Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

13 MAY, 2014

The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing Our Minds

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How the disconnect between information and insight explains our dangerous self-righteousness.

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I wrote in reflecting on the 7 most important things I learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings. It’s a conundrum most of us grapple with — on the one hand, the awareness that personal growth means transcending our smaller selves as we reach for a more dimensional, intelligent, and enlightened understanding of the world, and on the other hand, the excruciating growing pains of evolving or completely abandoning our former, more inferior beliefs as we integrate new knowledge and insight into our comprehension of how life works. That discomfort, in fact, can be so intolerable that we often go to great lengths to disguise or deny our changing beliefs by paying less attention to information that contradicts our present convictions and more to that which confirms them. In other words, we fail the fifth tenet of Carl Sagan’s timelessly brilliant and necessary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking: “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”

That humbling human tendency is known as the backfire effect and is among the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library) — a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why “self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes,” and the follow-up to McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011. McRaney writes of this cognitive bug:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. This helps explain such gobsmacking statistics as the fact that, despite towering evidence proving otherwise, 40% of Americans don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. The backfire effect, McRaney points out, is also the lifeblood of conspiracy theories. He cites the famous neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella, who argues believers see contradictory evidence is as part of the conspiracy and dismiss lack of confirming evidence as part of the cover-up, thus only digging their heels deeper into their position the more counter-evidence they’re presented with.

Nicolaus Copernicus's simple yet revolutionary 1543 heliocentric model, which placed the sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, contradicted the views of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was detained under house arrest for the remainder of his life for supporting Copernicus's model.

On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out “evidence” while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we’re now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)

McRaney points out that, despite Daniel Dennett’s rules for criticizing intelligently and arguing with kindness, this makes it nearly impossible to win an argument online:

When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.

This also explains why Benjamin Franklin’s strategy for handling haters, which McRaney also explores in the book, is particularly effective, and reminds us that this fantastic 1866 guide to the art of conversation still holds true in its counsel: “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

McRaney points out that the backfire effect is due in large part to our cognitive laziness — our minds simply prefer explanations that take less effort to process, and consolidating conflicting facts with our existing beliefs is enormously straining:

The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall. During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct. In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.

In 1968, shortly after the introduction of the groundbreaking oral contraceptive pill that would revolutionize reproductive rights for generations of women, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the pill distorted the nature and purpose of intercourse. (Public domain photograph via Nationaal Archief)

One particularly pernicious manifestation of this is how we react to critics versus supporters — the phenomenon wherein, as the popular saying goes, our minds become “teflon for positive and velcro for negative.” McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling — something that takes an active effort to fight — back to its evolutionary roots:

Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.

This process is known as biased assimilation and is something neuroscientists have also demonstrated. McRaney cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, who put subjects in an fMRI and showed them information confirming their beliefs about a specific subject, which led brain areas associated with learning to light up. But when faced with contradictory information, those areas didn’t fire — instead, parts associated with thought suppression and effortful thinking lit up. In other words, simply presenting people with information does nothing in the way of helping them internalize it and change their beliefs accordingly.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps a little humbled by our own fallible humanity, and a little more motivated to use tools like Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit as vital weapons of self-defense against the aggressive self-righteousness of our own minds. After all, Daniel Dennett was right in more ways than one when he wrote, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”

The remainder of You Are Now Less Dumb is just as wonderfully, if uncomfortably, illuminating. Sample it further with the psychology of the Benjamin Franklin Effect, and treat yourself to McRaney’s excellent podcast, You Are Not So Smart, which will, of course, make you smarter.

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12 MAY, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut on Reading, Boredom, Belonging, and Hate

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“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”

What makes the commencement address such a singular pinnacle of the communication arts is that, in an era where religion is increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought, it offers a secular version of the sermon — a packet of guidance on how to be a good human being and lead a good life. It is also one of the few cultural contexts in which a patronizing attitude, in the original sense of the term, is not only acceptable but desired — after all, the very notion of the graduation speech calls for a patronly father figure or matronly mother figure to get up at the podium and impart to young people hard-earned, experience-tested wisdom on how to live well. And implicit to that is an automatic disarmament of our otherwise unflinching culturally conditioned cynicism — which is also why the best commencement addresses are timeless and ageless and sing to us beyond the boundaries of our own life-stage. They supply even us cynical moderns with something true, something soul-affirming, something we can hang our beliefs on in a non-ironic way.

Kurt Vonnegut — a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, modern sage, poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad — endures as one of the most prolific and sought-after commencement speakers of all time. Nine of his finest commencement addresses, along with some of Vonnegut’s own drawings, are collected in the wonderful compendium If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library), which also gave us Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers.

In one of the best speeches in the collection, Vonnegut addresses the graduating class at Fredonia College in New York on May 20, 1978. He begins, Patti-Smith-style, with a silly and seemingly mundane piece of advice that he uses as a springboard for a deeper reflection:

I suppose you will all want money and true love, among other things. I will tell you how to make money: work very hard. I will tell you how to win love: wear nice clothing and smile all the time. Learn the words to all the latest songs.

What other advice can I give you? Eat lots of bran to provide necessary bulk in your diet. The only advice my father ever gave me was this: “Never stick anything in your ear.” The tiniest bones in your body are inside your ears, you know — and your sense of balance, too. If you mess around with your ears, you could not only become deaf, but you could also start falling down all the time. So just leave your ears completely alone. They’re fine, just the way they are.

Don’t murder anybody — even though New York State does not use the death penalty.

That’s about it.

But that, of course, isn’t it, as Vonnegut is no mere goof. Speaking the same year that Susan Sontag bemoaned how false polarities limit us, Vonnegut cracks open the heart of his message:

I am being so silly because I pity you so much. I pity all of us so much. Life is going to be very tough again, just as soon as this is over. And the most useful thought we can hold when all hell cuts loose again is that we are not members of different generations, as unlike, as some people would have us believe, as Eskimos and Australian Aborigines. We are all so close to each other in time that we should think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.

He extends this notion of our shared humanity by poking gentle fun at our sense of entitlement, uniformly exerted despite the different particularities on which it is pegged:

We are all experiencing more or less the same lifetime now.

What is it the slightly older people want from the slightly younger people? They want credit for having survived so long, and often imaginatively, under difficult conditions. Slightly younger people are intolerably stingy about giving them credit for that.

What is it the slightly younger people want from the slightly older people? More than anything, I think, they want acknowledgement, and without further ado, that they are without question women and men now. Slightly older people are intolerably stingy about making any such acknowledgement.

Above all, however, Vonnegut congratulates graduates for having blossomed into “Clarks,” named after “inhabitants of the British Isles who were remarkable for being able to read and write.” Twenty years before urging young women not to give up on books, Vonnegut celebrates the monumental gift of recorded thought:

You have spent most of the past sixteen or more years learning to read and write. People who can do those things well, as you can, are miracles and, in my opinion, entitle us to suspect that we may be civilized after all. It is terribly hard to learn to read and write. It takes simply forever. When we scold our schoolteachers about the low reading scores of their students, we pretend that it is the easiest thing in the world: to teach a person to read and write. Try it sometime, and you will discover that it is nearly impossible.

What good is being a Clark, now that we have computers and movies and television? Clarking, a wholly human enterprise, is sacred. Machinery is not. Clarking is the most profound and effective form of meditation practiced on this planet, and far surpasses any dream experienced by a Hindu on a mountaintop. Why? Because Clarks, by reading well, can think the thoughts of the wisest and most interesting human minds throughout all history. When Clarks meditate, even if they themselves have only mediocre intellects, they do it with the thoughts of angels. What could be more sacred than that?

Vonnegut moves on to the question of boredom and belonging:

No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives.

We are so lonely because we don’t have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.

Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.

So I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.

(It’s hard not to wonder how Vonnegut might feel, if he were alive today — despite his unambiguous distaste for computers — about online communities and the relationships they sprout, which often spill into “offline” life.)

And yet, like Susan Sontag, he concedes that boredom is central to the human condition:

We are supposed to be bored. It is a part of life. Learn to put up with it, or you will not be what I have declared the members of this graduating class to be: mature women and men.

He leaves the graduates — members of a generation often criticized for being apathetic — with a meditation on the intoxicating poison of hate, which rings with double poignancy in our age of trolling and bullying:

As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.

[…]

The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young is a treasure trove from cover to cover, full of Vonnegut’s expansive spirit and irreverent wit. Complement it with more excellent commencement addresses, including George Saunders on the power of kindness, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

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09 MAY, 2014

David Lynch on Where Ideas Come From and the Fragmentary Nature of Creativity

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How to throw bait in the river of ideation.

As soon as we ask what creativity is, we invariably ponder the essential question of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. In 1926, Graham Wallace proposed a pioneering model for the four stages of the creative process, which was adapted into a five-step “technique for producing ideas” in 1939, and went on to influence present theories about the creative process. But despite what psychologists may delineate, the best answers come from the trenches and the front lines — from the artists, writers, inventors, and other creative troopers who summon and wrangle ideas for a living.

In this fantastic conversation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, LIVE from the NYPL host and interviewer extraordinaire Paul Holdengräber poses this very question — where do ideas come from? — to legendary director David Lynch.

Lynch, who answers with equal parts irreverence and insight, speaks to the fragmentary nature of creativity and its combinatorial quality, echoing Arthur Koetsler’s seminal 1964 “bisociation theory” of how creativity works.

An idea comes — and you see it, and you hear it, and you know it…

We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting.

[They come], more often than not, in small fragments.

Pair with Lynch on the role of meditation in creative work, then revisit more explorations of how ideas are born from Neil Gaiman, Rod Serling, and Alice Walker.

Photograph courtesy of BAM

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