How to stop fooling yourself

When I first wrote about self-deception, a little more than a year ago, I found the experience traumatising.

It can be very troubling to realise that inside my own head I maybe tucking away truths that I am already aware of!

Now Eli Dourado has an essay in The Umlaut that discusses a paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson that grapples with the issue of self-deception.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Self-favoring priors, they note, can help to serve other functions besides arriving at the truth. People who “irrationally” believe in themselves are often more successful than those who do not. Because pursuit of the truth is often irrelevant in evolutionary competition, humans have an evolved tendency to hold self-favoring priors and self-deceive about the existence of these priors in ourselves, even though we frequently observe them in others.

Self-deception is in some ways a more serious problem than mere lack of intelligence. It is embarrassing to be caught in a logical contradiction, as a stupid person might be, because it is often impossible to deny. But when accused of disagreeing due to a self-favoring prior, such as having an inflated opinion of one’s own judgment, people can and do simply deny the accusation.

So how can we cope with self-deception?

Cowen and Hanson argue that we should be on the lookout for people who are “meta-rational,” honest truth-seekers who choose opinions as if they understand the problem of disagreement and self-deception. According to the theory of disagreement, meta-rational people will not have disagreements among themselves caused by faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability. The fact that disagreement remains widespread suggests that most people are not meta-rational, or—what seems less likely—that meta-rational people cannot distinguish one another.

We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

What sells in the name of journalism today is written to appease one side or the other. Opinions are important, but what is more important is facts that help you arrive at it and the process you use to form them. A good journalist should be a meta-rational person. He should also be able to find other meta-rational people, so that the world is made aware of facts and arguments that help take things a step forward.

The problem, of course, is that meta-rational people care less about success but more about seeking the truth/understanding the world. Their voices are present but harder to find. They get far less attention than they deserve.

You can stop reading now, if you like. For, because we are on the subject of good journalism and meta-rational people, I’d like to discuss an example of exactly the opposite. Aleks Eror writes in VICE that the Chinese are engineering genius babies. This is a great story, if it were true. Sadly, he bases this claim on the word of Geoffrey Miller, an American academic, who wrote a heavily biased article about it in January. What’s worse is that it Miller’s argument had been criticised and debunked (sort-of) immediately after. But Eror chose to ignore that and rehash the fear-mongering story.

The central point of the argument is that the Chinese have an institute where they are doing genome sequencing of the world’s smartest people to find the genes that makes us smart. This is not a new story. Eugenics in some shape or form has existed for a long time. The problem with Eror’s piece is that he doesn’t run by an expert the claims made by Miller.

A good science journalist should always do that because the complex nature of the subjects we usually deal with. Experts may not be the perfect meta-rational candidate that we’d like, but they are close enough. They bring an external perspective, and I’ve found that invaluable in my own work.

The most remarkable theory of how to achieve happiness

Review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow

Happiness is subjective. And yet, it is hard not to relate to someone else’s happy moments. In this book Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as mihayli sixcentmihayli) compiles decades worth of research to construct a theory of achieving happiness. Well, actually, he uses the term optimal experience, which he defines as:

We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a land-mark in memory for what life should be like.

To achieve this state Csikszentmihalyi says we need to achieve control over our consciousness. That will then allow us to enter a state of “flow”, where there is nothing left to desire. The fact that one is not slim, rich or powerful no longer matters. ” The tide of risking expectations is stilled; unfulfilled needs no longer trouble the mind. The most humdrum experiences become enjoyable.”

That quote appeared quite early on in the book and made me very skeptical. But in the light of numerous example that Csikzsentmihalyi gives, many of which you can relate to, it is hard to not accept the validity of his theory. The author readily admits that the theory is not a new one. Some of the oldest examples come, not surprisingly, from mythology. Many religions have approached the idea of happiness and Csikszentmihalyi’s theory only adds to their conclusions.

For instance, a key message in the Bhagwad Gita is that happiness is the result of the journey towards a goal rather than achieving the goal. Similarly Csikszentmihalyi says that a key element of optimal experience is that it is an end in itself, where an action is performed not for some expected future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

In one of the most extreme examples of flow that Csikszentmihalyi discusses is one where a paraplegic considers the accident of losing both his legs as the most positive thing that happened to him. When his case is analysed it is clear before the accident, he let life happen to him. Whereas after the accident he had to rethink almost everything he had to do in life, and in doing that he followed a process that helped him achieve flow.

So what do we need to produce flow (one that leads to an optimal experience)?

  1. Set an overall goal (and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible)
  2. Find a way of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen
  3. Keep concentrating on what one is doing. Such that one is able to make finer distinctions  in the challenges involved in the activity
  4. Develop skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available
  5. Keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring

The above steps will make it clear why sport is the most popular flow activity. Csikszentmikhalyi argues that the same flow can be achieved in work, if step 2 and step 5 are given more emphasis. (PS: For those who’ve learnt Yoga in its truest form, Csikszentmihalyi considers it to be the most thoroughly planned flow activity.)

This is not a self-help book, and it is not a light read. At times it can also get very repetitive. Having laboured through it though, I am left with a pretty robust theory to approach every activity in life. Although I’ve always used some of the tools like goal-setting, measuring progress and raising stakes, using them all in sync and with added focus on the process is certainly bound to change how I experience everything.

Why memorising matters and what I’m doing about it

I hate rote learning as much as anyone can. My high school exams were a nightmare to prepare for. I detested the process of memorising facts, just so to vomit them out on an exam paper. So much so that I did not feature in the top few of my class till class 10. My teachers’ regular complain to my mum on open days at school was: “He has so much potential. He just needs to put in some efforts.”

The Indian education system made the words memorising and learning synonyms. Even during my days at one of the best engineering schools in India, I found that there were many who did much better than me because of their sheer ability to “maro ratta” (commit to memory). Ask them a critical question, one that doesn’t usually feature in an exam paper, and they would be clueless.

The UK school system is much less focused on memorising. A good portion of assessment is based on assignments done through the year. The US system, I get the impression from reading Moonwalking with Einstein, is quite opposed to memorising. I know that open-book university exams are quite common there. In the age of the Internet, it makes sense that rote learning is given as little attention as possible.

But memorising facts has an important role to play in almost all professions. For instance the more writing I do, the more I feel the need to be able to remember all the wonderful things that I read, just so that I am able to either cite them or use their ideas to develop new ones. Invention is a product of inventorying, as Joshua Foer explains.

To that end, I’ve decided that I need to take memorising seriously. So far I’ve been committing to memory without paying attention to how I do it. But as we know, to get good at something requires deliberate practice. So here is how I plan to do it henceforth.


I’ve created my own private version of Wikipedia. It’s a google doc where I store all the information that I know related to a thing or an idea. I call it conceptopedia because, even though it’s mostly full of facts, it is a place where I externalise the memories that helped me understand a concept (hoping of course that in time I will internalise them enough to delete them from there). Example of how an entry looks: 


– Science writer Mark Lynas delivered a speech in which he admitted that he made a mistake by starting the anti-GM movement. Apparently he had changed his mind much prior to the speech. He even wrote a book called The God Species praising GM in 2010.
– 1st traceable genetic modification is that from 10,000 years ago when Turkish farmers mutated the Q gene on chromosome 5A of wheat. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– 50 years ago scientists irradiated the barley to create a high-yielding, low-sodium variety called “Golden Promise”. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– 20 years ago scientists inserted specific sequences into rice plants to create a version that synthesises more vitamin A. They knew what letters to insert but no idea where they went. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
– Now precise, multiple editing of DNA is here claims Ridley. And it is being done by a private enterprise. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)

Wherever possible, they are hyperlinked to where I got that piece of information from if I need to refer to it again. I know that this is going to be an exercise that might take quite a bit of my time, and I’m trying to build tools to make it easy. One way is to use Evernote’s Clipper add-on in Chrome (there is even an iPhone app, EverClip) to save important pieces of information with the right tags. Then once a week or so I go through the clipped bits and add them to the conceptopedia.

Mind maps

I chose to read Moonwalking with Einstein early on in my #100bookschallenge for a good reason. I want to ensure that I retain a lot more than I usually do from reading these fantastic 100 books. Normally, after a few months, I only have a vague idea of what the book was about. This time it has to be better than that.

As I wrote in the review of the book, the book gave me tools on how to remember to-do lists, phone numbers and the order in cards in a deck. Whereas what I was looking for was how to remember ideas. Foer subtly mentions that things that you often remember are things that you paid really careful attention to. If some fact blew your hat off, then you will remember it. You will also want to share it with someone which will only reinforce that memory.


But not all facts are that amazing. So the alternative is to build mind maps. These can really work if done well, and I plan to find ways of making the most effective mind maps. The plan is to make a mind map of every article I write before writing it and of every book as I go along reading it. And of course I am planning to review each one, so that should help me synthesise that information in my head too.

What do you think about memorising? Are there any techniques you use to commit things to memory? Are there any tools for managing your notes that you would recommend?

Image from here.