Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

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 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, 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 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 as 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.

Is it best to watch debates with the sound off?

As should be obvious, I continue to ruminate on Scott Adams’ argument that our judgement of politicians is based less on reason and rumination and more on emotional gut reactions. Adams argues that what matters is not what a person says but how “well” they say it. And Adams argues that Donald Trump is a master of this kind of persuasion.

Now, I admit this can be a tough argument to buy. I often find Trump’s words to be totally devoid on any substance and meaning. But I’m starting to observe how the content of a person’s message takes second chair to how they express it.

Recently I was watching some video of English right winger, Milo Yiannopoulos*, arguing with a feminist woman about equal pay in the workplace. Milo made at least one statement that was, I’m pretty sure, completely false. He was lying, as Trump is prone to do.

*For some reason, after I watched a bunch of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones videos, youtube started throwing Milo videos at me and I finally broke down and watched a few.

But, Milo is an entertaining and effectively public speaker. He has verve, you might say. And he projects utter confidence in what he is saying. (It reminds me of the old Seinfeld line: “It’s not a lie, Jerry, if you believe it.”) Meanwhile, the woman spoke with this kind of flat, passive tone and generally seemed on the verge of falling alseep. Her words may have been true, but that’s not really what stuck in my head. After I watched the video, what I remembered was how they spoke (e.g. with confidence and flair, or not) as opposed to what they said. If I had to rank them, I would say Milo “won” the argument although I’m not convinced of his point.

You can watch the video here. Ignoring what is actually being said, I think you’ll find this Milo guy comes across as more engaging, albeit in a very smarmy kind of way. I’m guessing he trained himself in this style of presentation.

It then struck me that there’s a simple way to see who is the more compelling speaker in a debate: turn the volume off. Just watch how the speakers present themselves. Who projects the most confidence and charisma? I would argue that, if you turned off the volume during the Republican primaries, you would see Trump clearly defeat his opponents, fellows like Bush, Rubio and Kasich. I have a sense Cruz might have a fighting chance and he was the strongest of Trump’s opponents.

If you like, watch the Milo video again with the sound off. The contrast between the two debaters is profound. It’s also interesting to watch the anchor at around the 4:40 mark. Note how she seems to find Milo amusing but also isn’t buying his schtick.

So, what I’m saying is that winning candidates use how they look and other cues to project a confident attitude and that counts more than their actual arguments. I vaguely recalled a recent psychological study that seemed to provide details for this argument. This New Yorker article provides info.

When people are asked about their ideal leader, one of the single most important characteristics that they say they look for is competence—how qualified and capable a candidate is. Todorov wondered whether that judgment was made on the basis of intuitive responses to basic facial features rather than on any deep, rational calculus.
In other words, when we think that we are making rational political judgments, we could be, in fact, judging someone at least partly based on a fleeting impression of his or her face.
Starting that fall, and through the following spring, Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates.

Obviously, many things affect voting decisions, from political platforms to sexting scandals. But if we control for the underlying factors, the research suggests that a thin-slice judgment retains its predictive validity, and it emerges as the single strongest predictor of victory beyond external factors such as broad economic data, like the unemployment rate; personal data, like age or gender; or any other single political measure, like whether someone is an incumbent or how much has been spent on the campaign.

So, this “voting by looks” method isn’t perfect, it doesn’t always predict the outcome. But it’s clearly a major factor.

The obvious question here is who projects more confidence: Clinton or Trump? I have to confess I really haven’t watched any of their speeches so I have a hard time deciding. There’s something about Trump I find so smarmy, but maybe others would interpret that as confidence. I’ll have to wait to watch the debates with the sound off.

Is Facebook controlling you?

Much of what I’ve been reading about and thinking about over the past several months has to do with the notion that people are controllable. Scott Adams’ theories on Donald Trump, which I often mention, state that Trump is a master persuader—he uses rhetorical flourishes and various emotional cues to get people to support him. Parts of the Howard Bloom books I’ve been reading tout the idea that everything is social and that creatures, humans in particular, live and die by whether they and their ideas are accepted by those around them. So we have a strong motivation to go along with the crowd and gain their approval. (I talked a bit about this in my recent article “Are You A Hive Mind?“)

The NY Times has a new op-ed piece called “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.” It’s pretty familiar stuff: the web and Facebook in particular reinforce our ideas and shield us from contrary notions. (I’m not sure it’s quite true since I see some arguing on Facebook, but I think the idea holds up.) I can definitely see a lot of pressure to think a certain way emanating from one’s social network, pressure that might be subtle enough to not be consciously detected. And that falls right into Adams and Blooms argument: we can be easily swayed to go along with the crowd. To really fight this you have to examine almost all of your assumptions and who’s got the time for that?

As the article notes:

THOSE who’ve been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones and tablets and laptops, thumbing through favorite websites and scrolling through personalized feeds, we’re pointed toward foregone conclusions. We’re pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I’m talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us. They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

“And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different,” Haidt added. “The Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there.”

Howard Bloom on information theory

I’ve been reading through Howard Bloom’s book “The God Problem.” What is this book about? I’m not totally sure. In essence, Bloom is trying to figure out how the universe creates things of degrees of complexity if there is no intelligent God to guide the process. Human beings would be a good example of one of these things.

At the point I’ve gotten to, he is criticizing the idea of information theory. This sits well with me because I’ve never really understood information theory. As I basically get it, it’s the idea that “information” is somehow the core currency of the universe. All things—sub-atomic particles, dogs and cats, human beings, galaxies—pass information to each other (according to the theory.) But what does the word information really mean?

Bloom separates the term “information” from “meaning.” (I think I’m getting this right.) He applies the use of the term information that was devised by Claud Shannon, the inventor of information theory. In this use, information is more like a signal. For example, let’s say I picked up the phone and heard a bunch of sentences in Japanese. These sentences (which are really sound waves that have been converted from the electronic signals of the phone line and system) are information. But they aren’t meaning. Because I don’t understand Japanese.

So, I guess, for things to have meaning, they have to be observed by a conscious agent. Well, not exactly, according to Bloom. Two sub-atomic particles like quarks can interact—they can attract or repulse each other—and even if they don’t consciously feel anything (and Bloom says they don’t and I tend to agree) they are still passing on meaning.

This is dense, complex stuff. It seems to me, ironically, to lead to the question of: what is the meaning of the word meaning? Of course as you define the word, you are defining your definition of the word, if that makes any sense. What a headache.

I think we can ignore some of these problems and at least theorize that appreciating meaning requires consciousness (contra to Bloom.) Basically we can say that humans can appreciate the meaning of a statement like “I’ll meet you at 6 PM at Burger King.” and sub atomic particles cannot. Humans mentally digest such a statement whereas quarks just kind of respond. But not every statement passed to humans is consciously appreciated; some meaning is passed only to human’s sub-conscious. (Look up priming experiments
or the work of Micheal Gazzaniga for discussion on this.
) In this case we are sort of appreciating meaning in the way a quark would—un-consciously.