Ls&Cs: How People Think, or Not

I continue to be fascinated about how people think, or don’t think, and how they draw or maintain conclusions about the world around them. The particular things believed aren’t the point, exactly.

The Atlantic, Charlie Warzel, 14 Feb 2022: The Bad Ideas Our Brains Can’t Shake, subtitled, “Why it’s so hard to process new COVID information”

[F]for many, the information presented when we’re first introduced to a new subject or fact is hard to shake, even if we later find out it is wrong or in need of a revision.

In the current language of critical thinking, this involves anchoring (cognitive bias) and the availability heuristic (or bias). Yet another term is mentioned here:

Granted, plenty of COVID ignorance and misinformation is ideologically motivated or borne from a genuine misunderstanding of how viruses work. But some of it might also be the result of this sticky-information problem, which is known in psychology circles as the “continued influence effect.”

“When you give humans a piece of information, we are very good at connecting it to things we already know,” she told me. “But if you retract that piece of information and people have already made these connections, you can’t go back and magically take that information out of a person’s head because then that whole understanding of the information they’ve connected it to is different. So people will then rely on their original understanding of things they’ve incorporated.”

With examples of changing guidelines about washing hands and masks.

And this I think is key:

Most of us are not used to seeing the sometimes messy, iterative form of science, where hypotheses are tested, refuted, retested, and eventually confirmed. We’re used to that process happening outside of our view and then having more definitive, fully formed conclusions presented to us. But when a novel virus spreads swiftly around the world, we’re forced to take in new information in real time. A lot of us aren’t used to this as news consumers but more importantly, our brains don’t exactly love it, either.

And this:

“We employ all these mental heuristics and shortcuts because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do anything in our lives,” she said. “The idea behind peoples’ beliefs is that they help you perform tasks. But to do that doesn’t require you to deeply understand every single thing you learn. You’re drawing on shortcuts.” These shortcuts, Jalbert said, are incredibly useful, but they’re also a vulnerability, because if one of them is based on a piece of outdated information, it could steer you in the wrong direction. These mental heuristics, she told me, are the reason why everyone is susceptible to believing wrong information.

All the biases and heuristics identified and discussed in recent decades are, in a crucial sense, features of human psychology, not bugs. They allow us to get through the day without having to think too hard, and most of the time, the conclusions we draw using them are correct. Until we encounter unfamiliar circumstances. Until you try to reach a scientific conclusion. Then you need to try to account for them, and as necessary think around them.

Another key idea, to be explored another time, is that most of what any one person “knows” or “believes” about the world is second-hand. And that’s OK.


Concerning conspiracy theories, on the other hand, is another can of worms. Many arise out of distrust of authorities, the government, people in other places who are different from you; it’s an instinctive mistrust of the unknown, an extension of the standard demonization of the ‘other.’ So does susceptibility to older conspiracy theories, say the 9/11 or Apollo 11 truthers (who believe both events were staged) make one prone to believe that Covid is a fraud and QAnon knows the truth about the world? There’s some evidence that this is so, just as there is evidence that people who believe in pseudoscience (e.g. astrology) are more prone to conspiracy theories. (My take is that gullibility toward pseudoscience and conspiracy theories both arise from a deep misunderstanding of the complexity of the world.)

Here today:

The Daily Beast, 23 Feb 2022: Flat-Earthers Keep Alienating Other Conspiracy Theorists—Even QAnon Believers

I note this mostly in passing, since the text at the link is the description of a podcast that (of course) I haven’t listened to. Nor will I attempt to parse reasons why the Flat Earth conspiracy is so different from other conspiracy theories. The psychological reasons people are attracted to conspiracy theories has been explored through links many times on this blog, especially in the past two years.


Also this.

Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin, 9 Feb 2022: Opinion: Republicans are trying to turn red America into a dystopia

Against vaccination. Against teaching anything in schools that would make white students uncomfortable, including history and the existence of gay people. So ban the books, and give parents the right to overrule teachers under threat of dismissal.

A common theme among these measures: protecting Whites — not Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans, the groups that have actually suffered from racism and repression — from feeling “bad” about historical facts. That motive is racist — a sort of trigger warning intended to shield White people from unpleasant truths about discrimination against minority groups. Minorities upset about the miseducation of youth simply have to suck it up.

Legislation that aims clearly at attacking science, inclusion and historical truth are often thought in terms of its moral and political implications. But one must also ask: Is this how you’d want to run a state to attract the best and the brightest?

The answer is probably not. Politicians behind these efforts are not working to advance the economic, intellectual and social well-being of their residents. Rather, by their own admission, they are seeking to “battle the left.” That generally amounts to rejecting expert scientific opinion, bastardizing history, indulging White grievance and unleashing a torrent of litigation.

It’s easy to see how such measures could dissuade people from relocating to these states, diversifying their economies, building high-tech businesses and expanding higher education — the attributes that characterize more affluent and diverse states. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the point.

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