The Value of Emotional Thinking — Leonard Mlodinow
The Value of Emotional Thinking — Leonard Mlodinow
As the saying goes: “Think with your head, not your heart.” Emotion is widely considered as something that clouds judgement. Theoretical physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow turned that idea on its head in his new book, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. In this episode, Mlodinow and host Charles Mizrahi discuss how emotions can enhance our thought processes and improve decision-making.
- An Introduction to Leonard Mlodinow (00:00:00)
- The Value of Emotional Thinking (00:04:47)
- Life or Death Situations (00:12:25)
- Unconscious Mental Processing (00:17:49)
- Defining Emotion (00:19:34)
- Animal Versus Human Thinking (00:24:31)
- KAL Disaster and WWIII (00:28:52)
- Unconscious Decision-Making (00:37:33)
- Biased Decision-Making (00:45:54)
- Managing Emotions (00:51:00)
Leonard Mlodinow, Ph.D., is a theoretical physicist and New York Times best-selling author. He is recognized for making groundbreaking discoveries in his field. Mlodinow has written for TV shows, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, designed games with Steven Spielberg and Robin Williams and taught at the California Institute of Technology and the Max Planck Institute in Munich.
In addition, Mlodinow has co-authored bestselling books with Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra. And his books The Drunkard’s Walk and Subliminal won the Robert P. Balles Prize for Critical Thinking and the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, respectively.
Before You Leave:
LEONARD MLODINOW: Without emotions, you wouldn’t be motivated to even get up or do anything. They’re useful. They’re vital for your existence. And so, you should not fight them. But there are times when you should manage them and learn how to do that. Always be mindful and aware. Try to be aware of the emotions that you’re feeling and how [they’re] affecting your thinking.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Leonard Mlodinow. Leonard is a theoretical physicist and author, recognized for groundbreaking discoveries in physics. He’s the author of 11 books — of which five have become bestsellers. Conventional wisdom says that thinking and feeling are separate and opposing forces in our behavior. Leonard’s latest book, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, flips the script on what we thought we knew about emotions.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In his book, Leonard writes about the extraordinary advances in psychology and neuroscience that have proven emotions are as critical to our well-being as thinking. I recently sat down with Leonard, and we talked about how understanding our emotions can help us make sense of our frustration, fear and anxiety and lead to living a happier life.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Leonard, thanks so much for being on the show. I greatly appreciate it. I read this book over the weekend — it’s a top-shelf, great book. The name of the book is Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. Leonard, welcome to the show.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Thanks. Happy to be here.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, Leonard, you wrote 11 books?
LEONARD MLODINOW: I did — 11 plus two children’s books. I started out writing one for fun and just kept going.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you’re a scientist, right? A theoretical physicist? Where did you learn these writing skills? I’m reading the book, and it sounds like you majored in English literature. The words flow really well, the stories are great and there are no big words. I could understand it. How did you learn that?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Well, I think that you can tell a lot about the adult from the child. And in my case, I started writing short stories in third grade. I used to bring them in, and the school librarian would always read them, talk to me about them and encourage me. I thought it was fun starting that.
LEONARD MLODINOW: At the same time, I got my interest in math and science. So, I think I’ve had those interests. And over the years, I have found ways to express them and make a living off of them. I found ways to engage every day in what I like to do. So, I’ve been very lucky.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Outstanding — a scientist who can write and I can understand. That’s amazing. So, out of your 11 books, five are bestsellers? That’s a pretty good hit rate, huh?
LEONARD MLODINOW: That’s not bad. I’m happy with it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Which ones were the bestsellers? What was the most recent bestseller?
LEONARD MLODINOW: One was one of the other psychology books, Subliminal — about your unconscious mind and how that affects your life and your experiences in ways that you’re not aware of. Another was The Drunkard’s Walk, which was about randomness in life and had a similar theme about how a lot of things in your life are due to randomness, luck or bad luck, and you don’t realize it. I’m not talking about obvious things like whether or not you win the lottery — but even subtle things. So, that was a big seller.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Two books with Stephen Hawking were bestsellers, of course. One was A Briefer History of Time. He first contacted me about that book because he was looking for someone to rework A Brief History of Time to make it more understandable. And he had read two of my other books. So, we rewrote that.
LEONARD MLODINOW: After that, we had so much fun that we decided to write an original book together — which was actually much harder and took much longer. That was called The Grand Design — about the origin of the universe, whether it could have come from nothing, and what that means about creation and God.
LEONARD MLODINOW: And I wrote a book with Deepak Chopra on the other end of the spectrum. It was a metaphysics book. We were debating each other — because we’re friends. But we have wildly different beliefs in what’s going on in the universe. So, that was another one.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Outstanding, man. OK, I’ll tell you what interests me about this book. The name of the book is Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. You really flip the script. Conventional wisdom has always said that thinking and feeling are two separate and opposing forces.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: After being in the finance business and managing money for a zillion years, I’ve found that you are always trying to suppress your emotional side and stay rational and logical. Let the facts and analysis make the decision for you instead of your gut or emotions such as fear and greed.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But you found a new way of doing things that’s based on a lot of science. And I will go through a lot of the examples because some of them are really amazing. You came at it from a different angle.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah, in fact, several points that you just covered are exactly the opposite of what I say you should do. For example, the suppression of emotion is probably the worst thing you can do when you have [it]. If you have an unwanted emotion, there are other ways to get around it than trying to suppress it — which doesn’t work and just drives you crazy.
LEONARD MLODINOW: In the book, I quoted a study about traders in the finance world. The studies show that those who are more in touch with their emotions and don’t try to suppress their emotions — but use other ways of either managing them, learning from them or using them in their decision-making — did much better. And they were the more successful, senior-level people.
LEONARD MLODINOW: The older version of the theory of emotion comes from Charles Darwin. It was there before him — this idea of the separation of the rational and the emotional mind. But he really created the first scientific theory of emotion. And that’s what people believed, more or less, until around the last 10 years.
LEONARD MLODINOW: The theory is based on the idea that there are certain basic emotions, and each of those are separate from each other. Also, they have distinct triggers — so this will always trigger that, X will trigger fear and Y will trigger sadness. Those [basic emotions] are set. They’re universal among cultures. And in the years after Darwin, it was also added that certain specific parts of the brain control each one.
LEONARD MLODINOW: We found out that all four of those [ideas] are wrong. The concept of emotion is much more complex — both in the brain and in our experience — than people used to think. This division between emotional thinking and logical, rational analysis is not only wrong — it’s counterproductive. If we try to do that, it’s counterproductive. In reality, the way your brain works is that they’re intertwined. They’re part of the same information process, and you can’t really separate them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, it’s a different way to process information. Let me give you an example. Throughout my whole business career, anytime I made any investment, I realized that emotions would kill me. If the market was plunging and I saw a buying opportunity, instead of panicking, I tried to keep those emotions in check and execute the order to buy — which is extremely hard. It’s hard to go against your fear and greed. It’s an amygdala hijack. All of the sudden, you freak out, so you try to suppress it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But as I’m thinking about what you’re saying. I remember that George Soros, when he would make a major trade and start getting a backache, said: “My emotional side is coming.” And he’d start to listen to that. Also, in the book The Snowball — Warren Buffett’s biography — Alice Schroeder wrote that when [Buffett] put on a trade and his back started to hurt, he knew something was up.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, I guess this whole thing of being a machine is not so much about being a machine. It’s that these great investors found a way to channel their emotional sides so that they enhanced their rational thinking. Would that be fair to say?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah, it is. And there is so much of what you said to unpack. Let me go back to one of the words you used earlier: “panic.” Panic is not a good thing. There are situations in which your emotions get out of control or become counterproductive. It’s just like with your vision. Vision isn’t always right on. Sometimes, you have optical illusions. Sometimes, you have malfunctioning vision. And one reason that emotions get a bad reputation is that some of the malfunctions are quite dramatic. People talk about them and feel as if emotions are bad for you.
LEONARD MLODINOW: But other than those isolated instances — or people with certain disorders where their emotions are typically out of control — the emotions are helping you in all the decisions that you make.
LEONARD MLODINOW: In fact, in the book, I talk about how you wouldn’t even get off your chair or open your mouth to talk or eat without emotions feeding into that. So, the Soros example is great because it embodies how this works — that your unconscious mind has a great deal of complex data that it’s always analyzing, and you’re not even aware of it on a conscious level. And your emotions take that into account.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Your emotions are tightly connected to your body. I have a whole chapter on the mind-body connection. In his case, his mind had created some doubts — based on this complex data and on his past experience — that he wasn’t even aware of. It was causing bodily changes, and he was smart enough to pay attention to them.
LEONARD MLODINOW: But in general — not just when you’re getting a backache — when you make decisions, once you get your panic under control, a good amount of fear about what you’re going to do can help you. Fear can make you more careful. So, without any fear, you might make bad decisions because you’ll undervalue risk. Now, you can always give a computer all this information to let it make decisions for people. But for the way that people make decisions, the emotional component is inextricable. And it’s really useful.
LEONARD MLODINOW: A study I quoted earlier showed that the stock traders who were not in control of their emotions didn’t do well. But those who were in control and in touch with their emotions — and didn’t try to suppress them — did the best. That shows that the best decision-making comes with a certain amount of emotion. But you have to be mature and in charge enough to manage your emotions.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, excellent. That brings me to a point in the book that I want to talk about. And I want you to elaborate on it because I thought it was so striking. In World War II, your father chose not to go on a truck, and it didn’t end well for the people who did. There was no logical reason for why he didn’t go on it. I’m going to let you tell that story in just a second.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But I do recall someone that I knew years ago. He fought in the 1967 war in Israel. He was climbing up the Golan Heights — which were totally exposed to Syrian bombardment. They were shooting. There was no cover. These guys were crawling up. People were being picked off left and right. He showed me his pair of pants — which was amazing. He was lying down, crawling up on his belly, and then, for some reason — he doesn’t know why to this day — he stood up.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: A moment later, a bullet whizzed through his pants, which would have been where his head was at, and killed the guy next to him who was crawling up. He ran up, was saved and lived to tell the story. And he goes: “I don’t know what made me do that.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now, reading about your father choosing not to go in the truck and the mind-body connection — it’s coming into focus. Do you want to elaborate on that? Because I found it absolutely amazing.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Well, one of the components that your brain uses to create the emotions that you end up feeling is called core affect. That’s a report on the state of your body. It has two aspects — the valence and arousal. Valence means positive or negative, and arousal is the strength of the signal.
LEONARD MLODINOW: What your body does in creating the core affect is it reads the physical state of your body — of all the areas of your body and of your surroundings — and whether there’s any threats in the environment. Is it too cold out there? Are you starting to shiver? Too warm? Or, are you in a situation where you’ll survive? And that feeds into your emotion.
LEONARD MLODINOW: It works on an unconscious level. It has the effect of not only creating emotions but of having unconscious effects on your behavior, too. It giving you hunches — making you alter the decisions that you make. And just like with George Soros and his backache, there are things going on in your head that you’re unaware of. But you should pay attention to them.
LEONARD MLODINOW: My father was in the anti-Nazi underground as a Jewish underground leader in his city Czestochowa, Poland in World War II. At night, they would go and do various actions against the Nazis. Sometimes, they tried to smuggle kids out of the ghetto that they were imprisoned in. Sometimes, it was sabotage — and so forth.
LEONARD MLODINOW: On one occasion, they paid off a Polish truck driver to take them somewhere to do something. There was a fence around the ghetto, and there was a part where they had cut it. They were crawling under the fence to get to the truck. My father was the last one, so he had no one to hold the fence open. And when he started to go through, he got stuck.
LEONARD MLODINOW: So, these other guys were on the back of the truck, and it was ready to go. They didn’t want to wait around because that was a conspicuous spot to be at. And it was not good to stand around with your motor running. So, my father didn’t know what to do. Should he finish wriggling out, go running after them and hope that they wait for him? Or, is it better to say: “Forget it, I can’t make it,” and let them go without him? What’s better for them? What’s better for him?
LEONARD MLODINOW: He said that he had done a lot of those missions. And these things come up. He didn’t consciously feel fear. Consciously, he weighed things. This is kind of in the Benjamin Franklin tradition — where he said to draw columns for A and B. This is a good aside. He said to put the pros for A here and the pros for B here. Or, put the pros here and the cons there. Then, look at it and make a rational decision. Well, nobody does that — nor is it the right thing. When I’ve tried to do that, I’ve said: “There’s 25 reasons I should do B, but I want A.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All your biases come into play. It overrides all of them anyway, right?
LEONARD MLODINOW: It’s what your unconscious knows. And your emotions are pushing you to value things in a way that’s different from pure logic. So, my father decided to go ahead and join them. And then, he couldn’t make himself do it. They went away without him. About 10 seconds later, the Gestapo come alongside the truck. They stopped the truck, and they machine-gunned everybody to death. So, had my father not made that decision, he wouldn’t have survived. I wouldn’t be here. The book wouldn’t have been written.
LEONARD MLODINOW: I talked about it with him back then — he’s been dead for many years — and he insisted that he wasn’t afraid. He just couldn’t make his body do it. Something in him said: “No, don’t do this.” And I brought that up because that’s a good illustration of how your body sometimes knows things that you don’t know consciously.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. There are so many times when you’re walking across the street and something makes you stop. I know this happened to me several times. I just stopped for some reason, and a couple seconds later, a car passed that might have hit me.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yes, so maybe your senses picked up the car. But they were somewhat subliminal. It wasn’t a loud enough sound to reach your consciousness. The way your perception works — when you’re seeing, hearing and touching — is you get a certain amount of data into your brain, but your conscious brain can only handle about 10 bits of data per second. And these noises, sounds and images are much more data-rich than that.
LEONARD MLODINOW: So, what happens is your brain takes what it can and forms a picture that you perceive that’s not based on what’s actually coming in. It has to fill in a lot of gaps. If you see an image of what your retina actually picks up, it’s very fuzzy. It’s not the clear image that you have. And your brain takes that fuzzy data and processes it to make something that’s clear and perceptible.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Sometimes, the stuff that comes in is so vague, soft, faint or quick. When they flash words at people in experiments for three-thousandths of a second, you don’t realize you saw it, but your subconscious picked it up. Those things can affect your mental processing in a way that you don’t know. So, when you have these feelings that you just described, that’s what’s happening. Your emotions guide how you interpret that on a level you’re not even aware of.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That was always in Stan Lee’s Spider-Man. Those were the Spidey-Senses — when he felt a tingle that meant something was going to happen.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Well, there’s a certain context that I have — and you have because you read my book — that I should have said toward the beginning of our talk. It’s to define emotion. This is something that’s problematic in the literature. A lot of researchers use different definitions of emotion.
LEONARD MLODINOW: The one that I think is the best — and is embraced by a lot of researchers — is the idea that emotion is a functional state. Your brain is an information processing system — like a computer, but very different from a computer. Like a computer, it takes data in and has an output — decisions, feelings and thoughts. [This is] the faint sound of a car far away, something you see, sensory data in your environment or, if you’re deciding what stock to buy or sell, information about that. All of this is data. The way your brain processes the data is changed depending on the emotion you have. So, emotion is a functional state of your mind that alters the way you process information.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. Let me speak in layman’s terms for a second. I jumped right into this because I was all excited. But you’re right. We should have discussed this in the first few minutes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When I’m in a happy mood — when I’m cheerful or euphoric… If I make a great investment, it comes to fruition, I ring the register, I sell out of it after X amount of years and make a multiple of my returns, it’s a sunny day — even though it could be pitch black in the middle of a thunderstorm. Everything around me looks beautiful. Science is basically saying that the information being processed is colored by my emotions. Is that right?
LEONARD MLODINOW: That happens to trigger happiness. Now, you’re in a happy state. If you’re in a happy state, and you read my book, you’re going to like it better than if you’re in a sad state. When you take in that information, your brain is going to process it in a different way than it would if you were in a sad or angry state.
LEONARD MLODINOW: If you’re hungry, you start to think about food. You might walk by a store, and if you’re not hungry — let’s say it’s a bakery — you won’t even notice. You won’t remember that you walked by cakes in the window. If you’re hungry when you walk by, your brain processes it differently. But if you’re walking by and afraid that the guy behind you is going to mug you, your hunger goes away. Now, you’re in a state of fear, and you don’t even care if someone offers you the cake for free. You keep walking because you want to get out of there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: If there was a $100 bill on the floor, you wouldn’t care. You’d run away.
LEONARD MLODINOW: This is a very deep thing. It’s not just that you’re making a conscious decision to run away from a $100 bill. You probably won’t even notice it because your mind is focused on something else. So, what happened? The way that emotions interact with your rational thought is that when data comes in — whether it’s information about things in the world, financial decisions, your friends or sensory. Your brain has to make sense of that and come up with decisions, behaviors, feelings, thoughts, opinions or whatever. And that kind of calculation depends on what emotional state you’re in.
LEONARD MLODINOW: It makes sense because think about humans wandering the savannah. If you’re going out, and you’re hungry, you’re looking at different bushes to see what you can eat — you need that to survive. But then, if you hear a threatening predator in the background — even a very faint sound of something that could be threatening — you had better act, and that had better take precedent. So, the emotion of fear comes into play. Suddenly, you’re more aware of the sounds that are around you. You’re focusing less attention on eating, and it changes your behavior.
LEONARD MLODINOW: One other thing I should say about the definition is that this is in contrast to how most animals behave — the so-called “lower or simpler” animals, such as insects and reptiles. Their brains produce what are called “fixed action patterns” — which are stimulus response kinds of behaviors. So, if this happens, they do that. If this happens, they do that. They’re programmed the way that people used to imagine programming a computer — a bunch of if-then statements that interact with each other to produce some kind of output or behavior. So, that’s an inferior and more rigid way of behaving in the world than we humans or other primates have.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, hang on a second. I want you add a little color to this — literally. In the book, you bring up an example of the programmed or reflexive action of a certain fish that have a red underbelly — or when it sees a red underbelly… Talk about that.
LEONARD MLODINOW: It’s a stickleback fish.
LEONARD MLODINOW: When the males see another one coming by, they become territorial. They attack. This is an automatic behavior. But how do we know that it’s automatic? Well, for example, we can put a block of wood with a red underbelly in the tank, and it will attack the block of wood. It doesn’t really care what it is. It sees the red swing by and attacks it.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Another example I give is the mother goose. You see the goose sitting on a nest. An egg falls out, and she takes her long neck and pulls the egg back into the nest. What a wonderful, maternal thing to do. She must love her kids. Well, if I put a baseball next to the nest — or a beer can or even a volleyball — she’ll do the same thing. She doesn’t even recognize whether it’s an egg or not. Whatever it is, if there’s something by the nest, she’s programmed to bring it in.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Now, that malfunctions too. Just like emotions can malfunction and optical illusions can happen, there are cases where it’s silly, stupid behavior — like bringing a football into her nest. But in most cases, there are no footballs around her, and she’s doing the right thing. She’s bringing the egg back into the nest. That’s a reflexive behavior. And that works for a lot of animals. But for human beings … We have a more nuanced and sophisticated kind of behavior. We have that [programmed] behavior, too. So, there’s some aspect of that in our behavior.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s our fight-or-flight response, right? That’s when we get reflexive based on stimuli that overwhelms us — we hear a rustle in the trees and jump out.
LEONARD MLODINOW: It doesn’t even have to be that dramatic. It’s also [on] autopilot. If you drive to work on the same route every day, pretty soon, you don’t even realize where you turn. Sometimes, I start going my work route. But I should be going somewhere else and I find myself turning wrong. I realize: “Oh my God. I shouldn’t have turned back there like I’m going to work.” That’s reflexive behavior.
LEONARD MLODINOW: But most of our behavior is more nuanced and emotion-based. With emotion-based behavior, there’s one more step. So, it’s not like a stimulus happens (an egg falls out of the nest) and then response happens (I bring it back). With emotions, there’s one extra step. If the egg falls out of the nest, I feel regret, fear and love for that egg. Then, I do a calculation — is it worth getting it back? And then, I do it. That extra step allows for a lot more flexibility and allows you to be more nuanced.
LEONARD MLODINOW: The mother goose might always pull the egg back in. If there’s a hawk hovering overhead — ready to pounce on her — that could be dangerous. Maybe the better move is to wait 10 minutes and then get the egg back. She can’t do that because she’s doing it reflexively. A human could do that because with a human, the egg goes out and you feel fear for the egg. You feel an emotion. Then, you process the information, in which case, you can account for other factors — such as the hawk that’s [trying] to get you. You stay in hiding until you see the hawk is gone. Then, you get the egg. It’s a superior way of behaving.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I understand that. Here’s my problem — how do you discern when to use emotion and when to be rational? Now, before you answer that question, you give an excellent example of two instances when emotion should have been used instead of rationality — Korean Airlines (KAL) and the almost-start of World War III.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In both situations, things could have definitely been different. In one case, it could have been the end of the world. But a person weighed the options, thought and used emotions in that moment. That bring us to the latter. I love everything you’re saying, and I totally agree. My problem is: How does one discern?
LEONARD MLODINOW: That’s a perfect example because it’s exactly what I was talking about. In the military, people are trained to follow orders and, in a sense, be automatic. They’re supposed to be cogs in the machine and follow algorithms or whatever.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: By the way, I worked for my father for a year and a half. If he asked why I did something and I said: “Because I thought…” He would say: “No one’s paying you to think. You’re not paid to think.”
LEONARD MLODINOW: That’s the way it is in the military and some corporations. My book Elastic is all about how we think about creativity and why that’s bad. But that’s another story. In the military, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
LEONARD MLODINOW: In the KAL example, it was a commercial airline that wandered, by accident, into Russian airspace. The Russian pilots had orders to shoot down whatever wandered into the airspace. And there was no leeway given to you. You were supposed to shoot down the intruder. So, they did. They didn’t try to analyze or look at the nuances of the situation. They followed their orders, and hundreds of people died in that incident. This was in the 1980s — when there was a lot of tension between the U.S. and Russia.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, the goose example is: The egg fell out of the nest. Bring it back in. In this instance, a plane is going into our territory. The response is shoot it down. After trying to take evasive action — or what they interpreted as evasive action — they shot a warning thing. But then, the plane was climbing because they spoke to air traffic control and wanted less turbulence. So, they were climbing — which was interpreted again as evasive action. Then, boom! The plane was shot down.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Right. They fired a warning — a missile or something. But in the cockpit of a commercial airplane, you only see a bit in front of you. And they didn’t see that [warning]. It would have had to be right in front of their noses to see it. By chance, they had gotten the orders to climb and avoid the turbulence. And [the Russians] thought it was evasive action. But I think it was still pretty obvious that it was a commercial plane. They could have taken other actions, such as trying to fly next to them and forcing them down.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Do you remember when that actually happened? I remember the U.N. — I think it was James Baker at the time — brilliantly put the television monitor of this transaction between the Russian pilot and his air traffic right above where the ambassador of the Soviet Union sat. It was brilliant. You hear the orders to go and shoot down the plane. It was fascinating. That was a really big deal in the Cold War. Was it in 1983?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was during the Cold War, and tensions were high all over. That was a bad situation.
LEONARD MLODINOW: There would have been ways, when taking in the situation, to probe a little further and not have any threat come to you. They probably would have been able to have a peaceful resolution, but they didn’t do that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, they followed orders. They did everything they were supposed to. Their rational brains took over. It was a checklist — if all the conditions were met, fire on the aircraft.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Right, they weren’t deciding anything. They were running the algorithm they were ordered to run. They were just human parts of a machine.
LEONARD MLODINOW: And the other case was another bizarre accident. Some sunlight hit something. I forget where…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was in North Dakota. The sunlight hit the tops of the clouds over where we keep our ballistic missiles. And it appeared on Soviet radar — because the sun reflected off the clouds — as if we launched a massive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Right. So, this guy is sitting in the bunker, and he’s the on-duty officer in charge of reacting to this. His orders are similar to the pilots’. There are different checks and balances that the computers are running on this signal to make sure it’s real. His job is to push the button to launch a massive nuclear strike against the United States and then call the military brass and tell them what happened. If he followed the rigid rules, he would have done that.
LEONARD MLODINOW: I think he later said in interviews that he thought most people would have done that. And he knew that if he didn’t do that, and this was a real strike, he was letting his country down. It wouldn’t have saved them from the missiles that hit anyway, but he would have been a big traitor for allowing the U.S. to destroy his country without retaliation.
LEONARD MLODINOW: He did follow his emotions. The first thing he did was decide to take the decision on himself and not be a cog in the machine. So now, there’s a human element that’s entered into this algorithm. The human element of [experiencing] fear — valuing human life and being afraid of wrongly taking so many lives — [caused him to] make a different decision and wait. Instead, he reported that there was a malfunction. And if he hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be here, either, because that would have been a nuclear war that destroyed the world.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: There was something similar that they just released a few years ago — from the Soviet archives — that happened in Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, one of the Soviet officers was ordered to send the missiles. And he said no. He made the decision not to. He said: “I’m not going to follow this order because it’s a faulty order.” As my father would say, “You’re not paid to think.” According to his orders, he should have shot. I see the two extremes. How does one discern the difference?
LEONARD MLODINOW: These examples have a peculiarity where you’re ordered not to decide. You’re ordered to follow orders. I would argue that that’s a dangerous situation for anyone because a human can make a better decision than a computer. A human has emotion. And the human will, therefore, be more nuanced and more able to act properly in a situation that was not re-envisioned by the algorithm.
LEONARD MLODINOW: I have a chapter in the book about how to manage your emotions. But what we should understand is that emotions are automatic. So, you don’t decide to feel an emotion. You feel the emotion based on what is happening. Your mind creates that emotional experience. It’s not the Darwinian idea that if I punch you, you’re going to get angry. Or, if you prick your finger, will you even feel the pain? All of that was constructed by your mind.
LEONARD MLODINOW: But there is something going on in your subconscious — no matter how it comes out. That happens automatically. And it happens because it’s supposed to protect you and keep you alive. Just like with the goose, there’s a situation that happens. And [your subconscious] is supposed to encapsulate the situation. Your brain takes that feeling into account with all the other data and makes its decision.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. By the way, there was a movie in 1995 called Crimson Tide with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. It was about the Cuban missile situation — where Gene Hackman, a trigger-happy guy, wanted to launch a nuclear strike from a submarine because they only got a snippet of an order before their antenna went down. And Denzel Washington said: “No, we need to check it. We’ve been trained to do this. Here is the protocol.” And if they would have done it, that would have been the end of the world.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When I make an investment decision — when I do my analysis about buying a company or stock — I go through my checklist. I know that we’re going to take shortcuts. We’re human, and we’re going to use our biases. So, I try to cut away from that. If, at the last moment, I don’t want to do it — for whatever reason — you’re saying that my emotions are kicking in, taking in that information and saying: “All right. You can rationalize it any way you want, but it’s not a good play”?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah, those kinds of hunches are based on your inner feelings. You’ve already made a rational decision. And now, something’s telling you not to do it. That’s because of other processing that you’re not aware of. And it’s not always right. But I think that most people would find that their hunches are right more often than not.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I like to quantify everything — and I don’t think this is quantifiable. But when you have a strong hunch about something, usually go with that because, based on what you were saying before, your brain is processing all of this information. Your rational brain is bringing in only a fraction — 10 bits per second or something — and your emotions are basically Spider-Man. They’re giving you a spider sense and telling you: “This is not good.” I’m still struggling with listening to that. How do I know when it’s right? How do I know when I should be overriding my process and when I should be standing down?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Well, you can’t know in advance. There’s no decision-making machine that’s 100% correct. So, you take your chances either way. But I think you’re generally better off when listening to your emotions and hunches. At least, take them seriously rather than use pure reason. They’ve done studies about it.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Here’s an example. They did a study where they divided subjects into two groups. They showed both groups a lot of data about the different aspects of a car. I’m not that into cars, so I wouldn’t exactly know how to appreciate the data that they were showing them. But they were supposed to decide which of two different cars was a better buy.
LEONARD MLODINOW: I guess they arranged it so that there was a correct answer. It’s not just: “I like this one better.” But it was complicated data that they were supposed to peruse. In one group, they showed them all the data. And then, they said: “Take 10 minutes to deliberate. Do your Ben Franklin list — A versus B — and come up with an answer. And with the other group, they had them do anagrams or something for 10 minutes. So, they couldn’t think about it, but their unconscious minds were still working on it.
LEONARD MLODINOW: In the end, they all made their choices. And the ones who weren’t thinking about it did better than the ones who were — at least when the data was complex. They did another trial where it was pretty simple. And then, the other group did better. I’m not actually sure if they did better or the same. But the point of the study was that when the data is complex enough, your unconscious mind is doing a better job than your than your conscious mind.
LEONARD MLODINOW: The people in the “think about it” situation didn’t just think about it. They chilled, meditated and let it percolate without thinking about it. But they may have come to the same conclusion. So, they would have had the hunch that told them what the right answer was. But if you’re just doing A versus B and not paying attention to your feelings, then you’re often going to get the wrong answer.
LEONARD MLODINOW: There’s another effect. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this. Let’s say, in a trivial situation, I can’t decide between steak or fish. And I’m thinking: “I want a steak because of [XYZ],” or “I want the fish because it’s healthier” or “I had steak yesterday, so I had better get the fish.” I have all these reasons. And then, the waiter comes, and I’m just about to order. And when I go to say “fish,” the word “steak” comes out because all those reasons don’t matter. I really wanted the steak. It’s just like my dad with the fence. Just go with it because that’s what you really want. Your brain knows that. But consciously, your logic doesn’t know that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Although, people always say to the waiter: “What do you suggest?” And it’s always the steak. Well, yeah, that’s what I’m going to get. But that’s what you originally wanted. I’m easy. I go to a restaurant and order the same thing all the time so I don’t have to think.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My wife, on the other hand — and I know she’s going to listen this podcast, but I say this complimentarily. It’s beautiful how she spends so much time with the waiter — explaining everything. And then, she basically says: “What do you think? What’s better?” Me? It’s whatever I had 40 times before. I stay the same because I know there are too many biases. I realize that we’re influenced by so many things. And I want to talk about one of the studies that was absolutely amazing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I learned something else from your book. A lot of these sociologists and behavioral scientists are crazy to come up with insane experiments. There’s one where they did surgery and took out things as a placebo. They didn’t do anything, but they did surgery. Well, this was in the 1950s and 1960s. They’d be shot today. They’d go to jail. They’re such moral things.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But anyway, I’m trying to see how I use this. And I do. I do use a lot of what you mentioned. Before I make a major trade or recommendation in my newsletter — after we spend two to three weeks doing an extensive deep-dive on it — my senior analysts says: “Ready to pull the trigger?” And I say: “No, I have to sleep on it.” And I stop thinking about it. I’ve spent three weeks thinking about it, and you get the sunk cost in. I already spent this much time. How could I say no?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But there were several situations where I slept on it, woke up and went: “I’m not feeling this.” There was something there. By misdirecting my thoughts — by not being so enmeshed in it. Sometimes, I’d say: “Wait a second. Take a step back.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’ve also noticed that when I want to sell a position, I take a walk around the block a couple of minutes to 4 p.m. — when the market closes. And then, I do it the next morning. I don’t want to have that “time’s running out” and “you have to make a decision in 15 minutes” [feeling]. No. I want to do it on my terms. It took me 40 years to figure it out, but I definitely see how I use my emotions — not to screw up the process but enhance it.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Well, I couldn’t have said it better. If you had told me that a year ago, I’d have put it in the book.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. I want to get to something. I remember reading so many things. As an investor, you’re always trying to stick with the facts. I’ll give you an example. My senior analyst’s family is in the fast-food restaurant business. And he happens to have a bias towards fast food franchise companies.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He once prepared a company for me and said: “Charles, I like this.” And I said: “But Joe, let’s look at the whole world. Is this a business that we want to own during COVID-19?” But his bias took him to a place where he felt most comfortable. So, I said: “Just cut that. Don’t have that bias.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m always very cognizant of these types of biases. These hidden persuaders make us do stuff that we never thought we’d do. And there’s one thing that I saw so many studies about. But I love the study that you brought up. It was about the parole board. If you’re in prison, you have a greater chance to be paroled based on the time of day that the parole board meets. Add some color to that for me, Leonard.
LEONARD MLODINOW: So, this has to do with core effect — that aspect of your body where your brain is monitoring your physical state. And that feeds into your emotions and decisions. So, these parole boards have a huge responsibility. They don’t want to keep somebody in prison who has been reformed or would be OK in society. They’d like to let those people go back and lead a fruitful life.
LEONARD MLODINOW: On the other hand, if they let the wrong person go back, he could kill or rob somebody, and the responsibility is on the parole board. So, it’s a stressful job, and it’s tedious. There’s a lot of demand — a lot of prisoners coming through. And they have to work long hours — day after day — doing this.
LEONARD MLODINOW: In the study, they would normally work from 9:00 a.m. until noon and then from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. And they would get a certain amount of time — about 20 minutes per person. And then, they’d take a lunch break and do it again.
LEONARD MLODINOW: What these researchers did was study the percentage of paroles granted at any given time. It was amazing. I have the graph in the book. When these parole officers are fresh, it’s up here somewhere. So, I don’t remember what percentage it was. But it’s pretty high.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was high.
LEONARD MLODINOW: It actually hits near zero right before lunch. And then after lunch, it starts from here again and goes down. They interviewed the parole officers, and they denied that any of this was happening. They were not aware of it. They didn’t think it was happening. But these guys have the data.
LEONARD MLODINOW: And there have been other studies in other realms that support that same idea. For instance, they’ve studied doctors — who are not supposed to prescribe antibiotics if they think that the cold that you have is bacterial. Antibiotics won’t help. And it’s bad for the for the environment because if people get resistant or don’t use them right, it’s bad for you. It’s not a good thing — not to mention the cost.
LEONARD MLODINOW: So, people often come in and want something. They nag the doctor for antibiotics. The doctors try to resist, but they’ll often placate the patient. OK. Maybe you’re not sure. Maybe there’s a bacterial component. But just take this. Fine.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Well, they did the same kind of study about doctors prescribing antibiotics. They followed the same pattern. They prescribed them much less at the beginning. And they prescribed it more as the day went on and they’re worn down.
LEONARD MLODINOW: My kids know that. They keep nagging you until you’re tired of it. And then, you finally say yes. But it’s your core affect in your body that’s reading. I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m cold. That colors the way you process data. So, when this person tells his story to you at five minutes to noon, you process that story more harshly than if you hear it at 9:05 a.m.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I saw a similar study with judges, bail and juries with guilty and not-guilty pleas. It’s the same exact riff that you had in the book. As you get closer to noon — where there’s food and you’re going to be replenished, it starts off as “not guilty.” Then, it goes to “guilty.” And then, it shoots up again. So, it’s really about the time of day. There are physiological issues that are happening and coloring your emotions. You have low blood sugar or your stomach’s growling. You feed your body. So, let’s speed this up.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Len, I could talk to you for the next couple of hours. This is absolutely amazing. I want to ask you one last question. What’s the takeaway for the average guy — like myself — who’s not a physicist, didn’t have an office down the hall from Richard Feynman or write books with Stephen Hawking. I’m a regular Joe. What am I supposed to take away from this book? And how can I implement that?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Well, I hope that you would learn what we’ve been saying. Your information processing — that is your thinking, decisions, behavior, feelings and conscious awareness — is not separate. It’s produced by both logical thinking and emotions. They work together. You can’t separate them, and that’s a good thing. Emotions help you in general, but they can get out of hand in certain situations.
LEONARD MLODINOW: We didn’t talk much about this, but I talk in the book about how you can manage and become the boss of your emotions — rather than having your emotions drag you around. So, they are useful. And they’re not just useful. Without emotions, you wouldn’t be motivated to even get up or do anything. They’re useful. They’re vital for your existence. And so, you should not fight them. But there are times when you should manage them and learn how to do that. Always be mindful and aware. Try to be aware of the emotions that you’re feeling and how [they’re] affecting your thinking. So, that’s what I would say.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Before we have really deep conversations in my house, my wife knows to serve me dinner. Don’t do it on an empty stomach or beforehand. You’re going to get a much better response from me on a subject that I don’t want to talk about after I’m fed — rather than before. It’s picking those spots that make all the difference.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah, and in everything you do, you should be aware of that aspect of it — of how your emotions are affecting you and other people if you need to get to convince them of something.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Growing up, I was terrible in school. I got teens and 20s out of 100 [percent]. So, I remembered to always ask my mother to sign the test. They had to sign to show that they saw it. I always showed her at a good moment — not when she was dealing with the other kids. When everything was quiet, or when she was watching a show on TV and my younger brothers were sleeping, I’d say: “Ma, by the way…”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Because if I caught her at the wrong time, she said: “I’m going to show your father.” That was always the thing. You learn that. You pick your spots. People who go to their bosses for a raise or speak to a client are going to pick their spots. And those spots are not random. You already figured that out.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Right. And those who do best in business — and I think in their personal lives, too — the people who are leaders and charismatic are more aware.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: They’re more sensitive to them. I think that’s it. It’s not what I want. Let me get the right spot for that person instead of trying to sledgehammer it to death. Let me pick the right spot. I saw that years ago with judges and bail or no bail. It was amazing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We’d like to think that we’re logical creatures. But gosh, an empty stomach really has an impact on our decision-making.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s it. All right. The name of the book is Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. I do want to tell you: Go out and get the book. It’s only a couple hundred pages. The stories are amazing, and Leonard’s a brilliant guy with an off-the-charts IQ. You write simply. Not only did I understand this, but I also marked it up. I saw so many great things. All the power to you. That’s an amazing skill you have.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Thanks, Charles.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s 11 books and five bestsellers. You don’t need me to tell you that, right?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Thank you. It’s been fun.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right, Leonard. When you have your next book, definitely come on the show. Do you have another book in mind?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Not yet. I’m still thinking about it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: How long does it take you to think about a book? You were at 11, right? Over how many years? Was it 15 or 20 years?
LEONARD MLODINOW: It was about 20 years.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you’re writing one every other year?
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when you finish your book, do you say: “OK, let me take a break for about half an hour and start thinking about book number…”
LEONARD MLODINOW: Sometimes, I have the idea before I’m done. And I start right away. But sometimes, I might think about it for a few months and see what comes to me. It’s getting harder now because I’ve written so many books about things that I’m really interested in. And I don’t want to write about something unless I’m really interested in it. I’m going to be living with it for a year and a half or two years and taking a deep dive into it.
LEONARD MLODINOW: I look around and see what’s going on. But of course, the good thing is that science is constantly changing. We’re discovering new things a lot. You compare today to 20 years ago. We know a lot more. We have a lot of different ideas, too. So, there are always new things coming into play that attract me. And that’s where I go.
LEONARD MLODINOW: With this emotions book, it was the revolutionary work. The fact that it’s changing so much got me into it. I talked to a friend of mine who’s a neuroscientist. And when I was thinking about books to write, he said: “Well, I’ll tell you one thing: Don’t write about emotions.” And that’s why I picked it. I asked: “Why not?” And he said: “It’s being revolutionized right now. It’s such a crazy field.” And I went: “Perfect! That’s what I want.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I got the sense that you were having a lot of fun when writing this book. I’m sure that a lot of the examples and studies you looked at — the one with the stents. That was amazing. For those who have heart conditions — a narrowing of the arteries — stents work no better than stent placebos.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Yeah. Do the operation, and don’t put the stent in. It works just as well.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Unbelievable! Wow, don’t tell the health insurance companies. I’m sure they already know that, right? It’s another thing that they won’t cover.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Gamma or one of the major [companies]. Yeah, this is well-known now. But they still do it, though.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Leonard, I wish you continued success. Thanks for being on the show. I really enjoyed it. You definitely have to let me know about your next book because I’d love to have you on again. Thanks so much, man.
LEONARD MLODINOW: Take care.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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