David McRaney on why we're not as SMRT as we think

First aired on Q (3/1/12)

As humans at the top of the food chain, we're pretty sure we've got it all figured out. We're logical and rational creatures, right? We know why we like certain foods, and why we brush our teeth a certain way (no cavities!), and why we tear up at A League of Their Own (maybe?). We can tell when we're lying to ourselves (hint: right now), and we can perform an accurate self-evaluation (what do you mean I'm not perfect?). When we find ourselves in dire situations, we do everything in our power to get out of them.

mcraney-175.jpgUnfortunately, none of the above is true. These are everyday self-delusions that help us deal with reality. As author David McRaney explains in his new book, You Are Not So Smart, well, we are not so smart. The award-winning journalist has a passion for exploring the lies we like to tell ourselves, and he stopped by studio Q to discuss the many flaws of the human brain with Q guest host Jim Brown.

McRaney's book started, like so many books these days do, as a blog that explored a growing body of work that says people generally have no idea why we act, think or feel the way we do. We don't even know why we like what we like.

"In the book I talk a lot about something called self-perception theory, which is the tendency to look at our own faults or actions or behaviours and come up with a narrative to explain them away, whether or not we have all the information to deliver that narrative," said McRaney.

He cites an old experiment that took place in a department store: four nylon stockings were arranging in a row, and customers were asked which one they preferred and why. In fact, the stockings were identical, but the majority of the people asked said they preferred the stockings on the far right, claiming they preferred the texture or the fit -- and never mentioning the stocking placement.

"It's one of many studies that explains something called 'confabulation,'" McRaney said. "It's our tendency to explain away our own behaviour, even if we don't understand why we're behaving in the way we are."

And often the very act of trying to explain why we feel a certain way can actually change the way we feel. "You're sort of the unreliable narrator in the story of your life," McRaney said. "It's almost as if you're talking about another person you're observing, someone you happen to be a big fan of. And that can cause your attitudes to follow your behaviour, rather than your behaviour following your attitudes." In other words, we make up a story to explain our behaviour, and it's usually wrong.

McRaney cites other ways our own brains trip us up, for example our cognitive biases, such as the "confirmation bias," which leads us to choose media to read and watch that we already agree with. Then there are the mental shortcuts that we take, for which McRaney has a fancy word: heuristics. The representativeness heuristic, for example, leads us to make assumptions based on generalities rather than facts.

Even creepier is the concept of "priming," in which our subconscious is influenced without our even realizing it. But will knowing all this stuff about how flawed our brains are make our brains better? Not necessarily. But knowledge is power — if it's used properly.

"It's just part of being a person," McRaney pointed out. "But just knowing about these things can help us change, in a way. The best thing to do would be to admit our faults, and stop making choices in our lives, and even in the policy of the public sphere, that assume we are perfectly rational."

In other words, we should trust the science and try to develop policies that will outsmart our future selves. "We should build a world around the idea that we are deluded and irrational," said McRaney. "We should childproof our homes to keep our kids safe, and we should childproof our lives against our own selves."

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You Are Not So Smart

by David McRaney

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From the publisher:

"An entertaining illumination of the stupid beliefs that make us feel wise. You believe you are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is, but journalist David McRaney is here to tell you that you''re as deluded as the rest of us. But that's OK — delusions keep us sane. You Are Not So Smart is a celebration of self-delusion. It''s like a psychology class, with all the boring parts taken out, and with no homework. Based on the popular blog of the same name, You Are Not So ..."

Read more at Penguin.