Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

Thoughts that pop into our heads

Having finished Sam Harris’s tome on meditation, “Waking Up,” I’ve decided to re-read the first Ekhart Tolle book, “The Power of Now” which explores similar themes, albeit from a point of view Harris would probably criticize as unscientific (although Tolle largely avoids ethereal, new-agey content.)

Both Harris and Tolle would say, I think, that our “self”—the entity with particular likes/dislikes, political beliefs, favorites movies etc.—is nonexistent. And most of the dialogue running through our head is basically just noise caused by the mental tics of the brain. Both books are about getting that noise to silence and to experience a more pure form of consciousness.

Of course, that’s contrary to how most of us view ourselves, including me. I operate (most of the time) on the assumption that those voices in my head are me. But I had an experience while reading Tolle’s books that gave me another way of looking at things. I was reading a section where he was making a point about why we shouldn’t look to our past or our future (or possible future) to define ourselves. I put the book down and thought something like, “Got it. No more looking.” Into my head popped the words “I know that I’ve been tooken.” These are drawn from the Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” which has a verse that says:

No more lookin’
I know that I’ve been tooken

It’s one of my favorite lyrics and one I’m familiar with since I sing the song often.

The thing here is that I was aware that “I” wasn’t thinking the lyrics, they just kind of popped into my head (because I happened to think the first part of the lyric.) So maybe we need to make a distinction between thoughts that you feel that you are the author of and thoughts that just sort of appear there. We’re all familiar with this second kind of thought. For example, if I say, “The early bird…” you almost cannot avoid hearing “gets the worm” in your head. It just pops up.

I think Tolle and Harris’s argument is that most thought is of this variety. Your brain or mind is doing some processing and the words just pop up. You think you are the author of these thoughts (unless you are schizophrenic and feel disconnected from the voices in your head) but if fact, the entity saying these things is not you. Rather, you* are the person hearing them.

*To reinterate a point, both authors would ultimately say there is no “you.”

I also feel these “thoughts that pop into your head” instances aren’t that different from another common occurrence. Say someone walks up to you and says, “Can you show me how to get this printer working?” You launch into a spiel about how frustrating the printer is and how you have to set it into this mode before it will print in color, blah, blah. But you don’t really plan this spiel out, it just kind of pours out of you. You direct the larger themes and points, but it many ways it just seems like the words are being handed to you. Again, perhaps it’s not you doing the talking, but rather “you” doing the listening.

Has Adams lost it?

For about nine months or so I’ve been commenting on Scott Adams’s blog posts alleging that Donald Trump has achieved his political success by being a master persuader. By Adam’s descriptions, Trump has a learned or intuitive sense of exactly how to push people’s buttons and get their political support. The term hypnosis has occasionally been thrown around though not in the “woo-woo” carnival side-show sense.

To some degree, Adams must be on to something as Trump’s rise really was unanticipated by almost all of the “serious” political pundits. Adams’ writing on this topic has caused me to reflect on why I make the decisions I do and I’m starting to see how ethereal those reasons can be. I do think the subconscious can be prodded to lead the conscious mind to make decisions, sometimes stupid or bad ones.

That said, currently Trump really is looking weak as a presidential contender. Clinton has a healthy lead in the polls even with two third-party candidates – Jill Stein and Gary Johnson – taking some votes that would otherwise go to Clinton. (I’ve always presumed a Libertarian candidate like Johnson would take votes from the right, but I read something the other day that argued otherwise. Who really knows?)

Despite all that, Adams continues to insist that Trump will win in a landslide (though he has given the Clinton team credit for improving their persuasion skills, mainly by setting Trump up as a figure to be feared.) Here’s Adams today arguing in favor of Trump. (One of Adams’ most annoying predilections is his insistence that he supports Clinton when he clearly is in the Trump camp.)

To many people – if not most – Donald Trump looks like the type of candidate who would become a “strongman” president, ignoring the advice of experts and the opinion of the people. That’s the persuasion framework that Clinton has created in your mind, probably with the help of the Master Persuader I call Godzilla.

But does the evidence support that view? I see the opposite.

Months ago, when Trump stumbled on his answer about criminal penalties for women who seek illegal abortions, the public went nuts, and Trump immediately corrected his position. That’s direct democracy. Trump heard the opinion of the majority and instantly adopted it.

Consider Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration. The public felt his position was too extreme, and let him know. Eventually, Trump softened his stance to talk about countries of origin, not religion. The public still wasn’t pleased, so Trump softened again to his current position of “extreme vetting.” That evolution in policy looks like direct democracy to me. The public told Trump what it wanted, and Trump evolved to it.

Likewise, we found out this week that Trump’s plan to deport 11 million Mexicans living in the United States illegally has some wiggle room. Maybe there won’t be so much deporting after all. Because the public doesn’t want it.

Consider also Trump’s public persona. We witness that he is using the teleprompter (as advised) and crafting a friendlier version of himself, which is exactly what the public asked of him.

One interesting point: Adams alleges that the “Master Persuader” in Clinton’s camp is none other than Robert Cialdini who wrote the book “Influence” that I recently commented on.

So what to make of all? Certainly it seems like Trump is softening his positions, but months after he should have. Can he possibly pull out of the spiral he’s in?

My suspicion is no. But I’ve been wrong before. And Adams isn’t the only one on this page. Here’s a CNBC article I just stumbled across.

Donald Trump still has an uphill battle in this election. But when it comes to controlling the news cycle in this election, he’s running unopposed.

Consider the recent pivot in the Trump campaign. It began with a speech expressing his regrets for his past hurtful comments, followed by a visit to flood ravaged Louisiana. And it continued this weekend with a meeting with Latino supporters where he signaled a desire to temper his immigration policies and shift away from his previous support for mass deportations.

Trump’s recent pivots won’t convince any of his most ardent detractors and Clinton’s biggest fans to change their minds, but there are still a good number of undecided voters out there who might. And then there’s the traditional Republican voters who have been a little embarrassed by Trump, who will now be able to point to the plausible excuse of Trump’s “maturing process” to vote for and more publicly support him.

This article is basically saying that Trump is doing what Adams has been saying Trump will do—creating a “third act” in the story of Trump’s rise, an act characterized with deference and humility. Is it in time to win over voters?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, a lot of people don’t like Hillary. If the third parties suck up enough of her votes and undecideds and “embarrassed” Republicans swing towards Trump, I suppose it could happen.

Taking seriously the possibility of multiple consciousnesses

Years ago I posted a blog posted asking whether we have multiple consciousnesses in our heads. I described the basic concept thusly:

A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.

I was, frankly, only half serious. But I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s recent book, “Waking Up,” and he takes the possibility seriously. Referring to the famous split brain experiments, he throws out the possibility of one consciousness in the right brain and one in the left. He even addresses an obvious problem: if we have multiple consciousness, how do they avoid conflict with each other (especially if they aren’t even aware of each other)? The answer is found in the theory of a philosopher quoted in the book.

The non-speaking hemisphere has know about the true state of affairs from a very tender age. It has known this because beginning at age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating… Being inured to this status of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation becomes a way of life.”

The idea is that you have this other consciousness sort of enslaved to “your” consciousness. It is so used to being powerless that it goes along with the dominant self.

Of course Freud’s theories were all about inner conflict. Perhaps that conflict is between these two consciousnesses.

And, I believe Harris leaves open the possibility of even more consciousnesses within one brain. What a trip that would be.

UPDATE: I feel I should clarify one thing here. In the case of the split brain patients, each hemisphere has been separated from the other and the patients seem to behave as if they are two selves in one body. Us normal folks have connections between the two hemispheres and most of us behave as one self. But Harris argues that the connecting tissue cant possibly pass all the information in one hemisphere to the other, so were are really more like two selves that have some limited communication with each other.

More thoughts on “Influence”

I recently finished the book “Influence” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. The book explores six tendencies of the human brain that can be exploited to trick us into making decisions we might not otherwise make. One tendency, for example, is the valuing of scarcity. We walk past a shoe store and see some nice shoes and are informed that only two pairs are left. We become agitated—if we don’t buy the shoes now we may never get another chance. So we buy the shoes, go home and realize that they really aren’t that great. We were tricked by our brain’s proclivity for lusting after scarce things.

In an earlier post I mentioned a con man who, years ago, knocked on my door, cooked me some food and then asked for money. He played on an tendency Cialdini refers to as reciprocity. Basically, when someone helps us or gives us something we feel we “owe” them. The example Cialdini gives in the book is Hare Krishnas approaching people in airports with the gift of a flower and then asking for a donation. These travellers are already flustered, looking for their gate, and they give up the cash just to move past the the situation. Of course they never asked for the flower and it’s worth only pennies. Why give money? They got taken.

Basically, by abusing these proclivities of the mind, con men and sales people can trick you into doing things against your best interests. And it happens to all of us, all the time. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize that the pull towards the unwise decisions is almost subconscious. There’s a sense of “why am I doing this?”

“What am I doing?”

My interest in the art of persuasion, as often described by Scott Adams, has led me to the book “Influence” which I am now reading. First published over 30 years ago, the book is an examination of the psychological ploys people like salesmen use to influence people’s decisions. The first chapter describes an obvious ploy called the reciprocity rule. Basically, if you want someone to do something for you, you do something for them first and then ask.

I have always been wary of unwanted gifts and favors for this very reason: I feel they involve some kind of obligation on my part. (Though in recent years I’ve taken up the habit of taking the gift and then refusing to do the favor asked.)

Part of what I like about “Influence” is that the author freely admits to being a patsy, the kind of guy salespeople and con-men can take advantage of. He often uses his own experiences to make a point.

Reading the book got me thinking of a few times I’ve been approached by a con artist. One stands out for the pure audacity of the con. At the time, I was living in an apartment in Sacramento. I saw, once or twice, a fellow around the complex and chatted with him enough to learn that he was (I think, I’m going off memory here) the boyfriend of someone who lived in of the units.) It was all friendly, meaningless chatter.

One day I got a knock on the door. It was this guy and he had a favor to ask. I was in the middle of cooking something, some kind of vegetable I think. Before he got to the favor he basically invited himself in and showed me his recipe for cooking this vegetable, basically grilling it in tons of butter.

The he asked his favor. (You’ll notice, of course, that he engaged the reciprocity rule by first grilling my food.) His girlfriend needed money for something, maybe some kind of doctor’s visit I can’t recall. Did I have 40 or so bucks I could loan her? (I remember the context of the loan was not to him, but to her.) She was off somewhere and he would get her the money. (It dawns on me that I don’t know if I ever saw this girlfriend—maybe she never existed.)

Now, of course I did not want to lend her the money. But I also didn’t want to appear to be a dick to this basically nice guy whom I’d had some chats with and had just cooked my food. So I said something like, “I’d like to, man, but I don’t have any cash on me.” (This was basically true.) But he countered with something like, “Can we go to your ATM?” At this point, I had trapped myself, hadn’t I? I hadn’t said, “I don’t WANT to give you the money,” merely that I didn’t have access to it. So, sure enough, we drove the ATM and I got him some cash*. Of course, I never saw him again.

*I was basically trapped because I needed to look consistent, a need discussed in the chapter of “Influence” I am reading now. I hadn’t refused to give the cash, I’d basically implied I would give it if I had it. And the con man pointed out that I easily could.

Now there’s one thing I haven’t pointed out and that is that this con artist was a black man. I think part of my deference to him goes back to another con experience I had years before that, in my late teens at a Greyhound bus station in Seattle. There, I was approached by a black man who described to me the predicament he was in. He was owed a certain amount by the government (for military service I think) but before they would give it to him he needed to pay some kind of payment for something. If I could loan him the money for the payment he could pay me back and more once he got paid.

Now, even at my relatively young age I recognized that for a con and declined. His faced turned down and he sadly said something like, “This is a black thing, isn’t it?” I was, at that point, basically a guilty, white liberal and was aghast at being thought a racist. I still declined to give him the money but basically pleaded with him not to interpret the events the way he was.

In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that the guy’s comment was just one in his playbook of con artists lines. But, I suspect it stayed with me, and years later when I met the other black con artist, I was sensitive to not appear racist and thus acceded to his demands.

I should note, I don’t fault either of these guys and have generally favorable feelings toward them—which is pretty odd when you think about it. But from what I’ve read, this is what good con artists do: make you like them.

In the book “Influence,” the author describes human behavior as a series of programs that can be triggered by outside stimulus. Good con men just know the right triggers with which to activate the behaviors they want. And that seems to be what happened to me in Sacramento. I even recall a sense, as I pulled the money from the ATM, of “what am I doing?”

Finding patterns in music

A while back, I linked to this page on, among other things, sound waves and how they relate to music. If you scroll down to the section titled “Musical Beats and Intervals” you see three diagrams showing three different pairs of overlaid wave forms. One is a very consonant octave set (something like a low C played over a high C), one is a relatively consonant 5th interval and the final one is a dissonant, ugly sounding interval. The point these diagrams make is that consonance and dissonance are not abstract properties of music, they are related to how two or more sound waves overlay on top of each other. Waves where the peaks and valleys generally line up sound good; waves where the peaks and valleys don’t consistently line up are weird.

The same is true with rhythms. If I take a drum groove played at 100 beats per minute and lay it on top of a drum groove at 200 beats per minute, everything should sound all right since the hits in the 100 beats per minute groove will correspond with every other hit in the 200 beats per minute groove. But if I overlay a groove at 157 beats per minute over a groove at 100, not much will line up and it will sound chaotic.

Now, this is no different in the first example using notes. Notes are really sound waves vibrating at certain frequencies. You could think of the peaks of sound waves as the “hits” in a drum rhythm. If you take two sound waves and the peaks line up most of the time you have something consonant. But the less they line up, the more dissonant they get.

So basically, when you hear consonant sound waves (or drum rhythms) your brain is comparing the peaks or hits and determining that they match and delivering a pleasant sound to your mind. But this comparison, this brain processing, is something we are unaware of. With two dissonant notes, we aren’t aware that the sound wave frequency rates are out of sync, we are just aware they sound bad.

And I suspect this is true with a lot of things. Our brain looks for patterns, for synchronicity. When it finds the pattern, it says, “yay, I like this.” When it doesn’t find the pattern it gets frustrated. But much of this processing goes on “under the hood;” we aren’t consciously aware we are doing it.

Playing “The Game”

I recently picked up a booked called “The Game.” It’s a memoir of the author’s time spent as part of a particular group of pick up artists who slept with hundreds of women while operating primarily in LA, but also New York, Miami, and various other cultural hot spots.

This might sound like a departure from my usual reading material which tends towards neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. In fact it fits right in there. What these guys were doing was using a deep study of theories rooted in various psychology paradigms—particularly evolutionary psychology—to “game women. And it seemed to have worked quite well, though the toll the endless pursuit of dames takes is starting to show by the chapter of the book I am at.

In general, a pick up artist presumes that there are rules to how the mind works and these rules can be gamed to lure a prospective partner into bed. And the rules aren’t what conventional wisdom would argue. The official rulebook on romance says a man earns a woman’s affection by being kind and buying her flowers etc. “The Game” argues you do it by “negging” them (neg = a kind of light hearted diss), appearing disinterested, peacocking (dressing outlandishly) and creating a “yes chain” (basically asking a bunch of questions where the answer is yes in order to get the gal used to saying yes to whatever you propose.)

None of this is really news. We’ve all heard the complaint that women really like jerks. Pick up artists just make a point of being (somewhat likable) jerks.

I think there are some caveats to all this. These techniques probably work best on women of a certain age who want to experience the wild side of life but maybe don’t want to admit this to themselves. And there’s also, as the author admits, a “play the numbers” element to it. Guys who hit on lots of women with these techniques are bound to catch a few. That said, I believe the techniques make a difference; it’s not merely a numbers games. I say that partly because I did have period of some success with women (after years of failure) and I did some of the stuff mentioned in the book, albeit on a limited level. (When I read the section of peacocking I was reminded of a girl who told me she’d only gone out with me because she liked my glasses. At the time I had a pair of stylish, black rimmed glassed that had been picked out by an ex-girlfriend and replaced the hideous, dorky glasses I wore through my mostly celibate 20s. I’m convinced that original pair was a women-repellant.)

As I read through the book, its ideas seem familiar. And that’s because this is exactly the kind of stuff Scott Adams says Donald Trump is doing: using subtle cues to “persuade” people to support him. Adams himself often mentions Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in relation to this kind of persuasion. NLP is (probably) a pseudoscience* that studies how to subconsciously get people to do what you want. It gets mentioned a lot in relation to sales and negotiation. And NLP is touted by all the pick up artists in the book. (After all, picking up women is all about sales and negotiation.)

* Like all pseudosciences, however, there’s some truth to it.

It all points to rather dismal news. The way to get political power is not by being a standup individual, it’s by brainwashing people into supporting you. The way to satisfy your sex drive and its desire for variety is by tricking cosmo-guzzling 22 year olds into sleeping with you. Honesty and integrity have no place in these realms.

But that’s not really news, is it?

Why facts are worthless in politics

Much of what I’ve been saying lately in regards to politics is that people do not make political decisions based on cold, rational logic. They make decisions based on emotions, particularly emotions like fear. If a politician can make the electorate fear his or her opponent, he or she has gone a long way to getting elected.

OK, so people make political decisions based on emotions. What should they be basing them on? Well, the cliche idea is one of an informed electorate who thoughtfully research the issues and come to a sound decision. That is the model for beautiful democracy. Of course, it’s total horseshit. Very few people do that.

So why is this? I think partly because many of the issues facing us are pretty difficult to figure out. Let’s take a popular one: illegal immigrants. You can approach this problem from various angles; let’s just ask a basic question: Does illegal immigration lower wages for everyone?

About two months ago I would have said, yes, and clearly yes. Let’s say you have two hundred unemployed people in a town all competing for whatever jobs are available. Then, suddenly 50 new immigrants arrive (illegal or not). Doesn’t that mean employers can get even pickier about who they hire and demand lower wages?

It would seem so. But I read up on this and it’s not so simple. The addition of 50 new people does mean that there’s more competition for jobs, but these new people also create new jobs. It’s 50 more people who need dry cleaning, who need groceries, who want to catch a Saturday matinee. So the dry cleaner, grocery store and movie theater all need to add an extra shift.

So, do immigrants add enough jobs to make up for their negative effect on wages? I dunno… I looked into it for about an hour and got a sense that I could research this stuff for years an never really know. The data is dense and complex and clearly biased by the political beliefs of its presenters etc. On top of that, it’s seems likely that the answer would vary by territory. Some towns might suffer under the influx of immigrants while others prosper.

Of course there’s also a moral framework to this. Some would say we should accept illegal immigrants no matter what their effect on the economy. Others would say we should look after Americans first.

So you throw all that into a stew and it becomes, in my mind, very difficult to know what the “right” answer is.

Let’s consider a related issue: Trade Agreements. The past 15 years have seen various trade agreements that allow for more fluid trade between the U.S. and other countries. These agreements have lowered tariffs and protections for various industries. All lot of people, including both Trump and Sanders, argue these agreements have cost American jobs as factories are moved to cheaper locales. Other people including Clinton (though she’s a bit waffly) argue that these agreements create cheaper goods for Americans as well as create a different class of jobs.

Again, I looked into this issue for about an hour. Jesus that shit is complex; it’s worse than the illegal immigration debate. I really have no idea who’s right. (Read here if you want to get into this morass.)

Let’s consider Syria. What the best course of action there? Fuck if I know. To really address the situation would require months of studying the local politics, the history of the middle east, the psychology of the main actors etc.

So you see where I’m gong with this. A politician running for office has two choices. One is to try and impress his or her audience with his broad command of the facts of all these issues. The other is to appeal to people’s lizard brain and rile up their emotions. People mock Trump for his lack of knowledge about political issues but, frankly, that shit just gets in the way. He could bore people to death with a two hour dissertation about why illegal immigrants ultimately take more jobs than they create (whether of not that’s true) but what’s actually effective is reminding voters that the guy who just killed 50 people at a gay nightclub was Muslim.

This is why democracy basically sucks (though I agree that there’s no better system.)

Is Trump running a con?

As I say with almost every post, I’ve been following Scott Adams assertions that Donald Trump is using techniques of master persuasion to rise to power. Adams ideas align with this New Yorker article from a few months ago, “Donald Trump, Con Artist?

One of Adams arguments is that Trump’s political ideas are merely window dressing, a way of attracting attention and standing out from the crowd. The New Yorker piece states…

If Trump were a con artist, he would be interested in politics only as a means to some other end. He wouldn’t believe in his political opinions; instead, he would see those opinions as convenient tools for gaining what he actually desires. Insofar as he believed in any of the policies he espoused, that belief would be purely incidental.

Another of Adams’ conceits is that Trump’s policy proposals are deliberately ill-defined so that his fans can fill in the details with what they would like to see. Additionally, Trump has garnered his following using appeals to the emotional side of the brain. As the New Yorker piece says…

Trump’s promises are often deliberately vague. He meets demands for specifics with another tool from the con artist’s arsenal: emotion. People who are emotional are not logical.

I would posit that Trump is a con man and he has pulled off one of the great cons of political history early in his campaign. Recall that he started out at the back of the horse race. I think he devised a plan of making seemingly unbelievable political statements (“Mexicans are rapists,” “Let’s build a wall,” etc.) knowing the media would turn their cameras on him bemused with his seeming desire for self-destruction. Thus they gave him unmatched air time to make his case to a certain segment of the population (what used to be called the silent majority.) And make his case he has, with a complicit media that is only now realizing they were grifted.

5 reasons lists are awesome

I often deride the list-based blog posts and articles that have overtaken the internet, things like “6 Cat Photos That Will Have You On The Floor With Laughter.” That said, I stumbled across this semi-recent New Yorker piece that explains lists’ effectiveness.

One point of appeal is that we have an easier time remembering the content of lists, partly because we think spatially. So we remember a list bullet point partly because we recall where it was in the list. It’s not just a ethereal piece of info, it’s something that was halfway down the page.

As the article intones…

When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves.

Also, lists let you know what you’re getting into; they tell you how much time you’ll have to commit to read them. (This is probably why articles like “786 Reasons to Vote for Hillary Clinton” would never fly.)

The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it. The process is self-reinforcing: we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again.