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Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

Written by: Ali Binazir Topics: Self-Improvement

Meet my friend Bart. As a surgeon, every day at work he’s entrusted with the lives of others, and he handles the job well. He’s a genuinely gifted fellow. He’s also fit, healthy, and well-rounded.

In other words, Bart has made a lot of great decisions in his life, and continues to do so every day.

Except that some time ago, he got engaged. And none of his friends thought it was a good idea. We all predicted disaster, of the Hindenberg up-in-flames variety.

Bart did get separated a few years later, and you probably know someone who was plenty smart who made a similarly disastrous decision. Whether it was taking the wrong job, buying a Hummer, selling off Microsoft stock in 1989 or launching into a destructive affair, this kind of thing happens all the time. Perhaps it’s even happened to you.

It’s easy to see all of this in hindsight. But what if you could see the faulty decision-making while it was happening? Then, instead of an “I told you so” story which helps little and irritates much, we may actually accomplish something useful — like helping avoid the error in the first place.

Psychologists who’ve studied our decision-making processes have observed cognitive biases that tend to get us in trouble.

Remember that these biases don’t make you a bad person — they just make you human. As far as we can tell, they’re deeply-ingrained features of our brain function. The more you’re aware of them, the better chance you have of avoiding them. There’s a slew of them, so I’ll highlight some of the big ones:

1) The fundamental attribution error.
This bias makes us attribute the failure of others to character and our own failures to circumstance. “Jenkins lost his job because he was incompetent; I lost mine because of the recession.” It also attributes our own successes to our competence, discounting luck, while seeing others’ successes as products of mere luck.

This lands you in hot water when you assume that bad stuff only happens to other people: you’re not going to be part of the 50 percent of people who get divorced, and the price of your house will go up even though 90 percent of them have dropped in price. I’m going to marry Charlie Sheen and make it work because I’m different; those 4,000 other women were just stupid. They did something wrong, but I know what I’m doing. The fundamental attribution error’s a pernicious one, and it nails all of us at some point.

2) The confirmation bias.
This one has two parts. First, we tend to gather and rely upon information that confirms our existing views. Second, we avoid or downplay information that goes against our pre-existing hypothesis.

Say you suspect that your computer has been hacked. Then every time it stalls or has a little glitch, you blame it on the hackers. Or you think that your boss has it in for you. Then everything she says or does you interpret as part of her plan to undermine you. It’s a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you identify with a political party, you probably do this all the time. If you’re a scientist, you do this inadvertently as part of the scientific method. And if you’re a trial lawyer, it’s your job to do this.

If you’re interested in moving an agenda forward, then the confirmation bias works in your favor. If you’re subject to this agenda and don’t like it, recognize the confirmation bias for its fallacy. And if you’re interested in the truth, start without preconceptions. Outwitting the confirmation bias means exploring both sides of an argument with equal diligence.

3) The overconfidence bias.
I call this the ‘my guess is better than yours’ bias. People’s confidence in their own decisions tends to outstrip the accuracy of those decisions. Your friend will say he’s “100 percent positive” about something — e.g. his choice of wife – and only be right 50 percent of the time. A disastrous form of this happened in the doomed 1996 Mt Everest expedition described in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, resulting in the death of many climbers.

4) The availability bias.
We tend to estimate what’s more likely by how easily we can come up with an example from memory. The availability of our memories is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples. So we tend to make those more salient, then come up with weird decisions based on them.

As a result, you may cancel your trip to the Canary Islands because mom tells you the biggest plane crash in history happened there. Or you stop going to hockey games because you heard someone in the stands got thwacked on the head with a puck last week. Or avoid investing in stocks because those crashed last year.

To bypass the availability bias, be sure to look at all the evidence around a particular decision, not the stuff that jumps to mind first. If only 1 out of 100,000 plane landings resulted in a crash, it’s safe to fly to the Canary Islands. If one out of ten million hockey fans gets nailed by a puck, you can watch a hockey game.

5) The sunk cost fallacy.
I call this the slot-machine effect. You put a quarter in a one-armed bandit, and pull the lever. You win nothing. No big deal – you put in another quarter. And another. This goes on for a while, and you start thinking, “Well, I’m invested in this machine now. It’s going to belch an avalanche of quarters any second!”

The truth is that every pull of the lever has the same winning probability of nearly zero, regardless of how much money you’ve put in. The money is effectively gone forever – it’s a sunk cost. There’s no quantifiable expectation of future return, so it’s not an investment.

This is a big one in jobs and relationships. You can be stuck in a crappy situation for a while, and then think, “But I’ve invested three years in this! I can’t just throw that away!” The fact is that those three years are never coming back – you’ve already thrown them away, so don’t worry about it! The sooner you cut bait and go for a better situation, the better off you are.

So next time you have smart friends who are about to make an unbelievably dumb decision, follow this five-step plan:

a) Look through this list, or an even more comprehensive one
b) Empathize with them for being human, coming up with an example of a time when you made a similarly boneheaded choice – “Boy, was I a goober!”
c) Instead of saying “What the hell are you thinking,” say “I have a lot of faith in your judgment, so help me understand how you came up with this decision.”
d) If you’re still convinced they’re smoking something funny, only then offer gently some insight on cognitive biases, and see what happens.
e) If they still don’t get it, take the frying pan from behind your back and give them a compassionate but bracing thwack upside the head. It probably won’t change their mind, but it’ll feel pretty satisfying.

Ali Binazir (yours truly) is Chief Evangelist and Decision Enhancement Engineer at Elite Communications LLC. Formerly a consultant at McKinsey, I use a combination of Eastern wisdom and Western science to help people and companies make better decisions. You may contact me directly at ali(at)awakenyourgenius.com.

Popularity: 21% [?]

Does your body take abstract thoughts literally?

Written by: Ali Binazir Topics: Mind, Neuroscience

Here’s something that hypnotists and neurolinguistic programmers have been using for years: your body often reflects your abstract thoughts in physical form.  For example, if you tell someone to imagine tilting back a picture of himself, then he tends to feel more relaxed — ‘laid back’.

Turns out that scientists have been uncovering evidence that this kind of thing is happening all the time and with great complexity.  Natalie Angier of the New York Times has written a great summary of these fascinating findings which is quite eye-opening (did your eyes just open wide?):

The theory of relativity showed us that time and space are intertwined. To which our smarty-pants body might well reply: Tell me something I didn’t already know, Einstein.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.

As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent. Continued

Popularity: 13% [?]

This is Your Brain on Love

Written by: Ali Binazir Topics: Neuroscience

Here’s a great summary of some of the current thinking on what happens to your noggin when you’re in love (or lust).  The name of one of the researchers is Timothy Loving — you can’t make that kind of thing up.

(CNN) — Poets, novelists and songwriters have described it in countless turns of phrase, but at the level of biology, love is all about chemicals.

Although the physiology of romantic love has not been extensively studied, scientists can trace the symptoms of deep attraction to their logical sources.

“Part of the whole attraction process is strongly linked to physiological arousal as a whole,” said Timothy Loving (his real name), assistant professor of human ecology at the University of Texas, Austin. “Typically, that’s going to start with things like increased heart rate, sweatiness and so on.” Continued here

Popularity: 13% [?]

Achieving Lasting Behavioral Change

Written by: Ali Binazir Topics: Self-Improvement

If you were one of the attendees of the talk at RW in Santa Monica — welcome! Here are some of the resources I referred to in the talk:

If you have further questions, leave a comment or shoot me an email.

Popularity: 10% [?]

Interview with Gretchen Rubin at Vroman’s Bookstore

Written by: Ali Binazir Topics: Self-Improvement

Here’s an interview I did last week with Gretchen Rubin, fellow HuffingtonPost.com contributor and all-around star (Yale Law grad, clerkship with Sandra Day O’Connor, supermom, etc). I caught up with her at a reading she did at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Southern California’s oldest and largest independent bookstore. My first time there — what a place! A bibliophile’s heaven indeed. To catch Gretchen when she swings through your city, check out her book tour schedule on her excellent blog.

But I digress — voila the video. It’s just over a minute, so check it out:

Popularity: 12% [?]

‘Happiness Project’ by Gretchen Rubin Video Review

If Aristotle was correct in calling happiness the summum bonum of life — the chief good, the ultimate thing we all strive for in all our strivings — then The Happiness Project is a sure-fire recipe for having more of it.

A fun, funny and wise book written by Gretchen Rubin, a regular HuffingtonPost.com contributor, it’s a distillation of the wisdom of the ages on happiness. It provides eminently practical ways to amplify your happiness pretty much immediately (e.g. gossip less; exercise more; launch a pet project).

In this video review, I share my impressions on The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Be sure to check out also my interview with Gretchen, her excellent blog, and the supremely useful resources of her Happiness Project Toolbox.

If you like the video, please show signs of life by rating it and leaving comments!

Visit the AwakenYourGenius.com blog, where smart people get smarter
Write to me directly

Popularity: 12% [?]

Awaken Your Inner Creative Genius – TEDxSF Talk Nov 2009

Written by: Topics: Creativity, Self-Improvement

If I told you that by undergoing a training that takes less than 20min, you could boost your IQ by 30% on average, would you devote 20min to the exercise?

Think about it. If you’re starting at 120, this means you could go to 156. This is not a trivial improvement.

Well, I don’t know about your IQ, but with this training, I’ve consistently helped people boost their CQ — creativity quotient — by 30% or more.

Voila the video from the TEDx San Francisco talk I gave in November 2009.  To get maximum benefit from this, make sure you have a pen and paper ready right now so you can take the before-and-after creativity tests to see how much you improve.  My preliminary results show that people improve their creativity score by 30% on average after just the first part, and another 50-80% after the second part of the training.  Your mileage may vary.  As a comparison, of the 300 or so people in the Planetarium that day, 296 improved their scores.

Be sure to leave me comments with your before/after scores, what worked particularly well for you and suggestions for making the training even better.

Watch live streaming video from tedxsf at livestream.com

Popularity: 14% [?]

Project Superman, Episode 1

Written by: Topics: Dating Advice for Men

Gentlemen –

As those of you on my mailing list know, today (actually in 15min) is the first installment of Project Superman. It’s a little bit hush-hush, so if you want to get in on the action, make sure you sign up for the men’s newsletter at TaoOfDating.com, and we’ll catch you on the call.

For those of you who are wondering about the time, it’s at 6pm PT/9pm ET and will last 30-40min. If you’re coming here after the call, please post your comments below. What did you like about it? What would you like more of? What would you change about it? How do you feel now? How effective is it a couple of days out? I’m very, very curious about your feedback.

Popularity: 10% [?]

Good Snooze: Fisher Wallace Cranial Stimulator Treats Insomnia

Written by: Topics: Biomedicine

Have you ever come across a safe, effective treatment that worked really well and, for some unfathomable reason, wasn’t all that well-known to the general public?

That’s how I felt when I stumbled upon hypnotherapy back in med school. It worked; its side effects were minimal to nonexistent; and it wasn’t used all that much. Go figure.

Recently, I came across another such treatment modality. It’s a sleek little gadget called the Fisher Wallace Cranial Stimulator. It has two sponge electrodes that you wet, then place on top of your sideburns under a headband to hold them fast. You turn it on, and it sends a tiny 1-4 milliamp current for 20 minutes, during which you can keep at whatever you were doing. Then it shuts itself off.

Since I’m fond of gadgets — especially ones promising safe, effective new treatment of otherwise intractable conditions — I asked to borrow a Cranial Stimulator from my friend Chip Fisher, the president of the company (full disclosure: I have no financial interest in Fisher Wallace Inc., although Chip has been known to buy me a drink even when I don’t want one).

Clinical evidence demonstrates the Stimulator to be effective in the treatment of a variety of conditions: anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain, and drug addiction. It also seems to be particularly useful for treating insomnia.

So let the experiments begin, I said. Personally, I enjoyed the pleasant buzz it gave me and felt somewhat more energized and alert after using it. However, since I sleep like a log already, the insomnia experiment would be wasted on me. I just wanted to make sure it didn’t have any funny side effects before passing it along, and am pleased to report that after a week of use, I experienced none. The main show was to lend the Stimulator to some family members with chronic insomnia (who all happened to be female).

Anecdotally, they claimed to benefit from the 20-minute daily treatments, though I have no way to verify this (sleep data are notoriously difficult to gather). I did notice something else, however: it took me a good 6 months to get the machine back from them since they had passed it along to several of their insomniac friends. This tipped me off that the gizmo was doing something right, since people wouldn’t be passing the machine on if it didn’t work.

Since results of insomnia treatment are hard to quantify, researchers use a subjective 10-point scale that asks a patient to rate the quality of her sleep (called the Likert Scale). In a meta-analysis of all studies done on cranial electrical stimulation (CES) up to 2006, patients experienced on average a 62% improvement in their sleep profiles (which included such measures as how fast they fall asleep, the quality of said sleep, how relaxed they feel afterwards).

What’s surprising is that this body of research goes back 50 years. That’s how long people have known about and benefited from cranial stimulation. The first effective commercial CES machine came out in 1970. It’s just that people are just catching the buzz right now.

One enthusiastic advocate is Mike Davis, director of Vet-Net.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to veterans’ needs, and a decorated Vietnam veteran himself. He has successfully treating his own chronic insomnia using the Cranial Stimulator and encourages his fellow vets to use it, too. Insomnia seems to be particularly prevalent amongst active duty soldiers, too, since the US Special Forces has asked Fisher Wallace to design a special unit just for them.

Another enthusiastic owner is musician Carly Simon. In an interview with the Boston Globe, she spontaneously asked the reporter to try on her Fisher Wallace Stimulator: “”I have this brain machine. Would you like to try it? It’s so not scary… Close your eyes. Are you seeing any tiny flashes? I’ve been doing it for almost two months now, and I haven’t had any dreadful falls into depression or mania,” she says. “I love it.”

As far as the evidence shows, cranial electrical stimulation seems to be pretty effective for treating insomnia, as well as other chronic conditions like depression and drug addiction. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it all works, although a new paper from Harvard Medical School from Prof. Felipe Fregni’s group discusses some possible mechanisms.

If you’re suffering from chronic insomnia, the Fisher Wallace Stimulator seems to be worth a try at the very least. It also shows impressive results in treating depression. Many patients have gotten good results from it, and it’s pretty safe. If you’d like to find out more, the Fisher Wallace website has comprehensive information on the Stimulator, a list of current clinical studies on it and a list of scientific publications about it. Hope you find it useful.

*cited from the monograph “Cranial Electrical Stimulation: Its First Fifty Years, Plus Three” by Ray Smith, Ph.D., the world’s leading expert on cranial electrical stimulation (CES) therapy

Popularity: 100% [?]

New blog!

Written by: Topics: Dating Advice for Women

Greetings, all ye faithful.  I’ve started a new blog here that covers a wider range of my interests and work — hope you enjoy it.

Popularity: 10% [?]

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