Madeleine Van Hecke – Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

September 7, 2007

Madeleine Van Kecke is a licensed clinical psychologist and an adjunct faculty member at North College in Naperville, Illinois. She is a writer, and a lecturer and workshop leader for Open Arms Seminar. Her recent book is Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Van Hecke explores common missteps that even intelligent and educated people make when approaching certain topics, and how human intelligence can sometimes actually backfire. She explores how science may be brought to bear on nonscientific topics such as the quest for human meaning. She also explores certain biases that the skeptical community may have.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 7th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. Every week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the big questions through the lens of the scientific outlook. And today’s guest, Madeleine Van Hecke, helps us explore the question of why smart people do dumb things. Before we get to Dr Van Hecke, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m pleased to have on point of inquiry today Madeleine Van Hek. She’s a licensed clinical psychologist and serves on the faculty of North College in Naperville, Illinois. She’s a lecturer and workshop leader for Open Arms seminar and she’s on the show today to talk about her book, Blind Spots Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Madeleine Van Hek. 

Good to be here. Dr Van Haak. I’m not exactly a fan of what I guess this book could be considered a self-help book, although that maybe will debate that point. So much of self-help stuff. I know I’ll get in trouble for saying this seems simplistic. Maybe written just with the next took just to sell books. 

I probably also think I’m too intelligent for most self-help books. But Hugh, you’ve written a book for people who think they’re smart and you actually say that being smart might actually doom a person to do some really dumb things sometimes. 

Yeah, I think that, you know, we don’t really call someone stupid. We all say that was really a dumb thing. How could you be so stupid? Unless we know that they’re basically pretty smart. 

If somebody really has a significant disability like they’ve had a stroke or they have Down syndrome, we don’t we don’t react that way. It’s only when we think they should know better. And I think the way that our minds are wired, that the very things that help us think creatively and problem solve and all that also create blind spots and those make us blunder. 

You have a ton of anecdotes in the book to illustrate these blind spots, but they don’t seem to be just coming from your own personal experiences with clients and your family and stuff you draw from the fields of education, from creativity, research, critical thinking, other areas of cognitive science and cognitive psychology. So here’s the question. Is this, in fact, a self-help book? Is it, you know, for people who want to overcome their own blind spots, or is it more of a survey about what cognitive psychology says about the way that people flub up their thinking? 

I think it’s both. I tried to make it both. It really grew out of my teaching of classes in creative thinking and in critical thinking and in seeing some of the ways my own students stumbled. That sort of thing. So I found in teaching I really needed some of those stories and those anecdotes. But I also wanted it to be based in solid research. 

You and I were talking before the show about Michael Shermer. He had some really positive things to say about your book. It seems like the message of this book is part and parcel with the aims of the skeptical movement, the science advocacy movement, really of the things were all about here at the Center for Inquiry. Let’s get to some of these blindspots then. Over the years, I’ve met some really amazing people all over North America, people involved with the Center for Inquiry and in this movement, the skeptical, the humanist movement, while it’s a bunch of smart people. Right. Really smart people. 

And there’s something going on that I’ve called the Menza effect. It’s when really, you know, really smart people get together and base. You know, one of them says, I’m right, in my opinion, on this subject, whatever it is. And I’m right because I’m really smart. And since you’re really smart, you should know that I’m right. And that’s really the content of a lot of this conversation. Smart people get together. It seems like they argue about just everything under the sun. There seems to be something about being smart that actually sometimes stacked the deck against you not doing dumb things. 

Well, I think that one of the things that happens is that a blind spot really can be thought of as missing a perspective. That’s why I like the metaphore of the car and the blind spot. Because if somebody pulls up next to us when we’re stopped at a light and they’re in our blind spot, there’s no one around the corner who couldn’t miss that car. It’s so obvious. But we couldn’t miss it. So we need that alternative perspective. And I think when people feel overly confident of their own intelligence and overly confident that they must be right. It basically makes their mind slam shut that sort of attitude. And as soon as their mind slams shut, we’re not going to be able to see some perspectives that are different from our own. In fact, we’re going to filter them. It’s like looking through a lens, you know, and it will see the world colored through that particular lens. And we may not even see what other people are trying to say or tell us about. 

One of the blind spots is not knowing that you’re ignorant about something, you know, smart and think that they’re educated about. Really, everything. It’s hard for an educated person to say he or she is ignorant about something. People assume that because they’re intelligent, they’re educated, that they know something they actually don’t know. 

Right. And we don’t know what we don’t know. And if we’re not willing to be open to that. I mean, when you look at the history, for instance, of medicine, a lot of the discoveries that were made or that were unacknowledged. You know, if your listeners are familiar with Ignat Semmel, vice, that this was a physician in the eighteen forties or so who discovered the cause of what was called childbed fever. This was, you know, 20 years before Louis Pasteur with the germ theory of disease, who’s just sort of a rumor in the air. 

And here is this Ignaz Semmelweis looking at a disease that was killing it. Sometimes, you know, up to 30 and 40 percent of women giving birth and who realized that a big part of the problem with it was that the doctors seeking to find the cause of this were doing autopsies every morning and then wiping their hands on their white lab coats without washing and examining the women in labor. So they were spreading this thing. 

You know, nobody today would doubt that that was the true cause of child, that fever. And Ignat followed the whole scientific method. He gathered data. He had comparisons and different wings of the hospital where they didn’t didn’t wash. And still, it took almost 20 years before his theories were actually accepted. So we can really think that we have the truth and it can really blind us even to the scientific data. 

Another blind spot you talk about is that people, especially smart people, they get immersed in the topic. They look at something in detail and they’re kind of hardwired not to see the big picture as a result because they’re looking at it so closely. 

Yes, sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees. And I don’t think our graduate training is too helpful in getting us over there points, but because we tend in graduate training to really get more and more focused. Plus, we’re very reductionist as far as the scientific method itself. And I think in the United States, in Western way of thinking, we tend to think. And I think it’s often true that if we can just reduce this down to its most basic elements, the smaller slice that we can get, the more likely that we can somehow discover true causes of things, that sort of thing. And I think it’s it’s a wonderful ability we have. But it does make us sometimes and miss the larger picture of interconnectedness. You know, I remember a friend of mine when she was in undergraduate school telling me about a professor who came in really excited because of a new concept he had just read about. He thought it was going to just revolutionize the way he thought about experimental psychology. This was the course he was teaching. 

And you know what the concept was? Teaching ecology that, you know what? If you can think of it like a system, you know? Well, I mean, there isn’t a second grader today who isn’t familiar with that concept. Why did it take us decades, you know, decades to think in those terms? 

Do you think the compartmentalization or the departmentalized ation of learning, you know, that there are these different fields, that it’s not as interdisciplinary as it ought to be or as it could be? Do you think that’s a blind spot educationally that keeps us from seeing the forest for the trees? 

Yes, I do. I think that one of the things that was so beneficial to me, I often felt that I got my best liberal education as an instructor because I went where I was teaching at North Central College, a small liberal arts college in Naperville, Illinois. But small enough that I hit an enormous amount of contact with professors from other disciplines and taught a lot of interdisciplinary classes. And that was really where I had my liberal education. So I think that, you know, it’s it’s like coming to a discussion and we can all put our perspective on the table. We’re all going to look through the lens of our own specialty and through the lens of our own discipline. But the more you hear these other perspectives and you see what a rich picture it gives you, the more open you are. I mean, I heard a philosopher one time say he didn’t see any sense in reading literature because there was obviously nothing you could learn from literature. There was nothing logical or deductive or experimental. And, you know, I thought for that you’re missing something here. There was more than one type of knowledge and more than one way of getting to certain kinds of truths. 

One blind spot that you talk about that I really enjoyed getting into in the book and were kind of giving a gloss on all of these, were not able to get into any of them in too much depth. But one that struck me is you’re talking about the social mirror you were talking about, I guess, people not being able to see themselves. And that’s a blind spot that people. I have no idea how they come across either in an argument or when they’re presenting their position or holding fast in their beliefs. How can we see ourselves better? 

Well, it’s it’s tough. That’s why teams, athletic teams will have themselves videotaped so that they can actually see themselves or people will say, you know, videotaped yourself in a mock job interviews so you can see how you come across. I think, you know, one of the ways is to find trusted people that give you feedback, but you have to be open to it. And you also have to you’re not just going to take it in indiscriminately either. You know, you need to think to yourself, because that person is looking at you through their own particular lens as well. So it’s I think it’s one of the toughest blind spots to overcome. I had an experience when my daughter was 13 and we went to celebrate her birthday at a fancy restaurant. So she and her brother are sitting there with me. And I saw this little porcelain cup and the restaurant table that had butter in it. But it was really fancy and it had the little imprint. I thought it could look like cheese. So I picked it up and I look at my kids and I’m sure I said this in a very teachers sort of voice. I said, Kaitlyn, David, this is butter. Well, they just roared, D.J.. I mean, they thought this was hilarious and they were relentless to the rest of the meal saying things like, what’s in this pretty basket, Davido? I don’t know. I think it’s rolls. So they just teased me. And it’s really hard to catch a glimpse of yourself and accept it when the other person is rolling their eyes or making fun of you. But often I think that’s when we can see a side of ourselves and say, well, wait a minute, you know, obviously I’m coming across here in some way that I didn’t intend. 

So with this point, your calling for self-knowledge, do you think, given your research in cognitive psychology, your research for the book, do people by and large have an accurate view of who they are? Or are we all pretty consistently self deceived about who we are to other people? 

I think a lot of the researchers suggest that most of the time most of us are pretty self deceived. So when they do research where they, for instance, have you describe yourself and then they have friends, describe you online, the same, you know, different aspects, that there’s quite a discrepancy there often. And then there was some very interesting research a few years ago that showed that the people who had more accurate notions of themselves tended to be more depressed. 

The people who have better moods, you know, they were happier with themselves and with their lives, but they weren’t you know, they really weren’t as good as they thought they were. But they were less depressed than the people who saw themselves more accurately. So there’s a whole little debate about whether or not this self-knowledge can do some harm to us. You know, the truth will set you free, but it might kill you in the meantime. 

Right. The self-knowledge might not pay off. You know, I know people who you go up to him and and you tell him how much a jerk they are and they’ll think, well, he’s having a bad day and they go on with their Mary lives, right? 

Yeah. You probably need to phrase it a little differently than telling them what a jerk they are. 

And I think one of the things about self-knowledge is it’s much easier to take in the ideas, the perspectives of other people. If we can believe that person is really in our corner, you know, they really could coach your mentor. They, you know, is telling you these things because they truly want you to succeed and want you to improve. That’s when it’s most easy, I think, for us to be able to face up to the fact that we’re not quite all that we thought we were cracked up to be. 

I want to talk about some of the other blindspots. But just on this point, again, just last week, I was having something of a heart to heart with a friend and he or she to protect you while he was lamenting the fact that, you know, everybody, you know, five or six people that we were talking about really thought he was a scoundrel. And, you know, he was wondering how that is because he certainly didn’t think he was a scoundrel. And the question the question I posed as well. Do you think they’re on to something? Maybe you’re the one that’s wrong. Maybe all of them are right now. How do you how do you balance between that? Because sometimes it’s true that a group of people are wrong. And the you know, the ones perspective is accurate against the perspective of the many. 

I think that’s true, but I think that if that many people have this misperception, this wrong perception, then at the very least you want to find out what it is you’re doing that’s triggering that that erroneous perception. What are you doing that they’re misinterpreting in that way? You know, someone said something really interesting to me just last night. He said about this topic. He said, Sometimes I think that what you will sometimes risk the friendship for the sake of the friend that you’ll risk the friendship may be running into trouble by telling the truth to someone because you care about that person so much. And it seems so important that they understand how they’re shooting themselves in the foot or how they’re sabotaging their own dreams. 

Let’s talk about some of these other blind spots. One is you talked about jumping to conclusions. That seems pretty basic on the face of it. Everyone knows people jump to conclusions and it’s something we shouldn’t do. What can we do to avoid jumping to conclusions other than being, like, tediously tentative of every, you know, of every perspective? And surely we have to conclude at some point about something. 

Yes, right. And we don’t want to. This is another author said, footnote ourselves to death. And sometimes we have to say, OK, this is this is where where I’m at at this point. 

But I think in terms of jumping to conclusions that people who for whom this blind spot is a real big problem, they would not likely you know, they’re they’re the people who never stop to question anything. So they’re not going to be typical of the kind of skeptical sorts of listeners that you might have. But nevertheless, the idea of saying, just asking yourself, I think whenever you feel absolutely sure of something or whenever your mind slams shut in a knee jerk fashion, someone suggests something and you just outright rejected that. That’s a time to use that as a cue to say, well, hang on just a second. How sure am I? What really is the basis for my feeling? Could there be even a small part of validity to this other person’s position and just sort of practicing? I had a really interesting experience one time of reading a book that a mostly agreed with, but I was trying to really understand it in depth. And there were parts that I could not make cohere. And I, I tried every time I got to a section of that book to tell myself, I am not going to critique this until I feel almost convinced that he’s right because I have understood it that well. And this was not a book that I felt passionately about as far as, you know, the CIA ideology or the ideas. And yet, even even with a kind of scientific sort of objective information I was encountering. It was amazing how hard that was to do and how I could almost hear my mind creak, you know, to readjust itself and embrace these ideas in a different way. And then I did step back and eventually critique them and found some of the flaws I was looking for. But it was a real lesson to me that our minds don’t naturally do this very easily. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of blindspots why smart people do dumb things through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Dr. Van Hecke, big boosters of critical thinking, and in a sense, your book is really about critical thinking, if it’s about anything. They say that we should only believe those things for which there’s adequate evidence. Bertrand Russell has a quote somewhere that he says, you know, if you consistently apply this kind of skepticism, this kind of believing things, only if you have good evidence that it will necessarily overturn some of the biggest beliefs of our society, some of the most cherished convictions, he says. You say, on the other hand, that we should actually be skeptical of our own reliance on evidence. In other words, our own deeply held convictions, whether it’s the scientific worldview or the religious worldview or the paranormal review or, you know, whatever convictions you have, that they may lead us to discount some kinds of evidence and rely more heavily on other kinds of evidence. So whether it’s global warming or God’s existence, evidence might actually be a problem for us. Some skeptics have been accused of rejecting claims out of hand since they don’t fit their preconceived, naturalistic world view. So your book is actually a nudge, a critique of skepticism in a way. How do we step back, look at all the evidence more clearly as skeptics? 

I guess the first thing I want to say is that I certainly think that the scientific method is the most reliable method that human beings have been able to come up with to date to test ideas, and that eventually in the area that you’re researching, the scientific method will will yield come closer and closer to yielding accurate and true results. The limitations to me are not in the method itself, but there in the fact that there are only certain kinds of questions that really lend themselves to the scientific method. In terms of analysis, me, anything about the physical world easily lends itself to that. And we get sort of some steps removed as we move into something like archeology, where we have evidence that we have to rethink. Reanna is there once said looking at archeological evidence is like having a jigsaw puzzle with three fourths of the pieces missing. You know, as you go back in time. So we’re always kind of filling in these gaps. So I think one thing we have to be careful of with the scientific method is to remember there were often dealing with insufficient data and that the the other part of it is, is that here are all of these questions that are very crucial, very important to human beings. Like what? Meaning, if any, does my life have the philosophical questions and for some people, the religious questions and that we shouldn’t say, well, this kind of thinking and writing and study that’s involved with those is somehow meaningless, because in the end, as when students said, we may prove the cause of cancer, but no one’s ever going to approve the meaning of Billy Budd. You know, we’re not going to hear some definitive answer to what a poem means. But that doesn’t mean those pathways to knowledge have nothing to offer us. 

Two quick points. One, you were talking about how our knowledge is incomplete. It’s true that it’s incomplete in almost every area. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be reliable. Just because knowledge is incomplete doesn’t mean it’s completely unreliable. Also, I really appreciated the section you just touched on when you were talking about maybe a bias of the scientific world view. You say that one glitch in using the ways of science to find these things out is that some people say that you can’t approach certain questions through the the lens or the world view of the scientific approach to things. So questions like what’s the meaning of life or how should I live? Do you think they should be off limits to the to the naturalist, to the to the scientifically minded? Or can that spirit of of science, where you look at things by the evidence, you test things by the consequences. Ken. Ken, that approach be brought to bear on these hand-wringing questions, these these bigger questions that you’re not going to figure out in a laboratory with beakers and test tubes? 

I think to some extent they they certainly can be brought to bear. I mean, I think in Michael Sherman’s book, The Science of Good and Evil, and, you know, a number of other people are trying to show some of the biological bases and evolutionary bases for things like empathy and cooperation. And I think those are both very intriguing and very, very useful and is helpful in us understanding people. And another example, I think of someone who’s trying to do that a little bit is Sam Harris. In the end, Faith, he’s here is this book that is really a. Condemning all established formal religions, but when Sam Harris talks about meditation and Buddhism, since he believes that in meditating, you can have an experience, all a personal but a personal experience shall test of the idea that there is some transcendent reality out there. So he he’s arguing, I believe, that you can find a basis for spirituality, but not for religions that have a dogma, that he’s trying to do this, in a sense, to a naturalistic observation of your own experience. So I think those sorts of approaches can be at least very thought provoking to the rest of us. What’s left out still, though, is the idea. Well, the people who will talk about the meaning of myths and stories and narrative and how much that can enrich, enrich the lives of other people. And that’s what’s really totally, to me, totally missing from the scientific approach and method. So I wouldn’t want to limit it just to, you know, observation and testing and that kind of thing. When we think about the big questions of life, I love that you just mentioned Sam Harris. 

Boy, did he get it bad from some of the skeptics and the atheists out there when he started talking about meditation and and these in quotes, mystical experiences, even if he himself doesn’t believe in the transcendent, he believes in that kind of phenomenological, that experience of of the transcendent in quotes. So to get back on topic, I mentioned a few minutes ago how we’ve just really scratched the surface. But this is a book that skeptics and critical thinkers will get a lot out of. Even in the short time we’ve talked about it, we’ve glossed over a number of issues that really speak to the skeptical enterprise. So last question before we finish up. How did you get in to studying this? I mean, did a person doesn’t just wake up one day and become an expert on blindspots? I guess I’m also getting at if other people want to explore this, you know, dig in, what what do they do? 

The way I got into it was partly by teaching child development. And may I have been deeply interested in how children think for decades now. And when you study that literature, you find research that shows these four year olds who are incredibly bright. I mean, logical thinkers salving syllogisms pretty much the same way an adult would solve the same syllogism. This is fairly recent research and say the past 15 years. And on the other hand, I was very aware of research with adults, sometimes really smart adults. I remember one study used only people who had taught courses in logic, you know, for the subjects, and they made some of the same dumb mistakes. You know, that were regulars. College sophomore in that research would make. And so I just got an three day thought. This doesn’t make sense. I mean, surely we don’t reach the apex of our intelligence at age five or six and then go downhill after that. So how can I reconcile the apparent brilliance of these little kids and the appearance stupidity of some adults? So I kind of paid attention to the ad as I was teaching critical thinking and creativity, which is part of the ability to see those alternative perspectives and not be blind to them. And a host of other classes. And that really led me to think, you know, how could I conceptualize this? And it seemed to me the thinking of it in terms of a blind spot would make sense and would give me a structure in which I could talk about research from all these different areas. So that’s that’s what led me to it. As far as I think the other people who wanted to research it probably need to choose a particular blind spot and focus and the research related to the ones that they’re most interested in. But certainly all the research done in critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and attention, all of that is relevant. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry, Madeline Vanderhook. 

Well, I was really glad to be here, D.J.. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiries Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe.