Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wisdom from Scott Adams

As anyone reading this blog consistently knows, I do not "worship" Scott Adams, or anything of the sort. As soon as he starts to talk philosophy, he talks nonsense. But in understanding persuasion, he is a true pro. And in discussing the "pizza-gate" "scandal", he notes:

"Here’s what I know that most of you do not: Confirmation bias looks EXACTLY LIKE a mountain of real evidence. And let me be super-clear here. When I say it looks exactly the same, I am not exaggerating. I mean there is no way to tell the difference."

And of great importance here: Adams is de-bunking an anti-Clinton instance of confirmation bias. He doesn't just see confirmation bias when he wants to see it, and deny its possibility when he likes its implications.

This is what is so hard to accept about what the "Godzilla" of influence, Robert Cialdini, describes in his book Pre-suasion. We are all susceptible to being primed, by pre-adopting a certain framework, to read "evidence" in a certain way. If people are shown an identical video of someone describing their behavior in some situation of violent conflict, but one group has previously read a biography of the narrator as a decorated war hero, and another group has read a biography of the narrator as a violent sociopath, the two groups will judge what is described in the exact same video radically differently. Furthermore, members of each group will mostly be certain that they reached their conclusions entirely based on the actual evidence of the video. If asked if the biography had any influence on them, most of them will answer, "Of course not: that person is clearly [a brave soldier / a sociopath] based only on what they said in the video."

That is what confirmation bias is like.

Let me offer you an example of how important "pre-suasion" can be, with a story I have related on this blog previously.

My last month at the London School of Economics, I was staying at the flat of a friend. He told me that when I arrived in London, I should call him, and we would meet, and he would bring me to my new residence. When I landed and called him, he told me he was at the laundromat. Without explicitly stating this to myself, I subconsciously concluded, "Oh well, there are no laundry facilities at the flat."

After I had been there a couple of weeks, my friend asked me why I kept doing my laundry in the bathtub. (I am not addicted to modern conveniences, and I'm perfectly willing to wash my dishes or my laundry by hand.)

I responded, "because there is no washing machine in the apartment."

My friend walked me to the kitchen, and asked, "Well, what is that?"

Clearly visible in the kitchen, which I had been in by that point dozens of times, was a washing machine. But my friend's statement that he was at the laundromat had "pre-suaded" me that there was no washing machine at our flat. (It just happened that he had been at the laundromat to wash some duvets, which would not fit in the flat's small washing machine.) Thus pre-suaded, I was literally unable to see a completely unhidden and undisguised washing machine.

In this case, no one had been intentionally trying to convince me that there was no washing machine in the flat. There was no team of master persuaders at work trying to hide the presence of the washing machine from me. And yet still I was unable to see it.

Now imagine that a team of master persuaders has been trying to convince you that something that is there, is not, or something that is not there, is. How much more likely are you to believe that there is a "mountain of evidence" that what they want you to believe really is (or isn't) there, and that you have reached your conclusion entirely on your own?


  1. I'm skeptical of the priming literature. Several of the best known priming studies have failed to replicate, and many of the findings strike me as being highly implausible. For this reason, I found Pre-Suasion underwhelming.

    1. I think you were primed not to like it.


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