Category Archives: self-development

Daily data: be sceptical

Be careful about data you encounter every day, especially in the news.


If you watch the news, you are exposed to all sorts of numbers, intended to provide information. Some might be reliable, such as football scores, but with others it’s harder to know, for example the number of people killed in a bomb attack in Syria, the percentage of voters supporting a policy, the proportion of the federal budget spent on welfare, or the increase in the average global temperature.

Should you trust the figures or be sceptical? If you want to probe further, what should you ask?

To answer these questions, it’s useful to understand statistics. Taking a course or reading a textbook is one approach, but that will mainly give you the mathematical side. To develop a practical understanding, there are various articles and books aimed at the general reader. Demystifying Social Statistics gives a left-wing perspective, a tradition continued by the Radstats Group. Joel Best has written several books, for example Damned Lies and Statistics, providing valuable examinations of statistics about contested policy issues. The classic treatment is the 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics.

Most recently, I’ve read the recently published book Everydata by John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck. It’s engaging, informative and ideal for readers who want a practical understanding without encountering any formulas. It is filled with examples, mostly from the US.


            You might have heard about US states being labelled red or blue. Red states are where people vote Republican and blue states are where people vote Democrat. Johnson and Gluck use this example to illustrate aggregated data and how it can be misleading. Just because Massachusetts is a blue state doesn’t mean no one there votes Republican. In fact, quite a lot of people in Massachusetts vote Republican, just not a majority. Johnson and Gluck show pictures of the US with the data broken down by county rather than by state, and a very different picture emerges.

ed, blue and in-between states

            In Australia, aggregated data is commonly used in figures for economic growth. Typically, a figure is given for gross domestic product or GDP, which might have grown by 2 per cent in the past year. But this figure hides all sorts of variation. The economy in different states can grow at different rates, and different industries grow at different rates, and indeed some industries contract. When the economy grows, this doesn’t mean everyone benefits. In recent decades, most of the increased income goes to the wealthiest 1% and many in the 99% are no better off, or go backwards.

The lesson here is that when you hear a figure, think about what it applies to and whether there is underlying variation.

In the Australian real estate market, figures are published for the median price of houses sold. The median is the middle figure. If three houses were sold in a suburb, for $400,000, $1 million and $10 million, the median is $1 million: one house sold for less and one for more. The average, calculated as total sales prices divided by the number of sales, is far greater: it is $3.8 million, namely $0.4m + $1m + $10m divided by 3.

The median price is a reasonable first stab at the cost of housing, but it can be misleading in several ways. What if most of those selling are the low-priced or the high-priced houses? If just three houses sold, how reliable is the median? If the second house sold for $2 million rather than $1 million, the median would become $2 million, quite a jump.

sydney-houses sydney-house-expensive
Is the average or median house price misleading?

            In working on Everydata, Johnson and Gluck contacted many experts and have used quotes from them to good effect. For example, they quote Emily Oster, author of Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong, saying “I think the biggest issue we all face is over-interpreting anecdotal evidence” and “It is difficult to force yourself to ignore these anecdotes – or, at a minimum, treat them as just one data point – and draw conclusions from data instead.” (p. 6)

Everydata addresses sampling, averages, correlations and much else, indeed too much to summarise here. If Johnson and Gluck have a central message, it is to be sceptical of data and, if necessary, investigate in more depth. This applies especially to data encountered in the mass media. For example, the authors comment, “We’ve seen many cases in which a finding is reported in the news as causation, even though the underlying study notes that it is only correlation.” (p. 46) Few readers ever check the original research papers to see whether the findings have been reported accurately. Johnson and Gluck note that data coming from scientific papers can also be dodgy, especially when vested interests are involved.

The value of a university education

For decades, I’ve read stories about the benefits of a university education. Of course there can be many sorts of benefits, for example acquiring knowledge and skills, but the stories often present a figure for increased earnings through a graduate’s lifetime.


            This is an example of aggregated data. Not everyone benefits financially from having a degree. If you’re already retired, there’s no benefit.

There’s definitely a cost involved, both fees and income forgone: you could be out earning a salary instead. So for a degree to help financially, you forgo income while studying and hope to earn more afterwards.

The big problem with calculations about benefits is that they don’t compare like with like. They compare the lifetime earnings of those who obtained degrees to the lifetime earnings of those who didn’t, but these groups aren’t drawn randomly from a sample. Compared to those who don’t go to university, those who do are systematically different: they tend to come from well-off backgrounds, to have had higher performance in high school and to have a greater capacity for studying and deferred gratification.

Where’s the study of groups with identical attributes, for example identical twins, comparing the options of careers in the same field with and without a degree? Then there’s another problem. For some occupations, it is difficult or impossible to enter or advance without a degree. How many doctors or engineers do you know without degrees? It’s hardly fair to calculate the economic benefits of university education when occupational barriers are present. A fair comparison would look only at occupations where degrees are not important for entry or advancement, and only performance counts.

A final example

For those who want to go straight to takeaway messages, Johnson and Gluck provide convenient summaries of key points at the end of each chapter. However, there is much to savour in the text, with many revealing examples helping to make the ideas come alive. The following is one of my favourites (footnotes omitted).


Americans are bad at math. Like, really bad. In one study, the U.S. ranked 21st out of 23 countries. Perhaps that explains why A&W Restaurants’ burger was a flop.

As reported in the New York Times Magazine, back in the early 1980s, the A&W restaurant chain wanted to compete with McDonald’s and its famous Quarter Pounder. So A&W decided to come out with the Third Pounder. Customers thought it tasted better, but it just wasn’t selling. Apparently people thought a quarter pound (1/4) was bigger than a third of a pound (1/3).

Why would they think 1/4 is bigger than 1/3? Because 4 is bigger than 3.

Yes, seriously.

People misinterpreted the size of a burger because they couldn’t understand fractions. (p. 101)

John H. Johnson

Mike Gluck

John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck, Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day (Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion, 2016)

Brian Martin

Learning from failure


Imagine you are a teacher and you decide to try an innovative teaching technique. However, it goes horribly wrong. The technique didn’t work the way you expected, and furthermore numerous students make complaints to your supervisor. Luckily, your supervisor is sympathetic to your efforts and your job is secure.

What do you do next?

  1. Avoid innovative techniques: they’re too risky.
  2. Keep innovating, but be much more careful.
  3. Tell a few close colleagues so they can learn from your experience.
  4. Write an article for other teachers telling what went wrong, so they can learn from your experience.
  5. Invite some independent investigators to analyse what went wrong and to write a report for others to learn from.

The scenario of innovative teaching gone wrong has happened to me several times in my decades of teaching undergraduates. Each time, through no particular fault of my own, what I attempted ended up disastrously. It even happened one time when I designed a course that worked brilliantly one year but failed miserably the next.


So what did I do? Mainly options 2 and 3: I kept innovating, more carefully, and told a few colleagues. I never imagined writing about these teaching disasters, even using a pseudonym, much less inviting others to investigate and publish a report. It would be humiliating, might invite additional unwanted scrutiny, and might even make innovation more difficult in the future.

Aviation: a learning culture

These thoughts came to mind as a result of reading Matthew Syed’s new book Black Box Thinking. The title refers to the flight recorders in commercial aircraft, called black boxes, that record data about the flight, including conversations among the pilots. When there is a crash or a near miss, these boxes are vital for learning from the failure. Rather than automatically blaming the pilots, an independent team of experts investigates accidents and incidents and publishes its findings so the whole industry can learn from what happened.


Some of the greatest improvements in aircraft safety have resulted from studies of disasters. The improvement might be redesigning instruments so confusion is less likely or changing protocols for interactions between pilots. One important lesson from disasters is that the flight engineer and co-pilot need to be more assertive to prevent the pilot from losing perspective during tense situations. The investigations using black-box information occasionally end up blaming pilots, for example when they are drunk, but usually the cause of errors is not solely individual failure, but a combination of human, procedural and technical factors.

Cover-up cultures: medicine and criminal justice

Syed contrasts this learning culture in aviation with a culture of cover-up in medicine. There is a high rate of failure in hospitals, and indeed medical error is responsible for a huge number of injuries and deaths. But, as the saying goes, surgeons bury their mistakes. Errors are seldom treated as opportunities for learning. In a blame culture, everyone seeks to protect their jobs and reputations, so the same sorts of errors recur.

Syed tells about some hospitals in which efforts are made to change the culture so that errors are routinely reported, without blame attached. This can quickly lead to fixing sources of error, for example by differently labelling drugs or by using checklists. In these hospitals, reported error rates greatly increase because cover-up is reduced, while actual harm due to errors drops dramatically: fewer patients are harmed. Furthermore, costs due to patient legal actions also drop, saving money.


So why don’t more hospitals follow the same path? And why don’t more occupations follow the example of aviation? Syed addresses several factors: cultures of blame, excess power at the top of organisations, and belief systems resistant to testing.

In the criminal justice system, one of the most egregious errors is convicting an innocent person of a crime. Police and prosecutors sometimes decide that a particular suspect is the guilty party and ignore evidence to the contrary, or don’t bother to find any additional evidence. Miscarriages of justice are all too common, yet police, prosecutors and judges are reluctant to admit it.

In some cases, after a person has been convicted and spent years in jail, DNA evidence emerges showing the person’s innocence. Yet in quite a few cases, the police involved in the original investigation refuse to change their minds, going through incredible intellectual contortions to explain how the person they charged could actually be guilty. Syed comments, “DNA evidence is indeed strong, but not as strong as the desire to protect one’s self-esteem.” (p. 89)

Black boxes

When I heard about Black Box Thinking, I decided to buy it because I had read Matthew Syed’s previous book Bounce, about which I wrote a comment. Syed was the British table tennis champion for many years and became a media commentator. Bounce is a popularisation of work on expert performance, and is highly engaging. In Black Box Thinking, Syed has tackled a related and broader subject: how to achieve high performance in collective endeavours.

Matthew Syed

The title had me confused at first, because in other disciplines a black box refers to a system whose internal mechanisms are hidden: only inputs and outputs can be observed. In contrast, flight recorders in aircraft, which actually are coloured orange, not black, are sources of information.

Syed’s book might have been titled “Learning from failure,” because this is the theme throughout his book. He presents stories from medicine, aviation, business, criminal justice, sport and social policy, all to make the point that failures should be treated as opportunities for learning rather than assigning blame. Individuals can heed Syed’s important message, but bringing about change in systems is another matter.

Another theme in the book is the importance of seeking marginal gains, namely small improvements. Syed tells about Formula One racing in which tiny changes here and there led to superior performance. Another example is when the company Unilever was manufacturing soap powder – laundry detergent – and wanted to make the powder come out of the nozzle more consistently.

Unilever’s initial nozzle

Unilever hired a group of mathematicians, experts in fluid dynamics and high pressure systems, to come up with an answer, but they failed. Unilever then hired a group of biologists – yes, biologists – who used a process modelled on evolution. They tried a variety of designs and determined which one worked best. Then they took the best performing design and tested slight modifications of it. Applying this iterative process repeatedly led to a design that worked well but never could have been imagined in advance.

Unilever’s final nozzle, after 45 trial-and-error iterations

Learning from mistakes in science

Syed presents science as a model for learning from error, seeing the experimental method as a great advance over adherence to dogma. Science certainly has led to revolutionary changes to human understanding and, in tandem with technology, to dramatic improvements in human welfare, as well as to unprecedented threats to human life (nuclear weapons and climate change). However, Syed notes that science students mainly study the latest ideas, with little or no time examining “failed” theories such as aether or astrology: “By looking only at the theories that have survived, we don’t notice the failures that made them possible.” (p. 52).

Even so, overall Syed’s view of science is an idealistic image of how research is supposed to work by continually trying to falsify hypotheses. Historian-of-science Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that most research is problem-solving within a framework of unquestioned assumptions called a paradigm. Rather than trying to falsify fundamental assumptions, scientists treat them as dogma. Sociologist Robert Merton proposed that science is governed by a set of norms, one of which is “organised scepticism.” However, the relevance of these norms has been challenged. Ian Mitroff, based on his studies, proposed that science is equally well described by a corresponding set of counter-norms, one of which is “organised dogmatism.”


Although science is incredibly dynamic due to theoretical innovation and experimental testing, it is also resistant to change in some ways, and can be shaped by various interests, including corporate funding, government imperatives and the self-interest of elite scientists.

Therefore, while there is much to learn from the power of the scientific method, there is also quite a bit that scientists can learn from aviation and other fields that learn systematically from error. It would be possible to examine occasions when scientists were resistant to new ideas that were later accepted as correct, for example continental drift, mad cow disease or the cause of ulcers, and spell out the lessons for researchers. But it is hard to find any analyses of these apparent collective failures that are well known to scientists. Similarly, there are many cases in which dissident scientists have had great difficulty in challenging views backed by commercial interests, for example the scandals involving the pharmaceutical drugs thalidomide and Vioxx. There is much to learn from these failures, but again the lessons, whatever they may be, have not led to any systematic changes in the way science is carried out. If anything, the subordination of science to powerful groups with vested interests is increasing, so there is little incentive to institutionalise learning from disasters.


Failure: still a dirty word

Although Syed is enthusiastic about the prospects of learning from failure, he is very aware of the obstacles. Although he lauds aviation for its safety culture, in one chapter he describes how the drive to attribute blame took over and a conscientious pilot was pilloried. Blaming seems to be the default mode in most walks of life. In politics, assigning blame has become an art form: opposition politicians and vulnerable groups are regularly blamed for society’s problems, and it is a brave politician indeed who would own up to mistakes as a tool for collective learning. In fact, political dynamics seem to operate with a different form of learning, namely on how to be ever more effective in blaming others for problems.


I regularly hear from whistleblowers in all sorts of occupations: teachers, police, public servants, corporate employees and others. In nearly every case, there is something going wrong in a workplace, a failure if you want to call it that, and hence a potential opportunity to learn. However, organisational learning seems to be the least likely thing going on. Instead, many whistleblowers are subject to reprisals, sending a message to their co-workers that speaking out about problems is career suicide. Opportunities for learning are regularly squandered. Of course, I’m seeing a one-sided perspective: in workplaces where failure does not automatically lead to blame or cover-up, there is little need for whistleblowing. When those who speak out about problems are encouraged or even rewarded, no one is likely to contact me for advice. Even so, it would seem that such workplaces are the exception rather than the rule.

The more controversial the issue, the more difficult it can be to escape blaming as a mode of operation. On issues such as abortion, climate change, fluoridation and vaccination, partisans on either side of the debate are reluctant to admit any weakness in their views because opponents will seize on it as an avenue for attack. Each side becomes defensive, never admitting error while continually seeking to expose the other side’s shortcomings, including pathologies in reasoning and links to groups with vested interests. These sorts of confrontations seem designed to prevent learning from failure. Therefore it is predictable that such debates will continue largely unchanged.

Although the obstacles to learning from failures might seem insurmountable, there is hope. Black Box Thinking is a powerful antidote to complacency, showing what is possible and identifying the key obstacles to change. The book deserves to be read and its lessons taken to heart. A few courageous readers may decide to take a risk and attempt to resist the stampede to blame and instead foster a learning culture.


“The basic proposition of this book is that we have an allergic attitude to failure. We try to avoid it, cover it up and airbrush it from our lives. We have looked at cognitive dissonance, the careful use of euphemisms, anything to divorce us from the pain we feel when we are confronted with the realisation that we have underperformed.” (p. 196)

Brian Martin

Older body, youthful mind

For those who are getting old, there are ways to keep youthful mentally.

Senior lady concentrated

Is mental decline in old age inevitable? Are there habits that can help in maintaining mental acuity in later years? The older I get, the more these questions interest me, and so I keep on the lookout for discussions of relevant research that can be put to practical use. I’ve just read Staying Sharp, one of the most useful contributions in this area.

Academics and the life of the mind

I work as a researcher, among academics who depend on their minds to do their work. Most of my colleagues are over 40. Yet, despite mental capacity being crucial to scholarly performance, relatively few pay a lot of attention to nourishing their brain – “nourishing” interpreted in a variety of senses.

Whatever their views about the mind, many scholars behave as if it doesn’t matter all that much how they treat their bodies, because the mind is this separate entity that can be cultivated autonomously. Some damage their brains through excessive alcohol. More common is a neglect of physical exercise, even though there is ample evidence that exercise benefits mental functioning in multiple ways, including reducing anxiety and depression. Poor diet is also common.


The behaviour of intellectuals who neglect their bodies might be related to a status difference between white and blue-collar workers. To distinguish themselves from manual labourers, intellectuals may avoid physical exertion. Or perhaps the status comes from having sufficient income to afford a nice car and drive to work rather than walking or cycling.

Staying sharp

The book Staying Sharp is written by two US health practitioners who seek to combine ideas from scientific research with holistic approaches. Henry Emmons is a psychiatrist with a background in conventional medicine who now includes natural therapies in his practice; David Alter is a psychologist with a PhD who practises in a centre for holistic health. Their book is subtitled 9 keys for a youthful brain through modern science and ageless wisdom. Their focus is on older people, who they euphemistically refer to as being in the “second half of life,” roughly the 40s and beyond.


After a few introductory chapters, Staying Sharp has 9 chapters addressing each of the 9 keys in the subtitle. The authors have categorised the vast body of relevant research and practice into a convenient package for the non-specialist reader.

Of the 9 keys, three are more overtly about the body: exercise, sleep and diet. If the brain is thought of as a biological organ, then it makes sense that exercise is beneficial: it stimulates the flow of blood throughout the body, including the brain, providing nourishment and removing waste products. A good diet ensures the nourishment is of the highest quality. Sleep allows the brain to recover from inputs during wakefulness, while also performing functions such as consolidating memories.

Emmons and Alter’s other six keys are about mental orientations: curiosity, flexibility, optimism, empathy, relationships and authenticity. It seems plausible that greater curiosity can aid the mind, because it involves becoming exposed to new ideas, developing new connections and brain cells. Many people remain stuck in the same sets of ideas for years or decades, and this can lead to stagnation. I perceive this in myself in my daily writing. When I’m writing about a topic I’ve written about before, the words flow easily, but if I tackle a new topic, it becomes more of a struggle, which might be a sign of greater effort that mobilises less frequently used brain circuits. It is more comfortable to stick with familiar topics. Tackling new topics, as a result of curiosity, is analogous to exercise that pushes the body a bit beyond its comfort zone.


Emmons and Alter go well beyond this sort of intuitive assessment. They cite all sorts of scientific studies about curiosity, provide an evolutionary rationale for the advantages of curiosity (but not too much of it), give the case for experiencing boredom (to a certain degree), and provide all sorts of suggestions for fostering curiosity.

For each of the chapters on the 9 keys, Emmons and Alter provide a summary of key concepts, a rationale for the activity, evidence of effectiveness, and practical guidance for engaging in the activity. For example, concerning sleep they report on the prevalence of sleep deprivation in the US, tell about changes in sleep patterns as people get older, describe at some length the benefits of sleep (improved mood, clearing of the mind, repairing the body), give the biological rationale for the importance of sleep (including detoxification), and then pages of details about how to develop habits that promote good sleep.

Henry Emmons

Of writing for the general reader on the mental side of ageing well, Staying Sharp is the most comprehensive treatment I’ve seen. It draws on a wide range of scientific literature and covers both physical and psychological dimensions. The authors provide detailed practical steps in each area they address.

Out of the vast body of research and writing about the mind and ageing, to highlight 9 areas is a matter of convenience. In practice, all sorts of practices make a difference, but trying to make sense of all the information available is overwhelming. Readers who have been following research in areas covered in Staying Sharp will have their own ideas about priorities. This is only to be expected, because no prescription for productive ageing is ideal for every individual.

David Alter


Staying Sharp is oriented to affluent people and to life in the US. For those living in poverty or in a different culture, some of the keys would be different. To stay sharp, sometimes the first priority is to stay alive.

The book is written for individuals, even though some of the recommendations are about building connections with others. Individualism is higher in the US than anywhere else, and is probably greater among those who are well off. As a result, Staying Sharp has little about collective solutions for ageing well. For example, towns can be designed so that exercise by walking and cycling is part of daily life, and workplaces can be designed to foster greater optimism and stronger relationships. These involve social change, will be resisted by groups with vested interests, and are unlikely to make a big difference in the short term.

It’s possible to imagine a future in which the insights from Staying Sharp, and the experiences and studies on which it is based, are used to build communities that encourage mind-strengthening throughout life. Until then, a possible substitute is to devote efforts towards moving towards such a future. The efforts will help others and, by following Emmons and Alter’s advice, can contribute to staying sharp throughout one’s own life.

Read the book and visit the Staying Sharp website,


Brian Martin

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Jody Watts for helpful comments.

A title for your article

The title of an article, book or thesis can make a big difference, so it’s worth spending time and effort to find a good one.


When someone reads your article, what’s the first thing they read? The title of course. In fact, it may be the only thing they read. If it’s boring or off topic, they may not bother looking further. If it sounds intriguing, they may proceed even if it’s not their main area of interest.

In 1973, E. F. Schumacher authored a book presenting ideas about economics, for example concerning production, land, resources, ownership and technology. It became well known in part due to its inspired title: Small is Beautiful.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring was a best seller and helped launch the modern environmental movement. Carson was a skilled science writer, but even so the title of her book helped make it an icon. Imagine that it had been called instead Pesticides and Living Landscape, the title of a book by Robert L. Rudd that came out a couple of years later and covered much of the same ground. (The publication of Rudd’s book was delayed by opposition from pesticide supporters.)


I’m focusing here on non-fiction. Titles for novels, short stories, plays, poems and musical compositions are also important. However, titles alone aren’t enough: the content is crucial. Furthermore, good work can succeed despite an ordinary title. Some of Beethoven’s compositions have special titles, for the example the Pastoral and the Choral symphonies. However, Symphony #5 is well known without having a descriptive word attached to it. Imagine, though, Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries being titled Detective Novel #1 through to Detective Novel #66.

Agatha Christie

My experience

Somewhere along the line, early in my writing career, I started paying attention to titles. In 1979, I wrote a booklet with the provisional title Activists and the Politics of Technology. Seeking something catchier, I asked some of my environmentalist friends and one said, “Ask David Allworth. He’s good at titles.” So I approached David and gave him some information about my booklet. Before long, he came up with a list of excellent possibilities, and one I loved: Changing the Cogs.

A year later, I had another booklet ready for publication. A descriptive title would have been “A critical analysis of the pro-nuclear views of Sir Ernest Titterton and Sir Philip Baxter.” I forget how, but the title became Nuclear Knights: Titterton and Baxter had been knighted. Alliteration is valuable in a title. The publisher was Rupert Public Interest Movement, at the time campaigning for freedom-of-information legislation. John Wood, a key figure in Rupert, drew a memorable cover graphic showing Baxter and Titterson as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at windmills. Covers can be as important as titles, but that is another topic.


A few years later, I wrote a book tentatively titled Grassroots Action for Peace. I wracked my mind for something catchier and came up with Uprooting War. Again, my publisher provided an inspired graphic.


On another occasion, I made the mistake of making a title more academic. The title I chose was Scientific Knowledge in Controversy: The Social Dynamics of the Fluoridation Debate. It’s descriptive but not easy to remember. In retrospect, I should have stuck with my original idea, Fluoridation and Power.

For academic works, a common practice is to provide a short attractive main title and a more descriptive subtitle, but if the main title is too general, it can be misleading. For example, the title Power Politics could refer to lots of things, including electricity politics or any number of politicians or political events. You see the title and then discover the subtitle, such as Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles.

I wrote the title of this post as “A title for your article,” but so far I’ve written about books, not articles. Most people write far more articles than books. I could have more accurately titled the post “How to find a good title for your article, book or thesis.” There’s often a trade-off between brevity and descriptiveness. A short title is bound to leave something out. It’s useful to think of a title as a handle, as something that makes it convenient to use. Though brevity is often better, lengthy titles can sometimes be effective. One of my favourites is Barrington Moore Jr’s book Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery and upon Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them.

I’ve written several articles about the debate over the origin of AIDS, looking at the treatment of the theory that the disease entered humans via contaminated polio vaccines used in Africa in the 1950s. One of my articles was about my own involvement in the debate as a social researcher, and I came up with the title “Sticking a needle into science: the case of polio vaccines and the origin of AIDS.” The main title, “Sticking a needle into science,” draws on the imagery of vaccination involving an injection using a needle. Actually, the polio vaccines in question were administered orally, with the vaccine squirted into recipients’ mouths.


Brainstorming titles

At a meeting some years ago with a group of my PhD students, we helped Patrick decide on a title for his thesis, which was nearly ready for submission. Patrick briefly explained that his thesis dealt with methods used by key groups in the debate over climate change. I knew more detail, of course, but most of the others didn’t. I asked everyone to write down at least ten possible titles for Patrick’s thesis as quickly as possible, saying there was a prize for the best title and another for the funniest.

Individual brainstorming can be more productive than the collective form. The point of quickly writing numerous possible titles is to move thinking from the logically oriented left hemisphere of the brain to the more creative right hemisphere. Most scholars need to loosen up to be more creative. Offering a prize for the funniest title helps.


After a while, I called a halt, and everyone gave their lists of titles to Patrick. Not everyone had produced ten possible titles, but some had produced more. Then Patrick read them all out loud, starting with #1 from each list, then #2 from each list, and so on. The best title was judged by Patrick and the funniest title was judged by the most laughter – and there was plenty. The prizes were trinkets or chocolates, more symbolic than substantial.

Patrick ended up titling his thesis using a combination of a couple of the suggestions. It was “Climate conflict: players and tactics in the greenhouse game.”

This technique of generating title ideas has worked well every time I’ve tried it with a group. Sometimes none of the suggested titles is ideal, but the process helps the author to think up something better. Those suggesting titles don’t need to be knowledgeable about the topic. In fact, it can be better if they know only a little, so they are less inhibited by expectations.

There are many considerations to take into account in deciding on a title, including key words for web searches, relevance to readers in the field and beyond, acceptability to editors, and conventions in the genre. The thing I’ve learned is that it’s worthwhile spending a fair bit of time and effort choosing a title, and also worthwhile enlisting others in the task. People read your titles more than anything else you write, so why not make them as good as you can?

Brian Martin

Are you lucky?

Luck plays a greater role in success than usually recognised.


I’ve been lucky in my life. I was lucky to be born in an affluent society of loving and supportive parents. They were well off yet thrifty, and encouraged me in valuable habits. They started me on the clarinet, drove me to weekly private lessons and pushed me to practise daily for several years until I learned to love playing and was self-motivated. They encouraged me in reading and learning, but did not push me to get good grades in school.

I was even lucky when I was called up for military service and decided to leave the US for Australia. It was disruptive at the time, but caused me to rethink my views and led me to a lifetime of activism and research.

draft lottery

In my career I was lucky in getting some jobs and not getting others. Just after finishing my PhD, I applied for a lectureship at a new university and just missed out on what I thought would be an exciting opportunity. Decades later, I happened to talk to the physicist who got the job. He told me, “Brian, you’re so lucky you didn’t end up here!”

Most people’s lives are affected by chance events in many ways, large and small. Yet seldom is this factored into thinking about success and failure because, in meritocratic societies, the assumption is that success is due to talent and hard work and therefore justified.

These thoughts are stimulated by a new book by Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank is a prominent economist who has studied the implications of psychology for economics. His earlier books, such as Luxury Fever and The Winner-Take-All Society, are readable and insightful analyses of economic inefficiency caused by wasteful competition.

Success and Luck is part analysis and part personal testament. Frank describes playing tennis and experiencing an episode of sudden cardiac death, which has a 2% survival rate. Frank fully recovered, very much against the odds, because an ambulance happened to be nearby. That he was alive to write his latest book might be said to be a miracle, except that for a mathematically minded economist it was like winning a lottery in survival.

Robert H Frank

The role of luck in success

Many successful people would rather not acknowledge the role of luck in what they have achieved in life. If what they have and do is due to their talent, drive and hard work, they can feel assured they deserve everything they have. If chance events were important, then perhaps other people, just as talented and hard working but less fortunate, deserve as much.

In academia, luck is involved in obtaining research grants. Much depends on the choice of assessors and on the individuals sitting on granting boards. When success rates are low, there are many good applications near the cut-off: those above the cut-off receive grants and those below do not.


            However, as a recipient of a major grant, it is natural to feel the grant is deserved – after all, a lot of work went into the application as well as into all the prior research – and to discount the role of luck. Losers might complain but winners are more likely to feel their award was justified. A grant success then leads to more opportunities to do research, and grants are treated by granting bodies as evidence of high performance, so a single award can lead to a cascade of further grants and research outcomes. Just a tiny bit of luck can make the difference between a stellar research trajectory and a solid but much lower profile career, or even a failure to make the grade as an academic. I’ve known quite a few brilliant scholars who, due to hostile supervisors, biased appointment committees or unsympathetic editors, never had a break and languished their entire careers without even obtaining a permanent position.


Frank’s previous studies of winner-take-all markets are relevant here. In the men’s 100-meter final in the 2016 Olympics, the difference between the first and the fourth-place finishers was  0.12 seconds, yet the rewards for the gold medallist, in terms of recognition and endorsements, are far greater than for finishers without medals. You could be fourth best in the world yet receive only a small fraction of the rewards for the first place finisher. Furthermore, you might have had a slower-than-usual start, and the gold-medallist a faster-than-usual start, that made all the difference. That is the potential role of luck.

Olympics 100m final 2016

            It used to be that most competitions for career success were localised. If you’re the best lawyer in town, you’ll get many more of the most lucrative cases. However, cheaper travel and communication mean you may now lose out to even better lawyers across the country. The market has expanded: you’re competing against a bigger field, and even a slight advantage can make a huge difference in outcomes.

Let’s say you’re a specialist in corporate mergers. A company worth billions of dollars wants to have the very best lawyers. Because of the huge sums at stake, even a slight advantage is worth paying for. So the salaries of the very best corporate-merger lawyers shoot through the roof.


            This winner-take-all process, resulting from the breakdown of previous market barriers, is a prime driver of economic inequality. Frank has written previously of how this happens, and has recommended ways to counter it. In Success and Luck, he draws on this research to make the point that the larger the number of competitors, the more likely it is that luck will play a significant role in determining the winners.

To be clear: every one of the winners in these markets is talented and hard-working. The point is that others are just as talented and hard-working and only lose out due to bad luck. Frank provides tables showing that if outcomes are determined mainly by talent and hard work, with luck contributing only 2%, then when there are many competitors it becomes almost certain that the winner is very lucky and that there are others who are more talented and hard working but less lucky.

Motivation and luck

Frank points out that there can be advantages in discounting the role of luck: it can cause you to try harder. If you believe outcomes are due to hard work, you might be more willing to keep putting in the effort. On the other hand, if hard work isn’t enough and good luck is needed too, is it really worthwhile working quite as hard?


            A more important point made by Frank is that if the role of luck is recognised, it becomes more difficult to justify huge differentials in outcomes. If becoming a CEO is partly due to luck – in having the right parents, upbringing, education and opportunities – then why should a CEO have a salary dozens or hundreds of times greater than workers? Some rank-and-file workers, with the same opportunities, might have had what it takes to become a CEO.

Frank thinks that greater awareness of the role of luck may have a beneficial effect in moderating inequality. But there’s a problem. Winners benefit from the belief that their success is due to being superior and so will use their power and influence to help maintain this belief. I would like to believe in Frank’s view but I will wait to hear any leaders give a proper recognition of the role of luck and then try to justify huge levels of inequality.

Frank writes mainly of the US, where economic inequality is extreme, social mobility is limited and yet the belief that commitment and hard work can triumph over adversity remains almost sacred. In many other countries, for example in Western Europe, more generous welfare systems might be seen as recognition that those who are less well off deserve support.

It seems to me there is something different or deeper in the way US policies for disadvantaged people are so much harsher than in most other rich countries, something beyond a lack of recognition of the role of luck. Consider for example someone born with a serious intellectual disability. No one could imagine that such a person’s failure to advance in the meritocracy is anything other than bad luck. So how can a successful entrepreneur justify receiving more than the person with a disability? How does a belief in meritocracy address the issue of people with profound disabilities? This should be the source of cognitive dissonance, so the issue is hardly ever addressed.


            Furthermore, anyone could, on any day, become seriously brain-damaged through an accident or stroke, largely as a matter of bad luck. This should be the basis for compassion and support for others, because it could just as easily be yourself.

Frank is tackling the issue of luck at the other end of the spectrum of capabilities, among those who are high achieving. But given that the impact of genetic luck is not seen as an issue for those with serious disabilities, Frank’s hope for change might seem forlorn. However, he found that after conversations about the role of luck, both liberals and conservatives could change their minds. Would they have changed their minds just as readily by raising the issue of serious disabilities?

The progressive consumption tax

In Success and Luck, Frank makes the case for a progressive consumption tax, an alternative to the usual income, goods and other taxes. He and others have been advocating this tax for years. Frank argues that it can painlessly provide the government with revenue to restore US infrastructure and enable people to have the resources to pursue their dreams.

Without going into the details of the tax, suffice to say that its apparent magic is based on addressing status races. As Frank explains, if every rich person has a car, house and wedding worth half as much, they will be just as happy because, in comparison to others, they are just as far ahead. Furthermore, for those who are well off, research shows that extra possessions give little or no extra happiness.


            Frank repeatedly uses a revealing example. Which would you rather have: a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo and well maintained roads to drive it on, or a $333,000 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta to be driven on roads with potholes? The point is that when public expenditure – on roads, education, health and much else – declines, private wealth cannot compensate.


            Frank’s arguments are very good. The question is whether good arguments are enough to bring about a policy change, no matter how rational and socially beneficial for everyone. Frank says that public opinion can shift rapidly, as it has for example on same-sex marriage. As much as I would like to see a policy change that reverses the trend towards greater economic inequality, it seems to me that good ideas need to be taken up by social movements. At the moment the movements for equality need all the help they can get. So if you’ve had a fair bit of success in your life and are willing to accept that you had lucky breaks along the way, then perhaps one way of saying thanks is to join campaigns for greater equality.

A more radical position is the socialist principle of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Given that research on altruism shows that helping others can bring great personal satisfaction, often far more than personal achievement, it is possible to develop a rational argument for applying this principle. Wouldn’t the world be different if rational argument – and compassion – were the primary factors in decision-making?


Brian Martin

Stick with it

Willingness to keep trying is crucial to success, even more than talent.

 stick with it

When you decide to do something, do you persist even when it seems hopeless? Or do you shift to something else that seems more doable? Here’s a simple set of ten questions:

This little questionnaire has remarkable predictive value. For example, in studies of US high school students, scores on this questionnaire can better predict success in college than scores on standardised tests like the SAT. In studies of which military recruits complete West Point’s extremely challenging Beast Barracks, answers to this questionnaire are more predictive than any other measure, including high school grades, test scores and leadership experience.

The researcher who came up with this questionnaire is Angela Duckworth, and she calls what is measured “grit”. It is a combination of two attributes, passion and perseverance. “Passion” may not be quite the right word, because it suggests emotionality. What’s involved is consistency: sticking with the same challenge over time.

 Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth

Duckworth has been researching this area for years, with a number of collaborators, and her papers are regularly cited in commentary about achievement. Now she has written an accessible book explaining her research and findings, titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is engaging, informative and inspiring.

“In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.” (p. 8)

As Duckworth’s work became better known, for example through her talks, she was contacted by all sorts of people interested in pursuing excellence, for example the coach of the Seattle Seahawks professional gridiron team. In this way she learned even more about grit and how to develop it.

grit hand

            Grit, to a large degree, is learned. Parents can encourage their children to persist, and Duckworth devotes a chapter to grit and parenting. Another way to develop grit is through observing role models. I was greatly influenced by my initial PhD supervisor, Bob May. I helped him with calculations for a model of how interactions between voters influence outcomes and he generously made me a co-author. But getting the paper published was a challenge. Bob sent it to a top political science journal where it was roundly rejected by several referees, but Bob was not deterred, writing to the editor challenging the referees and demanding a new round of refereeing. When this led to another rejection, he tried another journal with the same results. When he left Sydney University for Princeton, I took over the submissions and the paper was finally published. The lesson for me was never to give up on a paper, at least not on one saying something worthwhile. My record is having a paper published after rejections by 14 journals.

One of the lessons from grit research is that, in the long run, it is not beneficial to be protected from failure. Individuals who seem to have a charmed life, always succeeding at whatever they do, may come unstuck when eventually they run into serious obstacles.


            Duckworth’s research ties in with that from related areas. Carol Dweck looked at people’s “mindsets.” People with a fixed mindset believe performance is determined by innate talent and will be discouraged by failure because it implies they lack talent. In some cases they will not attempt a task, or drop out of a competition, because they fear failure. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe performance depends on effort. When they fail, they try to figure what to do to improve in future. People high in grit usually have a growth mindset.

Anders Ericsson has studied what it takes to become an expert performer, arguing that world-class performers inevitably have to spend thousands of hours in a special type of practice called deliberate practice. He is yet to find anyone who can play chess, do mathematics, play the violin, do the high jump or undertake any other highly skilled activity at elite levels without years of dedicated practice. To persist in the required effort and overcome obstacles and plateaus in performance requires grit.

Young female rock climber at sunset, Kalymnos Island, Greece

One way to develop more grit is to develop a new skill and stick with it for a couple of years. Duckworth undertook studies of US high-school students and how well they performed at university, looking in particular at extracurricular activities such as sport or music. Students who spent at least two years in such an activity later showed more grit, even when it was in a different area. In comparison, students who tried out a whole range of activities but didn’t stick long with any of them had no advantage. The implication is that persisting with a new activity for at least a couple of years is useful training in grit that can provide benefits later on in a different area.

“Teachers who, in college, had demonstrated productive follow-through in a few extracurricular commitments were more likely to stay in teaching and, furthermore, were more effective in producing academic gains in their students. In contrast, persistence and effectiveness in teaching had absolutely no measurable relationship with teachers’ SAT scores, their college GPAs, or interviewer ratings of their leadership potential.” (p. 232)

Luckily, it’s not necessary to pick a challenge at age 5 or 15 or 25 and persist against obstacles ever after. Having grit doesn’t mean always striving in the same area. If you spend years training to be a skier but sustain a permanent injury, then it makes sense to switch to a different goal. Having grit doesn’t mean persisting against insurmountable obstacles. In fact, part of being successful in achieving a goal is to rethink strategies when necessary. After multiple rejections of my article, I might well have chosen another option such as publishing it on my website or turning it into a chapter in a book.


What’s wrong with grit

Grit sounds great, but it does not automatically lead to positive outcomes because not all goals are worthwhile. Becoming a successful criminal certainly requires persistence in the face of obstacles, but this is a case of grit for a harmful goal, at least harmful for the criminal’s victims. Furthermore, just because some achievements are socially valued does not mean they are unquestionable. Duckworth gives the example of grit as a key to success in military training, but anti-war activists would argue that grit would better be turned to campaigning against military methods. Duckworth also gives the example of grit in rising to the top of corporate hierarchies. Advocates of workers’ self-management would prefer to see grit deployed to promote greater worker participation and flatter organisational structures.

Unfortunately, those with the most money and power are in the best position to take advantage of grit research. Duckworth, to her credit, wants everyone to know what’s involved. Although she has consulted with top executives and sports coaches, she also has tried to help disadvantaged children and she has written the readable book Grit. If you care about injustice, you can learn from Grit how to be more effective.


 Brian Martin

Practise, and keep practising

Do you want to become really good at a skill? The world’s greatest authority on expert performance, Anders Ericsson, tells how.

Anders Ericsson

Pick a skill you’d like to improve, say chess, golf, piano, writing, Mandarin or mathematics. You need to find a good teacher, someone who understands the skill and will assign you tasks just beyond your current ability. You start practising, putting your full concentration into doing the tasks and overcoming shortcomings. And you keep practising, with your teacher’s guidance, tackling ever harder challenges.

For decades, Ericsson has been studying what it takes to become a top performer. Here’s the surprise. Natural talent doesn’t seem to make much difference. Think of geniuses like Mozart or Einstein. Natural talent for music or physics? No. Their supreme achievements can be explained by intensive practice from a young age. Ericsson has now written a popular account of his research, titled Peak, co-authored by science writer Robert Pool. It is clearly written, filled with examples and addresses the most common criticisms.


            Ericsson is often credited with the so-called 10,000-hour rule, which loosely stated says that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become a world-class performer. The rule was popularised by science writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, but Gladwell got lots of things wrong. There’s no magic number for the number of hours of practice, nor does any old practice suffice. Gladwell said the Beatles obtained 10,000 hours of practice performing in Hamburg from 1960 to 1964. Ericsson cites a Beatles biography saying the figure was probably closer to 1000, and anyway the Beatles weren’t practising to play other groups’ songs to a high standard. Their fame rests on original compositions by Lennon and McCartney, so the key to the Beatles’ success is the time these two spent practising composition.

The one thing Gladwell got right was that becoming a great performer requires a lot of practice, usually thousands of hours.

“By now it is safe to conclude from many studies on a wide variety of disciplines that nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice.” (p. 96)

There’s also hope for those of us with lesser ambitions, who just want to become a lot better than we are. The key is the right sort of practice.


            Most people, when learning a new skill like driving a car, practise enough to acquire a basic competence. After that, deploying the skill becomes automatic, and there’s little further improvement. We are using the skill, not practising to improve. If you want to improve as a driver, you need new challenges, such as racing.

The same pattern holds for most people in most fields. After obtaining their medical degrees and beginning their regular work, doctors acquire some new skills through exposure to patients and procedures, but then level off. Ericsson cites evidence suggesting that for many purposes, doctors with decades of experience are no better than those who graduated a few years ago. Indeed, recent graduates might be better because they have learned the latest techniques.

In fields such as teaching, business and law, practitioners may be skilled, but few keep improving. Just doing the job won’t make you better. You need to practise.

To learn how to keep improving, it’s valuable to look at areas where excellence can be judged with little ambiguity, for example chess (where rankings reflect tournament success), sport (especially individual sports like tennis), and performing arts like ballet and classical music (where judges of performance generally agree). In all these areas, there has been a lot of research into the sort of practice that enables ongoing improvement.

Deliberate practice

Only a particular sort of practice will make much difference. Ericsson calls it “deliberate practice.” It requires intense concentration on attempting to improve at the limits of your capacity. Consider reading, a skill that nearly everyone develops at a basic level and some take to advanced levels. Children can find learning to read both fun and challenging; by trying to read gradually more difficult writing, reading skills are developed.

Most adult readers stop pushing themselves and settle into a steady diet at the same level, reading novels, newspapers or text messages, or perhaps poetry or scientific papers. If you want to continue to improve as a reader, you need to find pieces of writing that challenge you, and you need to concentrate intently on understanding them. If you’ve read lots of crime novels, reading another one won’t be deliberate practice, but picking one that is especially difficult could be.

In classical music, good teachers know what it takes to become an outstanding performer: using the right technique and practising intently on ever more difficult music. But in most fields, practitioners stop improving because they seldom engage in deliberate practice.

piano teacher

            To improve requires lots of deliberate practice, usually under the guidance of a good teacher, using the most advanced methods, and in situations where there is prompt feedback. Few people have the advantage of a personal teacher or trainer who can give immediate feedback throughout practice every day. (Wolfgang Mozart’s father Leopold provided this sort of personal guidance.) In music, the next best option is having weekly private lessons, in which the teacher assigns music to be practised, monitors improvement and assigns new music of ever increasing difficulty. For this sort of teaching to work, the music student has to practise. To the chagrin of many a music teacher, quite a few young pupils don’t improve, and invariably it’s because they don’t practise. So having or developing the self-discipline to practise is crucial. Supportive parents often make the difference, providing encouragement and structure for practising in early years, until the child becomes self-motivated.

According to Ericsson, hardly anyone finds this sort of practising fun. Deliberate practice is hard work. Elite professional musicians may practise several hours per day throughout their careers, but never find it relaxing.



Not everyone aspires to become a chess grandmaster or a violin virtuoso. Even for lesser achievements, though, the methods of developing expert performance can be applied, sometimes with dramatic effect. Ericsson reports on an application of expert performance principles to the teaching of physics — students in groups engaged with the material and received rapid feedback — that gave an astounding improvement. The promise is that applying the principles to a range of areas can speed learning.

For those who want to improve their swimming, application of the principles can accelerate learning and gains, even if world-beating performance is not a goal. High levels of fitness can become more achievable with less effort.

Ericsson says deliberate practice can revolutionise the way we think about human potential. Rather than being limited by innate talent, the implication is that nearly everyone can become really good in any of a wide range of skills. When people say “I’m no good at maths,” they assume some sort of genetic limitation. Instead, the assumption should be that anyone, with the right sort of training and motivation, can become good at maths, and about anything else you can name. In some fields, early training is essential for world-class achievements, but even that can be factored into education in the future. There are potential applications in education, business, health, science and other fields, as described in Peak and previous books presenting research findings in the field for a general audience.


For the revolution of improvement to occur, much more investigation is needed. Ericsson notes that in lots of fields, little is known about how to measure expert performance or about the mental representations used by top performers.

There will also be another obstacle: many top figures in a range of fields have a stake in the present system. Consider education. A transformation could occur, and it involves changing from a priority on learning knowledge to a priority on learning skills. The problem is that this would shake up educational hierarchies, in which teachers are in charge of dispensing knowledge, administrators run the systems and there is little scope for individualised training programmes. Perhaps the most promising area for uptake is in home schooling, with informed parents applying the principles and recruiting specialist teachers as appropriate. Just as private tutoring is the basis for expert performance in music, so it may become more common in a range of learning areas.


            The long-term implication might be that educational bureaucracies will become obsolete, replaced by networks of individualised learning embedded in the community. This is reminiscent of the ideas of Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society. It would be wishful thinking to imagine that this will happen quickly, if at all.

The idea that anyone, with the right sort of teaching and support and lots of deliberate practice, can become very good at something is potentially threatening to power-holders in all sorts of areas, including corporate management and politics. Governments and corporations operate on the principle that their leaders know best, either individually or via experts on tap. If anyone can develop high-level expertise, present power systems may be threatened. Deliberate practice promises to democratise human capacities. The implications are potentially profound, so those with the most power will use it to keep changes under control.


Expert performance: who could be against it? Everyone wants surgeons to be highly skilled when undertaking operations. But there is a wider set of considerations: expertise needs to be deployed for worthy causes. For surgeons to be more highly skilled is fine, but the wider question is the level of effort put into preventive health measures, now minimal compared to medical interventions against ill health. What is also needed is expertise in promoting exercise, good diet, a clean environment and mental calm, and these areas are poorly funded and less well developed than medical specialities such as surgery.


            Then there are areas where expert performance is undesirable. Torture is an example: militaries experiment with torture techniques, and some practitioners become very good at them. It might also be argued that improvements in military performance are undesirable, and that efforts should instead be put into improving performance in conflict resolution, nonviolent action, and promotion of social justice. Initiatives to improve human performance need to be linked to worthwhile social goals. So it should be a priority to learn about expertise in promoting freedom and equality, so more people can apply deliberate practice to methods for making the world a better place.

If you want to become a lot better at some skill, Peak should be on your reading list. It is systematic yet accessible, with lots of examples. On its own, reading it won’t make you better, but deliberate practice will.

“Deliberate practice can open the door to a world of possibilities that you may have been convinced were out of reach. Open that door.” (p. 179)

Robert Pool
Robert Pool, co-author of Peak

Brian Martin

Think freakier

The authors of Freakonomics have now written Think like a Freak. Their stimulating perspective is an invitation to think in even more original ways.

Steven Levitt is an economist at the University of Chicago who became famous for his book Freakonomics, in which he applies logic and mathematics in original ways to both longstanding and novel problems and issues. The book’s co-author, Stephen Dubner, is a writer who can turn dry statistics into page-turning adventures.


One controversial topic covered in Freakonomics was the cause of the decline in the US crime rate in the 1990s. The authors presented the idea that the legalisation of abortion nationwide in the early 1970s led to a significant decline in the birth of children in disadvantaged circumstances, and as a result the crime rate went down 15 to 20 years later. They cite statistics and references to back up this hypothesis. Freakonomics looked also at why teachers cheat, the economics of drug dealing, and fashions in naming children, among other topics. Levitt and Dubner later extended their popular treatments of unorthodox perspectives in SuperFreakonomics. As well, the authors run a blog and a radio programme.

Steven Levitt
Steven Levitt

Because of the huge sales of Freakonomics, it is not surprising that Levitt’s research findings have come under considerable scrutiny, with some data and findings contested. As well, it is debateable whether the topics covered should be considered part of the economics discipline.

Most recently, Levitt and Dubner have written Think like a Freak, aiming to explain their approach by using engaging examples to motivate general comments. This book is my focus here. Learning to think in unorthodox ways can be worthwhile even if the results are sometimes questionable.


In Think like a Freak, the authors tell, for example, of Takeru Kobayashi (nicknamed Kobi), a slightly built Japanese man who became involved in competitions to eat as much as possible in a short time. After some initial successes, he entered the biggest event in the field, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York. The annual contest involved eating as many hotdogs as possible in 12 minutes. Other competitors followed the then conventional wisdom, which was to train by eating as much as possible. Kobi, though, decided to train in a different way: he experimented with different approaches, for example eating the sausage separately from the bun and soaking the bun in water so it could be swallowed more quickly. Going into the competition, Kobi astounded the field by winning and by smashing the record, eating nearly twice as many hotdogs as the previous highest number.

Takeru Kobayashi, 2006

From this example, Levitt and Dubner highlight a few key points. Kobi didn’t just accept the conventional approaches: he tried out new approaches, tested them and practised them. Another thing was that Kobi focused on how he ate, namely applying the methods he had developed as well as possible rather than comparing his performance to previous efforts by others. In this way he was not held back by the expectation that records can only broken incrementally. Finally, Kobi developed a mental technique, including his focus on process, that allowed him to enjoy the process of gorging himself, despite the pain and discomfort involved.

Levitt and Dubner pursue this path of presenting simple ideas that, when applied in unorthodox ways or to unexpected topics, lead to potential breakthroughs. One chapter is “Think like a child.” Of course they don’t mean always think like a child, but in some circumstances children can cut through conventional ways of seeing the world, conventional for adults that is. A magician friend of the authors told them he was hardly ever caught out by an adult, but quite a few children could see through his tricks, for a variety of reasons: they were less focused and hence harder to distract, they were more attentive to details adults wouldn’t notice, and they were shorter and could see things that adults couldn’t because the tricks were designed to be seen from above.



Levitt and Dubner describe meeting with David Cameron just before he became Britain’s Prime Minister. They pointed out some ways to make the National Health Service more efficient by introducing charges for service, a perspective that comes naturally to an economist. But Cameron switched off: the NHS was not to be tinkered with.

Levitt and Dubner here subscribe to conventional rationality of planning by elites, those who supposedly know best. But there is more to decision-making than rationality. Part of the picture is involving citizens in the decisions that affect them, thereby enabling far better uptake of policies. Cameron instinctively knew he could not implement major NHS reforms, even if he wanted to, without winning over the population. (Incidentally, the US fee-based health system is hardly a model of rationality.)

Levitt and Dubner advocate going to the roots of problems, not just treating symptoms. They tell the now-familiar story of how Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that ulcers are caused not by stress and spicy foods but by a bacterium that can be eliminated by antibiotics. They had to fight the medical establishment for recognition. Marshall and Warren, now Nobel Prize winners, had addressed the cause of ulcers. So far, so good.

Then there is crime, a favourite topic for Levitt and Dubner. In reprising their studies of abortion and crime, they point out that some measures, such as more capital punishment and tighter gun laws, do not reduce the crime rate. They instead prefer to focus on something deeper, children’s upbringing.

There are other ways to look at crime not examined by Levitt and Dubner. One is to point out that nearly all crime appearing in US police statistics is by people at the bottom of the social pyramid. Those who are poor, with less education and few opportunities, are far more likely to commit the sorts of crime that result in arrests and imprisonment. However, available evidence suggests that the biggest criminals are at the top of the social hierarchy, including white-collar crimes by individuals and major crimes by corporations and governments. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, have been fined billions of dollars for crimes leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but few executives are ever called to account. So crime statistics should be treated as an artefact of a class-based approach to criminality: most of the big boys (and girls) can cheat and steal with impunity, while those further down the hierarchy are subject to far greater scrutiny and punishment.

The sociologist Randall Collins wrote an insightful chapter presenting an unfamiliar perspective on crime. He argues that all societies need to define some activities as deviant, and those considered most deviant are criminalised. So crime rates reflect deeper processes of social stratification and exclusion. In this case, thinking like a freak may not get you as far as reading some sociology.

Collins-Sociological Insight

Levitt and Dubner write about a study by Jörg Spenkuch of German Protestants and Catholics that found people living in Protestant areas earned a little more money on average than people living in Catholic areas, although their hourly wages were the same. One factor was that those in Protestant areas worked longer hours. Is the lesson from this, as suggested by Levitt and Dubner, that kids should be encouraged to be more hard-working like Protestants? An alternative lesson is that by working fewer hours, Catholics are increasing their well-being: it is well documented that higher incomes have a minimal impact on happiness compared to spending time with family and friends.

Persuading people

Levitt and Dubner include a useful chapter on how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded. They make some useful recommendations. One is to give credit to the other side’s strong points, because an opponent is unlikely to engage in debate with an obviously biased perspective. In studying numerous scientific controversies over the years, my observation is that it is rare for a partisan to give a fair summary of the opponent’s argument. In the Australian vaccination debate, each side presents its strong points and criticises the other side’s weak points. There’s very little persuasion going on.

Another recommendation made by Levitt and Dubner is not to insult the opponents, for example by calling them ignorant, foolish, dupes or crazies. Going by past behaviour, many vaccination partisans won’t be following this advice.

The authors use climate change as an example, pondering the difference between the scientific consensus about the reality of human-induced global warming and the considerable scepticism among the US public. However, they omit one important factor: in the US, there is a powerful fossil-fuel lobby that does everything it can to create doubt about climate science. In many other countries, climate sceptics have low public credibility. So perhaps Levitt and Dubner could make another recommendation: have on your side a powerful and wealthy group that intervenes in the debate.

Stephen Dubner
Stephen Dubner

Levitt and Dubner use a different example to good effect: driverless cars. These are getting better technologically, but to argue for them, they say it is wise to acknowledge possible dangers, for example that a driverless car could plough into a preschool, killing lots of kids. They provide the figures to show that dramatic events, reported in the media, give an unrealistic picture of technological dangers. Cars (with drivers) are the big killer of kids in rich countries, and if driverless cars reduced the road toll even a little, many more kids would be alive and uninjured.

However, there is another way to look at the issue of driverless cars, which is to ask by so many billions of dollars are being devoted to a slight improvement in a transport system that is inherently unsafe, as well as being damaging to the environment. For decades, critics of the car have been advocating for a range of alternatives: walking, cycling, public transport, and design of cities to make walking and cycling safe and attractive. Recognising such alternatives does not require thinking like a freak, but rather being open to possibilities that clash with the powerful road and auto lobby in the US. Thinking about transport like a freak in Copenhagen, where commuting by bicycle is commonplace, would be different than thinking like a freak in Los Angeles.

The final chapter of Think like a Freak is titled “The upside of quitting.” They say that quitting has an unfortunately bad reputation, often being associated with failure. They note that quitting a project, a job or a relationship can have many advantages, but quitting often is not contemplated because of sunk costs and lack of consideration of opportunity costs.


They describe tech companies that try out lots of ideas with the aim of testing them promptly and, if they don’t measure up, quitting without investing a lot of money. It makes sense to spend some time and effort, but no more than necessary, determining whether something is a bad idea.

Levitt and Dubner even set up an online operation that offers to flip a coin for people to make decisions, for example whether to leave a job or a relationship. This has attracted tens of thousands of participants who are asked to report on the outcome of the process. Despite some intriguing outcomes, I have reservations. There is research showing that people systematically misjudge what made them happy in the past and what will make them happy in the future. Indeed, there are several illusions involved in people’s explanations for their current state of mind. So while I sympathise with Levitt and Dubner’s encouragement to see the positives involved in quitting and failure, actually measuring the consequences of choices can be challenging.

Think like a Freak is engaging and informative. It is written as a set of stories, and the authors are well aware that story-telling is a powerful technique for getting a message across. The book concludes with some modest comments.

All we’ve done is encourage you to think a bit differently, a bit harder, a bit more freely. Now it’s your turn! We of course hope you enjoyed this book. But our greatest satisfaction would be if it helps you, even in some small measure, to go out and right some wrong, to ease some burden, or even — if this is your thing — to eat more hot dogs. (p. 211)

Brian Martin

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Think like a freak: how to think smarter about almost everything (Penguin, 2015)

Marking blind

When marking an essay, it can be better not to know who wrote it.

As a university teacher, one of my regular tasks is to mark assignments, and I want to be as fair as possible to the students. One method I use is to “mark blind,” namely without knowing the name of the student whose work I’m marking.

anonymous student

Most teachers try to be fair and say that knowing the identity of the student makes no difference to them. However, there’s plenty of research about in-group favouritism, where the in-group can be based on family, religion, age, ethnicity or viewpoints, among other possibilities. Teachers are likely to be affected by all sorts of unconscious bias, including expectations about how good a student is.

Students create impressions on their teachers. Some students are more articulate, engaging, humorous or astute in their comments. Then there are the effects of appearance, dress and demeanour. Maybe a student really tries hard, creating a favourable impression of diligence.

Wine tasters evaluate wines without knowing their origin. Vintages can vary considerably from year to year, so it’s better not to be influenced by previous perceptions. Similarly, the quality of a student’s work can vary from class to class and from assignment to assignment, and teacher expectations can affect evaluations.

Even a student’s name can influence perceptions. Male or female? Ethnic? Pretentious-sounding or ordinary? Stereotypes abound and can influence attitudes. If you know a student well, in-group favouritism is a risk; if not, then stereotype bias is a risk. When marking and knowing the student’s name, it’s therefore likely that some mental image of the student will be present, and it’s likely this has an effect on the marker.


My way of limiting this bias is to mark assignments without knowing the student’s name. I ask students to list only their student number on the assignment, not their name.


I find this changes my attitude while marking. My focus becomes to comment on the work done, with less concern about the relationship of the comments or mark to the student. I don’t worry about a student who comes across well in class doing poorly or about a seemingly lackadaisical student doing well. After finishing marking all the assignments, I go online to recombine student numbers with names, and send my comments to the students.

One good aspect of marking blind is that I can say honestly to students that my mark is on their work, not on them personally. They can be more confident that if they receive a good mark, it is a reflection of good work and likewise that if they receive a poor mark, it is not about who they are.

If only more essays


In recent years, I have had my students submit their work electronically, either directly to me by email or through an online forum. Usually this means I can see their names as well as their student numbers – but only temporarily. I put the submitted files into a folder, with each file having as its name the student’s number. By the time there are a few files in the folder, I have forgotten which one is which.

Sometimes, when marking an assignment, I recognise the student. Perhaps it’s because we had talked about it beforehand, or the student gives some revealing personal detail, for example being from Finland when there’s only one Finnish student in the class. More commonly, though, it’s because the student includes their name somewhere in the assignment.

Whatever the reason, I put that assignment at the bottom of the pile and turn to another one. Usually after marking ten or so assignments, I’m on automatic pilot in terms of applying the assessment criteria, and knowing the student’s name is less important.

Sometimes, when marking an assignment, I think I know which student did it, but if I’m not absolutely sure, it helps me switch focus from who did the work to the quality of the work. I want the mark to be appropriate whoever did the work.

If I want to give feedback specifically for a student, supplementary to my comments on the student’s assignment, I can add this after reconnecting student names to assignments.


The pitfalls of familiarity

There’s an inherent tension in any system in which teachers mark their own students’ work. Teachers in such circumstances have two conflicting roles. One is to provide guidance, support and feedback to assist learning. The other is to provide an assessment of the student’s performance.

The trouble is that the assessment role can inhibit the support role. If students are worried about what mark they are going to get, they may be cautious about exposing their ignorance, thereby reducing opportunities for useful feedback. They may also try to curry favour with their teacher.

The way around this is to separate teaching and assessment roles. This occurs with research students in the Australian and British systems. The supervisor supports the student to produce a satisfactory thesis. Then the thesis is assessed by independent examiners. At the University of Wollongong, there are strict rules to ensure independence. At the PhD level, for example, examiners cannot have worked at the university in the past five years, nor have collaborated with any supervisor or the student, among other restrictions.

In years gone by, supervisors were examiners for their own students’ honours theses, but this was open to abuse, with some supervisors becoming advocates for their favoured students while some unfortunate students, who had clashed with their supervisors, were treated harshly. The rules were changed to prevent supervisors being examiners, though in some parts of the university there was resistance, with supervisors insisting that only they had the expertise to judge their students’ work.

One year, I made an arrangement with a colleague at another university: he would mark the final assignments from my undergraduate class and I’d do the same for him. This enabled me to be a support person for my students, giving them feedback on drafts before marking by my colleague. I thought the system was worthwhile, but it seems that few academics are receptive to this sort of exchange. My colleague never supplied me with the essays from his class. My guess is that he did not feel comfortable relinquishing his control over marks for his students. If, instead of needing to mark the work of 90 students in a semester, the figure was closer to 40, I might try again to arrange an exchange with a colleague or with one of the other tutors in my classes.


Other biases

Blind marking can limit biases due to knowing who did the work, but it doesn’t eliminate other sorts of biases. One of the most common is ideological: if students say things you agree with, they are more likely to create a favourable impression than if they challenge your beliefs. If you’re teaching on topics where there are strong differences in opinion, for example addressing abortion or biotechnology, being fair can be difficult.

There’s another problem too. Students are very sensitive to the views of their teachers, and many students will say what they think their teachers want to hear. This is probably more damaging and insidious than teacher bias itself.

Many years ago, I taught a course on environmental politics and used case studies as a basis for understanding theory. Many of the students were doing an environmental science degree, and most of the students thought of themselves as environmentally conscious, and it was hard to get them to think critically about their own beliefs. When nuclear power was the case study, nearly all students were opposed to it, and few students had the confidence to present pro-nuclear arguments. Furthermore, the students knew I was an opponent of nuclear power.

Then I introduced fluoridation as a case study. Some students asked me during class, “What do you think, Brian?” I’d respond that I was studying the controversy as a social scientist and didn’t have a strong personal opinion. This answer frustrated them: they obviously wanted to know my view so they would know better what to write in their assignments.

Furthermore, there was no standard environmental view about fluoridation, and different class members had different views on fluoridation, leading to more stimulating discussions than on other topics. The students had to think for themselves rather than regurgitate a standard line or say what they thought I wanted to hear.

On just one occasion, I used one of my books as a text. I didn’t like this, because I felt students were inhibited. Personally, I would have liked to hear their criticisms of my ideas, but few students have the confidence to question their teacher’s well-formed views. Basing teaching on your own research means you have greater knowledge, but does it help students learn more effectively?



Fairness is just one consideration when marking. Ultimately, the goal is helping students to learn and to become independent, critical, ethical, self-motivated learners. How to do this is a continual challenge for which there is no single answer. I recommend trying blind marking to see what it’s like and to see how students respond.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anne Melano and Caroline Colton for useful comments.

Subject outlines illustrating how students can be instructed to submit blinded assignments.
CST228, 2015: see pages 11 and 15
BCM390, 2015: see page 17

See also: Marking essays: making it easier and more fun

What’s on your mind?

People have the capacity to be able to figure out what others are thinking. But there are lots of traps involved, according to research reported in Nicholas Epley’s book Mindwise.


For most of my life, I thought I was no good at guessing what other people were feeling. I marvelled at the capacity of friends who, through their powers of intuition, could understand other people.

Then a few years ago I was a subject in a research project on “personality coaching.” After taking a comprehensive psychological test, I met with a coach, had a look at my personality profile and decided what if any aspect of my personality I would like to change. Many other subjects chose to reduce their anxiety or depression, but I scored very low on “neuroticism.” Instead, I chose understanding others’ feelings, something I thought I was poor at. Over ten weeks of coaching, I was encouraged to think about and practise some ways to improve.

I’m not sure whether I actually improved, but I discovered I was better than I had thought at picking up on the emotions of people I knew, for example when talking on the telephone to my PhD students.


Now I’ve read Nicholas Epley’s illuminating book Mindwise (Penguin, 2014) and learned that my original view was probably more accurate, namely I’m not that great at deciphering others’ emotions. However, my view of others’ skills was skewed. Most of them are probably not very good either. Epley reports that those who are poorest at understanding others are the most overconfident in their abilities.

Epley is a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago and does research on what he calls “mind-reading.” This is not extra-sensory perception but rather using our senses to understand — in the words of the subtitle of his book — “what others think, believe, feel, and want.”

Mindwise is an engaging treatment of research findings in the area. Epley uses a variety of examples, including from his own life, to illustrate insights. He has packaged this material into a logical framework, progressing through various dimensions of mind-reading. The book is the best sort of popularisation: it conveys key ideas in an understandable, engaging way while being faithful to the original research.

Knowing yourself

Compared to understanding others, it should be far easier to know our own thoughts. But actually it’s not.


A book that greatly changed my thinking is Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wilson reported on research showing that there are parts of our minds that we cannot consciously access. He recounts a famous experiment in which young men acted on the basis of an incorrect assessment of their own emotions. Wilson concluded that, in some circumstances, the person sitting next to you knows as much about what you are feeling as you do yourself! It’s hard to believe, but the research is convincing.

Epley, covering some of the same ground, devotes a chapter to “What you can and cannot know about your own mind,” offering numerous fascinating observations about a key shortcoming of the mind. When you feel happy, for example, you usually know, but you seldom know why you’re happy, and systematically make incorrect assumptions about the reasons. Epley says we know what mental products are like as completed products but don’t have a clue about how they were created. Therefore, to make sense of our thoughts and emotions, we manufacture a plausible story and “we’re left with the illusion that we know more about own minds than we actually do.” (p. 30).

When pollsters ring to ask about your voting intentions, they now ask who you would vote for if the election were held today. In doing this, pollsters draw on psychological research. They don’t ask who you would vote for in a few weeks or months, because most people do not know their own minds well enough to accurately predict their future preferences.

Then there is the issue of bias. People assume that others are biased, not themselves, and hold fast to their own illusions. Not understanding one’s own mind in this case leads to mistakes in reading the minds of others.

Adam Goodes

Take the case of Adam Goodes, Australian rules football star and former Australian of the Year. For the past two years he has been subject to booing by spectators every time he has the ball, something unprecedented in persistence. Many commentators attribute this to Goodes being an Aborigine and, furthermore, outspoken in opposition to racism. Those who boo or otherwise criticise Goodes say they aren’t racist. However, it’s quite possible that they do not understand their own motivations. To justify their beliefs and behaviours, they come up with rationalisations, such as that Goodes has been playing unfairly, a view that conveniently ignores the dozens of other footballers who play the same way. Hardly anyone these days admits being a racist. In this case, others may be able to read the minds of those who defend booing better than they can themselves.

Dehumanising others

One of the most serious flaws in the human mind-reading system is caused by proximity. The part of the brain engaged by the system is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). People close to us stimulate greater activity in our mPFC: they are seen as having minds. By the same token, those who do not trigger mPFC activity are seen to be mindless and hence less than human. This psychological distancing is the source of mistaken judgements and underlies many crimes and atrocities.


People from other cultures are harder to understand and are candidates for dehumanisation. Have you ever gotten to know a terrorist? Those who haven’t are prone to systematically misinterpreting their thinking and motivations. Epley says that terrorists are not psychopaths, but rather have an overwhelming empathy for their own group, connected with a contempt for other groups. “They act out of parochial altruism, a strong commitment to benefit one’s own group or cause without regard for the consequences for oneself” (p. 53).

When dehumanisation can be countered, the benefits can be enormous. Epley recounts the well-known story about a General Motors plant in California that was closed in 1982 due to abysmal productivity and quality control. Then GM entered a partnership with Toyota. The new Japanese management reopened the plant, rehired most of the same workers and started treating them as mindful humans with intrinsic motivations rather than as mindless ones interested only in money. Before long, the plant became a top performer. Despite this well-tested insight about the value of intrinsic motivation, bosses in workplaces around the world continue to treat workers as mindless drones who can only be motivated by fear or financial rewards.

Nimmi auto plant in Fresno, California

Because of inadequate understanding of the minds of others, most people are apprehensive of striking up conversations with strangers. Have you ever sat on a bus or train and noticed how people will space themselves out, avoiding sitting next to strangers? In one experiment, commuters were asked whether they would prefer to sit alone or talk to a stranger, and nearly all said sitting alone. Then they were asked to talk with strangers and nearly all found it more enjoyable. This shows that people are mistaken about the likely responsiveness of strangers and about their own emotional responses.

Minds when there are none

The capacity of humans to understand the minds of others can sometimes be deployed when it’s not appropriate, in what is called anthropomorphising, namely seeing things as having human qualities. Have you ever seen someone berating their computer, saying “Why do you keep causing me trouble?” This is anthropomorphising: the computer is attributed will or motivation.


Epley reports that inanimate objects are more likely to be seen as human when they are unpredictable. The computer that sporadically plays up is seen as more wilful than the one that always works – or never does. When something needs to be explained, we are more likely to infer the existence of a mind.

Another reason for attributing minds is appearance, for example a face. The animated feature film Cars is more engaging because the cars have big eyes and mouths, so the fiction that they can think and talk is less jarring. A feature titled Rocks showing expressionless rocks would be less likely to attract audiences.


Epley writes that the process of anthropomorphising is not mysterious: “Forming a connection requires you to consider another person’s mind, to adopt his or her perspective, to do your best to get into his or her head” (pp. 78-79), and this can occur with non-humans. He notes that musicians often form a personal bond with their instruments, even giving them names. I guess my mind-reading sense is unlikely to be triggered in this way. I’ve been playing the same clarinet for 50 years and never thought of giving it a name.

Someone else’s clarinet

It’s all about you

When trying to figure out what others are thinking, one of the biggest challenges is getting over egocentrism, in particular the assumption that others think the way we do. People were asked their views on a range of ethical choices, for example “Is it ethical to call in sick to get a day off?” Then they were asked how they thought others would answer, namely to estimate the percentage of others who would agree with them. On this question, 71% answered that it is ethical, and these subjects estimated 66% of others would answer the same way. So far, so good: 66% is close to 71%, so mind-reading seems to work. However, 29% answered that it is unethical, and these subjects incorrectly estimated 64% of others would answer the same way. On a whole set of questions, people thought the majority of others agreed with their answer, even when they were in minorities as low as 10%. This illustrates that, in the absence of specific knowledge about others, the usual assumption is that they think the same way we do.


Most people overestimate their own contributions to shared tasks, for example housework. They also overestimate their role in negative interactions, taking more than their share of responsibility for starting arguments. An excess of self-centredness leads to paranoia.

Another aspect of self-centredness is that most people think they feel emotions more strongly than others. This is because we feel our own emotions very strongly but have only indirect information about others’ emotions. On this particular aspect of self-centredness I can plead not guilty, because for most of my life I’ve assumed I don’t feel emotions as strongly as others (which, of course, could be true).

Another aspect of a self-centred bias is called the “curse of knowledge”: once you know something, it is very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it. The result is that highly knowledgeable people are sometimes poor teachers. Studies show that someone who has just learned how to use a mobile phone can teach a beginner more quickly than can an experienced user. The curse of knowledge is especially relevant to me as a university teacher. I try to counter it by setting up conditions for students to learn from each other. One of the counter-intuitive implications of the curse of knowledge is that I may be better at helping students learn when I haven’t previously taught a subject.



When you don’t know much about a person, it’s convenient to assume they fit a stereotype, about being a woman, an Egyptian, a plumber or a redhead. Epley describes research showing both the strengths and weaknesses of stereotypes. Most stereotypes accurately portray differences between groups. For example, those on the political right are more likely to support bosses against workers than those on the left. The shortcoming of stereotypes is that they give an exaggerated idea of how great the differences between groups are. The differences between right and left on many issues actually are fairly small, maybe 1/10 as great as the stereotypes might suggest.

Stereotypes thus can lead to clashes between groups that don’t really differ very much, because each group operates on the basis of its exaggerated idea of the views of the other group.

This is one reason why deliberative democracy has more potential than you might imagine. Put together a randomly selected group of 12 citizens (a so-called citizens jury), give them information about some subject, say genetic engineering or climate change, and have them try to reach consensus on a policy. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but hundreds of actual citizens juries show that it usually does. When people are brought together, get to know each other and exchange ideas, stereotypes give way to more realistic perceptions, and usually there is more commonality than initially imagined.


Most people are susceptible to “correspondence bias.” When someone acts violently, we may assume they are angry or aggressive. Many people in the US assume that the 9/11 terrorists hated America and wanted to destroy the American way of life, despite explicit al Qaeda statements about their real motivations.


Correspondence bias can reflect an assumption that other people’s actions are internally motivated rather than conditioned by the environment. If your friend Lauren walks by without saying hello, you may assume she is unhappy with you when actually she was just preoccupied and didn’t see you. Epley notes that people in collectivist cultures, such as in Japan, are more attuned to the existence of environmental influences and are less likely to be subject to correspondence bias.

Correspondence bias can have serious consequences. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans in 2005, officials assumed that those who had not been evacuated didn’t want to leave. The officials didn’t take into account the factors that constrained the desires of residents. Epley says “They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus” (p. 151).

How to read minds

When someone looks to the side while talking to you, does this mean they’re lying? When they fold their arms and keep their distance, does this mean they’re resisting your views? A lot has been written about body language and how to interpret it. Despite reading several books on the topic, I have always thought I was poor at interpreting body language. According to Epley, I’m not unusual: it’s very difficult to learn a lot from it. If you’re going to try, it’s better to listen to someone’s voice rather than watch them.

Then there is perspective-taking: imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes and thereby gaining insight into what they think and how they feel. I always thought this was valuable, but Epley cites many studies showing it is subject to serious shortcomings. We can imagine ourselves in someone else’s circumstances, but often this isn’t accurate at all.

There’s one method for figuring out what other people are thinking that is usually pretty helpful: ask them, and carefully listen to what they say. It seems obvious but, as Epley notes, in many cases people are overconfident in thinking they already know the answer, so they don’t bother to ask. A boss assumes a worker needs higher pay to work harder, or arrives late due to being slack, and doesn’t ask for the worker’s explanation.

The key to getting an honest answer is to reduce the threat of repercussions. Epley tells how he used this approach with his son. Performance appraisals at work are useless when employees fear reprisals for being honest.

Nicholas Epley

Mindwise is filled with insights. If figuring out what others are thinking is important to you, it could be one of the most useful books you’ll ever read. An important message is that most people are overconfident about their mind-reading abilities. As Epley concludes, “Sometimes a sense of humility is the best our wise minds can offer, recognizing that there’s more to the mind of another person than we may ever imagine” (p. 184).

Brian Martin

Thanks to Don Eldridge for useful comments.