Impartial

We all like to think that we can remove our own egos from situations and provide an objective view.  This is an utterly ridiculous fallacy and assumes some kind of super-human ability to exist without ego.  If we attempt to remove our own feelings on things, we might risk swinging too far in the opposite direction and prejudicing our judgments in opposition to our preconceptions.

Pictured: Impartial judgment.
Of course, some people are required to be impartial to do their jobs and these people work to combat their prejudices in very specific ways.  But even then, a professional arbiter will excuse themselves from a situation where they have strong feelings on one side or the other.  It doesn’t matter how good a judge is at being a judge, he or she shouldn’t be overseeing his or her son’s trial.

This illusion of objectivity is one of the things that make us give out so much unwarranted and useless advice.  We are often convinced that we can see beyond the preconceptions of our friends and thus judge their situations more objectively.  While this may be the case, just as often we are simply trading their preconceptions for our own and thus giving advice that is no more objective and less informed.

 #8) Assess Our Work

This comes from the same place as our illusions of impartiality.  We like to believe that we can objectively assess our work in the same way that we convince ourselves that we can objectively assess our problems.  We are fond of saying things like “I’m my own harshest critic”.  That may be true (though it probably isn’t) but even if it is, that doesn’t mean that your assessment of your work is correct.

The problem is that we tend to swing to the extremes when judging our own output.  For things that we know little about or have little expertise in, we consistently think we did much better than we actually did.  For things that we know a lot about and have a lot of expertise in, we consistently think we did much worse than we actually did.  This means that more often than not, the better you think you did, the worse you did and the worse you think you did, the better you did.

Psychologists refer to this as the “Dunning-Kruger effect” and it can perhaps best be summed up with a quote from Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

"Roof's done!"
In summary, our brains don’t always tell us the truth.  Confirmation bias is a very real thing and while scientists account for it by using methods like double-blind placebo tests, we very rarely account for our brain’s inability to know its limits in our everyday life.  Knowledge, it would seem, is a path to realizing how ignorant we really are.  Realizing how ignorant we are, then, is the surest path to wisdom.

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