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.

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.

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.

Interview and quiz in The Times

I’m thrilled to have a piece and interview in The Times about the publication of my book, The Intelligence Trap.

Incidentally, the profile piece says that I coined the term “cognitive miser” – which is a misunderstanding. It’s a term that is commonly used by psychologists to describe this kind of lazy thinking. But on the whole I felt like the piece offers a really nice introduction to some of the the themes that I’ll explore.

If you enjoyed the article, you can pre-order the hardback and e-book from Amazon and Waterstones. It’s released in the UK on 7 March, and in the US this summer.

In case you are interested, the sources of The Intelligence Trap quiz questions can be found below:

Sirota, M., Kostovičová, L., Juanchich, M., Dewberry, C., & Marshall, A. C. (2018).
Measuring Cognitive Reflection without maths: developing and validating the verbal
Cognitive Reflection Test.
https://psyarxiv.com/pfe79/

Thomson, K. S., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2016). Investigating an alternate form of the
cognitive reflection test. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(1), 99
https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-09222-009

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). Rational and irrational thought: The thinking that IQ tests miss.
Scientific American Mind, 20(6), 34-39
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/rational-and-irrational-thought-the-thinking-that-iq-tests-miss/

Bruine de Bruin, W., Parker, A. M., & Fischhoff, B. (2007). Individual differences in adult
decision-making competence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 938-956
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17484614