Most of us like to think we’re street smart. We consider ourselves adept at sniffing out BS, skilled at clawing our way out of challenging problems, and savvy thanks to a fine-tuned intuition.
In my years as a salesperson and copywriter, I was fortunate enough to observe mentors schooled in the fineries of persuasion. Watching them work, it became clear. Most people aren’t street-smart, even the book-smart people who get straight A’s in school. They were easily fooled and blinded to obvious inconsistencies.
Street-smarts has nothing to do with your ability to score well on a test. It’s a different kind of intelligence, one that starts with awareness of what my mentor called primal flaws — irrational thinking and cognitive biases, vestiges from evolutionary development that no longer serve us in the modern world.
Because of these flaws, we interpret situations based on emotions and desires rather than objective deliberation, making us susceptible to manipulation, poor decisions, and faulty reasoning.
With awareness, you can learn to free yourself from these eight primal flaws and enhance your street-smarts.
Blaming your troubles on others.
Everyone fails. Sometimes, we take responsibility and learn from the experience. Most of the time, however, we look for a reason, and the reason we cling to almost always points to some external factor rather than ourselves.
My former mentor dubbed it failure insurance. Much like typical insurance transfers risk to a third party, failure insurance transfers blame to a third party, relieving us of guilt, shame, or disappointment.
The street smart person recognizes their faults. They use their setbacks to learn and grow while their counterparts languish.
Believing you’re unbiased.
Manipulators often exploit group distinctions to stoke fear. They play on our existing biases and stereotypes. Those most susceptible are the ones who believe they’re unbiased.
You may not realize it, but you do make distinctions based on the way people look and talk, where they work, who they worship, and various other markers. We unconsciously assign those people the characteristics of their group based on our stereotypes.
The street-smart person acknowledges their biases, consciously puts them aside, and judges each person on their own merits. That’s what makes them so effective at evaluating people.
Choosing what feels most certain rather than what’s most logical.
My sales mentor always talked about our inherent need for certainty. Some of us prefer a more adventurous lifestyle, but it’s really a matter of degree. You might desire a steady paycheck while your friends crave the roller coaster of entrepreneurship. But given a choice, our nature compels us towards a predictable future.
In reality, there’s no such thing as certainty. It’s an illusion, one that can hinder our decision making. We choose options that feel safest and stable and not necessarily what’s best.
Refusing to admit you’re wrong.
At my first job in corporate America, my boss sat me down to explain his management approach. One point, in particular, stood out. He claimed that, unlike other people, he liked it when people corrected him or proved him wrong. That was how he learned, he said.
It turned out that his statement was more aspirational than he had communicated. Weeks later, when I corrected him about something, he became defensive and threw me out of his office.
In hindsight, his behavior made sense. Our brains expend significant effort to convince us we’re right, even when overwhelming evidence proves otherwise. The street-smart person puts aside their battered ego and accepts the facts, as difficult as it might be.
Gravitating to oversimplified explanations.
If it sounds too simple, too perfect, then you’re probably missing a good chunk of the picture. When telling stories as a salesperson, my mentor always reminded me to keep the puzzle simple. The story never had to make sense logically, only emotionally. We followed the rule of one-three — one conclusion backed up by three supporting facts.
Four customers use ABC help desk software. Eight of their competitors don’t. The four customers who use it scored a 9.6 customer service rating. That’s why we’re number one.
Misleading, half-baked stories like this make sense to most people because they don’t think critically. We prefer simple narratives, ones my former mentor described as instantly-gettable. A street-smart person recognizes that if it sounds too perfect, too simple, then you need to put on your skeptic’s hat.
Lusting after cures while dismissing prevention.
Give someone a supplement to ward disease twenty years from now, and they’ll argue about paying $10 a month. Tell someone they have six months to live, and they’ll hand you a blank check.
In the copywriting business, there’s a saying: sell the cure, not the prevention. It’s unfortunate but true. Only street-smart people invest in prevention.
It’s not within our nature to worry about the distant future. We focus on the present. But those who act on the future as if it were the present come out the real winners in life.
Assigning value with scarcity.
In his seminal work, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini writes, “As opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose freedoms we already have.” When an item or even information is scarce or about to become scarce, we assign it a higher value, irrespective of its utility.
We make this judgment based on emotion rather than sound reasoning. The street-smart person puts aside the primal pull of scarcity and assesses value based on utility. In some cases, they may even profit off of other people’s obsession with scarcity.
Confusing plausibility with probability.
Which of these two statements has a higher probability?
- 10,000 people won’t show up to work at a big tech company in California for an entire week.
- An earthquake three days before Thanksgiving will keep 10,000 people at a tech firm out of work for an entire week.
The first statement has a higher probability. Here’s the proof.
In both cases, 10,000 people will miss work. In the second one, an earthquake before a major holiday causes it. In the first statement, the 10,000 people missing work could stem from an unlimited number of reasons (earthquake, worker strike, pandemic) and at any time of the year. This wider range of possibilities makes it more probable.
By adding details to the second statement, I made it read more plausible.
It’s that kind of phraseology that makes this such a cunning and effective manipulation tool. The more detail you add to a lie, the more plausible it sounds. That’s how you get people to believe the highly improbable.
How to become street-smart
You can overcome all of these primal flaws with the same solution.
Now that you’re aware of these common biases and flaws in thinking, you’ve checked the first box in becoming street-smart.
2. Detach from your emotions
Whenever we’re emotional, we put aside our reasoning skills, leading to poor decision making.
If you find yourself in an emotional state, take a deep breath, followed by a pause. So many problems could be solved just by doing that. When calm, proceed to the final step.
3. Slow down your thinking
In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast And Slow, he writes of system 1 and system 2 processing — names he assigned to different ways we think. System 1 is instinctive and emotional. System 2 is deliberative and logical.
Being deliberate about your thinking, using logic absent of heightened emotions allows you to avoid seeing what you wish to see; it allows you to see through manipulation attempts to choose what’s best for you rather than what feels emotionally satisfying. That’s what makes a person street-smart.