Tim Harford: “Science and Long Experience Has Taught Me that Our Emotional Reactions Influence What We Believe More Powerfully than Any Expertise.”

Tim Harford: “Science and Long Experience Has Taught Me that Our Emotional Reactions Influence What We Believe More Powerfully than Any Expertise.”

Interview: Tim Harford.

Tim is an economist, journalist, and broadcaster. He's author of Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy (Amazon, Bookshop), Messy (Amazon, Bookshop), and the bestselling The Undercover Economist (Amazon, Bookshop). He's also a senior columnist at the Financial Times and the presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less.

I discovered Tim Harford through his brilliant podcast, Cautionary Tales. I highly recommend it—full of information and told in a very engaging, accessible way. I just learned that he hosts another popular podcast, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, which I'm eager to listen to.

Now he has a new book that just hit the shelves: The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn't wait to talk to Tim about habits, happiness, and human nature.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Tim: A pandemic habit has been, every Monday morning, to cycle several miles to the top of a nearby (steep) hill, practice Tai Chi with my teacher, and then cycle home again. What a treat to have that opportunity! We all need exercise, tranquillity, and time outdoors – and these past few months have challenged us to be more determined and more creative in our search for those things.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Being kind to other people doesn’t just make them happy, it makes me happy too.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

I’m trying to help my readers think more clearly about the claims they read in the media or on social media, and what surprises people is that I start by asking them to focus on their own emotions: how does this headline make you feel?

I do this because both the science and long experience has taught me that our emotional reactions influence what we believe more powerfully than any expertise. That is true whether the emotion is negative (‘it can’t be true’; ‘fake news!’) or more positive (‘this shows I was right all along’; ‘what an inspiring photograph!’). 

While The Data Detective does offer advice about how to think critically about evidence and particularly about numbers, it all depends on that visceral reaction. If you simply take a few moments to notice your own emotions, you are immediately more likely to think calmly and wisely about what you are reading.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Spreadsheets! I’m a geek, after all.

More seriously: I decided to track my physical exercise. I gave different activities a little score – quite arbitrary. So 50 points to do a full set of press-ups, or 100 points to follow a 10 minute exercise video. 100 points for a long walk. And I just tracked it. The details have varied over time; the habit of being deliberate about physical activity has lasted for more than a decade.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

The quiz says I am an Upholder, and who am I to argue?

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Overwork, and information overload.

I feel pretty disciplined about both. I don’t check Facebook – my posts there are automated feeds from my website. I avoid Twitter except while promoting books. I am an email ninja. And yet… there are always moments when it gets a bit too much.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

More than once! A recent example: I heard an interview with Gregg Krech about something called the ‘Naikan method’. It involves reflecting on three questions. First: what have I received from others? Second: what did I give to others? Third: what trouble or inconvenience did I cause others?

The moment I heard these I realised that I had been feeling rather sorry for myself about a particular situation. I had failed to appreciate my good fortune simply I was focused instead on a small recent setback.

But there is a broader point about lightning bolts of realisation: I think they strike fairly often. But you need to notice them – blink, and you miss it – and you need to be able to hold onto the insight. It’s not easy to capture lightning in a bottle, but we need to try. Write down the insight and act on it!

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

“Be curious.”

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

It will seem like a strange choice, but I would nominate Dragon Warriors, a book by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson. It’s a book that describes a fantasy world and explains how to play imaginative games set in that world. (A better-known parallel is the Dungeons & Dragons game.)

Why pick Dragon Warriors? Because I love playing imaginative games: they encourage active creativity, and they’re a social activity – you play them with friends. I still play most weeks, and some of my oldest and dearest friends are gamers. And, the icing on the cake: these days I play with Dave and Oliver, the gaming gods who helped introduce me to the hobby.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct? 

Yes: the idea that “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.” We focus too much on people who lie with statistics, and too much on correcting those lies with fact-checking. That’s important, of course, but if we obsess about it to the exclusion of everything else, we’re making a serious mistake. We contribute to the idea that everything is ‘fake news’; we let healthy scepticism curdle into toxic cynicism.

So I think that we – all of us, but particularly my friends and colleagues in the fields of journalism and statistics – need to concentrate not just on what is a lie, but on what is true. It may be easy to lie with statistics but it’s even easier to lie without them.

Author photo by Fran Monks.

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