by Niall Doherty

As inspired by David McRaney’s excellent book, You Are Not So Smart. Read all the way to the bottom to learn how you could win one of five copies.

1. Confirmation bias

What is it?

Your tendency to seek out information that supports what you already believe or would like to be true, while ignoring or devaluing information to the contrary.

Can you give me an example?

You’ve just come up with the most amazing business idea and launch into market research, gathering feedback from potential customers. You quickly find that most people you talk to don’t seem interested in your proposed service, but you ignore what they have to say and focus on the positive responses and encouragement from friends and family.

I’m a geek. Where’s the science?

Valdis Krebs analyzed book sales data during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, finding that people already supporting Obama were the ones buying pro-Obama books, while people already disliking Obama were buying the anti-Obama books.1

Okay, how do I avoid it?

Remember that you’re wrong about a great number of things. You just don’t know which things. Read books and talk to people you’re likely to disagree with, and try keep an open mind while doing so. To quote McRaney, “In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well.”

2. Procrastination

What is it?

I’ll explain later.

Can you give me an example?

I just did.

I’m a geek. Where’s the science?

Klaus Wertenbroch and Dan Ariely conducted a study at MIT in 2002. They gave three classes different instructions for handing in assignments for the semester. Class A had to hand in three assignments by the last day of class, Class B had to stick to three different deadlines of their own choosing, and Class C had to turn their assignments at regularly spaced intervals throughout the semester.

Which class recorded the best grades?

It was Class C, the class which had the regularly spaced deadlines imposed on them. The students in Class A, who didn’t have to hand in anything until the last day of the semester, tended to procrastinate the most and thus fared the worst. Class B feel somewhere in between, in large part because some students made poor choices in setting their own deadlines, thus screwing themselves and pulling down the average grade.2

Okay, how do I avoid it?

Accept that everyone struggles with procrastination, including you. The best course of action is to admit your weakness and put systems in place to help compensate. You want to make it difficult/painful for your future self to procrastinate. Examples:

  • If you want to reach a goal, set a specific deadline and have others hold you to it. (Mastermind groups are great for this.)
  • Publicly specify a penalty for failure and/or a reward for success.
  • To avoid mindless web browsing when you should be working, use software like Freedom to eliminate distractions.

3. The Availability Heuristic

What is it?

When you can easily think of or see examples of something, you are likely to believe that thing is commonplace. Conversely, if you have a hard time recalling or seeing examples, you’re unlikely to believe it occurs with any frequency.

Can you give me an example?

You hear all the time about people breaking through and succeeding in business — the success stories — but you don’t hear so much about the years of struggle and hard times those same people had to go through first, or about all the people who never broke through and eventually gave up. As such, you tend to believe overnight success isn’t just possible for you, but likely.

I’m a geek. Where’s the science?

In 1973 researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman asked study participants which was more common in the English language: words beginning with the letter “r”, or words having “r” as the third letter.

Far more participants believed that the former was more common, simply because they found it easier to think of examples. However, there are in fact more words in the English language with the letter “r” in the third position than in the first.3

Okay, how do I avoid it?

First, understand that a heuristic is a mental shortcut. Usually heuristics help you make smart decisions faster. But sometimes they mislead you. The availability heuristic is an easy trap to fall into, but just being aware of it can help you steer clear. Always ask yourself if you believe something based on anecdotal evidence (a couple of stories or examples), or because the data actually show it to be true.

4. Groupthink

What is it?

When a group of people makes a poor decision fueled by the desire for harmony or conformity.

Can you give me an example?

Think of the one or two critics at the meeting who are discouraged from voicing their objections because everyone else wants to wrap things up and beat the lunch rush.

I’m a geek. Where’s the science?

In his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink, psychologist Irving Janis revealed the results of his extensive research into a number of “disasters” in American history, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the failure to anticipate the Pearl Harbor attacks. Irving concluded that groupthink was largely responsible for each of these incidents, causing smart people with lots of insightful data to make dumb choices and ignore strong warning signals.4

Okay, how do I avoid it?

You need an asshole in the group, someone who doesn’t mind voicing a controversial opinion and isn’t worried about job security or losing friends.

5. Social Loafing

What is it?

Your tendency to slack off when you work in a group, since your efforts are less likely to be judged independently.

Can you give me an example?

I’m sorry, but that’s not in my job description.

I’m a geek. Where’s the science?

in 1974 psychologist Alan Ingham did some rope-pulling experiments. He blindfolded participants and measured their effort. Half the time he told them they were being assisted with the rope pull, and half the time he told them that they were pulling alone. The results showed that people exerted 18 percent less effort when they believed they were pulling in a group.5

Okay, how do I avoid it?

Figure out a way to measure individual productivity and keep yourself accountable. Using tracking software like RescueTime helps. In a group, everyone should have their own clearly defined and measurable goals, and they should know that they’ll be held personally accountable for their performance.

Just be careful that individual goals don’t conflict with those of the group as a whole. For example, rewarding your salespeople with commission may lead to a decrease in cooperation between them as they compete for leads.

6. Self-Handicapping

What is it?

If you’re not confident that you’ll succeed at something, you’ll create obstacles and excuses to justify failure. You do this to protect your ego and maintain self-esteem.

Can you give me an example?

You go out and party hard before a big business presentation. The presentation bombs but you can tell everyone it was because you were feeling ill.

I’m a geek. Where’s the science?

In a 1978 study, Edward Jones and Steven Berglas gave participants a problem-solving test. Half of them were given easy problems, while the other half were given difficult problems. Regardless of performance, each participant was told that they did very well on the test, and then offered to choose between a performance-enhancing drug and a performance-inhibiting drug in advance of a second test. Those who had encountered the difficult problems were more likely to take the inhibiting drug. They wanted something external to blame if they were unable to repeat their performance.6

Okay, how do I avoid it?

Again, knowing your enemy is key. You need to recognize the telltale signs of self-handicapping in order to avoid it. Procrastination is one such sign. You don’t put in the effort so you can tell everyone when you fail that you didn’t really care or try. Another common sign is creating or emphasizing physical or psychological handicaps. It’s smart to be aware of your limitations, but only if they’re real.

Book giveaway

Want more? I highly recommend you check out David McRaney’s book, You Are Not So Smart, where you’ll find more explanations and examples of these and dozens of other self-delusions. Tis a fascinating read.

So much so, that I’m going to give away five copies of the book right here. To be in with a chance to win, you have to be on my mailing list. If you’re reading this in your inbox, then you’re already in the running, no worries. Otherwise, scroll a bit further down this page and enter your email address when prompted.

If you want to increase your chances of winning, you can do one or two things:

  1. Leave a comment with an alternative example of one of the six self-delusions listed above. Trust me, you’re more likely to remember this stuff if you come up with your own examples.
  2. Share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else you like.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Show 6 footnotes

  1. Political Polarization During the 2008 US Presidential Campaign
  2. Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch , K. (2002, May). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science 13( 3), 219– 224.
  3. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology 5, 207– 232.
  4. Janis, I. L. (1972) Victims of groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  5. Ingham, A.G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., & Peckham, V. (1974). The Ringelmann Effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 10, 371– 384.
  6. Berglas, S., & Jones, E.E. (1978). Drug choice as a self-handicapping strategy in response to noncontingent success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (4), 405–417.
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