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You Are Not So Smart

All the ways we mentally delude ourselves, and how to accept them


Three main ways we delude ourselves:

  1. Cognitive Biases are predictable thought/behavior patterns that lead to wrong conclusions. Most serve to puff up your self-image so you feel good enough to keep moving forward.
  2. Heuristics are mental shortcuts to solve common problems. They help you preserve mental energy for decisions.
  3. Fallacies are ways you make mistakes when using logic. They happen due to our usually limited information.

They suck, but they’re fine! They help us handle living in the world and live a happy life. So embrace your inner idiot.



You know when you’re being influenced and how it affects your behavior.


You’re unaware of the constant nudging you receive from ideas formed in your unconscious mind.

Our subconscious seems distant but is always pulling and pushing us in different directions. One study showed washing our hands can subconsciously make us feel less guilty for past crimes.

Priming: when a stimulus from the past affects the way you behave and think, or the way you perceive more stimulus later on. All perceptions set off a chain of related mental ideas, consciously or subconsciously.

Priming works only if you aren’t aware of it, and those who depend on priming to put food on the table work very hard to keep their influence hidden.

Your attention is normally focused in so many areas at once, there’s plenty of chances for priming. You’re most vulnerable when your mental autopilot is on, or when you’re in unfamiliar circumstances.

Look for things meant to be flashy or get your attention in certain situations. It may be to keep you distracted from different primers being placed around them that you still see enough to affect you. Advertiser and businesses throw lots of media and content at you to prime you to see them favorably.

You can take advantage of priming by building positive environments for yourself. They’ll help bring more positive nudges into your life. You can also prime people by making good first impressions, and accepting the power of rituals and rites of passage.



You know when you’re lying to yourself.


You’re often ignorant of your motivations, and make up fake narratives to explain your decisions, emotions, and history without knowing it.

From the last chapter, our unconscious minds our often out of our understanding but influence us greatly. When we try to explain something our unconscious mind decided on, our mind will often make something up for us.

You are always explaining to yourself the motivations for your actions and the causes to the effects in your life, and you make them up without realizing it when you don’t know the answers.

Who you think you are is sort of like a movie based on true events, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The details may be embellished, but the big picture, the general idea, is probably a good story worth hearing about.

Confirmation Bias


Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.


Your opinions are a result of paying attention to info you believed, and ignoring info that challenged ideas you already had.

…there’s always someone out there willing to sell eyeballs to advertisers by offering a guaranteed audience of people looking for validation.

Hindsight Bias


After you learn something new, you remember how you were once ignorant and wrong.


You often look back on things your just learned and assume you knew/believed them all along.

…deletion of your old, incorrect assumptions de-clutters your mind. Sure, you are lying to yourself, but it’s for a good cause.

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy


You take randomness into account when determining cause and effect.


You tend to ignore random chance when the results seem meaningful, or when you want a random event to have a meaningful cause.

To accept that things like residential cancer clusters are often just coincidence is deeply unsatisfying. The powerlessness, the feeling you are defenseless to the whims of chance, can be assuaged by singling out an antagonist.

Your drive to do this is primal. You need order. Order makes it easier to be a person, to navigate this sloppy world.



You procrastinate because you’re lazy and can’t manage your time well.


Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulses, and a failure to think about your own thinking.

…the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial: Want never goes away. Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted.

The trick is to accept that the now-you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future-you—a person who can’t be trusted … Your effort is better spent outsmarting yourself than making empty promises through plugging dates into a calendar or setting deadlines for push-ups.

Normalcy Bias


Your fight-or-flight instincts kick in and you panic when disaster strikes.


You often become abnormally calm and pretend all is normal in a crisis.

Normalcy bias is self-soothing through believing everything is just fine. If you can still engage in your normal habits, still see the world as if nothing bad is happening, then your anxiety stays put.



You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.


The origins of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and will just make something up when asked to explain.

Taste is difficult to quantify and put into words, so the explainers focused on other aspects like texture or color or viscosity. None of which in the end made much difference to the non-explainers … Believing you understand your motivations and desires, your likes and dislikes, is called the introspection illusion.

Availability Heuristic


With mass media, you understand how the world works based on statistics and facts culled from many sources.


You’re far more likely to believe something is commonplace when you find an example of it, and less likely to believe something you’re never seen/heard of before.

You don’t think in statistics, you think in examples, in stories.

Bystander Effect


When someone is hurt, people rush to their aid.


The more people witness a person in distress, the less likely any one person will help.

The less you know about a subject, the less you believe there is to know in total. Only once you have some experience do you start to recognize the breadth and depth you have yet to plunder.

Dunning Kruger Effect


You can predict how well you will perform in any situation.


You’re generally pretty bad at estimating your competence and the difficulty of complex tasks.



Some coincidences are so miraculous, they must have meaning.


Coincidences are a routine part of life, even “miraculous” ones. Any meaning for them comes from your mind.

You need a sense of meaning to get out of bed, to push forward against the grain. Just remember that meaning comes only from within.

Brand Loyalty


You prefer the things you own over the ones you don’t because you made rational choices when buying them.


You prefer things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.

if the product is unnecessary, like an iPad, there is a great chance the customer will become a fanboy because he had to choose to spend a big chunk of money on it. It’s the choosing of one thing over another that leads to narratives about why you did it

If you see yourself as the kind of person who owns Apple computers, or who drives hybrids, or who smokes Camels, you’ve been branded.

endowment effect pops up when you feel like the things you own are superior to the things you do not.

sunk cost fallacy. This is when you’ve spent money on something you don’t want to own or don’t want to do and can’t get it back.

People with brain damage to their emotional centers who have been rendered into Spock-like beings of pure logic find it impossible to decide things as simple as which brand of cereal to buy.

you make yourself feel justified in what you selected to lower the anxiety brought on by questioning yourself.

forms a giant neurological cluster of associations, emotions, details of self-image, and biases around the things you own.

Argument From Authority


We’re more concerned with the validity of the information than the person delivering it.


The status and credentials of an individual greatly influence your perception of that person’s message.

You naturally look to those in power as having something special you lack, a spark of something you would like to see inside yourself.

Argument from Ignorance


When you can’t explain something, you focus on what you can prove.


When you’re unsure of something, you’re more likely to accept strange explanations.

when the cause is unclear you commit a logical fallacy by thinking all the possible causes are equal.

decide something is true or false because you can’t find evidence to the contrary.

Straw Man Fallacy


When you argue, you try to stick to the facts,


In any argument, anger will tempt you to reframe your opponent’s position.

In creating a fantasy scenario where the world goes mad if the other person’s argument were to win, you have constructed a straw man.

Any time someone begins an attack with “So you’re saying we should all just . . .” or “Everyone knows . . . ,” you can bet a straw man is coming.

If someone says, “Scientists tell us we all come from monkeys, and that’s why I homeschool,” this person is using a straw man, because science doesn’t say we all come from monkeys.

Ad Hominem Fallacy


If you can’t trust someone, you should ignore that person’s claims.


What someone says and why they say it should be judged separately.

Once the seed is planted—this guy is a liar and a thief—it might sway your opinion of the argument at hand. No matter what the man says, somewhere in your head you will doubt it because you don’t trust liars.

You must discount the person’s position based on your impression of his or her character before you get into trouble.

Guilt by association is often the ad hominem fallacy at work.

Avoiding the ad hominem fallacy does not mean you have to trust everything you hear equally. Still, you can’t be logically certain the banana man is wrong.

You might assume someone is trustworthy because they speak well, or have a respectable job.

Just World Fallacy


People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.


Beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.

you want to believe you are smart enough to avoid the same fate.

The just-world fallacy tells them fairness is built into the system, and so they rage when the system artificially unbalances karmic justice.

You aren’t in total control of your life, but there is a nice big chunk of your life over which you have complete authority—beat that part to a pulp.

the blame for evil acts rests on the perpetrator and never the victim.

To make the world more just and fair, you have to make it harder for evil to thrive, and you can’t do this just by reducing the number of its potential targets.

Public Goods Game


We could create a system without regulations where everyone would contribute to the good of society; everyone would benefit and be happy.


Without some form of regulation, slackers and cheaters will crash economic systems because people don’t want to feel like suckers.

The tragedy of taking from a common good is over time the common good will be depleted out of just a tiny amount of greed.

You would rather lose the game than help someone who isn’t helping you.

Ultimatum Game


You choose to accept or refuse an offer based on logic.


When it comes to making a deal, you base your decision on status.

Subjective Validation


You are skeptical of generalities.


You’re prone to believing vague statements and predictions are true, especially if they’re positive and address you personally.

The tendency to believe vague statements designed to appeal to just about anyone is called the Forer effect

far more vulnerable to suggestion when the subject of the conversation is you.

cold reading, where you start with the wide-angle lens of generalities and watch the other person for cues so you can constrict the focus down

When someone claims he or she can see into your heart, realize that all of our hearts are much the same.

Cult Indoctrination


You’re too smart to join a cult.


Cults are populated by people just like you.

people don’t usually follow the leader, they follow the ideals the leader proclaims to be serving.

Any group with a charismatic leader has the potential to break away and form a subculture. Some make the world a better place. Others convince people to kill themselves.

Cults aren’t designed. They form as a result of normal human tendencies going awry.



Problems are easier to solve when a group of people get together to discuss solutions.


The desire to reach consensus and avoid confrontation hinders progress.

If your group includes a person who can hire or fire, groupthink comes into play.

for any plan to work, every team needs at least one asshole who doesn’t give a shit if he or she gets fired or exiled or excommunicated.

True groupthink depends on three conditions—a group of people who like one another, isolation, and a deadline for a crucial decision.

assign one person the role of asshole and charge that person with the responsibility of finding fault in the plan.

groups of friends who allow members to disagree and still be friends are more likely to come to better decisions.

Supernormal Releasers


Men who have sex with RealDolls are insane, and women who marry eighty-year-old billionaires are gold diggers.


RealDoll and rich old sugar daddies are both supernatural releasers.

If you associate something with survival, but find an example of that thing that is more perfect than anything your ancestors could have ever dreamed of—it will overstimulate you.

supernormal releasers either exaggerate the fertility and health of the egg carriers, or the status and resources of the sperm carriers.

Your mental shortcuts aren’t prepared to deal with exaggerations. Barbie dolls, anime characters, and ancient fertility statues are impossible versions of women,

Even if you don’t act on your impulses, you still feel them. Eventually, something will overtake you,

If the normal version is something that had to be created, had to be fabricated into something illusory, there is a good chance you’ll have to fight your natural tendencies to be overwhelmed by superstimuli.

Affect Hueristic


You calculate what is risky or rewarding and always choose to maximize gains while minimizing losses.


You depend on emotions to tell you if something is good or bad, greatly overestimate rewards, and tend to stick to first impressions.

drop data into two broad categories—good and bad—and then you choose to avoid or seek out what you have judged.

The conscious mind is still making choices, but the unconscious mind is providing feelings and influence.

mind as divided into automatic, emotional, and rational spheres of thought.

A simple assessment of a situation as either good or bad kept your ancestors out of the mouths of predators and away from the business end of a spear most of the time, but when the problem is too complicated—like a mousetrap to a foraging rodent—you can really screw things up.

Your risk-avoidance systems are great when the situation is concrete but are pretty crappy when dealing with abstraction.

problems arise when you must evaluate large numbers or percentages, when you must see connections and abstractions.

When you see something as good, the bad qualities are played down. When you see something as risky, the harder it becomes to notice the benefits.

Dunbar’s Number


There’s a Rolodex in your mind with the names of faces of everyone you’ve known.


You can only maintain relationships and keep up with about 150 people at once.

even power-users of Facebook with 1,000 or more friends still communicate regularly with only around 150 people, and of that 150 they strongly communicate with a group of less than 20.

Selling Out


Consumerism and capitalism are sustained by corporations and advertising.


Consumerism and capitalism are driven by competition among consumers for status.

Someone is making money off of his revolt. That’s the paradox of consumer rebellion—everything is part of the system.

you can’t rage against the machine through rebellious consumption.

The counterculture, the indie fans, and the underground stars—they are the driving force behind capitalism. They are the engine.

Competition among consumers is the turbine of capitalism.

They can’t out-consume one another because they can’t afford it, but they can out-taste one another.

ironic in the sense the very act of trying to run counter to the culture is what creates the next wave of culture people will in turn attempt to counter.

human experience at the biological level. Poor people compete with resources. The middle class competes with selection. The wealthy compete with possessions.

Self-Serving Bias


You evaluate yourself based on past successes and defeats.


You excuse your failures and see yourself as more successful, intelligent, and skilled than you really are.

You are biologically driven to think highly of yourself in order to avoid stagnation.

you think you’re more honest with yourself than the average person? You are not so smart.

Spotlight Effect


When you’re around others, you feel like everyone notices every aspect of your appearance and behavior.


People pay little attention to you unless prompted to.

You think everyone noticed when you stumbled in your speech, but they didn’t. Well, unless you drew attention to it by over-apologizing.

This sense of alarm about the impact of speech not on yourself but on others is called the third person effect.

Third Person Effect


You believe your opinions and decisions are based on experience and facts; those who disagree with you are falling for the lies and propaganda of sources you don’t trust.


Everyone believes people they disagree with are gullible, and everyone thinks they’re far less susceptible to persuasion than they truly are.

This sense of alarm about the impact of speech not on yourself but on others is called the third person effect.

the third person effect is magnified when you already have a negative opinion of the source, or if you personally think the message is about something you aren’t interested in.

the majority of people believe they aren’t like the majority of people.

For just about every topic listed in this book there are many people who will read or hear about it and think these delusions and biases affect other people all the time, but not themselves.



Venting your anger is an effective way to reduce stress and prevent lashing out at friends and family.


Venting increases aggressive behavior over time.

When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting.

The more effective approach is to just stop. Take your anger off of the stove.

Catharsis will make you feel good, but it’s an emotional hamster wheel. The emotion that led you to catharsis will still be there afterward,

Misinformation Effect


Memories are played back like recordings.


Memories are made anew each time from whatever info is available, which makes them highly permeable to influences from the present.

When a schema leads to a stereotype, a prejudice, or a cognitive bias, you trade an acceptable level of inaccuracy for more speed.

how easily memory gets tainted, how only a few iterations of an idea can rewrite your autobiography.

It took almost no effort to implant the memory because you were the one doing the implanting.



You’re a strong individual who doesn’t conform unless forced to.


It takes little more than an authority figure or social pressure to get you to obey, since conformity is a survival instinct.

you conform because social acceptance is built into your brain.

Officer Scott’s demands started small and bumped up incrementally, just like Milgram’s shocks. By the time it was uncomfortable, the situation had grown in power.

Never be afraid to question authority when your actions could harm yourself or others. Even in simple situations,

Extinction Burst


If you stop engaging in a bad habit, the habit will gradually fade until it vanishes from your life.


Whenever you quit something cold turkey, your brain will make a last-ditch effort to return you to the habit.

Just before you give up on a long-practiced routine, you freak out. It’s a final desperate attempt by the oldest parts of your brain to keep getting rewarded.

temporary increase in an old behavior, a plea from the recesses of your psyche.

you must be prepared to weather the secret weapon of your unconscious—the extinction burst.

Look for alternative rewards and positive reinforcement. Set goals, and when you achieve them, shower yourself with garlands of your choosing.

Social Loafing


When you’re joined by others in a task, you work harder and become more accomplished.


Once part of a group, you put in less effort since you know your work will be pooled together with others.

With complex tasks, it is usually easy to tell who isn’t pulling their weight. Once you know your laziness can be seen, you try harder.

Illusion of Transparency


When your emotions run high, people can look at you and tell what you’re feeling.


Your subjective experience is not observable, and you overestimate how much you telegraph your inner thoughts and emotions.

You overestimate how obvious what you truly think must be and fail to recognize that other people are in their own little bubble, thinking the same thing about their inner worlds.

the spotlight effect—the belief everyone is looking right at you, judging your actions and appearance, when in reality you disappear into the background most of the time.

Those told about the illusion felt less stressed, gave better speeches, and the audiences said they were more composed.

Just because that person can’t see inside your mind doesn’t mean he or she is not so smart. You don’t suddenly become telepathic when you are angry, anxious, or alarmed. Keep calm and carry on.

Learned Helplessness


If you’re in a bad situation, you’ll do whatever you can do to escape it.


If you feel you aren’t in control of your destiny, you’ll give up and accept whatever situation you’re in.

If, instead, the people in these homes are given responsibilities and choices, they remain healthy and active.

When you are able to succeed at easy tasks, hard tasks feel possible to accomplish.

springs from all organisms’ desire to conserve resources.

Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back your behavior and learn to fail with pride. Failing often is the only way to ever get the things you want out of life. Besides death, your destiny is not inescapable.

Embodied Cognition


Your opinions of people and events are based on objective evaluation.


You translate your physical world into words, and then believe those words.

Warm sensations bring up word associations that include warmth, and those thoughts prime you to behave in a way that could be metaphorically described as warm.

The chair was hard, so they drove a hard bargain.

Settings prime you to see the world a certain way, and all it takes to see things differently is a change of temperature, or the sturdiness of a surface.

start to see products with shapes and surfaces designed to begin a long chain of thoughts and feelings,

Anchoring Effect


You rationally analyze all factors before making a choice or determining value.


Your first perception lingers in your mind, affecting later perceptions and decisions.

As far as they knew, the wheel was a random number generator, but they still worked off of that number.

The real price the dealer can charge you and still make a profit is surely lower than what the dealer is asking for on the window sticker, yet the anchor price is still going to affect your decision.

the anchoring effect scrambled their ability to judge the value of the items.

If you move up to a nice car or a big house, a nice computer or an expensive smartphone, you become anchored and find it difficult to move back down later, even if you should.

If Wal-Mart offered a purse at $800, it would never leave the shelf. The price would be so far from the anchors already set by the store it would seem like a bad deal.



You see everything going on before your eyes, taking in all the info like a camera.


You’re aware only of a small amount of the total info your eyes take in, and even less is processed by your conscious mind and remembered.

Your attention is like a spotlight, and only the illuminated portions of the world appear in your perception.

Your perception is built out of what you attend to.

these studies suggest that Western culture is less concerned with context and more concerned with the center of attention,

You choose what to see more than you realize, and then you form beliefs without taking into account your selective vision. You can’t do much about it other than to choose wisely when it is important.

The unexpected isn’t guaranteed to jar you out of your daydream.



In all you do, you strive for success.


You often create conditions for failure ahead of time to protect your ego.

You share with hypochondriacs the tendency to unconsciously contrive excuses ahead of time.

sour grapes, in which you pretend you don’t want what you can’t have, and sweet lemons, in which you convince yourself something unpleasant is actually not so bad, self-handicapping is what psychologists call an anticipatory rationalization.

Instead of making excuses after the fact that feel like lies, you create conditions ahead of time so the excuses can be real.

If you succeed, you can say you did so despite terrible odds. If you fall short, you can blame the events leading up to the failure instead of your own incompetence or inadequacy.

the happier you are, the more likely you will be to seek out ways to delude yourself into maintaining your rosy outlook on life

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies


Predictions about your future are subject to forces beyond your control.


Just believing a future event will happen can cause it to happen if the events depend on human behavior.

you are always trying to predict the behavior of others. The future is the result of actions, and actions are the result of behavior, and behavior is the result of prediction.

when enough people act as if something is real it can sometimes make it so.

perceptions become reality simply because so much of life is ruled by behavior.

When you fear you will confirm a negative stereotype, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy not because the stereotype is true, but because you can’t stop worrying that you could become an example proving it.

when someone believes you are a certain kind of person, you tend to live up to those expectations.

if people think their partner doesn’t love them, they will interpret small slights as big hurts—and this will then lead to a feeling of rejection that causes the partner to distance him- or herself.

If you want a better job, a better marriage, a better teacher, a better friend—you have to act as if the thing you want out of the other person is already headed your way.

The Moment


You’re one person, and your happiness is based on being content with your life.


You’re multiple selves, and happiness is based on satisfying all of them.

Going to get ice cream is not about building awesome memories. It’s about being happy for a few minutes.

two channels through which you decide whether or not you are happy. The current self is happy when experiencing nice things. The remembering self is happy when you look back on your life and pull up plenty of positive memories.

You have to be happy in the flow of time while simultaneously creating memories you can look back on later.

Go get the ice cream, but do so in a meaningful way that creates a long-term memory. Grind away to have money for later, but do so in a way that generates happiness as you work.

Consistency Bias


You know how your opinions have changed over time.


Unless you consciously keep tabs on your process, you assume the way you feel now is the way you’ve always felt.

when you receive new information that threatens your self-image, you react quickly to reaffirm your identity.

In any situation where you are primed to think of yourself in a certain way, you will be more likely to engage in behavior that proves you are.

Consistency bias is part of your overall desire to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, the emotions you feel when noticing that you are of two minds on one issue.

You need to feel that you can predict your own behavior, and so you rewrite your own history sometimes so you can seem dependable to yourself.

But people naturally change over time. Consistency bias is the failure to admit it.

Representativeness Hueristic


Knowing a person’s history makes it easier to determine what sort of person they are.


You jump to conclusions based on how representative a person seems to be of a preconceived character type.

When you expect people to be a certain way because they seem to represent your notions of the sort of people in that category, you are not so smart.

Expectation, as it turns out, is just as important as raw sensation. The buildup to an experience can completely change how you interpret the information reaching your brain from your otherwise objective senses.



Wine is a complicated elixir, full of subtle flavors only an expert can truly distinguish, and experienced tasters are impervious to deception.


Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.

just about every retailer depends on this. Presentation, price, good marketing, great service—it all leads to an expectation of quality.

Your expectations are the horse, and your experience is the cart. You get this backward all the time

Illusion of Control


You know how much control you have over your surroundings.


You often believe you have control over outcomes that are either random or too complex to predict.

This is the gambler’s fallacy, assuming the odds change based on the history of the outcomes so far.

Since you briefly control the action, you start to feel like the control extends beyond just the toss, into the randomness that results.

most people engage in magical thinking to some degree, assuming their thoughts can influence things outside of their control.

you are far more likely to participate in games of chance when there are some customizable features.

People even fear death less when they have a college degree.

Power breeds certainty, and certainty has no clout against the unpredictable, whether you are playing poker or running a country.

Learn to coexist with chaos. Factor it into your plans. Accept that failure is always a possibility, even if you are one of the good guys; those who believe failure is not an option never plan for it.

seek to control the small things, the things that matter, and let them pile up into a heap of happiness.

Fundamental Attribution Error


Other peoples’ behavior is reflective of their personality.


Other peoples’ behavior is more the result of their situation than their disposition.

When you don’t know much about a person, when you haven’t had a chance to get to know him or her, you have a tendency to turn the person into a character. You lean on archetypes and stereotypes culled from experience and fantasy. Even though you know better, you still do it.

You see the person, and ignore his or her surroundings, and then cast blame on only the individual.

Movies and books with a cast of characters make sense to you because in life you tend to turn everyone into a character whose behavior is predictable. The mind struggles to make sense of the world.

When you can’t check for consistency, you blame people’s behavior on their personality.

It’s hard to grasp just how powerful a situation can be, how much it can influence the behavior of you and people you think you know pretty well.

People are not good at heart, Zimbardo says, but because their environment encourages it. Anyone, he believes, is capable of becoming a monster if given the power and opportunity.

You do this because you would like to believe your own behavior comes strictly from within. You know this isn’t true though.

remember first impressions are mostly incorrect. Those impressions will linger until you get to know people and understand their situation and the circumstances

doesn’t mean you must forgive evil, but perhaps it can help prevent it.