You’re Not As Smart As You Think You Are

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Our minds don’t work as well as we think they do.

Don’t get me wrong–our minds are incredible. Every day we make hundreds of decisions, process tons of sensory information, and perform complex analyses and calculations.  It is easy to be so amazed by the complex accomplishments of our grey matter that we overlook many of the shortcuts and mistakes we make along the way.

But one of the ways the mind is able to do as much as it does is by prioritizing speed over accuracy.  Our mind looks for easy-to-answer questions, easy-to-recognize patterns, and fills in the gaps where necessary.  We jump to conclusions, make hasty decisions without considering all the facts, and are constantly led astray by irrelevant pieces of information.

If you think you’re mind is working just fine, and that what I’m saying does not apply to you, then you might be interested in reading Daniel Kahneman’s new book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”  Kahneman has spent his career studying the mental errors we all make.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Duration Neglect: we tend to ignore the duration in our assessment of past experiences.
  • Peak-End Rule: our evaluations of past experiences are heavily biased by the peak moments and how the experience ended.
  • Anchoring error: we tend to influence answers to questions on whatever “anchor” we happen to have in our heads (even if it has no relation whatsoever to the question at hand.)
  • Availability heuristic: we tend to overestimate the probability or importance of things that are easily called to mind.  (This is often driven by media reporting of sensational events, such as airplane crashes and shark attacks.)
  • Planning fallacy: we tend to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs of future projects.

The short list above is by no means complete.  There is also “base-rate neglect”, the “representative heuristic”, “illusion of validity”, “loss aversion” and I could go on and on with all of the mental shortcuts that Kahneman has found, which sometimes get us into trouble.

According to Kahneman, the mind has two systems, and neither of them work as well as we would hope.  System 1 is designed to give quick answers.  It tends to jump to conclusions, looking for a quick intuitive answer to questions, and ignoring relevant information if it isn’t readily available.

System 2 is more analytical, and will actually take the time to do a more thorough investigation before coming up with an answer.  But system 2 is lazy.  If system 1 has an appealing answer, system 2 is likely to sit back and let the system 1 answer go, even if it has not been carefully thought out.  System 2 will usually work with whatever information it has readily at hand, sometimes failing to do the work required to fill in important gaps.  It will search for an easy question to answer, and mistakenly substitute that answer even when it doesn’t really apply to the question that really needs to be solved.  And even when system 2 does fully engage, it makes a lot of mistakes, attaching meaning to things it shouldn’t or being pulled in different directions based on a variety of situational factors prone to induce biases.

Bran by Dierk Schaefer

Don’t be surprised if you are still thinking that your mind is above all of these inconsistencies.  One of the biggest mistakes the mind makes is in failing to recognize its own shortcomings.  While our thinking is muddled with biases, false conclusions and inaccurate assumptions, we feel like we are carefully thinking things through.

A clear example of this is the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” named for the researchers who discovered that a large majority of people think they are above average across a wide variety of domains.  “As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence,” says Social Psychologist Daniel Hawes.  This is easily observed in the first weeks of any season of American Idol when some of the worst singers in the world are shocked and amazed to be rejected by the judges.

So the challenge becomes how do we recognize or protect ourselves from making these mistakes if we don’t even realize we are making them?  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  But if you want to know what it feels like when you are wrong, I would suggest listening to this enlightening TED Talk “On Being Wrong” by “wrongologist,” Kathryn Schultz.  It turns out that the easiest way to recognize being wrong is not as helpful as you might think:  “being wrong feels just like being right.”

References and recommended reading:

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farar, Straus and Giroux.


by Jeremy McCarthy

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Now available:  New e-book on The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.

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14 Responses to You’re Not As Smart As You Think You Are

  1. Sherri Fisher July 17, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Jeremy–Excellent summary of some of the mistakes we make, or that at least others make ;-), and why they are worth knowing about. How are you using this in the world of work, where $$$ are attached to being “right”?

  2. Jeremy McCarthy July 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    It’s a tough question to answer. My initial response is to say that I try to question my assumptions. i.e. when I feel I “know” something, I look for evidence that either supports or contradicts what I think I know. But Kahneman’s research also shows that the way we test things is sometimes not all that accurate. He goes into great detail about how job interviews are not very effective. We make an initial assumption about a candidate based on our first impression and then spend the rest of the time in the interview looking for evidence that supports our initial assumptions. He suggests that using more mechanical assessments to select candidates might work better than the person-to-person interview (although most leaders would decry this and say that they are an excellent judge of character.)

    But before you turn our auto-pilot completely off and try to overanalyze everything that we do in business, you have to consider the case of Steve Jobs, who attributes a lot of his success to following his gut instincts and tapping into his intuition. So the key is to have the wisdom to know when to let your mind rest, and let system 1 do it’s thing, and when to bring conscious awareness to a problem and have a more mindful approach that questions your initial assumptions or intuitions.

    A friend of mine says it well:
    Success comes from wisdom, wisdom comes from experience, experience comes from failure. The key is to become so immersed in your business, to try things and test things, make mistakes, learn from them . . . and over time your instincts become better at steering you in the right direction.

  3. Lisa Sansom July 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Thank you for this great summary! I bought the book a while ago and really need to make the time to read it properly.

    One tool that I love using for testing assumptions and helping people realize where they might be “wrong” is the Ladder of Inference, developed (I believe) by Chris Argyris and illustrated and explained in Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. By putting names to the different rungs of our thinking, we can essentially “slow down” our fast thinking. Now, we are still prone to errors, but at least, if we break it down a bit, perhaps we can also inquire into what’s going on with a more open mind.

    Perhaps the real trick is to recognize which thinking system you are using, and whether that’s the best one for the job at the time… And to allow other people to ask questions of you as well to challenge and discuss. Easy to say, hard to do – especially as we don’t think we have any biases, but only other people do! 🙂

  4. Charlie Wills July 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    Why do we make this simple thing So Complicated Folks????

    Left Brain vs Right Brain

    Front Lobe vs Hind Brain

    Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic

    Catabolic vs Anabolic

    Serotonin vs Melatonin vs Dopamine

    Estogen vs Progesterone

    Testosterone vs Estrogen

    Why do we Try and Over Think so many things? Lacking Serotonin is a great place to start to stopping the Endless Mind Chatter most have,,,why do you think every super market has tons of chocolate at the check-out counter? its not there for the kids is it Mom?

    Jeremy I must congratulate you for TRYING!!!!

  5. Lisa Sansom July 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Charlie – I’m not sure that it’s a “simple thing”. Many of the dichotomies you use as examples are false and nuanced. They are simply not black or white. The more we learn, the more we see and appreciative the nuances and subtleties of how our brain functions, and what that means for us as human beings in today’s world.

    I suspect that even this work that Kahneman has done will, one day, look overly simplistic. I doubt that there are “only” two thinking modes for our brains… (and others have been essentially saying the same thing for years, perhaps generations, but without the scientific psychological studies to back them up…)

  6. David Hamilton | Everlution July 20, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    Wow, incredibly interesting post. I can really relate to having succumbed to the “peak end rule” in a more negative sense in the past (though I’ve done much work and made progress dissolving the negativity) and also the “anchoring error” certainly influences my answers especially when I’m reading a book I’m passionate about…though I must admit I’m happy with my erroring, in that sense, as it were.

  7. Amit Amin July 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    A fantastic book. After reading it a few months back I ended up reading through many of the articles on the, rationalist community.

    The hypothesis is speed over accuracy. The book “The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature” offers an additional hypothesis:

    1) A few higher-order brain functions evolved as fitness indicators (which matter in sexual choice), and not in survival selection.
    2) As a fitness indicator, the ability to make fast, interesting, and exaggerated observations, stories, and beliefs is better (and thus more attractive) than making slow, boring, unexciting observations, stories and beliefs. Think sexy is good story-teller, not scientist.

    I’m not entirely convinced by some of the radical claims of the book, but only because of their novelty. I hope that these ideas get tested, because it would help better understand cognitive biases.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy July 23, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Interesting ideas Amit! It certainly ties in to the cultural stereotype of the nerdy bookworm. I think what Kahneman would say is that the brain makes regular bets, and in spite of all the mistakes we make, there is a strong survival benefit from recognizing patterns quickly and responding to limited data quickly. The brain does a great job taking limited information and constructing a viable story that can be used to inform behavior. Doing this well conveys a survival benefit (not so much from mate selection but from responding to threats quickly and making the right decision.) It is easy to pick apart these brain shortcuts for their inaccuracies but they are indeed shortcuts that help us make important decisions quickly and with limited info. I’ll have to look for that book . . . it sounds like a good one!

  9. Charlie Wills August 2, 2012 at 12:06 pm #


    Your reply was embarrassing to the hundreds of Others we have assisted to radically change their Lives..

    Just search charles wills zoetry for over 12 pages of testimonial truth and numerous videos from Mayo Clinic Doctors, Judges, Nurses, and many others just like you…


  10. Charlie Wills August 2, 2012 at 12:09 pm #


    just so you know the Brain is the Last Place it goes…

    do you know what (it) is? LOL


  11. Jeremy McCarthy August 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    I agree with Lisa, none of this is simple. It’s time to move past the false dichotomies and embrace the complexities of the human experience.

  12. Charlie Wills August 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Glad you agree with her Jeremy…its only complicated because you support that system of
    disbelief, which is your choice and by choosing the Lie you beome “The People of the Lie”

    Your reality is your own personal Belief system,,it kinda reminds me of the spinning top in the movie “Inception” people are lost to what is real or not determined by many things for which we need real time to explore. Real time meaning years on end with no interruption.

    A book written about those that choose that belief has already be written after “A Road Less Traveled”

    Again you disregard all those that we have fixed so easy with so many of all the Problems you and Lisa ( my favorite name by the way) think are so hard to fix, I almost think your supported by the Pharamaceutical Industry..

    If we were to debate this with Facts in person you would both fail to show up after lunch. JMHO

  13. Jeremy McCarthy August 5, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    Charlie, I think it’s interesting that you would think because someone is interested in understanding the nuances and complexity of human wellbeing that they must be in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical industry much prefers the “it’s simple” message that you subscribe to (only in their case, the solution is a pill). There are many people out there shouting about having found “the secret” to simple and easy wellbeing, including the pharmaceutical companies. i would think you would be more understanding of people who are skeptical to this kind of message.


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