Having already discussed some internal challenges facing our judgment and decision making processes, and I’ll focus today on the external.
This may be a shocking revelation, but not everyone you meet is on your side. Just like cognitive biases and logical fallacies are the lingua franca when arguing on the internet, the concept of influence is very much in vogue.
… Although there are thousands of different tactics that compliance practitioners employ to produce [a yes response], the majority fall within six basic categories. Each of these categories is governed by a fundamental psychological principle that directs human behavior and, in so doing, gives the tactics their power… The principles—consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity1—are each discussed in terms of their function in the society and in terms of how their enormous force can be commissioned by a compliance professional who deftly incorporates them into requests for purchases, donations, concessions, votes, assent, etc…. 2
An easy example is reciprocation. Many of the more…distinguished among us may remember a time when the robed, bald-headed Krisha devotees were as common a sight in airports as the TSA now is. Ever wonder why they always gave away flowers? Even a simple gift conveys with it a strong unconscious sense of indebtedness. “Please accept this gift from us. By the way, would you be interested in donating to the Society today?” As Joseph Heller said in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Even when you can trust the people providing reports, new information is very subject to error. As you may recall from a previous post, during the Battle of Britain, the attention of the world each evening was directed to reports from the skies over England. For example,
“The final figures for today’s fighting are 85 certain, 34 probable, 33 damaged. We lost 37 aircraft. 12 pilots being killed and 14 wounded.”3
Churchill pinned the German losses at the time as being five for every one British loss. He was sure the English were passing this dire test.
Churchill believed it. He was citing the figures he had been given, and no one had deliberately deceived him. No one was deliberately misleading the Führer either, but the numbers sent to his Luftwaffe commanders were very different. According to them, those days had been among the most glorious days in Luftwaffe history, and therefore clear evidence of German superiority. In retrospect it is clear that the communiqués being issued by both sides were quite worthless.4
Each side could only be sure how many fighters went out and how many came back, but the RAF accepted claims of killed German fighters without question, and the Luftwaffe reports were made even less accurate by trying to preserve Reich morale.5 Human nature and incomplete reporting will almost always lead to inaccurate reporting.
Surely, modern technology and dramatically improved speeds of communication means we can trust what we read these days, right? I don’t think so. The current economics of online publishing don’t really support this assertion, and this effect ripples outward. As Ryan Holiday puts it,
Blogs are assailed on all sides, by the crushing economics of their business, dishonest sources, inhuman deadlines, pageview quotas, inaccurate information, greedy publishers, poor training, the demands of the audience, and so much more. These incentives are real, whether you’re the Huffington Post or some tiny blog. Taken individually, the resulting output is obvious: bad stories, incomplete stories, wrong stories, unimportant stories.6
What happens when this material becomes the basis for tomorrow’s material—when CNN uses Gawker for story ideas? What is the result of millions of blogs fighting to be heard over millions of other blogs—each hoping for a share of an increasingly shrinking attention span? What happens when the incentives rippled through every part of the media system?7
These results are unreality. A netherworld between the fake and the real where each builds on the other and they cannot be told apart. This is what happens when the dominant cultural medium—the medium that feeds our other mediums—is so easily corrupted by people like me.8
When the news is decided not by what is important but by what readers are clicking; when the cycle is so fast that the news cannot be anything else but consistently and regularly incomplete; when dubious scandals pressure politicians to resign and scuttle election bids or knock millions from the market caps of publicly traded companies; when the news frequently covers itself in stories about “how the story unfolded”—unreality is the only word for it….9
Intentionally “Fake News” or not, news is all too often wrong. Updates to blogs and corrections or retractions in the newspaper are never given the same attention as the original error. For instance, did you know the Toyota stuck-accelerator problem was almost exclusively human error? Turns Out.
So, what’s the lesson thus far? Trust no one, not even yourself. Tomorrow I will move on to what we can do to help ourselves. Spoiler alert: nothing easy.
A seventh principle is that of self-interest, in the sense that another way a yes response is achieved is by providing a “good deal,” in fact or as a lie, to the mark. Cialdini left this out, because it is an assumed motivational given. ↩︎
Manchester, William, and Paul Reid. The Last Lion Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm 1940-19653. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co, 2012. Kindle link. ↩︎
Holiday, Ryan. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. London: Portfolio/Penguin, 2013. Kindle link. ↩︎