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Author Dr. Howard Rankin: “I want people to understand the common biases which can lead us all astray”

I want people to understand how human thinking works. The default settings and how they can completely lead us astray. For example, the brain wants to conserve energy and make thinking as easy as possible, so we often use binary thinking: it’s either this or that. But that is very misleading and problematic in a […]

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I want people to understand how human thinking works. The default settings and how they can completely lead us astray. For example, the brain wants to conserve energy and make thinking as easy as possible, so we often use binary thinking: it’s either this or that. But that is very misleading and problematic in a complex world where the answer isn’t about simply comparing two choices. I want readers to understand the “false association” tendency, when we assume that two events are related — and causally — when they just happen to appear to us around the same time. I want readers to understand the common biases which can lead us all astray. I want them to understand the importance of emotional regulation in intelligent decision-making. And I want them to understand that wisdom comes from virtue. In that sense, altruism is more important than algebra, gratitude more important than geography, and humility more important than history.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Howard Rankin, speaker, consultant, podcast host and author.

Dr. Howard Rankin has extensive expertise and knowledge in the areas of psychology, cognitive neuroscience and neurotechnology. He is also an experienced speaker and best-selling and award-winning author. Dr. Rankin has written 12 books in his own name, co-written another 9, and ghostwritten 30 others, all non-fiction. He has also published more than 30 scientific articles and been a consultant to the NIH and WHO. His work has been featured in many newspapers and magazines and he has appeared on national networks including CNN, ABC, CBS, BBC, and on “The View” and “20/20”. He hosts the podcast How Not To Think and is the author of I Think Therefore I Am Wrong: A Guide to Bias, Political Correctness, Fake News and The Future of Mankind.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I have always been interested in writing. I did a lot in high school but when it was time to choose a career path, psychology seemed more promising than a career in writing. Even during my student years, I wrote a lot. I wrote a pantomime for the local community when I was doing my Bachelors degree, and staged fun Christmas skits (think Monty Python) during my post-grad years. ( I was inspired by one of my colleagues Tony Buffery, who was a friend of John Cleese and appeared in numerous Cambridge Footlights productions.) However, after a long career in psychology, I started easing my way towards a writing career, using my experience and knowledge of psychology and neuroscience as a base.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

There have been many great moments in my writing career. As I transitioned into writing, I hoped it would be as meaningful as my psychology career. Helping others is my purpose. One of my first ghostwriting clients, was an amazing international banking expert Drew Tanzman, who wanted my help in writing his memoir. Notlong after we started, he told me that he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) but he seemed to be doing well. A couple of months into the project, we had our usual skype session, but he was skyping from a hospital bed. He told me he was Ok, but he wasn’t. He went rapidly downhill and his wife told me we needed to finish the book asap. Drew could now hardly speak. We worked very hard and got the book finished. We had a skype call where he thanked me for my efforts and for being part of “his team.” Drew died the next day. I felt so blessed that I had met this incredible man and helped him create his amazing legacy. The book is called Tales from the Board Room.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Despite my lifelong interest in writing I didn’t really start writing books until I was half-way through my psychology career. My mindset at that point was that there’s really nothing new to say about human nature. It took me a while to appreciate the fact that while that is probably true, the good writer can retell the same truths in a different way and distinctive style. And he or she can introduce those truths and ideas to people who haven’t heard them before or heard them expressed that way before. So, it is important for authors to realize that while they may not be writing anything new, they are telling it in a new way. That’s where the art and creativity come in.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In addition to my books, I have written more than thirty scientific articles and papers and one of the early ones has a funny story. When I was in post-graduate work at the Institute of Psychiatry at the U of London, one of my mentors, Dr. Jack Rachman, was a leader in the field of behavioral psychology and also the editor of one of the prominent journals. He also had a great sense of humor. One day while driving to work I had the notion of writing a scientific paper about his work as a limerick. I duly created it and sent it to Dr Rachman as a joke — and he published it in the journal of Behavior Research and Therapy! After the journal appeared, I started to get limericks from all over the world. (BTW you can find that limerick here: https://psychologywriter.com/the-limerick-paper/)

Lesson learned: if you send a manuscript as a joke, make sure your intentions are clear!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I only take on projects that I am passionate about and feel that I can contribute to as a collaborator, not just as an author or editor. As I say, If you just want someone to tell you where to put a comma, I’m not your guy. Right now, I’m working with a military physical therapist, Jeff Frankart, who took a new approach to treating pain, mostly back pain, and created the most amazing program for relieving neuromuscular injuries. He had to deal with soldiers with the most horrific injuries who simply didn’t want to be discharged. Instead of the usual “take it easy, be careful, rest up, take these meds’ approach, Major Frankart did completely the opposite. He pushed them as hard as he could and amazingly, many of them recovered from what appeared to be crippling injuries. He had guys with damaged spines not just back running but jumping out of airplanes into combat! The book will be out later in 2020. It’s a tremendous message of the importance of resilience and independence in not only dealing with back pain but also life. I’m also ghostwriting a book on neurofeedback and another one on How to Marry Your Second Wife/Husband First. I am also helping a Hollywood actress write a book about charisma and another woman trace her evolution from a dominated and abused child to a self-loving and confident woman.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I have a neighbor who was having some medical difficulties. She went to the local doctor who ran tests and said the results looked fine. However, she wasn’t going to take a probability as a definite answer, even though he said he was 95% sure she didn’t have a medical problem. She pressed it further and he organized a much more extensive test at a major hospital. When she came around from the procedure the surgeon told her, “You’re one lucky woman. We have just detected the very beginnings of pancreatic cancer.” After treatment, she has been in remission for seven years. The reality is that we think of facts as truths, whereas for the most part they are probabilities. Note that her original doctor wasn’t wrong — there was a 95% chance she was fine. My favorite quote from the book is from George Box, a statistician who speaking about scientific (or any) theories said: “All models are wrong, some are useful.” The same applies to our thoughts.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I want people to understand how human thinking works. The default settings and how they can completely lead us astray. For example, the brain wants to conserve energy and make thinking as easy as possible, so we often use binary thinking: it’s either this or that. But that is very misleading and problematic in a complex world where the answer isn’t about simply comparing two choices. I want readers to understand the “false association” tendency, when we assume that two events are related — and causally — when they just happen to appear to us around the same time. I want readers to understand the common biases which can lead us all astray. I want them to understand the importance of emotional regulation in intelligent decision-making. And I want them to understand that wisdom comes from virtue. In that sense, altruism is more important than algebra, gratitude more important than geography, and humility more important than history.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Research your content thoroughly

The general public tend to think of writers as just writers. I see ads for ghostwriters that don’t seem to understand the critical importance of content knowledge. Just hiring someone who knows how to construct a sentence is only a part of the story. They must have content knowledge and have thought a lot about the topic. And that includes your own story, especially your own story. You need to see the content from many sides, and in depth, to be creative.

2. Understand your audience

This is critical not just for style and tone but also content. Many writers think they have a book for “everybody” which is certainly a death knell if trying to get a publisher interested. This is also key in memoirs. Unless you are a celeb, frankly few people are going to be interested in YOU per se. Your story must speak to them. Readers will read a book that pertains to them, not just you. Which means you must have a compelling and creative spin on universal themes.

3. Know why you are writing the book.

My first question to potential ghostwriting clients is “why are you writing this book?” There’s no wrong answer but their purpose will determine the content, tone and expectations. You can write a book just because you want to get something off your chest, as a legacy, to educate, to inspire, etc. Writing of personal stories can be draining as you revisit often painful details of your life. That’s when my psychology and coaching background really come into play.

4. Think of purpose and marketing as you write.

Many people only start to think about marketing once the book is written. Wrong! For example, if you wanted a book to launch a speaking career, it probably would be a good idea to have stories about (your) speaking experiences in the book. You are really making a personal relationship with each reader and that needs to be the evident from the first word. This is especially true today where authors have many platforms where they can interact with their readers.

5. Create the right balance of “show” and ”tell”.

This is especially true of non-fiction books, where there is a tendency to just tell the story rather than show it. Showing aspects of the story through recreation of interactions and events gives the content emotion, life and energy. Without that, there’s a danger that it’s all rather boring and ho-hum. I have developed a reputation for taking scientific ideas and turning them into engaging content that anyone can enjoy, understand and use.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Patience. What seems like creative genius today, might be incomprehensible nonsense tomorrow. Go with your ideas and don’t let doubt stop you. But then continually revisit, review and revise. I once saw a quote by a leading media exec that said, “if you don’t have some doubt, you’re not being creative enough.” Writing is an organic, evolving process. See it as a journey that unfolds. Many film concepts and scripts, for example, are revised dozens of times and aren’t considered fully explored until they have had many iterations. I have been working on my own book about redemption for the last four years. It requires a complex balance of ideas and stories and I am not satisfied with it yet. But I’m getting there.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

If I were to choose just one segment, it would be the scientific literature. Now that may sound boring and bland, but science helps inform and remind us of the beauty and complexity of nature, including human nature. I enjoy reading about the brilliance and genius of animals and moving beyond the typical human arrogance about our “superiority”. One of my favorite writers is primatologist Frans De Waal whom I mention in my book. Truth is often more surprising than fiction.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Undoubtedly it would be that people would have the opportunity to learn about the thinking process. We need to be able to think critically. In today’s world where there are different groups, and even foreign enemies, trying to manipulate and divide us, it is imperative that we learn how the mind works and also how to identify divisive and manipulative media, especially social media. I make reference to this in my book and write about what other countries, like Finland, are doing to educate their children and adults about such damaging and divisive manipulation.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I have a Facebook page; https://www.facebook.com/HowardRankinBooks/

A website where I post blogs: https://ithinkthereforeiamwrong.com/

I’m also on LinkedIn and Instagram

Email: [email protected]

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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