Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How We Know What Isn't So: Interview w/ Thomas Gilovich

by Jamie Hale

Recently, I had a chance to conduct an interview with one of my favorite writers- Thomas Gilovich. Gilovich is the author of one of the most celebrated books- How We Know What Isn’t So- in the skeptic, critical thinking community. I first learned about the book when reading Shermer’s- Why People Believe Weird Things. In addition, Gilovich has co-authored three other books. He is also a prominent primary researcher and professor & chairperson at Cornell University.

If you have any interest in critical thinking, everyday judgments and beliefs you will love the following interview.

Does the "hot hand" or "streak shooting"- as defined by basketball enthusiasts, really exist? What are the origins of this idea? How prevalent is this idea among basketball enthusiasts?

Despite what everyone "knows" to be the case, basketball players do not shoot in streaks. That is, their streakiness does not exceed the level of streakiness one observes when, say, flipping coins. The widespread belief in streak shooting seems to stem from a common misconception about what chance outcomes look like. Statisticians refer to this as the clustering illusion. Purely randomly arranged stimuli "clump" together more than one would expect and so when we see instances of randomness, it doesn't look random to us. Applied to basketball, when we see a player make four, five, or six shots in a row, we think the player is hot. But careful statistical analyses reveal that the frequency of such sequences do not exceed what one would expect if the outcomes of prior shots had no influence on the outcomes of subsequent shots.

Does money buy happiness? Explain.

Money is associated with happiness. People in rich countries are happier, on average, than people in poor countries and, within a country, people with more money are happier, on average, than people with less. As you might imagine, it's not a huge effect, but it's there. Whether money "buys" happiness depends in part on how one spends it and a great deal of recent research in psychology and economics has been devoted to figuring out what type of expenditures yield the most happiness, and the most enduing happiness.

What do you think is the most common, or maybe a short list of a few of the most common errors in thinking that lead to bad decision-making?

At the top of the list, what my colleague Scott Lilienfeld refers to as "the mother of all biases," is what is known as the confirmation bias, or the tendency to examine whether an idea is true—to test a hypothesis—by looking disproportionately for evidence consistent with that idea. Someone testing whether professors tend to be pompous will search their memories (or the outside world) for pompous professors; someone testing whether professors tend to be modest will search their memories for modest Profs. Because there is SOME evidence for nearly any idea (there are many pompous profs and many modest ones), this bias leads to an excess of credulity.

What advice can you give people who are interested in increasing their critical thinking skills?

Take a course in statistics and in psychology (social psychology in particular)

What is your favorite book? Favorite website?

I'm not a big fan of favorites because there's so much great stuff at the top end of almost any category, and who wants to assign one member of the upper echelon to a lower rung (Is Citizen Kane really better than The Godfather, as the American Film Institute would have us believe?) But Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Omnivore's Dilemma are certainly favorites, as is the book I just finished, Nicholson Baker's fabulous The Anthologist. As for a favorite website, it's hard to beat The New York Times—and I can't resist a plug for my brother's website, www.surfline.com

Of the books you have written, which one is your favorite?

Again, I don't much like the idea of favorites but my first, How We Know What Isn't So, will always be special to me.

What are your current research interests?

I remain interested in trying to understand how people can become convinced of things that dispassionate analysis and careful inquiry indicate are not true. False beliefs, superstitions, faulty judgments in all walks of life—in politics and government, in economics and personal finance, in sports, and in personal relationships.

Recommended Sources

Gilovich faculty page

Gilovich Books