Thinking is a group activity

Most of us vastly overestimate our understanding of how things work. We think we know more than we do. Why? Because we get by with a little help from our friends. (Sorry.) Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explore why we think we're so smart in a new book titled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Over at Scientific American, Gareth Cook interviews Sloman about how thinking turns out to be more of a community activity.


People fail to distinguish the knowledge that’s in their own heads from knowledge elsewhere (in their bodies, in the world, and—especially—in others’ heads). And we fail because whether or not knowledge is in our heads usually doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have access to the knowledge. In other words, the knowledge we use resides in the community. We participate in a community of knowledge. Thinking isn’t done by individuals; it is done by communities. This is true at macro levels: Fundamental values and beliefs that define our social, political, and spiritual identities are determined by our cultural communities. It is also true at the micro-level: We are natural collaborators, cognitive team-players. We think in tandem with others using our unique ability to share intentionality.

Individuals are rarely well-described as rational processors of information. Rather, we usually just channel our communities.

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Amazon) Read the rest

Cognitive scientist explains why perceiving a false reality is beneficial

There are many wrong ways to sense the world around you, and one of them is the best way to ensure your survival. Amanda Gefter of Quanta Magazine interviewed Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine.

Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.


But how can seeing a false reality be beneficial to an organism’s survival?

Hoffman: There’s a metaphor that’s only been available to us in the past 30 or 40 years, and that’s the desktop interface. Suppose there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop — it has color, position, and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn’t possibly be true. That’s an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop.

Read the rest

Why are online worlds often so toxic?

Why do people cheat? Why are our online worlds often so toxic? What motivates us to “catch ’em all” in Pokemon, grinding away for hours to hatch eggs?

In this episode, psychologist Jamie Madigan, author of Getting Gamers, explains how by exploring the way people interact with video games we can better understand how brains interact with everything else.


This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

There is no better way to create a website than with Squarespace. Creating your website with Squarespace is a simple, intuitive process. You can add and arrange your content and features with the click of a mouse. Squarespace makes adding a domain to your site simple; if you sign up for a year you’ll receive a custom domain for free for a year. Start your free trial today, at and enter offer code SOSMART to get 10% off your first purchase.

Support the show directly by becoming a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

Links and Sources


Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

The Psychology of Video Games Read the rest

Haunting an X-rated movie screening... for science!

In 1960, parapsychologist Anthony Donald Cornell donned a bed sheet and attempted to scare an audience watching an X-rated film in a movie theater. Why? Cornell, a believer in ghosts himself, wanted to understand how people reacted during "apparitional experiences." Today at the BBC, University of Oxford experimental psychologist Matthew Tompkins explores Cornell's strange experiments and considers how his methods may have contributed to the study of "inattentional blindness." Indeed, the ghost in the movie theater experiment is not unlike Daniel Simons and Christopher Chablis's classic "Selective Attention Test" from 1999. If you're not aware of that experiment, the video below is a must-see. From the BBC:

For Cornell, the experiment was another failure. None of the audience reported anything remotely paranormal. Many saw nothing unusual at all: 46% of the respondents had failed to notice the Experimental Apparition when Cornell first passed in front of the screen, and 32% remained completely unaware of it. Even the projectionist, whose job was to watch for anything unusual, reported that he had completely failed to notice the apparition. Those that did see ’something’ were not particularly accurate in their descriptions....

For me, these failures to see are by far the most exciting part of the experimental series. The pleasure of reading Cornell’s original reports, which were published in 1959 and 1960 in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, is that he writes in matter-of-fact academic prose. He dutifully reports numbers and exact quotes from participants, and walks the reader through the details of his experimental designs without a glimmer of apparent irony.

Read the rest

Why your brain creates straw men and doesn't realize it

When confronted with dogma-threatening, worldview-menacing ideas, your knee-jerk response is usually to lash out and try to bat them away, but thanks to a nearly unavoidable mistake in reasoning, you often end up doing battle with arguments of your own creation.

Your lazy brain is always trying to make sense of the world on ever-simpler terms. Just as you wouldn’t use a topographical map to navigate your way to Wendy’s, you tend to navigate reality using a sort of Google Maps interpretation of events and ideas. It’s less accurate, sure, but much easier to understand when details aren’t a priority. But thanks to this heuristical habit, you sometimes create mental men of straw that stand in for the propositions put forth by people who see the world a bit differently than you. In addition to being easy to grasp, they are easy to knock down and hack apart, which wouldn’t be a problem if only you noticed the switcheroo.

This is the essence of the straw man fallacy, probably the most common of all logical fallacies. Setting up and knocking down straw men is so easy to do while arguing that you might not even notice that you are doing it.

In this episode, you’ll learn from three experts in logic and arguing why human brains tend not to realize they are constructing artificial versions of the arguments they wish to defeat. Once you’ve wrapped your mind around that idea, you’ll then learn how to spot the straw man fallacy, how to avoid committing it, and how to defend against it. Read the rest

What is reputation?

On the Web, reputation is a critical currency. But reputation is tricky. The way it's measured changes from platform to platform, network to network. And the way we evaluate the reputation of people, products, companies, information, and even the reputation systems, is affected by our own biases. Big time. Gloria Origgi literally wrote the book on reputation, titled La Reputation. A researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Origgi is a philosopher, cognitive scientist, novelist, and journalist. Over at my friend John Brockman's essential site EDGE, Origgi tackles the big question of "What is reputation?" From her interview:

Take, for example, the reputation of doctors. This is one of the most interesting examples that I like to cite. Everybody, and I don't know if it's the same in the United States, but it is surely a fact in France and in Italy that if you ask someone about his or her doctor, he will reply that this is the best doctor in town. Everybody has the best doctor, which is clearly paradoxical because we can't all have the best doctor. The way in which we select doctors is very mysterious, because you don't have explicit ratings of doctors. You have websites now that rate the doctors, but health is a very sensitive issue, and you give trust to someone for many, many different reasons. But in the end, everybody ends up being convinced they have the best doctor.

I try to understand why. What are the good things?

Read the rest

New York City's Placebo Buttons and The Post Hoc Fallacy

David McRaney explains why placebo buttons surround you, pretending to do your bidding.

Kickstarting a game about cops, terrorism and cognitive bias

Guy Galer sez, "I created a game that was inspired by many of the stories found on Boing Boing. You play a FBI agent that is reassigned to the field because of the Snowden brouhaha. She then has to come to terms with data privacy, racial profiling and all sorts of cognitive biases that impact criminal investigations. It dives into a legal system where it is extremely easy to convict poor people of almost anything while it takes absurd amounts of evidence to convict the rich."

Read the rest