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Choiceology: Season 7 Episode 6

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How can thinking like a scientist improve your everyday decisions?

Important decisions can be complex and difficult to make. We’re at the mercy of certain behavioral biases, and we often face a degree of uncertainty. And while it’s helpful to be aware of our shortcomings and mindful of our incomplete picture of the world, there is a proven way to make better decisions, on balance. 

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at how questioning our basic assumptions and thinking like a scientist can help us untangle the knottiest of problems and make choices with greater confidence.

Luca Parmitano was the first Italian astronaut to perform an EVA—an extravehicular activity, otherwise known as a space walk—in 2013. During that EVA, Luca noticed a small amount of excess moisture in his space suit. Engineers chalked it up to a minor leak in his drinking container.

But on his second EVA, Luca nearly drowned in space. You’ll hear from Luca himself about what happened and what it was like to have his helmet fill with water, 250 miles above the earth, outside the International Space Station. You’ll also hear how NASA worked to prevent a repeat of what has been called “the scariest wardrobe malfunction” in the agency’s history.

Luca Parmitano is an astronaut with the European Space Agency and a colonel in the Italian Air Force.

A version of Luca’s story appears in Adam Grant’s new book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

Adam Grant joined Katy to talk about the methods scientists use to avoid certain pitfalls, such as confirmation bias, in the search for objective information. Rather than treat our beliefs or opinions as truths, Adam encourages us to treat them instead as hunches. Hunches can be tested, as scientists test their hypotheses. Taking this scientific approach to difficult problems often yields better results in business, politics, and life.

Adam Grant is the Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also host of the popular TED podcast WorkLife.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

KATY MILKMAN: Marvin Pipkin was a scientist with the United States Army in the early part of the 20th century. He returned to civilian life in the 1920s and joined General Electric. When he started at GE, he was given a job that was considered a fool’s errand, the supposedly impossible task of designing a light bulb that could be frosted on the inside to help diffuse the harsh light of incandescent bulbs. This assignment was often handed out to new hires as something of a joke, but Marvin didn’t know that the project was considered impossible. He set about to solve the problem as if it were possible. He completed work on the new internally frosted light bulb in 1925. GE later mass produced it, and the ubiquitous soft white light bulb was born.

What’s interesting about this anecdote is what it tells us about the power of our assumptions. How those assumptions can sometimes be an obstacle to progress and problem solving. For years GE assumed that frosting the inside of a lightbulb was impossible. And so they didn’t devote real resources to solving the problem. Instead, they frosted on the outside, using a process that dimmed the light from the bulb and made the glass fragile and prone to breaking. If they had made a different assumption, they likely would have found a solution far sooner. Coming up, I’ll share the story of how another set of assumptions nearly ended in disaster, high above the earth.

LUCA PARMITANO: I’m at the airlock. There’s a lot of water.

KATY MILKMAN: You’ll also hear from my Wharton colleague, organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant, about how you can apply scientific thinking to improve your everyday decisions. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes, make-or-break moments. And then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better choices and avoid costly mistakes.

LUCA PARMITANO: I flew twice to the International Space Station. The first time in 2013 with Mission Volare, and then again last year, 2019, with Mission Beyond.

KATY MILKMAN: This is Luca.

LUCA PARMITANO: My name is Luca Parmitano. I am a European astronaut with the European Space Agency and a colonel in the Italian Air Force.

KATY MILKMAN: Luca was the first Italian astronaut to do an EVA, an extravehicular activity, otherwise known as a space walk, in July of 2013.

LUCA PARMITANO: For me an extravehicular activity was the ultimate test to prove to myself mostly that I was fully part of the astronaut corp. As growing up my image of an astronaut was always connected to those big white suits, pressurized outside floating in space, and I just wanted to be part of the club, and I wanted to prove myself worthy of it. So I was excited. I had studied. I felt ready.

KATY MILKMAN: Luca was part of Mission 36, the 36th long-duration mission to the International Space Station.

LUCA PARMITANO: Mission 36 started in May 2013. And my first EVA was on July 9th.

KATY MILKMAN: Venturing outside of your spacecraft during a mission like this presents a whole host of challenges and dangers, but Luca was confident in himself and his team.

LUCA PARMITANO: At the time I was a rookie. It was the first time I flew to the space station, and life was awesome. I was already fully adjusted to space after about a month and a half. My team, my crew-mates, were really a fantastic team. Chris Cassidy and Karen Nyberg—both just slightly older than me, but both veterans of previous flights—they were perfect. They were like a big brother and sister that helped me both in everyday life and in more complex activities that they had experienced before. I felt completely confident going outside.

KATY MILKMAN: The main goal of this particular EVA, called EVA 22, was to reposition some new equipment that had arrived at the space station on a cargo flight.

LUCA PARMITANO: I concur. And I copy and I followed you and I checked the seam …

SPEAKER 3: Got it. Roger that.

KATY MILKMAN: Everything was going smoothly on Luca’s first time outside the spacecraft.

LUCA PARMITANO: I was charged, felt like I had electricity flowing in my veins rather than blood. I was so excited and so, no, I didn’t feel any vertigo. I felt perfectly at home. The sites are indescribable, and literally there are no words that you can put to what you see when you’re outside because you seen the pictures maybe or videos from the space station, but to see from outside through maybe one inch of plexiglass with your eyes is the difference of looking at an aquarium or diving in the Maldives. It’s like that but an order of magnitude bigger. The EVA went perfectly. Chris and I were ahead of our timeline the whole time. When we came inside, we started repressurizing.

KATY MILKMAN: Astronauts use airlocks to repressurize to the interior of the spacecraft after having been in the vacuum of space. Everything proceeded normally until it came time for the astronauts to remove their helmets.

LUCA PARMITANO: My helmet was wet; it was completely soaked. There was no leakage of the water outside of the con cap itself, what we call the Snoopy cap. You’ve seen it in the pictures—it’s the black and white helmet with the ear cuffs that we wear inside the space suit under the helmet. And it was really, really wet and Karen actually noted, “Wow, this is really wet. Luca, what did you do?” I made fun of myself. Chris made fun of me, because … “Here’s the rookie that doesn’t even realize that you have water coming out of your water bottle.” I was sure that that’s where it came from. We were not worried at all after a long day. We were just happy to be done. And so, in a way, we dismissed a little bit what had happened. I just said, “I think this is water that came out of my water bag.”

KATY MILKMAN: Space suits are outfitted with drink bags so astronauts can sip water as they exert themselves during an EVA.

LUCA PARMITANO: A little bit of water can come out of the water bag sometimes, and it wasn’t the first instance that we’ve seen water. And so we talked to the ground because of course we reported to the ground, but they took our words. I mean, they cannot see the way we see it. We passed down what was our impression, and they said, “OK, just change the water bag for next EVA one week from now.”

KATY MILKMAN: The astronauts did just that. They swapped out Luca’s water bag for a new one and put the issue to bed.

LUCA PARMITANO: During the week that we prepped for the second EVA, the subject never came up.

KATY MILKMAN: A week after Luca’s first EVA, he was headed back into space with astronaut Chris Cassidy for EVA 23.

LUCA PARMITANO: EVA 23 was more of a hodgepodge of activities. One of the main objectives for me was to lay out some cables. Once I connected these cables and before continuing on to another part of the task, I had a little side task, which was to go into a location that is a little bit wedged in between modules. And they wanted to know my opinion as to an astronaut’s capability to get into that position and actually perform operations like installing  equipment and so on, and Chris could see me. And I remember him telling me, “Yeah, you’re pretty wedged down there.” As soon as I was done, and I was in the most uncomfortable position that … that was it—that was the end of the task. I started moving back, and that’s when I first felt the water on the back of my head.

KATY MILKMAN: Now remember, water behaves differently in space’s micro-gravity environment. It won’t just run down the back of your head or face. Instead, it sticks to your skin as a gel-like blob.

LUCA PARMITANO: When I felt that water in the back, and it felt more than just a couple of drops of maybe water from the system return or the cooling, then I knew there was something that I had to report. And that’s what I did.

KATY MILKMAN: While the astronauts and ground control tried to determine the source of the water, Luca remained calm.

LUCA PARMITANO: My biggest concern was that this was going to be a nuisance. I was concerned that the water would get into the ears, into the ear cups. And if the water goes in there, it may cover the microphones.

KATY MILKMAN: This could cause a dangerous failure of the communication headset, but Luca wanted to finish the work he and Chris had set out to do.

LUCA PARMITANO: I thought, are they going to cut my EVA short? I was really worried about that possibility because I really just wanted to keep going and finish my job. I was thinking, did I cause this? Did I hit something? Did I … was I too rough handling my space suit? And did I break something in the back that I cannot see? I just wanted to do my job, and I wanted ground to find a solution to stop this so that I could keep going back to what I was doing.

KATY MILKMAN: They still couldn’t identify the water source. They knew it wasn’t leaking from the drink bag. Luca drank all the water until the bag was dry, but the water was still increasing in his helmet.

LUCA PARMITANO: So the bag is dry now, yeah.

CHRIS: Bag is empty now, and there’s something less than a liter in the back of his head.

KATY MILKMAN: About an hour into the space walk and around 15 minutes after Luca first reported the water in his suit, ground control decided to terminate the EVA and have Luca and Chris return to their spacecraft.

SPEAKER 5: Hi, Chris and Luca, just for you guys. Based on what we heard with Luca saying that water’s in his eyes now and it seems to be increasing, we think we’re going to terminate EVA case for EV 2.

KATY MILKMAN: The astronauts were on separate tethers that kept them each attached to the space station. So Luca was on his own to get back to the airlock.

LUCA PARMITANO: As I started back, I had to maneuver my whole body into an upside-down position compared to my original orientation, because I had to go through an area which has a lot of delicate pieces of equipment. There’re antennas. There’s oxygen tanks. When I did that maneuver, it’s when the sun went down. And sunsets are not quite the same on the space station as they are on earth because of our relative speed of 20,000 kilometers an hour, a sunset lasts about maybe 30 seconds from light to full darkness. One minute you have light—you see everything—and then there’s nothing.

And when I did that maneuver going upside-down, the water, maybe because of my motion, sloshed around the helmet, covered my face. It went over my nose and inside my nose, and then it went inside my ears. And so I was upside-down, very disoriented because all at once, I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I couldn’t see anything, and I had water up my nose. I called for Chris telling him, “Hey, Chris, I think I’m disoriented. I think I’m a little bit lost.” Chris didn’t hear me. Ground didn’t hear me. When I called the inside of the space station, they couldn’t hear me either. At that point I was outside, isolated. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t see anything. Nobody could hear me, and I was a little bit lost.

KATY MILKMAN: Luca thought through his limited options. If he stayed put, Chris would come and get him when he saw Luca wasn’t at the airlock.

LUCA PARMITANO: But I didn’t know if I had enough time. And I didn’t know whether the breath that I was drawing through my mouth was going to be the last one because I didn’t know how much water was getting inside my helmet. If I actually did get water over my mouth and I couldn’t breathe anymore, I was going to open one valve that we have in the helmet, trying to maybe divert some of the water. And if that didn’t work, we have a second valve, which is much bigger on the center of our space suit.

If you open that valve, you create a pretty big hole that will open up our emergency oxygen system. Before you open that you want to be really sure that you can get back in time because you only have about 30 minutes of oxygen once you open that valve, so you don’t want to create a bigger problem. But those were things that I had in mind. I was like, OK, get back. If you can’t breathe, open this valve. If you cannot breathe, open the second valve and try to get back to the airlock. If you pass out in the airlock, that’s OK. Chris will come in, close the hatch, and repressurize.

KATY MILKMAN: Luca managed to travel the 100 feet or so back to the airlock.

LUCA PARMITANO: The first thing that came out of my helmet was when I was right next to the airlock and ground heard me saying, “I’m at the airlock, and I’m ready to go inside.” I’m at the airlock. And then I said, “There’s a lot of water.” There’s a lot of water.

KATY MILKMAN: Inside the illuminated airlock, Luca could see a little more clearly. Chris joined him a few minutes later and closed the airlock as astronaut Karen Nyberg started the repressurizing process from inside the station.

LUCA PARMITANO: Technically that would’ve been the end of the emergency. The problem was that while Karen was repressurizing, because I had so much water in my nose, I could not compensate. I couldn’t blow into my nose to blow my ears. When you’re landing from an airplane, your ears start hurting, then you kind of swallow or blow your nose so then you pop your ears—I couldn’t do that. For about 15 minutes, I was in incredible pain because my ears hurt so much. And I couldn’t hear anything at all.

CHRIS: Luca, are you all right?

LUCA PARMITANO: I couldn’t hear instructions from Karen. I couldn’t hear calls from the ground.

 

LUCA PARMITANO: At one point, I felt Chris squeezing my hand, and I just replied in the most human possible way—I squeezed back. And at the time Chris was checking on me and verifying that I was OK and he was telling the ground, “I can see him. He squeezed my hand. He looks miserable, but he’s OK.” I can tell you that the moment I saw the inner hatch opening, and I saw the faces of my crewmates, especially Karen. Karen was the first face I saw. The worry on her face was so obvious that it moved me. I thought my crewmate is really worried about me.

KATY MILKMAN: Thankfully, Luca was all right, but the incident is regarded as NASA’s most dangerous EVA in history.

LUCA PARMITANO: During the emergency itself, there’s really not a lot of time to be scared. Fear is not something that you can use at the time, or it’s not part of your baggage of emotions, not in that moment. There’s no space for that. There’s no time for it. But at the end I felt relief a lot. Incredible sense of relief and love for my crewmates. Feeling their emotions and seeing them on their faces.

KATY MILKMAN: Luca Parmitano is an astronaut with the European Space Agency and a colonel in the Italian Air Force. You can find more information about what has been called the scariest wardrobe malfunction in NASA history in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

It’s not a stretch to say that Luca Parmitano could have drowned in his space suit. Luckily, the mission crew and ground control engineers narrowly avoided disaster. It was such a serious event, though, that NASA launched an investigation. Chris Hansen spearheaded it. He’s a NASA EVA office manager. The investigation determined the cause of the water in Luca’s space suit. It turns out that it was due to a problem with the space suit’s water-cooling filtration system.

But what’s most interesting to me about the story from a behavioral science perspective is what happened after the previous EVA. You’ll recall that Luca noticed a water leak during his first space walk, EVA 22. That leak was reported to engineers on the ground, but because it seemed like a minor leak, and since water bag leaks had occurred before, engineers chalked it up to a faulty bag. The NASA investigation looked into why the source of the water wasn’t further interrogated after Luca’s first EVA. Chris Hansen stated in a NASA presentation on the incident that “Anyone in this organization could have prevented this mishap with a very simple question: How do you know the drink bag leaked?”

It seems like a simple question, but it demonstrates the importance of examining basic assumptions. It can be efficient to assume certain things when a problem presents itself in a way that resembles past ones. Remember that other water bags have leaked in the past, for example. But in the unforgiving environment of space, it can be life-threatening to not fully interrogate those problems. In that same presentation, Chris Hansen stated that, “Human nature can lead to a tendency to rely on patterns.”

The NASA engineers relied too heavily on the pattern of leaking water bags. Their past experience blinded them to the source of the current problem. Of course, in hindsight, it seems like an obvious error, but it’s a very common occurrence. Think of certain processes, maybe at your workplace, where the reason for accepting an answer is simply, that’s what caused this before. It’s tempting to accept the simplest explanation or the first one that occurs to you because it’s familiar. But as with the case of Luca’s space suit malfunction, it’s not always the best approach. If everyone involved in this incident had thought more scientifically and interrogated their assumptions more thoroughly, Luca’s life might never have been put in jeopardy. Sometimes it’s critically important to question basic assumptions.

A version of Luca Parmitano’s harrowing story appears in Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, a podcast host, and a colleague of mine at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is all about applying scientific thinking to everyday life. He joined me from his home outside of Philadelphia. Hi, Adam, thank you so much for joining me.

ADAM GRANT: Hey, Katy, glad to be here.

KATY MILKMAN: The first question I wanted to ask you related to your amazing new book is if you could describe what it means to think like a scientist?

ADAM GRANT: Sure. This is inspired in part by our colleague Phil Tetlock’s brilliant work. The basic idea is that we slip into different mental modes when we’re thinking and talking on a daily basis. And what we don’t realize is we often slip into thinking like different professions that we’ve never worked in. Phil talked about them in terms of being a preacher, a prosecutor, a politician, and a scientist. And I think this contrast is such a powerful thing to think about. When you’re in preacher mode, you’re basically trying to defend your sacred values, and you believe you’ve already found the truth. When you’re in prosecutor mode, you’re trying to win your case, which means proving the other side wrong and decimating whatever counter-arguments might come to mind. When you’re in politician mode, you’re a little bit more flexible because you’re trying to appeal to whatever your base of constituents is, but you’re really just campaigning for support or approval.

And I think it’s when we get into scientist mode that we do the most honest and also the most valid thinking and also rethinking of our opinions because when you think like a scientist, what you’re basically doing is you’re treating your beliefs not as truths but as hunches. You’re saying, “OK, I have this assumption or an opinion, and that’s really just a hypothesis, and so I could try to figure out what data do I need or what experiments should I run to try to test whether that hypothesis is true or false.” And that makes it really easy to avoid confirmation bias because you’re not looking for only information that confirms your pre-existing expectations. You’re not only seeing what you want to see; you’re actually looking for information that might challenge your convictions, and that leaves you much more open to learning as a result. We could talk a lot more about how that works and some of the specific studies that bear this out, but hopefully that’s a general answer to your question.

KATY MILKMAN: It’s wonderful, and I love the reference to confirmation bias because we’ve covered that on the show before. It’s wonderful to start thinking about solutions to biases as opposed to just diving into what’s wrong with our brains. And that’s one of the things I love about the book. I would love to talk a little bit about some of the evidence that suggests thinking in a scientific mindset can be better than other kinds of thinking for making sound decisions. Could you talk a little bit about some of the research that shows that?

ADAM GRANT: One of my favorite studies is a study of Italian entrepreneurs who are basically taught to think about their companies like scientists. And this is sort of an odd thing to do with entrepreneurs, right? “Hey, you’re a businessperson. You know what? We want you to put on the scientist goggles and imagine that whatever strategy you’re pursuing in your company is actually just a hypothesis. And then the product that you’re creating, that’s an experiment and you want to figure out, OK, based on how the product launch, went was this hypothesis true or false?” In the study, founders are randomly assigned to either think about their company like a scientist or to be in a control group where they learn all the same knowledge, but they’re not asked to put on the scientist goggles. And over the next few months, the founders who are randomly assigned to think like scientists do dramatically better.

They bring in substantially more revenue, and that turns out to be largely because they’re more willing to pivot. Once they think like a scientist, they’re not trapped in this mode of preaching that their existing strategy is always right or their critics and naysayers are always wrong and deserve to be prosecuted for that, right? They’re not caught up in politicking and saying, “OK, I’ve got to please my most important board member, or I have to cater to the preferences of my most important investor,” right?

They’re in this rigorous mindset of saying, “All right, you know what? I’ve got to figure out what data would I need to find out whether my strategy is working, whether my minimum viable product is going to be a hit or not,” and lo and behold, they’re a lot more likely when they’re trained to think like scientists to falsify their hypothesis and say, “You know what? That was a terrible strategy! And that minimum viable product was actually not at all viable. Let me rethink that and go back to the drawing board,” which of course makes them more mentally flexible, more curious, more humble, and that is ultimately good for building a successful business.

KATY MILKMAN: I love that study, and I’m so glad it’s the one that you focused on. As I was reading, I got curious about what you would say some of the top concrete actions are that you’d suggest anyone listening might try if they want to employ a scientific mindset when they’re making key life decisions. Sort of, what are the instructions they should have in mind besides just thinking like a scientist.

ADAM GRANT: There are so many. It’s hard to know where to start, Katy. I think …

KATY MILKMAN: How about your top two?

ADAM GRANT: I should really turn this around on you and say, you think like a scientist, how do you do it?

KATY MILKMAN: You’re using the Socratic method on me—this is rough. I’m not used to this in podcast hostess mode. That is one of the things I was thinking about actually as I was reading your book and reading this particular study is, like, what would I pull out? And I thought of two things—I’m curious if you agree with them. One of the things that I thought about was focusing on generating hypotheses—I think that’s a really important part of being a scientist. And the other thing I thought of, what you’ve already highlighted, is letting data answer rather than your desires or hopes. Those both leapt out at me. I’m curious, though, what you think of those and if you have others.

ADAM GRANT: I think those are great places to start, and I’m not here to judge your answer, Katy. This is just what you get when you invite a fellow podcast host onto your podcast. I’m like, “No, I want to be the one asking the questions and learning here.” Thank you for letting me turn the tables. I would just build on your observations and say a couple of things. I think one of the biggest mistakes that we make that keeps us from thinking like scientists is we start to attach, especially our deep-seated convictions to our identities. And we’ve obviously seen this a lot in the political sphere over the last three, four years. But I think it happens in every part of our life, where once we decide something is true, it’s really easy for that to become part of who we are. And I think it’s extremely important to separate our opinions from our identity and say, look, when you formulate an identity, when you have a sense of who you are, I think that should be much more about what you value than what you believe.

When I think about my identity, I would say, look, my core values are generosity, excellence, integrity, freedom. And I’m very open about what kinds of life’s decisions, what kinds of views will best allow me to live those values. And I think that it would be helpful if more people thought that way. The other thing that I’ve increasingly found useful is … this is something I actually learned from one of the superforecasters in the book, Jean-Pierre Beugoms, who I think by the data is the world’s best election forecaster and anticipated the nomination of Donald Trump to be the Republican candidate for president back in November 2015.

And he’s had a lot of success forecasting a whole range of elections around the world. And one of the things that Jean-Pierre does is when he forms an opinion, he makes a list of the conditions under which he would change his mind. And so he’s holding himself accountable upfront to update his views as new information comes, as opposed to saying, “Well, I can always move the goalposts,” and then getting too attached to what he already believes. And that’s something I’ve actually started doing is, when I start to think that a hypothesis might be true, I will then make a list of, OK, here are three or four circumstances that I think are plausible, where I might actually rethink my opinion here.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s great. And by the way, brings up memories that sting for me of labeling people as flip-floppers, too. Had updated their beliefs when new information came around and using that as a dirty word, but I think your book makes a really nice argument for why it should just be the opposite. We should be particularly impressed by people who are willing to move away from their convictions when new evidence suggests they were wrong.

ADAM GRANT: Yeah, I think, Katy, that’s such a fascinating thing to think about because I’ve landed at a much more nuanced perspective on the idea of flip-flopping than I had when I started writing Think Again. Originally I thought, basically flip-floppers are hypocrites, and then I decided I was going to write this book, and my view evolved, and I said, “OK, this is actually a sign that you’re willing to learn, right?” If you change your mind it means you’ve grown, you’ve evolved, that’s a good thing. And I mostly agree with that perspective, but the nuance comes in where I care about why you’ve changed your mind, right?

If you’ve changed your mind because you’re in politician mode and you’re catering to your tribe, then that doesn’t count as growth, right? I want you to change your mind because you’re in scientist mode and you believe that you have better information now, that you’re actually driven by truth rather than tribe. And so I think as long as you’re changing your mind because you actually have discovered more credible, more rigorous information as opposed to, you’re just trying to fit into the crowd or you’re trying to render an unpredictable world a little bit more sane, I think we can count that as progress.

KATY MILKMAN: Adam this was so great—thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

ADAM GRANT: Delighted. Thank you for having me Katy, and thank you for doing such an outstanding job explaining so many of the mysteries of decision-making and human behavior to your audience.

KATY MILKMAN: Adam Grant is the Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the host of the popular TED podcast WorkLife. His latest book is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I have links to the book and his WorkLife podcast in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Mark Riepe, host of the Financial Decoder podcast. We discussed some of the barriers to change from my new book, How to Change, including how they apply to your saving and investing habits—and how you can use the lessons of behavioral science to help overcome them. You can listen to that interview at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you get your podcasts.           

Confirmation bias is a pernicious error in judgment that leads us to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs and assumptions while ignoring or underweighting evidence that conflicts with those views. We talked about it in a previous episode of Choiceology. What’s so interesting to me about the story of Luca Parmitano’s space walk is that despite all of the NASA scientists involved and the strict protocols designed to ensure astronaut safety, confirmation bias trumped scientific thinking. But Adam Grant’s wonderful new book argues one way we can reduce the odds we’ll fall victim to confirmation bias is by adopting a more scientific mindset. Rather than simply accepting assumptions as givens, scientists interrogate the world around them, thinking skeptically and seeking proof before accepting conclusions. Adam told us about research showing that merely instructing entrepreneurs to adopt this mindset drastically improved their outcomes. Of course, you don’t have to be an entrepreneur or an astronaut to use scientific thinking in your own life.

You can still generate hypotheses and analyze the everyday challenges you may be facing. Can’t get your vegetable garden to cooperate? That’s an opportunity to test your assumptions about the soil you’re using or the light exposure or maybe the way you’re planting or even the seeds you’re buying. Maybe you’re having a hard time falling asleep at night. You could consult a book on how to improve sleep and consider a few days without caffeine or try using a sleep mask or turning the temperature down in your room. When we approach problems with an eye towards learning and pressure-test our conclusions, we can often find better solutions. Of course, small problems like choosing a disappointing ice cream flavor probably aren’t worth interrogating, but for life’s biggest problems, asking yourself to think like a scientist may have real benefits. Science, even homemade science, is one of the best ways to get a better view of reality.

That’s it for this season of Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts—it helps other people find the show. You can also subscribe for free in your favorite podcasting app. We’ll have new episodes for you in the fall. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at katymilkman.com/newsletter. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.

SPEAKER 7: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.

Important Disclosures

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions.

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