Monitoring a computer transistor to understand why a YouTube video is funny

Even though we are learning more and more about what is "under the hood" of human consciousness, it might not tell us what we most want to know about ourselves. It could be like monitoring a transistor in a computer to better understand why a YouTube video was funny. David McRaney explores the dangers of reductionism in the You Are Not So Smart podcast.

By David McRaney at 7:30 am Thu, Jun 26, 2014

You are Not So Smart is hosted by David McRaney, a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. In each episode, David explores cognitive biases and delusions, and is often joined by a guest expert.

"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

You've heard the expression before. You've may have, like myself, smugly used it a few times to feel like you made an intelligent point in an office conversation. It's one of those great comebacks that we've decided is ok to use in professional settings like congressional debates and televised political arguments about everything from gun control to foreign policy. But, it might surprise you to learn who wrote it, how young the above quote is, and why it was written in the first place.

The quote comes from psychologist Abraham Maslow, the psychologist most famous for his hierarchy of needs. He was recalling how he had asked scientists of the 1930s to think of things like empathy, compassion, awe, and beauty as aspects of the human mind that could be studied. In his era, it was unclear how you could use the tools of science to do anything other than reduce consciousness to measurable things like neurons and reflexes. Maslow said it was possible, and he blamed skepticism over such pursuits on the culture and tools of the time.

Maslow's famous quote comes after he describes first seeing an automatic car wash, saying how marvelous and complex it seemed, but that he realized that in the end "everything else that got into its clutches was treated as if it were an automobile to be washed." He wrote that if science couldn't process the parts of the mind he was interested in studying he would "either to give up my questions or else to invent new ways of answering them."

That's the topic in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast - Maslow's Hammer, a plea from humanist psychology to be very careful when reducing human beings to their basic chemistry and not to lose sight of what makes human beings so wonderful.

I first wrote about Maslow's Hammer at Psychology Today, and in this episode I read portions of that essay.

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[Image: Car Wash, San Bernardino, CACC BY-SA 2.0 Cogart Strangehill - Ext. Car Wash, San Bernardino, CA]

Published 7:30 am Thu, Jun 26, 2014

About the Author

David McRaney is a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. He's the author of the books You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb. He has written for several publications, including The Atlantic and Psychology Today. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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