The Elephant in the Room

I was half way through my Engineering degree when I realised that I should have been doing something else. I probably felt it as an epiphany, but looking back I can definitely say it was just another case of the elephant in the room. I had always known I should be doing something else and that something else was Psychology, but I had chosen to ignore it until it was no longer possible… Well, no longer possible is a clear overstatement, because I not only ended up finishing my Engineering degree, but I’ve managed to work several years as an Engineer.

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Wanting Less

The event is called La Ciudad de Las Ideas (The City of Ideas, in English) and it takes place every year in Puebla, México. Here a few of the most brilliant minds of the planet get together to debate new ideas and paradigms.

One of the 2011 presentations was about the “paradox of choice“. In this, the psychologist Barry J. Schwartz introduced the concepts of maximisers and satisficers to distinguish to types of people. The so-called maximisers are never happy with the options that take and always look for more and better alternatives. These people earn more money and get to top positions in their careers. On the other hand, they are more restless and unhappy. On the other side, the satisficers do not look for the best option, but simply one that satisfies them. Their salaries and job positions are lower, but they are, in general, happier.

This is maybe just an old idea dressed with new clothes. It is, in any case, a brilliant idea that should be kept alive.

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(Note: this post was initially published in Portuguese in

Me and Myself

In 1984 Piaget developed the Three Mountain Task to test up to what age children have an egocentric view of the world. In this task children are shown a model with three mountains of different sizes and a doll seated at one of the sides. Next, children are asked to select among different drawings that drawing that represents what the doll sees. Piaget found out that children up to seven years of age select the drawing that represents their own point of view.

As adults we are able to imagine what other people see; we know that different positions generate different perspectives. However, everything seems to change when we need to imagine how others think and feel. In this case, we often act like Piaget’s children and imagine that others think and feel the same we do. If, on one side, this egocentrism avoids the paralysis of analysis, on the other side it drive us to take decisions that quickly convert, at the eyes of others, in bad intentions.

Three Mountain Task
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(Note: this post was initially published in Portuguese in

The Confirmation Bias

In psychology, the term “confirmation bias” identifies the tendency to give importance to information that confirms our point of view, minimising information that supports other points of view. We all like to be right and, possibly because of that, we all suffer from this bias. Moreover, in our day-to-day living, we often do not have time to explore all options, and, in the end, we chose to see only those that make our lives easier in the short run.

However, there are situations where this bias is served to us in a silver looking tray. In this case, the bias is not as much from the person who consumes it, as it is from the person serving it, that affected by ignorance or armed with bad intentions, presents it as the truth and nothing but the truth.

Here is an example: governments  in certain countries have recently decided to make labour laws more flexible and layoffs easier to execute. Although this is probably a correct argument, they’ve left out of this discussion other factors without which it makes no sense to talk about flexibility, namely the fact that salaries also need to be adjusted to the cost of living, so that people can still be prepared to honour their agreements in the case of unemployment.

Confirmation Bias
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(Note: this post was initially published in Portuguese in

Do I Tell You a Story?

In one of his books, Jorge Bucay – an Argentinian gestalt psychotherapist, psychodramatist and writer – tells the story of a man who buys a pair of shoes which are two sizes too small. Still in the shoe store, he tries them out and, with a lot of difficulty, walks off. Some hours later, already in its workplace, his face is red and tears are starting to role down his cheeks.

– What is happening? – one of his colleagues asks.

– It’s the shoes. They are two sizes too small and are killing my feet.

– And so, why do you wear them?

– Well… It’s true that with these shoes I suffer like hell, but can you imagine the relief I will feel what I get home and take them off? Oh! What a pleasure!

I’m not sure if is a biological mechanism, or a moral imposition, or a market rule that makes us progress as a species, but condemned us to only appreciate those things that come with a cost. I have however the sensation that having simple pleasures would take us the same way – slower, that’s a guarantee – but with a lot less suffering.

Pain in the foot
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(Note: this post was initially published in Portuguese in

In an Election Day

[…] By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct.

– Le Bon, G. (1895). The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

Only as individuals we are human – this is how I prefer to read Le Bon’s words. It’s a soft interpretation that also allows for an optimistic corollary: the group has the potential to give the individual a super-human capacity. There is, however, two sine qua non conditions: first, the individual should be capable of thinking; second the individual should be prepared to change their own thoughts.

Thinking is a lonely business that only truly happens when we are free from the shackles of the group. Only the Individual thinks and only the thinking Individual has an opinion. Opinions, however, will have more strength if the group finds in them a meaning. The group is also responsible for challenging opinions and finding new meanings.

Possibly this is what is missing in today’s democracies: we want to think in group what we cannot think individually.

rainbow umbrella concept
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(Note: this post was initially published in Portuguese in