Tag Archives: psychology

Our senses are hopeless at calculating risk

We overestimate danger when we're not in control, such as flying as a passenger in an aeroplane.
We overestimate danger when we’re not in control, such as flying as a passenger in an aeroplane.
Humans are irrational beings. Smoking kills 480,000 people per year in the United States, while an average of 170 lives are lost to terrorism each year in the same country. Counterintuitively, terrorism receives more media attention than smoking despite having a relatively tiny risk because we’re predisposed to fear dangers imposed by other people more than dangers with which we choose to engage ourselves.

Another great example is aeroplane crashes. Airlines today have an excellent safety record and flying is usually the safest mode of transport (safer than making the same journey by road or rail). We overestimate the dangers of flying on an aeroplane because someone else is in control.

Conversely, because summer heat waves are a natural phenomenon, we’re prone to underestimating their danger: tens of thousands of people die from excessive summer heat each year in the United States alone.

Irrational: we worry about terrorist attacks more than summer heat waves

Our ‘perceived risk’ almost never matches the ‘actual risk’. In the bubble chart below, the area of the circles above the line represent how much we worry about each risk. The area of the circles below the line represents the actual size of the risk in terms of how many people are harmed each year. In many cases, there is a huge disparity between ‘perceived risk’ and ‘actual risk’.

Our perception of risk almost never matches the actual size of the risk. Adapted from work by Susannah Ertrich.
Adapted from work by Susannah Ertrich
The table below shows the factors that increase and decrease our perceptions of risk.
table1 risks template chemicals

Let’s evaluate two examples. First, smoking:

table2 risks template chemicals

Conclusion: people are predisposed to underestimate the risks of smoking (9:1)

Second example: azodicarbonamide (dough improver) added to bread

table3 risks template chemicals

Conclusion: people are predisposed to overestimate the risks of adding azodicarbonamide to bread (1:9)

This strange psychological quirk is one of the roots of chemophobia that I discuss much further in my upcoming book, Fighting Chemophobia (coming out late 2017).

Try it yourselves: use the table to find out whether we’re likely to over-fear or under-fear aeroplane crashes, climate change and parabens in cosmetics. You’ll find that we overestimate the risks of chemical ingredients in our food and products not because they necessarily pose any danger, but because we have this strangely irrational way of assessing risk in the world around us. ♦

Infographic: Summary of Developmental Theories Relevant to Education v3

Summary of Developmental Theories Relevant to Education v3
Click to download PDF. Version 3 last revised April 2013

Pooled from various internet sources (sorry, I have no time to reference this), here’s a summary of all the theorists I’ve come across in Oosterhof’s textbook, in Marsh’s textbook, and with Freud added in for good measure. Enjoy! 😀

Book: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

My fiancée and I have a great relationship. We’ve been together for almost three years and today, we bought wedding bands from Tiffany’s. Everything we do is romantic—from the day we met (on the Beijing subway) to the normal, suburban life we now lead in Australia.

Of course, no relationship is perfect all the time. But when I picked up this self-help classic from the library, I learned that when it comes to love, I’m not as clueless as I thought…

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
Self-help classic

So theoretical. And where’s the sex?
286 pages, ★★★

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus screams, “NINETEEN-NINETIES!” at you. It’s a relationship manual written for sexually dimorphic salarymen and housewives, and it rose to fame in the 1990s while the Spice Girls were still a surprise. Men and women were changing, but weren’t yet sure of who they were. Call it ‘pre-post-feminism’, if you like.

Enter this book. It’s so theoretical! Each double-page spread sports at least two sub-headings, and there’s a pull-out quote every three pages. You can skim-read all the sub-headings and still get the gist: “men and women think differently”.

Sometimes, it’s too theoretical. It’s somewhere between a self-help book and an instruction manual! I’d prefer to learn the same information in a more entertaining format—by attending John Gray’s lectures and seminars, for example, or by watching a TV documentary. The message of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus begs to be served in a more interactive way than a printed book.

Despite focussing on the sexes, I’m surprised to see that this book is completely devoid of sex itself! If you want sex tips, you’ll need to read another book called, The Secrets of Successful Relationships, also by John Gray. I know that sex is only one part of a romantic relationship, but it’s quite an important part… I’m sure John Gray had his reasons for omitting it from this book.

I have two problems with this book. First, who starts a love letter with “I’m angry that…”, then includes four paragraphs of negative emotions followed by one paragraph of love? Is this normal? I’m certainly not going to do it, even though this book says that I should.

Second: it’s very basic in places. The list of 101 things that a man can do to ‘score points’ with a woman are so glaringly obvious that I already do all of them—and more—without even thinking about it.

This book can help couples who have small problems (i.e. too small to seek professional help). Otherwise, just read it because it’s a classic in its genre. Remember that while men and women are different, they’re not as different as John Gray claims—and nor should they be.

Feminist talks are everywhere, but here’s a great TED talk for men. Men changed in the feminist revolution, too. Enjoy. 🙂 ★★★

Book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking


Alerts you to society’s irrational love of extroverts.
352 pages, ★★★★

Introverts are singled out from a young age. They’re considered shy, socially-inept, boring, lazy and stupid in schools—at least, that’s the first thesis of this book.

The second thesis is that introverts are actually more valuable than people think. Evidence suggests that their moral reasoning, sense of responsibility, ability to stick to a plan, empathetic skills and thoughtfulness are better than those of extroverts. Introverts also earn more scholarships and graduate degrees than do extroverts.

Extroverts, on the other hand, make rash decisions, engage in risky behaviour (both in bed and on the stock market), are more prone to “groupthink”, make unsatisfactory team leaders and have poor listening skills. They have empty charisma—that is, they might appear to have everything in control, but when questioned, we realise they know nothing.

The third thesis, at the end of this book, says that “introvert” and “extrovert” are actually over-simplistic labels, and the book suggests “high-sensitive” and “low-sensitive” as more appropriate alternatives. Studies by Jerome Kagan have shown that people with sensitive amygdala prefer lower levels of stimulus—quiet rooms, fewer people, and familiar settings—characteristics of ‘introversion’. People with less-sensitive amygdala prefer higher levels of stimulus—loud places, more people, and new experiences—characteristics of ‘extroversion’. Different people need different amounts of stimulus to be comfortable, and these levels are quite fixed from birth through to adulthood.

Genes play an ambiguous role. I have C/C at the rs752306 SNP, which is located in the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene on chromosome 11. Even though the C allele has a frequency of as high as 75% (meaning most people have it), people still got excited when a study by Lee et al. in 2011 hinted at connections between rs752306 SNP and ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘risky behaviour’—traits which this book interprets as ‘extraversion’. Lee’s follow-up study showed no connection whatsoever. Personally, I think we understand so little about how genes affect our health that we should ignore any supposed ‘genetic factors’ for personality traits.

This book separates society along a single axis and looks for striking differences. The Geography of Thought did that too, along East/West lines, as did Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, along gender lines. Take all these books with a pinch of salt. Society is not a dichotomy of extremes, but a melting pot in which most people are pretty close to ‘average’. Remember that you are, too. ★★★★


Book: Between The Lines: Understanding Yourself and Others Through Handwriting Analysis

90% is backed up by common sense; 10% relies on crystal balls

Fills the gap between science and the supernatural. Conversation material; not pure science.
227 pages, ★★★★

Handwriting samples collected over a long period of time can hint at character of the author. That’s the theory behind graphology. This book takes us logically through literally hundreds of handwriting features (from wide letters to thread formations to repressed lower loops) and gives us illustrated examples of each (most of them from famous people). Between the Lines was my first introduction to graphology.

The start of Between the Lines can be explained by common sense. Fast writers are impatient. People who write in perfectly straight lines are well-organised. People who write in capital letters are aggressive. But later in the book, when the handwriting features become more technical, the connection of these explanations to reality becomes more tenuous (or, at least, unexplained).

Toward the end of the book, Between the Lines ventures slightly into horoscope territory. It tells us that people who write numbers illegibly are untrustworthy with money; that people who omit letters are not telling the whole truth; that people with blotchy writing are sensual (Casanova is the given example). This book lacks data evidence throughout (only one or two anecdotes are provided), and only the first half of the book resonates with common sense.

The most insightful area was the chapter on signatures. Do you sign your name larger or smaller than the rest of your writing? Do you sign toward the left or the right of the paper? Does your signature conceal or emphasize any part of your name, or contain additional features? The signature—and the letter t—are two of the most revealing features in graphology.

For me, graphology is to psychology as horoscopes are to astrophysics.

Yes, I’m now analysing people’s handwriting (privately) out and about where I see it. But no, I’m not using it to judge them. For me, daily-life graphology will remain nothing more than harmless fun. For me, graphology is to psychology as horoscopes are to astrophysics.

I shopped around to find the most concise, comprehensive introduction to the handwriting analysis before settling on this book. If you don’t like Between the Lines, then blame the field of graphology, not the book. ★★★★

Book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement

China is awash with photocopied books. Check out any university and you'll be hard-pressed to find one student with an original book.

The happiest story you’ve ever read.
The closest you’ll get to a book about YOU.

423 pages, ★★★★★

The Social Animal is about as close to fiction as I ever get: a life-like story of two fictitious (but very ordinary) people. This book follows the lives of Harold and Erica through the proposed “six stages of life”, the most interesting of which being my stage: “odyssey”.

“Odyssey” is defined as the “ten years of wandering that follow adolescence but preclude a settled adulthood”. It’s a modern phenomenon that arises both from globalisation, and from lack of pressure in Western societies to settle down early. Twenty-somethings spend up to ten years travelling and trying on new personalities (like new clothes); and The Social Animal explains why we do this.

David Brooks makes dozens of references to research mentioned in MIT’s excellent Introductory Psychology lecture series (available for free on iTunes U). He also makes many reassuring references to studies outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

The most comforting aspect of this book is that the author knows the characters better than they know themselves. David Brooks explains all the characters’ feelings, actions and reasoning before they act. He cites psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in science who has an aversion to reading fiction for fear of “not learning anything”. We learn about ourselves by reading fiction. I now aspire to having read enough literature that I, too, could understand myself on a similar level to this book. ★★★★★

Book: The Sociopath Next Door

This book makes you feel more uncomfortable than talking to a shrink. At least Amazon's books are cheap!

Like talking to a shrink: it’s written in obsessive, repetitive language with no intention to cure. The author is sick.
242 pages, ★★★

Sociopaths in this book are only “bad” because of the damage they cause. The Sociopath Next Door tells us that despite the suffering they create and the “crocodile tears” they unleash, sociopaths are in fact having a really great time. So why not become one? The Sociopath Next Door fails to answer that question.

According to this book, the sociopathic 4% among us can do anything without regret. They can extort, murder, rape, declare war, or torture people without feeling empathy. Capitalist society encourages sociopathic behaviour within corporations and some sociopaths have become extremely rich as a result of their ruthless behaviour. But sociopaths without a business talent tend to fare less well: one in five prisoners is also a sociopath.

The Sociopath Next Door is extremely repetitive. Despite being a shrink, the author obsesses over the 4% statistic (which, the author reminds us countless times, equates to one in 25 people). She tells us in each chapter that sociopaths cause great harm (many of the victims have approached the author for counselling) and that sociopaths love to take control of people in strange ways (such as stealing postage stamps or seducing women). Many times, she states that sociopaths love their condition so much that they seldom seek help.

This book is fuzzy. Chapters 1 and 4 both tell us how to diagnose a sociopath using the following six (chapter 4) or seven (chapter 1) criteria. A sociopath is someone who:

  1. Is spontaneous;
  2. Takes risks;
  3. Has charm;
  4. Is never monogamous;
  5. Fails to conform to social norms; and
  6. Fails to honor social obligations.

According to these criteria, I’m a sociopath! However, the book gives us new definitions of sociopathy elsewhere, which include “not having a conscience”, “not feeling regret”, “obsessing over controlling people” and the Dalai Lama’s definition of “not living a fully-developed human life”. According to these criteria, I’m certainly not a sociopath.

The fuzziness starts here: The Sociopath Next Door concludes by telling us that we’re all capable of excising some small fraction of society and labelling them as “inhuman”. Hitler is the favourite example. The book tells us that some people would put Osama bin Laden, capitalists, communists, black people, white people or any other social group and lump them into the same “inhuman” category. We’re all capable of treating some people as inhuman occasionally.

But then the author makes a huge mistake: she tells us that sociopaths lump everyone into the “inhuman” category all the time, and thus treat everyone worse than dogs. It is here that the author fails to realise that the author herself is treating 4% of us as “inhuman” by labelling us as sociopaths and writing an obsessive book about it! Shrinks have a huge incentive to over-diagnose and not to cure, and thus label people (as “ADHD”, “depressed”, “sociopathic” etc) because they want their money; and the only way to escape this dilemma is to reject the notion of sociopathy.

As the conclusion admits, Buddhism gives us far more insight than psychiatry. Eastern religions tend to emphasise loving oneself before one can love others. And if people are in situations where they barely have enough energy to love themselves and their families, they are of course going to show no love for others—particularly strangers in need. Just as we choose which books not to read when we go book-shopping, and which partners not to marry when we get married, we also choose which people not to care for when our spiritual resources are limited. Are all racists, rapists, fascists, and thieves sociopaths? No. They just haven’t been loved. And the answer to that problem doesn’t lie in an expensive shrink’s chair; it comes from falling in love. ★★★

Book: The Brain that Changes Itself

Yes, I read a photocopied version of this book. This is commonplace in China.

Modern update to Sigmund Freud’s
The Interpretation of Dreams

426 pages, ★★★★★

I’ve changed many times. At 17, I used to drive at 130 mph and get searched by police for “looking suspicious” (a vicious cycle). At 19, I became a Cambridge student, at 21 became a raving Communist, and just one year later became an ideological capitalist. Now, at 23, I’m studying Chinese and Buddhism at home with Silver Needle Pekoe tea, or as the Buddhists would say, “I’ve stolen my monkey brain”. I recommend it.

I can therefore connect easily with the thesis of this book: that the brain is plastic.

Reading neuroscience usually brings one of two outcomes: I either self-diagnose a plethora of conditions (this occurs when the descriptions are flattering, such as the OCD in Steve Jobs or the Aspergers’ Syndrome in The Essential Difference); or I am disgusted by the patients described and thus feel more normal than ever. This book is certainly the latter.

The book is enlightening throughout. Here are some highlights:

  • new brain theory (plasticity)
  • a theory of autism (BDNF, white noise)
  • support for Buddhist teachings
  • a theory of love (oxytocin, memory loss)
  • insights into depression (hypothalamus shrinkage)

The Brain that Changes Itself is mostly an enlightening (rather than disturbing) read. It makes advances on many books I’ve read. It uses scientific animal models and human case studies to ‘prove’ the new, emerging theory of brain science: that the brain is plastic.

The Brain that Changes Itself is more insightful on autism and Aspergers’ Syndrome than Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference. Improper release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor); and excessive white noise during brain development could cause autism. This was even proven using rats! This book stops short of explicitly stating a cure for autism, but the reader can infer a cure from the information given in this book. The author doesn’t write the cure due to its “capability for misuse”. You’ll have to decode it for yourselves, which is infinitely more exciting.

The Brain that Changes Itself usually agrees with Buddhist teachings. On page 171, we see a direct parallel with The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching with, “Buddhists will observe the effects of anger, rather than the cause, and therefore separate themselves from it”. Both books tell us how learning only arises from “focussing”, “being present” and giving “undivided attention”. (The “deliberate practice” in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is essentially the same phenomenon.) Buddhism has been teaching us this for 2,600 years.

Happiness by Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard tells us that “love wipes out previous memories, especially bad ones”. The Brain that Changes Itself uses science to tell us exactly how this happens. Oxytocin is released when we fall in love, which makes us feel warm and trusting of our new partner. Since falling in love requires simultaneously “falling out of love” with previous partners, oxytocin also wipes parts of our memory. This has been proven using studies in using rats.

Finally, The Brain that Changes Itself tells us that long-term depression was found to cause hypothalamus shrinkage, especially in the “critical period” of brain development. Short-term depression had almost no effect on hypothalamus size. The hypothalamus shrinks to decrease our sensitivity to the negative effects around us. The result is, unfortunately, a desensitisation of pleasure as well as pain. Schizophrenia, ADHD and bipolar disorder are all implicated.

This book lends itself very well to being taught in schools. Each chapter would take one or two lessons, and the students can simulate the human and animal experiments with each other in class. ★★★★★