Monthly Archives: March 2018

This post will make you question free-will

I’ve read (listened to?) two great books lately that have overturned the way I view the world. They are Win Bigly by Scott Adams and Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini. I’ll summarize what I gained from both books.

People fancy ourselves rational most of the time and “impulsive” sometimes, but about the opposite is true. We are almost never objective, and almost always victims of our own tainted perceptions. Here’s some quick examples to make the point.

1. You can ask people to draw either short or long lines on a piece of paper. Immediately after the exercise, the group who drew long lines will, on average, estimate the length of the Mississippi River to be longer than the group who drew short lines.

2. You can feed people a dish, and if you tell them it was made by a restaurant called “Studio 97,” they will, on average, estimate the cost of the food to be higher than if you told them it was made by “Studio 17.” This is an example of the phenomenon of anchoring: the 2-digit number in the name of the restaurant pulled the perceived value of the dish in its direction. I heard that the role of anchoring in negotiation was examined in Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.

3. When you ask a group of individuals if they are “dissatisfied with their social life,” the number of people who answer “yes” should be the same as the number of people who answer “no” to “are you satisfied with your social life?” But nope. The question itself primes people to think of the suggested scenario, which temporarily overstates that scenarios prominence in their lives, making some of them more likely to answer “yes” to both scenarios. Even worse, people who answered that yes they are dissatisfied with their social lives are then more likely to agree that they are unhappy. Consider that for a moment: you can momentarily convince some people that they are generally unhappy by asking them questions a certain way.

4. Individuals who just finished playing a violent video game are less likely to help a stranger than those who weren’t playing a game. Individuals who just finished playing a pro-social video game (in which the objective of the game is to say, save a princess) are more likely to help a stranger. So are individuals who just got done playing a video game in which they had to work together with another player. This is an example of the phenomenon of priming: the brains of the video game players were primed either pro-socially or anti-socially, and the effects of the mindset continued after the game.

In addition to anchoring and priming, our brains are also vulnerable to repeated exposure. The more we hear or see something, the more it Trumps everything else in our brains. Whether we view it favorably or not, we start overestimating its importance.

In Win Bigly, Scott Adams identifies two cognitive fallacies that take the cake:

1. Confirmation bias. This is when your brain filters out information that goes against what you believe to be true and remembers everything that confirms what you believe to be true. What you’ve believed to be true all along is validated because your brain overestimates and even over-exaggerates the evidence of it. For example, you believe your coworker is a dimwit, so you mentally note each and every mistake they make but miss their steady stream of successes.

2. Cognitive dissonance. This is when your brain can’t filter out information that goes against what it believes to be true, so instead your brain invents a story that allows the two to co-exist. For example, the above-mentioned coworker receives a promotion, so you start to speculate that they must have some connection with someone high-up or they did something dirty to get ahead.

The problem is that these two are a deadly combo. Once you speculate your coworker cheated the system somehow, confirmation bias will take over. The Sherlock Holmes in you will start noticing all sorts of shit that supports your theory. Because you know you’re smart and you have lots of evidence to support your theory, you assume your theory is fact. When your nefarious coworker tries to help you, your brain again has to do gymnastics to resolve the dissonance.

You may think that these scenarios are rare and that these fallacies don’t apply to you, but they probably do.

At the end of his book, Robert Cialdini tells a story in which he, out of academic curiosity, attended a seminar on a get-rich-quick pyramid scheme. The trip involved a rough, noisy, 2-hour bus ride in which they shouted the benefits of the program and many people signed up. Then they got off the bus and attended the short seminar, where nothing new or interesting was discussed, and got back in the shitty bus to go back. The bus ride was the seminar. The pyramid schemers knew that more attendees would sign up if their ability to think critically was compromised by distractions and a minor yet nonetheless present feeling of danger. Cialdini closes the book by giving a soft admonishment that life in the 21st century is kind of like that shitty bus ride; distractions abound.

Consider the number of situations every minute of every hour of every day that compromise our cognition. Do we really think for ourselves? Do we really make our own decisions? Do we really have our own beliefs? You may be thinking “ok sure, but I know what I think and I know what I believe.” Just remember: never underestimate how cunning your own brain is at deceiving you. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are constantly at work.

Epilogue: I recently watched the now famous “Goobacks” episode of South Park. Cartman uses anchoring for negotiation.

Woman: Yes?
Cartman: [sweetly] Hello ma’am. We’re going around town and offering snow-shoveling service. Would you like your driveway and sidewalk shoveled for eight thousand dollars?
Woman: Oh well, I certainly could use some little snow-shovelers, but eight thousand dollars seems a little steep. How about ten dollars?
Cartman: Ooo, ouch, ma’am, please, let go of that tight grip you have on my balls! Ten dollars, you’re breaking my balls, ma’am!
Woman: How about fifteen dollars?
Cartman: It’s a deal! All right, guys, let’s get to work!

(Taken from season 8 episode 6 script)