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December 13th, 2011 by Art Markman

You Can Be as Smart as Dr. Phil

Dr. Art Markman is a guest blogger and the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is one of the premier cognitive scientists in the field and has written more than 125 papers. He is a member of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board. He blogs frequently for Psychology Today, Huffington Post and Harvard Business Review

Dr. Art MarkmanFor the past 5 years, I have been a member of the scientific advisory board for the Dr. Phil show, and on January 3, 2012, I had the privilege of being a guest on the show to discuss my new book Smart Thinking from Perigee Books. Before my turn came, Dr. Phil worked with a couple who was engaged in a difficult custody battle, in which their own needs took precedence to the needs of their kids. I watched as he expertly cut through the layers of animosity between the couple, and ultimately helped them see a road in which they served as co-parents to their children rather than using their kids as pawns in their own ongoing argument.

Smart work.

What made Dr. Phil so successful? Does he just have more raw intelligence than the rest of us? Or is it something else?

Based on the research I describe in Smart Thinking, I argue that no matter how well you score on an IQ test compared to Dr. Phil, you’re not going to solve problems of the type he solves unless you engage the three core principles of Smart Thinking.

Smart Thinking requires (1) developing Smart Habits to (2) acquire High Quality Knowledge, and (3) to Apply that Knowledge when you need it. Let me walk through each of these elements.

Smart Habits Most of our habits are good for us. When you drive your car, you want to be able to press the gas and the brake pedals without thinking about it. You want to follow your route to and from work or the store without having to think carefully about how to get there. You want to be able to change lanes or make a turn without thinking carefully about the steps involved in doing that successfully.

Your habit learning system is the one that allows you to develop smart habits. You learn to do something without thinking whenever there is consistency between the world and an action and you repeat that action several times. You can create a habit to press the gas and brake pedals, because the gas is always on the right and the brake is always on the left. If the pedals switched their locations every time you got in your car, you would never be able to create a habit. You can also create habits for actions that promote Smart Thinking.

High Quality Knowledge The second component to Smart Thinking is acquiring High Quality Knowledge. The most important thing to learn is information about how the world works. Psychologists call this kind of knowledge causal knowledge. Dr. Phil has dedicated years of his life to understanding human behavior and motivation. When guests come on the show, that knowledge helps him to determine how people’s actions are affecting the people around them. That was the kind of knowledge that allowed him to help the couple on the show I attended.

Without knowledge about the way things work, even people who score incredibly well on IQ tests will not solve problems effectively. I can’t speak for Dr. Phil, but I know that I have no understanding at all of how the engine in my car works. If I try to start my car in the morning and it makes a funny noise before wheezing to a stop, I can only stare at it in frustration. I have to take the car to a mechanic who really understands how my car works in order to get it fixed. My mechanic has knowledge about the world that I don’t, and so he is able to solve problems that I can’t.

Apply Your Knowledge The third aspect of Smart Thinking is Applying your Knowledge when you need it. Sometimes, you are in situations that are almost exactly like ones you have been in before. Each drive home from the grocery store is probably almost identical to past trips you have taken. In that situation, it isn’t hard to apply what you know.

Sometimes, though, it is harder to figure out whether you know anything that might help you solve a problem.

Take the case of James Dyson. In the 1970s, he noticed that as the bag of a vacuum cleaner fills up, the vacuum starts to lose suction. The dirt in the bag clogs the pores in the bag. Eventually, the vacuum won’t clean any more until the bag is emptied. Vacuum designers who wanted to improve the performance of vacuums typically tried to design more effective bags that wouldn’t clog as easily.

Dyson didn’t think about the problem as one of making a better bag. Instead, he thought broadly about the problem that a vacuum cleaner is trying to solve. He described the problem as the vacuum taking in a combination of dirt and air and having to separate the dirt from the air. Once he described the problem in this more general way, he was able to use his extensive mechanical experience.

He realized that sawmills have to solve the same problem. When logs are being milled into lumber, the large saws generate a lot of sawdust. Vacuums suck the sawdust out of the mill, where the sawdust is separated from the air using an industrial cyclone. This device uses a cone to create a spinning column of air that forces the sawdust to the sides of the cone where they slide into a receptacle. Dyson created a miniature industrial cyclone in a vacuum cleaner, and in the process developed a multi-million dollar business.

In this case, not only did Dyson know about the way sawmills work, he was able to re-describe his problem in a way that let him be reminded that his knowledge of sawmills could be used to make a more efficient vacuum.

In the end, you can become smarter — and maybe even as smart as Dr. Phil. The exercises in Smart Thinking can help put you on the path to being more effective in whatever you do.

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October 12th, 2011 by Dr. Phil

World Arthritis Day

arthritisToday, October 12, is World Arthritis Day — a chance for us to show our concern and support for all those affected by rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases. It’s astounding just how many of us are affected by arthritis. In the United States alone, more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions rob at least 50 million adults and 300,000 children of living life to its fullest. I am one of the 27 million Americans who battle a particular form of arthritis called osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease.

Even before I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis — and for me it’s all in the knees — I was deeply interested in the reality of chronic disorders and long-term injuries for which we have no cure; no pill, no “silver bullet” fix. A lot of my education, professional training and subsequent practice was in an area of psychology called Behavioral Medicine, a specialty in which we helped patients with such diseases and disorders as arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diseases of the central nervous system, diabetes, head and spinal diseases and disorders, chronic organic-based pain, obesity and other conditions for which there is no cure. We helped these patients learn how to cope and manage — often with very good results. (more…)

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July 21st, 2011 by Dr. Phil

A Tribute to Our Accidental First Lady

Former First Lady Betty Ford was recently laid to rest beside her husband — the man she always called her boyfriend — her amazing life of 93 years having come to a peaceful end. Because many of you under the age of 40 may know little about her, I want to share with you some insight into this remarkable woman and the path she blazed for all of us.AP781107025_sized

In 1974, due to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and after serving as vice president for only one year, Gerald Ford took over our nation’s highest office. Suddenly, Betty Ford was unexpectedly thrust into the White House and the limelight, and became known as “the accidental first lady.” As accidental as it may have been, she embraced the role like Americans had never seen before; with a candor and humanity that was unheard of at the time.

Betty used her position to become an advocate for women’s rights. Remember, the early 70s was a far more chauvinistic era than today. She will be remembered for enforcing the notion that “being ladylike does not require silence.” She spoke of the contributions of women as wives and mothers. “We have to take the ‘just’ out of the phrase, ‘just a housewife,’” she insisted. (more…)

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July 18th, 2011 by Dr. Phil

The Senate Hearing on Domestic Violence

345301452_resizeListen up, all you Silence Breakers out there, it’s game time. A very vital piece of legislation that protects millions of victims of domestic violence is now before Congress, and we’ve got to make some noise to make sure it’s passed.

The legislation is called the Violence Against Women Act. It was first ushered into law in 1994 and is now up for reauthorization by Congress. I was recently invited to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a content expert to talk about VAWA, which funds programs that help survivors of domestic violence rebuild their shattered lives. The money from VAWA goes to building vital emergency family shelters and creating domestic abuse hotlines. It also trains police officers on how to better protect victims and prosecutors on how to establish better criminal cases that will stand up in court. And because of VAWA, these women have access to resources such as counseling, financial literacy education, gainful employment, long-term housing options and legal assistance. (more…)

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May 14th, 2011 by Dr. Phil

Putting Obesity out of Business

junkFood1I’m worried about kids today for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that so darn many are getting overweight and out of shape. Today, one out of three children under the age of 12 is now considered medically overweight. And the tragedy is that we know that very few of those children ever lose that weight. Seventy percent of those children will become overweight and obese adults and endure all the problems both psychological and physical that come with it. Diabetes and heart disease are exploding among the overweight and obese — so much so that experts now say the lethal effects of obesity are literally greater than cigarette smoke. Are you hearing that? Today, obesity is our number one public health issue above all others. (more…)

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