Discomfort = Skepticism

You read a headline that smart TVs emit radiation that is perfectly safe.  What do you do?  Nothing, right?  It makes sense and there’s nothing to worry about.

What if the headline says smart TVs emit radiation that’s deadly for anyone watching more than 15 minutes a day for 7 years.  Would you accept those findings just as easily, chucking out your TV as a minor sacrifice to good health? Before visiting the recycling centre, I reckon that maybe you’d actually read the report under the headline and understand what the research actually said.  You might even check how credible it is, and find out if any other experts agree or disagree.

When we like what we’re hearing we’re accepting folk, happy with simple sense checks.  When we don’t like it, we morph into frigidly analytical arch-skeptics.

challenging someone's worldview makes them skeptics

Fooling Students with Yellow Paper

A famous study saliva tested participants’ saliva for an, invented, condition of TAA deficiency. The saliva would turn yellow litmus paper green within one minute to show whether or not they had the condition. But the “litmus” paper was just yellow paper that would never change colour.

Researchers told one group (the good news group) the paper would turn green if they had TAA deficiency.  They told the other (bad news) group that staying yellow meant they had the condition.  Here’s how the different groups behaved:

study shows people wait until they hear good news

The good news group obediently waited over a minute until they were happy the yellow paper wasn’t going to change colour.  The unfortunates who were told yellow paper meant TAA deficiency just waited and waited for that paper to turn green and give them better news.  More than half of that group with the fake bad news also tried a retest.

The group getting the bad news was also more dismissive of how serious TAA was as a condition.  They imagined it was more common, and thought the test was less accurate.  And in a follow up they could be prompted come up with far more mitigating life irregularities that rendered the test less reliable.

So we happily accept things we want to hear, and are motivated skeptics about what we don’t.  Knowledge and intelligence have a strong influenced on our susceptibility to this, in a bad way.  Research shows that the more intelligent, informed and expert we are, the better we are at finding reasons to support our desired worldview and reject what we don’t like.


So What?

Rather than bemoaning how bonkers and irrational people are, I think this information helps us make better decisions and persuade others to be a bit more open.  The place to start is the mirror.

I’m not arguing that we mimic French philosophers, challenging each treasured belief in turn, pulverising our worldview and indulging in a self motivated existential crisis.  I’m arguing that when we’re faced with a big decision we switch around the burden of proof from its usual place of “convince me that I’m wrong.”  The burden of proof should now be squarely on your dearly held belief. Can your cat millinery hobby honestly be turned into a business? Is the job with the hipster beard accessories start up really right for you?  Should you give the job to the candidate who’s most buff and shares your love of televised sport?  Evidence shows that this mindset of prompting ourselves to be analytical actually does work.

Evidence also shows that people are much more objectively analytical in groups, which is a good reason to rope in that peer reviewer, devil’s advocate or challenging mate.  This is uncomfortable, but you’ll make a better decision by caring about the truth than by sheltering your beautiful worldview from harm.  And once you’ve made the decision, you’ll actually have more confidence from having challenged things hard.

Who & How to Persuade

Persuading others is a whole new bagful of monkeys.  But once we accept that people are motivated skeptics, we realise there’s wisdom in choosing who to persuade and choosing whether and how you persuade them.

  • You’re miles ahead if you can work with people who are predisposed to you and what you’re going to say. Management consultancies sell to their alumni.  Football managers are all former players
  • Let’s say you need to step out of your echo chamber of like-minded folk.  You now have a choice between trying to persuade someone whose views are opposite to yours, or someone who’s open minded.  Go for the swing voter every time
  • Let’s now say that your thankless task is to persuade someone who has a strong opposing dearly held belief.  Don’t fool yourself that a selection of facts and a cogent argument that goes head on with theirs will have any effect other than to entrench them. When people disbelieve they get analytical, so emotional appeals won’t help either.

With these folks, the data suggests a couple of things.  First, focus on insights they might not have considered and where they don’t have a foundation to rudely undermine.  For example, one purported reason fewer girls than boys take technical subjects is that girls are as good as boys at technical subjects but better than boys in the other school subjects.  So boys focus on the technical stuff, and girls are spread across the full range of subjects.  This feels like a more productive place to have a discussion about why not enough women take your computer course than some potential misogyny spiral.

Back at You

And the next time you question the quality and justice of the referee’s every decision against your team but don’t give that much thought to those calls that go your way; or when you mutter about the media’s right/left wing bias, give yourself a nod of recognition – that’s your own highly motivated skeptic hard at work as usual.

by Steven Hacking