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Why Everyone Else Is Crazy…and Getting Crazier

This Brain Breakfast comes with a valuable bonus.

I’m going to give you 30-50 hours of your life back.

This bold claim is less tongue-in-cheek than you might suspect. But, as you will see, by cashing in on it, you will run the risk of veering from the world of social psychology “best practices.” 

You may find that’s an acceptably small price to pay. Read on.

They say that “the world is shrinking.”

This is thanks to telecommunications and our newfound ability to Skype with Fiji, Botswana and Croatia without leaving the couch. 

But they also say that people are increasingly isolated from one another. Except, presumably, from our new friends in Fiji, Botswana and Croatia, whom we wouldn’t have known in bygone days.

Can both these things be true?  “Closer-than-ever but increasingly isolated” envisions our modern social world as having collapsed into a sort of honeycomb — with little unitary nodes that are near to each other but non-permeable. Is this what your life feels like?

Call me an optimist, but I think that distance is the wrong analogy for what we’re really talking about.

Last night, I attended the closing night of a local high school’s theater performance.

I attended with my family, and we sat in the sixth row. The stage’s spotlights reflected back on my face. I clapped at appropriate times and I stood at the end for the obligatory standing ovation. The actors all seemed like nice enough kids.

But I couldn’t tell you if the show was any good.*

* Other than the set design. On that score: Meh.

It’s winter, and it was cold enough outside that I could wear a stocking cap without arousing suspicion. Under the cap, I had earbuds in my ears. I spent almost three hours of the show catching up on podcasts and taste-testing a few chapters from an audiobook. 

Except for my wife — who disapproved, but not enough to exercise her marital veto rights — no one was the wiser. 

I smiled the whole time, feeling like a federal prisoner running an online casino from his cell block, right under the warden’s nose. 

To be fair to the thespians out there, I’ve got nothing against plays. But I view them like lotteries: almost all the tickets are losers. And unlike lotteries, getting a winning ticket doesn’t offer life-changingly great results. 

So, from this day forward, unless I know there’s going to be a content-quiz at the end from some whimpering kid desperate to make sure I paid attention, this method will be my cognitive escape hatch for every amateur play I ever attend, period. 

And now, this method can be yours too! If you get dragged to local plays as much as the average person, I’ve just gifted you a full work-week of mental activity.  Happy Holidays!

Will everyone who’s not here please stand up?

Pulling this shenanigan at the play got me thinking: Who else in the audience might be similarly checked-out from our presumptive reason for being there? 

What else might a person be usefully (and covertly) doing in a darkened room filled with peevish strangers and an ensemble of radio-mic’d fifteen-year-olds? 

It was a short list that I came up with.

  • The amplified juveniles meant it was too loud to meditate.
  • Public sleeping runs the risks of snore-snorts and visible drooling.
  • Any furtive attempts at hanky-panky would have required the participation (or at least the consent) of my wife, which was highly unlikely.

But podcast-listening hit the mark perfectly. It cut the Gordian Knot. Without appearing to be violating the norms of the crowd, I was in a little world of my own choosing.

I was “going along to get along” and was, simultaneously, the Invictus-like “master of my fate.”

This type of two-fer opportunity is available to us more and more these days. It used to be called “daydreaming” to have your mind elsewhere — and such excursions were always solo missions. You could come up with a good idea on an imaginary voyage — but if you wanted to tell anybody about it or impact the brick-and-mortar universe, you had to tell someone in your presence or do something with your hands

These constraints are quickly melting away.

The only problem is, it makes us all seem crazy.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

One of the main “cognitive biases” we all face when trying to make sense of the world is what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error.

The quick-n-dirty version is that when we make decisions, we’ve got a lot of situational context. If I suddenly sprint from the room when I notice my tidy desk, it’s not because I have a pathological aversion to cleanliness. It’s because I just realized that I left my laptop on the roof of a moving car in Los Angeles traffic. (Yes, this happened. Thanks to rush hour gridlock, the sunbathing laptop was recovered without injury.)

With context, people’s actions generally make a lot more sense. This doesn’t mean that they always make sense…but on a sliding scale of “perfectly reasonable” to “total inanity,” context slides things to the left.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is the name for our consistently under-weighting the fact that we’ve always got more context for our own behavior than we do for other people’s. 

I do things for a good reason.
John does things because he’s just that way.
Or perhaps because John is nuts.

Back in caveman times, opportunities to make the Fundamental Attribution Error were rather sparse. Hanging out with members of your own tribe — sharing a culture, language, well-known relationships, and “in-jokes” that everybody is in on — if somebody did something that seemed crazy, it was a lot more likely they actually were crazy.*

* Reliable statistics on cave-person mental health was unavailable at the time of this publication.

Blowback? Or just a gentle breeze?

Unfortunately, as technology allows our mental lives to productively slip further and further away from the spaces we physically inhabit, we’re throwing fuel on the fire of the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s already considered to be the Great Grandpappy of our cognitive biases, and we’re not making things any easier on ourselves.

That being said, I think we’re making the right trade.

I’m not willing to trade my Fijian, Botswanese and Croatian Skype-calls or my high-school-play-evading earbuds for the cold comfort of knowing what the other forced spectators near me are politely chuckling at. 

But it’s worth being aware of the costs as well as the upsides of all this proliferating niftiness.

Next week, I’m going to speak with one of the leading names in social psychology, Dr. Richard E. Nisbett (author of Mindware and the upcoming Intelligence: A Memoir). We’ll be discussing topics like the Fundamental Attribution Error and other cognitive biases. A continuing theme of Dr. Nisbett’s work is that our best leverage in getting smarter might not be better diets, exogenous supplements or even technological tools — but teachable strategies for clear, informed, effective thinking. 

It’s a conversation I’m very much looking forward to. And it will (of course) make it onto the podcast before very long. But — and here’s where you come in — if you’ve got questions you’d like me to pose to Dr. Nisbett, drop me an email.

Because, unlike for high school thespians, when it’s Brain Breakfast readers talking…I’m all ears.

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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.

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