Dan Ariely is one of the world’s leading experts on irrationality. He is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavior Economics at Duke University, where he attempts to put economic research in plain language. He is also a celebrated author of several bestselling books, including one of my all-time favorite books, Predictably Irrational. He’s also the author of Amazing Decisions, Dollars and Sense, and his newest books, which he could not have timed better, Misbelief, which is available wherever books are sold.
Dan joined host Robert Glazer on the Elevate Podcast to discuss Misbelief, our vulnerability to misinformation and delusion, and much more.
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Dan Ariely On Irrationality And Misbelief
Dan Ariely, behavioral economics professor and NYT bestselling author of Predictably Irrational, joins Robert Glazer to discuss his new book, Misbelief.
Our quote is from A.N. Wilson, “The fact that logic cannot satisfy us awakens an almost insatiable hunger for the irrational.” My guest, Dan Ariely, is an expert on the irrational. He’s the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavior Economics at Duke University, where he attempts to put economic research in plain language. He’s also a celebrated author of several bestselling books, including one of my all-time favorites, Predictably Irrational. He is also the author of Amazing Decisions, Dollars and Sense, and his book which you cannot have time better, Misbelief, which is available wherever books are sold. Dan, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.
Lovely to be here.
I always like to start with childhood or young adulthood. You have a pretty extraordinary personal story of adversity that shaped a lot of your work. Could you briefly explain to everyone who doesn’t know your background what happened?
When I was in my late teens, I got badly burned, 70% of my body was burned. I spent about three years in the hospital. It was a combination of tremendous pain and difficult treatments but also being plucked out of life in some strange way, and being perched in a bed for many years. It created a tremendous earthquake in my life. There are all kinds of terrible things that happened, but it also got me to be sensitive to pain and to think about pain. It got me to think about medical treatments and the decisions physicians we’re making. It also got me to look a little bit about our everyday life and what was so strange about it.
I’ll give you one example. Early on, I couldn’t eat. I had a tube through my nose into my stomach. They fed me 30 eggs a day and 7,000 calories a day to try and help the body create some tissue. That was going on for about four months. One day, they came to me and said, “The day after tomorrow, we’re taking the tube out.” What do you think was my reaction? My reaction was, “Please keep it in. Why would anybody want to waste time chewing and eating? Who would want this activity?” They didn’t listen to me. They took it out. I had to start eating. Quickly, I remembered that food tastes good, and I haven’t stopped eating since.
The story is an example of what it means to be out of the standard of life for a while. All of a sudden, you get a different perspective. I got a different perspective about the whole thing about eating. After a few months of no eating, eating looked incredibly strange to me. I thought more about this story as people were coming back to the office from COVID and lots of people were saying, “Why do we need to go back to the office? We were perfectly fine in our homes. We like our coffee. We like our chair. Why go back to the office?” With this story in mind, I thought to myself, “After two years of working from home, do people even remember what it is that they’re missing?”
As you say, there are all these things where people are saying on one side, “I don’t want to go back to work. I don’t want the office. I’m more depressed, lonely, disconnected, and disengaged than ever,” and they don’t draw the connection. It’s been fascinating.
The analogy between eating and coming back to the office is not perfect because it’s a good analogy for forgetting. It’s not a good analogy for remembering. You can say, “After four months of not seeing people, we might forget a little bit about the comradery of work, but when it comes to food, the first time you taste a strawberry, you remember, “This is what strawberry feels like. I remember how good it is.” Coming back to work is not exactly coming back to work. After we have destroyed social relationships for two years, coming back to work day one is not equivalent to eating a strawberry at remember this is what it tastes like.
It’s different. Strawberry hasn’t changed. I know this experience led you to question a lot of the things that seemed rational but didn’t make sense from your treatment. How did that translate into you getting into behavioral economics?
There were lots of experiences. There were lots of things I noticed and worried about, and lots of things that were peculiar like placebos, addiction, and all kinds of things. The most painful part of my day was the bath treatment. This was a treatment where they soaked me and then they had to rip off the bandages. So much of my body was burned. It took a long time. The question was, “How do you remove the bandages while creating the least amount of pain for the patient?” The nurses thought that the right approach was the ripping approach. I hated that approach but they were in charge and did what they did.
When I started studying at the university, I started doing experiments. I compared what happens to the ripping approach versus the slow approach. If you think about the essence of this question, it’s to say, when you have to deliver a painful treatment to somebody, what is more important, the intensity, the magnitude, or the duration? If you take a painful experience and you can make it with less intensity but lasts twice as long, is it better or worse? The nurses believed in the ripping approach but I tested it and I found that they were wrong.
Ripping off the Band-Aid is not the correct euphemism.
Let’s say the following, when it is a small thing, it acts differently. When you have hair, there are also differences because the hair follicles have dynamics to them. If you have a substantial bandage and hair is not involved, ripping quickly is not the right approach. One thing was to say, “I can teach something to the nurses.” I spent substantial time trying to educate the medical field about this particular issue.
The other thing is it made me wonder about people’s intuitions. Here were nurses, experts in their field, people who have been doing this day in and day out, and nevertheless, they were getting things wrong. How could that be? It could be because they were so sure about what they were doing. They were doing the right thing. They never tested it. It got me to think about where else are there cases in which we’re certain that what we’re doing is the best treatment, best for us, best for our patients, and so on but we’re wrong for everybody. It turns out that ripping bandages is just the beginning.
It’s the tip of the iceberg.
There are so many things in which we have good intuition or strong intuition, but they don’t lead us in the direction.
There are things that we do that we think make sense. There are some examples from that book that I’ve remembered to this day. One of them, I’d be interested to explain what you talked about back then. It’s coming to roost now, but the incentive system is in real estate and real estate brokers. Talk a little bit about that. Everyone does it and there’s probably a little bit of a monopoly issue and there’s a lawsuit now, but the whole concept doesn’t make sense in terms of how we pay as a buyer and a seller.
There are lots of interesting things about real estate because it’s such a big-ticket item. You could say, “This is the place where people would be perfectly rational.” Is it indeed the case? It turns out it’s not. Let’s give two examples. One is the question of whether the offering price has an impact on the final price that people pick. Here’s a house. Let’s say it’s offered at $200,000 on $210,000 and I need to make an offer.
Does it matter if it’s offered at $200,000 or $210,000? It turns out it does make a difference. I’m supposed to evaluate how valuable this house is for me and what I am willing to pay for it. The asking price shouldn’t affect it but it does. It’s also interesting that the asking price is also influential for experts. It’s not just for first-time buyers, but it’s also for experts. Another thing that happens is that when people move to a new town, they are influenced by the prices of the houses in their previous towns.
That’s why people in Boston love it when people from New York come to buy houses here.
All of a sudden, everything looks cheap now. Each place should make a cost-benefit analysis. How good is this house? What am I willing to do? This thing called anchoring happens in both of those cases. The asking price influences the final prices. In addition, the price where you came from is creating a standard from which you evaluate other things. There’s a whole other slew of things.
Well talk about the agents because that’s the most interesting, the commission structure.
There’s a lot of research on how conflicts of interest blind us. They create a motivation. They create rose or something tinted glasses from which we see the world. Everybody can sympathize. If you are a fan of a basketball team, you see life through the perspective of that team. If a referee calls against your team, you think the referee’s evil, vile, blind, or something like that. It turns out that financial incentives work in similar ways. If you have an incentive to do something, you will see things from that perspective. If I’m an agent and I represent both the buyers and the seller, I have a different incentive. If I get paid for selling this house, I will want to sell it faster than it deserves.
The why there is important. You’re getting paid. I always said that in certain neighborhoods, a kid could put up a lemonade stand and sell the house for the first $500,000 if it’s a million-dollar neighborhood, but you’re paying that percentage on the whole amount. You’re paying it on the whole amount where there’s not a lot of talent. At at the end, the last $50,000 seems to be the most important to the buyer or seller but that 1% is worth $500 to the agent. If you need to spend three months more work to get that extra $500, it doesn’t seem worth it. You even found that when they sell their own houses, they’re a lot more patient.
If you say, “Here’s a $1 million house. I can sell it for $1 million today, but if I want to get a little bit more, I’ll have to wait a long time.” Now the thoughts change from the whole thing to just the margin. What’s the value of waiting a little longer? if the agent says, “What is the value of waiting a little longer?” you’re saying, “Not a good deal for me. I want a house.” When we have real estate agents, we want them to be on our side. We want them to give us our best advice.
I don’t want to sound as if they don’t try, but I don’t think they’re not good people. These incentives penetrate and they change people’s view of life. One other thing about conflicts of interest, think about lobbying. Lobbying is one of the best deals out there. Promoting things through lobbying is incredibly price-efficient. We can argue about the moral issue but from a price perspective, it’s a great deal.
Why is it a great deal? It’s a great deal because people are cheap. What I mean by that is that you invite somebody for a sandwich and a beer and they start viewing life from your perspective. Imagine that you want to complain about your boss, spouse, kids, or something. You invite somebody for a beer and by the end of that beer, they’re with you. They complain with you. They see your view and so on. They like you more. All kinds of things happen and they want you to be successful.
What you have done with that beer is to create conflicts of interest. People start seeing life from your perspective, rather than from an objective perspective. In the social world, it’s a beautiful thing. You want to create human beings that if you buy somebody a sandwich and a beer, people will start liking you. It’s a good design element.
If you put it in the business world, the regulatory framework, banking, or lobbying, not so much. That’s important to remember. A lot of the strategies that people use to experiment to make decisions with did not come out for nothing. They had a reason to evolve. We have a reason for conflicts of interest. It’s not purely a mistake, but we evolved in a different environment. We now function in a different environment, and there are mechanisms now that hone in on our weaknesses and take advantage of that. There are people who try to create conflicts of interest. It’s not just when it occurs naturally.
Let me ask you something because the concept of anchoring is fascinating. Someone reaches out and says, “We need money to help save the whales,” or whatever it is. If the suggested donation is $50 versus $200, it will change what you give. We can prime people. We can anchor them in certain pricing and get their thinking around that. I’m wondering how that works more qualitatively.
One of the things that I’ve seen and am critical of some of the stuff that’s going on campus now is that we seem to be anchoring people in victimization, aggrievement, and that they are wronged. It would seem you would view the world that way where everyone is out to get you. Is that consistent in the research? It seems like if you tell people that people are out to get them, then they’ll start to look for those things around every corner.
There are a couple of psychological mechanisms. Depending on how precise we want to get into it, they’re slightly different. It’s either useful or not useful to separate. When we think about people feeling like either they’re victims or they are oppressing other people, or whether we talk about people who have misbeliefs about the world, this is a perspective that colors everything.
In this book on Misbelief, I try to argue that misbeliefs are about believing something that is not correct. That’s one element. The second element is that misbelief is a central belief in people’s lives, and they view everything else through that. Let’s take the belief that the world is flat. Let’s agree that it’s not the correct belief but the people who hold this belief, it’s not that they say the world is flat. They think NASA is lying to them, and they think that every pilot knows the truth and is not sharing them, and every government knows about it. Every school system does that.
Think about waking up in the morning and say, “All of these people are lying to me.” Now you look at everything from this perspective. If you think about misbelief, it’s not just about being wrong about something. If you think of it as a central tendency in people’s lives, then it’s a framework from which you view everything.
It’s enough to see one thing that fits that framework and you say, “I knew that all along.” There’s identity politics. There are lots of things that make it incredibly timely and sensitive, but for the young people who are primed to think about the particular perspective, it’s enough for them to see one little thing.
That’s not helped by the algorithms that then reinforce that. In a non-digital world, you need to sort out, throw that out, take that, but now it does it for you with your news, your information, and everything coming at you.
We can talk about social media, but there are things that push our emotional buttons. They think that the things that do it less, and the moment you create a system that pushes more or creates a situation to push more on our emotional buttons, they get what they want and we don’t get what we want to the same degree. I don’t know if you saw the last few days, there have been a lot of social media around the letter that Bin Laden wrote to the American people. When I saw that initially, I looked for the letter, and the letter is a worrisome letter for Americans. Americans should read this letter and say, “We’re in danger.”
instead, I saw a lot of things out there where people started feeling sorry for the Al-Qaeda freedom fighters. I thought, “How could somebody read this document and not understand where it came from, not remember what these people did, and express sadness for these freedom fighters and for the crimes that America has done in general?” You would have to have a very heavy lens as an American to read these few pages and have this interpretation. It’s an amazing thing.
It is a strange time.
We all feel that if we read the same information, we would come to the same conclusion. It’s so much not so.
There’s an entire school of thought these days. I’ve been reading this postmodernism, which is saying there is no objective truth, which seems a real dangerous place for us to go as a society.
There are lots of things out there that have an element of truth to them, but if you take them to be 100% true, you are losing something. Let’s talk about economics, for example. Economists have lots of things they are correct about.
Except for economic predictions.
You could say if you increase the inflation, interest rates, and taxes, there are all kinds of things that are generally correct. The problem is that they’re not correct all the time and the details also matter. If you say economic theory gives us some interesting directional predictions, in many cases, that’s good. If you say, “I trust it so much and I will not consult anything else, and this is it and that’s the whole truth,” that’s dangerous.
The same thing is true about postmodernism. When you say, “Is it the case that there are some elements where it’s unclear where things are? What is more true? Are there places where we’re not comfortable putting a value statement?” I would say yes if you say that’s 100% of the time and this is how the world works.
My favorite on the economy is Nassim Taleb. Every time an economist gets up on stage and predicts what the stock market is going to do, he asks them what their predictions were for the last five years, and they run off stage. They’re hiding from that.
Predicting the stock market is a different story. I have been able to predict quite well what is going on in the stock market. I’ll tell you how I do that. Are you ready to switch topics for a second?
Go for it. I’m sure everyone would like an advantage there.
Seven years ago, I started looking for data that would tell me how companies are treating their employees and how the employees feel about their companies. The idea is that people are the engines of companies. This thing we call human capital is unobservable from quarterly reports and yearly reports. Where is the passion? At some point, it would translate into better products and services and so on, but it’s a little hidden in the beginning.
We looked at lots of data. We looked at satisfaction surveys, and we looked at things like Glassdoor and some other things. We created a database that took us back to 2006. We said, “If we could understand how companies were treating their employees in 2006 and how the employees were feeling about the company, could we predict the stock returns of 2007? if we knew that in 2007, could we predict the results in 2008 and so on?” The answer is generally yes.
The better that they’re treating them, the better the company does than the market does.
The companies that treat their employees better, do better, and the companies that treat their employees worse, do worse.
That doesn’t surprise me. The question is whether there’s a leading lagging indicator. Some companies start behaving badly when times are tough. There’s a chicken and egg component to it.
Two ways to think about the chicken and egg. One is how companies treat employees in time. One is to predict the stock market of the next year. It’s not that if you do well, you treat people well. It’s because of the time lag in the algorithm. It has to be this way. The other thing that we need to ask is, “What are the things that matter?” I measured lots of things. Some of them matter a lot. Some of them don’t matter so much.
It turns out that the things that companies can change easily don’t matter that much. For example, the level of salary doesn’t matter that much. The level of employee retirement benefits doesn’t matter that much. The level of healthcare benefits doesn’t matter that much. Everything that has to do with extrinsic motivation, which are the things that are easy to change when you have more money or less money, doesn’t matter that much.
The things that matter have to do with intrinsic motivation. For example, feeling appreciated is one of the most important things out there. You could say a couple of other ones, but feeling appreciated is unbelievably important. Imagine that you go to work, you sacrifice all kinds of things, you help people, you put in effort, and so on. Having the feeling that somebody sees you and somebody pays attention ends up being important.
Being aligned with the company, and being connected with the values is important. Psychological safety is important. Why? It’s because we want people to be able to talk freely. We want people to propose ideas. We don’t want people to be apprehensive that somebody would go after them. All of those things make a big deal.
JP Morgan has a good quant group. They’re probably the best in the world. They wrote four papers on my data. In one of them, they show that not only is it a good investment strategy, but it’s a unique factor. It’s not what people think about momentum or something else. It makes sense. Would you like to invest in companies that don’t treat their employees well? Here is the thing, and this may come from what social scientists think. I want every company to have a page in their annual report that talks about their human capital. The way modern accounting works is that if you buy a warehouse, it’s an investment. If you invest in your people, it’s a cost. It’s a mistake
You could have people who are depreciating or appreciating assets.
Just imagine that you start thinking about this and you say, “How am I investing in my people? How am I getting them to be better? Maybe I can even amortize the investment.” You can imagine all kinds of things happening.
Changing accounting. That’s interesting.
I do think that people are an unbelievable resource. The way sometimes we treat people is making them less of a resource. What’s so heartbreaking about it is that everybody loses. I think about something work-life balance. I feel terrible when people talk to me about work-life balance. There are terrible things to do at work like bureaucracy. There are terrible things to do in home life like laundry, and there are lots of things in the middle that are good for both of them. There’s an endless number of books that you would say, “I don’t know if it’s work or life.”
You want quality experiences on both sides.
If you go running, is it work or life? I wanted to be healthy. If you take time to think, go to a concert, and daydream, is this work or life? How did we get to this thing? Is this book work or life work? Is this a run for work?
It’s all connected.
If you go and take care of your health, which one is it? I have had discussions with HR. I say, “If somebody is sick and they go to the doctor, is it work or life?” I want people to be healthy. I want people to be emotionally healthy. I want people physically healthy. I want people to be energized. It’s such a strange notion.
I’ll tell you a story that happened in Israel. There are lots of physicians who work for the government and almost all government hospitals. Sometimes they finish their workday and they accept a few patients at home for a fee. Now the doctors went on strike. They wanted more money. They were not paid well. The Ministry of Finance said, “We’ll pay you well, but we’ll force you to punch a clock to say when you started and when you ended because we don’t want to pay you more per hour. Instead of leaving at 5:00, you leave at 4:30.” You know what happened? They left at two.
They made more money.
It’s because no matter how much they paid them, it was less than what they could get at home. Now, before this system, they felt morally obligated. They said, “We are doctors. We work in the hospital.”
This is like the daycare experiment. It’s the same.
There are so many things we mess up in terms of in terms of motivation. It is terrible.
Dan, I want to make sure we talk about your new book, Misbelief. I saw one of the descriptions, which I thought was said well. “Misbelief is an eye-opening and comprehensive analysis of the psychological drivers that cause otherwise rational people to adopt deeply irrational beliefs.” I’ve always told people, “I’d rather be fooled by conspiracy theory once or twice in my life than live life thinking everything is a conspiracy. It seems pretty exhausting.” This book had an origin story for you. Can you share that?
Go back in your mind to the beginning of COVID. I feel I’m at the top of my career. I get calls from companies and governments and people ask, “How do we do distant education and pay people on furlough? What do we do with releasing prisoners?” The number of questions was incredible, and I feel I’m the most useful that I could ever be. I work with nothing but COVID all the time, all day long.
At some point in July, I got an email from somebody I helped at some point. She said, “Dan, what happened to you?” “What happened to me?” She sent me a long list of links. I described one of them in that link. It shows some pictures of me from my early days in the hospital, completely burned and so on. It says I was badly burned and spent three years in hospital. It says that because of that, I started hating healthy people. This is why I joined the Cabal and Bill Gates and tried to kill as many healthy people as possible.
With a vaccine.
Now it’s the 90-second video of the creation of a villain. We are almost four years after that. There was a new video that popped up that shows the horrors of October 7th in the south of Israel, connecting me to those brutal acts with as a complex story that you can imagine. I got a call from my university that they got a letter that they had to turn to the police because of the threat nature that it had. For the first two years, I got death threats almost every day.
First two years of COVID?
What were you doing?
I’m trying to be helpful. That’s the truth. Those are a conspiracy. People see things and they connect the dots. The more complex it is, the more it gives them. I helped a few governments. I had some ideas and so on. I got connected to the wrong tribes. COVID started in March. I discovered the theories around me in July. Quickly, I almost became a social currency. People who wanted to elevate their prestige in that world went into me, and that got them credibility. That book is different. All my other books are about, “Here’s some research I’ve been doing.”
What makes conspiracies so appealing, particularly for people that are well-educated and critical thinkers? Can you dive into the funnel of Misbelief, which is a big part of your book?
First of all, I want to make it clear that we should not discount the people who believe in conspiracies and we should not discount the conspiracies. These are concepts that give people an answer to a real need. It’s not the answer I would prefer, but it’s people who have a real need in those conspiracies. Misbeliefs answer that real need. It’s not because they’re not smart, wonderful, or caring people.
What is the need?
The need starts with the need to respond to stress. I don’t mean stress like, “I’m busy.” It’s the stress that says, “I don’t understand the world. It doesn’t make sense.” The massacre now in the south of Israel doesn’t make sense. The beginning of COVID doesn’t make sense. People who lose their job doesn’t make sense. If somebody’s happy and content and everything is going well, they’re not going to go down the funnel.
The thing you want to do in the beginning and the breeding ground for misbeliefs is feeling that you’re a little bit like Job. “Bad things are happening to me. I don’t exactly understand why.” Now you need a story. Ideally, you want a story with a villain, so you can blame somebody else. It’s who you want to be at fault. There’s an interesting thing where it’s better if it’s a complex story than a simple one.
That’s what has always gotten me about these conspiracy theories. I had Amanda Knox on the show. When Avenue 1 and Avenue 2 shut down, the police started connecting things that required such a stretch of the imagination, rather than the simple explanation was the simple explanation.
Also, rather than saying, “Sometimes bad things happen.” This is the reason for a complex story. Remember those people who feel society is looking down on them, “I lost my job. I’m not doing well. I feel under,” in some sense. If I have a complex story, I think I’m the only one who understand it. Now I can turn it into superiority. You think you understand what’s going on. Let me tell you, I’m the one who understands that this is all Bill Gates, the Cabal, G5, and so on.
Instead of you looking down at me, I look down at somebody who is not sighted. They use all kinds of terms for us like the sheep people and blind, but that’s just the beginning. There’s a real need for a story with the villain that is complex. People find one, and then it can go down from there. If the stressful event goes away, then it’s fine. If the stressful event continues, there’s a slippery slope of people going down.
Is it also that the complex is harder to disprove than the simple?
Yes. There are a couple of other things that are interesting in the complex. It’s harder to disprove and it creates an ongoing interest. Because I can tell you more things and there are more nuances and complexity, we can create this. In the book, I said, “It’s the stress, cognitive structures, personality structure, and then social,” and the social seals the deal.
The social is often connected to social media but it doesn’t have to be social media. To think about one of the elements within the social part, I’ll give you an example. There was a guy who wrote a post about “My crimes against humanity.” He described my crimes against humanity. He said there will be Nuremberg Trials 2.0 in which all the people who’ve committed crimes against humanity during COVID will stand trial and pay for their crimes. He predicted that I would stand on trial and I would be found guilty. He raised the question of whether I should get life in prison or public hanging.
What country was he from? Just out of curiosity.
Lots of countries. It’s not countries that have executions, by the way. About 1,000 people responded and they responded in a positive way, not toward me but toward him. People congratulated how smart and thoughtful he was and how good his writing style was. He expressed their feelings as well. When you think about this, by picking on me in this aggressive way, this guy got a lot of social credibility.
All of a sudden, he wasn’t just saying standard things. He was saying something extreme and people started paying attention to him. He was building social credibility. To build social credibility, you have to say something extreme. That’s one of the things that’s happening. People say things that are extreme and then they get attention. They have to say more extreme things and more extreme. The second thing is he got so much love. I spend a lot of time on social media there. The misbelievers are the nicest people I’ve seen to each other.
Online or in person?
Online to each other. In person too, but to each other. They’re unbelievably hateful to other people. It’s eerie, but to themselves and to each other, they’re wonderful. Psychologically, you would say, “Why are they so good to each other?” Every day, somebody deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Everybody writes so well. Everybody expresses. It’s because they need that support. These are people who are not getting a lot of love from the outside world.
If we think about COVID, Macron said that they’re not French. Some other prime ministers called them people who are walking in the streets with guns. There were lots of ostracism against them. The need to feel love, support, and so on was incredibly powerful. You look at something and you say it’s strange. You then say, “What is it fulfilling? What are the needs that aren’t fulfilled here?” By the way, all of these things are not going away. You might say, “COVID has been over for a long time.” Remember that this is a group of people who gave up a lot on this theory. They spend a lot of time.
They’re all in. All the chips are in.
How difficult is it to say, “I was wrong?”
This goes to another one of my favorite books on cognitive dissonance, Mistakes Were Made (But not by me). I had the authors on. It’s hard to get out of this once you’re all in.
First of all, one of the most important research in psychology is to understand cognitive dissonance, and the book is fantastic.
Let me ask you because I’m sure people are tuning in to this. They have conspiracy theorists in their organizations, in their families, and in their lives. We go through more of the funnel of I understand it’s a need to belong or control the uncontrollable. How do you start to deprogram and rationalize with these people? It’s broken up families and a lot of people don’t know what to do. How does one counteract some of these forces?
First of all, we need to understand it. The reason I called it the funnel is to emphasize the idea that it’s easier to stop in the beginning and harder to stop at the end. By the time we notice it in full bloom and people have already whole social support and it’s an alternative social support, it’s very hard to change. The first thing to realize is to diagnose early all of medicine. If somebody is going down the funnel, do the right thing early.
I have to say that I’ve made lots of mistakes in this regard. I used to have a phrase which is, “What is the color of the sky in your world?” I thought it was funny that the people who started believing in some alternative thing thought it was incredibly offensive. At the time when people start questioning these realities, the thing to do is not to ridicule them, but to support them. You want to reduce the stress. You want to understand what’s going on in their life. That’s one. We didn’t talk about the cognitive part, but the cognitive part is one of the easiest to fix. I’ll give you two little tricks.
Can you define the cognitive part for people?
The cognitive part is thinking about the way people process information. There’s the stress, cognitive, personality, and social. Cognitive is about people gathering and processing information. One phrase I like is to say, “What would it take to change your mind?” Why do I like it? It’s because we all know intuitively that it’s hard to persuade anybody that they’re wrong. We attack heads on, “Here’s another paper. What do you do with this data?”
I’ve always said, “If you’ve ever been in a relationship with your partner or spouse, after screaming and yelling, someone goes, ‘You’re right. It just doesn’t happen.’”
I used to give lots of examples about spouses with the #MeToo revolution and political correctness. It’s a little tougher to give these examples, but you’re right. Everybody has the intuition that it’s hard to persuade anybody. The approach of what would it take to change your mind says, “I’m not arguing with you. I’m on your side. Just help me understand your side in a better way.”
The other version of this, which is even better, is based on the notion of something called the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, and it goes something like this. I did a demonstration of this with a flush toilet. I said to people, “Do you understand how a flush toilet works?” They said, “Yes.” “On a scale from 1 to 10, very high, great. Luckily for you, I have all the pieces of a flush toilet. Can you please assemble them?” Nobody can assemble them. We then say, “How much do you understand it?” People said, “Not so much.” The idea here is a little bit of what would it take to change your mind is not to attack people, but to say, “Help me understand your side of it.”
Imagine that you say the elections were stolen. I said, “Fine. How do elections work? What happens? How was it stolen? Where? Who did it? How would it work? Many places. Help me understand your perspective.” In this case, the original papers used things like, “Help me understand how a zipper works, how a virus works, and everything.” People say, “I’m not so sure how it works,” and you’re not attacking people. Just say, “You help me understand how it works.” When people start, they have to try to do it. If they don’t want to engage, then they don’t.
If you ask the question, “What would change their mind?” and they say nothing, then it’s like religion.
The moment people say nothing, they also recognize that it’s not based on facts. It’s quite important, including the realization. If I say, “What would it take to change your mind that the elections were not stolen?” and you say nothing, it’s an admission that it’s not data-driven. The other thing to remember is we said that the misbelief isn’t belief in something that is wrong, but it’s the adoption of that as a central tendency.
I don’t need people to switch completely. I need people to be less confident. The moment you are less confident in something, you move your confidence from 100% to 95%, that’s a lot. Now, you will not protest. You will not spread information about that. You will be a bit more critical. We don’t need to move you to 0%. This approach of saying, “I’m coming it from your perspective,” is incredibly useful.
When we talk about social things, we have a problem because I don’t know how you see workplaces, but when is it that people have the opportunity to get exposed to different ideas? Maybe Thanksgiving if lots of people show up but mostly it’s the workplace. The workplace is the place where you get to potentially get exposed to lots of things. Many workplaces say, “Don’t talk about politics. Don’t talk about touchy topics.” Where are people going to get that? We need to create a respectful environment in which people hear other opinions. If I hear nothing that contradicts me, and then I go online and again, I hear nothing that contradicts me, this is a bad journey.
It seems to me that more teachers need to take even the debate approach of, “I want to hear you argue the other side,” and your grades are based on doing that. What’s the strong man case that the other side would make? It’s easy to attack the weak man case.
There’s a personality trait called intellectual humility. I don’t like the name but it’s saying, “I understand that there are multiple sides to each story. Whatever story I have, the question is still open.” This is one of the things that we, as academic educators, look like we have failed. We were supposed to help college students understand. At the end of each class, in principle, the students should understand that everything they thought before is slightly more complex now.
How to think, not what to think.
It’s more complex. There are more layers.
Everything is more nuanced than we want it to be.
When you look at the way some of the outcomes of our education look like, it seems that we have not done a good job of teaching nuances.
It is the totalitarianism of argument. There’s right and there’s wrong versus it’s complicated, which is probably the reality for most of these situations. Dan, thank you for joining us. I’ve been a big fan of your work for years and it’s great to have you on the show to discuss some of this in person.
I’m delighted to get to meet you. It was wonderful. I’m happy to continue anytime.
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