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Dr. Howard Rankin: “Have real life interactions and discussions with real people”

Have real life interactions and discussions with real people. Start or join a discussion group or a book club. Use your brain to its fullest extent, not just go on autopilot. (This will also help your long-term cognitive health and mental function). Don’t go rubbernecking your way through life, lured here, there and everywhere by […]

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Have real life interactions and discussions with real people. Start or join a discussion group or a book club. Use your brain to its fullest extent, not just go on autopilot. (This will also help your long-term cognitive health and mental function).

Don’t go rubbernecking your way through life, lured here, there and everywhere by the attention economy. Think for yourself, don’t let others think for you.


As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Howard Rankin.

Dr. Howard Rankin has an extensive background in psychology and neuroscience. He has written 12 books in his own name, co-written another 10 and ghostwritten 30 others, all non-fiction. He has also written 35 academic papers. He is a coach, consultant, speaker and best- selling author with a strong interest in cognitive science and communication. His latest book is 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 in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in suburban London. My dad was a very smart man but had no education. He ended up as a bookie and was very successful. This was, of course, before the age of computers and his feats of mental arithmetic in keeping track of his financial risks was amazing. However, it was stressful, and while a good man he had a temper. So, I learnt at an early age to monitor his moods and I developed a role as a diplomatic peacemaker, sacrificing some of my own needs. The role one plays in one’s family as a child determines how you interact with others and even with awareness it takes a long time to change. I was aware of being a bit too nice in my early teenage years, but it took becoming a psychologist and another two decades before I was able to develop better boundaries. So, those family roles — black sheep, odd man out, comedian, etc., — go a long way in shaping us.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

In my junior year I was assuming that I would go to school to be a lawyer or accountant, the two professions that I or my parents, knew anything about. I had a talent as a writer but that didn’t seem to offer many career opportunities. In my junior year at high school year one of my teachers was doing a psychology class in night school. I was interested and he got me an interview with one of his professors. After that I changed my goal to being a psychologist.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I have written two books that are very relevant for today’s social climate.

One is about how we really think and the impact of cognitive bias as well as the systematic manipulation in our society. I Think Therefore I Am Wrong: A Guide to Bias, Political Correctness, Fake News and the Future of Mankind addresses how the mind works, the history of manipulation and what we can do about it. I am turning that into a course that will hopefully help people understand how the mind works and how it can be manipulated.

I have also just released an updated edition of my book on communication Power Talk: The Art of Effective Communication which looks at how we often communicate egotistically and not strategically which tries to meet the listener/audience where they are at. This is key for the development of constructive communication and is sadly lacking today and contributes to divisiveness, as well as ineffectual communication.

I am also working with two leading neurologists, Dean and Ayesha Sherzai as they roll out amazing online resources for brain health. Their program will definitely help improve brain health not just in the U.S., but globally and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

The first professional job I had was at the University of London’s Addiction Research Unit. It was meant to be a temporary job as I waited for a new project to be funded. Professor Griffith Edwards was the leader of the program. He was an extraordinarily smart, understanding man and a giant in the world of addiction. His guidance and support helped give me confidence and opened many doors for me. I was meant to be there for just 6 months but stayed 10 years and got my PhD completing several addiction research studies.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I’m not sure it was a mistake, but this is one I think of frequently. I was seeing a couple in London for couples’ therapy. The complaint from the wife was that her husband hardly ever revealed anything of himself or his thoughts and feelings. This was true. On the fourth session, he started opening up, where upon his wife launched an attack on him. ”How could you think that?” “Where does that come from?”

At which point, the man stood up, and yelled “That is why I never tell you what I’m thinking!” and stomped out the room.

A critical and relevant lesson: If you want to know how somebody is thinking or feeling create the environment that will enable them to do that. Don’t criticize, don’t interrupt, respect them (doesn’t mean you agree), make them feel safe. A lot of people can’t do that, and it is relevant to how we resolve divisiveness.

In similar vein, we often see people, especially in politics responding inappropriately when people soften their position. The metaphor here is the Prodigal Son. Often, when people soften their position and move a step nearer to what others want to hear, those same others will continue to criticize and not give any recognition of the move in the “right direction”. That’s counter-productive.

From my book Power Talk: The Art of Effective Communication

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story.

I have read many great books on psychology, philosophy and related topics. And one book that made a real impact on me was Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Specifically, Covey makes the distinction between the Circle of Concern and the Circle of Influence. He encourages us to stay in the circle of influence and concern ourselves with the things over which we have influence not all the things that we are concerned about. This is fantastic advice in general but also on the issue of divisiveness. Many people are getting worked up, aggravated over things they have zero control over. I think that social media provides a forum where we feel we can have some influence, but that for the most part is grossly exaggerated. In general, it is great advice to stay within your circle of influence. For example, what’s more important to you — the tax rate or your family relationships?

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

In I Think Therefore I Am Wrong I quote British statistician George Box. Talking about scientific models he states, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” The limitations of language, and perception for me mean that, “all ideas are wrong, some are useful.” That would be an extremely good working principle for all of us and has helped me to be constructively critical.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A leader creates and understands the mission, provides the tools and support to get the job done and gives the credit to those who execute the task. A leader creates the right goals and the culture to achieve them.

I co-wrote a book with a friend of mine, Todd Patkin, called Finding Happiness. He was a leader in a family run auto parts business. He was exceptional in engaging, supporting and rewarding his entire team. He would always reward exceptional performance with some amazing “gifts”. At his request, the company actually invested in renting three multi-million properties on Martha’s Vineyard and provided leading producer’s a week’s vacation in paradise. Not only did the bottom line increase by 200k dollars in that first year (more than enough to offset the rental expense) but added more than 1million dollars subsequently. The employees who won vacations were more than thrilled.

“Mike Macgregor, one of our very best superstars, took his entire family on vacation with him when his store won during the contest’s first year. Soon afterward, I received a letter from Mike’s grandmother, who had gone on the trip even though she was terminally ill with cancer. She wrote me a wonderful thank-you note in which she said the trip had been “one of the best weeks of my entire life.” I still treasure that card!”

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?

Please let me give you a relevant example even though it is not directly a result of political partisanship. I had a friend and colleague who had turned rather nasty on me personally and had made some false public statements about me, possibly influencing my career. I hadn’t seen him for a while, until he showed up at my church, as one of his grandchildren was being baptized. He was initially engaged with his family, but I knew I would have an opportunity to engage him once the service was over. So here I am in church wondering whether I can contain my anger and frustration. When the service was over, I went over to him, extended my hand and with a genuine smile on my face wished him and his family well. It felt good.

In I Think Therefore I Am Wrong I make the point that in this situation you don’t want to give someone a “taste of their own medicine” because that would be hypocritical — you’d be repeating behavior that you yourself have decried. When you give a “taste of your medicine” you show that you haven’t been influenced by the other person, and that you still retain your integrity and virtue, and for me nothing is as important as that. We would do well to remember this when we are about to get into arguments of any sort, but especially political ones.

How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?

The first essay I wrote on my undergraduate course in psychology was entitled ‘How can intergroup conflict be reduced?’ The answer is ‘by spending more time with one another.’ Most people work off stereotypes and assumptions, especially about groups they don’t interact with, like people of different race or color. Under these circumstances, cognitive bias takes over and seriously distorts our thinking and views about others. Bias and misconception can only be removed by human interaction.

In work situations, it would be good to schedule “social” events where people can interact outside of work, ideally in a relaxing situation.

Having people work together on a project as a team can also break down misconceptions and help us really get to know each other.

Having people share the memorable events in their lives, stories about growing up, can make people seem much more human and explode stereotypes we may have about them. Knowledge of this sort allows us more easily “to walk in others’ shoes”.

Under no circumstances, should you divide the labor force based on ethnicity, even if you think it is positive. For example, don’t have special rewards for one racial group or another. That’s binary thinking. Everyone should be treated with the same respect, and treated the same.

I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?

Self-identification is very important and a question that everyone needs to address. Who are you? What defines you? What do you value? What are your values? All of us are more than a political opinion, and we need to identify our values so we can act in accordance with them, and show others and ourselves who we really are.

For example, suppose there is an argument between two people about immigration. Person A is very predisposed to helping immigrants, person B isn’t. Person A assumes that the Person B has no empathy and is prejudiced. But person B’s opposition is not actually based on prejudice or lack of compassion. Person B actually does a lot to support homeless vets and is very compassionate but believes that while immigrants should be helped it shouldn’t come at the expense of Americans who are suffering. Only having a respectful, authentic conversation can allow for that kind of understanding and respect.

Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?

  1. First, there needs to be more awareness about the many groups, domestic and foreign who have a vested interest in maintaining and fostering the divide. Cyber security experts tell me that there are at least 30 countries using social media to post propaganda and seed dissension in this country. Every user should presume that they are being manipulated by some group or another first, and work to disprove it, not the other way round. You are being played more than you realize!
  2. Secondly, we need education about how to detect attempts at manipulation and divisiveness. This could include such basic things as checking out the details for lies and falsehoods. Comments on a widely popularized site might give you an idea to whom the post is targeted. Checking dates and facts are also important. These education efforts have started in other countries. Finland, for example, is one of the leaders in this field, providing such education in schools.
  3. Third, there should be some move from within the industry or without, to eliminate anonymity on social media. This doesn’t mean that everyone would have to use their real names, but their real identities are available to hosting companies and that information is not confidential.

What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?

It would be great if there was an independent organization whose sole purpose was to fact-check and logic check all news media, and expose the results. It would be great if they can expose the distinction between the truth and melodramatic attention-seeking. Can you imagine if you could watch a “speech” by a politician in which every word and non-verbal action was analyzed!?

Ideally, it would be great to get away from ”curated” content and seek news from a variety of sources.

It would do well for all of us to remember that most media outlets are not guided by the truth but by profit and eyeballs. We live in the “attention economy.” (see below)

Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?

Have more faith in the people in that failing strategies and policies will likely be reversed

Stay within your circle of influence

Ask how important is this policy really? How much of my time and energy do I want to spend on this? Is it really going to make a difference?

Don’t extrapolate wildly. For example, let’s suppose there is a move to tighten security checks on gun sales. Don’t assume that this is inevitably going to lead to the repeal of the Second Amendment!! Don’t think in extremes. Imagine someone was doing that to you. You like to have a couple of drinks once or twice a week. Someone learns this about you and now publicize the fact that you are a dangerous raging alcoholic. How would that feel? What would you say about their level of intelligence and thinking?

Don’t give yourself a STROKE dreaming up the extremes!

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1.) Understand Default Brain settings:

It is very important to understand 3 keys elements of the thinking process which are utilized in manipulation. These are very useful in preserving energy, but create problems in complex situations,

  • Contrast. The brain works on contrast. When two things are presented the brain automatically looks for contrast. The two things might be almost the same but the brain will look for and exaggerate the differences. This is the basis of bias and magic tricks/illusions. So you and another person might have way more in common than you have difference, but that one difference can divide you. This is especially prevalent in social media where the lack of real personal contact can also minimize or hide the similarities.
  • Binary thinking. It’s energy saving for the brain to divide things into either/or but they are way more complex than that. Binary thinking reduces it most issues to an absurd simplicity inviting divisiveness. In my book I give the example of watching a sporting event, like a soccer or tennis match. It’s an either/or proposition with one team on one side of the field and the other opposite them. But reality is more like having 10 teams compete on the same field, and another 20 you can’t even see.
  • Connection. The brain also seeks to make connections between newly acquired information. So, you learn that the cops have been in your neighborhood and you haven’t seen your neighbor on his usual afternoon walk. He must have been arrested!!! No! The simultaneous presentation of information does not mean they are connected in any way! One year there was an almost perfect correlation of the number of storks observed and the number of births. Clearly, the notion that sex creates children has been debunked!

Understanding these automatic responses and controlling them is a key to not only avoiding manipulation but developing wisdom.

Avoiding these traps will allow you to more effectively understand context and walk in other’s shoes.

It will also enable you to say the three words that most people want to avoid like the plague but should use a lot: I don’t know (see below)

2.) It’s All About Your Attention

Herbert Simon, a psychologist, termed the phrase “The attention economy.” Everyone is trying to get your attention! It’s all about eyeballs, which means it’s all about drama and exaggeration. Just as there are companies putting ingredients in food to make them more addictive, marketers and influencers are doing anything to grab your attention and keep it for as long as possible. If you realize that it’s first and foremost about getting your attention, perhaps you’ll be more aware of the game you’re being pulled into.

Howard Rheingold says, “Attention is a limited resource so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

So, a good question to ask yourself: Why should I give this my attention? Where would it be better utilized?

The problem with the attention economy is that it trains our brains to look for drama, and to play the exaggeration game ourselves, even if we’re not completely aware we’re doing it.

3.) Assumptions, Assumptions, Assumptions

You must assume you’re being manipulated because you are, sometimes by a bot.

It’s best to start with a degree of cynicism. Questions to ask of any information that you’re presented with:

Is this person a qualified expert?

Can they be trusted 100%?

What do they want?

Where can I get more information?

Why are they targeting me?

Also understand that often you are targeted because people already know a lot about you and realize that you will sympathize with their message. Indeed, their message is designed to hook you in.

“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head”. — Sally Kempton

4.) The Value of Ignorance

Wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. It’s more than okay to accept you don’t have enough information, or relevant information, or understanding of context.

Also, online interaction, especially social media is done in a vacuum. In person you are facing a real human being and are likely to be influenced by non-verbal language and their overall presence. For the most part this is gone in social media and you might as well be responding to a bot — which you might be anyway. The removal of these natural components of interaction, allow for greater manipulation and reactions not responses.

So, write down 100 times on a sheet of paper, “I don’t know”.

5.) Spend less time online

The British satirist George Bernard Shaw said, “I make a good living thinking once or twice a week”.

If he was referring to thinking critically, he might be right. Who has got time to do a deep dive into a topic: read relevant books or articles, explore the foundations, principles and history and to examine the data? Actually, you do — if you wouldn’t spend so much damn time on Facebook.

Have real life interactions and discussions with real people. Start or join a discussion group or a book club. Use your brain to its fullest extent, not just go on autopilot. (This will also help your long-term cognitive health and mental function).

Don’t go rubbernecking your way through life, lured here, there and everywhere by the attention economy. Think for yourself, don’t let others think for you.

And also read Matt Tiabbi’s insightful book “Hate Inc: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another

Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?

Recognize that virtue is the basis of wisdom. If you are acting/thinking from values you are going to be more open-minded and able to think critically than if you are guided by other priorities, like money or politics, which will bias your thought process.

Not spend so much time in the “Impersonal bubble” of the internet and have more real interactions.

In my book I have identified 20 core values that ideally drive thinking and behavior. Gratitude, Forgiveness, Humility, Respect, etc., etc.

Being more virtuous to allow you to be more loving of yourself, too.

We also need to recognize that emotions are signs, but we need to respond to the issues, not react to the emotions. One of my favorite quotes is from Aristotle:

“Anybody can become angry-that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way-that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Aristotle also usefully said:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over self.”

Most people have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is a pyramid in which fundamental needs for survival, are at the bottom, and the top of the hierarchy is “self-actualization” — the successful manifestation of yourself and talents. However, just before he died, Maslow added another level above self-actualization but this update is rarely reflected in education on the hierarchy. What Maslow added as the top of the hierarchy is “self-transcendence” — moving beyond self.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Actually, I’m not very optimistic. For the last 100 years we have used what we know about human behavior and even the brain to manipulate people. The BBC documentary “The Century of the Self” details this very well. This needs to be reined in through a number of methods, but must start with awareness and education.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?

Meaning and purpose are critical and should come before material possessions. Financial relief is not the same as happiness. If you find your meaning and follow ityou will have much greater chance of leading a happy and fulfilled life, and leave a legacy of which you should be proud.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Amanda Gorman. I wrote a poetic tribute to her

…and one on her recent Superbowl poem

How can our readers follow you online?

Howard Rankin books on facebook

@HowardRankinbooks

Youtube channel

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVKHNWgKcad6pHx_JhB_wQg

How not to Think podcast

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/how-not-to-think/id1488982079

This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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