Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

People vote with their guts

I find myself returning to Scott Adams’ discussions of Donald Trump. Adams alleges, as I’ve mentioned in the past, that Trump is using various persuasion techniques to make himself felt as a presence in the current presidential nomination process. Basically, when Trump says something crazy, it’s not an off-the-cuff remark but part of a developed strategy. To quote Adams

Part of Trump’s persuasion talent involves picking the right policies not only in terms of popularity but in terms of how he can influence that conversation. Trump looks for simple, visual anchors, such as his wall idea. He picked an idea that has legs, guarantees him all the available television time, and for which no one can flank him to his right. None of that is by accident.

So, it might seem that Trump is blithely proposing a crazy and offensive idea: let’s build a wall separating us from our southern neighbor. But this actually accomplishes a couple things. First, it sends the message that when you bargain with Trump, he will start with an extreme offer. He’s the guy who goes up to a guy who is selling a car for $3,000 and offers him 30$.

It also helps Trump stand out from the crowd. What are Ted Cruz’s policy proposals exactly? Well, I’m not sure really. But Trump? He’s the “wall guy,” he’s the “let’s deport all the Muslims guy.”

Will Trump actually be able to build a wall or deport all the Muslims? Probably not, but by then he’ll be President. (Could he win a second term after failing to do these things? That’s an interesting question.)

What Trump has effectively done, Adams argues (and I tend agree), is go from being a joke candidate written off by 90% of the media (both conservative and liberal) to a very serious contender. He’s done this by using words and imagery to speak to people’s subconscious. What Trump is doing is putting to bed the notion that voters rationally consider candidates’ positions and vote accordingly. Trump assumes that people respond to knee jerk, lizard brain biases built into their heads and vote with them.

Frankly, I’d say Bernie Sanders is a similar case. I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me how, exactly, he would provide free college and health care. I’m not saying it can’t be done; other countries have done it. But how, exactly, will Sander’s do it? It’s doesn’t matter—Sanders is talking the language of the guts. And notice that, as Adams would say, with these proposals in place, no one can flank Sanders from the left. He is well defined.

This notion, that people vote with their guts and their heart and not their brains is hardly new, but it’s pretty frightening really. It really implies that democracy is a joke.

Many people don’t seem to get this. Gloria Steinem recently alleged that young, female supporters of Bernie were in it to meet guys. A lot of people have commented on how offensive that is on it’s face (alleging that these women are boy crazy nimrods.) But it’s also just lousy politics. I doubt there’s a single woman who thought, “Gee, Ms. Steinem thinks I’m just supporting my candidate to meet men. I really should sit down and think about my reasons for not supporting Mrs. Clinton.” But, I bet a lot of women torn between the two candidates leapt into the Bernie camp. Because that’s how people work—they get indignant. Steinem’s actions actually had the exact opposite effect than what was intended.

In some ways Obama would seem to be a refutation of all this. After all, he is a calm, reasonable guy who offers actual policy proposals as reasons to vote for him. But let’s look at Obama’s history. His opponent for the Democratic nomination was Clinton who, I think we can safely say at this point, isn’t the most capable campaigner in the world. And Obama’s Republican opponents—McCain and Romney—were pretty unspectacular. On top of that, I think Obama presented a nice combination of dreamy idealism (speaking to people’s guts and heart) and policies (speaking to their heads.)

Let’s beat up on the media

I’ve been reading an interesting pop psychology book called “You Are Not So Smart.” The book details various ways that our brains and minds can trick us into misreading reality.

In one chapter the author argues that in times of emergency, instead of freaking out like you might think, many people refuse to acknowledge the peril around them. They seek normalcy and discard any incoming information that interferes with that interpretation.

As the author points out, we can more easily convince ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem because the media often inflates dangers that turn out to be nothing.

Regular media overhyping and panic building over issues like Y2K, swine flu, SARS, and the like help fuel normalcy bias on a global scale. … With so much crying wolf, it can be difficult to determine in the frenzied information landscape when to be alarmed, when it is really not a drill.

I’d almost forgotten all the media hand-wringing over Y2K and the totally non-event it turned out to be.

This comes around to a related thought I’ve been having. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, the media treated as a joke. The same is basically true with Bernie Sanders. Frankly, I thought of these candidates as jokes. But we may be approaching a point where the final contest will be Trump versus Sanders. Whatever you might think about either of them, you have to give them credit for believing in themselves when “the establishment” did not.

The other take on Trump

Lately, I’ve featured Scott Adams take on Donald Trump on this blog. Adam’s argues that Trump is a “master persuader” who wins arguments by signaling subtle cues that bypass actual argumentation. (Read pretty much any of Adam’s posts on Trump for examples.)

Adam’s posits that Trump is in complete control of his blustering persona. Adam’s has even stated he feels Trump uses ego as tool he can turn on an off e.g. Trump doesn’t feel actually insulted when people disrespect him.

At Vox, an author presents a different view. He argues that Trump has a need to dominate every social situation and this need is built into Trump’s core character.

Trump doesn’t make people feel that way. Indeed, he has constructed his entire professional life around him being the center of universe, the focus of any room he’s in. He doesn’t want to be liked, he wants to be respected and feared. He wants to be the top dog; he is obsessed with it.

I think people often misread that as a species of strength, but its true origin is fear — deep, pre-verbal fear, down in the brainstem.

Some scientists have looked into what makes conservatives conservative. One thing they’ve found is that conservatives are more sensitive to negative features of the environment — to threat, contamination, disorder. At the far right end of the spectrum is the authoritarian, who dreams of total control, freedom from all threat, “peace through strength.”

And that’s Trump (who, not coincidentally, refuses to shake hands for fear of germs). He must be in control, have all the leverage, in every situation. (If he doesn’t, he just declares bankruptcy and moves on.) He is hyper-attuned to disrespect or disloyalty, as the feud with Fox News this week showed. And a hair-trigger fight-or-flight reflex makes him prone to outbursts and personal attacks whenever he feels threatened, which is often.

It’s pathological. And the thing about pathologies is that they cannot be taken on and off like masks. They are pre-conscious; they order incoming experience.

I will say, as much as I find biological or psychological theories about behavior compelling I’m aware they are very difficult to prove. Is Trump’s lizard brain controlling his behavior or a “master persuader” cerebral cortex? Nobody can really claim to know for sure.

On a side note, one things bugs me about the Vox article. At one point the author states.

And here’s the bedrock obstacle to Trump’s success: there are simply not enough struggling, resentful, xenophobic white people in the US to constitute a national majority sufficient to win a presidential election.

And beneath that is a picture of Trump talking to fans. One smiling female fan is what looks to be Asian and beyond that a browned skinned women, possibly Indian or Hispanic. This is is a picture of about seven people total. It’s of course possible that this photo was somehow rigged by Trump to show his multicultural appeal but it’s an odd choice to use under a paragraph making the opposite case.

Signaling cues

I’ve been thinking a bit more about this signaling idea prompted by Scott Adams’ musings on the rise of Donald Trump. I find a lot of it ties in with things I’d already been thinking about.

Let’s consider this scenario. You bump into a friend and he says, “I’m going home to listen to my new collection of Bing Crosby CDs.” At first glance this might seem an innocuous, almost boring statement. But I would argue much is being said beyond the straight facts. For one, this person is saying they like Bing Crosby, which affirms a few things about their identity. It affirms that they don’t only listen to modern music, but have an affinity for the classics. And specific classics—Crosby represented the white establishment music of the time, a genre of music that is basically maligned by hipster musicians of the modern era (not entirely; this is a complex assertion but I think the gist holds true.) In a way, there’s something “politically incorrect” about liking Crosby as opposed to, say, a grittier black artist like Bessie Smith.

So, basically, that simple statement is loaded up with all sorts of subtle, cultural cues. This person isn’t just telling you about their evening plans, they are telling you about their identity. And depending on how you respond, you will tell them about your identity.

Adams’ assertion is that Trump is similarly loading his statements with these kinds of cues: subtle hidden meanings designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter.

One comment that Trump made that perplexed me at the time was Trump’s statement that illegal Mexican immigrants were hordes of rapists and murderers, though he did add, “some, I assume, are good people.” The “I assume” got me there. It’s like, “Geeze, Donald, you can’t even say that amidst the millions of Mexican immigrants there are, IN FACT, some good people?” He was actually leaving the possibility open that NONE of them were good people.

Let’s hold that thought. Consider another scenario. Let’s say you see a guy selling his car for $4000. You walk up to him and say, “I’ll give you $100.” Do you really expect to get the car for $100? Do you really think that’s a fair offer? Of course not; you’re saying ‘I drive a hard bargain.’ You will buy the car of the guy really wants to sell it, but you’re not going to be an easy mark.

My suspicion is that this was Trump’s real goal with the “good people” comment. He was saying, “I’m a tough negotiator. With me you don’t get to try and convince me that half of Mexican immigrants are good people, you try and convince me that a few of them are. I can lowball with the best of them because I hold the cards.” And people like tough negotiators for President; they like people who drive a hard bargain for “our” interests. I might even argue that this comment appeals especially to business people (small or large) who understand the intricacies of bargaining.

Of course it’s a dangerous statement since it could alienate so many people that it costs him the nomination. We will see of course, but he’s still in the lead.

Does Trump believe it?

I’m continuing to enjoy Scott Adam’s posts on politics—here’s a recent one arguing that the rise of political outsiders like Trump and Sanders is the result of social media bypassing representational democracy.

There’s another point Adams made somewhere in some other recent post (that I can’t track down at the moment)—the point was that one of Donald Trump’s strengths is his immunity to embarrassment. That might seem like a questionable ability. Doesn’t embarrassment keep you from making a fool of yourself? Sometimes, yes, but it could be a hindrance depending on your goals.

Personally, I find people who believe in insane conspiracy theories to be annoying. One of my early complaints about Trump was that he touted this insane “Obama is from Kenya” conspiracy theory*. Only an idiot would believe that. Trump, whatever you want to say about him, does’t seem like an idiot. So why does he believe it?

*For the record, I find the “Bush planned 9/11″ theory equally insane.

Well, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he just realized that this is a good way to signal to a certain group of Americans (roughly speaking, Nixon’s silent majority) that he’s on their side. Frankly, most of those people may not buy the Obama/Kenya theory but it’s anti-Obama and that’s enough for them.

Trump is immune from embarrassment and has no problem presenting himself as someone believing in something that on its face is quite idiotic. That’s my theory anyway, and it does seem to explain some of the inconstancies of Trump’s character (like how a basically smart/educated/rich guy can believe in nonsense. He doesn’t.)

The same thing might be said of Trump’s “Build a Wall to keep out Mexicans” plan. He knows it’s a preposterous, expensive idea. But he merely says the words to serve as signal to potential voters.

There was an interesting experiment described in this “Moral Tribes” book I’m reading. A generous welfare planned was described and called a “Republican plan” and experiment volnteers self-described as Democrats rejected it while self-described Republicans embraced it. The situation was reversed and so were the results. It almost seems like the we’re at the point where the substance of things is irrelevant—it’s entirely about symbolism. This is true with Trump and it’s true with Sanders (whose policy proposals are basically substance-less and have no chance of getting through Congress.)

It’s very possible this is one of the most interesting times in American history. I’m not uncertain that if Trump is elected that he won’t just turn around and announce that the whole thing was been a big, crazy challenge he gave himself to see if he could bullshit his way into office.

UPDATE: Here’s a Scott Adams post that gets to the heart of the argument that Trump is immune to embarrassment.

Trump intentionally accepts the scorn of many as a cost of winning. And it works.

Ask yourself if you could withstand the types of criticisms Trump withstands every day. It would kill a normal person with a fragile ego. One can only endure that type of abuse when you see ego as a tool, not a character trait. Trump doesn’t mind the criticism because people are attacking his choice of tools, not his personality. Only Trump knows his inner thoughts, and apparently he’s okay with them.

Always remember this: Ego is a tool, not a personality trait.You can manipulate your ego, as Trump shows us, to gain advantage in this world. I took the Dale Carnegie course years ago and they teach this very thing. Today when I embarrass myself in front of millions of people – which I do about once a week – it just seems funny to me.

Scott Adams on Trump

I’ve been dimly aware that Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comic strip, has an interesting blog that I should probably check out more. I only recently found out that he’s been making predictions about the political rise of Donald Trump that have been quite accurate (while the rest of the media has been baffled by Trump’s rise.)

Adams is a certified hypnotherapist and argues that Trump is what should be called a “master persuader”—a brilliant pitch man. Part of Adam’s thesis is, as I understand it, that people don’t really think logically, instead they respond emotionally to various cues. A good hypnotist, or politician, can manipulate people by transmitting these cues. That is what Trump has done, says Adams. Sounds nutty, but Adams has been making predictions about Trump’s fortunes with a high degree of accuracy based on this theory.

This Reason article provides some detail.

“What I [see] in Trump,” says Adams, is “someone who was highly trained. A lot of the things that the media were reporting as sort of random insults and bluster and just Trump being Trump, looked to me like a lot of deep technique that I recognized from the fields of hypnosis and persuasion.”

This also ties in with a book I’ve been reading called “Moral Tribes.” In the book, author Joshua Green argues that we are programmed by evolution to cooperate within groups; this behavior leads to the success of our individual genes. Green basically says that we have subconscious programs in our mind/brain that control our behavior. Presumably these programs could be activated by the cues Adams talks about.

The point of all this is that people who are baffled by Trump’s success despite his lying and general self-aggrandizement are missing the big picture. Trump knows exactly what he’s doing by sending signals to persuade people (more emotionally than logically) that he is a good choice for President.

I myself have said that while I think a Trump presidency could be a disaster for the solar system, I understand the appeal of his refusal to bow to political correctness. I’ve long identified in myself an anti-authortitarian streak, a dislike of being told what to do or say. The political correctness camp specializes in telling people what to do and say (often with very good reasons, but it’s still bossy.) Does Donald Trump behavior appeal to my “anti-authority mind module”? I think so.

The Sarno-Sacks connection

It’s been a while since I’ve written on the theories of Dr. John Sarno who argues that much of physical pain and distress is caused by the upset mind. (I have to concede I don’t really believe in a “mind” anymore, at least as an entity in any way unattached from the brain, but the word will have to do.) I’m reading through Oliver Sacks’ autobiography and he makes some rather Sarno-esque observations. Sacks started out working at a migraine clinic and had a patient who had recurring migraines every Sunday. Via a pill, Sacks managed to banish the migraines. But they were then replaced with asthma. He offered to give the patient something for the asthma, but…

“No,” he replied. “I’ll just get something else…”
“Do you think I need to be ill on Sundays?”

I [Sacks] was taken aback by his worlds but I said, “Let’s discuss it.”

We then spent two months exploring his putative need to be ill on Sundays. As we did, his migraines got less and less intrusive and finally more or less disappeared. For me, this was an example of how unconscious motives may sometimes ally themselves to physiological propensities, of how one cannot abstract an ailment or it’s treatment from the whole pattern, the context, the economy of someone’s life.

This kind of talking cure is exactly the sort of thing Sarno recommended to his patients. It’s always interested to see these ideas mention by a different source.

My music blog

I feel I should make note here that I have a blog on music theory and guitar playing I’ve been posting to for a while. It’s over here.

The most recent post is called “The Secret to Learning” and is probably of interest to non musicians.

Whenever we attempt to learn something—an instrument, a language, a piece of software, skateboarding, whatever—it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You see what the greats of the discipline do and think, “How can I ever get to be that good?” You pick up a book on the topic and it’s 400 pages long, written in some arcane nomenclature. It can all seem like too much to handle.

But there’s a secret to learning that I will reveal here with a thought experiment.

Let’s say’s you kidnap a man at gunpoint and stuff him in a room. Then you play him those Pimsleur French language learning CDs over and over for 8 hours a day. (Also make sure to feed him!) Whether this guy wants to or not, he will learn at least some French. The information will be coming in and his brain will take note of it. He won’t be able to “not learn.”

And that’s the thing with learning. It’s automatic. We think it requires great effort but if you expose yourself to the right information it will sink in. Obviously there are smarter, better and more organized ways to learn, but it’s really about exposing yourself to the material. Your brain takes care of the rest.

Anyway, I find that reassuring for some reason.

Hierarchy in music and society

In the realm of music there is the genre of what’s called “atonal music.” Basically this is music that avoids a key center. So while standard music is usually said to be in the key of C, or F#, or whatever, atonal music cannot be said to be in key. If you think of the key of most music as being its center of gravity, you could thinking of atonal music as kind of free floating. (In fact atonal music is often used for scenes of outer space in movies.)

In essence, what atonal music is doing is refusing to create a hierarchy of notes. In regular music, the most important note is the same as the key center. For example, C is the most important note in a song in the key of C major. It’s usually the starting and ending note of the song and it’s the note being hit when we feel a melody or musical phrase has “settled.”

My suspicion has been that atonal music grew out of the philosophy of communism and generally anti-hierachical political thought. To that way of thinking one thing should not be more important than any other. Including notes.

I was reading a book this morning on music and it made an interesting point. The whole class system of music which involves keys and hierarchies of notes really came about in the 1700s—right when the complex class system of people was cementing itself in Europe. So I must ponder that while it may be true that atonal music represents a political philosophy, so too does standard key based music.

Of course, part of why communism never really caught on (when it did it basically had to be implemented at the threat of a gun) was because hierarchical notions seem ingrained in our social intelligence (as they do in the intelligence of monkeys, birds and even ants.) And with music, something just feels right about key centers. And atonal music, while at times interesting, is challenging to listen to. It seems like we are wired for hierarchy in both social behavior and music.

Thus I have spoken.

Finding patterns in music

I’ve been thinking again of my idea of a master flow for all art—the idea that all art is basically about presenting tension and then resolving it with calm. (Well, not all the time—the final jump scare in a lot of horror movies leaves the viewer with unresolved tension.)

Maybe tension is not the best word to use here though. Maybe we really mean questions. For example, when a zombie shuffles onscreen in a movie, he brings with him questions. What’s the zombie going to do? Is he going to eat our protagonists? When the zombie is beheaded, those questions go away; the problem is solved.

In storytelling the questions are easy to see. But what about music or other forms of art?

In music, perhaps we need to think not in terms of questions but of patterns. When we have a predictable pattern we are confident in what’s going on. When we have unpredictable patterns we are not. So what’s a predictable musical pattern? A steady beat is an obvious example. If we can tap along with it we are predicting the next beat and are rewarded when we tap in time. If a beat is unsteady we don’t really like it. And there are at least two kinds of unsteady beats: beats that are unsteady because the person performing sucks (which we find frustrating and amateurish) and beats that seem deliberately askew, as in the music for horror films. For this second kind we feel like we’re being deliberately foiled, there’s something aggressive happening. We feel under attack. (Granted, these sensations are all pretty subconscious.)

Volume is another way music can offer patterns. If a song is going along at a certain volume, the volume itself is a kind of pattern. If the song suddenly gets loud (as certain classical pieces do) the tension goes up. Whoa, I didn’t see that coming, we say.

Musical harmony (two or more notes played at once) also offers predictable and unpredictable patterns. In harmony you have what’s called consonance (roughly speaking: pleasant sounds) and dissonance (ugly sounds.) Each sound is of course made up of wave forms of vibrating air. The wave forms of consonant notes match each other pretty well; their peaks and valleys basically line up with each other. Not so with dissonant notes. Check out this description of a wave form of two dissonant notes (The graph can be found at the “Musical Beats and Intervals” section at the link.)

Observe (look carefully) that the pattern of the resultant is neither periodic nor repeating (at least not in the short sample of time that is shown). The message is clear: if two sound waves that have no simple mathematical relationship between their frequencies interfere to produce a wave, the result will be an irregular and non-repeating pattern. This tends to be displeasing to the ear.

Of course, we don’t think: “Wow, those wave forms are out of synch.” We just think, “That sounds weird.”

There’s an added component here. Psychologists will tell you that some people are novelty seekers, while others are more conservative. Are novelty seekers more accepting of dissonant or less patterned (rhythmically, volume-wise etc) music (modern classical, jazz, some heavy metal, industrial)? I dunno… maybe… it wouldn’t surprise me.

Related: another post of mine on musical dissonance.