YANSS 038 – How the Halo Effect Turns Uncertainty into False Certainty

The Topic: The Halo Effect

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

halo

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It’s difficult to be certain of much in life.

Not only are you mostly uncertain of what will happen tomorrow, or next year, or in five years, but you often can’t be certain of the correct course of action, the best place for dinner, what kind of person you should be, or whether or not you should quit your job or move to a new city. At best, you are only truly certain of a handful of things at any given time, and aside from mathematical proofs – two apples plus two apples equals four apples (and even that, in some circles, can be debated) – you’ve become accustomed to living a life in a fog of maybes.

Most of what we now know about the world replaced something that we thought we knew about the world, but it turned out we had no idea what we were talking about. This is especially true in science, our best tool for getting to the truth. It’s a constantly churning sea of uncertainty. Maybe this, maybe that – but definitely not this, unless… Nothing raises a scientist’s brow more than a pocket of certainty because it’s usually a sign that someone is very wrong.

Being certain is a metacognition, a thought concerning another thought, and the way we often bungle that process is not exclusively human. When an octopus reaches out for a scallop, she does so because somewhere in the chaos of her nervous system a level of certainty crossed some sort of threshold, a threshold that the rock next to the scallop did not. Thanks to that certainty threshold, most of the time she bites into food instead of gravel. We too take the world into our brains through our senses, and in that brain we too are mostly successful at determining the difference between things that are food and things that are not food, but not always. There’s even a Japanese game show where people compete to determine whether household objects are real or are facsimiles made of chocolate. Seriously, check out the YouTube video of a man gleefully biting off a hunk of edible door handle. Right up until he smiles, he’s just rolling the dice, uncertain.

chocolate doorknob

Thanks to the sciences of the mind and brain we now know of several frames in which we might make judgments about the world. Of course, we already knew about this sort of thing in the days of our prescientific stupor. You don’t need a caliper and some Bayesian analysis to know that the same person might choose a different path when angry than she would when calm or that a person in love is likely to make decisions she may regret once released from that spell. You have a decently accurate intuition about those states of mind thanks to your exposure to many examples over the years, but behavioral sciences have dug much deeper. There are frames of mind your brain works to mask from the conscious portions of the self. One such frame of mind is uncertainty.

In psychology, uncertainty was made famous by the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In their 1982 collection of research, “Judgments under Uncertainty,” the psychologists explained that when you don’t have enough information to make a clear judgment, or when you are making a decision concerning something too complex to fully grasp, instead of backing off and admitting your ignorance, you tend to instead push forward with confidence. The stasis of uncertainty never slows you down because human brains come equipped with anti-uncertainty mechanisms called heuristics.

In their original research they described how, while driving in a literal fog, it becomes difficult to judge the distance between your car and the other cars on the road. Landmarks, especially those deep in the mists, become more hazardous because they seem farther away than they actually are. This, they wrote, is because for your whole life you’ve noticed that things that are very far away appear a bit blurrier than things that are near. A lifetime of dealing with distance has reinforced a simple rule in your head: the closer an object the greater its clarity. This blurriness heuristic is almost always true, except underwater or on a foggy morning or on an especially clear day when it becomes incorrect in the other direction causing objects that are far away to seem much closer than normal.

Kahneman and Tversky originally identified three heuristics: representativeness, availability, and anchoring. Each one seems to help you solve the likelihood of something being true or the odds that one choice is better than another, without actually doing the work required to truly solve those problems. Here is an example of representativeness from their research. Imagine I tell you that a group of 30 engineers and 70 lawyers have applied for a job. I show you a single application that reveals a person who is great at math and bad with people, a person who loves Star Wars and hates public speaking, and then I ask whether it is more likely that this person is an engineer or a lawyer. What is your initial, gut reaction? What seems like the right answer? Statistically speaking, it is more likely the applicant is a lawyer. But if you are like most people in their research, you ignored the odds when checking your gut. You tossed the numbers out the window. So what if there is a 70 percent chance this person is a lawyer? That doesn’t feel like the right answer.

That’s what a heuristic is, a simple rule that in the currency of mental processes trades accuracy for speed. A heuristic can lead to a bias, and your biases, though often correct and harmless, can be dangerous when in error, resulting in a wide variety of bad outcomes from foggy morning car crashes to unconscious prejudices in job interviews.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of all of this is how it renders invisible the uncertainty that leads to the application of the heuristic. You don’t say to yourself, “Hmm, I’m not quite sure whether I am right or wrong, so let’s go with lawyer.” or, “Hmm, I don’t know how far away that car is, so let’s wait a second to hit the brake.” You just react, decide, judge, choose, etc. and move on, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, unaware – unconsciously crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

These processes lead to a wonderful panoply of psychological phenomena. In this episode of the podcast we explore the halo effect, one of the ways this masking of uncertainty can really get you in trouble. When faced with a set of complex information, you tend to turn the volume down on the things that are difficult to quantify and evaluate and instead focus on the few things (sometimes the one thing) that is most tangible and concrete. You then use the way you feel about what is more-salient to determine how you feel about the things that are less-salient, even if the other traits are unrelated.

Here’s an example. In a study headed by psychologist Barry Staw in 1974, 60 business school students gathered together into three-person groups. Each group received the financial reports of a mid-sized company full of hard data for five years and a letter from the company’s president describing its prospects. The report was from 1969, the task for each group was to estimate the sales and earnings per share for that company in 1970. Since they had 1970’s data on hand, it would be a good exercise to see how much the students had learned in business school. The scientists told the business students that they had already run this experiment once on groups of five people, and that they wanted to see how smaller groups would perform on the same task. Of course, most of this wasn’t true. No matter what the students turned in, the scientists tossed it all out. Instead, each group received a randomly assigned grade. Some were told they did extremely well, and others were told they did very, very poorly.

What Staw discovered was that when the students were told they performed in the top 20 percent of all subjects, the people in the groups attributed that success to things like great communication, overall cohesiveness, openness to change, competence, a lack of conflict, and so on. In groups told that they performed in the bottom 20 percent, the story was just the opposite. They said they performed poorly because of a lack of communication, differences in ability, close-mindedness, sparks of conflict, and a variety of other confounding variables. They believed they had gained knowledge about the hazy characteristics of the group, but in reality they were simply using a measure of performance as a guide for creating attributions from thin air

In his book, “The Halo Effect,” Phil Rosenzweig described the Staw study like this, “…it’s hard to know in objective terms exactly what constitutes good communication or optimal cohesion…so people tend to make attributions based on other data that they believe are reliable.” That’s how the halo effect works – things like communication skills are weird, nebulous, abstract, and nuanced concepts that don’t translate well into quantifiable, concrete, and measurable aspects of reality. When you make a judgment under uncertainty your brain uses a heuristic and then covers up the evidence so that you never notice that you had no idea what you were doing. When asked to rate their communication skills, a not-so-salient trait, they looked for something more salient to go on. In this case it was the randomly assigned rating. That rating then became a halo whose light altered the way the students saw all the less-salient aspects of their experiences. The only problem was that the rating was a lie, and thus, so was each assessment.

Research into the halo effect suggests this sort of thing happens all the time. In one study a professor had a thick, Belgian accent. If that professor pretended to be mean and strict, American students said his accent was grating and horrendous. If he pretended to be nice and laid-back, similar students said his accent was beautiful and pleasant. In another study scientists wrote an essay and attached one of two photos to it, pretending that the photos were of the person who wrote the work. If the photo was of an attractive woman, people tended to rate the essay as being well-written and deep. If the photo was that of (according to the scientists) an unattractive woman, the essay received poorer scores and people tended to rate as being less insightful. In studies where teachers were told that a student had a learning disability they rated that student’s performance as weaker than did other teachers who were told nothing at all about the student before the assessment began. In each example, people didn’t realize they were using a small, chewable bite of reality to make assumptions about a smorgasbord they couldn’t fully digest.

As an anti-uncertainty mechanism, the halo effect doesn’t just render invisible your lack of insight, but it encourages you to go a step further. It turns uncertainty into false certainty. And, sure, philosophically speaking, just about all certainty is false certainty, but research into the halo effect suggests that whether or not you accept this, as a concept, as a truth – you rarely notice it in the moment when it actually matters.

Fire up the latest episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast to learn more about the halo effect, and as an added bonus you’ll hear an additional two-and-a-half hours of excerpts from my book, You Are Now Less Dumb, which is now available in paperback.

Links and Sources

DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Business School Study

Judgment Under Uncertainty

You Are Now Less Dumb

The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect – Book

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YANSS 037 – Drive, Motivation, and Crowd Control with Daniel Pink

The Topic: Motivation

The Guest: Daniel Pink

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A scene from Office Space - 20th Century Fox

A scene from Office Space – 20th Century Fox

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Why do you work where you work? I mean, specifically, why do you do whatever it is that you do for a living?

I’m pretty sure that you can answer this question. The average person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, spends between 11 and 15 years of his or her life at work. On the high end, that’s about a fifth of your time on Earth as a person capable of enjoying pumpkin pie and movies about robots. That’s a lot of time spent doing something for reasons unknown, so I doubt you would lift your shoulders and offer up open palms of confusion when it comes to this question. I’m just not so sure that the answer you come up with will be correct.

You probably know all about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards and the other behavioral motivations like your basic drives for food, sex, and social acceptance as well as the pursuit of pleasure over pain and the quest for your other emotional needs. You know that intrinsic rewards satisfy these desires directly, while extrinsic rewards are usually tokens you can later trade for satisfaction. So, knowing all of this, it’s likely very easy for you to explain your motivations for attending all those meetings and answering all those emails before putting on all those shoes after shaving all the those places before commuting all those miles. Still, I’m not sure I believe you.

Two of my favorite studies in psychology illustrate why I’m a bit skeptical about your justification for your actions – the story you tell yourself and others when wondering why you do what you do.

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YANSS Podcast 036 – Why We Are Unaware that We Lack the Skill to Tell How Unskilled and Unaware We Are

The Topic: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Guest: David Dunning

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A scene from NBC's "The Office"

A scene from NBC’s “The Office”

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Here’s a fun word to add to your vocabulary: nescience. I ran across it a few months back and kind of fell in love with it.

It’s related to the word prescience, which is a kind of knowing. Prescience is a state of mind, an awareness, that grants you knowledge of the future – about something that has yet to happen or is not yet in existence. It’s a strange idea isn’t it, that knowledge is a thing, a possession, that it stands alone and in proxy for something else out there in reality that has yet to actually…be? Then, the time comes, and the knowledge is no longer alone. Foreknowledge becomes knowledge and now corresponds to a real thing that is true. It is no longer pre-science but just science.

I first learned the word nescience from the book Ignorance and Surprise by Matthias Gross. That book revealed to me that, philosophically speaking, ignorance is a complicated matter. You can describe it in many ways. In that book Gross talks about the difficulties of translating a sociologist named Georg Simmel who often used the word “nichtwissen” in his writing. Gross says that some translations changed that word to nescience and some just replaced it with “not knowing.” It’s a difficult term to translate, he explains, because it can mean a few different things. If you stick to the Latin ins and outs of the word, nescience means non-knowledge, or what we would probably just call ignorance. But Gross writes that in some circles it has a special meaning. He says it can mean something you can’t know in advance, or an unknown unknown, or something that no human being can ever hope to know, something a theologian might express as a thought in the mind of God. For some people, as Gross points out, everything is in the mind of God, so therefore nothing is actually knowable. To those people nescience is the natural state of all creatures and nothing can ever truly be known, not for sure. Like I said, ignorance is a complex concept.

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YANSS Podcast 035 – Sunk Costs and the Pain of Vain

The Topic: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

BD

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Every once in a while you will ask yourself, “I wonder if I should quit?”

Should you quit your job? Should you end your relationship? Should you abandon your degree? Should you shut down this project?

These are difficult questions to answer. If you are like me, every time you’ve heard one of those questions emerge in your mind, it lingered. It began to echo right as you woke up and just as pulled the covers over your shoulders. In the shower, waiting in line, in all your quiet moments – a question like that will appear behind your eyes, pulsating like a giant neon billboard until you can work out your decision.

Oddly enough, as a human being, that decision is often not made any easier when quitting is the most logical course of action. Even if it is obvious that it is no longer worth your time to keep going, your desire to plod on and your reluctance to quit are both muddled by an argumentative loop inside which you and many others easily get stuck.

The same psychological hooks that cost companies millions of dollars to produce products obviously destined to fail can also keep troops in harm’s way long past the point when the whole war effort should be brought to an end. It’s a universal human tendency, the same one that influences you to keep watching a bad movie instead of walking out of the theater in time to catch another or that keeps you planted in your seat at a restaurant after you’ve been waiting thirty minutes for your drinks. If you reach the end of the quest, you think, then you haven’t truly lost anything, and that is sometimes a motivation so strong it prolongs horrific, bloody wars and enormously expensive projects well past the point when most people involved in efforts like those have felt a strong intuition that no matter the outcome, at this point, total losses will exceed any potential gains.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we explore the sunk cost fallacy, a strangely twisted bit of logic that seems to pop into the human mind once a person has experienced the pain of loss or the ickiness of waste on his or her way toward a concrete goal. It’s illogical, irrational, unreasonable – and as a perfectly normal human being, you act under its influence all the time.

LINKS

DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Liberal or conservative? Brain responses to disgusting images help reveal political leanings

The Genetic Fallacy

More on The Genetic Fallacy

SOURCES

  • Ariely, D. (2009). Predictably irrational, revised and expanded edition: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. Harper. (Amazon link)
  • Arkes, Hal R., and Peter Ayton. “The Sunk Cost and Concorde Effects: Are Humans Less Rational than Lower Animals?” Psychological Bulletin 125.5 (1999): 591-600. Print. (pdf)
  • Burthold, G. R. (2008). Psychology of decision making in legal, health care and science settings. Gardners Books. (Google Books link)
  • Busch, Jack. “Travel Zen: How to Avoid Making Your Vacation Seem Like Work.” Primer Magazine. Primer Magazine, Jan. 2009. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Gaming Can Make a Better World. By Jane McGonigal. TED Talks. TED Conferences, LLC, Feb. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Godin, Seth. “Ignore Sunk Costs.” Seth’s Blog. Typepad, Inc., 12 May 2009. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Höffler, Felix. “Why Humans Care About Sunk Costs While (Lower) Animals Don’t.” The Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, 31 Mar. 2008. Web. Mar. 2011. (pdf)
  • Indvik, Lauren. “FarmVille” Interruption Cited in Baby’s Murder.” Mashable. Mashable Inc., 28 Oct. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Amazon link)
  • Kushner, David. “Games: Why Zynga’s Success Makes Game Designers Gloomy.” Wired. Conde Nast Digital, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Lehrer, Jonah. “Loss Aversion.” ScienceBlogs. ScienceBlogs LLC, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Schwartz, Barry. “The Sunk-Cost Fallacy Bush Falls Victim to a Bad New Argument for the Iraq War.” Slate. The Slate Group, 09 Sept. 2005. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Shambora, Jessica. “‘FarmVille’ Gamemaker Zynga Sees Dollar Signs.” CNN Money. Cable News Network, 26 Oct. 2009. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Vidyarthi, Neil. “City Council Member Booted For Playing Farmville.” SocialTimes. Web Media Brands Inc., 30 Mar. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Walker, Tim. “Welcome to FarmVille: Population 80 Million.” Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 22 Feb. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011.
  • “Why Zynga’s Success Makes Game Designers Gloomy | Discussion at Hacker News.” Hacker News. Y Combinator, 7 Oct. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011 (link)
  • Wittmershaus, Eric. “Facebook Game’s Cautionary Tale.” GameWit. Press Democrat Media Co., 04 Aug. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Yang, Sizhao Zao. “How Did FarmVille Take over FarmTown, When It Was Just a Exact Duplicate of FarmTown and FarmTown Was Released Much Earlier?” Quora. Quora, Inc., 01 Jan. 2011. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)

YANSS Podcast 034 – After This, Therefore Because of This: Your Weird Relationship with Cause and Effect

The Topic: The Post Hoc Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 3.02.37 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 3.02.37 PM

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When I was a boy, I spent my summers with my grandparents. They, like many Southerners, had a farm populated with animals to eat and animals to help. It was everywhere alive with edible plants – fields of corn and cucumbers and peas and butterbeans and peanuts, and throngs of mysterious life from stumps claimed by beds of ants to mushroom fairy rings, living things tending to business without our influence.

Remembering it now, I can see the symmetry of the rows, and the order of the barns, the arrangement of tools, the stockpiles of feed. I remember the care my grandmother took with tomatoes, nudging them along from the soil to the Ball jars she boiled, sealing up the red, seedy swirls under lids surrounded by brass-colored shrink bands. I remember my grandfather erecting dried and gutted gourds on polls so Martins would come and create families above us and we wouldn’t suffer as many mosquito bites when shelling peas under the giant pecan tree we all used for shade.

For me, the wonder of that life, even then, was in how so much was understood about cause and effect, about what was to come if you prepared, took care, made a particular kind of effort. It was as if they borrowed the momentum of the natural world instead of trying to force it one way or the other, like grabbing a passing trolley and hoisting yourself on the back.

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YANSS Podcast 033 – The psychology of forming, keeping, and sometimes changing our beliefs

The Topic: Belief

The Guests: Will Storr, Margaret Maitland, and Jim Alcock

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Pizza Hut Pyramids

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Put your right hand on your head. Unless you are near a mirror, you can no longer see your hand, but you know where it is, right? You know what position it is in. You know how far away it is from most of the other things around you. I’m using the word “know,” but that’s just for convenience, because you don’t actually know those things. That is, you can’t be 100 percent certain your hand is on your head. You assume it is, and that’s as good as it is going to get – a best guess. We’ll come back to that. You can put your hand down now.

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YANSS Podcast 032 – Seeing willpower as powered by a battery that must be recharged

The Topic: Ego Depletion

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on "It's Me or The Dog" on Animal Planet

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on “It’s Me or The Dog” on Animal Planet

One of my favorite tropes in fiction is the idea of the perfect thinker – the person who has shed all the baggage of being an emotional human being and could enjoy the freedom and glory of pure logic, if only he or she could feel joy.

Spock, Data, Seven of Nine, Sherlock Holmes, Mordin Solus, Austin James, The T-1000 – there are so many variations of the idea. In each fictional world, these beings accomplish amazing feats thanks to possessing cold reason devoid of all those squishy feelings. Not being very good at telling jokes or hanging out at parties are among their only weaknesses.

It’s a nice fantasy, to imagine without emotions one could become super-rational and thus achieve things other people could not. It suggests that we often see emotion as a weakness, that many people wish they could be more Spockish. But the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio suggests that such a thing would be a nightmare. In his book, “Decarte’s Error” he describes patients who, because of an accident or a disorder, are no longer able to feel silly or annoyed or hateful or anything else. If they can, those feelings just graze them, never taking hold. Damasio explains that these patients, emotionally barren, are rendered powerless to choose a path in life. They can’t ascribe value to anything. Their world is flat. Despite remaining very intelligent and able to carry on conversations, they no longer make good decisions. Former business owners will lose all their money on bad investments. People who used to work from home will become lost in constantly reorganizing their shelves. Not only are their decisions flawed, but reaching conclusions becomes an excruciating process. When Damasio handed one of these patients two pens, one red and one blue, and asked him to fill out a questionnaire, the man was lost. To choose red over blue using logic alone took about half an hour. Every pro and con was listed, every branching possibility of future outcomes considered. Damasio wrote that “when emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.” Judgments and decisions corrupted by bias and passion are the only way we ever get anything done.

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YANSS Podcast 030 – How practice changes the brain and exceptions to the 10,000 hour rule with David Epstein

The Topic: Practice

The Guest: David Epstein

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Photo by Glenda S. Lynchard - Source: http://bit.ly/1rmH627

Photo by Glenda S. Lynchard – Source: http://bit.ly/1rmH627

You live in the past.

You don’t know this because your brain lies to you and then covers up the lies, which is a good thing. If your brain didn’t fudge reality, you wouldn’t be able to hit a baseball, drive a car, or even carry on a conversation.

You may have already noticed this through its absence. Sounds that come from very far away don’t get edited. Maybe you’ve been high in the bleachers at a sporting event and saw the crack of a bat or the crunch of a tackle, but the sound seemed to arrive in your head just a tiny bit later than when it should have. Sometimes there is a delay, like reality is out of sync. You can see this in videos too. If you see a big explosion or a gun shot from far away, the sound will arrive after the camera has already recorded the images so that there is gap between seeing the boom and hearing it.

The reason this occurs, of course, is because sound waves travel much more slowly than light waves. But if that’s true, why isn’t there always a lag between seeing and hearing? How come you can carry on a conversation with someone at the end of a long hallway even though the light that’s allowing you to see her mouth is arriving well before the sound of her voice?

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YANSS Podcast 029 – How labels affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with Adam Alter

The Topic: Labels

The Guest: Adam Alter

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Unsweet

I did something this week that I’m sure many people secretly do every day. I stopped, talked to myself for a moment, and checked to see how much slack was in the leash I keep on my tongue.

I was reminded that I need to do that from time to time, or at least I believe that I do, by a bit of news that was passed around for a few days this week. The reports said that one of the government’s most prestigious energy laboratories was working to eradicate the Southern accent – not from the planet, mind you, just from employees who had requested the service.

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YANSS Podcast 028 – The Sanity of Crowds with Michael Bond

The Topic: Crowds

The Guest: Michael Bond

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A rioter dressed in a Vancouver Canucks jersey cheers on while a car burns - Source: Wikimedia Commons, User: David Elop, Original here: http://bit.ly/1tqXdx6

A scene from the 2011 Vancouver riots, described by the photographer as, “a rioter dressed in a Vancouver Canucks jersey cheers on while a car burns” – Source: Wikimedia Commons, User: David Elop, Original here: http://bit.ly/1tqXdx6

It is a human tendency that’s impossible not to notice during wars and revolutions – and a dangerous one to forget when resting between them.

In psychology they call it deindividuation, losing yourself to the will of a crowd. In a mob, protest, riot, or even an audience, the presence of others redraws the borders of your normal persona. Simply put, you will think, feel, and do things in a crowd that alone you would not.

Psychology didn’t discover this, of course. The fact that being in a group recasts the character you usually play has been the subject of much reflection ever since people have had the time to reflect. No, today psychology is trying to chip away at the prevailing wisdom on what crowds do to your mind and why.

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