A little humility, please

Book Reviews

We think we know way more than we actually do.  This is the theme of several books I have recently read.  The idea that we know what motivates people, know their intentions and even know whether they are being honest with us, are assumptions that many of us make.  Therapists in particular can be victims of this fallacy as we are experts in understanding people.  However, all of us are vulnerable to being more certain than we should.  The idea that we know less than we assume we do is clearly unnerving. The stressful nature of the times we live in may also make us more inclined to seek certainty in the face of new and increased threats to our wellbeing.  As a practicing psychologist of many years I find it helpful to remind myself that while there are many things I do know, there are many things I really do not know, and beyond that there are things I think I know which I should probably not be so sure of. 

In “Talking to Strangers” Malcolm Gladwell identifies how we consistently think we are able to judge and assess strangers, understand their motives and intent, and determine if they are being honest.  Gladwell reviews a series of psychological studies that show how poorly people do in judging whether others are honest, and in assessing their motives/intent. To further illustrate his point he examines a number of examples that show how badly we do in judging others. These range from the ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, and the sexual abuse committed by Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky  (the football coach at Penn. State), and how these crimes went undetected for years. He notes that the warning signs were minimized and dismissed by bright, intelligent and well meaning people. Gladwell also focuses on the death of Sandra Bland, and how it is highly likely that a series of assumptions about strangers lead to this tragic and unnecessary death. Interestingly, Gladwell also discusses the work of psychologist Timothy Levine, on Truth Default Theory.  Levine argues that we tend to “default to truth”, when judging others. Gladwell argues that this default is necessary for functional social relationships because if we distrusted others as a baseline, social communication would be greatly hampered. His work suggests that we balance our natural tendency to trust, with an awareness of our tendency to make assumptions when we should not, particularly about people who are different from us. 

In Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,  the Nobel prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman , discusses how poorly human beings do in judging situations.  His examples, while different than many noted by Gladwell, make the same point: human beings overestimate their ability to assess others, but are very reluctant to rely on data drive formulas.  Kahneman  focuses extensively on how judges do a notably poor job of assessing criminal defendants’ risk of reoffending, and routinely are influenced by factors other than those presented as evidence.  Kahneman reviews other examples of this phenomenon and argues that we are far less effective in judging others than we think we are.  He also argues for a greater reliance on data driven decision making while tempering this with an awareness of how most people do not want to relinquish control in their decision making. 

Finally, in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein argue quite persuasively that the way in which the choices we face are structured, can significantly influence our actions.  Thaler and Sustein identify multiple examples of this ranging from how food is presented in a school cafeteria to to whether workers have to opt in or opt out of a 401K plan. Thaler and Sustein’s  main focus is that we can best influence human behavior at a macro or societal level, by how we structure choices. They refer to this model as “paternal libertarianism.” Implicit to their model is the reality that human behavior is far more influenced by the structure of the situation than we  care to acknowledge.  Gladwell also makes the same point. He examines the concept of  “coupling” which does not refer to finding a partner but rather to how the situation is more a driver of behavior than we imagine (3).  Gladwell identifies research on suicide and how changes in access to means reduce rates. 

All of these works reminded me of one of the welcoming lectures my classmates and I received when we started graduate school in psychology. The head of the psychology department, who was a researcher, not a clinician, told us, that one of the ways that we would be most changed by graduate school was that we would believe, far more than the average person, that human behavior was influenced by situational factors, and not nearly as much by individual will or decision making.  As we then proceeded to study a number of famous social psychology studies the evidence for this argument became apparent.  The authors noted above make reference to these studies, e.g, Milgram’s work on obedience for example. The influence of situational factors, factors outside our awareness, is wonderfully illustrated in the work of social psychologist, Robert Cialdini, who identifies how our decision making is influenced by factors outside of our awareness and not directly relevant to the decision at hand.  

These works all serve as a reminder that a bit more humility and a bit more deference to science and research, would do us all well.  I would argue that this is especially true in difficult times we are currently living through.  A little more humility, a little more openness to questioning our assumptions, and a greater recognition that we are more easily influenced and affected by our situation than we might wish were so would hopefully go a long way in reducing tensions and conflicts between people.  

    1. Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell. 
    2. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,  by Daniel Kahneman
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,  by Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein
  1. For more on Truth Default Theory, please see: http://timothy-levine.squarespace.com/truth-default-theory  which provides a link to an article lengthy summary of Levine’s work, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53143e7de4b0d2c24316913f/t/53eef168e4b042bb7cb59d04/1408169270965/Levine+TDT+2014.pdf.  Levine ‘s work is more fully discussed in his 2019 book, “Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. “ 
  2. Robert Cialdini’s work is detailed in two of his books: Influence: the psychology of persuasion,  and Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade
  3. The concept of coupling can be traced back to a number of sources, primary among them is the work of Clark and Chalmers (1998) on the “extended mind”.

Stanley Milgram’s work is fairly well summarized in the Wikipedia article, which also offers references to his work: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment.