The world is full of manipulation, lies, and unreasonable thought. We all know we can’t believe everything we read, but people still get manipulated and charlatans occasionally make a fortune anyway. The Internet is one of the greatest sources of information, but we still need to know what information is reliable. It can be difficult to know what to believe, it can be difficult to identify manipulation, and it can be difficult to identify errors in reasoning. Additionally, there is research that strongly suggests that even the most reasonable people suffer from a great deal of cognitive bias.
There are things we can do to be more unreasonable and biased, and there are things we can do to be more reasonable and unbiased. I will discuss various forms of nonrational persuasion, cognitive bias, manifestations of unreasonable thought, why it matters, and what we should do about it. Simply knowing about forms of nonrational persuasion can help us identify them and stay vigilant. However, I will also discuss other concrete suggestions that can help us be more reasonable. For example, we should try to understand why intelligent people disagree with us and we should generally try to avoid marginalizing people from “other groups.”
Nonrational forms of persuasion
The main concern here are nonrational forms of persuasion that are used to influence what people think and believe. When intended, these forms of persuasion are forms of “manipulation.” Keep in mind that the nonrational forms of persuasion I will discuss might have legitimate and perfectly reasonable uses. Nonrational forms of persuasion include the following:
1. Informal fallacies – Philosophers specialize in understanding errors in reasoning (i.e. informal fallacies), which are often used in nonrational forms of persuasion. These forms of persuasion are used in argumentation and should be familiar to people who watch political debates. Cherry picking, anecdotal evidence, and slandering opponents are common. However, not all forms of manipulation require “arguments.”
2. False balance – The news media often gives us two sides of a story and makes them both seem reasonable when there is actually only one reasonable side to the story. For example, a fringe scientist could be found in order to make it seem like there is a debate over the plausibility of evolution among the experts, when the actual experts do not actually debate over that issue. (Keep in mind that the tactics I discuss are not limited to the “news media.” There are other people who might use the same nonrational forms of persuasion.)
3. One-sidedness – The news media often gives us one side of a story without giving the other side. This is a form of cherry-picking (i.e. selective evidence), but no actual argument is necessary. Instead, the person who reads or watches the news is likely to “draw their own conclusions” based on the one-sided information presented—and are likely to draw the wrong conclusions. For example, the news often has stories that discuss the evils done by our “enemies” rather than stories about the good things they do in order to give us the message that our enemies are inferior or evil.
4. Repetition – The news media can repeat the same story, similar stories, or message in order to convince the audience of something. For example, repeating stories about the crimes and immoral acts done by Muslims could give the impression that Muslims are generally immoral, or inferior than other groups. Many liberals have been known for repeating the message that “all opinions are equal” and many conservatives have been known for repeating the message that wealthy people are “job creators.”
5. Sensationalism – The news media often exaggerates stories. It often blows things out of proportion. This is to be expected in order to increase viewership, but the media is also likely to minimize the importance of stories that conflict with the ideology of the author. For example, a pro-Democrat group could publish news that exaggerates stories that illustrate the weaknesses of Republicans (and minimize or omit stories relevant to the weaknesses of Democrats).
6. Proof of sincerity – Many people will emphasize their sincerity (or the sincerity of their authority figures) rather than properly argue that their beliefs are true. Being willing to endure pain or death could be evidence of sincerity, but it doesn’t prove any belief in particular is true.
7. Moral virtues – Many people will emphasize the moral virtues of their authorities to encourage us to agree with the authorities. Character witnesses can be important in a court room to assure us that someone is generally honest, but it doesn’t prove that person’s beliefs are rational.
8. Marginalization – By ignoring, insulting, dehumanizing, or demonizing “others” we can attempt to convince people that we are superior. They can’t be trusted, but we can. Marginalization is effective at influencing what we think because people we don’t respect are much less likely to be taken seriously or understood by us. We are much more likely to dismiss and misunderstand everything said by those we disrespect. This is highly related to the “ad hominem” fallacy—insulting people is often used to distract us from the actual arguments and make us biased against their arguments.
9. Peer pressure – Peer pressure can exist in the form of praise and blame. People can offer us friendship and community. Their approval is important to us in order to maintain friendship and attain various social benefits. We are likely to at least pretend to agree with those in our community if disagreement is likely to lead to negative social consequences. The suppression of disagreement might actually make it more likely that we learn to agree with others in our group.
10. Isolation – Some groups will require that we stay away from “outsiders” who might have differing viewpoints. We are more likely to have the same biases and beliefs as those we spend our time with, and we are unlikely to change our mind if no one criticizes our beliefs. People on Facebook who block everyone who disagrees are creating a group they interact with in which criticism is suppressed, and they are less likely to change their mind about their beliefs as a result.
11. No questioning – Some groups will require that we refrain from “negative thinking,” “disagreement,” or “questioning the beliefs of the group.” Asking people to suppress their questions and critical thought might actually make it likely that we will learn to agree with the beliefs of the group.
Forms of Cognitive Bias
One reason that nonrational forms of persuasion can be so convincing is because we commonly suffer from certain rational shortcomings (i.e. forms of cognitive bias). All people appear to fall victim to cognitive biases no matter how rational they are. Our ability to reason is much more restricted than we think. I will discuss various forms of cognitive bias:
1. Confirmation bias – If we find some belief to be initially plausible, then we are likely to rationalize that belief to others using any positive evidence we can come up with while simultaneously ignoring and/or dismissing counter-evidence. The confirmation bias is probably the most important bias we commonly suffer from.
2. Belief bias – People who think a conclusion is true are much more likely to think an argument for that conclusion is reasonable. This is related to the confirmation bias.
3. Selective perception – People’s expectations effect their experiences and observations. This is related to theory-laden observation and the confirmation bias.
4. Halo effect – We tend to think that we can generalize from certain positive characteristics of a person or group to other characteristics of that person or group (or negative characteristics of a person or group to other characteristics). This often takes the form of thinking a person who believes something we agree with is reasonable, or someone who believes something we disagree with is unreasonable; and arguments given by those who believe other things we agree with are more likely reasonable than arguments given by those who believe other things we disagree with. For example, if we think a group of people (or a person) is inferior, stupid, or evil, then we are less likely to understand their arguments, and we are more likely to dismiss their arguments out of hand. This is one reason why ad hominem fallacies (insults during arguments) are effective. (Jonathan Haidt discusses this bias as a tendency to demonize other groups in his new book, The Righteous Mind, and in this video interview.)
5. Dunning–Kruger effect – Unskilled people tend to think they are much more skilled than they really are. (However, keep in mind that we have some reason to think even the most reasonable people overestimate how reasonable they are. Perhaps no one is reasonable enough to realize they are often unreasonable.) This bias gives many people an unwarranted sense of certainty and is often caused by the inability of unskilled people to realize when they make mistakes.
6. The Downing effect – People with below average IQ often overestimate their IQ, but people with above average IQ often underestimate their IQ.
7. Overconfidence effect – People systematically have a false sense of certainty. For example, many people might sense that they are 99% certain that they are right about answers they give on quizzes when they are actually only 40% certain.
8. Illusory superiority – People systematically think they have positive qualities in all areas—that they are at least “above average” at just about everything. This is similar to the overconfidence effect in that people think they are better than they really are.
9. Self-serving bias – People tend to falsely attribute their successes to skill and positive personal attributes, and falsely attribute failures to external and situational factors. For example, a person might think she did well on a multiple choice exam because she was prepared, but that she didn’t do well on another exam because the test questions were too hard.
Manifestations of nonrational thought
There are many unreasonable forces, ideas, thoughts, and groups many people fall victim to. There’s charlatans, conspiracy theorists, cults, new age sophistry, pseudoscience, anti-science paranoia, bad science, manipulation in the media, and nonrational political arguments:
1. Charlatans – Charlatans are people who claim to have a product that does something it doesn’t really do, or expertise that they don’t actually possess. Swindlers, snake-oil salesmen, quacks, cult leaders, false prophets, false psychics, unqualified scientists, and unqualified philosophers are all examples of charlatans. They generally want to make money and hope that tricking people is a good way to do so.
2. Conspiracy theorists – Examples of conspiracy theorists are those who believe the Moon landing was a hoax and those who believe aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico. Although conspiracies do exist, the evidence required to justifiably believe that a conspiracy exists tends to be quite high. Many conspiracy theorists have a false sense of certainty and require insufficient evidence for their theories.
3. Cults – Although there might be cults that aren’t harmful, most people in cults are far too trusting of the cult leaders, who tend to be charlatans. Cult leaders tend not to have the expertise they claim to have—perhaps none of them actually have it. Additionally, harmful cults engage in forms of “brainwashing” demonize “outsiders,” require members to keep a distance from family and friends, and keep questions to themselves in order to give members a false sense of certainty (and suppress critical thinking).
4. New age sophistry – The word “philosophy” is supposed to refer to an honest and reasonable attempt to understand reality, but that’s not how everyone uses the word. Many people (and bookstores) use the category “philosophy” to include the opposite of philosophy—sophistry (unreasonable assertions, arguments, and worldviews). Perhaps what we call “new age spirituality” is one of the most common offenders. Not all new age spiritual writings are necessarily sophistry, but a lot of it is. Moreover, almost no new age writings would qualify as “philosophy” according to those who are properly trained in the field.
5. Pseudoscience – Pseudoscience is material treated as science by many people that should not be treated that way. Homeopathy and astrology are not considered to be science by those who are properly trained in the field, so they should not be considered to be science. One reason that pseudoscience is a problem is because, like other forms of sophistry, it is not properly proven or justified and yet many people arrogantly feel they are certain that their beliefs in them are justified anyway. (To emphasize the impact pseudoscience has on society, consider how just about every newspaper has an astrology section, but they don’t have an Astronomy section.)
6. Anti-science paranoia – There’s a great deal of distrust for good science. Evolution, global warming, and the the fact we need certain vaccines are not debated among the experts of the appropriate fields and they consider these positions to be the most justified available. Non-experts almost never have a good reason to denounce the most authoritative opinions of scientists, yet that is exactly what many anti-science advocates do.
7. Bad science – According to at least one study, most “scientific” findings are false. Scientific studies generally should not be taken seriously until they are properly proven (e.g. through repeated results in other studies). People should not blindly believe what “science says.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t trust scientists at all. It means that science is a process and good science generally takes time. What is not controversial in science among the proper experts should be taken seriously, but the fact that a single scientist believes something controversial among his or her peers is not sufficient evidence that we should agree.
8. Manipulation in the media – There are various ways the media manipulates us (whether intentional or not). Outright lies are not needed. Instead, the media can present us with selective facts, exaggerate, present only one side, present two sides of non-issues, and so on.
9. Nonrational political arguments – Nonrational arguments can be very persuasive, and political debate might be the most common source of nonrational arguments. In general, politics is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. In addition, people who devote their loyalty to a political group commonly marginalize “outsiders” and fail to properly investigate why many intelligent people see things differently.
Why does it matter?
Unreasonable beliefs and nonrational thought is probably harmless for the most part, but not always. Reasons to want to avoid being unreasonable include the following:
1. Unreasonable thought leads to false beliefs – The more unreasonable we are, the more likely our beliefs will be false. We will be more likely to form new false beliefs and continue to hold false beliefs. Learning to be more reasonable will help us form beliefs that are more likely true.
2. Unreasonable thought leads to manipulation – People want us to believe certain things because it benefits them in one way or another, and being unreasonable makes us easier to persuade (and more gullible in general). People in power want us to approve of the status quo to avoid a power struggle and avoid losing power, people who want money want to convince us to give them our money, and so on. We can waste our money and votes if we allow people to manipulate us in unreasonable ways.
3. Unreasonable thoughts leads to mistakes – Many unreasonable people are sincere, but their beliefs can lead to harmful mistakes. People who believe evolution is false are more likely to want to keep children from learning it in schools, people who believe in homeopathy are more likely to waste their money on homeopathy, people who believe vaccines are harmful are more likely to refuse the best medical advice available, people who believe certain groups are evil are more likely to be willing to harm those groups, people who think “all opinions are equal” are less likely to challenge unreasonable thought, and people who believe the wealthy are “job creators” (or in trickle down economics) are more likely to endorse corporate welfare when they shouldn’t.
4. Unreasonable thoughts can waste our time – Believing in the wrong things often causes people to waste their time learning more about those unreasonable things (rather than good science and philosophy).
What we should do
Although we suffer from cognitive biases and are bombarded by nonrational forms of persuasion, there are measures we can take to increase our ability to be reasonable. For example:
1. Educate ourselves – We can study informal fallacies (errors in reasoning) and nonrational forms of persuasion. Knowing what they are can help us look out for them.
2. Learn critical thinking and logic – There’s more to being reasonable than knowing how to identify errors in reasoning. Critical thinking education should help us understand what good reasoning consists of in addition to including critical thinking activities that can improve our critical thinking skills through practice. Logic classes also have a great deal to say about what makes a good argument.
3. Peer review – We can present our beliefs and arguments to others who can double-check them. We are more likely to know when we have errors in reasoning if many other people know how we reason and criticize us when we make mistakes. This is one reason that science uses “peer review” and is so successful as a result. Sometimes scientific findings are wrong, but additional scientific research by other scientists can often help us know when that happens.
4. Understand both sides – We can seek out counter-evidence to our beliefs. We can try to understand why intelligent people disagree with our beliefs. We can also criticize our family and friends when we believe they have an unreasonable belief or argument.
5. We can try not to marginalize “outsiders” – We are less likely to understand others if we think they are inferiors.
Everyone suffers from cognitive bias and are bombarded by nonrational forms of persuasion. Perhaps all of us fall victim to manipulation and bias, but we can still try to be more reasonable and avoid becoming less reasonable. Being unreasonable can not only cause us to have more false beliefs, but it can also cause us to make mistakes that can thwart human flourishing. We should try to avoid being unreasonable and we should try to help others avoid being unreasonable. Being willing to criticize others and be criticized can help, but learning more about critical thinking and logic can also be a good idea.
Update (5/31/2012): I changed the term “unreasonable forms of persuasion” to “nonrational forms of persuasion.”
Update (12/18/2012): I made more clarifications and corrections.
- Ethical Realism: Ethics and rationalization
- Ethical Realism: Introduction to Critical Thinking & Argument Mapping
- Ethical Realism: Informal Fallacies Part 1
- Costly Cognitive Biases
- 5 Persuasion Techniques
- Interview with Jonathan Haidt concerning social psychology’s findings concerning morality and politics
- A video interview with Jonathan Haidt concerning social psychology’s findings concerning morality and politics
- Wikipedia: Cognitive Bias
- Why Most Published Research Findings are False
- Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups