Category: Self-Improvement

Job Interviews Don’t Work

Better hiring leads to better work environments, less turnover, and more innovation and productivity. When you understand the limitations and pitfalls of the job interview, you improve your chances of hiring the best possible person for your needs.

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The job interview is a ritual just about every adult goes through at least once. They seem to be a ubiquitous part of most hiring processes. The funny thing about them, however, is that they take up time and resources without actually helping to select the best people to hire. Instead, they promote a homogenous workforce where everyone thinks the same.

If you have any doubt about how much you can get from an interview, think of what’s involved for the person being interviewed. We’ve all been there. The night before, you dig out your smartest outfit, iron it, and hope your hair lies flat for once. You frantically research the company, reading every last news article based on a formulaic press release, every blog post by the CEO, and every review by a disgruntled former employee.

After a sleepless night, you trek to their office, make awkward small talk, then answer a set of predictable questions. What’s your biggest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Why do you want this job? Why are you leaving your current job? You reel off the answers you prepared the night before, highlighting the best of the best. All the while, you’re reminding yourself to sit up straight, don’t bite your nails, and keep smiling.

It’s not much better on the employer’s side of the table. When you have a role to fill, you select a list of promising candidates and invite them for an interview. Then you pull together a set of standard questions to riff off, doing a little improvising as you hear their responses. At the end of it all, you make some kind of gut judgment about the person who felt right—likely the one you connected with the most in the short time you were together.

Is it any surprise that job interviews don’t work when the whole process is based on subjective feelings? They are in no way the most effective means of deciding who to hire because they maximize the role of bias and minimize the role of evaluating competency.

What is a job interview?

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.”

— Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

When we say “job interviews” throughout this post, we’re talking about the type of interview that has become standard in many industries and even in universities: free-form interviews in which candidates sit in a room with one or more people from a prospective employer (often people they might end up working with) and answer unstructured questions. Such interviews tend to focus on how a candidate behaves generally, emphasizing factors like whether they arrive on time or if they researched the company in advance. While questions may ostensibly be about predicting job performance, they tend to better select for traits like charisma rather than actual competence.

Unstructured interviews can make sense for certain roles. The ability to give a good first impression and be charming matters for a salesperson. But not all roles need charm, and just because you don’t want to hang out with someone after an interview doesn’t mean they won’t be an amazing software engineer. In a small startup with a handful of employees, someone being “one of the gang” might matter because close-knit friendships are a strong motivator when work is hard and pay is bad. But that group mentality may be less important in a larger company in need of diversity.

Considering the importance of hiring and how much harm getting it wrong can cause, it makes sense for companies to study and understand the most effective interview methods. Let’s take a look at why job interviews don’t work and what we can do instead.

Why job interviews are ineffective

Discrimination and bias

Information like someone’s age, gender, race, appearance, or social class shouldn’t dictate if they get a job or not—their competence should. But that’s unfortunately not always the case. Interviewers can end up picking the people they like the most, which often means those who are most similar to them. This ultimately means a narrower range of competencies is available to the organization.

Psychologist Ron Friedman explains in The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace some of the unconscious biases that can impact hiring. We tend to rate attractive people as more competent, intelligent, and qualified. We consider tall people to be better leaders, particularly when evaluating men. We view people with deep voices as more trustworthy than those with higher voices.

Implicit bias is pernicious because it’s challenging to spot the ways it influences interviews. Once an interviewer judges someone, they may ask questions that nudge the interviewee towards fitting that perception. For instance, if they perceive someone to be less intelligent, they may ask basic questions that don’t allow the candidate to display their expertise. Having confirmed their bias, the interviewer has no reason to question it or even notice it in the future.

Hiring often comes down to how much an interviewer likes a candidate as a person. This means that we can be manipulated by manufactured charm. If someone’s charisma is faked for an interview, an organization can be left dealing with the fallout for ages.

The map is not the territory

The representation of something is not the thing itself. A job interview is meant to be a quick snapshot to tell a company how a candidate would be at a job. However, it’s not a representative situation in terms of replicating how the person will perform in the actual work environment.

For instance, people can lie during job interviews. Indeed, the situation practically encourages it. While most people feel uncomfortable telling outright lies (and know they would face serious consequences later on for a serious fabrication), bending the truth is common. Ron Friedman writes, “Research suggests that outright lying generates too much psychological discomfort for people to do it very often. More common during interviews are more nuanced forms of deception which include embellishment (in which we take credit for things we haven’t done), tailoring (in which we adapt our answers to fit the job requirements), and constructing (in which we piece together elements from different experiences to provide better answers.)” An interviewer can’t know if someone is deceiving them in any of these ways. So they can’t know if they’re hearing the truth.

One reason why we think job interviews are representative is the fundamental attribution error. This is a logical fallacy that leads us to believe that the way people behave in one area carries over to how they will behave in other situations. We view people’s behaviors as the visible outcome of innate characteristics, and we undervalue the impact of circumstances.

Some employers report using one single detail they consider representative to make hiring decisions, such as whether a candidate sends a thank-you note after the interview or if their LinkedIn picture is a selfie. Sending a thank-you note shows manners and conscientiousness. Having a selfie on LinkedIn shows unprofessionalism. But is that really true? Can one thing carry across to every area of job performance? It’s worth debating.

Gut feelings aren’t accurate

We all like to think we can trust our intuition. The problem is that intuitive judgments tend to only work in areas where feedback is fast and cause and effect clear. Job interviews don’t fall into that category. Feedback is slow. The link between a hiring decision and a company’s success is unclear.

Overwhelmed by candidates and the pressure of choosing, interviewers may resort to making snap judgments based on limited information. And interviews introduce a lot of noise, which can dilute relevant information while leading to overconfidence. In a study entitled Belief in the Unstructured Interview: The Persistence of an Illusion, participants predicted the future GPA of a set of students. They either received biographical information about the students or both biographical information and an interview. In some of the cases, the interview responses were entirely random, meaning they shouldn’t have conveyed any genuine useful information.

Before the participants made their predictions, the researchers informed them that the strongest predictor of a student’s future GPA is their past GPA. Seeing as all participants had access to past GPA information, they should have factored it heavily into their predictions.

In the end, participants who were able to interview the students made worse predictions than those who only had access to biographical information. Why? Because the interviews introduced too much noise. They distracted participants with irrelevant information, making them forget the most significant predictive factor: past GPA. Of course, we do not have clear metrics like GPA for jobs. But this study indicates that interviews do not automatically lead to better judgments about a person.

We tend to think human gut judgments are superior, even when evidence doesn’t support this. We are quick to discard information that should shape our judgments in favor of less robust intuitions that we latch onto because they feel good. The less challenging information is to process, the better it feels. And we tend to associate good feelings with ‘rightness’.

Experience ≠ expertise in interviewing

In 1979, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston suddenly had to increase its incoming class size by 50 students due to a legal change requiring larger classes. Without time to interview again, they selected from the pool of candidates the school chose to interview, then rejected as unsuitable for admission. Seeing as they got through to the interview stage, they had to be among the best candidates. They just weren’t previously considered good enough to admit.

When researchers later studied the result of this unusual situation, they found that the students whom the school first rejected performed no better or worse academically than the ones they first accepted. In short, interviewing students did nothing to help select for the highest performers.

Studying the efficacy of interviews is complicated and hard to manage from an ethical standpoint. We can’t exactly give different people the same real-world job in the same conditions. We can take clues from fortuitous occurrences, like the University of Texas Medical School change in class size and the subsequent lessons learned. Without the legal change, the interviewers would never have known that the students they rejected were of equal competence to the ones they accepted. This is why building up experience in this arena is difficult. Even if someone has a lot of experience conducting interviews, it’s not straightforward to translate that into expertise. Expertise is about have a predictive model of something, not just knowing a lot about it.

Furthermore, the feedback from hiring decisions tends to be slow. An interviewer cannot know what would happen if they hired an alternate candidate. If a new hire doesn’t work out, that tends to fall on them, not the person who chose them. There are so many factors involved that it’s not terribly conducive to learning from experience.

Making interviews more effective

It’s easy to see why job interviews are so common. People want to work with people they like, so interviews allow them to scope out possible future coworkers. Candidates expect interviews, as well—wouldn’t you feel a bit peeved if a company offered you a job without the requisite “casual chat” beforehand? Going through a grueling interview can make candidates more invested in the position and likely to accept an offer. And it can be hard to imagine viable alternatives to interviews.

But it is possible to make job interviews more effective or make them the final step in the hiring process after using other techniques to gauge a potential hire’s abilities. Doing what works should take priority over what looks right or what has always been done.

Structured interviews

While unstructured interviews don’t work, structured ones can be excellent. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how he redefined the Israel Defense Force’s interviewing process as a young psychology graduate. At the time, recruiting a new soldier involved a series of psychometric tests followed by an interview to assess their personality. Interviewers then based their decision on their intuitive sense of a candidate’s fitness for a particular role. It was very similar to the method of hiring most companies use today—and it proved to be useless.

Kahneman introduced a new interviewing style in which candidates answered a predefined series of questions that were intended to measure relevant personality traits for the role (for example, responsibility and sociability). He then asked interviewers to give candidates a score for how well they seemed to exhibit each trait based on their responses. Kahneman explained that “by focusing on standardized, factual questions I hoped to combat the halo effect, where favorable first impressions influence later judgments.” He tasked interviewers only with providing these numbers, not with making a final decision.

Although interviewers at first disliked Kahneman’s system, structured interviews proved far more effective and soon became the standard for the IDF. In general, they are often the most useful way to hire. The key is to decide in advance on a list of questions, specifically designed to test job-specific skills, then ask them to all the candidates. In a structured interview, everyone gets the same questions with the same wording, and the interviewer doesn’t improvise.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion:

There are at least 15 different meta-analytic syntheses on the validity of job interviews published in academic research journals. These studies show that structured interviews are very useful to predict future job performance. . . . In comparison, unstructured interviews, which do not have a set of predefined rules for scoring or classifying answers and observations in a reliable and standardized manner, are considerably less accurate.

Why does it help if everyone hears the same questions? Because, as we learned previously, interviewers can make unconscious judgments about candidates, then ask questions intended to confirm their assumptions. Structured interviews help measure competency, not irrelevant factors. Ron Friedman explains this further:

It’s also worth having interviewers develop questions ahead of time so that: 1) each candidate receives the same questions, and 2) they are worded the same way. The more you do to standardize your interviews, providing the same experience to every candidate, the less influence you wield on their performance.

What, then, is an employer to do with the answers? Friedman says you must then create clear criteria for evaluating them.

Another step to help minimize your interviewing blind spots: include multiple interviewers and give them each specific criteria upon which to evaluate the candidate. Without a predefined framework for evaluating applicants—which may include relevant experience, communication skills, attention to detail—it’s hard for interviewers to know where to focus. And when this happens, fuzzy interpersonal factors hold greater weight, biasing assessments. Far better to channel interviewers’ attention in specific ways, so that the feedback they provide is precise.

Blind auditions

One way to make job interviews more effective is to find ways to “blind” the process—to disguise key information that may lead to biased judgments. Blinded interviews focus on skills alone, not who a candidate is as a person. Orchestras offer a remarkable case study in the benefits of blinding.

In the 1970s, orchestras had a gender bias problem. A mere 5% of their members were women, on average. Orchestras knew they were missing out on potential talent, but they found the audition process seemed to favor men over women. Those who were carrying out auditions couldn’t sidestep their unconscious tendency to favor men.

Instead of throwing up their hands in despair and letting this inequality stand, orchestras began carrying out blind auditions. During these, candidates would play their instruments behind a screen while a panel listened and assessed their performance. They received no identifiable information about candidates. The idea was that orchestras would be able to hire without room for bias. It took a bit of tweaking to make it work – at first, the interviewers were able to discern gender based on the sound of a candidate’s shoes. After that, they requested that people interview without their shoes.

The results? By 1997, up to 25% of orchestra members were women. Today, the figure is closer to 30%.

Although this is sometimes difficult to replicate for other types of work, blind auditions can provide an inspiration to other industries that could benefit from finding ways to make interviews more about a person’s abilities than their identity.

Competency-related evaluations

What’s the best way to test if someone can do a particular job well? Get them to carry out tasks that are part of the job. See if they can do what they say they can do. It’s much harder for someone to lie and mislead an interviewer during actual work than during an interview. Using competency tests for a blinded interview process is also possible—interviewers could look at depersonalized test results to make unbiased judgments.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential, “The science of personnel selection is over a hundred years old yet decision-makers still tend to play it by ear or believe in tools that have little academic rigor. . . . An important reason why talent isn’t measured more scientifically is the belief that rigorous tests are difficult and time-consuming to administer, and that subjective evaluations seem to do the job ‘just fine.’”

Competency tests are already quite common in many fields. But interviewers tend not to accord them sufficient importance. They come after an interview, or they’re considered secondary to it. A bad interview can override a good competency test. At best, interviewers accord them equal importance to interviews. Yet they should consider them far more important.

Ron Friedman writes, “Extraneous data such as a candidate’s appearance or charisma lose their influence when you can see the way an applicant actually performs. It’s also a better predictor of their future contributions because unlike traditional in-person interviews, it evaluates job-relevant criteria. Including an assignment can help you better identify the true winners in your applicant pool while simultaneously making them more invested in the position.”

Conclusion

If a company relies on traditional job interviews as its sole or main means of choosing employees, it simply won’t get the best people. And getting hiring right is paramount to the success of any organization. A driven team of people passionate about what they do can trump one with better funding and resources. The key to finding those people is using hiring techniques that truly work.

The Art of Being Alone

Loneliness has more to do with our perceptions than how much company we have. It’s just as possible to be painfully lonely surrounded by people as it is to be content with little social contact. Some people need extended periods of time alone to recharge, others would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend a few minutes with their thoughts. Here’s how we can change our perceptions by making and experiencing art.

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At a moment in time when many people are facing unprecedented amounts of time alone, it’s a good idea for us to pause and consider what it takes to turn difficult loneliness into enriching solitude. We are social creatures, and a sustained lack of satisfying relationships carries heavy costs for our mental and physical health. But when we are forced to spend more time alone than we might wish, there are ways we can compensate and find a fruitful sense of connection and fulfillment. One way to achieve this is by using our loneliness as a springboard for creativity.

“Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed but simply that one is alive.”

— Olivia Laing

Loneliness as connection

One way people have always coped with loneliness is through creativity. By transmuting their experience into something beautiful, isolated individuals throughout history have managed to substitute the sense of community they might have otherwise found in relationships with their creative outputs.

In The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing tells the stories of a number of artists who led isolated lives and found meaning in their work even if their relationships couldn’t fulfill them. While she focuses specifically on visual artists in New York over the last seventy years, their methods of using their loneliness and transmitting it into their art carry wide resonance. These particular artists tapped into sentiments many of us will experience at least once in our lives. They found beauty in loneliness and showed it to be something worth considering, not just something to run from.

The artist Edward Hopper (1882–1967) is known for his paintings of American cityscapes inhabited by closed-off figures who seem to embody a vision of modern loneliness. Laing found herself drawn to his signature images of uneasy individuals in sparse surroundings, often separated from the viewer by a window or some other barrier.

Why, then, do we persist in ascribing loneliness to his work? The obvious answer is that his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress. But there’s something else too; something about the way he contrives his city streets . . . This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near unbearable exposure.

While Hopper intermittently denied that his paintings were about loneliness, he certainly experienced the sense of being walled off in a city. In 1910 he moved to Manhattan, after a few years spent mostly in Europe, and found himself struggling to get by. Not only were his paintings not selling, he also felt alienated by the city. Hopper worked on commissions and had few close relationships. Only in his forties did he marry, well past the window of acceptability for the time. Laing writes of his early time in New York:

This sense of separation, of being alone in a big city, soon began to surface in his art . . . He was determined to articulate the day-to-day experience of inhabiting the modern, electric city of New York. Working first with etchings and then in paint, Hopper began to produce a distinctive body of images that captured the cramped, sometimes alluring experience of urban living.

Hopper roamed the city at night, sketching scenes that caught his eye. This perspective meant that the viewer of his paintings finds themselves most often in the position of an observer detached from the scene in front of them. If loneliness can feel like being separated from the world, the windows Hopper painted are perhaps a physical manifestation of this.

By Laing’s description, Hopper transformed the isolation he may have experienced by depicting the experience of loneliness as a place in itself, inhabited by the many people sharing it despite their differences. She elaborates and states, “They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them. As if what he saw was as interesting as he kept insisting he needed it to be: worth the labor, the miserable effort of setting it down. As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’ strange, estranging spell.”

Hopper’s work shows us that one way to make friends with loneliness is to create work that explores and examines it. This not only offers a way to connect with those enduring the same experience but also turns isolation into creative material and robs it of some of its sting.

Loneliness as inspiration

A second figure Laing considers is Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Born Andrew Warhola, the artist has become an icon, his work widely known, someone whose fame renders him hard to relate to. When she began exploring his body of work, Laing found that “one of the interesting things about his work, once you stop to look, is the way the real, vulnerable human self remains stubbornly visible, exerting its own submerged pressure, its own mute appeal to the viewer.”

In particular, much of Warhol’s work pertains to the loneliness he felt throughout his life, no matter how surrounded he was by glittering friends and admirers.

Throughout Warhol’s oeuvre, we see his efforts to turn his own sense of being on the outside into art. A persistent theme in his work was speech. He made thousands of tapes of conversations, often using them as the basis for other works of art. For instance, Warhol’s book, a, A Novel, consists of transcribed tapes from between 1965 and 1967. The tape recorder was such an important part of his life, both a way of connecting with people and keeping them at a distance, that he referred to it as his wife. By listening to others and documenting the oddities of their speech, Warhol coped with feeling he couldn’t be heard. Laing writes, “he retained a typically perverse fondness for language errors. He was fascinated by empty or deformed language, by chatter and trash, by glitches and botches in conversation.” In his work, all speech mattered regardless of its content.

Warhol himself often struggled with speech, mumbling in interviews and being embarrassed by his heavy Pittsburgh accent, which rendered him easily misunderstood in school. Speech was just one factor that left him isolated at times. At age seven, Warhol was confined to his bed by illness for several months. He withdrew from his peers, focusing on making art with his mother, and never quite integrated into school again. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1949, Warhol moved to New York and sought his footing in the art world. Despite his rapid rise to success and fame, he remained held back by an unshakeable belief in his own inferiority and exclusion from existing social circles.

Becoming a machine also meant having relationships with machines, using physical devices as a way of filling the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable space between self and world. Warhol could not have achieved his blankness, his enviable detachment, without the use of these charismatic substitutes for intimacy and love.

Later in the book, Laing visits the Warhol museum to see his Time Capsules, 610 cardboard boxes filled with objects collected over the course of thirteen years: “postcards, letters, newspapers, magazines, photographs, invoices, slices of pizza, a piece of chocolate cake, even a mummified human foot.” He added objects until each box was full, then transferred them to a storage unit. Some objects have obvious value, while others seem like trash. There is no particular discernable order to the collection, yet Laing saw in the Time Capsules much the same impulse reflected in Warhol’s tape recordings:

What were the Capsules, really? Trash cans, coffins, vitrines, safes; ways of keeping the loved together, ways of never having to admit to loss or feel the pain of loneliness . . . What is left after the essence has departed? Rind and skin, things you want to throw away but can’t.

The loneliness Warhol felt when he created works like the Time Capsules was more a psychological one than a practical one. He was no longer alone, but his early experiences of feeling like an outsider, and the things he felt set him apart from others, like his speech, marred his ability to connect. Loneliness, for Warhol, was perhaps more a part of his personality than something he could overcome through relationships. Even so, he was able to turn it into fodder for the groundbreaking art we remember him for. Warhol’s art communicated what he struggled to say outright. It was also a way of him listening to and seeing other people—by photographing friends, taping them sleeping, or recording their conversations—when he perhaps felt he couldn’t be heard or seen.

Where creativity takes us

Towards the end of the book, Laing writes:

There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who have never met and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.

When we face loneliness in our lives, it is not always possible or even appropriate to deal with it by rushing to fill our lives with people. Sometimes we do not have that option; sometimes we’re not in the right space to connect deeply; sometimes we first just need to work through that feeling. One way we can embrace our loneliness is by turning to the art of others who have inhabited that same lonely city, drawing solace and inspiration from their creations. We can use that as inspiration in our own creative pursuits which can help us work through difficult, and lonely, times.

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.

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.

***

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.

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.

***

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.