2020 round-up: How to think under pressure, and more

As we enter December, it is jarring to read the wide-eyed optimism of my first piece of the year – Six ways to put a smile on your face in 2020, published in the Guardian on 4 January. If my tone feels off, however, the material on coping with stress is still as relevant as ever – and I’ve applied these techniques many times throughout the challenges of the year.

In the next few days, I’ll be rounding up my favourite articles and books of 2020 – but allow me first the indulgence of sharing the articles that I’m most proud to have written during this difficult period. I’ve been especially glad to write about way to combat misinformation around the virus, including my most recent article for the Observer (the Guardian‘s Sunday paper): How to deal with a conspiracy theorist, which updates and expands on research I first explored in The Intelligence Trap.

The other articles have been selected for various reasons – because they offered exclusive coverage of new research, or because they were an unexpected viral success, or because they allowed me to learn new skills (like presenting to camera) or simply because they were a joy to research.

1. A touch of absurdity can help to wrap your mind around reality (Aeon, 18 May 2020)
(I loved the breadth of the research for this piece on “meaning maintenance theory”, which explains the ways writers, artists and film-makers like Lynch, Kafka and Magritte challenge our brains.)

2. How to think under pressure – an interview with Maria Konnikova (BBC Worklife, 22 June 2020)
(I’ve been a big fan of Maria’s work for years, and this discussion on her book on poker, The Biggest Bluff, provided many insights into the overlap between mathematics and psychology.)

3. Exponential growth bias: the math error behind Covid-19 (BBC Future, 13 August 2020)
(As a former mathematician, I was pleased to cover an important misunderstanding that lies behind unhealthy behaviours in the pandemic.)

4. The waking nightmare of paradoxical insomnia (Men’s Health, 29 March 2020)
(My first piece for Men’s Health, on a common but mysterious disorder – in which you are neither fully awake nor fully asleep.)

5.) How Covid-19 is changing the world’s children (BBC Future, 4 June 2020)
(At the time of writing this piece, there had been little balanced discussion of long-term consequences of the pandemic for children’s psychology had been little discussed.)

6. Dreading a long winter? Think like a Norwegian (Guardian, 26 September 2020)
(A piece examining of the ways that our mindset can shape our mental and physical health. It reached one million readers in four days!)

7. Film: The Italian valley with the secret to a long life (BBC Reel, 28 April 2020)
(My first foray into presenting. I conducted some of the interviews in Italian, which was another first and something I hope to build on as my language improves.)

8. Missed connections – the surprising ways that small social interactions affect your health (New Scientist, 12 August 2020)
(A piece that felt important, personally, after the isolation of lockdown.)

9. How flashing lights could treat Alzheimer’s disease (BBC Future, 20 May 2020)
(Based on a lab visit at MIT, this piece offers a glimpse of some promising non-invasive treatments for this devastating disease, with some fascinating new insights into the purpose of the brain’s gamma waves.)

10. Fail productively: How to turn yourself into a superlearner (Guardian, 16 February 2020)
(Publicity for the UK publication of The Intelligence Trap in paperback.)

11. The Batman Effect: How adopting an alter ego empowers you (BBC Worklife, 18 August 2020)
(Another viral hit, this time on the benefits of self-distancing, for which I received some of kindest feedback from the scientists themselves.)

12. The stunning Asian city that dates to the dawn of civilisation (New Scientist, 18 March 2020)
(While I normally specialise in psychology, neuroscience and medicine, I also enjoy looking at human behaviour through the lens of archaeology. This piece covers Liangzhu, an ancient Chinese city that rivalled Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in its technological and artistic sophistication.)

Thinking like a Norwegian (and the power of mindsets)

I’m now back in the UK after my year in Barcelona, and adjusting to the second lockdown in London. There’s clearly no quick fix for the stresses we’re facing, but I have been heartened by a piece I recently wrote for the Observer (the Guardian‘s Sunday paper) on some ways that we can reframe our feelings and increase our resilience.

As I explain in my forthcoming book, our interpretations of anxious feelings can often determine their mental and physical consequences. If we expect stress to be harmful, then we see a sharper fluctuations in cortisol, greater inflammation, and greater strain on the heart, caused by the constriction of blood vessels in the limbs. This “fight or flight” response evolved to help us to escape physical threats and avoid severe injuries.

if we interpret our feelings of anxiety as a useful source of energy and motivation, however, we essentially by-pass some of these changes. Instead of the sharp hormonal fluctuations, we can experience a more muted change in cortisol levels and the release of more beneficial anabolic hormones that encourage tissue growth and repair, along with a healthier cardiovascular response. These seem to reflect “challenge” response, which evolved to help to enhance our physical performance for difficult, but surmountable, events with a low risk of injury.

In the long-term, these expectations can become a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy – people with the “stress is enhancing” mindset are less likely to die of heart disease, even if they experience a high amount of stress in their daily lives, than people with the “stress is damaging” mindset. Fortunately, there are now some proven ways to reinterpret your stresses, and these appear to be especially effective for highly anxious individuals who may struggle with other interventions.

The Observer/Guardian piece builds on these findings with the research of Kari Leibowitz, who spent a year examining the ways that people in northern Norway cope with the two-month long “polar night”. In line with the research on stress, she found that it all depended on their mindsets and the ways they interpreted the challenges of the winter.

Of all the pieces I’ve written, this has attracted the warmest response from readers, with more than 1,000,000 views in the first week and more than 10,000 shares on social media. You can read it at the Guardian, here: Dreading a dark winter lockdown? Think like a Norwegian

Related to this article, I’ve recently written a piece in BBC Worklife on the secrets of “healthy neurotics” – people who have a tendency for anxiety but channel that energy into productive behaviour. Interestingtly, the latest research suggests that these people are finding it easier to cope with the pandemic than other personality types. You can read the piece here: Why ‘healthy neurotics’ can thrive in stressful times

My third piece this month looks at another kind of mindset – the “paradox mindset”.

While most of us may naturally shy away from the potential confusion of weighing up contradictory ideas, some people relish the challenges of juggling the two opposing thoughts. Writing with Loizos Heracleous, an organisational scientist at Warwick Business School, I examinded the evidence that the paradox mindset can fuel creativity, productivity and innovative decision making. You can read it here: Why the ‘paradox mindset’ is the key to success

If you are interested in the benefits of thinking in contradictions, you may also like my piece for Aeon: A touch of absurdity can help to wrap your mind around reality

Finally, if you are a New Scientist subscriber, you might enjoy my recent piece on filler words – ums, ers, huhs etc – and their unexpected importance for sophisticated communication (pay wall). I also appear on the NS Weekly Podcast discussing the piece (free for all).

The Strategic Mindset, the Batman Effect, and more

Whenever you read about the secrets of success, you’ll no doubt come across that well-known quote from Thomas Edison, that “genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.

While inventing the lightbulb, we are told, he tried 3,000 attempts before finally finding a suitable filament that would glow without immediately burning out. The story is meant to be the inspirational reminder that things like natural creativity are often much less important than dogged determination.

There’s no doubt that passion and perseverance are essential to reaching your long-term goals. But it’s important to remember the strategic process that Edison went through to reach his goal. He didn’t just haphazardly move from one failed design after another, after all, but constantly adapted and refined his ideas. “I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable,” he told Harper’s magazine in 1890. “Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved.” At each step of the journey, he was making intelligent decisions that learnt from the failures and built on the small successes.

As I explained in a recent piece for BBC Worklife, this represents a “strategic mindset” – which describes the tendency to question and refine your current approach in the face of setbacks and challenges. While others diligently follow the same convoluted path, people with the strategic mindset are constantly looking for a more efficient route forwards. You can read more about this cutting-edge at by Patricia Chen at the National University of Singapore here.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the warm response to this article (including an enthusiastic discussion on LinkedIn). If you are interested in other ways of improving perseverence and self control, you can read my other recent articles on character development – all for the BBC’s international website:

The ‘Batman Effect’: How having an alter ego empowers you
Thinking of yourself as a separate entity can reduce anxiety, while also kicking up some major benefits for your confidence and determination.

The strategy that turns daydreams into reality
Psychologists have found a single habit that sabotages most goals – and the way to correct it

How self-control can unleash your dark side
People with great willpower are often lauded over their peers with less self-control. But having strong character may not always be a good thing

In other news, I was delighted to appear on the Parlia podcast with Turi Munthe. Here’s the blurb:

S1 E8: How Intelligence Works

“Rationality is trying to find the truth by weighing up the evidence. People with high intelligence alone don’t do that so you need something else to encourage you to use your intelligence. Curiosity… The more curious someone is, the more likely they are to escape motivated reasoning”

Turi speaks to science writer and author of The Intelligence Trap David Robson about what intelligence is, why it’s different to rationality, and what its value is in our everyday lives.

Together, they discuss:

What is intelligence? How does it create inequality? Do IQ tests favour the rich? Is intelligence a form of propaganda? What is the growth mindset? Where do rationality and morality intersect? And why do very clever people make incredibly stupid decisions? You can listen here: How Intelligence Works.

For context, Parlia is a fascinating new project that aims to “map the different world’s opinions” by offering an even handed discussion of the different sides of complex questions. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Le trappole dell’intelligenza

Sono emozionato nel comunicarvi che il mio primo libro è uscito in Italia qualche settimana fa, dal titolo “Le trappole dell’intelligenza”. È pubblicato dalla casa editrice @ponteallegrazie. La copertina è davvero elegante, no?

Le trappole dell’intelligenza, David Robson (Ponte alle Grazie)

Studio l’italiano da tanti anni e sono contentissimo (e piuttosto curioso) di leggere la traduzione del mio manuscritto. Ecco la fascetta pubblicitaria:

Tutti pensano che ‘intelligenza’ sia sinonimo di pensiero razionale, ma ormai è chiaro che un QI elevato e l’istruzione non bastano per difenderci dagli errori cognitivi. Sui giornali si legge sempre più spesso di esperti super qualificati che non sono riusciti a fare previsioni corrette e leader mondiali che hanno preso decisioni sbagliate: le menti geniali possono essere molto irrazionali. Cultura e competenza amplificano i nostri errori rendendoci ciechi ai nostri pregiudizi. È questa la ‘trappola dell’intelligenza’ di cui parla questo saggio, un problema in cui sono incorsi anche gli individui più brillanti e le organizzazioni più preparate, partendo da Thomas Edison fino alla NASA, la Nokia, l’FBI e la nazionale di calcio inglese. In questo istruttivo resoconto sulle ricerche più aggiornate riguardo all’intelligenza, e attingendo dalle intuizioni di Socrate, Benjamin Franklin e di alcune delle industrie di maggior successo al mondo, il giornalista scientifico David Robson ci mostra come costruire un kit di strumenti cognitivi per aiutarci a massimizzare il nostro pieno potenziale: è ora di imparare un nuovo modo di pensare.

Disponibile su,, Mondadori etc.

Five ways to boost “collective intelligence”

Simple psychological techniques can transform your teamwork and leadership (Credit: Hannah Busing/Unsplash)

The history of sport is full of surprising twists of fate. Perhaps the most famous upset of all is the ‘Miracle on Ice’ — when a team of American college students beat the accomplished Soviet hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. More recently, there was Argentina’s surprise gold medal in basketball at the 2004 Olympics, where they thrashed the USA — the firm favourites; and the 2016 Euros championships, when the Icelandic soccer team — ranked 131st before the tournament — beat England to the quarter finals. In each case, the underdogs had less established players, yet somehow their combined talent was greater than the sum of their parts.

As I describe in my recent book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, cutting-edge experiments by Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that team performance depends surprisingly little on the members’ individual talents. The smartest teams are not those with the heighest IQs or the greatest experience, but those with the best communication skills. Indeed, some startling research by Adam Galinsky at Columbia Business School has shown that a high-proportion of “star” players can often backfire, as their rutting egos destroy the collaboration within the team and prevent the team from reaching its goals. The so-called “too-much-talent effect” has been observed in professional soccer, basketball and Wall Street banks.

In the face of the economic and social challenges created by the current pandemic, a happy, creative and productive workplace could not be more important for leaders and employees alike. So how can we create a ‘dream team’ like the Miracle on Ice? I recently wrote a series of articles for BBC Worklife on the best ways to boost the “collective intelligence” of any team or organisation, and here are some of the most eye-catching findings.

Build emotional awareness

Abundant research shows that the best teams in almost any field are those with the greatest emotional awareness and regulation. It helps team members to keep each other motivated and allows productive disagreement to spur creativity without ending in resentment and lasting conflict. If your team struggles with this, Smaranda Boros at Vlerick Business School in Ghent has six simple ground rules that will instantly improve the emotional dynamic of any meeting. They are:

1) Have a “check in” at the beginning of the meeting — that is, ask how everyone is doing

2) Assume that undesirable behaviour takes place for a reason. Find out what that reason is. Ask questions and listen. Avoid negative attributions

3) As the work proceeds, tell your team-mates what you are thinking and how you are feeling about the process

4) When you make decisions, ask whether everyone agrees with the decision

5) Question the quickness of taking a decision

6) Ask quiet members what they think

Read more: How elite teams increase their emotional intelligence.

Communicate less

It’s good to talk, but counter-intuitive research by Jesse Shore at Boston University suggests we should limit our interactions with others, particularly during brain storming and problem solving. Too much communication between members can lead the group to converge on a solution too quickly, without exploring all the options — whereas longer periods of isolated work increases the chances that each individual will come up with something truly original, offering a greater range of solutions to analyse at a later point. So try to aim for short, intense conversations or meetings, with plenty of time for independent work in between, rather than a continual drip-feed of group updates through email or Slack channels. Read More: The benefits isolation can have on your work.

(Credit: John Schnobrich/Unspash)

Don’t be constrained by success

Xerox’s R&D department pioneered the first personal computers — including the WYSIWYG displays and desktop publishing — but the company failed to capitalise on their inventions. As Loizos Heracleous at Warwick Business School in the UK explained to me, the reason is a phenomenon called the “competency trap”, which involves a rigid corporate culture, too invested in its past successes to make new innovations. Heracleous has various suggestions on how to avoid this, including the idea that each employee takes a stint in the R&D department to broaden their mind to new innovations. Read More: How to avoid the competency trap.

Avoid the Peter Principle

In the 1960s, the educationalist Laurence J Peter argued that this was so. If you only promote people according to their current performance, they will rise until they reach a position beyond their capabilities — at which point, they will cease to be promoted and will remain in that position for the rest of their career. According to this logic, “every employee tends to rise to his [or her] level of incompetence” — filling an organisation with people who are bad at what they do. The so-called Peter Principle was originally intended as satire, but organisational scientists have now found evidence for the idea — and their conclusions suggest that we need to find new ways to test management potential, and better means of rewarding high-performing colleagues within their current position. Read more: The reasons why people become incompetent at work.

Be humble

When we think of strong leadership, humility might not come to mind — but a torrent of psychological research is now revealing the merits of this neglected virtue. Humbler people learn quicker, and are better communicators and decision makers — and inspire better problem solving in their teams too. In one study, intellectual humility proved to be more important for overall performance than actual IQ. Importantly, humility appears to be contagious — meaning that a humble leader will encourage greater humility in their employees, producing a more open-minded and creative team.

In one study of 105 technology companies, Amy Yi Ou at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that humbler CEOs encouraged greater collaboration and information sharing among the firm’s top management team. The improved decision making resulted in greater overall profits. Leadership humility appears to be especially helpful when navigating uncertainty, as an organisation abandons the status quo to find new ways of operating — something that all managers should be considering in these troubled times.

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!


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.