You Are Not So Smart

A celebration of self-delusion.

Maslow's Hammer

Are we entering a new phase in anthropology?

In psychology, they call it Maslow's Hammer.

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who loved human beings. He wanted his branch of science to put as much effort into thinking about what made people happy as it put into contemplating the sources of mental sickness and categorizing the flora and fauna of the disturbed mind. In the 1960s, he wrote a book about the dangers of reductionism in psychology.

Maslow knew that researchers tended to dig and dig until they got down to the nitty gritty and eventually explained the nature of a thing at the smallest level possible. It made him queasy to think of people in that way. Holistic mental health, personal growth, self actualization—that was Maslow. He knew the human mind was a complex thing, and that scientists often sought an understanding of complex things by documenting their atomic and chemical cogs and gears. That approach worked well when studying galaxies or metabolism or fault lines. When it came to the human mind, he felt there was a need for science to spend time on the big picture—the weather patterns of human behavior that emerge from the butterfly wings flapping at the level of synapses and axons.

It was unclear at the time how one might study the nature of things like curiosity, altruism, compassion, and humor in an empirical, measurable way. Some believed those things might be better left to metaphysics and left out of hard science. Maslow saw that as a handicap. He compared it to an automatic car wash, which is a minor marvel that can only be considered marvelous in one context—washing cars. In the same paragraph he wrote, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

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Fast forward to San Francisco on Saturday, where I heard neuroscientist David Eaglemen point out to an audience member that even though we are learning more and more about what is "under the hood" of human consciousness, it might not tell us what we most want to know about ourselves. Buddhist monks can train themselves to control blood flow into specific limbs and alter their own heartbeat with meditation, but "they are just dipping their toes into the ocean of the unconscious," said Eagleman, who added that even if you could become so self-aware you could deep dive into the unconscious mind, the thoughts and emotions down there might look like machine language. You wouldn't be able to understand it. As he explained, it would be like monitoring a transistor in a computer to better understand why a YouTube video was funny.

I heard Eagleman say this at Being Human 2012, a conference I think would have put Maslow at ease about quantifying consciousness. As promoted, the meeting was an attempt to grab hold of the slippery fish that is the modern science of the mind and smash the reductionists into the abstract thinkers, the neuroscientists into the philosophers, the psychologists against the poets and see what spun away.

You got the sense at Being Human that "a new phase in anthropology," is upon us, as suggested by philosopher Thomas Metzinger during one of the dialogues. Earlier, he gave a talk about avatars and how scientists are able to transfer a person's sense of self into a rubber glove, among other things. He later said he believed the insights of neurologists, primatologists, psychologists, biologists, and the rest of science are coalescing into what Metzinger called "a new image of man." The synthesis of these, he asserted, will eventually be common knowledge. A thousand scientific shoulders are pushing law and ethics, entertainment and opinion forward into the new normal.

I think this is true, but that might be because of something Maslow's Hammer is sometimes likened to, a form of confirmation bias called déformation professionnelle. It's a play on words, French words, that describes how you often see the world through the narrow lens of your profession. If you are a biologist, bodies are gene-replicating devices. If you are a physicist, the brain is made of atoms formed in a star. If you are an astronomer, the Earth is a pale blue dot. If you write a blog that became a book called You Are Not So Smart, you get invited to conferences about the human experience and see it as a sign that your book is a pebble in a rockslide. You see a mass epiphany, people everywhere seeing the human experience in terms of illusions, delusions, foibles, vestigial evolutionary strategies and other hand-me-downs. Books like How We Decide, Phantoms in the Brain, Incognito, and others are the boulders in that same rockslide tumbling after Malcolm Gladwell's bestsellers that tumbled after the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that rest at the bottom of a mountain with Thinking Fast and Slow arriving at the top of that heap moments ago. If you think something like that, then the audience of Being Human confirmed in you that there exists a human potential movement version 2.0, finally turning to data for answers after simultaneously abandoning the squishy thinking of new age pretensions and the pre-science assumptions of religion.

In his book, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance, Maslow wrote, "Being a full human being is difficult, frightening, and problematical," and he described a sense he had that psychology, in his time, was the most hated and feared of the sciences because it threatened the ego of the human species. It was, as he put it, like when Copernicus moved man from the center of the cosmos to one corner. Later, that position would be further moved from the corner to, as Carl Sagan put it, "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." Similarly, in his time the reductionists were taking away the special properties of the human mind—the self and love and compassion and empathy—and turning those things into basic chemistry.

Maslow created the hierarchy of needs, the most well-known group hug in all of science. So, I think it makes sense that he would be afraid of reduction because it usually leads to determinism. At the lowest levels, everything becomes math, and once you know the math, you can just plug in the formulas and watch the systems play out.

Maslow's Hammer predicted the scientific method would reduce our minds to something quantifiable, and what meaning could be derived from that, what understanding of ourselves? V.S. Ramachandran said on Saturday that the conversation taking place on stage was, before the Big Bang, already present in a simpler form inside a single point in space. It was perhaps the most reductionist statement one could ever make about the human experience, yet no one gasped, no one fainted in the aisle. We used to all be one thing, and now we are another. Beautiful.

Anne Harrington pointed out on Saturday that at most universities the humanities and psychology are studied in the same buildings on one side of campus. The hard sciences, the ones with all the math, are studied on the other side. Maslow feared what might happen when the reductionists eventually blended with the social scientists. Harrington said the time for those sorts of thoughts had passed. If Being Human was truly evidence of a new movement in anthropology reaching critical mass, and that assumption is not just a case of my own mind experiencing déformation professionnelle, then Maslow's fears were unfounded. The neuroscientists met the philosophers and laughed at each other's jokes. The poet read aloud, and the expert on cultural cognition was moved.


You can watch the two talks from the conference on Perception here, skip to 7:29 to get past the introductions: (, and the three talks on Mental Representation are here, no need to skip ahead: (

Maslow's The Psychology of Science


David McRaney is a journalist who loves psychology, technology and the internet.


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