It is pretty easy to see when the choices others make are bad for them. On the other hand, it is not nearly so obvious when we are making bad choices ourselves. One reason for this is that our brains try to protect us from disappointing news. We are often far more confident in our own abilities than we have any right to be.
We are pleased to have Jack Bobo, author of “Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices“, write for Dirt to Dinner. Jack was CEO of Futurity Food, a company working with organizations to understand governmental policy decisions around agriculture and how consumers make decisions on their food. Jack was Senior Advisor for the State Department’s Global Food Policy and then worked for Intrexon Corporation (now Precigen) as Chief Communications Officer.
Everyone Is Above Average
Ask yourself this question: Are you an above-average driver? If you are like most people, you answered in the affirmative.
In a famous study, researchers asked people to compare their driving ability to others, requiring them to rate themselves as above average, average or below average. I don’t think anyone was surprised to learn that more than 80 percent of respondents said they were above average. (For what it’s worth, I think of myself as an above-average driver too.) While that outcome may be mathematically impossible, it is also pretty consistent with what we know of human behavior.
If you think it’s hard to find someone who thinks they are an average driver, imagine how hard it would be to find someone who believes they are a below-average driver.
I’m not sure such a person exists. Such self-awareness would be crushing to the soul for most of us.
Findings like these are easy to laugh at, mostly because it is hard for most of us to imagine that we might be one of those misguided individuals who are wrong about their driving skills.
But remember,one in three drivers who think they are above-average is wrong. Their brains just don’t want to admit it.
Our hubris is not limited to our automotive skills…
Most people think they are above-average at most things. Studies show that people rate themselves as above-average in creativity, intelligence, dependability, athleticism, honesty, friendliness, and so on.
Provide people with a survey about almost any positive trait, and the vast majority will rate themselves above average. Social psychologists call it the better-than-average effect.
What does this have to do with food, you might be wondering? As it turns out, quite a lot.
The more confident we are in the decisions we make, the less likely we are to stop and question those decisions. Even if we do take the occasional break to contemplate the possibility that we are suffering from bias, we assume that we are less likely than others to be biased.
So what are we to do?
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos sat atop one of the most successful companies of our time as well as a personal fortune of some $200 billion. I think we can all agree that by most definitions the guy is pretty smart. But you don’t run one of the largest companies in the world by yourself, no matter how smart you are. You have to surround yourself with other smart people who can help make your vision a reality.
Bezos doesn’t just look for intelligent people or people who are right most of the time. For him, that is only half of the equation. He also looks for people who can admit they are wrong and who change their opinions when the situation demands. He finds that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding and reconsidering problems they thought they had already solved. Unlike many of us who are fixed in our views, the smartest people, according to Bezos, are open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.
That willingness to consider new information goes hand in hand with a willingness to admit that your old way of thinking was flawed. In other words—and this is the interesting part—to be super smart, you have to change your mind a lot. Bezos apparently agrees with essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously declared, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Consistency is overrated. Bezos believes it is perfectly healthy to have a new idea tomorrow that contradicts the idea you hold today.
The Strength of Humility
Modern science agrees with both Bezos and Emerson. Psychologists refer to this flexibility of mind as “intellectual humility.” Studies of decision-making show that people who are more willing to entertain the idea that they might be wrong made markedly better choices.
Rather than thinking of being wrong as a sign of stupidity or ignorance, we should see it as a sign of curiosity, openness to new information, and, ultimately, intelligence. In an increasingly complicated world, the willingness to revise our views is more critical than ever.
In the food sphere, we are inundated with information from every direction promising cures for all manner of ills, from superfoods that protect us from disease to diets that help us live long and happy lives.
The latest scientific discoveries are amplified by the news and social media and then twisted and distorted until they bear little resemblance to the actual findings of the scientists who conducted the research.
In this way, nutrition studies showing vague associations between some food, ingredient, or supplement and heart health in mice are promoted on the news and on social media as critical findings for public health or even miracle cures.
Good science travels quickly, but inflated or dubious information travels at the speed of light. Technology makes it easier to amplify and spread questionable information incredibly fast.
To guard against false and misleading information, we need to be both curious and intellectually humble.
I imagine many readers nodding along with the advice that we should be intellectually humble and that we should change our minds when we learn new facts.
If I posed the question, “Do you consider yourself open-minded,” what would you say? I imagine that nearly 100 percent of readers would agree that they are open-minded. That’s the kind of person who reads an article like this, after all.
Now ask yourself: When was the last time you changed your mind? Was it last week, last month, or maybe last year? Could it be that you can’t actually remember the last time you changed your mind about something important?
Mark Lynas, a British environmentalist and author changed his mind about GMOs. Formerly, he was a Greenpeace activist against GMOs. Once he started reviewing peer-reviewed scientific papers and learned about the facts around GMOs, he changed his mind. He wrote about his journey in his book, ‘Seeds of Science, How we got it wrong on GMOs’.
In a 2018 interview with Massive Science, he stated, “Well, I’m pretty much alone in terms of anyone changing their minds about anything significant! It’s quite a rare thing to happen.“
All of this begs the question, “Is it possible to be open-minded if you never change your mind?”
When we were children, we were exposed to new ideas and experiences all the time, and we frequently changed our minds as a result. We were encouraged to do so. In high school and college, we were taught to challenge our assumptions and to ask questions of ourselves and others. Instead of being given the answers, we learned how to seek out knowledge. Changing our minds was a sign of growth and development.
But eventually, we grow up and find a career. Our circle of friends becomes fixed. Perhaps we get married, have children and settle down. Whether it happens in our twenties, thirties or forties, at some point the rate at which we change our minds begins to slow and, for some, to practically stop. Rather than spend time searching for knowledge that challenges our beliefs, we look for facts that support or defend them.
Confirmation bias allows us to convince ourselves that we have carefully considered or fully vetted new ideas before we reject them.
As Bishop Oldham wrote in 1906, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
The above quotation is often attributed to philosopher and psychologist William James, but just because the internet says he said it, doesn’t make it so.
As we get older, it becomes less comfortable to change our minds because we have become so invested in our old beliefs. We have surrounded ourselves with people who believe the same things that we believe. Our jobs may even depend on, or be a reflection of, our beliefs. This means there would be a cost associated with changing our minds. Better to hang on to a silly belief than to give up on an important friendship. Too often, we choose habit and comfort over growth and knowledge.
Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
There are a lot of strongly held beliefs in the food world. It only takes a few minutes on social media to find people with views on pretty much everything. Some people swear by the Keto Diet, others are followers of Atkins. Clean eating is still the rage among many, while believers in cleanses and intermittent fasting are only too eager to share the latest research supporting their dietary choices.
Following a diet or way of eating that works for you is not the problem. There are many ways of eating a healthy and nutritious diet, though we need to keep in mind that for a diet to work it must work not only for days, weeks and months, but for a lifetime. For many, diets are like fashion—they change with the seasons.
So how do we open ourselves to new information without getting swept up in the latest fad?
Rather than throw up our hands and give up on finding real solutions, the answer may be to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” This is the advice of futurist Bob Johansen from the Institute for the Future. Strongly held opinions give us the confidence to be decisive and make important decisions. Weakly held opinions are equally important because that means you are not too attached to what you believe. Being too attached to ideas undermines our ability to see and hear evidence that conflicts with our opinions.
While Jeff Bezos may think of flexibility of the mind as a trait of the smartest people, it reminds me of the difference between smart people and wise people. Smart people are those who know a lot, but nonetheless they sometimes make bad choices, because all people sometimes make bad choices. Wise people are those who learn from their mistakes and make better choices going forward. You don’t have to be a genius to be wise.
In the struggle to make better choices, our brains are sometimes working against us. Our biases often lead us in the wrong direction, particularly when it comes to food. Fortunately, we can do something about that. My book, Why smart people make bad food choices? lays out many of the ways our brains trick and mislead us. Awareness of these biases and cognitive errors will greatly reduce the mischief that they cause in your life.
The Bottom Line
In order for us to make good decisions about the food we eat, we need to be willing to change our minds—about food, but also about other things in our lives as well. By entertaining the possibility that we might be wrong, and embracing genuine intellectual humility, we can move past the illusions of the “better-than-average” effect and make choices that are truly better.