Category: Learning

Bad Arguments and How to Avoid Them

Productive arguments serve two purposes: to open our minds to truths we couldn’t see — and help others do the same. Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls and argue like a master.

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We’re often faced with situations in which we need to argue a point, whether we’re pitching an investor or competing for a contract. When being powerfully persuasive matters, it’s important that we don’t use bad arguments that prevent useful debate instead of furthering it. To do this, it’s useful to know some common ways people remove the possibility of a meaningful discussion. While it can be a challenge to keep our cool and not sink to using bad arguments when responding to a Twitter troll or during a heated confrontation over Thanksgiving dinner, we can benefit from knowing what to avoid when the stakes are high.

“If the defendant be a man of straw, who is to pay the costs?” 

— Charles Dickens

 

To start, let’s define three common types of bad arguments, or logical fallacies: “straw man,” “hollow man,” and “iron man.”

Straw man arguments

A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint, designed to be as easy as possible to refute. Just as a person made of straw would be easier to fight with than a real human, a straw man argument is easy to knock to the ground. And just as it might look a bit like a real person from a distance, a straw man argument has the rough outline of the actual discussion. In some cases, it might seem similar to an outside observer. But it lacks any semblance of substance or strength. The sole purpose is for it to be easy to refute. It’s not an argument you happen to find inconvenient or challenging. It’s one that is logically flawed. A straw man argument may not even be invalid; it’s just not relevant.

It’s important not to confuse a strawman argument with a simplified summary of a complex argument. When we’re having a debate, we may sometimes need to explain an opponent’s grounds back to them to ensure we understand it. In this case, this explanation will be by necessity a briefer version. But it is only a straw man if the simplification is used to make it easier to attack, rather than to facilitate clearer understanding

There are a number of common tactics used to construct straw man arguments. One is per fas et nefas (which means “through right and wrong” in Latin) and involves refuting one of the reasons for an opponent’s argument, then claiming that discredits everything they’ve said. Often, this type of straw man argument will focus on an irrelevant or unimportant detail, selecting the weakest part of the argument. Even though they have no response to the rest of the discourse, they purport to have disproven it in its entirety. As Doug Walton, professor of philosophy at the University of Winnipeg, puts it, “The straw man tactic is essentially to take some small part of an arguer’s position and then treat it as if that represented his larger position, even though it is not really representative of that larger position. It is a form of generalizing from one aspect to a larger, broader position, but not in a representative way.”

Oversimplifying an argument makes it easier to attack by removing any important nuance. An example is the “peanut butter argument,” which states life cannot have evolved through natural selection because we do not see the spontaneous appearance of new life forms inside sealed peanut butter jars. The argument claims evolutionary theory asserts life emerged through a simple combination of matter and heat, both of which are present in a jar of peanut butter. It is a straw man because it uses an incorrect statement about evolution as being representative of the whole theory. The defender of evolution gets trapped into explaining a position they didn’t even have: why life doesn’t spontaneously develop inside a jar of peanut butter.

Another tactic is to over-exaggerate a line of reasoning to the point of absurdity, thus making it easier to refute. An example would be someone claiming a politician who is not opposed to immigration is thus in favor of open borders with no restrictions on who can enter a country. Seeing as that would be a weak view that few people hold, the politician then feels obligated to defend border controls and risks losing control of the debate and being charged as a hypocrite.

“The light obtained by setting straw men on fire is not what we mean by illumination.”

— Adam Gopnik

 

Straw man arguments that respond to irrelevant points could involve ad hominem points, which are sort of relevant but don’t refute the argument—for example, responding to the point that wind turbines are a more environmentally friendly means of generating energy than fossil fuels by saying, “But wind turbines are ugly.” This point has a loose connection, yet the way wind turbines look doesn’t discredit their benefits for power generation. A person who made an ad hominem point like that would likely be doing so because they knew they had no rebuttal for the actual assertion.

Quoting an argument out of context is another tactic of straw man arguments. “Quote mining” is the practice of removing any part of a source that proves contradictory, often using ellipses to fill in the gaps. For instance, film posters and book blurbs will sometimes take quotes from bad reviews out of context to make them seem positive. So, “It’s amazing how bad this film is” becomes “Amazing,” and “The perfect book for people who wish to be bored to tears” becomes “The perfect book.” Reviewers face an uphill battle in trying not to write anything that could be taken out of control in this manner.

Hollow man arguments

A hollow man argument is similar to a straw man one. The difference is that it is a weak case attributed to a non-existent group. Someone will fabricate a viewpoint that is easy to refute, then claim it was made by a group they disagree with. Arguing against an opponent which doesn’t exist is a pretty easy way to win any debate. People who use hollow man arguments will often favor vague, non-specific language without explicitly giving any sources or stating who their opponent is.

Hollow man arguments slip into debate because they’re a lazy way of making a strong point without risking anyone refuting you or needing to be accountable for the actual strength of a line of reasoning. In Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse write that “speakers commit the hollow man when they respond critically to arguments that nobody on the opposing side has ever made. The act of erecting a hollow man is an argumentative failure because it distracts attention away from the actual reasons and argument given by one’s opposition. . . . It is a full-bore fabrication of the opposition.”

An example of a hollow man argument would be the claim that animal rights activists want humans and non-human animals to have a perfectly equal legal standing, meaning that dogs would have to start wearing clothes to avoid being arrested for public indecency. This is a hollow man because no one has said that all laws applying to humans should also apply to dogs.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

— Noam Chomsky

 

Iron man argument

An iron man argument is one constructed in such a way that it is resistant to attacks by a challenger. Iron man arguments are difficult to avoid because they have a lot of overlap with legitimate debate techniques. The distinction is whether the person using them is doing so to prevent opposition altogether or if they are open to changing their minds and listening to an opposer. Being proven wrong is painful, which is why we often unthinkingly resort to shielding ourselves from it using iron man arguments.

Someone using an iron man argument often makes their own stance so vague that nothing anyone says about it can weaken it. They’ll make liberal use of caveats, jargon, and imprecise terms. This means they can claim anyone who disagrees didn’t understand them, or they’ll rephrase their contention repeatedly. You could compare this to the language used in the average horoscope or in a fortune cookie. It’s so vague that it’s hard to disagree with or label it as incorrect because it can’t be incorrect. It’s like boxing with a wisp of steam.

An example would be a politician who answers a difficult question about their policies by saying, “I think it’s important that we take the best possible actions to benefit the people of this country. Our priority in this situation is to implement policies that have a positive impact on everyone in society.” They’ve answered the question, just without saying anything that anyone could disagree with.

Why bad arguments are harmful

What is the purpose of debate? Most of us, if asked, would say it’s about helping someone with an incorrect, harmful idea see the light. It’s an act of kindness. It’s about getting to the truth.

But the way we tend to engage in debate contradicts our supposed intentions.

Much of the time, we’re really debating because we want to prove we’re right and our opponent is wrong. Our interest is not in getting to the truth. We don’t even consider the possibility that our opponent might be correct or that we could learn something from them.

As decades of psychological research indicate, our brains are always out to save energy, and part of that is that we prefer not to change our minds about anything. It’s much easier to cling to our existing beliefs through whatever means possible and ignore anything that challenges them. Bad arguments enable us to engage in what looks like a debate but doesn’t pose any risk of forcing us to question what we stand for.

We debate for other reasons, too. Sometimes we’re out to entertain ourselves. Or we want to prove we’re smarter than someone else. Or we’re secretly addicted to the shot of adrenaline we get from picking a fight. And that’s what we’re doing—fighting, not arguing. In these cases, it’s no surprise that shoddy tactics like using straw man or hollow man arguments emerge.

It’s never fun to admit we’re wrong about anything or to have to change our minds. But it is essential if we want to get smarter and see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Any time we engage in debate, we need to be honest about our intentions. What are we trying to achieve? Are we open to changing our minds? Are we listening to our opponent? Only when we’re out to have a balanced discussion with the possibility of changing our minds can a debate be productive, avoiding the use of logical fallacies.

Bad arguments are harmful to everyone involved in a debate. They don’t get us anywhere because we’re not tackling an opponent’s actual viewpoint. This means we have no hope of convincing them. Worse, this sort of underhand tactic is likely to make an opponent feel frustrated and annoyed by the deliberate misrepresentation of their beliefs. They’re forced to listen to a refutation of something they don’t even believe in the first place, which insults their intelligence. Feeling attacked like this only makes them hold on tighter to their actual belief. It may even make them less willing to engage in any sort of debate in the future.

And if you’re a chronic constructor of bad arguments, as many of us are, it leads people to avoid challenging you or starting discussions. Which means you don’t get to learn from them or have your views questioned. In formal situations, using bad arguments makes it look like you don’t really have a strong point in the first place.

How to avoid using bad arguments

If you want to have useful, productive debates, it’s vital to avoid using bad arguments.

The first thing we need to do to avoid constructing bad arguments is to accept it’s something we’re all susceptible to. It’s easy to look at a logical fallacy and think of all the people we know who use it. It’s much harder to recognize it in ourselves. We don’t always realize when the point we’re making isn’t that strong.

Bad arguments are almost unavoidable if we haven’t taken the time to research both sides of the debate. Sometimes the map is not the territory—that is, our perception of an opinion is not that opinion. The most useful thing we can do is attempt to see the territory. That brings us to steelman arguments and the ideological Turing test.

Steel man arguments

The most powerful way to avoid using bad arguments and to discourage their use by others is to follow the principle of charity and to argue against the strongest and most persuasive version of their grounds. In this case, we suspend disbelief and ignore our own opinions for long enough to understand where they’re coming from. We recognize the good sides of their case and play to its strengths. Ask questions to clarify anything you don’t understand. Be curious about the other person’s perspective. You might not change their mind, but you will at least learn something and hopefully reduce any conflict in the process.

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

— Joseph Joubert

 

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the philosopher Daniel Dennett offers some general guidelines for using the principle of charity, formulated by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  1. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  1. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  1. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

An argument that is the strongest version of an opponent’s viewpoint is known as a steel man. It’s purposefully constructed to be as difficult as possible to attack. The idea is that we can only say we’ve won a debate when we’ve fought with a steel man, not a straw one. Seeing as we’re biased towards tackling weaker versions of an argument, often without realizing it, this lets us err on the side of caution.

As challenging as this might be, it serves a bigger picture purpose. Steel man arguments help us understand a new perspective, however ludicrous it might be in our eyes, so we’re better positioned to succeed and connect better in the future. It shows a challenger we are empathetic and willing to listen, regardless of personal opinion. The point is to see the strengths, not the weaknesses. If we’re open-minded, not combative, we can learn a lot.

“He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”

— John Stuart Mill

 

An exercise in steel manning, the ideological Turing test, proposes that we cannot say we understand an opponent’s position unless we would be able to argue in favor of it so well that an observer would not be able to tell which opinion we actually hold. In other words, we shouldn’t hold opinions we can’t argue against. The ideological Turing test is a great thought experiment to establish whether you understand where an opponent is coming from.

Although we don’t have the option to do this for every single thing we disagree with, when a debate is extremely important to us, the ideological Turing test can be a helpful tool for ensuring we’re fully prepared. Even if we can’t use it all the time, it can serve us well in high-stakes situations.

How to handle other people using bad arguments

“You could not fence with an antagonist who met rapier thrust with blow of battle axe.”

— L.M. Montgomery

 

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a debate with someone with a different opinion than yours. You’re responding to the steel man version of their explanation, staying calm and measured. But what do you do if your opponent starts using bad arguments against you? What if they’re not listening to you?

The first thing you can do when someone uses a bad argument against you is the simplest: point it out. Explain what they’re doing and why it isn’t helpful. There’s not much point in just telling them they’re using a straw man argument or any other type of logical fallacy. If they’re not familiar with the concept, it may just seem like alienating jargon. There’s also not much point in using it as a “gotcha!” point which will likewise foster more tensions. It’s best to define the concept, then reiterate your actual beliefs and how they differ from the bad argument they’re arguing against.

  1. Edward Damer writes in Attacking Faulty Reasoning, “It is not always possible to know whether an opponent has deliberately distorted your argument or has simply failed to understand or interpret it in the way that you intended. For this reason, it might be helpful to recapitulate the basic outline . . . or [ask] your opponent to summarize it for you.”

If this doesn’t work, you can continue to repeat your original point and make no attempt to defend the bad argument. Should your opponent prove unwilling to recognize their use of a bad argument (and you’re 100% certain that’s what they’re doing), it’s worth considering if there is any point in continuing the debate. The reality is that most of the debates we have are not rationally thought out; they’re emotionally driven. This is even more pertinent when we’re arguing with people we have a complex relationship with. Sometimes, it’s better to walk away.

Conclusion

The bad arguments discussed here are incredibly common logical fallacies in debates. We often use them without realizing it or experience them without recognizing it. But these types of debates are unproductive and unlikely to help anyone learn. If we want our arguments to create buy-in and not animosity, we need to avoid making bad ones.

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human

Do we dance simply for recreation? Or is there a primal urge that compels us to do it? Historian William McNeill claims it saved our species by creating community togetherness and transforming “me” into “we.”

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“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”  

— Voltaire

Why do we dance? To most, it might seem like a trivial topic. But if you contemplate the sheer pervasiveness of dance across all of human society, it becomes apparent that it is anything but.

It’s more useful to learn foundational principles that won’t go out of date than it is to go all in on the latest fad. When it comes to understanding people, we can learn a lot by studying human universals that exist across cultures and time. These universals give us insight into how to create connections in a way that fosters social cohesion and cooperation.

Once such universal is dance. At every point throughout history, all over the world, people from every walk of life have come together to dance; to move in unison alongside music, singing, and other rhythmic input, like drumming or stomping. The specifics and the names attached vary. But something akin to dance is an ever-present cultural feature throughout human history.

Soldiers perform military drills and march in time. People in rural communities carried out community dances at regular events, like harvests. Hunters in tribal communities dance before they go off to catch food and have likely done so for thousands of years. We dance during initiation rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies. We dance before going to war. We dance at weddings and religious festivals. Countercultural movements, like hippies in the United States, dance. Fanatical leaders force their followers to perform set movements together. Calisthenics and group exercise are popular worldwide, especially in parts of Asia.

The more you look for it, the more examples of dance-like activities appear everywhere. From a biological perspective, we know species-wide costly activities that are costly in terms of time, energy and other resources must have a worthwhile payoff. Thus, the energy expended in dance must aid our survival. In his 1995 book, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, historian William H. McNeill made a bold claim: he argued that we owe our success as a species to collective synchronized movements. In other words, we’re still here because we dance.

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In the 1940s, the U.S. Army drafted William H. McNeill. With limited supplies, there was little to occupy him and his peers during training. So, whenever things got boring, they performed marching drills. For hours, they walked in circles under the hot Texas sun. On paper, it was dull and pointless. What were they even achieving? When McNeill reflected, it seemed strange that drills should be an integral part of training. It also seemed strange that he’d quite enjoyed it, as had most of his peers. McNeil writes:

Marching aimlessly about on the drill field, swaggering in conformity with prescribed military postures, conscious only of keeping in step so as to make the next move correctly and in time somehow felt good. Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved . . . marching became an end in itself.

Upon further thought and study, McNeill came to identify the indescribable feeling he experienced during army drills as something “far older than language and critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time.”

What exactly did he experience? At the time, there was no term for it. But McNeill coined one: “muscular bonding.” This refers to a sense of euphoric connection that is sparked by performing rhythmic movements in unison to music or chanting. Few people are immune to the influence of muscular bonding. It played a role in the formation and maintenance of many of our key institutions, such as religion, the military, and politics. We can all relate to the endorphin hit that comes from strenuous dancing, as with other forms of exercise. If you’ve ever danced with a group of people, you may have also noticed a remarkable sense of connection and unity with them. This is the effect of muscular bonding.

Seeing as there has been little study into the phenomenon, McNeill puts forward a theory which is, by his own admission, unprovable. It nonetheless offers one perspective on muscular bonding. He argues that it works because “rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principal external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” In other words, through dancing and synchronized movement, we experience something akin to what we did at the earliest point of existence. While most likely impossible to prove or disprove, it’s an interesting proposition.

Since the publication of Keeping Together in Time, new research has lent greater support to McNeill’s theories about the effects of muscular bonding, although studies are still limited.

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How exactly has muscular bonding aided us in more recent times? To explore the concept, let’s look at the type McNeill was closest acquainted with: the military drill. It enables collective organization through emotional connections facilitated by synchronous movement.

Drills have obvious, tangible benefits. They encourage obedience and compliance with orders, which are valuable attributes in the fog of war. They can fit in with maneuvers and similar group efforts on the battlefield. In ancient times, it helped units stay together on the field and work together cooperatively when communication was difficult, and all fighting took place on the ground.

But drills are also a powerful form of muscular bonding. According to McNeill’s theory, they assist in creating strong connections between soldiers, possibly because the physical movements promote the experience of being a small part of a large, cohesive unit.

While we cannot establish if it is causation or correlation, it is notable that many of the most successful armies throughout history emphasized drills. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans both incorporated drills into their military training. And around the sixteenth century, drills became the standard in European armies. McNeill explains how this helped soldiers develop intense ties to each other and their cause:

The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies that other social ties faded into insignificance beside them.

These armies were cohesive, despite the different backgrounds of members. What made this possible was the allegiance soldiers had to each other. Loyalty to the army replaced former loyalties, such as prior alignments with the church or their families. Many soldiers report experiencing the sense that they fought for their peers, not for their leaders or their country or ideology. And it was moving together that helped break down barriers and allowed the group to reconstruct itself as a single unit with a shared goal.

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“You can’t dance and be sad. You can listen to music and cry, you can read and cry, you can draw and cry but you can’t dance and cry. The body wont let you.”

Esther Perel

Today, a growing percentage of people find themselves alienated from any particular community, without strong bonds to any discernible group. Loneliness is on the rise. More people live alone, remain single or childless, move to new geographical locations on a regular basis, and otherwise fail to develop close ties. This is a shift that is unprecedented in human history.

What that means is that there is tremendous value in considering how we can bring connection back into our lives; we must figure out how to help alleviate the dangerous effects of isolation and alienation from each other. There is an incredible precedent in history for using dance to create a sense of community and intimacy. Physical movement helps us forge connections that can override our differences. For instance, countercultural movements of those people rejected by mainstream society have often danced to create their own distinct community, as was the case during the hippy movement in 1960s America.

Giving thought to what it takes to unify people is even more important now as we face problems that affect humanity as a whole and require wide-scale collaboration to resolve. Again and again, history has shown us that keeping together in time forms groups that have a power greater than the sum of their parts. The emergent properties of moving together can be achieved even if we are not physically in the same space. As long as we know we are moving in a way that is being done by others, the bonding effects happen.

McNeill writes: “It is and always has been a powerful force at work among humankind whether for good or ill. . . . Our future, like our past, depends on how we utilize these modes of coordinating common effort for agreed purposes.”

Muscular bonding is not a panacea. It cannot instantly heal deep rifts in society, nor can it save individuals from the effects of social isolation. But it will pay off for us to look at history and see the tools we have at our disposal for bringing people together. Dance is one such tool. Whether you’re able to attend a concert or club, or simply have a dance party in your living room with your kids or over video chat with loved ones you can’t be near, when we move together we have an experience that deepens our connection to one another and gives us the openings for unity and cooperation.

Why We Focus on Trivial Things: The Bikeshed Effect

Bikeshedding is a metaphor to illustrate the strange tendency we have to spend excessive time on trivial matters, often glossing over important ones. Here’s why we do it, and how to stop.

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How can we stop wasting time on unimportant details? From meetings at work that drag on forever without achieving anything to weeks-long email chains that don’t solve the problem at hand, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the inconsequential. Then, when an important decision needs to be made, we hardly have any time to devote to it.

To answer this question, we first have to recognize why we get bogged down in the trivial. Then we must look at strategies for changing our dynamics towards generating both useful input and time to consider it.

The Law of Triviality

You’ve likely heard of Parkinson’s Law, which states that tasks expand to fill the amount of time allocated to them. But you might not have heard of the lesser-known Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also coined by British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

The Law of Triviality states that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the scheme of things. Major, complex issues get the least discussion while simple, minor ones get the most discussion.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is also known as “bike-shedding,” after the story Parkinson uses to illustrate it. He asks readers to imagine a financial committee meeting to discuss a three-point agenda. The points are as follows:

  1. A proposal for a £10 million nuclear power plant
  2. A proposal for a £350 bike shed
  3. A proposal for a £21 annual coffee budget

What happens? The committee ends up running through the nuclear power plant proposal in little time. It’s too advanced for anyone to really dig into the details, and most of the members don’t know much about the topic in the first place. One member who does is unsure how to explain it to the others. Another member proposes a redesigned proposal, but it seems like such a huge task that the rest of the committee decline to consider it.

The discussion soon moves to the bike shed. Here, the committee members feel much more comfortable voicing their opinions. They all know what a bike shed is and what it looks like. Several members begin an animated debate over the best possible material for the roof, weighing out options that might enable modest savings. They discuss the bike shed for far longer than the power plant.

At last, the committee moves onto item three: the coffee budget. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert. They all know about coffee and have a strong sense of its cost and value. Before anyone realizes what is happening, they spend longer discussing the £21 coffee budget than the power plant and the bike shed combined! In the end, the committee runs out of time and decides to meet again to complete their analysis. Everyone walks away feeling satisfied, having contributed to the conversation.

Why this happens

Bike-shedding happens because the simpler a topic is, the more people will have an opinion on it and thus more to say about it. When something is outside of our circle of competence, like a nuclear power plant, we don’t even try to articulate an opinion.

But when something is just about comprehensible to us, even if we don’t have anything of genuine value to add, we feel compelled to say something, lest we look stupid. What idiot doesn’t have anything to say about a bike shed? Everyone wants to show that they know about the topic at hand and have something to contribute.

With any issue, we shouldn’t be according equal importance to every opinion anyone adds. We should emphasize the inputs from those who have done the work to have an opinion. And when we decide to contribute, we should be putting our energy into the areas where we have something valuable to add that will improve the outcome of the decision.

Strategies for avoiding bike-shedding

The main thing you can do to avoid bike-shedding is for your meeting to have a clear purpose. In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker, who has decades of experience designing high-stakes gatherings, says that any successful gathering (including a business meeting) needs to have a focused and particular purpose. “Specificity,” she says, “is a crucial ingredient.”

Why is having a clear purpose so critical? Because you use it as the lens to filter all other decisions about your meeting, including who to have in the room.

With that in mind, we can see that it’s probably not a great idea to discuss building a nuclear power plant and a bike shed in the same meeting. There’s not enough specificity there.

The key is to recognize that the available input on an issue doesn’t all need considering. The most informed opinions are most relevant. This is one reason why big meetings with lots of people present, most of whom don’t need to be there, are such a waste of time in organizations. Everyone wants to participate, but not everyone has anything meaningful to contribute.

When it comes to choosing your list of invitees, Parker writes, “if the purpose of your meeting is to make a decision, you may want to consider having fewer cooks in the kitchen.” If you don’t want bike-shedding to occur, avoid inviting contributions from those who are unlikely to have relevant knowledge and experience. Getting the result you want—a thoughtful, educated discussion about that power plant—depends on having the right people in the room.

It also helps to have a designated individual in charge of making the final judgment. When we make decisions by committee with no one in charge, reaching a consensus can be almost impossible. The discussion drags on and on. The individual can decide in advance how much importance to accord to the issue (for instance, by estimating how much its success or failure could help or harm the company’s bottom line). They can set a time limit for the discussion to create urgency. And they can end the meeting by verifying that it has indeed achieved its purpose.

Any issue that invites a lot of discussions from different people might not be the most important one at hand. Avoid descending into unproductive triviality by having clear goals for your meeting and getting the best people to the table to have a productive, constructive discussion.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Doers and thinkers from Shakespeare to Jobs, liberally “stole” inspiration from the doers and thinkers who came before. Here’s how to do it right.

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“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

Innovative ideas have to come from somewhere. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work seems, dig a little deeper and you will always find that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They mastered the best of what other people had already figured out, then made that expertise their own. With each iteration, they could see a little further, and they were content in the knowledge that future generations would, in turn, stand on their shoulders.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and development. It doesn’t make what you do less valuable. Embrace it.

Everyone gets a lift up

Ironically, Newton’s turn of phrase wasn’t even entirely his own. The phrase can be traced back to the twelfth century, when the author John of Salisbury wrote that philosopher Bernard of Chartres compared people to dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants and said that “we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

Mary Shelley put it this way in the nineteenth century, in a preface for Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”

There are giants in every field. Don’t be intimidated by them. They offer an exciting perspective. As the film director Jim Jarmusch advised, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”

That might sound demoralizing. Some might think, “My song, my book, my blog post, my startup, my app, my creation—surely they are original? Surely no one has done this before!” But that’s likely not the case. It’s also not a bad thing. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson states in his TED Talk: “Admitting this to ourselves is not an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness—it’s a liberation from our misconceptions, and it’s an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin.”

There lies the important fact. Standing on the shoulders of giants enables us to see further, not merely as far as before. When we build upon prior work, we often improve upon it and take humanity in new directions. However original your work seems to be, the influences are there—they might just be uncredited or not obvious. As we know from social proof, copying is a natural human tendency. It’s how we learn and figure out how to behave.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb describes the type of antifragile inventions and ideas that have lasted throughout history. He describes himself heading to a restaurant (the likes of which have been around for at least 2,500 years), in shoes similar to those worn at least 5,300 years ago, to use silverware designed by the Mesopotamians. During the evening, he drinks wine based on a 6,000-year-old recipe, from glasses invented 2,900 years ago, followed by cheese unchanged through the centuries. The dinner is prepared with one of our oldest tools, fire, and using utensils much like those the Romans developed.

Much about our societies and cultures has undeniably changed and continues to change at an ever-faster rate. But we continue to stand on the shoulders of those who came before in our everyday life, using their inventions and ideas, and sometimes building upon them.

Not invented here syndrome

When we discredit what came before or try to reinvent the wheel or refuse to learn from history, we hold ourselves back. After all, many of the best ideas are the oldest. “Not Invented Here Syndrome” is a term for situations when we avoid using ideas, products, or data created by someone else, preferring instead to develop our own (even if it is more expensive, time-consuming, and of lower quality.)

The syndrome can also manifest as reluctance to outsource or delegate work. People might think their output is intrinsically better if they do it themselves, becoming overconfident in their own abilities. After all, who likes getting told what to do, even by someone who knows better? Who wouldn’t want to be known as the genius who (re)invented the wheel?

Developing a new solution for a problem is more exciting than using someone else’s ideas. But new solutions, in turn, create new problems. Some people joke that, for example, the largest Silicon Valley companies are in fact just impromptu incubators for people who will eventually set up their own business, firm in the belief that what they create themselves will be better.

The syndrome is also a case of the sunk cost fallacy. If a company has spent a lot of time and money getting a square wheel to work, they may be resistant to buying the round ones that someone else comes out with. The opportunity costs can be tremendous. Not Invented Here Syndrome detracts from an organization or individual’s core competency, and results in wasting time and talent on what are ultimately distractions. Better to use someone else’s idea and be a giant for someone else.

Why Steve Jobs stole his ideas

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” 

— Steve Jobs

In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman trace the path that led to the creation of the iPhone and track down the giants upon whose shoulders Steve Jobs perched. We often hail Jobs as a revolutionary figure who changed how we use technology. Few who were around in 2007 could have failed to notice the buzz created by the release of the iPhone. It seemed so new, a total departure from anything that had come before. The truth is a little messier.

The first touchscreen came about almost half a century before the iPhone, developed by E.A. Johnson for air traffic control. Other engineers built upon his work and developed usable models, filing a patent in 1975. Around the same time, the University of Illinois was developing touchscreen terminals for students. Prior to touchscreens, light pens used similar technology. The first commercial touchscreen computer came out in 1983, soon followed by graphics boards, tablets, watches, and video game consoles. Casio released a touchscreen pocket computer in 1987 (remember, this is still a full twenty years before the iPhone.)

However, early touchscreen devices were frustrating to use, with very limited functionality, often short battery lives, and minimal use cases for the average person. As touchscreen devices developed in complexity and usability, they laid down the groundwork for the iPhone.

Likewise, the iPod built upon the work of Kane Kramer, who took inspiration from the Sony Walkman. Kramer designed a small portable music player in the 1970s. The IXI, as he called it, looked similar to the iPod but arrived too early for a market to exist, and Kramer lacked the marketing skills to create one. When pitching to investors, Kramer described the potential for immediate delivery, digital inventory, taped live performances, back catalog availability, and the promotion of new artists and microtransactions. Sound familiar?

Steve Jobs stood on the shoulders of the many unseen engineers, students, and scientists who worked for decades to build the technology he drew upon. Although Apple has a long history of merciless lawsuits against those they consider to have stolen their ideas, many were not truly their own in the first place. Brandt and Eagleman conclude that “human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Knowing where we’ve been, and where we are, points the way to the next big industries.”

How Shakespeare got his ideas

Nothing will come of nothing.”  

— William Shakespeare, King Lear

Most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays draw heavily upon prior works—so much so that some question whether he would have survived today’s copyright laws.

Hamlet took inspiration from Gesta Danorum, a twelfth-century work on Danish history by Saxo Grammaticus, consisting of sixteen Latin books. Although it is doubtful whether Shakespeare had access to the original text, scholars find the parallels undeniable and believe he may have read another play based on it, from which he drew inspiration. In particular, the accounts of the plight of Prince Amleth (which has the same letters as Hamlet) involves similar events.

Holinshed’s Chronicles, a co-authored account of British history from the late sixteenth century, tells stories that mimic the plot of Macbeth, including the three witches. Holinshed’s Chronicles itself was a mélange of earlier texts, which transferred their biases and fabrications to Shakespeare. It also likely inspired King Lear.

Parts of Antony and Cleopatra are copied verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Anthony. Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was an undisguised template for Romeo and Juliet. Once again, there are more giants behind the scenes—Brooke copied a 1559 poem by Pierre Boaistuau, who in turn drew from a 1554 story by Matteo Bandello, who in turn drew inspiration from a 1530 work by Luigi da Porto. The list continues, with Plutarch, Chaucer, and the Bible acting as inspirations for many major literary, theatrical, and cultural works.

Yet what Shakespeare did with the works he sometimes copied, sometimes learned from, is remarkable. Take a look at any of the original texts and, despite the mimicry, you will find that they cannot compare to his plays. Many of the originals were dry, unengaging, and lacking any sort of poetic language. J.J. Munro wrote in 1908 that The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet “meanders on like a listless stream in a strange and impossible land; Shakespeare’s sweeps on like a broad and rushing river, singing and foaming, flashing in sunlight and darkening in cloud, carrying all things irresistibly to where it plunges over the precipice into a waste of waters below.”

Despite bordering on plagiarism at times, he overhauled the stories with an exceptional use of the English language, bringing drama and emotion to dreary chronicles or poems. He had a keen sense for the changes required to restructure plots, creating suspense and intensity in their stories. Shakespeare saw far further than those who wrote before him, and with their help, he ushered in a new era of the English language.

Of course, it’s not just Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare who found a (sometimes willing, sometimes not) shoulder to stand upon. Facebook is presumed to have built upon Friendster. Cormac McCarthy’s books often replicate older history texts, with one character coming straight from Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confessions. John Lennon borrowed from diverse musicians, once writing in a letter to the New York Times that though the Beatles copied black musicians, “it wasn’t a rip off. It was a love in.”

In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem points to many other instances of influences in classic works. In 1916, journalist Heinz von Lichberg published a story of a man who falls in love with his landlady’s daughter and begins a love affair, culminating in her death and his lasting loneliness. The title? Lolita. It’s hard to question that Nabokov must have read it, but aside from the plot and name, the style of language in his version is absent from the original.

The list continues. The point is not to be flippant about plagiarism but to cultivate sensitivity to the elements of value in a previous work, as well as the ability to build upon those elements. If we restrict the flow of ideas, everyone loses out.

The adjacent possible

What’s this about? Why can’t people come up with their own ideas? Why do so many people come up with a brilliant idea but never profit from it? The answer lies in what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.” Quite simply, each new innovation or idea opens up the possibility of additional innovations and ideas. At any time, there are limits to what is possible, yet those limits are constantly expanding.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson compares this process to being in a house where opening a door creates new rooms. Each time we open the door to a new room, new doors appear and the house grows. Johnson compares it to the formation of life, beginning with basic fatty acids. The first fatty acids to form were not capable of turning into living creatures. When they self-organized into spheres, the groundwork formed for cell membranes, and a new door opened to genetic codes, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. When dinosaurs evolved a new bone that meant they had more manual dexterity, they opened a new door to flight. When our distant ancestors evolved opposable thumbs, dozens of new doors opened to the use of tools, writing, and warfare. According to Johnson, the history of innovation has been about exploring new wings of the adjacent possible and expanding what we are capable of.

A new idea—like those of Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare—is only possible because a previous giant opened a new door and made their work possible. They in turn opened new doors and expanded the realm of possibility. Technology, art, and other advances are only possible if someone else has laid the groundwork; nothing comes from nothing. Shakespeare could write his plays because other people had developed the structures and language that formed his tools. Newton could advance science because of the preliminary discoveries that others had made. Jobs built Apple out of the debris of many prior devices and technological advances.

The questions we all have to ask ourselves are these: What new doors can I open, based on the work of the giants that came before me? What opportunities can I spot that they couldn’t? Where can I take the adjacent possible? If you think all the good ideas have already been found, you are very wrong. Other people’s good ideas open new possibilities, rather than restricting them.

As time passes, the giants just keep getting taller and more willing to let us hop onto their shoulders. Their expertise is out there in books and blog posts, open-source software and TED talks, podcast interviews, and academic papers. Whatever we are trying to do, we have the option to find a suitable giant and see what can be learned from them. In the process, knowledge compounds, and everyone gets to see further as we open new doors to the adjacent possible.

What You Truly Value

Our devotion to our values gets tested in the face of a true crisis. But it’s also an opportunity to reconnect, recommit, and sometimes, bake some bread.

***

The recent outbreak of the coronavirus is impacting people all over the world — not just in terms of physical health, but financially, emotionally, and even socially. As we struggle to adapt to our new circumstances, it can be tempting to bury our head and wait for it all to blow over so we can just get back to normal. Or we can see this as an incredible opportunity to figure out who we are.

What many of us are discovering right now is that the things we valued a few months ago don’t actually matter: our cars, the titles on our business cards, our privileged neighborhoods. Rather, what is coming to the forefront is a shift to figuring out what we find intrinsically rewarding

When everything is easy, it can seem like you have life figured out. When things change and you’re called to put it into practice, it’s a different level. It’s one thing to say you are stoic when your coffee spills and another entirely when you’re watching your community collapse. When life changes and gets hard, you realize you’ve never had to put into practice what you thought you knew about coping with disaster.

But when a crisis hits, everything is put to the real test.

The challenge then becomes wrapping our struggles into our values, because what we value only has meaning if it’s important when life is hard. To know if they have worth, your values need to help you move forward when you can barely crawl and the obstacles in your way seem insurmountable.

In the face of a crisis, what is important to us becomes evident when we give ourselves the space to reflect on what is going to get us through the hard times. And so we find renewed commitment to get back to core priorities. What seemed important before falls apart to reveal what really matters: family, love, community, health.

“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” 

— Julia Child

One unexpected activity that many people are turning to now that they have time and are more introspective is baking. In fact, this week Google searches for bread recipes hit a noticeable high.


Baking is a very physical experience: kneading dough, tasting batter, smelling the results of the ingredients coming together. It’s an activity that requires patience. Bread has to rise. Pies have to cook. Cakes have to cool before they can be covered with icing. And, as prescriptive as baking seems on its surface, it’s something that facilitates creativity as we improvise our ingredients based on what we have in the cupboard. We discover new flavors, and we comfort ourselves and others with the results. Baked goods are often something we share, and in doing so we are providing for those we care about.

Why might baking be useful in times of stress? In Overcoming Anxiety, Dennis Tirch explains “research has demonstrated that when people engage more fully in behaviors that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery, they can begin to overcome negative emotions.”

At home with their loved ones people can reconsider what they value one muffin at a time. Creating with the people we love instead of consuming on our own allows us to focus on what we value as the world changes around us. With more time, slow, seemingly unproductive pursuits have new appeal because they help us reorient to the qualities in life that matter most.

Giving yourself the space to tune in to your values doesn’t have to come through baking. What’s important is that you find an activity that lets you move past fear and panic, to reconnect with what gives your life meaning. When you engage with an activity that gives you pleasure and releases negative emotions, it allows you to rediscover what is important to you.

Change is stressful. But neither stress nor change have to be scary. If you think about it, you undergo moments of change every day because nothing in life is ever static. Our lives are a constant adaptation to a world that is always in motion.

All change brings opportunity. Some change gives us the opportunity to pause and ask what we can do better. How can we better connect to what has proven to be important? Connection is not an abstract intellectual exercise, but an experience that orients us to the values that provide us direction. If you look for opportunities in line with your values, you will be able to see a path through the fear and uncertainty guided by the light that is hope.

The Illusory Truth Effect: Why We Believe Fake News, Conspiracy Theories and Propaganda

When a “fact” tastes good and is repeated enough, we tend to believe it, no matter how false it may be. Understanding the illusory truth effect can keep us from being bamboozled.

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A recent Verge article looked at some of the unsavory aspects of working as Facebook content moderators—the people who spend their days cleaning up the social network’s most toxic content. One strange detail stands out. The moderators the Verge spoke to reported that they and their coworkers often found themselves believing fringe, often hatemongering conspiracy theories they would have dismissed under normal circumstances. Others described experiencing paranoid thoughts and intense fears for their safety.

An overnight switch from skepticism to fervent belief in conspiracy theories is not unique to content moderators. In a Nieman Lab article by Laura Hazard Owen, she explains that researchers who study the spread of disinformation online can find themselves struggling to be sure about their own beliefs and needing to make an active effort to counteract what they see. Some of the most fervent, passionate conspiracy theorists admit that they first fell into the rabbit hole when they tried to debunk the beliefs they now hold. There’s an explanation for why this happens: the illusory truth effect.

The illusory truth effect

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Aldous Huxley

Not everything we believe is true. We may act like it is and it may be uncomfortable to think otherwise, but it’s inevitable that we all hold a substantial number of beliefs that aren’t objectively true. It’s not about opinions or different perspectives. We can pick up false beliefs for the simple reason that we’ve heard them a lot.

If I say that the moon is made of cheese, no one reading this is going to believe that, no matter how many times I repeat it. That statement is too ludicrous. But what about something a little more plausible? What if I said that moon rock has the same density as cheddar cheese? And what if I wasn’t the only one saying it? What if you’d also seen a tweet touting this amazing factoid, perhaps also heard it from a friend at some point, and read it in a blog post?

Unless you’re a geologist, a lunar fanatic, or otherwise in possession of an unusually good radar for moon rock-related misinformation, there is a not insignificant chance you would end up believing a made-up fact like that, without thinking to verify it. You might repeat it to others or share it online. This is how the illusory truth effect works: we all have a tendency to believe something is true after being exposed to it multiple times. The more times we’ve heard something, the truer it seems. The effect is so powerful that repetition can persuade us to believe information we know is false in the first place. Ever thought a product was stupid but somehow you ended up buying it on a regular basis? Or you thought that new manager was okay, but now you participate in gossip about her?

The illusory truth effect is the reason why advertising works and why propaganda is one of the most powerful tools for controlling how people think. It’s why the speech of politicians can be bizarre and multiple-choice tests can cause students problems later on. It’s why fake news spreads and retractions of misinformation don’t work. In this post, we’re going to look at how the illusory truth effect works, how it shapes our perception of the world, and how we can avoid it.

The discovery of the illusory truth effect

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

Henry David Thoreau

The illusory truth effect was first described in a 1977 paper entitled “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity,” by Lynn Hasher and David Goldstein of Temple University and Thomas Toppino of Villanova University. In the study, the researchers presented a group of students with 60 statements and asked them to rate how certain they were that each was either true or false. The statements came from a range of subjects and were all intended to be not too obscure, but unlikely to be familiar to study participants. Each statement was objective—it could be verified as either correct or incorrect and was not a matter of opinion. For example, “the largest museum in the world is the Louvre in Paris” was true.

Students rated their certainty three times, with two weeks in between evaluations. Some of the statements were repeated each time, while others were not. With each repetition, students became surer of their certainty regarding the statements they labelled as true. It seemed that they were using familiarity as a gauge for how confident they were of their beliefs.

An important detail is that the researchers did not repeat the first and last 10 items on each list. They felt students would be most likely to remember these and be able to research them before the next round of the study. While the study was not conclusive evidence of the existence of the illusory truth effect, subsequent research has confirmed its findings.

Why the illusory truth effect happens

The sad truth is the truth is sad.

Lemony Snicket

Why does repetition of a fact make us more likely to believe it, and to be more certain of that belief? As with other cognitive shortcuts, the typical explanation is that it’s a way our brains save energy. Thinking is hard work—remember that the human brain uses up about 20% of an individual’s energy, despite accounting for just 2% of their body weight.

The illusory truth effect comes down to processing fluency. When a thought is easier to process, it requires our brains to use less energy, which leads us to prefer it. The students in Hasher’s original study recognized the repeated statements, even if not consciously. That means that processing them was easier for their brains.

Processing fluency seems to have a wide impact on our perception of truthfulness. Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz, in their article “Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Judgments of Truth,” found that statements presented in an easy-to-read color are judged as more likely to be true than ones presented in a less legible way. In their article “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms,” Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh found that aphorisms that rhyme (like “what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals”), even if someone hasn’t heard them before, seem more accurate than non-rhyming versions. Once again, they’re easier to process.

Fake news

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. ”

— Carl Sagan

The illusory truth effect is one factor in why fabricated news stories sometimes gain traction and have a wide impact. When this happens, our knee-jerk reaction can be to assume that anyone who believes fake news must be unusually gullible or outright stupid. Evan Davis writes in Post Truth, “Never before has there been a stronger sense that fellow citizens have been duped and that we are all suffering the consequences of their intellectual vulnerability.” As Davis goes on to write, this assumption isn’t helpful for anyone. We can’t begin to understand why people believe seemingly ludicrous news stories until we consider some of the psychological reasons why this might happen.

Fake news falls under the umbrella of “information pollution,” which also includes news items that misrepresent information, take it out of context, parody it, fail to check facts or do background research, or take claims from unreliable sources at face value. Some of this news gets published on otherwise credible, well-respected news sites due to simple oversight. Some goes on parody sites that never purport to tell the truth, yet are occasionally mistaken for serious reporting. Some shows up on sites that replicate the look and feel of credible sources, using similar web design and web addresses. And some fake news comes from sites dedicated entirely to spreading misinformation, without any pretense of being anything else.

A lot of information pollution falls somewhere in between the extremes that tend to get the most attention. It’s the result of people being overworked or in a hurry and unable to do the due diligence that reliable journalism requires. It’s what happens when we hastily tweet something or mention it in a blog post and don’t realize it’s not quite true. It extends to miscited quotes, doctored photographs, fiction books masquerading as memoirs, or misleading statistics.

The signal to noise ratio is so skewed that we have a hard time figuring out what to pay attention to and what we should ignore. No one has time to verify everything they read online. No one. (And no, offline media certainly isn’t perfect either.) Our information processing capabilities are not infinite and the more we consume, the harder it becomes to assess its value.

Moreover, we’re often far outside our circle of competence, reading about topics we don’t have the expertise in to assess accuracy in any meaningful way. This drip-drip of information pollution is not harmless. Like air pollution, it builds up over time and the more we’re exposed to it, the more likely we are to end up picking up false beliefs which are then hard to shift. For instance, a lot of people believe that crime, especially the violent kind, is on an upward trend year by year—in a 2016 study by Pew Research, 57% of Americans believed crime had worsened since 2008. This despite violent crime having actually fallen by nearly a fifth during that time. This false belief may stem from the fact that violent crime receives a disproportional amount of media coverage, giving it wide and repeated exposure.

When people are asked to rate the apparent truthfulness of news stories, they score ones they have read multiple times more truthful than those they haven’t. Danielle C. Polage, in her article “Making Up History: False Memories of Fake News Stories,” explains that a false story someone has been exposed to more than once can seem more credible than a true one they’re seeing for the first time. In experimental settings, people also misattribute their previous exposure to stories, believing they read a news item from another source when they actually saw it as part of a prior part of a study. Even when people know the story is part of the experiment, they sometimes think they’ve also read it elsewhere. The repetition is all that matters.

Given enough exposure to contradictory information, there is almost no knowledge that we won’t question.

Propaganda

If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it.

Isa Blagden

Propaganda and fake news are similar. By relying on repetition, disseminators of propaganda can change the beliefs and values of people.

Propaganda has a lot in common with advertising, except instead of selling a product or service, it’s about convincing people of the validity of a particular cause. Propaganda isn’t necessarily malicious; sometimes the cause is improved public health or boosting patriotism to encourage military enrollment. But often propaganda is used to undermine political processes to further narrow, radical, and aggressive agendas.

During World War II, the graphic designer Abraham Games served as the official war artist for the British government. Games’s work is iconic and era-defining for its punchy, brightly colored visual style. His army recruitment posters would often feature a single figure rendered in a proud, strong, admirable pose with a mere few words of text. They conveyed to anyone who saw them the sorts of positive qualities they would supposedly gain through military service. Whether this was true or not was another matter. Through repeated exposure to the poster, Games instilled the image the army wanted to create in the minds of viewers, affecting their beliefs and behaviors.

Today, propaganda is more likely to be a matter of quantity over quality. It’s not about a few artistic posters. It’s about saturating the intellectual landscape with content that supports a group’s agenda. With so many demands on our attention, old techniques are too weak.

Researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews at the Rand Corporation refer to the method of bombarding people with fabricated information as the “firehose of propaganda” model. While the report focuses on modern Russian propaganda, the techniques it describes are not confined to Russia. These techniques make use of the illusory truth effect, alongside other cognitive shortcuts. Firehose propaganda has four distinct features:

  • High-volume and multi-channel
  • Rapid, continuous and repetitive
  • Makes no commitment to objective reality
  • Makes no commitment to consistency

Firehose propaganda is predicated on exposing people to the same messages as frequently as possible. It involves a large volume of content, repeated again and again across numerous channels: news sites, videos, radio, social media, television and so on. These days, as the report describes, this can also include internet users who are paid to repeatedly post in forums, chat rooms, comment sections and on social media disputing legitimate information and spreading misinformation. It is the sheer volume that succeeds in obliterating the truth. Research into the illusory truth effect suggests that we are further persuaded by information heard from multiple sources, hence the efficacy of funneling propaganda through a range of channels.

Seeing as repetition leads to belief in many cases, firehose propaganda doesn’t need to pay attention to the truth or even to be consistent. A source doesn’t need to be credible for us to end up believing its messages. Fact-checking is of little help because it further adds to the repetition, yet we feel compelled not to ignore obviously untrue propagandistic material.

Firehose propaganda does more than spread fake news. It nudges us towards feelings like paranoia, mistrust, suspicion, and contempt for expertise. All of this makes future propaganda more effective. Unlike those espousing the truth, propagandists can move fast because they’re making up some or all of what they claim, meaning they gain a foothold in our minds first.  First impressions are powerful. Familiarity breeds trust.

How to combat the illusory truth effect

So how can we protect ourselves from believing false news and being manipulated by propaganda due to the illusory truth effect? The best route is to be far more selective. The information we consume is like the food we eat. If it’s junk, our thinking will reflect that.

We don’t need to spend as much time reading the news as most of us do. As with many other things in life, more can be less. The vast majority of the news we read is just information pollution. It doesn’t do us any good.

One of the best solutions is to quit the news. This frees up time and energy to engage with timeless wisdom that will improve your life. Try it for a couple of weeks. And if you aren’t convinced, read a few days’ worth of newspapers from 1978. You’ll see how much the news doesn’t really matter at all.

If you can’t quit the news habit, stick to reliable, well-known news sources that have a reputation to uphold. Steer clear of dubious sources whenever you can—even if you treat it as entertainment, you might still end up absorbing it. Research unfamiliar sources before trusting them. Be cautious of sites that are funded entirely by advertising (or that pay their journalists based on views) and seek to support reader-funded news sources you get value from if possible. Prioritize sites that treat their journalists well and don’t expect them to churn out dozens of thoughtless articles per day.  Don’t rely on news in social media posts without sources, from people outside of their circle of competence.

Avoid treating the news as entertainment to passively consume on the bus or while waiting in line. Be mindful about it—if you want to inform yourself on a topic, set aside designated time to learn about it from multiple trustworthy sources. Don’t assume breaking news is better, as it can take some time for the full details of a story to come out and people may be quick to fill in the gaps with misinformation. Accept that you can’t be informed about everything and most of it isn’t important. Pay attention to when news items make you feel outrage or other strong emotions, because this may be a sign of manipulation. Be aware that correcting false information can further fuel the illusory truth effect by adding to the repetition.

We can’t stop the illusory truth effect from existing. But we can recognize that it is a reality and seek to prevent ourselves from succumbing to it in the first place.

Conclusion

Our memories are imperfect. We are easily led astray by the illusory truth effect, which can direct what we believe and even change our understanding of the past. It’s not about intelligence—this happens to all of us. This effect is too powerful for us to override it simply by learning the truth. Cognitively, there is no distinction between a genuine memory and a false one. Our brains are designed to save energy and it’s crucial we accept that.

We can’t just pull back and think the illusory truth only applies to other people. It applies to everyone. We’re all responsible for our own beliefs. We can’t pin the blame on the media or social media algorithms or whatever else. When we put effort into thinking about and questioning the information we’re exposed to, we’re less vulnerable to the illusory truth effect. Knowing about the effect is the best way to identify when it’s distorting our worldview. Before we use information as the basis for important decisions, it’s a good idea to verify if it’s true, or if it’s something we’ve just heard a lot.

Truth is a precarious thing, not because it doesn’t objectively exist, but because the incentives to warp it can be so strong. It’s up to each of us to seek it out.