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How To Stop Being Quite So Foolish On All The Other Days

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

“And not only the pride of intellect, but the stupidity of intellect. And, above all, the dishonesty, yes, the dishonesty of intellect. Yes, indeed, the dishonesty and trickery of intellect.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Uplifting new research strongly indicates that human beings, both as individuals and as groups, show profound wisdom in decision-making. We are largely free of bias and cognitive errors.

Moreover, researchers point out that we humans repeatedly show objectivity and use solid data to ascertain facts. We readily and easily find the flaws in our own reasoning. Our emotions work together with our intelligence to help us respond ethically and flexibly even under stress.

Do I need to say it? Surely you realize this must be some sort of joke. Mark Twain said, “April 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.

In case we forget our foolishness (on those not April 1st days), researchers are coming to the rescue. Many books in the last15 years, the latest one being David Robson’s The Intelligence Trap, have been showing us examples of how we humans repeatedly fall into thinking traps.

For example, look at this short snippet of a court proceeding:

Lawyer: Now, Mrs. Johnson, how we your first marriage terminated?

Witness: By death.

Lawyer: And by whose death was it terminated?

Scratching your head? Read it again. Then try this one.

How many animals of each species did Moses take on the ark?

The answer is not 2. The answer is 0. It was Noah, not Moses who built the ark. Yes, I fell for that one (my brilliant husband confessed that he did too when he read this article.)

Why do we make these sort of errors? The technical term for our affliction is “cognitive miserliness.” We find ways to conserve our effort. We take shortcuts. In can be funny.

It was a humorous, April 1st, 1957 video clip from BBC that got me musing. It’s called The Spaghetti-tree Hoax. You can watch it on YouTube. You will see a Swiss family in early Spring harvesting, drying, cooking, and serving their own delectable, home-grown spaghetti. Many viewers were irate to find out this segment was joke. They were calling in to find out where they could buy their own spaghetti trees!

Yes, it can be funny. It’s also a big problem beyond just looking silly. Our thinking short-cuts include things like stereotyping, jumping to conclusions, looking only at data which support our beliefs. Then we top off our lazy thinking with a heavy dose of arrogance.

To add to our cognitive miserliness and arrogance issues, we are notoriously bad at dealing with our emotions. When we are angry, sad, frightened, we become disconnected from our full brain apparatus. We think in contorted ways and often do dumb things.

What are the implications? We can accept that we are ALL quite capable of being foolish, of making mistakes. We can use some tools to protect ourselves from tragic consequences. Here are two simple, highly successful practices.

Use self-distancing. Self-distancing is a way to get a wider, more objective, less emotional perspective on whatever problem we are trying to understand. In your mind step back from your situation and imagine yourself as a third person observing and factually describing the problem. Consider how it might be approached and solved. It’s a type of self-distancing technique to ask yourself what advice you would give to another in your situation. It’s also a type of self-distancing to pretend you are someone else looking for flaws in your thinking.

Manage emotions. We make better decisions if we are in a relaxed, alert state. We can refrain from interacting and making decisions when we are not emotionally stable (read that again while I hammer it into my own head). If you are emotionally out-of-whack stop – don’t type that email. Get yourself together first. Try things like taking a breath, going for a walk or run, taking a nap, listening to music, petting the dog, talking to a wise friend, and especially labelling your emotions (experts have found that if we name our emotions – e.g., anger, sadness, jealousy, we can more quickly and effectively increase our emotional awareness, decrease biases, and improve cognitive processing).

April is the perfect time to accept our foolishness. To celebrate your budding awareness you may want to track down that BBC clip of the spaghetti-tree hoax. If you, like me, want to guard against tragic consequences of foolishness, you can experiment with those two simple techniques - self-distancing and managing emotions.

If you are motivated to become more educated, to go deeper into understanding thinking pitfalls, and to get more tools; read, in addition to The Intelligence Trap, books like Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions by Zachary Shore; Blackbox Thinking, Matthew Syed; Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, How We Decide, Johah Lehrer, Biased, Henry Priest, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely, and Influence, Robert Cialdini.

How might you accept your foolishness, guard against tragic consequences, and Journey to The Good Life?


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