My Own Private Cognitive Behavioral Psychology

I’m reading Michael Lewis’ latest book, “The Undoing Project,” to which you reply “Well that’s a surprise! (since I’ve blogged about every one of his other books.) Yes, that’s true, but he just seems to pick great topics. “The Big Short,” which they bizarrely made into a movie, was a great exposé of the 2008 meltdown. “Boomerang” followed that up on how other countries dealt with insolvent banks. “Flash Boys,” which was about high frequency trading even resulted in Lewis being interviewed for a “60 Minutes” episode. His book “Moneyball” was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and I just love the movie version of his book “The Blind Side”.

So “The Undoing Project,” you could say, dovetails a bit from “Moneyball” in terms of how sports teams were trying to use new techniques using computers and stats to build winning teams. Using raw data got away from so many of the subjective decisions that sports scouts make that often end in disappointment.

This latest book looks at two psychologists who set behavior or cognitive psychology on its side starting in the 1960s. One of the things I do remember a lot of from my one illustrious year in “Commerce” at Queen’s University in 1982 apart from “Film Studies 101” was “Psychology 101.” Apparently I was in the wrong course. Now when I see the moon on the horizon as it comes up and it looks “hhuugggeeeee” I realize it’s the “moon illusion” and is because you have a point of reference with the horizon. Or how when you’re on a train and it stops it feels like it’s going backwards even though it’s stationary, called “the motion parallax.” Who says I wasted a year!

The two psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman studied how ‘heuristics” influence our decisions. According to Wikipedia “In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions. They are mental shortcuts that usually involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others.” I am the king of shortcuts!

The book has lots of those cool examples of how people make decisions. If I ask you “are there more words in the English language that start with a “K” (or R or some other consonants) rather than have a “K” as the third character” what would you say?

Most people say more words “start with K” but it’s wrong. The problem is you can readily remember words that start with K, so you assume that holds throughout the language. My brilliant wife said “Well, there’s ‘ask’, “awkward’…” and listed several other words I would never have thought of, which is when I was reminded how I ‘married up’ when I linked up with Michelle.

There is a fancy name for this which I don’t recall. I’m being honest here rather than plowing back through the book to pretend how smart I am that I remember such things.

If you read people a list of 39 names, if you have 20 male names like “Joe Blank, John Smith”, and 19 female names like “Lana Turner, and Hillary Clinton..” and then ask people if there were more male or female names in the list, they will say more female names because they recognized some and their minds dwelled on them. It works the same if there are 19 recognizable male names.  Again, there is a cool intelligent sounding name for this, which I don’t recall. I am not destined for a career in cognitive psychology.

It’s always fun to read a book like this, at a time of human history like this, because I think it’s important to think about how and why you perceive things the way you do. I know it had me thinking critically about things.

One example was Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album which was a “huuggeeely” successful 1973 album. There is a ‘thing’… ‘an urban legend’…’a fact’…???  that if you start this album at exactly the same time you start the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” you’ll find that all the songs link up with the movie, like Pink Floyd wrote the album as a sound track. When we lived in the city and didn’t heat with wood or have 3 acres of gardens I sat down one Sunday afternoon to test the theory. It was quite amazing how closely so many of the lyrics did link up. I remember the line “The lunatic is in the grass” just as the scarecrow falls off the pole and rolls around crazily on the ground. Like how really, how could there be so many coincidences?

So it kind of looked to me like this may be true, until a couple of months ago when we had TV for a bit and I saw a PBS documentary on Pink Floyd putting that album together and it had interviews with the band members and producers and it just never felt like at any point they were trying to sync it to Wizard of Oz. They seem to be having enough of a challenge just getting cool sounds of synthesizers and stuff. So after that I was thinking, well, apparently I had that one wrong.

I’d seen another PBS documentary where in 1964 Lyndon Johnson says something like “If we enact the Civil Rights Act the democrats will never get votes in the south again.” The South had been historically democrat but went republican after that for many years. Then I just read “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance who grows up near Appalachia and he has some many other explanations for why some states that you would think would be Democrat aren’t, including religion, an independent streak, fear of big government, etc.

The take away for me is that it is increasingly difficult to figure a lot of this stuff out and growing more so. It seemed on election night a lot of the Trump team were pretty surprised with the results and they were in the trenches. There is no shortage of articles everywhere right now trying to analyze where this general anger and frustration is coming from and I, like many other people, try and read them and digest new perspectives. Everywhere I look these days I see things that make no sense. The current highs of stock markets. The Toronto Real Estate bubble where the average detached home is now over $1 million dollars, and in January house prices went up 22% over last year. Really? Who’s buying them? Who’s got that kind of money? Am I the only one that sees how badly this bubble is going to burst?

“The Undoing Project” at least gave me a few more mental tools on how my mind works to process difficult questions. Michelle will suggest I should just stop paying attention, read fiction and “become comfortably numb.” Well, that’s not gonna happen. And some days right now it kinda seems like reality is starting to look more and more like fiction.

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If you are inspired to read one of Michael Lewis’ books, please consider using the links to Amazon below. We receive a small commission from Amazon for any sales that result from one of our readers using our Amazon links. (The links will take you to amazon.com. Once there you can then switch to the Amazon store for your country.) Thanks!

Other Michael Lewis Books

One Response to “My Own Private Cognitive Behavioral Psychology”

  • Mike the carpenter:

    The “average” Toronto home is now valued at over a million dollars? Wow! I used to teach statistics many years ago so I’m guessing that there are many valued at well over 100 million (out-liers) that factor into that average of a million per home; and probably many homes that are worth 100,000 or less as well. Still, that million dollar average could crumble pretty fast when the “bubble” bursts.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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