July 21, 2012


Cerebral lobesOur brain fools us.

Our brains are divided into left and right hemispheres but that's not the right subdivision to ponder anymore. Recent research finds we have two brains. Different terminology gets used. We’ll settle on
  1. Fast brain: unconscious, subconscious, nonconscious, primitive, reptilian, instinctive, automatic, emotional
  2. Slow brain: conscious, easier for us to direct, reflective, logical

The Problem

The basic problem is that our fast brain jumps to conclusions and our slow brain is lazy. This setup has advantages and consequences. For instance, our fast brain thinks the rustle in the bushes is a lion (or some other predator with sharp teeth) and gets our bodies ready to run. Our slow brain eventually concludes the rustle was more likely the wind or a raccoon. Lions are rare in our urban world.

At any moment, we're only attentive to a smidgeon of what's bombarding our senses. Our focus is like a spotlight, telescope or magnifying glass. We might be looking at the wrong things, which is how magic tricks fool us. Maybe you've seen this basketball test of selective attention (YouTube). What was your reaction the first time?

There’s another complication. Our memory changes each time we recall something. See the forgetting pill erases painful memories forever (Wired, Feb 2012).

Bugs and Milk

Visitors to Disneyland or The Magic Kingdom may recall meeting Bugs Bunny (ABC News). That's impossible because Bugs is from Warner Brothers. The brain was thinking of Mickey Mouse. We'd know that if we thought for a moment. Instead, we're likely to accept our initial thoughts.

If you've got kids, ask them to keep repeating the word "milk". While they are doing this, ask them what a cow drinks. They'll probably say milk because we associate cows with milk. Calves drink milk but cows drink water.


We have problems with numbers too. Consider a risk with a probability of 0.001 vs 0.002. Both look small but the second number is double. Express them as one in a thousand and two in a thousand. Now the difference is more apparent (though the risks still seem small).

Would you rather get $100 now or $105 in a month? Growth of 5% in a month is excellent but we might prefer the money today.

If you toss a fair coin 10 times and get 8 heads, what outcome would you expect on the next toss? You know the probability is 50% for either heads or tails but …

We worry about plane crashes when the drive to the airport is the most dangerous part of the trip. The results are the same whether you measure miles travelled, total deaths or the probability of dying.
We don't worry much about the harm we do to our bodies due to a poor diet or a lack of exercise. Irrational but common.

The Point

We are flawed. Businesses use our idiosyncrasies to influence sell us stuff. Our mental foibles get used to get us to do things we might otherwise reject.

What we don't know can be used against us ... and succeed. What we do know can still be used against us ... and succeed.


Our brains don't work the way we think they do. Recent research shows this. Here are some of the better books. They are generally easy to read (though I listened to the audiobooks). The titles are linked to Amazon where you can read reviews.
Must Reads
  1. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Wikipedia): wide-ranging, from a Nobel laureate who developed behavioral economics with Amos Taversky; 10 questions with Time (YouTube)
  2. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal: how to improve your self-control
  3. The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam: explores unconscious bias in depth with case studies
Lighter Reads
  1. Predictably Irrational (Amazon) and The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely
  2. How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer: found guilty of self-plagiarism (Pop Matters, Jul 11, 2012)
  3. The Invisible Gorilla by Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons
  4. Incognito by David Eagleman
How To Influence
  1. Influence by Robert Cialdini: the reference book; universal principles
  2. Switch by Chip and Dan Heath: easy to read; lots of examples; summary (YouTube); Dan on why change is hard (YouTube)
  3. Drive by Dan Pink: about motivation; live recording from Communitech
  4. Buying In by Rob Walker: we want to fit in and be unique; enter murky marketing ("murketing") as used by companies like Red Bull, Psion and Converse
  5. Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein: Wikipedia, talk (YouTube)
  6. Sway by Ori and Rom Brafman: BNet review (YouTube)
    These books are interrelated and different. They are a great way to understand how your brain works … and works against you.


    Podcast 178

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