“People aren’t logical they’re psychological, often with the emphasis on the psycho.” – Howard Rankin
As most of the world criticizes Vladimir Putin for his shameful actions in Ukraine, there’s an ironic and even an alarming lesson in the judgment of his actions. In some ways we all share something in common with the Russian ruler.
Human beings are not rational but story-tellers, driven byemotional comfort and consistency. Because of this dynamic, people very often don’t change their minds especially over opinions and actions in which they are heavily invested. This applies to everyone, regardless of whether their ideas are rooted in good or evil.
We know that human beings use all manner of mechanisms, especially cognitive biases to justify their beliefs and actions. We see what we want to see, ignore what we want to ignore. We seek out the similar views of others, whose supportive ideas give “social proof” and validation to our own beliefs. In my upcoming book, Falling to Grace: The Art and Science of Redemption I write about the seven laws of stupidity, from binary thinking to conspiracy theories, that really drive our thought process.
This social proof is even more advanced amongst leaders, who can surround themselves and authorize people who share their same views. Every autocratic leader, therefore, can insulate themselves way more than the average person from the challenge of alternative perspectives. In addition, this egotistical state is even more prevalent in people with power and fame, in what’s called “situational narcissism”. Their fame and power colors their views of themselves and can elevate them in their own minds to a god-like status.
Most of us find it very difficult to change our religious perspectives, political views, or even which NFL team we support. We hold on to them with a rigid, and sometimes angry certainty. The three most important words in any language are seldom used, “I don’t know.” And three other words one rarely hears are even more important: “I was wrong.”
If we have such a hard time changing our perspectives and opinions, consider the chances that an autocratic leader who sees himself as the savior of his people, will ever change his mind in any way, let alone reverse course. And when such a leader has surrounded himself with teams of people who share the same opinion, can we really expect confrontation to change any of the minds of the inner circle? Indeed, the more they are confronted, the more they are likely to defend their beliefs.
Ironically, the way Putin could restore his credibility and even respect around the world would be to effectively say those three words: I was wrong, or something close to that, like “I made a miscalculation” or “I really thought we would be welcomed by most Ukrainians.” Of course, politicians and pretty much everyone with a big ego hardly ever admit their human faults and errors. Not admitting your mistakes is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
People hardly ever admit to being wrong: pride often gets in the way. I have found, from my personal experiences of being cast into shame, humiliation and disgrace, that admitting your errors and sins is one of the most powerful things you could ever do. That is one piece of advice that I give in my upcoming book Falling to Grace: The Art and Science of Redemption
So, if you are thinking that Putin and his cronies are going to change their minds about Ukraine or anything else, you are almost certainly indulging in an exercise of your own wishful thinking.
Humans Aren’t Logical, They’re Psychological Often with the Emphasis on the Psycho. From my book Power Talk: The Art of Effective Communication
In my book I Think Therefore I Am Wrong: A Guide to Bias, Fake News, Political Correctness and the Future of Mankind I discuss the default setting of the mind and list many biases that influence our decision-making. Some of these are very relevant to the crisis we face today and especially decisions about how and when to open up the economy.
One problem is that we are used to binary thinking, and consider things as either/or alternatives when things aren’t black and white but different shades of grey. So, the choice isn’t really between the economy or public health, because those are not independent factors. This means that a “return” to “normalcy” will require a graded resumption of “normality” with both factors being weighed.
As patience runs out, emotions will rule, potentially ruining the chances of balancing two goals with seemingly opposite outcomes. The fact is that humans aren’t very good at this.
Here are some key biases that are in play in this discussion and decision-making.
Bias blind spot. This refers to the tendency to see oneself as less biased than others, or to identify more cognitive biases in other people. We all do that!
Default effect. The tendency to favor the default, more conservative choice. Depending on your perspective, that would be opening up the economy asap, or keeping measures in place for months.
Exaggerated expectation. The tendency to expect overly extreme outcomes. This could easily factor into both “sides” of the argument and be used to shorten or prolong existing public health measures.
Focusing effect. Exaggerating the importance of one aspect of an event. This again is likely to be practiced by those on the extreme of the arguments, e.g. we should completely open up the economy now, or stay completely locked down for the foreseeable future.
Framing effect. Being influenced by how information is presented. So, for example, some will argue that we should follow Sweden’s example of keeping the economy open because they have done very well, while disregarding the fact that their current death rate is much higher than ours.
Hindsight bias. This is the tendency to look back at past events and seeing them as predictable at the time they occurred. This has been happening for while with numerous agencies either praising or criticizing the government and the President for his actions.
Hyperbolic discounting. This is the tendency for people to prefer immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs. This is an issue across the board, but it certainly speaks to the impatience of those who want to “return to normal”.
Illusion of control. This is the overestimation of one’s influence over external events. How much control do we actually have over events? There are all sorts of unforeseen scenarios that could make the situation worse. Horrendous weather conditions, a new virus, etc., etc.
Illusion of validity. This is the tendency to believe that our judgments are accurate, despite inconsistent or unavailable information. The data about the virus has been inconsistent and incomplete. We should at least recognize the limitations of our thinking and factor that into decision-making.
Illusion of Correlation. That just because two things happen around the same time, they are somehow causally related. This is critical aspect of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. And there have been several of these going around, not least of which is that the novel coronavirus is somehow a function of 5G networks.
Illusory truth effect. Believing that a statement is true when it is easier to understand, or if it has been stated many times, independent of its validity. So, some people might believe the 5G notion because they have seen it stated several times.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy. When we justify putting more money (or any resources) into a project based on what has already been spent rather that a rational analysis of the probability of success. This could mean providing more money as an economic stimulus even as it appears it isn’t worth it. Or continuing with an economic shutdown because that’s what we have been doing all along.
Neglect of probability. Disregarding probability when making a decision that is complicated. There is a tendency to assume probabilities are facts when they are not. So, we should ask what are the probabilities for both positive and negative outcomes for all considered measures.
Normalcy bias. The refusal to accurately consider planning for, or reacting to, a seriously negative event that has never happened before. We already have the assumption that we will “get back to normal”. But it is likely several things will change and all of the “normal” might not return.
Optimism bias. The tendency to overestimate pleasing outcomes. We won’t know outcomes until they have been tried. Of course, we want to believe that our decisions will have great pay-offs, but you won’t know until you try and you should have a contingency plan in case you are too optimistic.
Pessimism bias. The tendency to overestimate negative outcomes. See above.
Planning fallacy. The tendency to underestimate the time it takes to complete a task. This is relevant in this crisis. How long will it really take to “open up the economy” or completely vanquish the virus?
Present bias. The tendency to favor current rather than future payoffs. So, for example, we should get the economy back on its feet because the lack of money seems more pressing and present than the threat of dying.
Pro-innovation bias. An unverified optimism about an invention or innovation’s value simply because it is new, while failing to recognize its limitations and weaknesses. Are some of these new proposed drugs and tests are as good as we think they are, or are we blinded by their promise rather than their effects?
Projection bias. The tendency to assume our future selves will share our current preferences, thoughts and values. We can’t predict the future or assume that we will think the same way in the future.
Reactance. Doing the opposite of what someone asks you to do on the rationalization that you don’t want to be seen as having your freedom of choice constrained. We have seen many examples of this during the lockdown, as people refuse to social distance and quarantine rationalized as rights infringements.
Reactive devaluation. Discrediting proposals simply because you think they were devised by an adversary. This is particularly relevant and highly damaging in the political arena and is the danger of partisan politics
Regressive bias. The exaggeration of high values and probabilities, and the minimizing of low values and probabilities. So, hypothetically the experts might say, if we open up the economy now, there’s a 60% chance that the virus won’t be a health problem. Sounds like a good plan but it probably sounds better than it is, because there’s still a 40% chance the virus will still create major problems.
Naïve realism. The belief that we see reality as it really is. We are objective and the facts are obvious and those that disagree are obviously uninformed, lazy, irrational and certainly biased. Clearly, we see that happening already.
And of course, there’s the ubiquitous Conformation Bias that we all employ to see the information that supports our views and ignore, minimize and attack the information that doesn’t.
The answer is to recognize the limitations, make the best informed decisions we can and prepare for all eventualities.
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” – Confucius
For updated information and discussion please visit the IntualityAI Youtube channel and latest video:
Perception is Reality is one of the most misleading, and
potentially damaging, pop psychology myths.
The problem centers around the word “reality’.
The definition of the word reality: something that is real
or a fact.
So, there can’t be an individual reality, only a
shared consensus about what is real. There can be individual versions of
reality but that’s not reality, merely a version of it. And if everyone had
their own versions of reality, then there can be no reality.
The problem with the notion of Perception is Reality is that
it encourages people to think that their perceptions reflect reality, or
should. This leads people into believing that whatever they think is real, and
from there, to right. It encourages an egotism that is most damaging to the
person, who eventually will become
angry, frustrated and depressed when others don’t share their
“reality”. Of course we all
have our own perceptions, opinions, beliefs, etc., but we can’t have our own reality.
The fact is perception is perception, there’s no such thing
as your “reality”. If something is just real to you, then it’s not real,
just a perception.
This cognitive relativism is a damaging philosophy that
seems more and more common.
From my book I Think Therefore I Am Wrong
“Similarly, there is cognitive relativism which also
argues that there isn’t an overarching “truth” but that it, too, is constructed
and relative to a variety of factors, like culture and even human
Protagoras, a famous philosopher who lived about 2500 years ago, asserted
that “man is the measure of all things — of things that are, that they
are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” In other words, truth
and knowledge are a function of human beings and human variables and don’t
reflect any independent and objective reality.
Plato objected that this relativism eliminates the distinction between truth
and falsehood; if each individual is really the “measure of what is”
then each person would be infallible.
An excellent article by Emrys Westacott, summarizes these debates about
knowledge and reality. Professor Westacott is the author of many works
including The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less.
“Plato argued that if Protagoras is right, then whatever a person thinks is
true, is true. But in that case, Protagoras must concede that those who think
relativism is false are correct. So, if Protagorean relativism is true, it must
also be false.”
That Plato was one smart guy.”
The notion that perception is reality is a damaging myth and
we need to stop perpetuating it.
There are many reasons to be grateful on Thanksgiving, but
Hilton Head Island residents Howard and MJ Rankin have an extra reason this
year. On Tuesday, Howard bravely dived into action to prevent a major disaster at
“My wife has been telling me for several years that our dryer vents needed cleaning,
but I never really took it seriously. It was just an example of the Spouse
Communication Bias, the tendency to undervalue what your spouse tells you. I
didn’t think it was necessary,” says Rankin, who appropriately is the author of
the recently acclaimed book I Think Therefore I Am Wrong and the
podcast How Not To Think.
However, when someone at the Assisted Living facility where his mother-in-law lived told Rankin about the real danger, he listened. After doing some research he discovered that blocked dryer vents are one of the leading causes of house fires.
A piece on the Building Performance Institute says:
“According to the National Fire Protection Association,
nearly 17,000 home clothes dryer fires are reported each year. These clothes
dryer fires cause around 51 deaths, 380 injuries, and $236 million in property
loss. Unsurprisingly, the leading cause of these fires, at 34%, is the failure
to clean dryer vents.”
On Tuesday, Howard jumped dramatically into action. He quickly
picked up the phone early in the morning and called Advent, a multi-state vent
cleaning company that has offices in the Low Country, and arranged for the
vents to be cleaned.
After Advent had cleaned the dryer vent, the Rankins were shown the evidence of a massively blocked dryer vent that even included remnants of a bird’s nest.
“We were very lucky. If I hadn’t acted so fast, we were
looking at real trouble,” says Rankin.
His wife MJ agrees. “It only took him seven years, but better
late then never.”
A blockage in the dryer vent not only increases the risk of
fire, but decreases the efficiency and life of your dryer.
‘The service was great and I’m sure we will regain the
modest outlay back in extended dryer life and reduced energy bills,” says
Rankin. “I’m just thankful I acted so quickly.”
One of the most impressive Superbowl ads was the Washington
Post commercial stressing the need for truth and honesty as vital to democracy
and a civilized society. The implication
was that their reporting fitted these requirements and thus were serving a
greater purpose. The Washington Post could be the most honest, truthful
publication in the world but that’s not the point. The bigger problem is that
increasingly the world is not interested in the objective truth, merely their
own individual truth, i.e. opinions.
Writing in the May 2014 edition of The Atlantic Emma Green reviewing research on the holocaust said, “Only a third of the world’s population believe the genocide has been accurately described in historical accounts. Some said they thought the number of people who died has been exaggerated; others said they believe it’s a myth.”
TV news shows are full of so-called experts pushing their
agenda without any regard or reference to meaningful data. The world has become
increasingly egotistical and self-centered with scant regard to the evidence
let alone truth.
Some of this disaster can be blamed at the feet of marketing. Ever since Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays realized that new insights into the psyche could be used to manipulate people, Marketing and Public Relations have created communication based on manipulation often in defiance of the facts. (For more, please watch the BBC’s 2002 documentary The Century of the Self). And that pattern of communication has filtered down through the culture, so that people believe communication is about influence and getting what you want. The rise in the recognition of the need for authenticity, says a lot about how inauthentic much communication is.
If Bernays hijacked contemporary psychological theory to manipulate perhaps it’s time for us to do the same: to emphasize that contemporary neuroscience shows human beings not to be rational, but driven by cognitive bias and emotional comfort. With the advent of technology, cognitive bias has been amplified by curating content that gives people what they want to read rather than access to diverse views and data. Through social proof it allows people to reaffirm their beliefs and ideas rather than question them.
Facts and truth have been washed away in a sea of sensationalism, designed to get your attention, excite you and, if possible, capture your personal information.
This culture is neither healthy to us as individuals nor collectively as a nation.
The disinterest and denial of data and facts, leads to extremism, hate and conflict. When we ignore our ability to consider, and accept facts as well as produce and access valuable data, we’re definitely traveling the wrong way down the evolutionary trail. Getting to the truth is one thing, getting others to believe it is quite another.
Human beings aren’t rational. As if we didn’t really know that already, the recent cognitive neuroscience research shows that we are story-tellers driven by emotional comfort not truth seekers. That surely has always been the case, but what seems dangerously different in the digital era is that for some, rationality and truth don’t even matter. And because for the most part we are not rational doesn’t mean that reason and truth should be sacrificed on the altars of narcissism and opinion.
Ever since the understanding of the mind and human behavior gained pace in the twentieth century, it has been used to manipulate and influence, a movement which was well documented in the BBC documentary, the Century of the Self (still available on Youtube) which showed how Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays made a fortune out of turning the notions of the mind in to ‘Public Relations’ and ‘Propaganda.’
A communication, specifically one designed to inform or influence, can be simply be reduced to these elements
Evidence are facts derived by independent enquiry and qualified by the factors that influence them.
Beliefs and opinions. These are not facts. They are personal and can’t be proven, and only have relevance to the person who has them and the people who share them.
Emotions, like being offended, are neither evidence nor an argument.
Writing a news story is problematic if you want it to be even-handed. Even if there’s an appeal to some evidence there are key questions: What is the context? How are you approaching the gathering of evidence? Are you just selecting your stories to conform to your own biases, whether you know them or not?
Even the most objective writer, especially on a short deadline, can’t possibly cover every angle or perspective, even on a long deadline.
You can slant a communication any way you want. And, as we have become more aware of how the mind works, that is what we all do. (see Advertizing).
Some , like the Skeptics, argued that the search for truth is an infinite regress, that the more you dig the more you have to explore. Others like the Stoics, argue that at some point one has enough evidence so that the facts have some practical usefulness.
So, how do we deal with this human imperfection?
Well, surely the answer is not to exaggerate the problem by not engaging in reasoned discourse.
Dismissing everything as fake news with an emotional response is actually worse than the fake news you’re complaining about it.
The answer is to provide an alternative view based on evidence, not belief, emotional convenience, or opinion. However, this is not how inconvenient news is handled. Rather, it is typically blasted with reality show emotionalism.
In fact, for me, an emotional response without an appeal to further evidence is the last resort for someone with a bankrupt argument. Their only defense is no defense – just an outburst designed to deflect, or even better abort, the discussion. It’s like hatefully marching against hate.
At one point, language was a key to evolution. Now, it might turn out to be the reason for our devolution.
In a recent post I aired my disappointment about a BBC story that demonstrated irresponsible reporting about the value of achieving 10000 steps in a day. And my disappointment continued in the news outlet today, February 28, with another less serious gaffe about American sports.
In a story about the Florida shootings, the piece mentioned that the National Basketball Association Miami Heat player, Dwayne Wade was moved by the fact that one of the victims was buried wearing a shirt with Wade’s name on the back. The story goes…
“The day before the Miami Heat player was to play against the Philadelphia 69ers, Wade decided to dedicate the rest of his season to that student, Joaquin Oliver.”
The piece continues to mention the fact that Wade and his teammates “went on to beat the 69ers on Tuesday evening..”
(That was in the piece still available online at the time of my writing this: 8:30am ET on 2/28/2018)
I did check and to the best of my knowledge Philadelphia’s NBA team is still called the 76ers, after a certain important date in American history.
Perhaps the writer got confused between the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia 76ers but if so perhaps he or she should have split the difference and called them the ‘62 and a half ers.’ Or alternatively, they were confusing the important dates in American history and thought the city of Brotherly Love and home of the Liberty Bell were named after the critical events of 1769 when John Harris of Boston, Mass, built the first spinet piano.
Doesn’t anyone edit these pieces? It may not be quite the status of fake news but it doesn’t inspire confidence. Come on BBC!
Meanwhile, I still follow the BBC and their sports coverage. I’m looking forward to the weekend when my team, Tottenham United, play the Huddersfield Rangers.
In a January 31st BBC health story, Dr. Mark Mosley wrote, “Forget about 10,000 steps.” It’s unclear who actually said that. Was it Professor Rob Copeland from Sheffield Hallam University whom Mosley visited while Copeland conducted a “study” on four people? In any event, the gist of the story was that doing more vigorous activity for 10 minutes, three times a day was a better way to improve fitness than doing 10000 steps.
Culture and society are sinking into a binary brain morass. Everywhere you look, there is a dangerous and idiotic trend of seeing everything as an either/or proposition even where common sense let alone logic dictates otherwise. This is especially true of the media, who need to sensationalize everything to attract more eyeballs, and more sales. It’s one of the reasons I typically turn to the BBC for my news. As one who grew up in England I might be biased, but I am usually more trusting of the BBC than any other news source.
This story is a microcosm of the downgrading of critical thinking and serious analysis that is crippling society. Someone suggests, that doing more vigorous activity is better for your health. Duh! That’s a real surprise. It might have an advantage over 10000 steps for developing cardiovascular fitness BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THAT TRYING TO ACHIEVE 10000 STEPS IN A DAY SHOULD BE SCRAPPED. There are still advantages to reaching that level of activity, especially as so many people lead very sedentary lifestyles. However, here we have a headline that tells people to “forget” about doing a healthy activity, which surely has no ill-effects. Now, there will be many who will see this story, or even just the headline, and believe that the 10000 steps idea has been discredited and is no longer a useful goal. I mean who has got time for some critical thinking? And the advice came from…well, it’s unclear but Dr. Mosely seemed to support the idea.
Perhaps the defense to this is something like, “I couldn’t get that complexity into a few hundred words.” I say it’s better to try than give some misleading and potentially dangerous advice. As a writer, I could easily see how you could construct a more helpful and TRUTHFUL story. The headline could read, “How Helpful is the 10000 Steps Goal?” Such a story would allow some discussion of the value of including more vigorous activity in the 10000 steps, and the advantages and limitations of the advice.
For me, wisdom is about escaping the restrictions of binary brain thinking and recognizing the full context as well as acknowledging what you don’t know. For example, how many people, like me, consciously or otherwise, use their 10000 step goal to actually get some vigorous activity into their day? Even if 3 ten minute bursts of vigorous activity are better than 10000 steps a day for building cardiovascular fitness it doesn’t mean that 10000 steps should be “forgotten.”
As you can tell, I was disappointed by the headline and the story. Does BBC now stand for Binary Brain Cognition?
There were many sad photos last week at the height of Hurricane Harvey’s Texas destruction. One, particularly, stood out for me. It was a photo of a German Shepherd, all alone, tied to a pole, in the midst of rising waters.
The social media response to the photo was damning. Many people condemned the owners for leaving a dog in such a vulnerable position. Several suggested eternal damnation for the people who abandoned this animal. Many people posted that they couldn’t comprehend leaving their animals at all, let alone left so vulnerably. The invective and hate were running full throttle. And there’s the problem with human beings.
The photo definitely evoked emotions, and people ran with the thoughts those emotions evoked without seemingly any attempt to consider the universe of possibilities. They accepted their first — and only — perception and the emotion that the photo elicited. Here are several thoughts that would have been useful.
I wonder whether that is a staged photo?
Is this dog lost or was it abandoned?
Perhaps the owners left it there briefly to rescue their other dogs and the cat?
Perhaps the owners are out of shot, hailing a rescue boat?
Moreover, even if the dog had been abandoned, what were the circumstances?
Perhaps the owner was searching for his lost children? Or searching for his/her parents, spouse and other three animals?
It is also likely that whomever this dog belonged to, was in a severe state of stress, possibly having seen their home, lifestyle and future totally destroyed. I have had to evacuate from oncoming hurricanes. I have always taken my pets and couldn’t imagine leaving them behind, and many don’t evacuate for precisely that reason. Last year, Hurricane Matthew actually hit my community but despite a lot of damage, it was nothing like Harvey. However, let’s cut some slack to people whose lives has just been brutally turned upside down and truly are in survival mode. This doesn’t condone cruelty and the abandonment of animals, but neither should it justify the cruelty and abandonment of people.
The point is that the hurricane that is in this picture, isn’t a tropical cyclone, it is the seemingly increasing human incapacity to think beyond what is at the surface, what I call “iceberg thinking.” At a time in our evolution, when people have mastered the art of emotional manipulation (see Advertizing), we need our capacity to be discerning more than ever. We need to realize that the default setting of the brain is indeed a quick, impulsive, emotional response, which drives the narrative. But we have to move on from there, because that is the road not just to fake news, but hate and the end of objectivity, intelligence and wisdom.
Three of the hardest words to utter are simple: “I don’t know.” I have seen thousands of affirmations designed to improve self-confidence and remove fear but for me, before all that, we should start with this one.
“I really don’t know what is going on. I can imagine dozens of scenarios, but without more information I don’t know. And when I don’t know, I am in no position to judge.”
That is the thought process of the wise person.
PS: When I saw this photo, Leaha Mattinson and I had just finished recording a Master Your Life episode on the Secret of Wisdom, which begins airing tomorrow, Tuesday September 5th at noon ET on VoiceAmerica radio.