Social Influencers

Social Influencers

Donald Trump frequently employs a rhetorical strategy built on the power of social influencers. We pay attention to what happens around us, and adjust our behaviors and even our beliefs relative to the groups that surround us. When we are around people who cuss a lot, we might cuss more. When we are around people who exercise every day, we might start exercising more. Whatever the trend in the groups of people around us, we follow suit, learning from the social influencers in our company. What President Trump does is use suggestive language to indicate a trend or a social movement that may not exist. The president frequently says things like, “many people believe,” “lots of people are saying,” or “most people think.”

 

President Trump doesn’t live in a world governed by reality and when he uses the rhetorical devices listed above, there is almost never any actual substance to his claims. But nevertheless, his statements can be influential. He is taking advantage of our susceptibility to nudges based on social conformity.

 

In Nudge Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about this approach toward nudges. When people employ these techniques, the authors write, “they try to nudge you by telling you what most people are now doing.” The nudge works because we care about people around us and want to doing what others are doing. We might not want to admit it, but we follow the cues of social influencers and pick up on what the majority opinion is.

 

We want to be in the know and keep up to date on trends and news so that we appear to be good allies to the people in our tribes. We want to be like others so that they empathize with us and want to help us if we ever need it. Doing what most people do, emulating what most people determine to be socially desirable will help ensure that we have people around who have resources to help us. This is why it is so powerful for advertisers, politicians, and people in positions of authority to tell us what most people are doing. We don’t want to be an outcast, and if most people are moving in a certain direction, then surely we should as well.
Collective Conservatism

Collective Conservatism

Groupthink is one of the most dangerous phenomenon that our world faces today. Families, companies, and governments can all find themselves stuck in groupthink, unable to adapt to a world that no longer fits the model and expectations that drive traditional thinking. When everyone has the same thought processes and members of the group discount the same information while adopting a uniform perspective, the world of possibilities becomes limited.

 

In Nudge, authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about a particular element that is common when groupthink takes hold, collective conservatism. While discussing groups that follow tradition the authors write,

 

“We can see here why many groups fall prey to what is known as collective conservatism: the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. Once a practice (like wearing ties) has become established, it is likely to be perpetuated, even if there is no particular basis for it.”

 

In a family household, collective conservatism might take the form of a specific way to fold towels. Perhaps towels had to be folded a certain way to fit a space in a previous house, and the tradition has continued even though towels no longer need to be folded just right for the space. Nothing is really lost by folding towels just so, but it might be time consuming to make sure they are folded in order to fit a constraint that no longer exists.

 

Within companies and governments, however, collective conservatism can be more consequential than the time and effort involved in folding towels. A company that cannot adjust supply chains, cannot adjust a business model in response to competition, and that cannot improve workspaces to meet new employee expectations is likely to be overtaken by a start-up that is more in tune with new social, technological, and cultural business trends. For a government, failures to adjust for technological change and employee motivations are also risks, as are changes in international relations, social needs, and more. Being stuck in a mindset that cannot see the changes and cannot be more responsive can be dangerous because peoples actual lives and needed services and supports could be in jeopardy. Collective conservatism feels safe to those who are in decision-making roles and who know what worked in the past. However, collective conservatism is a form of group think that can lead to inept operations and strategies that can be economically costly and have negative impacts in peoples’ real lives.
Confident Nudges & Strong Opinions

Confident Nudges & Strong Opinions

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler describe an experiment in their book Nudge where people were placed in a group in a dark room with a small point of light. Due to an illusion with the brain processing visual information, the small point of light appears to move slightly, even though it is stationary. The lead investigator on the study placed a member of his staff in the room who would express strong confidence in the distance that the light supposedly moved, or express doubts about the groups conclusion for how far it moved. What the study showed is that strong confidence or strong doubt from one person can greatly shape the overall beliefs of the entire group.

 

Individually, people in the study would not arrive at matching or correlating guesses for the distance that the light moved. But when in groups, individuals begin to converge over a common distance (again, the light never moved – study participants only perceived motion due to an optical illusion). When one person in the group was either very sure that the group had the right estimate, or expressed strong doubt that the groups conclusion was accurate, participants tended to agree and move toward their estimate. A high distance guess stated strongly would pull everyone’s estimates up while a low estimate would shrink them. If the group had someone who was very confident in their answer, the participants became more confident, while if someone expressed strong doubts, the remaining participants level of doubt also rose. As Sunstein and Thaler write, “A little nudge, if it was expressed confidently, could have major consequences for the group’s conclusion.”

 

Most of us probably have to work in groups on a regular basis. This study is important because it shows how much one person can set the expectations and shape the assumptions of everyone in the group. We have all had projects that start out with little coherent information. Everyone has an idea for where the project could go, what shape the final output could take, and what factors will be the most important to include. If one person is has strong opinions in any given area, they can greatly influence the group’s decision-making. The authors continue, “the clear lesson here is that consistent and unwavering people, in the private or public sector, can move groups and practices in their preferred direction.”

 

These people may be right and may have good insights, but they can also be very wrong. A strong personality expressing confident opinions can push an entire group toward conformity. They can downplay the real threats or weaknesses of a plan, and can be overconfident with the prospects of success. For these reasons it is important to build in mechanisms that check groupthink. It is important to have someone play devil’s advocate, to ask how a plan could fail, to get the group to think about the strengths and weaknesses of a plan in honest terms. Without finding a way to check overconfident or strongly expressed opinions, a group can be derailed from the very start, with everyone conforming to the strong opinions of a single individual.
System 1 Success

System 1 Success

“The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create.”

 

Daniel Kahneman writes that in his book Thinking Fast and Slow when discussing the quick conclusions of our System 1, the mental processing part of our brain that is fast, intuitive, and operates based on simple associations and heuristics.

 

System 1 stitches together a picture of the world and environment around us with incomplete information. It makes assumptions and quick estimates about what we are seeing and compiles a coherent story for us. And what is important for System 1 is that the story be coherent, not that the story be accurate.

 

System 2, the part of our brain which is more rational, calculating, and slower, is the part of the brain that is required for making detailed assessments on the information that System 1 takes in. But normally we don’t activate System 2 unless we really need to. If we judge that System 1 is making coherent connections and associations, then we don’t give it more attention and scrutiny from System 2.

 

It is important that we understand this about our minds. We can go about acting intuitively and believing that our simple narrative is correct, but we risk believing our own thoughts simply because they feel true and coherent to us and in line with our past experiences. Our thoughts will necessarily be inadequate, however, to fully encompass the reality around us. Other people will have different backgrounds, different histories, and different narratives knitted together in their own minds. It’s important that we find a way to engage System 2 when the stakes are high to make more thoughtful considerations than System 1 can generate. Simply because a narrative feels intuitively correct doesn’t mean that it accurately reflects the world around us, or creates a picture of the world that will work within the narrative frameworks that other people create.
Positive Test Strategies

Positive Test Strategies

A real danger for us, that I don’t know how to move beyond, is positive test strategy. It is the search for evidence that confirms what we want to believe or what we think is true. When we already have an intuition about something, we look for examples that support our intuition. Looking for examples that don’t support our thought, or situations where our idea seems to fall short, is uncomfortable, and not something we are very good at. Positive test strategies are a form of motivated rationality, where we find ways to justify what we want to believe, and find ways to align our beliefs with what happens to be best for us.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following, “A deliberate search for confirming evidence, known as positive test strategy, is also how System 2 tests a hypothesis. Contrary  to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypothesis by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.” 

 

In science, the best way to conduct a study is to try to refute the null hypothesis, rather than to try to support the actual hypothesis. You take a condition about the world, try to make an informed guess about why you observe what you do, and then you formulate a null hypothesis before you begin any testing. Your null hypothesis says, actually nothing is happening here after all. So you might think that teenage drivers are more likely to get in car crashes at roundabouts than regular intersections, or that crickets are more likely to eat a certain type of grass. Your null hypothesis is that teenagers do not crash at roundabouts more than typical intersections and that crickets don’t display a preference for one type of grass over another.

 

In your experimental study, instead of seeking out confirmation to show that teenagers crash more at roundabouts or that crickets prefer a certain grass, you seek to prove that there is a difference in where teenagers crash and which grass crickets prefer. In other-words, you seek to disprove the null hypothesis (that there is no difference) rather than try to prove that something specific is happening. It is a subtle difference, but it is importance. Its also important to note that good science doesn’t seek to disprove the null hypothesis in a specific direction. Good science tries to avoid positive test strategies by showing that the nothing to see here hypothesis is wrong and that there is something to see, but it could be in any direction. If scientists do want to provide more evidence that it is in a given direction, they look for stronger evidence, and less chance of random sampling error.

 

In our minds however, we don’t often do this. We start to see a pattern of behavior or outcomes, and we start searching for explanations to what we see. We come up with a hypothesis, think of more things that would fit with our hypothesis, and we find ways to explain how things align with our hypothesis. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this is what the character Gus does when he tries to show that all words in the world are originally Greek.

 

Normally, we identify something that would be in our personal interest or would support our group identity in a way to help raise our social status. From there, we begin to adopt hypothesis about how the world should operate that support what is in our personal interest. We then look for ways to test our hypothesis that would support it, and we avoid situations where our hypothesis could be disproven. Finding things that support what we already want to believe is comforting and relatively easy compared to identifying a null hypothesis, testing it, and then examining the results without already having a pre-determined outcome that we want to see.
Patterns of Associated Ideas

Patterns of Associated Ideas

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues that our brains try to conserve energy by operating on what he calls System 1. The part of our brain that is intuitive, automatic, and makes quick assessments of the world is System 1. It doesn’t require intense focus, it quickly scans our environment, and it simply ignores stimuli that are not crucially important to our survival or the task at hand. System 1 is our low-power resting mode, saving energy so that when we need to, we can activate System 2 for more important mental tasks.

 

Without our conscious recognition, System 1 builds mental mental models of the world that shape the narrative that we use to understand everything that happens around us. It develops simple association and expectations for things like when we eat, what we expect people to look like, and how we expect the world to react when we move through it. Kahneman writes, “as these links are formed and strengthened, the pattern of associated ideas comes to represent the structure of events in your life, and determines your interpretations of the present as well as your expectations of the future.”

 

It isn’t uncommon for people different people to watch the same TV show, read the same news article, or witness the same event and walk away with completely different interpretations. We might not like a TV show that everyone else loves. We might reach a vastly different conclusion from reading a news article about global warming, and we might interpret the actions or words of another person completely differently. Part of why we don’t all see things the same, Kahneman might argue, is because we have all trained our System 1 in unique ways. We have different patterns of associated ideas that we use to fit information into a comprehensive narrative.

 

If you never have interactions with people who are different than you are, then you might be surprised when people don’t behave the way you expect. When you have a limited background and experience, then your System 1 will develop a pattern of associated ideas that might not generalize to situations that are new for you. How you see and understand the world is in some ways automatic, determined by the pattern of associated ideas that your System 1 has built over the years. It is unique to you, and won’t fit perfectly with the associated ideas that other people develop.

 

We don’t have control over System 1. If we active our System 2, we can start  to influence what factors stand out to System 1, but under normal circumstances, System 1 will move along building the world that fits its experiences and expectations. This works if we want to move through the world on auto-pilot with few new experiences, but if we want to be more engaged in the world and want to better understand the variety of humanity that exists in the world, our System 1 on its own will never be enough, and it will continually let us down.
Rich Representations of Things

Making Connections From Rich Representations of Things

On August 12th, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview with Stanford Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom on his podcast Conversations with Tyler. In response to a question from Cowen about making adjustments in his life, Bloom said the following:

 

“For me, I really like to read broadly rather than deeply — sounds an odd thing to say. Every Monday, for example, or Sunday night, the National Bureau of Economic Research has this vast email of all the recent papers. I tend to try and scan every title and abstract. I read the papers. I like the Economist magazine. It’s good. It’s often been a source of ideas, actually.
We were talking before the call — I listen to your podcast. I actually listen to a lot of podcasts because I try and go out for a walk or a run for about an hour every day. I mostly listen to podcasts. [laughs] If I’m getting too tired, I have to switch to music. For me, that’s been helpful for coming up with new research ideas.” 

 

The quote from Bloom came back to mind this morning as I looked over a quote I highlighted in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s quote is about connections in the mind, and how having a rich set of connections can help us have better representations of the world. When people are asked questions about Michigan, research in Kahneman’s book shows, they have different responses depending on whether they remember that Detroit is in Michigan. People with more knowledge of the state think differently of it compared to people with minimal knowledge of Michigan. Kahneman writes,

 

“More intelligent individuals are more likely than others to have rich representations of most things. Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” 

 

This idea relates to what Bloom said in the interview with Cowen. Bloom was asked about his productivity, and how he is able to keep up a high level of publications with co-authors across a wide range of academic institutions, geographic locations, and subjects. Bloom responded that he is developing rich representations of most things through broad, but not necessarily deep, investigations of a wide range of topics.

 

By taking in a wide range of information, Bloom is able to pick out the important connections between disparate topics. This gives him an ability to deploy attention where there is a lack of study on certain topics. By reading across many fields, he is able to look at current developments in economics, news, and society to find relevant material that can generate useful knowledge for the world of economics.

 

Not all of us are ever going to be economists, and not all of us will be in a place where we can publish academic articles on lots of topics. But all of us are asked by social media every day to offer our opinion on something. If we have a narrow and limited knowledge base, then our opinions and ideas are going to also be narrow and limited. If, however, we can work to broaden our horizons and work to focus our memory and attention on relevant material, then we can start to offer better opinions about the world, and we can start to move discussions forward in a better direction.
Innovation Openness

Innovation Openness

When you learn something new, when you have a new insight into the world, when you figure out how to do something that you couldn’t do before, do you share that insight or do you try to keep it to yourself? If you are a big business, you probably try to keep that to yourself. If you are a young entrepreneur, you probably share aspects of your break through, while hiding the special secrete sauce that makes it work. And in any other aspect of life, you probably blast your insight out to the world on social media for all to see and hear. Innovation openness is something that we are becoming pretty comfortable with in our personal lives, and it is starting to creep into parts of our business lives as well.

 

Being open with information helps spur innovation because it gives more people insight and access to what is really taking place. Your perspective is always going to be limited. You can only know and experience so much, but by being open and sharing what you have learned, others will be able to take your ideas further and help develop truly new and innovative approaches by building on what you have already done. If they too share their new insights, then entire fields and industries can take massive leaps forward. As Dave Chase writes in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, “Openness is proving itself in an array of settings. The beer market is mature and has been dominated in the U.S. by a couple behemoths, yet craft brewers recently have grabbed over 20 percent of been spending. How? Craft brewers are radically open with each other regarding how to succeed, recognizing that their real competition is the mega brewers, not each other.”

 

How you think about your competition will probably influence how open you are with your data and insights. If you really don’t want your sibling to know how you put those cool wood panels on the wall, you might not be as open about the process as you would be if you really wanted to brag to your friends about how you were able to get them up. Similarly, if you are in a business where your insight gives you a valuable competitive edge, you won’t want to share what you have learned. However, sometimes this secrecy becomes part of the status quo, and more and more data and information is locked down, with processes, contracts, and everything else being hidden from as many people as possible. This is what is happened in healthcare, and Chase considers the ramifications of this attitude.

 

“One of the failings of the wildly under-performing status quo health care system is how poorly insights and breakthroughs get disseminated. Research shows that it takes 17 years for effective breakthroughs to become mainstream.”

 

Healthcare is costly and few people are fans of their insurance plans or hospitals. To change the continual cost growth in healthcare, innovators will have to find new ways to approach challenges and problems that have existed in the industry for years. The more open companies can be about successful approaches, the better it will be for all of society. Keeping insights hidden and failing to discuss insights will perpetuate the stagnation we currently see in so much of the healthcare system.

Changing Your Views on a Group of People

An unfortunate reality in our world is that we don’t have a lot of incentives to change our beliefs about things. What we think and feel regarding a specific item is heavily influenced by more than just our own experiences and rational thoughts about that thing. Our social groups, self-interests, and group identities can shape our beliefs and make it almost impossible for our beliefs to have any flexibility. In this setting, changing our beliefs may require that we break with a group identity, view the world in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of the people around us, and acknowledge that our narrow self-interest is not what is in the best interest of a larger society.

 

Colin Wright wrote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be and related the idea directly to the ways we think about groups of people. He writes, “If we’ve spent our lives hating, or at least feeling superior to, a particular group of people, but then are exposed to convincing information about that group that makes us hate them less, that’s a very awkward moment. Taking this new information seriously would mean having to choose between continuing on as we are now, with our existing biases, our existing way of interacting with these people, our existing group of friends who probably have he same set of biases that we now feel compelled to question, or changing all that.” Wright shows that changing one’s views, even when there is good reason, can be awkward in one’s personal life. Beyond simply saying, “I was wrong,” changing one’s beliefs means that you then have to tell others (who you may have been very close with) that they are still wrong, and that can be hard for many people.

 

I don’t have a solution here for how to improve the likelihood of changing people’s minds. Instead, what I am doing is pointing out how many factors are involved with changing our minds. We should recognize that we may hold many of our beliefs for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge, like peer pressure or self-interest. Given that many of our beliefs may be influenced by factors beyond our own rationality, and given the difficulty we may have in changing our beliefs if they are indeed wrong, we should try to be more flexible in general with how we see the world and how we think about our worldviews. Being skeptical of our own knowledge doesn’t feel as good as telling ourselves that we have it all figured out, but it is probably a better place for us to be. We might not be able to change other people’s views (especially on ideas that are highly visible and salient), but at least we can be more honest with ourselves about the beliefs we have and hopefully more willing to change our beliefs because we never clung to tightly to them in the first place. This in turn may help other people to be more vulnerable in their own beliefs and slightly more open to change.

Exchanging Ideas with Others

“Today, I’m of the opinion that if you want to reach someone, to really communicate in a language they understand and trust, you have to be more flexible.” Colin Wright expresses this idea early in his book Come Back Frayed to introduce some of the changes he has experienced in the mediums we use to communicate in the 21st century.

 

Wright’s book is an exploration of his time spent living in the Philippines, detailing how he has learned to adjust to challenging climates, new cultures, and new demands on his time as an author connected to the world in a sea of evolving media. “There was a time when people who watched videos online were a mystery to me, and I was content to write words I hoped to someday convince someone to read. There was a time when I felt my writing, vocabulary encoded with twenty-six bit alphabetic iconography, was the sole practical and relevant mechanism I had of presenting and exchanging ideas with others.”

 

Together his quotes show the varied nature of communication today, and the importance of learning to reach people through a variety of channels and formats. My blog started as simply a means for me to return to my reading and to think more deeply about passages that initially stood out to me, and so I never thought of trying to reach others and amass an audience. But communicating with others is something I enjoy to do and intend to make part of my future career. Learning to use and understand different formats of media will help me not just send a message to other people, but to understand others in a more profound way.

 

What I truly enjoy about the quotes above from Wright, is that his goal is not to reach more people through new technology just to drive his content and sell people more stuff. Wright’s goal is to actually exchange ideas with other people. I am not good at social media and dislike the quickness with which a lot of our thinking and decision making is done today, but the tools we have certainly do allow us to exchange new ideas in new manners.

 

I think there are areas where individuals can change their habits of consumption, and groups can change their methods of delivering ideas to increase knowledge and help improve perceptions and relationships across society.

 

I am studying toward a Masters in Public Administration through the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada, but one certainly does not need to study politics to see that the general public is distrustful of technocratic knowledge delivered from policy think-tanks considered out of touch with our mainstream population. Better understanding of how we can use our technology as individuals to find helpful information and avoid information silos can reduce this resentment, but at the same time, a better understanding of the ways people communicate today will help academics, policy researchers, and people in government administration better share their ideas, thoughts, challenges, and perspectives with the general public in a way that can build new foundations of trust.

 

Like Wright, the goal must be to further develop the exchange of information and to develop greater knowledge on the end of the person delivering the message as well as the person consuming the message. A driving goal of increased profits would ultimately lead Wright to failure, but a mission of flexible learning will open new perspectives to lead to true development. This idea is true for Wright, and may be true for agencies, companies, researchers, and others who want their thoughts to have a greater impact on the planet.