Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Massimo Puchi, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
Masimo, today, our topic is the age old issue of willpower or lack thereof.
We're going to talk about what's starting out with what philosophers have had to say about willpower and the eternal puzzle of why we often don't do what we know to be in our own best interest and then move up into more modern times and talk about what science has found, about what affects people's willpower.
And and then even more modern times, the discussion of various clever technological solutions to the problem of willpower in the form of precommitment solutions online and applications for iPhone and Android, while we're actually going to give practical advice.
I know. I know this was a philosophy. So.
Yeah, well, and we also should talk at some point about the pseudoscience of willpower because there's something about that. So, OK, you said about you mentioned the philosophy. So I don't want to make it a too long in this case because, of course, plenty of philosophers have commented on this whole idea.
But but the ones that are really most appropriate for the kind of approach that we're taking today are the the ancient Greeks and particularly Aristotle and their idea of what Aristotle the whole point of life was to live in in a eudaimonia way, eudaimonia. It's often you know, we talked about it before on the show, but it's often translated as happiness. But it's really more appropriate to think about it in terms of sort of human flourishing.
And of course, I like the word better than happiness just because people hear happiness and they think of something kind of superficial and insipid.
Right? Yeah. So I'm happy because I, you know, whatever and putting a couple of years into this. Exactly. That's not the happiness we're talking about.
So eudaimonia for Aristotle was a lifelong project. It was about living a fulfilling and also, incidentally, a moral life for Aristotle. The two were one and the same. If you cannot be living a more fulfilling life, if I'm not also ethical about it now, Aristotle was a very good psychologist in some sense. He understood human human behavior much better than than than most.
And so he realized that the major threat to the eudaimonia project was what the ancient Greeks called a treasure, which literally translates as weakness of the will. So it's the lack of willpower or our limited amount of willpower that makes it so that even though you know what's best for you in the long term, you are just not going to do it because there some short term thing that is so much more appealing. And you go for that. Right. So the typical example that there would be you know, I know that it's good for me to go to the gym because long term terms of fitness and, you know, my ability to live a long and fulfilling life is better.
But on the other hand, that pizza slice right here, it's so inviting and it's I'd rather eat the pizza slice than go to the gym.
So the idea is that that that equation, a limited willpower is a fundamental threat. Before I started to do living a fulfilling life.
Now, Aristotle didn't have a solution for this problem, which is kind of unusual for a philosopher.
And basically the solution boils down to practice makes better.
It may not be perfect, but be a pill or something. Exactly. Now, you disappointed? I know.
So for Aristotle, actually, that was the idea in general. That is, you know, is is ethical perspective was his approach to ethics was what is known today is virtue ethics, which is focused on on cultivating the virtues like courage and temperance and science. For now, these virtues are something that may not necessarily come natural. And in fact, it certainly doesn't come easy to human beings. But a subtle said, the more you practice, the more they will become second nature.
That's only pushing the problem back. One step, though. What if you don't have the willpower to practice developing willpower?
Aristotle was aware of that too. And basically in to paraphrase a little bit, it will say what you screwed up so I could help.
I mean, so there are for a reason, there were some conditions that were to be met in order for you to be able even to give a shot to the demonic life. And some of those conditions were outside of your control. So you have a matter of luck. So, for instance, for example, if you were you know, if you were born to poor or diseased or you had bad education, you know, you were not essentially provided early access by your teachers and your parents to certain guidance and to certain ways of thinking and learning about things then.
It would be very, very difficult later on to recover from that kind of stunted moral and educational sort of growth and and so to some extent, it is a matter of luck. If you start really in a bad position, you're not likely to get very far. But if you start in, which is a better way for Aristotle, the family and the society as a as a nurturing environment, we're fundamental that that's why society at large plays a crucial role for Aristotle in terms of your ability to become happy in the ironic sense.
Yeah, you know, the the problem of a crater is one that I've been thinking a lot about lately because I've been thinking about the question of whether improving your rationality, your your ability to view the world accurately based on the evidence you have and your ability to figure out what actions, if you took them, would help you achieve your goals.
So I've been thinking about the question of whether becoming more rational actually improves your life.
And in theory, it absolutely should. I mean, having an accurate view of how the world is is going to help you figure out what actions to take to achieve your goals.
But the evidence is more mixed than you would expect it to be.
Apriori like if you look at the group of people who spend the most time thinking about rationality and learning about cognitive biases, they're not it's not clear that they're significantly happier and more successful than the group of people, the much larger group of people who don't spend much time learning about rationality.
And so I've had a number of interesting debates with people recently about why that is.
And sometimes people take the position, well, you you know, the evidence is in like the jury is in rationality doesn't actually improve your life because, look, people with more knowledge of rationality are not happier and more successful.
So case closed. Rationality doesn't help you.
And I think that that takes an overly narrow view of rationality. So the mental model that I've been converging on recently is that you can think of rationality as sort of some set of maybe a few hundred different modules and maybe one of the modules is being able to estimate probabilities. Well, maybe another module is avoiding confirmation bias. Maybe another module is updating your beliefs based on evidence and like a roughly accurate way.
Maybe another module is like noticing when you're ignoring some piece of evidence because you don't want to you don't want it to be true anyway.
So you could you could, you know, roughly divide up rationality into maybe a few hundred of these such skills and different so that the question, does rationality improve your life is a little bit too vague because there are different combinations of those different subcomponents of rationality that will help you.
Different amounts, some of which may actually hurt you. So, for example, if you have the the component of rationality that allows you to notice biases and other people, but not the component that reminds you to turn that skill on your own, your own beliefs and your own arguments, then you can end up worse off than you were before. So and the reason I bring this all up is because I think that I suspect that a lot of the different combinations of rationality modules would be incredibly helpful, but only if you have the willpower module to.
Ah, and that is the explanation for for a large percentage, perhaps the majority of the lack of effect that we see of learning rationality on people success and happiness.
That's an interesting thought, which of course, itself, at least in theory, is amenable to empirical research. So one could actually test that idea. I don't want to go too far off the tangent in that direction, but it's something that you just said brought to mind another possibility, which is, first of all, as you know, it depends in part of what you what do you mean by rationality?
So I was just trying to define it very loosely at the beginning of that long spiel as being the ability to update your beliefs based on evidence in a way that gradually leads you to an accurate view of the world and the ability to figure out what actions would, if you took them, help you achieve your goals properly.
And that's that's, I think, a very good operational definition of rationality. But there are other things that one could question.
So, for instance, it's something that has come out recently in empirical research on self reported happiness, where the self reporting happiness is distinguished by researchers into sort of moment by moment happiness and sort of general idea of fulfilling, you know, how do you feel your life? Is your life going well in the general direction you want, as opposed to sort of moment by moment? And and the tour, as it turns out, are quite different. And, for instance, raise the question of what do you mean?
You know what? What what should rationality actually favor? So let me give you an example that comes out of recent literature. Um, most people seem to think that their long term happiness in terms of fulfilling a fulfilling, fulfilling life includes having children. Not not everyone, of course, but a lot of people. That's that's a pretty common thought. And as it turns out, however, on a moment by moment basis, parents are miserable. So if you do studies on the moment by moment happiness, people with children, particularly small children, they really don't feel that happy.
Now, that doesn't seem so if you take the narrow view of seeing the evidence is in. You have children, you're unhappy, therefore you shouldn't have children, I think would be missing part of the picture, which is, yes, you're right on a moment by moment basis, that is true. But there is also some kind of, you know, longer, longer view, which is really imponderable. It's kind of difficult to quantify. And it is, you know, do I feel like my life has enhanced meaning because I had children or or not?
And it's hard to imagine why it is that Mrs. Salleh, moment by moment, happiness should be favored or more rational, a more rational pursuit than sort of long term happiness. And that is something that that Aristotle, of course, was getting at with the difference between, you know, sort of a creature and eudaimonia.
However, you mentioned earlier this disarming of a pill to solve the problem. I got almost a pill. So let me let me present you with this possibility.
Oh, goody. So the idea is that if you have problems quitting smoking, let's say, which I know you don't, but there is a simple solution, at least potentially.
And that is you can ask your neurobiologist, because everybody these days, I neurobiologists to inhibit your insula. The insula is a small portion of the cerebral cortex in which in each one of the brain's hemisphere and as a matter of fact, by inhibiting your insula, your addiction will be gone. That is a very simple way, very direct interference that you can do. It's actually not quite doable at the moment, but presumably the technology would will improve soon.
Now, the problem with that quick solution, and I started wouldn't be surprised, is that, of course, as you might imagine, there is no free lunch as far as complex things like willpower are concerned.
So in this case, the operation will likely carry some unpleasant, shall we call them, side effects. You would experience loss of libido. You become apathetic. You won't be able to emotionally appreciate music. And you would be also developing a very peculiar inability to distinguish inability to distinguish fresh from Russian food.
So strangely specific side effect. Yes. And the funny thing is that so what that tells me is that our effect sort of areas in the brain that that directly affect a certain kind of behavior and that you could imagine. Well, I'm going to just manipulate that one and I'm going to come up with input over here is over there. But because of the way the brain is sort of works, you know, it's sort of diffuse way. It just doesn't seem to be able we're not likely to develop appeal.
That's what I'm saying.
I suppose, you know, unfortunately, it's funny, when you referred to a you know, you asked for a pill, I thought that you were going to mention sugar pills because there have been some relatively recent findings that glucose is is a gives you a huge boost to your willpower. So they've done various studies where they had people do some sort of difficult and tedious task that required a lot of focus and perseverance.
And people who took glucose for like their their willpower to stick to this task didn't flag nearly as much as the people who weren't given glucose, that sort of thing.
And they so they were also interested in whether it was just the the pleasure of eating something sweet that provided people the boost to their willpower.
So they tested whether giving people glucose in the form of something, you know, disgusting and and gloppy also improved people's ability to, like, maintain their willpower over this whole session.
And it did so.
So they were able to isolate the effect of the glucose itself on the physiology as opposed to just the enjoyment, in fact, their experiments and actually now can measure decrease a drop in blood sugar if you use up your willpower, if you concentrate on the task or if you if you need to maintain focus on something or whatever, you can measurably drop your sugar level.
Yeah. And you know, what I thought was especially funny about this is that it occurred to me that they should also test what happens when people think that they're being given a sugar pill. So so it would be, you know, some sugar substitute pill. So it essentially be a placebo or sugar pill, which is funny because placebos usually are the sugar pill, a sugar pill.
One of the experiments that I looked at into that in that area actually was a very simple one, but very, very effective immediately clear the results. And so people were asked to simply solve a puzzle which requires some effort, some some concentration. And then they were divided. The subjects were divided into two groups. One group was given a chocolate cookie and the other one was given some radish. And as it turns out, the people with the chocolate cookie did significantly better than the ones that ate the radish.
And again, the idea was that it has to do with sugar levels. Now, the problem is what is what if your problem with willpower is to actually try to resist sweets?
Yeah, that seems to put a wrench into this whole thing. I thought, well, I'm just a cookie. Yeah. This is my real power. What about your willpower of. Not eating cookies, right? I love how you say Cookie is one of my favorite words to hear you pronounce.
OK, I. So this this is something I've noticed myself doing. I have various cookies. Yes. But specifically, I have various excuses that I used to justify indulgences. And so, for example, if I have a lot of work to get done, I'll be like, OK, I should I should indulge in in a cookie, for example, to bribe myself to get my work done. But when I want to say, like, take a break and watch an episode of 30 Rock, I will say to myself, well, I really shouldn't.
But if I indulge in watching 30 Rock, that'll enable me to stick to my diet better.
So so basically, they're always an excuse. Yeah. And essentially what this amounts to is me indulging in everything, because for every indulgence I can justify it as a way of preventing myself from indulging in other indulgences.
Absolutely. But of course. Yeah. You know, there are some findings that show that the people who rationalize the most and get themselves into the most, you know, absurdly twisted, logical pretzels are very smart people because they can come up with all the other things.
But let me give you a complicated reason why it doesn't apply to me. Exactly.
Now, I wanted to mention a couple of things here.
One is that there is unfortunately a long list of things that require the use of willpower and which is a it's a it's an unfortunate thing because the research seems to show that willpower in any given day is in fact in limited supply, in part because it is connected to blood sugar, obviously. So the idea is that, you know, you can exercise your willpower to some extent, but then the more you exercise is particularly on a given day or in a particular portion of the day, the less likely you are to resist basically other temptations, as you were saying earlier.
Now, the problem is the list of things that that suck up your willpower is unfortunately not only long, but it pretty much includes everything that we would like to do. So, for instance, it includes items like controlling your appetite, most obviously declining to drink or to drink more if you already started drinking declining sex, unless you actually want it mean unless you didn't want it.
So suppressing emotional responses like anger, for instance, or sadness or whatever, and even taking the simple tests like a puzzle. So the idea is that, for instance, if you let's say you go to a business lunch where you know that you will need to, you know, watch what you eat because you care about a healthy diet and all that sort of stuff. Well, before doing that, you better not engage in any of these other denials to yourself for a number for a few hours, because otherwise you're you're undermining your own ability.
Essentially, it's like it's like a muscle. You use it up to much becomes eeks and you can't use it anymore. That's the bad news. The good news is Aristotle was right. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And so which means it's not just that it must be not just a matter of simple blood sugar, because the blood sugar you can measure and you can you know, it's easy to do. It's not something that improves over time.
Willpower, apparently, on the other hand, does improve over time. And so I wanted to mention some of the ways you can improve willpower according to the recent research.
So one of them is, in fact, to exercise regularly your body, which is great, because then you get to exercise to improve both your body and your mind. Yeah, yeah, exactly. The actual muscles as well as your brain muscles. Another one is to use to force yourself to use a non dominant hand to perform tasks like even simple tasks. And on this sunny, you know, playing the violin, but even something normally you do with your right hand, let's say if you're right and you force yourself to use your left hand, apparently that has a positive effect on willpower.
We already mentioned, of course, the blood sugar and there is evidence that that it goes down with the use of willpower, but it can be restored with, you know, essentially eating something that it has sugar.
Intrinsic religiosity is something that apparently boosts your willpower, intrinsic religiosity, as opposed to what other kinds extrinsic.
So it's religiosity is the kind of religiosity that people it's basically people who simply go to church to impress their neighbors.
Oh, I see.
So it's a social activity, an intrinsic religion. It's actually somebody really is religious. Really.
OK, and here's the bad news for the for the secular. Among us, being spiritual doesn't work and being secular doesn't work either. Hmm. Apparently, it's it's being actually religious in particular. If you belong to one of the monotheistic religions, I suspect I don't know. I don't think that is particularly good evidence one way or the other. But I suspect the reason for that is because those religious traditions actually do essentially what Aristotle was suggesting, that he's denying something.
You practice the same thing since you are very young doing TEUs rituals like your rosary there. Yeah, exactly.
So, you know, well, too late for that one. And besides, I think it's too high a price to pay for the increased willpower. But going to the gym, that's not it's not a bad idea.
You know, I I read about some of the studies that I think you're referring to. Are studies like them anyway? And one qualification that was found by a couple of follow up studies was that people's beliefs about whether their willpower can be depleted or whether whether their willpower is only strengthened by practice.
Sorry, I should distinguish between like practicing exercising your willpower gradually over time, building up the strength of that muscle versus like within one session. The more things you have to do, like that afternoon, that exercise your willpower, does your willpower go up or down over the course of that afternoon?
So here I'm trying to talk about just the latter case, people's beliefs about whether their willpower is depleted over the course of an afternoon based on the number of times they have to exercise it.
Those beliefs significantly affect the fact of the matter of whether their willpower is actually depleted.
So, for example, giving people yeah, there was a study, a recent study by Carol Dweck, who's a psychologist at Columbia, and someone else whose name I can't remember now. So they they gave some of their test subjects a little blurb to read before the study, before before conducting the study.
That said something about how people's willpower is depleted by basically summarizing what you just said about the past research and other people, I think got a statement about how your willpower is like a muscle and exercising it just makes it stronger.
And then they gave each set of people the same sort of boring, repetitive task to continue doing.
And the people who had read the statement about how willpower is depleted found that they were unable to or they didn't have the willpower to continue doing the task after a certain length of time, whereas the you know, the other group was able to continue doing it for much longer.
So that that implies that besides the physiological component to it, which I think it's been pretty well established at this point, there is also a, you know, sort of a psychological a self-fulfilling right.
Yeah, well, it could basically be the equivalent of a placebo or an anti placebo effect in this case. Yeah, I think you can't do it. You actually won't be able to do it.
Yeah, that's actually that's connected to some. Another interesting thing that I've noticed about willpower, which is I was wondering why there's so much really strong, really well validated research on how you can use techniques in behavioral psychology to effect your own success so you can use operant conditioning on yourself. You can give yourself positive and negative reinforcement when you do something good for your long term goals versus bad for your long term goals. And this is really effective. You see this time and again in studies and even people who are aware of this research don't actually apply it to themselves.
And I was wondering why there's so little application of this, like clearly correct.
Clearly useful research and talking about it with a couple of friends, we came to the conclusion that the problem is that people have a really hard time taking the outside view of themselves.
So it's easy to look at the research on well, definitely on like animals or on children or even just on other adults and say, yes, it is clear that, you know, doing this intervention, doing positive or negative reinforcement changes the probability of people succeeding at achieving their goals.
But it's really it's strange in a way, to talk about doing something to change the probability of yourself making decision X versus decision Y, because you know that like, well, I could just choose to make decision X if I think that that's better for me.
And it seems sort of strangely passive or like strangely, I don't know, detached or removed from yourself to talk about doing things to increase the probability of you making the right decision. Right. Well, they're going to take away your own free will as an agent. Yeah, exactly.
Well, there are some philosophers who have actually questioned the whole idea of equation, you know, weakness of the will.
It's. Making the point that it seems self-contradictory, that is, you know, how can you is it possible that you are doing something that you don't really want to do? Right. Because that's the idea of a creature that, you know, you're doing something.
The paradox is I've heard it described the so-called paradox. Yeah, exactly. And so some philosopher went as far as saying that, you know, our creature simply simply is simply an incoherent concept. And I think they're completely wrong.
I mean, I thought it was much better psychologist than these people because you really understood that, you know, that is, in fact the human condition that we do have that promise, meaning that we are aware of long term, of the long term prospects of certain, you know, possible outcomes of certain actions. And we know what would be better for us. We just don't have in some some cases at least, the willpower or the strength to to get through this this sort of thing.
I mean, you know, it applies to all sorts of areas.
I mean, you know, getting a college degree or a college degree or something like that, it's something that presumably, you know, it's good for you in the long term, but it requires a lot of work.
And so a lot of people drop out or don't do as well because the immediate day to day application and willpower that is necessary, it's sort of not sufficient, not sufficiently motivated by the long term prospects of the gain that, you know, you're going to have. But it's long term that's the problem.
Yeah, I think the paradox disappears even more cleanly when you stop thinking of human beings as single and single decision making entities or Single Decision-Making agents, essentially.
And once you recognize that our brains have sort of all these different modules in them that are, you know, optimizing for different things and not to mention which when we when we make a decision, we're often focusing on different aspects of the decision at different times.
So I think people tend to think it is paradoxical when they envision human the human brain as implicitly having this utility function that it's always trying to maximize.
And if that is what we were doing, like the way an intelligent artificial intelligence would try to achieve its goals, then it would be very strange if we didn't do what our own utility function calculations said would be best for us.
But if we're you know, if at that moment we're only thinking about one piece of the decision, then of course what we're doing isn't going to be optimal, you know, in the in the whole picture.
Now, going back to the practical things, you want to talk about a little bit about the websites and apps that help you. Sure.
Well, actually, there are a couple of techniques that I wanted to talk about as well that I had read about or found useful myself. There's a book called The Procrastination Equation which summarizes the it's funny how how young the science of procrastination is.
It's really not a well developed field. This book came out and I think 2006, and there's not even that many researchers working on procrastination in academia.
With the rest of them is procrastination.
Yeah, it's it's kind of strange, like how much how little research there is on this compared to how much of a demand there is in the public for, you know, some workable solution to procrastination anyway.
So one of the things that I that really rang true to me in the book was that a typical like what people think typically think of as a useful strategy for increasing their willpower and combating procrastination is envisioning the positive results that would happen if they were able to get themselves to work hard at whatever the task is like, envisioning how great, how beautiful they would look once they're thin enough to fit into that dress or how you know, how happy they would be with their new promotion if they got it.
And and what the research shows is that this actually not only does it not work very well, but it can actually backfire and that you get this rush of endorphins just by daydreaming about the positive, the result that would happen if you worked hard and that.
And so so the technique that actually does work that they've shown does work is taking that positive visualization and juxtaposing it against how crappy your life is currently.
So it's seeing that contrast that people actually find motivating.
We're just focusing on the positive allows you to, you know, wallow forever in create negative thinking.
It's good. Yeah, the carrot and the stick combined, essentially.
But now there are, in fact, websites and even apps for mobile phones that will help you or allegedly help you do doing this sort of thing, sort of managing your equation pretty well.
So so one relatively well-known one is Stickum, which is EIC, K.K Dotcom, which is actually started by a roommate of mine back when I was living in New Haven. Yes. And Jordan is really great. So last time I checked, stickered was doing really well. The idea is that you can pledge a certain amount of money to be given away, either to like a friend or to some charity of your. Specification, if you don't accomplish whatever goal you claim you're going to accomplish by whatever time and you can either, you know, it's either the honor system where you have to report whether you achieved it or not, or you can pick like a sponsor or monitor a friend who will, you know, check in and see whether you actually did what you said you were going to do.
And if not, then you lose the money.
There are some apps that actually are even actually capable of checking what you're doing. So, for instance, there's one that has been mentioned on rationally speaking blog item. Pollack has done a post a few weeks ago about this. These app basically is for helping you to go to a gym on a regular basis. And essentially it interacts with your GPS.
So it sees you are at the gym and and it's not based on an honor system because you played with your credit card. So you because I know you don't check in a certain number of weeks for a certain period of time, you lose, let's say, 50 bucks and two. And it goes to somebody who was actually doing well on the same program, even more so pantry and pantry.
Even more effective is if you pledge not just to lose your money and it goes to somebody who's doing better, but to lose your money to a cause or organization that you hate. Right. Because, you know, so, for instance, if you're a Democrat, you send it to the Tea Party and vice versa, then that really works, right? People really don't want to do that. And so the the success rate is pretty high now. I want to mention to our listeners how we failed recently with you because you just lost the benefit from that.
Yeah. Thanks for asking me that. You're welcome. I didn't include it in the bet that you could humiliate me on our podcast if I fail. Well, yes, I was trying to to take advantage of the the literature on how effective pre-commitment is recommending. Yeah, that's that's right. Essentially, yeah. Tying yourself to the mast like Odysseus did so that when he heard the song of the sirens, he wouldn't actually be able to go to them and lose his life for him.
Yeah. So right. I had made this bet that I was like halfway done with this blog post that I've been halfway done with for like three months that I had promised I promised Masimo, like, every like two weeks is almost done.
So the last time we recorded a podcast, I told him that if I didn't have it done by midnight that night, I would buy him dinner and drinks. The next time we went out to dinner with our producer, Benny and I, I got I was I was so like I got home.
I was like, all right, I am I'm going to knock this baby out into two hours tops.
And then as I picked up my computer to go move to another part of the room, it slipped out of my hand and broke.
OK, so that was first of all. So I took a photo with my friends camera so that he would believe me. Exactly. Because that sounds so much like what you see. My students, my computer, my dog in my computer screen looked like a piece of modern art, essentially.
I actually saw the picture still, since you were two months late, you're not going to get off, that is.
No, I hey, I'm buying dinner tonight. Now that I would I think we should talk a little bit about the pseudoscience of willpower. Well, whatever.
So, you know, the winner comes immediately to mind. There is the secret and it's various sort of follow up and. Right. That that was the famous book and did whatever by burn. There was publicized years ago by Oprah Winfrey. And the basic idea is that there is this law of attraction, whatever that is, that makes it so that if you think positively about certain things, you will achieve them.
And so it's all about it sounds like a sort of a positive thinking, sort of more or less innocuous sort of idea. But in fact, first of all, of course, it doesn't work.
There is no such thing as the law of attraction. And besides, it's not really run the burns invention. I mean, the history of bogus positive thinking actually goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. Actually, the late 19th century, for instance, in the late 19th century, there was something very popular that was called the mind cure. And then later there was the new thought movement in the same same century. And then in 1952, there was the power of positive thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.
So this is a long history of these things, not on which, of course, work. But I think the pernicious part of it, of course, is the sort of the flipside of the same coin. Right.
If you tell me that by thinking positively about my health in my in my fitness and all that, I'm going to be able to overcome, let's say, cancer, which, of course, is not true.
On the negative side of it is that if I am unsuccessful and I actually die of cancer, it's my fault because I didn't think positively enough. So this is essentially a very pernicious. Blaming of the victim, so not only doesn't work in terms of positive, but it actually has a very negative effect from from an ethical perspective. And unfortunately, that is the problem with a lot of these sort of positive thinking snake oil. Now, that said, there is some evidence that suggests that if people are particularly positive about certain things, I'm very optimistic about what they can achieve.
They do have a better chance of achieving it. But there are actually controlled studies about that as well. And it turns out that, perhaps not surprisingly, that you can eliminate a number of possible factors at play that could play a role there. And it boils down to the fact that if you're optimistic about something, you put more effort and for longer periods of time into the task and, you know, not surprisingly, more effort than longer and more and longer efforts, more likely than not, is going to yield results, obviously within certain limits.
I mean, again, if you're talking about, you know, a fatal disease, there is not much in the way of effort that you can you can make. But if you're talking about, you know, better results in school or at work or, you know, or even taking care of your own health, you know, sort of a general perspective, that, of course, that's work, but there's no magic involved. It's just a simple matter of the more you work at it and the harder you try, the more likely you are to succeed.
I just interviewed someone a couple of days ago who got involved with a secret like cult. I don't remember what the name of the cult leader maybe didn't tell me, but he had a secret, so. Right.
So he basically lost all of his money to them and he's still in debt.
And he was describing the psychological experience of of being in this cult and really believing that his thoughts determined what happened to him.
And I had never I had never it had never occurred to me before just how terrifying or claustrophobic that must feel, because he he said he would like a little bit of a niggling little doubt would creep into his mind about whether it was actually true.
And he would instantly have to stamp out that doubt because it would come true if he thought about it. Of course, you know, so it's actually this very like self.
The ultimate maintaining. Mmm. The ultimate police.
Yeah, exactly. But but you know how it is when you know there's something you're not supposed to think about. It becomes like this.
Try not consistent round the boundary of your brain and you have to think about a pink elephant, right?
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It just it reminded me of terrifying fantasy stories I would read as a kid or fairy tales where you're your nightmare. Whatever you're thinking about comes to life.
And, you know, and that's actually what your reality would seem like from the inside if you genuinely believed, I suppose this is this these kinds of pseudoscientific doctrines are based on some sort of plan ism, essentially, because there's got to be something in the universe that keeps track of your thoughts, essentially. So that to reward the stuff, you know, the people that are thinking positive thoughts and sort of take shots at people thinking negative thoughts. And it's kind of interesting because, of course, the major religions do have an equivalent, especially the fundamentalist varieties of it, have an equivalent of it.
Assume a dear friend of mine in Knoxville, Tennessee, who now is these eight eastern secular and all that. But he grew up in a Church of Christ, which is one of the most fundamentalist denominations in there locally. And he had a really terrible time for a number of years between his late teens and early 20s. The reason for that is because he's he's a preacher, told him that it wasn't the actions. You know, it wasn't necessarily what he was doing.
There was was going to determine whether he went he went to hell or not, but what he was thinking. So now, even, for instance, if he was having impure thoughts, meaning he wanted to have sex with somebody but didn't act on it, he was still going down to hell because the thought was sufficient damage. And this this created I mean, this is a serious business because it created, of course, you know, huge emotional strain and psychological stress in these these person, of course, and he was rescued eventually by his future wife, who just basically said the hell with that, you know, just let's do something out of our lives and think then worry about these kind of things.
And he worked. Now, I did ask my friend one obvious question, which is since you were already damned to hell for having thought about it, why don't you go ahead, sir?
I didn't get a particularly good response when we left the church. I don't know.
Reminds me of that great scene in life of Brian, where the the man who's been condemned to be stoned to death uses the curse word Jehovah. And and the guards like you can't say that. He's like, what are you gonna do to me?
You're already starting to death, however. Exactly. That's that's the same idea. Before we wrap up the section of the podcast, I just want to put a call out to all of our listeners. There is a cartoon that a friend of mine sent to me with the caption The Solution to Oversleeping. And it depicts what looks like an iPhone.
And there's an alarm going off set for 7:00 a.m. on the on the phone screen. And the phone is the alarm is ringing and the window that has popped up on the phone has two buttons. One is dismiss the alarm. And under that, it says free and the other button says snoots.
And under that, it says 99 cents. And like at first I laughed. But then I was like, oh, my God, this needs to exist. Does this not exist?
This would make a ton of money, like, you know, how many people would would download this and use, you know, the money you would make from this app? I actually haven't checked the app, so I don't have an iPhone, so I don't know if it does exist.
But if it doesn't, one of you needs to get on it now to figure out that I'm puzzled by by the fact that you just gave out a perfectly good business idea that, well, I don't really want to do it.
No, you forgot that, that our producer, Ben, is actually an app, you know, of plays with apps for iPhones, and he loves to do that.
So there you go. We're not going to we're not going to air this particular segment. So we're going to become millionaires.
Or if we do, you guys are welcome to try this idea. But but you'll have to reckon with our producer coming to us to bump you off in the dead of night. So, you know, there's that to consider. All right. We are out of time. So this wraps up this section of the rationally speaking podcast. And we will move on now to the rationally speaking PEX.
Welcome back. Every episode, Julie and I pick a couple of our favorite books, movies, websites or whatever tickles our rational fancy. Let's start as usual with Julia Spik.
Thanks, Massimo. My pick of the website. But it's also a rationalist tool.
It's called Prediction Book, The Yarl's Prediction.
BoCom, we're going to put that up on our site.
And the idea of prediction book is that we humans are not that good at all.
We're not that good at predicting things that we don't know about already. And in particular, we tend to be overconfident about our predictions. So we make the wrong predictions and we we estimate with way too much confidence about how close our predictions are going to be to the actual true answer.
So the idea of this website is that by actually writing your predictions down predictions about events that have, you know, some well defined time at which you will be able to see whether whether you were right or not and how far off you were from the truth by writing them down and then checking or having the website, like keep track for you of how right you are about which things and you know, what things are getting better at predicting and what things you're not getting better predicting.
By paying this country's attention, you will actually become better calibrated as a predictor. So people make predictions about all sorts of things.
I'm just looking at the homepage right now and they have various popular predictions that people are are wagering on essentially.
So one of them is by 2050, there will be at least one person chronically frozen in space. People have wagered on that. Oh, sorry. The other component that I forgot is that by actually betting on your predictions, that sort of makes it real enough for you that it forces you to think very carefully about, OK, wait, what do I how confident am I really how much am I really willing to bet?
And that sort of, you know, forces your predictions into the into the cold, harsh light of of reality.
People make predictions about what is going to happen in various TV shows, the make predictions about elections, and you can even make predictions about mundane things in your own life just for the practice.
So I hear from people I haven't actually been using this regularly, but I hear from people who use it regularly that they notice themselves becoming better calibrated, at least at some some particular kinds of predictions.
And this result is borne out in studies where people are asked to predict the is just to trivia questions, not to feature events. And when people are shown how far off their predictions are, they don't necessarily become better at predicting the answers to trivia questions.
But they do become better at estimating what their their confidence intervals, so they become better at activating confidence intervals for their estimates that are actually much closer to the their their true rate of success.
That sounds interesting. Yeah, well, my pick is actually a website. It's called Your Logical Fallacy is dot com. And it's it's it's basically a poster that has been downloadable in PDF format. It's been put together by Justin Richardson. And I suggested actually recently to Skeptical Inquirer that they publish it in as a special sort of folder commenting on their magazine, their will do that. And what is done is to put together these these very simple guide to all the basic logical fallacies.
They're each one of them is explained in a couple of lines that can be understood by a kit because that was actually, in fact, Jezus general intention. And so the website is if you go there now, you'll see that it starts out with these big, big thou shall not commit logical fallacies.
And the idea that Jesse has is that when whenever you find somebody on, say, Facebook or another social network or on a blog that has committed a logical fallacy, you can add a link in the comment section that will lead readers straight to the appropriate logical fallacy.
Hence the name of the website. Your logical fallacy is right.
So I thought was it's very well done. I actually checked Jesse asked me to check the sort of the the explanations in the consistency and all that sort of stuff. And the graphic is very it's very nice. And now it's been very popular. I've been actually publicizing the website via my social networks and just got a spike in the responses. And some people are actually starting to suggest that he should do a simplified version as a T-shirt, you know, that sort of sense.
So anyway, the more we can, we could put them as little like badges and cereal boxes and collect your lunch.
Right. So, again, your logical fallacy is the outcome.
Cool. We're all out of time. So this concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next. Time for more exploration's on the borderlands between reason and nonsense. The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benneton and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission.
Thank you for listening.