Paul Bloom on Psych, Psychology, and the Human Mind
Feb 27 2023

0063096358.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SX500_-197x300.jpg Do psychologists know anything? Psychologist Paul Bloom says yes--but not the things that you might think. Bloom discusses his book Psych with EconTalk's Russ Roberts and what the field of psychology can teach us about human intelligence, consciousness, and unhelpful instincts. They also discuss just how far psychology is from a true understanding of the human mind, and why, according to Bloom, that might not be such a bad thing.

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


Shalom Freedman
Mar 1 2023 at 7:22am

I am a bit skeptical about some of Paul Bloom’s claims in this very interesting conversation.

The claim at the outset that parents contribute so little to what we are is the kind of claim which may seem exciting to those interested in the latest surprising psychological revelation but seems to me extremely dubious. Many people I have known spent their lives either trying to realize some dream their parents wanted to realize for themselves or revolting against the demands their parents made upon them.

The idea that people become happier as they age, if correct, certainly applies only to a certain age. I do not know too many people getting happier in their late seventies and especially in the multiple illnesses of old- old age.

Certainly, there are parts of Freud that can be read for more than literary interest.  Is there any kind of real disproof of for instance his theory of the defense mechanisms?

On the other hand, I appreciated learning, if true, that there are people who do not tell stories and have no narrative about their own life and story.

I too have long believed that we are all story-telling creatures and that most of us have more than one way of telling our story depending upon whom we are telling it to and where and at what time.




Tom Gregorich
Mar 2 2023 at 10:43am

Could someone unpack for me the claim that memory is completely made up? Or am I misunderstanding his argument? I went on a road trip yesterday, bought four slices of pizza, and two are in the refrigerator now. Is that just a story I made up out of the blue? Difficult for me to believe.

Or is he saying only long term memory is a fabrication? If that’s the case, how do we know that Julius Caesar was stabbed to death? Presumable there is no longer archaeological evidence it happened, and obviously no video or audio. Is the claim that we actually have no idea whether this event really happened? Do we know anything about the past that isn’t either on tape or for which there’s concrete archaeological evidence? Journalism is based on memories- unless someone was writing what happened at the exact same moment it happened- so that can’t count, right?

Or is the argument just that long term memories are unreliable and prone to be twisted, embellished, changed, all done subconsciously. If this is the argument, it seems almost irresponsible to not lay out the caveat that memories can be correct but we just have to careful in accepting them at face value.

Russ mentions the thing about his wife and him having different memories of conversations they’ve had. I can’t recall that personally- not to say it hasn’t happened- but I don’t think it’s a universal phenomenon either. If I never remembered a thing my spouse told me I don’t know how I could possibly have a relationship with them of any kind. It’d be more like a relative taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s. What am I missing here?

Ron Spinner
Mar 3 2023 at 7:28am

When speaking about how marriage can be transformative Russ said that you learn a lot in a marriage if you are paying attention. Paying attention doesn’t get enough attention. 
If Moses wasn’t paying attention he would have missed the burning bush.
Israel Kirzner explains how paying attention is the basis of moving the economy forward:
I think if we pay more attention maybe our memory of things will be better.
Or maybe it is more important to have our interpretation of the memory than the actual facts

Ron Spinner
Mar 3 2023 at 8:17am

Paul Bloom explained how our parents have little influence on us. Dr. Oded Rechavi’s research shows that some memories of experience can be passed to our children via genes.

I learned from Paul Bloom that we have to be skeptical until more research confirms this. But if Dr. Rechavi is correct –  maybe our parents influence on us is more than we think.

Gregg Tavares
Mar 5 2023 at 4:26pm

Russ mentioned how a language you don’t know is just a bunch of noise. I’ve had that experience but I’ve also had the experience that it takes only a tiny tiny amount of studying to start picking out some phrases and words.

I’ve done this twice. I learned Japanese and their was a certain movie I watched multiple times during the process. The first time I saw it was before I ever started studying and it was just noise. On each subsequent viewing something was added. First it was just being able to tell when a sentence started and ended. Another was being able to pick out phrases I knew etc… Until, years later, I understand all of it.

I also studied Mandarin. I only studied for 3-4 hours a week for 8 weeks and don’t remember much but the language went from “noise” to “not noise” very quickly. Learning just a few key things like “me”, “you”, “them”, “mine”, “what”, “where”, “I don’t know” which takes very little time, and suddenly what was noise is no longer noise.

Also, randomly, I’m certainly not an expert on human learning but I have my doubts about the claim for language acquisition having an age limit. My uninformed opinion is what makes it hard to learn a 2nd language is having a mind full of some other language and not being able to dedicate your mind full time to the new language.

When I started learning Japanese it was difficult because I had things to do outside of studying Japanese and all of those things I did in English. Work, bills, news, etc… We look at children as picking up language easily but a 5 year old SPENT 5 YEARS LEARNING FULL TIME! 12-16hrs a day (100+ hrs a week). An adult student might spend at most 30hrs a week and then be upset when 2yrs in they aren’t fluent. My fiction is if they could possibly put in the time the child puts in they’d get similar results.

At some point during my learning I managed to switch to study Japanese “full time” (25-35hrs a week for ~2yrs) and eventually started thinking and dreaming in Japanese. That’s not a brag, rather it’s just my personal evidence of my point. If you can immerse yourself like a child can then you can get results like a child. If on the other hand your life requires you to not be immersed (need to run a university) then of course you can’t expect results at the same speed as the child.

george m weinberg
Mar 12 2023 at 3:38pm

Tom, I think the idea is not that memories are completely false, but rather that they are nothing like photographs or video recordings, our minds fill in details and we don’t really know (unless we have external confirmation) which parts are accurate and which are filled in. An example: one writer said that for years he had what seemed to be a distinct memory of how he had learned of the Pearl Harbor attack: he was listening to a baseball game on the radio, and an announcer interrupted the game to tell of the attack. But one day it occurred to him the memory could not possibly be accurate; the attack was in December, long after the baseball season was over.

Now obviously the Pearl Harbor attack was real, and quite possibly the writer heard about it when some radio broadcast was interrupted. The only part that must have been false was that the broadcast was a baseball game. But subjectively that part had seemed like a distinct and reliable recollection.

Mark Webb
Mar 14 2023 at 5:14pm

I think of gift cards as an excuse to shop off budget. If I give you $50, you might feel obligated to pay off a bill, or stash it in the bank. Practical budget concerns drive that decision. If I give you a $50 gift card to your favorite store, you can’t store that money in the bank, and you can’t use it to pay off a bill.

Fundamentally, the gift’s format shifts your opportunity cost calculation. Maybe normally you’d use that money to get current on a bill, but you really need a new pair of pants. By narrowing your financial decisions, I’m allowing you to go buy that pair of pants and the only question you have to ask yourself is whether you value the pants more than that sweater that’s on sale.

This is why gift cards are probably best for people with strong income constraints, like young adults just starting out, who may wish to go shopping without feeling guilt or other financial worries. The gift, then, isn’t whatever they buy, but the freedom from buyer’s remorse when they look at their bank balance the next day.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: February 7, 2023.]

Russ Roberts: Today is February 7th, 2023, and my guest is psychologist Paul Bloom of the University of Toronto, an emeritus professor at Yale University. This is Paul's fourth appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in October of 2021, talking about his book The Sweet Spot.

Our topic for today is his latest book, Psych, P-S-Y-C-H.

I want to mention the listeners that our conversation may have, from time-to-time, adult themes. You may want to vet it before listening with small children.

And, I thank everyone for voting. We'll have those results of your favorite episodes of 2022 out soon.

Paul, welcome back to EconTalk.

Paul Bloom: I'm delighted to be back, Russ.


Russ Roberts: How would you describe this book? It's a little different from your previous books. What's your goal with this book?

Paul Bloom: It is different. My previous books all made one argument or another about empathy, about suffering, and this book is a review of all of psychology. It's not meant to be a textbook, but it's meant to be the sort of thing people could pick up. They want to learn bit of field. They want to have a very, very up-to-date understanding of psychology, its strengths and weaknesses, its discoveries, its failures.

And, part of it is review. A large part of it is my own opinion. I try to be careful to mark off clearly when I say, 'Oh, I think this whole line of work is silly' or, 'I think this line of work is magnificent', but it's a labor of love. It's everything I know, from Freud, to consciousness, to clinical psychology. I am drained after the book, because all of me is in it.

Russ Roberts: It's only 23 pages. No, kidding, it is longer than that. But, for a book that's all that you know, it's surprisingly short. It's under 400 pages, 3- something.

Paul Bloom: I have a good editor.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah, I understand.


Russ Roberts: Before we get into some of the specifics of the book--and I would tell readers that I loved it, because it's nuanced. As you said, you talk about what you like and don't like, and you're very careful to say what's your opinion, what isn't, and what we know and don't know, and what we know probably, for sure, and what we might not know very much about it all. And, that part of course, for me, is especially fun.

But, I want to start with a more philosophical question about psychology generally, and social science--of which I am also a social scientist, so to speak: I'm an economist. And, it's a longish question; I apologize in advance. I was once confronted by a physicist who said to me, in a social setting, 'Do economists know anything?' Oh, I was--he said it like it was a real question. I thought he was being sarcastic. He wasn't.

I started to answer, and everything I said to him, pretty much his response was, 'Well, that's obvious,' or, 'Well, that's just common sense.' And then finally, he said, 'When I say, know anything, I mean like: Where's Mars going to be on June 17th, 2028?' Because physicists know things like that. And, they know other things too, but that's one of the things they know.

And, I said: 'Well, I actually don't think we know anything remotely like that, like what interest rates are going to be in a year or six months. We don't know how many cars people will buy if we put a larger tax on automobiles, but I do know that they'll buy fewer.' And, he said, 'well, of course. That's obvious.'

So, I kind of got myself into a little bit of a corner, and finally I told him about emergent order and the idea that there's complexity in human affairs, much of which appears in, say, how prices form.

And, he said, 'Well, that's interesting. Okay.' So, that's kind of as far as I got. And, to some extent, I think the idea of market forces and emergent order is much of what we know in economics.

And, I would add the depressing addition that much of the published research in economics is not good for much. It has no enduring quality. It will not change people's lives. It does not enrich your understanding. It's an intellectual gulf, to some extent.

So, I want you to reflect on your own field. Some of what I read in your book, I did learn things, but a lot of it strikes a non-professional reader as common sense or intuitive. How would you defend against that charge?

Paul Bloom: It's a fair charge. I think it was Noam Chomsky who once said that if you want to learn about human nature, really about human nature, you'd be much better off reading some good novels than reading any psychology textbook in the world.

And, I agree with that. If I want to know about successful marriages or raising your children or running a business or being a person in this century, there's a stack of novels that are well worth reading. And, I know of some really good TV shows, some good documentaries. It's not that psychology will teach you the secrets of human nature at a level that will give you something above and beyond that. Our insights are often banal and uninteresting, and we don't write anywhere near as well as a great novelist. I will cop to all of that.

But, I think we honestly have made some discoveries, some surprising and interesting discoveries.

So, your question was--you were gracious enough to warn me about the question: it was a long enough question that I could think of some examples. I will quickly give you three of them.

And, one of them is part of my own research, is: How much of knowledge is innate, is hardwired? How much babies smell? You ask many people, many people think that babies just don't look so smart and all, and they don't know so much. But, using very subtle methods, we find that Plato was largely right: A lot of knowledge is inborn about the social world and the physical world.

The second thing that surprises people is memory. Many people think we just record the world, and maybe we forget it, but if we try hard enough, we'll get to it. A skilled hypnotist, a sympathetic therapist will bring it all back. And, what psychologists have learned is that none of that is true.

Memory is always a reconstruction, a fragile reconstruction. You ask people of our age--because we're old enough to answer the question--where were we on September 11th when a plane hits the Twin Towers, we have our story. As a psychologist, I'm here to say the story's wrong. There's been enough studies where you ask people right after it happens, what happened, and then you ask them years later--because we tell the story so often, we mistake what we tell for what really happened. Eyewitness testimony is a disaster.

Anybody who is married knows this: You say, 'Remember that horrible thing you said to me?' 'I said that? You said that to me.' And it's frustrating, because we believe our memories are great, but they are not.

And, this has tremendous implications for the legal system, for instance. We now know how a police interrogation cannot just--maybe even a good faith effort to extract a memory, can implant the memory.

I guess, the third one is most controversial, which is psychology plus a bit of behavioral genetics. It's not merely the huge influence of our genes on every behavioral trait you could imagine--you know, 40%, 60%, 50%, intelligence, personality, religiosity, political orientation--but it's the fact that the rest of it--the environmental cost--doesn't seem to come from parents. It's largely comes from external or your peers, accidental experiences.

Now, here are three claims. All of them are to some extent shocking. You might respond as saying, 'I don't believe that's one. I don't believe that one.' But, I think that's psychology at its best. How does that convince?


Russ Roberts: That's fantastic. I think some of the more provocative claims of the field are problematic, and you talk about that in the book. You confront the replication crisis head on, and maybe we'll talk about it explicitly in a little bit. But I want to start with the memory point. You said it's very useful for thinking about the legal system. I think it's really useful for thinking about marriage, because maybe it's just you and me, but I do recognize that there are times when I have obviously absolutely correct memories of a conversation my wife and I had. And, her version is different. I have to confess that at some times in my marriage I thought, 'Well, my wife struggles to remember things accurately,' and it's taken some maturity to realize, part of it could be me, too. And, that's a hugely valuable thing to appreciate about oneself.

Paul Bloom: It makes one humble.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Paul Bloom: There was--this is a while ago--Hillary Clinton very famously misremembered an event from her past, years ago where she was visiting some foreign country and believed she was under heavy fire and everything. But, then there was footage, and none of that was true. And, people were horribly unsympathetic. 'Oh, she's a psychopath. She's a liar. Maybe she's senile early on.' And, all of our memories--we are all like that, all the time.

My most mundane example was, I once gave a talk at a university, and a student questioned me and was quite belligerent. And I responded very poorly. I realized, I got quite angry, and we went back and forth. Now, at that university, some students were doing an experiment where they were filming people giving talks, for some reason or another, and they were nice enough to send me to film and [?], I said, 'Oh my god, I'm going to relive this terrible episode.' And, I'm watching it, and none of that happened. The question was fairly civil, polite. My response was measured. There was a bit of humor in it, and I--just totally wrong.

But, it is not just me. It's you, it's everybody.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's very[?] powerful. And, if you take the idea of emergent order and say, 'Well, isn't that novel? Doesn't that help you see the world?' And, the answer is, 'What? That things are connected one to the other, and that there's unintended consequences and things interact?'

So, I think we have to be fair to both disciplines and admit that part of the power of the insights that we're talking about, comes from immersing yourself in the world. So, if you say to somebody, 'Sometimes you misremember things', they'll go, 'Oh wow, big deal.' But, I think the level of--to really appreciate the memory issue, I think you have to read some psychological studies and you have to think about it and talk about it, and maybe teach it now and then, for it to go in. And, I think for it to be useful to you, is a different level than having heard it or conceding it.

Paul Bloom: That's right. And, I would say--just actually to defend your field--you talk about specific findings and this thing that would please a physicist. But, there's also something called 'thinking like an economist.' And, I listen to your podcast fairly religiously, and you often think like an economist; and sometimes you don't think an economist, and that's interesting, too. But, 'think like an economist' is a valuable tool: you think in terms of incentives, you're sensitive to unintended consequences, you're sensitive to the idea that when there's two parties in an interaction, maybe they both could benefit from a change in certain way.

All these things that come as tools--and some of it, if you just wrote it down may be common sense, 'Oh, incentives. Of course. Who would doubt it?' But, you talk to an economist, and pretty soon you find it--for me, I find my face getting a bit red and, 'Oh, but how could you think that way about these important matters?' And, the fact that my face gets a bit red and I'm trying to struggle with this, is that suggests there's something really interesting going on.

And, I'd like to think in some way we think like a psychologist, and that's sort of a different set of tools; and I think it can be valuable.


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I agree. And, I think I probably confessed on this program, my father had a Master's in Psychology, and he was the first person in his family to go to college, certainly was the first person in his family get a master's degree. And, the main thing that he got from that was that psychology was unreliable hogwash, which he told his son that; and his son, respecting his father, agreed.

And, I spent way too much of my life not paying any attention to psychology--because, obviously it's not meaningful. And yet, as you point out, thinking like a psychologist is quite helpful, and psychologists struggle with questions and issues that don't have clean answers, much like economics. But, the process of grappling with them, I think, makes you more sensitive to the complexity of everyday life in all kinds of ways. So, I think we're good here.

Paul Bloom: I think so. And, one way I defend 'thinking like a psychologist' is an issue that we often wrestle with moral issues. Where--you know, I'm very capable of thinking like a moralist and saying, 'Well, that's evil and the person should be punished.' But, you think like a psychologist, you go, 'Well, a person most likely does not think themselves that they're evil. They probably think they're the good guys, and they think I'm evil.' And, I think it's very useful to think that way.

Robert Wright has been banging the drum about more cognitive empathy--more trying to see the world through other people's eyes. Even people like maybe Vladimir Putin who we might think of as monsters. It's not the same as saying, 'Oh, what they're doing is fine.' It's not the same as endorsing their abuse. But it's useful, and it's correct: Trying to understand people and also trying to understand how the situation context gives rise to behavior is very much thinking like a psychologist. I think it's kind of a good habit to get into.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I agree. I think it--well, it's profoundly entertaining, too, when you realize that, that's not a cardboard figure, whether it's the person at work who you fought with, or a leader of a belligerent country. And, it helps you appreciate the human condition.

And our ability to do that is really interesting. And, of course, you spend some time in the book about just how extraordinary is our ability to do things like that. But, you don't think about when you think about--oh, we're thinking we're rational or irrational or we have a brain, we have consciousness--but the ability to imagine other people's situations, is remarkably difficult. And, the fact that we can do it at all is quite extraordinary.

Paul Bloom: It is extraordinary. Philosophers have noted that it falls apart when we--Thomas Nagel wrote famous a article called 'What's It Like to Be a Bat?' And, we can't know what it's like to be a bat; and I can't really know what it's like to be you, or you me. I can put myself in your shoes. I imagine myself in Israel, I imagine myself your job, but that's not what it's like to be you.

But, we should marvel at how well we can do it. How I could come to you with my problems and you could honestly--so I kind of understand where you're coming from--we could have a close relationship where--people in love really, they do get each other. And that's just extraordinary. And, one of the reasons why I love novels--to go back to them--is, novelists, of course, are extraordinarily skilled at putting us in the heads of people with lives very different from our own.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I had[?hadn't?] thought about this before, but as I know you know, I'm interested in the upside of marriage. The downside is pretty clear. So, I think about the upside--I've been talking about a long marriage. One of the upsides of a long marriage is an immense amount of data about one data point. You could argue it's three data points: it's your spouse, yourself, and the two of you together. And, those three things, it's surprising how much there is to know. You'd think, 'Well, after a year you've kind of plumbed the depths.' Not true, not true. Human beings are really complicated, even yourself. And, there's something to be said--I don't know, what's the analogy for this, this deep study? You're a psychologist: Oh, you spent a lot of time with psychology. Well, my wife is one of my deep studies, and I'm one of hers. And, that's a different kind of intellectual immersion.

Paul Bloom: And, to make matters worse--or better--we're moving targets. Just when you think you know her, she changes, and you change, too, and your relationship. Your relationship changes.

You often cite my friend, Laurie Paul, the philosopher who talks about transformative experiences. And, I never thought of it this way, but a marriage is a transformative experience. It shifts your priorities, it shifts how you see the world, and you can't quite imagine what it would be until you're in it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, for sure. And, as--quoting a friend of mine who--I've done it before, but his dad told him that until you get married, you're an idiot. And, there's some truth to that. You learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about what you care about, you learn a lot about another person. You do get a little smarter in some sense, if you're paying attention, I guess. I don't know.

Paul Bloom: If you're paying attention. Yeah.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. You were talking about infants, and one of my favorite parts of the book is language. We have a new grandchild, six months old. My youngest child is 23. So, it's been about 22 and a half years since I saw a six-month-old. And you forget what they're like. Sometimes you'll walk up to a teenager and they'll say about a newborn, 'Well, can she talk? Can she say anything?' 'No, not yet. It's going to take a while.'

So, our granddaughter at six months can coo and she is remarkably entertaining, because she can smile and grasp and try to eat things with her hands, including my hand, my thumb, my nose. And yet, there's going to be a day, almost certainly, that she would be able to say, 'Papa' and then an enormous larger number of words. And, that is incomprehensible. That is just not imaginable, other than the fact that we know that everyone we talk to, once was like that. It's really extraordinary .

Paul Bloom: It is extraordinary. My sons are in their 20s and they're both in wonderful, committed relationships. And, I don't tell them this--I'll announce it later--'You know, grandchildren are something which I look forward to. That it sounds like quite the thing.'

Yeah, at first when--I was a graduate student at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and my doctoral dissertation was on language learning, and particularly word learning--how children learn the meanings of words--which also became my first book. And it is extraordinary. It is extraordinary. Other animals have their own communication systems, and people can teach, with tremendous efforts, rudiments of human language to cats for instance, or dogs. But, nothing compares to the blossoming of language in a child.

It works on this timetable: there's babbling. There's the first words which almost always include 'mama' and 'papa', some version of that. And then gradually syntax comes in. And it is an extraordinary process that we put so much effort into understanding, is so largely mysterious. I'm quite persuaded that what we see as a biological process that, just like other animals have innate communications, that we have ours. But of course, because English and Hebrew and Korean and all differ, there has to be a lot of learning that takes place; and it's this extraordinary process.

Russ Roberts: One of the examples you give which is apparent to me, as a newcomer to a foreign country, even though I knew a few Hebrew rudiments before I got here: Hebrew speech spoken by an Israeli is very hard for me. I will recognize the occasional word. If I'm pretty confident about what the topic is, I might get a phrase--well, sometimes a sentence, exhilarating. But, you point out that one of the greatest mysteries is that Chinese--I don't think you speak Chinese, right?

Paul Bloom: Not a bit.

Russ Roberts: So, Chinese is just a bunch of noise to you, and Hebrew often is to me. How do you figure out where the words start and stop? Because a native speaker is a torrent of noise.

Paul Bloom: That's right.

Russ Roberts: It's not just like a word, then a word, then a word, and you are able to understand how they go together. It's a torrent. So, the very first thing you have to do is figure out where the words start and stop. Now of course, to be fair, what we do when we teach our children--which maybe is irrelevant. Maybe if we didn't teach them at all, I think they'd pick it up; they don't need to be taught. But, we point at things and we say dog, or we say hand, or we say tongue and we stick out our tongue, and then they can in theory hear those sounds in the middle of a long sentence. But, I don't think they need to be taught those words that way. I think they get the whole thing, right?

Paul Bloom: No, you're right. They don't, because some cultures don't do that. Some cultures don't talk directly to kids. Kids learn mostly through overheard speech, and they do just fine.

This may be one of the mysteries that people have solved. The claim is, and I talk about this in the book, is that kids do statistics on sounds. So, the idea is that you have a word, like 'mother,' and the 'mo-' and the '-ther' go together a lot. And, if you say, 'Be nice to your mother,' 'your' and 'mother' go together sometimes, but because they're separate words, they don't reliably go together. It sounds like you need an Excel sheet to do this, and it is enormously complicated. But, the claim is that kids do statistics and figure it out.

So, gradually--starting off, English sounds to a kid like Chinese or Hebrew sounds to me: just as a mishmash of noise, but gradually pull apart. And, now as an adult or even as a four-year-old, we hear English--we can't even understand the idea that somebody couldn't hear it as a bunch of distinct words, because our mind puts in the slots.

Now another question which comes up, which is of real practical urgency, is: why can't you and me, why can't we do this now? Why is language learning so hard as adults? And, the idea is, there's a so-called critical period or sensitive period where the system's all built for learning language as a kid. When you hit a certain age--maybe 13 for the sound of a language, 17 for the syntax--it shuts down mostly. And, second language learning is murder.

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm working at it. Not giving up, and I'm better.

Paul Bloom: Don't give up, people get better.

Russ Roberts: The pace though, is glacial. Whereas, for that newborn or that five-year-old, it's like pouring out of a giant fire hose into a big container. So beautiful.

Paul Bloom: I often think that the differences in how people learn second languages may have a lot to do with personality differences, which is: you got to be able to be comfortable sounding like an idiot.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Paul Bloom: And, that's tough. That takes a strength of character to sort of barely garble out things and have people impatiently correct you.

Russ Roberts: That's fascinating. I think there's some truth to that.


Russ Roberts: We had Patrick House on the program, talking about consciousness recently, and he told this remarkable story about the driver who at the last minute, driving down a dangerous road in Iraq--I think it was Iraq--with a senior official, just slams on the brakes, turns around because, quote, "he got a bad feeling"; and he couldn't explain it, and then later he had a hypothesis.

But, Patrick's point was that--and is the way I took it, which I'm eager to take, because I loved it and I want us to be careful--but, his point was that intuition is from the back of your brain that stores everything, and you don't realize it, but your brain's doing a lot of empirical work on your life experiences. And, that is what intuition is. And, maybe I'm being unfair to Patrick. I apologize, Patrick if that's the case. But do you think that's true? And, talk about long-term memory, because you have some really interesting things to say about it.

Paul Bloom: I think--let me zoom in on this. I heard your discussion with Patrick, and I think it's somewhat true. So, the truth is, we're tremendous statistical learners. We put together data all the time, and this is the origin of all sorts of beliefs and gut feelings, origin of stereotypes. And often, this is terrific. It guides us in a way that conscious rational thought can't.

But, the idea that our intuitionist in some sense has this great wisdom, I think has been overblown. I think, often you have a gut feeling, just feels so right. And, you'll remember the stories when a gut feeling was right. But often--I'm a big fan of rational, deliberative thought.

I won't tell you the person, but I once interviewed a graduate student and he was all fine on paper, but I knew he wouldn't work out. I just had this feeling--and I've seen enough grads--I just had this feeling, and I voted against accepting him. Needless to say, he joined the program, became a stellar professor, and now was just this brilliant scholar. I had a feeling--but maybe he was wearing a cologne that my enemy in high school wore. Maybe I was picking up on all sorts of things. I know Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote a book, Blink, making a similar claim that the gut, the intuition is fast, but there's a million anecdotes in favor of it. But, I don't know, I tend to be skeptical. Do you have any skepticism for this?

Russ Roberts: Well, I do think as you get older, you accumulate experience, and that's worth something. I might just call that intuition, and leave it at that. I do think the idea that I'm running a statistical analysis in the part of my long-term memory that I don't have direct access to, is probably a fantasy. I like it. It makes me feel good. It's a beautiful idea. But it's probably not true. And, I do obviously take the point that the million anecdotes are offset by the two million you don't remember, or rather not remember. And, that's the virtuous psychology, because it reminds you that you don't remember everything that you should.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. And also, keep in mind, one of the great success stories of psychology is the research program right now of Kahneman and Amos Tversky, finding that we very much--we often draw upon heuristics and shortcuts and tricks. And, these are smart, these are--in a world where you have to make a [?], it makes sense to say if something comes to mind quickly, it must be frequent. And, that's a good way to work for a world where we don't have computers and statistical analysis and so on.

But often in the real world, it leads us astray. I have a gut feeling that flying on a plane is really dangerous. I have a gut feeling that street crime is probably how I'm going to die, and so on and so forth. But, you look at the numbers, it's just not true. I feel this way because when planes crash and when people get mugged, that ends up in the news, while people dying of strokes doesn't.

Russ Roberts: But, going back to your graduate student assessment, are there colleagues of yours whose intuition you think is better--I'll call it judgment, to get away from a word that has a certain stigma about it maybe--whose prospective judgments you trust more than others?

Paul Bloom: Absolutely. Absolutely. But, the word 'judgment' and 'intuition' and 'wisdom' covers a lot. And, I think that the people who I trust will sit down and think about it a bit. It's not just, 'Oh, I know right away.'

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah.

Paul Bloom: They think about it. And often they have good tools for reasoning. There's people like--there's a wonderful program which I don't discuss in my book, and I regret not raising it, by Philip Tetlock on superforecasters. And, you think somebody would have done this a long time ago--he's interested in: Why do some people get it right? You ask people, what's going to happen in Ukraine? Where are gas prices going to go? Who's going to be the Republican nominee? You get a thousand people and have them all give you your best judgment. Some will get it right, most will get it wrong. What distinguishes those who get it right? And, there's many answers to it, but often you don't just go for your gut: you use the tools of rationality.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I don't mean to--when I use the word 'intuition'--and you'll probably remember Patrick said, 'You never use your gut. Your gut's good for digesting food,' so you should use a different word. But, when I talk about it, I don't mean snap judgment. I mean the ability to make a measured decision in the absence of reliable data, which is an art obviously, and it's not a science. And I guess, we could both concede that over our lifetimes we will probably overestimate our own ability to do that. For two reasons: We forget the bad gut--excuse me--our bad intuitive calls; and, it's a small sample. So, even if we think we're pretty good at it--even if we do remember most of the data points, we're probably struggling with the size of the sample.

Paul Bloom: And, that's the field of psychology, all in itself, that of positive illusions: why a healthy mind tends to remember its successes and somewhat dismiss its failures. That is what psychologists call a 'better than average effect,' or the Lake Wobegon effect from Garrison Keillor's story where all the children were above average.

So, you ask people, 'How good a professor are you? How good a driver, how good a partner, romantic partner?' Everybody says, 'I'm better than average.' You ask people, 'How good are you at overriding psychological biases to the 'better than average' effect?' and people are, 'I'm better than average.'

And, it might be that this isn't a glitch in the system. I sometimes think that there are interesting exceptions where it pays to underestimate your abilities, but just like a smoke alarm should go off a lot of times, even when there's no real risk, because better not to miss something than to get some false alarms. But, I think there's a lot of cases where, if I didn't have an overestimation of my abilities, I wouldn't get out of bed.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah, that's a fascinating question to me whether--and you write about it in this book--and it's quite, as I said, it's quite nuanced; and it's pretty clear to me--and I think you say, you have a similar theme in the book--there's an enormous number of times in life that over-optimism is helpful, and there are many times when it's very dangerous. So, it's not a one-way thing.

Paul Bloom: That's right. And, we might be smart at it. We might be over-optimistic in just those instances where it's good to be over-optimistic, but then worried, overly worried, overly anxious in cases where it's good to be overly anxious.

I talk about some work saying--the way I think[?] is that it reduces one case where psychologists have gone wrong and need to correct--but there's so much talk about the problem of having too much anxiety, too much fear. Because those are people who go into a psychiatrist's office and go to psychology, seek out self-help books. And if I ask people, 'Do you have a problem with anxiety and fear?' They say, 'Yes, I have too much of it.' But, this clinical psychologist, Randolph Nesse says, 'We're missing the fact that having too little anxiety and fear, is also a problem.' He has this wonderful line where he says that: People with too much anxiety, you find them in psychiatrist offices. People with too little anxiety, you find them in morgues.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's really, take the title of your previous book, there's a Sweet Spot, there's some--

Paul Bloom: There's a sweet spot for everything.


Russ Roberts: I like your take on rationality. It's kind of a silly question whether human beings are rational or not. Economists get pulled into these debates because of the rise of Behavioral Economics, that: Economists, they think people are rational, but we know they're not. What's your reaction to that?

Paul Bloom: I have a strong reaction against this. I think that we do succumb to illusions. We have problems in reasoning. A lot of your colleagues in economics have recently rebelled against the idea of the rational man, and a lot of really interesting insights. But, we have extraordinary powers of reason.

And--I mean, one simple demonstration is: Psychologists love to say, 'Oh, look at this ridiculous fallacy people make.' And then, we all kind of point and laugh and say, 'People are so stupid.' Forgetting for the moment that we're people, too, and if we seem to have an ability to notice that they're fallacies.

And so something's going on in our head that gives us the right answer.

And, I think that even when it doesn't look like we're being rational, we're often rational. So, I try to think: What's the best case against rationality? And, you know, very potent cases, political abuse. We're extremely partisan in our politics. We often get facts wrong. We often indulge in conspiracy theorizing both on the Left and on the Right. And, it seems like, 'Oh my God, we're so stupid.'

But, I think that rationality is acting in a way that achieves a goal. And, if your goal is truth, then you are being dumb to support your political party.

But, if your goal is to get along with people and to be part of a group, then sometimes behaviors that would seem stupid actually make sense. If everybody in my community thinks that Barack Obama--that Trump stole the election, or Biden stole the election or whatever--then as a good community member, there's a lot to be gained by me sharing their views, regardless of whether mine is true.

And, I think that we need to have more sympathy and a more sympathetic understanding to what people want, before jumping and saying, 'Oh, they're being foolish.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. One of my favorites in economics is the idea that giving gifts is irrational: because, I could give you money, and then you'd be able to buy the gift that I had picked out, if that was what gave you the most pleasure--but obviously that's low probability and the money gives you the freedom to buy the thing you'd like the most. As if the only reason we give gifts is to maximize the recipient's wellbeing, as opposed to build a relationship, connect with another person, show that you spent time thinking about them, etc., etc., etc. It's a long list, but it's not a irrational to give a gift--

Paul Bloom: That's exactly right. Economists talk about--what is the phrase, a deadweight loss, or something?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Paul Bloom: And then, they say, 'Oh, every Christmas, $5 billion is lost' or something.

And, it is in some way a breathtakingly naive view of what goes on in people, when the purpose of a gift isn't to transfer resources. It's often to show people how much you care and how much you love them. And, passing over $100 bucks does not quite due to trick.

That's a great example where on a first easy glance that people are so stupid; and then you look deeper.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. What's interesting about it, though--a counterpoint is registering for a wedding. If you think about how strange--I just never realized how much that is like cash, obviously. It's sort of a tasteful way of letting people give cash, but pretending that they're giving a gift.

Paul Bloom: That's right.

Russ Roberts: Here in Israel it's very common to give cash to newlyweds. And, of course, newlyweds desperately need cash. They don't need the seventh crockpot--

Paul Bloom: Silver tea set, seventh crockpot--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, silver tea set. So, there are situations where giving cash is not absurd. And, it's interesting that the whole idea of registering and the elaborate nature of it is remarkably like cash, but maintains the aura of gift-giving.

Paul Bloom: Yes. And, there are bizarre compromises. My favorite example is gift certificates. So, I give you a gift certificate for Office Max or something, and the thing about is, it's just like money, except you could only spend it at one place, and it's either the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds [inaudible 00:38:58].

Russ Roberts: But, it feels a little better than cash. I don't know, it should--

Paul Bloom: Yeah, because, 'Look, I thought of it. You like office supplies. You'll like this.' But, it's also very easy for me to get it.

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Paul Bloom: So, yeah. And, you're raising a good point. I think we should respect people's goals, and from that perspective, a lot of behavior, that begins to make sense. But, we have glitches, we have flaws, we're finite beings. We could have systems like our emotions which have evolved, I think, for good reasons and good social reasons, but of course they can go awry. You could kill somebody out of anger, sexual jealousy. Sadness I think is useful, but too much sadness leads to depression and misery and makes your life worse. So, I don't want to be Panglossian about it and say, 'Oh, everything is there for this wonderful purpose.' We have to respect our limitations as well.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Let's talk about motivation. I thought it was very concise of you. You gave, I think, three theories of motivation. I've forgotten the first two. The third was, maximize pleasure and minimize pain--Benthamite calculus. The second one was a wacky one that--I didn't find it tenable. You didn't either--

Paul Bloom: Minimize prediction error.

Russ Roberts: What?

Paul Bloom: Minimize prediction error.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, the first one was--

Paul Bloom: We don't have to get into that--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and the first one was equilibrium in the brain or homeostasis.

Paul Bloom: Yeah, that's right. Homeostasis. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: It's a deep question obviously, and it's useful to think about, because it helps you understand yourself: to start with, the things we say when asked, why did we do X, are really a strange phenomenon, often. And, I'm not sure, do you believe that there is a real reason? Where do you stand on that just general issue? How do you think we should think about it, or why people do what they do?

Paul Bloom: That's a good question. My point in reviewing those three theories is: I don't think there's a single answer. I'm a pluralist with regard to motivation.

So, I think your story of why you eat food when you're hungry is going going to be different from the story of why you chose to become president of a college. And, it's going to be different from the story for why you scratch your leg when it itches. I know psychologists love to say, 'Oh, here's the simple principle'; and philosophers do, too. And I think it's just nonsense. I think to the extent when you try to [?reduce it to?] a simple principle, it becomes so banal. Like: Do what you want to do; seek pleasure, avoid pain. Which always ends up meaning: Well, people do what they do, and they don't do what they don't do--which is hardly satisfying.

I do think things have real reasons. In fact, I think our behaviors often have two sets of reasons. One has to do evolution. So, why do we eat? Well, we eat, and there's an evolutionary answer, because animals that don't eat run out of energy and die. We seek out sex, because animals that don't, don't reproduce. And so on.

But then you get to the personal motivations, and I think there are cases where we perfectly know what we're doing and why we're doing it in pursuit of a goal. Then we get to the very interesting cases where there is a reason, but we're unaware of it. And, in this sense, although I have critical things to say about Freud, and actually some outright mockery of Freud, I think he's right. I think there's a good reason to believe that we have an unconscious, and this unconscious, we are often motivated to do things for reasons that we're unaware of. And, I've never heard you talk about this. Where do you stand on Freud?

Russ Roberts: Well, I was going to ask you about Freud. I was going to ask you--you do mock him, you do criticize him obviously a little bit like ducks in a barrel. But, at the same time, you're very respectful of his impact; and his impact is actually deeply important. Not just because he had influence, but because he helped us see things we did not realize. Many of the things he said turned out not to be true or can't be verified, as you often say in your description of it.

But, you know, I wrote this book Wild Problems on decision-making, and a philosopher colleague of mine here said, 'Do you deal with the fact that most people make decisions without any autonomy? You're just stuck with what you decide and you just do it?' I said, 'No, I don't want them to think about that.' That's the extreme, no-free-will perspective; but when you get interviewed now and then--as I do, and you do, too--you get asked your reasons for doing things. Why did you move to Israel?

Paul Bloom: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I have 10 or 12 stories I could tell that are plausible. I have one I tell myself. Which is the real one? I'm not sure I know. And then, what does that tell me about who I am and the way I think of myself? In my mind, I made a rational choice. That doesn't mean it was some deep analytical pro/con list: it was not. It involved lots of different factors. That part's true. But then, what pushed me over the edge, I think I have trouble figuring that out.

And, it's conceivable, Paul, that you would know better than I did as to why I did it. If you were my therapist for example, or a friend--I'm sure often people have more insight about others than they do about themselves, which goes against economics, by the way, but I think it's often true.

Paul Bloom: I think that's a deep point. That's: I have one advantage over you, which is I'm not vulnerable to the delusions[?] that you have. The taking[?] case, which I'm sure is not true, but Russ, I'm your friend, I noticed that you just really care a lot about money. And then, you get a job offered and it's a lot of money. And, you tell me, 'Oh, I chose this job for--' And, you mention everything but the money, and you sincerely believe it. You would never want to think of yourself motivated by money; these are other good reasons. But, I'm looking at you and say, 'It was the money. It was the money.' And, I think there are two extremes.

So, one extreme is, you carefully lay out the pros and cons for a decision, consciously. You put it on paper, you do the math, some number works higher, and you choose that. And, I noticed you have a lot to say about it in Wild Problems, but I have a little bit of sympathy for that.

The other answer--the most extreme answer--is: you make your choice for some reason totally separate, maybe a Freudian reason. You want to impress somebody who's long dead or something. And then, after the fact, you bring out the piece of paper and you try to make the numbers work. You do some sort of, as if you're a corrupt accountant, try to make the numbers add up to your finality. And, they're both extremes. I think--in some way both is right or neither is right. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. The part of this conversation that I find most interesting, and it may be just a different illusion, is that: obviously we tell stories about ourselves and our identity; and how we see ourselves, obviously not the way we are, and it's not the way other people see us. And, you could argue that the life well-lived is about bringing those into some kind of consonance. But--I'm just going to reference a movie and no spoilers here. Absolutely no spoilers. You can react to this, but you cannot refer to any of the plot of this movie or anything else. But, I would argue that The Banshees of Inisherin--have you seen it?

Paul Bloom: I have not seen it yet. It's on my list, but I have not seen it yet.

Russ Roberts: Okay. So, you will not be spoiling anything. So, I will try to keep my pledge. But, The Banshees of Inisherin, one of the things that movie is about, is what happens when you are confronted with a change in your self-narrative and how that provokes behavior.

It's an extraordinary movie. It should win best picture. I don't think it will, but I think it's the best movie made last year and maybe for a long time. It's really quite spectacular. It gets called a comedy. There's nothing comic about it. There are things that are amusing in it, but it is not a comedy. It is a dark drama about the human condition, and quite thought-provoking. But, to come back to my main point: Our self-narratives are--where do they come from? Are they a source of comfort for us? How much of them are true? Is there any work done on that in psychology?

Paul Bloom: Yeah. Yeah. There is a lot of work. And, my own views have changed. If you asked me 10 years ago, I'd say, 'Well, we're storytelling animals. We naturally tell stories about everything we encounter, and our own lives are no exception.' And, people have studied this. There's a guy named McAdams, has studied people's stories in their own lives. And, they do have stories. It's a story of redemption. It's rags to riches. It's: all these bad things happen to me and I'm a victim. Everyone tells her story. And I think we're encouraged to make up these stories. You ask me, if you chose to ask me, how did you become a psychologist? And, I got an answer. Honestly, it's one answer for a podcast; it's a different answer for close friends. It's a different answer maybe than I really believe.

That's an answer. I used to believe that.

But, one of the actually surprising findings in psychology is how much people differ in this regard. And there are some people who insist--just like some people seem to have no mental imagery, and some people don't have voices in their heads, and some people can't see colors--some people don't seem to tell stories. Just say: It's this, that, this, that; and they don't have a storytelling mode about their own lives. And they don't seem to suffer from it. But, I'm not sure the storytelling mode is as universal as we like to think it is.

Russ Roberts: Hmmm. That's really interesting.

But the part I'm thinking about--I'll call it a script or a narrative--when we come to the fork in the road and we make a decision that, say, violates the unity of plot and character that are persistent from the past, that's unbearable, I think, to us. And so, we find a way to convince ourselves that the author--me--was, 'It's in a ballpark, or yeah, I did a slight--.' And, I think the--I don't know. I don't know if that's relevant or not.

Paul Bloom: And, what we might do--and it goes back to our discussion of memory--you might edit the past a little bit. You know: I have a friend of mine in trouble in the hospital, but I don't visit him. And: 'Well, this isn't like me.' But maybe he wasn't such a good friend after all. And now I sort of--and I edited that time, and that time and that time I forget. I edit, I smooth out the narrative. I'm like a director who is, for some reason, like, something happened in the film and they had to change the ending. So, now he goes back and takes out certain scenes. And we do that: we want to preserve our story.

And, this isn't why--this isn't some way why moral disagreement or political disagreement is so difficult, because these are not--we're not arguing about a mathematical proof and how it goes. We're into things which are deeply tied to our own identity. And, giving them up feels very costly.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah, no, it's very thought-provoking.


Russ Roberts: Slightly switching gears, though it's not related: What are instincts? And, how much of our behavior do you believe is instinctual versus something else? I'm not sure what else there is. You could argue there really isn't any. It's what I've been hinting at.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. Instincts--the word has a lot of different meaning. There's technical definitions of it that don't apply very well to people.

But, I think a good definition of them are focused on things which are largely unlearned, but it could be shaped by learning; and they come to us fairly automatically. So, you could say: flinching back when you see a snake may be a good example of an instinct.

Steve Pinker wrote a wonderful book called Language Instinct, where he talks about that process you were talking about before--a baby learning to talk--is instinctual. It's not the product of learning or culture. It just comes naturally to us. I think one of the great books of psychology is The Principles of Psychology, by William James in 1890.

And, to go back to your critique at the beginning, maybe we should be embarrassed that I read that book and say, 'Wow!' That's--it's not like I'm a biologist reading a book from over a 100 years ago and say, 'Why did he believe such nonsense?'

Now, James had a lot of insights. And in his great book--and this is in answer to your questions: I think James is right--he lists a whole lot of instincts. Weird ones, like: the instinct to climb, the instinct to create things, the instinct to assert ownership, the instinct for revenge when somebody wrongs us. It goes on and on and on. And, I just find this a beautiful passage, and I think that psychology, big trends--oh, I'll be an empiricist, 'Oh, we're just neural networks, we're just learning machines.' But, I think James is actually right. We are populated by a range of different instincts, and he shaped our lives in all sorts of ways.

Russ Roberts: Animals do many, quote, "instinctual" things. Migration being one of the more extraordinary ones. Learning to fly, if you're a bird. You're not taught: you're shoved out of the nest.

Paul Bloom: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I remember my dad basically arguing that instincts are things we don't understand. It's the word we use. And, for a while the standard answer is, 'Well, there's a gene that teaches them how to fly.' Well, there isn't. There's not one, for sure. There might be a confluence of genes that teach you certain things, like language. But, I wonder, I think one of the deep aspects of psychology in any thinking person is thinking about how you're different from an animal; but you are an animal. And so, where's the part where we're not quite like the other animals?

Paul Bloom: Yeah, there's a real tension between this. People talk about sexual behavior and romantic behavior, and there's many people in humanities who describe humans as if we are the only species on earth. They don't look at any other primates or any other mammals and everything. And, everything is, of course, cultural invention: the parents' love for their child, affection and desires, it's all shaped by various--as if you don't find these in chimpanzees and gorillas and in various forms of other creatures. When we forget about our kinship with other animals, that we are animals, and we miss out so much on, we end up with bizarrely unrealistic theories of human nature. Like, the ridiculous theory that love of our children is something that culture has decided to program within us for capitalism reasons or whatever. A silly idea.

On the other hand, I have evolutionary psychology friends who analogize everything we do to the behavior of animals. And, that gets me annoyed too. I'm always annoyed. That gets me annoyed too, because look what we're doing now: man is the only creature that has podcasts. I mean, what we are doing is so different from what we find in any other creature, that who could deny that culture and technology, sped upon by our unique language and our unique intelligence, has put us in a place that sometimes thinking in terms of the behavior of non-human animals just isn't productive. So, you look at religion, you look at science, there's not the slightest analogy.

So, my maybe unsatisfying answer is, we are both: of course we are animals, and of course we are not animals.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, I think--yeah.

Paul Bloom: And, I think, by the way, religious texts are actually good on this. You see the insight and appreciation of both our animal nature and non-animal nature in the great religious teachings.

Russ Roberts: No; for sure. I was thinking, there's a line in, I think it's the Talmud: In one pocket you should have the saying, I came from a drop and I'm going back to dust. I'm nothing, I'm meaningless. My essence is the most tawdry and worldly. And, the second thing I should put in the other pocket is, the world was created for me, that I have a unique role to play. How big is that gap?

Paul Bloom: Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly it. That's exactly it.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. We had a recent guest, Adam Mastroianni, talking about the failure of the peer review system. A slight change of topic here. Sorry, Paul.

Paul Bloom: No, this conversation was so pleasant up to now.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. His argument is that peer review is a failed system. What are your thoughts? You've surely reviewed many papers. You've had many papers reviewed. The replication crisis is in some sense one of the more obvious indictments of the system.

Paul Bloom: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: What do you think?

Paul Bloom: So, I'm also the co-editor of a journal, Behavioral and Brain Sciences. And, we do interdisciplinary papers of large theoretical import and we rely on peer review. I guess I'll say a couple of things. One thing is, there's all sorts of problems that the peer review system is not equipped to solve and fails in that regard. So, my reviewers do not redo the statistics. They do not fact check. A lot of garbage is going to get through, and neither reviewers nor me in my role is editor is ever going to catch it. I don't go back to see whether the citations are right. There's a lot of garbage that gets through.

But, I think I'm a defender of the peer review system, and that when it's done well, it actually keeps a lot of awful stuff from getting out, and also improves papers. Every psychologist wants to get tenure, wants to get promotion, wants to get the next grant. I submit a paper, and by that time I just want a reviewer to say, 'What a wonderful paper. Publish it.' I want applause, I want a publication. I'm never happy when reviews come in and they're long and detailed, but they make it a better paper. They improve my work and make me smarter when done well.

And in that way, I am a defender of peer review.

I also worry about the alternative. So, now we have the technologies that everybody just posts your papers, Forget about journals, forget about peer review, just post your papers. But now the problem is, there's now a million papers in a field I'm interested in. Which ones do I look at? Then with the current system, I read the journals, which have vetted them. Now which ones do I look at? And, the answer is, I look at the ones from Harvard, from Yale, from Princeton, from famous people. There's something, when done right, whatever [?] deeply meritocratic about peer review; and just posting things without peer review and letting people sift through themselves, will favor the powerful and the well-connected and the well-financed.

Russ Roberts: Wait a minute, which is going to favor that, the non-peer review or the peer review?

Paul Bloom: The non-peer review is going to favor--it's going to give it an enormous prestige bias.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, but so is peer review. Peer review's got it, too.

Paul Bloom: Peer review too, but you could do blinded peer review.

Russ Roberts: In economics it's usually one way. The authors don't know who reviewed their paper, but the reviewer knows who wrote it. Is that true in psychology also?

Paul Bloom: It's almost always true, with some exception, that authors don't know who the reviewers are. In many journals--not my own actually, but in many journals--the reviewers are blind. They don't know who it's from.

Now, to be fair, often it's the paper and they say they, 'We're going to discuss the work of Bloom and Bloom series[?], which I think is right,' and set up a bunch of experiments, that--'See Bloom 2020 A, 2020 B.' Sometimes it's easy to tell. It's easy to tell. So, you can get around the blinding pretty easily, and many people do.

I'm not going to give the quote about democracy, but I do think that sometimes[?] peer review is a pretty awful system, but I've never seen a good substitute. Did your guest have a substitute in mind?

Russ Roberts: Yeah; and it hasn't aired yet. It'll be out in a of couple weeks. He says: Just, let's go back to the old way, which was people wrote papers and people discussed them, and some got more attention than others, and some got ignored. Kind of like peer-reviewed papers in reality. It's not like peer-reviewed papers become chiseled in the stone as truth. Most people understand it's an imperfect process.

Actually, what I think is interesting, I think those of us in the kitchen know that peer review is deeply imperfect and maybe better than an alternative. For me, the bigger problem is how the non-academics consume peer-reviewed research as if it's truth. And so, my sympathy for Adam's argument is to disband that phenomenon, but when it comes out, you can--

Paul Bloom: Yeah. I think--well, you know what I think,; but maybe this isn't an argument that best defends my field, but in some way, peer reviews are the least of our problems. We have, as a science, so many problems that we're struggling with. I talk in the book about the replication crisis, which was basically: we did our stats in that way that made it easier than it should have been to get significant results and now showered the field [?] significant results. And then, when you do the statistics right, they'll go away. There's our diversity problem, our WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic] problem, which is, when Joe Henrich put it, a randomly selected American undergraduate is 4,000 times more likely to be a subject in a psychology group than anyone from outside the West. We have a psychology, basically, of the American undergraduate.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's a great point. [More to come, 1:03:15]

Paul Bloom: And, there's the file-drawer problem: If I get a really cool result, out it goes to science. If it doesn't work, it stays in my file drawer.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Paul Bloom: There's political problems, where I think our field has political biases and economic biases that favored work has to get popular.

But I will say--having said all that--in the sense of psychology, we're getting better. We really are getting better. We're doing bigger studies. These findings have become well known.

Everyone yells at us for replication failures, but we're the ones that found the problem. It's not that we're the only ones guilty of it. There was a Nature paper out that looked at cancer research, and cancer research--I love psychology, but if I had to fund one of them, I'd fund cancer research. And so much of their work just doesn't replicate.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul Bloom: So, we're getting better.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: What's the good life?

Paul Bloom: What's The Good Life?

Russ Roberts: I'll give you a of couple minutes. Go ahead.

Paul Bloom: What's The Good Life?

Russ Roberts: You have something to say about it in the book. It's not a cold question--

Paul Bloom: I do have something to say about it in the book. I talk a little bit about psychology.

If you think of the good life as happiness--and many people do; you and I don't, but many people do--there's some insights as to what does and what doesn't make us happy. Again, some surprises. So, I'll tell you, money makes us happy, and you go, 'Well, duh. Money buys good things. I knew that already.' But I'll also tell you that people get happier as they get older, past 50. Happiness goes up and up and up, a very well-replicated finding.

Russ Roberts: Controlling for money, I assume.

Paul Bloom: Controlling for money--controlling for all sorts of things--it goes up.

And, as we talked about before, children have a complicated relationship with happiness.

I think a good life involves flourishing in many different ways. I think happiness isn't sufficient. I think being a moral person, living a life of meaning-- for some people, living a life that has spiritual or transcendent value--a full and meaningful life is sitting above and beyond a lot of pleasure. And, I think it doesn't have a one-word answer. But it includes pleasure; but also meaning and morality. I wouldn't say somebody lived a good life if they preyed upon people and were selfish and cruel. And here, of course, I'm not necessarily speaking as a psychologist, just as a person, [?].

Russ Roberts: I have a question here, just sort of related to that. It's a cheap shot, and it's not unrelated to my opening question. It goes like this: If psychology were useful, psychology professors should be better at--fill-in-the-blank. I put marriage, losing weight, parenting, being happy, anything. Now, I said 'psychology professors.' I think a better question would be if you spend time thinking about psychology. But, the psychology-professor question is about the academic literature and the insights one might get from that.

Again, in economics--economists aren't very good at many things. They do understand opportunity costs--usually. They understand something about comparative advantage; maybe that's helpful. There aren't that much--I don't think there's that much practical about the study of economics. It mainly helps you understand the world around you in a more useful and powerful way. And, the only really practical thing is, it discourages you from buying individual stocks--which is somewhat helpful. Perhaps. But what about psychology? Or, in your case?

Paul Bloom: Oh, that's a good question--

Russ Roberts: Has it helped you in any way?

Paul Bloom: That's a good question. Just to pile on an economist a while, while I desperately think of an answer: There's a book--it was written by Deirdre McCloskey--called, If You're So Smart.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul Bloom: And, I remember--it's a lovely title, because the line is, of course: If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?

And, the idea is, if economists knew a lot about the economy, they should all be rich, because they'd be able to predict how things are going to go, because if you're predicting it you'd get rich. And, the claim is that they are not rich, therefore they are not smart.

We are not smart, either. I think the claims of psychology are often incredibly overblown. We don't know how to have good marriages. We don't really have any insights.

A lot of things that really matter for practical life, we don't have insights on. I think we have important, valuable insights about things like consciousness and memory and reasoning and language and social connections, but there are at a theoretical level that don't translate in any immediate sense to practical things.

To answer your question: I studied child development, and my then-wife was also a developmental psychologist. And we raised two kids. And we were often asked: 'Well, as developmental psychologists, you must [?have parenting down straight?]' And: Oh my God, we did not. Parenting involves a lot of strength of skills of character that I'm not taught in a psychology class.

But, one thing that being a psychologist helped me with, is: I learned not to take psychologists that seriously.

So, we had all of these child-raising books, and they would all say, 'Sleep with the kid, don't sleep with the kid. Do this, don't do this.' And, we would just choose the one that seemed to work best for us and say 'There.' And, it gives you, if--at minimum at this time, the psychological mission gives you a healthy skepticism about psychology.

And, to go back to what you said before: if I could say anything to people who consume psychology, I would say: Don't ever, ever, ever take a single study that seriously. There's stuff you should take seriously, but there are big bodies of evidence accumulated over many years. Just because Buzzfeed or New York Times says, 'Oh, this study finds this.' Ignore it. Wait for more.


Russ Roberts: We talked earlier about Freud. When I had Roosevelt Montás on the show, he talked about how much he learned from Freud. And, you mentioned William James. Obviously, I'm someone who believes that Adam Smith could be read profitably, even though he wrote in the 18th century. Other than your book--which is a great starting place, which I recommend--other than your book, for a casual beginner who wants to learn more about psychology--you know, people would ask me, 'What's the best textbook I should read?' None of them. They're not meant to be read. Do not read a textbook. You've got to read something else. But you would recommend William James. Should one read Freud today, or should we just be aware of the impact that he's had on our culture and our way of thinking, implicitly?

Paul Bloom: I think Freud rewards reading, but not as a way of learning about psychology. Really more as a way of being exposed to a powerful mind, chewing on interesting topics. My favorite book for Freud is Civilization and Its Discontents, but I wouldn't recommend anybody wading into The Interpretation of Dreams. It's a very big book, and unless you're really interested in intellectual history, it's not going to give you much of value.

I will give a recommendation. My friend and colleague and advisor, Steven Pinker, has written many popular books on the mind and on rationality and on the decline of violence and so on, which really reward reading and are excellent. And, what I'll say is, in my webpage,, on my FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] page, I give a list of books written by non-psychologists, which I think are just wonderful introductions to psychology. Two that come to mind are Maria Konnikova's book on poker, which is this wonderful book on what poker and bluffing teaches you about the mind. And, this fantastic book by Rory Sutherland, who is an adman, I guess, in the United Kingdom called Alchemy--

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah--

Paul Bloom: Which is just brimming, brimming with insights about human nature.

Russ Roberts: It's a fascinating book. We talked about it on EconTalk, encourage. We'll put a link up to it. But, yeah, he has the great advantage and disadvantage of not suffering from an academic background. So, there are many--

Paul Bloom: It's plain, he doesn't. But the book is really a wonderful story. It has wonderful insights.


Russ Roberts: What's next for you? I'm in a way, this is a capstone kind of book. It's an overview of what you've learned from your field.

Paul Bloom: Yeah. I hate to think of it as a swan song or something practically.

I'm writing a book on perversity, on perverse choices--why we choose to do things that we know are wrong. And, I find it a fascinating topic. And, I have wild problems, in a sense open in front of me as I write my book, but I'm extremely interested in why we do this, and I think it reveals all sorts of things about human nature. So, this is a book, I have a proposal note to an editor, and I'm very excited to get started with it.

It is one of the things--and you were talking to Sam Harris about this--one of the unfortunate things about a book--which, I love to talk about psych, don't get me wrong. But, by the time the book comes out, it has been a year since I sent in my manuscript to my editor, and now I'm working on new projects. But, psychology is always going to be front and center in my mind.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Paul Bloom. Paul, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Paul Bloom: Thank you. My pleasure.

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