Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Egg Of Columbus

After returning to Spain after his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus was dining with some nobles. One noble approached him and said:

“Even if you had not discovered the West Indies, another fine Spaniard would have gone to discover it anyway.”

Columbus did not respond and merely smiled. He then asked for an egg, which he placed on the table and asked:

“I bet that no one can make this egg stand by itself.”

All the nobles tried but were unsuccessful and the egg would continue to fall down. Columbus stepped forward and grabbed the egg, which he tapped on the table so that one end would be cracked and flattened. The egg would now stand on its flattened base.
Although the nobles initially complained that they knew that was the solution, the message was loud and clear: once the feat is done, everyone knows how to do it.

This is known in psychology as the historian’s fallacy – a logical fallacy that can be summarised in the words: “I told you so”. Essentially, people assume that people had the same information in the past or that they would not have made the same mistake if they were placed in such a situation. It is another example of cognitive dissonance where the brain finds conflict between a problem and information that could have prevented said problem (which the other person did not have at the time). Therefore, the brain immediately convinces itself that it would have made the right decision as it already knows the answer. This means that we are almost incapable of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. We label those people as idiots, because they apparently had the same information (they did not) and still could not make the right decision.

People never realise that given the foreknowledge we have now, the Americans would have known about Japan’s plan for attacking Pearl Harbour or that Germany would not have invaded Russia. Although they say “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, we have a tendency to think that people in the past were stupid and we would never make the same mistakes.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


The term brainwashing describes the act of converting a person’s deepest thoughts and ideologies. The term originated from the efforts of the Chinese army to convert US soldiers to communism in the Korean War.

The Chinese first made American prisoners-of-war write essays hailing communism, then gave them some rice, candy or cigarettes as rewards.
The intelligence officers posited that the prisoners would be tormented by the reality of having to act against their ideology (of anti-communism) to receive such petty rewards, and that they would convert their beliefs to escape this. They were right.

A significant number of Americans who were given rewards after writing the essays defected to become communists after the war. This was because they justified their actions, believing that they did not write the essays to get a few candies, but because they truly are communists. Converting them did not require horrific torture or heavy bribery. All the officers needed were some candy, and the powerful psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance to play with a grown man’s mind.

Leon Festinger said: “People are not rational beings, but beings that rationalise themselves”. People easily get caught in the trap of self-justification, and distort reality and even their own memories to accommodate it.