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“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?”

Trump’s true nature?

For months now, I’ve been viewing Trump through the lens that Scott Adams has presented, one that views Trump as a master persuader who knows how to trigger behaviors in people (in the case of Trump’s supporters, the behavior of voting for him.) In lieu of Trump’s recent political disasters—his spat with the Kahn family and drop in polls—it’s hard to see this view as accurate. Trump seems too impulsive to really be a calculating genius.

Nonetheless, this New Yorker piece—essentially an interview with the man who co-wrote Trump’s successful tome “The Art of the Deal”—provides some insight into how Trump’s mind works. Consider this passage:

“He was playing people,” Schwartz recalls. On the phone with business associates, Trump would flatter, bully, and occasionally get mad, but always in a calculated way. Before the discussion ended, Trump would “share the news of his latest success,” Schwartz says. Instead of saying goodbye at the end of a call, Trump customarily signed off with “You’re the greatest!” There was not a single call that Trump deemed too private for Schwartz to hear. “He loved the attention,” Schwartz recalls. “If he could have had three hundred thousand people listening in, he would have been even happier.”

Note the phrase, “in a calculated way.” The sense I get from combining the New Yorker piece with Adam’s arguments is that Trump is probably a sociopath, someone unresponsive to the self-imposed limits one is supposed to observe as a member of decent society. Rather, Trump has learned all the secrets of manipulation and applies them with impunity. It’s an odd combination of genius and total lack of restraint.

I have a hard time envisioning how Trump can pull out of the spiral he’s in, but the guy is nothing if not full of surprises.

Explaining the appeal of Trump

I, like most people, never saw the rise of Donald Trump coming. I figured he would wipe out in the Republican nomination process the same way he did in 2012.

So what happened? Part of what I didn’t understand, I think, is that there was a real sense, especially on the part of people in the midwest, that they got screwed by trade deals like NAFTA, as well as the lack of policing against illegal immigration. Is this correct? I dunno… I talk a bit about it in my current acid logic article, but in the end it’s hard to really determine what the statistics on these topics tell us. Regardless, people feel it’s true, and Trump, and to some degree Sanders, have been talking about these issues a lot.

Yesterday I stumbled across this interview with the author of a new book called “Hillbilly Elegy.” He argues that the people of poor white America, particularly in the midwest and the south, are really struggling. Drug use is an epidemic and poverty is taking a disastrous toll. And I have to concede that this bleak picture is, again, news to me.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below).  Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.  

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth.  Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.  More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

I think he touches on a point I’ve addressed in the past. The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities. Thus, when Hillary Clinton says something like she’s going to put a lot of coal miners out of work, coal miners get pissed—this is their livelihood she’s talking about.

Now, I don’t think Trump really has any answers here. He has some vague talk about negotiating better trade deals and building a wall, but I doubt that will really do much (especially as I’m unconvinced whether bad trade deals or immigrants are the source of the problem.) But I can understand the appeal of Trump here, to these people.

Anyway, the whole article is worth a read.

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.

Data mining the arc of stories

I’ve been thinking a bit about my next acid logic piece which will tie in with a presentation author Kurt Vonnegut once gave on the shapes of stories. He argued that there are limited set of flows that stories can take and that all stories ever written ultimately fit into this set. I might as well let him explain as the presentation is online.

Today I come across an article about an attempt at making computers perform data mining to analyze the arcs of stories stories. Basically a computer “read” numerous stories and ranked the emotional affect of the words to map out the emotional flow of the story. As the article explains…

Their method is straightforward. The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.

It was then concluded that there are six basic story arcs or flows, though some novels combine several different arcs into a larger tale.

I’d be curious to see analysis of the flow of other arts forms—music, painting, cinema etc.

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 a 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.