Neuroscience, Decisions, and Strippers

Decision making: there are countless books about it because, lets face it, decisions are at the epicenter of what we humans do. Make the wrong choice and it can kill you, or at least cause a lot of sweat and tears.

One major crossroads for many involves mate selection. Some knock it out of the park—we’ve all seen the heartwarming stories of couples still in love after 50 years—and then there are the marriages that crumble after a few months, or even days.

So what can we learn from the long-term lovebirds? What’s their secret? How did they find each other? When you first meet someone, what are the telltale signs to look for and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid?

It’s classic advice column fodder, and people make a tidy living doling out their strategies for selection. But at the crucial moment, how much strategy is really involved?

In his book Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman shares an unlikely experiment done in New Mexico.

Scientists were curious about how someone’s attraction response to a woman might be influenced by her fertility. It’s a tricky thing to study: how do you quantify something as ephemeral as human sexual chemistry? For these particular researchers, the answer lay in strip clubs. If the two things were connected, they hypothesized, maybe a lap dancer’s nightly tips would ebb and flow with her menstrual cycle?

The results were surprising. Lap dancers during their peak fertility period earned a cool $68 a night. On evenings they were menstruating, their tips fell to $35, for a monthly average of about $53.

Those who were on the pill saw no such fluctuation. Instead, they averaged about $37 dollars an evening.

What accounts for the difference? Of course, there’s no way to be sure. But Eagleman speculates it has to do with subtle changes in things like body odor, complexion, and waist-to hip ratio. It might also involve the output of pheromones, those neural chemicals linked to attraction, picked up subconsciously through the nose.

In other words, without realizing it, strip club patrons were primed to open their wallets and give more freely. They took their cues from the most primitive parts of their brains, hardwired over the generations to notice potential mates with the greatest likelihood of producing offspring.

No rational decision-making was at work, no reference to a conscious list of preferred attributes. Consciousness wasn’t even invited to the party.

What does all this mean? Well, if you’re a lap dancer relying on those tips, it means doubling up on your shift during peak fertility and maybe looking at alternate forms of birth control.

If you’re a man trying to pick up women, it means you might want to second-guess that gut instinct. Ask yourself, ‘who’s driving?’ It might not be who you think.

The Achilles’ Heel in Your Head

Have you ever wondered why some people—and maybe we’re talking about you—are so adamant about some things? It might be a political position or your thoughts on diet and exercise, music, drunk drivers, tuna fish—the list goes on.

And if you were asked what informed your particular stance, answers might include your spiritual faith, personal life experience, and/or what you’ve learned from others through a wide variety of sources. Your belief system is subjective, and like your fingerprints, unique to you. As far as storage and access go, you hold the keys.

But although the system is subjective, what’s less subjective is the architecture it’s built on, according to many neuroscientists.

The thought is that the brain attaches emotional meaning to some events, in the form of memory markers. The outrage that accompanies your feelings of hearing about a hit-and-run drunk driver on the 10 o’clock news helps to both inform your opinion and store it in your memory for recall later.

Collected together, opinions create belief, which leads to a rule guide that you can then apply to new situations. In the science community, these are known as heuristics. Your brain catalogs them and makes them available to you for those eyeblink-fast decisions. This saves you from having to consciously invent new guidelines for every situation you find yourself in.

In other words, your brain conserves energy by applying previously established rules to new events. This works pretty well most of the time. In essence, your brain is gambling that a variety of life situations are similar enough that ‘a one size fits all’ approach will get the job done.

Our brains rely on, and would be lost without, our network of prebuilt beliefs to help maneuver us through our day. Unfortunately, this kind of system means that we bias towards simple black-and-white answers, often choosing not to examine the nuance of a decision or argument that might put our belief at risk.

This is why soundbites are so popular; they cater to the brain’s entrenched understanding of the world. We decide quickly but shallowly: this political party is the good guys and the other is the bad guys.

It takes more energy and a much more complicated reasoning process to seek out the grey area of a decision or argument. The only way to teach your brain how to do it is to actively question your own beliefs. That can be a messy business, which can lead to uncertainty—one of very things your system is designed to help clean up. So there is reassuring safety in locking down on a belief and adamantly refusing to open it up for assessment.

Of course, a little certainty isn’t necessarily bad. It might even make perfect sense, provided you’ve taken the time to work your way through your network of opinions and the nuances that drive an argument or decision.

But why are black and white answers so terribly seductive? The simple answer: it’s what our brains are hardwired to do. For many of us caught in the swirl of our day, relying on preconceived beliefs just saves time and energy.  Who has time to spend digging into the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind our decisions?

Our heuristics have allowed us to flourish and populate a large portion of the planet, and yet as a species, the over reliance on unexamined beliefs is also our collective Achilles’ heel.

Mind Wandering, or Getting Your Einstein On

Does your mind tend to wander? Most people believe that their minds wander about 10% of the time. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara put that figure at more like 30%.  When engaged in well-rehearsed tasks like driving a car on a wide-open highway, it’s estimated that mind wandering can be as high as 70%.

In her book How to Get People to Do Stuff, behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk makes the important distinction between mind wandering and daydreaming.

According to Weinschenk, daydreaming involves an aspect of fantasy, like imagining you’ve been asked to star in the next Hunger Games flick opposite Jennifer Lawrence, or you’ve just won the lottery.

Mind wandering occurs when your subconscious brain is engaged in a habituated activity, like driving, and at the same time you’re thinking about some other task or wrestling with some other problem.

Doing one thing while your brain focuses on something else might sound an awful lot like multi-tasking. However, the key to multitasking is performing multiple simultaneous conscious activities. In fact, scientists haven’t definitively proven true multitasking even exists. Humans seem to lack the cognitive firepower to pull off multiple independent-thinking operations at the same time.

What feels like multitasking is actually the brain flipping back and forth between separate mental processes, but because of the speed of the flipping, you have the illusion of synchronicity. Psychologists call this “task switching.” It helps to explain a common downside to this behavior, what’s sometimes called the 50/50 rule: when you try to do two things at once, both tasks tend to take 50% longer and involve 50% more mistakes.

So mind wandering is not multitasking or daydreaming. Mind wandering, according to researchers at UC Santa Barbara, is tied to creativity.  Weinschenk notes that the ability to perform a rote task while mind wandering and, more specifically, to switch on this mental meandering at will is “the hallmark of the most creative people.”

There are numerous stories of great thinkers like Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein’s daydreaming or “thought experiments” helping to fuel some of the greatest achievements of modern time. Weinschenk would probably be quick to point out that these geniuses were not mere daydreamers, but accomplished mind wanderers.

I suppose that’s a blow to all of us daydreamers who up until now could take solace in our former moony-eyed patron saints, Tesla and Einstein. I, for one, vow to pay more attention to my own mind wandering in the future.

Anyway, I’ll get right on that after I finish winning the lottery…

Jonesing for a Soda? Here’s Why

When we think of addiction, we might think of the heroin junkie lying on a dirty mattress with a needle in his arm, or a sweaty rockstar snorting a line of coke right after some mega concert.

We are probably less likely to think about ourselves. But when it comes to hijacking the brain’s reward system, none of us are entirely clean.

In an article from Experience Life entitled “This is Your Body on Soda: the effects of drinking one of America’s most cherished refreshments”, a 12 ounce can of soda takes on an ominous tone.  The average soft drink packs about 10 teaspoons of sugar per can. Stack this up against the American Heart Association’s daily guidelines: 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men.

The effects of pop on your system go something like this: about twenty minutes after you chugged that can, a blood-sugar spike overwhelms your liver’s ability to process the glucose load. What your liver can’t process is converted into fat. And as the article points out, “There’s practically no limit to how much fat your body can store.”

At the thirty-minute mark, the soda’s caffeine has kicked in, dilating your pupils and driving up your blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure sends a signal to your beleaguered liver to release even more sugar into your bloodstream. That aftershock means another little fat storage opportunity for your body.

Forty minutes after the soda washed over your lips, the levels of dopamine in your brain’s nucleus accumbens (essentially, the pleasure center) go wild. Since dopamine is a feel-good chemical, designed to reward beneficial behavior, the result is a kind of ‘high’.

As with a heroin user, your system has no way of knowing it’s been hijacked, that it’s been manipulated into rewarding you for something that is actively hurting you.

Now fifty minutes have passed and you’ve suddenly got the urge to urinate, thanks to the diuretic quality of the caffeine. You’re not just losing fluids, though; soda contains phosphoric acid, which binds to calcium, magnesium, and zinc. So as the article notes, “you’ll soon be flushing those vital nutrients down the toilet.”

One hour after you knocked back the soda, you sugar crash big-time, and then begin to go into withdrawal. You’re irritable, your energy levels flag—and you’re thirsty.  Your solution? Another can of soda.

If you’re watching calories and your drink of choice is diet soda, does the above still apply? Yes. In fact, it applies more. Artificial sweeteners in diet soda have an even greater impact on your brain than regular soda.

The net result? You’ve just completed a lap in the addiction cycle. If you do enough of these laps, which is to say you’ve been drinking soda regularly for at least two months, your brain has wired itself for the soda addiction.

Over time, as a natural course for reaching equilibrium and control, your brain’s dopamine levels begin to drop.  You are no longer impacted as much by your soda intake. This means you find yourself drinking more and more to get the same high you felt before.

According to government statistics, nearly 23 million Americans are addicted to something, and one in ten is addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is because hustling our evolutionary reward system is not that difficult. Our culture has developed numerous keys that fit the lock in the brain’s nucleus accumbens.

When it comes to addiction, mega concerts and dirty mattresses are optional.

The Twain Brain, or, Why Smart People do Stupid Things

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” So said Mark Twain, printer, steamboat pilot, journalist, failed miner, entrepreneur, abolitionist, lecturer and supreme humorist. Twain is perhaps the greatest American storyteller and writer ever produced by the fifty states.

Whether attacking kings, hypocrites, or the literary offenses of Fenimore Cooper, Twain was famous for his razor-sharp wit and his allergy to BS. Yet that same man drove himself into bankruptcy, ignoring the council of his most trusted pals in favor of pouring his fortune into a series of disastrous inventions. He once invested the equivalent of 8 million dollars in the Paige typesetting machine, a marvel of engineering that dazzled crowds but also constantly broke and was obsolete by about 1884.

So why did a man renowned for not suffering fools pour his fortune into one fool’s errand after another? Could it be that Twain, like the rest of us, was seduced by a “magic bullet”? That wholly American notion that there is a shortcut out there to unmitigated wealth and happiness.

Whether it’s a diet pill (all-natural, of course) or a potion to restore skin texture to that of a six-week-old baby (all-natural, of course) or a book that promises to create a state of nirvana (no artificial additives) or a new-fangled typesetter machine, many of us are suckers for the shortcut.

We love the easy road, the secret sauce, or that ultimate financial tip (see Martha Stewart). In 2012, Americans spent a total of $78 billion on lottery tickets.

Our brains love shortcuts. The most primitive, basic parts of our brains are wired for them. Although these shortcuts lack precision and can create real problems, their saving grace is efficiency.

Still, this efficiency can suffer sometimes. Take optimism bias, the unfounded belief that things will turn out much better than the facts warrant.

It’s what allows smokers to believe they won’t get cancer, dieters to start their diet in the future, and all of us to procrastinate on our work because, as Twain noted, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

Even the great Twain fell victim to optimism bias as he traveled down what he thought was a shortcut to financial independence through a prototype-printing machine. The Paige typesetter was reported to possess more problems than actual moving parts, of which it had more than 18,000.

Ironically, many suspect that had Twain put more energy in writing and less in his pet get-rich-quick scheme, he would have gotten rich much faster, and with a whole lot less heartache.

But Twain, was plagued with one incurable problem: a human brain. If reasoning is currency, then biases and shortcuts are what the primitive brain trades in. And that brain is where the action is.

Perhaps rather than seeing biases and shortcuts as system flaws, we should instead celebrate that which makes our brains so unique and ‘predictably irrational.’

No one summed it up better than Mark Twain.

“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”

The Anatomy of Fear

By the time our ancestors were roaming the great savannas, alternating between chasing prey and being prey, their systems had already adapted to face the harsh environment, according to Rick Hanson PhD, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

Today, those ancient adaptations show up in the most peculiar ways as we constantly hijack a system built for times long ago. Getting cut off on the highway might not seem an awful lot like being chased by a lion, but to the brain’s subcortical structures, it’s pretty much the same deal.

Hanson explains how it all works.

As you feel yourself careening across a lane of traffic, your brain sounds the ancient ‘lion alarm,’ and begins to prepare for battle. First, stress hormones like Epinephrine kick your heart rate up and Norepinephrine increases blood flow to bring your largest muscles online faster.  Your pupils dilate to take in more light for enhanced visibility, and your bronchioles expand, boosting lung capacity for punching and speed.

Another stress hormone called cortisol jumps in to suppress your immune inflammation warning system, just in case you happened to be wounded. The hippocampal system, which normally does its part to keep the cortisol level of the amygdala (the brain’s fear center) under wraps, takes a proverbial step back and lets the amygdala ratchet up, which drives more cortisol into your system, in effect supercharging your blood, much like adding octane to your vehicle’s gas tank.

The system that governs reproduction essentially turns off, because that’s not something that you’re likely to be thinking about at the moment, and your digestive system also goes into hibernation, allowing the body to redirect energy and blood flow as needed.

All of this signals your amygdala to go on a higher level alert; this system, which normally monitors threatening information, turns up the heat on your emotional thermometer and moves the needle from stress to fear/anger in order to raise your level of intensity commensurate with a struggle for life or death.

Your prefrontal cortex, the home of reason, speculation, planning and assessment gets hijacked by more primitive systems like the amygdala and takes a backseat, fundamentally turning the keys to your body over to your reptilian brain. Not a whole lot of contemplation going down when you’re in “kill or be killed” mode.

There was a time when the primitive elegance of this system made sense. But that was a long time ago. Today a whole host of activities, from being cut off on the road to a bad email from your boss, can trip the ancient survival system.

Many people find it difficult to deactivate the stress switch. Hanson teaches that practicing mindfulness and meditation are ways to help keep the brain from prematurely sounding the alarm bell all day long.

Sadly, for all too many people, there is a lion lurking around every corner.

The Experiencing Self, or, Why Present-You Hates Past-You

Unlike Calvin here, most of us will probably never get the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation between our current selves and our 6:30 selves, so to speak. That is a shame, because as Daniel Kahneman discusses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the two of them don’t necessarily know that much about each other.

In trying to understand how the brain registers emotion, Kahneman outlines the divide between what he calls the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” The experiencing self, or “8:30 Calvin”, if you will, is you in the present. All it knows is whether or not you are having a good time in the moment. The remembering self, or “6:30 Calvin”, on the other hand, looks back and tries to to sum up your overall impressions of past events.

Which Calvin holds more sway in your judgements?  That prize goes to 6:30 Calvin. It makes a certain amount of sense. The trouble with living “in the now” is that every second is a different now. Your in-the-moment perceptions are in constant flux. Your remembering self, on the other hand, is a much more fixed point. Besides, the vast majority of the information in your head is not things you’re discovering in the moment; but feelings and data you’ve gradually built up over your whole life.

Unfortunately, 6:30 Calvin doesn’t always know what he’s talking about.

In the past, we’ve discussed the peak-end rule, where our take-home memory of an event puts way too much weight on the most extreme moment, and also on whatever happened at the very end. (Every stage actor knows that you have to bring your A-game to the final scene.) Our most recent recollection can color the rest of our information to a hilarious degree. In one study, people were asked to judge their own life satisfaction. But first, they had to make a photocopy. Half the participants then “discovered” a carefully planted dime in the photocopy room. The simple minor victory of having just gained a free ten cents had a noticeable impact on how they assessed the overall happiness of their lives.

Then, there’s duration neglect. 6:30 Calvin has no way to accurately record time.

To see these effects in action, we need look no further than Kahneman’s “cold hand” study.

First, experimenters asked people to plunge their hand into very cold water for 60 seconds. As you might imagine, this is not the most pleasant activity. (From an experiment design setup, it’s a good way to administer an easy-to-measure but harmless pain. From a “bored scientists hanging around the lab” setup, it’s probably also a decent dare.)

The subjects were allowed to briefly warm and dry their hands with a towel, and to presumably take a moment to ponder the sacrifices we all make for scientific knowledge, and whether or not it’s worth it to hurt yourself on purpose while some schmuck or schmuckette stands over you with a clipboard.

Then, it was back into the cold water. This time, the subjects got 60 seconds just as before, but immediately followed by 30 seconds in water that was exactly one degree warmer.

Told they had to undergo one more dunking, the subjects then had to decide: did they want to relive Option A or Option B?

Keep in mind: Option B is just Option A with 30 extra seconds of slightly less-painful pain. (A total of 90 seconds in cold water.) So surely it will come as no surprise to know that people overwhelmingly chose…Option B. They were swayed by the recollection of the pain lessening of the last 30 seconds (hello, peak-end rule), and while each second in the cold water had probably felt like an eternity as it was happening, the remembering self couldn’t make the distinction.

The remembering self doesn’t care about 60 seconds vs 90 seconds. “What’s the difference to me?” says the remembering self. “I’m talking to you from the past, and in the vast scheme of your life, 30 seconds are nothing.” Sure, it means a little extra pain in the moment, but the remembering self doesn’t worry about the moment. “Not my department,” says the remembering self with a shrug, passing the buck in a scene familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in a company with multiple employees. “It’s someone else’s problem.”

Unfortunately for you, that “someone else” is…your experiencing self.

If you’ve read the classic Calvin and Hobbes strip above, you know that what follows is a whole lot of arguing. Just one more peril of time travel…



Six Strategies for Avoiding the Truth

Are you lying to yourself every day?

Depends: are you a “Bayesian Updater?” Hopefully you are. The term is named after Reverend Thomas Bayes. Around 1763, Bayes proposed a probability theory which stated that when you’re confronted with facts contradicting your current beliefs, you change or update your beliefs.

In his new book, Answers for Aristotle, University of Chicago’s Massimo Pigliuuci suggests that if humans are rational, then the Bayesian principle should be our default. Of course, modern science has done a great deal to de-emphasize the role of logic in decision-making. Even the great philosopher Aristotle, upon closer reading, suggests we are more rationalizers than rational.

So if people aren’t Bayesian Updaters, what are they? In their study of cognitive dissonance, Northwestern University professor Monica Prasad and her research team have identified six alternative strategies. Their work shines on light on just how intelligent and well informed individuals can cling to a belief even in the face of all available proof to the contrary.

Her findings are based on a study about Republicans who failed to change their stance on the Iraq War, even after being confronted with hard evidence that Sadam Hussein was not connected to 9/11, as Bush had initially argued.

Here are the six most common responses Prasad identified in her study:

1. Attitude Bolstering (33%): When told Sadam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, this group simply shifted to other justifications for the Iraq War. For example, “There is no doubt in my mind that if we did not deal with Saddam Hussein when we did, it was just a matter of time when we would have to deal with him.”

2. Disputing Rationality (16%): Having trouble justifying your reasoning? Here’s one option: don’t even try. As one subject put it, “Well, I bet they say that the Commission didn’t have any proof of it but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.”

3. Inferred Justification (16%): Some respondents worked backwards, suggesting that even if they couldn’t find a reason, surely one had to exist, because why else would we be in Iraq? “…I believe that [the death of innocent people is wrong] also, but there must be a reason why we’re still over there or we wouldn’t be over there still.”

4. Denial of belief in the link (14%): These subjects used a “slippery slope” defense, subtly reinterpreting the original linkage between Hussein and 9/11 to be about Afghanistan and 9/11, as if the malleability of the facts was not a problem.

5. Counter-arguing (12%) Another common strategy was simply refuting the information. These people responded with their own arguments connecting Sadam and the 9/11 attacks. For example, “I believe he was definitely involved with in it because he was definitely pumping money into the terrorist organizations every way he could. And he would even send $25,000 to somebody who committed suicide to kill another person, to their family.”

6. Selective Exposure (6%) Instead of changing their mind, this group simply disengaged from the issue altogether, saying things like, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about . . . where and what we’re going after.” and “I’m gonna pass on this one, for now.”
Interestingly, even after the subjects were shown a quote where George Bush acknowledged that there was no linkage between 9/11 and Sadam Hussein, only 2% of those surveyed changed their minds.

It should be pointed out that this study is not a condemnation of Republicans. No personal background or political affiliation makes you immune to these fallacies. It’s not an issue of party lines, it’s an issue of being human.

So what drives our cognitive dissonance? One answer might be heuristics. These are the shortcuts, or rule of thumb processes our emotional brains use to make quick decisions. This primitive thinking system (what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1) is alive and well today. We use it on a daily basis. Heuristics are a handy way to solve a problem when time and/or energy are in short supply. The problem starts when we take the shortcut without even knowing it.

Kudos to the Reverend Bayes who, back in the 18th century, gave us the benefit of the doubt when it came to rationality. Today, we have some rather more unflattering facts to face.

That is, if we want to.

The Lowdown on Luck

“Good luck!”

It’s a common expression in our lexicon. Obviously, on a gut level we have some sense of the importance of luck—that is, until things go our way. Suddenly, we relegate luck to the cheap seats as we bask in the spotlight, prepared to take full credit for our superior decision-making.

Take the Quaker Oats Corporation, for example.

In 1983, the CEO of Quaker Oats, William Smithburg, sampled some of an up-and-coming sports drink and decided to acquire the company. That beverage was Gatorade, and it was the beginning of a goldmine for Quaker Oats.

So when Smithburg decided to buy Snapple in 1994 for $1.8 billion, he was unchallenged from within his organization. This was the Gatorade guy, after all; surely he knew what he was talking about. Media pundits disagreed, lambasting the decision before the deal was even struck.

Did Smithburg’s superior decision-making prove them wrong? Well, no.

Fast forward 3 years and Quaker Oats was desperately unloading Snapple at a loss of $1.5 billion dollars. To this day, it is widely seen as one of the worst decisions in business history— quite a legacy.

So how could Smithburg screw up so badly? How should we understand what happened at Quaker Oats, polar opposite results from the same CEO?

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has the answer. And for that answer, we must turn to the Israeli Air Force.

For a long time, the Israeli Air Force trained its pilots with the assumption that negative feedback trumped positive. After all, when a trainee pilot was punished for a botched maneuver, the next attempt tended to go better. When that same trainee executed a maneuver perfectly and received praise, their next attempt was generally not as good.

Kahneman was the first to realize that this wasn’t a case of the stick working better than the carrot. It was simple statistics at play.

We all love those magic moments where we outshine our normal capabilities. But there’s a reason your average is your average. So chances are that a better-than-usual outcome is almost certainly going to be followed by something lackluster. The opposite is true as well; if you find yourself performing much worse than usual, the odds favor an eventual upswing.

It’s an old concept in statistics. In the 19th century, Sir Frances Galton found that the children of unusually tall people tended to be a little shorter than their parents, and unusually short parents tended to have children taller than themselves. He referred to this phenomenon as “regression to the mean.”

Kahneman takes this concept beyond height and into the messier real world.

No matter how well you prepare, most enterprises involve a degree of chance. A brilliant business idea may still fail in a lousy economy. An untalented singer might still net a record deal by happening to charm the right person at the right time.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman repeatedly demonstrates that much of our lives are shaped by random events beyond our understanding or control.

Was William Smithburg’s gut decision to buy Gatorade a stroke of leadership genius? Or did he happen to taste the right stuff at the right time?

Kahneman was once asked about his definition of success. He famously replied, “Success = talent + luck, and great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck.”

In other words, luck is not some bit player. It’s an integral part of the human experience, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. Kahneman showed luck, good or bad, pretty much guarantees that regression to the mean is always waiting to take center stage.

Transference Bias: A Tale of Bloody Wars, Baby Kings, and Bad Bosses

There was a time, and it was not so long ago, that conventional wisdom said if you were born into nobility, you possessed a set of superior traits that automatically qualified you for governance. Got royal parents? Congratulations, you’ve won the leadership lottery.

There was just one problem: the system often produced people uniquely unqualified to rule.

Consider Charles II of Spain. He came from a line of the Spanish Hapsburgs so intermarried that one ancestor appears on his family tree in 14 separate places. Charles took the throne in 1665 despite a host of physical and mental disabilities—he couldn’t chew, drooled frequently, was never really educated, and at one point it’s rumored he ordered his deceased family members dug up so he could look at them.

Consider King George IV of England, famous for his extravagant spending, love of leisure—and utterly selfish, irresponsible behavior.

Consider the many kings and queens who were handed the reigns to their country before they were old enough to put their own pants on.

Now consider: many of these people held the fate of nations in their hands.

A history pockmarked with unnecessary wars, massive public debts, and plain incompetence proves it out: leadership is not an inherited trait. Wisdom and judgement are gained through experience, not via bloodline.

These days, most surviving monarchs are more figurehead than supreme ruler. After all, the industrial revolution has ushered in modern times and modern thinking. Or has it?

Anyone working in business might guess where this is headed. Transference bias at its core presupposes that knowledge is not a requirement for climbing the ranks of leadership. (“If Jones displayed a hardworking can-do attitude over in sales, by golly he can certainly run the finance department!”)

Today, “character, positivity, and fortitude” are the new blue blood in business.

Not that these traits aren’t good things for a leader to have. Most certainly they are. But when it comes time to make hard choices, the sunniest attitude in the world is no substitute for expertise. It’s the same way that Count Chocula’s noble birth doesn’t guarantee him wisdom in the deployment of his infantry.

Unfortunately, transference bias never died, merely dressed itself in new clothes. And like the old kingdoms at war, there is much collateral damage.

So the next time your new boss shows up green behind the ears, fresh from some other unrelated department, remember it could be worse. Your cubicle could be a castle wall, facing a catapult attack of dead rotting cows. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that nothing is worse than dead rotting cows. Except for maybe the new minty-fresh boss you’re about to train…