Special Double Episode: Jon Ronson and Richard Wiseman, with Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney

October 29, 2012

At the 2012 CSICON conference in Nashville, Tennessee, your Point of Inquiry hosts Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney finally actually found themselves in the same place. The result was a show that features both of them covering current events—the 2012 election, the passing of CFI founder Paul Kurtz—and each also conducting an interview!

Our guests:

Jon Ronson (interviewed by Chris Mooney) is a journalist, filmmaker, radio personality and humorist-author of books you have heard of like The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. You may have heard him on This American Life, or read him in the Guardian—or, if you are a very strange and odd person, or maybe a psychopath, you may have been interviewed by him! Because that would put you right in his wheelhouse, as he explains in this interview.

Richard Wiseman (interviewed by Indre Viskontas) holds Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. His research on an eclectic range of topics including luck, self-help, illusion and persuasion has been published in some of the world’s leading academic journals and cited in over 20 introductory textbooks. He has also written several best-selling books that have been translated into over 30 languages, including The Luck Factor, Quirkology, and 59 Seconds. His psychology-based YouTube videos have received over 45 million views and he has given keynote addresses to organisations across the world, including The Royal Society, The Swiss Economic Forum, and Google. Richard is the most followed British psychologist on Twitter and was recently listed in the Independent On Sunday’s top 100 people who make Britain a better place to live.  Over 2 million people have taken part in his mass participation experiments and he has acted as a creative consultant to Derren Brown, The MythBusters, CBS’s The Mentalist, Heston Blumenthal, Nick Cave and Jeremy Deller. He began his working life as a professional magician and is a member of The Inner Magic Circle.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, October 20 9th, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m Chris Mooney and I’m Indre Viskontas Point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values and public affairs and at the grassroots. 

Obviously, this is something of a special episode of Point Inquiry since we are in the same place. That does not always happen. And the occasion is that we’re here at Psychon 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee, and that’s allowed us to do something we wanted to do for a long time, which is actually do a show together. 

And we have some great guests for you today. We have Jon Ronson and Richard Wiseman, both of whom are here at the conference, and we are delighted to have them on this joint show. 

So we want to start with current events. And actually, one thing in particular, I want to talk about a man who I think without whom probably wouldn’t be here. Paul Kurtz. Paul Kurtz was a great creator of secular institutions, the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. It was when he created it. It was Cy Cop, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of claims of the paranormal. They’re all going strong now, long after they were created. Dr. Kurtz, as we record this, he passed away just a couple of days ago at the age of 86. And here at the conference, there’s been a lot of fond remembrances of him. And in fact, the conference itself is dedicated to his memory. There’s not a ton that I can add to that. But I wanted to just share with you one of my memories, actually, when I first met Paul Kurtz, just as a way of telling what kind of person this man was, a philosopher who not only explained why, you know, it’s important to live life without superstition and we don’t need religious belief. But also that was just the first step for him. The next step was how do you then live? How do you ensure that you’re happy? How do you find meaning? How do you achieve fulfillment? That’s really what his philosophy is about. It’s what his life was about. So picture me. It’s nineteen ninety eight. I have a college junior and a highly introverted intern at the Center for Inquiry in AMRs, New York, which he founded. It’s like my second day there, my first day and Paul Ghats is coming down the hall. I’ve never met him before. I know what he looks like and I am so intimidated. And Paul goes straight towards me and he shakes my hand and he smile and he’s so welcoming and just starts to talk to me and made me immediately feel like I fit here. And, you know, Kurts was great at that. I think everyone who remembers him will say he had this incredible charm, the way of making people feel welcome. And I think that’s one reason why he was so successful when it came to convening humanist and scholars and philosophers from around the world and getting them to sign onto these important declarations and also conventions and Freethought Congresses, which he helped to put on in many countries. So I think that’s one of the crucial things about Paul Kurtz. And I know that he would be and was happy to see the United States today is moving in a more secular direction. We actually have new data suggesting that the nuns, the non religiously affiliated, they are on an upswing. So we’re growing. But also, you know, we’re experiencing I think this is clear growing pains. And as we go through that process, I think it will be very vital to keep in mind the memory and the example of Paul Kurtz and his leadership. 

Well, it’s hard to imagine you as a shy, introverted individual, given how you’ve taken on some of the really controversial issues in the national conversation. 

So clearly, there’s a paradox that there has been some positive influences coming. 

And speaking of the national conversation. Right. This show is going to go up one week before the election. And so I’ve been throwing things at the screen about many things as I watch, like the debates. But the thing that’s driving me the most nuts is for debates one one vice presidential three presidential zero mentions of the single most important science based public policy issue today, which is global climate change. 

Zilch. Nada. It’s amazing. 

It is kind of amazing, although I have to say that it’s not surprising to me, given how that very topic is in a lot of ways taboo in our national conversation. 

And part of the problem, I think, is that it’s hard to know what the clear path would be to to take against this problem. 

So do you have any insights as to what policy changes you would like to have heard the candidates talk about? 

Well, you know, I mean, ultimately, this is this is why it’s difficult, right? Is because people are still talking jobs, jobs, jobs, global climate change, dealing with it. You’re going to have to do some kind of regulation on the economy. It’s easily framed as a job killer. I think another reason it’s being ignored, though, it’s not just the candidates. They’re clearly not going there, including President Obama, who used to talk about this a lot. No longer. But the moderators, you know, they don’t see this as a top issue. And I think it’s because there’s like this firewall between political reporters and scientific issues, even if they matter, they like. But I was the kid growing up who, like, was no good at science. I mean, I don’t know who did it. That’s and then and then Candy Crowley actually said on CNN, I’m sorry if something like I’m sorry we didn’t get to that question, that the climate change people wanted as if it’s some luray, you know, kid interest group. Yeah. 

I mean, I think part of the problem, of course, is that like any major scientific endeavor, there is controversy within the academics. Of course, there’s little controversy about some of the key issues. But I think as a moderator, it’s very hard then to know what exactly to focus on. It’s such a broad topic and unfortunately, that it’s much easier to say, you know, jobs. That’s that’s kind of a one sentence question. Whereas climate change is more complicated. 

Yeah, they’re intimidated because they’re non science focused and they’re like, what am I going to do with this? 

And there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And one of the things that I’ve noticed among the candidates is that they tend to use this one style of rhetoric, which is to repeat something until you believe there or the audience believes that it’s true. I’ve noticed this time and time again where, you know, if you just say the same thing over and over again, that the findings are that in general, people will start to believe it. It’s the familiarity of it work. 

This is so written. Mitt Romney always says Francis is just one of the reporters. I think he’s a better repeater. But he says I will create 12 million jobs with rising take home pay. Twelve million jobs with rising take home. And if you notice that. 

Yeah, that does. That would have. He has like five always repeat over and over again. I mean, both candidates do this. 

But I do feel that, you know, of course, Mitt Romney sort of seems to do that a little bit more often, or at least in my my view, a little bit more sort of succinctly, where he actually repeats exactly the same words over and over again. Obama seems to couch things in different ways or he isn’t a little bit more variety in his delivery. But, you know, fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that there is something called the illusory truth effect in psychology, which is that if you if you hear something are you or you become familiar with something often, you do tend to believe that it’s true more than something that you just heard for the first time. And there are sort of two competing kind of models of how this works. That is that when we try to remember sort of the details of something, we we think of this as recollection. And you sort of put yourself back into that context and you draw in all the details of whatever it is that you were trying to remember. And we tend to, if we recollect, be better at remembering the source in which we got the information. And so if it’s if it’s a discredited source, we’ll remember that it’s discredited. The problem is, is that over time, those details fade and the source memory fades much more quickly than the familiarity with which, you know, you feel this. Oh, I think I’ve heard that before. It sounds familiar. So that familiarity is more of an automatic, unintentional process in the mind that then makes you think, OK, well, since I’ve heard it before. It’s probably true. I can’t remember the source. Probably a good source. I only read good sources, et cetera. So this illusory truth of fact seems really powerful and prevalent in our election. 

Will all the communications strategists say that, you know, this is how you communicate? You tell them what you’re going to tell them. You tell him what you told them and you repeat this ad nauseum. And then maybe at some point down the road they’ll start to have actually heard it. I mean, they preach repetition. You’re saying there’s a science behind? 

Yeah, there absolutely is. There is there there’s even something called the sleeper effect where something that initially you heard from a discredited source and, you know, is not true. But, you know, as the time fades and you get this, you lose the source details and familiarity takes over you. 

You tend to believe it. So it’s even you know, it’s it’s it’s quite well studied. 

And certainly there you scientists, if they would only listen to you. 

Yeah. Unfortunately, we hedge your bets far to land. 

And the beauty of science, of course, is that it changes as new data comments. 

You gave a talk here and it was well received. It was about memory. And by the way, speaking of memory, I saw I still remember your talk. A year ago at Psychon because it was memorable. And here’s why. You had a little ball on the screen and it moved around the screen. But the point was, is that just by showing the ball, moving this certain way, you talked about how we in the audience are doing this cognitive thing where we’re describing kind of agency to it and like telling a little story about it, because that’s how our minds work. So that’s not actually what you talked about this time, but they were both cool. 

Yeah, well, so you’ve actually just also demonstrated the illusory truth of not just a little ball. 

It was a ball, a triangle. 

And where there are shapes and they sort of the way you watch the shapes, the way they interact, it seems as though there’s a bully and there’s ones chasing the other. And there’s a whole little story that builds. And, you know, we attribute this story to these shakes, which clearly are not real people or you don’t have have. But the point is, is that you remember the gist, which is really important. You remember that the bottom line, which was, you know, we tell stories when we want to understand things, we want to recollect. And that was the point. Again, if my talk. Okay. Well, this year is related. I wanted to talk about the neural architecture of memory and how it supports this episodic remembering or storytelling. And I was on a panel with Jim Alcock who started talking about beliefs and where beliefs come from. Then Elizabeth Loftus came in and talked about eyewitness testimony and false memory and how people believe things that happened to them that that weren’t true. And then I came and, you know, might my talk a little bit more internalized, really looking at what was happening in the brain when we are recollecting what is the shape of recollection and that it’s reconstructive rather than simply replaying the past. And so what is it good for? And my Take-Home message is that really we shouldn’t be looking at episodic memory as a window into the details of our past, but rather as a method by which we can imagine future consequences. It’s the same brain regions are involved in both imagining the future and remembering the past. So so that’s that’s the Take-Home message and the way that it applies to people who are interested in the skeptical movement, of course, is that we shouldn’t. Not only should we do we not trust the details of our memory, but that that’s not what it’s for and that we should start to rethink about how we’re using memory in terms of moving forward. 

Well, all kinds of implications of this, right, for courtroom. Are we building this system, Bill, wrong now based on. 

I mean. Well, I think the courtroom system is is has a lot of problems, right. Where we do we do tend to put too much emphasis on eyewitness testimony. And Beth Loftis has talked about this for 40 years. And in fact, she put up a really great sort of way of doing that, swearing the oath. I mean, when she comes in and, you know, instead of saying, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. She says, no, I swear to tell the truth. And you know what? I think I remember something like that. 

If they had me in court, you know, then the ball would have been convicted in the triangle and the square would have gotten off. 

No idea. The trial didn’t even exist in Europe. Every. So I’m trustworthy. Clearly. 

So, yes, we do have a couple of cool guests, including Richard Wiseman. But first, Chris is going to interview Jon Ronson. 

So we’re here in Nashville with Jon Ronson. He’s a celebrated author, documentarian, radio personality and humorist. You know him from books like The Men Who Stare at Goats and the Psychopath Test. You might have heard him on this American life. You might have read him in The Guardian. And if you were a strange, weird person, believer in the paranormal or even a psychopath, he might have knocked on your door and inner you because that put you right in his wheelhouse. Jon Ronson, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Nice to see you. It’s great to have you know, I want to start with a quote. 

The New York Times said about your latest book, The Psychopath Test. This is the quote. You have a paranormal ability to locate and befriend wingnuts. 

Right. Unfortunately, it’s it’s not so paranormal abilities, which was a paranormal ability. 

It was apparent over embellish how we’d be spending not months on the Internet. I just find them like, you know, intuitively. Oh. So I’m not entirely sure. I mean, I’m delighted by the by the good reviews that I got to The New York Times. 

The wingnut thing I don’t love because I really feel that I am not in any way superior to the people that I interview I. I was just having a conversation with Stephen Eveillard. We were talking about this, how skeptics shouldn’t consider this as better than believers, because we all reached to irrationalities. You know, we all have a confirmation bias is our self-deception. And so maybe the only difference between us and believers is that there’s manifest themselves in a more kind of baroque manner. So the older I get, the more I do not consider myself better than the people that I interview. 

Do you think of yourself as a skeptic in this in the sense of a belief system, or is it more that you hang out with skeptics? Because after all, is it one way to find good stories, good things, right? 

Well, actually, a lot of all of that I didn’t know that I was a skeptic at first because I would just be writing my books. I wrote a book called them about conspiracy theorists and the people that they believe are the secret rulers of the world. So it’s why I wrote this book, not even knowing that skeptical, skeptical community existed enough to them came out. I was invited to give a talk at the London Skeptics in the pub, and I remember like standing on this little makeshift stage looking at like 300 skeptic, a good skeptics in the pub. Yeah. Big crowd. I mean, the London skeptics in the papers always not really well attended. Big crowd. And I could look to them. And I said somewhat, you meet in a pub every month and you’re skeptical. And they all were. Yes, I. 

Well, I saw that kind of creates. Hey, hey. What is very normal. Yeah. 

And then I started going on like the Jay Raft four. And I would see people I mean, I was very early on, I was a fan of Rebecca Watson and I saw that, you know, there was this whole community of people who are interested in the same stuff that I was interested in. You know, we were talking about the same things, talking about, you know, David Eichen, Alex Jones and the Bilderberg Group and Bohemian Grove and, you know, all this stuff. 

And so then I thought, well, maybe I am a skeptic. 

And skepticism is a thought process is, I think, something I’ve always had. Again, without kind of realizing it was a thing. And then subsequent to that, there’s been a couple of stories that, yeah, I’ve just got, you know, conveniently from talking to Rebecca Watson or being on the Jay Raff forum. So kind of all the stuff you said has turned out to be true. 

Now, I think people, you know, if they know you best for something, it’s probably the you stare at goes because, of course, it’s made into a movie. Now, is the military still engaging in PSYOPS or are they now embarrassed? A little. 

Well, I don’t know, because I sort of stopped looking. Well, it was dark stuff. 

I certainly allowed it to 2001 to 2004 when I was writing The Minister Goats. There was a lot of murmurings that it was still going on, you know, in the immediate aftermath of the war on terror. 

If I would add the reasons why the book even even existed was a conversation I had with your wriggler where I met em lot like in the days after 9/11, because I remember every time the plane went overhead, we were on a rooftop restaurants. Every time the plane would have he looked, oh, gosh, yes, it was not soon after 9/11. And I said to him, I had heard that he had once been tested as a psychic spy for the US military. And I said, tell me about your psychic spying days. And he said, I didn’t talk about it. 

And I said earlier, you got lost. You tell everyone about it. You tell up, Bella. And I could say good about it. You know, you tell a lot, you know. 

Anyway, no, listen, because I don’t talk about it. And then he sort of took off his sunglasses, knee leant forward and he went, OK, if you repeat what I’m. To tell you who will deny it. And I said, OK. And he said, I have been reactivated. 

So he said. 

He said that after 9/11 he got a call from one of these kind of fringe CIA guys to say, you know, if you have any psychic visions of future terrorist attacks, let us know. 

Well, we won’t bother to ask him for comment because he’ll deny it on this interview. So the people in the military who, you know, are end up being kind of made fun of it in the movie, especially. How do they feel about it? 

Well, not I think the movie is incredibly, incredibly generous towards them, actually. 

Yeah, they do not embarrassed that by that. No, they like it. They like the movie. Like it. 

Where they didn’t like the book so much. They liked telling me about it. They liked meeting me when I was writing the book. Because to them, of course this is like. This is good stuff. 

It’s not as one or two of them said to me. If the U.S. Army isn’t trying to kill goats just by staring at them or walk through walls or invent attack bees, either one of them attack blasts. 

Yeah. The gay bomb. I just want these things to work because they’re just awesome. 

Even if they don’t. I know a few of them, you could argue, do work like. 

The high visibility jackets was a US military Nora Hurley that on the high fees jacket. You know, the fluorescent jacket that you see workmen. 

I’m just showing my complete picture. Yeah. You know, like hopefully like a high visibility. It was lucky for us. Yeah. No close. Yeah. 

That was that was nurtured by the U.S. military. They would say you say that you won’t if you don’t try and walk through walls, you won’t get the fluorescent jacket. That’s their point of view. If you don’t reach for the impossible, you won’t find something that you didn’t think was achievable. So that’s where they were happy to tell me this stuff. Then when the book came out, they didn’t like it. They thought I was making fun of them. But worse, they they didn’t like that in my book. I was kind of drawing links between these crazy paranormal endeavors of the 80s and abuses at Guantanamo Bay. 

They didn’t like the fact that I was drawing links in kind of in some way. They didn’t like it. But I was careful, you know, to say that, look, there’s a very crooked path, but it’s a path nonetheless. It leads one to the other. But then when George Clooney entered all our lives, they loved it. Who wouldn’t love George Clooney suddenly putting into your life like a beautiful butterfly? So then they were happy again and forward. As far as I know, they all liked the movie. They all liked the way that they came across in the movie. 

So when we were kids, my little brother would run around. 

We love Star Wars and he would sing and on and on and on. And when I think about this, I think that these guys, just the grown up version of that, I mean, they got the jet approach, right. 

They think of themselves as warrior monks. They’re just grown up kids running around wanting lights. 

Yeah. And actually blew me away when I realized that I always thought it was a one way thing. Hollywood would look to the real world for inspiration for their movies. What I didn’t realize is that the real world was looking to fiction. And yeah, I mean, one of the secret units was called Project Gitai, where they were trying to level three of Project G as I was invisibility, which after awhile they adapted to just trying to find a way of not being seen as malevolent. 

I love the words adapted as opposed to downgraded. 

So this crazy desire out-of-stock even. Good. Go ahead. No, this isn’t yet. Yeah, you’re right. And it really surprised me. 

And actually after 9/11, I think I’m right in saying, didn’t the didn’t the American government asked people like Jerry Bruckheimer to China and to try to imagine future terror attacks so they would know what to avoid. So they know what kind of the terrorists might be thinking of possibly. 

I don’t actually like what I just said. All right. So it’s even wilder in some ways. Psychopaths, you now know how to read like sense. They’re Auron and nowhere. They’re there. Right. 

You can well, a bear, I have to say. I mean, I’m not a clinician, but I have done the three day hare course, which gives me a little knowledge. 

I would say there’s certain things I know to look out for. I wrote a book, The Psychopath Test, in which I become. Drunk with my psychopath, spotting powers and starts busting them everywhere, and in the end, the book becomes a cautionary tale really not to become drunk with power like I did. So it becomes a kind of cautionary tale, I suppose, about confirmation bias by spotting psychopaths all over the place. But say not. You know, there are a few things I think. I think one does pick up some good psychopath spotting tricks when you read my book. 

And I did, too, like if you like an example, please. Okay. Get them talking about their views on empathy. 

Because the consensus is that they haven’t got any. And so if they if you can get to talk about how they just don’t believe empathy even exists as a concept or if they accept that it does exist. But there are people who feel feel a kind of weak. That’s a big giveaway. I had the word weakness in relation to empathy was sent to me by a few different people. They would say the same word weakness. 

So the world is divided up into the weak and strong. And worst of all is lunch. That’s kind of predators and prey. 

And it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others. That’s a line from the Hare checklist. 

So do you. This is a 20 item questionnaire and not a questionnaire. 

It’s 20 traits. It’s a challenge. Right. Right. Yeah. And each trait in the Fool PAB book each each headline. Lack of empathy has like a page describing what that is, what you should look for, what are the telltale signs, et cetera, et cetera. How to judge it. There’s 20 of those. 

So do you completely by this mechanism of testing or are you ambiguous in your feelings about it? 

I wouldn’t say I completely buy it, but I basically do buy did. The surprising conclusion I came to is that when our brains go wrong, they go wrong in uncannily similar ways. And that’s true with all with the whole spectrum of disorders. You know, didn’t really surprise me about OCD. It’s like if you come from a religious family in the Deep South in America and you’ve got OCD, the intrusive thought could be that Satan lives inside you if you come from a Gnostic family in Britain where God just doesn’t come into the family at all. The intrusive thought you might have is that, oh, my God, have I am I accidentally a racist S.L. So that really surprises me the same. It’s exactly the same thing as cultural differences. It’s the same thing. And I think the same could be true for psychopathy, which is that the opposite of OCD is the opposite of anxiety. That. Yeah. I think he’s right. 

I think that psychopaths can. Be identified by taking off the items on the checklist. 

I think that’s actually true. The reason why I was slightly measured is because there are criticisms like, for instance, one of the items on the checklist is cunning, manipulative. And another item on the checklist is impulsivity. So kind of how can he be coldly planning and also recklessly impulsive or at the same time? So some people criticize the nuances of a checklist like that. But in general, I believe and I think most people believe that the checklist is right. However, once you’ve got it in your hands, oh, my God, it can be misused. And regulators. 

You use the word disorder. And yet, you know, from hearing you speak about this, I think it’s like one in 100 people actually are psychopath, according to her. If they’re so common, it seems like it’s I mean, can you really call that a disorder? There’s more than two million of us by that number. If we extrapolate. If we do the world, we’re gonna get tens, hundreds of millions and I’ll do the math. Was that really that abnormal? 

Well, speaking of statistics, of how many people are disordered, according to an anti DSM psychiatrist I was talking to the other day. Right. And this is how statistics she says that right now almost 50 percent of Americans resort to Soledad. And when DSM five comes out next May with the new disorder, is that going to be in there like binge eating disorder? There’s some others, too. It might tip over the 50 percent. So it’s going to be more common to have to be to to be diagnosable. 

You say that they they end up, for some reason, clustering in corporate boardrooms. What other walks of life do we find? 

Psychopaths? Well, again, I would say that’s not me. That’s hair. I mean, I tell that in the psychopath test, I tested that theory as to whether you found a preponderance of psychopaths as CEOs. And the conclusion I come to is, you know, it’s sort of true. I mean, that’s that’s the that’s the first I could go with that. There is definitely truth to it. 

Where else you would think politics and business are basically the same thing, because when you think about it, you know, these items on the checklist, they make people adept at being a psychopath. Are the same things that can make you a good CEO. Annette. 

Annette businesses. The most ruthless can reward psychopathic behavior, lack of empathy, lack of remorse, you know, superficial grandiosity. These are things that make you a good businessman. 

So where else? Maybe sports, maybe politics, maybe maybe religious leaders are the ones who don’t believe what they’re saying. 

Because I don’t think. 

I think it’s probably true to say that psychopaths I’m worried about, you know, glib statements. You know, the checklist would imply that psychopaths can’t see anything bigger than themselves. 

There’s also a theory of having and it seems similar, having a social dominance orientation, or did you come across this in sort of an amoral person who is willing to sort of lead people and because they like being glorified by having this following. But really, they don’t believe any things they believe. Yes, it is. 

Yes. And I guess that sounds to me like the term like a template for potential psychopathy. Yes. Pretending to believe something that you don’t believe in order to to get power of the people is is in the checklist. 

So I read summaries of preparing for this interview. And what was I thought the funniest, craziest that I read is Insane Clown Posse. I write the vulgar rap group who turn out to be Christians. Yeah, WITF really. 

And would imbeds lyrics about their love of God’s deeply within the lyrics and very, very deeply within the lyrics of their songs. And then came out with this amazing song called Miracles, which listed God’s name. 

They got like, angry at you over the course of that interview, it seemed like. 

Yeah. Although we bonded. One of the lines in miracles is fucking magnets. How do they work? I what? I talk to no scientist. Ya’ll motherfuckers like getting me test. So we did bond over the fact. Did I also know how it’s work? 

But, you know, now I’m not even sure you could find hopefully Richard Feynman, although somebody sent me a link to find Richard Feynman. 

Surely you’re joking, Mr. Fun. Yes. During a lecture on how magnets work, by the end of it, I’m still alive. 

If you were a novelist, could you make up people like this or can you only find them in reality? 

Well, I was forced to actually make some stuff up recently because I’ve written a fictional screenplay for the first time. And I was so I was forced to invent people. 

And I’m sure I’ve got to say the people I invented were pretty good. Then if I met, then the ality either thought they’d make great characters for a nonfiction story. 

So with psychopaths, with conspiracy theorists, paranormal lists, you look at this menagerie. What does it leave you with a view of human nature? I mean. 

Well, you know what I do, honestly, my home to God, as it were. Take comfort from this. You know, I’ve just put out a collection of my writings called Lost at Sea. And I take comfort from realizing that we are all fragile, irrational, damaged. We all have irrational thought processes like a confirmation pass. It’s a really powerful engine. It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. In fact, the more I think about confirmation bias, the more I see it everywhere. That’s her confirmation. 

And as you say. Yeah. So I. 

I take kind of I really take comfort that now. 

Like, yesterday, I drove nine hour round trip from here to Johnson City to interview a guy for the Guardian who’s a butoh, who’s a kind of fragile guy. And I spent maybe three hours with him. I can’t really say who it is because the Gharty don’t like it when I give the game with before it’s published. But you know what? I loved him. I loved being with him more. Finger wagging skeptic might have come away thinking, what? What a nut. I didn’t. I came away thinking, you know what I utterly empathize with, with your fragilities and really lucky for them. And now, of course, that’s not the same for people who hurt people. Know, if you hurt somebody and there’s a lot of true believers out there who hurt people, that’s a different ballgame. But people who reach for craziness, absurdity, irrationality, whatever you want to call it, crazy beliefs. You know what? If they’re not hurting anyone? I like them. And I’ve spent my life and, you know, I’m forty five. I’ve spent 25 years now hanging out with them. 

So you’ve got to, like, get your life so that the last thing you’ve you know a lot about psychology from the psychopath book, among other things. What is it about your psychology that makes you want it someday? I want it wants to empathize. Yeah, I empathize with what we’re saying are essentially people who are a little different than maybe we all are. 

I mean, somebody once told me that the reason why was cause I had a rough time at school. So I want to go to the darkest corners, the kind of people who gave me a rough time. It’s go and find the humanity that to cut a deal, demonize the darkness and the horror. So forgiveness. 

All I can tell you is that I feel more alive when I’m in Johnson City in this kind of crazy place. I was yesterday, you know, having a great, absurd conversation with a guy who does something that normal people don’t do. I mean, I’ve been doing this 25 years. No other contenders. I just feel more alive when I’m doing that. And then when I’ve got this wonderful material that I know I can write really well, I can shape into a really good story. Just makes me feel good. I would say to Randy Newman, same question. What do you do it? I said, because it’s how I judge myself and just how and how and how it makes me feel better. Fair enough. 

Jon Ronson has been a real pleasure to have you here on point of inquiry. It’s great talk to. 

Richard Wiseman is Britain’s only professor of public understanding of psychology at University of Hertfordshire. His research encompasses an eclectic range of subjects like Lucke self-help, persuasion and Illusion. He’s also the author of several bestselling books, including The Luck Factor Recology. Fifty Nine Seconds and Parran Normality. He has given speeches around the world at different organizations, and his YouTube channel has reached over fifty five million views. He began his working life as a magician and is part of the inner magic circle. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. Richard Wiseman, a pleasure to be here. So we’re here. We’re here because you are the NSC at our annual conference. Yes. Yeah. 

I say you’re doing a really wonderful job at all. Not right now. There’s 250 people there just looking at blank screen because I’m chatting to you. I should be in there. Well, we want nothing to happen until I go in there. Very well. Right. Right. Yeah, right. Well trained rats as well. Stronsay say thank you. It’s fun. Seeing is always a lot of fun because you have to be conscious for two and a half days. And you get to introduce nice people. 

One of the things I really liked about your emceeing is the fact that you’ve shown clips from your very popular YouTube channel. Yes. And of course, they’re very funny and informative. They are funny. And so I wanted to talk a little bit about how you’ve developed such a following on your YouTube channel. What words did you have an idea in mind as to how you’re going to structure it through? Your audience is going to be. 

No. Like most things that I think are worth doing. It was all very fluid and organic as two words. I like fluid and organic. So I was walking around with the color changing card trick in my head for about six months, which is a change blindness video. I had in my head and then one day in the lab we were bored. So I said, let’s film this thing. And we took about four hours, I think, to film it. And then I looked at the footage, didn’t like it. So we went back and we filmed it again for another couple of hours. And at that point, I didn’t really know anything about YouTube video. And I just put it out on YouTube. I came back in the morning and had like half a million views or something. Is it gone viral overnight? And people told me that was a good thing. And so I thought, well, that’s good, because I’ve been told it’s a good thing. So I went and produced a couple more. And then it’s just organic. It’s just fluid. You get a feel for what people like. But my rule of thumb is, if it takes me longer than an evening to film it, I don’t do it. So I spend about maybe a week thinking about my idea, an evening filming, put it up and see how it goes. 

And so you create all your own original content. 

I’m very pro people creating their own original content and not stealing from others. Unlike some television companies, they’re very kindly taking my ideas without crediting them because that’s part of working the creative industries. He says that’s only bitter. That’s highly bitter because it is so not very pro creativity. And I think that people undervalue their ideas and thoughts and we should value creative thinking. So, yeah, part of what I do is is is original content and stick out there and people comment on it. And it’s it’s lovely. And we had about fifty five million views now, which is good. 

Did you find there was a tipping point at some point where you started. It went viral. So you had what, a couple hundred thousand hits. 

I can’t remember now, but it mean possibly just one person who’s got OCD. I just can’t get enough of those clips. That’s a possibility, assuming it’s not that. I think what Adam is tipping point is just, you know, people posting onto a site or something and it gets lots of use. But what what? Even having done like I’ve done that 15 of them, I still can’t predict what will go viral. Someone will want to look at something, and I would love it to bits. I got this really clever. And I look, we’ll put it out. Maybe it’s like two hundred thousand views. And then another thing, which is I did Babbitts video I didn’t really like and I almost didn’t put it out. And it’s now it’s seven million views, so I can’t predict what will and won’t take off. I just do stuff that that makes me happy. 

I’ve recently on your blog, you posted another video of an individual who is ranting against the fact that often writers are asked to speak or produce content for free. Yes. Where, as you know, the person who is behind the camera or, you know, doing other less creative jobs gets paid. 

Yeah, I believe the only quality you need to work in television is the ability to keep a straight face while Scott asking other people to work for free. Nothing is stunning. I mean, like, you know, if it’s a charity, it is not for profit, whether then fine. But, you know, if people are getting other people in the room getting paid, then I wish to be paid as well. It’s that sound really means. 

No, it doesn’t. And I think that a lot of people think just being on television and getting that those views is a privilege and something that is has value. Yeah. And what I what I liked about the rant was that the personally pointed out that it really doesn’t have value unless it translates to something material. So just the popularity is not in itself a prize. 

Correct. And and also television in particular is losing its cachet. 

So. So it’s one thing to say, oh, you know, with with some small cable channel and even if they want on cable channel not mentioned any names, you think you know what? You’re probably getting maybe a million views at best. And you know what? YouTube’s getting more than that. And guess where all your advertisers are going? They’re all leaving you and coming over to YouTube. So I think the days are gone where people phone up and they say, we work for X Channel and people go out enough to be on that. 

We’re moving into, you know, oh, how quaint. And people still watching. So it’s quite clear to me the days of cable and even national television are numbered in the model we have at the moment. So I think there will be work for free comes from this notion of what an honor is for you to be on screen. And that’s very, very rapidly getting undermined by the Internet. 

So that leads me to my next question, which is actually, can I just say about the payment thing? 

I’m not getting paid for this. Somebody having just said I don’t work for free. There’s no payment here. All you have the pleasure of our audience listening to all the unbelievable. 

So I did actually want to talk a little bit about this idea that we are the agents of our own destiny, which you’ve talked about in some of your books. So you have these books about para normality and you know, that are more skeptically oriented. But you also have a few books that take into account the self-help movement. Yes. And what you were just talking about a minute ago, that how we sort of have to do actions in order to make things happen. 

And then creativity is often I think one of the big problems with creativity is procrastination and resistance and fear of of doing something truly novel. And so you’re in your book, rip it up. 

Yes, it’s very good. And, you know, I’d like to talk a little bit about what makes that a more effective self-help book than a lot of have upheld books out there. 

We’ll wrap it up as Contract America in January is as if principal. 

It’s just action. It’s just about doing things, and I’m quite passionate about the notion of doing things which so sounds trivalent till you start apply it. So. You know, one of the problems I have with religious thinking is that what people often do is nothing, but it’s framed in such a way that they feel good. So, you know, they say, I’ll pray for you. 

Mm hmm. And you say it was fine. But I’m sure you feel better because you feel that you’ve done something for me. We really haven’t. You couldn’t actually done less. 

You’ve just simply thought a thought. Congratulations. How about actually helping me? And that principle, which is really, you know, rather than just saying something or actually doing something is is what’s central to it. So action is incredibly important in part because I think it does drive emotions and thoughts. So if you behave as if you’re a certain type of person, you become that person. So it’s just taking that principle which you’ve been kicking around in psychology for 100 years. It’s called the self perception theory and applying it to lots of different domains. So if you take depression, for example, to people, therapy is often about getting people to try and think and behave differently. All the meta analysis shows the behavior part that really, really counts. So you take somebody who’s depressed and get to behave as if they’re not depressed, then they get better, quicker than trying to tackle negative thoughts and so on and much better than than if they’re talking about their childhood or the other silly psychoanalytic approaches. 

There’s a bit of an irony in someone buying a self-help book about action and reading about what they should be doing. Yeah. Then, of course, going out and doing well. 

They didn’t even know what to do. And that’s right. Come in. But but but then the important thing is to actually go in and do it. And, you know, so we’re just talking outside to somebody about writing. And lots of people said I wanted to be a writer. And I said, well, have you written what you read today? Would you write yesterday in November in the ghetto? 

And you think, well, it is in the act of writing. That’s where you learn. You can read about all these things, about how to do whatever. But you know what? It’s actually doing it where you will learn to do it. These are skills. These are crafts that you learn by doing. And we’re very good at learning by doing this. Some people want the easy route and they just want to sort of read about it or think about it. You know, it’s hard work. 

If you see somebody give a talk, it’s a great talk. You might be looking at 20 years of experience. No one just stands up and gives a remarkable talk. So, yeah, you’ve got to get out there and add much more interesting thinking about it, much more interesting. 

And so in the theater world, this is actually an idea that’s been around for decades. You know, David Mamet wrote a great book called True and False about this. And Steven Pressfield wrote The War of Art. You know, resistance and just doing. 

And it’s so it it’s kind of surprising to me that most people don’t already know this. And so what is psychology? Add to our knowledge that, you know, apprenticeship and doing, you know, is a good way to train? Well, I think it’s mechanism. 

I think we know a bit more about how that process works. And it shows just that it works over different areas, the happiness and motivation, creativity and so on. So I think you’re right. In the arts world, it is less surprising than outside of that domain. But so so the book is just bringing that that message to people and in fact, it’s within so acted acting and so on. That’s where people are most receptive to it. But the people are very resistant to doing things because it requires energy and hard work and courage and courage and courage. The whole self-help movement is based on the idea of a quick fix. That’s extremely easy. Doesn’t require any effort. And your problems will disappear overnight. My message is that won’t happen. You know, your problems require efforts to solve them. Otherwise, you would solve them by now. 

And how is this book different from fifty nine seconds? 

It does overlap with it. 59 went into a lot more different theories about happiness and so on with this just focusing on the notion of self perception theory. So it takes one to beat a fifty nine and expands on it. My guess is that within a few years this will become a dominant theory within psychology emerges and so many different domains. This idea of self perception, that action precedes thoughts and feelings that I think it will become a dominant theory within psychology. 

So I’m hoping to be, you know, in at the ground level and also it doesn’t which quietly forgotten and I’ll deny the whole thing the basis of all good academia. 

So one of the things I’ve noticed from your performance as an embassy is that you have you’re a very polished performer and a lot of ways. 

Goodness. I like and qualified that in a lot of ways. In other ways. Stumbling fall. That’s not what I meant at all. What I meant to say was that you also have a bit of a magician’s persona, which involves, you know, the sort of slightly creepy, slightly creepy and difficult. 

It means that you’re relatable and because you make mistakes, because you have there’s not one mistake that isn’t rehearsed. 

If you look at the teleprompter or those stumbles are on there. 

Absolutely. No, I. I know that I have to develop this to have magician. I do. Really? I have one British, Jamie. Now we ask the truth. 

But I wanted to ask you a little bit about the persona that you developed as a magician and what that sort of. 

Is this is this an extension of that or is it just completely different? 

Well, I do have a bit a little bit an onstage persona, which is is overly controlling and a little bit rude. And I kind of like that. It’s kind of slightly rude of them in real life, although I must admit, because as I got older, that’s moved offstage and become my actual real persona, which is just often inappropriate socially. Now say things on stage to people. We think I if I wasn’t saying on stage, that person would punch me in the face, and quite rightly so. So it’s a little bit of that. Magicians have big control freaks. But in general, I mess around. In general, you have to have the confidence to feel the moment and to trust your instincts and to say something and hope it’s funny, because if you overanalyze at the moment with a gong, you’ve just got to trust that little voice that says now is the moment to bond. And here’s the line. And you hope it’s funny. You hope and sometimes they’re not. And that’s right as well. You just have to ride that little rough wave and get on with it. 

So that sense of timing, I served you quite well in terms of figuring out what book to write next, because you’ve had several bestsellers not written. You’re not a one hit wonder. No, goodness, no. I had to. But to hit one more than two arrests. There are also some books in your earlier time which were a little bit more academic. Yes. Rubbish. And presumably had a smaller audience as a result. So where did what how did that transition for you happen between going from a relatively academic book to a popular press? Yeah. 

It happened in two ways, actually. I met up with an agent in London and we pitched a paranormal book and no one was interested. None of the 12 or so publishers we pitched it to. And I was doing work on luck at the time. And I was walking along Regent Street in London. I had this just on my way to meet my agent and a phone call from a journalist and a journalist said, what are you working on next in terms of luck? And off the top of my head, I said, we’re working on making people luckier. So we’re taking the work we done on why some people lucky, unlucky, and we’re making using that to make people lucky. And the journalists went, wow, that’s really exciting. And that has always been my acid test for ideas. I have ideas. 

I go to parties when I’m allowed back and I tell if my ideas and if they’re interested in them, then I often develop those those ideas as a journalist. And so I mentioned it to my agent and we went out and sold the book on the basis of that one thought, which happened on the way to the meeting. And that became the luck factor which sold all over the world. So that was the genesis of doing popular. 

And did you change your voice in your radio to voice? 

It used to be like this, but it’s a lot deeper. 

This isn’t my real voice. The what you just heard was my real voice. This requires effort to constantly put on this voice if I become tired. Then it’s me that changed my voice in writing. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I think you have to be a little bit more engagingly wooden academic text. So I had to tell stories. Right. Academics don’t like stories like numbers. Don’t just stand up and just read at least the numbers. I love that. 

But playing devil’s advocate, one might argue then that you also have to gloss over some of the science and make. 

Perhaps not not not get into the nitty gritty details that an academic rigor would demand. 

Well, you have references, you throw people to references. But, yeah, I’m not writing a science book. So therefore, you won’t have the rigor because we did didn’t no one will read it. So that’s the price you pay for having a large readership. And some academics just don’t like that. 

I don’t care. It’s up to them. 

And I really liked the project. He did called LAF Lab. All you wanted to find the world’s funniest joke. Yeah. 

And I had to start it off as a joke so that that projects I have another one where I was going to a meeting for British Science Week. And I had no ideas at all. It’s very important to set up meetings with no idea because ideas are off the moment and often you put too much thinking at it. And then it’s just that moment you walk in. And if I don’t have a good idea within about the first five minutes of meeting, I normally leave. It doesn’t. You can’t force a good idea. It’s just there. You can feel it. It can. They just there’s something that happens bodily when I hear a good idea. There’s something. As I walked in. So we’re looking at this project from the British Science Week. It’s got to run across different media platforms, engage. I come in. But it was nothing for five million particular hitting. It was purely about 15 to 25 year olds. And I said, we’re going to search the world’s finest joke. And they went sold. So they gave me the money. I walked out. I thought, I have no idea how I’m going to do this. That’s a one line cell. You got the elevator pitch right there. So, yeah, we spent a year looking for the world’s funniest joke. And how did you decide it was the funniest joke? Because I didn’t and I wouldn’t have agreed with that vote. But everyone came on to Web site. They submitted jokes. We had about 40000. Those jokes. And they rated how funny. They found the joke. And this was the joke that got the highest mean rating. So this is a crowd sourcing. It was a very, very early crowd sourcing. Yeah. I mean, we did it now. But here’s part two thousand. So about ten, eleven years ago. And yeah, very early crowdsourcing. Does it did you learn anything about what makes jokes funny? No, I’m okay. We learned how not to find the world’s funniest joke. And then I went around the world looking at humor in different countries. And that was interesting. That was that was quite fun. But no, the joke isn’t very good. And some of the other jokes we got were much better, but they were filthy. So we couldn’t put them on the site. 

Right. So there’s nothing about, say, the setup of an expectation that then goes awry that can we can say, well, you know what, a really great joke has this structure. 

I know all that psychology humor stuff. I’m sure they deal with taboo issues. 

And, you know, surprise and all that stuff. But you know what? It’s really complicated. It’s right to walk into a room of 250 people and make them laugh and try and then put some theory on it, an equation on it and find the yellow. 

Well, good luck. But it’s like producing a painting. I say it’s really complicated. And I think the psychology will ever get its head around it. And that’s a good thing. We should celebrate limitations of psychology in that sense because we want some things to be mysterious and really complicated. And the psychologists say, you know, understand humor because you need to come up with a surprise ending. 

You think, really, really. 

You go on stage then and use your theory to be funny and see how far you get, because you won’t be funny because you don’t understand humor, because no one does, because it’s an artsy feeling thing, not a silly LaPlace thing. Now, I’ve gone into a rant. Now I’ve taken your joyous ending and just made it deeply depressed. Now I actually deeply informative. Sorry, but thank you for that. And on that note, I’d like to remind our listeners that your book, Parent Our Malady, which is an award winning book now, it is a worthy award winning power of morality, is available through our website. 

Point of inquiry, dot org, as well as some of your other books, including The Luck Factor. Quick ology, 59 seconds. 

And the forthcoming book in January in the US, the as if principle, which Simon and Schuster are putting out there is going to be called the as principle, not rip it up. Correct. Rip it up because it was encouraging people to damage property that was seen as irresponsible. Yes. So that won’t be happening. 

Sage for a wise man. Probably, yeah, probably some other stuff, but yeah, I just thought Chris Mooney joke. Sorry about that. He won’t mind very giving, man. 

Great. Well, thank you very much for being on point of inquiry. Well, thank you. And I’m I’m sorry to have sounded mean spirited and negative. Norman, I’m a lot more upbeat. I think I will just post it on Twitter. 

Thank you for being with us for this. On the road episode of Point of Inquiry, and if you’d like to get involved in a discussion about the show, you can find us online at point of inquiry dot org. You can also follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at flash point of inquiry. And it is very important always to say that the views expressed on point inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

Point of inquiry is usually produced in Amherst, New York. But today it’s in Nashville, Tennessee, by Adam Isaac. Our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. And I’m your host Indre Viskontas. And I’m the other host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney

Indre Viskontas