Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#220: Cognitive Fallacies with Dr. Richard E. Nisbett

March 02, 2018

To Err is Human

Good, we’ve got that part covered.  So remember – none of what follows should be taken personally.

Some of the errors we make are “special little snowflake” errors, mistakes that only we could have made, with our personal brand of dumb-assery.  But other errors are more standard-issue.  And many of our hardest-to-spot goofs fall into categories that are so predictably human that we can organize them, give them taxonomic names, and formally study them…

And what’s worse… we can expect them.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a fallacy as:

“Incorrectness of reasoning or belief; erroneousness”

Dr. Richard E. Nisbett has spent a long and productive career studying the fallacies that plague the human brain.  We all suffer from them.  And unlike things we’re simply unable to do – like see light in the ultraviolet spectrum – cognitive fallacies are frustrating because they make us do the wrong things when we could identify the right things if we really took the time to think through the issues confronting us.

But logic takes time.  Our brains take shortcuts.  And until the last couple of hundred years, most people never got any education — much less something with formalized systems of reasoning.

Normally, we just wing it

“Winging it” leads us to feel (for example) that what we learn about a prospective employee who we’ve interviewed for 30 minutes and peppered with questions is…well, worth a damn.

And arguably, it’s not.  Or at least, the level of knowledge we gain from the interview — compared to what we could learn from a resume or other submitted materials — is a drop in the ocean.

One way of gaining information is fast, cheap, effective, and logistically simple.  The other is time-consuming, resource-intensive, and non-representative.  But the in-person interview just feels like it should be better.  Because that’s how we’re wired.  (Nisbett explains this example in detail in the episode.)

Our intuition steers us entirely the wrong way. 

“The 30-minute interview has virtually no predictive value of anything worth a dang,” scoffs Dr. Nisbett.  “That’s the Fundamental Attribution Error.”  The Fundamental Attribution Error is Nisbett’s pick for the top dog of our human brain-bugs… but it’s got a lot of competition for that spot.  In Episode #220, Dr. Nisbett provides a laundry-list of blemishes to the brains that our species likes to be so proud of.

It’s fun, it’s humbling, and it’s an eye-opening reminder that nobody is perfect.  And also that cutting yourself some slack…is entirely logical.  😉

Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking

Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking
by Richard E. Nisbett


Many scientific and philosophical ideas can be applied with great effects in our everyday lives at home, but are typically ignored (or never learned in the first place).  Mindware seeks to expose both these thinking tools and the value of their application.

Show Notes
  • 00:00:23

    Episode introduction: Cognitive Fallacies with Dr. Richard E. Nisbett.

  • 00:01:40

    This Week In Neuroscience: How does the IQ of your childhood friend affect your future intelligence?

  • 00:04:00

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:04:52

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:06:04

    Guest introduction: Dr. Richard E. Nisbett.

  • 00:07:18

    Interview begins; Fundamental Attribution Error.

  • 00:11:02

    The Law of Large Numbers.

  • 00:14:38

    Personality is not a fractal construct.

  • 00:17:40

    Cultural differences in ways of thinking.

  • 00:19:45

    Fish tank study.

  • 00:21:50

    Errors in reasoning and perception; should interviews be done away with?

  • 00:27:15

    Inability to pick up on errors and to detect correlations.

  • 00:32:45

    Finding out what our preferences are.

  • 00:34:55

    Implicit bias studies.

  • 00:35:53

    Are there any cognitive biases that would be worth maintaining in future A.I. systems?

  • 00:36:46

    Variances in ways of thinking across cultures.

  • 00:40:14

    The importance of context.

  • 00:43:50

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:44:47

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: The effects of light sources on cognition.

  • 00:47:22

    Episode wrap-up.

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