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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YANSS Podcast 018 – How Benjamin Franklin dealt with haters

The Topic: The Benjamin Franklin Effect

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Benjamin

Benjamin Franklin knew how to deal with haters, and in this episode we learn how he turned his haters into fans with what is now called The Benjamin Franklin Effect (read more about the effect here).

Listen as David McRaney reads an excerpt from his book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” explaining the psychology behind the effect and how the act of spreading harm forms the attitude of hate, and the act of spreading kindness generates the attitude of camaraderie.

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YANSS Podcast – Episode Nine – Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory

The Topic: Arguing

The Guest(s): Hugo Mercier and Jeremy Sherman

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

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In 2008, renowned programmer and essayist Paul Graham wrote a guide for citizens of cyberspace titled “How to Disagree.”

Ten years had passed since the invention of the comment section. Twitter was two years old. The world had spent nine months with the iPhone. To Graham it had become apparent that the Internet had permanently changed the paradigm of the written word, which was as he put it, “writers wrote and readers read.” Instead, he predicted the call and response model of the web was here to stay. People would add their perspectives to everything. Content had become and would forever be a conversation, he predicted, and that meant everyone would need to learn how to argue more efficiently because exposure to rampant bickering would soon become a big part of daily life.

The reason, explained Graham, was that when you agree with something you usually don’t have much to add, so most people tend only to respond in paragraph form when they disagree. Naturally then, more disagreements than agreements would soon begin to spawn, and they would reproduce at a much higher rate. The result would be an Internet that looked and seemed angry and polarized, which might then become a weird sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. He warned: “…there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.”

A year after Graham wrote his essay, Facebook lowered the already low cost of agreeing to a single click of a “like” button. The disagreements he predicted began to stack upon each other and grow long enough to benefit from spell checking.

Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today, everywhere you click online you can witness the roiling boil of response just as Graham divined, and you can see why he suggested we ought to learn how to disagree like civilized adults. Just bounce over to the Huffington Post and check out the comments under any story focused on politics. You’ll find an opinionated, angry human centipede snaking its way down the page. On YouTube, minutes-old comments float around underneath videos posted years ago, each one a fragment of an ongoing argument populated with thousands of participants eagerly punching keyboards in an attempt to prove his or her beliefs are sound. The discourse there has encouraged 13,000 people to download a browser extension that turns all comments into variations of the phrase, “Herp derp.”

So, here in the online world Graham warned us about, human beings seem to be getting into and spectating upon more arguments than ever before. Our beliefs are getting challenged every day. Our ideologies and political camps are regularly being raided. According to many experts, this is not a bad thing, just a new one. Will it change us? Sure. But it will probably change us for the better.

Our increased exposure to arguing also means increased exposure to the mental foibles and errors of logic and reasoning that so often appear when people square off in rhetorical combat. Arguing with ourselves and others has become a fascination. We are suddenly eager to buy books about irrationality because we see so much more of it in our daily lives than just a decade ago. There seems to be so much more motivated reasoning and self delusion in the world than ever before too, thanks to the natural imbalance of communication Paul Graham told us to expect. We all want to understand what is making all of us so unreasonable. That yearning has helped bring the wisdom of the skeptical movement closer to the mainstream and place books about the psychology of bias on bestseller lists.

A question we never really considered asking is now making our brains itch. Why do we argue? What purpose does it serve? Is all this bickering online helping or hurting us?

Science thankfully has something to say about these questions, and what it has to say may even help explain reason itself. That’s the subject we explore in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.

My guests are:

JeremyShermanJeremy Sherman, an evolutionary epistemologist, which means he researches how humans evolved to make generalizations and draw conclusions from inconclusive data. At 24, he was an elder in the world’s largest hippie commune, but now he lectures at the Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville California and is a chief researcher at Berkely’s Consortium for Emergent Dynamics where he and others research how minds emerge from matter. He is now working on a book, “Doubt: A Natural History; A User’s Guide” and he blogs at Psychology Today.

Hugo-MercierHugo Mercier is a researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research who shook up both psychology and philosophy with a paper published in 2011 titled, “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory” (PDF) that proposed humans evolved reason to both produce and evaluate arguments. Respected and well-known names in psychology like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt have both praised the paper as being one of the most important works in years on the science of rationality. You can find his website here.

After the long interview, as in every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Jaimie-Leigh Jonker of New Zealand who submitted a recipe for orange coconut chocolate chip cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

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Links:

• Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

• Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipe

• Hugo Mercier’s Paper: “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory”

• Hugo Mercier’s Website

• Jeremy Sherman’s Blog

• Paul Graham: “How to Disagree”

YouTube Herp Derper

NYT article on the history of Internet commenting

Survivorship Bias

The Misconception: You should focus on the successful if you wish to become successful.

The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.

Illustration by Brad Clark

Illustration by Brad Clark at http://www.plus3video.com

In New York City, in an apartment a few streets away from the center of Harlem, above trees reaching out over sidewalks and dogs pulling at leashes and conversations cut short to avoid parking tickets, a group of professional thinkers once gathered and completed equations that would both snuff and spare several hundred thousand human lives.

People walking by the apartment at the time had no idea that four stories above them some of the most important work in applied mathematics was tilting the scales of a global conflict as secret agents of the United States armed forces, arithmetical soldiers, engaged in statistical combat. Nor could people today know as they open umbrellas and twist heels on cigarettes, that nearby, in an apartment overlooking Morningside Heights, one of those soldiers once effortlessly prevented the United States military from doing something incredibly stupid, something that could have changed the flags now flying in capitals around the world had he not caught it, something you do every day.

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The Benjamin Franklin Effect

The Misconception: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

The Truth: You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

Benjamin Franklin knew how to deal with haters.

Born in 1706 as the eighth of 17 children to a Massachusetts soap and candlestick maker, the chances Benjamin would go on to become a gentleman, scholar, scientist, statesman, musician, author, publisher and all-around general bad-ass were astronomically low, yet he did just that and more because he was a master of the game of personal politics.

Like many people full of drive and intelligence born into a low station, Franklin developed strong people skills and social powers. All else denied, the analytical mind will pick apart behavior, and Franklin became adroit at human relations. From an early age, he was a talker and a schemer – a man capable of guile, cunning and persuasive charm. He stockpiled a cache of cajolative secret weapons, one of which was the Benjamin Franklin Effect, a tool as useful today as it was in the 1730s and still just as counterintuitive. To understand it, let’s first rewind back to 1706.

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The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The Misconception:  You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.

The Truth: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others.

Source: “Lord of the Flies,” 1963, Two Arts Ltd.

In 1954, in eastern Oklahoma, two tribes of children nearly killed each other.

The neighboring tribes were unaware of each other’s existence. Separately, they lived among nature, played games, constructed shelters, prepared food – they knew peace. Each culture developed its own norms and rules of conduct. Each culture arrived at novel solutions to survival-critical problems. Each culture named the creeks and rocks and dangerous places, and those names were known to all. They helped each other and watched out for the well-being of the tribal members.

Scientists stood by, watchful, scribbling notes and whispering. Much nodding and squinting took place as the tribes granted to anthropology and psychology a wealth of data about how people build and maintain groups, how hierarchies are established and preserved. They wondered, the scientists, what would happen if these two groups were to meet.

These two tribes consisted of 22 boys, ages 11 and 12, whom psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought together at Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park. He and his team placed the two groups on separate buses and drove them to a Boy Scout Camp inside the park – the sort with cabins and caves and thick wilderness. At the park, the scientists put the boys into separate sides of the camp about a half-mile apart and kept secret the existence and location of the other group. The boys didn’t know each other beforehand, and Sherif believed putting them into a new environment away from their familiar cultures would encourage them to create a new culture from scratch.

He was right, but as those cultures formed and met something sinister presented itself. One of the behaviors which pushed and shoved its way to the top of the boys’ minds is also something you are fending off at this very moment, something which is making your life harder than it ought to be. We’ll get to all that it in a minute. First, let’s get back to one of the most telling and frightening experiments in the history of psychology.

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The Backfire Effect

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Wired, The New York Times, Backyard Poultry Magazine – they all do it. Sometimes, they screw up and get the facts wrong. In ink or in electrons, a reputable news source takes the time to say “my bad.”

If you are in the news business and want to maintain your reputation for accuracy, you publish corrections. For most topics this works just fine, but what most news organizations don’t realize is a correction can further push readers away from the facts if the issue at hand is close to the heart. In fact, those pithy blurbs hidden on a deep page in every newspaper point to one of the most powerful forces shaping the way you think, feel and decide – a behavior keeping you from accepting the truth.

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Confirmation Bias

The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.

The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.

Source: EIL

Have you ever had a conversation in which some old movie was mentioned, something like “The Golden Child” or maybe even something more obscure?

You laughed about it, quoted lines from it, wondered what happened to the actors you never saw again, and then you forgot about it. Until…

You are flipping channels one night and all of the sudden you see “The Golden Child” is playing. Weird. The next day you are reading a news story, and out of nowhere it mentions forgotten movies from the 1980s, and holy shit, three paragraphs about “The Golden Child.” You see a trailer that night at the theater for a new Eddie Murphy movie, and then you see a billboard on the street promoting Charlie Murphy doing stand-up in town, and then one of your friends sends you a link to a post at TMZ showing recent photos of the actress  from “The Golden Child.”

What is happening here? Is the universe trying to tell you something? No. This is called the frequency illusion.

Since the party and the conversation where you and your friends took turns saying “I-ah-I-ah-I want the kniiiife” you’ve flipped channels plenty of times; you’ve walked past lots of billboards; you’ve seen dozens of stories about celebrities; you’ve been exposed to a handful of movie trailers. The thing is, you disregarded all the other information, all the stuff  unrelated to “The Golden Child.” Out of all the chaos, all the morsels of data, you only noticed the bits which called back to something sitting on top of your brain. A few weeks back, when Eddie Murphy and his Tibetan adventure were still submerged beneath a heap of pop-culture at the bottom of your skull, you wouldn’t have paid any special attention to references to it.

If you are thinking about buying a new car, you suddenly see people driving them all over the roads. If you just ended a long-time relationship, every song you hear seems to be written about love. If you are having a baby, you start to see them everywhere. When the frequency illusion goes from a passive phenomenon to an active pursuit, that’s when you start to experience confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a filter through which you see a reality that matches your expectations. It causes you to think selectively, but the real trouble begins when confirmation bias distorts your active pursuit of facts.

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