In his book on the history of human progress, Our Kind, anthropologist Marvin Harris asked in the final chapter, “Will nature’s experiment with mind and culture end in nuclear war?”
The book came out in 1989, in the final years of our Cold War nuclear paranoia, and his telling of how people developed from hunter gatherers all the way to McDonald’s franchise owners, he said, couldn’t honestly end with him gazing optimistically to the horizon because never had the fate of so many been under the control of so few.
“What alarms me most,” he wrote, “is the acquiescence of ordinary citizens and their elected officials to the idea that our kind has to learn to deal with the threat of mutual annihilation because it is the best way of reducing the danger that one nuclear power will attack another.”
In the final paragraph, Harris wrote that “we must recognize the degree to which we are not yet in control” of our own society. Progress was mostly chance and luck with human agency steering us away from the rocks when it could, but unless we gained some measure of control of where we were going as a species, he said, we’d be rolled over by our worst tendencies, magnified within institutions too complex for any one person to predict or direct.
If you ask a social scientist familiar with motivated reasoning and the backfire effect if there is any hope to ever reach people who refuse to accept facts – is there any chance to change people’s minds with evidence, reason, or scientific consensus – they will usually point you to a 2010 paper titled: “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners ever ‘Get It’?”
Like most of us, political scientists David P. Redlawsk, Andrew J.W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson wondered if, when confronted with challenges to their erroneous beliefs, do the people who resist efforts at correction ever come around, or are we just causing more harm than good by trusting in facts instead of using some time-tested technique from the emotional manipulation toolkit?
To test this, Redlawsk and his team created a mock presidential election in which people would gradually learn more and more terrible things about their preferred virtual candidates from a virtual news media. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the news stories they read included a precise mix of negative information about their chosen candidates so the effect of those messages could be measured as the negativity increased in intensity.
The scientists thought that surely, at some point, after a person had chosen one candidate over another, a constant flow of negative information about that person would persuade them to reconsider their choices. They expected to see the backfire effect at first, of course, but they believed with enough persistence they might also discover its natural limit.
By now you’ve likely heard of confirmation bias. As a citizen of the internet the influence of this cognitive tendency is constant, and its allure is pervasive.
In short, when you have a hunch that you might already understand something, but don’t know for sure, you tend to go searching for information that will confirm your suspicions.
When you find that inevitable confirmation, satisfied you were correct all along, you stop searching. In some circles, the mental signal to end exploration once you feel like your position has sufficient external support is referred to as the wonderfully wordy “makes sense stopping rule” which basically states that once you believe you’ve made sense of something, you go about your business satisfied that you need not continue your efforts. In other words, just feeling correct is enough to stop your pursuit of new knowledge. We basically had to invent science to stop ourselves from trying to solve problems by thinking in this way.
We don’t treat all of our beliefs the same.
If you learn that the Great Wall of China isn’t the only man-made object visible from space, and that, in fact, it’s actually very difficult to see the Wall compared to other landmarks, you update your model of reality without much fuss. Some misconceptions we give up readily, replacing them with better information when alerted to our ignorance.
For others constructs though, for your most cherished beliefs about things like climate change or vaccines or Republicans, instead of changing your mind in the face of challenging evidence or compelling counterarguments, you resist. Not only do you fight belief change for some things and not others, but if you successfully deflect such attacks, your challenged beliefs then grow stronger.
How strong is your bullshit detector? And what exactly IS the scientific definition of bullshit?
In this rebroadcast, we explore both of those concepts as well as what makes a person susceptible to bullshit, how to identify and defend against it, and what kind of people are the most and least likely to be bowled over by bullshit artists and other merchants of feel-good woo.
Stuck in a bad situation, even when the prison doors are left wide open, we sometimes refuse to attempt escape.
In psychology, learned helplessness is a state of mind that can develop if you try and fail, and then try and fail again. After a few rounds of learning in this way you start to believe that it’s not the situation, or the problem, or some kind of unfair disadvantage, or a bad roll of the dice that caused you to fail – but that it had something to do with you as a person, something that indicates you’d likely continue to fail again and again and again, so why bother? Once that pattern is established, you mistakenly stop trying, and even though success it right there, easy, yours for the taking, you don’t even make the attempt. Your brain has changed, you’ve learned a new routine, you’ve learned to be act as through you are helpless regardless of whether you really are.
Learned helplessness is one of darker aspects of human nature. Among all the ways we delude ourselves, it’s easily one of the most damaging and most invisible. In this episode, we explore this strange mental phenomena by speaking to three experts, each exploring a different way it harms us. You’ll learn how it keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it might be to escape any one of those scenarios.
The good news is that learned helplessness can be unlearned, and each expert in the show offers a different tactic for removing it from our lives and the lives of others.
Back in the early 1900s, the German biologist Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll couldn’t shake the implication that the inner lives of animals like jellyfish and sea urchins must be radically different from those of humans.
Uexküll was fascinated by how meaty, squishy nervous systems gave rise to perception. Noting that the sense organs of sea creatures and arachnids could perceive things that ours could not, he realized that giant portions of reality must therefore be missing from their subjective experiences, which suggested that the same was true of us. In other words, most ticks can’t enjoy an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical because, among other reasons, they don’t have eyes. On the other hand, unlike ticks, most humans can’t smell butyric acid wafting on the breeze, and so no matter where you sit in the audience, smell isn’t an essential (or intended) element of a Broadway performance of Cats.