Luck doesn’t exist – psychologist
Hoping, fantasizing, believing – all seemingly natural things for humans. But can we choose what we believe and why we believe in the first place? We asked Michael Shermer, a psychologist, science writer and founder of the Skeptic magazine.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Michael Shermer, welcome to the show. It's great to have you with us. Lots to talk about. You know, many psychologists, yourself including, say that believing in improbable things is innate for humans. So are illusions basically a necessary mechanism that sort of Mother Nature has provided us with, you know, to survive, be happy in reality, which is often dire.
Michael Shermer: Yeah, I think that's right. Innate is a strong word, but what I mean by beliefs being, you know, naturally born inside of us is that are our inclination is to try to understand the world, connect A to B. That's called learning, association learning, whether it's like classical conditioning, like Pavlov's dog or operant conditioning, like Skinner's rats. It's connecting one thing to another in the environment to try to understand causality. All organisms do it. So my little thought experiment is: imagine you're a hominid on the plains of Africa three million years ago and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator? Or is it just the wind? Now, if you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it's just the wind, you've made a type one error, a false positive. You thought there was a real connection, there’s no connection. But no harm. You just kind of run away. But if you think the rustle in the grass is the wind. And it turns out it's a dangerous predator — you’re lunch, you've just been munched and taken out of the gene pool. So my argument is that we evolved the capacity to assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators instead of just the wind. And therefore we tend to believe things that are not true just in case, because some of them are true and therefore believing weird things, by the way, this is called superstition or magical thinking, believing weird things like that is not a bug in the system. It's a feature that comes equipped in the software of our programing to try to connect things in the environment just in case there's a real connection.
SS: All right. So you say believes are almost restraint by common sense. Just like a riding bit helps to harness an emotional horse, but this horse will, you know, still go wherever, if it wants. Are you saying that our emotional self will always take over that rational one?
MS: Yes. Well, we are both rational and emotional. Reason is a tool that we use to try to understand how the world works. Emotions are also kind of a tool. It's a way of reasoning very quickly. So evolution designed our emotions to drive us to do things. So you don't have to calculate how many calories your body needs at any given day. You just feel hungry. So that emotion of hunger drives you to eat something, and then when you're satisfied, you've had enough, you no longer have that feeling. Or desire to be attracted to somebody else — this is an evolved trait that helps the species perpetuate itself. You have sex and children and so on, but no one calculates exactly why they're attracted to somebody else. You know the waist to hip ratio or the symmetry of their faces or the complexion of their skin. No one does those calculations. You just feel attracted to somebody. So in that sense, things, emotions like anger and jealousy and, you know, those sorts of things. They're a way of reasoning about the world very quickly. It's called rapid cognition. You just have an intuitive sense about something. And we're pretty good about this with people. For example, if you have a sense ‘like this person, I don't have a good feeling about him. I don't trust him. I don't know what it is. I just don't feel right about him’ or the situation you're in. Those are usually pretty accurate feelings that we have, but it's not it's not psychic power. It's a way of reasoning very rapidly about the environment. You're picking things up from the environment. You don't know what they are. I don't know what they are. But it's just a feeling you get. And that's actually a good trait that we have.
SS: Well, OK. Let me take this a step further. Let's talk about what's real or not. At the end of the day, what we do decipher is real, right? Because many renowned physicists — I’ve talked to Michio Kaku, for instance. He's suggesting that everything that we think is real — it might just be an illusion. What do you think?
MS: Yeah, I don't think that's correct at the level at which we live — that is the macro, physical world. What Michio is talking about there or Brian Cox, one of the physicists that study quantum physics, for example, they're talking about the subatomic particle. And this is a very different world. It's the size of atoms. If you had like a tennis ball here as the nucleus of the atom, the electrons going around it, sort of the energy shield or field of the electrons going around it. These would be like blocks away from the little tennis ball here. It's mostly empty space. The atom is mostly empty space. So that's why people, some new age gurus, talk about, you know, this chair is completely empty or this is really empty space. Yeah. But not at the macro level. At the macro level, the atoms are so tightly bound that essentially this chair that I'm sitting in is not empty space. It's a solid thing. That's why I don't fall through it and have a little accident here. So at the macro level, it's not an illusion. What we see and feel is a fairly accurate portrait of reality. Now, there are some people that argue that, say, this problem of what's it like to be a bat? Like, I can't know what it's like to be a bat because I don't have sonar. This echolocation system and the big ol’ ears to pick up the sound, bouncing off objects, and the brain apparatus to process the sound information and so on. I can't know what it's like to be a bat, a bat can't know what it's like to be me. And so whatever, let's say a thing in the environment looks like to a bat. It probably doesn't look like that to me. We probably have very different images of what the world looks like, but there's still really, as I say, a wall here. And if the bat is flying toward it, it's going to move around the wall. And I see the wall or I feel the wall, the bat hears the wall. The sensory apparatus is different. The neural structure processing the sensory information is different between me and the bat. But there really are walls. There really are things that we have to navigate around in the world. So that part is not an illusion. That's reality. So I argue that we evolve sensors that give us a fairly accurate portrait of what the world is really like. And the best tool we have for understanding that world is science, because, subjectively, you and I may be wrong or distorted or suffering from illusions, but collectively we can get an accurate picture of the world.
SS: OK, so what about creativity? How does creativity affect our ability to believe in things? Does that mean that the richer imagination we have, the more likely we are to believe weird stuff or not necessarily?
MS: I think there's a relationship between this and the ‘Believing Brain’, I toyed with the idea that this relationship between, say, madness and creativity or that people who are very open to new ideas, they make connections across disciplines or new fields that you and I maybe wouldn't make, but that they're so open to new ideas, they also believe a lot of wacky ideas. So, for example, I know a lot of really smart people, Nobel Prize winners and so on, they believe the weirdest things.
SS: Like what?
MS: And in part, I sometimes wonder if it's like ‘9/11 was a conspiracy’ or that astrology works or that ESP is real. These kinds of things that most scientists and skeptics are skeptical of. They think there might be something to this. I talk in the ‘Believing Brain’ about Kary Mullis who won the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics. The PCR technique of taking a little snippet of DNA and then reproducing that. It's a very common technique now. Kary Mullis, super interesting, super smart, creative guy. He dreamt up this solution to this problem for which he won the Nobel Prize while he was surfing and smoking pot and just kind of having a creative moment out in nature you know Like you and I are not going to have that kind of experience. All right. Or Einstein has this dream of flying on a beam of light. Yeah, I woke. I don't have dreams like that. But that kind of openness and creativity might lead you to think, well, ‘all these other things are real’. Not all of them are real. Sometimes the creative ideas you come up with are just Bonzo. They're just crazy. They're the Cracker Jacks. They're not real. And so the rub here is to have a mind open enough to accept radical new creative ideas that no one else has thought of, that turn out to be right. But not so open minded that you believe every wacky idea that comes down the pike. And so, you know, when people say, well, you know, they laughed at Galileo, they laughed at the Wright brothers, you know, it's like ‘well, they laughed at the Marx Brothers’. Being laughed at doesn’t mean you're right. So for every Galileo, there's ten thousand other scientists who had creative new ideas and they were wrong. And I encounter these people all the time. They send me their letters every week of new theories that they have, most of which are completely incomprehensible. So it's not that being creative and having a new idea means you're right and you should win the Nobel Prize. Most new ideas, even in science, even by professional scientists, are not right. So just one final point. Yeah, go ahead.
SS: Just because you brought up science, it's just really interesting, I want to ask you, because I've heard the idea that a pseudoscientific research usually precedes scientific revolution and people try to fill some gaps in existing picture of the world. And then the multiplicity of real and pseudoscientific research leads to the so-called paradigm shift. Do you think that we're actually on the verge of another scientific revolution if we look at it that way?
MS: Well, it depends on the field. I mean, most fields in the sciences are fairly well set. That doesn't mean they're right. But so here's how it works. So you've mentioned the word paradigm. So a paradigm is this sort of collective body of knowledge that most of the people working in that field agree. This is pretty true. These are pretty solid, well-supported ideas. Then around the paradigm, you have these anomalies that don't quite fit. And what do you do with the anomalies? Well, you assign graduate students to figure out what the problem is or, you know, somebody has to try to work on that problem. Now, if it's true that there's enough of these anomalies that build up and you have a new theory that says ‘I can explain not only the anomalies, but all the core ideas, too’, then you might have a paradigm shift, you might have a brand new scientific theory that overthrows the past idea. But the problem is that most people who think they have a paradigm shift, a new idea, they don't. They've gone off the rails. They just think they do, but they don't. And so you never hear about these because they get thrown out fairly early on. They run experiments. They don't pass the tests or they don't even try to test their ideas. They just bounce them off, colleagues or friends. And they go nowhere. And there's a lot more of those than there are of the famous paradigm shifting ideas like so Einstein comes up with, you know, his theory of relativity that explains some of the things that Newton couldn't explain. But it's not that Newton was wrong. If you want to get a spacecraft to the moon, just Newtonian mechanics is pretty much all you need, or even to Mars. Now there's some fine tuning with some general relativity adjustments made, but not much. So it's not that Newton was wrong and Einstein was right, it’s that Einstein added to the Newtonian paradigm. And that's usually how it works in science. It's not that this the state idea we've held on for centuries is completely wrong and we need a whole new idea. You hear this a lot. Particularly by new agers who think they have a new idea, but usually they don't. So there is a reason science is so conservative and cautious is because we know that most new ideas people have are incorrect.
SS: So talking about what's real and what's not. What about hope, which is in essence, a belief, expectation that things will play out well. Right. So is hope a worthless illusion as well?
MS: Hope, I don't think is a worthless illusion at all. In a way, hope is a projection into the future of a past that can go in one direction that is more likely to lead to our survival and flourishing rather than in another direction that doesn’t. So people often described me as an optimist. I wrote this book called The Moral Arc about moral progress over the centuries, and I think we can document this in great detail. You know, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of torture, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, animal rights and so on. It's been remarkable how much moral progress we've made. But I'm not an optimist in the sense that was inevitable. I'm a realist. I think it can all go south. I mean, we have to work at that. That's kind of on a collective level. If you mean by hope also personally, I think it does make a difference in terms of how you interact with the world, about whether you're hopeful or not. In a way, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're a pessimist, you're more likely to see the world in a negative way and then maybe that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's a famous study done on luck. You know, some people think they're lucky. Some people think they're unlucky. As it turns out… No, first of all, there's no such thing as luck that is, lottery numbers are not more or less likely to come out because you're lucky or unlucky. That doesn't exist. But if you self identify as a lucky person in a way, back to your question, you're hopeful that you're going to win the lottery or thing good things will happen to you, turns out that people that self identify as being lucky are also score higher in openness to experience and extroversion. So in other words, they're more likely to talk to people, try new things, go to new places, interact with new environments. And in that way, because they're open to experiences and they're extroverted and like to talk to other people, more good things are likely to come down their path and more opportunities for them to take advantage of. And then in hindsight, they look back and go ‘Boy, was I ever lucky. I went to that party. I met this person and we got married’ or ‘I met this person and got this job interview. And this changed my life. I had this career. I had a great family’, whatever. Unlucky people tend to be introverted and they score low in openness to experience. They don't like travel, they don't like new environments, they don't like to go to parties, they don't like to talk to people. So they're less likely to have opportunities that come their way. And then in hindsight, think ‘Boy, I was sure unlucky that I didn't have all these good things happen to me that you had happen to you’. That's not luck. It's in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
SS: OK. And what about dreams? Are dreams in that sense innocuous this flight of imagination or escape from reality? What do you make of dreams?
MS: Dreams, yeah, dreams are super interesting. OK, so just bigger picture: we all have to sleep every night eight hours. You've got to get eight hours. Super important. A good portion of that eight hours is going to be spent in REM sleep. R-E-M — rapid eye movement sleep. This is sometimes called paradoxical sleep because your body is super relaxed and deeply asleep, but your brain all of a sudden becomes kind of active. When you wake people up in those states they go ’I was having a dream’. OK. So dreams are a kind of a waking state in the sleep in which your brain is mostly asleep, but a part of it is very active. Now, what is it dreaming about? Mostly it's just random firings. OK. There's a couple of kinds of dreams. That one kind of dream is just sort of rehearsing the day's events. And we think that has to do with laying down memory tracks. So you have short term memory and then you have long term memory and there's this in-between kind of memory. And that one kind of dream is to kind of rehearse the day's events and lay down memory tracks so that they're more permanent. They get shifted into long term memory. But a second kind of dream is where there's these kind of random firings between different areas of the brain. And you have kind of a general narrative storyteller — it’s in the left hemisphere — that kind of tries to string all those impulses together into a narrative story that makes sense. And so these are the kind of crazy dreams we have, like in the film The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy has this fantastic dream of going to this world with witches and midgets and, you know, golden paths. And then you know the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow. And that turned out to be her uncles and family members. And at the end of the movie, she's saying ‘Oh boy, I had this incredible dream and Toto the dog was there and you were there and you were there and so on. That's the kind of dream that we have that we can't make sense of like ‘Boy, that was really weird’. OK. What does it mean? Nothing. It doesn't mean anything. Those are just random dreams. And then finally, there are the kind of dreams we've all had that are related to things you're anxious about. And so these are often frustrating dreams, like you're trying to run away from a threat and you can't run, you're going super slow or you show up at work or school, if you're a student, you know, naked or you don't have your homework assignment or you're missing this or that and you can't. It's just those are kind of reflective things where we're anxious about or worried about in the real world. So what you're thinking about as you fall asleep apparently does make a difference. So there's this new area of sort of trying to control your lucid dreams in which you, as you fall asleep, you think ‘I'm going to dream, I'm going to try to dream about this and maybe write it down or whatever’. And some people claim that they have success in determining what kind of dreams they have. I've never tried this. I think it's possible in the sense that what you're thinking about, just as you fall off into sleep, that may influence at least the initial dreams that you have.
SS: OK. That's really interesting. So in the 80s, there was a psychologist, Thomas Lindauer, and he measured that an individual brain can store only one gigabyte of knowledge and my smartphone right now can store tens of times more information. That means that we have no idea about lots of things around us and to make, you know, decisions or form opinions about the things we don't know anything about, we have to rely on other people's opinions which are based on other people's opinions and so on and so forth. So, without the ability to get knowledge firsthand are we inevitably locked in this sort of trap of wrong judgments?
MS: OK, there's a couple of things to unpack there. First of all, that first study you mentioned, this is almost surely related to this myth that we only use 10 percent of our brain.
MS: Or our brain can only store so much information and so on. Yeah. Now, most of that's not true.
SS: How much do we use?
MS: But your larger point is true. We use all of our brain. When you scan a subject's brain in an MRI, the whole thing is active. And so to measure somebody’s brain activity, you have to give them a specific task to do. Usually they have a little keyboard inside the scanner and they have to pick between A and B or this image or that image. That causes the blood to shift from one area to the other. The whole brain is active, you have to get it to be even more active. What portion of the brain? So we use all of our brain. But your larger point that I think is true, that is we are very limited in both processing speed and total memory capacity. Now, we don't know what the total capacity is because we're still understanding memory and whether things that are stored are still in there somewhere, and you can recall them or if they're gone forever, or if there's some in-between state. But that aside. Your more important point is that we do have technologies for storing more information and processing it externally, so this is called the extended mind and your cell phone is one, your family members and friends, your community, your society, the entire media, the entire Internet is another place to store information and process information, that you don't have to rely on just your brain. So one theory about how humans became as dominant a species around the globe as we have is that we're very social and that we have the capacity to exchange information through symbolic language, through communication, initially, just verbally, but then through writing. This has given us an edge over all other species. They can't do this no matter how smart they are. They do not have the capacity to share that information in the kind of detail that we can at such an extent. This idea of wisdom that older people are wise, this actually has a good point in it in as much as before there was writing, elders stored that information from that kind of community memory going back multiple generations. So as you're young and coming up, you rely on your grandparents or the great-grandparents or the elders in the community to tell you what it was like 50 years ago when the glacier was there and now it's not there anymore, or whatever you're worried about. That's a kind of stored information that you can't have in your brain that other people can have and we can share that. And, you know, you talked about paradigm shifts earlier. If there's any paradigm shift we're going through now, it's in communicating knowledge and information in real time at the speed of light in which, you know, soon every single person on the planet, all seven and a half billion of us, will have access to all the world's knowledge instantly for free. That is never been the case in human history. That is, some people call it the singularity. Something big is happening right now that we have access to. Now, of course, there's a downside. You spend, you know, eight hours a day staring at the screen. Not good for your eyes, not good for your brain, not good for your social life. So there's a downside of that. But as a tool, you know, it's a game changer for sure.