How we change what others think, feel, believe and do

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So here's the ChangingMinds Blog, from site author, David Straker. This is my more personal ramblings, though mostly about changing minds in some shape or form. Please do add your comments via the archive or the right-hand column below.  -- Dave


Sunday 10-September-17

Climate change, Pascal and belief

I went to an interesting local talk recently about climate change. It was not so much interesting because it presented a convincing argument. The more interesting aspect was the use of fallacy and the way that the audience reacted.

The presenter took the controversial position of denying climate change, showing some graphs that suggested that carbon dioxide is a tiny aspect of atmosphere and the human contribution to it as miniscule. He also suggested that evidence for climate change was shaky at best. For example noting that, in the Communist era, Siberian meteorologists got a greater fuel allowance if they reported that it was cold, which was removed after communism faded -- as a result the early falsified readings contrasted with the truer later readings made it seem as if the temperature had increased. Stories such as this are beautifully convincing, but are full of holes. For example we do not know the number and duration of reports, nor can we see isolated data to prove the implied hypothesis.

In the ensuing heated argument, I interjected with the comment that this was much like Pascal's dilemma. This created a pause, as intended, which gave me space to explain my odd comment. Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher whose famous dilemma was about the puzzle whether he should believe in God. If he believed in God there would be a cost over his lifetime in going to church, and if God didn’t exist he would have wasted his time. Yet if he did not believe in God, he would spend an eternity in damnation. Overall, it seemed, it was safer to believe in God (or at least act as if he did).

The same argument applies to believing in climate change. If I choose to not believe then I will not act to reduce my carbon dioxide footprint and otherwise try to save the planet. If climate change is not happening or is not caused by human activity, then this is not a problem. But if it is, then the result of my denial could be calamitous. More to the point, if many people act this way, and especially those in power, then their negative belief could kill us all. So, like Pascal, it seems a better bet to accept that we should act to reduce our energy consumption and general carbon production.

So how do we decide what to believe? The first step is about sense. We gather data and listen to argument and decide whether it seems to make sense, at least on the face of it. The other factor in deciding whether to believe or not is in our assessment of those who already believe. On one side of the climate debate we have a few scientists, a number of politicians and even more business people who have something to lose if we cracked down on carbon creators. On the other side are many, many scientists including high-visibility people with a lot to lose if they are proven wrong.

Hmm. I think I'll side with the 'believe in climate change' people.

Sunday 03-September-17

Drink and disorderly: the case of the confusing wine menu

I was at a restaurant last night, looking at the wine menu. It was my wife's birthday and I got to choose the drink. Like many other people, I didn't want to spend too much money (very easy with fancy wines) but also wanted to avoid appearing to be a cheapskate. So I started looking a few bottles down the list, keeping a health eye on the price.

It was then that I noticed something odd.

Most wine lists are sorted from cheapest to most expensive. I've wondered about this. If the restaurant owner wants you to buy an expensive wine, wouldn't it be a better idea to start with the most expensive and gradually get cheaper? Like a reverse auction, readers go as far as they dare and then stop. Most would never get to the end and the restaurateur would make more profit. But then some customers would baulk at the high prices and abandon the wine for something cheaper. Maybe, even, they would not return to the restaurant.

Another method would be to use a random sorting, so customers would have to hunt for the cheaper bottles, but this again could cause irritation and abandonment.

The restaurant I was at did neither of these. Instead, it had the wine list sorted roughly into price order, from lower to higher, but not strictly so. Towards the beginning were cheaper bottles, not quite in price order, and further down were kind of more expensive bottles.

Hmm. I thought. What's going on here? This slight disruption was not enough to annoy me (not hence make me disloyal), but it did disrupt the 'second or third in the list' strategy. I ended up being a bit less careful about price and a bit more attentive to the wine type. Which was probably more profitable for the restaurant owner.

The wine, by the way, was delicious, and my wife had a very happy birthday.

Sunday 20-August-17

Tragedy, Opportunity, Privatization and Politics

When New Orleans flooded, economist Milton Friedman declared it a tragedy, but also an opportunity. Though opportunities for some can lead to problems for others. Schools, for example, became highly privatised as the government balked at the cost. Landlords rebuilt high value housing. Those with money made more money.

The same principle applies widely. Chaos is a gravy train for contractors who profit from rebuilding and restoration. Have a war; rebuild after the war. Government contractors benefit from both. Natural disaster; rescue and rebuild. More profit. Economic collapse; bail out the 'too big to fail' banks and prop up bonuses. Problems in government policy; call in the consultants to sort out the mess. Criticize a public broadcaster as biased; cut its headcount and force outsourcing. Run down a government service; declare it incompetent and further privatize it.

The list is long and riddled with corruption. Why? Because the separation of government and private profit is breaking down. When people from industry are employed in supporting government. When government officials are allowed private incomes. When those letting contracts are friendly with contractors. These and more are opportunities for corruption, for secret and even brazenly open personal gain.

It is human nature to put me and mine above you and yours. We are naturally selfish, which is a key reason why we need laws and a moral society. Sure, we can also be altruistic, but when there is a big pile of money on the table in front of us and we think we will suffer no consequence for picking it up, many would reach forward and try not to think about where it might come from or where it might take us. This is the basis of corruption.

And if governments and officials become corrupt, even in small and understandable ways (and we all excuse ourselves from blame), then society pays the price. Because the result is trickle up of money to the few and declining standards for the many.

There are three ways all this could be avoided.

One way of containing all this without swinging to the hard left (which is still a distinct possibility) is the principle of 'fair profit'. Accept that governments will employ private contractors, and that private industry needs to pay both its bills and its shareholders. But constrain the profits that they can make. Define a 'fair profit' and include it in the contract. Then require full financial transparency that prevents creative accounting.

The second lock against corruption would be to prevent those in public service from ever gaining personal profit out of their work. Again, this would need transparency and due scrutiny. This is not a new idea. Plato identified 'philosopher kings' as an ideal governing system, where officials were paid modestly and forbidden from gain.

A third leg is leadership and culture. There are many public servants who still believe in public service, but when whistleblowers risk their futures and power is casually abused, keeping your job means keeping your head down. An honest, caring culture starts from the top, where leaders set the example and do not tolerate corruption of any kind.

Will this happen? It seems unlikely, because it would require that governments restrict their personal income and turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas. Yet a continued swing towards elitism, privatization and 'fat cats' will leave increasingly more in the dirt. And when people feel they have nothing to lose, they take radical action. Trump is a step on this route, voted in as a populist rescuer. When he fails, the replacement may be more radical and more corruption result.

Until eventually what? New politics? Revolution? I guess we'll see.

Sunday 06-August-17

Capitalist Carpe Diem: Hedonism and Despair in the Modern World

Do it now, say the adverts. Buy it now. We live in a capitalist culture that thrives on accelerating spend, where having drives status and dreams are sold on shelves, online and on every possible occasion. We live in an apocalypically intense time, where pleasure looms large. And so also does threat, as danger and death are shockingly peddled by monetized pages in our clutching hands.

Experience it now, say the young Millennials. Let us drink and be merry for tomorrow is hopeless. We will have no houses, no pension. Our Boomer parents have broken the world so let's have fun while we can. We work for it, though. Oh, how we work for our perfect careers that never happens. We were told we were wonderful and would have it all, but why is it so hard?

Ski, reply the Boomers. Spend the Kids' Inheritance. Vacation, cruise, again and again. We've worked hard all our lives, for what? Our profligate kids? We've given them our all, so now it's our turn. We silver surfers, we band of Peter Pans. We stave off age until decrepitude forces lavish care upon us, lapping up the last of our fortunes.

Or else we Boomed but never shone as jobs slipped through our fingers, as technology, elites and migrants stole our futures. We have struggled too, and every day we seize what we can, as our broken dreams fuel impotent fury. Why us, we silently cry. Who will save those left desperately clinging on?

Seize the voting slip, say the populists. We understand your woes. We name the elephant in the room. We will fix the unfixable. We will borrow, build, bring back jobs and make those who are not like us pay and pay, or else we will send them away. Listen blindly to our trumpeting platitudes. Vote, not really for change, but for numbing your existential agonies.

Oh Ozymandias, do not weep. No matter who you are, Utopia beckons, today. Just grab the promise and forget the cost. You may be lost, but all is not so. Close your eyes and believe, as hard as you can. You are not to blame -- they are, so take glorious vengeance in the moment. Eat, drink and fake merriment, for tomorrow is unthinkable.

Sunday 30-July-17

Transitions, Celebrations and Marking Boundaries

Why do we celebrate birthdays? Why do we need marriage ceremonies and funerals? Why do we riddle our lives with such rituals? It's because life is not linear. It is not a continuum. It goes in fits, starts and stages. And we need something to mark the edges.

When we gaze out at the world, all we really see is a mass of different optical waves, of which we can detect frequencies and amplitude over a fairly limited range. However, this is enough for us to see one another and all the many things around us. It seems instantaneous, but our brains work really hard and in real time to turn that river of hues into things we can name, recognize and react to. Without going too deeply into the neuroscience of perception, one of the most important parts of this process is in separating one thing from another, and to do this, we seek contrast, then line and outline, from which we can recognize and name all the different things.

Edges count. Without boundaries, things would merge into one another, making them difficult to distinguish. Animals use this when their mottled feathers and hair merge into the background and break up their outline so predators cannot see them so easily.

We use this principle in our lives, too. We like to separate out different periods and events so we can name them and hence give them separate meaning. We talk about our school years, friendships, jobs, weekends, festivals and more. For ideas, concepts and experiences to exist as meaningful entities, we have to name them, which means separating them, which means knowing their boundaries, which typically means recognizing when they start and end. It is for this purpose we mark our lives' boundaries with celebrations and other events.

Events can be small, such as completing a task. They can be large, such as getting married. And a way we recognize these is in the size and elaboration of our markers. We punch the air when we solve a problem. We dress up, recite sacred words and eat with friends and family when we marry. However we do it, markers help us transition to new realities. They enable us to say 'The past was good, but it is gone. I must now move on to the new future.' Facing new times can be scary when the competencies and resources that enabled us to succeed in the past may not be as useful as they once were. When jobs change and friends leave, we may fear the strangeness of the new and hark back to the safety of the past. Celebrations help us let go and move on, looking forward with more confidence rather than backwards with regret.

Psychologists talk about the way we go through stable periods punctuated by unstable transitions as stage theory, and note how difficulty in these periods of change can result in us getting stuck in a younger stage, which is sometimes called 'arrested development'. This is effect can also be seen in the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle, a principle that has been taken up in business where changes are recognized as causing a similar staged transition, and where consultants may act to help people through these, much as psychotherapists help people unstick themselves from childhood stages. When we pay attention to marking transitions and using deliberate celebration, we may be saving ourselves from a later date on the therapist's couch!

How and when we celebrate also depends on who we are. Extraverts, for example, will enjoy a good party, while introverts might be happier to just have dinner with a few good friends. Americans often like grand statements while New Zealanders prefer understatement. A person in one company culture will appreciate a pat on the back for a job well done, while a person in another will expect a big financial bonus and public recognition. Older people, used to long periods of stability, may be accustomed to few transitions and hence big celebrations, while younger people who know little but change, celebrate each weekend, perhaps offering silent prayers of thanks that they are still here and their heads are largely above the rising financial waters.

One of the key concerns that we often have when recognized is what others might think of us. It is not uncommon for those who are not the focus of celebrations to feel rather envious, that they are equally deserving and perhaps more so. Even as they smile and applaud us, we may worry that they are secretly hating us. Such fears can drain the pleasure from being the focus of attention and reward, especially in egalitarian cultures where equality is desirable and standing out is not.

If you think somebody has done a good job and want help them celebrate, rather than throwing them a party, first stand in their shoes. Do they see their work as something significant? Do they expect a celebration? Do they expect little but would appreciate some public recognition? First, know the culture and know the person. If the culture permits celebration, know its limits, where pleasure would turn to disgust. If the person would appreciate recognition, even if they act modestly, then understand what recognition they would appreciate and feel is appropriate, and how others would see this. Only then move to the planning. Decide whether it should be a surprise or known, large or small, public or private. The bigger the recognition event, the more time and resource you will need, so make sure you have the funds before throwing a big party.

And after it all, you may want a little celebration yourself. Indeed, failing to celebrate can bring unbounded confusion to our lives. It is also good to help others mark the transitions in their lives, but this can be hard work. Yet we do it because the greatest pleasure for many of us is to see those we feel deserve recognition get it, and to help those who need to move on to do this through recognition and marking of change.

Sunday 23-July-17

How much evidence do you need? How do I know I am a nice person?

We all need to think we are good people. Even criminals self-justify by blaming their victims or believing themselves more deserving. But how much evidence do we need? There is a whole spectrum of evidence requirement, although perhaps we tend to cluster towards one or another end.

The exception that proves the rule

One way of seeking proof is to find just one bit of evidence. For example all I need is to think about is one time I have been nice to someone, from which I can conclude that I am a nice person. This is a strategy used by people who are often unkind to others, but have a small circle of friends. In a position of authority they are likely to have favorites, who are typically harmless people who do as they are told.

This is of course a very unscientific method, where repeatable evidence is needed for a conclusive proof. Yet many of us are affected by 'confirmation bias' whereby we seek any evidence and quickly conclude our case is proven. This happens in decision-making too, where we make a decision and then seek evidence that justifies what we have already decided.

Falsification inversion

The reverse way of seeking evidence is also to depend on a single piece of data, but now it is in the reverse sense. Now, all you need is a single piece of evidence to disprove the rule. In the niceness stakes, this means that if you are nasty to just one person, you are a nasty person, so you try to be nice to everyone.

In science, Karl Popper defined this as falsification. For centuries, the approach to science was to find 'enough' confirming evidence and then declaring a general rule. The dilemma is that you cannot find evidence to prove very case, so you just accept a common-sense body of confirming evidence. Popper got around this by suggesting a double negative, whereby if you can devise a clever experiment in which you aim to disprove the rule then one piece of evidence is enough to prove that the opposite is true. Yes, it's tricky. The 'nice guy' check would be to look for evidence that a person is nasty, and that not finding this shows them to be nice.

Nice enough

Few of us are saints, and few are bad sinners either. We're not perfect, but we try to be nice, which is what we want to think of ourselves. It is also what we want others to think of us. So we are nasty only occasionally and mostly when we can justify our unpleasantness.

Sunday 16-July-17

The Psychology of Trump: Three surprising preferences that drive how he behaves

Much has been written about the bizarre actions of President Donald Trump. Psychiatrists, psychologists and pundits have analyzed his machinations and have diagnosed dire mental conditions, yet it seem three preferences he has around particular groups of people go a long way to explaining his actions.

Media and the masses, attention and approval

By and large, the media aim to play the role of representing the wider world. They espouse common values. They alternatively admire and challenge the rich and powerful. And, with shock, awe and information, they entertain the masses, which is something Trump understands well.

And Trump has masses of supporters who lap up his vicious invective. He has given voice to their angry lives and hope to their desperate survival. He feeds their deep conspiracy theories and promises them all the American dream that few could ever find. And in return they blindly believe.

Trump plays this instrument endlessly and effectively, feeding them all shocking statement after shocking statement. The media love this game too, as shock is always good for sales.

The paradox here is that very few people would do such things, as much because of the disapproval they would garner as anything. Just the thought of criticism is enough to keep most of us in line. But Trump is not like this. He craves attention far more than approval, and so continues to say outrageous things.

Another reason Trump cares little for approval is his big boss past. People in power have little to fear from those beneath them and can break social values with impunity. Indeed, such acts are power signals that send a clear message. Pay attention, they say, I could hurt you and get away with it. I am above the law.

News has a short half-life and attention flows similarly. Shocking news gains more momentum, yet it too fades. Trump hence keeps up a steady stream of invective, ably supported and reported by the parasitic media. He then drinks from this hose of attention, pumping disapproval to prolong the feast.

Friends and colleagues, loyalty and truth

When it comes to friends, Trump plays a different game, and again an unconventional one. Most of us like friends for who they are. We trust them to keep our interests at heart and accept them as they are, warts and all.

By some accounts, Trump makes a good friend, at least in supporting those in need. However, he sees this as a transaction and expects absolute loyalty in return. There are dire stories of his delight in vengeance against those who have betrayed him, again as a symbol of power and signal to other would-be traitors. He also plays this as a game, promising desired things in return for the promise of fealty, as can be seen in his reference to FBI Director Comey keeping his job shortly before asking for his personal loyalty.

One of the important roles a friend plays is as trusted confidante to whom we can expose our true selves and who will tell us the truth, even if is difficult to hear. Trust is important here on both sides, first that the teller of bad news will not take advantage, and then that the receiver will not take it badly or lash out.

The same principle applies for people with whom he works. He expects blind loyalty in exchange for keeping their jobs. This can be a problem when professionalism dictates truth that is inconvenient for Trump. He is accustomed to dictating what is and what is not as a matter of convenience, and woe betide anyone who contradicts him. Already it seems, his staff avoid giving him news that could trigger an outburst.

Before becoming president he invested a lot in befriending many in the media, yet who now are being critical. Rather than taking such comment seriously, he becomes enraged at this disloyalty and seeks harsh punishment. He also uses such cases as food for his Twitter outbursts that feed his attentional needs.

Family, obedience and love

A final category is his family. You cannot sack your family -- anyway, they carry your all-important name into the future. So you have to treat them differently.

The classic position of the alpha male that Trump takes is of control. Little of import happens in his companies without his approval, even though his family members are running them, and it is probably the same at home. Unquestioning obedience is the name of this game.

The paradox here is that obedience is even more important than love. Sure, he likes adulation, but control is so important for him that the semblance of affection is sufficient. You don't have to love him, but you probably do have to say you love him, even though everybody knows it's a sham.

A question here is whether these who cannot escape might yet betray him the worst. Starved of love and under the thumb, they may react and rebel, biting the hand that feeds them in ultimate revenge for years of micromanagement.


There is the red thread running through all this. Attention, loyalty and obedience are about how people behave, not how they think or feel. Trump cares not what you think or feel, only what you do and only for him. He seems to lack any empathy, which is a deep problem for someone who purports to leadership, though perhaps is a strength for would-be autocrats. And so, in his fantastic universe, he is the puppeteer and people dance. They pay attention. They are loyal. They obey. And heaven help those who dare to disobey, be disloyal or look away. For this god is a terrible god. His power and his glory know no end.

Sunday 25-June-17

How do you pay for your life? The shift to loans, information, donations and subscriptions

How do you pay for things in your life? The old model was a simple transaction. You went to the store and paid money for your food. This still works. But more models have appeared and still appearing and shifting dominance.

You may also have loans. If you have a house then you probably had to borrow money to buy it. Maybe the same for your car. Perhaps you are a victim of short-term, high-interest loan sharks, these days sometimes legitimized with the name of 'Payday loans'. Increasingly, we are paying for today with our futures.

Young people in particular are affected who realize that they may never be able to retire and who do not have the secure pension safety net of their parents. This is perhaps something that is driving the hedonistic 'experience economy' where the young live for today and ignore the cost of the future. Older folks are not escaping either, with a combination of the enhanced 'Bank of Mom and Dad' and the cruise culture draining those of us who are torn between helping their children and spending something of their final years seeing the world after so long at the coalface.

Payment gets even more interesting when it moves online. How do you pay for your online consumption? Facebook and Google take payment in information about you, which they use to micro-segment and sell you things in remarkably persuasive ways based on a deep analysis of your character.

Websites also, are feeling the pinch. The heady days of the early internet where everything was free are sharply narrowing. One way they are coping is by asking for donations. Adverts on many websites, including this one, help pay for the site. However, ad-block software will stop these. But I can detect this, so put a 'please donate' request up when ads are not allowed. And some kind people have donated (thanks!!). Donations are also being sought in a kind of 'telethon' style, such as the big requests that Wikipedia put out from time to time, with a persuasive 'personal appeal' from founder Jimmy Wales.

Other places are moving to flat subscriptions where you can avoid large up-front payments but have to pay on a regular basis. Adobe now do this, as does Microsoft in Office 365. Variations this appear in other areas, such as the 'freemium' service, where the basic product is free and desirable premium extras cost you. An example of this is in podcasts where I recently listened to Sam Harris pontificating about this.

Look out for the web payment model to continue to change. The principle of Net Neutrality is being challenged again. Websites are looking more and more to monetization. They are getting less generous and more cynical, which I have seen in the decline of guest articles. I do get offered thinly-veiled and content-weak advertising articles, but I turn these down on a daily basis.

So what will I do at Changing Minds? How will access to the site change in the future? I have no great plans to change it. I am retired, and should have about 20 years or so of writing left in me. I've a modest pension and income from adverts and books are very welcome. I started the site on a premise of making it all free, so I've no plans for subscriptions. I may experiment with advertising, but do not want to over-do this. I may extend the donation model, but I won't be over-pleading as I know that too much guilt-induction makes people give up and go away. I also don't use information about people, as again I realize that privacy is a critical personal issue. Also don't worry about the site continuing: my daughter also has a M.Sc. in Psychology and will likely pick up the site when I'm pushing up daisies.




For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or the Blogs by subject. To comment on any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.


Best wishes,



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