Derek Sivers

You Are Not So Smart - by David McRaney

You Are Not So Smart - by David McRaney

ISBN: 1592406599
Date read: 2011-11-15
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Great summary of 46 cognitive biases. Much of it covered in other books like Predictably Irrational, but if you haven't read those, this is a great starting book. Otherwise, just a good reminder, and worth reading.

my notes

1 Priming
MISCONCEPTION: You know when you are being influenced and how it is affecting your behavior.
TRUTH: You are unaware of the constant nudging you receive from ideas formed in your unconscious mind.

2 Confabulation
MISCONCEPTION: You know when you are lying to yourself.
TRUTH: You are often ignorant of your motivations and create fictional narratives to explain your decisions, emotions, and history without realizing it.

3 Confirmation Bias
MISCONCEPTION: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.
TRUTH: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions.

4 Hindsight Bias
MISCONCEPTION: After you learn something new, you remember how you were once ignorant or wrong.
TRUTH: You often look back on the things you’ve just learned and assume you knew them or believed them all along.

5 The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
MISCONCEPTION: You take randomness into account when determining cause and effect.
TRUTH: You tend to ignore random chance when the results seem meaningful or when you want a random event to have a meaningful cause.

6 Procrastination
MISCONCEPTION: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.
TRUTH: Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.

7 Normalcy Bias
MISCONCEPTION: Your fight-or-flight instincts kick in and you panic when disaster strikes.
TRUTH: You often become abnormally calm and pretend everything is normal in a crisis.

8 Introspection
MISCONCEPTION: You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.
TRUTH: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up.

9 The Availability Heuristic
MISCONCEPTION: With the advent of mass media, you understand how the world works based on statistics and facts culled from many examples.
TRUTH: You are far more likely to believe something is commonplace if you can find just one example of it, and you are far less likely to believe in something you’ve never seen or heard of before.

10 The Bystander Effect
MISCONCEPTION: When someone is hurt, people rush to their aid.
TRUTH: The more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person will help.

11 The Dunning-Kruger Effect
MISCONCEPTION: You can predict how well you would perform in any situation.
TRUTH: You are generally pretty bad at estimating your competence and the difficulty of complex tasks.

12 Apophenia
MISCONCEPTION: Some coincidences are so miraculous, they must have meaning.
TRUTH: Coincidences are a routine part of life, even the seemingly miraculous ones. Any meaning applied to them comes from your mind.

13 Brand Loyalty
MISCONCEPTION: You prefer the things you own over the things you don’t because you made rational choices when you bought them.
TRUTH: You prefer the things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.

14 The Argument from Authority
MISCONCEPTION: You are more concerned with the validity of information than the person delivering it.
TRUTH: The status and credentials of an individual greatly influence your perception of that individual’s message.

15 The Argument from Ignorance
MISCONCEPTION: When you can’t explain something, you focus on what you can prove.
TRUTH: When you are unsure of something, you are more likely to accept strange explanations.

16 The Straw Man Fallacy
MISCONCEPTION: When you argue, you try to stick to the facts.
TRUTH: In any argument, anger will tempt you to reframe your opponent’s position.

17 The Ad Hominem Fallacy
MISCONCEPTION: If you can’t trust someone, you should ignore that person’s claims.
TRUTH: What someone says and why they say it should be judged separately.

18 The Just-World Fallacy
MISCONCEPTION: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.
TRUTH: The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.

19 The Public Goods Game
MISCONCEPTION: We could create a system with no regulations where everyone would contribute to the good of society, everyone would benefit, and everyone would be happy.
TRUTH: Without some form of regulation, slackers and cheaters will crash economic systems because people don’t want to feel like suckers.

20 The Ultimatum Game
MISCONCEPTION: You choose to accept or refuse an offer based on logic.
TRUTH: When it comes to making a deal, you base your decision on your status.

21 Subjective Validation
MISCONCEPTION: You are skeptical of generalities.
TRUTH: You are prone to believing vague statements and predictions are true, especially if they are positive and address you personally.

22 Cult Indoctrination
MISCONCEPTION: You are too smart to join a cult.
TRUTH: Cults are populated by people just like you.

23 Groupthink
MISCONCEPTION: Problems are easier to solve when a group of people get together to discuss solutions.
TRUTH: The desire to reach consensus and avoid confrontation hinders progress.

24 Supernormal Releasers
MISCONCEPTION: Men who have sex with RealDolls are insane, and women who marry eighty-year-old billionaires are gold diggers.
TRUTH: The RealDoll and rich old sugar daddies are both supernormal releasers.

25 The Affect Heuristic
MISCONCEPTION: You calculate what is risky or rewarding and always choose to maximize gains while minimizing losses.
TRUTH: You depend on emotions to tell you if something is good or bad, greatly overestimate rewards, and tend to stick to your first impressions.

26 Dunbar’s Number
MISCONCEPTION: There is a Rolodex in your mind with the names and faces of everyone you’ve ever known.
TRUTH: You can maintain relationships and keep up with only around 150 people at once.

27 Selling Out
MISCONCEPTION: Both consumerism and capitalism are sustained by corporations and advertising.
TRUTH: Both consumerism and capitalism are driven by competition among consumers for status.

28 Self-Serving Bias
MISCONCEPTION: You evaluate yourself based on past successes and defeats.
TRUTH: You excuse your failures and see yourself as more successful, more intelligent, and more skilled than you are.

29 The Spotlight Effect
MISCONCEPTION: When you are around others, you feel as if everyone is noticing every aspect of your appearance and behavior.
TRUTH: People devote little attention to you unless prompted to.

30 The Third Person Effect
MISCONCEPTION: You believe your opinions and decisions are based on experience and facts, while those who disagree with you are falling for the lies and propaganda of sources you don’t trust.
TRUTH: Everyone believes the people they disagree with are gullible, and everyone thinks they are far less susceptible to persuasion than they truly are.

31 Catharsis
MISCONCEPTION: Venting your anger is an effective way to reduce stress and prevent lashing out at friends and family.
TRUTH: Venting increases aggressive behavior over

32 The Misinformation Effect
MISCONCEPTION: Memories are played back like recordings.
TRUTH: Memories are constructed anew each time from whatever information is currently available, which makes them highly permeable to influences from the present.

33 Conformity
MISCONCEPTION: You are a strong individual who doesn’t conform unless forced to.
TRUTH: It takes little more than an authority figure or social pressure to get you to obey, because conformity is a survival instinct.

34 Extinction Burst
MISCONCEPTION: If you stop engaging in a bad habit, the habit will gradually diminish until it disappears from your life.
TRUTH: Any time you quit something cold turkey, your brain will make a last-ditch effort to return you to your habit.

35 Social Loafing
MISCONCEPTION: When you are joined by others in a task, you work harder and become more accomplished.
TRUTH: Once part of a group, you tend to put in less effort because you know your work will be pooled together with others’.

36 The Illusion of Transparency
MISCONCEPTION: When your emotions run high, people can look at you and tell what you are thinking and feeling.
TRUTH: Your subjective experience is not observable, and you overestimate how much you telegraph your inner thoughts and emotions.

37 Learned Helplessness
MISCONCEPTION: If you are in a bad situation, you will do whatever you can do to escape it.
TRUTH: If you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

38 Embodied Cognition
MISCONCEPTION: Your opinions of people and events are based on objective evaluation.
TRUTH: You translate your physical world into words, and then believe those words.

39 The Anchoring Effect
MISCONCEPTION: You rationally analyze all factors before making a choice or determining value.
TRUTH: Your first perception lingers in your mind, affecting later perceptions and decisions.

40 Attention
MISCONCEPTION: You see everything going on before your eyes, taking in all the information like a camera.
TRUTH: You are aware only of a small amount of the total information your eyes take in, and even less is processed by your conscious mind and remembered.

41 Self-Handicapping
MISCONCEPTION: In all you do, you strive for success.
TRUTH: You often create conditions for failure ahead of time to protect your ego.

42 Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
MISCONCEPTION: Predictions about your future are subject to forces beyond your control.
TRUTH: Just believing a future event will happen can cause it to happen if the event depends on human behavior.

43 The Moment
MISCONCEPTION: You are one person, and your happiness is based on being content with your life.
TRUTH: You are multiple selves, and happiness is based on satisfying all of them.

44 Consistency Bias
MISCONCEPTION: You know how your opinions have changed over time.
TRUTH: Unless you consciously keep tabs on your progress, you assume the way you feel now is the way you have always felt.

45 The Representativeness Heuristic
MISCONCEPTION: Knowing a person’s history makes it easier to determine what sort of person they are.
TRUTH: You jump to conclusions based on how representative a person seems to be of a preconceived character type.

46 Expectation
MISCONCEPTION: Wine is a complicated elixir, full of subtle flavors only an expert can truly distinguish, and experienced tasters are impervious to deception.
TRUTH: Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.

47 The Illusion of Control
MISCONCEPTION: You know how much control you have over your surroundings.
TRUTH: You often believe you have control over outcomes that are either random or are too complex to predict.

48 The Fundamental Attribution Error
MISCONCEPTION: Other people’s behavior is the reflection of their personality.
TRUTH: Other people’s behavior is more the result of the situation than their disposition.


You have no clue why you act the way you do, choose the things you choose, or think the thoughts you think. Instead, you create narratives, little stories to explain away why.

You are filled with beliefs that look good on paper but fall apart in practice.
When those beliefs fall apart, you tend not to notice.
You have a deep desire to be right all of the time and a deeper desire to see yourself in a positive light both morally and behaviorally.
You can stretch your mind pretty far to achieve these goals.

Cognitive biases are predicable patterns of thought and behavior that lead you to draw incorrect conclusions.

Many of them serve to keep you confident in your own perceptions or to inhibit you from seeing yourself as a buffoon.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts you use to solve common problems. They speed up processing in the brain, but sometimes when you think so fast you miss what is important.
When a stimulus in the past affects the way you behave and think or the way you perceive another stimulus later on, it is called priming.

(In an office environment:) Mere exposure to briefcases and fancy pens had altered the behavior of normal, rational people. They became more competitive, greedier, and had no idea why. Faced with having to explain themselves, they rationalized their behavior with erroneous tales they believed were true.

Just about every physical object you encounter triggers a blitz of associations throughout your mind.

If a situation is familiar you can fall back on intuition.
If a situation is novel, you will have to boot up your conscious mind.

You can’t prime yourself directly, but you can create environments conducive to the mental states you wish to achieve.

When you explain why you feel the way you do, or why you behaved as you did, take it with a grain of salt.

You can become so confident in your worldview that no one can dissuade you.

In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well.

When you learn something new, you quickly redact your past so you can feel the comfort of always being right.

You are always looking back at the person you used to be, always reconstructing the story of your life to better match the person you are today.

Like a cowboy shooting at a barn: Over time, the side of the barn becomes riddled with holes. In some places there are lots of them, in others there are few. If the cowboy later paints a bull’s-eye over a spot where his bullet holes clustered together, it looks like he is pretty good with a gun. By painting a bull’s-eye over a cluster of bullet holes, the cowboy places artificial order over natural random chance.

Now-you must trick future-you into doing what is right for both.

In any perilous event, like a sinking ship or a towering inferno, a shooting rampage or a tornado, there is a chance you will become so overwhelmed by the perilous overflow of ambiguous information that you will do nothing at all.

75% of people find it impossible to reason during a catastrophic event or impending doom. The sort of people who survive are the sort of people who prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time. They’ve done the research, or built the shelter, or run the drills. They look for the exits and imagine what they will do. These people don’t deliberate during calamity because they’ve already done the deliberation.

Normalcy bias is a state of mind out of which you are attempting to make everything OK by believing it still is. Normalcy bias is refusing to believe terrible events will include you.

You are more likely to dawdle if you fail to understand the seriousness of the situation and have never been exposed to advice about what to do.

Normalcy bias can be scaled up to larger events as well. Global climate change, peak oil, obesity epidemics, and stock market crashes are good examples of larger, more complex events in which people fail to act because it is difficult to imagine just how abnormal life could become if the predictions are true.

When you are faced with a decision in which you are forced to think about your rationale, you start to turn the volume in your emotional brain down and the volume in your logical brain up. You start creating a mental list of pros and cons that would never have been conjured up if you had gone with your gut.

The act of introspection can sometimes lead you to make decisions that look good on virtual paper but leave you emotionally lacking.

Research into introspection calls into question the entire industry of critical analysis of art - video games, music, film, poetry, literature - all of it.

When you ask people why they do or do not like things, they must then translate something from a deep, emotional, primal part of their psyche into the language of the higher, logical, rational world of words.

Introspection is not the act of tapping into your innermost mental constructs but is instead a fabrication. You look at what you did, or how you felt, and you make up some sort of explanation that you can reasonably believe. If you have to tell others, you make up an explanation they can believe too.

It’s simply easier to believe something if you are presented with examples than it is to accept something presented in numbers or abstract facts.

You use the availability heuristic first and the facts second. You decide the likelihood of a future event on how easily you can imagine it, and if you’ve been bombarded by reports or have filled your head with fears, those images will overshadow new information that might contradict your beliefs.

Pluralistic ignorance - a situation where everyone is thinking the same thing but believes he or she is the only person who thinks it. It takes only one person to help for others to join in. People rush to help once they see another person leading by example. You should always be the first person to break away from the pack and offer help - or attempt escape - because you can be certain no one else will.

The less you know about a subject, the less you believe there is to know in total.

Amateurs are far more likely to think they are experts than actual experts are.

Apophenia is refusing to believe in clutter and noise, in coincidence and chance.

When you connect the dots in your life in a way that tells a story, and then you interpret the story to have a special meaning, this is true apophenia.

If the product is unnecessary, like an iPad, there is a great chance the customer will become a fanboy because he had to choose to spend a big chunk of money on it. It’s the choosing of one thing over another that leads to narratives about why you did it, which usually tie in to your self-image. Branding builds on this by giving you the option to create the person you think you are through choosing to align yourself with the mystique of certain products.

Next time you get ready to launch into one hundred reasons why your cell phone or TV or car is better than someone else’s, hesitate. Because you’re not trying to change the other person’s mind - you’re trying to prop up your own.

The straw man fallacy follows a familiar pattern. You first build the straw man, then you attack it, then you point out how easy it was to defeat it, and then you come to a conclusion.

In creating a fantasy scenario where the world goes mad if the other person’s argument were to win, you have constructed a straw man.

Sometimes people morph the straw man into a warning about a slippery slope where allowing one side to win would put humanity on a course of destruction.
Any time someone begins an attack with “So you’re saying we should all just...” or “Everyone knows... ,” you can bet a straw man is coming.

When you assume someone is incorrect based on who that person is or what group he or she belongs to, you have committed the ad hominem fallacy.

The ad hominem fallacy can also work in reverse. You might assume someone is trustworthy because they speak well, or have a respectable job.

You might be a great judge of character, but you need to be a great judge of evidence to avoid delusion.

You tend to blame the victim, not because you are a terrible person but because you want to believe you are smart enough to avoid the same fate.

You want the world to be fair, so you pretend it is.

Remember the unfair nature of the world, the randomness of birthright, means people often suffer adversity and enjoy opulence through no effort of their own.
If you think the world is just and fair, people who need help may never get it.

You are far more vulnerable to suggestion when the subject of the conversation is you.

You have an idealistic vision of yourself, a character you’ve dreamed up in your mind, and you are always trying to become this character.
You seek out groups to affiliate with to better solidify who you are in the story you tell yourself - the story explaining why you do the things you do.

For any plan to work, every team needs at least one asshole who doesn’t give a shit if he or she gets fired or exiled or excommunicated.
For a group to make good decisions, they must allow dissent and convince everyone they are free to speak their mind without risk of punishment.

True groupthink depends on three conditions - a group of people who like one another, isolation, and a deadline for a crucial decision.
As a primate, you are quick to form groups and then feel as if you should defend those groups from the ill wishes of other groups.
When groups get together to make a decision, an illusion of invulnerability can emerge in which everyone feels secure in the cohesion.
You begin to rationalize other people’s ideas and don’t reconsider your own.
You want to defend the group’s cohesion from all harm, so you suppress doubts, you don’t argue, you don’t offer alternatives.
Since everyone is doing this, the leader of the group falsely assumes everyone is in agreement.
Research says the situation can be avoided if the boss is not allowed to express his or her expectations, thus preventing the boss’s opinion from automatically becoming the opinion of others.
In addition, if the group breaks into pairs every once in a while to discuss the issue at hand, a manageable level of dissent can be fostered.
Even better, allow outsiders to offer their opinions periodically during the process, to keep people’s objectivity afloat.
Finally, assign one person the role of asshole and charge that person with the responsibility of finding fault in the plan.
Before you come to a consensus, allow a cooling off period so emotions can return to normal.

Decisions about risk and reward begin with the unconscious you. Unconscious-you notices things are either bad or good, dangerous or safe, before conscious-you can put those feelings into words.

Logically, risks and benefits are two different things and must be judged separately, but you don’t judge things logically.
The more something seems to benefit you, the less risky it seems overall.

Trying to run counter to the culture is what creates the next wave of culture people will in turn attempt to counter.

Self-esteem is mostly self-delusion, but it serves a purpose. You are biologically driven to think highly of yourself in order to avoid stagnation. If you were to stop and truly examine your faults and failures, you would become paralyzed by fear and doubt.

To defeat feelings of inadequacy, you first have to imagine a task as being simple and easy. If you can manage to do that, illusory superiority takes over.

For every outlet of information, there are some who see it as dangerous not because it affects them, but because it might affect the thoughts and opinions of an imaginary third party.
This sense of alarm about the impact of speech not on yourself but on others is called the third person effect.
As a modern human, you are bombarded with media messages, but you see yourself as less affected than others.
Somehow you have been inoculated against the persuaders, you think, so you have nothing to worry about.
You can’t count on everyone else to be as strong as you are, so if you are like most people, there are some voices you think should be quiet.
Third person effect is the source of outrage from religious leaders over “heretical propaganda” and the ire of political rulers over some speech out of a “fear of dissent.”
You don’t want to believe you can be persuaded, and one way of maintaining this belief is to assume that all the persuasion flying through the air must be landing on other targets.

When the third person effect leads you to condone censorship, take a step back and imagine the sort of messages people on the other side might think are brainwashing you, and then ask yourself if those messages should be censored too.

When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting.
If you get accustomed to blowing off steam, you become dependent on it. The more effective approach is to just stop.

The next time you see a line of people waiting to get into a classroom or a movie or a restaurant, feel free to break norms - go check the door and look inside.

Just before you give up on a long-practiced routine, you freak out. It’s a final desperate attempt by the oldest parts of your brain to keep getting rewarded.

Extinction bursts - a temporary increase in an old behavior, a plea from the recesses of your psyche.

Set goals, and when you achieve them, shower yourself with garlands of your choosing. Don’t freak out when it turns out to be difficult.

With complex tasks, it is usually easy to tell who isn’t pulling their weight. Once you know your laziness can be seen, you try harder. You do this because of another behavior called evaluation apprehension, which is just a fancy way of saying you care more when you know you are being singled out.

Communal farms always produce less than individually owned farms.

Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back your behavior and learn to fail with pride.
Failing often is the only way to ever get the things you want out of life. Besides death, your destiny is not inescapable.

Anticipatory rationalization: Self-handicapping behaviors are investments in a future reality in which you can blame your failure on something other than your ability.
This behavior is all about keeping your all-important self-esteem strong and resilient. If you can always blame your failures on external forces, instead of internal ones, well, who’s to say you really fail?

You are very resourceful when it comes to setting yourself up to fail. If you succeed, you can say you did so despite terrible odds. If you fall short, you can blame the events leading up to the failure instead of your own incompetence or inadequacy.

When you see your performance in the outside world as an integral part of your personality, you are more likely to self-handicap.

Psychologist Phillip Zombardo told The New York Times in 1984, “Some people stake their whole identity on their acts. They take the attitude that ‘if you criticize anything I do, you criticize me.’ Their egocentricity means they can’t risk a failure because it’s a devastating blow to their ego.”

Whenever you venture into uncharted waters with failure as a distinct possibility, your anxiety will be lowered every time you see a new way to blame possible failure on forces beyond your control.


You are always trying to predict the behavior of others. The future is the result of actions, and actions are the result of behavior, and behavior is the result of prediction.

When people are trying to predict future events, they make a lot of assumptions about the present. If those assumptions are powerful enough, the resulting actions will lead to the predicted future.

When you fear you will confirm a negative stereotype, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy not because the stereotype is true, but because you can’t stop worrying that you could become an example proving it.

When someone believes you are a certain kind of person, you tend to live up to those expectations.

If you believe someone is going to be an asshole, you will act hostile, thus causing them to act like an asshole.

If people think their partner doesn’t love them, they will interpret small slights as big hurts - and this will then lead to a feeling of rejection that causes the partner to distance him- or herself.

If you want a better job, a better marriage, a better teacher, a better friend - you have to act as if the thing you want out of the other person is already headed your way.

The person you imagine yourself to be is a story you tell to yourself and to others differently depending on the situation, and the story changes over time. For now, it is useful to imagine there are two selves active at any given time in your head - the current self and the remembering self.

When you replay your life in your mind, you can’t go back to all the things you have ever experienced. Only the things that went from experience to short-term memory to long-term memory are available to fully remember.

The self that makes decisions in your life is usually the remembering one. It drags your current self around in pursuit of new memories, anticipating them based on old memories. The current self has little control over your future.

The current self is happy when experiencing things. It likes to be in the flow.
The remembering self makes all the big decisions. It is happy when you can sit back and reflect on your life up to this point and feel content. It is happy when you tell people stories about the things you have seen and done.

There are two channels through which you decide whether or not you are happy. The current self is happy when experiencing nice things. The remembering self is happy when you look back on your life and pull up plenty of positive memories.

Happiness can’t be all one or all the other. You have to be happy in the flow of time while simultaneously creating memories you can look back on later. To be happy now and content later, you can’t be focused only on reaching goals, because once you reach them, the experience ends. To truly be happy, you must satisfy both of your selves. Go get the ice cream, but do so in a meaningful way that creates a long-term memory. Grind away to have money for later, but do so in a way that generates happiness as you work.

If your life story includes self-improvement, and you find meaning in change, you suppress consistency bias.

If you were to flip a coin and have it come up heads five times in a row, you would have a strong feeling deep in your gut the next toss would land on tails because it needed to. You think it must balance out. This is called the gambler’s fallacy, or the Monte Carlo fallacy after a casino roulette game there in 1913 where black came up 26 times in a row. In the minds of the gamblers the odds became astronomical that black would come up again; red just had to be next. Order must be restored. The excitement, the clamoring, and the noise as the ball bearing bounced across the numbers and colors was a great fit of delusion, because the odds never changed. It was just as likely to come up black, as it had 25 times before.

This is how casinos always win; when you are winning, you find it difficult to walk away. The longer you play, however, the more the odds balance out.

The subjects tended to see randomness as something they could outwit. This is why you are far more likely to participate in games of chance when there are some customizable features. Allowing you to choose your own lottery numbers or pick the numbers to bet on in roulette affects how you see the results. You assume the cold hand of fate becomes a tad less potent if you have some say in how you tempt it.

Those with high socioeconomic status or who came from cultures where power and influence were highly regarded were more likely to think they were better at predicting the future. People even fear death less when they have a college degree.

Those who are not grounded in reality, oddly enough, often achieve a lot in life simply because they believe they can and try harder than others. If you focus too long on your lack of power, you can slip into a state of learned helplessness that will whirl you into a negative feedback loop of depression. Some control is necessary or else you give up altogether.


When you don’t know much about a person, when you haven’t had a chance to get to know him or her, you have a tendency to turn the person into a character. You lean on archetypes and stereotypes culled from experience and fantasy.

You tend to turn everyone into a character whose behavior is predictable. Instead of saying, “Jack is uncomfortable around people he doesn’t know, thus when I see him in public places he tends to avoid crowds,” you say, “Jack is shy.”

It’s a shortcut, an easier way to navigate the social world. Your brain loves to take shortcuts. It is easy to ignore the power of the situation. Seeing people through the lens of their situation is one of the foundations of social psychology.

When you see a behavior, like a child screaming in a supermarket while the seemingly oblivious parents continue to shop, you take a mental shortcut and conclude something about the story of their lives. Even though you know you don’t have enough information to understand, your conclusion still feels satisfying.

When Americans were asked why they thought other U.S. citizens would want to defect to the former Soviet Union, 80 percent said the defectors were probably confused or traitorous. They imagined them as characters whose personalities predicted their actions. America, after all, is the land of the free and the home of the brave.
When the researchers then asked why a Russian might defect to the States, 90 percent said the Russian was probably fleeing horrible living conditions or looking for a better way of life. From an American state of mind, the Russians weren’t motivated by their personalities, but by their environment. Instead of turning them into traitors, which would be deeply unsettling since they were coming to the subject’s home country, Americans had to place the blame for their behavior on something external.

When you conjure an attribution for someone else’s actions, you consider consistency.

You can’t check for consistency with your waitress or the people on the subway. You can’t tell if the person on the shooting rampage was being consistent, or if the person who just cut you off in traffic is always an asshole. When you can’t check for consistency, you blame people’s behavior on their personality.

People are not good at heart, Zimbardo says, but because their environment encourages it. Anyone, he believes, is capable of becoming a monster if given the power and opportunity.

When you look for a cause for another person’s actions, you find it.
Rarely do you first consider how powerful the situation is.
You blame the person, not the environment and the influence of the person’s peers.
You do this because you would like to believe your own behavior comes strictly from within.
You know this isn’t true though. You shift from introvert to extrovert, from brainiac to simpleton, from charismatic to impish - depending on where you find yourself and who is watching.
The fundamental attribution error leads to labels and assumptions about who people are, but remember first impressions are mostly incorrect.
Those impressions will linger until you get to know people and understand their situation and the circumstances in which their behavior is generated.