How to fight back against the backfire effect

The final show in my three-part series about the pitfalls associated with trying to debunk myths, battle fake news, and correct misinformation is up. In this episode I interview scientists who have great advice on how to both avoid the backfire effect and eventually overcome it.

If you ask a social scientist familiar with motivated reasoning and the backfire effect if there is any hope to ever reach people who refuse to accept facts – is there any chance to change people’s minds with evidence, reason, or scientific consensus – they will usually point you to a 2010 paper titled: “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners ever ‘Get It’?”

Like most of us, political scientists David P. Redlawsk, Andrew J.W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson wondered if, when confronted with challenges to their erroneous beliefs, do the people who resist efforts at correction ever come around, or are we just causing more harm than good by trusting in facts instead of using some time-tested technique from the emotional manipulation toolkit?

To test this, Redlawsk and his team created a mock presidential election in which people would gradually learn more and more terrible things about their preferred virtual candidates from a virtual news media. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the news stories they read included a precise mix of negative information about their chosen candidates so the effect of those messages could be measured as the negativity increased in intensity.

The scientists thought that surely, at some point, after a person had chosen one candidate over another, a constant flow of negative information about that person would persuade them to reconsider their choices. Read the rest

How motivated skepticism strengthens incorrect beliefs

This is part two in my "The Backfire Effect" series. This one focuses on motivated reasoning, specifically something called motivated skepticism. In addition, it features interviews with the scientists who coined the backfire effect term itself and who have extended their original research outside of politics and into health issues.

By now you’ve likely heard of confirmation bias. As a citizen of the internet the influence of this cognitive tendency is constant, and its allure is pervasive.

In short, when you have a hunch that you might already understand something, but don’t know for sure, you tend to go searching for information that will confirm your suspicions.

When you find that inevitable confirmation, satisfied you were correct all along, you stop searching. In some circles, the mental signal to end exploration once you feel like your position has sufficient external support is referred to as the wonderfully wordy “makes sense stopping rule” which basically states that once you believe you’ve made sense of something, you go about your business satisfied that you need not continue your efforts. In other words, just feeling correct is enough to stop your pursuit of new knowledge. We basically had to invent science to stop ourselves from trying to solve problems by thinking in this way.

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Read the rest

The neuroscience of changing your mind

This is the first of three You Are Not So Smart episodes about the "backfire effect." In it, I interview a team of neuroscientists who put people in a brain scanner and then challenged their beliefs, some political and some not, with counter-evidence and then compared which brain regions lit up for which beliefs. The crazy takeaway was that for political beliefs, but not for others, people seemed to react as if their very bodies were being threatened by the challenging evidence.

We don’t treat all of our beliefs the same.

If you learn that the Great Wall of China isn’t the only man-made object visible from space, and that, in fact, it’s actually very difficult to see the Wall compared to other landmarks, you update your model of reality without much fuss. Some misconceptions we give up readily, replacing them with better information when alerted to our ignorance.

For others constructs though, for your most cherished beliefs about things like climate change or vaccines or Republicans, instead of changing your mind in the face of challenging evidence or compelling counterarguments, you resist. Not only do you fight belief change for some things and not others, but if you successfully deflect such attacks, your challenged beliefs then grow stronger.

The research shows that when a strong-yet-erroneous belief is challenged, yes, you might experience some temporary weakening of your convictions, some softening of your certainty, but most people rebound and not only reassert their original belief at its original strength, but go beyond that and dig in their heels, deepening their resolve over the long run. Read the rest

Questioning the nature of reality with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman

Back in the early 1900s, the German biologist Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll couldn’t shake the implication that the inner lives of animals like jellyfish and sea urchins must be radically different from those of humans.

Uexküll was fascinated by how meaty, squishy nervous systems gave rise to perception. Noting that the sense organs of sea creatures and arachnids could perceive things that ours could not, he realized that giant portions of reality must therefore be missing from their subjective experiences, which suggested that the same was true of us. In other words, most ticks can’t enjoy an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical because, among other reasons, they don’t have eyes. On the other hand, unlike ticks, most humans can’t smell butyric acid wafting on the breeze, and so no matter where you sit in the audience, smell isn’t an essential (or intended) element of a Broadway performance of Cats.

Uexküll imagined that each animal’s subjective experience was confined to a private sensory world he called an umwelt. Each animal’s umwelt was different, he said, distinctive from that of another animal in the same environment, and each therefore was tuned to take in only a small portion of the total picture. Not that any animal would likely know that, which was Uexküll’s other big idea. Because no organism can perceive the totality of objective reality, each animal likely assumes that what it can perceive is all that can be perceived. Each umwelt is a private universe, fitted to its niche, and the subjective experiences of all of Earth’s creatures are like a sea filled with a panoply of bounded virtual realities floating past one another, each unaware that it is unaware. Read the rest

James Burke’s new project aims to help us deal with change, think connectively, and benefit from surprise

In this episode of the YANSS Podcast, we sit down with legendary science historian James Burke, who returns to the show to explain his newest project, a Connections app that will allow anyone to search and think “connectively” when exploring Wikipedia.

He launched the Kickstarter for the app this month. This is a link to learn more.

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For much of his career, science historian James Burke has been creating documentaries and writing books aimed at helping us to make better sense of the enormous amount of information that he predicted would one day be at our fingertips.

In Connections, he offered an “alternate view of history” in which great insights took place because of anomalies and mistakes, because people were pursuing one thing, but it lead somewhere surprising or was combined with some other object or idea they could never have imagined by themselves. Innovation took place in the spaces between disciplines, when people outside of intellectual and professional silos, unrestrained by categorical and linear views, synthesized the work of people still trapped in those institutions, who, because of those institutions, had no idea what each other was up to and therefore couldn’t predict the trajectory of even their own disciplines, much less history itself.

In The Day the Universe Changed, Burke explored the sequential impact of discovery, innovation, and invention on how people defined reality itself. “You are what we know,” he wrote “and when the body of knowledge changes, so do we." In this view of change, knowledge is invented as much as it is discovered, and new ideas “nibble at the edges” of common knowledge until values considered permanent and fixed fade into antiquity just like any other obsolete tool. Read the rest

Statcheck: a data-fakery algorithm that flagged 50,000 articles

Michèle B. Nuijten and co's statcheck program re-examines the datasets in peer-reviewed science and flags anomalies that are associated with fakery, from duplication of data to internal inconsistencies. Read the rest

The neuroscience behind the things that our brains do poorly

In this episode we interview Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain: What Your Brain is Really Up To. Burnett’s book is a guide to the neuroscience behind the things that our amazing brains do poorly.

In the interview we discuss motion sickness, the pain of breakups, why criticisms are more powerful than compliments, the imposter syndrome, anti-intellectualism, irrational fears, and more. Burnett also explains how the brain is kinda sorta like a computer, but a really bad one that messes with your files, rewrites your documents, and edits your photos when you aren’t around.

Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist who lectures at Cardiff University and writes about brain stuff over at his blog, Brain Flapping hosted by The Guardian.

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Everything we now know about the universe—from the behavior of quarks to the birth of entire galaxies—has stemmed from scientists who’ve been willing to ponder the unanswerable. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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People in crowds do not spontaneously de-evolve into subhuman beasts

This episode’s guest, Michael Bond, is the author of The Power of Others, and reading his book I was surprised to learn that despite several decades of research into crowd psychology, the answers to most questions concerning crowds can still be traced back to a book printed in 1895.

Gustave’s Le Bon’s book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, explained that humans in large groups are dangerous, that people spontaneously de-evolve into subhuman beasts who are easily swayed and prone to violence. That viewpoint has informed the policies and tactics of governments and police forces for more than a century, and like many prescientific musings, much of it is wrong.

Listen in this episode as Michael Bond, explains that the more research the social sciences conduct, the less the idea of a mindless, animalistic mob seems to be true. He also explains what police forces and governments should be doing instead of launching tear gas canisters from behind riot shields which actually creates the situation they are trying to prevent. Also, we touch on the psychology of suicide bombers, which is just as surprising as what he learned researching crowds.

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Everything we now know about the universe—from the behavior of quarks to the birth of entire galaxies—has stemmed from scientists who’ve been willing to ponder the unanswerable. Read the rest

What we think about when we try not to think about global warming

In this episode, psychologist Per Espen Stoknes discusses his book: What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming.

Stoknes has developed a strategy for science communicators who find themselves confronted with climate change deniers who aren’t swayed by facts and charts. His book presents a series of psychology-based steps designed to painlessly change people’s minds and avoid the common mistakes scientists tend to make when explaining climate change to laypeople.

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries taught by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Everything we now know about the universe—from the behavior of quarks to the birth of entire galaxies—has stemmed from scientists who’ve been willing to ponder the unanswerable. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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This episode is also brought to you by Mack Weldon who believes in smart design, premium fabrics and simple shopping. Read the rest

How to change people’s minds on social issues with "deep canvassing"

Oddly enough, we don’t know very much about how to change people’s minds on social issues, not scientifically. That’s why the work of the a group of LGBT activists in Los Angeles is offering something valuable to psychology and political science – a detailed map of uncharted scientific territory.

Over the last eight years, and through more than 12,000 conversations, The Leadership LAB has developed a new kind of persuasion they call deep canvassing. Volunteer’s go door-to-door, talking to strangers, and often change their attitudes about things like same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

Unfortunately, the first scientist to measure the technique’s effectiveness also committed scientific fraud by copy/pasting some data from another study and cutting corners in other ways, creating a wave of negative publicity that threatened the reputation of the people who created the technique, even though they were just the subjects of the study and not involved in the wrongdoing.

In the show, you will meet two scientists who uncovered the fraud and got the paper retracted, and then decided to go ahead and start over, do new research themselves, and see if the persuasion technique that the original researcher was supposed to be studying truly worked.

Can you reduce prejudice with a single 20-minute conversation? Can you flip people’s opinions in just one encounter? Learn what the latest science has to say about deep canvassing in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Read the rest

How the "separate spheres" ideology is still affecting us today

Common sense used to dictate that men and women should only come together for breakfast and dinner.

According to Victorian historian Kaythrn Hughes, people in the early 19th Century thought the outside world was dangerous and unclean and morally dubious and thus no place for a virtuous, fragile woman. The home was a paradise, a place for civility, where perfect angelic ladies could, in her words, “counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere.”

By the mid 1800s, women were leaving home to work in factories, and they were fighting for their right to vote and to get formal educations and much more – and if you believed in preserving the separate spheres, the concept that men and women should only cross paths at breakfast and dinner, then as we approached the 20th century, this created a lot of anxiety for you.

Despite their relative invisibility, a norm, even a dying one, can sometimes be harnessed and wielded like a weapon by conjuring up old fears from a bygone era. It’s a great way to slow down social change if you fear that change. When a social change threatens your ideology, fear is the simplest, easiest way to keep more minds from changing.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we explore how the separate spheres ideology is still affecting us today, and how some people are using it to scare people into voting down anti-discrimination legislation.

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This episode is sponsored by Blue Apron who sets the highest quality standards for their community of artisanal suppliers, family-run farms, fisheries and ranchers. Read the rest

The most logical logical fallacy of them all, the existential fallacy

Hypothetical situations involving dragons, robots, spaceships, and vampires have all been used to prove and disprove arguments.

Statements about things that do not exist can still be true, and can be useful thinking tools for exploring philosophical, logical, sociological, and scientific concepts.

The problem is that sometimes those same arguments accidentally require those fictional concepts to be real in order to support their conclusions, and that’s when you commit the existential fallacy.

In this episode we explore the most logical logical fallacy of them all, the existential fallacy. No need to get out your pens and paper, we will do that for you, as we make sense of one the most break-breaking thinking mistakes we’ve ever discovered.

This episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast is the tenth in a full season of episodes exploring logical fallacies. The first episode is here.

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This episode is sponsored by Bombas – game-changing socks. Bombas decided to take socks seriously, by designing the most highly engineered, best-fitting, comfortable socks humans have ever imagined – and they look cool too. Go to Bombas.com/SOSMART for 20% off your first order.

This episode is also sponsored by Casper Mattresses. Buying a Casper mattress is completely risk free. Casper offers free delivery and free returns with a 100-night home trial. If you don’t love it, they’ll pick it up and refund you everything. Casper understands the importance of truly sleeping on a mattress before you commit, especially considering you’re going to spend a third of your life on it. Read the rest

How you can avoid committing the "conjunction fallacy"

Here is a logic puzzle created by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

“Linda is single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with the issue of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in demonstrations. Which of the following is more probable: Linda is a bank teller or Linda is a bank teller AND is active in the feminist movement?”

In studies, when asked this question, more than 80 percent of people chose number two. Most people said it was more probably that Linda is a bank teller AND active in the feminist movement, but that’s wrong. Can you tell why?

This thinking mistake is an example of the subject of this episode – the conjunction fallacy. Listen as three experts in logic and reasoning explain why people get this question wrong, why it is wrong, and how you can avoid committing the conjunction fallacy in other situations.

This episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast is the ninth in a full season of episodes exploring logical fallacies. The first episode is here.

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This episode is sponsored by Bombas – game-changing socks. Bombas decided to take socks seriously, by designing the most highly engineered, best-fitting, comfortable socks humans have ever imagined – and they look cool too. Go to Bombas.com/SOSMARTfor 20% off your first order.

This episode is also sponsored by Squarespace. Creating your website with Squarespace is a simple, intuitive process. Read the rest

Why you judge things on the basis of the source of information

We often overestimate and overstate just how much we can learn about a claim based on where that claim originated, and that’s the crux of the genetic fallacy, according to the experts in this episode.

The genetic fallacy appears when people trace things back to their sources, and if you traced back to their shared source the ad hominem attack (insulting the source instead of attacking its argument) and the argument from authority (praising the source instead of supporting its argument), you would find the genetic fallacy is the mother of both kinds of faulty reasoning.

You might be in danger of serially committing the genetic fallacy if your first instinct is to ask where attitude-inconsistent comes from once you feel the twinge of fear that appears after a belief is threatened.

In this episode, listen as three experts in logic and rationality when we should and when we should not take the source of a statement into account when deciding if something is true or false.

This episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast is the eighth in a full season of episodes exploring logical fallacies. The first episode is here.

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This episode is sponsored by Bombas – game-changing socks. Bombas decided to take socks seriously, by designing the most highly engineered, best-fitting, comfortable socks humans have ever imagined – and they look cool too. Go to Bombas.com/SOSMART for 20% off your first order.

This episode is also sponsored by Exo Protein. Read the rest

How you make excuses in order to maintain your beliefs

Without realizing it, you sometimes apply a double standard to the things you love, believe, and consider crucial to your identity.

If you do this while arguing, it is sometimes called special pleading. You search for exemptions and excuses for why a rule or a description or a definition does not apply to something that you hold dear while still applying those standards to everything else.

You also use special pleading to explain away how something extraordinary failed to stand up to scrutiny, or why there is a lack of evidence for a difficult-to-believe claim that you personally think is credible.

One of the tools used by special pleaders is called moving the goalposts. Whenever your opponent eliminates one of your claims, you alter your claim just a smidge so that it remains right outside your opponent’s rhetorical grasp. When they do it again, you move your claim a bit more.

In this episode, listen as three experts in logic and reasoning dive deep into the odd thinking behind the special pleading fallacy and how you move the goalposts to keep from seeming incorrect.

This episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast is the seventh in a full season of episodes exploring logical fallacies. The first episode is here.

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This episode is brought to you by the MIT Press, publishing Marc Wittmann’s Felt Time The Psychology of How We Perceive Time. Read more about Felt Time and a few other new science, philosophy, language, and technology titles at mitpress.com/smart. Read the rest

How to get the most out of realizing you are wrong by using Bayes’ Theorem to update your beliefs

You don’t treat all of your beliefs equally.

For some, you see them as either true or false, correct or incorrect. For others, you see them as probabilities, chances – odds. In one world, you live in certainty, in the other, uncertainty.

In this episode we explore why you gladly update some beliefs yet refuse to update others.

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This episode is brought to you by the MIT Press, publishing Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s book The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable. Read more about The Human Advantage and a few other new science, philosophy, language, and technology titles at mitpress.com/smart.

This episode is also sponsored by Casper Mattresses – obsessively engineered American-made mattresses at a shockingly fair price. And now, you can get $50 toward any mattress purchase by going to casper.com/sosmart and using code sosmart

This episode is also brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with The Fundamentals of Photography filmed in partnership with The National Geographic and taught by professional photographer Joel Sartore. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

If you love the show and want to support its continued production, become a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free as well as show extras and original content just for patrons. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

In this episode you will learn from two experts in reasoning how to apply a rule from the 1700s called Bayes’ Theorem not only to numbers you can plug into formulas, but also to the beliefs you carry around in order to make sense of the world. Read the rest

Why we are unaware of how unaware we are

Each one of us has a relationship with our own ignorance, a dishonest, complicated relationship, and that dishonesty keeps us sane, happy, and willing to get out of bed in the morning.

Part of that ignorance is a blind spot we each possess that obscures both our competence and incompetence.

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This episode is also brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with The Fundamentals of Photography filmed in partnership with The National Geographic and taught by professional photographer Joel Sartore. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

If you love the show and want to support its continued production, become a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free as well as show extras and original content just for patrons. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

In the case of singing, you might get all the way to an audition on X-Factor on national television before someone finally provides you with an accurate appraisal. David Dunning says that the shock that some people feel when Simon Cowell cruelly explains to them that they suck is often the result of living for years in an environment filled with mediocrity enablers. Friends and family, peers and coworkers, they don’t want to be mean or impolite. They encourage you to keep going until you end up in front of millions reeling from your first experience with honest feedback. Read the rest

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