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The transcript from this week’s, MiB: David McRaney on Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion, is below.
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VOICEOVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST, MASTERS IN BUSINESS: This week on the podcast, I have an extra special and fascinating guest. His name is David McRaney and he is a science journalist and author. I first came to know David’s work through his blog and book, “You Are Not So Smart” which was a fun review of all of the cognitive foibles and behavioral errors we all make.
But it turns out that David was looking at how people change their minds, how you persuade people and he thought the answer was found in all of these cognitive errors. And if you could only alert people to the mistakes they were making whether it be fact checks or just showing them their biases and the heuristics they use and the rules of thumb they use that were wrong, hey, the would come around and see the light.
And as it turns out, that approach is all wrong and his mea culpa is essentially this book, “How Minds Change.” It turns out that persuading people about their fundamental beliefs involves a very, very specific set of steps starting with they have to want to change, they have to be willing to change, which only occurs when people come to the realization that they believe something for perhaps reasons that aren’t very good.
And it’s a process, it’s an exploration. It’s fascinating the people he has met with and discussed whether it’s deep canvassing or street epistemology or some of the other methodologies that are used to persuade people that some of their really controversial political beliefs are wrong.
He’s met with various people from — everything from flat earthers to antivaxxers to the folks who have left the Westboro Baptist Church, a pretty notorious and controversial institution. I found this conversation really to be tremendous and fascinating and I think you will also. With no further ado, my interview with David McRaney.
Well, I’ve been a fan of your work and I thought when this book came out, it was a great opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with you. Before we get to the book, let’s talk a little bit about your background. You started as a reporter covering everything from Hurricane Katrina, test rockets for NASA, halfway home for homeless people with HIV, what led you to becoming focused on behavior and psychology?
DAVID MCRANEY, JOURNALIST, BOOK AUTHOR: Well, I thought this was I was going to do for living. I went to school — to university to study psychology. I thought I would be a therapist. I got that degree with an — as I was doing that, there was a sign-up on campus that said opinionated in big Helvetica font. I was like, yes, I am. That would have been — that seems new, what is that? And they said, come down to the offices of the student newspaper.
I went down there and said, how does this work? They said just emails stuff. Do you have an opinion piece you want to do? I’m like — and I wrote a really like sophomoric thing about Starbucks on campus because they were just about to come in the campus and I’ve wrote that and wrote a couple of things.
And then there was a study that just recently come out and who knows if it’s replicated through the test of time but it was when your favorite sports team loses, men’s sperm counts go down. And I thought our team at our school had lost every single game that year so far.
RITHOLTZ: What does mean for the future progeny of alumni? That’s frightening.
MCRANEY: And I thought it would be a great headline that would be funny and the headline wrote was Evidence suggests that sperm counts reach record lows on campus and one of my professors laughed about it and asked the whole class if they had read it but they didn’t know that I was in the class. I was like, this could be fun.
So, I switched to journalism and went all the way through the student paper then went into print journalism and TV journalism. But I — once I reached a certain point in that world, I wasn’t able to write any more. I was doing editing and helping other people and I just really wanted to write something and it just so happened bogs are becoming very popular that time. My dad says and the others that were like —
RITHOLTZ: That’s way later.
RITHOLTZ: I’m thinking back to Yahoo’s GeoCities in the late ’90s.
MCRANEY: I played in that role, too.
RITHOLTZ: I mean, I’m the OG when it comes to blogging and I go way, way back.
MCRANEY: I feel you. I just happened to be there when they blew up in the point of like they got book deals and I’ve started a blog called “You Are Not So Smar” about all the cognitive biases and fallacies and heuristics that I really enjoyed.
And I wrote a piece about brand loyalty that went viral and the rest is history. I was asked to write a book about it and then I was like I will continue playing in this role. But I started a podcast to promote the second book because the first book did so well, they said do another really quickly and I did.
RITHOLTZ: “You Are Less Dumb Now.”
MCRANEY: Yes. “You Are Now Less Dumb.” Yes.
RITHOLTZ: “You Are Now Less Dumb.”
MCRANEY: And it just so happened I started a podcast right when podcasts were becoming a thing. I sent email to Marc Maron because he had the number one podcast. I said, how do you do this? And he actually sent me an email with a bullet point —
MCRANEY: — like each with links to Amazon items and —
RITHOLTZ: No kidding?
MCRANEY: And he was very nice and like — and I got all the stuff and started it up and that has now become sort of the centerpiece because that’s — I was there when I got a go.
RITHOLTZ: My pitch for this podcast was WTF meets Charlie Rose and —
MCRANEY: That’s a good pitch.
RITHOLTZ: — and nobody knew what WTF was. But, I mean, they didn’t know the acronym nor did they know the podcast because you have to be a little bit of a comedy junkie to found that in the nearly days.
RITHOLTZ: Later on, it was ubiquitous. So, sticking with journalism, when you were still writing, you seemed to have covered some really unusual and interesting stories. Tell us about one or more surprising things that you covered.
MCRANEY: I always wanted to do feature pieces. That was the world that I love when I was in journalism school and Frank Sinatra has a cold, electric Koolaid acid test, I just wanted to write features. I wanted to be there in person and like tell you explore humanity from the inside out and way in.
The halfway home for HIV-positive men for homeless people in the Deep South, that was a real turning point for me because I had to spend about three weeks on that story, visited all the different people, went to all the different meetings. And the homelessness is very invisible the Deep South. They often live in the woods. They live in the forest.
MCRANEY: They — there is — a lot of people in the Deep South noted that (ph) that there is a homeless problem and that was a really interesting way to break that story into the public consciousness of there’s a problem here. It’s just hidden from a very particular way.
And a lot of people aren’t even aware that there were organizations that dealt with that and that really showed me this is the world I want to be and this is the kind of stuff I want to do.
RITHOLTZ: So, I’m picking up a theme in both your writing columns and books which is there’s a problem you don’t know about and it’s hidden and here it is.
MCRANEY: Just that whole thing, hidden worlds are it for me. Like I grew up in a trailer in the woods in the Deep South and as an only child, I was always searching for the others. I didn’t know how I was going to get there and once I got it, a hand was extended into the stage, that’s all I want to do.
Like I call them tiramisu moments because I remember —
RITHOLTZ: The first time you had tiramisu?
MCRANEY: I was — I went to — I was — when I was still in — working for TV station, we had a little conference where people in my position went and we went there and we got tiramisu as a dessert and I remember I took a bite of it and I was like, my God, this is so damn good. What is this?
And everyone, they were like, it’s tiramisu, and I was like, yes, yes, yes, tiramisu, love this stuff. And– and — but that’s — yes, that’s what I’m pursuing now. I want more of those things I didn’t know I didn’t know.
RITHOLTZ: That’s really quite interesting. So, I guess it’s kind of natural that you evolve towards behavior and cognitive issues. I was going to ask you what led to it but it seems like that’s something you’ve been driving for your whole career.
MCRANEY: Yes. So, unity through humility. It’s — it’s — we’re all absolutely stumbling and fumbling in the dark and pretending like we know what we’re up to. Even here on these fantastic Bloomberg offices like the thing I want to avoid is the sense that I’ve got it all figured out and there are massive domains in psychology, neurosciences or social sciences that just start from that place and then investigated
And I find that when I discovered these things that we all share that should give us a pause, should cause us to feel humility, I feel like I’m in the right spot and I want to like dig deeper in those places and reveal them so we can all be on the same page that way.
RITHOLTZ: So, blind spots, unknown unknowns.
RITHOLTZ: Things that we are just clearly clueless about
MCRANEY: And the biases there. When I started out, things like confirmation bias wasn’t – it wasn’t as just tip of tongue as it is now and survivorship bias, things like that.
RITHOLTZ: So, I noticed in this book nothing written about Dunning-Kruger, nothing about Cialdini’s persuasion. Is that a different approach to decision-making and psychology like or — because I always assumed there would be a little bit of an overlap there.
MCRANEY: I didn’t want to rethread anything. There’s some foundational stuff that I do talk about in the book that I feel like you can never not talk about things.
RITHOLTZ: Some which goes back a century.
MCRANEY: And like the introspection illusion has to always be a talk about we don’t know the antecedents to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors but we are very good at creating narratives to explain ourselves to ourselves and if you always have to mention that in any book about this topic is one of my concerns.
And so, there’s a little bit of that. But like Dunning-Kruger and all the other big heavy hitter, I definitely did not want to write how to win friends and influence people part two because I wanted to come from a very different perspective on all of this and I didn’t want it to be a book specifically about persuasion because I don’t think they’re start talking about actual persuasion techniques to about page 200. Like I show you people who are doing things that could be labeled as persuasion techniques but I don’t get on like the science of it later.
Now that you mentioned Dunning-Kruger, I just recently spent some time with old Dunning, Professor David Dunning. He —
RITHOLTZ: A former guest on the show.
RITHOLTZ: I don’t think he’s that old. I think he’s —
MCRANEY: I say old in a chummy patch on the back that way. He — I keep asking him to come back to my show but he’s working on a new project and he’s —
RITHOLTZ: A new book on Dunning-Kruger.
MCRANEY: Yes. Yes. Because lot of people — there’s been always few who want to knock it down and he’s —
RITHOLTZ: There had been attempts but none have really landed a blow.
MCRANEY: So, we helped him out or he helped us out. My good friend, Joe Hanson has a YouTube channel and does exposures on science stuff, it’s called “Be Smart” and we were talking about that recent — there was a story about someone who — the pilot went unconscious and they’ve landed the airplane but they got help from the tower
And we were talking about that and I was like, I feel like I could land an airplane based off on my videogame experience, and Joe said he thought he could, too. I said, this has got to be Dunning-Kruger, right? And I said, it would be cool if you did a video where you’re going to like one of those —
RITHOLTZ: A simulator, a real simulator.
MCRANEY: — a commercial flight simulators.
MCRANEY: And I just said, yes, try, go ahead, land.
RITHOLTZ: Knock yourself out.
MCRANEY: And so, he get — I got in touch with Dunning and Dunning was like, I can’t wait to be part of this project. So, he done interviews back and forth with Dunning before and after and, of course, he gets in the simulator and they hand him the controls and they say, okay, land it, and, of course, he crashed and he crashed it three times.
RITHOLTZ: Right. That’s impressive. Even David Dunning tells a wonderful story about they never expected the research paper, Dunning-Kruger on metacognition, to explode and he goes, I never thought about trademarking it. He goes, go on — go on Amazon and you’ll see Dunning-Kruger University.
RITHOLTZ: Shirts, keychains, all sorts of stuff because there’s million dollars there. I just had no experience in that and I got little Dunning-Kruger for David Dunning, right?
MCRANEY: That’s a little Dunning-Kruger for David Dunning.
RITHOLTZ: Did not — did not think about the commercial side of it. So there’s a quote I want to share because it sets up everything and I’m sort of cheating, it’s from — towards the end of the book, “We do this because we are social primates who gather information in a biased manner for the purpose of arguing for our individual perspectives in a pooled information environment within a group that deliberates on shared plans of actions towards a collective goal.”
RITHOLTZ: Kind of sums up everything we do in a paragraph.
MCRANEY: Yes, it does. That was — a lot of work with it, years of work within that little paragraph.
RITHOLTZ: One paragraph.
MCRANEY: That a lot of that comes from something that’s called the interactionist model. There’s sort of a peanut butter and chocolate that have come up that’s in this book because I’ve spent years talking to people through “You Are Not So Smart” and I could argue that we’re flawed and irrational, right?
And that was — there was a big pop psychology movement for that about a decade ago, things like predictively irrational and even the work of Kahneman-Tversky like a lot of the like interpretation of that was like look how dumb we are, right? Look how easily fooled. Look how bad we are with probabilities.
And one of the incepting moments of this book was I did a lecture and someone came up to me afterward. Her father had slipped into a conspiracy theory and she asked, what do I do about that, and I told her nothing. It was like — but I felt grossed saying it. I felt like I was locking my keys, my car.
I felt like I think I know enough to tell you that but I know I don’t and also, I don’t want to be that pessimistic and cynical. And at the same time, the attitudes and norms around same-sex marriage in the United States had flipped like very rapidly.
RITHOLTZ: We’re going to go into that
MCRANEY: Right. So, those two things together, I was like, I would — I want to understand this better. So, I invited on my podcast Hugo Mercier and he teamed up with Dan Sperber and they created something called the interactionist model, which is a model that I only want to talk about changing minds or arguing, and it opened up this whole world.
And through them, I also met with Tom Stafford and there’s the interactionist model and there’s the truth wins scenario and those are sort of the peanut butter and chocolate muffins because instead of looking at people’s being flawed and irrational, now I see this just as biased and lazy, which is different.
And what you were just talking about with that paragraph is about the interactionist model, which is a lot of the research that went into all those books from about a decade ago, they were pulling from studies that were done on individuals in isolation.
MCRANEY: When you pool all of their conclusions together and you treat people as a group of people based off that research, we do look kind of flawed, right? We do look very irrational. But if you take that exact same research and you allow people to deliberate in groups, you get much different reactions, much different responses.
That’s been furthered by the work of Tom Stafford. He’s been taking some of the old stuff from those old studies and putting them to groups and even creating social media similar acronyms that worked like Twitter and Facebook and stuff but have a totally different context, allows people to deliberate and argue in different ways and you get much different results, you get better results.
A good example of that is like you take something from a cognitive reflection testy or something — like — I’ll make it real simple so we don’t have to like do the weird math on this. Like you’re running a race and you pass the person on second place, what place you’re in. And the intuitive answer, you sort of trying to work it out in your head but the answer was, if you like lean back, is, well, I replaced second place, I’m in second place.
But if you ask people individually, you get a pretty high response rate where they get the wrong answer.
MCRANEY: But if you take that exact same question and you post it to a group of people, and I do in some lectures now, and you say, okay, I’m going to ask this question, keep the answer to yourself, now does anyone have the right answer, you know you have the right answer, raise your hands, somebody raises their hands. I said, okay, what’s the answer? They give me the answer and then you say, explain your reasoning, and then they explain the reasoning. When they give their answer, there will be a grumble in the crowd.
MCRANEY: When they explain the reasoning behind it, the crowd goes okay. Now, if you took everyone’s individual answer and pooled it together, you’re like, wow, 80 percent of this group got the wrong answer.
MCRANEY: But if you allow that deliberation moment to take place where I explain my reasoning to you, you get a group of people who would go from 80 percent incorrect to 100 percent correct. It really sets up for that. The interactionist model is all about this story.
Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, they have a great book about this called “The Enigma of Reason.” It’s not a light read. It’s really sort of academic. But it’s great because they found, looking through the old research and their own new research, that we have two cognitive systems, one for producing arguments, one for evaluating arguments.
And the one that produces arguments does it very lazily and very — in a a very biased manner. You can think of it like you ask where do you want to go eat and you have three or four people after a movie like hanging out in the lobby, they’re like, I want to go — I want to go here, I want to go here, I want to go here, and they have biased reasons for that.
One person goes over and says, hey, let’s go get sushi and somebody is like, where, over here, no, no, my ex works there or someone would say, I had sushi yesterday or I don’t like sushi. You can’t predict what are going to be the counterargument. So, you present your most biased and lazy argument up front and you let the deliberation take place in the pooled evaluation process. You offload the cognitive labor to that.
We’re all familiar with that. Everyone has their ideas. You trade back and forth and we decide on the group goal in the plan, which is what this is ought to do. But we’re also very familiar with the way that plays out on the Internet which is my good friend —
RITHOLTZ: Which is removed and you don’t get the same —
MCRANEY: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: — social cues coming.
MCRANEY: Right. So, you get like to say — my good friend Alistair Croll who runs conferences, he put it to me like this as like, yes, on the Internet, when you say I want a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s not an argument for who wants grilled cheese sandwiches, should we get grilled cheese sandwiches, anyone else agree with me.
On the Internet, on most platforms we use today, it’s saying I want grilled sandwiches, who wants to go with me to the grilled cheese sandwich room. And so everyone who agrees with that position is already like, yes, that’s what I want, too. They get pooled off into a community of people who want this and then a whole new set of psychological mechanism is going to play which is all about being a social primate and be in a community.
RITHOLTZ: So, there’s no iteration, there’s no debate, there’s no consensus forming as to what the best solution to that problem is.
MCRANEY: You just have some salient issue and people form like —
MCRANEY: Right. And what looks like madness or what looks like some sort of nefarious thing going down, one of the things that the Internet gives us is the ability to group up very quickly. And we are social primers, if we go into a group, we start being worried about motivations like I want to be a good member of my group, I want to be considered a trustworthy member of my group and so on.
And you get a lot of the weird stuff we see today that falls into the domain of being polarized or being in a system where everyone is, if you have — in a group of people who agree with you in your current position, it’s very difficult to argue out of it because that can always fall back to them for backup.
And so, that’s some of the stuff that goes into that paragraph and it gets more complicated from there. But, yes, it’s — that was very illuminating to me and a lot of the new material in this book relates back to them.
RITHOLTZ: Not that the earlier books were wrong or incorrect in any way but I kind of took this as a little bit of a mea culpa in terms of, hey, I was focusing on one area but really, we need to focus on a broader area in terms of not just why we make these cognitive errors but how you can change somebody’s mind who’s trapped in some heuristic or other cognitive problem that is leading them the wrong way.
MCRANEY: I did not intend for this to be like some sort of marketing phrase or trick but it’s the truth. I — in writing the book of “How Minds Change” I changed my mind on a lot of stuff that I was like depending on for like career and I’m happy to do that. It feels really great to be on the other side of some of these things and see it more clearly and with more dimensionality to it.
RITHOLTZ: So, let’s talk a little bit about the blog that led to the book —
RITHOLTZ: — that really put you on the map, “You Are Not So Smart.” I love the title of this. Why you have too many friends on Facebook, why your memory is mostly fiction, and 46 other ways your deluding yourself.
MCRANEY: Were there 46 chapters? Was that just a random —
MCRANEY: No. No. It was exactly how many things are explored in the book. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: That’s great. So, we already discussed what led you to this area of research. Why did you decide to go from blogging, which is easy and short form, to writing a book, which anyone who had done it will tell you it can be a bit of a slog?
MCRANEY: It was — here’s how that happened. I was just blogging way back in the early days, maybe had a thousand people reading my stuff and those back way before medium in Twitter and the other way to get your stuff out there.
MCRANEY: And I —
RITHOLTZ: When did you launch “You Are Not So Smart” as a book?
MCRANEY: Maybe like 2008, 2007, around there.
MCRANEY: I got into an argument with two of my friends about what was better, the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360. We got so mad at each other that it was like I might not be able to like hang out with them.
MCRANEY: And I —
RITHOLTZ: This — this isn’t a political Trump versus Biden debate. This is —
RITHOLTZ: But it’s just as hard.
MCRANEY: But it is. We’ve been together — it’s the same psychology.
MCRANEY: And I couldn’t get over like why would I get mad about this, it’s just a box of wires and —
RITHOLTZ: I like that.
MCRANEY: And I — since I had a background in psychology, I went — and I had access to the university library, I just was like, well, there’s got to be some material about this.
MCRANEY: I found a bunch of material on brand loyalty and identification and group identity.
MCRANEY: And I wrote a little blog about it but I framed it as Apple versus PC, those commercials were out right then.
MCRANEY: And at that time, the blog Gizmodo had stolen the iPhone prototype.
RITHOLTZ: I recall that. Yes.
MCRANEY: And then like Steve Jobs sent an email —
RITHOLTZ: They didn’t steal it. They found it in a bar.
MCRANEY: Yes. They found it — they found it in a bar. And Steve Jobs sent them an email that says give me back my iPhone and they just — they just went for the hits and they got super viral and I just assumed they had like a Google alert for stuff written about Apple stuff.
And I got an email that said, can we maybe blog your blog post on this, and I was like, yes, for sure. And I went from a thousand to 250,000 people and I was like, I should write a bunch of stuff on it. So, that week, I just started going like things in that sort of area and I wrote a lot of more things about like learned helplessness and other issues
And I had an audience and it was maybe four months later, an agent reached out who had worked on Freakonomics and said, I think this could be a book, and she’s still my agent. I actually met with her today. If I’m in town, I always try to meet with her because she changed my life, (inaudible), amazing human being.
And we turned it into a book and about half of it was already in blog form. I wrote the rest of it for the book. And that book just really took off like it’s still — even today, it’s like in 19 different languages.
MCRANEY: Every once in a while, it will be the number one in a different country. It was recently number one in Vietnam. Well, that’s how I went from blog to book world. But then they were like, hey, could you write another book, and I said, I sure can. And I wanted to promote it and at that time, podcasting had just become a thing. I was listening to Radiolab and This American Life and I was like you’re always listening WTF and I said, I want to do something like that, and I just started up a podcast to promote it. And it just turned out that the podcast was really where I could actually explore the stuff and I jumped into it.
RITHOLTZ: So, there is a quote, I think this might be from the back of the book. So, I don’t know if this is your words or a blurb I’m stealing. But, quote, “There is a growing body of work coming out of psychology and cognitive science that says you have no clue why you act the way you do, choose the things you choose or think the thoughts you think.”
RITHOLTZ: Explain it
MCRANEY: That’s called the introspection illusion that’s been a real centerpiece of my work for longtime. We don’t have access to the antecedents of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors but we do have thoughts, feelings and behaviors that require some kind of explanation and we are very good at coming up with these post hoc, ad hoc rationalizations and justifications for what we’re doing.
And those eventually become a narrative that we live by, become sort of the character we portray and we end up being an unreliable narrator in the story of our own lives as of the two is like a one-two punch. You’re unaware of how unaware you are and that leads you to being the unreliable narrator of the story of your life.
And that’s fine like this is something that is adaptive in most situations but there is — when we get into some complex stuff like politics running a business, designing an airplane, you should know about some of these things because they’ll get you into some trouble that we never got into 100,000 years ago.
RITHOLTZ: So, a lot of this evolutionary baggage that we carry forward. But you touched on two of my favorite biases. One is the narrative fallacy that we create these stories to explain what we’re doing as well as hindsight bias where after something happens, of course, that was going to happen, we saw it coming. Tell us about those two biases.
MCRANEY: Well, narrative fallacy, I love this, my good friend Will Storr who writes —
RITHOLTZ: It’s a question I have for you.
MCRANEY: I love Will.
RITHOLTZ: Enemies of Science.
MCRANEY: I love Will so much and he has a book not too long ago that came up with the science storytelling and I love that domain. All — the whole hero’s journey, the —
MCRANEY: — Campbell.
RITHOLTZ: Joseph Campbell. Right.
MCRANEY: The science side of that is most storytelling takes place exactly along the same lines as retrospection. So, retrospection looking back, perspective looking forward. We tend to look back on our lives as we’re the hero, we’re the protagonist and whatever we’re looking at specifically, it’s like, okay, we started out in this space and then we went on an exploratory journey and then we basically came back over —
RITHOLTZ: Make a quest.
MCRANEY: Yes. Eventually, we came back around with that new knowledge and applied it.
RITHOLTZ: A changed person.
MCRANEY: Yes. Yes. We have the synthesis and the anti-thesis, all those things are how we kind of see ourselves, it’s how we make sense of our past because if we couldn’t remember everything, that would be horrible. So, we have — so we edit it to be useful in that way,
That’s why when you’re watching a movie or reading a book and it doesn’t seem to be working for you, it’s because it’s not really playing nice with that retrospective system. But it’s also how our personal narratives seem to be very nice and tidy in that way and — although they never are. If you’ve ever told a story about something with someone who’s also there and they’re like, it didn’t happen that way.
RITHOLTZ: My wife — yes. My wife says that all the time. I don’t know what — what experience he had but I was there, none of that happened.
MCRANEY: That’s right. And you — if without people to check you, what does that say? It says that a whole lot of what you believe is the story of your life is one of those things that if we had a perfect diary of it or a recording of it or someone who is there who could challenge you, it wasn’t exactly the way you think you are.
RITHOLTZ: Who is the professor after, was it 9/11 or some big events, had everybody write down their notes as to what they saw, what they felt, what they’re experiencing, and then — I guess these were freshmen and then by the time they become seniors, they circle back and asked them now it’s three years later and not only do they misremember it but when shown their own notes, they disagree with themselves.
MCRANEY: Yes. Yes. That’s been repeated a few times. I talked about in “How Minds Change” Robert Burton did this experiment after the Challenger incident. That was his — that was the big one, right? But the one in that study was when it’s signaling above the noise and, yes, that’s the most amazing part of it, you –you — they have the write down whatever happened and what you thought happened.
They also do it prospective wise. I think they’ve done — they’ve done it where — tell me what you think is going to happen, and he put it to a Manila envelope and the thing — whatever event takes place and then you ask people, what did you — what did you predict was going to happen and they tell you I predicted exactly what happened. We take out the Manila envelope and it’s not that and they’re like, come one, there’s no way.
RITHOLTZ: Even though that’s my handwriting, I never would have written that.
MCRANEY: And that’s the weirdest thing in the — in the Challenger study. When he showed people that their memory was absolutely not what they thought it was, their first reaction was to say, you’re tricking me. Like this is — you wrote this, like somebody else wrote this.
And that seems so similar to something called anosognosia.
MCRANEY: And anosognosia is the denial of disorder and you can have like a lesion or a brain injury that imposed something is wrong in your body but then on top of that, you have this other thing which is denial, nothing is wrong in your body. So, I’ve seen cases where people have an arm that doesn’t function properly and they’ll ask like, why can’t you lift your arm, why can’t you pick up this pencil and they’ll say, what are you doing, I can pick that up. What’s going on with this arm? They’re like that’s my mom’s arm. She’s playing a joke on me right now.
RITHOLTZ: It’s like the split-brain patients —
RITHOLTZ: — where they don’t understand what they’re seeing.
RITHOLTZ: They come up with —
MCRANEY: This is the greatest example what we’ve been discussing is if you have someone who has a — they call split-brain patient. You take the corpus callosum that connect the two hemispheres. A corpus callosotomy is often perform in a person who has a certain kind of — they have seizures that they don’t want cascading.
You end with basically two brains and you can use the dividers so that one eye is going to one hemisphere, one is going to the other. You can show a person an image, let’s say you show them a terrible car wreck mangled bodies and they feel very sick. But the portion of the brain you’re showing that to is not the portion that delivers language.
So, then you ask the person who is feeling sick, why you feel sick right now, what’s going on, they’ll say, I ate something bad at lunch. We will very quickly come up with the narrative or explanation for what we’re experiencing and we do so believing that narrative even if that narrative is way far away from what’s actually taking place.
RITHOLTZ: So, let’s quickly run through some of our favorite cognitive biases and heuristics.
MCRANEY: Boy, this is going to be tough, it’s going to be tough. I hope I remember this. Let’s go.
RITHOLTZ: Well, let’s start with an easy one, confirmation bias.
MCRANEY: Confirmation bias. When people write about confirmation bias, they usually get it pretty wrong. Here’s the way I look at it.
RITHOLTZ: But it confirms what they were (inaudible).
MCRANEY: It’s a great way to put it.
MCRANEY: The least sexy term in psychology is the makes sense stopping rule. You think they come up with a better phrase and that means when I go looking for an explanation of something, when it finally — when it makes sense, I’ll stop looking for information.
MCRANEY: Confirmation bias is what happens –here’s the way I prefer to frame it. Let’s say you’re in a tent in the woods. You hear weird sound and you think of that might be a bear, I should go look. So, what you have is a negative affect and your body have an anxiety. You go out looking for confirmation of that anxiety is just or reasonable because there’s a social aspect to it at all times because we can’t escape our social selves.
And so, you go looking and you maybe don’t find it. Either maybe you don’t find evidence that points that direction. Eventually, you — you modify your behavior base of what you see with your flashlight. If you do that online though when an environment — there’s some information rich environment, you have some sort of anxiety and you’re looking for justification that that anxiety is reasonable, you’ll find it.
RITHOLTZ: Very quickly, too.
MCRANEY: You’ll find something, right, and that will confirm that you — that your search was good and justified and reasonable to other human beings. So, confirmation bias very simply is just something happens that doesn’t make sense, you want to disambiguate it. It’s uncertain. You want to reach some level of certainty. So, you look for information that base of your hunch, your hypothesis.
And then when you find information that seems to — it’s like confirmed your hunch, you stop looking as if you like —
RITHOLTZ: You solved the problem.
MCRANEY: Yes, if you solved it. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: Why don’t we, as a species, look for disconfirming information just to validate?
MCRANEY: In most situation, it’s not adaptive. Like confirmation bias is actually the right move in most situations. Like if you’re looking for your keys, I got to —
RITHOLTZ: You find your keys, you’re done.
MCRANEY: Yes. You don’t go looking for your keys on Mars. You go looking for them in your kitchen, right? Like it’s the faster solution and most of our — most of these biases go back to the adaptive thing is the thing that caused the least calories and gets you to this solution as quickly as possible so you can go back to trying to find food and not getting eaten.
And in this case, most of the time, most of the time, confirmation bias serves us well. It’s in those instances where it really doesn’t serve us well. They end up with things like climate change.
MCRANEY: Or what have you. What about ego depletion?
MCRANEY: Man, ego depletion is one of the things that, boy, it goes back and forth — the original scientists are still like hard core into it. I love it. Whether or not ego depletion is properly like defined or categorized, the phenomena does exist. The actual mechanisms of it aren’t well understood.
But when you have been faced with a lot of cognitive tasks, you start to have a hard time completing more cognitive tasks in general.
RITHOLTZ: As well as issues that require willpower and discipline.
MCRANEY: That’s right. So, the more you — the more you use willpower, the less willpower you have to use.
RITHOLTZ: It’s finite not — not an ending.
MCRANEY: And this is — not all understood. A lot of you like here’s why this is happening like have — they failed to replicate. So, we have this phenomenon but we still don’t quite understand what is the mechanism underlying it,
RITHOLTZ: Well, let me do one last one, the Benjamin Franklin effect.
MCRANEY: Yes. That’s my favorite. Benjamin Franklin effect goes back to — a lot of my new book is in this domain of justification and rationalization. Benajami Franklin had someone who is opposing him at every track, call him a hater in the previous book back when that was —
MCRANEY: A term.
MCRANEY: Yes. And he just had this political opponent that he knew was going to cause him real problems for the next thing he was going out for and he also knew that this guy had a really nice book collection and everybody also knew that Benjamin Franklin had a nice book collection.
And so, he sent them a letter that said there’s a book that I’ve always want to read that I can’t never find. I hear you got a copy of it. No. Who knows, it seems from reading the literature that Benjamin Franklin totally had this book and — but the guy gave him the book as a favor. He was like very honored that Benjamin Franklin asked for it.
I like to think that Benjamin Franklin just like put it on a shelf and then waited —
MCRANEY: Waited a month and then took it back to him.
MCRANEY: But he said, thank you, I’m forever in your debt, you’re the best. And from that point forward, the guy never said another negative thing about Benjamin Franklin.
So, what that comes to is I just observe my own behavior, I did something that produce cognitive dissonance, I have a negative attitude toward Benjamin Franklin but I did something that a person with a positive attitude would do. So, I must either think a strange thing about who I am or what I’m doing or I could just take the easy route out and go, I like Benjamin Franklin. And that’s — I think we call that the Benjamin Franklin effect.
RITHOLTZ: I find that really just fascinating. There are two phrases that I made a note of in one of the books that I have to ask about, extinction burst and I have to ask what is wrong with catharsis.
MCRANEY: What is wrong with catharsis? Extinction burst is a real thing that I love — I see that everywhere. I’ll say I see that all — in the society right now in many different ways.
Extinction burst is when you have a behavior that has been enforced many, many times and you — it’s — your body even expects that you’re going to perform this behavior and you start doing something like say dieting or you’re trying to quit smoking or you’re trying to do — you’re trying to just extinguish the behavior.
Right at the moment before it fully extinguishes, you will have a little hissy fit. You’ll have a, — as they say back home, you’ll have a toddler outburst sort of thing where your — all of your systems, cognitive systems are saying, why don’t we really, really try to do that thing again because we’re about to lose it.
MCRANEY: And the — they call this an extinction burst, it’s that moment of like if you’re watching it on a slope and sloping down, down, down, down, there’s a huge spike and that could either be the moment you go back to smoking or —
RITHOLTZ: Right. Relapse or the moment you finish.
MCRANEY: It could be the death rattle. It depends on how you — how you deal with your extinction burst.
RITHOLTZ: I thought that was fascinating. And then catharsis comes up. Why is the concept of that cathartic surrender or finish your things problematic?
MCRANEY: Yes. It’s related to the extinction burst.
MCRANEY: There’s a — for a while, this is especially in like 1950s psychology, the idea that like just get it out. Like if you’re angry, go beat up a punching bag or —
RITHOLTZ: Yell at people from the safety of your car.
MCRANEY: Yes. It used to be a thing in like ’80s, scream therapy.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. I recall.
MCRANEY: The — unfortunately —
RITHOLTZ: The primal scream therapy.
MCRANEY: Unfortunately or fortunately, the —
RITHOLTZ: Any evidence that works?
MCRANEY: The evidence suggests that what this does is reward you for the behavior and you maintain that level of anger and anxiety and frustration.
RITHOLTZ: Because it’s self-rewarding.
MCRANEY: Yes. And so, it’s — there are ways to have cathartic experiences but the ones we reward yourself for being angry tend to keep you angry.
RITHOLTZ: That makes a lot of sense. And last question on “You Are Not So Smart” do we ever really know things or do we just have a feeling of knowing?
MCRANEY: It’s unanswerable question thankfully. From — from —
RITHOLTZ: You don’t know?
MCRANEY: No. No.
RITHOLTZ: Do you feel like you know the answer to that?
MCRANEY: I feel like I know. There’s — here’s what’s important to know about this. Certainty is an emotion. This is something that gets me in trouble, I think, in like rationalist in circles.
RITHOLTZ: It won’t get you in trouble here.
MCRANEY: Well, thank you. Because like the ideas like facts not feelings or let’s not get emotional, let’s not make emotional appeals. There is no dividing emotion from cognition. Emotion is cognition and certainty is one of those things that lets you bridge the two because certainty is the emergent property of networks waiting something in one direction or another and you feel like if you want to do percentagewise, it’s — it’s — you can feel it if I ask you percentagewise.
Like if I ask you, did you have eggs last week on Tuesday and you’re like, I think I did, and like — well, like, on a scale from like one to 10, like percentagewise —
RITHOLTZ: On Saturday morning, I went to the diner, hundred percent I had eggs.
MCRANEY: So, that feeling that you’re getting it, there’s something in generating that 100 percent certainly feeling right. So, the feeling of knowing is something that separate from knowing. But as far as objectively, it’s the exact same thing. We only get to see this objectively in some way especially in those like open up the Manila envelope, let’s see what you actually said kind of thing.
RITHOLTZ: So, this is a pet peeve of mine because here in finance, there is this, for lack of a better phrase, meme that the markets hate uncertainty and whenever people are talking about what’s going to happen in the future, well, it’s very uncertain to which I say, well, the future is always inherently uncertain.
When things are going along fine and the markets going up, we feel okay with our uncertainty. So, we can lie to ourselves about it very, very easily.
RITHOLTZ: But when everything is terrible, the markets are down, the feds raising rates, inflation, the market hates uncertainty, now, at the uncertainty level, you didn’t know the future before, you don’t know the future now —
RITHOLTZ: — but you can no longer lie to yourself that you have a sense of what’s going on. This is, by the way, very outlier view because everybody loves the uncertainty.
MCRANEY: Well, I’m happy to sit here —
RITHOLTZ: I despise.
MCRANEY: I’m happy to sit here and surrounded by all these people and take the position of you’re very wrong.
RITHOLTZ: They are less smart.
MCRANEY: There is no such thing as certainty. This is — from a scientific or psychological even philosophical domain, everything is probabilistic.
MCRANEY: We can hedge our bets but the concept of certainty is way outside the domain of any of these topics. Yes.
MCRANEY: And we’ll talk about Bertrand Russell later but it’s a quote from your book that always makes me think. Well, let’s talk about it now because it’s such an interesting observation, quote, “The observer when he seems to himself be observing a stone is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”
MCRANEY: God, I love that quote so much.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Isn’t that awesome?
MCRANEY: I was —
RITHOLTZ: That is right from this book, “How Minds Change” by David McRaney.
MCRANEY: Man, I hear it’s a good book. The — I got that from interviewing the late Lee Ross who created the term naïve realism.
RITHOLTZ: That’s another phrase I love.
MCRANEY: And this — this is a way to kind of get in a naïve realism. Naïve realism is the assumption that you’re getting a sort of a video camera view of the world through your eyeballs.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Right.
MCRANEY: And that you’re storing your memories in some sort of a database like a hard drive and that when I ask your opinion on say immigration or gun control that whatever you tell me came from you went down to the bowls of your castle to your scrolls and hold up the scrolls by candlelight and read them all then one day came up from that and emerged from the staircase and raised your finger and said, this is what I think about gun control.
And it might — what’s invisible in the process are what becomes invisible when we’re tasked with explaining ourselves is that all the rationalization and justification and all the interpretation that you’ve done and all the elaborations and all these psychological terms and that you — this concept of naïve realism is that you see reality for what it is and other people are mistaken when you get into moments of a conflict.
And the thing that Bertrand Russell said is so nice because he is alluding to the fact that all reality is virtual reality that the subjective experiences is very limited, what the German psychologist called an umwelt (ph).
RITHOLTZ: The thing related to naïve realism that was so surprising in the book and we keep alluding to evolution and various things, I did not realize that the optic nerve does not perceive the world in 3D.
RITHOLTZ: It’s only two dimensional.
MCRANEY: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: And, okay, so have two eyes so we’re able to create an illusion of depth of a third dimension but the human eye does not see the world in full 3D.
MCRANEY: Yes. I just — while visiting New York, I spent time with Pascal who’s in the book and he’s the one who were like ramming through all this.
RITHOLTZ: That’s amazing, isn’t it?
MCRANEY: It’s a– the retina, I mean, obviously, microscopic levels is three-dimensional. But for the purposes of vision, it’s a two-dimensional sheet.
MCRANEY: And so, we create within consciousness the third dimension but it’s an illusion just like every color is an illusion.
RITHOLTZ: It’s a very realistic illusion but it’s an illusion wise.
MCRANEY: Right. And that’s why paintings can look nice because you play with the rules of illusions to create depth, right?
RITHOLTZ: Depth, light, et cetera.
MCRANEY: And even people who have gained vision late in life, understanding depth and three dimensionality is something that takes a lot of experience. You have to learn how to do it. And they oftentimes though — an experiment with people who just gained vision late in life, they’ll like put a telephone and run — like far away from them and they’ll try to reach out to it, it’s like 30 feet away, because you have to learn depth. That’s something that we learn over time. We did to children who don’t recall it.
RITHOLTZ: So, you now remember, you don’t really think about it. So, let’s talk about “How Mines Change.” I want to start by asking how did a flat earther inspire this book?
MCRANEY: They — I actually came a little later in the process. I was — there is a documentary on Netflix, you may have seen it, “Behind the Curve” and the producers of that were fans of my podcast and they grabbed a couple of my guests for the show and everything and I thought it would be — I would love to help promote something.
I didn’t know this but someone told me I was in the credits and I looked in the credits, it was like David — thanks to David McRaney, I was like wow. So, I emailed them and said, hey, you want to come on my podcast? We’ll talk about your documentary because if I’ve gotten a chance to make on Netflix show, it would have been very similar because that’s — it seemed like it’s about flat earth but it’s actually about motivated reasoning and identity and community and things like that.
RITHOLTZ: And community. Community is the big one.
MCRANEY: It’s a huge part of that, right?
MCRANEY: Group identity. And they — that — after that episode, they — a group in Sweden, they put on something like South by Southwest called the Gather Festival. They asked, hey, we got this crazy idea, what if you go to Sweden and will get Mark Sargent who is sort of the spokesperson for the flat earth community and will put you on stage and I know you’re writing a book, “How Minds Change” you can try some of those techniques on them, and I was like that sounds awesome.
So, I did, I went, and I met Mark and I found him something very nice, very lovely man and I did try some — at the point where I met him, I was about halfway through and I wasn’t great with the techniques. But I did an okay job.
RITHOLTZ: That’s towards the end of the book where you actually described he said it was one of the best conversations he ever had.
MCRANEY: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: You don’t call him an idiot. You don’t challenge his views. You’re really asking how did you come to these sorts of perspectives —
MCRANEY: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: — to get him to focus on his own process.
MCRANEY: That’s the whole idea. The techniques I learned about in the book — when writing this book, I met many different organizations, deep canvassers, street epistemology, people who work in motivational interviewing and therapeutic practices, professional negotiation and conflict resolution working in those spaces and what really astounded me was when I would bring the stuff that I was witnessing to scientists or experts, they — there is this underlying literature that made sense but none of these groups had ever heard of this literature for the most part and they definitely hadn’t heard of each other.
But they did a lot of AB testing, thousands of conversations, throwing away what didn’t work, keeping what did, and they would arrive at this is how you ought to do this. And they were also —
RITHOLTZ: Very similar, all these different groups.
MCRANEY: Yes. And if it was in steps, the step would be on the same order. And I sort of think it like if you wanted to build an airplane, the first airplane ever built no matter where it was built or who did it, it’s going to look kind of like an airplane.
RITHOLTZ: It’s going to have wings.
RITHOLTZ: And it’s going to be lighter than —
MCRANEY: Yes. Because you’re dealing with the physics that you have to contend with. When it comes to the kind of conversation dynamics that actually persuade people or move people or illuminate them, they have to work with the way brains make sense of the world and all of the evolutionary past that pressures all that.
And so, these independent groups discovered all that independent of each other and of the science that supports them. And Mark Sargent like when I first met him, I shook his hands and said, look, I’m not going to like make fun of you or anything, he said, that’s fine, make fun of me all you want. He took out his phone and showed me the commercial he had done for LifeLock where he’s like if I can do it, anybody can do it. He’s totally okay with it
But that’s not what I did and when I sat down with him, I wanted to ask him, I know we’ll get to it but it’s like you don’t want to face off and I need to win, you need to lose.
MCRANEY: I’m trying — I’m not even debating you. What I want to do is get shoulder to shoulder with you and say, isn’t interesting that we disagree, I wonder why. You want to partner up with me and try to investigate that mystery together and in so doing, I open up a space to let him meta-cognate and run through how did I arrive at this.
And that’s why I did it with him on stage and we learned all sorts of things like he used to be a ringer for a videogame company. So, that’s where his conspiratorial stuff came from.
RITHOLTZ: Right. So, of course, he wasn’t just a guy showing these contests were unfair. They, and it’s always unnamed they —
RITHOLTZ: — had somebody skewing the outcome.
MCRANEY: Yes. Going through this whole history, it was really clear how he got motivated into this. But the thing that really kicked in was flat earth is a pretty big group of people. They have conventions. They have dating apps. And once he became a spokesperson for it, I mean, he’s traveling around the world. He’s going to Sweden like now, he got —
RITHOLTZ: Well, he’s not traveling around the world. He’s travelling across that surface of the world.
MCRANEY: That’s right. That’s right. He is traversing the geography.
RITHOLTZ: Right. The Cartesian plane of Planet Earth.
MCRANEY: That’s right. So, that was a really —
RITHOLTZ: Is the sun flat also? That’s always my question. If the earth is flat, is the sun a sphere? Why would some celestial bodies be spheres?
MCRANEY: There are schisms within the flat earth community. There are many different models of flat earth.
MCRANEY: The one that Mark Sargent is part of, they see the earth is sort of — it’s almost like a snow globe.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. Yes.
MCRANEY: It’s flat but there’s a dome. There’s a — there’s a —
RITHOLTZ: Makes perfect sense to me. Perfectly rational.
MCRANEY: The sun and the moon are celestial objects that are orbs and when you ask — my great question was like, okay, well, then this seems manufactured, who made it, gods or aliens? He goes, and I remember him leaning in and say, does it matter, isn’t it the same thing?
RITHOLTZ: Well, the Greeks figured out 5,000 years ago that the earth was round by just looking at the shadow the sun cast at the same time in different cities of different latitudes. But 5,000 years of progress just hold the sight.
MCRANEY: Hey, look, you wouldn’t — you would believe, the number of ways that that has been explained away in flat earth world, there’s a plenty of explanations for why that’s part of the big conspiracy.
RITHOLTZ: My favorite part of the flat earth community was Flat Earth meets Dunning Kruger with the guy who built a rocket to go up in order to prove that the earth was flat. We don’t know what he saw because he crashed and die. Do you recall this? It was like …
MCRANEY: I don’t remember that.
RITHOLTZ: … two or three summers ago.
MCRANEY: But I can tell you – I know exactly how the response would be like. See? See? Someone sabotaged that.
RITHOLTZ: They took them out.
RITHOLTZ: They took him out. So, you mentioned several different groups, the Street Epistemology and the deep canvassers were really fascinating …
MCRANEY: I can, so – such a huge part of …
RITHOLTZ: Right? So, a quick background. A well-funded group in California were trying to convince people to support the Marriage Equality Act which ultimately ends up failing in California by three or four percent and they had done thousands of home visits knock on the door, hey, we want to talk to about – about this act and why we think you should support it.
And the failure of that was a real moment of clarity and they said we have to rejigger everything we’re doing because this is totally ineffective. And the methodology they came up with, that standing shoulder to shoulder and let’s figure out why you think that – let’s explore why we think so differently.
You know, in politics and in single issues, if you can move somebody, a 10th of a percent …
MCRANEY: It’s right.
RITHOLTZ: … it’s huge. Their impact is a 100 times at its 10 percent.
MCRANEY: Ten – 10-12 percent.
RITHOLTZ: It’s astonishing. Tell us a little bit about what this group does that’s so effective when they’re supporting a specific issue.
MCRANEY: Yes. The background you gave is exactly what happened. They wanted to understand how they lost and they went door-to-door asking – they came up with this idea that, this – Dave Fleischer who runs The Leadership LAB …
RITHOLTZ: UCLA or USC? I don’t remember which.
MCRANEY: The – the LGBT Center of Los Angeles. And they’re extremely well-funded, millions and millions of dollars and biggest LGBT organization of its kind in the world and The Leadership LAB is their political action wing and as they were doing this canvassing thing and they lost in Prop 8, he wanted to know, well, how could that be because this seems to be an area we would definitely would lose this.
And so, he said, what if we just went and ask people. And so they did the exact same thing again. So, this time, they knocked on doors – they went to areas they knew that they’d lost in …
RITHOLTZ: Help us understand.
MCRANEY: And if there’s somebody who had voted against it, they asked why did you vote against it? And they had these listening brigades, about 50-75 people would go out and knock door-to-door and to their astonishment, people wanted to talk when they started asking them questions.
RITHOLTZ: Like this is a non-adversarial thing. It’s just hear them out.
MCRANEY: Yeah. And when they did that, these conversations would go to 20, 30, 40 minutes and they started thinking, well, we need to record these and they started recording them. And somewhere along the way, about three or four times, people would talk themselves out of their position when you just stood there and listened.
RITHOLTZ: Don’t – you’re not – you’re not nudging them, you’re not challenging them, you just letting them be heard?
MCRANEY: And so, they wanted to know what do we do there? What happened in that conversation that led to that. So, they started reviewing that, those specific conversations, and taking bits and pieces and testing out was it this, was it that, was is this, what is that.
And they eventually – when I met them they had done 17,000 of these conversations …
MCRANEY: … recorded on video and they had AV tested their way to a technique that was so powerful that while – I went there several times and – and went door-to-door with them and everything but every time I went, there would be scientists there, there’d be activists from around the world there because they’re like how – what have you done? What have you discovered?
And it’s very powerful and over the course of writing the book, the research was done couple different times on them and they found the – numbers you talked about 12, 10-12 percent success rate. And …
MCRANEY: … the methods, very simple, you only – really, know two of the steps but, I think it’s about 10 steps if you wanted to do it, the full thing. The most important aspect of this is non-judgmental listening and …
RITHOLTZ: Non-judgmental listening.
MCRANEY: And holding – you’re going to hold space, let the other person explore how they arrived at their current position.
RITHOLTZ: In other words, you’re going to help them very self-reflective and figure out their thought process.
MCRANEY: Right. It’s probably good to give you a foundation of what motivational – what motivated reasoning is right here. So, when somebody’s falling in love with someone and you ask them, like, why do you like them? Like why you – why are you going to date this person? They’ll same something like the way they talk, the way they walked, the way they cut their food, the music their introducing me to.
When that same person’s breaking up with that same person, you ask why you’re breaking up with them? They’ll say things like the way they talked, the way they walked, the way they cut their food, the dumb music they made me listen to. So, reasons for will become reasons against when the motivation to search for reason that will rationalize and justify your position change.
As we’ve said all throughout our conversation, we’re often unaware of that and if someone comes along and gives you an opportunity to self-reflect and the way you will go through your reasoning process, you often start to feel moments of dissonance and question yourself.
And as long as the other party isn’t is allowing you to save face and I just non-judgmental listening, that’s a big component of this and their technique, they’ll open up and say, OK, we’re talking about – that the same-sex marriage or transgender bathroom laws or something, they’re very political organizations, so those sort of the topics they cover.
They’ll ask a person – this is the – this is the biggest part of everything and this – I urge everyone to try this out on yourself and other people, you can just do it on a movie, like last movie that you watch, that – what’s the last movie you watched?
RITHOLTZ: “The Adam Project.”
MCRANEY: OK. “The Adam Project.” Did you like it?
RITHOLTZ: Yes. Ryan Reynold’s fun silliness.
MCRANEY: Boom. So easy to say I liked it. OK. Now, I ask on a scale from 0-10, like if you’re a movie reviewer, what would you give it?
RITHOLTZ: Six, seven.
MCRANEY: OK. Why – why does six feel like the right number?
RITHOLTZ: It’s not a great movie. It’s not “The Godfather” but it was entertaining and silly and fun.
MCRANEY: You like “The Godfather”?
RITHOLTZ: That’s a 10.
MCRANEY: Yes. Yes. What do you think does “The Godfather” has that this movie doesn’t?
RITHOLTZ: It’s much more sophisticated. It tells a much more interesting tale. It’s the characters are much more fleshed out. They’re more interesting. The violence is gripping whereas the violence in this is sort of cartoony.
MCRANEY: Right. So, we’re going to step out of that conversation and will come back to it. But now – this is what I’m doing, I’m listening to you, I’m not judging you and I’m giving you a chance to actually explore the reasoning and – and your values are starting to come up and things that are unique to you and things you like about the world.
A lot of times, this is the first time a person’s ever experienced that and this is a moment for you to start to understand yourself in a certain way and a conversation about a pollical issue, you might start pulling in things about where this actually – the first time you ever heard about those thing and it will become easy, t’s received wisdom. Are you being influenced, bothered?
And then all that comes into, it’s very easy for you to extract that emotion and tell me what you felt. I liked it, I didn’t like it. When I ask you to rationalize and justify it for me and come up and go through your own personal reasoning process, not my reasoning process, this is a unique experience for a lot of people.
Then the other thing I can do is, say, you give it a six, how come not, say, a four?
RITHOLTZ: Under five, I would think it’s something I didn’t especially like. I smiled and laughed throughout it and it kept me entertained for 90 minutes. That’s – and my nephews, that’s all I’m looking for.
MCRANEY: See? So, we’re getting more and deep – deeper into the things that you – that you look for in entertainment. But we are talking about a political issue, this is something that comes out of motivational interviewing and they weren’t aware of this, the deep canvassing people.
Therapist who had dealt with – people would come in for, say, alcoholism or drug addiction and, you know, they already are at a state of ambivalence. They – they want to do it and they don’t want to do it. That’s why they’ve come for help. But a psychologist would often engage in something called the writing reflects to say, OK, well, this – here’s what you’re doing wrong, here’s what you need to do. Here’s where …
RITHOLTZ: And they have to fight that.
MCRANEY: And you will feel something called reactance which is that unhand-me-you-fools feeling that I – I’m telling you what to think, I’m shaming you. And when you push away from it, you’ll start creating arguments to keep pursuing the thing. And they – this was such a debacle that they developed something called motivational interviewing where I would start – I would start trying to evoke from you counterarguments.
And I can do that very simply with a scale because when I ask you why not a four, the only thing you can really produce from your reasons why you wouldn’t go away from the six, which is also, going towards seven, and in a political discussion, that’s how they’ll open it up. They’ll say we’re talking about transgender bathroom laws, here’s the position that I’m talking about. It’s coming up for a vote.
I’m wondering where you’re at on that? Like a scale to one – 0-10. They’ll tell them and then they’ll say why that? And then this is a moment – we may stay there for 20 minutes. We go through how you arrived at this number.
And then in that, the deep canvassers do something different from the other groups. They ask the person –
RITHOLTZ: Personal anecdote.
MCRANEY: If they’ve had a personal experience with the issue.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. On the LGBT same-sex marriage issue, what seem to have come up, time and again was, hey is there anybody gay in your family?
MCRANEY: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: Do you want them to have – find love? Do you want them to find happiness? And suddenly when it becomes personal, the political issue gets inverted.
MCRANEY: That’s right. You start really realizing how much of this is abstraction, how much of this is received wisdom, how much of this is political signaling or group identity singling. And not every time, but many times, people who will have a personal experience related to the issue and that personal experience really issue will create massive amounts of cognitive dissonance on the position I just gave you.
RITHOLTZ: There’s a phrase which I was going to mention later but I – I have to share it. Excruciating disequilibrium. Is that how you ultimately get to a point where either some changes their perspective or – or something breaks?
MCRANEY: This is how we change our minds on everything. Like, we’re always changing our minds at all times. Like the —
RITHOLTZ: Everything is provisional until —
MCRANEY: Yes. And we don’t – we’re not – we’re totally not aware of it most of the time but this comes in the work of – of a lot of psychologist but I’m – I’m focusing on by I’m focus in on Piaget because there’s two mechanisms, assimilation and accommodation.
MCRANEY: Assimilation is when something’s ambiguous or uncertain, you interpret it in a way that says basically everything I thought and felt and believe before now, I still think, fell, and believe it – just to modify it a little bit with – you assimilate into your current model of reality.
Accommodation, on the other hand, is when there’s so many anomalies build or this is so counter attitudinal or counterfactual what you currently have in your model reality, I would say – call it schema, you must accommodate us.
You can think of it like a child sees a dog for the first time. And they go, what is that? You say it’s a dog. In their mind, something categorical, something like a got four legs, walks on four legs, it’s not wearing any clothes, it’s furry, has a tale, it’s nonhuman, dog.
And then if they see like a – an orange dog or a speckled dog, they can just say – they can assimilate that, there’s different versions of the thing you already understand. When they see a horse, they might point at it and go big dog. And they’re really —
RITHOLTZ: Well, it isn’t wrong.
MCRANEY: It’s an attempt to assimilate, like, I’m interpreting it and, look, it got four legs, it walks on four legs, it’s nonhuman, it’s not wearing clothes —
RITHOLTZ: Tail, fur. Blah-blah-blah.
MCRANEY: And you say, no, no, no. That’s not a dog. That’s a horse. This requires an accommodation moment because you need to create a category that both horses and dogs can fit within an overarching category and we’re doing it all the time. Like there are moments where we – I think of things like that have happened politically. I don’t know how politically you want to give it. Let’s —
MCRANEY: I can think about the insurrection rhyme. The – for a lot of people, I have positive attitudes toward a certain political persuasion and people within that positive attitude space did something I don’t like. So, I had these two feelings. I’m – I feel negatively and positively about what has happened.
You could accommodate and say, well, it looks like people who share my political views sometimes do bad things and I need to like have a more complex view of things or you could assimilate which is often how we get into conspiratorial thinking and say, well, I mean, look at this, what if they didn’t do that at all? What of those reactors? What of those were people who are pretending to be people that agree with me?
RITHOLTZ: So, how do you explain from that? Here’s the fascinating thing. There was widespread disapproval, especially from Republican leadership, and then very quickly within 60 days, maybe even less, 30 days, that faded and then it was just a bunch of tourists passing through Congress.
So was it just strictly that sort of tribal thing that we needed to – to everybody to manage? People just reverted back to their tribalism? Because there was some consensus for a brief period and then it went straight back to partisan politics.
MCRANEY: It was that – there’s a – there was a long stretch and there always is where you’re – you’re being pulled in every direction. And, you know, I don’t want to make a blanket statement. Most people are pretty rational about what happened there, but there’s a certain portion of the population that went very conspiratorial with it.
And there is a deep crisis of how to make sense of the world where should I put my allegiances and where my values expressed and what we would rather do is assimilate if we can get away with it because that allows us to maintain our current model and move forward.
And if we can find an elite who says, no, it’s okay to think what you think, In fact, I agree with you that I can find peers who will – who will support me in that. If I can find groups having conversations on the Internet who let me do this, I’ll assimilate and I’ll stay within it. And as they say in in psychology, my social network will reassert its influence.
RITHOLTZ: So, one of the interesting things about the shift in same-sex marriage opinion in U.S. is how sudden it was and when we compare it to things like abortion rights, Vietnam, race, voting, even marijuana, all those things seem to have taken much longer. Why is that?
MCRANEY: Those actually are the first question I had enough. I thought that – that’s what the book was going to be about. There’s a dozen different answers to that question. There was a sort of a confluence of psychological mechanisms. The most important part of it is contact, right?
There’s an idea in psychology called pluralistic ignorance where, you know, you ask – a lot of people will have – will have a certain feeling inside of them, an attitude or a value and they’ll feel like the only person within their community who has that feeling and less you surface the norm in some way, there are not – they will be aware that there are so many other people who feel the same way they feel.
RITHOLTZ: Surface the norm.
MCRANEY: Surface the norm as they put it. When I was asking political scientists about the shifts and attitudes about same-sex marriage, they kept telling me this was the fastest recorded shift in public opinion since we’ve been recording this since the ’20s and since then, though, there was an attitude shift on COVID-19 which I put in the book, that it was a little bit faster.
RITHOLTZ: But in this case – in which direction? Towards vaccination?
MCRANEY: Toward vaccination. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: Which is kind of interesting because there was an anti-vaccine movement pre-COVID —
RITHOLTZ: That was really kind of fringe and —
MCRANEY: I went to other conventions for the book, but it’s not in the book. It was part of the cut material.
RITHOLTZ: “The Lancet” article on what is it? MRM or RMR, I don’t remember which, measles, rubella, mumps vaccine which was subsequently completely debunked. But what ended up happening is that group seem to gain a little bit of momentum, the antivaxxers. And yet even – around the world, most countries are 65, 75, 85 percent vaccinated. Most wealthy, developed countries that with access to the vaccine.
The U.S. is a laggard. Less vaccinations, less boosts, and the most per capita deaths of any advanced economy which kinda raises the question, how much of an impact that the antivaxxers have even though a lot of people eventually came around got the vaccine?
MCRANEY: Yes. The reason I like to talk about flat earthers so much because the same psychological mechanisms are at play in everything else that we like to talk about politically.
RITHOLTZ: But most – most people assume they would never be a flat earther —
RITHOLTZ: — but you don’t necessarily get that uniformity when it comes to things like same-sex marriage.
MCRANEY: Right. Right.
RITHOLTZ: Or vaccines.
MCRANEY: Or any – or political – or any political issue that – anything becomes charged politically. And I use flat earthers so much because they’re pretty much neutral and people are – can feel like they have some dissonance from it and the mechanism – you can see those mechanisms at play and then I can say and that’s also in this and you can see how it works.
But the – with same sex marriage, the – it is almost possible to believe this as a person talking to a microphone right now in this modern moment like – it wasn’t very long ago.
RITHOLTZ: A decade ago.
MCRANEY: The people argued about this vehemently as they argue about, like, immigration and gun control and everything else that’s – that’s, that’s a wedge issue today and there were articles that would be – that would come out of it, like, this is something we’ll never get over.
You should – you shouldn’t talk about this at Thanksgiving kind of things, right? And then it was a course of about 12 years, but very rapidly over the course of three or four years from more than 60 percent of the country opposed to 60 percent in the country in favor and – around 2012-ish.
And the – it seemed like how could this possibly have happened and where did it come from? And I wanted to understand that too because I thought if I can take most of the – the country and put them in a time machine and send them back a decade, would they argue with themselves and what happened in between these two moments? And if they were going to change their mind about this, what’s preventing them from changing their mind the whole time?
One answer to that is that a lot of things that have changed when it comes to, like, social issues, people were separate from one another and social contexts. Whereas with same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues, coming out was a very huge part of that.
Any movement that urge people to reveal their identities and live openly allow people the opportunity under – to go, well, oh, my God, I have a family member like this. I have a person who I care about who’s being affected by this issu.e I have people who – my plumber, my, my hairdresser, my —
RITHOLTZ: Brother-in-law, friend.
MCRANEY: My brother in law – all these – this whole world and in that contact was part of that, right?
RITHOLTZ: I think that is the key to this being so stealthy why nobody saw it because you go from I know a guy who is gay or I know a woman who’s gay too. I know lots of people who are gay. And over that ensuing decade and the decade before, at least from my perspective, it felt like lots of people, both private and public personas, were coming out as gay.
And you know, you had Ellen come out which was a big deal and you had Wil and Grace on TV. It seemed like it was just the momentum was building for a long time.
MCRANEY: Yes. And there was an – and it was an exchange. Like, the —
RITHOLTZ: And – and you talked about it in the book where – where it’s the cascade —
MCRANEY: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: — is waiting for the network to be ready for that market.
MCRANEY: That’s exactly – that’s, yes, that’s where I’m headed up. Thanks for kicking me over to it.
RITHOLTZ: The culture is being influenced by the social change and then the social change, in reflection, influences the culture and this back-and-forth is what creates a staggered acceleration of the social change, right?
MCRANEY: But what’s deeper than that is to understood that network sciences cascades and the best way I could, like, quickly explain what a cascade is, is if you’ve ever been to a real party and everything seems to be going okay and then all of a sudden everybody leaves and you’re like, what happened? Especially with the host.
And if you’re ever, like, waited to get into a restaurant or if you remember back in universities, sitting, you’re waiting to get into a classroom and there’s just a big line of people and then the door opens up and you could have gone in at any time.
RITHOLTZ: It’s empty. No – no one’s in there.
MCRANEY: Right. These are examples of cascades, of cascades and down cascades.
RITHOLTZ: So, in a school setting or a restaurant setting, you’re waiting in line, the first person that shows up, they have an internal signal because they have no information, the door’s closed. So maybe in the past, they try to go into a classroom at the door and everybody turned and look at them and they felt really weird about it. Maybe they just have a certain kind of social anxiety. There are all sorts of nature and nurture things to give them an internal signal that says I should wait and see what’s going on, so they take out their phone, they’re playing with it.
The second person that shows up, they don’t just have an internal signal. They have one human being who seems to be waiting, but maybe they know something I don’t. So, whatever internal signal they have is magnified by that. They start to wait.
Once you show up at a door and there are two people waiting and you don’t – your – you’re pretty sure you’re going to wait too, once there are three people waiting at a door, the – it’s almost inevitable you’re going to get a line of people waiting because they assume they’re part of something and everybody knows something they don’t.
And you have with a cascade. The only thing that will break the cascade is new information out of the system. The door opens up and like, professors, like why you waiting or if somebody looked at their watch and is like, I, I figure we should have been in here by now. Or you could have a really rabble-rouser. You could have a subversive element. Somebody who’s a punk.
They have a low threshold for conformity. They’re like I don’t care what people think of me. I’m going to open the door. And that person will lead everybody in.
So, attuned of your – with our thresholds of conformity. Some people need only a few people around them to do something before they do it. Some people need a lot. And any population’s going to have a large mix of people who have different thresholds of conformity.
And if you think of it like an old chemistry molecule with like balls and sticks connected to it, each person is a node and each node has different threshold, a conformity. And that threshold and conformity is is influenced by how many people they know, so how many sticks are connected to balls around them and you end up with clumps and clusters of people who have different thresholds as a cluster.
Let’s say you’re at a party and they want to go because they’re tired of being there, they have work in the morning or whatever. But there are other people in the group who were like, I would like to go but, like, I can just be the first person that leaves. So, the person who has a reason to leave or they just don’t care what other people think, they – they leave the party. That encourages the next group of people who needed one more person to back them up to leave. Now, there are people who actually did – they wanted to stay at the party, but —
RITHOLTZ: But, hey, if everybody else is living.
MCRANEY: But their threshold of conformity just gotten to, like, I should probably go. And then, now you have the people who are really – who were going to stay all night and, like, I guess I’m the last person here. And they spend the night on your couch before they leave. And you’re like, my God, what happened to my party?
RITHOLTZ: This is cascades. This is a – it’s a very fascinating part of human psychology because we’re talking about massive groups of people and you have a nation of people, you’ll have massive clusters of people that will have different thresholds and we often will have one in that group, many of them called a percolating local cluster. Anyone listening who’s in this world, I hope you’re happy that I found your stuff because this stuff was totally unfamiliar to me.
The stuff goes into like diffusion science and people studying how rocks sink in and float —
RITHOLTZ: Percolating local clusters.
MCRANEY: Right. So, here’s the – here’s the best thing that I’ve ever seen about to explain this. You’re driving down – this is Duncan Watts.
RITHOLTZ: The fire.
MCRANEY: Yes. Duncan Watts. The great sociologist …
RITHOLTZ: “Everything is Obvious.”
MCRANEY: He is – he gave this example to me and I’ll thank him forever for it. You can imagine a road that people are driving down in the middle of a forest. There is someone who smokes a cigarette on the way to where were they going and they throw a cigarette out pretty much every time at certain spot in the forest. And they’ve been doing this for years and nothing ever happens.
And then one day, they tossed a cigarette out and it causes of a seven-county fire. Now, if you look of this from a sort of great man theory of history or you’re looking for people who are innovators, if you’re looking that old tipping point models and things like that, you’re looking for the mavens and the connectors and everything?
Well, it turns out the science doesn’t really support that very well. It has nothing to do with any individual being more connected or more powerful or more savvy than anybody else. What it has to do with is the susceptibility of the system to anybody throwing out a cigarette.
RITHOLTZ: Meaning how dry or drought stricken is that region.
MCRANEY: Right. Something happened in that system.
RITHOLTZ: What’s going on with dry leaves with – just the vulnerability of that forest.
MCRANEY: That’s right. That’s exactly how they – the phrasing they used. The vulnerability of that particular aspect of the network at that particular moment was quite vulnerable to any nudge, any impact, any strike. And the thing that really struck me about his example was it could’ve been a cigarette he tossed out, it could have been a lightning bolt, it could be a nuclear bomb, it didn’t matter how powerful it was. It didn’t matter how connected the person was real to give it in connection and the signs of that connectivity and everything.
It doesn’t matter that the cluster is vulnerable at that point. And any complex system is going to be like the surface of the ocean. It – there are – it’s constantly moving around. So, if you think of that molecule model of human connectivity, it’s costly morphing and changing as people – their relationships change and they move from one group to another.
So, the point that’s vulnerable is always moving. So, how do you affect great change, like same-sex marriage or any other social issue that we’ve seen in the past. You have to strike at the system relentlessly. And if you’re an individual, you need to get as many people on your – in your group to strike together and —
RITHOLTZ: Because eventually, you’re going to be the lit match in the dry forest.
MCRANEY: That’s the idea. And you have to let luck be a big part of it because you’re trying to find the percolating local cluster that will create the cascade, that will cascade all – along the network because your different thresholds and conformity are moving in and out of the networks that you’re affecting.
If you look through any of the history of people who – who affect the great social change, especially history of the United States, they had figured out some system by which to get a lot of people together to strike at the system relentlessly and they were indefatigable. And that was the most important aspect of the whole thing.
And there are also some other ways to nudge and move around but that seems to be the essence of it and that example from COVID-19, that’s what the fastest social change now ever recorded, they used this. What they did is they – it was the people who are very hesitant to get vaccinated because those in the U.K., people on certain religious communities were very hesitant because of their past with the government of the U.K. and they didn’t want to necessarily allow the – these government entities. They didn’t understand very well to take a needle and put something they didn’t understand very well into their bodies.
So, organizations got together with mosques and said, here’s the sites who will have vaccinations and they – they get the elites within that religious community to – to be the first to vaccinate. And so, what you end up with is you had this wave effect of the least hesitant among the most hesitant. So, these are people with the thresholds of conformity were they’ll go, well, all I need is one person I trust to do this. They get vaccinated.
Well, that’s a new wave of people who are vaccinated, so that next level of hesitancy says, well, this number of people that I trust have been vaccinated, I’ll get vaccinated. So, now, you have that next level of hesitancy that there’ve been – they’ve been satisfied —
RITHOLTZ: They told two friends and they told two friends.
MCRANEY: And you – you eventually wave your way to the cascade so that when you get to that middle hump that’s very hard to get over, you have so many people vaccinated around you, it seems kind of weird that you wouldn’t be – and – and it’s OK. You only – some of the holdouts may take forever. The last people to buy the fax machine or whatever but they’re in a world where you —
RITHOLTZ: But you got 90% people that have already —
MCRANEY: And that’s what we’re aiming for. And so, there are ways to – to catalyze the cascade effects but you have to – you have to think of it in terms of the diffusion model in this regard is not that old fashion. The early adopter holdout model. It’s – it’s waves of conformity via the thresholds of conformity where you want to build up by saying this group influences this group. Together, they become a new unit and so on and so on and so.
RITHOLTZ: Quite intriguing. So, let’s talk a little bit about this evolutionary baggage that we have. It seems that so much of our decision-making is affected by mechanisms and processes which works great on the savannah but in a modern world, don’t really seem to help us and sometimes hurt us.
MCRANEY: Yes. Yes. The – I mean, that’s been a big part of all of my work. The – all of these things are adaptive. That’s the phrase you want to use. Like, in – all things being equal, this is probably the best thing to do. But we get in to certain situations where they’re unique to modern life and it turns out that it can get us in trouble. So, that’s the – the baggage you’re talking about is one of those things where most of the time it serves as well. But in very specific situations, it – it goes the other way.
RITHOLTZ: Really intriguing. There’s is some specific evolutionary or adaptive issues that – that come up, why do humans argue and why is that really a social dynamic that we all do when we all evolve to do?
MCRANEY: I, this is one of my favorite things that – that changed the way I see the world in researching the book. A lot of this also goes back to the interactions model with the – Mercier and Sperber helped put together.
Why would we argue? Well, the human beings have this nice complex and dense communication system that eventually became language and we depend very much on the signals from other units in our social network to help us understand what’s going on, to make plans, to settle on the goal, shared goals to decide to just do stuff. And we – so we do a lot of deliberating and arguing in that space.
The problem is, imagine it like a – there are three people – three protohumans are on a hill and are all looking in different directions. And the – none of us can see what the other two can see. So you would benefit from some sort of worldview that is the combination of all three perspectives.
So, if I do trust these people, I know them pretty well and we’re talking about going to a certain place in the – in the forest together or something, one person’s for it, one person’s against it. I’ll know that the person who’s for it is young, this is their first time out, they don’t know much about the world. They’re eager to, like, show what they can do. That’s – the – that’s why they like that.
The person who’s hesitant, they were in a bear attack two years ago and they’re – I don’t know if they really are – maybe they’re a little over scared. This is all – so, I have – I have a pretty good idea of what – how to modulate my trust about when it comes to the deliberation process.
The more people involved in that process, the more complex it gets, the more I have to worry about people could be misleading me. They could be wrong, just – but no fault of their own or they could be purposely misleading me because they want to get an advantage over me.
So, they use the phrase we have a built-in epistemic vigilance when people might be misleading us. The – and that serves us well, too. The only problem is that can lead to something they call a trust bottleneck and a trust bottleneck is when someone does actually in our group come up with a very innovative idea. Maybe it’s a some sort of invention they’ve created, some sort of new way of her new way of doing something.
They have an idea about going to a new territory where there are good things for us to go do there. But it’s – there’s risk and rewards in it and this – but this person really is right. If we get into an argumentation process that’s too epistemically vigilant, then we will end up not doing the thing that can benefit the group. And so, we had this trust bottleneck that could prevent the – that calls groups to stagnate.
So, we developed another evolutionary mechanism to get past trust bottlenecks and that is arguing itself. The argumentation process is how we get through the trust bottleneck created by epistemic vigilance. And go ahead, yes.
RITHOLTZ: So, I was going to ask, why are we so good at picking other people’s arguments apart and so terrible at objectively evaluating —
MCRANEY: Well, it is – this is – it reminds me of something psychology call the Solomon paradox. I think it’s in business too. The – we’re, really good at giving out advice, it is very hard for us to actually employ in our own lives. Like, you know somebody who has a problem, they tell you, and you’re like, here’s what you ought to do. But then when you have that exact same problem, you don’t do that thing.
There’s some really cool research recently where they have people put on VR headsets and they – they walk into a room in virtual reality and see Freud sitting there. And Freud says tell me about your problems they sit down and they explained the problem they’re having.
And then they run it at the second time but the second time you are Freud and you see yourself walking, it’s all been recorded. They even have an avatar with your face and you hear the audio of yourself telling yourself – telling you, as Freud, what your problems are and have around 68% success rate of the person having a breakthrough, oh, I see what I ought to do now, that they couldn’t do on their own. They needed to get into a – this dynamic that we’re talking about.
RITHOLTZ: Meaning looking at it from with – through a different person’s eyes.
MCRANEY: They need to be – yeah, they had to get that evaluation phase. So, we have two cognitive mechanisms to really simplify this. One for the production of arguments, the production of justifications and rationalizations, reasons why we were doing something. That’s important that in psychology, reason is not the big R reason of philosophy with propositional logic and all that.
It’s just coming up for – with reasons for what you think —
MCRANEY: It’s rationalization.
MCRANEY: Totally. Rationalization – rationalization and justification, and in some cases, just explanation. And why – why do we do this? Well, the – the – interactions model is because we’re always imagining the audience is going to be receiving the information. That’s why you – in your shower, you’re thinking of how you’re going to really stick it to that person on Reddit that you’ve been arguing with all day, right?
Why? Because that’s the – that’s how – that’s how we produce reasons, but we also do it alone. Like, if I’m imagining I want to buy something on Amazon or want to take a trip somewhere, you’ll start rationalizing and justifying it to yourself. And when you – when you want a piece of cake , you will come up with a justification for getting a cake, right? Like I didn’t eat anything today or I did – I exercise yesterday or whatever it is you need to do. You want to do it but you needed justification for it.
There’s a humungous body of evidence that that we don’t even make the decisions that are best, we only make the decision that’s easiest to justify. And the Mercier and Sperber and all these great experiments where they have people – one of them, they had people – they solve these word problems and then they would mix the answers up and have people evaluate other people who’ve been looking at the word problem.
But of course, the trick is when one of the answers is their own and they would find that when people were thinking that they were evaluating other people’s arguments, they’d find the holes in their own, like, thinking, in their own reasoning. But if they felt they were looking at their own augments, they usually miss it. And so —
RITHOLTZ: So, it’s an effective trick – maybe trick is a wrong word, but it’s an effective technique to get people to objectively —
RITHOLTZ: — self-analyze is to make them believe they’re criticizing someone else’s argument.
MCRANEY: Right. So, the – and what seems to be the function here, why this is so adaptive is that under a lot of pressure, or it doesn’t even – it doesn’t even need to be a group selection process, it’s just simply how the math works out.
If you have a lot of people, a lot of different experiences, and they have a lot of different value sets and they have a lot of skill sets and you’re facing a problem, you’re trying to come up with a solution to it or you have a goal you want to reach, you will be much effective as a group. If everybody presents their biased, individual perspective and they don’t put a lot of cognitive effort into the production of it, make it easy, cheap, and biased, then you offload the cognitive labor to that evaluation process, that 12 Angry Men experience where everyone looks at each other’s arguments and goes OK, this, that, this, that, this that.
And then overtime has developed these two mechanisms. We have this – that’s why, as individuals, this is – the biggest problem of the Internet is that we – we do a lot of our deliberating these days in context that incentivize the production of arguments, but don’t really give us much opportunity to go through that evaluation together.
RITHOLTZ: There’s a phrase you had in the book that caught my eye, debate leads those who are wrong to change their minds. And as a group, you want to get to the best decision, the best outcome, on the Internet, it’s not as much a real collaborative discussion argument debate as it is just people yelling past each other.
MCRANEY: Yes. But it feels like it. I feel —
RITHOLTZ: It looks like a real debate, but it’s not.
MCRANEY: Yes. I feel like I’m doing that. I feel like I’m participating in some sort of marketplace of ideas. It seems like I’m doing that. But the way the platforms are currently set up for the most part is just people yelling and people don’t like writing on a piece of paper what they think, feel, and believe and dumping it on to a big pile.
MCRANEY: And then other people running through the pile and got mad. Like, there’s – it’s not like 12 Angry Men. We’re not actually sitting in a circle in – or you know, it’s not like a dinner party where we’re, hey, I’m sure you’ve had dinner parties or had guests over who have really wildly different political views in you and you didn’t like, get into Twitter mind with them. You talked it out in some way that is – that – that aspect is something we’ve yet to tweak the system to allow us in certain contexts.
RITHOLTZ: There was a very amusing cartoon, I don’t remember, whose it was. But the line was, what did you do when the United States was overthrown in the early 21st century? Oh, I tweeted my disapproval (inaudible). And it just, you know, what – what is 140 or now 280 characters? It’s just – it scrolls by instantly. It’s not really that sort of engaged discussion.
MCRANEY: Yes. I don’t mean to be, like, I don’t mean to poopoo (ph) on social media. It’s great for what it is. It’s just that it is – but it also is what it is. Like, it’s been a – it’s a great tool for giving voice to people who haven’t been part of the conversation a long time. It’s a great way to gauge what are people thinking and feeling.
But if we want to do the deliberation thing, the argumentation thing that moves things around, it’s not so great at that yet.
RITHOLTZ: And the question is, will – will it ever be? So, so you mentioned 12 Angry Men. There’s a – there’s a great line in your book, all culture is 12 Angry Men at scale.
RITHOLTZ: Go into some detail about that.
MCRANEY: You know, it plays what I’ve – we were just discussing. Like the – everything we’ve ever achieved as species of note has came out of all – a lot of people disagreeing and then like sorting it out. And there are – we’ve been great at creating some – some institutions that do this on purpose, like, science when is done well is a group of people debating and arguing are you the and they’re trying to tear each other’s ideas apart.
RITHOLTZ: But there’s a good faith in science —
MCRANEY: But there’s good faith —
RITHOLTZ: And medicine and elsewhere that —
MCRANEY: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: — you may not get on – on Reddit or Twitter.
MCRANEY: It’s so crucial to create – creating the rules of the game and we all play by it. And you – I’ve – if I meet you on the street or I meet you on the Internet, like, we may not be in a good faith environment. We’re going to play by those rules that – that’s why was so nice to create these systems of argumentation, like law and medicine and academia.
The – and most of the people that we – I’m very against the great man theory of things that were you – imagine, single inventors coming up with amazing insights like no one ever does anything in isolation like that. The – and a lot of them – even a few, we’ve applauded throughout history, they had – either someone that they bounced ideas with or across and against or they collaborated with or they were absolutely assaulted over and over by people who disagreed with them and they had to refine their arguments in the presence of all that.
And that’s why I talked about culture being 12 Angry Men at scale, like, once – any, like, society figures out a way to institutionalize those things, that’s when you get those massive leaps in – in both – in the social domain, the political domain and the scientific and technological domains.
RITHOLTZ: So, given all of these things we’ve been talking about from tribalism to identity, how do we get people to actually change their mind? What are the three key things people need to have happen to them in order to get a major shift in their position?
MCRANEY: Well, you know, it would be difficult, I think, to pick just three things but I can think of a couple of things that would fit in here. I think one thing I want people to understand is all persuasion is self-persuasion. Most – mostly when it comes to changing people’s minds where you’re trying to do is alert them the fact that they could change their mind. That’s possible —
RITHOLTZ: So, a little bit of Socratic process is you guiding them to something and if they’re not willing, then they’re never going to change their mind.
MCRANEY: Right. And it’s – I – we talked a lot about how facts don’t seem to work so well. That’s only because the – usually when you start arguing with somebody over an issue, you want to present them, you’ll say, like, hey, read this book. Hey, watch this YouTube video, hey, go to this website. You know what, that should do it.
But how’s that – has that ever happened to you? Like never has anyone sent me a YouTube video and I’m, like, oh, OK, I never knew it, though. I think I’ve totally changed my mind about the issue.
RITHOLTZ: This tweet changed my mind, said nobody ever.
MCRANEY: And that’s the idea that is you – there’s a reasoning, there’s a chain of processing involved in reasoning where you are probably unaware that you went through all these and it landed on a particular conclusion because it – it made sense to you. It matched your values and your attitudes and your beliefs on the matter.
And you have to afford the other person the opportunity go through that at same process. You can’t meet them the level of the conclusion because what ends up happening is you just start tossing these – these facts that support your position at each other instead of having a conversation in which we’re looking at the issue together, right?
So that’s one thing. It’s like you can’t copy and paste your reasoning into another person. And when you try and do – to argue just based on facts and links and stuff, that’s really what you’re suggesting they ought to do.
So, all persuasion, self persuade. I have to open up a space for you to explore your own reasoning and I have to open up a space for you to entertain different perspectives and to think about where your stuff comes from is what we did earlier in the conversation.
Secondly, you have to recognize that we’re social creatures. So, people are influenced by the signaling and the expectations of the people around them. If you say anything to that person that can be interpreted as you ought to be ashamed for what you think, feel, and believe, conversations over at that point. No one was willing to be ostracized.
The great sociologist, Brooke Harrington, told me, if there was an E=mc2 of social science, it would be social death, the fear of social death is greater than the fear of physical death.
RITHOLTZ: Literally a quote I have written down because I thought it was so – so poignant.
MCRANEY: And she ran me through a hundred examples where this this is true. From war to —
RITHOLTZ: Excommunications, go down the list. It – it is social – social death is actual death, in most of history.
MCRANEY: And I don’t care who you are or what profession you’re in, you’re worried about other people around you and the profession think about you and your modulating your behavior to go with and your modulating your beliefs, attitude and values.
And when it comes down to it, if the situation requires it, you’ll put your reputation on the life and you let your body sink to the bottom of the ocean if that that’s the situation you’re put in.
RITHOLTZ: Hence dueling and all those honor things.
MCRANEY: Dueling. We —
RITHOLTZ: Just amazing.
MCRANEY: We do – I’ll talked all about it in the book, dueling last a long time was really peculiar but it was just the systematic control. If I’m trying to discuss an issue with you and I put you in – in that state of mind, you – there’s no – what you’re going to do is react, you’re going to push back against me, then I’m going to get – feel that feeling I’m going to pushback against you then you push back harder, I push back harder, and we end up in that stupid phrase of let’s agree to disagree.
Well, we already agreed to disagree. That how we sat down here, right? What you’re really saying is stop talking to me. That’s what that is. It’s a nice —
RITHOLTZ: We’re agreeing to stop arguing or debating.
MCRANEY: We’re agreeing to never actually advance this issue and never talk to each other again. So, never open up the conversation with anything that could be interpreted as you ought to be ashamed even if they should be ashamed of what they’re feeling and thinking if you are hoping to persuade them, you have to not to do that.
And then the – so be aware that they’re a social primate, you’re a social primate. Never try copy and paste reasoning of the other person. And the most important part is that you have to get out of debate frame. Don’t – don’t create dynamic where I want to win and I want you to lose. I want to show that I’m right and you’re wrong.
This is – this is the most crucial thing you could nothing out away from it to take this. Think of it more like, I’ll find you a reasonable, rational interesting human being and it’s odd that I disagree with you on this. I wonder why I disagree with you. Our disagreement is a mystery. What if we teamed up to solve a mystery together of why we disagree>
And now, we’re taking all these things that are adaptive and using them in a way that could actually get us further along and settle – and what might actually happen as we both realize we’re both wrong. What we – we get the Venn diagram ourselves, so you go from face-off to shoulder to shoulder, and this – there are many other ways to go about it, but once you get in that dynamic, you’re much more likely to persuade each other of something and move that into the room.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating so let’s jump to our speed round both. I’m going to ask all these questions, 30 seconds or less —
MCRANEY: I’m going to give my best.
RITHOLTZ: These are – these are what we ask all of our guests starting with what you streaming or listening to? Tell us what – what Netflix, Amazon Prime, podcast kept you entertained in the past couple of years?
MCRANEY: Cool. Very quickly. My favorite podcast has always been or still is “Decoder Ring.” I recommend it to everybody. I love it. Willa Paskin is amazing. Best show I streamed recently is definitely “Severance.” Everybody should have seen severance by now. Also, “The Rehearsal.” You can see the kind of stuff that I like to watch —
RITHOLTZ: Someone just recommended “The Rehearsal” and said it reminded them of – of “Severance” and how out there —
MCRANEY: Yes. Watch that. And then like I – I am one of those people that plays video games, the highest form of art. Definitely “Death Stranding” and I replayed by “Bioshock” recently because I interviewed Douglas Rushkoff and were talking about “Bioshock” and it still holds up.
RITHOLTZ: Who are some of your mentors who helped you develop your – your view of psychology and cognitive issues and persuasion?
MCRANEY: Jean Edwards, my first – like, the first psychology professor that took me inside – aside and said let’s be friends and really talk about it. I owe a lot to her. People who I’ve met in real life?
MCRANEY: James Burke is the most influential person in my life.
RITHOLTZ: I loved his who years ago. I think it was BBC, “How the Universe Changed”?
MCRANEY: “How the Universe Changed” and “Connections” and I —
RITHOLTZ: “Connections,” another great —
MCRANEY: Only for people listening to this, I worked with Johansson and James Burke all over – all throughout COVID to develop a new “Connections” series.
MCRANEY: And I can’t say anything else about it but will be coming out with – the next year.
RITHOLTZ: Very exciting. I love his stuff. What are some of your favorite books and what are you reading right?
MCRANEY: Let me just say, as far as authors I love John Jeremiah Sullivan, Charlie LeDuff, Michael Perry, Larry Brown. All these are either people who are in Southern Gothic literature or are the Southern Gothic version of journalism. I can’t get enough of that stuff.
RITHOLTZ: Our last two questions, what sort of advice would you give to a recent college grad who is interested in a career of either journalism or psychology or anything related to – to your fields?
MCRANEY: OK. I can give you – I’ll give you two solid pieces of advice that aren’t just high-minded like that sounds nice and they could put it on in the postcard thing. This is what we ought to do. Number one, email the people that you admire are the people you’d liked to interview.
I have about a 70% success rate of —
MCRANEY: — when I was starting out. A people – they’ll at least email you back and say I can’t talk, but you be surprised how many people are willing to talk to you. Just do that.
And then on the backend, make content out of that and give it away for free until you build up an audience. We now live in a environment, we’ve been living at it for about 20 years now where the people who are going to offer their hand to get you on stage, they care about whether or not you have an audience yet.
You can build that audience without anybody’s permission right now and you can do that by making content on TikTok, YouTube, putting on medium, wherever you put your stuff. So, do those two things back to back. Email the people you want and to make content for – out of those emails and give it away for free until you have an audience. Develop your voice.
RITHOLTZ: Love – love that idea. Final question, what you know about the world of psychology, changing minds, and persuasion today that you wish you knew 20 or so years ago when you were first getting started?
MCRANEY: Well, no one’s unreachable, no one’s not persuadable, there’s no such thing. And I think it’ll be more like if you try to reach the moon with a ladder, you’ll fail and if you assume from that that the moon is unreachable, then you’ve really learned nothing, right? And that’s what I actually had thought for a long time and it turns out the frustration I was feeling toward people should have been directed myself for not trying to understand, well, why is this not working the way I thought it should work?
The assumption that they’re stupid, they’re misled, or they’re nefarious in some way, that was the – a real misconception on my part. The misconception that people are just absolutely unreachable and unpersuadable. I have, through the work of this book, changed my mind.
RITHOLTZ: Thank you, David, for being so generous with your time. We have been speaking with David McRaney, the award-winning science journalist and author of the book, “How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion.”
If you enjoy this conversation, be sure and check out any of our 400 previous discussions over the past eight years. You can find those at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, wherever you feed your podcast fix. You can sign up for my daily reading list at ritholtz.com. Follow me on Twitter @ritholtz.
I would be remiss if I did not thank the crack team that helps put these conversations together each week. Justin Milner was my audio engineer, Atika Valbrun is my project manager, Paris Wald is my producer, Sean Russo is my head of research. I’m Barry Ritholtz, you’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
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