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Why Are People So Friggen Stupid?

Last night I had the misfortune to catch some of the evening news whilst wandering in and out from the BBQ. During one of  my kitchen runs I heard that housing in my area had suffered a MASSIVE 6% fall. This news was of course delivered by a dolly bird with a bra size bigger than her IQ – which if you have ever met a TV journalist is about par for the course.

So whilst standing by the BBQ  I tried to put two things in perspective –

1. Is 6% massive or could it just be noise.

The paucity of actual real estate data makes it impossible to make any firm judgment about the movement of prices. After all, there is not a ticker outside of every house marking the price of the house to market minute to minute. This 6% figure could have just been the result of a lump in the data and could be part of the same misinterpretation of stockmarket data that TV news is prone to. According to the news the reason the market goes up or down  every day is because of profit taking. Or because a badger in some English country garden recently had an enema. Both reasons are equally likely.

2. Leading on from point 1 I wondered why people are so friggen stupid.

Clearly 6% is not massive in anyones language – the price of petrol swings by more than that but the pre Easter price rises are never referred to as massive.

Game theory posits that decision making is carried on within the framework of three limiting factors, cognitive ability, time and the quality of information you receive. So it is possible for smart people to make poor decisions because of limited time and poor information.  However within this decision making framework is the paralysing concept of irrationality – this in my mind acts as a circuit breaker on games theories nice little triad of principles.

What happens when you have reasonable cognitive ability, time good information and a default setting towards irrationality?

You get PhD scientists who think the world was created by magic  Doctors who believe in acupuncture and the American Mid West. Whilst considering this problem I remembered an old paper I had read on the impact of people being bonkers on public policy. It seems it doesnt matter how good the quality of information that you give people is, there always seems to be a problem in the way we process information.

This paper looked at the problem of Americans believing that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks on the US.

This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.

Similarly, many in the Arab world are convinced that the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was not the work of Arab terrorists but was a controlled demolition; that 4,000 Jews working there had been warned to stay home that day; and that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than a plane.

Those notions remain widespread even though the federal government now runs Web sites in seven languages to challenge them. Karen Hughes, who runs the Bush administration’s campaign to win hearts and minds in the fight against terrorism, recently painted a glowing report of the “digital outreach” teams working to counter misinformation and myths by challenging those ideas on Arabic blogs.

A report last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, however, found that the number of Muslims worldwide who do not believe that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks is soaring — to 59 percent of Turks and Egyptians, 65 percent of Indonesians, 53 percent of Jordanians, 41 percent of Pakistanis and even 56 percent of British Muslims.

The most telling part of the paper in my mind is this statement –

The research does not absolve those who are responsible for promoting myths in the first place. What the psychological studies highlight, however, is the potential paradox in trying to fight bad information with good information.

Schwarz’s study was published this year in the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, but the roots of the research go back decades. As early as 1945, psychologists Floyd Allport and Milton Lepkin found that the more often people heard false wartime rumors, the more likely they were to believe them.

The research is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious “rules of thumb” that can bias it into thinking that false information is true

So it doesnt matter how good the information is that people receive is innate programming within the brain tends to override this. Humans are not prone to logic as a default setting.

The experiments do not show that denials are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind’s bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.

The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

So once we have a stupid idea in our head it seems to be stuck there and no matter how much people are shown that it is a stupid idea this doesnt seem to matter.

Experiments by Ruth Mayo, a cognitive social psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also found that for a substantial chunk of people, the “negation tag” of a denial falls off with time. Mayo’s findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004.

“If someone says, ‘I did not harass her,’ I associate the idea of harassment with this person,” said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. “Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person’s name again.

“If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind,” she added. “Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11.”

Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that “Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did,” Mayo said it would be better to say something like, “Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks” — and not mention Hussein at all.

The psychologist acknowledged that such a statement might not be entirely accurate — issuing a denial or keeping silent are sometimes the only real options.

So is silence the best way to deal with myths? Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no.

Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Whilst, the notion of finding ways around people inane idiocy is interesting and obviously challenging it poses a question. How do we get around the holes in our own thinking?


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