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E201 | How to Change Brains, Minds and Culture with David McRaney

How can you change someone’s mind? Don’t miss David McRaney, a science journalist fascinated with brains, minds, and culture, explain all in this podcast. 

In this episode, David, author of three books, discusses his latest book ‘How Minds Change’. He lifts the lid on how people who believe in flat Earth come to believe in flat Earth; how people who are anti vaxxers come to have that as their belief system; as well as explain the Dunning Kruger effect. 

Why are these insights relevant to the modern workplace? 

Because the results of these studies have far reaching implications, including how you hold your management team meetings, your all hands meeting, how you hire, how you might want to hire to avoid bias, as well as overcome the heuristics that are in place that make you make snap decisions on people. 

This is a fantastic episode, we’re sure you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

On today’s podcast:

  • How to change minds
  • The people swap experiment
  • Difference in gender confidence
  • The Dunning Kruger effect
  • The Halo effect at work
  • Understanding pluralistic ignorance


How to Change Brains, Minds and Culture with David McRaney

David McRaney is a science journalist fascinated with brains, minds, and culture. The author of three books – You Are Not So Smart, a book about how to get a better understanding of self delusion and motivated reasoning, You Are Now Less Dumb, and his third book, How Minds Change comes out in 2022

So why is David obsessed with the topic of smart?

The people swap experiment

“I watched a video by Derren Brown. And he did this variation of the person swap experiment. He asked people on the street for directions. And then as the person was giving him directions, someone crosses between the two of them and switches places with Derren Brown. And now it’s a different person who’s asking for directions, but people didn’t seem to notice.”

How can you not notice a completely different person now standing in front of you? 

Fascinated by how this could happen, David researched and learned about people swap experiments, including the famous visible experiment, where people turn in a questionnaire and the person behind the desk ducks below, and someone else stands up, and they measured how often people noticed. Between 30-50% of people didn’t notice. 

No matter how smart you are or how educated you are, we are all susceptible to not noticing. In fact, says David, the more educated you are, the higher your IQ, the better you are at justifying your incorrect beliefs, and defending and rationalising what you think you’ve seen. 

“[Having a high IQ] doesn’t make you a more accurate person when it comes to this sort of stuff that I write about. It just makes you better at arguing for things that you were going to argue about anyway.”

Difference in gender confidence

We live in a world, in a culture, says David, that accepts that men can express confidence in a forceful manner. Regardless of how much they know or don’t know. 

They’re confident, not because they know any better, they’re confident because society has deemed it acceptable to behave that way. 

In fact, if you believe the 10,000 hours idea, it takes that much practice to get good at something. People aren’t naturally gifted, they simply put in the time to get better. 

Take great chess players, says David, they aren’t rainman, they have merely practised so much chess they’re pretty sure they know what the next best move will be based on what the game set up is. 

It’s the same thing with baseball. You don’t have naturally gifted athletes making the big leagues. They’re the people who put time and effort into practising the same move over and over until it becomes second nature. 

“They simply practice so much that they know the cues that suggest when they should engage in a certain action, but they’re not aware of it themselves, they may actually personally feel that they are responding to it with reflexes.”

The Dunning Kruger effect

The Dunning Kruger effect is when you’re learning to do something new and you move from level one to level two quickly, and you start to think that this thing is easy, that it won’t take you long to progress to expert. But there’s an arc, says David, that takes place behind the scenes that takes much longer to move between levels the higher up you get, than it did when you first started. 

“It’s like when you learn how to play guitar, you learn how to play your first two or three songs, you’re like, wow, I probably can play stairway to heaven now. And no, you just have to take a little more effort.”

The Dunning Kruger effect stems from research where a bank robber poured lemon juice over his face because he thought it would distort it on camera. And when he was arrested, he kept screaming ‘but I used the juice’. And scientists realised he didn’t know that it wouldn’t work, he just thought it would, and he’d convinced himself therefore that it would. 

“And the result of that is, the less experience you have in any domain, the less experience you also have in what it means to gain experience in that domain. So the less you know about something, the less you know there is to know about something.”

This creates a belief of undeserved confidence in people who have maybe only done a little bit of research, or who have just started down the road of something, and don’t know they’re not good, or not skilled, yet speak as though they are. 

“And human beings aren’t very good at looking inward. And in getting a very fair accurate estimate of where they are, whatever scale it is, they’re trying to measure themselves by.”

The Halo effect

The Halo effect, says David, is the one that gets the most people into trouble. It’s a tendency of measuring all metrics based on the results of one example. 

For example:

“This can be as simple as people who are very tall tend to get promotions before people are short. People who are very good looking tend to rise very quickly in a corporate world, whereas people who aren’t quite as good, don’t.”

Of course the Halo effect goes in both directions – it’s a really strong cognitive bias that distorts our reasoning and our judgement and decision making. 

So how do you avoid bias in hiring, for instance? You have to do double blind job interviews, says David, for example:

“First of all, you need to decide what is the ideal candidate for whatever position you’re hiring, what are the skill sets, experience, all that kind of stuff. And that stuff needs to be separated out from the individual and looked at independently.”

Which is why double blind works because you remove any information about the person i.e their name, ethnicity, gender etc, and judge their information against the other information available. 

Pluralistic ignorance

Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon in which a group of people have some sort of norm or a plan, or they have some sort of group based judgement. 

Yet everyone, or the majority of the people in the group do not want to do the thing, or they do not agree with the norm, or they feel like they are naysayers in some regard. 

But there’s not a good way of communicating this, or there may be a norm in place where people feel afraid to speak up, or there may be sanctions where they know that if they do speak up, something could happen to them.

The group ends up doing something that nobody actually wants to do, because they each feel like they’re the only one who is against the thing and that everyone else is on board. And so they don’t say anything. 

How minds change

If you want to change someone’s mind, the biggest misconception is that if someone disagrees with you, you see the world differently and that their beliefs must be different to your beliefs. But beliefs, says David, are at the end of the process. They’re the conclusion. 

So if you want to change someone’s mind, you don’t start with their beliefs, you need to back up and find out where the beliefs are coming from. 

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