What scam artists can teach us about the human brain

For centuries, scam artists, con artists, and magicians were the world’s leading experts on biases, fallacies, heuristics and all the other quirks of human reasoning and perception.

On this episode, magician and scam expert Brian Brushwood explains why people fall for scams of all sizes, how to avoid them, and why most magicians can spot a fraudster a mile away.

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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.

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Brian Brushwood tours the world giving lectures that mix comedy with stage and close-up magic designed to deliver an overall message about how to better navigate a world filled with scams, frauds, pseudoscience, and paranormal beliefs. Read the rest

How to fix the mistakes that celebrity scientists and charismatic doctors make

The facts don’t speak for themselves. Someone always speaks for them.

From the opioid crisis to vaccines, vitamin and health supplements to climate change — even the widespread use of lobotomies to quiet problem mental patients — celebrity scientists and charismatic doctors have made tremendous mistakes. Thanks to their fame, they escaped the corrective mechanisms of science itself and spread their wrongness far and wide. Science always deals the problem. The truth wins. But before it does, many people can be harmed, and society can suffer.

In this episode, we sit down with Dr. Paul Offit to discuss how we can get better at catching those mistakes before they happen, and mitigating the harm once Pandora’s Lab has been opened.

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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.

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How debate changes minds, no matter who wins

Parker Wiseman ran for student office in high school with photocopied flyers. He debated the public school system in social studies class. In college he took the courses and shook the hands that would help him join that peculiar Southern subculture of the embattled Mississippi Democrat, a pugnacious sort who plays darts and drinks whiskey while wearing penny loafers and forces smiles meant to fool no one. People close to Parker Wiseman were not surprised when, at the age of 28, he became the youngest mayor in Starkville history.

When I met him, he was deep into his second term, 34-years-old with bright blue eyes neatly obscured by thin-framed spectacles hugging a cleanly shaved head. I had to wait for the person before me to finish a meeting before I could take up time in his schedule, but when the door opened he traded off quickly and was all laughs and smirks as I unpacked my bag. In conversation, he moved between two poses, leaning forward with shoulders high and elbows planted wide so he could clasp his hands and focus when I was talking, and reclined in an unwound ease when he was answering, one arm propping him up so he could lean into the back the chair with his rear scooted to the forward edge of the seat and his feet as far apart as could be achieved with manners in dress slacks.

I wanted to meet Wiseman because he had concluded a long, difficult battle to bring social change to a city in the Deep South, to Mississippi, one that made national headlines. Read the rest

Why we are prone to optimism and hope over realism and the skepticism of experience

When you think about your future health, career, finances, and even longevity — you imagine a rosy, hopeful future. For everyone else, though, you tend to be far more realistic.

In other words, if you are a smoker, everyone else is going to get cancer. You’ll probably be in the that lucky portion who smokes into your 90s, or so you think. Similarly, the odds of success for a new restaurant change depending on who starts that venture. If its you, the odds are pretty good. If it is someone else, you see the odds as pretty bad.

For about 80 percent of people, the brain overestimates the likelihood of future good events and underestimates the odds of future bad events. This, guest Tali Sharot says, is our built-in optimism bias.

Sharot is the director of the Affective Brain Lab and teaches cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. In this episode, she explains why we are prone to optimism and hope over realism and the skepticism of experience. She also details how we can use our knowledge of this mental quirk to our advantage both personally and institutionally.

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This episode is sponsored by Dignity Health. Just two minutes of mindful thinking can reduce stress and help us be more mindful of the moments and people around us. Share #take2mins on social media to tell the world how you are incorporating mindfullness into your daily life. Read the rest

When future desires and past beliefs are incongruent, desire usually wins out

Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek evidence that supports our beliefs and that confirms our assumptions — when we could just as well seek disconfirmation of those beliefs and assumptions instead.

It feels like we are doing the hard work — doing the research required to build good beliefs — but since we can so easily find that confirmation, when we stop searching at those moments when we think we have made sense of the world, we can grow ever more wrong over time.

This is such a prevalent feature of human cognition, that until recently a second phenomenon has been hidden in plain sight. Recent research suggests that something called desirability bias may be just as prevalent in our thinking.

Since our past beliefs and future desires usually match up, the desirability of an outcome is often twisted into our pursuit of confirmation like a single psychological braid — and here’s the thing: When future desires and past beliefs are incongruent, desire usually wins out.

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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.

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Science is wrong about everything, but you can trust it more than anything

Psychology is working on the hardest problems in all of science. Physics, astronomy, geology — those are easy, by comparison. Understanding consciousness, willpower, ideology, social change – there’s a larger-than-Large-Hadron-Collider level of difficulty to each one of these, but since these are more relatable ideas than quarks and bosons and mass coronal ejections — this a science about our minds and selves — it’s easier to create eye-catching headlines and, well, to make podcasts about them.

This is the problem. Because the system for distributing the findings of science is based on publication within journals, which themselves are often depend on the interest of the general media, all the biases that come with that system and media consumption in general are now causing the sciences that are most interesting to the public to get tainted by that interest.

As you will hear in this episode, one of the most famous and most talked-about phenomena in recent psychological history, ego depletion, hasn’t been doing so well in replication attempts.

In the show, journalist Daniel Engber who wrote an article for Slate about the failure to replicate many of the famous ego depletion experiments will detail what this means for the science and the scientists involved.

Also, you’ll hear from psychologist Brain Nosek, who says, “Science is wrong about everything, but you can trust it more than anything.”

Nosek is director of the Center for Open Science, an organization working to correct what they see as the temporarily wayward path of psychology. Read the rest

The half life of facts

In medical school, they tell you half of what you are about to learn won’t be true when you graduate — they just don’t know which half.

In every field of knowledge, half of what is true today will one day be updated with better information, and it turns out that we actually know when that day will come for many academic pursuits.

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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.

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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. Read the rest

Why we often choose to keep useful information out of our heads

The cyberpunks, the Founding Fathers, the 19th Century philosophers, and the Enlightenment thinkers — they each envisioned a perfect democracy powered by a constant multimedia psychedelic freakout in which all information was free, decentralized, democratized, and easy to access.

In each era, the dream was the same: A public life for the average citizen that was no longer limited by any kind of information deficit; a life augmented by instant and full access to all the information anyone could ever want. On top of that, they imagined the end of gatekeepers, the public fully able to choose what went into their minds.

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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 Squarespace.com and enter offer code SOSMART to get 10% off your first purchase. Read the rest

Is progress inevitable?

In his book on the history of human progress, Our Kind, anthropologist Marvin Harris asked in the final chapter, “Will nature’s experiment with mind and culture end in nuclear war?”

The book came out in 1989, in the final years of our Cold War nuclear paranoia, and his telling of how people developed from hunter gatherers all the way to McDonald’s franchise owners, he said, couldn’t honestly end with him gazing optimistically to the horizon because never had the fate of so many been under the control of so few.

“What alarms me most,” he wrote, “is the acquiescence of ordinary citizens and their elected officials to the idea that our kind has to learn to deal with the threat of mutual annihilation because it is the best way of reducing the danger that one nuclear power will attack another.”

In the final paragraph, Harris wrote that “we must recognize the degree to which we are not yet in control” of our own society. Progress was mostly chance and luck with human agency steering us away from the rocks when it could, but unless we gained some measure of control of where we were going as a species, he said, we’d be rolled over by our worst tendencies, magnified within institutions too complex for any one person to predict or direct.

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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. Read the rest

How to fight back against the backfire effect

The final show in my three-part series about the pitfalls associated with trying to debunk myths, battle fake news, and correct misinformation is up. In this episode I interview scientists who have great advice on how to both avoid the backfire effect and eventually overcome it.

If you ask a social scientist familiar with motivated reasoning and the backfire effect if there is any hope to ever reach people who refuse to accept facts – is there any chance to change people’s minds with evidence, reason, or scientific consensus – they will usually point you to a 2010 paper titled: “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners ever ‘Get It’?”

Like most of us, political scientists David P. Redlawsk, Andrew J.W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson wondered if, when confronted with challenges to their erroneous beliefs, do the people who resist efforts at correction ever come around, or are we just causing more harm than good by trusting in facts instead of using some time-tested technique from the emotional manipulation toolkit?

To test this, Redlawsk and his team created a mock presidential election in which people would gradually learn more and more terrible things about their preferred virtual candidates from a virtual news media. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the news stories they read included a precise mix of negative information about their chosen candidates so the effect of those messages could be measured as the negativity increased in intensity.

The scientists thought that surely, at some point, after a person had chosen one candidate over another, a constant flow of negative information about that person would persuade them to reconsider their choices. Read the rest

How motivated skepticism strengthens incorrect beliefs

This is part two in my "The Backfire Effect" series. This one focuses on motivated reasoning, specifically something called motivated skepticism. In addition, it features interviews with the scientists who coined the backfire effect term itself and who have extended their original research outside of politics and into health issues.

By now you’ve likely heard of confirmation bias. As a citizen of the internet the influence of this cognitive tendency is constant, and its allure is pervasive.

In short, when you have a hunch that you might already understand something, but don’t know for sure, you tend to go searching for information that will confirm your suspicions.

When you find that inevitable confirmation, satisfied you were correct all along, you stop searching. In some circles, the mental signal to end exploration once you feel like your position has sufficient external support is referred to as the wonderfully wordy “makes sense stopping rule” which basically states that once you believe you’ve made sense of something, you go about your business satisfied that you need not continue your efforts. In other words, just feeling correct is enough to stop your pursuit of new knowledge. We basically had to invent science to stop ourselves from trying to solve problems by thinking in this way.

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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. Read the rest

The neuroscience of changing your mind

This is the first of three You Are Not So Smart episodes about the "backfire effect." In it, I interview a team of neuroscientists who put people in a brain scanner and then challenged their beliefs, some political and some not, with counter-evidence and then compared which brain regions lit up for which beliefs. The crazy takeaway was that for political beliefs, but not for others, people seemed to react as if their very bodies were being threatened by the challenging evidence.

We don’t treat all of our beliefs the same.

If you learn that the Great Wall of China isn’t the only man-made object visible from space, and that, in fact, it’s actually very difficult to see the Wall compared to other landmarks, you update your model of reality without much fuss. Some misconceptions we give up readily, replacing them with better information when alerted to our ignorance.

For others constructs though, for your most cherished beliefs about things like climate change or vaccines or Republicans, instead of changing your mind in the face of challenging evidence or compelling counterarguments, you resist. Not only do you fight belief change for some things and not others, but if you successfully deflect such attacks, your challenged beliefs then grow stronger.

The research shows that when a strong-yet-erroneous belief is challenged, yes, you might experience some temporary weakening of your convictions, some softening of your certainty, but most people rebound and not only reassert their original belief at its original strength, but go beyond that and dig in their heels, deepening their resolve over the long run. Read the rest

Questioning the nature of reality with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman

Back in the early 1900s, the German biologist Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll couldn’t shake the implication that the inner lives of animals like jellyfish and sea urchins must be radically different from those of humans.

Uexküll was fascinated by how meaty, squishy nervous systems gave rise to perception. Noting that the sense organs of sea creatures and arachnids could perceive things that ours could not, he realized that giant portions of reality must therefore be missing from their subjective experiences, which suggested that the same was true of us. In other words, most ticks can’t enjoy an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical because, among other reasons, they don’t have eyes. On the other hand, unlike ticks, most humans can’t smell butyric acid wafting on the breeze, and so no matter where you sit in the audience, smell isn’t an essential (or intended) element of a Broadway performance of Cats.

Uexküll imagined that each animal’s subjective experience was confined to a private sensory world he called an umwelt. Each animal’s umwelt was different, he said, distinctive from that of another animal in the same environment, and each therefore was tuned to take in only a small portion of the total picture. Not that any animal would likely know that, which was Uexküll’s other big idea. Because no organism can perceive the totality of objective reality, each animal likely assumes that what it can perceive is all that can be perceived. Each umwelt is a private universe, fitted to its niche, and the subjective experiences of all of Earth’s creatures are like a sea filled with a panoply of bounded virtual realities floating past one another, each unaware that it is unaware. Read the rest

James Burke’s new project aims to help us deal with change, think connectively, and benefit from surprise

In this episode of the YANSS Podcast, we sit down with legendary science historian James Burke, who returns to the show to explain his newest project, a Connections app that will allow anyone to search and think “connectively” when exploring Wikipedia.

He launched the Kickstarter for the app this month. This is a link to learn more.

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For much of his career, science historian James Burke has been creating documentaries and writing books aimed at helping us to make better sense of the enormous amount of information that he predicted would one day be at our fingertips.

In Connections, he offered an “alternate view of history” in which great insights took place because of anomalies and mistakes, because people were pursuing one thing, but it lead somewhere surprising or was combined with some other object or idea they could never have imagined by themselves. Innovation took place in the spaces between disciplines, when people outside of intellectual and professional silos, unrestrained by categorical and linear views, synthesized the work of people still trapped in those institutions, who, because of those institutions, had no idea what each other was up to and therefore couldn’t predict the trajectory of even their own disciplines, much less history itself.

In The Day the Universe Changed, Burke explored the sequential impact of discovery, innovation, and invention on how people defined reality itself. “You are what we know,” he wrote “and when the body of knowledge changes, so do we." In this view of change, knowledge is invented as much as it is discovered, and new ideas “nibble at the edges” of common knowledge until values considered permanent and fixed fade into antiquity just like any other obsolete tool. Read the rest

The neuroscience behind the things that our brains do poorly

In this episode we interview Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain: What Your Brain is Really Up To. Burnett’s book is a guide to the neuroscience behind the things that our amazing brains do poorly.

In the interview we discuss motion sickness, the pain of breakups, why criticisms are more powerful than compliments, the imposter syndrome, anti-intellectualism, irrational fears, and more. Burnett also explains how the brain is kinda sorta like a computer, but a really bad one that messes with your files, rewrites your documents, and edits your photos when you aren’t around.

Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist who lectures at Cardiff University and writes about brain stuff over at his blog, Brain Flapping hosted by The Guardian.

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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 The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Everything we now know about the universe—from the behavior of quarks to the birth of entire galaxies—has stemmed from scientists who’ve been willing to ponder the unanswerable. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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People in crowds do not spontaneously de-evolve into subhuman beasts

This episode’s guest, Michael Bond, is the author of The Power of Others, and reading his book I was surprised to learn that despite several decades of research into crowd psychology, the answers to most questions concerning crowds can still be traced back to a book printed in 1895.

Gustave’s Le Bon’s book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, explained that humans in large groups are dangerous, that people spontaneously de-evolve into subhuman beasts who are easily swayed and prone to violence. That viewpoint has informed the policies and tactics of governments and police forces for more than a century, and like many prescientific musings, much of it is wrong.

Listen in this episode as Michael Bond, explains that the more research the social sciences conduct, the less the idea of a mindless, animalistic mob seems to be true. He also explains what police forces and governments should be doing instead of launching tear gas canisters from behind riot shields which actually creates the situation they are trying to prevent. Also, we touch on the psychology of suicide bombers, which is just as surprising as what he learned researching crowds.

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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 The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Everything we now know about the universe—from the behavior of quarks to the birth of entire galaxies—has stemmed from scientists who’ve been willing to ponder the unanswerable. Read the rest

What we think about when we try not to think about global warming

In this episode, psychologist Per Espen Stoknes discusses his book: What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming.

Stoknes has developed a strategy for science communicators who find themselves confronted with climate change deniers who aren’t swayed by facts and charts. His book presents a series of psychology-based steps designed to painlessly change people’s minds and avoid the common mistakes scientists tend to make when explaining climate change to laypeople.

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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 The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Everything we now know about the universe—from the behavior of quarks to the birth of entire galaxies—has stemmed from scientists who’ve been willing to ponder the unanswerable. 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 Squarespace.com and enter offer code SOSMART to get 10% off your first purchase.

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