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Democracy blows

As I’ve mentioned many times now, Scott Adams has been making the argument that Donald Trump’s un-anticipated (and controversial) political rise occurred because he is great at the art of persuasion. And persuasion, according to Adams, is not a matter of appealing to reason and logic but rather the emotional brain and people’s sense of identity.

Adams further notes, as does common sense, that Trump is not the only politician to do this. All, to varying degrees, use this kind of persuasion to get elected.

Now, that argument really needs to be unpacked and examined before we can sign off on it. But I’ll say here that it at least feels right. Most political debates don’t have the feel of people arguing about math, they have a great deal of emotional element.

If Adams is right, does this not point to a deep flaw in democracy? Democracy is based on a kind of “wisdom of the masses,” but if the masses are easily manipulated dum-dums, should we not consider a different form of government?

Now, of course, “what is the best form of government?” is a question humanity has sought to answer for centuries and every system of government has had flaws. Monarchy is ok until you get a idiot king. Oligarchy has similar problems. I don’t really know the answer here but I start to find myself suspicious of the ‘rah-rah” approach most take to democracy, as if it’s clearly the superior system.

There’s a point madde in the book “Soul Machine” that ties into this. The author notes that “Locke’s tabula rasa gave philosophical and scientific standing to Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “all men are created equal.”" John Locke had argued that people are born as a blank slate and how they developed was determined by their environment. Put a kid in the right environment and he could be a genius scientist, put him in the wrong environment and he becomes a dull-witted criminal. But at the start, everyone has equal talents.

Now, two and a half centuries after Jefferson’s pronouncement, we know that genes do have some affect on people’s abilities. People are not created equal, some are intrinsically smarter, or more empathic, or intuitive than others. Thus a cornerstone for Jefferson’s case for democracy has fallen.

“Identity” voting

Part of Scott Adams theory on politics is that people seldom vote for logical, thought out reasons, but rather for emotional gut reactions. One gut reaction that drives people towards a candidate, in his estimation, is identity. Essentially people think “this candidate is like me, therefore he or she gets my vote.”

I think we all sort of suspected this and experienced it within ourselves. But as I’ve mused on this idea I start to see examples all over the place. For example, check out this section from a recent Washington Post article on the Clinton campaign.

Would Teresa VanDoorn, 44, a homemaker who had become a familiar face at the Sanders office, support Clinton if she became the Democratic presidential nominee?

“No,” VanDoorn said. “Voting for Hillary would be approving of the status quo and establishment — and I don’t approve of that. I would write Bernie’s name in. I consider Hillary equal to the GOP candidates, to be frank.”

What’s interesting about this comment is that the woman doesn’t exactly say Hillary’s policy positions are the same as the GOP (which, we should note, would be an insane thing to say.) The voter rather argues that Hillary is “equal” to the GOP in some undefined way. Basically, to use liberal academic parlance, this women is saying Hillary is like “the other.”

The point here is that this women, in explaining her lack of support for Clinton, doesn’t list her disagreements with Hillary’s policy positions or attack Clinton’s effectiveness, but rather argues that Clinton is on the wrong tribe, the tribe of the “establishment.”

I’m reminded of a comic memoir I was reading recently by a guy who had a drug problem for years and then became a fiction and comic author. He describes voting for Obama in 2008 and his main reason was something about sticking it to the old white boys club. Again, nothing about policies, but all about identity.

Now, I obviously don’t think policies have nothing to do with why people vote. A candidate’s policies are clearly tied up with the identity they represent. But identity does seem to be a trump card, if you will.

What is life?

I continue to read the book “Soul Machine” (a cultural history of the mind) and continue to get this sense that many of the philosophical quandaries of today were struggled with hundreds of years ago. For instance, in a recent acid logic article I reported on various theories that argued that life was not a distinct state separate from non-life. I quoted an article in a science magazine on a fellow who argues that what separates living things from the non-living is merely a matter of how the atoms of each structure were organized. He has derived a mathematical formula which…

…indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

This is written as if it is a new revelation (and in fairness, the details are.) But check out this passage from the book on the work of a German philosopher Reil who lived during the 18th century.

Reil discounted a number of theories and proposed that through a process of complex self-organization—his favorite metaphor was the process of crystallization—chemicals developed new properties that somehow made for living matter.

They aren’t quite the same theories—one describes the atomic level and the other chemicals—but there are a lot of similarities.

Francis Hutchenson on morality

Not long ago, in an article entitled “What is Morality,” I offered up the argument (not original to me) that moral behavior is built into our brains via evolution. I noted…

We want to believe that by being moral we are following a set of rules — perhaps divine rules, or perhaps rules dictated by some kind of universal logic. But I am saying morality is neither divine nor logical; moral rules are simply the rules of socialization that have evolved through the history of our species. Our brain applies these rules, much the same way it applies rules for emotions. When we are contemplating or performing an immoral action, we are prodded with a sting of discomfort, similar to the sting of fear. When we are contemplating or performing a moral action, we get a “good feeling,” similar to joy or pride.

The idea being that we literally sense which behaviors feel good and which feel bad. At the time I thought this was a fascinating development in moral psychology. But, while reading the book “Soul Machine,” a history of the development of the concept of the mind, I find…

Hutchenson accepted Locke’s argument that sensations created ideas which then furnished the mind, but he also believed with Shaftsbury that an innate moral sense was the primary motivation for humans, and the source of their emotions. Sentiments arose from that moral barometer—joy from acts of charity and remorse from deceit. Through this moral sense, we experienced another’s emotional state deeply and directly. Ethics and social stability rested, not on the Good Book, but on this natural state of shared compassion, what he called “sympathy” between human beings. Like muscles in the body, this shared emotion balanced private desires and yielded both personal and social harmony.

This Hutchenson fellow basically nailed the idea back in the early 1700s. Interestingly, his idea of experiencing others’ emotional states ties into the the recent, still somewhat controversial, discovery of mirror neurons.

The general sense I get with this book is that all the great philosophical thoughts were thunk centuries ago. Now people are just arguing around the edges.

Hobbes, Spinoza and Trump

For a while now, I’ve been highlighting Scott Adams’ analysis of the rise of Donald Trump. He argues that Trump influences his followers by stimulating their faculties for emotions, not so much reason. Therefore, attempting to dissuade his followers by highlighting Trump’s factual errors is folly. Further, Adams argues that humans in general are emotional decision makers, not rational ones. I have at times suggested, half-jokingly, that the fact that people are so susceptible to emotional bias means that democracy is a flawed system. If the masses can be prodded towards un-rational decisions, they shouldn’t be granted the duty of decision-making.

I’ve been reading the book “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind” and it points out how this debate goes back hundreds of years. Specifically to opposing views presented by two famous philosophers…

Hobbes considered the passions wild and uncontrollable and therefore rationalized the need for absolute monarchy. Since Spinoza believed reason could control inner urges and freedom of thought ensured morality, he insisted that the most sound political structure was a democratic republic.

Decartes’ Error and Donald Trump

I continue my mental exploration of the idea that Donald Trump is a master persuader who is using brilliant tactics to convince a needed segment of the population to grant him the Republican nomination (and eventually the presidency.) I’ve mentioned that Scott Adams has been talking a lot about this idea but so have many people interested in the science of persuasion.

It strikes me that this ties in with a book I often talk about: “Descartes’ Error” by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. I’ll quote a description of one relevant point of the book:

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides—shall I have the chicken or the turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision.

The article continues…

This finding has enormous implications for negotiation professionals. People who believe they can build a case for their side using reason are doomed to be poor negotiators, because they don’t understand the real factors that are driving the other party to come to a decision. Those who base their negotiation strategy on logic end up relying on assumptions, guesses, and opinions. If my side of the argument is logical, they figure, then the other side can’t argue with it and is bound to come around to my way of thinking. The problem is, you can’t assume that the other party will see things your way.

This describes some people’s frustrations with followers of Donald Trump, doesn’t it? Detractors of Trump don’t get how he can blatantly lie and exaggerate and still have fans. But, if you allow that people are not rational decision makers, but rather emotional ones, then the facts (or un-facts) Trump uses are not the relevant factor. Rather it’s the emotions he generates in his audiences.

As I’ve said before, if this is really true—that people are not swayed by facts—than democracy itself is a joke or at least can be manipulated to rather unpleasant outcomes. I return again to the idea that we should nominate a philosopher king to make society’s decisions. I humbly offer myself.

Rhetoric

Years ago I was looking at the library of my dad’s wife and I noticed a book on rhetoric. I found myself asking, what, exactly, is rhetoric? I associated it with talking and writing but couldn’t say much beyond that.

Anyway, here’s a dictionary definition:

rhet·o·ric
ˈredərik/
noun
the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.

Once I figured out what rhetoric is, I realized it’s something I do all the time. In my acid logic writings and at this blog I’m often writing opinions which I have some vague interest of convincing other people of.

But lately, I find myself wondering if it’s all bullshit, whether rhetoric is really a way of glossing over the fundamental lack of meaning to most things.

For example, I’m finishing up a piece for the next acid logic where I argue that the soundtracks of 1980s horror and sci-fi movies represented a certain dichotomy: they both embraced technology by using computer based tools and feared it as the sounds you get from synthesizers always have a certain coldness to them. I argue, with a few rhetorical flourishes, that this dichotomy was part of the spirit of times.

But is such a statement really true in any meaningful way? How would it be true? I guess if people of the era really sat around and took notice of this idea and used it to form other ideas it might be true, sort of. But something about these rhetorical arguments seems lacking. It feels like you could make any point about anything with the right rhetorical tools.

It seems like a lot of observation about the past, especially past culture, are made after the moment. They become true because the observation is made. But are they really true? Did they really describe thoughts and behaviors people were consciously or unconsciously thinking at the time? And who really cares?

More on Trump the persuader

I still find myself fascinated by Scott Adam’s arguments that Donald Trump, in his attempt to become President, is employing persuasion techniques used by master salespeople and politicians. To quote Adams

As far as I can tell, Trump’s “crazy talk” is always in the correct direction for a skilled persuader. When Trump sets an “anchor” in your mind, it is never random. And it seems to work every time.

(“Anchors” are a particular kind of persuasion technique. See a description here.)

I’m finding that Adams is not the only one making these claims. For instance, here is an article that goes into the subject of what are called triggers. These are essentially switches in the mind that activate specific emotional responses. Once the trigger has been switched, the theory goes, a person’s decision has been made. Any reasons provided for the decision are merely rationalizations to support the emotional decision.

Trump is activating what in neurological terms are referred to as emotional triggers, which the brain uses to avoid the energy and difficulty of analytical thinking. Whether consciously or by instinct, great persuaders tap into the functions of the emotional brain, where decisions are made with great speed and intensity.

One especially potent emotional trigger Donald Trump is clearly activating in the limbic brains of his most ardent supporters is the contrast trigger. Sales and marketing people know the contrast trigger well enough. They use it to varying degrees of success all the time. Differentiation is a well-worn corporate branding trope used to emphasize the importance of distinction — of being different from the other brand or product.

Do I buy this concept? Not entirely, I think the mind is messier and more complex. But I will say that the idea of triggers corresponds to a lot of what neuroscience and psychology have observed in the past 30 years (particularly in the work described in Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error.”)

Also, keep in mind that these persuasion techniques doesn’t have to have 100% successful to be worth using. A persuasive car salesman doesn’t have to convince everyone who comes on the lot to buy a car, just many people. Trump doesn’t have to convince all voters that’s he’s the best choice, just slightly over 50%.

Another assertion from Adams is that when Trump makes outrageous statements, he is doing so intentionally to capture the public and media’s attention. I see here that even Mario Rubio is wising up to this.

“Look, this is a pattern. This is a game he plays. He says something that’s edgy and outrageous and then the media flocks and covers that and then no one else can get any coverage on anything else,” Rubio said.

Related to all this: here’s an article that argues that Trump is using extreme statements to cover up his liberal past.

The thought of a world in which Donald Trump is president feels more like an apocalyptic nightmare to most reasonable Americans. His bigoted statements regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslims, as well as his hotheaded temper, make him appear especially dangerous for international relations. But given certain evidence, one must wonder whether some of Trump’s behavior is part of a strange but strategic charade designed only to win him the Republican nomination.

I have some complaints about that article but it does correspond to my sense that Trump himself doesn’t believe some of his own touted opinions.

I will say, this argument—that we are not really rational in our own decisions—”feels” right to me and I find evidence in myself all the time. I’m finding myself analyzing everything from why I like the politicians that I do to why I buy a certain brand of beef jerky and I have a hard time coming up with really solid, logical reasons. What I experience is more in the vein of gut reactions that I then have to qualify. Adams blogs on this topic have really got me noticing this.

On a final note: I recognize that Adam’s has planted this idea in my head (an anchor) that Trump is a master persuader. Is that why I take notice whenever I see articles like the ones above that support this notion?

Will Donald Trump actually build a wall?

One of Trump’s most hyped statements has been the idea that he will build a wall across the southern border that separates the United Staes from Mexico. It sounds crazy and very difficult, both in the act of actually constructing it and getting funding from a likely unsympathetic congress. Why would Trump propose such a thing?

I’m going to take a page from Scott Adams’ argument that Trump has a master plan with such outrageous statements. I suspect Trump’s thinking goes along these lines. He knew, before he made this statement, that a certain percentage of Americans are unhappy with illegal immigrants and would like something to be done about it. Those potential voters were observing the solutions other politicians were proposing, all basically variations of “more enforcement with some amnesty.” Then Trump comes out with, “I’ll build a wall.” This is a loud, definitive statement in the opposite direction of the (far more do-able) amnesty proposals. Trump becomes “their guy.” He has branded himself as the anti-illegal immigrant candidate. And he gets a lot of attention from the media in the process. To people who only pay cursory attention to the news, Trump becomes a serious contender. After all, look at all the attention he’s getting.

The moral is: to get noticed, make big, extreme statements, even if they are ridiculous.

But I suspect there’s another reason. I’ve been reading an interesting book, “You Are Not So Smart,” about the various foibles of the human mind. One chapter starts with the following imagined scenario.

You walk into a clothing store and see what is probably the most bad ass leather jacket you’ve ever seen.

You try it on, look in the mirror and decide you must have it. While wearing this item, you imagine onlookers will clutch their chests and gasp every time you walk into a room or cross a street. You lift the sleeve to check the price – $1,000.

Well, that’s that, you think. You start to head back to the hanger when a salesperson stops you.

“You like it?”

“I love it, but it’s just too much.”

“No, that jacket is on sale right now for $400.”

It’s expensive, and you don’t need it really, but $600 off the price seems like a great deal for a coat which will increase your cool by a factor of 11. You put it on the card, unaware you’ve been tricked by the oldest retail con in the business.

The chapter then recounts several studies observing “the anchoring effect” a tendency to value things based on an arbitrary number placed in your head. (Here’s a link to the chapter online.) The chapter closes with…

Remember this study if you are ever in a negotiation – make your initial request far too high.

You have to start somewhere, and your initial decision or calculation greatly influences all the choices which follow, cascading out, each tethered to the anchors set before.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Trump’s initial offer on the issue of what to do about illegal immigrants is way too high—let’s build a wall. People negotiating with him will realize this and will settle for terms they would have considered unseemly had they been negotiating with someone with a more reasonable initial offer. They will pay 400$ for a $300 jacket (originally marked at $1000) so to speak.

Of course, Trump will never get to make that offer if he doesn’t become President. But by proposing his wall he is saying to voters opposed to illegal immigrations, “I will drive a hard bargain on your behalf.” The details of his rather outrageous proposal are not important, the willingness to make it is.

It seems like there’s a lot that could go wrong with this tact. Are there enough voters opposed to illegal immigrants to create a voting bloc? Will such statements turn off a big segment of other voters? Perhaps. But I don’t think Trump, a guy who is not a career politician, had many other options to work his way into people’s minds as a serious contender. He had to think big, and so far it’s worked.

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.)