with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 052: Conscious Processes and Intelligence (with Richard Nisbett)

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June 20, 2021

What sorts of things do the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds do? How we can make people more intelligent? How much is intelligence heritable vs. environmental? What's the value (or disvalue) of holding interviews during the hiring process? When do we over- and under-use cost-benefit analyses?

Richard E. Nisbett is one of the world's most respected psychologists. His work focuses on issues in social psychology and cognitive science. His newest book Thinking: A Memoir is both an intellectual autobiography and a personal history. It's available for sale on Amazon,, and Barnes and Noble. To learn more, go to

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Richard Nisbett about the lack of access to cognitive processes, the relationship between genetics and class on intelligence, the influence of interviews on judgment, and underusing and overusing cost-benefit.

SPENCER: Richard, welcome. It's really great to have you on.

RICHARD: Well, thank you. I'm very happy to be on.

SPENCER: Yeah, this is especially fun for me because I've been reading your papers for years, and so it's a treat to actually talk to you. The first topic I wanted to ask you is about the role of the unconscious mind and the differences between what the unconscious mind does and what the conscious mind does. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

RICHARD: Sure. When I came into the business originally, it was understood that, if you're doing experimental psychology, after you have run your experiment, you sit down with your participant and you quiz him or her, "Tell me what you thought this was all about," and so on. But very early on in graduate school — the first experiment I ever did that got published — my advisor, Stanley Schachter, had a great theory of emotion, which is what they called the Jukebox Theory. Your emotion, your experience, is the cognition you have that's appropriate to the stimulus that you see times your arousal. But we began to think maybe you could get people to read the arousal out of their experience, and they might become less emotional. So I did a study where I rigged subjects up with electrodes, and said, "We're doing a sensitivity test here. I'd like you to tell me when you first feel an electric shock, and when it first becomes painful, and then when it becomes too painful to bear." Now prior to this, for some of the subjects, I had said, "I'd like you to take this pill called Suproxin. And I should tell you, it's going to make you feel aroused. Your heartbeat will be faster, your breathing rate will become irregular, you may find that you have some tremor in your hands." And these are essentially the symptoms that people experience when they're getting electric shock [laughs]. "Your heart rate goes up and your breathing gets more variable and so on." We found astonishing effectiveness. The subjects who had been told that they're going to get arousal from their pill took much more electric shock. So at the end of the study, like a good experimenter, I asked him, "Tell me what you were thinking about," and "I'm very impressed. You took a lot of shock. Why do you suppose you took so much shock?" and he said, "Well, you know, I used to build radio kits and got shocks sometimes, so maybe I'm used to it." I said, "Well, I'm sure that could have played a role. Tell me, did you think about the pill at all?" "No, I had other things on my mind." "Oh, sure. Okay. Well, let me ask you this. Did you experience a heart rate increase?" "Yeah, yeah, had all the symptoms." "And did you think to connect that to the pill?" "No, no, no, I didn't. I didn't think that." "Okay." So [laughs] I know what was going on in the subject's head. The subject denies it. And that carried over to the next experiment I did, where I gave insomniacs a pill that I said would increase their arousal at bedtime. And I gave them all the symptoms that that pill would cause, which is that it will cause your heart rate to be a little bit faster, your breathing will be a little bit faster, you'll begin to get warmer, you may find that you're tossing and turning. These are symptoms that insomniacs report. It's what keeps them up. So sure enough, the subjects who were told that this pill would cause arousal at bedtime, got to bed sooner. So I asked the same list of questions. "Did you think about the pill?" Nothing, I mean, no recognition of that. So this started me off on a question: how much of what goes on in people's heads are they oblivious to?

SPENCER: I love those experimental designs. It is so cool. So just to clarify, in both cases, you're giving them a placebo pill and they essentially were misattributing the experience to the placebo pill rather than to the actual cause. Is that a fair assessment?

RICHARD: That's right. Everybody gets placebos. Some people are given junk symptoms like a mild headache and itching sensations. The others are given the arousal symptoms. And the ones who get the arousal symptoms experience less emotion.

SPENCER: That's wonderful. So how do you think about what's going on when the participant is explaining what happened and they're misattributing it? How do you make sense of that?

RICHARD: Well, the most interesting thing, and this comes not just from those studies, but from dozens of studies that I did and hundreds of studies that other people have done on being able to report what's going on in the conscious mind. I don't actually know what's going on, except I know that the process that I talked about is going on in their head. What else is going on? I don't know. But we're amazingly good at fabricating explanations for things — not just why did I take so much shock or why did I get to sleep quicker — but absolutely any event at all. I've come to say, when people ask me, "Why did you go to the University of Michigan?" or "Why did you get mad at that guy?" or whatever, I say, "I'll do my best to give you an explanation, and it may well be right. But let me be clear, I don't have access to my conscious processes."

SPENCER: I love that. [laughs] I love that you apply it in your own life, because I feel like not all scientists will apply their work to themselves. And so I think that's so cool.

RICHARD: You have to be a little careful because people look at you funny when [laughs] I say I don't have access to my conscious processes. So you have to sort of soften them up first with that.

SPENCER: Would you say that what's happening is that we're sort of an external observer of our own behavior? And so we're noticing what we do, and then we're trying to explain it but, because we don't have direct access, we're trying to explain it like someone else would explain it, rather than from the inside

RICHARD: Exactly. The only way I would modify that is to say that I do know some of the thoughts I had, I do know what I was paying attention to. So that gives me an advantage over you, a bit. But it also can mislead me [laughs], so there's no guarantee that the things that I have access to will give me a better, more accurate explanation of why I did what I did or said what I said.

SPENCER: Right, we might over-attribute it to the things we do have access to [laughs] just because we're not aware of all those other things.

RICHARD: Exactly, exactly. Whatever is salient gets an advantage in our explanation, but it may not have any advantage in getting to the truth about what happened. These experiments that I did, they led to a number of experiments where we tried to see what people would say when they did various things. For example, we had people in a mall we asked to look at pantyhose — four of them, women — we asked them, we said, "Just look at these and tell me which you like the best." And they would examine them all and then say, "Well, I like...these were more sheer." "I thought these had a better color." Okay, great. What we found was that people were four times as likely to say that they liked best the last thing they saw in the array, than the first thing they saw.

SPENCER: Wow, were they different from each other? Or were they all the same?

RICHARD: They were all the same. [laughs]

SPENCER: That's even more bizarre.

RICHARD: After they're done, we say, "Okay. Thank you, thanks for that evaluation. Let me just ask you a question. Do you think that your judgment about the quality could have been influenced by the order that you looked at them in?" And they look at you like either they're crazy or you're crazy, because [laughs] obviously, the location in the array couldn't possibly influence them. We had half a dozen, a dozen experiments like that, very simple things. "What do you like better? Why did you like it?" And people are just crazy. There are now hundreds (if not thousands) of experiments in Psychology [laughs] which are all fun. You look at the vote for supporting school systems, and if the vote is held in a school, people are more likely to support an increase in school funding than if they do it in a church. If they voted in a church, they're more likely to vote against abortion than if they do it in a school. Again, imagine me asking, "So pardon me. I see that you voted against abortion. You're telling me that you voted against abortion. Why is that?" And if you ever ask them, "Oh, was that because you were in church, do you suppose?" They'd say, "Oh, give me a break. Of course, that wasn't why. This is my conviction about abortion. That's why I voted the way I do."

SPENCER: So interesting. What's the general name for this topic or this kind of phenomenon?

RICHARD: What is the name? I'm not sure it has a name, except that the phrase I always use is that 'we don't have access to our cognitive processes.' And what we do is fabricate on the basis — when I explain what I do — I fabricate much the way you would, although I may mention a few things that you didn't know that were going on in my head. But the fact that I know the things that were going on in my head does not necessarily make me more accurate. And in any case, there's no access to the process. There's no mystery. People get annoyed and it takes a long time to convince people of this. To me the most convincing thing is, I say, "Look, you don't think you have access to your perceptual process. How is it that you managed to see green there? Or blue?" "I don't know. I looked at that dang thing and it looked blue to me." So we don't think we have access to our memories. I come up with, "What was the last movie that Brad Pitt was in?" and you say, "Oh, it was such and such." And then if you say, "How did you do that? How did you access that memory?" You know, I may tell you a story there but it's all nonsense. I mean, it just came into my head. That's why I said it. That's the process and I don't know any more about it. It's the same way with memory processes, perceptual processes and cognitive processes. We have no window on those things.

SPENCER: You know, even the processes that we have some window on — like our thoughts — we tend to forget them very quickly. If you think about how many thoughts you had today, and then if you tried to write down what are all the thoughts you had today, maybe you'd be able to think of a few, but certainly there'd be hundreds, or maybe even more, that you would have forgotten. And so I think that's another thing that can happen is, even two minutes later, you may not remember the thought that triggered your anger, or that made you feel sad. And now you're just left with that emotion and you are trying to explain it but don't have access anymore.

RICHARD: Right, exactly.

SPENCER: I found sometimes when you're talking to younger people that want advice, they'll say, "Why did you go make this big life decision? Why did you decide to do your PhD?" or whatever. And I've taken to now saying, "Well, do you want me to say why I now think it is a good or bad idea? Or do you want me to actually try to do my best to explain the causal processes? Because I'm not sure that you should follow the same causal processes I took. I wouldn't advise that."

RICHARD: Right, right.

SPENCER: So how can you use your unconscious mind to your advantage?

RICHARD: Well, first of all, just know that a lot of what goes on in your head that influences important behavior and so on, is produced by unconscious processes. Knowing that is useful. But the other thing is, the unconscious mind does things that the conscious mind can't do or can't do as well. For example, if you ask can ask them to get descriptions of apartments. You're going to rent an apartment, you get descriptions of apartments, and you ask them, after they've chosen apartment D — "That's the one I want" — or you ask them what they feel about each of those apartments as they go and why they feel that way, and so on. That conscious process will bollix the judgment. You make a worse judgment because the things that you can say verbally end up having a greater influence on your choice than if you're not asked any verbal questions at all — and then it's the whole schmear that's in your head: conscious, unconscious and so on — and you do a better job. So sometimes — I won't say always, but sometimes — judgments based on purely unobserved processes are more accurate than ones where you're asked to concentrate on the features of each one and report verbally. So the verbal stuff that you produce swamps the process, but you can sometimes go with your gut [laughs] for some things. Of course, unless there's a situation where that isn't what you should do, but really, for most aesthetic judgments or preference judgments, leave the conscious mind out of it. There's a wonderful book on the creative process by Brewster Ghiselin, and he's collected reports of brilliant people in the culture — scientists, artists, writers — talking about their work and how they did it. And he says, "With one exception, none of these people ever report a conscious process." The work is done by an unconscious process. So one example is Poincare, who comes up with, as he says, "At the moment I put my foot on the step of the bus, it occurred to me that the Fuchsian Functions were exactly parallel to the functions that I was working on now." He had been thinking about where he's going for the trip. He's thinking about not tripping on the step when this comes into his head. Or the poet Amy Lowell says, "Once, for some reason, I saw a sculpture of bronze horses and I thought that might make a good poem someday." Six or eight months later, she's sitting at her desk, and a poem about the bronze horses starts pouring into her head, as she said, "The poem was there." We're not all creative geniuses in that sense; you might think, well, that's not too relevant to me. But it is. [laughs] I would say, "Take advantage of the unconscious mind. It does work for free." So I always tell students, the proper time to begin working on a term paper is the first day of class. You'd be surprised how much work gets done. I mean, it's stuff that just starts popping into your head. Another kind of thing...I was never very good at math, and when I took calculus in college, I would work on the first problem, usually I can get it right. Second problem, a little harder. Usually, third problem, "Ugh. This is hard. I gotta work harder, I gotta think harder. I have to look in my textbook more closely. To heck with it, I'm not doing it." I go to the fourth problem, and that's even worse. But I have a very good friend who happens to be a psychiatrist, so he thinks a lot about the conscious and the unconscious mind. And he says, in college, when that happened to him, he gets to the third problem, he doesn't sit there and continue to struggle. He just said, "To hell with it," and goes to sleep. The next morning, he wakes up and often he'll say, "Oh, yeah, that's a bathtub problem." [laughs] So it's not just the unconscious mind that's operating when we're awake. It's the unconscious mind that's working when we're asleep. Now, the unconscious mind can't do everything. In fact, I would love to do, sometime, an analysis of what the unconscious mind can do better than the conscious mind and what it can't. Obviously, the unconscious mind can't multiply 176 times 322, and that's interesting. Why can't it do that? It can come [laughs] up with a brilliant poem or solution to a mathematical problem of great complexity, but it can't multiply a couple of numbers? I have no idea why that should be. It just is.

SPENCER: I'm a mathematician by background, and I guess the way that I think about this is, I tend to alternate between subconscious-conscious, subconscious-conscious. For example, maybe you're stuck on a problem and you're not sure what to do, so you kind of let your subconscious mull on it a little bit. Maybe your subconscious pops an idea and an idea just pops into your mind. But then you're going to consciously think about it and be like, "Does that make sense? Is there any flaw with this?"


SPENCER: And then maybe there's a part there that you don't fully understand and then your subconscious will suggest something. So I feel like that interplay, using them sort of as two different tools, seems to be the most powerful for a lot of things.

RICHARD: Right, I couldn't agree more. Yeah, I don't want to say that, when something pops out of your unconscious mind, that's got to be the right thing. [laughs] Let's check that. Check your numbers with the conscious mind.

SPENCER: Exactly. And if you think about the cognitive reflection test which (as I'm sure you're aware), it gives people problems where their intuitive mind tends to give the wrong answer. And then the way you solve that is by just double-checking. Your intuitive mind jumps to an answer and then you say, "Hmm, is that actually right? Let me plug in the numbers. Oh, it actually doesn't make sense," and then you override it. Those problems are obviously designed for that purpose, to show that sometimes your intuition goes wrong and you need this kind of cognitive override to double-check. It seems to me that, when we're dealing with a very important problem, often that's what we want to do. We want to double-check the intuition, just make sure it's not going off-track or going wild.

RICHARD: Absolutely, you go back and forth. It is the way to proceed with most problems, I think.

SPENCER: I'm not a chess player, but I think that chess players do this too, where their intuition will give them a quick sense of, "Oh, maybe these three moves are promising." And then they'll use some reflection on those three moves to narrow it down further. And so that's how they proceed.

RICHARD: I'm so glad you brought that up. I have a great story about chess players' thoughts. When I was first doing this work thing (that people don't know what's going on in their heads), there was a very famous psychologist/economist/political scientist/artificial intelligence worker who got the Nobel Prize — ultimately for exactly which of those things, I don't know — but he was having people think aloud as they solved problems and, at the end, he's got a record of what they were thinking and he knows now what the process was that was going on in their heads. And I said, "No, I'm sorry, you don't. [laughs] I've got so much evidence that what people tell you is not necessarily what went on." But he gave me the best example I ever had of this — what you can do with the unconscious mind and what you can do with the conscious mind — and it's learning how to play chess. And the first chess game that someone plays, they're moving the pieces around, and at the end of the game, you say, "Well, tell me what you were thinking." Or even just right after the move they just made, you say, "What are the rules that you followed?" They say, "I have no idea. I'm just moving around. It's just blind guesses." It's Herbert Simon, by the way, that's the fellow who told me this example. And he says, "But the person is following rules. It's called duffer strategy." [laughs] It's what people do the first time they ever sit in front of a chessboard. But then he says, if you work on it, you read books, you watch other players, you talk about it, and so on, and now you ask someone why they made that move, they'll be perfectly articulate, and they'll be correct. Now you look at somebody after 15 years of playing chess, and he's become a world expert. And now you ask him what the rules are that he's followed, "Why did you make that move?" It's a total mess. They don't know why. Their reports have very little to do with the reality. That's because a lot of those formal rules that they learn have gone in the background. They're no longer conscious. They're just operating automatically, fortunately, because they're usually right. The strategies that made them brilliant at chess, many of them are unconscious to begin with, they were never made conscious. So what you get is a mess. When you ask the first game and the 5000th game, you don't get accurate. You only get it accurate from these people who are working completely at the conscious level.

SPENCER: That's a lovely example. It reminds me of how, very often we're learning things, at first, we just have bad intuitions, and that's all we've got. Then we learn this kind of explicit strategy, like a teacher teaches it, or we read it in a book. Eventually, we discard that strategy because we don't even need it anymore, because now we can play intuitively well. So that's a wonderful example of that learning process.


SPENCER: Another topic I wanted to ask you about is intelligence, and I know you've done a lot of research on this, including on how we might be able to make the human population smarter. So we'd love to hear your thoughts.

RICHARD: I should say that, for decades, I studied the way people reasoned. And if you study reasoning, of course, you're going to be aware of the intelligence literature, what people are saying about it. Actually, any psychologist can tell you a lot about what the literature is on intelligence. But for some reason, [laughs] — I'd love to be able to tell you why, but I can't — for some reason, at some point, it popped into my head, this whole story that's being told about intelligence is wrong. And the story that most people know even today was in the book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein called "The Bell Curve." And here's the story that they told. The heritability of IQ — that is, the impact of genes on IQ — accounts for about 80% of the variation in IQ in the population. And school really makes very little difference to intelligence. You can't really increase your IQ by going to school. And early life in the family makes little difference. Basically, you're going to have the intelligence that you were meant to have, that your genes intended you to have. And things had just been building up and building up and I realized, that's actually quite wrong. [laughs] The whole story, the whole story is wrong. First of all, how do we get the conclusion that 80% of the variation in intelligence in the population is due to genes? Well, you look at identical twins reared apart, and the correlation between their IQs is about .8, which tells you that's the contribution of genes. Well, that would be true if you took one twin and dropped him or her randomly on a spot in the US in a neighborhood. And the other one, you shuffle the cards again, and you drop that kid randomly. Then there's no correlation between the environments, so the correlation between the kids' IQs has to be due to the genes. Perfectly accurate, except for one thing: adoptees are not dropped randomly in the population. If one kid is adopted and one kid remains home, one of these identical twins, probably it's going to be in the same neighborhood, in the same town, probably with a family member. So the environments are going to be highly similar. And if you actually do your homework and look at identical twins who were raised in quite different environments, the correlation drops to more like .4 or .5, which gives you a very different idea.

SPENCER: Just to dig into that a little bit, is that because, if you place them in more similar environments, there's less environmental variability, and therefore the only thing left is heritability, like more of the variation is accounted for by heritability?

RICHARD: Absolutely. If the environments are literally identical, any similarity between the kids could be due to genes or it could be due to the environment. The only way you can know what's going on is to make sure that the environments are maximally different.

SPENCER: Right. Because in a world where everyone had the exact same environment, you would actually calculate 100% heritability because there would be no room for the environment to cause effects.

RICHARD: Absolutely. It's really sort of a neat little formula. If environments are literally identical, genes are driving the bus. If environments are highly different, it's environments that are driving the bus. And this is important when you look at adopted kids, what their IQs are. A kid who's adopted is going to have, on average, an IQ of 12 or so points higher than one who remains in the family of origin, or who remains in an orphanage. Now, why is that? Well, it tends to be lower SES people — poor people — who put one kid up for adoption. And adopted families are like Tolstoy's happy families, they're all alike. [laughs] That is to say, they're middle class, upper middle class, that give very good environments. They wanted this kid very badly. This kid is loved and given all kinds of advantages. And those advantages, as compared to the family of origin, are enough to have a very big impact. And if the kid is adopted into an upper middle class family, the IQ on the average is 16 points ahead. So this completely puts the lie to the Herrnstein and Murray story there about how the environment is not all that important. The environment early on in life is hugely important. There's lots of other evidence other than the adoption evidence.

SPENCER: To just ask you about that, so is the way that you think about it is, if people get adopted into a middle class or upper middle class home, they basically have all the basic needs met, most of the time — obviously, not all the time — but most of the time. They are not in poverty, they have a good shelter, they have enough reading time when they're a child and so on. And so they get this boost, but they kind of have a roughly similar environment, whereas if someone is born into, let's say, extreme poverty, there's a really high variation. And so some of them essentially don't live up to their IQ potential because of that really harsh environment, whereas others of them maybe get lucky, and do? Is that the idea?

RICHARD: That's it exactly. In fact, Eric Turkheimer has done the work there. What you just said is not just speculation anymore. The heritability of IQ for upper middle class families — kids raised in upper middle class families — the heritability is .7 to .8, just as high as the IQ folks used to think it was for everybody. But if you look at the heritability of kids raised in lower socioeconomic strata — of course, there, you're going to find, at one extreme, families that are just as beneficial for intellectual growth as any adoptive family would be, all the way to families that are chaotic and disruptive in every sense — and for those lower SES people (lower socioeconomic status people), heritability of IQ runs .1 to .2. So if the environment's hugely different for a population of people, it's the environment that's going to be driving the bus. If the environments are the same, it's going to be genes that are driving the bus. All of this is quite recent, really. It's all after "The Bell Curve" was written, so they couldn't have known this. I mean, they had lots of reasons [laughs] to realize the book they wrote was wrong, but a lot of the best evidence is post "The Bell Curve."

SPENCER: I haven't looked into the evidence on this topic. But there is something that makes intuitive sense to me about it, which is that, we know that, for example, things like lead poisoning can impact IQ. And it also stands to reason the idea that, if a child just was deprived of education — they didn't get a chance to use their mind, they didn't have much chance to talk to other people, all these kinds of things — you could really see that stunting someone's intellectual development. So it would make sense to me that, with extreme deprivation, or being put in a dangerous situation with a high level of trauma, or with lead poisoning or other hordes of poisoning, that you'd expect that it would have a significant impact on IQ.

RICHARD: Yes, absolutely. And one of the things that "The Bell Curve" emphasized was, if the IQ difference between Blacks and Whites is about 15 points, that's a big deal because that's about the difference between a college graduate and someone that you would expect to have maybe a year of community college or something. That's a really big deal. And they made it perfectly clear without saying so in a direct fashion, that they felt that a lot of that difference was genetically based.

SPENCER: That's why the book is so famously controversial, right?

RICHARD: That's right. The criticism of the book on those grounds was misguided. People thought that their religion could tell them whether or not the greatest difference in IQ was due to genes or not, and religion can't tell you that. Here's what will tell you that. [laughs] If you look at the home environments of Blacks versus Whites, they are different in all kinds of ways that you would expect to influence IQs. On average, they're much more likely to be exposed to lead poisoning, for example, more likely to be exposed to insecticides, more likely to have asthma because they live next to the freeway, less likely to have ideal health care because they're in a neighborhood where it's not available, they can't hop in the family car and go and get a check-up. Kids, they're in school, they often have asthma or toothache, they can't study as well. There are inner city neighborhoods, where the turnover in a given classroom over the course of the year is 100%. So kids are often getting tossed out of some apartment because they're not paying the rent or whatever. So kids are being bounced from one situation to another — which is extremely stressful — and the education is going to suffer. The kid comes out of one classroom just before that classroom is about to start taking up fractions (which is the most difficult thing that most kids encounter) and goes to another classroom where they've just finished with fractions. But what goes on in the family, there are big SES differences and there are big race differences in what goes on in families that would be propitious for developing the intellect.

SPENCER: My understanding, I've heard that, while there's an income gap among White and Black families, that there are actually much bigger differences in the wealth gap. It's something like the median White family has something like ten times the wealth of the median Black family, which is just absolutely staggering. You can imagine that having just huge ripple effects in terms of effects on Black children who are raised in poverty.

RICHARD: Right, it's enormous. I only found this out a very few years ago. It's so big, it's almost unbelievable, until you start looking at why that might be and it turns out, a lot of that wealth difference is due to government policies which were written to make it easier for Whites to own a home — because most people's wealth is in their home — and that's what is the largest thing that's contributing to the Black-White difference in wealth.

SPENCER: I looked it up. It looks like it's about eight times or slightly off.

RICHARD: Yes, right. That's the number that was in my head. [laughs] (But you said it was ten times. "Oh, okay, it's ten."] Okay, so we agree it's eight. But you've got numbers actually in front of you now. So yeah, it's absolutely enormous, and wealth...the more money you got, the more leisure you have, the more concentration you have that can allow you to take care of kids in such a way that they're going to have greater intellectual growth. Yeah, there's the redlining thing that people did. Banks would say, "Beyond 17th Street, we don't loan to people. People are not a good loan risk." Blacks just live in the wrong neighborhoods, so they can't get a mortgage. That's one of the many things that prevents them from having the wealth that comes with owning a home. The evidence that Herrnstein and Murray report for why they think there's a genetic basis for the difference between Blacks and Whites, when you really look at it closely, it's so suppositional, it's resting on assumptions that are not well-established. But there's direct evidence that we have, because there's this massive natural experiment that's gone on in the United States, which is that we have a Black population where 20% of the genes are European rather than African. So we can ask the question: are European genes an advantage for a Black person? So you can look at, for example, skin color, which is correlated (of course) with European-ness versus African-ness. There's very, very little correlation between skin color and IQ, even though you might think, "Well, there ought to be some correlation there." Because the lighter the skin color, the better off you are in society, there ought to be economic advantages and everything else. Be that as it may, the correlation between skin color, or the correlation between African versus European features, is minimal. It's hardly there at all. Another natural experiment is that a lot of kids born in Germany after World War 2 were born to GI fathers, and some of those fathers were Black and some were White. So you can look at their IQ later on in childhood, and what you find is that the kids born to Black GI fathers had almost identical IQs to those born with White fathers, which in turn was almost identical to the IQs of kids, both of whose parents were German. But let me jump straight to the best single study. Kids of mixed-race or purely Black kids were adopted into so-called middle class families. I say 'so-called' because middle class Blacks don't have as much money in general as middle class Whites. But these kids, Black or mixed-race, adopted either into White families or Black families, and you look at their IQs later on in childhood. What you find is that the Black kids have about the same IQ as the mixed-race kids, whether they're raised in White families or Black families. But those kids, whether Black or mixed-race, if they're raised in White families, they have IQs about 13 points higher. If you go in and look at what's going on in those families, it's not surprising, the environment. So I often say that people socialize to get kids ready for the environments that they live in or that they were raised in, not the environments that they're going to go because you don't know what to do. So middle class people, for example...I mean, every middle class person knows that as soon as you can prop up that baby to read them a book, they're gonna do that. That's just not part of the repertoire of Blacks, especially lower SES Blacks. So now you might think, "Well, gee, since 'The Bell Curve' was written, there's been a lot of improvement in the Black situation, educationally and economically. So is the IQ difference still 15 points?" The answer is no. It's nine points or less and going down all the time. There's a tremendous amount of evidence out there that we can draw on that's direct and uncontroversial. You can't quarrel with that study about the Black versus mixed-race kids. I mean, it is what it is.

SPENCER: So suppose that we want to make the population more intelligent in general, how do we do that?

RICHARD: Well, a lot of people thought like Head Start ought to make lower class Black (and sometimes Hispanic) kids smarter. It wasn't designed to do that actually. It was designed to get kids social skills and improve their health situation, certainly improve their health situation. There were initially effects on IQ, but they tended to fade. And so for many people, that was a big disappointment. But if you look at the very best available pre-kindergarten programs — of which there are two or three — those programs were intended actually (in addition to social and physical things), they wanted to do intellectual things. And they did have fairly big IQ effects, some of which remained even as late as adolescence, five or six or seven points. But much more important than that is all kinds of other variables. For example, the kids who were in the best preschool programs were twice as likely to graduate from high school, 50% more likely to go to college, 70% less likely to be on welfare. The effects of really, really good programs are just massive. This has been a surprise to everybody, certainly to me, because those data weren't available early on. When I talk about these spectacular effects — these are at age 27 or 28, or even 40 — you wouldn't think that going to school (half day or a whole day even) for two or three years could have such massive effects, so it's extremely optimistic. And that's why I'm so thrilled that the current administration basically wants to have every kid paid for, for pre-K. And by the way, these programs — the best programs — the economists have looked at the effects, what are the costs of those programs, what are the gains. They pay back somewhere between $8 and $9 for every dollar spent on the kids in pre-K programs. Actually, I've gone back and checked the economists' work, and in my opinion, that's an extreme underestimate of their value, just in a dollar sense. And another friend of mine, an economist actually, has shown that — forget about all of the gains to the individual, to the city, to the community and so on — the payback to the Treasury is positive. So it's a great investment, just financially for the government, let alone all of the other wonderful effects.

SPENCER: What do you think the mechanism of action is there?

RICHARD: Actually, I don't know. It's quite interesting. I know that some of the things that go on there, it's plausible that they might have these effects. For one thing, these kids are not living in chaos, no more chaos [laughs] than you get in the normal pre-K program so the physical base underlying intellectual achievement is going to be superior to the extent that you reduce stress. And we know that stress has a very negative effect on IQ and certainly educational performance. But a lot of what goes on in pre-K are organizational activities, getting kids to cooperate with each other to accomplish something in a group. So they learn something about leadership, they learn something about following rules, and so on. The effects are not from things that are directly trying to influence the intellect so much, but somehow end up having those effects.

SPENCER: Interesting. What do you think of the hypothesis that the number of words we're exposed to, whether through conversation or reading at a really young age, has an impact?

RICHARD: Well, I know what the data show. What the conclusion is, I'm not so confident about. But the middle class child at age three has heard about 30 million words. The working class child — we're talking about Whites now — has heard about 20 million words. The Black underclass kid has heard about 10 million words. And there's, of course, a vocabulary difference; the middle class kids are getting the expansion of vocabulary. So it stands to reason that this ought to affect IQ, how many words you're exposed to and the level of IQ.

SPENCER: It's hard to draw the causal conclusion for sure.

RICHARD: Right, you can't be confident about the causal conclusion. But I'd lay ten-to-one odds that the words that you hear and the context of them, if you look at middle class families versus working class families — all Whites now, we're not talking about race at all — there's a big difference at what goes on at the dinner table and what goes on at the grocery store. It's a kind of serve and return. The kid asks the question, the parent responds to the guy and then says some other things which the kid wants to question, so it's a back and forth, an interaction. That's a context for learning. My guess is, it's much more powerful than you would think. Or even about words, if you look at what working class families do when they get a board game, they just put everything out on the table and they start playing. [laughs] And the middle class family, especially the upper middle class family, is like they say, "Okay, here's the rules. If the player who goes first has a higher value than ten on the dice, then this would be the case unless, of course, somebody else has a very low..." Thirty minutes later, they can start the game. Or even in the kitchen, middle class mothers work from recipes. They're reading what they're doing, and they're telling the kid who's there, "This is when we add the sugar," whereas recipes, not so much in working class families. So all of this, I can't prove that this makes a difference but, boy, it's certainly suspicious.

SPENCER: Another thing I know that is really important in your thinking is the "Law of Large Numbers." Do you want to tell us what that is and why you think it's so useful in daily life?

RICHARD: Well, the basic idea of the "Law of Large Numbers'' is the more evidence, the better. The more accurate your judgment will be, or your problem solution will be, the more evidence that it's based on. Of course, better evidence is more useful than worse evidence but other things equal, the sheer amount of evidence that you have is more important. And a qualification to that, which it turns out — I mean, everybody knows what I just said, this is not [laughs] news to anybody — but the importance of amount of evidence is a function of the variability of the kind of thing that we're trying to make a judgment about. So for example, if you tell people there's an island somewhere, where somebody goes to visit that island and sees a shreeble (which is a type of bird) and it's blue. What fraction of birds like that of shreebles do you think are blue? People say, "Well, you know, birds can have different colors, birds of a particular kind. So, I don't know, 40%? I'm just guessing. Who knows?" But if you say there's an element that was discovered on this island, that it's called 'New Jersey-ite' and that element, when you burn it, it has a blue flame. "Do you suppose that's true of all of those samples?" "Yes, of course, it's true, but they're not quite 100%." So people understand that, but getting it right in everyday life [laughs], it's something I get wrong several times a day, I'm quite sure, and I'm probably being generous to myself. I love the following story by a social psychologist who had been to Hawaii and he went to the...I don't know which island it is that has the active volcano on it. He hiked all the way up to the top and he looked over the edge, and there was red lava down there and he could see that, and a little bit of smoke coming up, "Oh, okay, interesting. I've seen the volcano." And he tells a friend that it wasn't thrilling to go to the volcano and his friend says, "Really, you weren't that impressed? Why don't you come with me tomorrow?" So he goes with the friend and it's a spectacular show, lava 20 feet high tossed up in the air and the thing is filled with smoke which's a spectacular show. Well, he didn't know anything about volcanoes so he didn't realize that volcanoes are variable. Sometimes they put on a show for you and sometimes they don't. Or one that's a little closer to home and embarrassing to me, when I was very young (well, not very young, I was already an adult), I went to England for the first time, and I spent 10 days in London. It was a gorgeous day every day (I mean blue skies, 70 degrees) and when I got back to the country, I said, "You know, the English seem to be such babies about weather. They're complaining about the rain. I was there. It was great weather." Well, a couple of years after that, I went to London again, and it never stopped raining. [laughs] So, it's really (I have to say) it's stupid for me to decide that the weather in London is good because the 10 days I was there, it was good. Because did I not know that weather is the kind of thing that is variable? Yeah, I know that, so why didn't I apply that in that case? And I can't tell you. [laughs] Because I was stupid, that's all. But I do live my life, to the extent that I can, by paying attention to the amount of evidence available. I mean, everybody knows you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but a lot of people think you can judge a movie from the trailer. "Oh, I don't know, I've seen a lot of movies that had great trailers that were sort of crappy. I've seen movies that I would not have gone to if I'd seen the trailer probably, which were really excellent." But I'm more extreme than that, and now here I get to be — even my brightest friends think I'm maybe a little bit overboard — I don't read books that haven't been recommended to me by someone I trust a lot who has actually read the thing. Now obviously that's crazy. I mean, there are great books out there that you're never going to read because you didn't meet anybody. True, true [laughs], but if I haven't read a review, or somebody hasn't told me, it's just not worth the risk that I'm not gonna really like it that much. Because you can either buy that or not, you could think that I'm a nut or not, but that's the way I do it.

SPENCER: Well, there's so many more books to read than you'll ever be able to read so it seems like prioritizing makes sense.

RICHARD: Exactly. Why take a chance on picking this thing up because it's by an author I think I've heard of, so "Oh, I'll read it." That's too costly. But here's where it's really important, where people waste a tremendous amount of money and energy because, when they have a job available, and they have various applicants, they interview them. And the 30-minute interview is worthless for predicting anything anybody ever tried to predict about them that involves intellectual matters or social skills or whatever. The correlation is .10 or less between the grade that somebody gets on an interview and the grades in college or graduate school or law school or medical school or in the military. How high the person rises in the military is not predictable by the 30-minute, 'get acquainted, tell me about yourself' kind of interview. It literally predicts nothing. And you might say, "Well, why not go ahead and do the interview?" The answer is, often, in the folder, there's a heck of a lot of really valuable evidence. There's the grade point average, there's letters of recommendation, there's specific accomplishments that are listed in the application, and the folder ("Well, folders aren't perfect." No, they're not perfect), but if you give a grade to the folder, it will predict job performance, academic performance, etc, to the tune of about a correlation of .4 or .5, which ain't perfect, but it's a heck of a lot better than random.. And the problem is we over weight the interview. Danny Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist whose work has made a huge difference to me, said, "You know, people's model of what goes on in the interview is hopelessly wrong. They don't regard it as 30 minutes worth of evidence about this and that. They think of the interview as being like a hologram of the person. I mean, it's smaller and a little blurrier, but what you see is pretty much what you're going to get." No, it's not. It's just a small amount of evidence, so you should not do interviews. I have my favorite example. "So what happens if you don't do interviews?" and I have a couple of anecdotal pieces of evidence about that. At Princeton, there was a psychologist who was married to a philosopher — this is like 40 years ago — and she convinced her husband that, don't interview, just go by the folder. The last time I tapped in, Princeton had one of the best (at one point, the best) philosophy departments in the world. At the University of Michigan, we had a Chair for a long time, who knew the literature on interviews. He said, "Don't ever interview somebody. It's gonna swamp your judgment based on other things. Look at the folder, the person whose folder looks best, make that person an offer, and bring them to the campus by all means, but bring them there to convince them to come." [laughs] "You've got the job, and here's why you should come." And Michigan, since this guy was Chair, has been somewhere between the number one and the number four department in the country ever since. Now that's anecdotal, it could have been something else, it could have been something in the atmosphere that you breathe. But it certainly is a kind of demonstration that you don't fall to pieces by failing to do interviews. We have two examples that show, at the very least, that there's no evidence that you do yourself considerable damage by failing to interview. And I chose the University of Michigan, by the way. I made up my mind that I was going to go — I was at Yale, which I didn't much like, and I made up my mind when I got the offer from Yale — because they weren't going to base it on the interview. They said, "Hi, we have a job at Michigan. Come and visit us." I made up my mind that I was gonna go to Michigan, no matter what. And it's a good thing too, because my interview was in February, and there was patchy gray snow on the ground and the temperature was about 16 degrees. My interview with the executive committee, they sat there and talked about baseball the whole time. [laughs] "Hello, is this a serious intellectual outfit?" I mean, that's the last time I heard baseball mentioned. Football, that's a different matter. [laughs] Every conversation gets around to football at a certain point at Michigan. And the person I spent the most time with was a stone bore. But you know, I had sworn I'm gonna go to Michigan no matter what, because everything I knew about Michigan was positive, about the university, about the department, and about the town, except for that little matter of weather (which is no joke [laughs]). But everything else, it was a great decision, for me at any rate. It would be a great decision for anybody else who had the evidence available to them that I had, before I ever went on the interview.

SPENCER: I very largely agree with you. I think people way overestimate the value of interviews. That being said, I do think there are a few cases that they can be useful. One is that if the job you're hiring for involves a lot of social skills, then I think you can use the interview to help evaluate those social skills, right? You're hiring a salesperson who has to be very charismatic and persuasive. You kind of want to see them being charismatic and persuasive.

RICHARD: Absolutely, and I should have qualified [laughs] what I was saying by that example, because once I really got nailed by some guy who said, "That's all very interesting when you're talking about interviews not being useful, but tell me, am I wrong? I was once interviewing women to be cocktail waitresses. And it wasn't even a 30-minute interview, it was 10 minutes. And I figured if the woman could charm me in 10 minutes, she's probably going to charm other people as well." [laughs] Okay, I certainly do think a brief interview is of some use for that kind of job. It doesn't require a lot of intellectual skills or organizational skills. It's really how pleasant and agreeable the person is in a short encounter. That's what the job is. So the interview can be useful for that.

SPENCER: Right. Unfortunately, a lot of times we accidentally swap how much we like the person, or how agreeable they were, or how good they made us feel with how good they will be for the job, in cases where those skills actually aren't that relevant.

RICHARD: That's right. And I often attach my diatribe against the interview. One thing that goes into the interview, which is "How much do you like the person?" If you're ever sitting on a plane with somebody and the person mentions to me that they're going to the Boston area because they're going to take a teaching job at Tufts, I say, "Tufts, no kidding. [laughs] I went to Tufts." And we're off to the races on a conversation. I really like this guy. Well, how nice that I got to talk to this very interesting, pleasant person on the plane, for whom I had that impression solely because I had this entree to it. But it gets to be a very serious matter when there are differences in race, where if it's a White interviewing a person of color, or person of some ethnic group that is strange to the person, then it's completely spurious, socially injurious factors that end up getting improper weight in the choice for a person for the job.

SPENCER: Right, the interview might disadvantage someone who feels like they're from a less familiar culture, or they don't look like the person who's doing the interview, etc.

RICHARD: Right. Exactly. I should say, this is such a lovely student of mine who did a study of Hispanic versus White applicants for a fairly high-level job at an energy company in Texas. And for some of the applicants, he mimicked their gestures, their physical behavior. So if the applicant crossed his leg, he crossed his leg. If the applicant rubbed his cheek, he rubbed his cheek. This turns out to be...this is very embarrassing to us humans, but that's a big deal [laughs], how much we like people if they mimic our behavior. We like them more than if they don't. But it turns out that this is particularly important for Hispanics. If you're not mimicking their behavior at all, they're thrown off, they feel like they're messing this up, it's just not going right. And that's much less true for Whites. That's a specific example of how you can be thrown off, you can be making prejudicial choices rather than using the folder.

SPENCER: Another question about interviewing I have for you is, it seems like an expert who's talking to another expert can often get a quick sense of how knowledgeable they are about a subject. So that seems to me like a case where you might actually want to talk to someone. What do you think about that?

RICHARD: You know, I agree about that, too. I mean, you can sometimes have an interview with someone (or a relatively brief encounter) and you mention something. If that person turns out to be ignorant about it, you say, "My God, how expert can you be if you don't know that?" So that's a case where you can get evidence from an interview, in theory, but you don't typically if it's a get acquainted interview. That kind of thing is probably not going to come up. But since you raise that question, can there be a knowledge that you can assess? One of the people who knows perfectly well how bad the get acquainted interview is, is Danny Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning psychologist. He got the Nobel Prize for economic work, not for psychology work, but it was psychological economics that he got it for. He actually invented, for the military in Israel, an interview form where the questions are specified in advance, and the interviewer has to ask the questions exactly as they're stated, in the order that they're stated, and that actually predicts — not badly — how well the student will do in officer training school and how high they rise in the military after that. So you can get information on the interview, but just, "Sit down and tell me about yourself," or "How do you see yourself in the future?" No, useless.


SPENCER: So the last topic I want to talk to you about before we finish up is this idea of underusing and overusing cost-benefit. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

RICHARD: Well, everybody knows about the principle of cost-benefit. Businesses do it, often in a very explicit way, and it's definitely the thing to do. But it's not just businesses, we ought to use cost-benefit analysis in our daily life. I think very few people were very explicit about the cost versus the benefits of keeping people out of their normal environments because of COVID. We know that there were huge economic, intellectual, educational costs of living the way we did for that year. Now, I don't know where I come out on that. Do I think we should do what that medical plaque from Stanford said, "Just let it rip. Protect the old people and let everybody else do what they want to do." Sitting here right now, I can't say whether that was wrong or not. It's alarming that he ended up having an influence on policy because he was just one guy, and he certainly was not knowledgeable about epidemiology. But people were not sufficiently explicit about the cost. The benefit is obvious, I mean, you're less likely to get the darn thing. But there were huge costs, and I think there should have been more explicit cost-benefit analysis. That's economist stuff. But what interests me more is the choice aspects in everyday life that are influenced by knowing certain cost-benefit principles. One is, cut sunk costs. Very early on in my career, I learned something about sunk costs. The basic idea behind sunk costs is, you shouldn't do anything because it will justify costs in terms of time, energy, money that have already been spent, because you can't get those back by anything you do.

SPENCER: Right. So just to clarify, if you've been working on a project for a long time, sometimes people will reason, "Well, I've already invested a lot of money and time in this project. And if I stop it now, I'll have wasted all that money and time."


SPENCER: But in reality, whether you stick with it, or you stop it, that money and time has already gone, and it's not going to be gotten back in either case. And so if you're thinking about whether to move forward with the project, you actually shouldn't take it into account.

RICHARD: Right, and an economist will say (in a very gruff way), "What do you mean you're wasting that money if you don't continue with a project? The money is gone. Fortunately, you can't waste it." So economists (by the way, they're a different species), they live their lives by the sunk cost rule. They don't finish expensive meals which they don't like. They walk out of movies or plays that they find boring. And they're right to do that, as far as it goes, because you're not going to get your $100 back by eating this lousy steak. So you can suffer once, once for the cost and once for the eating [laughs], or once for the ticket to the play, and once for experiencing the play. So they're very good about it, and they're basically right. I talk a lot about sunk costs, the principle and examples about them and so on. One of my favorite examples of someone who put preaching about sunk costs to use was a friend who was a single woman. She lived in Chicago and she bought a cottage in Lake Michigan, about four hours away. And she was excited about it. She had friends who lived in the community. It turned out there were a lot of things wrong with the cottage, and they kept going wrong. She had to pay for them. She had cats that she was very attached to and she couldn't really take them to the cottage because they were at some risk if they went outside. One of the friends moved away and she keeps paying money to make the cottage livable. And she was made miserable by the cottage but you know, she can't waste all the money and time and energy and anxiety if she just walks away from it, and she's talking to me, "Oh, no, actually, that can't be wasted. [laughs] I can walk away and be free of this damn thing." And she did that. We get trapped because we try to say...I learned from an example. It took me a while, I still make this mistake. But believe me, there's no cure for making the sunk cost mistake, but I did have a very dramatic example of it early on in my career. My very first study, I did this study, took a lot of time to analyze the data, but, gosh, it wasn't looking very good to me. So I took it to my advisor, Stanley Schachter. He looked at the data for about an hour, and he said, "I hate to tell you, kiddo, but there's nothing there." "Oh, impossible, that's intolerable. I've spent all this time. I'll do the study better, I'll collect more data, I'll do et cetera." So I did all this stuff, I spent six or eight weeks working to save the time I had already spent on the project. And still nothing happened. There's lots of mottos that we have that tip us off to sunk costs. 'Know when to hold them, know when to fold them.' 'Don't throw good money after bad' and so on. But I do find that I can make people apply that concept much more broadly than they do normally, by just teaching them about it.

SPENCER: And you said that you think we sometimes overuse cost-benefit concepts. What are some examples there?

RICHARD: Well, when I was talking about this in lectures I would give, or just in conversations with people, it's surprising how often it came up that you say, "Well, let's apply that to marriage. If things have gone wrong, and the marriage is not making you happy anymore, sunk cost principle says you can't rescue the time and the emotional energy and money that you've put in the marriage by staying in it, so maybe we should apply sunk costs and get out." And my reaction is, "Well, just a minute." There's an expression that I like a lot, which is, 'Marriage is a way to get over the periods of unlove,' and I think that's an extremely important thing to know. I mean, it's not going well now, and there have been times in the past that it wasn't going well, and you're not happy now. Does that mean you should cut bait? Not necessarily.

SPENCER: It's kind of a pre-commitment mechanism then.

RICHARD: Yeah, exactly. So the minister tells you at the wedding ceremony that it's for good times and bad, rich times and poor, healthy times and unhealthy times, and into every life, some rain will fall and so on. But the fact is, [laughs] that's all true. It can be hard to make the judgment, of course. But you shouldn't say that, just because for the last several months, this has not been fun, that's not yet enough reason to jettison a relationship.

SPENCER: And even more so when you have children.

RICHARD: Oh, yes, of course, of course. Sunk costs may keep us in marriages actually that we should be kept in because it's good for the children and entirely separate from the fact that it may well start getting better.

SPENCER: And some people use gym memberships that way, right? They know if they buy it in advance, they're gonna feel guilty not going to the gym, even though it's technically a sunk cost.

RICHARD: Yep, I do that too. I mean, I say, "This is stupid, because I know that I'm a sucker for sunk costs. But I'm gonna go ahead and do it anyway. Because I know I'm gonna go to the gym." People who do services for you often will make you pay for a month in advance. Every month is paid in advance because that's going to keep you going to them to save those sunk costs.

SPENCER: Absolutely. Richard, this was a really fun conversation. Thank you so much for coming on.

RICHARD: Thank you. I enjoyed it.





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