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The Bugs in Our Mindware

Many obstacles lie on the path to rational thought.

Three baseball umpires are talking about how they play the game. The first says, “I call ’em as they are.” The second, “I…By Richard E. Nisbett

Three baseball umpires are talking about how they play the game. The first says, “I call ’em as they are.” The second, “I call ’em as I see ’em.” And the third says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I call ’em.”

Most of the time all of us are like the first umpire, thinking that we’re seeing the world the way it really is and “calling ’em as they are.” That umpire is what philosophers and social psychologists call a “naive realist.”1 He believes that the senses provide us with a direct, unmediated understanding of the world. But in fact, our construal of the nature and meaning of events is massively dependent on stored schemas and the inferential processes they initiate and guide.

We do partially recognize this fact in everyday life and realize that, like the second umpire, we really just “call ’em as we see ’em.” At least we see that’s true for other people. We tend to think, “I’m seeing the world as it is, and your different view is due to poor eyesight, muddled thinking, or self-interested motives!”

The third umpire thinks, “They ain’t nothin’ till I call ’em.” All “reality” is merely an arbitrary construal of the world. This view has a long history. Right now its advocates tend to call themselves “postmodernists” or “deconstructionists.” Many people answering to these labels endorse the idea that the world is a “text” and no reading of it can be held to be any more accurate than any other.

Among the three umpires, the second is closest to the truth.

Ingenious: Nicholas Epley

As a behavioral scientist, Nicholas Epley is a bold explorer. For years he has plumbed the murky river of misunderstanding that runs between people. “There’s more blackness in the mind of another person than we think there is,” Epley says....READ MORE


We aren’t too distressed when we discover that lots of unconscious processes allow us to correctly interpret the physical world. We live in a three-dimensional world and we don’t have to worry about the fact that the mind makes mistakes when it’s forced to deal with an unnatural, two-dimensional world. It’s more unsettling to learn that our understanding of the non-material world, including our beliefs about the characteristics of other people, is also utterly dependent on stored knowledge and hidden reasoning processes.

Meet “Donald,” a fictitious person experimenters have presented to participants. One study describes him as follows:

Donald spent a great amount of his time in search of what he liked to call excitement. He had already climbed Mt. McKinley, shot the Colorado rapids in a kayak, driven in a demolition derby, and piloted a jet-powered boat—without knowing very much about boats. He had risked injury, and even death, a number of times. Now he was in search of new excitement. He was thinking, perhaps, he would do some skydiving or maybe cross the Atlantic in a sailboat. By the way he acted one could readily guess that Donald was well aware of his ability to do many things well. Other than business engagements, Donald’s contacts with people were rather limited. He felt he didn’t really need to rely on anyone. Once Donald made up his mind to do something it was as good as done no matter how long it might take or how difficult the going might be. Only rarely did he change his mind even when it might well have been better if he had.2

Before reading the paragraph about Donald, participants first took part in a bogus “perception experiment” in which they were shown a number of trait words. Half of the participants saw the words “self-confident,” “independent,” “adventurous,” and “persistent” embedded among 10 trait words. The other half saw the words “reckless,” “conceited,” “aloof,” and “stubborn.” Then the participants moved on to the “next study,” in which they read the paragraph about Donald and rated him on a number of traits. The Donald paragraph was intentionally written to be ambiguous as to whether Donald is an attractive, adventurous sort of person or an unappealing, reckless person. The perception experiment removed the ambiguity and shaped readers’ judgments of Donald. Seeing the words “self-confident,” “persistent,” and so on resulted in a generally favorable opinion of Donald. Those words conjure up a schema of an active, exciting, interesting person. Seeing the words “reckless,” “stubborn,” and so on trigger a schema of an unpleasant person concerned only with his own pleasures and stimulation.

Since the 1920s, psychologists have made much use of the schema concept. The term refers to cognitive frameworks, templates, or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it. The progenitor of the modern concept of schema is the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. For example, Piaget described the child’s schema for the “conservation of matter”—the rule that the amount of matter is the same regardless of the size and shape of the container that holds it. If you pour water from a tall, narrow container into a short, wide one and ask a young child whether the amount of water is more, less, or the same, the child is likely to say either “more” or “less.” An older child will recognize that the amount of water is the same. Piaget also identified more abstract rule systems such as the child’s schema for probability.

We have schemas for virtually every kind of thing we encounter. There are schemas for “house,” “family,” “civil war,” “insect,” “fast food restaurant” (lots of plastic, bright primary colors, many children, so-so food), and “fancy restaurant” (quiet, elegant decor, expensive, high likelihood the food will be quite good). We depend on schemas for construal of the objects we encounter and the nature of the situation we’re in.

Schemas affect our behavior as well as our judgments. The social psychologist John Bargh and his coworkers had college students make grammatical sentences out of a scramble of words, for example, “They her send she usually.”3 For some participants, a number of the words—“Florida,” “old,” “gray,” “wise”—were intended to call up the stereotype of an elderly person. Other participants made sentences from words that didn’t play into the stereotype of the elderly. After completing the unscrambling task, the experimenters dismissed the participants. The experimenters measured how rapidly the participants walked away from the lab. Participants who had been exposed to the words suggestive of elderly people walked more slowly toward the elevator than unprimed participants.

If you’re going to interact with an old person—the schema for which one version of the sentence-unscrambling task calls up—it’s best not to run around and act too animated. (That is, if you have positive attitudes toward the elderly. Students who are not favorably disposed toward the elderly actually walk faster after the elderly prime!)4

Words, sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells can influence our understanding of objects and direct our behavior toward them.

Without our schemas, life would be, in William James’ famous words, “a blooming, buzzing confusion.” If we lacked schemas for weddings, funerals, or visits to the doctor—with their tacit rules for how to behave in each of these situations—we would constantly be making a mess of things.

This generalization also applies to our stereotypes, or schemas about particular types of people. Stereotypes include “introvert,” “party animal,” “police officer,” “Ivy Leaguer,” “physician,” “cowboy,” “priest.” Such stereotypes come with rules about the customary way that we behave, or should behave, toward people who are characterized by the stereotypes.

In common parlance, the word “stereotype” is a derogatory term, but we would get into trouble if we treated physicians the same as police officers, or introverts the same as good-time Charlies. There are, however, two problems with stereotypes: They can be mistaken in some or all respects, and they can exert undue influence on our judgments about people.

Psychologists at Princeton had students watch a videotape of a fourth-grader they called “Hannah.”5 One version of the video reported that Hannah’s parents were professional people. It showed her playing in an obviously upper-middle-class environment. Another version reported that Hannah’s parents were working class and showed her playing in a run-down environment.

The next part of the video showed Hannah answering 25 academic achievement questions dealing with math, science, and reading. Hannah’s performance was ambiguous: She answered some difficult questions well but sometimes seemed distracted and flubbed easy questions. The researchers asked the students how well they thought Hannah would perform in relation to her classmates. The students who saw an upper-middle-class Hannah estimated that she would perform better than average, while those who saw the working-class Hannah assumed she would perform worse than average.

It’s sad but true that you’re actually more likely to get a correct read on Hannah if you know her social class than if you don’t. In general, it’s the case that upper-middle-class children perform better in school than working-class children. Whenever the direct evidence about a person or object is ambiguous, background knowledge in the form of a schema or stereotype can increase accuracy of judgments to the extent that the stereotype has some genuine basis in reality. The much sadder fact is that working-class Hannah starts life with two strikes against her. People will expect and demand less of her, and will perceive her performance as being worse than if she were upper middle class.

A serious problem with our reliance on schemas and stereotypes is that they can get triggered by incidental facts that are irrelevant or misleading. Any stimulus we encounter will trigger spreading activation to related mental concepts. The stimulus radiates from the initially activated concept to the concepts that are linked to it in memory. If you hear the word “dog,” the concept of “bark,” the schema for “collie,” and a mental representation of your neighbor’s dog “Rex” are simultaneously activated.

We know about spreading activation effects because cognitive psychologists find that encountering a given word or concept makes us quicker to recognize related words and concepts. For example, if you say the word “nurse” to people a minute or so before you ask them to say “true” or “false” to statements such as “hospitals are for sick people,” they will say “true” more rapidly than if they hadn’t just heard the word “nurse.”6


Incidental stimuli that drift into the cognitive stream can affect what we think and what we do, including even stimuli that are completely unrelated to the cognitive task at hand. Words, sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells can influence our understanding of objects and direct our behavior toward them. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending.

Which hurricane is likely to kill more people? One named Hazel or one named Horace? Certainly seems it could make no difference. What’s in a name? Especially one selected at random by a computer. In fact, however, Hazel is likely to kill lots more people.7 Female-named hurricanes don’t seem as dangerous as male-named ones, so people take fewer precautions.

Want to make your employees be more creative? Expose them to the Apple logo.8 And avoid exposing them to the IBM logo.

It’s also helpful for creativity to put your employees in a green or blue environment (and avoid red at all costs).9-11 Want to get lots of hits on a dating website? In your profile photo, wear a red shirt, or at least put a red border around the picture. Want to get taxpayers to support education bond issues? Lobby to make schools the primary voting location.12 Want to get the voters to outlaw late-term abortion? Try to make churches the main voting venue.

Want to get people to put a donation for coffee in the honest box? On a shelf above the coffee urn, place a coconut that looks like this one. That would be likely to cause people to behave more honestly. A coconut with a different pattern of dots would likely net you nothing. The coconut pictured here is reminiscent of a human face (coco is Spanish for head) and people subconsciously sense their behavior is being monitored. (Tacitly, of course—people who literally think they’re looking at a human face would be in dire need of an optometrist or psychiatrist, possibly both.)

Actually, it’s sufficient to just have a picture of three dots in the orientation of this coconut to get more contributions.13

Want to persuade someone to believe something by giving them an editorial to read? Make sure the font type is clear and attractive. Messy-looking messages are much less persuasive.14 But if the person reads the editorial in a seafood store or on a wharf, its argument may be rejected.15 If the person is from a culture that uses the expression “fishy” to mean “dubious,” that is. If not, the fishy smell won’t sway the person one way or the other.

Bodily states also find their way into the cognitive stream. Want to be paroled from prison? Try to get a hearing right after lunch. Investigators found that if Israeli judges had just finished a meal, there was a 66 percent chance that they would vote for parole.16 A case that came up just before lunch had precisely zero chance for parole.

Want someone you’re just about to meet to find you to be warm and cuddly? Hand them a cup of coffee to hold. And don’t by any means make that an iced coffee.17

My grandfather was bankrupted by his reliance on the representativeness heuristic to judge probabilities. As a consequence, I’m a psychologist rather than a wheat baron.

You may recall the scene in the movie Speed where, immediately after a harrowing escape from death on a careening bus, two previously unacquainted people (played by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) engage in a passionate kiss. It could happen. A man who answers a questionnaire administered by a woman while the two are standing on a swaying suspension bridge high above a river is much more eager to date her than if the interview takes place on terra firma.18 The study that found this effect is one of literally dozens that show that people can misattribute physiological arousal produced by one event to another, altogether different one.

If you’re beginning to suspect that psychologists have a million of these, you wouldn’t be far wrong. The most obvious implication of all the evidence about the importance of incidental stimuli is that you want to rig environments so that they include stimuli that will make you or your product or your policy goals attractive. It’s obvious when stated that way. Less obvious are two facts: (1) The effect of incidental stimuli can be huge, and (2) you want to know as much as you possibly can about what kinds of stimuli produce what kinds of effects. A book by Adam Alter called Drunk Tank Pink is a good compendium of many of the effects we know about to date. (Alter chose the title because of the belief of many prison officials and some researchers that pink walls make inebriated men tossed into a crowded holding cell less prone to violence.)

A less obvious implication of our susceptibility to “incidental” stimuli is the importance of encountering objects—and especially people—in a number of different settings if a judgment about them is to be of any consequence. That way, incidental stimuli associated with given encounters will tend to cancel one another out, resulting in a more accurate impression. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” To Lincoln’s adage, I’d add: Vary the circumstances of the encounters as much as possible.


We often arrive at judgments or solve problems by use of heuristics—rules of thumb that suggest a solution to a problem, and can introduce errors in judgment. Dozens of heuristics have been identified by psychologists.

Several of the most important heuristics were identified by the Israeli cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. The most important of their heuristics is the representativeness heuristic.19 This rule of thumb leans heavily on judgments of similarity. Events are judged as more likely if they’re similar to the prototype of the event than if they’re less similar. The heuristic is undoubtedly helpful more often than not. Homicide is a more representative cause of death than is asthma or suicide, so homicides seem more likely causes than asthma or suicide. Homicide is indeed a more likely cause of death than asthma, but there are twice as many suicide deaths in the United States in a given year than homicide deaths.

A particularly unnerving example of how the representativeness heuristic can produce errors concerns one “Linda.” “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.” After reading this little description, people were asked to rank eight possible futures for Linda.20 Two of these were “bank teller” and “bank teller and active in the feminist movement.” Most people said that Linda was more likely to be a bank teller active in the feminist movement than just a bank teller. “Feminist bank teller” is more similar to the description of Linda than “bank teller” is. But of course this is a logical error. The conjunction of two events can’t be more likely than just one event by itself. Bank tellers include feminists, Republicans, and vegetarians. But the description of Linda is more nearly representative of a feminist bank teller than of a bank teller, so the conjunction error gets made.

Representativeness judgments can influence all kinds of estimates about probability.

The representativeness heuristic can affect judgments of the probability of a limitless number of events. My grandfather was once a well-to-do farmer in Oklahoma. One year his crops were ruined by hail. He had no insurance, but he didn’t bother to get any for the coming year because it was so unlikely the same thing would happen two years in a row. That’s an unrepresentative pattern for hail. Hail is a rare event and so any particular sequence of hail is unlikely. Unfortunately, hail doesn’t remember whether it happened last year in northwest Tulsa or southeast Norman. My grandfather did get hailed out the next year. He didn’t bother to get insurance for the next year because it was really inconceivable that hail would strike the same place three years in a row. But that, in fact, did happen. My grandfather was bankrupted by his reliance on the representativeness heuristic to judge probabilities. As a consequence, I’m a psychologist rather than a wheat baron.

When you see a basketball player score points five times in a row, there’s no reason to keep passing the ball to him any more than to some other player. The player with the “hot hand” is no more likely to make the shot than another player with a comparable record for the season.21 (The more familiar you are with basketball, the less likely you are to believe this. The more familiar you are with statistics and probability theory, the more likely you are to believe it.)

The basketball error is characteristic of a huge range of mistaken inferences. Simply put, we see patterns in the world where there are none because we don’t understand just how un-random-looking random sequences can be. We suspect the dice roller of cheating because he gets three 7s in a row. In fact, three 7s are precisely as likely as 3, 7, 4 or 2, 8, 6. We hail a friend as a stock guru because all four of the stocks he bought last year did better than the market as a whole. But four hits is no less likely to happen by chance than two hits and two misses or three hits and one miss. So it’s premature to hand your portfolio to your friend.

Honesty in the future is best predicted by honesty in the past, not by whether a person looks you steadily in the eye or claims a recent religious conversion.

The representativeness heuristic sometimes influences judgments about causality. I don’t know whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy or whether there was a conspiracy involving other people. I have no doubt, though, that part of the reason so many people have been convinced that there was a conspiracy is that they find it implausible that an event of such magnitude could have been effected by a single, quite unprepossessing individual acting alone.

Some of the most important judgments about causality that we make concern the similarity of a disease and treatment for the disease. The Azande people of Central Africa formerly believed that burnt skull of the red bush monkey was an effective treatment for epilepsy. The jerky, frenetic movements of the bush monkey resemble the convulsive movements of epileptics.

The Azande belief about proper treatment for epilepsy would have seemed sensible to Western physicians until rather recently. Eighteenth-century doctors believed in a concept called the “doctrine of signatures.” This was the belief that diseases could be cured by finding a natural substance that resembles the disease in some respect. Turmeric, which is yellow, would be effective in treating jaundice, in which the skin turns yellow. The lungs of the fox, which is known for strong powers of respiration, were considered a remedy for asthma.

The belief in the doctrine of signatures was derived from a theological principle: God wishes to help us find the cures for diseases and gives us helpful hints in the form of color, shape, and movement. He knows we expect the treatment to be representative of the illness. This now sounds dubious to most of us, but in fact the representativeness heuristic continues to underlie alternative medicine practices such as homeopathy and Chinese traditional medicine—both of which are increasing in popularity in the West.

Representativeness is often the basis for predictions when other information would actually be more helpful. About 20 years out from graduate school a friend and I were talking about how successful our peers had been as scientists. We were surprised to find how wrong we were about many of them. Students we thought were sure to do great things often turned out to have done little in the way of good science; students we thought were no great shakes turned out to have done lots of excellent work. In trying to figure out why we could have been so wrong, we began to realize that we had relied on the representativeness heuristic. Our predictions were based in good part on how closely our classmates matched our stereotype of an excellent psychologist—brilliant, well read, insightful about people, fluent. Next we tried to see whether there was any way we could have made better predictions. It quickly became obvious: The students who had done good work in graduate school did good work in their later career; those who hadn’t, fizzled.

The lesson here is one of the most powerful in all psychology. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. You’re rarely going to do better than that. Honesty in the future is best predicted by honesty in the past, not by whether a person looks you steadily in the eye or claims a recent religious conversion. Competence as an editor is best predicted by prior performance as an editor, or at least by competence as a writer, and not by how verbally clever a person seems or how large the person’s vocabulary is.


It’s possible to make fewer errors in judgment by following a few simple suggestions.

Remember that all perceptions, judgments, and beliefs are inferences and not direct readouts of reality. This recognition should prompt an appropriate humility about just how certain we should be about our judgments, as well as a recognition that the views of other people that differ from our own may have more validity than our intuitions tell us they do.

Be aware that our schemas affect our construals. Schemas and stereotypes guide our understanding of the world, but they can lead to pitfalls that can be avoided by recognizing the possibility that we may be relying too heavily on them. We can try to recognize our own stereotype-driven judgments as well as recognize those of others.

Remember that incidental, irrelevant perceptions and cognitions can affect our judgment and behavior. Even when we don’t know what those factors might be, we need to be aware that much more is influencing our thinking and behavior than we can be aware of. An important implication is that it will increase accuracy to try to encounter objects and people in as many different circumstances as possible if a judgment about them is important.

Finally, be alert to the possible role of heuristics in producing judgments. Remember that the similarity of objects and events to their prototypes can be a misleading basis for judgments. Remember that causes need not resemble effects in any way. And remember that assessments of the likelihood or frequency of events can be influenced simply by the readiness with which they come to mind.

In other words, call that pitch as you see it.


Richard E. Nisbett is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.


Excerpted from MINDWARE: Tools for Smart Thinking by Richard E. Nisbett, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2015 by Richard E. Nisbett. All rights reserved.


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This article was originally published in our “Error” issue in May, 2015.