This holiday season I talked to several people with different opinions from my own. I met a young 20-year-old woman that said she would never bring kids into this world because global warming meant we have no future… I chatted at a party with a Trump supporter that was convinced tariffs were good policy. I listened to a young person (under 18) tell me that Socialism was indeed better than Capitalism. I’m not saying any of these opinions were wrong but I did notice that NONE of them were based on a broad set of knowledge—they were all drawn from a few headlines, things they heard or opinions they created themselves based on their belief system. You might say that this has been going on since the beginning of humanity (people formulating strong opinions without a lot of facts)—but it seems much more pronounced now. (As you will read below this might be due to me having a slight Negativity Bias.)
I get it, we are human, and we have innate flaws that allow us to be influenced –but how and why? I thought it was time to do some digging, take some notes, and begin a list of all the ways I could be manipulated so I can defend against it in the future.
Political ads, search and social media advertising, partisan cable TV and fake news content is constantly being pushed at all of us–While product designers create products that cause addictive behavior to distribute such content. Design engineers read books like Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to understand how to build products & services that we have to constantly check for a little boost of dopamine. In the past, this wasn’t as big of an issue because the portals for distributing content were not as widely used (as our smartphones are today) for such a large part of the day and their influence was not as personalized (more on how much just a couple tech firms knows about you found here).
To understand how we are being manipulated we need to understand one of our many glitches–Bias.
Everyone is susceptible to some form of Bias
The first thing I’d ask is why less than 60% of the general public believe human activities are a significant contributing factor in climate change when >95% of the scientists that study climate change for a living (PHDs) are adamant about the fact. Think about this for a second–These specialists have studied climate for their entire professional careers, yet a large majority of people that NEVER studied the climate don’t believe them—that’s just crazy! Are these non-believers’ lives impacted negatively by climate change policy? Are these non-believers’ drawing conclusions based on how much snow they saw in their backyard this past winter? Take this a step further—these non-believers are voters and 40% is a lot of people (more on a related subject). Reference this video about bias and climate change:
Most (if not all) people have a “bias blind spot”. Humans are less likely to detect bias in themselves than in others per published research in Management Science. The reality is that people are susceptible to all kinds of bias (defined as a mental leaning or inclination; partiality; prejudice; bent).
- We love to agree with people that agree with us—This is called confirmation bias. To compensate we should surround ourselves with a diverse set of people that have different backgrounds and experience than your own.
- We jump to conclusions without having a lot of information – This is called Anchoring Bias. To compensate we can draw upon tools such as the Ladder of Inference to help us make decisions.
- We may believe that after flipping a coin 5 times and getting heads all 5 times that there is an increased likelihood that the next coin toss will be tails and the odd would be in our favor. They are not. This is called Positive Expectation Bias and forms the basis of gambling addictions. To compensate, we need to look at trends from a number of angles versus just chronologically.
- We blame others when something goes wrong. Perhaps blaming the other driver for being a ‘bad driver’ in a traffic accident versus blaming the weather. This is an Attribution Bias. To compensate we need to look at others as people and use empathy versus treating them as objects (use tools like Arbinger Institutes Leadership and Self Deception framework).
- We overlook faults or defects with a large purchase of an expensive product or service in order to justify the purchase – this is a form of cognitive bias called Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome
- We might despise the opposing political party. Negative feelings towards another group form from favoritism towards one’s own group – This is called Ingroup bias and forms the basis of discrimination.
- We fear flying more than driving even though statistically, we have a 1 in 84 chance of dying in a vehicular accident, as compared to a 1 in 5,000 chance of dying in a plane crash [other sources indicate odds as high as 1 in 20,000]) – this is called Neglecting Probability Bias.
- We start to see our new car everywhere after we purchase it—this is called Observational Selectional Bias and it causes us to actually believe this is happening with increased frequency.
- We often say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – This is called status-quo bias
- We think that things are getting worse in the world not better. – This is Negativity Bias and is the basis of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In general, people tend to pay more attention to bad news than good.
The human brain is easily deceived, and we have to be diligent in not letting others manipulate us because of its natural bias. After all, marketing professionals have been exploiting these fundamental human flaws for years. Here is a great article outlining how titled “How marketers use 20 cognitive biases that screw up your decisions” by Paul Marsden.
We must constantly ask ourselves if our personal bias is making us draw conclusions without all the data… have we listened to the other side? Do we have empathy for the people on the other side of the dialog or are they ‘objects’ to us? Are we only listening to news that confirms our personal bias? Are we being manipulated or are we thinking about all sides of an argument? –don’t be the nitwit that doesn’t believe in global warming when >95% of all climate scientists (who spent their entire careers studying the issue) believe humans are at fault.
We are vulnerable to The Sleeper Effect
This was first identified in U.S. soldiers during World War II. Scientists measured a soldier’s opinions 5 days and 9 weeks after they were shown a movie of propaganda. They found that the difference in opinions of those who had observed the movie and those who did not watch the movie were greater 9 weeks after viewing it than 5 days. This leads us to believe that our impressions have more influence on us than rational thinking over time. Maybe this is why drug companies place disclaimers at the end of a commercial because we won’t remember them over time. Could this be why the older generation wants to Make America Great Again…
Some are vulnerable to Group Think
The brain is always looking for approval from other people and this can be perverted in all kinds of unsettling ways. Our brains prioritize ‘being liked’ over ‘being right.’ so people will go along with a crowd and engage in activities they would never pursue by themselves for the sake of fitting in. Terrorism is a great example—it occurs when ‘group think’ morphs into ‘group polarization’. For more on this subject there is a great study in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology titled “Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters”.
Some are vulnerable to Cognitive Dissonance
Not knowing things makes humans anxious. When we are not given adequate closure, we fill in the gaps to create a cohesive whole that makes sense to us. It’s why some of us believe in heaven, astrology, or ghosts. Humans fear the unknown, and intrinsically combat this angst by supplementing our limited information with things that fit a particular paradigm. It’s why we create religions and subscribe to them to our death to give us answers to life’s complex questions.
“When a thousand people believe some made-up story for a month — that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years — that’s a religion,”- Yuval Noah Harari.
Most may be susceptible to some level of hypnotism
I know… this sounds farfetched but it’s not. We know the result of hypnosis is real—but we don’t understand how it works.
“Follow the Lord!” says the priest. “Defeat the Enemy!” says the politician. “Place your Order within the next Ten Minutes for Double the Benefit!” says the sales person. These are all examples of mass hypnosis—used just the same way that Stalin and Hitler practiced it. Manipulating emotions is a way to seize control over someone’s body and mind. The more we understand our subconscious mind, the greater our ability to make rational decisions.
Hypnosis is generally regarded as an altered state of consciousness—but since consciousness isn’t understood, alterations to it such as hypnosis, meditation and psychosis aren’t very well understood either. David Spiegel M.D. does a great job explaining what is known about hypnosis in this 9 chapter lecture titled “Tranceformation: Hypnosis in Brain and Body” found on NIH.gov.
Someone can learn how susceptible they are to hypnosis here.
It may be based somewhat on intelligence
Gordon Pennycook and colleagues published a paper titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” and found that people who are more susceptible to BS score lower for verbal and fluid intelligence, are more prone to “conspiratorial ideation,” and more likely to “endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
A person’s intelligence is not set in genetic stone—Here are some ideas on how to increase intelligence.
It may be in our genes
Bradley B. Doll, Kent E. Hutchison and Michael J. Frank published a paper in The Journal of Neuroscience titled “Dopaminergic Genes Predict Individual Differences in Susceptibility to Confirmation Bias” that suggested that variants in the genes involved in the prefrontal dopaminergic reward system predicted the degree to which study volunteers persisted in responding to a test, following previous instructions, even as evidence against the veracity of the instructions accumulated. In contrast, variants in genes associated with dopamine function in the striatum correlated with the ability to learn from actual experience.
Conclusion: We are not flawed, we are human. The key is to understand how our brains work and to defending against others that try to exploit our human design.