MiB: Richard Nisbett on Cognition



This week, we speak with Richard Nisbett professor of social psychology and Co-director of the culture and cognition program at the University of Michigan, focusing on culture and reasoning and basic cognitive processes. Malcolm Gladwell called him “The most influential thinker in my life.” He is the author of numerous research and books, most recently, “Thinking: A memoir.”

He explains how people reason and make inferences about the world. His early work was concerned with inductive inference, causal reasoning, and covariation detection. Nisbett’s research about the power of suggestion eventually led to the FDA requiring the listings of drug side effects; his research found an “argument dilution effect.” The more relevant and irrelevant data points, the less significant any one of them becomes. Hence, a long list of potential side effects has a much smaller impact on the observer than does a single relevant one.

Nisbett’s work has shown that the contribution of living in middle-class to upper middle-class households is as much 80% of intelligence, and allows people to rise to the level of their ability; in the lowest economic strata, contributions of genetics to IQ is 0%. This was true only in the United States, whereas European countries did not see the same disadvantages to growing up poor. He also found that attending college raises IQ scores, often substantially, and can teach people to think more clearly and understand their own reasoning better.

We discuss how different societal cultures in the East and West have led to entirely different thinking processes, especially in terms of relationships and context. His research in the area eventually became a book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.

Nisbett is credited with creating the Amos Tversky IQ test: “The faster you realized Tversky was smarter than you, the smarter you were.”

A list of his favorite books is here; A transcript of our conversation is available here Monday.

You can stream and download our full conversation, including the podcast extras on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google, Bloomberg, and Acast. All of our earlier podcasts on your favorite pod hosts can be found here.

Be sure to check out our Masters in Business interview this weekend with Ray Dalio, founder, co-chairman and co-chief investment officer of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. Dalio’s latest book,  Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail.




Richard Nisbett’s authored books


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