Luca Dellanna on Compulsion, Self-deception, and the Brain
Feb 21 2022

zzz.jpg Why do people eat too much even when they don't want to? Why are there so many bad managers? And why might anti-vaxxers be useful? Luca Dellanna, author of The Control Heuristic, thinks the answers to all of these questions are in our heads, or rather in our basal ganglia. Dellanna talks to EconTalk's Russ Roberts about why both brains and employees need immediate feedback, why we're wired to believe our best guesses, and why addiction is just our brain's way of making sure we survive.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Dr. Duru
Feb 21 2022 at 11:48pm

“…our gatekeeper computes the expected emotional outcome and then selects the action that has the highest expected emotional outcome. And, that’s the one action that will be sent to our muscle.”

This quote anchored the valuable insights I got from this podcast! It helped me understand a lot of mental processes better.

I like the notion that our analytical brain can offer proposals that get rejected because they do not deliver net positive benefit based on experience. I also see how acting to maximize short-term gratification can actually be optimal.

For example, I recently started using an app to track the data on what I eat. Not only did it reveal to me multiple delusions I had on my caloric intake, but also the act of tracking gives me the short-term cue that verifies the progress my emotional brain needs to see to stick with the plan.

Thanks for this podcast! This book is also on my reading list now.

Shalom Freedman
Feb 22 2022 at 5:45am


This conversation in one sense falls into the category of ‘how humans deceive themselves to defend themselves’ literature. One thinks here above all of Freud’s defense mechanisms and Kahenman’s and Twersky’s more recent exploration of the way built-in-defense mechanisms lead or mislead us in our behavior. Here the focus is on us inside ourselves with our emotional brain one department of the general store and our analytic brain the other.

One perhaps minor point struck me the claim that we are structured or our brains are structured better for survival in the distant past than for the modern world. Our love of sugar supposedly gave us greater energy for the struggle of survival then while today it just adds to the cardiovascular disease toll and the painful toothache problems. And this despite the fact that humanity today has average life-spans three or four times greater than the Paleolithic crowd.

The discussion towards the end of the podcast in which a strong defense is made of the need for diversity of opinion, and openness to the views of others as central element in human progress is as Russ Roberts points out of central significance in the American and more specifically American university world today.



Feb 28 2022 at 8:32am

“One perhaps minor point struck me the claim that we are structured or our brains are structured better for survival in the distant past than for the modern world. Our love of sugar supposedly gave us greater energy for the struggle of survival then while today it just adds to the cardiovascular disease toll and the painful toothache problems. And this despite the fact that humanity today has average life-spans three or four times greater than the Paleolithic crowd.”

I was a bit frustrated by this bit, actually. It’s a common misconception of evolution that somewhat flips cause and effect in order to tell a story of progress, plan, and intent. In fact, the only reason we developed a love for sugar was that those who had a love for sugar reproduced at a greater rate than those that didn’t, somewhere along the way.

Evolution isn’t a plan or strategy, it’s a matter of not dying. We aren’t perfectly adapted to an environment or situation, we are adapted enough to not die- and this adaptation only reveals itself later on when we look back at all those who didn’t survive. In fact, the desire for sugar could have absolutely nothing to do with our ancestors’ ability to survive. As long as it didn’t disadvantage them and kill them before they could reproduce, it can be a happenstance of history. We want to provide it meaning and purpose, but it just as likely has none.

Luke J
Feb 25 2022 at 2:01pm

Some senses provide [seemingly] contradictory information and this helps the brain/company/society make better decisions and adapt to change.



But does this hold true with dis-information? Does it take more energy to account/discount for non-factual inputs vs. simply incomplete?

Burke Files
Feb 27 2022 at 4:18pm

As a financial fraud investigator I continue to wonder what goes on in the choice making process of the victims of frauds. Frauds that I can see from 5,000 miles way are funded by smart people with money.   This added a great deal to the language of how an investor, a smart person, makes a very poor choice and continues to defend their choice long after they have been taken.  The avoidance of the effort of research, the reward of investing in an exclusive opportunity, and avoidance of the pain of acknowledging that one was conned.  It all make so much sense.  Excellent work Luca.

Russ, you have added yet another book to my reading list.

Ezra Brand
Mar 2 2022 at 6:22am

Great discussion, and really interesting idea. I first came across the ideas of self-deception and confabulation in Robin Hanson et. al.’s book Elephant in the Brain. That book was hugely influential on my way of thinking, and very happy to see that these ideas are being further supported and popularized.

Mar 15 2022 at 5:06pm

Two things:

I drink every night because I like the flavor, and I drink cheap because I am very frugal.
What was that Hebrew idiom Russ worked into the conversation?

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: January 30, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Today is January 30th, 2022, and my guest is author and consultant Luca Dellanna. Our topic for today is his fascinating book, The Control Heuristic: The Nature of Human Behavior. Luca, welcome to EconTalk.

Luca Dellanna: Thank you, Russ, for inviting me.


Russ Roberts: I want to start with the conception of the brain that you put forward, the idea of the distributed brain and how you liken the brain to a corporation or a company making a decision. And, I found this to be a very powerful way to think about impulsive behavior and how to change that behavior. So, explain what you have in mind about the distributed brain.

Luca Dellanna: Yeah. So, I think that our brain doesn't work as one, and I'm not talking about left hemisphere or right hemisphere, but I'm saying about the fact that the cortex and the other parts of our brain are made of different regions. And, each region communicate with the other regions, but doesn't have a full overview. And so, I liken it to employees in a company.

Each employee in a company has access to limited information and takes decisions based on what he thinks is best for the company, but only according to limited information. And, that sometimes usually produces good results, but sometimes it reduces counterintuitive results. And, usually when it produces counterintuitive results, it's because the employee didn't have the full overview. Because of course, here, we are assuming that everyone in the brain--every part of our brain--has our best interest at heart.

And then, the second concept that I talk about is that regions see the output of other regions, but they cannot know why the region produces that output.

So, for example, if I feel scared, the analytical part of my brain can see that the output of the emotional part of my brain is being scared, but it doesn't know why my brain said that we are scared. And then, it confabulates.

And, confabulating means that it comes up with the most plausible explanation, which might or might not be the right one.

And, this is basically the basis for my understanding of human behavior.

Russ Roberts: And, we're going to take it to the next step in a minute, but I want to go for a second and talk about the confabulation, the ex post narratives we tell ourselves. And, once you're aware of this, after reading your book or thinking about it elsewhere or seeing it in yourself, you realize that both, you'll tell stories to yourself that aren't really true in the sense of the real reason you did something; and you see it in other people.

You challenge someone for why they did something because you don't like it, say. And, they tell you something. And, when it's the other person you realize right away, 'Well, that's not the real reason. That's just something they tell themselves to feel better about it. Obviously, the real reason is--,' and you fill in the blank with your imperfect knowledge as the outside observer.

But, when it's yourself, which is really challenging, you actually believe most of the time that what you're telling yourself--and what you tell others--is the real reason. And, often it's not. And, that's just a great insight into how we interact with each other and how we understand ourselves.

Luca Dellanna: Exactly. I love that you make this parallel, that when we observe other people, we should look at their actions to know what really was going on in their mind. We shouldn't trust necessarily their word. And, the same applies also to us, and that's the difficult part. I used to say, 'Everything is a confabulation,' meaning that in our brain, everything is a guess.

And, this applies to all parts of our actions and of our perceptions. Even optical illusions, for example, they're a guess about what you're seeing.

And, just to make it simple, I usually simplify this a lot and I say that there is the analytical brain and the emotional brain. And, the analytical brain always tries to guess why the emotional brain is making us feel in some way, or why has the emotional brain made us act in some way.


Russ Roberts: I think you give the example of patients with epilepsy who have had a piece of their brain connecting the left and right brain connected [?disconnected?--Econlib Ed.]. Tell that story about the person who laughs in that experiment.

Luca Dellanna: Yes. In the 1970s, there have been a few experiments made on some people who had the connection between the left and the right hemisphere of their brain severed. And, those people, they can function normally. You will probably not notice that they have this condition. However, there is one situation in which they act differently, which is if you give information only to one side of the head.

So, for example, researchers, they go to the right ear of a patient with this condition and they whisper in his right ear, 'Can you please close the window?' And the patient stands up and closes the window. And then the researcher goes to the left ear of the patient and whispers, 'Why did you close the window?' And the other hemisphere does not know that he was being asked by the researcher to close the window.

And so, he will confabulate the most plausible explanation, which is, 'I was feeling called.' And, the interesting thing is that the other hemisphere does not think, like, 'Oh my God, I don't remember. I should come up with an explanation not to look like an idiot.' No, no. The guess that is the most plausible, he believes it's the right explanation. He doesn't even know that he didn't know.

Russ Roberts: And, that's--

Luca Dellanna: And, that applies everywhere.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's the most important part of this, in a way, for one's own behavior, because until you're confronted with this possible disconnect--pardon the pun, not in good taste--until you're confronted with this, you of course believe that the things you say to your spouse or to your friends at work, or to your boss, are what are true, as opposed to what makes you feel better or is the most plausible, or is the most socially acceptable, right?

When you have a task you're supposed to complete and you don't complete it and someone in your family or at works says, why didn't you do it? The real answer might be, 'Well, I was afraid I wouldn't do a good job.' But, you can't say that. Your brain doesn't want to say that. So, it says something like, 'Oh, I had too many--I had all these other to-dos. I should have gotten to it earlier. I'm really sorry.'

But, the real answer is, 'I was afraid.' And, you can't say that. So, your brain knows that, doesn't say it. Instead it blurts out something that is not true, but feels good, sounds good. And often convinces the other people; and they go leave you alone. So, you then get into the habit of using this excuse and you're not aware of it.

Luca Dellanna: Exactly. And, I just want to precise[?hypothesize?] one thing: is not an excuse, meaning 'I'm doing it with the intent of the saving,' or with the intent of putting myself in the better light. It's really just my honest, genuine best guess about why I did it.

And then, of course, we tend to have a limited perception. So, we think that we are often better people than, or more hardworking people than we are. And then based on this biased perception, we take genuine guesses that we're doing it because we are hardworking or so on.


Russ Roberts: So, the other part of the distributed[?]--so that's phenomenally interesting. And, unfortunately or not--I don't know if it's good or bad--but now that you've heard it, listeners, you will start to go, 'Did I really mean that? Is that what I really did? Is that the real reason?' It's pretty effectively--it teaches you something about yourself you might not know, and I really like that.

But, the other part of this distributed brain idea is really extraordinary, which I found deeply insightful, which is the idea that there's a gatekeeper in the brain. You associate it with the basal ganglia. I don't know if that's neurosciencely accurate--'neurosciencely' is not a word--but I don't know if that's--it might be consistent with the neuroscience. I suspect that neuroscience doesn't really know this 100% for sure. But, what I found compelling about it and fascinating is just the very idea of it--that there's a gatekeeper that takes suggestions--really helped me understand some of my own compulsive behavior. So, explain how that works.

Luca Dellanna: Yeah. So, actually, that's a result which is quite consistent in neuroscience, that there is this gatekeeper. We don't know much how it works, but neuroscience shows that there is this gate which opens and closes.

So, how it works is that we have the analytical brain and then the emotional brain. I'm simplifying the things a bit for the podcast. But, the analytical brain comes up with options for what we should do.

For example, I'm thinking, 'I should go run so that I lose some weight.' And then the action is transmitted towards the motor areas of our brain, which are the ones that command our muscles to go to wear my gym shoes and to run outside.

However, between the analytical part of the brain and the motor part of the brain, there is this gate; and the gate is commanded by parts of our emotional brain which act as like a gatekeeper.

And, we will go later into what makes the gate open, but it's interesting what happens when it closes. Because, if the gate is open, then perfect, we just take the action. If the gate is closed, our muscles never receive the order to go wear our running shoes and go outside. So, what happens is that our analytical brain is faced with the fact that we are not wearing our gym shoes--our running shoes--and then it tries to confabulate what's the most likely explanation.

And, for example, one explanation could be, 'Oh, it's raining outside.' Or another explanation could be, 'Ah, yesterday evening my knee had some pain and I should best rest today.' Or another explanation could be, like, in that moment you are seeing your floor. And, you're, like, 'Oh, I should vacuum today instead,' and something like that.

So, the rule is: If the gate is closed, One, we do not take action. And, Two, we take a guess on why we're not taking action.


Russ Roberts: The other aspect of it--to use the metaphor of the corporation that you use in the book, which I found very helpful--is that the analytical part of your brain has lots of ideas. There's lots of projects it wants to do. These include opening the refrigerator to find something good to eat, working on the the book that you need to finish, spending a few minutes on Twitter just to clear your head. What else would be on there? Taking a run, taking care of some--doing the dishes.

So, there's all these suggestions that the analytical brain is constantly bringing to the meeting, the meeting of the corporate decision makers. Unfortunately or not, the analytical part of the brain has no power. It can only make suggestions. Just like low-level employees. This is again your analogy, which I like very much.

The low-level employees, they have some information. They put forward suggestions for what the next project of the enterprise should be, but they don't have any power. They can only make suggestions. And, there's more than one of them. There are not one thing. There's all these different parts of the brain that are saying, 'Hey, how about this? How about this? How about this?'

So, what you end up actually doing has to go through the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper in your analogy is, in the corporation is the, say, the Chief Financial Officer [CFO] or the CEO [Chief Executive Officer].

And, why don't you turn to this question of then how do they actually decide? In the case of a corporation, they have limited information. The CEO either says, 'That seems like a good idea. We can't do all of them. Here's the one I think is the best and we'll go forward.' They might do that on profit maximization. They might do it because it's their friend who suggested it. The corporation has its own peculiar imperfections as well, of course. But, how does the brain do it?

Luca Dellanna: Exactly. And, I'm always assuming that the brain always has the best interest at heart. So, in this case, the CFO is really one to maximize profit. And so, he looks at only one metric, which is, for example, a return on investment. And, in our brain, the one metric is what I call expected emotional outcome.

So, for each idea, our gatekeeper computes the expected emotional outcome and then selects the action that has the highest expected emotional outcome. And, that's the one action that will be sent to our muscle.

Now--and this is the tricky part--expected emotional outcome is only computed considering our experiences.

So, this means that if the employee in our brain was saying we should run so that we lose weight, but we've never run before and we don't have the experiential association that running make us lose weight and that losing weight feels good. So, if we never experience before that running make us feel good, then our gatekeeper will close the gate because he says the expected emotional outcome is negative. And, there is no consideration such as thinking, such as imagining how we will feel. It's just remembering how we said previously.

Russ Roberts: Planning. Yeah, and that sounds pretty simplistic, Luca. So, if you would tell that to me in a casual conversation over coffee, I would say, 'That's silly. Come on. That's ridiculous. Come on, look, when I want to lose weight, it's really easy. I know how to lose weight. I just have to eat less and exercise more'--and we're going to put aside any other theories of weight loss; so just assume that's true, and I think it basically is.

So, I'm going to eat less and exercise more. So, I just have to do that. And I know what I want: I want to lose weight. I have a goal and I'm going to achieve my goal using rational thought. Why doesn't that work?

And, by the way, I think most of us listening know that often it doesn't work. You know: I have the extra cookie. I have the extra two cookies. Ooh, I have the extra three cookies. Wait a minute. I decided before I went to the party I was going to eat less. We all agree I need to eat less. And, I'm at the party and there's the plate of cookies. And, I just have to not take one and something--why is my arm going out toward the plate of cookies and eating it? Sometimes even without my conscious awareness. Worse, sometimes I'm watching my arm take the cookie, going, 'You know, I think I decided beforehand I wasn't going to eat any of the cookies and this is my third one.'

What's going on here? So, I think your model captures this bizarre compulsiveness to our behavior at times that seems, quote, "irrational."

Luca Dellanna: Exactly. The very first page of the book says: 'We think we have a decision-making problem, but we have an action-taking problem.' And, that's the thing. Like, usually we tend to solve the problem from an analytical point of view. We say, like, 'Oh, I know that I need to lose weight. I need to find the best the diet, or I need to find a way in which I do it.'

But, usually the answers that we have on that side are already quite good enough. The problem is that our brain somehow doesn't implement them.

And the reason why it doesn't implement them is if it believes that the expected emotional outcome of implementing them is negative.

I make an example. I usually tend to avoid sweet food, but almost every morning I tend to eat a croissant.

And, that's a habit that it's extremely hard for me to get rid of it. And, the reason is because I believe that the expected emotional outcome of removing the morning croissant from my diet would be negative--for a whole set of reasons. Because, usually I finish my croissant, I drink my coffee, and then I start working like a machine.

And, I almost have the fear that if I remove the croissant, then my morning will be sloppy. Which of course is a confabulation. The real reason is that I just feel good while eating a croissant. And, that's the experience that I have. That's the experience that I expect. And, I expect that if I remove it, I will feel bad. But that's the main obstacle.

Usually our plans are good enough--is that the emotional part of our brain, the one that only uses our experiences to think--thinks that implementing that plan will have a negative expected emotional outcome.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, one of my--I've had different times of my life when I exercised a lot or not at all. And, a beautiful example of what you're talking about is when I would convince myself that the reason I'm not exercising is I don't have the right shoes. So, I'd go out--and doesn't matter what the activity is. It could be playing squash or some racquet sport. It could be running. It could be walking. But, I need--I tell myself that the reason I'm not doing it is I don't have the right--I don't have walking shoes. As if I couldn't do the walking with my regular shoes. Or, 'I need special shoes for racquetball.' Or, 'Well, my running shoes, I have them, but they're a little old and they don't have as much cushion as they used to have. So, I better not run yet. I need to go out and get a new pair.' And, strangely enough, after I bought the shoes, nothing changes.

Luca Dellanna: Exactly. This is the one test for discovering when something is a confabulation. If you have a reason not to do it, you solve the reason and then you still not do it. Then you know 100% that it was a confabulation.


Russ Roberts: So, for listeners who were worried about this being true--and I think it is true. I think--again, I'm not going to comment because I can't, on whether the neuroscience supports it or not. But it resonates deeply with my own personal shortcomings. So, I find it very informative. But, now I want to see if we can make it helpful, not just informative.

Because if you're not careful, you'll think, 'I just need to buy better shoes. I bought the cheap ones, so I better buy more expensive ones.'

So, let's talk about some of the techniques that one might adopt to deal with this emotion--expected--and, by the way, I know it's very disturbing to think that your behavior is driven by your emotional experiences.

It's a very--I don't like the feeling of it, but it does ring true for some of these things at least. So, what can you do about it if this is true?

Luca Dellanna: Yes. So, I've tried many things and so I'm not going to tell you what is ideal, but I'm going to tell you what has the highest chance of working in the long-term. That is, it starts with acknowledging that it's not about the plan, but it's about whether we take action on the plan. And so, the thing that works the most for me is I make a plan and then I check with a deadline.

For example, tomorrow morning I will not eat my croissant. And then, the following day I check whether I did it. And, if I did it, then great: problem solved. And if I didn't do it, it means that I didn't have the expected emotional outcome to take that action. And, the only solution is to devise another action which is more inconsequential for which I do have the expected emotional outcome to take.

And then, if you iterate this usually in the long-term, you will manage to change that habit.

Now, there are two things that are problematic in this. The first one is this idea of the long-term. Depending on the habit at hand, it might be something that you solve after two iterations, or it might be something that takes a lot of trials, a lot of thinking about it, realizing, thinking about the problems that the habit is bringing to your life, trying to--so that you can also associate some negative emotional outcome to continuing the habit and so on.

And then, the second problem is that there are just some habits which have such a high expected emotional outcome that our brain will not--like, we alone, our brain will just not get rid of. And, in that case, I think that we often need some external help, which could be asking a personal trainer, making a promise with our spouse, or something similar.

And, often the problem is that sometimes we don't even have the expected emotional outcome to do the promise, to call the personal trainer. And, to be honest, that's not an easy problem to solve. It's just as it is. And, I think that it's just this idea of looking for smaller or different actions that we can take. So, for example, if I cannot get myself to make the promise with my spouse, or maybe I can make it with my best friend. Anyway, this process of iteration.

Russ Roberts: So, you need steps. But, in the book you give a lot of examples of how you can take small steps. And, you talk about the importance of the immediacy of the reward. So, talk about how that might work in practice.

Luca Dellanna: Yes. Rory Sutherland has a great example about this. He asks: Why do most blends of toothpaste have mint flavor? And, the reason is that mint flavor has nothing to do with keeping your mouth clean, but it has everything to do with getting the habit on.

Because, imagine that toothpaste doesn't have mint flavor. What happens is that you brush your teeth once, you don't feel anything; and you think that you wasted your efforts. And then you stop brushing teeth. Conversely, with the mint flavor, you brush your teeth once and then you have the feeling of a clean mouth. That makes you think that your efforts are bringing results and you keep brushing your teeth. And then, something else produces the desired effect of preventing cavities.

The same applies to our actions. We need to ask ourselves: Is there the mint flavor? Is there the immediate results that is telling my brain that I didn't waste my effort? Is there the immediate result that is telling my brain, this had a positive emotional outcome and so next time I expect another positive emotional outcome?

And, this applies both to our habits--and so, we should think about ways to make sure that we see the benefit immediately--and it also applies, I'm thinking a lot about my work in management consulting--with how managers when they communicate change to a company, they expect their employees to do something different. And, maybe on Monday morning they communicate some change. And then, on Monday afternoon, the employee is doing something different, but then nothing happens. And the employee thinks, 'Oh, I just wasted my time. Oh, they're asking me to do the new [inaudible 00:25:58] idea, but nothing changed. So, maybe I'm just wasting my efforts,' and then they get--they just don't do it anymore and they disengage.

And, instead we should always ask ourselves: Am I giving people--I'm asking things off the mint flavor--am I giving them the early and immediate feedback that they are not wasting their efforts?


Russ Roberts: So, that's why you mentioned that praise or congratulations should be early and often, not just at the end of the process, not just at the annual review. I probably told the story on here before about the teacher who has a new curriculum and they have a big training session for the new curriculum. And then, six weeks later, the teacher goes in, the head of the department goes in to see how the new curriculum is working out only to discover the teachers aren't using it. At all. Well, not as well as they hope, but not at all. And, when asked, they said, 'Oh, that doesn't work, that curriculum. I tried it; it doesn't work.' And, because there was not that immediate, next day, 'Oh, you tried it. Good job. Look at what happened,' you can talk to the analytical brain, too, of course not just the emotional brain. You can tell the person that, 'Oh, look how much better the student learned this, that, or the other.' You can start to--and of course, the teacher cares about that. You can start to get those emotional rewards. It'll encourage compliance with the directive.

And, it's shocking, right? I think a lot of management failure occurs because the directive is made, the memo is printed, the email is sent. Nothing happens. 'Well, what do you mean?' 'But, I told them, and I'm the boss.' No, that's not really enough.

Luca Dellanna: Exactly, it's crazy. Just bringing another example. I had in my high school, I had lot of brilliant classmates who were terrible at studying--like, disengaged and so on. But, then they were excellent at video games. And, I'm not just talking about playing video games or finishing the game. I'm meaning playing competitively, making elaborate strategies, practicing, trying new strategies, and so on.

And I always ask myself, 'Why is it that people engage so much with video games?' And, I think that the answer is that video games give you some empowerment and control. They give you immediate feedback, and they give you visible progression.

And, this is absent for most of our working life. An employee doesn't really have much control. When he does things right, he doesn't know it until the end of the week or sometimes even until the end of the review. If he progresses, he doesn't get the feeling of progression until he receives a raise one year later. And therefore, it's normal--it's rational--to adapt by disengaging.

And, I think that there are incredible margins of opportunity into just giving faster feedback, more immediate feedback.


Russ Roberts: A lot of people ask me how to get smarter, how to learn more, what they should do with their lives. I get emails from strangers expecting me to sometimes help them, which is very flattering, but challenging. I don't know them very well.

But, one of the things I always tell people in this kind of situation, especially young people is I say: Read. Reading is really important. Reading is undervalued in today's culture. We're screen-oriented. You can read on your screen. I read your entire book actually on my phone. But, in general, what we consume on our screens is short-term candy and not so much long-term medicine. And, reading is a phenomenal medicine. It makes you smarter. It adds things for your brain to work on later when other books come in and other information. It's phenomenal.

But we don't--a lot of people, I think, read less than they'd like. I once went to a time management seminar and the teacher asked why don't--he asked, 'How many people wish they read more?' Every hand in the room went up. Every hand. He said, 'Why don't you?'

And, his answer, which is not unrelated to yours, is: Books don't ring. Meaning, like, your phone rings, and saying, 'Hey, I'm over here.' They just sit there and you don't think about them.

But the other part that you're emphasizing is that the returns from reading are abstract, way in the future. And so, obviously, techniques like registering at a site like Goodreads where you can rack up points for reading or sharing your reading achievements on Twitter--these are ways that you can habituate yourself to what you know is a good behavior in the analytical part of your brain, but not so much in the emotional part.

And, I think those kind of--really what you're saying is that long-run habits are very difficult to establish. Excuse me, not long-run habits. Habits that have a long-term payoff, but not so much of a short-term payoff are very difficult to implement.

Luca Dellanna: Exactly. Related on this, related on practicing habit, I have this concept of meta-practice. So, the idea is that when we are learning a new skill, we usually practice the skill. For example, I want to learn to shoot better basketball. I practice shooting the basketball. But, often we do not practice the practice.

So, the idea is that maybe I can spend two hours shooting a basketball in the basket, and maybe I'm not learning anything out of it because I'm not getting the feedback. And, I'm talking both about feedback of understanding whether the movement is producing the right result and both the emotional feedback of practicing today makes me more likely to want to practice tomorrow.

And so, I always advise people when you practice, don't only practice your skill, but also practice your practice. Ask yourself, have I learned enough? How can I learn more? How can I change my practice so that I learn more tomorrow? And, have I enjoyed the practice enough so that I want to practice again tomorrow? And, if not, how can I change the practice so that I will be more likely to want to practice the next time?

So, this is my idea of meta-practice: Practice your practice.

Russ Roberts: It's a great idea. And, you talk in your book about learning a language. And, listeners know I recently moved to Israel and my Hebrew is not good enough, and I'm trying to make it better. And, I do want to make it better. The analytical side of my brain says I will be happier in the long run and I'll be a more effective president of Shalem College.

Many of my colleagues speak English, but not all. And, not all my students speak it well. So, I need Hebrew; and I need it for day-to-day life. There's a lot of reasons it would be good to learn Hebrew.

But, how much time do I spend every day learning Hebrew? And, what are the techniques that I use?

So, one idea is--I'm about to start this--is to have a, quote, "personal trainer." Someone who is going to show up and force me to learn. But, my wife and I have lots of--my wife is in the same situation. She wants to learn more and we have all kinds of ideas. 'Oh, let's listen to this podcast together. Let's watch this show in Hebrew and get better on our computer.'

And, yet we do very little of it. She actually does a lot, because she's in formal training--called an Ulpan. And she's getting better and she sees the progress. My progress, I'm getting better, there's no doubt about it, but I'm not practicing well.

And, I need some tricks to get better, to work at it day to day. It's just sort of happening. Which is not bad. It's pretty good. I'm busy. I have a lot to do, but there are probably some things I could do better. So, what's your advice?

Luca Dellanna: Usually on these kind of things, I don't really have very specific advice. I just have the advice of: Try a lot of things and see what works, see what sticks. And, at the beginning, don't necessarily look for effectiveness. Look for what sticks, what you keep doing. And then, only in a second step, you can look for effectiveness.

One common mistake in the startup world is to optimize before having found a product/market fit--a product that the market really wants, that they start pulling. And, only then you can think how to advertise it better, how to make it cheaper, and so on. But, if you try to optimize too early, there is just too much friction because you don't have a good product enough. You don't have a product that the market wants; and you push it, but the market doesn't get it.

And, the same applies in some way to our habits. If you try to look only for the habit which is the most effective, but it's not a habit that your brain is, like, receptive to, then you might waste a lot of effort.

And, unless there is a very, very specific habit that you need to have that version, I think that it's best first to try many types of habit. Like, maybe you try learning with an app. Then the next week you try joining a group, or whatnot. And then, you kind of see what sticks. And, only then you can think, 'How can I get the most out of it?'


Russ Roberts: But, you're suggesting that what is likely to stick are things that give me an immediate return. And, your analysis of why I have failed to implement many different strategies I could have is because I get so little emotional return from any one of them in the short run. In the long run, I might become a fluent Hebrew speaker. But, in the short run, it's just: I took 15 minutes out of my day. And it hurts your brain, by the way.

One of my listeners said you should read to the wall. Meaning: Pick up a book--one of the problems with conversational language is that you need people to talk to and they're not always--their schedule doesn't always work with yours.

So, pick up the book, read it to--actually, ideally a book with some dialogue--and read it out loud, and get your brain in the habit of following the patterns of conversation and syntax. It's a great idea. It's no fun. It's less than fun. And, he points out, 'Oh, it's great because after 10 minutes, your brain will hurt. It won't in English, but in Hebrew, your brain will start to hurt. That means you're learning.' And, I'm thinking, 'Yeah, and I don't like it.'

Now that I've read your book, that's my thought. That's a tough one, right? I mean, language acquisition, what you really need to do is video game it, I guess, and have some kind of points or other kinds of dopamine rush that would help you make progress and practice better.

Luca Dellanna: Yes, I think so. Generally, just because we use this word 'gamification,' generally I'm, like, against real gamification, because I think that then it might bring on the wrong road, introduce perverse incentives, and all these kind of things. I think that it's mostly about trying different approaches and see the one that is closer to a game. So, gives you a bit of control, gives immediate feedback, and then try to leverage it, yeah.

Russ Roberts: I will say that this podcast I was listening to gave me an idiomatic expression; I was able to use it the next day. And it was thrilling. It was so exciting. I tossed it into a conversation in Hebrew. It was actually an English conversation with some Israelis and I threw in the Hebrew idiom and I felt, 'Boy, this is fun.'

And, that--I need to find a few more of those and start speaking in this weird sort of conversational style, full of idioms, using all these words I've just learned.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about procrastination, generally. We've touched on it. I think most people think procrastination is a character flaw. 'Oh, he's a procrastinator,' or 'I just procrastinate too much.' But, you see it a little bit differently. Explain how you look at procrastination.

Luca Dellanna: Yes, I really don't think that procrastination is a character flaw because one of the ways that I explained it in the book is almost like the concept of passive sabotage. So, the idea that if you have an action, if you are requested by someone to take an action and you don't think that action is good for you, you will either not do it, or in the case you are required to do it, you will do it badly. You will try to do it for as short as possible, and so on.

And, I think that that's exactly what happens in our brain for a lot of things. The analytical part of our brain coerces almost the emotional part of our brain into taking an action or makes a contract with someone else or yourself, a promise.

But, then the emotional part of our brain is, like, 'I don't want to do it.' And, not because I'm lazy, but because I think that the outcome will be bad for me. And so, of course I try not to do it. And, if I had to do it, I do it as little, as fast, as poor quality, and what not as possible.

There is something that I've seen a few times is that there is an employee who is asked to make a presentation. And then, the emotional part of our brain doesn't like making presentations, maybe because he has bad experiences with talking in public and so on. And so, sometimes the emotional part of our brain thinks, if I ace this presentation, my boss will ask me to do more presentations; and I will feel worse in the future.

Therefore, the best thing I can do is not doing the presentation. But, if I don't do the presentation, I get fired. So, I will just do a bad presentation.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's fascinating. It's an interesting phenomenon. I have no trouble making public presentations. I look forward to them. They're fun for me. In fact, I probably say yes to too many public presentations, because for the reasons we're talking about.

But, there is a situation where I don't like talking in public and that's--or where I get uneasy--and that's the going around. It's a group of people sitting at a table or in a circle and someone says, 'Well, we're going to go around and everybody tell why you're here. What's your,'--da, da, da, whatever it is, 'identify yourself and then say,'--there's usually a set of things; you're supposed to fill in the blank.

And, I find myself getting a little bit nervous. And I think a lot of people do in that situation. You're suggesting that's because it didn't go well in the past. Is that what you're thinking is causing me to be so anxious about it?

Luca Dellanna: I think it's one possibility. I'm almost sure that the reason is because we have negative expected emotional outcome associated to that action. Then of course there might be different reasons for that. So, one reason could be that you had bad experiences in the past. One other reason is that your brain is thinking about some possible outcome and feels really bad about it.

One possibility could be that you had positive emotional associations with the action in general, but there is one aspect that you have negative emotional associations with. There could be a lot of explanations.

But, I think that the real explanation somehow is something that causes the emotional part of our brain to have a negative outcome, [inaudible 00:41:42].


Russ Roberts: Now, you started off this whole conversation saying your brain generally looks out for you, and tries to do what's best for you, and acts in your interests, and so on. And yet, what we're talking about now is this paradox, this tension between what you want and what you really want; or, what you want and what you want to want, is the way I sometimes think about it.

I say--drawing on Harry Frankfurt's work--we have desires, but we also have desires about our desires. So, I like ice cream and I really enjoy eating it every time, but I don't want to like it so much. And, I have trouble implementing that desire. The desire to eat ice cream, I'm really good at implementing. The desire to not like it as much, not so good.

And, you're suggesting that that's because, in the past when I ate ice cream, I was happy; and I think you're right. That's a great simple point.

But the question is: How do you reconcile this tension between the brain--different parts of the brain--and this view you have that this is really basically a good system? Right? In a way, it looks like it's not a very good system. It looks like it leads to conflict and stress. So, how do you think about these different parts of our brain being, quote, "good" for us?

Luca Dellanna: Yeah, so I need to clarify what I mean, 'good for us.' So, it's good for our ancestors because that's the criteria under which we evolved. If something was good for the survival of our ancestors, the ancestors that were doing it survived more and therefore that's the genes that we have and that's the processes that are wired in our brain.

So, usually you say probably in lot of behavioral economics there is the idea that we do what makes us survive. And, in the book I make the argument that it is wrong, and we do what feels like survival.

And, the reason is because what we do in our brain is mediated by our emotional brain, the gatekeeper. So, the gatekeeper doesn't know all the analytical thinking. It cannot do what he thinks that make us survive. He does what he feels that will make us survive.

So, there is these inceptions[?insertions] of feeling, which is extremely important.

And then, the second component is that we do not do what feels good to our survival to us, but we do what feels like survival to our ancestors--because we have our ancestors' genes.

I make the example of the human civilization going to Mars. If we go to Mars and then in a couple of generations there will be the first human which is born on Mars, his genes will still be not the genes which are adapted to live on Mars, but the genes which are adapt to live on Earth.

And, the same applies to our brain. Our brain is not the best brain to survive in the modern world. It's the best brain to survive in the ancient world, let's say.

And, for example, why do we like ice cream so much, even if eating too much is bad for us? Because in the past sugar was constrained and eating more sugar was almost always a winning strategy. And, in the modern world, it's not true anymore, but it doesn't matter because our brain is all [inaudible 00:45:12].

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, that's why--supposedly; again, I don't know if this is really true, but it's an interesting argument--that it's why we like ripe fruit. Right? Ripe fruit has got more nutrients than unripe fruit. So, having a taste for sugar would be good for your evolutionary strategy. And, therefore, we're stuck with that sugar-loving strategy, that was great in primitive times, not so great in modern times. Not as--it's still great. Sugar, sweet, nutrients are good. But you get all this other stuff that goes with it that's not so good.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about addictions. So, in particular you argue that addictions produce stress, which I think is true, but talk about why that's true and what we can learn from it.

Luca Dellanna: So, one thing I've noticed is that with smokers, it's true that smoking a cigarette reduces their stress level in that moment; but it's true that smokers that didn't smoke recently, they start feeling stressed soon. I mean, of course, if they are frequent smokers.

I think that that kind of applies to all addictions because addictions are usually the response of doing something that feels good.

So, you have this double-sided medal[?]. On one side, you do something that feels good. So, in that moment, you feel like you did something good that feels like it increased your survival. You feel good, and so on. The flip side of that medal is that you created an association in our brain that smoking cigarettes feels like surviving.

And, the implication is that if smoking cigarettes feels like surviving, then not smoking cigarettes feels like the opposite of survival. And, therefore automatically, if you're not smoking it, you feel like you're putting yourself in danger.

Of course, this is not an analytical thought. So, you are not really thinking that. It is just the result of some wiring that you're putting in our brain. You're putting some wiring in your brain that when electricity passed through it, you're feeling like you're increasing your survival. And, if no electricity passes through it for too long, it's almost a sign that you're not doing what's good for you.

And therefore, you almost feel the need to do it. And, because you feel the need to do it, if you cannot do it, then you feel stressed. And, that's what I meant saying that addictions increase stress.

Russ Roberts: So, the addict also has this strange mix of autonomy and a lack of autonomy, right? So, when you're relieving the stress--when you're smoking the cigarette, taking the drink, taking the drug--you're feeling great because you're in control. But then, when you don't have it, you're not in control. And then, your analytical brain is also saying: This is not good for you, why are you doing it?

How do we fool ourselves in those situations? What's going on there?

Luca Dellanna: Well, we fool ourselves because often we think with the analytical brain. But that just doesn't matter. It's a bit like you have people, you have the analytical person and the emotional person. And, the analytical person is thinking, like, 'Oh, we are fooling ourselves because we keep driving in the wrong direction.' But, the emotional person is the one which is actually the steering wheel and for her, she's going in the right direction. And, she will keep going in that direction until she feels that it's the wrong direction.

And, the keyword is feel.

I usually say that everyone wants to lose weight and everyone feels bad if they're not losing weight, but the people who lose weight are the ones who feel good while they go to the gym.

And, that's kind of like what happens with a lot of addictions. Like, I feel, I think that it's bad for me to eat a croissant every morning, but I will stop the moment that I feel bad while I'm eating the croissant. Not afterwards: while I'm eating the croissant.

Russ Roberts: So, the people who manage to change their habits, the people who lose weight or the people who are not addicted to, say, drugs, they're the people who--it's a selection problem. Right? We tend to go to those people and say, 'So what was the trick?' And, the trick was: There wasn't a trick. It was a different kind of--they're either a different kind of person, or they have a different set of emotional benefits and costs that drove them that way. But, we tend to look at correlations in that situation, and I think probably draw the wrong conclusions.

Luca Dellanna: Correct. Then I don't want to over-simplify everything to a single factor. If your diet is wrong, so that even if you exercise you don't see results. Or, if you are exercising in such a bad way that while you do the exercise, you feel some pain. Then these are all problems that at the end prevent you from feeling good while doing it.

So, there are a lot of factors, but all those factors, they kind of have the confluence in what's the emotional outcome while I'm doing it. And, therefore what's the expected outcome that I expect out of it the next time.


Russ Roberts: So, as an economist who was trained otherwise, this is deeply disturbing to me. I'm telling you through most of this conversation, how much I like it and how interesting it is, but this idea that people are irrational--it's what it sounds like. It sounds like you're saying, 'You know, people are irrational. They react to their feelings.' They don't react thoughtfully. They don't react rationally. And they make a whole bunch of decisions that are based on just this feel-good, short-term stuff. And, economists like to believe that, 'No, no, no, no no. That's not what happens. We have these plans and we have expectations. We have imperfection of course, in how we look at the world; but we're rational.' So, how do you answer the question--is your view of human behavior rational? It sounds irrational.

Luca Dellanna: I think it's very rational. The question is rational for whom and over which time frames. So, I think that it's very rational, for example--but more rational for our ancestors than for us. I think that it's rational, but more rational for a population than necessarily for the individual.

I make the example of antivaxers. I think that right now, for most people bearing some very specific conditions and bearing people that live in a very COVID-free zone, I think that it's rational to vaccine. For the individual. But, it's also true that for the population is rational to have a few people who always think differently so that the population never goes all in on a wrong choice.

And, at a population level, the optimal choice is a multitude of choice.

And, that creates a built-in variance into us, which means that for the population to be rational, it's impossible that every single individual is completely rational. And so, that's part of the thing.

Another thing is the timeframe. Because, what's rational for me to optimize today is different to what's rational for me to optimize in one year, is different to what's rational for me to optimize over my lifetime.

And then, we can go talking about, like there is the whole field of ergodicity, which is about answering these questions. But, the idea is that if different timeframes require different rationalities, then necessarily there cannot be optimal rationality for everyone for all timeframes.

And so, that's another consideration.

So, just to sum up your question, it's impossible. Rationality scales, optimality is different at different scales. And there would necessarily be something which is under-optimized at a given scale.

Russ Roberts: And, of course, it's also true that what information is available to the outside observer, may be--not may be--is incomplete and makes it harder for the outside observer to conclude thoughtfully about what is actually rational or irrational.


Russ Roberts: But, to hone in a little bit more on the economics idea: You know, as economists, we're big believers in incentives, right?

We look at costs and benefits. And, we say, when we raise a price, people do less of something. When we lower the price, people do more of something. A thoughtful economist knows that isn't just about money. It's about emotional outcomes or pride or reward, not just, again, monetary reward.

What you're suggesting is that--certainly in the business context, certainly in the management context--that it's important to provide those incentives early. They should be emotional. The emotional ones can be monetary, of course. Getting money is fun. But, those are your implications.

You are not arguing that people just do what feels good, or, just, you can't predict what they're going to do. So, try to fit how you see the world in that narrower economist framework. Where does it fit and where does it not fit?

Luca Dellanna: Yeah, I make an example. There is a new boss that comes at work and he says to everyone who reaches their sales target, 'I will give them a financial incentive. I will give you $5,000,' for example. Whether people accept that incentive and that incentive changes their behavior depends also on whether the expected the incentive is true, for example.

Like, if the previous boss promised money, but then never give money, then they will not do it. If they think that the sales target is so high that the extra work is not guaranteed or it's not worth the $5,000, then they will not do it. And so on.

So, it's always the question of how does the analytical incentive translate into the emotional?

The idea is when the boss says, 'I will give you $5,000 if you reach the target,' the analytical brain gets it. The question is: Does it produce, like, this tickling in the emotional brain? And, that's what will determine whether the incentive is effective. And, whether the incentive produces the tickling usually depends on past experiences, past emotional associations, and a few other things.

Russ Roberts: And, how it's implemented. So, you're not saying that it wouldn't work. You're saying: To make it work effectively requires a certain set of things around it that get the attention and promised reward to the--expected reward--to the participants.


Russ Roberts: At one point you wrote, you write in your book, "A sane mind is designed to hold beliefs that are inconsistent with each other." Explain.

Luca Dellanna: Yes. So, back to the metaphor of the brain as a company: You have different employees. And, it's possible that the different employees hold different beliefs, incompatible even, but for each employee, they have extremely good reasons and they can justify that very well. And, usually also objective.

It's completely possible, for example, that the for the visual part of my brain, it says, 'Oh, this cheese looks really good and I should eat it.' And, it's possible that for the olfactory part of my brain, it says, 'Oh, the cheese smells awful and I should not eat it.' And, they are incompatible; but they're very well justified.

And, the reason why they live together is because no part of brain has access to all the information. If they had the same information, they couldn't have incompatible beliefs. Because they have access to different information, it's rational for them to have incompatible beliefs. And, it's also optimal.

We see in a lot of species--I'm thinking for example in bees--that the optimal strategy for the hive to choose the best new hive location is for bees to hold incompatible beliefs. So, the way it works is that each bee goes exploring random location around the nest and then comes back and then makes a dance, dances, say, which expresses, 'Oh, I went to this place and I think we should build the nest here.' Or, 'I think we should not build the nest here.' And then, the bees do their dance. They look at the other bees dance. If the other bees dance better, like, more vigorously, which means they have a stronger belief, they start accepting the belief of the other bees, or they start visiting the suggestion and then come back with their own opinion.

And then, eventually the hive convergences in a single opinion and moves there. And, that's the optimal strategy for bees, which has been proven by millions of years of evolution.

And, the same applies for a population. I strongly think that for a population, the optimal strategy is to have different people with different opinions and then have some system to converge over a single cause of action.

And, the same applies to our brain. For our brain, the best cause of action is to have different regions with different opinions and then have something that produces a single cause of action. And, in that case, is the gatekeeper.

Now the last, the tricky point is that because our brain produces one single cause of action, we usually think that our brain thinks as one. But, that is wrong.

Just like elections in the country, they produce one single action. For example, that the president, they chose this president. It doesn't mean that everyone thought the same. And, the same applies to our brain: is not because I decide to eat the croissant, that all agreed that eating the croissant was a good choice.


Russ Roberts: So, that's a very deep idea. Comes up a lot on this program that I like to point out that political outcomes are not the will of the people. They're not anybody's will. There's no such thing as The People. It's a particular political system, is a particular way to aggregate the diversity of views. And, in many areas of life--finance, career choice, romantic associations--variance is really good as long as you have optionality, as long as you can choose to reject certain options.

So, dating a lot of people is a really good idea, as long as you're not required to marry the first 12. In which case, you have to think carefully about what your process is and who you choose to interview. But, if you can date inexpensively, it's good to date a lot of people. And, of course, your culture determines what's an expensive date and so on.

And, your point about diversity of opinion is really profound, right? We want people who are contrarians in general, because it could be that the group's mainstream ideas are wrong. And we know this from history. Often the group's mainstream ideas are wrong, and the minority of contrarian opinion is crucial. And, the scientific method--we have a all kinds of ways to throw out what we think are as bad options.

But, I think what's happening partly in the world right now is that people have lost the romance that they have about diversity of opinion. Instead of seeing diversity of opinion as a fabulous survival strategy because you have a mechanism for rejecting bad opinions and accepting good ones, all of a sudden, we've come to a point where we don't like bad opinions. We don't like, excuse me, minority opinions or contrarians. And they get canceled, judged, and so on. And, that doesn't seem to bode well for the future survival of many of the societies that are doing this.

Luca Dellanna: Yes, I totally agree. I think that for survival is necessary to have these different opinions and somehow to enable people to prevent society from going all in on a single mono-decision. I think it's extremely important.

And, if I can make the example of heuristics, why we have heuristics. And, Gerd Gigerenzer wrote a few books about heuristics. And, he makes the example of the baseball heuristic in which baseball catchers, the way that they find out where the ball will land is that they keep climbing towards the ball keeping the angle at which they're looking at it constant.

Now, the thing that I would add on this is not only that this heuristic works wonderfully, but it's also the best heuristic to manage unexpected events. So, imagine that you're the baseball catcher, and then sudden--you are doing the heuristic. And then, suddenly there is a gush of wind and the ball accelerates in a random direction. If you were using the heuristic, you are optimal placed to change your direction and get there still very much on time. Whereas, if you try to make some computation, and maybe you decided that you need to go at a constant speed, it would be optimal if there is no change. But, as soon as there is a change, it's not optimal anymore.

The same applies to variance in opinions of people. Not only produces good outcome given what we know now, but it also makes sure that if there is some change in what we know, we are optimally prepared for the change.

And, that's one reason why heuristic is important. And, that's one reason why accepting diversity of opinion is important.

Russ Roberts: It's an extremely profound point. Gerd Gigerenzer was a guest on the program, as was Rory Sutherland. By the way, I don't remember if we talked about mint toothpaste, but we probably did. And, you've called them 'baseball catchers,' but usually the technical term is an outfielder. The catcher is literally--is not just the person who catches a ball, but the person who catches the ball thrown by the pitcher.

Luca Dellanna: Oh, yes.

Russ Roberts: So, the outfielder is the one--you have to run down balls in the air. And, the counterpoint to this heuristic of keeping the angle constant is they make a prediction as to where the ball will land based on the angle that it leaves the bat. And, they try to race to the place where the ball is going to be.

And, your point, which is really extremely important--sounds like it's silly, because it's just baseball, but it's not--is that if the wind or other things change--another example would be the terrain running across changes--you might need to adjust in midstream. And, you don't want to be stuck with a plan that is fit for one problem that is not the problem anymore.

So, I think the extraordinary productivity and value that comes from differing viewpoints clashing with one another and producing understanding, or yet a third option when we're trying to solve problems, is the essence of the last 350 years or so of human progress and not just mechanical progress. I think that we were not just talking here about standard of living, but also our ability to understand one another and to interact with one another.

And, we seem to be losing that ladder of skill--the ability to interact with one another. That's going to start to affect our ability to make progress in the more mechanical, material world. I don't know how important that is if we're all killing each other. So, it's really important not to kill each other.

That would be, to me, a priority. And then worry about getting up to a higher standard of living.

So, it's a fascinating time that we have lost our belief in the value of diversity of opinion. Especially at the universities, where, of course, that's the essential place where this process in theory works out. That, people have different viewpoints about what is true and what is not true, and research and other techniques--workshops, seminars, coffee arguments, arguments over coffee--that's how we move forward. And, if we lose that, we're going to learn less and we'll be less prepared for other things. I guess the question then would be: Why has that happened?

And, one answer would be that universities have lost their interest in truth. It's no longer their purpose. I think that's the main reason. There's something else there. I don't want to go into what they are, but I think that's the major problem in America right now, at least.

Luca Dellanna: Yes, I totally--I agree on that. And, I will think that one more thing is: There's interest in the concrete. Because, when we are talking about something concrete, then it almost becomes obvious, like, what's truth. And, you cannot really hold a concrete belief which is false for too long. Especially if then somehow you have to practice it.

But, the more we are talking about abstract things, the more we can hold false belief and believe in dangerous beliefs. And, I mean, abstract--not just abstract as in the usual term of 'abstract,' but also abstract such as 'distant from me.'

For example, an academic would never work in manufacturing that has some opinions on manufacturing. Even if it's a concrete opinion, for example, on how something should be produced. It's abstract, meaning that he doesn't have the feedback from a reality. That's what I mean from 'abstract.'

And, I want to make another point on this, which is imitation. Like, usually we tend to say that imitation without understanding, it's stupid. But actually, imitation without understanding is an excellent strategy.

Imagine that you get teleported back in time into pre-historic era, and you need to forage your food and you have no idea about which food is safe to eat. Your best strategy is to look at what other people are doing and do it. Why does it work? Because those people have skin in the game and if they did something which is unsafe, they would have died.

Which means that the only people that are left to imitate are the people who are doing it right.

So, imitation is rational in the presence of skin in the game. It's not just about the skin in the game. It's not just about incentive. But, it's about risk, putting one's survival on the line. And so, the same applies to, applies unfortunately to abstract concepts.

If you have an abstract concept and you are not practicing it--you are not putting your reputation on the line, your survival on the line and so on--it's very possible that you keep repeating a belief which is wrong. And then, people imitate you and then it's very bad for society.

And, that's one reason why skin in the game is so important. Not only because it causes offenders to be removed from the pool of people that can make danger, but also because--which is, was what the point of Taleb's 'skin in the game,' but also because it removes them from the pool of people which can be imitated.


Russ Roberts: It's a fantastic point. The problem is, is that most of the things we argue about are not empirical. They are, almost by definition, opaque. By definition distant from us. By definition, not subject to learning or not learning. If I have a particular viewpoint about some social force--whether it's how the economy works, or religion, or educational theory--and I never see it put into practice. I never get any feedback. I never have skin in the game. It's hard to know how we're going to make progress in those areas.

And, yet those will become the areas that we argue about.

Rather than saying, 'Well, easy come, easy go. Different people could feel different things about these things. I have no way of knowing if I'm right.' And, yet we get to the situation of "The Second Coming"--of Yeats' poem--where the worst are full of passionate intensity, right? The people who have the least reason to know with any certainty whether they're right or not, are the ones who feel the most strongly about it. Seems like a bad recipe.

Luca Dellanna: Yes, I agree. And, of course, like, there are some fields in which this problem is very hard to solve. But I think that there are also fields in which it's much easier to solve. And, there should be more in that direction. I make a very simple example, which is my field, which is management consulting.

I think that so many problems in management consulting could be solved if the time that one company has a management consultant, the first thing that they do is that they put him in front of some of their line-workers and they ask him to talk to them and to explain his ideas. And, you would immediately realize whether he's talking nonsense or not.

And, for example, myself, like, whenever I'm doing some engagement with some company, one of the first things that I do is that I go talk to the line workers. Because, of course, I have some hypotheses which are made on what I know from previous companies, what my guess is; but I always try to verify them with people who have direct contact on the field.

Because maybe it's not like the idea is completely nonsense. Maybe it's nonsense in this very application.

And, that's just an example of how, like, some fields in which feedback with the reality is definitely possible. It's definitely accessible. It's just we are not doing it right now.


Russ Roberts: So, I want to say something speculative here, I think, you know, based on a recent episode that hasn't aired yet, but with Moshe Koppel talking about tradition. And, tradition is something I think modern people are very uncomfortable with.

I'm writing a book on decision-making in life: It's called Wild Problems. And, my argument is that most of the big decisions we make in life--whether to marry, whether to have a child, what career to pursue, whether to be religious or leave a religion, and so on--these are problems that generally don't have empirical aspects to them. They're very hard to get evidence for. It's hard to make an analytical decision. It's hard to use algorithms. We only get one draw from the urn.

And so, we're very uncomfortable with these decisions, because, unlike other areas of our life where we have lots of technological ways to make us more at ease with the likely outcome, in these situations we're really at sea. We have a lot of trouble making these decisions in what we call 'rationally.'

Now, this is a new phenomenon for most of these areas, right? Most of the time in historic past, you married who your parents told you. You had children because it wasn't even an option. I mean, you didn't think about it: you didn't have ways to control it very well. But more than that, it was just what everybody did.

You went into the career that your parents were already in--if you were lucky or didn't have a job. But usually you were stuck because of guilds or constraints to do what your parents did. It wasn't something you went off to school and explored 40 different things. You just did what your parents did.

And so, we're in this new world as human beings. And, the idea of using tradition to solve these problems is very unappealing to most people.

But, I think--I'm not sure I want to say this in my book because I'm not sure it's true--but I think it's underrated. Of course, some traditions are not just--not good. They're evil. They're wicked. But, many traditions are there because they have stood the test of time for people who had skin in the game.

And, maybe the right way to think about it is: It's not a bad default. It's not a bad place to start.

Maybe you shouldn't listen to it the way people did for the last 500--or the last 2000, 3000 years--but maybe you ought at least give it the benefit of the doubt. What are your thoughts on that?

Luca Dellanna: I think so. I think that there are some traditions in which harm is evident and I'm thinking about some forms of abuse, some forms of labor. And, this one is because the harm is evident, I think they can be trashed very easily in a way. Objective harm, long-term harm. I mean the traditions instead in which things are much like less evident.

And, I think that those ones should be tweeted a bit like Chesterton Fences. Like, if they are there, they are there to solve a problem. Which doesn't mean that we cannot be the better fan[?], but it means that we need to understand what the problem was. And, we need to come out with some options and we need to try them in a reality for sometime.

And, yeah, and that's basically the process.

And then, of course for yourself, like, it's very hard to do that because this is something that we can do as society, but yourself, a lot of things in life, you have only one shot. And, I don't even know if there is a right option rather than trying to understand, and then take your own decision. But, trying to make sure that you take a decision which is not--that is made on as complete information as you can. So, it means--

Russ Roberts: So, that's--oh, go ahead.

Luca Dellanna: No, I just mean it usually, it can be summarized as: Talk to the elders, and ask them why they're doing them. And then you can agree or disagree.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Luca Dellanna. His book is The Control Heuristic. Luca, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Luca Dellanna: Thank you, Russ, so much for having invited me. It's been wonderful.