Psychology Archive


Success: The Impossibles

The Impossibles ARTAlli Rainey was clinging to a sheer rock overhang 120 feet above the ground when she felt her fingers go numb. She’d spent the last 40 minutes painstakingly working herself up a route called Madness in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Now at the most difficult part of the climb, she realized the muscles in her hands were about to give out. She looked down at the emptiness below her and screamed in terror as her grip slipped and she tumbled from the rock face. Fifty feet down, her belay rope pulled taut and she bobbed in the air, dangling in her safety harness. The crazy thing was that Rainey has an incapacitating fear of heights, yet she’s chosen rock climbing as a full-time career. Then again, doing things she believed to be impossible has been a constant theme of Rainey’s life. And she’s not alone. There are people who’ve figured out how to do things that they believe, that they know, are totally beyond their capabilities—and then do them anyway. I call these people The Impossibles. Are you one, too? If you say no, don’t be so sure—someday you could be.

Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Success magazine, available online here.

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Success: Better Than Smart

Alan Meckler’s drive to succeed has never flagged. In grade school, he taught himself to read by poring over his father’s newspapers. In high school, he earned spots on multiple varsity teams, and at Columbia University he made the dean’s list. He went on to earn a doctorate in history before launching a prosperous career as an entrepreneur. Today, at 68, he’s the chairman and CEO of the Internet content consortium Mediabistro.

Not such an unusual trajectory for a successful executive, perhaps. But there’s a twist to Meckler’s story. Throughout his life, Meckler labored under a secret shame. He struggled to understand things that his peers grasped easily. His grade-school teachers wanted to hold him back. His father bluntly belittled him as “stupid.” Even after he’d been accepted into an Ivy League university, Meckler says, “I was very worried that I would be found out, that I really was stupid.”

His College Board scores were so low, in fact, that after he’d made the dean’s list, school psychologists asked to test him so they could figure out how he’d done it. But they were stumped. “They had me do puzzles,” he says, “and they said that I couldn’t solve problems that most 7- or 8-year-olds could.” College Board officials wanted to study him, too. “They seemed to think,” says Meckler, “that I was some kind of freak.”

The story appears in the September, 21013 issue of Success magazine. Read the rest here.

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Signs of the Times


Why is it so hard to catch even glaring errors? That’s one of the questions addressed in “Your Bleeped Up Brain.” Viewer John Chismar sent me this picture of a shop near his home. He writes, “Your program reminded me of a photo I took a few years ago of a printing shop around the corner from my house. I took the photo a few days after they beefed up the store’s appearance. To be honest, I never noticed anything was wrong until a visiting friend pointed out the error.” Thanks, John!

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Your Bleeped Up Brain

Don’t trust your brain–at least, not before you watch our new four-part miniseries on why your cognitive machinery is predisposed to be fooled. The show airs Saturdays at 10pm on H2. You can watch the whole first episode here.

Here’s the teaser for episode 2:


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New York: Too Many Geniuses

G+TThis article ran in the July 8-15, 2013 issue of New York.

Long before summer’s first heat wave, temperatures were running hot among the parents of New York’s 4-year-olds. A series of gaffes by the test-publishing company Pearson undermined the ­credibility of the city’s gifted-and-talented testing program and forced families to hang fire over their kindergartners’ academic fate. Then, just as that problem seemed close to resolution, an NYU mathematics professor named Alexey Kuptsov, along with three other parents, sued the Department of Education, claiming the admissions process was flawed, causing more delays and rousing the ire of New York parenting blogs.

Like any system that creates an elite benefit and doles it out to a lucky few, New York’s G&T program has long been a lightning rod for anxiety and resentment. Alongside some 70,000 places in standard-track general-education kindergarten classrooms, the DOE offers about 2,700 seats in G&T programs, which originated to serve the small percentage of kids so brilliant that they’re at a disadvantage in a normal classroom. Within each school district, certain schools maintain gifted classrooms open to the children living there. In addition, a handful of elite public schools are open to top-scoring students from anywhere in the city. To qualify for either type, kids take an aptitude test and receive a raw score and a percentile ranking. A child must rank in the 90th percentile or above to be eligible for a district program, 97th or above for citywide.

At first glance, the system looks highly selective, but the numbers are misleading. A child who’s ranked in the 99th percentile hasn’t outperformed 99 percent of actual fellow test takers but a mathematically generated hypothetical national population. Twenty percent are in the “97th percentile”; 40 percent are in the “90th.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Psychology Today: Dancing With a Madman

Psychology Today McAfee illoThis story appears in the June, 2013 issue of Psychology Today. Read it online here.

June 2007, near Rodeo, New Mexico: Enchantment on the Mesa

An evening breeze carries the smell of the surrounding desert across the patio of John McAfee’s ranch. Now that the sun has ducked behind the mountains, the scorching heat has mellowed to an embracing warmth. McAfee, the 61-year-old former software pioneer and multimillionaire entrepreneur, is contemplating new ventures with a gregarious band of misfits gathered around his table. They include a half-dozen ultralight pilots and McAfee’s 27-year-old girlfriend, Jen Irwin.

I’m here to write a story about the freewheeling new sport McAfee has invented. Called aerotrekking, it involves flying tiny aircraft at dangerously low altitudes above the desert floor—low enough, he jokes, to catch the occasional cactus spine in the undercarriage. Maybe he’s not joking. McAfee’s avowed mission is not to take himself too seriously. The conversation around the table is a never-ending stream of wisecracks, and no one gets more laughs than McAfee.

At the moment he’s ribbing me about my plans to get married. “Why would you give up the most important thing in your life—your freedom?” he asks. I protest that some of my best friends are happily married. “If there was a pond filled with alligators, and you saw someone swim across it and get out safely on the other side,” he asks, “would that make you want to swim across, too?”

I laugh along with everyone else. Is he pulling my leg, I wonder, or is his épater-les-bourgeois stance for real? There’s no way to know, and I still don’t know today, six years later, after McAfee became a suspect in his neighbor’s murder in late 2012, then triggered an international manhunt when he went into hiding. There’s no way I could have guessed, chuckling in the New Mexico dusk, that I’m embarking upon the strangest journalistic relationship of my life, one that will lead me to view McAfee as something like a friend and ultimately as a nemesis. Read the rest of this entry »

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What is Music For?

concert crowdWhy do we take pleasure of bathing our ears in certain frequencies of sound, modulated at various tempos? What, exactly, is this thing called music?

Given how ubiquitous music is in our daily lives, you might be surprised to learn that scientists have come up with no really solid explanations of what it’s all about. Archaeologists tell us our species has been enjoying it for a long time—the oldest known musical instrument, a flute, was made out of an extinct bear’s thigh bone some 50,000 years ago—so it’s clearly a deep-seated part of our psyche. But no one knows why we love it.

And this is strange, because most of the things we enjoy are obviously useful from the perspective of natural selection. We like looking at attractive members of the opposite sex because they are crucial to reproduction. We enjoy playing sports because they involve skills (throwing, hitting, moving in coordination with a group) that were crucial in Neolithic hunting and warfare. We enjoy novels and movies because they allow us to learn about the interpersonal dynamics that are crucial to our survival as social mammals.

Music, in contrast, doesn’t seem to help us do anything. Read the rest of this entry »

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How Real Life Change Happens

businessman lost in field using a mapIf the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then most of us qualify as nuts. We want to change our lives for the better; we believe that we are capable of change; and yet we find ourselves perennially stuck in the same old rut. One study found that 90 percent of coronary bypass patients go back to their old, unhealthy eating habits within two years of their operation. Another found that a substantial majority of dieters regain all their weight within a year—or wind up even heavier than when they started.

We fail to change time after time because we profoundly overestimate our stores of willpower. Psychologists call this failing “restraint bias.” We confidently make resolutions to change and assume we’ll be able to bulldoze our urges because we’re bad at remembering how tempting temptation can be. When we’re full, we forget how irresistible that bacon triple cheeseburger is when we’re hungry. So we allow ourselves to walk into situations in which our willpower is going to be overwhelmed.

That’s not to say that all resolutions are necessarily doomed. People do transform their lives, every day. But for the most part they don’t do it by relying on willpower. The key, it turns out, is to simply start behaving like the person you want to become. Instead of wondering, What should I do?, imagine your future, better self and ask: What would they do? Read the rest of this entry »

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Deadly Mind Tricks

MIND TRICK: “One by one, each climbed down to rescue the others, and each one died in turn.”

Domino Effect: The problem began with a minor malfunction. Scott Showalter, a 34-year-old Virginia dairy farmer, was trying to transfer manure from one holding pit to another when the pipe between them became clogged. As he’d done before, he climbed down to free the obstruction. But what he neither saw nor sensed was the invisible layer of hydrogen sulfide gas that filled the bottom of the pit. He keeled over within seconds. When an employee, Amous Stolzfus, climbed down to Showalter’s aid, he too succumbed, but not before his shouts drew the attention of Showalter’s wife and two of their daughters, ages 9 and 11. One by one, each climbed down to rescue the others, and each one died in turn.

Readers’s Digest reprinted a condensed version of my Psychology Today article on the lure of fatal mistakes. You can read the whole thing here.


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The Grandeur of Delusion

A patient lies in a hospital bed in the neurological ward, his head wrapped in bandages. He’s just suffered a major trauma to the brain. The injury has wiped out the region that controls motion in his left arm. More than that, it’s destroyed the man’s ability to even conceive of what moving his arm would be like.

He’s paralyzed, in other words, but he doesn’t know that. He can’t know.

“Would you be so kind as to raise your left hand?” his doctor asks.

“Certainly,” the patient. But the hand remains where it is. “It’s gotten tangled up in the sheets,” the man explains.

The doctor points out that his arm is lying free and unencumbered on top of the sheets.

“Well, yes,” the man says. “But I just don’t feel like lifting it right now.”

The inability to recognize one’s own disability is a disorder called anosognosia, and it offers an unusually clear window into that peculiarly infuriating and astonishing aspect of human psychology: our seemingly boundless capacity for delusion. Faced with stark and unambiguous information that a part of their body is paralyzed, anosognosia patients can effortlessly produce a stream of arguments as to why this is simply not the case. They’re not lying; they themselves actually believe in the validity of their claims.

The disorder sounds bizarre, but we all do something similar on a daily basis. Though we’d like to think that we mold our beliefs to fit with the reality that surrounds, but there’s a natural human impulse to do the reverse: to mold our reality so that it fits with our beliefs, no matter how flimsy their justification may be. Read the rest of this entry »

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