Predictably Irrational was published on this day (Feb 19th), 16 years ago — 2008. This was just the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008, when we were all trying to understand what went wrong and what are the limits of human irrationality. Predictably Irrational came out at a good timing to help us rethink human irrationality.
I suspect that the crisis of misinformation and polarization that we are facing these days is even more severe and with consequences that are even more dire. Although the damage that we have caused ourselves in this misinformation and polarization crisis (not with bad intention, just by not understanding our human nature) is much slower-moving and not as clearly observable. Which translates into a relatively calm nonchalant approach, where we are not yet in the panic mode we should be in. This time too, I just wrote a book about these topics – Misbelief.
I know that it might seem that my books predict important breaking points in society, but this is not true. I had a few books in between these two that did not coincide with any large-scale crisis.
The Irrational is a TV show on NBC that is loosely based on my life and my research (very loosely). See a link to the show HERE.
Each episode is based on some basic psychological forces, and here I will elaborate on the psychology that is part of the action in Episode 1: The Pilot.
The main theme of this episode is: False Memories
The main psychological principle in this episode is memory; specifically, false memory. As Elizabeth Loftus has shown, we tend to think that our memory represents our experience in a perfect way. That it works like a camera and that it records events exactly as they took place. But, in fact, our memory includes not only things that happened to us, but also things we imagined, things that other people told us happened, and things we learned about in other ways – and all of these can become mixed with the things that happened to us.
In this episode Alec says one of my favorite sentences: “Memory is the great con man of human nature.” This sums up the idea that we overestimate our memory’s accuracy despite its unreliability.
For more information about False Memories see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Loftus
The main social science terms used in this episode are:
The cocktail party effect
The cocktail party effect takes place when the brain zeroes in on a specific stimulus, typically auditory, while disregarding other stimuli. The standard case is when a partygoer engrossed in one conversation amidst a lot of chitchat can suddenly hear their name (or the word fire, or sex) when it comes from a discussion that they are presumably not hearing.
Surprisingly, the cocktail party effect suggests that this selective attention takes place after the meaning of the auditory signal is processed which means that at some level we hear the words, but actively suppress them before they arrive at our full consciousness.
For more about the cocktail party effect see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocktail_party_effect
Guilt is an emotion that takes place when a person feels badly about compromising their own standards of conduct. It is an outcome of first internalizing the standards of society (don’t litter, don’t lie, etc.). Next, we judge ourselves relative to these social standards, and finally we feel bad — guilty — when our own behavior falls short relative to these social standards.
It is also interesting to contrast guilt and shame. The main difference is that shame takes place only when someone else is watching (or might be watching), and the shame comes from the feeling of being judged by another person. Guilt on the other hand is independent from anyone watching, which means that guilt means that a person is their own judge. From this view, we can think about guilt as a more evolved and more desirable emotion, where a person internalizes the values of society and judges themselves relative to those standards independent of anyone else watching or not watching.
For more about Guilt see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guilt_(emotion)
The identifiable victim effect
The identifiable victim effect is the tendency of individuals to offer more help when a specific, identifiable person (“victim”) is in need of help, as opposed to a large, vaguely defined group with the same need.
This idea is captured by quotes from both Mother Teresa and one attributed to Joseph Stalin.
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” ― Mother Teresa
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.” ― Joseph Stalin (possibly)
The identifiable victim effect is based on two components. The first is that people are more inclined to help an identified victim than an unidentified one. The second is that people are more inclined to help a single identified victim than a group of identified victims.
Although helping an identified victim is commendable, the identifiable victim effect is considered a bias, because it causes us to take less action when we don’t know much about the person in need, and because it causes us to act less as the number of people affected by a tragedy increases.
For more about The identifiable victim effect see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identifiable_victim_effect
Memory is often thought of as an information storage and retrieval system. But we should think about it more like an informational processing system with explicit and implicit functioning consisting of a sensory processor, short-term (or working) memory, and long-term memory. Importantly, while we often place a lot of trust in the accuracy and validity of our memory, the reality is that memory is an imperfect repository of information, and its constructive processes change memories over time. In short, memory is less reliable than we think it is. Of course, with the increase of Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses, we are made more aware of the importance of a good functioning memory. We also worry more about losing this very important part of ourselves – a part that is at the core of who we are.
Paradoxical persuasion starts with the very simple observation that convincing anyone of anything is incredibly difficult. Just think about the last five years and ask yourself how many people have you been able to convince during that time? Similarly, ask yourself how many times over the last five years somebody else has convinced you that you were completely wrong about something? The reality is that when we engage in an argument we start counterarguing even before the other person has finished their sentence (they of course do the same thing), which is why at the end of a conversation in which two people try to change the other’s opinion, they are often even more steadfast in their own opinion because instead of listening, they have been engaged in arguing for their opinion. Paradoxical persuasion approaches arguments differently by asking people to think about the minute details of their argument. With this approach people often realize that they have not thought carefully about their own opinions. While the person that has considered their position more carefully doesn’t become convinced that they were completely wrong, they often realize that they shouldn’t be as committed to their original opinion as they were before.
For more about Paradoxical persuasion see: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407055111
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. While it is natural for people to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation, PTSD is a disorder where the “fight-or-flight” response that was evoked during the initial traumatic event keeps on appearing in the person’s life a long time after the event has passed. People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience through flashbacks or nightmares and they continue to experience a version of the trauma and are unable to put the traumatic event behind them.
For more about PTSD see: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd
Reciprocity is a fundamental driver of human behavior. It is the idea that individuals tend to respond to the actions of others in a manner that mirrors the positive or negative nature of those actions. When other people are nice to us, we feel a need to be nice to them back. When other people are mean to us, we feel the need to act in kind. Reciprocity is also a social norm, meaning that beyond our need to reciprocate, we also feel a kind of social pressure to reciprocate.
What reciprocity means is that in our daily lives we are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than the self-interested view of human nature would predict.
For more about Reciprocity see: https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/psychology/reciprocity#
Sense of control
How much control do you feel you have over your life? You may feel we have a lot of control, or you may feel you have very little. Having the right amount of feeling of control is what helps keep us balanced. Feeling that we have no control can lead to anxiety, depression, and learned helplessness. And, as I argued in Misbelief, feeling out of control is a main driver that leads us to seek out stories that blame someone else for our problems as a way to help us make sense of our situations.
For more about Sense of control and its damaging effects see: https://misbeliefbook.com (Chapters 3 and 4)
My favorite quote from this episode: “Memory is the great con man of human nature.”
My favorite psychological advice from this episode: When we have a negative experience that stays in our memory and we just can’t shake it out, one approach is to try and replace it with something else. We can try to imagine that something else – something specific – happened and do this every day for 100 days. Eventually, the bad memory will fade and be replaced by the better one.
And for fun, here are a few pictures from the set.
Anachronistic Prejudice is a term I recently made up to describe a situation where we use current norms to judge something that happened long ago or to judge someone who lived long ago. The other element of Anachronistic Prejudice is that while we use the wrong norms, we don’t fully realize that we are doing so.
In my mind, this is one of the worst biases of our time in terms of its negative impact on society and on individuals.
How might we fight such a bias? Here is one way: When you find yourself judging people for something that happened five or more years ago, stop and think about how you behaved during that timeframe. For example, think about your sense of humor 15 years ago. Then think about how likely you would have been, in the same timeframe, to make the same mistake as you are judging them on. Next, add a 50% chance because you are likely to have an overly positive opinion about yourself.
Now go ahead and judge.
An ancient question has been whether human nature is inherently good or inherently bad. From as early as I can remember, I thought that the right view is that human nature is inherently good. Over the years, my professional experience in social science gave me further support for that view. Why? Because if you consider that the main lesson from social science — that the environment matters! — you have to also believe in a deep disconnect between the potential of people and their ultimate behavior. You put people in one environment and they behave as angels, but put them in another environment and the same people can act in much much worse ways.
What this means is that behavior, good and bad is not a direct reflection on the goodness or badness of human nature and instead, it is to a large degree an outcome of the environment.
As someone who has internalized social science into everything I do, including my basic beliefs and approach to life, my conclusion was ended up being that people are inherently good and with the right environment this goodness can come out. Everything we see that is not great is an outcome of mistakes, bad information, a bad environment, and so on.
Recently, however, the images and stories from the brutal attacks of Hamas on Israel forced me to stop, think, and reflect, and that’s precisely what I have been doing. Should I change my belief about the basics of human nature? Should I update it?
I went over all kinds of evidence in the news and in social media — information that is impossible to reconcile with the idea that people are inherently good. But, even though I struggled with lots of evidence, at the end of the day, I decided that I’m not yet ready to accept that human nature is evil, and I am going to keep on holding onto the belief that people are inherently good.
Yes, it’s true that the evidence for people being inherently evil is much more powerful than I had imagined, and every day I see more and more examples of unbelievable brutality. But, I’m not yet ready to make this shift. Much like Jean Piaget’s approach to child development and their stages, I think that for me too, the evidence is there, but I’m not yet ready to move to a different developmental stage and to admit that maybe people are not as good as I once believed.
Or, maybe I just need to hold on to the goodness view for the sake of my own motivation. I know that we will all keep on revisiting this question over and over in the near future and I hope that in time we will find more reasons to view the world and the people in it in a more hopeful and positive way.
A strong Human Capital Factor ignites growth.
“I only want to invest in fundamentals.” Such is a common statement from financiers. Yet these self-proclaimed ‘fundamental investors’ are people who regularly ignore a key aspect of a successful business.
Originally posted on December 1st 2023 here https://dialoguereview.com/the-human-catalyst/
A few weeks ago, David French wrote a very compelling and troubling OpEd in the New York Times, under the title: “The Articulate Ignorance of Vivek Ramaswamy.”
The main point focused on a response that Vivek Ramaswamy gave during the Republican debate to the question of whether Mike Pence did the right thing by certifying the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021. Ramaswamy’s response was that if he was in Pence’s shoes, he would have “pushed for a new federal law to mandate single-day voting, paper ballots and voter identification.”
French then goes on to explain that this is “a crazy, illegal, unworkable idea on every level,” which of course it is. French then continues to wonder how can anyone make such an impractical and impossible statement. This is where French, and I suspect most people, miss an important shift in the current political communication landscape – a shift toward shibboleth.
What is shibboleth? As I explain in my new book MISBELIEF, the modern term shibboleth is based on a biblical story where two tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, pronounced the word shibboleth differently. After a bloody war between them, when someone tried to cross the river, they asked them to pronounce shibboleth and if the pronunciation was different from their own pronunciation, they person in question was killed. The way that social scientists use the term shibboleth is as a kind of linguistic password that identifies people’s belongingness to a group. This is also the key to better understanding our modern political discourse, and within it also understanding Ramaswamy and his comment.
My guess is that when Ramaswamy proposed his new federal law, he did not really mean it as a real solution to the question. Nor was he adding facts to the discussion. No — he was signaling. Imagine that Ramaswamy would have said something of the republican-run-of-the-mill category. Maybe he would have said that he would have gathered the Republican leadership to discuss the issue. Or maybe that he would have made sure to publicly register his protest. Any such more modest statements would not portray him as a real true Republican leader. They would just portray him as a standard Republican. In contrast, by saying something impossible and outlandish he is using shibboleth and marking himself as a person with the qualities of a true Republican leader.
This is where French was wrong in his analysis because he mistakenly assumed that the goal of Ramaswamy’s response was to communicate a true opinion and not to signal his loyalty and identity and suitability to Republican leadership.
While I hope that this analysis of the role of shibboleth in the current political discourse, this perspective should not give us any comfort and instead it should make us even more worried. In standard communication we expect people to say what they mean, to say the truth and to add facts to the discourse. Especially when the communication is public on well accepted media channels. When shibboleth takes the center stage and these basic assumptions no longer hold, the risk of false narrative increases dramatically.
The challenge with this analysis is that it doesn’t help us figure how to deal with a discussion that pretends to be about real information but is in fact a shibboleth kind of communication. What we need is to approach this problem in two ways: First, we need to understand this shibboleth strategy and figure out how to take some of the things that politicians say and treat them as loyalty statements, and not as informative speech. Second, we need to demand more from our politicians. We need to start having agreed upon standards for political discussions and it is best to set these clearly and before we get too deep into the election season, and ideally before the next debate.
P.S. Obviously, the problem of shibboleth is only limited to US politicians, and in other countries (Israel, UK, Brazil to name just a few) people, politicians, and social media are immune from this problem, but even so, it is useful to understand shibboleth and think about it as we go about consuming and producing information.
If you would like to read my new book MISBELIEF, this page includes an option to order a copy for yourself + a copy to be donated to an educator. The book can also be found at Amazon, Bookshop.org, Audible, BAM, or Barnes & Noble.
Hello to All!
Today I am celebrating the release of my new book MISBELIEF: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things. I hope you will find this topic as interesting as I have, and get a book, and learn about what I describe as a psychological machine that influences people’s beliefs and changes them, sometimes in a way that is very difficult to understand. If you are curious about this book, you can learn more about it here and here.
If you decide you want to read the book, this page includes an option to order a copy for yourself + a copy to be donated to an educator. The book can also be found at Amazon, Bookshop.org, Audible, BAM, or Barnes & Noble.
I am happy to announce that on September 19, 2023, HarperCollins will be publishing my new book MISBELIEF.
In the early Covid days, I had the misfortune to experience first-hand how it feels to be brutally attacked by people who believed that Covid was a plot designed to destroy humanity. One of the results of this experience was my fascination with the process by which people adopt beliefs that are patently untrue about other individuals, the news, and institutions. This book is partly a description of the people and experiences I encountered along my journey. But mostly it’s an explanation of the psychological machine that takes people and changes them in ways that seem difficult to understand. A psychological machine I call “the funnel of misbelief.”
You can learn more about the book here and here. If you decide you want to read the book, this page includes an option to order a copy for yourself + a copy to be donated to an educator. The book can also be found at Amazon, Bookshop.org, Audible, BAM, or Barnes & Noble.
Here are some kind things that people have said:
“In this thoughtful, moving and well-written book, Dan Ariely narrates his personal and professional journey to understand the world of misbelievers and conspiracy theories, and offers insights and tips that will hopefully help all of us protect our fragile social fabric from being torn apart by disinformation and distrust.”
– Yuval Noah Harari, Bestselling author of Sapiens
“Misbelief is an urgent examination of the human attraction to misinformation. This timely book can provide a crucial foundation for building a more empathetic and informed society.”
– Daniel H. Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Power of Regret
“Once again Dan Ariely writes in a way that gets us to think and reflect about our human nature. In Misbelief, Ariely helps us understand the nature of our opinions, how they’re formed, and how the forces of misinformation can distort them. This is an important book for those who want to understand themselves and the increasingly complex world around us.”
– Arianna Huffington, Founder & CEO, Thrive Global
“For most of us it is tempting to think that people misbelieve things because they are uneducated, unintelligent, or misinformed. But as one of the world’s leading scientists studying beliefs, Dan Ariely, convincingly demonstrates in this important book (and as he discovered first hand in being wrongly accused of leading a nefarious conspiracy!), Misbelief is a process to which any of us can fall prey. More importantly, he offers science-based suggestions on what we can do about the polarization and breakdown in trust that comes with Misbelief.”
– Michael Shermer, Publisher Skeptic magazine and author of Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational
I hope you enjoy the book.
Check out my latest book! Out on September 19th, but you can pre-order it starting today!
MISBELIEF: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things.
During the darkest early days of the pandemic, I was demonized by online misbelievers who falsely accused me of being a mastermind behind universal mask mandates and the chief engineer of the “Covid-19 fraud.” Attempts to explain my position to my attackers only escalated their vehement declarations. The experience, as disturbing and devastating as it was, inspired me to dig into the innate origins of these people’s unfounded and immovable convictions.
More generally, in recent years, we have more frequently been confronted with the outlandish conspiracy-laden misbeliefs of those around us. Even close family and friends may freely spout misinformation that gives us pause. Under the right circumstances, anyone can become a misbeliever.
In this book, I analyze the psychological machinery that changes beliefs to such an extent that people no longer trust media, institutions, and health systems. The four main elements of this psychological machinery are:
- Pressure, stress, and resentment over perceived mistreatment are key emotional factors—and at the center of many misbelievers’ journeys that began during the pandemic.
- Our rational capacities can be used in highly irrational ways to form and confirm beliefs. We think we are information machines that objectively take in information, record it, analyze it, and come to logical conclusions. But nothing could be farther from the truth. We have evolved a complex, sometimes sophisticated, sometimes flawed, and sometimes downright faulty set of shortcuts for processing the often-overwhelming world we live in.
- Many of the mechanisms that draw people into the funnel of misbelief are common human characteristics. Yet not all human beings are equally susceptible. Our individual differences— our personalities—play a role. Why are some people more susceptible than others? Individual differences and certain personality traits such as patternicity, the tendency to trust one’s intuitions, certain decision-making biases, and narcissism add to the picture.
- Social forces are at work at every stage of a misbeliever’s progression. Even the slightest degree of ostracism by family and friends can loom large in the consciousness of someone who is taking their first steps into misbelief, pushing them more forcefully into the funnel. The sense of being welcomed, acknowledged, heard, respected, and praised by fellow misbelievers creates a powerful pull of belonging. Social forces accelerate misbelief, driving people to embrace more extreme positions in order to prove loyalty and gain status. Fear of social rejection or ostracism make it very hard for them to change their beliefs once again.
Even in a time when artificial intelligence can generate convincing fake news that feeds misbelief, there is hope. There are many things we can do to mitigate the problem, and there are many more things we don’t know what to do about—yet. What is certain is that the strategies to help combat misbelief will have to be rooted not in conflict, but in understanding and empathy. The sooner we recognize that this is above all else a human problem, the sooner we can become the solution to misbelief.
If you are interested in this topic, and I think that you should be, order the book here: https://misbeliefbook.com