THE BLOG

7 Reasons You Aren't As Smart As You Think You Are

08/08/2013 07:56 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2013

Owning and operating a brain is hard.

You are issued one at birth, a model that comes riddled with delusions and biases, prone to logical fallacies, and built to create stories to help explain the difficult and messy business of being a person. It also comes with something else, a powerful overconfidence module that works around the clock to keep you from noticing all those shortcomings.

Sure, you are capable of logic and reason and rationality, but when you fall short of those ideals, you tend not to notice. That brain in your noggin hasn't changed much in the half-million years. The same gooey mess in your head was in Shakespeare's and Aristotle's. So, on one hand you can feel proud to be in the same cognitive clubhouse, but you should know that
Shakespeare and Aristotle were also not so smart in the same way you are not so smart. The guy who wrote "Hamlet" believed health was a balance of four humors- blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm, and the guy in the robes with the nifty beard believed that mud and sea foam could just spring to life sometimes. Got a fever and chills? Shakespeare might have recommended you get your blood drained. Got a pile of rags in the corner of your garage? Aristotle would have warned you that, left unchecked, they would magically mutate into a pile of mice.

You believe a lot fewer ridiculous things than even the smartest people did just a few hundred years ago, but that doesn't make you smarter than them, just less dumb.

The reason you know you should wash your hands after handling raw chicken and the reason that you don't believe geese can grow on trees is because not too long ago your species invented a tool for deleting silly notions from common knowledge - the scientific method. In my new book, You Are Now Less Dumb (check out the book trailer here), I add 15 new chapters to the instruction manual for being a person that you should have received when they issued your copy of the human brain. Here is a peek at seven of them:

1. THE BENJAMIN FRANKLIN EFFECT

If you want to turn a hater into a fan, just get them to do you a favor.

That's what Benjamin Franklin did when he faced a powerful enemy while running for office in Philadelphia. Well known at the time as a collector of fine books, Franklin asked if his hater would lend him a copy of a "very scarce and curious book" Franklin had heard the hater owned. The man sent it right over, and Franklin returned it with a thank-you note. From that day forward, the opponent became a champion of Franklin and spoke well of him in public.

Psychologists speculate that thanks to cognitive dissonance and the insufficient justification effect, Benjamin Franklin's rival faced great anxiety and mental anguish when explaining his behavior to himself. "Why did I do something nice for someone I don't like?" he asked. To make himself feel consistent and sane, he decided that he must have liked Franklin after all.

2. THE POST HOC FALLACY

Shaquille O'Neal, Bill Clinton, David Beckham, Robert DeNiro -they all once believed in magical bracelets and wore them in public. Even though it's hard to believe there is a factory somewhere mass-producing amulets where wizards dutifully enchant each one before it gets shipped around the world, even the president of the United States once bought into it.

Today, the Power Balance Company is still around, despite filing for bankruptcy in 2011 following a $67 million settlement for consumer fraud in Australia. Smart people somehow believe that little rings of silicone can improve their health.

Human beings have a hard time with correlation and causation. Whatever positive happens after buying a magic charm often gets attributed to the charm, but the magic is always in the brain. If you believed hard enough, you'd get the same benefit from a candy necklace that you think you get from a bracelet with a hologram glued to it.

3. THE HALO EFFECT

You would like to believe you are an objective observer of other people, and that your assessment of others is based on rational analysis of measurable empirical data, but if that were true tall people wouldn't make more money than short people -about $800-a-year per extra inch above average.

Studies show that when you ask subjects to rate the quality of essays, each with a photo of a person attached, the essays with photos of attractive people included receive higher grades, even though the essays are identical.

The halo effect causes you to mistake the way you feel about obvious personal traits - height, weight, beauty, what school a person attended - and then unconsciously raise or lower your opinion of traits that are more difficult to see or understand or measure.

4. EGO DEPLETION

Modern life presents you with a whole lot of distraction. Websites and smart phones are always begging you to stop what you are doing and dive into pictures of cats and slideshows about psychology. Worse still, cakes and chicken fingers can get into your belly within minutes of realizing you'd love to eat them. You need willpower and self control more than ever.

The latest research suggests that willpower is a depletable resource. In other words, the more you exert self control, the less self control you have until you either rest for a while or give in.

Subjects who must sit in front of chocolate chip cookies without eating them will later give up sooner on frustrating puzzles than people who are allowed to eat as many as they want. It's called ego depletion, and it's something you'll need to guard against especially if you're in charge of people's lives or money.

5. THE BACKFIRE EFFECT

You can never win an argument on the Internet. You've probably suspected that when your uncle got on Facebook and tried to convince you Obama was a secret member of the Muslim Illuminati. No matter how hard you argue, no matter how many facts you pull out of Google, you're just making him believe even more strongly in his opinions. It's called the Backfire Effect.

Studies show that when a person sees corrections to stories that spread misinformation, if the person already believes in the original story, the correction deepens that person's convictions instead of correcting them.

6. PLURALISTIC IGNORANCE

Have you ever been in a tough class and found yourself completely lost and confused? When the teacher asks if anyone has a question, do you sometimes decide not to raise your hand because no one else is? Chances are, everyone else was confused too, but everyone else thought that everyone else wasn't because everyone else didn't raise their hands. That's called pluralistic
ignorance, and it's a dangerous phenomenon.

When it comes to public opinion, especially on social issues like segregation, gay marriage, universal healthcare and so on, a noisy minority can convince the majority that the majority is in the minority. The same thing that makes teachers move on when the whole class has no idea what he or she is saying causes unpopular social norms to persist long after most people wish
they would go away.

7. ENCLOTHED COGNITION

You already know that when you are in the same room as a stranger wearing a police uniform or a judge's robes, it can affect your behavior. Priming studies even show that a person who sits in a room with a briefcase negotiates differently than a person sitting in a room with a backpack. Objects are not inert, but infused with meaning that can affect your mind.

New research shows that wearing clothes with symbolic significance affects your behavior much more strongly than just thinking about those clothes. People wearing a white coat who were told it was the kind a doctor wears did better in tests of mental agility than did people who wore the same coat but were told it was a painter's smock.

The clothes you wear change the way you behave, so remember that before you decide to wear sandals to a business meeting or business attire to the airport.