I recently applied for something that required me to pony up some written samples, showcasing my analytical abilities. The person who tipped me off to the opportunity is a reader here, and seemed to think quite highly of things like linguistic and profiling essays.

This all looks much more impressive on your end than on mine. You only see the things that hang together well enough to write about. The world is full of scattershot gibberish that deserves, at best, a two-line post on /r/ShowerThoughts. Those don't get 1500-word essays. I once turned in all fifty pages of a twenty page research assignment to one of my college professors, and even I can only pad so much.

There are two main reasons I look like I am some kind of mad genius with a crazy-awesome hit rate: Confirmation bias, and an overblown sense of drama.

The confirmation bias is down to the reader. Human brains -- mine, yours, everyone's -- are built to ping whenever two ideas connect, especially if that connection is new, and/or builds a pattern. The observational variant is sometimes called "the white van effect". Say you walk out of your office every day for lunch, and you spot a white van parked at the corner. About the fifth time in three weeks that you walk outside and see that van, you'll start going, "Huh. That's weird. That van is always there. I wonder what's going on?" Except the van isn't always there -- if you saw it five times in twenty-one days, that means you didn't see it sixteen of those days. It was gone three times as often as it was there. You just don't remember those days, because your brain thought the lack of a white van was totally unimportant. It opted to instead use that space to store more useful things, like where you put your keys, or all the words to "I Am The Walrus", or the phone number to the house you lived in when you were eight. (Your brain's priority levels are sometimes screwy.) The times when I turn out to be right about something that had never crossed your mind before I brought it up are much more salient to your brain than all the crap that surrounds it, so you remember those much more vividly, and are perhaps more impressed than is strictly warranted.

The sense of drama plays, unfairly, on the confirmation bias. I do it on purpose. I blame Sherlock Holmes. Observe the following passage from "The Resident Patient", a story out of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes:

Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation, I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion's voice broke in upon my thoughts. 
"You are right, Watson," said he. "It does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute." 
"Most preposterous!" I exclaimed, and then, suddenly realizing how he had echoed the inmost thought of my soul, I sat up in my chair and stared at him blank amazement. "What is this, Holmes?" I cried. "This is beyond anything which I could have imagined." 
He laughed heartily at my perplexity. 
"You remember," said he, "that some little time ago, when I read you the passage in one of Poe's sketches, in which a close reasoner follows the unspoken thought of his companion, you were inclined to treat the matter as a mere tour de force of the author. On my remarking that I was constantly in the habit of doing the same thing you expressed incredulity." 
"Oh, no!" 
"Perhaps not with your tongue, my dear Watson, but certainly with your eyebrows. So when I saw you throw down your paper and enter upon a train of thought, I was very happy to have the opportunity of reading it off, and eventually of breaking into it, as a proof that I had been in rapport with you." 
But I was still far from satisfied. "In the example which you read to me," said I, "the reasoner drew his conclusions from the action of the man whom he observed. If I remember right, he stumbled over a heap of stones, looked up at the stars, and so on. But I have been seated quietly in my chair, and what clues can I have given you?" 
"You do yourself an injustice. The features are given to man as the means by which he shall express his emotions, and yours are faithful servants." 
"Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from my features?" 
"Your features, and especially your eyes. Perhaps you cannot yourself recall how your reverie commenced?" 
"No, I cannot." 
"Then I will tell you. After throwing down your paper, which was the action which drew my attention to you, you sat for half a minute with a vacant expression. Then your eyes fixed themselves up on your newly-framed picture of General Cordon, and I saw by the alternation in your face that a train of thought had been started. But it did not lead very far. Your eyes turned across to the unframed portrait of Henry Ward Beecher which stands upon the top of your books. You then glanced up at the wall, and of course your meaning was obvious. You were thinking that if the portrait were framed it would just cover that bare space and correspond with Gordon's picture over there." 
"You have followed me wonderfully!" I exclaimed. 
"So far I could hardly have gone astray. But now your thoughts went back to Beecher, and you looked hard across as if you were studying the character in his features. Then your eyes ceased to pucker, but you continued to look across, and your face was thoughtful. You were recalling the incidents of Beecher's career. I was well aware that you could not do this without thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the Civil War, for I remember you expressing your passionate indignation at the way in which he was received by the more turbulent of our people. You felt so strongly about it that I knew you could not think of Beecher without thinking of that also. When a moment later I saw your eyes wander away from the picture, I suspected that your mind had now turned to the Civil War, and when I observed that your lips set, your eyes sparked, and your hands clinched, I was positive that you were indeed thinking of the gallantry which was shown by both sides in that desperate struggle. But then, again, your face grew sadder; you shook your head. You were dwelling upon the sadness and horror and useless waste of life. Your hands tole towards your own old wound, and a smile quivered on your lips, which showed me that the ridiculous side of this method of settling international questions had forced itself upon your mind. At this point I agreed with you that it was preposterous, and was glad to find that all my deductions had been correct." 
"Absolutely!" said I. "And now that you have explained it, I confess that I am as amazed as before."

Holmes explains well enough how he followed Watson's thoughts -- as does Dupin to his own companion in the story they refer to, linked in the above text -- but that is only half of the trick. Notice how Holmes starts the conversation. He doesn't say, 'Hey, remember when you scoffed at the thing in Poe's story? Well, I can do that too, and right now you're thinking __________.' What he does instead is make a comment which can be construed, in context, as a reply to the thought he is betting Watson just had. Watson does construe it as such, since Holmes happens to be right, and is duly amazed.

But what if Holmes guessed wrong about what Watson was thinking at that very moment? Well, Holmes made the concrete observation that Watson did at one point direct his gaze at Beecher's picture. Furthermore, the explanation makes clear that some of his deductions are based on previous conversations they've had about Beecher and the American Civil War, in which Watson evidently expressed his opinion that the war was a damnfool way to settle the question of slavery. Even if Watson's response indicated that Holmes had guessed wrong, Holmes still wins. All he has to do is point out that Watson looked at that picture, and remark that it reminded him of a previous chat. Watson never would have known that Holmes had tried and failed to repeat Dupin's trick, because that part of the conversation would never have happened.

Note that while you can sometimes pull this on strangers for a really boffo first impression, it works best on people you know. Not only does it give you more context for doing the actual deduction part, it also means you've had enough time to establish your reputation as the kind of weirdo who would spontaneously re-start conversations from last week just because you caught someone looking at a photo from across the room. Getting them to consider that sort of thing 'normal for you' makes it easier to convince them it's 'normal for humans' by using a this-is-totally-normal tone of voice when you do it. People tend not to analyze things they do by rote, and that makes them not wonder too hard about why you didn't just lead by rattling off the contents of their frontal lobe in list form, if you're so good at mind reading.

The trick is even easier to pull off in essays. Those, unlike random conversations, are supposed to be curated. I get to omit all the bouts of idle curiosity that go nowhere, or even the preliminary pattern matches that turn out not to hold. When I started rambling about Brian Molko, I didn't sit down with his collected works and say to myself, "I will analyse these song lyrics to determine what the author thinks of organized religion." I opened a YouTube tab, pulled up their official album playlists, and crammed twenty years of music into my earholes to see what sifted out. In that case, I caught a lot; he uses a bunch of phrases that I recognize as insider-speak in the born again/Evangelical communities, which he was not likely to have known about that young unless he grew up around it. But if I'd said to myself, "I will analyse these song lyrics to determine if the author is a vegetarian," I would have been SOL. And so would all of you, because I would never have even mentioned that the thought crossed my mind.

It's not entirely smoke and mirrors. There is a fair amount of skill involved, and I do work hard on honing it, mainly because I find it interesting. A lot of otherwise-unfortunate genetic and epigenetics traits seem relevant as well. But the reason it looks so good from the outside -- rather than me just sitting here and letting all the observations stew inside my head forever -- is because I get to choose how to present it, and I think life is more fun when you do these things with panache.


  1. Agreed that life is more fun with panache.

    Panache, and the sense of drama, are another area that not all of us are good at. Some people have lots of trouble seeing what would make a dramatic impression.

    So, even when we can see that you're arranging things with deliberate flourish, it still adds to the overall impression of prowess.

    1. The panache is itself a skill, and in fact it's a related one -- both profiling and dramatic presentation are both under the general umbrella of psychology, and the more specific category of 'being able to predict how people will react to things'. It's just not the same as the specific analytical skill people boggle at, or at least not the one they mention when they try to explain how boggled they are.


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