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20141114 Kidding Ourselves



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The main idea of this book is nicely expressed in introduction: It is about power of deception and/or self-deception, placebos, and similar things. The most important inference from this collection of cases and experiments is that power deception is not just inherent part of human nature, but that it is often has a positive character helping to handle complexity of life on a “good enough” basis by maintaining illusion that we are in control even if we are really not.


PART I. THE POWER OF NOTHING: Placebos, Mass Hysteria, and Fatal Delusions

The Medicine of Imagination

The chapter starts with history of Mesmer who mesmerized audiences providing treatments from everything until special commission with participation of Ben Franklin. As usual this paragon of American common sense easily disproved power of mesmerism with experiment, but nevertheless the case clearly demonstrated power of believe. This reference to history follows by report on contemporary experiments with placebo that demonstrated high power of believes. Another interesting observation is impact of psychological condition of person on perception of pain. It presented using example of soldiers who were severely wounded, but were nearly painless from excitement and happiness because the wound meant a ticket home and end of war for them. In 1956 Dr. Beecher published research, which demonstrated that pain has meaning and its severity depends on psychological condition.

The Human Stampede

This chapter discusses human herd behavior when people feel and see thing not because they exists, but because other people do the same. It starts with the case of town of Mattoon Illinois where in 1944 epidemics of smelling strange smell occurred. Then it goes to discussion of monkeying behavior such as contiguous yawing and higher level of susceptibility to such things among females. At the end chapter demonstrates that herd behavior could extend even to the level of copycat suicides as it did happened after death of Marilyn Monroe.

Fatal Instincts

This chapter presents a number of cases when people dying for psychological reasons only. It includes broken heart when something happens that makes life meaningless for the person such as death of long-term partner, curse by some magician that person believes in: like “boning”, brainwashing, and learned helplessness observed in experiments with animals and in humans in real life. Martin Seligman extensively researched it.

 PART II. THE EYE OFTHE BEHOLDER: Perception, Expectation, and the Lure of Superstition

Dial E for Expectation

This is about selective perception and change in performance based on expectations. In short people see what they expect / want and do not see what they do not expect and do not want. The cases provided are from literature, but more interesting cases are from test result which varied depending on priming. Students primed as “gifted” produced better test results. For selective perception cases from sport competition, experiment with gorilla on the field, and medical diagnosis is provided. The very interesting case of career made on false analysis and political correctness provided using Steven Gould and his famous career making book “The Mismeasure of man” in which he rejected skull measurement results of Samuel Morton in regard to size of skulls depending on race. Original finding was that size is different with interpretation of this as evidence of superiority / inferiority of races. Gould’s build career on falsely rejecting measurement results using statistical methods in order to prove that races are equal. The repeated measurement 30 years later proved that Morton was right and skulls are different. It is a great example of politicized pseudo science. The superiority / inferiority idea was proved wrong by 100 years of human history which produced outstanding individuals of all races, while use of skull size as proxy for intelligence is incredibly naïve, but at least in XIX century they did not falsify measurement to fit ideological doctrines.

True Believers

This is more detailed look at works of mind of true believer, how it processes information, and how it manipulate facts to fit into preset system of believes. Examples are from medical treatment by bleeding that probably killed more people than any other method of medical help, logically similar economic stimulus of Keynesian economists (take money from productive people to give in to unproductive government works very similar to letting out blood from striving organism). It also includes case of people believing that taxes are too high despite marginal rate going down (author obviously has hard time understanding that 40% income tax that one forced to pay is a lot higher then 91% nominal tax with lots of loopholes that nobody really pays). Another case of author’s political views interfering with analysis is statement that people do not see benefits they get from government and claim self-dependency while getting social security or Medicare. Author seems to have problem to understand that if these people worked long enough they were forced prepay for all government benefits and in such way they would not necessary agree with. On other hand all this is a good confirmation of blindness due to believes.

Control Freaks

This chapter is discussion of very good observation that normally people want to be in control, even if it is seldom possible. The cases he provides are non-working buttons to close doors in elevators (actually they usually work), money spent on supplements, vitamins, diets, and financial advisors (these usually do not work). Also an experiment with young students visiting old people in nursing house provided interesting results. The conditions of old people visibly improved when they were in control of these visits. This follows by other results confirming that being in control of situation makes people to be healthier and live better and longer. Obviously it could not be without mentioning the famous study of British civil workers whose wellbeing strongly correlated with their place in hierarchy: the higher one in hierarchy, the healthier he/she is.

Lucky Charms

This chapter is about different ways to obtain control over situations that are not really controllable such as religions and superstitions. As far as it is known, nobody excluded from attempts to control live with lucky charms and things like that. I guess everybody who ever had difficult exam or was involved in military fight, or had any other experience in important and difficult situation with unknown outcome can confirm that signs, lucky charms, and things like that are used extensively regardless of people religious believes or lack thereof.


Drunk with Power

Being a liberal, author chose to use Gingrich as an example of a person who was dramatically changed by power to the worse. Obviously much more recent and more disgusting example is Obama who went power crazy to the point of stepping all over constitution. Needless to say that any research that was ever conducted confirms a common knowledge that power makes people over confident, neglectful to other people opinions and wellbeing, and prone to illusion of great overestimation of their power and abilities. An interesting find comes from research of use of power priming in negotiations. Individuals primed to feel powerful paid a lot less attention to reputation of other side than people who were primed to feel powerless.

It Can’t Happen to Me

This chapter is about tendency of successful people to overestimate their ability to control events and as result become prone to spectacular failure coming from excess of optimism and underestimation of risk. The chapter includes a charming statement from Amos Tversky: “People study artificial intelligence while behavior economics studies human natural stupidity”. Examples of overconfidence here include: doctors not washing hands, individuals prone to sexually transmitted diseases, funds manager making high risk decisions, and women who fail protect from unwanted pregnancy.

Enduring the Blizzard

The last chapter looks at the issue under a different angle. It states that all these illusions and self-deceptions are quite possibly a very useful tool developed by evolution. Overestimate of possible rewards makes people to work harder, take more risk, and eventually strive to obtain low probability high value results. It comes down to research confirming triviality that moderately unreasonable positive attitude make people healthier, wealthier, and more satisfied with their lives. Big help also is mental rewriting of expectations when results fall below original expectation. Good example of premed woman in 30s who due to depression failed to complete studies and become just a housewife. Asked about disappointment 50 years later she stated that she never wanted to be a doctor so there was no disappointment. The final example in this chapter relates to sexual selection when 100% is looking for above average and 100% find somebody good enough to pair at least for a while.


I think it is quite valuable presentation of various cases of disconnect between human perception of reality and actual reality. It is impossible to deny that all variations from power of placebo to statistics and math denying believes do in fact take place in real life and goad behavior of lots of people. What is interesting however that in vast majority of cases individuals have and apply these believes in areas that are not main areas of their activity or do not impact this activity per se. I guess my point is that in areas of professional involvement people have no choice, but to learn what is reality and how accommodate to it while in areas that are new for them people implement heuristics at the “good enough” principle because they do not have time and opportunity to experiment in order to find out what reality is. In short behavioral economists, economic psychologists and so on overestimate impact of such self-deceiving patterns on real life. The vast majority of people who actually do things from growing food to making steel, to programming computers actually have no such luxury because if farmer gets convinced that he can plant seeds in the winter, steelmaker that steel could be produced at low temperature, and programmer that whatever is output it is what it should be we’ll have no food, no steal, and programs would not work. The triumph of science means that areas of false believes is getting smaller and smaller all the time and necessity to put on these believes the label of science, therefore opening them to demand for falsification statement makes it more and more difficult to promote. Good example of this difficulty is denial of genetics by “Progressive Soviet Science” in 1950s and promotion of catastrophic global warming by “Progressive Western Science” in 2010s. In both cases government financed scientific establishment put lipstick of science on the pig, but could not convince that it is a beauty.

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