Think You're Thinking for Yourself? Think Again.

"There’s no more central message of psychology than the fact that most of what goes on in our heads we have no access to."

Richard Nisbett: There’s no more central message of psychology than the fact that most of what goes on in our heads we have no access to. We have no idea that it’s going on. And that becomes clearer and clearer in every passing year. There’s more and more research showing we perceive things that have an influence on us. We have no idea. We don’t even notice that they’re there to have an impact.

I was at a world economic forum a while back and there were a bunch of economists and psychologists and political scientists and physicians and government people and business people. And our job was to think of ways to get people to do things that are in society’s interests. And the word incentivize came up over and over again. And usually that was followed by some kind of idea about a monetary reward or a monetary fine of some sort. And I was the lone social psychologist and I’m thinking, you know, incentives can backfire often. Not only they’re not effective, they can actually — I mean why am I offering you this money for doing that unless maybe you’d rather not. I mean why am I threatening you with punishment unless it’s a fairly attractive thing. What social psychologists have learned in the context here of social influence is that what other people are doing has often been vastly more powerful than anything you can do in the way of incentives. A lovely example of this is the state of California recently started hanging tags on people’s doors if they were using more electricity than their neighbors. It says you’re using more electricity than your neighbors. And they cut down significantly.

The state has so far saved hundreds of millions of dollars in electricity costs and billions of tons of CO2 have not been poured into the atmosphere because of the hangtag. And monetary incentives, I don’t think could have had that magnitude of effect. And there are experiments you can do — you can take people absolutely from A to Z, turn around 180 degrees and they have no recognition that they have changed their attitude. They think the attitude they have now is the attitude when they began the discussion. But you know because you’ve checked them way before that in an experiment you’ve done, you know what their attitude was. And you’ve rigged things so that they’re getting information and opinions that are going to push them in a particular direction.

So context, especially social context, have effects on us that are just beyond our recognition. If you and I meet for the first time over coffee, I’m probably going to think, you know, you’re a swell guy. I mean I’d like to get to know him better. God forbid we meet over iced tea because I’m going to think: kind of a cold fish. So ambient temperature in a room, the ambient temperature of what you’re touching influences your judgment about a person. You put people in a blue or green environment, they’re more creative. And keep them the heck out of a red environment. Although if you are on a dating website, wear a red shirt if you want to get more hits. So the element that influences us most, most powerfully and most constantly is the behavior and the attitudes of other people. Social psychologists just keep finding the extent of which we are powerfully influenced by other people’s behavior.

"There’s no more central message of psychology than the fact that most of what goes on in our heads we have no access to," explains social psychologist Richard Nisbett, who offers some smart thinking tools in this video interview. He also delves into the science of influence, in particular the power some parties enjoy by influencing the behavior of others.

Related Articles

Are people with more self-discipline happier?

Why self-control makes your life better, and how to get more of it.

Buddhist monks of all nations mediate in Thailand. Monks are well known for their self-discipline and restrictive lifestyle. Is it possible that this leads them to happiness?
(Photo by Geem Drake/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Research demonstrates that people with higher levels of self-control are happier over both the short and long run.
  • Higher levels of self-control are correlated with educational, occupational, and social success.
  • It was found that the people with the greatest levels of self-control avoid temptation rather than resist it at every turn.
Keep reading Show less

Quantum computing is on the way

Ready your Schrödinger's Cat Jokes.

Quantum entanglement. Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles or events (left and right) interacting at a distance. Quantum entanglement is one of the consequences of quantum theory. Two particles will appear to be linked across space and time, with changes to one of the particles (such as an observation or measurement) affecting the other one. This instantaneous effect appears to be independent of both space and time, meaning that, in the quantum realm, effect may precede cause.
Technology & Innovation
  • For a time, quantum computing was more theory than fact.
  • That's starting to change.
  • New quantum computer designs look like they might be scalable.

Quantum computing has existed in theory since the 1980's. It's slowly making its way into fact, the latest of which can be seen in a paper published in Nature called, "Deterministic teleportation of a quantum gate between two logical qubits."

To ensure that we're all familiar with a few basic terms: in electronics, a 'logic gate' is something that takes in one or more than one binary inputs and produces a single binary output. To put it in reductive terms: if you produce information that goes into a chip in your computer as a '0,' the logic gate is what sends it out the other side as a '1.'

A quantum gate means that the '1' in question here can — roughly speaking — go back through the gate and become a '0' once again. But that's not quite the whole of it.

A qubit is a single unit of quantum information. To continue with our simple analogy: you don't have to think about computers producing a string of information that is either a zero or a one. A quantum computer can do both, simultaneously. But that can only happen if you build a functional quantum gate.

That's why the results of the study from the folks at The Yale Quantum Institute saying that they were able to create a quantum gate with a "process fidelity" of 79% is so striking. It could very well spell the beginning of the pathway towards realistic quantum computing.

The team went about doing this through using a superconducting microwave cavity to create a data qubit — that is, they used a device that operates a bit like a organ pipe or a music box but for microwave frequencies. They paired that data qubit with a transmon — that is, a superconducting qubit that isn't as sensitive to quantum noise as it otherwise could be, which is a good thing, because noise can destroy information stored in a quantum state. The two are then connected through a process called a 'quantum bus.'



That process translates into a quantum property being able to be sent from one location to the other without any interaction between the two through something called a teleported CNOT gate, which is the 'official' name for a quantum gate. Single qubits made the leap from one side of the gate to the other with a high degree of accuracy.

Above: encoded qubits and 'CNOT Truth table,' i.e., the read-out.

The team then entangled these bits of information as a way of further proving that they were literally transporting the qubit from one place to somewhere else. They then analyzed the space between the quantum points to determine that something that doesn't follow the classical definition of physics occurred.


They conclude by noting that "... the teleported gate … uses relatively modest elements, all of which are part of the standard toolbox for quantum computation in general. Therefore ... progress to improve any of the elements will directly increase gate performance."

In other words: they did something simple and did it well. And that the only forward here is up. And down. At the same time.

Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.

700,000 Japanese people are thought to be hikikomori, modern-day hermits who never leave their apartments (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images).
Mind & Brain
  • A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
  • This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
  • Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
Keep reading Show less