How You Can Outsmart Your Own Stupidity

The first step is recognition. 

The first step is recognition. We all have peccadillos that chip away at our enjoyment and quality of life: leaving the coffee cup on top of the car and driving away, hitting the snooze bar one too many times, abandoning the new exercise routine, procrastinating on the long-term project, smoking that cigarette. If we examine ourselves going about our business for a day or two, it would be fairly easy to make a list of our stupid tendencies. The trick is how to break the cycle.

Recently in The New York Times, Carl Richards recounted a conversation he heard between a journalist and an academic on this subject. Richards didn’t name the interlocutors, but the academic sounds quite a bit like Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning cognitive psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, a weighty compendium of all varieties of human folly. Richards heard the Kahneman-esque academic say that there’s no chance of changing irrational behavior: “[M]y only hope is that by reading my studies and my books, people will know what to call the mistake after they’ve made it.”

There must be a way to correct for and counterbalance one’s cognitive biases...

Richards was not satisfied with this fatalistic response. There must be a way to correct for and counterbalance one’s cognitive biases, he wrote. Richards conflates simple forgetfulness and other errors of execution with errors of reasoning — the latter is really Kahneman’s subject — but his analysis is still interesting.

Ever put some groceries in a friend’s refrigerator? How many times did you remember to take them home? Richards' mother has the perfect solution:

My mom comes to our house all the time, and when she leaves, she often forgets something. Sometimes it’s her glasses; sometimes it’s her purse. Recently when she came to our house, she brought in a few groceries to stash in our fridge while she stayed for dinner. I watched her take a few steps, and I could tell she was thinking about something.

She knew that if she didn’t do something to remind herself, she would leave the groceries in the fridge. So she went back to the fridge, opened the door, and set her car keys next to her groceries. As she closed the fridge, she said to me, “Now I won’t forget my groceries because I can’t leave without my keys.”

Brilliant. Here the author’s mother used her own need to drive home as a wedge to force her back to the fridge to collect her groceries:

I love this hack for a couple of reasons. First, my mom noticed a tendency she had to forget things. Second, she put a simple guardrail in place to avoid making the mistake. It doesn’t require any new gadgets or checklists to work, and it’s repeatable. No matter where she goes, if my mom keeps her keys with whatever she needs when she leaves, she will be less likely to forget something.

Similar examples suggest themselves. Put your car keys on top of the coffee cup, or on the hood of the car in the driver’s line of view, and you’ll never drive away with black liquid sloshing on your windshield again. Set yourself a meal schedule that corresponds to interim accomplishments on your project, and lock up the food until you have attained those partial milestones.

Don’t be afraid to seek out the right kind of partner to help keep you on track.

But often, when it comes to more serious obstacles or challenges to living a rewarding and healthy life, you will find it difficult to set things up so smoothly on your own. Don’t be afraid to seek out the right kind of partner to help keep you on track. This is why members of Al-Anon are encouraged to seek out a “sponsor” to help keep them on the straight and narrow. It’s why academics face publishing and conference deadlines tied to colleagues. Without the negative incentive of letting your fellow panelists down, papers may not get written and relationships with colleagues would begin to fray.

It may appear problematic to say that multiple people are better than a single individual at warding off procrastination or drinking. If we're all irrational, then getting a bunch of irrational people together to solve a problem sounds like a pipe dream. But people are better judges of other people's character, virtues, and vices than of their own, and friends can police each other more effectively than they can check themselves. The key message is to weave your life plans into a web of relationships to give others (and yourself) greater accountability and staying power.

Here's Nobel laureate Kahneman on controlling your irrational decision-making:

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

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Sponsored by Northwell Health
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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
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