“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” David Foster Wallace argued in his 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech. And yet, in an age of pseudoscience and a relentless race for shortcuts, hacks, and quick fixes, recognizing where to exercise this control can be a continual challenge.
Maintaining a healthy level of skepticism while remaining open-minded to new ideas is a constant balance. One that Carl Sagan summarized brilliantly in his essay The Burden of Skepticism,
“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.”
This balance, and our ability to regulate the information that we take in, is our main defense against the echo chambers and filter bubbles prevalent in today’s discussions. Not only that, our tendency to accept information without question in one discipline often causes difficulties distinguishing fact from fiction in other critical areas. As Steven Jay Gould described,
“The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.”
Inaccurate information causes inaccurate patterns. Inaccurate patterns cause inaccurate stories. And inaccurate stories cause us to draw inaccurate conclusions about the causes of own behavior, and the behaviors of others.
And in a world where understanding behaviors leads to influence, anyone operating with inaccurate datasets is at a severe disadvantage.
One key then, becomes questioning new information before it shapes the patterns we see and the stories we tell ourselves. But another is to periodically challenge those stories we’ve heard so many times that we’ve just assumed them to be true. Because as Gould also points out,
“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question.”
By way of example, here are five commonly referenced studies and ideas that don’t align to reality – and are limiting our ability to fully understand the causes of our behaviors.
93% of Communication is Non-Verbal
If you’ve ever attended a class or read an article on public speaking, you’ve likely heard that 93% of communication is non-verbal.
The other week I heard a management coach talk with our company’s future leaders and parrot out this same claim – 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone, and only 7% is through our words.
Except, oh wait, it isn’t.
In the 1960s, UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues conducted studies on human communication patterns. Essentially they ran two experiments. In the first, participants listened to a recording of a women’s voice saying the word “maybe” three different ways to convey liking, neutrality, and disliking. They were also shown photos of the woman’s face conveying the same emotions, and asked to guess the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together. The result? The subjects correctly identified the emotions 50 percent more often from the photos than from the voice. Body language over tone.
In the second study, subjects were asked to listen to nine recorded words, three that conveyed liking (honey, dear, thanks), three that conveyed neutrality (maybe, really, oh), and three that conveyed disliking (don’t, brute, terrible). Each word was pronounced three different ways, similar to the previous study. When asked to guess the emotions being conveyed, it turned out that the subjects were more influenced by the tone of voice than by the words themselves. Tone over words.
Professor Mehrabian then combined the statistical results of the two studies and came up with the ratio of 55% body language, 38% tone, and 7% words in conveying emotion and overall attitude. And ever since, people have misquoted and misrepresented this data to support any number of other claims.
The key is that this study identified indicators of emotion, specifically within conflicting communication methods – NOT an overall ratio of effective communication. Mehrabian made this specific point in his book, Nonverbal Communication,
“When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred.”
If our body language or tone is at odds with the words we choose, then it’s more likely that our body language and tone are indicative of our true attitude. Which few people would debate – especially those with growing kids that are learning the charming art of sarcasm.
But these results are only relevant in this context. And in no way relate to our ability to communicate ideas.
The essence of the ideas that we communicate are the words we choose. These can be strengthened by our body language and tone, but great body language and tone can rarely make up for poor explanations and words. As the great poet Ursula K. Le Guin put it,
“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
If You’re Unsure of Your Answer, Stick with Your Initial Intuition
If you don’t know the correct answer on a test, is it a good idea to go with your initial intuition, or is it better to change your answer after some thought?
For anyone that can remember those joyful high school days of multiple-choice exams, they likely also remember the conventional wisdom that it’s a bad idea to change your answer.
Yet, as is often the case with what we learned in high school, the opposite is actually true. As the authors of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology wrote,
“More than 60 studies lead to essentially the same verdict: When students change answers on multiple-choice tests (typically as judged by their erasures or cross-outs of earlier answers), they’re more likely to change from a wrong to a right answer than from a right to a wrong answer.”
Granted, very few of us are taking multiple-choice tests any longer. So maybe you’re asking why you should care – if, that is, you’re someone who talks to an online article.
But this same idea is relevant to all of us, regardless of the amount of multiple-choice tests on tomorrow’s agenda. The idea that our initial hunches are typically most accurate is a result of two common biases – the availability heuristic and loss aversion.
People tend to demonstrate greater regret (and other emotional reactions) to outcomes that are produced by actions than the same outcome when produced by inaction. This tendency, when combined with the idea of loss aversion, explain why people are much more likely to remember answers they changed from right to wrong than those they changed from wrong to right.
These same biases influence our daily behaviors. They cause us to stick with our initial hunches and reactions far beyond when we recognize those decisions are no longer in our best interest. If after some consideration, you believe your initial hunch is wrong, then make the smart decision and switch.
Go with your head – not with your gut.
A Frog Can Be Boiled Alive if You Heat the Water Slowly
The story of how frogs can be slowly boiled alive has been told for more than a century. It’s also been featured in multiple movies, including An Inconvenient Truth, Dante’s Peak, and the 2009 documentary, How to Boil a Frog.
In summary, the tale says that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put the frog in cold water and then slowly bring it to a boil, it won’t recognize the change and will slowly be cooked to death.
It originated from a 19th century experiment where a researcher apparently boiled a frog to death by controlling the rate of heat input to below the detectable limit.
Again, not quite.
First off, if you put a frog in boiling water, it will not jump out – it will die. Second, if you put a frog in cold water and heat it, it will jump out before it gets too hot. In the original experiment that generated the idea, the frog was actually boiled to death. However, it’s brain was removed beforehand – which was more humane and in many of today’s contexts, actually makes the metaphor more appropriate.
While the story’s not true, and there’s no real reason why anyone should need to boil frogs to prove this point, it is an apt metaphor for many of life’s situations. Whether it’s the slow decline in the quality of someone’s performance or the gradual worsening of a work culture, we all need to be on guard against slowly becoming acclimated to situations we’d find unacceptable with fresh eyes.
So in this case, I’ll agree with James Fallows’ Atlantic article that if used to demonstrate a point, it’s an acceptable metaphor – assuming, of course, we note that it’s not literally true.
And people stop trying to repeat the results – honestly, what are they even trying to prove at this point?
We Only Use 10% of Our Brains
In the late 19th century, pioneering psychologist William James made the claim that he doubted the average person achieves more than about 10% of their intellectual potential. And since then, people have spread the erroneous claim that we only use 10% of our brains.
Which is ridiculous.
Assuming you believe in evolution, you’re likely familiar with the idea of natural selection. While our brains occupy only 2-3% of our body weight, they consume over 20% of the oxygen that we breathe. It’s highly unlikely that natural selection processes would continue to donate this level of resources to something that wasn’t pulling its weight.
Additionally, in the many cases of brain damage from disease and accidents, patients that lose far less than 90% of their brain nearly always have severe issues with brain function. Similarly, research has yet to reveal an area of the brain that can be damaged from strokes without creating significant mental consequences.
The idea that the average person only uses 10% of their brain has been promoted by self-help gurus who offer quick hacks to magically unlock the other 90%. Unfortunately, no such quick fix exists. And the key to unlocking the rest of your potential tends to come in the form of old-fashioned hard work – which probably explains why it continues to be so rare.
The Monkeys Won’t Climb the Pole and Eat the Bananas
A group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a room with a tall pole and a bunch of bananas suspended from the top. But as a monkey climbs the pole to get the bananas, the scientists turn on a fire hose and soak the monkeys with cold water. Another monkey tries and the same thing happens. Soon, the monkeys stop trying and resist the banana temptation.
The scientists then swap out one monkey, who quickly sees the bananas and begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys, fearing the water, grab him and prevent him from doing so. This happens several times until the new monkey learns not to climb the ladder – even though he doesn’t know why.
The scientists then swap out another monkey and the same situation plays out, with the first monkey fully participating in the group dynamic. The scientists continue to swap out monkeys until none of the original five are in the room. And still, the monkeys respect the established precedent and do not go for the bananas – even though none of them have ever been sprayed by the fire hose.
A good story. But that’s all it really is.
In 1996, Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad published Competing for the Future, and provided a similar description of a research study to this effect. Subsequent reviews haven’t been able to find any evidence that this study actually exists, leading to the likely conclusion that Hamel or Prahalad invented the study for the purpose of the book.
Or as Dr. Claud Bramblett, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, a man who’s worked with hundreds of monkeys over the last 30 years put it, “If you have bananas on a pole, you’ll lose your bananas.”
Now, there’s little debate that the temporary quickly becomes permanent. So it’s always important to ask whether you’d be willing to live with a solution for a long time. And if no, then keep working towards a more principled solution.
But the 5-monkey story emphasizes the idea that people, when confronted with imposed limits and restrictions, will stop questioning the reasons and merely follow along like sheep. Which is rarely true – and an unfair depiction made by people who are out of touch with those who actually perform the work.
The problem isn’t that people are unwilling to challenge the precedent and climb the ladder once the fire hoses are off. Too often, the problem is that management talks about turning off the fire hoses and encouraging people to climb for the bananas – yet never seems to actually crank the valve shut.
Where There is Doubt, There is Freedom
“A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.
“What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.” – William K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief (1874)
We have largely evolved to understand the world around us, not necessarily to understand ourselves. As a result, we tend to rationalize our own behaviors after the fact with convenient, yet incorrect, explanations. And in many areas we’ve stopped questioning these stories and explanations – particularly the ones we’ve repeatedly heard.
But as the Latin proverb goes, “Ubi dubium ibi libertas: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.”
It’s in doubt, and in our questions, that we’re able to expose the misleading stories that limit our understanding. Through skepticism we’re able to recognize which stories and explanations are merely convenient as opposed to true.
So keep asking questions – both with new stories and old. Because in the astute words of William K. Clifford, “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”