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Three Self-Delusions That Influence Your Decisions And Productivity

Why do you put things off, buy over-priced items, and stick with decisions that aren't paying off? Your strangely wired brain, silly. The author of You Are Not So Smart shows us a few common mental defects, fallacies, and traps to watch out for.

<a href=David McRaney" />David McRaney spends a lot of time thinking about all the ways thinking doesn't work. He catalogues delusions, fallacies of thinking, and the psychological short-circuits that cause procrastination, groupthink, and poor decisions. But McRaney swears his index of common mental shortcomings actually inspires him—and could inspire you to know thy working self.

You Are Not So Smart, McRaney's blog and forthcoming book, is intentionally labeled as a "Celebration of Self-Delusion." Sure, topics like the bystander effect, showing how bigger crowds encourage less help for people in trouble, and the backfire effect, where people learn to reject science when it questions their beliefs, are likely to get under anyone's skin after some reflection. But McRaney says that understanding our mental malfuctions should inspire us.

"(It's) an appeal to be more humble and recognize we can't always overcome these things, so we should factor them into our lives, our business practices, our politics," McRaney wrote in an email exchange. "If we know we are all equally susceptible to certain fallacies, biases, heuristics, prejudices, manipulations—we can use that knowledge to appeal to our better angels."

Here are a few of the self-delusions McRaney writes about that are most apt to throw you off during those 40 hours you're paid to think straight and make decisions.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

You'd like to believe that you can evaluate the future worth of a project, an investment, or just a laptop with the stoic gaze of a Wall Street lifer. But you tend to favor those things you've already "invested" in, because otherwise—horror of horrors—you'd have made a mistake in your past.

That's the sunk cost fallacy. Another short version: The pain of losing something is twice as strong as the joy in gaining the same exact thing. McRaney wrote that this single understanding has made the biggest change in his life. "There are a lot of applications, like ejecting from a career path, a degree, or a relationship instead of staying the course, just because you've already invested a lot of time and effort into it. It's a silly thing we all do, and I used to fall prey to that one every day."

You Are Not So SmartThe Anchoring Effect

When you've chosen from a set of options, be they shirts, work bids, or employees, you like to tell yourself that you found the sweet spot between price and value. In reality, the first option you saw—the white oxford number, the lowball offer, the woman with the non-profit experience—has a significant impact on what you end up choosing.

McRaney illustrates the anchoring effect with an experiment in which researchers described an item, like a bottle of wine or a cordless trackball pointer, and then had volunteers write down the last two digits of their Social Security number—just as a joke, ha, ha, now let's actually bid. In the end, people with higher Social Security digits paid up to 346 percent more than those with lower numbers.


What more is there to learn about the nearly universal vice of putting things off? Plenty. McRaney states that writing on the topic of procrastination was "telling my life story."

In exploring the science behind that ever-growing pile of dishes in the sink, you learn about present bias, our conscious inability to notice that our tastes change over time. He presents a glimpse at the struggle for delayed gratification through the "marshmallow test." And another term you probably understand as well as anybody else, but maybe didn't have a name for: hyperbolic discounting. In other words, you learn that being stronger in the face of your every mental instinct requires that you be "adept at thinking about thinking," as McRaney writes:

You must realize there is the you who sits there now reading this, and there is a you sometime in the future who will be influenced by a different set of ideas and desires, a you in a different setting where an alternate palette of brain functions will be available for painting reality.
… This is why food plans like Nutrisystem work for many people. Now-you commits to spending a lot of money on a giant box of food which future-you will have to deal with. People who get this concept use programs like Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for up to eight hours, a tool allowing now-you to make it impossible for future-you to sabotage your work.

Last week on Work Smart: How To Break Your Daily Caffeine Habit And Use Coffee Strategically

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  • RecruitingAnimal

    Dave I've read your blog in the past and by coincidence yesterday as well. If you would like to promote your book on The Recruiting Animal Show just let me know - @animal:twitter

  • Karl P

    I enjoyed the topic.I don't disagree with the thesis of the article, but rather the irrational application of the author. I'm curious what is the definition of "fact" according to the author? Most "facts" according to science are changed as necessary. Science "fact" says salt is good for you, then it is bad for you, and now it might be good again...not sure. The original "facts" of evolution according to Darwin are not credible in today's science. The theory of evolution is on its 8th or 9th version. The laws of Statistics and Physics are contrary to evolution, yet evolution is called "fact". With so many "facts" floating around out there because of technology, I think the rational first response is to question or reject the fact. Enjoyed the "facts" of the article not so much the bias of the author.

  • Snotti Prince St. Cyr

    This seems like quite the fascinating account that David McRaney is promoting in his upcoming book. Among the many cognitive biases that I hope Mr. McRaney addresses--either in this book or in previous or future works--are "motivated reasoning," "choice-supportive bias," "self-serving bias,"and the "Dunning-Kruger effect." The tendency for individuals and even groups to steadfastly deny multiple pieces of evidence supporting a legitimate conclusion--simply for the sake of clinging to their own presuppositions--is bad enough, but it possibly gets worse by orders of magnitude when people even deny that they are employing this defense mechanism in the first place. Any haphazard justifications that people create in their minds are protected in the same fashion that children are protected from (real or imagined) danger in the physical world because no one enjoys being told that they are incorrect about something. Maybe it is already assumed that maintaining one's delusions promotes an improvement on his or her mental health, but I have not read any articles or studies supporting this; at the very most, I sense the possibility that the amount (or quality) of information may not be the issue as much as the audience's ability and willingness to carefully discern said information. It would be greatly appreciated if anyone would provide some information to the affirmative or contrary.

    I bring up "choice-supportive" and "self-serving" biases because I consider myself to be the most guilty of having a smug and condescending attitude about specific choices that I have made throughout my life at the given moments where I made said choices. We live with and see our choices and, as such, they become a huge part of our identity/humanity. The memories that are engrained in our respective decisions and actions are distorted so that we convince ourselves that our eventual choices are devoid of alternatives--we human beings go out of our way to connect "good" and "bad" choices with what we like and dislike, respectively. Personally, I find that this goes hand-in-hand with the "Dunning-Kruger effect" because our tendency to overestimate our competence in several areas results in a counter-intuitive refusal to consider the *mere possibility* of our incompetence.

    Ultimately, and for some odd reason, we human beings refuse to understand that memories are not recordings and go through vast, systematic changes based on our hormone levels.

  • Lee Mann

    To me, what Mr. McRaney deals with is "Poof Management," wherein a fact pops into or out of existence ... Poof! ... just because a manager is in delusion about it.  Then, decisions are made on that belief rather than the provable evidence.  To combat that, I've posted five rules of management right at eye level as I'm working on my computer.  The first one is influenced by the Hippocratic Oath:1.     Do nothing Stupid!2.     If the boss can't be wrong, no one can!  (And, that's an organization in serious trouble!)3.     You can't solve/prevent a problem you won't recognize.  (Also applies to seizing opportunities.)4.     It’s true:  You can't manage what you don't measure.  But, don't just manage to the metrics.  (Remember Enron?)5.     If at any time you think Rules 2, 3 or 4 don’t pertain; reapply Rule #1 … because you're there!

  • Mark Von Der Linn

    Great stuff... I will read. Reminds me of advice I got from a teacher in high school which has kept me humble/honest re my own behavior: "The things you dislike most about other people are the things you do yourself."

  • Tom Besson

    One of the foundations of David McRaney's book was addressed many years ago by the Swiss psychologist Piaget, who observed that young children appeared to engage in two different sets of thinking. One set was termed 'accommodative' in that whatever was perceived by the child would be incorporated into his/her already existing beliefs without modification. The other set was termed 'assimilative' in that whatever was perceived by the child would modify his/her beliefs and behavior would change based on the new learning. It gets down to the point where you either insist on digging your heels in and think accommodatively, or actually learn something and change your behavior accordingly.

  • JDA

    ye, eloquently put. Regarding procrastination... have some bloody discipline and organise your time effectively. Those who 'put-off' work are obviously not engaged with it passionately, so maybe they shouldn't do it! ha.