Tag: Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova on How we Get Conned

There’s a scene in the classic Paul Newman film The Sting, where Johnny Hooker (played by a young Robert Redford) tries to get Henry Gondorf (played by Newman) to finally tell him when they’re going to pull the big con. His response tells the tale:

You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.

It’s this same subject that our friend Maria Konnikova — whom we interviewed a few years ago upon the release of her book Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes — has mined with her new book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For it…Every Time.

It’s a good question: Why do we fall for it every time? Confidence games (cons for short) are a wonderful arena to study The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.

In fact, you could call a good con artist — you have to love the term artist here — a master of human psychology. They are, after all, in the game of manipulating people into parting with their money. They are so good, a successful con is a lot like a magic trick:

When we step into a magic show, we come in actively wanting to be fooled. We want deception to cover our eyes and make our world a tiny bit more fantastical, more awesome than it was before. And the magician, in many ways, uses the exact same approaches as the confidence man—only without the destruction of the con’s end game. “Magic is a kind of a conscious, willing con,” Michael Shermer, a science historian and writer who has devoted many decades to debunking claims about the supernatural and the pseudoscientific, told me one December afternoon. “You’re not being foolish to fall for it. If you don’t fall for it, the magician is doing something wrong.”

Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, has thought extensively about how the desire to embrace magic so often translates into susceptibility to its less savory forms. “Take the Penn and Teller cup and balls. I can explain it to you and it still would work. It’s not just knowing the secret; it’s not a trick. It’s the whole skill and art of presentation. There’s a whole narrative—and that’s why it’s effective.” At their root, magic tricks and confidence games share the same fundamental principle: a manipulation of our beliefs. Magic operates at the most basic level of visual perception, manipulating how we see—and don’t see—and experience reality. It changes for an instant what we think possible, quite literally taking advantage of our eyes’ and brains’ foibles to create an alternative version of the world. The con does the same thing, but can go much deeper. Tricks like three-card monte are identical to a magician’s routine—except the intent is more nefarious.

Psychology and show magic have more in common than you’d think: As Shermer says, there are many magic tricks that you can explain ahead of time and they will still work, and still baffle. But…wait…how?

The link between everyday psychological manipulation and show magic is so close that the magician Harry Houdini spent a good portion of his later life trying to sniff out cons in the form of mediums, mystics, and sooth-sayers. Even he couldn’t totally shake free of the illusions:

Mysticism, [Houdini] argued, was a game as powerful as it was dangerous. “It is perfectly rational to suppose that I may be deceived once or twice by a new illusion,” he wrote, “but if my mind, which has been so keenly trained for years to invent mysterious effects, can be deceived, how much more susceptible must the ordinary observer be?

Such is the power of the illusion. The same, of course, goes for the mental tricks in our psychological make-up. A great example is the gambling casino: Leaving out the increasingly rare exceptions, who ever walks in thinking they have a mathematical edge over the house? Who would be surprised to find out the casino is deliberately manipulating them into losing money with social proof, deprival super-reaction, commitment bias, over-confidence bias, and other tricks? Most intelligent folks aren’t shocked or surprised by the concept of a house edge. And yet casinos continue to do healthy business. We participate in the magic trick. In a perverse sense, we allow ourselves to be conned.

In some ways, confidence artists like Demara have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us. Their genius lies in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.

The Beginning of a Con: The “Put-Up” & The “Mark”

Who makes a good mark for a con artist? Essentially, it could be anyone. Context trumps character. Konnikova wisely retracts from trying to pinpoint exactly who is easiest to con: The truth is, in the right time and place, we can all get hit by a good enough con man. In fact, con artists themselves often make great marks. This is probably linked, in part, to over-confidence. (In fact, you might call conning a con man an…Over-confidence game?)

The con artist starts by getting to know us at a deep level. Konnikova argues that con artists combine excellent judgment of character with a honed ability to show the mark exactly what he wants to see. An experienced con artist has been drowned in positive and negative feedback on what works and does not. Through practice evolution, he’s learned what works. That’s why we end up letting him in, even if we’re on guard:

A con artist looks at everyone at that fine level. When it comes to the put-up, accuracy matters—and con men don’t just want to know how someone looks to them. They want to correctly reflect how they want to be seen.

What’s more, confidence artists can use what they’re learning as they go in order to get us to give up even more. We are more trusting of people who seem more familiar and more similar to us, and we open up to them in ways we don’t to strangers. It makes a certain sense: those like us and those we know or recognize are unlikely to want to hurt us. And they’re more likely to understand us.

There are a few things at play here. The con is triggering a bias from liking/loving, which we all have in us. By getting us committed and then drawing us in slowly, they also trigger commitment bias — in fact, Konnikova explains that the term Confidence Game itself comes from a basic trust exercise: Get into a conversation with a mark, commit them to saying that they trust you, then ask them if they’ll let you hold their wallet as a show of that trust. Robert Cialdini — the psychology professor who wrote the wonderfully useful book Influence — would certainly not be surprised to see that this little con worked pretty frequently. (Maria smartly points out the connection between con artists and Cialdini’s work in the book.)

The “Play,” the “Rope,” the “Tale,” and the “Convincer”

Once the con artist decides that we’re a mark, the fun begins.

After the mark is chosen, it is time to set the actual con in motion: the play, the moment when you first hook a victim and begin to gain her trust. And that is accomplished, first and foremost, through emotion. Once our emotions have been captured, once the con artist has cased us closely enough to identify what it is we want, feeling, at least in the moment, takes over from thinking.


What visceral states do is create an intense attentional focus. We tune out everything else and tune in to the in-the-moment emotional cues. It’s similar to the feeling of overwhelming hunger or thirst—or the need to go to the bathroom—when you suddenly find yourself unable to think about anything else. In those moments, you’re less likely to deliberate, more likely to just say yes to something without fully internalizing it, and generally more prone to lapses that are outside the focus of your immediate attention.

As far as the context of a good con, emotion rules the day. People in financial straits, or who find themselves in stressful or unusual situations are the easiest to con. This is probably because these situations trigger what Danny Kahneman would call System 1 thinking: Fast, snap judgments, often very bad ones. Influenced by stress, we’re not slowing down and thinking things through. In fact, many people won’t even admit to be conned after the fact because they feel so ashamed of their lack of judgment in the critical moments. (Cult conversions use some of the same tactics.)

Now begins the “Tale”

A successful story does two things well. It relies on the narrative itself rather than any overt arguments or logical appeals to make the case on its own, and it makes us identify with its characters. We’re not expecting to be persuaded or asked to do something. We’re expecting to experience something inherently pleasant, that is, an interesting tale. And even if we’re not relating to the story as such, the mere process of absorbing it can create a bond between us and the teller—a bond the teller can then exploit.

It’s always harder to argue with a story, be it sad or joyful. I can dismiss your hard logic, but not how you feel. Give me a list of reasons, and I can argue with it. Give me a good story, and I can no longer quite put my finger on what, if anything, should raise my alarm bells. After all, nothing alarming is ever said explicitly, only implied.

This is, of course, the con artist preying on our inherent bias for narrative. It’s how we sense-make, but as Cialdini knows so well, it can be used for nefarious purposes to cause a click, whirr automatic reaction where our brain doesn’t realize it’s being tricked. Continuing the fallacy, the con artist reinforces the narrative we’ve been building in our head:

One of the key elements of the convincer, the next stage of the confidence game, is that it is, well, convincing: the convincer makes it seem like you’re winning and everything is going according to plan. You’re getting money on your investment. Your wrinkles are disappearing and your weight, dropping. That doctor really seems to know what he’s doing. That wine really is exceptional, and that painting, exquisite. You sure know how to find the elusive deal. The horse you bet on, both literal and figurative, is coming in a winner.

 The “Breakdown,” and the “Send”

And now comes the break-down. We start to lose. How far can the grifter push us before we balk? How much of a beating can we take? Things don’t completely fall apart yet—that would lose us entirely, and the game would end prematurely — but cracks begin to show. We lose some money. Something doesn’t go according to plan. One fact seems to be off. A figure is incorrectly labeled. A wine bottle is “faulty.” The crucial question: do we notice, or do we double down? High off the optimism of the convincer, certain that good fortune is ours, we often take the second route. When we should be cutting our losses, we instead recommit—and that is entirely what the breakdown is meant to accomplish.

A host of biases are being triggered at this point, turning our brains into mush. We’re starting to lose a little, but we feel if we hang in long enough, we can probably at least come out even, or ahead. (Deprival super-reaction tendency, so common at the roulette table, and sunk-cost fallacies.) We’ve already put our trust in this nice fellow, so any new problems can probably be rationalized as something we “knew could happen all along,” so no reason to worry. (Commitment & consistency, hindsight bias.) And of course, this is where the con artist really has us. It’s called The Send.

The send is that part of the con where the victim is recommitted, that is, asked to invest increasingly greater time and resources into the con artist’s scheme—and in the touch, the con finally comes to its fruition and the mark is completely, irrevocably fleeced.

The End of the Line

Of course, all things eventually come to an end.

The blow-off is often the final step of the con, the grifter’s smooth disappearance after the game has played out. Sometimes, though, the mark may not be so complacent. If that happens, there’s always one more step that can be taken: the fix, when a grifter puts off the involvement of law enforcement to prevent marks from making their complaints official.

Like the scene in The Sting, the ideal con ends without trouble for the con-man: Ideally, the mark won’t even know it was a con. But if they do, Konnikova makes an interesting point that the blow-off and the fix often end up being unnecessary, for reputational reasons. This self-preservation mechanism is one reason so many frauds never come to light, why there are few prosecutions in relation to the amount of fraud really going on:

The blow-off is the easiest part of the game, and the fix hardly ever employed. The Drake fraud persisted for decades—centuries, in fact—because people were too sheepish about coming forward after all that time. Our friend Fred Demara was, time and time again, not actually prosecuted for his transgressions. People didn’t even want to be associated with him, let alone show who they were publically by suing him. The navy had only one thing to say: go quietly—leave, don’t make a scene, and never come back.

Besides the reputational issue, there are clearly elements of Pavlovian mere association at play. Who wants to be reminded of their own stupidity? Much easier to sweep it away as soon as possible, never to be reminded again.


Confidence Game is an enjoyable read with tales of cons and con artists throughout history – a good reminder of our own fallibility in the face of a good huckster and the power of human misjudgment.

Contagious: 6 Reasons Things Catch On

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger spent the last 10 years looking into what makes things popular. Questions like: Why are some stories, ads, and rumors more infectious than others? Why do some things go viral? The result is his interesting book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Aristotle pondered something similar. Of course he wasn’t worried about viral content but he did wonder what makes speech persuasive and memorable, lacking a retweet button, that was the only way it would pass from person to person. He believed the answer was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos.

Discussing this, Maria Konnikova writes:

Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic—it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.

(Although there is a nuance. Ethos is about appealing to people’s character.)

This is rather broad and Aristotle never had the advantage/curse of big data. Berger did. Together with Katherine Milkman, they analyzed about 7,000 articles that appeared in the Times to determine what made some pieces catch on more than others. They identified two key features: how positive the message was and how much it excited the reader.

Since this initial look, Berger has continued to study and refine why things catch on. He’s come up with a formula of sorts: the six key steps to drive people to talk and share. In an interview, summarizing the book, he described the STEPPS as:

  1. Social currency: It’s all about people talking about things to make themselves look good, rather than bad
  2. Triggers: which is all about the idea of “top of mind, tip of tongue.” We talk about things that are on the top of our heads.
  3. Ease for emotion: When we care, we share. The more we care about a piece of information or the more we’re feeling physiologically aroused, the more likely we pass something on.
  4. Public: When we can see other people doing something, we’re more likely to imitate it.
  5. Practical value: Basically, it’s the idea of news you can use. We share information to help others, to make them better off.
  6. Stories: or how we share things that are often wrapped up in stories or narratives.

The irony is the better people get at headlines to make us click the less effective this formula becomes. “If everyone is perfectly implementing the best headline to pass on, it’s not as effective any more,” Berger says. “What used to be emotionally arousing simply isn’t any longer.”

Contagious: Why Things Catch On will help you understand why things go viral and how people rope you into clicking on sexy headlines.

Maria Konnikova, Interview No. 3

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. The book takes a deep look at Sherlock Holmes’s methodology to develop the habits of mind that will allow us to mindfully engage the world.

As part of my ongoing, yet irregular, series of interviews with authors and experts, I had the chance to speak with Maria about what we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, our memory attic, decision making, and the perils of multitasking.

* * *


You graduated from Harvard. How did you end up there?


I’d grown up in the Boston area and spent a lot of time around Cambridge and Harvard Square. I’d always loved the feel of the Harvard campus and knew from a relatively young age that I’d like to one day progress from onlooker to actual student. I ended up applying for early admission and getting accepted, so didn’t ever need to weigh relative pros and cons. I never regretted the decision, though. Harvard was every bit as wonderful as it had seemed to my ten-year-old mind.


Why did you write Mastermind?


I wanted to convey what I saw as crucial principles about how we think and how we experience the world to a broader audience than would otherwise read psychology books. I thought that the Sherlock Holmes angle would bring an interesting, integrative and novel perspective to the research—and with any luck, reach a wider audience.


Some would argue that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character who never solved a real crime. Why should we try to learn from him?


He was real before he was fictional: Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell inspired the character and most of Holmes’s salient features are taken directly from real life. We should try to learn from his principles of thought so that we can become better diagnosticians, in a sense—people who are more aware of the possibilities and limits of both their own minds and those of others around them.


In your research did you read about any of the other great fictional detectives?


Only superficially. I chose Holmes because the inspiration behind him was a real person, and his principles of thought were taken from a very real way of approaching the world. As far as I know, none of the other great sleuths of his time have the same distinction.


You wrote that one of the key qualities that sets Holmes’ apart is his mindfulness. What does mindfulness mean?


At its simplest, mindfulness means awareness of the present moment.


How can we improve our own mindfulness? What are the habits of thought we need to cultivate? Is it as simple as just turning off twitter?


Turning off Twitter is a start, but far from the whole story. Yes, we need to stop multitasking and letting our attention be pulled in any and every direction. But on the flip-side, we also need to cultivate our ability to pay attention, to be present, to allow ourselves to really experience our surroundings—and our own thoughts. It’s crazy how often we forget to pay attention to what’s going on inside our own heads and bodies.


What should we avoid if we want to improve our mindfulness?


One word: multitasking. In any form.


You mention that Holmes’ offers a process for thinking. Can you elaborate on that?


I mean that his routine and his approach to problems is one that is very clear-cut and that we can strive to emulate. Really, it’s just a version of the scientific method. He always takes the time to think before speaking or acting, to observe and get a feel for the entirety of a person or a question or a situation. Then, he explores it deliberately, with pointed questions and additional observations. He thinks some more—the downtime of not actually doing anything is crucial for him; he always lets things integrate and settle before he moves on. And only then does he act. He also understands the foibles of his own mind better than most of us ever will and strives to constantly take them into consideration so that they don’t cloud his judgment.


How does one ingrain a process into their thinking?


Conscious practice is really the only way. You have to think about doing it and do it, over and over, until it’s second nature.


One thing that characterizes Holmes’ way of thinking is a natural skepticism and inquisitiveness. As you write “nothing is taken at face value.” A lot of Organizations, on the other hand, don’t seem to value these particular traits. How do you think this translates into organizations and group decision-making?


It’s great for compliance and efficiency, if you count efficiency as length of time it takes to get things done. It’s quite poor for innovation and spotting any flaws in existing processes. If you always do things the way they’ve always been done, you may never discover that there’s a much more effective way to do them.


What is a brain attic?


It’s our mind – or rather, the metaphor that Holmes uses to describe our mind and, more specifically, our memory.


Why is the structure and contents of our memory important to our thought process?


In a way, we are our memories. Our background and experiences color how we perceive each moment, how we interpret each input, how we make each decision. If you and I have different memories and perspectives (as we necessarily do), we will never even see (and, later, recall) the same physical event in the same terms—let alone make the same decision in the same situation.


How does what’s already in the attic act as a filter for how we see the world?


This is essentially the same as the last question: it’s our memory, and our memory inherently affects how we view and react to everything.


If I’m just browsing around the Internet mindlessly or, say, sitting in a meeting, are things working their way into my attic?


Yes—but whether or not they stay there, or what form they’ll take, is an entirely different question. If you weren’t really paying attention, you are likely to misremember and conflate things, in the worst case, or fail to remember the particulars, in a better scenario.


How can I become selective about what I let in?


It all goes back to mindfulness. You need to learn to actively pay attention. Your greatest shot at remembering something is at the point of initial encoding, when you first encounter it. Make that memory a strong one.


In the book you talk about the importance of Observation. What does that mean?


Learning to pay attention to everything, with all of our senses. We tend to rely too much on sight, but all of the other senses are equally strong, and sometimes stronger. True observation entails making use of them all.


In the book you mention Marcus Raichle. Can you explain why his work is so important?


Raichle is a pioneer in discovering and explaining how our brain works. He was the first to show us what happens when our minds are not doing much of anything at all—what the brain’s baseline resting state (what he terms the Default Mode Network) is like. That work has inspired a great deal of research in basically every single field of psychology and neuroscience.


You mention that attention is a limited resource. How can it be replenished?


Through rest; through mind breaks and moments of quiet; through food that feeds your brain (as in, you actually have to consume calories); through simple, undervalued sleep.


You mention the work of Yaacov Trope. He argues that psychological distance may be one of the most important factors in terms of improving your thinking and decision making. Can you elaborate on the concept of psychological distance and why it’s important?


It’s actually exactly what it sounds like: you need to step away from yourself and the situation. You can do that by mentally distancing yourself or by physically taking a step back. In a way, distancing forces mindfulness. You have to be aware enough to step back, and stepping back in turn forces you to see the big picture, take in details that you would have missed and perspectives that differ from your own.


What are the best activities to distance ourselves?


Honestly, the physical activity is going to differ for everyone. But for psychological distance, a classic distancing mechanism is the so-called “fly-on-the-wall” paradigm: you simply imagine yourself to be a fly on the wall observing yourself in whatever situation you happen to want distance on. And you see what that hypothetical you is feeling and experiencing, and take it from there. It’s a remarkably effective exercise.


What’s the difference between active and passive knowledge. And how does that play in?


Active knowledge is what we have at our fingertips and can easily apply in any situation. Passive knowledge, we need to think about and may not be able to put to use immediately: we have to work harder to access it and figure out the specifics. You’ll use your active knowledge much more freely and frequently—it’s a kind of self-reinforcing circle. You use it more because you know it better, and it remains more active because you use it more frequently.


We often have a hard time distinguishing between crucial details and incidental ones. Why is that?


Probably, because we haven’t listened to Sherlock Holmes or Yaacov Trope. We forget the importance of distance, space, and time. Instead, we leap right in – and then, all the details blur together. We can’t see the proverbial forest because we never stopped to figure out that we’re in the woods to begin with.


Changing gears a little… How has writing this book changed the way you think?


It has made me more aware of how often I multitask, and how negatively that affects my thinking, my writing, and basically, all of my interactions. I’m trying to be better about noticing when my attention drifts and forcing it back on track. I also pre-schedule my tweets very, very frequently (yes, my dirty little secret) and turn off the internet for long stretches at a time.


If you could recommend five book that everyone should read tomorrow what would they be and why?


I can’t do that. I usually go through multiple books a week, mostly fiction, and have too many that I feel are absolutely essential. But here are a few that stand out: The Collected Poems of W. H. Auden. I read that over and over, and never fail to learn something new about the world and about myself. I am a huge believer in poetry and its power to stimulate your thinking on a deep, mindful level.

Joseph Brodsky’s “Less Than One,” for a remarkable look at a remarkable mind. It also never fails to stimulate my thinking and imagination.

Alice in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll, and “The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh” by A. A. Milne, because those are two books that you absolutely must re-read as an adult. They’ve taught me more about the world—and about psychology—than almost anything else.

And if you must have something non-fiction (or, non-literary essays, as in Brodsky’s case), anything by Steven Pinker, one of my mentors and a constant source of inspiration to me in everything I write.

Still curious? Read Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

When it comes to using our minds, we all want to learn how to think like Sherlock Holmes. This isn’t just a way of solving a crime. It’s a way of thinking.

Baker Street
Photo by Farnam Street

Maria Konnikova’s book, Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, takes a deep look at Sherlock Holmes’s methodology to develop the habits of mind that will allow us to mindfully engage the world.

Holmes has a step up on most people. “For most of his life, he had been honing a method of mindful interaction with the world.” To him, this was a skill that came naturally. “What Sherlock Holmes offers isn’t just a way of solving a crime. It is an entire way of thinking. … It is an approach born out of the scientific method that transcends science and crime both and can serve as a model for thinking, a way of being, even, just as powerful in our time as it was in Conan Doyle’s.”

The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that, ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.

Ellen Langer, in the 1970s demonstrated that mindfulness could even improve “judgment, character, and will.”

In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking — something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.

But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal. Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.

Never mistake mindlessness for mindfulness. “We have to move from passive absorption to active awareness. We have to engage.”

“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”

— W. H. Auden


As children, we are remarkably aware. We absorb and process information at a speed that we’ll never again come close to achieving. New sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new emotions, new experiences: we are learning about our world and its possibilities. Everything is new, everything is exciting, everything engenders curiosity. And because of the inherent newness of our surroundings, we are exquisitely alert; we are absorbed; we take it all in. Who knows when it might come in handy?

But as we grow older, the blasé factor increases exponentially. Been there, done that, don’t need to pay attention to this, and when in the world will I ever need to know or use that. Before we know it, we have shed that innate attentiveness, engagement, and curiosity for a host of passive, mindless habits. And even when we want to engage, we no longer have that childhood luxury. Gone are the days where our main job was to learn, to absorb, to interact; we now have other, more pressing (or so we think) responsibilities to attend to and demands on our minds to address. And as the demands on our attention increase—an all too real concern as the pressures of multitasking grow in the increasingly 24/7 digital age—so, too, does our actual attention decrease. As it does so, we become less and less able to know or notice our own thought habits, and more and more allow our minds to dictate our judgments and decisions, instead of the other way around.

Pitfalls of the Untrained Brain

One of the things that characterizes Holmes’s thinking —and the scientific ideal—is a natural skepticism and inquisitiveness toward the world. Nothing is taken at face value.

It’s awfully easy to get tripped up. In fact, not only do we believe everything we hear, at least initially, but even when we have been told explicitly that a statement is false before we hear it, we are likely to treat it as true. For instance, in something known as the correspondence bias (a concept we’ll revisit in greater detail), we assume that what a person says is what that person actually believes—and we hold on to that assumption even if we’ve been told explicitly that it isn’t so; we’re even likely to judge the speaker in its light.

Daniel Kahneman believes there are two systems for organizing and filtering knowledge: system one and system two. System one is real-time. Think about the way we recognize speech or make an intuitive decision. This system makes judgments and decisions before our mental apparatus can consciously catch up. System two, on the other hand, is a slow process of thinking based on critical examination of evidence. Konnikova refers to these as System Watson and System Holmes.

In essence it comes down to one simple formula: to move from a System Watson- to a System Holmes-governed thinking takes mindfulness plus motivation. (That, and a lot of practice.) Mindfulness, in the sense of constant presence of mind, the attentiveness and hereness that is so essential for real, active observation of the world. Motivation, in the sense of active engagement.

“Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well-developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.”

— W. I. B. Beveridge

And of course, applying these skills is incredibly difficult, when our brains want to default into quick, intuitive, thinking.

It is most difficult to apply Holmes’s logic in those moments that matter the most. And so, all we can do is practice, until our habits are such that even the most severe stressors will bring out the very thought patterns that we’ve worked so hard to master.

Of course, what you allow into your brain is the starting point for how we think. And whether we think intuitively (system one) or more rationally (system two) what’s in our head affects our decisions.

Respect the Memory Attic

As Holmes tells Watson, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

When I first heard the term brain attic, all I could picture in my seven-year-old head was the cover of the black-and-white Shel Silverstein book that sat prominently on my bookshelf, with its half-smiling, lopsided face whose forehead was distended to a wrinkled triangle, complete with roof, chimney, and window with open shutters. Behind the shutters, a tiny face peeking out at the world. Is this what Holmes meant? A small room with sloped sides and a foreign creature with a funny face waiting to pull the cord and turn the light off or on?

As it turns out, I wasn’t far from wrong. For Sherlock Holmes, a person’s brain attic really is an incredibly concrete, physical space. Maybe it has a chimney. Maybe it doesn’t. But whatever it looks like, it is a space in your head, specially fashioned for storing the most disparate of objects. And yes, there is certainly a cord that you can pull to turn the light on or off at will. As Holmes explains to Watson, “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.”

That comparison, as it turns out, is remarkably accurate. Subsequent research on memory formation, retention, and retrieval has proven itself to be highly amenable to the attic analogy.

Attics have two components: structure and contents.

This sounds a lot like Charlie Munger’s view espoused in A Lesson on Worldly Wisdom: storing key ideas on a latticework of mental models.

Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does…

It’s like the old saying, ”To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models.

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

Konnikova carries the systems (Watson and Holmes) into how we remember.

Our default System Watson attic is jumbled and largely mindless. Gregson may have once known about Van Jansen but has lacked the requisite motivation and presence to retain his knowledge. Why should he care about old cases? Holmes, however, makes a conscious, motivated choice to remember cases past; one never knows when they might come in handy. In his attic, knowledge does not get lost. He has made a deliberate decision that these details matter. And that decision has, in turn, affected how and what – and when – he remembers.

Cultivating knowledge

To cultivate our knowledge actively, we need to realize that items are being pushed into our attic space at every opportunity. In our default state, we don’t often pay attention to them unless some aspect draws our attention—but that doesn’t mean they haven’t found their way into our attic all the same. They sneak in if we’re not careful, if we just passively take in information and don’t make a conscious effort to control our attention—especially if they are things that somehow pique our attention naturally: topics of general interest; things we can’t help but notice; things that raise some emotion in us; or things that capture us by some aspect of novelty or note.

It is all too easy to let the world come unfiltered into your attic space, populating it with whatever inputs may come its way or whatever naturally captures your attention by virtue of its interest or immediate relevance to you. When we’re in our default System Watson mode, we don’t “choose” which memories to store. They just kind of store themselves—or they don’t, as the case may be.


Before we include something in our brain attic we must first observe it. Konnikova writes:

Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.

In his book, The Art of Scientific Investigation, W. I. B. Beveridge writes:

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

Paying Attention Is Anything but Elementary

Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another. Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in that same room. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity. Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time. One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other — or others — more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out. Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.

Attentional blindness, paying attention to one thing at the expense of another, is often how pickpocketing works. Yet all is not lost.

The Holmes solution? Habit.

The Holmes solution? Habit, habit, habit. That, and motivation. Become an expert of sorts at those types of decisions or observation that you want to excel at making. … If you learn first how to be selective accurately, in order to accomplish precisely what it is you want to accomplish, you will be able to limit the damage that System Watson can do by preemptively teaching it to not muck it up. The important thing is the proper, selective training — the presence of mind — coupled with the desire the motivation to master your thought process.

No one says it’s easy. When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free attention; it all has to come from somewhere. And every time we place an additional demand on our attentional resources — be it by listening to music while walking, checking our email while working, or following five media streams at once — we limit the awareness that surrounds any one aspect and our ability to deal with it in an engaged, mindful, and productive manner.

Take a Step Back

To think we also need distance.

One of the most important ways to facilitate imaginative thinking is through distance. In ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ a case that comes quite late in the Holmes-Watson partnership, Watson observes:

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage. I remember that during the whole of that memorable day he lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus. For my own part I had none of this power of detachment, and the day, in consequence appeared to be interminable.

Forcing your mind to take a step back is a tough thing to do. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem that you want to solve. But in reality, the characteristic is not so remarkable either for Holmes or for individuals who are deep thinkers. The fact that it is remarkable for Watson (and that he self-admittedly lacks the skill) goes a long way to explaining why he so often fails when Holmes succeeds.

Not only does distance facilitate imaginative thinking but it also helps counter short-term emotions.

A final thought on Mindfulness comes from Sam McNerney. Referencing a recently published paper by Erika Carlson, a PhD candidate at Washington University, he writes:

Carlson proposes that mindfulness, defined as “paying attention to one’s current experience in a nonevaluative way,” may provide an effective means for acquiring self-knowledge. The “mindful” individual, as opposed to his introspective peer, does not analyze or interpret nor does he ask questions that lend themselves to intricate narratives that confirm his intuitions. As Carlson puts it, “[mindfulness] involves noticing thoughts and emotions as they arise without elaboration or rumination. This kind of detached observation … allows people to experience fairly aversive thoughts and emotions as temporary events rather than experiences that require a response or an explanation.”

How can we achieve mindfulness? Carlson mentions two strategies that both stress observation over questioning and introspection. The first is nonevalution observation, which encourages people to consider information even if it threatens the ego. Carlson cites a study that primed participants with morbid thoughts about their death. The researchers noted that the typical response to “mortality salience” is to hunker down, bolster self-esteem, and defend your worldview. However, individuals who scored higher on tests of mindfulness “defended their worldviews less, thought about death longer, and suppressed negative thoughts about death less.” An observant ego, in sum, is a healthy ego.

Second, we should pay attention to all the available information in a given moment (i.e., all thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). If this sounds obvious consider that compared to untrained individuals, people with mindfulness training preform better on conflict monitoring tasks, orientation tasks, standardized tests and working memory tasks.* Like impartial spectators, they consider all of the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes was a great read.

Follow your curiosity to The Art of Observation.

The Power of Concentration

Maria Konnikova, writes in the New York Times on what we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest fictional detective and the ultimate unitasker.

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.


These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention. That’s exactly what Holmes does when he taps together the tips of his fingers, or exhales a fine cloud of smoke. He is centering his attention on a single element. And somehow, despite the seeming pause in activity, he emerges, time and time again, far ahead of his energetic colleagues. In the time it takes old detective Mac to traipse around all those country towns in search of a missing bicyclist in “The Valley of Fear,” Holmes solves the entire crime without leaving the room where the murder occurred. That’s the thing about mindfulness. It seems to slow you down, but it actually gives you the resources you need to speed up your thinking.

The difference between a Holmes and a Watson is, essentially, one of practice. Attention is finite, it’s true — but it is also trainable. Through modifying our practices of thought toward a more Holmes-like concentration, we can build up neural real estate that is better able to deal with the variegated demands of the endlessly multitasking, infinitely connected modern world. And even if we’ve never attempted mindfulness in the past, we might be surprised at how quickly the benefits become noticeable.

I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal’s thought: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”