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Confusion principle


Principles > Confusion principle

Principle | How it works | So what?



A drowning person will clutch at a straw. So push them under water then offer a straw.

How it works

Breaking patterns

Repeating patterns of events help us predict and feel a good sense of control about the world. When patterns are are disrupted, then we become uncertain.

Losing control

One of the deep needs we have is to be able to understand the world around us. If we understand, then we can predict what will happen and hence control our environment and stay safe. When we cannot make sense of our experiences, we feel confused and scared and seek a way of getting out of the cognitive deep water in which we find ourselves.

Unexpected surprise

When we predict, we set up expectation. When the expectation does not meet what was predicted, we are surprised and confused and have to stop to figure out what is going on.

Sends you inside

What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the sound of a tree falling in the forest when nobody is there? What is the point of such meaningless Zen sayings? The clue is in the deeper intent of Zen, where a A major goal is to find enlightenment. The confusing koans are designed specifically to send you inside, making you think so hard about what they mean that you forget yourself, and consequently find nirvana.

Confusion can send you so far inside and so deep that  it puts you into a trance. As you struggle to find a meaning where none exists, the assumption that an answer must exist sends you on an ever-deepening spiral. Confusion is a method that is, perhaps unsurprisingly, used by hypnotists as a method of hypnotic induction.

Clutching at straws

Increasing stress leads to a point when we go from seeking the best solution to the problem at hand to seeking a solution just to reduce the stress. Herbert Simon called this 'Satisficing'.

Confusion is used in many persuasion techniques as a way of destabilizing the other person. Just as a drowning man will clutch at a straw, so also will a confused person grab at any idea you offer them in the hope that it will help them crawl out the sea of confusion in which they are wallowing.

So what?

The most common way of confusing someone is simply to overload them. Just keep giving them things until they crack. It is especially effective if what you are saying is of interested and makes them think and want to respond.

Overload is multiplied when what is being communicated is complex or difficult to understand. This effectively shortens the time to the point where the other person becomes overloaded and needs to stop and process the information given to them.

There are many written and unwritten rules of conversation and interpersonal communication. People expect you to follow those rules. If you break them, they will quickly become confused. 

See also

Need for a sense of control, Need for completion, Satisficing, Lewin's freeze phases

Motivation theories, Bounded Rationality, Distraction principle, Confusion and Attention



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