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Richard Nisbett on Thinking & Reason

Thinking: A Memoir (book cover)

In this wide-ranging conversation Shermer and Nisbett discuss Nisbett’s research showing how people reason, how people should reason, why errors in reasoning occur, how much you can improve reasoning, what kinds of problems are best solved by the conscious mind and what kinds by the unconscious mind, and how we should think about intelligence, along with the controversies over group differences and genetic influences on I.Q. scores and why Charles Murray (The Bell Curve) is wrong in inferring genetic causes for group differences in I.Q.. Nisbett also shows that self-knowledge can be dramatically off-kilter and points to ways to improve it, and demonstrates how different cultures have radically different ways of reasoning and feeling, and how this led to his most famous research showing the difference between Northerners and Southerners in rates of violence, the culture of honor, and a hair-trigger for slights and insults. The two also discuss the #metoo, BLM, antiracism, and woke movements today in context of his psychological research.

Shermer and Nisbett discuss:

  • how Nisbett compares cultural upheavals of the past to today’s world of fake news, alternative facts, conspiracy theories like QAnon and the rigged election, postmodernism, and the belief in the cultural relativity of truth
  • In looking back on his legendary career as a research psychologist, how does he control for the hindsight bias, the self-serving bias, and the self-justification bias?
  • Religion and race in his background
  • Jewish influence on social psychology
  • Milgram and Zimbardo
  • Role of emotions, feelings, and thinking
  • His most famous cited study: “Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes” (with T.D. Wilson, 1977, Psychological Review): introspective reports can provide only an account of “what people think about how they think,” but not “how they really think.”
  • higher homicide rates in the south; people seemed to be more impolite in the Northeast than in Texas and other southern states, why southerners are extremely sensitive to insults — the culture of honor and how it was developed, and how migration patterns from Europe (farmers vs. herders) influenced this culture,
  • I.Q., intelligence, environment, and genes,
  • base rate neglect and why people frequently overweight a small amount of evidence relative to its true value,
  • How rational are people?
  • the replication crisis in social science and why Nisbett thinks there is no crisis (most of those studies have been replicated),
  • Are we all Nazis?
  • thoughts on the movements: #BLM, #metoo, antiracism, and social justice.

Richard Nisbett is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Michigan. He also taught psychology at Columbia University and Yale University. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science and the National Academy of Science, and he was a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow. He received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association and the Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Mentorship from the Association for Psychological Science. Most of his work has focused on social psychology and cognitive psychology. His book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. To learn more, go to

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on November 16, 2021.

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