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Make no mistake. You have an *amazing* brain! Whether you flunked out of high school or aced every test at Princeton, your brain has astounding and amazing capabilities! Perceiving things in space, watching a soccer match, engaging in small talk, navigating your way to the front door without tripping over the cats…it doesn’t matter. You and your brain are doing amazing things all the time! In fact, one of the beneficial side-effects of doing research in “Artificial Intelligence” is that it makes you realize how flipping amazing the human brain is. Everyone is creative. Everyone learns, adapts, solves problems and so on. You have a good brain.

However. Make no mistake. You (and me and everyone else) are prone to many kinds of illusions and delusions. I cannot recount them all in one blog post, or even in one thick psychology textbook. At one point, soon after joining IBM, I wrote a speculative research report entitled, “Cognitive psychology from the standpoint of wilderness survival.” (IBM Research Report, RC-6647. Yorktown Heights, NY: IBM Corporation). The thesis of that report was that some of the many illusions and delusions we are prone to are because we evolved for over 4 billion years in a series of “natural” environments and now we live in a very “artificial” one. For example, people have a lot of trouble with the concept of true randomness. Suppose you have a “fair” coin and you flip the coin five times and it comes up heads every time. Now, you go and flip it again. What are the chances that it comes up heads this time? The answer is that it is still equally likely to be heads or tails. The coin has no “memory” and no “desire to be fair.” It has no ability to “go on a hot streak.” If it really is a fair coin toss, the probability of each toss remains the same. Here’s another related problem. You throw a coin a hundred times. What are the chances of getting 50 head and 50 tails?  Perhaps surprising to many, this will happen only about 8% of the time. The chances of getting fairly close to a fifty-fifty split is fairly high, but the chance of getting exactly a fifty-fifty split is fairly low. I speculated in the aforementioned article that one reason these types of problems are difficult for people is that in nature, true randomness is rare, at least at the scale that we typically care about. Mountains are not “randomly” strewn across the planet. Blackberry bushes are not randomly distributed. Bison are not randomly distributed. Good flint for making axes or arrowheads is not randomly distributed. Fresh water is not randomly distributed. Nearly everything is “clustered.” If you find a mountain, you are likely to find other mountains nearby. If you find a blackberry, other blackberries are likely to be close by. If you find a bison, others are likely to be close by. And so on. The same goes for most events we care about. Is it raining? Chances are much greater it will be raining in five minutes than not. Is it extremely hot out? Chances are it will also be extremely hot in five minutes. “Things we care about” are very likely to be clustered in space and in time. So, when we present people with problems that presuppose true randomness, yes, human brains have trouble with it.

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Well, at least humans are the “smartest” species on the planet, right? Not so fast. We are the only species in serious danger of making the planet uninhabitable for our own species. That doesn’t strike me as particularly brilliant. Leaving that aside, consider this very simple problem. There are three levers. If you press the left-most lever you get something good 1/3 of the time on a random basis. If you press the middle lever or the right most lever, you never get something good. If you want to get as much good stuff as you can, your best bet is to press the leftmost lever every single time. And, so you will…eventually. But you know who is better at this problem than you are? A kid. Yes, a two-year old will very quickly press only the left most lever. You know who else will beat you at this problem? A monkey, a dog, a cat, a bird, and a fish. All of them will focus on pressing the left-most lever all the time and will do so fairly quickly. You and me? Not so much. No, we are too “smart” for that! We will think that there must be some “system” for getting something good every time. So we think, “Let’s see. If I press the left one the number of letters in my grandmother’s maiden name and then press the middle one six times and then the right one once and then the left one with the successive digits of pi….” Yeah. We tend to assume that there must be some really complicated rule and that we are smart enough to figure it out. And, in fact, in life there often are some complicated rules. But it won’t work for you in this experiment. And, it won’t make you rich in Vegas. People have palaces because of gamblers in Vegas. But it isn’t the gamblers who get rich. It’s the people who sucker in the gamblers. They are the only ones who profit consistently. Once upon a time, you could win by counting cards, so they added more cards. And when people could still count cards, they made it illegal. And, they watch on cameras to make sure you don’t. And, if you did come up with a fool-proof system based on the phases of the moon and the number of letters in the title of the pop chart-topper, they wouldn’t let you play any more! (If you’re lucky). See, they want to make money. They are not in the business of making you rich. They are in the business to make themselves rich. And, they rely on these illusions and delusions we have about probability to do it.

Consider a lottery game. Let’s say there are 75 numbers and you are to pick five. If all five of your numbers come up, you win! So, you pick 5, 22, 37, 68 and 75. The winning numbers are: “5, 22, 45, 60 and 75” and you think, “Damn! I was so close! I had three of the five numbers!” Yeah. How close were you? If I somehow told you ahead of time what three of the numbers were and you only had to guess the remaining two, you would have a 72×71 divided by 2 chance of winning: one chance in 2556. In other words, when you had “three out of five” numbers correct, you were not close at all. People are also good at finding “patterns.” The problem is that finding a “pattern” after the fact, doesn’t really “prove” anything because there are pretty much an unlimited number of patterns to be found. You might think, in the example above, “Oh, man! I was so close! My third number was just 8 less than the winning 45 and my fourth number  was also just off by 8 from the winning number!” But suppose the winning numbers had instead been: “5, 22, 44, 60, and 75.” Then, you might think, “Oh, man, I was so close! My third number was 7 off and my next number missed by 8. Damned! Next time, I’ll get two lottery cards and add 7 to my third number and 8 to my fourth number.”


Seeing patterns isn’t just limited to numbers, of course. When people look up at clouds, trees, rocks, marble, inkblots,  they often see faces, animals, etc. Our brains are great at finding patterns. And, often we see patterns that aren’t even there. In the wilderness environment, however, what are the relative costs? If we look up in the sky and see a horse head that isn’t really there, what harm is done? You “know” it isn’t really a horse. If you look in the bushes and see a bear and the bear isn’t really there, it might cost you an unnecessary spear throw, but if you fail to see a bear that really is there, you could get eaten. It’s not surprising that we tend to “see” patterns even when they aren’t really there. This generally works well. However, since other people are well aware that people tend to see patterns that aren’t really there, they can use that information to “fool you” into thinking there’s a pattern when there isn’t.

In the case of the wealthy casino operators, they are perfectly happy to get rich off your tendency to imagine that you can find a pattern in random events. But casino operators aren’t the only ones. People who make a percentage on all your stock trades are essentially doing the same thing; they are hoping you will trade a lot based on some imagined pattern. The casino owner and the stockbroker are involved in legal business practices but both take advantage of human illusions and delusions. The real experts on human illusions and delusions, however, are the experts in marketing and advertising.

Their actual job is to get you to spend your hard-earned money on things you don’t want, don’t need, and in many cases are actually harmful to you and your family. True enough, for example, humans did evolve in situations where salt, sugar, and fat were hard to find. But in many (but by no means all) parts of the world now, over-eating is more of a problem than starvation and malnutrition. Most people “know” that too much sugar and too many calories are detrimental to health. Yet, the people who put together commercials are able to convince you to spend money on a kid’s cereal that is not at all good for them. A short visual vignette, for instance, may imply that your kid will love you if you provide this cereal. To assuage your guilt, they may also “fortify” the cereal with some vitamin that the kids are actually very unlikely to be deficient in if they have a natural diet. In other cases, commercials are designed to convince you that a product will make you “cool” or “desirable” or “smart.” Some commercials go further and convince you that you have a problem you didn’t even know you had! “Do you suffer from crenelated elbow skin? When your arms hang down at your sides, you may not see the ugly ridges and valleys of your crenelated elbow skin, but your your friends do. And, let’s face it, that cute junior executive will not be asking you out after all, once he sees the giant crevices of your unsightly flapping elbow skin. Sad, but not incurable! The good news is that now, there is “SMOOTHAWAY” the wonderful new patented elbow cream that dissolves extra flaps of extra elbow skin! Not available in stores, you can order from our toll-free number where our operators are standing by to take your order. If you order in the next five seconds, we will give you two tubes of SMOOTHAWAY, each a $150 value (says who?) for the low, low price of $49.95 plus shipping and handling.”


I have already mentioned in previous posts that there seems to be almost no accountability any more in advertising. “Unscented” cat litter is actually scented — with a scent whose trade name is “Unscented.” “Air Fresheners” do not actually “freshen” the air at all. The contain three ingredients know to cause cancer, mess with your hormone balance, and destroy your sense of smell. “All natural fruit drink” might contain almost nothing that is natural and as little as five per cent fruit juice. There is also the common tactic advertisers of product X use of making you believe that the competitors to product X are really bad for you.” “Our apples are guaranteed gluten free!” “Be confident! Keep your child safe! Our disposable diapers are not made from radioactive wastes.” (Of course, none of them actually are…but it does make you wonder).

Magic shows also “work” because the magician plays on all your illusions and delusions. One of the most persistent illusions is that we “see” everything before us in color and detail. This is completely untrue! You actually see, at any one time, a very small part of the visual field in front of you in color and in detail. Your brain remembers a lot of color and detail as you scan around the scene. But if something changes, you might or might not see it depending on where your attention and your eyes are currently focused.

I remember my Uncle Karl, who landed with the Allies at Omaha Beach, doing “card tricks” for me when I was about five or six. He would take an ordinary deck of cards and show me the four Jacks. He very carefully put the four Jacks into four seemingly random spots in the middle of the deck and then told me an elaborate story about the four Jacks, who were all friends, and their shenanigans. Amazingly, somehow these four Jacks ended up together at the end on the top of the deck. It was utterly impossible, yet Uncle Karl managed it. I don’t recall enough of the details of the trick now to describe how it was actually done but I’m sure you’ve seen similar card tricks. Maybe Karl used real magic. While he was involved in jogging up the beach in Normandy, a point came where suddenly everyone around him disappeared, blown to bit. Only he survived and moved forward from that group of bloody corpses. He didn’t tell me a lot about his experiences in WWII fighting the Nazis except that, toward the end of the war, the German “troops” that they faced consisted largely of boys aged 11-13. That’s the kind of thing an egomaniacal dictator ends up doing to save his delusions of power.


Some magic tricks depend on “sleight of hand.” Others primarily depend on subtle mathematical relationships so that the outcome is guaranteed. One of my favorite tricks is to “force” a card on someone. This one depends on people’s long established habits. If someone hands you something, you take it. It is so ingrained, that you don’t even know you’re doing it, particularly, if I am saying something that requires or entrains your attention. So, I fan out the cards face down, mainly holding them with my thumbs. I ask you to pick a card. Since you are looking down at the cards, you cannot see that underneath the fanned cards, my right middle finger is on the card I want to “force” on you. As I fan the cards back and forth, I move the whole stack as well as the relations slightly. You have some trouble picking a card because of the motion. At last, when the time is right, and your own finger is about to choose a card near the one I want you to pick, I change the angle slightly and flick the desired card into your hand. You believe you’ve made a free choice, but you really haven’t. I keep making it hard to take a card until you are nearly picking the one I want and then I “promote” that card, just a little.

Now, this little trick does not always work. And, it wouldn’t be prudent to try it more than once on someone. (If done repeatedly, most people will eventually catch on that they are being manipulated).  If someone does stubbornly take a different card, you simply move to a different trick. But if they do take your card, oh, my that is a breathtaking moment. Imagine this. You know what card they have already. They think that they have chosen a card at random and you do not yet have any idea what it is. So, now you are free to do anything at all! The sky (and your imagination) are the limit. You can have them shred the card, burn the card, eat the card, put in an envelope and send it Certified Mail to White House. It doesn’t matter. You already know it’s the Four of Clubs. You can open a book at random and pretend to pick a word at random. It has four letters. Now you start turning over cards for “vibrations” and then you turn over a club, you keep going but then, say, “Wait!” and go back to it. “Yes, Yes” you say, “there is something here. Clubs. Definitely the four of clubs.”

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One favorite variant on this trick is to have the person put the card back in the deck and have another person shuffle and cut the cards. Now you take the deck and start turning over the cards so they are face up. Once you find the “targeted card”, say the Four of Clubs, you turn over a few more and then say, “OK. I’ll bet you $20 that the next card I turn over is your card.” 95% of the time they will take this bet since you have already turned over their card. You shake on the bet and then rifle through the cards already turned over till you find the Four of Clubs. Now you turn it over. And collect the $20. I don’t actually take people’s money, by the way. And the reason I don’t think it’s fair is that I knew something that they didn’t and I intentionally misled them in several ways. I’m tricking them into taking a “bet” which is for me a sure thing (although they also think it’s a sure thing for them because they’ve already seen me turn their card over). I’ve turned over most likely around 25 cards and each time, I’ve turned it from back to front. I’ve already turned their card over from back to front, so naturally they think my next act is to turn the next card in sequence over from back to front as well. But I don’t. Instead, I turn over their card from front to back. So, our oral contract actually meant one thing to the audience member and something else entirely to me. However, the words that I actually said were consistent with both interpretations. So, in a written contract, I could have collected on this bet. But I still don’t think it would be fair to do so.

Make no mistake. Don’t be fooled. Just because I wouldn’t take your $20 doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of others who would. Oh, yes! They would be happy to take your money by making you believe one thing was going to happen while in fact something else entirely happened. If you notice, even professional magicians have the audience pay for the show. They don’t bet them for money or possessions that they are going to keep because they too think it’s unfair. I think that most people would consider actually taking the money unfair under the circumstances above. What do you think?

I am convinced that there are at least a small percentage of people who not only think it fair to take money under these circumstances; they think it is smart. In fact, they would think I’m being ridiculous for not taking the money. Of course, it need not stop with one bet. A person can parlay one bet into much more because of another little aspect of the human psyche “cognitive dissonance.”

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Basically, the idea is that you don’t like it when two apparently contradictory statements are in your head. For example, let’s say you lost the bet above. You think: “Wow. What a sucker I am. I just lost $20!” But, at the same time, you have a concept about yourself which is: “I’m pretty damned clever. I am hard to fool. I am careful with my money. I am a winner!” So, now I offer you a chance to make your money back — and then some. What are you going to do? Well, you might want to reduce that “cognitive dissonance” and think something along these lines. “Hah. I can beat this guy at his own game. I’m smarter than he is. I’ll come out on top in the end and walk away richer.” But you see — no, you aren’t. You might actually be smarter in general, but I know the game. I am setting the rules. This is not some “fair” contest of wits or will. It’s a “game” that I invented. For my benefit.

So “cognitive dissonance” is a kind of potential multiplier on every other illusion and delusion that humans fall prey to. We all make mistakes of perception, judgement, inference, and so on. We all see bears in the clouds. But what if someone points out to you that there is no bear in the clouds? How do you react? Do you say, “Oh, okay, thanks for pointing that out.” Or, do you say, “Oh, yeah?! Well, I see a bear there so there’s a bear there.” If you have that defensive reaction, people will tend to avoid you and if they do run across you, they have no interest in giving you honest feedback. Over time, you will come to have another delusion: “That you are much more often right than anyone else you know.” Why? Because you contradict a lot of other people but they hardly ever contradict you.” You attribute this to your being right, but it’s actually only because you’re much more of a dick than most people when it comes to being confronted with the truth.

Before there were mass e-mails with variations on the “Nigeria scam”, people sent out actual snail mail with essentially the same ruse. I received one such letter in the mail in the 1980’s. At the time, I had not actually heard of this scam. Luckily, I did not reply. It sounded too good to be true, so I figured it probably was. Such scams offer a huge reward if only you will put a little cash up front. Of course, if you do put a little cash up front, you will be asked for more — either more cash or more information or both. The more you “put into” this scam, the more you are willing to risk further in order to get the reward. The mechanism at work here may be similar to what happens to people who go along with abusive relationships as well. “I’ve already invested all this time and energy and pain. Maybe this time, he (or she) really will change and stop (drinking/beating me/lying/being unfaithful, etc.).

Although I did not fall for the Nigerian riches scam, I have had my share of being fooled. Not only was my Uncle Karl’s magic beyond my ken. Most stage magic still astounds me even though I know the general principles that are at work. It still seems that they are doing the “impossible.” The closer I am to the trick, the more amazing it becomes. For instance, at our high school senior prom, we had a stage magician. I was one of four “volunteers” who held a rope around a box that held (or at least thought I held) the magician’s scantily clad female assistant. This was done on the gym floor at Ellet High School. Unlike a stage, I knew quite well that there were no “trap doors” here. All at once the assistant was gone. She literally disappeared right in front of my eyes from a box no more than six feet away. In a magic show, it’s all for fun, but the same principles of playing on your expectations and illusions can be used against you.


As I’ve mentioned before, my older cousin took great delight in manipulating me to my detriment. Among other things, he once “tricked me” into ranting about the failings of our grandfather. He found a moment when I was slightly ticked off at grandpa. Then he took me aside and told me all sorts of bullshit about grandpa. Most of it was just made up, but some of it had some truth to it. Grandpa was skinny. He was old. He was strict. He didn’t like to be interrupted when classical music or opera was playing. But my cousin ranted and raved about this and how unfair Grandpa was and so on. Of course, I wanted to be like my older and bigger cousin. At some point not long after, all of us were together along with the whole family and my cousin said something that triggered one of those aroused dislikes I now had for my grandfather. My mouth began to spout almost exactly what my cousin had just said. Everyone was horrified, especially my cousin. When I called him on it, he simply denied it and said I was just trying to shift the blame for such an unfair and outrageous display against the man we all loved, Grandpa. What a frigging fool I was! Hopefully, you have never been tricked into being mean-spirited to someone who deserved your respect.

Here’s an illusion of a quite different sort. For the first decade I worked at IBM Research, my commute through the beautiful woods and reservoirs of northern Westchester took me through a steel truss bridge. My Datsun at that time only had an AM radio. So, every time I went through the metal bridge, the bridge prevented receiving a strong signal and the volume for “Imus in he Morning” faded. The sound would diminish remarkably upon entering the bridge and then, on the other side, it would return to normal. One day, after work, I “treated myself” to a decent stereo system that included an FM radio as well as a cassette tape player. This was great because now I could listen to “Books on Tape” during my commute. So, the next day, I was driving to work, when all at once, the volume of the tape I was listening to went way up! Then, a few seconds later, the sound went back down to normal. It flashed through my mind that there must be a loose wire from the new installation so that when I went over the bump at the beginning of the bridge…wait a second! I’m so used to the sound going down when I enter the bridge and up when I exit it, that when I had a sound source of constant volume, it sounded as though it was changing!

Technology, of course, can itself be another source of illusions.  One rainy Saturday afternoon in my sixth year, the four main adults in my life were in the living room watching TV. (Now, it is important to your understanding of what follows to know that when I am talking about our “TV” of 1951, it is nothing like the TV you have today. Apart from the fact that there were only three channels, and that it was only black and white, the resolution was far less than what you have today. In addition, the image flickered noticeably. Content-wise, it was all rated G. In fact, even most of the things that are G today would not have been allowed on commercial television. Sex was portrayed on TV by implication, not demonstration. And, the implications were carefully aimed to be above the level of an innocent (no Internet) child so that sometimes there were really two shows going on at once; one for children and a slightly edgier version for adults. There was no way that nudity would be presented on TV!)


Anyway, I was in my room and I didn’t hear anything but quiet music coming from the living room of our tiny one floor bungalow. The adults were hardly talking. It sounded boring. But eventually, it also bored me to play with my toys all alone. So, at some point, I wondered out to see what they were watching that enforced such quiet among the normally chatty adults. As I turned the corner into the living room, my mouth literally fell open — for there right in front of me on the TV screen were men and women dancing naked! I like to call a spade a spade so I remarked in amazement, “Mom! Dad! They’re dancing *naked*!” My mom, dad, and grandfather all immediately over-talked each other telling me the same story: “Oh, they’re not naked; they’re wearing their tights!” “Oh,” I replied sagely and went back to my bedroom, whereupon I immediately stripped completely and then re-entered the living room stark naked, dancing in joyful imitation of the professional dancers leaping and twisting on TV. Well, okay, maybe not precisely as they did, but as close as I could manage. As you might imagine, the four adults erupted in unison. “John!! You’re dancing naked!” “No,” I calmly replied, “I’m wearing my tights.” And, I folded my naked arms over my naked chest in triumph and nodded my chin down in a note of finality.

My brilliant answer did not go over well.

But at least the day was no longer boring.

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More on “Cognitive Dissonance”

“Obedience” studies of Stanley Milgram