How to Convince Everyone You’re Really Smart (Without Actually Doing Anything Really Smart)

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Confirmation bias is a terrible thing to waste. So don’t.

If you’re the least bit curious about what I just said, then this column is written just for you.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ recent book Win Bigly defines confirmation bias as “the human tendency to see all evidence as supporting your beliefs, even if the evidence is nothing more than coincidence.”

Have you heard the expression “First impressions are lasting impressions?” A simple explanation shows the truth of this adage. It goes like this:

When you meet someone for the first time, you know nothing about that individual. This new person represents a blank slate. The very first thing that person does becomes the very first thing written upon that slate. Therefore, it becomes a baseline. You will now use this baseline as the benchmark to measure everything else your new friend, classmate, co-worker, or employee does from here on out. Because it’s now a benchmark, you remember it. This first impression turns into a lasting impression.

Simple, right? You might be thinking, “Perhaps, a bit too simple.” You might be right. There’s more to the story of first impressions than meets the eye. It’s the story of confirmation bias. It’s also the story of “How to convince everyone you’re really smart (without actually doing anything smart).”

Let’s start with where we left off. We have this lasting impression. For example, the first time you meet your new co-worker Joe, you tell him a lame joke. You know the kind of jokes I’m talking about. It’s an ice breaker. Not too edgy. Not too funny. Just enough to get the other person to break into a friendly smile.

Only Joe doesn’t just break into a friendly smile. He laughs with a loud guffaw that turns the heads of everyone in the office. Now, in reality, Joe might have just heard a really funny joke from someone else. He was primed to laugh (really funny jokes tend to do that). His reaction to your joke merely represents Joe’s sense of fairness. He doesn’t want you to think your joke isn’t as good as the other joke. In his mind, his laugh roars because he wants to be polite.

But you don’t know that back story. You were in the copy room when the really funny joke was told. Joe’s exaggerated chuckle throws you back. You think he’s being a bit fake. That’s the first impression you’re left with. And it lasts. Here’s why: confirmation bias.

From this day forward, you frame every action Joe undertakes in terms of his perceived phoniness. Rather than confront Beth, an obviously wrong co-worker, Joe nods his head to her. Joe’s being polite. You see this as further confirmation that he’s a fake. Joe compliments the boss because, well, polite people are cordial. You see it as Joe sucking up to the boss. It’s not too long before you hate Joe, just like you hate all hypocrites.

That’s confirmation bias. That’s how confirmation bias can hurt you, your relationships with other people, and, in general, make a mess of the world.

There’s a flip-side to this, though. It’s the flip-side you should be most interested in. If you know how it works, you can convince everyone you’re really smart without actually doing anything really smart.

This time, Joe knows the flip-side. This time, you use a different icebreaker. You use that old standby the weather. “Nice weather we’re having,” you say. Joe smiles (there’s that smile you wanted to get) and responds, “Yes. You’re right. Of course, I brought my umbrella just in case. We might get rain at two o’clock when I have to run out for a meeting.”

This is what you remember from that conversation: Joe’s friendly (he smiles and says, “yes”); He thinks you’re smart (he says, “you’re right”); and, “rain at two o’clock.”

Later that afternoon – closer to five o’clock – it rains. Joe said it was going to rain at two. He was off by three hours. You don’t remember that part, though. You just remember Joe said something about how it might rain in the afternoon. The three-hour difference doesn’t matter to you because you know very short-term weather forecasting is as much an art as it is a science. That’s confirmation bias.

You conclude Joe must be pretty smart – at least when it comes to the weather. Later in the week, Joe tells you he thinks the market might go down, despite the fact the market has been going up ten straight days. Indeed, the market goes up for another ten days. On the eleventh day, the market goes down, but just a little. The market going down becomes big news because it breaks the twenty-day streak of going up. When you hear this news, you remember Joe’s prediction. You begin to think Joe is really smart at predicting things. That’s more confirmation bias. (Spoiler Alert: The market goes up and down all the time, so, when viewed rationally, Joe’s prediction is meaningless.)

Finally, you and Joe go to a casino. You both like to play roulette. Joe watches as you play ten straight times and you lose. Joe plays once and wins. You’re now absolutely convinced Joe has to be one of the most intelligent people you know – he has a system for everything and it works. You firmly believe he’s always right. That’s really deep confirmation bias. (FYI: We all know roulette wheels produce totally random results, so there can never be a system, from Joe or anyone else.)

Joe has convinced you that he’s really smart without actually doing anything really smart. You have interpreted his everyday thoughts and actions based on your first impression. It doesn’t matter to you that there’s an alternative (and more likely) explanation. Your bias has been confirmed and that’s all that matters to you.

Adams’ Win Bigly tells us how confirmation bias is among the elements used by what he calls “master persuaders.” Master persuaders can include preachers, professors, and trained hypnotists (Adams is one). Most notably, though, we find master persuaders in the fields of law, writing, and, above all, politics. He also warns confirmation bias is a “common phenomenon that we believe happens only to other people.”

Here’s the challenge: Go to the flip-side. You can be Joe. Try it. Tell me how it works out for you. I only ask you promise me one thing. Promise me you won’t use this in a bad way. Don’t go to the Dark Side.

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