How to Hack the Human Brain

Pop quiz: Which country inflicted the most Nazi casualties in WW2?

Would it surprise you to learn that the answer is the Soviet Union… and that USA is not even a close second? That even British historians considered the Red Army to be “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction”?

To quote an Irish historian and expert on this subject:

When World War II ended in 1945 few doubted that the victor’s laurels belonged mainly to Joseph Stalin… Eighty per cent of all the combat of World War II took place on the Eastern Front… During the four years of the Soviet–German struggle the Red Army destroyed 600 enemy divisions. The Germans suffered ten million casualties (75% of their total wartime losses)

In comparison, the contribution of Stalin’s western allies to the defeat of Germany was of secondary importance. Even after the Anglo-American invasion of France in June 1944 there were still twice as many German soldiers serving on the Eastern Front as in the West

If the above caught you off guard, you aren’t alone. I too was certainly surprised, as are most people today. According to a poll of the French public, 57% of the French in 1945 credited the USSR with the biggest contribution to Nazi defeat in Europe, and only 20% credited the USA (despite the fact that the USSR never set foot in France and USA had liberated it). But by 1994, the sentiment had completely flipped – only 25% still credited the USSR, and 49% now credited the USA. And the numbers kept growing. By 2004, USSR’s share dropped to 20%, and USA’s had grown to 58%.

The truth had travelled halfway around the world, but only because the lie was still putting on its shoes.

It is popularly assumed that the truth will always win the day. As the old saying goes “you cannot fool all the people, all the time” (ironically enough, this saying itself is falsely attributed to Lincoln). Perhaps this is indeed the case where expert opinion is concerned. But if there’s one thing we can learn from history, it is that public opinion is a whole other beast. Driven more by fiction than fact.

Narrative Plentitude

“Driven more by fiction than fact.” Certainly sounds like colorful phrasing, but it goes beyond that. It is actually a pretty accurate description of how our minds work. With great training and concerned effort, we sometimes use quantitative data and logical analysis in order to guide our thought process and decision making. But this is the exception, not the norm.

Most of the time, and certainly for most people, our thoughts are guided by narratives. Stories. Our brains are intrinsically wired to look toward stories, in order to make sense of the world around us.

To quote Professor Adler, “the default mode of human cognition is a narrative mode.”

Or Professor Adams, “these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”

Or the NYTimes:

researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.

In fact, there is an entire psychology heuristic/bias that is premised on this. The Availability Heuristic. A finding by psychologists that when evaluating any topic, we rely heavily not on statistics, but any immediate examples that come to mind. 

If something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled. Subsequently, under the availability heuristic, people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.

Executing the Hack

Stories are certainly great in many respects. They are rich in color, vividly detailed, and offer a wealth of information in a microcosm. But in other ways, they are utterly lacking. In a world of seven billion humans, there are hundreds of billions of stories. With diametrically opposing heroes, villains, and conclusions. Each story offers “a” truth, but can never hope to convey “the” truth.

And that is exactly where the hack comes in.

Suppose you’re trying to convince people of “something”. Perhaps you want to convince people that Amazon is (or isn’t) a great place to work. Perhaps you want to convince people that illegal immigrants are (or aren’t) dangerous. Or perhaps you want to convince people that New York is (or isn’t) a safe place to live.

It certainly helps to have the facts and statistics on your side, but it isn’t necessary. All you have to do is hack the human brain by flooding it with cherry-picked stories. Stories that reinforce the message you’re trying to send.

For example, if you want to convince people that Amazon is an awful place to work, all you have to do is publicize as many stories as you can, about people who have had negative work experiences at Amazon. With almost a million employees, you’re guaranteed to find ~20 stories that are horrendously bad, even if Amazon is a stellar employer. Your opponents can lecture all they want about “employee surveys” and “Glassdoor ratings”, but ultimately, what’s really going to stick are the 20 horror stories of sexual harassment and workplace bullying, which you’ve described in graphic detail. A million happy employees is a statistic, but a single unfair dismissal is a tragedy.

Luckily for Amazon, the converse is also just as true. If Amazon wants to convince people that they are a great place to work, they too can ignore all quantitative data and dig up stories of their own. They can comb through their workforce and highlight the most heartwarming stories that are sure to make us smile. Someone with learning disabilities who was struggling to hold a full-time job, until they found their home at Amazon. A veteran trying to return to civilian life while coping with PTSD, finally finding sanctuary at the Amazon warehouse. A single mother struggling to pay the bills, finally getting back on her feet thanks to a job offer from Amazon. It doesn’t matter what the broader trends are, as long as you can find enough compelling outliers to showcase your cause.

The same dirty tactic works in almost every issue. Want to convince people that illegal immigrants are making America unsafe? Go on primetime television and publicize an illegal immigrant who killed someone while driving drunk. Want to convince people that undocumented immigrants actually possess a wealth of potential? Publicize an undocumented immigrant heroically saving a child. Want to discredit any political movement? Simply find the most ignorant or deplorable members of that movement, and flood YouTube with videos mocking them.

Want to convince people that USA, and not USSR, deserves most of the credit for turning back the Nazi tide in Europe? Feed the public with a steady stream of blockbuster movies and TV shows that depict in vivid detail American battles against the Nazis, while completely ignoring the far larger battles on the Eastern front.

Not that any of this needs to be a concerted conspiracy hatched by a secretive cabal of invisible puppet masters. Even if it occurs organically and unintentionally, it will still have the same effect.

It doesn’t matter what the studies and statistics actually say – the person with the more compelling and better publicized story will win out. A fact that has been borne out repeatedly by studies:

Unusual and vivid events like homicides, shark attacks, or lightning are more often reported in mass media than common and un-sensational causes of death like common diseases… when asked to rate the probability of a variety of causes of death, people tend to rate “newsworthy” events as more likely because they can more readily recall an example from memory. 

people watching vivid violent media gave higher estimates of the prevalence of crime and police immorality in the real world than those not exposed to vivid television. These results suggest that television violence does in fact have a direct causal impact on participants’ social reality beliefs. Repeated exposure to vivid violence leads to an increase in people’s risk estimates about the prevalence of crime and violence in the real world

Participants in a 1992 study read case descriptions of hypothetical patients who … showed symptoms of two different diseases. Participants were instructed to indicate which disease they thought the patient had… Consistent with the availability heuristic, either the more common (influenza) or the more publicized (AIDS) disease was chosen.

research has pointed out that under the availability heuristic, humans are not reliable because they assess probabilities by giving more weight to current or easily recalled information instead of processing all relevant information. … They showed the availability heuristic to play a role in analysis of forecasts and influence investments because of this

the news media present a highly selective and non-representative selection of crime, focusing on the violent and extreme, rather than the ordinary. This makes most people think that judges are too lenient. But, when asked to choose the punishments, the sentences given by students were equal to or less severe than those given by judges. In other words, the availability heuristic made people believe that judges and jurors were too lenient in the courtroom, but the participants gave similar sentences when placed in the position of the judge

Researchers predicted that mock jurors would rate a witness to be more deceptive if the witness testified truthfully before lying than when the witness was caught lying first before telling the truth. If the availability heuristic played a role in this, lying second would remain in jurors’ minds (since it was more recent) and they would most likely remember the witness lying over the truthfulness … Results confirmed the hypothesis, as mock jurors were most influenced by the most recent act

In fact, not only is the hack extremely effective at brainwashing people, it can even block all attempts at undoing it. Once you’ve successfully convinced someone of something, confirmation bias will lead to them rejecting any contradictory evidence, and latching on tightly to any other supporting stories they come across. Even rigorous studies are no cure, because of the common belief that “you can always find a study to support any argument” or simply “I don’t trust a thing these professors say.”

Defending Against the Hack

Clearly our brains are not tamper-proof and are capable of being hacked – something that has been painfully obvious to propagandists and PR firms for centuries. But is there any way for us to safeguard ourselves against hackers?

Maybe not. Our psychological blind spots are so ingrained and permeate our lives so thoroughly, that it may be impossible to root them out completely. But perhaps through concerted effort, we can guard ourselves to some extent.

The key to doing so, is to reject any and all stories as a source of quantitative information.

Did the US play the biggest role in defeating the Nazis? Is Amazon a good place to work? Are immigrants helpful or harmful to the nation? These are all questions that are intrinsically quantitative in nature. They require us to aggregate vast numbers of contradictory stories, in order to come up with any meaningful conclusion. 

Beware of anyone who tries to convince you either way, using a curated selection of cherry-picked stories. Anytime you come across such stories, forcefully remind yourself that they may well be the exceptions, not the norm. Challenge both yourself and your influencer to back up with their narratives with statistics.

You may walk away from this article thinking that I’m an egghead who doesn’t see the human value of stories and narratives. Nothing could be further from the truth. I grew up reading novels religiously, and am still a sucker for a great movie or TV series. Stories add color to our lives, inspire us, and help us understand the world in vivid detail – detail that logic and numbers can never emulate. Hence why I too chose to open this article with a vivid story about WW2, as opposed to dry numbers and research findings.

The trouble arises when stories are used to substitute, instead of supplement, comprehensive data and rigorous analysis. When cast in a supporting role, stories can help us better understand what the numbers are trying to tell us. But when cast in a leading role, stories can induce myopia and blind us to the larger truth. And leave our psyches ripe for exploitation by anyone who wishes to brainwash us.


Related links: 
The silent killers

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