My Know-It-All Backseat Driver

I have recently noticed how my self-awareness incessantly surpasses my self-control.

Physically, this is evidenced by the perpetual superiority of my proprioceptive sense over my motor control.

When typing, I instantly know when my fingers have strayed. I will err, delete several characters, and retype them correctly, all whilst keeping my visual and mental focus on the passage that I am transcribing from.

When bowling, throwing a baseball, hitting a volleyball, or performing countless other physical tasks that require great precision, I am able to ascertain their success or failure with a high degree of accuracy simply by being aware of how they felt, before ever viewing the result of my actions.

This same disconnect between passive awareness and active capability is also present in purely cerebral undertakings.

When playing fast paced games of complex strategy I have lost count of the times where I have made a move even as I know it will get me into trouble. Similarly, in conversations I am often cognizant of any verbal blunders before ever seeing the reactions they provoke. It’s as if there is a smarter ME lounging around in my brain, languidly observing my actions and critiquing them with cruel precision, yet never deigning to come forward and take the reins.

As with many backseat drivers, I wish I could simply throw up my hands and shout “Fine, YOU do it!”

I bet he gets along quite well with my procrastination monkey.

What is the practical result of all this rumination?

Any time I notice my backseat driver being particularly know-it-all I try to pause, think, and analyze the situation. What subtle cues were there that lead to an unconscious realization ahead of my conscious awareness? And can I make a note of them and learn to recognize them in the future in time to incorporate that recognition into my decision making process?

Why We Erroneously Judge Others and How to Stop

It’s funny how our own judgmental attitudes can catch us unawares.

I was recently hosting a meal in my apartment for a large group of both friends and strangers (a common mix when everyone you invite asks to bring a guest). I had spent all day cooking various types of fish and meat and devising several interesting cocktails to serve. At meal time, when I had just finished bringing out all of the food and drink (including a pitcher of water for those folk not tempted by the stronger beverages), one of the new guests—let’s call him Joe—came over to me in the kitchen.

“Excuse me,” Joe said. “Do you have any soda?”

My initial reaction? Disgust. Judgement.

Why would someone ask for soda? Doesn’t he know how unhealthy that stuff is? And he just supposed that I would have some?

Stop. Pause. Think.

Why am I experiencing these feelings?

Possible options:

  1. In recent years I have been extremely focused on health and nutrition. I view soda as one mankind’s all-time worst inventions and one of the leading causes of health problems in this country.
    1. His desire for it still has no impact on me. Why should it affect my emotional state?
    2. I view the world through my own lens. If I have trained myself to be disgusted by it then I am disgusted by anyone else wanting it.
  2. I was affected by his presumption about me. Why would he think I had soda? Me, who has self -defined as someone who doesn’t drink it? Shouldn’t this person who I just met realize that??
  3. I had worked really hard to prepare a fancy meal, drinks included. Was everything that I made so inadequate that he needed to request something so low-class?

Examining all of these explanations, I realize that the truth is really a combination of all of them.

Here’s why I am a hypocrite.

  1. I did have soda in my fridge. Why? Because I needed it for one of my cocktails. Which means there was in fact some soda out on the table.
  2. Not only was I serving soda, I was serving alcohol. Which, even though I drink it (the complete reasons for which will be left for another post), I acknowledge is not healthy.

How could I have had such a negative, judgmental reaction to his desire for soda when my own beverage choices for the night were arguably worse?

The Problem

It is impossible to be perfectly rational.

Much as some of us would like to make that claim (myself being the first offender), there just isn’t time to stop and think about every situation we encounter in a proper analytical manner. Instead we rely on complex mental models that we build up that are capable or recognizing a given situation, comparing it to the existing model, and instantly spitting out a best-fit answer.

Examples of common types of model-solution situations are “I am a Republican, therefore I will not vote for that Democrat, even though I haven’t closely examined his entire platform and personality in such a manner as to be able to make a well-informed decision.” Or, “I am a strong, independent person—I will instantly reject offers for help even in situations where that help is needed.”

Digging us still deeper into this trench of self-misdirection is our tendency to project our own mental models on others. Rather than make a conscious effort to see a situation from their point of view, we consistently default to thinking “I would never do such a thing, so how could they?”

This is the trap that I fell into.

I have a mental model of myself as a healthy person. Even though that model comes with certain caveats (e.g. drinking alcohol, occasional eating baked goods, etc.), it also comes with certain hard and fast rules. These include avoiding hydrogenated fats like the plague and never drinking plain soda. When I saw Joe breaking one of the rules that I had set for myself, I became angry.

But what if this Joe was also a very healthy person? Maybe during the week he eats even healthier than I do, but one of his personal exceptions is that he allows himself a single glass of soda on Friday nights.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. But why should it matter to me?

The Solution

I don’t believe that it is possible to fully eliminate this type of unconscious judgement from our psyches. We can, however, learn to reign it in and mitigate its effect on our thoughts and behavior.

For a while now I have been working to instill in myself the following habit:

Cue: Any time I experience a negative emotion targeted at someone else.

Routine: Stop. Pause. Think. Why am I experiencing this emotion? Which of my own mental models could I be projecting? Could there be any situation at all that I can think of where if I knew his perspective then I would no longer be upset? If so, assume as the default that that situation is the current one.

Reward: Eliminating negative emotions leads to reduced stress and increased happiness.

TL;DR — Someone asked me for soda. I got mad. Realized I was being a hypocrite. Resolved to eliminate that type of thinking. Gave him soda. Went and drank a cocktail.


Why Facebook is Like a Slot Machine

Facebook is addictive.

I know this, you know this, and almost anyone who has been on the internet in the last ten years knows this.

Brain imaging studies have shown that the neural responses in Facebook-addicted subjects exhibit some similarities with those displayed by cocaine or gambling addicts.

But why is it so addictive? What about it drives us to go and refresh our news feed half a second after we just read through it?

My response to that question has always focused on the interplay between social behavior and habit formation. We evolved as social creatures, and built into us at an instinctive level is a desire to know about and interact with our peers. Facebook lets us tap into our social sphere with barely any effort, and our brain rewards us each time we do so with a little burst of dopamine. This leads to the formation of a habit where every time we open up a web browser or hear our phone buzz we instantly get an urge to check Facebook.

I heard an interesting thought today that addressed the phenomena at a slightly different level, helping me to understand what gives Facebook that added little addictive boost.

In short:

Facebook News Feed = Variable Ratio Operant Conditioning

For those of you a bit rusty on your Psych 101, I’ll elaborate.

Operant Conditioning is the theory that learning behavior is affected by an action’s consequences, e.g. positive or negative reinforcement or punishment.

In the mid 1900’s, Dr. B.F. Skinner showed that not only can the learning process for a behavior be affected by rewards or punishment, but that the scheduling of said factors plays a large role. In a laboratory setup where rats were given food pellets upon pressing a lever, he experimented with a variety of different reinforcement schedules. Varying groups of rats were given the pellets every time the lever was pressed, at a fixed ratio of presses (e.g. one in four), or at totally random presses (‘variable ratio’). Surprisingly, it turned out that the variable ratio group learned the behavior the strongest and retained it for the longest period of time.1

This is the same principle that makes slot machines the most addictive form of gambling. The players at the machines are the same as the rats, pressing the lever and getting instant but variable rewards.

Which brings us to Facebook. How often do you check a Facebook notification only to find that it was some random person commenting on a photo you don’t care about, or talking in that giant group chat that you really should leave but haven’t gotten around to yet? What percentage of news feed perusals turn up a truly interesting post?

These days my feed tends to look like this:

My Facebook Feed

The very paucity of quality content serves to ensure that I keep coming back for more.

But enough of psychology. It’s time for me to go find some of that red stuff.


Traveling Alone: The Crazy Stranger Challenge

Monkey Me
Making friends is easy!

Traveling alone is awesome.

Traveling alone sucks.

I plan on writing a more detailed overview of my experiences as a solo traveler when I finish my trip, but for now I wanted to share a quick thought that I had today and then to ask you all for some help.

Feel free to read the background thoughts or just skip to the bottom for the challenge.

Approach Anxiety

We’ve all been in situation where, for whatever reason, we want to talk to a stranger. They could be some attractive member of the opposite sex, a celebrity you see on the street, or just someone who you find interesting for whatever reason.

We want to go over and talk to them, but it’s difficult.

The degree to which this is the case varies based on the person- e.g. introverts might have a harder time with it than extroverts (although that’s a totally different can of worms that I won’t get into right now- shyness and introversion have been shown to be fairly disparate), but almost everyone has this feeling to some extent.

But what is this feeling exactly? Why is the simple act of talking to someone difficult? Isn’t it something we do every day?

I would posit that this anxiety is really just the fear of being judged. We want to go over and talk to them, but what will they think of us? Will they think it’s strange? Will they think I’M strange?

There are three main workarounds that I have found for this problem.

  1. The hard way: change yourself. Keep telling yourself (perhaps in the 3rd person) that the world won’t end if you go and talk to someone, and maybe you’ll start to believe it. Or at least you will after enough practice. I’ve been working on this for years but still have a ways to go.
  2. The easy way #1: do something to artificially ensure that they won’t think you strange.
  3. The easy way #2: do something to yourself to artificially ensure that you won’t care if/when they do.

The latter two are the ones that I want to focus on right now.

The second can be accomplished by putting yourself in situations where starting a conversation would seem totally normal. This is how something like speed-dating works: they are able to mostly eliminate approach anxiety by imposing a setting where you are required to talk to someone, so at least the act of you starting a conversation won’t be judged (what you say is of course a different matter).

One way that I have found this method be applicable while traveling is in the difference between meeting someone during the day vs at night.

If I happen to be staying one bed over from someone at a hostel or sitting next to them on a bus, it’s quite natural to start up a conversation. Hostels tend to be very friendly environments where everyone is open to meeting people. If I have to sit next to someone for an extended ride then saying a few initial words is just polite.

Now fast-forward a few hours. I’m now at a bar by myself. Like a creeper™. Suddenly that same girl who would have been totally friendly when chatting back at the hostel will think I’m weird if I just come over and just start talking to her at her table (or at least my instinct is to assume that to be the case).

Thankfully I’ve so far been able to avoid the above situation by just making friends during the day or arranging to meet people at night, but not every day can be a winner.

This brings me to Method #3.

The easiest example of this method the Costume Phenomena. Put yourself into a crazy enough outfit and suddenly it’s not you that they’re judging anymore.

Everyone wants to talk to a gorilla:


Even for less full-coverage costumes where your face is visible, you can still effectively hide behind the alternate persona.

But while this method is loads of fun, it’s hard to really apply in too many different situations.

Instead, a lesser version of this method involves changing not other people’s perspective of you, but your own perspective of the interaction. When someone dares you to go and high-five a stranger, you may feel a bit nervous, but it’s not too bad because at least YOU know why you’re approaching them. It’s someone else’s fault. Any judgement should really apply to them.

This finally leads me to the real point of this post.

The Stranger Challenge

I’ve started to play little games with myself both to give me an added kick to go meet people and just to make the interactions more hilarious.

Last week I played the accent game for a few days. One night I successfully convinced two Irish girls that I grew up in Dublin, but they were able to guess that something was off and that really I also had one parent who was British. The next day I kept it up and thoroughly confused a newlywed couple at Chabbad visiting from Canada.

I have plenty more ideas for things to do that are successively more crazy, but I think it would be way more fun if the challenges were actually externally imposed. I am therefore throwing down the gauntlet to all of you: post a comment(s) with some type of challenge for me to do involving strangers, and up/downvote other peoples’ suggestions. I’ll see how many of them I can manage to do over the next week.

Let the craziness commence!

Free Throws and Psychology: I’m good at one of these things

The world record for Most Consecutive Free Throws in basketball is currently held by a man named Ted St. Martin. He shot 5221 consecutive throws over a span of 7 hours and twenty minutes, more than doubling the previous record of 2750. Ted was never in the NBA. He didn’t play on a college team. He didn’t even play in high school.

So what was Ted’s background that allowed him to accomplish this amazing feat? He was a dairy farmer. He attributes his success at free throws to the discipline learned through spending hours on end milking cows and having to constantly wake up in the middle of the night to birth them.

But is this really so amazing? If you stop and think about it, a free throw is a shot with no interference and as much prep time as you need, taken from a mere 15′ away from the backboard. Professional players who spend all of their lives focused around this one game shouldn’t have any problem with that. Right?


The 2015-2016 NBA average for free throws was only 75.6%. That means that professional players miss 1 in 4 uncontested shots from 15′ away.

Ed Palubinskas, the “Free Throw Doctor” of the NBA, is famous for saying that free throws are 90% psychological. In fact, when training Shaq he had Shaq sometimes train blindfolded so as to try and shake his ingrained psychological aversion to free throws (blinding him shifted the focus from it being a free throw to just the biomechanics). This seems to be in keeping with Ted’s claim of mental discipline being key.

Shaq blind free throw
Shaq blind free throw


Dirk Nowitzki, one of the NBA’s all time top shooters, had a career free throw accuracy of 87.9%. He talks about how one of his early coaches had him sing a song while going up there to “get himself out of his head”.

I would posit that it is best to view the psychological and physiological as two parts of a larger, interconnected system. You need both the carefully trained muscle patterns and a way to consistently access those particular sequences.

Dirk’s coach’s tip taps into something that psychologists call “reinstatement theory,” a way of looking at memory and performance in terms of their greater environmental context. I’m sure most people have heard some college student claiming how “I learned this while drunk so I need to be drunk to remember it.” Well, they actually could be correct.

Psychologists have shown how the biggest factors in memory storage and recall are our physical senses. And they are all active all the time- there is no disentangling the particular visual or kinesthetic memory from their accompanying auditory or olfactory cues (although some cues may be stronger than others). Remember one and you remember the rest.

One interesting study on reinstatement theory was carried out by Steven M. Smith. He had students in three groups all studying the same material. One group did it while listening to Milt Jackons’s “People Make the World Go Round,” another to Mozart, and the third to nothing. He then tested portions of each of these groups in all three types of backgrounds. The results across the board were that those who listened to the same music during both studying and testing performed almost twice as well as those who studied in silence, and even if they listened to the different music there was some boost in performance.

When Dirk Nowitzki stepped up to the free throw line and sang the same song to himself that he sang many a previous time (Mr. Jones by Counting Crows), he was aiding himself in pulling up those particular kinesthetic patterns.

Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones
Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones

There are many other lenses through which to interpret this phenomena- my favorite of which is that of the science of habit formation, which I will go into at some later date, but also just the purely psychological.

My takeaway from all of this is just to use it as another reminder that physical performance and mental performance are intrinsically linked, and that there are often ways to take easy shortcuts with one through proper use of the other.

A final note to those who are actually interested in basketball and want to improve upon their own free throws: don’t just practice free throws.

Kerr & Booth ran a study where they had two groups tossing bean bags into holes while blindfolded, with feedback after each throw. One group tossed into a hole 3′ away, the other alternated between 2′ and 4′. Afterwards they were all tested on a 3′ hole. Amazingly enough, the group that had never before practiced on a 3′ hole performed significantly better.

I could go on at length about the benefits of varied practice and ways to make use of it, but I think I have waxed long enough already. My first “Daily Learning” post seems to have mutated into a combo DL + Musing.

Oh well.



Credits: the Surprisingly Awesome podcast from Gimlet media + the various studies that I have already linked to.