The village with the key to longevity

Interviewing Dr Paolo Francalacci, a geneticist (right)

In October 2019, I filmed a series of short documentaries for BBC Reel in Ogliastra, a co-called “blue zone” where people have a much higher chance of living to 100 than anywhere else in the world.

The series explores the role of genetics in longevity, and the lifestyle factors that might explain the extraordinarily high life expectancy in this region. It can be best summed up in the Italian acronym of “La Vita GAIA” – where G stands for “genetica” (genetics), A stands for “alimentazione e ambiente” (diet and environment”, I stands for “integrazione” (social integration) and A stands for “autostima” (self-esteem). It has now gone live and you can find all the films on the “Exlir of Life” playlist. Here’s one of my favourite stills from the shoot, of me with Zia Assunta, who is 100 but still lives a largely independent life with her 91-year-old sister.

In other news, you can read my review of Jeffrey Rediger’s book Cured for the i newspaper, and a piece I wrote for the Observer about the rise of online learning during the Covid-19 lockdown and its benefits for our psychological wellbeing. You can also watch a video interview with me about the rise of misinformation during the crisis.

Most excitingly, I’ve just signed a deal with Canongate for the UK & Commonwealth rights of my second book. Translation deals also sold for Portugal and Taiwan. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be writing it – more details soon! For the time being, I’m immensely enjoying diving into the first few chapters.

How to understand your reaction to coronavirus

In the past few weeks I’ve written a series of articles for the BBC’s international website about the psychology of our reactions to the coronavirus outbreak. They are:

Why smart people are spreading lies about coronavirus
An in-depth exploration of misinformation and conspiracy theories, their consequences, and the ways we might combat them

How the fear of coronavirus is changing our minds
Humans have evolved “behavioural immune system” – automatic reactions that helped to stop the spread of disease. Today, these responses lead us to become more morally judgemental, more distrustful of outsiders, and more socially conservative – influencing our judgement on unrelated political issues such as immigration.

What makes a good leader during a crisis?
A profile of Arjen Boin, a political scientist who has studied leadership behaviours during crises such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to determine the best ways to guide a population through a disaster.

If you feel like a distraction during these difficult times, I have also published a piece in Men’s Health on “paradoxical insomnia” – an eerie but surprisingly common sleep condition caused by faulty dreams.

I was also proud to write a long-form feature on Liangzhu, an astonishingly complex “forgotten” East Asian civilisation that rivalled Mesopotamia and Egypt for New Scientist magazine.

Stay safe!

David

The mind in the web (and other stories)

Does the mind end with the brain? Or should the term also encompass the body and the tools we use to aid our thinking?

The idea of the “extended mind” was first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in the late 1990s. As part of their argument, they propose a thought experiment concerning a man called Otto, with early Alzheimer’s, who carries a notebook in which he records important information throughout the day, so there is really no observable difference between his behaviour and someone with a healthy memory. In Clark and Chalmers’ view, the tool has simply become part of his mind. You could say the same about many of our other mental crutches – like our phone book or Google Maps – that have become so embedded in our day-to-day thinking. The extended mind may even reach to other people – in couples, we often rely on our partners to reinforce our memories, which is why a bereavement can feel like we’ve lost part of our own mind,

While that might seem like a rather abstract philosophical idea, I recently came across an intriguing paper suggesting that spiders‘ webs are an extended mind – with some interesting implications for evolutionary theory. According to recent research, spider silk is central to their sensing and memory – much like Otto’s notebook or my smartphone. They use the silk to sense their environment and have been known to “tune” it according to experience, for instance, which allows them to respond more quickly to prey. By outsourcing their “thinking” in this way, they are capable of much more complicated behaviours than you would expect from a typical invertebrate. Combined with other research showing that spiders can form mental representation of the world, and are even capable of expressing surprise, it now looks likely that spiders (and their webs) carry a rudimentary form of consciousness. You can read more in my recent feature article for New Scientist.

(Here’s a bonus fact: many spider species use tiny strands of silk to sense electromagnetic fields. When the force is strong enough to support their weight, they cast a few “sails” that allow them to fly thousands of miles across the ocean. Darwin’s The Beagle was apparently plagued by these flying spiders.)

Besides my piece on spider consciousness, I’ve been pleased to publish another piece in the Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday paper) on simple ways to boost your learning. I found that most articles about human memory tend to focus on mnemonic techniques – like Sherlock’s famous memory palace. But while that might be useful for learning isolated facts, it doesn’t really help you to build a profound understanding of a subject, or to be able to apply that learning to new situations in inventive ways. So I picked strategies from the scientific literature that have been proven to help any discipline.

As always, I’ve tried them all out myself – I try to practice what I preach with psychological research, so I can be sure they don’t fall into the “practicality gap” between lab research and everyday application. Since I’m splitting my time between London and Barcelona this year, I’ve tried to use them to boost my understanding of español. The benefits of wakeful rest – allowing your mind to wander aimlessly after a study session – has been a revelation. Interleaving – the practice of switching between topics/skills at regular intervals – has also been especially useful. You can read the article about learning and the “power of productive failure” here.

Here’s a simple maths question – the answer to which might tell you something important about your decision making skills. If you toss a coin 10 times, and the result is HHHHHHHHHH, what are the chances that it will be a tails on a the next throw? According to probability theory, the odds are exactly the same as before – 50%. But our intuitions often tell us this isn’t the case; somehow, a tails feels more likely. This is the gambler’s fallacy.


Perhaps most famously, it led punters at one of Monte Carlo’s casinos to lose millions of francs after a string of reds on the roulette wheel – but the implications stretch far beyond your typical games of chance. As I discuss in my new piece for BBC Worklife – the gambler’s fallacy can also sway stock market investments, judicial decisions, umpires’ calls and footballers’ penalty shootouts. Indeed, whenever you have to make a string of decisions, your intuitions about chance could be leading your astray.


You can read more here.

What I’m reading: I’ve just finished Grand Union by Zadie Smith (which I loved) and I’m now starting Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. For work, I’m also delving into a review copy of Cured by Jeff Rediger.

PS: If you read Swedish, I had a lovely conversation with Maria Jelmini for the Svenska Dagbladet – one of Sweden’s largest daily newspapers. The interview is here.

How to have a happier decade (and other stories)

Happy 2020!

I was delighted to see that The Intelligence Trap has been selected for JP Morgan’s Next List of what to read, see and taste in 2020. The French edition – Pourquoi l’intelligence rend idiot – arrived on 22 January, and the Italian edition (Le trappole dell’intelligenza) is set for later this year. The UK paperback comes out 6 February.

I’ve also been proud to publish some new features over the past couple of months. In no particular order:

Men and women aren’t equal when it comes to concussionMosaic
Women athletes are twice as likely as men to get concussed – and the effects are more severe. But with research focusing mainly on men, what can we do to make sure women with concussion aren’t left behind? It’s a long-form piece that was later republished in the Independent. (See also my feature for Mosaic on awareness under anaesthesia, which was later republished by the Independent, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, Quartz and many others.)

Six ways to put a smile back on your face in 2020The Observer
Evidence-based strategies to improve your happiness and inner worth, from expressive writing to self-affirmation

What is the secret of the polymath? – BBC Worklife
And can their cross-discipline expertise help tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges?
An exploration of some cutting-edge research on the limits of our learning ability, featuring a profile of the real-life polymath Waqas Ahmed.

The big guide to small talk – a scientific masterclass on conversationNew Scientist
From the etiquette of eye contact or how much personal space is appropriate, to the most tactful way to make an exit should the conversation go south, these findings will help you to present your best self at any social occasion. (See pdf here.)

How we could sleep better – in less time – BBC Worklife
We can now amplify the restorative benefits of sleep. Could this help us cope with later nights and early mornings? (Si lees en español, El Confidencial ha traducido el artículo aquí.)

You can also listen to new interviews about The Intelligence Trap on recent episodes of The Lucas Rockwood Show and the excellent Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast.

What I’m reading: To inspire/guide my New Year health kick, I’ve just finished Good to Go by Christie Aschwanden, which explores the science (and pseudo-science) of many sports recovery regimes. Christie’s one of my favourite writers on sport and fitness and this didn’t disappoint! In fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed Fu Ping by Wang Anyi and I’m just settling into La storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.

What is the intelligence trap? A taxonomy of stupidity

I recently worked with BBC Ideas to put together a video on the reasons that smart people do stupid things, based on my recent book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes and How to Make Wiser Decisions. You can check out the video here or below.

Within the clip, we describe four common thinking errors that can afflict smart people – cognitive miserliness, motivated reasoning, the curse of expertise and the too-much-talent effect. But psychological science has revealed many other reasons that people fail to use their intelligence – and by knowing them we can all learn to avoid them. Here are some other important examples that I describe in my “taxonomy of stupidity”.

Bias blind spot: Our tendency to see others’ flaws, while being oblivious to the prejudices and errors in our own reasoning.

Cognitive miserliness: A tendency to base our decision making on intuition rather than analysis.

Contaminated mindware: An erroneous baseline knowledge that may then lead to further irrational behaviour. Someone who has been brought up to distrust scientific evidence may then be more susceptible to quack medicines and beliefs in the paranor- mal for instance.

Dysrationalia: The mismatch between intelligence and rationality, as seen in the life story of Arthur Conan Doyle. This may be caused by cognitive miserliness or contaminated mindware.

Earned dogmatism: Our self-perceptions of expertise mean we have gained the right to be closed-minded and to ignore other points of view.

Entrenchment: The process by which an expert’s ideas become rigid and fixed.

Fachidiot: Professional idiot. A German term to describe a one-track specialist who is an expert in their field but takes a blinkered approach to a multifaceted problem.

Functional stupidity: A general reluctance to self-reflect, question our assumptions, and reason about the consequences of our actions. This may be encouraged in many organisations, since it increases productivity in the short term (making it ‘functional’), but it reduces creativity and critical thinking in the long term.

Meta-forgetfulness: A form of intellectual arrogance. We fail to keep track of how much we know and how much we have forgotten; we assume that our current knowledge is the same as our peak knowledge. This is common among university graduates; years down the line, they believe that they understand the issues as well as they did when they took their final exams.

Mindlessness: A lack of attention and insight into our actions and the world around us. It is a particular issue in the way children are educated.

Moses illusion: A failure to spot contradictions in a text, due to its fluency and familiarity. For example, when answering the question, ‘How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?’, most people answer two. This kind of distraction is a common tactic for purveyors of misinformation and fake news.

Motivated reasoning: The unconscious tendency to apply our brainpower only when the conclusions will suit our predetermined goal. It may include the confirmation or myside bias (preferentially seeking and remembering information that suits our goal) and discomfirmation bias (the tendency to be especially sceptical about evidence that does not fit our goal). In politics, for instance, we are far more likely to critique evidence concerning an issue such as climate change if it does not fit with our existing worldview.

Pseudo-profound bullshit: Seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous under further consideration. Like the Moses illusion, we may accept their message due to a general lack of reflection.

Solomon’s paradox: Named after the ancient Israelite king, Solomon’s paradox describes our inability to reason wisely about our own lives, even if we demonstrate good judgement when faced with other people’s problems.

Strategic ignorance: Deliberately avoiding the chance to learn new information to avoid discomfort and to increase our productivity. At work, for instance, it can be beneficial not to question the long-term consequences of your actions, if that knowledge will interfere with the chances of promotion. These choices may be unconscious.

The too-much-talent effect: The unexpected failure of teams once their proportion of ‘star’ players reaches a certain threshold. See, for instance, the England football team in the Euro 2016 tournament

This may sound depressing, but there are some very easy strategies to avoid these errors. They include Bejamin Franklin’s moral algebra, self-distancing, cognitive innoculations and various techniques to boost emotional awareness and encourage more reflective reasoning. When researching my book I discovered there’s even a whole new discipline – “evidence-based wisdom” that now attempts to encourage better decision making.

In many situations, it’s not so much what IQ you’ve been born with, but that way you choose to apply that brainpower, that makes the real difference to your thinking – and we can all learn to be wiser.

For more details, check out The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wiser Decisions, out now.

La Trampa de la Inteligencia

Estoy muy emocionado que mi libro La Trampa de la Inteligencia se ha publicado en español. Muchisimas gracias a la editorial Ediciones Paidos! Aquí tenéis un fragmento y una entrevista conmigo en El Mundo que explica por qué las personas más listas cometen los errores más graves.

Según Ediciones Paidos:

En la línea de grandes bestsellers como Las trampas del deseo, de Dan Ariely, o Pensar rápido, pensar despacio de Daniel Kahneman, este libro nos revela por qué las personas más inteligentes son capaces de cometer las mayores equivocaciones.

Las personas inteligentes no sólo son tan propensas a cometer errores como todo el mundo, sino que son incluso más proclives a incurrir en ellos. Repleto de vanguardistas investigaciones, análisis casuísticos, divertidas historias y consejos prácticos, La trampa de la inteligencia explora los defectos inherentes a nuestra comprensión de la inteligencia y de la experiencia, mostrándonos cómo fracasan incluso las mentes más brillantes y las organizaciones más prestigiosas.

How to win a political argument (and other clippings)

As summer ended and autumn began, I’ve made some big moves. I’ve left my staff job at the BBC in London and moved to Barcelona for six months. I hope I’ll now have some time to update this blog more regularly. In the meantime, here are some of my most recent articles.

The science of influencing people: six ways to win an argument – The Observer, 30 June 2019

“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters of religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s,” wrote Mark Twain.

Having written a book about our most common reasoning errors, I would argue that Twain was being rather uncharitable – to monkeys. Whether we are discussing Trump, Brexit, or the Tory leadership, we have all come across people who appear to have next to no understanding of world events – but who talk with the utmost confidence and conviction. And the latest psychological research can now help us to understand why…
Read more here.

How to be a human lie detector of fake news – CNN, 16 September 2019

Fake news existed long before the internet. In an essay on political lying in the early 18th century, the writer Jonathan Swift noted that “Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it.” You have to hire a train to pull the truth, explained English pastor Charles Spurgeon in the 19th century, while a lie is “light as a feather … a breath will carry it.”

Clearly, humans have always been susceptible to mistruths. And social networks simply provide another way to propel falsehoods. MIT researchers recently studied more than 10 years’ worth of data on the most shared stories on Facebook. Their study covered conspiracy theories about the Boston bombings, misleading reports on natural disasters, unfounded business rumors and incorrect scientific claims. There is an inundation of false medical advice online, for example, that encourages people to avoid life-saving treatments such as vaccines and promotes unproven therapies. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is just one example…
Read more here.

The sexist myths that won’t die – BBC Future, 1 October 2019

When I meet the cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon, she tells me one anecdote that helps demonstrate just how early children can be exposed to gender stereotypes.

It was the birth of her second daughter, on 11 June 1986 – the night that Gary Lineker scored a hat trick against Poland in the men’s Football World Cup. There were nine babies born in the ward that day, Rippon recalls. Eight of them were called Gary.

She remembers chatting to one of the other mums when they heard a loud din approaching. It was a nurse bringing their two screaming babies. The nurse handed her neighbour a “blue-wrapped Gary” with approval – he had “a cracking pair of lungs”. Rippon’s own daughter (making exactly the same sound) was passed over with an audible tutting. “She’s the noisiest of the lot – not very ladylike,” the nurse told her. “And so, at 10 minutes old, my tiny daughter had a very early experience of how gendered our world is,” Rippon says…..
Read more here.

Is this our most dangerous bias? – BBC Worklife, 2 October 2019

Imagine a pilot is taking a familiar flight along a known route, during which the weather takes a turn for the worst. She knows that flying through the storm comes with some serious risks – and according to her training, she should take a detour or return. But she has flown the same route before, in similar weather – and she hadn’t experienced any problems then. Should she continue? Or should she turn back?

If you believe that she is safe to fly on, then you have fallen for a cognitive quirk known as the “outcome bias”. Studies have shown that we often judge the quality of a decision or behaviour by its endpoint, while ignoring the many mitigating factors that might have contributed to success or failure – and that this can render us oblivious to potentially catastrophic errors in our thinking…
Read more here.