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A typical artist says, I've made this great art, if you don't like it, well, there's something wrong with you. There's sort of an ego that comes with art. But I lacked that type of artistic ego because I came from a different path. I was a business person. Art was a thing I was trying to do.
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It's high signal, timeless and mind-expanding read what you're missing at a Stop blog newsletter. Today I'm speaking with Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert Comic Strip and the author of Loser Thing. We explore how Dilbert Came to Be and Why A simple change, such as adding an email address, turned it into one of the most popular comics in the world. You dive into persuasion and spend a lot of time on cognitive tools and tricks that can help us think better, including how to deal with critics.
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Scott, I'm so glad to have you on the show. Well, thanks for having me. As I was prepping for this, I noticed in one of your interviews with Nivel, you asked him if he was going to give his own introduction, what would it be? And I'm going to flip that around on you. If you were going to give your own introduction, what would it be?
I would say I'm the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, an author. And recently I've been writing a lot about influence and persuasion and politics.
I really want to deep dive into influence and persuasion. Maybe we can avoid a little bit of the politics. But you're most famously known for Dilbert, obviously. How did that come to be?
Well, I was working in my cubicle job. I worked for a big bank and then later for the local phone company in my careers were stalling because my bosses, in both cases, they called me in and said, you know, we can't really promote white males anymore because we don't have enough diversity and we just got in trouble. So I left the bank when they told me that and they told me that directly. By the way, when I tell the story, people say, well, you're reading between the lines.
No. And they said that directly, we can't promote you because you're white and male. And we got caught with our pants down having basically 100 percent white male management. So they were trying to correct it, which I applaud. But it wasn't good for my career. So I left the bank, went to the phone company, got on the management track, was doing great. And one day my boss called me in and gave me the identical speech.
And so I asked, well, how long do I have to wait before that situation changes? And someone who, as my DNA could be promoted at this company and they couldn't tell me it took 200 years to get where they were, how long would it take to undo it? So I started looking for something to do outside of the corporate world. I thought, you know, I always wanted to be a cartoonist. It was a early childhood ambition that I never really pursued.
And I thought, well, let's see if I can figure out how to be a cartoonist. So I, I set about that and I could give you as much details as far as you're willing to listen to.
But more detail is better. The breakthrough was I was thinking about becoming a cartoonist, but I didn't know how I didn't know where to start, you know, who to talk to, didn't know anything. And this was pre Internet, but pre Internet, you couldn't always find out information. It was sort of hard. And one day when I was thinking about how do I become a cartoonist, I turned on the television and I was just flipping through the channels.
And there happened to be a TV show about how to become a cartoonist. And I miss almost the entire show. But I could tell what it must have been about by the closing minutes. And as the credits were rolling by the closing credits, I quickly grabbed a notepad and wrote down the name of the host and where they were broadcasting from. And I wrote a letter and this is before email that's not long ago. And I wrote a letter to the hosts of the show and said, I missed your show, but I'd like to become a cartoonist.
And you give me some tips. And a few weeks later, I get a handwritten two page letter from the host of the show, whose name is Jack Cassidy still alive. And he told me what book to buy, what materials to get. And then he gave me this advice. He said, it's a very competitive industry. You'll get a lot of rejections, but don't give up. So I thought, oh, good, I know exactly what to do.
I bought the book he recommended, which tells you where to send your samples and what they should look like in terms of the materials. But the paper in the Pennsy recommended put together some of my finest comics and sent them off to the major magazines Playboy, New Yorker, people who buy comics. And all of my comments were rejected. And once I did all the rejections and I thought, well, you know, I did what I could, I tried hard.
I put my full heart into it, didn't work out. And I was OK with that because I put a full effort into it. So I collected up all my materials and I put them in the closet and I just forgot about it. A year goes by and I go out to my mailbox and there is a letter there from Jack Cassidy, the cartoonist who gave me the original advice, and I hadn't even thanked him for his advice. So I'd been a year that had gone by since his first letter.
So was kind of weird that there would be a second letter. A year later, I opened it up and said he was cleaning his office and he came upon my samples. I'd sent them a year earlier and a big pile. And he said he was just writing to make sure that I had given up. And that was the only reason he wrote it was the only reason he wrote and I had given up. And I thought, well, maybe he sees something that these other editors of these magazines that rejected me, maybe they didn't see it.
He's a professional cartoonist. And I thought maybe I don't see it either. Maybe he sees something there some. X Factor, that's a bit invisible, and so I got my materials out and I thought, well, I'll raise my sights rather than being rejected by mere magazines or I'll try to become a syndicated cartoonist, meaning that you you make a deal with a cartoon syndicate. So I put together some comics that were the prototype for Dilbert. They were based on people I worked with and sent them off to the major cartoon syndication companies.
And one by one, I started getting the rejections. And when I thought I had them all, I said, well, now I've tried twice and I still feel good about it because I put good effort into it both times. So I collected up all my art supplies once again and put them in my closet and forgot about it. A few months go by and I get a call from a woman who said she worked for some company I'd never heard of, some company called United Media, and she said she'd seen my samples and I didn't really know how because I hadn't sent my samples to anybody with that name.
And she said she wanted to offer me a contract to be a syndicated cartoonist. Now, I'm a little wary when I get this offer because it's just a stranger cold calling me, it seemed like on my home phone. And she's going to offer me like the most valuable thing anybody would ever want in the world. It's like winning the lottery if you could actually get a real syndication contract. But I never heard her this company. So I was a little cautious and I said, you know, I'm flattered by your offer, but I really need to see some kind of references.
Is there any cartoonist or cartoon you've worked with before? Anything that got published through you at all? Pamphleteer, you know, add anything. And there's this long pause. And then she says, yeah, we handle Peanuts and Garfield and Marmaduke and she about 12 more on the list. And that was when I realized that something big was happening and also that my negotiating position had been somewhat compromised at that point because I didn't know what I was talking about.
It turns out that they were the parent company, the corporate parent of the entity that I had sent my samples to. So I just didn't recognize the corporate name. And there was the biggest in the world. And so they offered me a contract. And it's that's where it all started. That's an incredible story.
What do you think made Dilbert so successful? Well, it was a combination of things, probably the biggest change. You know, the thing that made it take off is that after the first few years, it really wasn't getting any traction at all. It just laid there. And in a few newspapers, not many, it wasn't growing. And your syndication company, their business model, requires them to spend a lot of attention on whatever the new comic is that they're launching.
But then after they've spent a year or two of that, they need to move to the next one. Just the last one's not taking off on its own. So that's what happened. And I was just sort of stranded, you know, another comic that wasn't going to make it. So I was on my own. But that's when luck intervened. I started my day job. I was working at the phone company. I was working in the technology lab or one of them.
And we had email before. Other people had email. So before the the average person even knew what email was we had. And I thought, well, what happens if I started running my email address in the strip and then I directly connect to my customers because I had an MBA. And if you go to business school, rule number one is that you have to listen to the customer and you have to give them what they want. But that's the basic thing that a businessperson will do.
That's kind of the opposite of what an artist normally does. A typical artist says, I've made this great art. If you don't like it, well, there's something wrong with you. There's sort of an ego that comes with art. But I lacked that type of artistic ego because I came from a different path. I was a business person. Art was a thing I was trying to do. And so I put my email address in the strip and I got the thousands of emails a day and people consistently said the same thing.
They said, we like your cartoon a little bit, but when Dilbert is in the office, which was actually rare in the early days, he had a job, but it wasn't really focused on that. They would say, well, he's in the office and he's with his bosses, coworkers. We love that. And so many people said exactly the same thing, that I actually change the entire nature of the strip from a generic strip about a guy with a talking dog to a workplace strip.
And when I made that change, just everything happened. After that, it became easy to identify. It's that workplace strip is a cubicle. He's a technology guy. And then, of course, the dot com era and the downsizing era of the 90s, I was taking the advice of the readers in a way that artists typically don't. So I was trying to, as we say, in persuasion, pace the audience basically give them back. What they were giving me or telling me they won and they were sensationally well because there wasn't really a workplace comic strip, when the big downsizing wave of the 90s came, all the big companies were doing massive layoffs.
All the news business wanted to do stories about it. But you can't really do a proper story about something unless you have a face. You need a person. You need a personality to give a story, a face. But this downsizing thing was sort of a concept. And here was Dilbert, who became, you know, through my work, sort of the face of the downtrodden, about to be downsized employee. And so the next thing you know, it's on the cover of the major magazines and it's just been forwarded and clipped and cut out and copied everywhere.
That was the big change is that I combined my business skills, my MBA, my degree in economics with the art. And it was that combination. I call it a skill stack when you put together skills that are complementary. And that's really what made the difference.
I mean, originally the inspiration, as I understand it, was sort of like your experience in the office. But as time went on, is that still the case or where does the inspiration come from now?
Well, it's very hard to make your comment or write humor about something you don't have some personal experience with. So it is that personal experience that allows you to express it in the way that other people have had the same experience can say, oh, yeah, I've been there, even though at this point, obviously a lot of the suggestions come from people who are still in the office. I tend not to use them unless I can recognize them. So if I can't relate to it myself, I don't trust that other people will get on top of that.
My life is pretty complicated and it's a business life. Dilbert is a major enterprise that requires meetings and contracts and lots of interaction with people of different skill sets. And I'm also involved with a startup called Wind Up. We have meetings just like any company. We have strategies and budgets and all that stuff, so I'm always surrounded by it.
What else did you learn in business school that combined maybe into a skill stack that you didn't recognize at the time or you find incredibly valuable now?
Well, one of the weird things about being a cartoonist at my level and when I say my level, I just mean some amount of notoriety and scale. It's just a big enterprise is I spend a ton of time with lawyers and contracts and insurance and just business stuff. And I was a professional contract negotiator when I worked with the phone company and also a little bit at the bank. So I just see the business as being a cartoonist. If you only had art as training, you would have to hand off that stuff or you'd skip it.
Maybe in some cases you say, I just I don't know how to get into that. So the fact that I have broad business experience that goes everything from figuring out the cash flow advantage in the future to insurance through contracts, you know, leasing versus buying. I mean, it's just coincidentally had a very deep experience and all the stuff that that matters. Now, on top of that, I also did a lot of training in public speaking and interviews and media training.
There's something called media training where it trains you to do basically what I'm doing right now, which is how to speak in public in a way that you don't get sued or embarrassed or fired from your job. Those are all skills. It looks like it's just somebody talking in public and how hard you have to be. But there's a lot of skill that goes into doing it. Well, those skills are really complementary to cartoonist because as this is an example, people like to talk to cartoonists.
So the media is always interested in cartoonists once they reach a certain level of notoriety.
I love talking to interesting people. And I'm curious about something you said there about the media training. If you were to give a quick two minute class on media training, what would you advise us?
The main thing that you learn in media training is almost laughable, which is you don't have to answer the questions. Now, when I say that, you're thinking, oh, I'll say I refuse to answer that question, but that's the wrong way to play it. The right way to play it is you probably have something you want to say. So say what you want to say. And as long as it's interesting, you're probably OK because let's say you're on some four minutes hit on a national TV show, which was sort of typical.
I've done hundreds or thousands of them at this point, and they'll ask some questions that maybe shows they didn't read your book or they don't know who you are. And in the old days, I would say I don't understand the question or could you restate that? You know, and that is boring television. But the the smarter technique is that you just say, OK, they want me to say something interesting I want to talk about. The book is also something the audience likes.
The person who ask the question will be fine with it. It'll also mentioned in the book it's a. Variables you got to put together on the fly and think on your feet, but as long as you remember the golden rule, you don't have to answer the exact question. You do have to be interesting or you won't be invited back. You know, I'm not talking about a political answer where you just say some partisan thing. I'm saying just being interesting, entertaining the audience and doing it in a way, in a way that's functional for both the interviewer and for whatever your interests are.
That's that's the main rule. There's one other rule I can't remember. If they told me this was something I learned on my own. You never want to say something in an interview that could be easily misinterpreted and almost anything can be misinterpreted. So I'll give you an example. People would ask me about my early childhood when both my parents were alive. They both passed and I would make the mistake of answering the questions. And man, if you want to find an awkward situation, where do you see how some writer who heard your answer about your parents characterizes your parents?
You don't want to see that in writing because they're going to characterize it the way they want to, not the way you said it. So the only way you can avoid that is by being bored. So I learned eventually if somebody said, tell us about your childhood, Scott, I would say, you know, pretty normal to parents, totally ordinary.
And you just make sure that doesn't make it in the story, because anything that someone else says about what you said about your parents, nothing good is going to come from that.
It'll just be to fit their narrative of what they they sort of want to say.
What would you say are other people's biggest misconceptions of you?
Well, at the moment, the biggest misconception of me is that somebody has seen or heard something I said and understood it correctly. My normal texture of my life is just lots of people criticizing me every day before it was mostly about comics. Then I started blogging and it was about blog posts. And now most of it's on Twitter. And I'm just massively criticized every day about probably hundreds of different things over the years. And one thing that they almost all have in common is that they're based on a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding of my opinion.
It's actually very rare for somebody to criticize my opinion as accurately understood. But mostly people get wound up and bent out of shape because they misinterpreted. Something I've said often is just a joke. Sometimes I'll tell a joke and somebody will take that in the context. It doesn't look like a joke anymore. And then suddenly I'm Satan because I said something that I didn't actually say. The things that I've seen online about me that people still repeat. And I'm talking about up to this week, I've seen people say that I'm a Holocaust denier.
I know that I'm a white nationalist, know whatever, whatever is not. That is what I am that I've got some problem with women know. So most of the things that people criticize me for are literally things that aren't actually.
In other words, did you always have a thick skin? Like, how do you deal with this and what do you know about it? Sort of like handling criticism now that you didn't know when you first started getting this feedback or criticism, I guess, if you will?
Well, first of all, one does not go into this public life without knowing that's part of the job. I made a promise to myself early on when Dilbert started to be successful, and I said to myself, I'm not going to be the guy who complains because the package has all the parts. Right. So part of the packages I get to be rich and famous and I have like, greatest job ever, but I don't get that part without the other part.
Nobody gets that. You know, it's just like I'd like an expensive car, but I don't want to pay any money for it.
In the real world, criticism from the audience is just part of the job. So part of it is not knowing it's coming. Part of it is choosing it, you know, as part of the package of goodness and badness. And so I can blame myself for what happens because it's part of a choice. Some of it is practice. The more you you're criticized, more useful you get, it's like every every other skill you can get better at it.
Some of it is perspective because as I said, listening to somebody criticize their own misunderstanding feels different than being criticized for something you did say. They don't they don't register the same. And so I, I try to keep those centrists like, OK, somebody misunderstood something. They think they're mad at me. They're only mad at their own misunderstanding. So sometimes I have to deal with that, you know, respond to it on social media or whatever.
I fight back vigorously, but primarily for either entertainment of the people we're watching. If I do it on Twitter, for example, I try to do it in a witty way, part of the content that entertains part of it. Just to correct the record, so if anybody sees the comment, they might see my comment to the comment and say, oh, OK, looks like a misunderstanding here.
Yeah, I was curious about that when I was doing research for you. There's definitely a lot of information out there on you and some of it is very polarizing with the way that people respond to some of your comments, which at times I felt for you and I was like, why are you replying to this? Why are you even sort of acknowledging some of this?
Well, I enjoy it. That's also part of it. There's when I'm engaging with people online, even when they're unpleasant people and even when they said horrible things about me, I kind of like, I don't know, the game of it, the competition of it, the the one upmanship, some of it is practice. I literally use them for practice because if somebody makes a certain kind of criticism, I can often count on other people in the future making a similar one.
So I see if I can shut it down with a comment, I see if there's some fact that would change the mind. So there's always an element of experimenting. And I experiment in public because my followers on Twitter especially, they like the show. So I don't know if you noticed this, but when I respond to critics often get a lot of applause from the people who are just following the law. The people were just watching the show.
You've done a lot of work on persuasion. We're going to get to loser think in a second here. But when it comes to persuasion, when did you start studying it? What got you into it? And like, what did you study first? Like, how did you go about learning about persuasion, like the active art of persuasion?
When I was a kid, my mother used to tell us the story about how she delivered my younger sister. So she gave birth to my sister without any anesthesia. But she was hypnotized by our family doctor who was also hypnotised, she reports, being awake and feeling no pain during childbirth. Now, as time went by, I'm not entirely sure that that story was true. You know, the things your mother tells you that you believe when you're young, but when you get older, you say, you know, could she have forgotten that they gave her a shot?
So I don't know how much was true, but I can tell you that's where my interest started. I can tell you that there's enough science to show that some people wouldn't be most, but some people actually can not feel pain under hypnosis. Something like 20 percent of the public can have extraordinary phenomena, as we call it. Hypnotist use the word phenomena and it means, as you can see or feel, things that aren't actually there. The rest of the people, the eighty percent can also be influenced or hypnotized.
But it's generally a longer term, more subtle kind of a shift, not actually seeing something that's that's not there. So that got me interested. And when I was in my 20s, somebody just said a lot about this hypnosis class. I don't remember what I was thinking, but I thought, well, I'll add that to my talent stack. I didn't use those words back then, but it was essentially I was just adding talents that same complementary, no matter what I was going to do.
And I thought to myself, well, if there's anything to this, if hypnosis is real, meaning it has any function whatsoever, how would you not want to add that to all of your other talents? It could be like the king of all talents, the one that makes all the other one's a lot less even necessary.
It amplifies at least. Yeah. Yeah.
And I remember hearing early on in the process at the time, who knows if this is true, but it sounds like it's true that the most successful insurance salesperson was also a professional ethicist myself. Well, that could be a coincidence, but it could also not be a coincidence. So I signed up for class, took a proper class with an instructor. We'd be a few times a week at night and we got certified as individuals. And one of the things you learn as I happen to test, probably the most important thing I've learned maybe in life, you know, if you could if you could pick one thing that's like the most important thing, you know, I learned the hypnotist see the world, I would say backwards, but that it works better backwards.
Specifically, if you ask the average person, hey, what do you think of human beings? Are they rational or irrational? The average person would say, well, I think people are rational most of the time for sure. Ten percent of the time we get a little crazy or emotional. You know, there's some topics that we're all a little crazy about. But ninety percent of the time, we're these rational creatures. Amateurs turn it around and they say, no, we are rational losers.
We are people who make decisions for reasons we don't understand. And then we explain them to ourselves after the fact so that we are rationalizing irrational species who can be rational 10 percent of the time. So that's the backwards part, the ten percent. Something that has no emotional content, you know, if you're balancing your checkbook or you just doing some math or something, yeah, that's rational. But for a lot of our big decisions about where do you work, how do you relate to people, your relationships, politics, all that stuff, that's pretty much all irrational.
And then we explain it after the fact as evidence of that. Just look at the the political parties. If anybody is paying attention for the last several years, I won't get political. I'll just make this persuasion point, which is is pretty clear if you're watching politics, that it doesn't matter what happens, people just take sides. You see it so clearly that it's laughable at this point. That's the world that I live in where people are not rational.
But I accept that as the proper canvas, which I'm working with to paint something. If you try to paint anything useful, assuming that people are rational, you're going to build a system, you're going to try to manage to that. It just doesn't work because people aren't. But if you go the other way and say, what if I assume that everybody is just irrational, what would you do differently?
And often what you would do differently is far more effective. Assuming people are irrational, most of the time is a very clear way to see the world.
Can you give me some examples of how that plays out, like what you do differently? Let me give you an example of a cigarette smoker. So you've probably had this experience. You talk to somebody who's been a smoker for 30 years. They, of course, know that all the science says that is bad for them, but they can't quit. Some smokers will say, yeah, I want to quit, but I'm weak. I just don't have the willpower or something like that.
And they're probably closer to some kind of truth. But then you run into the people who say, my grandmother lived in 95 and changed the state and drank whiskey and smoked a pack of barrels every day.
Now, that's not really thinking. That's that's not rational. Now you see that kind of thinking that the faulty thinking all the time. And it's usually in the service of explaining why somebody is doing something irrational and certainly in the realm of politics, again, without getting into any details, we see time and time again that it doesn't matter what your team does, no matter how bad it is, you're still going to be OK with it, as is your team.
And that's the part that people don't admit to themselves. You know, they'll they'll fight like wounded weasels to to defend whatever their side did. And probably they're thinking internally that they're actually making some kind of a coherent argument, but they're typically not that that's what my book Losers think is mostly about. It's it's those rationalizations and bad thinking that you can learn to avoid.
One of the things in that book that I thought was quite profound was that you said, I'm going to get the quote wrong here because I'm paraphrasing. But a consistently best selling non-fiction author is really a fiction author. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I think the context was, if I recall that people were writing nonfiction, believe they're telling you what is objectively true in the world, but we don't have that capability. We all have this illusion that the version of the world we're seeing is the one. And then if anybody's got a different version, they must be wrong. It's sort of the most common illusion that we all have. So if you sit down and say, oh, I'm going to write, I'm going to write about reality.
You don't have that capability. It's not something you could do no matter how hard you try, because all you have is a filter on reality. Now, we still label that as nonfiction because somebody is not trying to write fiction, but most of what we regard as fact is some kind of filtered truth. I would go so far as to say that even our views of history as is widely known, you know, the winners get to write history.
But beyond that, it's not just that the winners write it, but their history is written for a strategic, functional purpose. In the case of the United States, we would like to brainwash our youth using brainwashed in a positive sense. Here is what I'm going to talk about is good, which is you socialize the children to support their country and fight for it and feel some sense of belonging to the country. That's all good. But probably in services that we depart from the truth a little bit.
So our versions of history that I learned when I was a kid as an adult, I look back at them and I think, well, maybe we weren't so terrific.
Maybe we were so awesome. And how we handle Native Americans and maybe the colonists were not such nice people. Maybe the founders of this country should not be celebrated, given that most of them were slave owners. There's a sanitized version that we feed the children in the service of brainwashing them into good citizens, which I think we should probably continue doing. I don't have a problem with that.
I think every every country gets to brainwash their children and we probably do a pretty good job and then so order the skills that we can take away from that in terms of avoiding what you call Luser think. I mean, in the book you have chapters like think like a psychologist, think like an artist, think like a historian. Can you expand on what Luser think is how we can go about learning things to overcome it? Yeah.
So I define Leuser think not as a quality of the individual. So when I say somebody is using you Leuser think I don't mean that they're a loser. It's not about the person, it is about the experience which the person has been subjected to. So since I have a degree in economics, as I mentioned, when I look at a situation in the news, I can apply that filter in a way that others perhaps could not. But it wouldn't take you four years to get a degree in economics to learn the basics.
Likewise for psychology, history, art and other things. So people tend to come at topics with just the filter that they just happened to have because of the life that they led. What I recommend is that you expose yourself at least to the general ideas of how other people think. For example, if somebody were to say how good is a certain president doing, it doesn't have to be this president. I'd make a general point. If you say how good a president was President X, the average person will say, well, I think that person did a good job or that person did a terrible job.
Those are both ridiculous opinions. And an economist would be in a position to tell you why. Because you haven't compared that president to another president who is doing the same job at the same time under the same circumstances, without that comparison, which, by the way, any scientist wouldn't know to compare. So it's not just economists. There are some disciplines that that are going to compare things. But most people have never learned the art of comparing things.
The only way you could know if a president did a good or bad job, I mean, short of being treasonous or something ridiculous, that's obvious on its face. But you really couldn't tell if a Democrat had been elected, if the economy would be doing even better. You don't know if a different Republican had been elected, we'd be at war because those are hypotheticals. Yeah.
So there's no way to compare any president to anything that's actually meaningful. So anybody who has a strong opinion on it, again, unless there's some major event starting a war that wasn't necessary, etc., you can't tell that would be obvious to a scientist, obvious to an economist, to obvious to a lot of people who have MBAs, et cetera, would not be obvious to an artist. And on social media, it's very interesting when I see people who will make what I would call common mistakes of comparisons, I often check their profile.
And sure enough, as a musician, it's artists and is completely experimental. These are not people who are dumb. These are not people who are losers. These are people who are applying luser think accidentally because they haven't been exposed to the proper ways of comparing things. Now, comparing things is just one topic of losers think. But it's the general idea that, oh, let me give you one from today. This just happened recently. Somebody was asked today about all those UFO sightings that we're hearing about from the military.
And the thinking was, well, these military guys seem reliable as multiple people who saw this thing, they can't explain it. These UFO things seem to have defied physics. They locked onto him with their instruments. There's just plenty of proof that there's something going on there that is either some dark human thing or an alien thing. One of the things I would say a psychologist, somebody who was trained in psychology, might inform those people. Is that the most common explanation for something you don't understand is stuff you've never heard of, things you hadn't imagined.
So sometimes we think that the evidence is proving something is true. In this case, it's proof there are UFOs or at least something we don't understand.
Whereas I say now the far more common explanation is mass hysteria, because mass hysteria happens all the time. I would say half of the news is representing some kind of mass hysteria from one side or the other. Now, here's an interesting part of it. I was listening to this on a clip where one of the pilots, who was one of the main witnesses to this phenomenon, these UFO type things, he describes his experience and his experience seemed really credible.
And video was he had other witnesses, very detailed. He's a credible guy and all looks very credible. And then he has this at the end that he tells the audience that his mother in law is so interested in UFOs that every time he sees her, she asks if he's seen one yet. That's schottel because he's primed. I call the hypnotisable. People complain when I use that word. He's set up to have a confirmation bias because he wants to see them and it's being reminded of them all the time.
So if you didn't know that so let's say you are not a psychologist. Let's say you are not someone who work in law enforcement because people work in law enforcement because see this a mile away, they can see that he'd been primed to see something. Now, if he had never been primed to see it, that would be more evidence than it might be a real phenomenon. But when he says without prompting, somebody is asking me if I'm seeing UFOs all the time.
And then somebody that matters is mother in law probably matters a lot. He was frightened. So his testimony actually would be worth exactly zero because of that. Now, I'm not saying that's the explanation. I'm saying that if you had my filter on life, if you knew how common the masses theory was, if you studied any of the fields in which confirmation bias is normally a key topic again in law enforcement, if you're a lawyer, you're a judge or any kind of a scientist, I would say.
And certainly if you studied psychology, you'd see that right away. If you ever heard of the McMartin School Children case.
No. What is that? So I forget when this was might have been the 80s, but I could be wrong about that. There was a preschool. They got accused of having a satanic, some kind of a satanic situation in the basement under the school. And it was alleged that they were taking many of their students down there. And there were all kinds of satanic rituals and stuff like that. Now, the police got a lot of witnesses, eyewitnesses.
I think there were all the kids. I don't think any adults were involved in that, but they interviewed lots of kids. They interviewed them individually so that they weren't being polluted by the other kids opinions. And those kids were all confirming that people were being brought down to the basement below the school and being part of these satanic rituals. In the end, it was discovered that there was not even a basement under the school. So none of this was true.
And nobody could figure out why there could be so many eyewitnesses in this case. All the kids there would say the same thing. And then some experts who actually had a broader knowledge base, different filters, looked at the videos of the police questioning the kids and they saw the tail. And the tail is the police were putting the ideas into the kids minds. And kids are very easily persuaded that something that's not real is real. That's why they believe in Santa Claus and lots of other things.
But probably some of those kids came to believe that that really happened. And it was nothing but the suggestion from the adult who was credible. And they probably thought their friends were Santa. They didn't want to be the one who didn't see it as the most famous case where people who are primed will see just fantastical things and it can happen almost instantly.
So why is it we're not taught to think in a multidisciplinary way and we're more taught in a very specific, narrow field?
As far as I can tell, nobody really thought about it. And that's why I wrote the book. And when I say nobody thought about it, I mean. They didn't think about it in the simple way that I lay it out, because if you said to somebody, well, why aren't you a doctor and an engineer, somebody would say, well, I don't have that much time. What I'm offering is that you don't need to be an expert in those other fields.
You just have to be exposed and really just hear at once. You know, now that I've explained this McMartin school preschool thing, now that I've explained confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, they're pretty easy concepts. You hear them once and you get them now that I've explained the economic concept, which is really a scientific concept of you don't really know how good something is unless it's compared to something that's a like thing in the same situation until you hear that the first time, it's just not obvious.
But what I'm trying to add to the conversation is you don't need to be any expert in any of those things. You just have to be exposed to it once, you hear it once and you'll know forever. These are really simple concepts of people for the most part, have not heard it even once.
We have a big project in the works along those lines called the front of street metal model latticework of mental models. The idea behind the project is basically to give everybody the university one on one education in all the major disciplines. So and like numeracy, we'll talk about permutations and combinations and sort of like compounding and and the idea is to expose people to a lot of these ideas in an effort to help people think in a more multidisciplinary way. I'm curious as to why you think we're not exposed in a multidisciplinary way in the education system.
Why assume that we just sort of evolve that way? And also, there's probably something to the way universities and colleges are organized, that there may be some economic reason that they focus on certain things and may have something to do with the fact that you need a degree that says you are something you are a trained economist or you are a psychologist. It may be that having a good general, how to be an effective human being kind of degree might not be the kind of degree anybody wants.
How would you go about changing education and what level would you change that? Would it be elementary school, middle school, high school, university?
Well, I think technology is going to change it on its own. I was trying to answer one very simple question about drumming, learning to be a drummer. And I go to a YouTube channel and sure enough, there's this great content. But it took about five minutes for the person to get past the introduction to tell me the one fact that was the only fact that was going to be in this entire thing. And I thought, imagine if online training actually was done well, because even if you look at the Khan Academy, for example, people would say, well, that's a good example of doing it right.
But it's still really just somebody filming, an instructor talking, plus some graphics. Imagine, if you will. And I think it's inevitable we're going to end up there and more of a Hollywood model where anybody can monetize their training class. There's some kind of platform that lets you put your class up there.
And the way you might put a book on Amazon and you can put together a team of the best director, the best graphics artist, the best presenter, and the person who's an expert who can put it all together at some point, watching either a 2D or even a virtual reality lesson will be so superior to anything you could do in a classroom that the classroom just won't make sense anymore. But we're not there at the moment. The technology for online training is worse, so it's not quite competitive except in special cases.
So I think that's just the natural march of technology and incremental improvements are going to end up that plus lots of experimentation and AB testing and all that is going to get us to a place where a lot of these things are solved just because we have the right tools and we've we've experimented with them long enough.
And so do you think with multidisciplinary education it would be left to the individual to go pursue that, or do you think it'll be arranged and in some way by an education system or parents or.
I'm kind of expecting that influential individuals and entities will start blessing certain sets of topics. So, for example, you can imagine hypothetically that there might be a Warren Buffett degree and all it would be is Warren Buffett in this sort of mental experiment here. You just imagine that he says, you know, if somebody took this set of classes and I'll be specific, is this set, then you can say you have the Warren Buffett for your degree or something like that.
As soon as somebody brands a set of classes as something that they're recommending or endorsing and then somebody with credibility and other people will look at it and say, well, that worked, then they'll just be more it.
In the book, you sort of go into Ockham's Razor a little bit in a way that a lot of people don't. Into the nuances of it, you suggest that it works in science, but not on people. I'm curious to hear you expand on that more. Well, I was raised there is the belief that the simplest explanation, assuming you have more than one way to explain a set of facts, that the simplest one is usually correct. Now, in science, there may be an application for that, but you still have to test to make sure that you got the right solution.
But in the real world, the problem is that we we think backwards. What we think we're doing is picking the simplest explanation. What we're actually doing is defining our own preferred explanation as the simple one. And the example I like to give is how did the world get here? How did it all get created? Well, the creationist says God did it. Basically three words as simple as that, God did it. And the scientists might say evolution, natural selection.
We just evolved this way. Simple, can't get any simpler than that evolution that both people would have wildly different opinions of. What was the simple explanation?
Well, when I hear something, Richard, I hear the simplest explanation from somebody else's point of view or hear any explanation from somebody else. And in terms of rebuttal or different argument, I'm often thinking, oh, what would have to be true for that to be true? So we're trying to get to my implicit sort of beliefs to make that true and understand how the other person sees the world.
Well, I think what you'll find out is this. The person who has the simplest explanation is almost always the least informed, which is a problem, because the part of what makes you think your explanation is right and simple is that you don't know the nuance of the situation. So any time I see somebody say, well, let's fix the economy, all we have to do is X, that's almost always wrong.
And so is there a way to guard against our sort of not only our simplistic thinking when it comes to people, but also be aware of it in other people's thinking or see it? And then how should we respond if we do sort of recognize it in other people?
Well, I like to just remind people that they can't tell what's the simplest explanation. If you have that little recording playing in your head, it should prevent you from saying, hey, my explanation is a simple one, because you should know that other people think that explanation is a simple one.
And so after writing Luser think I'm curious as to how you think differently through problems or make decisions differently, is our conscious sort of tools or tactics that you approach decision making with that you didn't before? Is there a different method of thinking that you're employing?
Yeah, it's not like there's one method, but rather there are a whole bunch of techniques that are common to different fields. And if you're familiar with them, then you have more tools. So basically avoiding loser think is making sure you have a full toolbox that you could, for example, know how to compare things. You could, for example, know when to think coincidences mean something. And when they don't, they you know, the difference between short term and the long term.
The main thing that I got out of writing the book is reminding myself of this, these tools. So they're a little more accessible, they're more front of mind, which is the goal.
And do they come to you through intuition or are you going through my checklist style, like, oh, I need to think like a psychologist here. I need to think like an engineer here. Like, how are you employing them or is it just pure like you understand them? So now you have an intuition about which ones to use and when?
Well, it doesn't really take intuition if you know what the tool is, what you find when people are undisciplined into thinking and you see this wildly on social media, is that people will judge a thing without comparing it to anything except their imagined and perfect state. But usually the other alternative is nothing like a perfect situation. It's another imperfect situation.
And why do you think it is that most of us don't want to be exposed to it? Like, is it mentally uncomfortable? What are the reasons that go through your mind when you think of why we don't want to expose ourself to other people who have different opinions and are possibly smarter than we are?
Well, I don't know that we don't want to be exposed to that, but we definitely don't like to be shown that our current world view is ridiculous. And you always have that risk. If you're if you're debating with somebody that they disagree with, you could be wrong and maybe you'll find that out and that's uncomfortable. And that triggers cognitive dissonance and some strange things. But I think mostly people are not aware of what they don't know. I like to use the example of a sunk cost.
Maybe in economics. If you never heard of that, you wouldn't know you were thinking about it wrong. But once you heard the concept that if you've already spent money on something, you should take that out of your decision about what to do next, because that money's gone. You can't get it back. It's already spent. It's the idea of a sunk cost. But you'll. We see lots of people who will say, well, I've got to make this decision because otherwise the money I spent in the past is wasted, but that's actually nonsense because that money is gone.
It just doesn't exist. You need to make your decision based on the variables that are that are present at the moment. So right there, there are probably some people who are listening to this right now and just said to themselves, oh, I never thought about that. But once they hear it, it's a permanent part of their thinking forever and so simple, they just have to be exposed to it.
I mean, it's easier to see faulty thinking, I think, in other people than ourselves because we're not running our brains in debug mode or it's a conscious effort to do that. A lot of us don't want to do it. When we do do it, we start to see our own thinking. How do we help other sort of break out of their thinking or just pointing out that they're wrong or they're falling victim to this fallacy?
Or, you know, telling somebody they're wrong directly just makes them defensive. And usually that's no matter what happens after that, it's not going to be productive. There are a number of tricks. One of them is pacing now, pacing sort of a hypnosis term. And it means matching the person you want to persuade by agreeing with them as much as you can without lying actual things that you do agree with. So you start with that and sort of get them on there on your team, if you will.
And then once you start introducing some disagreements, they're at least primed to think, OK, this this person agrees with me on a bunch of stuff, so maybe I should take it seriously. So that's technique number one is agree with as much as you can. Technique number two is to push your disagreement in the form of questions as opposed to statements whenever you can. So you might say to somebody, what would it look like if your idea played out for the next 10 years and get them to actually explain what the world looks like in 10 years under their idea?
And it could be that they can't explain it and you'll find them say, oh, well, I hadn't really thought about what it would look like in 10 years. I was really thinking about this year. That is an easy way to let them expose their own problems and their in their opinion without having to be challenged. You're just giving them a chance to sort of discover the holes in their own their own thinking. So those are the main thing.
Now, it might be that in asking the questions, you get good answers and it ends up talking under your position. But that's good to one of you.
May have improved always like trying to keep an open mind, which is something I learned from any do, which is I'm never 100 percent certain about anything. And just that little little infliction of like I'm only 90 percent certain about this makes it so much easier to change your mind on things. And then also keeping in mind that you're worried about outcome versus protecting your ego. I call it outcome come over ego.
And that helps me also. It's like what is going to get the best outcome, especially if making a business decision. It doesn't have to be my idea. It can be somebody else's idea.
I recommend recommended loser think that you work on somebodies confidence about their opinion because often you can't directly talk them out of it. Let's say somebody says, I believe this because all of the scientists agree. Well, you can't really talk somebody out of that position. But you could say, you know, all the scientists agreed about what was good nutrition science and that are pretty much all wrong for years. And the scientists agree that the ozone hole was going to get worse and we're in big trouble, but they closed or started to close.
So if you point out how many times the experts all agreed and then we're all wrong, you can start working on some of these confidence, at least introduce the idea that the majority doesn't mean the right and that there are plenty of times in history that they've observed themselves in which they were sure about something and then later found out they were wrong. So I always encourage people to actually keep track of when they're they're grossly wrong about something they thought they were certainly right about, because the more of those that you can tell in your own experience, the more you can look at a situation and say, well, I could be wrong.
I'm 90 percent sure, but I'm completely open to that other 10 percent. I just have to a good a good case for I think that's a that's a great approach.
I want to end with the magic question, which was something that stuck out in your book to me. Can you explain the magic question and then how you've been testing it over the last year and what you've learned from it?
Can you restate the magic question from the book? You said, the most effective approach to addressing critics who misinterpret you and then criticize their own misinterpretation as if it came from you. Is this challenge that one thing you believe on this topic that you think?
I do not believe so that's the question I've been testing online. And it's really effective because what I've noticed is that virtually everybody who seems to be disagreeing with me online is actually disagreeing with a misinterpretation of my opinion. And so when I asked people to tell me one thing that they believe that they think I do not believe that we usually stumble and. In the process of answering those questions, they will convince themselves that they did not understand my opinion to begin with, and I find that a faster, more effective way to get to that place than just say, oh, you're misinterpreting me.
You forgot this fact. You let them find it on their own.
I thought that was a really good approach to sort of not only challenging your thinking, but effectively like putting the ball back in somebody else's court in a low cost sort of way. Like it's really easy to criticize somebody else's opinion and sometimes it's hard to defend that opinion. It's almost asymmetric, right? It takes two seconds to sort of criticize and then it might take a long time for you to explain. And I like the idea of this because they've put sort of some of that thinking back on to other people.
Yeah, usually the kinds of responses I get from that are just almost crazy. When you hear them, somebody'll say, well, for example, you don't believe that morality should be considered in any big decision. And I'll say, no, that's not my opinion. But I do believe that morality is a factor that should be considered in any big action and then they go to the next one. Well, you believe that we should spend unlimited money? No, I don't believe we should spend unlimited money so you can quickly get rid of the two or three bad assumptions that somebody have.
And usually that's enough. Thank you so much, Scott.
I really appreciate you taking the time. And this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much. This is this is great for me, too. I appreciate the questions. And thanks so much for having me. The knowledge project is produced in collaboration with Jason Oberholtzer and the team at Charts and Leisure. You can find notes on this episode as well as every other episode at F-stop blog podcast. If you find this episode valuable, shared on social media and leave a review to support the podcast, go to F-stop logged membership and join our learning community.
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