There are times we can answer a question without much thought. If we were to examine the reasons why we gave the answer, would we change our response? Today’s guest is David McRaney. David is a journalist, author, and lecturer fascinated with brains, minds, and culture. He has created a blog, book, and ongoing podcast entitled You Are Not So Smart which is about self-delusion. His most recent book, How Minds Change, is all about the science behind how and why people do and do not change their mind and the intricacies and nuances of persuasion.“We are an unreliable narrator in the story of our own lives.” - David McRaney Click To Tweet
- [1:09] – David shares what he does as a science journalist and how he found himself interested in the topics he writes and speaks about.
- [4:38] – The way people work has always fascinated him.
- [6:50] – David shares a story about psychology that really excited him.
- [8:35] – In the height of blogging’s popularity, David began his blog You Are Not So Smart.
- [9:57] – David explains what the Introspection Illusion is.
- [12:31] – If you want something, you will come up with reasons why.
- [13:40] – An example of this is when you share what you like about another person.
- [15:59] – This concept can be looked at as delusion, but it’s really just how brains work.
- [19:30] – What do you have in place to approach your own feelings and beliefs?
- [23:08] – David and Chris go through an exercise to demonstrate guided metacognition.
- [27:00] – We can answer some questions quickly, but others need more thought.
- [30:00] – The technique that David demonstrated is used to allow people more introspection.
- [32:22] – Start with things that you love and practice this technique.
- [33:37] – David and Chris talk about conspiracy theories and how to improve critical thinking.
- [35:27] – ConspiracyTest.org is a site that gives you a score on how susceptible you are to conspiratorial thinking.
- [37:48] – Conspiracy theories seem much more prevalent now, but conspiratorial thinking is no more rampant than it has been in the past.
- [39:32] – What should we do if a friend or family member has fallen into conspiratorial thinking?
- [42:17] – Finding reasons to rationalize conspiracy theories has never been easier with the internet.
- [44:31] – There are reasons that some people are more attuned to this thinking and some are more skeptical.
- [48:36] – Think about a scenario and imagine your initial reaction.
- [49:33] – Build rapport and assure the other person that you are not out to shame them. Get out of the debate frame.
- [52:01] – You can have conversations that don’t end in a dead end.
- [55:13] – Reactance is when someone takes away your agency.
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David, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast today.
Thank you. I'm glad we hit record. We're right now 16 nested tangents talking about Himalayan cats and comet systems ruining public discourse at this point. So yeah, I'm glad we hit record. I'm very happy to be here.
Thank you. Can you give the audience a little bit of background about who you are and what you do?
I'm a science journalist. My beat is motivated reasoning, judgment, decision-making, psychology of how people delude themselves, that sort of thing. I have a podcast called You Are Not So Smart. It was one of the first podcasts. It's been going for 13 years. Every two weeks, I have experts on to talk about stuff in the world.
Sometimes they're psychologists; sometimes they're just people out there doing things. It's a mix. It's usually a mix of interviews with people who are promoting their book, or it's a podcast that has a theme, like a short documentary.
I write books about this stuff. My first book is You Are Not So Smart, the second one is You Are Now Less Dumb, and the third one is How Minds Change, which is that's what it's about: how people do it and not change their minds. That is my whole thing.
I wasn't always this. It wasn't always science journalism. I've done all sorts of stuff in life. I eventually decided that I wanted to go to school for something. I went to school for psychology. About two-thirds of the way through that program, I switched to journalism. I worked in the world of newspapers and television for a while.
I eventually started a blog about the stuff that I love: biases, fallacies, heuristics, critical thinking, intellectual humility, that kind of stuff. I was very fortunate to get a book deal in 2009 and then started a podcast to promote the book, and my whole world changed. I became an independent journalist who writes books and hosts podcasts. That's who I am.
Why this field? What about decision-making and how the mind works fascinated you?
It's always been a super-fascination. I think part of that came from growing up as an only child in the deep South, being really disconnected from the world and from the world that I was observing through television. My dad was a Vietnam vet electrical engineer who also felt disconnected and was bringing things into the home, like a subscription to science magazines and tech magazines.
He got on the Internet very early, so I got to be one of the first people on the Internet. It looked like the matrix, basically. It was BBSes and stuff. I'm a little kid; I don't know that world. I got to hang out with a lot of the backwoods hackers who were downloading warez.
I remember as a kid, we had a Commodore 64, and then we had an Amiga. In the Commodore 64 days, we would go to somebody's house deep in the woods. It looked like something out of a Cyberpunk movie or a Cyberpunk comic book. They'd have this room just full of all these whirring and beeping in light things, equipment and things in different stages of construction, and floppy disks all over the place.
They had some secret BBS they'd go to. We would leave with 50 or so games that had no instructions. Some of them were just made by people, and they weren't even sold anywhere. They'd be from other countries and stuff.
I would just sit and try to figure out how they work. I grew up in that world, so how people work always fascinated me. The way this current world that I'm in started was because I was online watching one of the first YouTube videos. It was from a Darren Brown magic special.
Darren Brown is a mentalist. He's the type of magician—this is literally what he does. He takes psychology studies, and he turns them into performance art. He works with a number of psychologists to do that.
In this particular piece of work, he was on a college campus. He asked somebody for directions to someplace on the campus, and the person started giving him directions. Two people walked between him and that person who's giving him directions, holding a gigantic painting. Just to make it even more weird, the painting is of Darren Brown.
When they walked between the two people, one of the people holding the painting switched places with Darren Brown. Now the person is giving directions to a completely new human being, and the whole bit is they don't notice that they're now giving directions to a different person. I remember watching that thinking, “There's no way. There's no way that's true.”
I was in school. At this point in time, I was working for a television station, but I still had access to my alma mater. I went to the library and found the original research for what he based that on. It's called change blindness. It's related to something called unintentional blindness.
In the real research, sure enough, people would turn in a questionnaire, and the person that they turned it into would duck beneath the desk, and then a new person would come up and then start talking to them. They did eventually take it out on campus and did the exact same thing, ask for directions and have people switch places.
In the actual research, about 35% of people don't notice. That's still a very high number. One-third of human beings will not notice, and you can mess with it. You can mess with the context, and you could increase the likelihood the person won't notice. But they can really drastically change the appearance of the person who's asking for the directions.
This really excited me. I thought, there's a whole wing of psychology that I remembered that was in this domain. Ways we're not getting a one-to-one representation of the world in our models of reality, ways that we are creating.
Basically, we're the unreliable narrators in our own stories. It wasn't so much that we would do that. It was that we would do that and not notice. If you never told somebody that a different person had just given them directions, they'd live the rest of their lives and they'd never know that happened. The fact that that was probably happening all the time really excited me. I was like, “That could be a cool idea for a blog.”
At this period of time, there are a lot of microblogs. This is the golden age of blogging. It's coming back now with Substack. Now that Twitter is dying and everything, and social media has had its day, people are returning to this golden age of Medium, Substack, and podcasting in a lot of ways. It's helping that.
There were all these microblogs, one was Shit My Dad Says. One was Stuff White People Like, which I really recommend going to the archives of. It's really well done. There are thin-slice blogs because there was a time when people just wrote about everything they thought about.
I was like, “I could make a thin one of these.” I thought it would be just about ways we're self-diluted, and I called it You Are Not So Smart. That was how it got started; it was that one particular thing. I wanted to explain change blindness, and it spun off into a gazillion other concepts from that part of psychology. I have made that my beat ever since. That's what I do.
That's awesome. We have a similar upbringing. I very much remember the days of the VIC-20, the Commodore 64, the Amiga 500.
Great gaming machine.
The audio coupler for the phone, the 300-baud modem. I remember all these things. I remember the copy parties.
I have done some illegal things related to video game software when I was 11 years old.
We're past the statute of limitations. We can talk about it now. I think we have about 45 rabbit holes we can go down here that will be a great discussion. Let's talk about self-delusion, and we can talk about why we're not as smart as we might think we are, how we change our minds, and whatnot. Let's talk about self-delusion because I think that ties into something else we want to talk about. Do humans like self-delusion, or is this something that we don't like but we just do for protection?
There's a really fundamental principle in the wing of psychology that's my beat called the introspection illusion. The introspection illusion is there's a veil beyond, which we do not have access to the antecedents of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
There's always some motivation, drive, or there's always some trigger, some cause behind why you do or do not believe something, why you have an attitude that goes toward the positive or toward the negative, your measures of confidence and certainty, your value structure, and then your behavior, your intention to behave, also the things you have done, and then your justifications and rationalizations for all that stuff. There's always a reason why you have felt or done something.
Many times, if not most of the time, the actual reason behind those things is hidden to you. It's inaccessible. It would require you to engage in some guided metacognition with a person who understands how to do that rhetorically, or a therapist or psychologist who understands how to draw that out of you and get you to articulate it.
If you haven't done that, what we most often will do is just come up with a reason for it. I often refer to this as little-R reason. There's a big reason with propositional logic and philosophical concepts, critical thinking, and hardcore, like let's really apply scientific reasoning to things. But there's also the little R, which is just coming up with reasons for what I think, feel, and do.
We've all experienced this. Before I get into my go-to example, know that even though we may not have access to why we believe the way we do, feel the way we do, and behave the way we do, if you ask us why, we very readily will explain ourselves to another person or to ourselves. It's just that that story is very, very, very likely to be fictional and in service of making us feel like we're smart, rational, good human beings who are justified.
One of the ways you can look at this is, if you want a piece of chocolate cake, you'll find a reason to get that chocolate cake. If I ask you why you're eating that chocolate cake, you'll say, “Well, I mean, I'm going to work out later, or I've hardly eaten anything today. This is a special occasion. It’s close to my birthday.” You can always find a reason.
I like to describe motivated reasoning in this regard. The introspection illusion leads to motivated reasoning. Much of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of motivated reasoning, but we very rarely will communicate to ourselves and others that our reasoning was motivated by the thing it was motivated by. That's where the delusion comes in.Much of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of motivated reasoning, but we very rarely will communicate to ourselves and others that our reasoning was motivated by the thing it was motivated by. That's where the… Click To Tweet
There are many reasons why we'd want to do that. We might want to protect our identity. We want to protect our status or reputation. We might want to protect all sorts of outcomes that we're worried that there's a risk versus reward of being honest with ourselves in some regard.
I just want to say this because it's a fun example. Motivated reasoning is—have you ever had a friend? I'm sure you have; you’ve probably been this person. We all have had a friend who has just started dating somebody new, and they're head over heels. And you ask them, “What reasons do you have to like this person?” You might not word it that way, but that's what you're asking. They will say, “Oh, where do I start? I like the way they talk. I could just listen to them talk for hours. I love the way they walk. I like to watch them cross the room. I love the music they're introducing me to. Honestly, I like the way they eat food. I like to watch them cut their food and eat it. Everything about them is fantastic,” and you're supportive and you're like, “That's great.”
A couple months later, they're breaking up with that exact same person. And you ask them, “What reasons do you have to be breaking up with this person?” They will oftentimes say, “Where do I even begin? I can't stand the way they talk. Their voice is like nails in my spine. I can't stand watching them walk. They had this janky, weird walk. When they cross a room, I look the other way. The music I have to listen to every road trip. The stuff, I can't stand it. And the other day, I was watching them. They were using a fork and knife to eat a candy bar. Can you believe this? I was like, ‘I cannot believe I'm with this person.’” You may have noticed that the facts have not changed. These are the same facts.Reasons for can become reasons against when the motivation to search for rationalizations and justifications change. -David McRaney Click To Tweet
In one situation, they're being used as justifications and rationalizations for being with this person. In another situation, they're being used as justifications and rationalizations for not being with this person. Reasons for can become reasons against when the motivation to search for rationalizations and justifications change.
That's the essence of how we operate in this world. We live inside a narrative that we construct to justify, rationalize, and explain ourselves to ourselves and others. It's just very often not true. We're an unreliable narrator in the story of our own lives, and it can be looked at as delusion, but it's also just how brains operate. We're social primates.We live inside a narrative that we construct to justify, rationalize, and explain ourselves to ourselves and others. It's just very often not true. -David McRaney Click To Tweet
To answer your question, what's this all about? Most of the time we're doing that because we want to seem reasonable to other people. We're social primates, and we're very concerned with our status and reputation amongst our in-groups.
The rationalizations and justifications we come up with are usually the kind that will seem reasonable and plausible to others, almost like we're defending ourselves in court, or we have a PR agent that lives inside our brain that's always coming up with a good story to explain why we are the way we are.
Sometimes that's just no big deal. It's neutral and benevolent. But it can get us in trouble, and a lot of people discover that around age 42. That's where they're like, “Oh, no. I've been lying to myself for way too long about the wrong things.” Therefore, we had to invent therapy.
I'll ask a question. Maybe it'll make sense and maybe it won't. In the comic book, we have breaking the fourth wall. Is there a way that we can break the fourth wall, look at ourselves, and say, “Oh, gosh. I'm just creating all these really silly reasons when it's really something else, and I didn't want to communicate that something else”? Is that even healthy to do?
Yeah. First of all, yes, you can do this. Yeah, you ought to be doing this. This is my opinion on the matter. You may be hurting no one, but you certainly aren't living your best life, and you certainly aren't rising to your potential when you live in these completely fictional narrative landscapes.
Usually, my introduction to this if you want to get started, and they're deep techniques—some of this is in my book, How Minds Change, these rhetorical techniques that you can use on yourself or others. But a really easy introduction to this is just to ask yourself, “Am I right about everything?” It's a great question.
You could pick something very specific. You could think about your job, or you could think about something that you have a really strong opinion about and just ask, but you can be very broad too, “Am I right about everything?” If you say yes, well, wow. You should be the president or a CEO of something. You have a superpower. You should be a member of the Avengers, because your power is you're right about everything. That's amazing.
Most people, if you're being honest with yourself, you'll say, “No, I'm not right about everything.” The follow-up question is, “OK, what are you wrong about?” This is where it should get a really weird feeling. Clearly if you don't know what you're wrong about because if you did know what you were wrong about, that would alter the landscape of your mind.
OK, we admit that we must be wrong about some things because we're not right about everything. We also don't know what it is we're wrong about. What are you doing about that? How important is that to you? What if the things you're wrong about are things that really matter that affect your loved ones, your friends, your family, your children, your job, your income, your vote? They are affecting all sorts of stuff around you.
Do you have any kind of epistemology in place to carefully approach information and your own beliefs, your own attitudes, and your own values so that they're calibrated and oriented toward being as accurate as possible? If so, great, but likely not. So work on that. That's one way to get started in all this. The methods by which you do that are legion. There are so many different ways to go about doing it. Let's play a little game real fast, if you don't mind.
No, let's go for it.
I'll make it nice, neutral, and easy. It'll take less than 10 minutes. Let me ask you, Chris. What's the last movie you remember watching?
The Marvels. Great, OK. Did you like it?
Yeah, it was entertaining.
OK. Yeah, it was entertaining. If you were working for Netflix, and you were the person who wrote the little thing in the box—so when I'm browsing around on Netflix, I read that to see if I want to watch it—what would you put in the box for The Marvels?
It's an exciting continuation of bringing three Marvel characters together as they share their experience of figuring themselves out and the world around them…in space.
That'd be great…in space. If you had a movie review Substack, and you had a real simple system that was one to 10, but you're pretty harsh, so one would be everybody involved in this movie should be arrested and go to federal prison, and 10 is the writer and director of this film that should have a special ceremony where they get them a congressional medal of honor, and the entire White House staff kisses their feet, between one and 10, what would you give The Marvels?
That's very extreme. Gosh, I hate extremes. Six.
Six. OK, so now we're working on something here. You said you liked it, it was entertaining, and it gets a six, which is one above right in the middle. It's one closer to feet-kissing than it is to federal prison.
Which gives me a little bit of an idea of where you put things when you say, “I liked it,” because I like it as just above a five. I'm wondering, what is it about The Marvels that keeps it from getting a seven or an eight?
On your scale of bowing down, worshiping the authors, I don't know that I would put anything I've seen at seven or eight.
There are movies that I'm absolutely passionate about, but I'm not an award ceremony and law. What would have made it better?
Let's help calibrate this. Can you think of any movie that would get a seven on your scale?
Yeah, I'm sure.
Let's try to find one, just anything that comes to mind.
Let's see who's actually heard of this one. I thought the original Blade Runner was a great movie. Black Hawk Down was a good movie. I like Marvel movies. They're entertaining, but I don't think they're the most well-written character development stuff.
Any Marvel movie gets a seven?
Yeah, probably a number of them would.
I am very eager, and I know you're on the spot. Which Marvel movie gets a seven?
I really enjoyed some of the scenes of the final Endgame movie: the big battle scenes, the big, gigantic, theatrical battle scenes. I think those are fun, but I also think the original Iron Man was a really good one.
The original Iron Man. OK, let's go with that.
Yeah. We got The Marvels at a six and the original Iron Man as at least a seven. What does the original Iron Man movie have that gets it up to that point that Marvels didn't have?
More character development, more connection with how the character is evolving throughout the movie.
Right on. We can keep going here. What I would probably do next is I'd pick out something in that seven range that maybe didn't have much character development. We can play with that for a minute, then we can also go the other direction. We could ask this real fast. How come The Marvels didn't get a five? It doesn't have character development, which clearly is something that's important to you. But what did it have that kept it from falling to five?
It was fun and entertaining.
It was fun and entertaining. Cool. You got any movies that are down in that four or five range that's in your mind? I'm sure you do.
Yeah. I don't know that I have a good recall for movies. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. That's a waste of my time.”
Yeah, just delete those from memory.
OK. Yes. The Constant Gardener.
I remember that. Oh, my God. That's a deep cut.
But I think there's a good perspective from why I was super disappointed by the movie.
OK, what’s that?
All of the previews for it made it look like an action thriller movie with spy craft. Once you actually got to watch the movie, 100% of the action that you saw in the trailer was the only action in the entire movie.
It was perspective. I was expecting it to be an action. I think one of the things for me that will destroy a movie is if I go in thinking it's going to be a 10, and it's an eight. In my mind, it becomes a six. Or if I think it's going to be this sort of movie, and it turns out to be something entirely different, at that, usually I just wasn't in the mood for that movie. The Constant Gardener could have been a good movie for me, but not with the mindset I went into it with.
That's interesting. I'm imagining if you'd seen a trailer that was very, very dead on, this is what you're in for, you would give it a different rating in the end. That's how powerful this bait-and-switch is. I hope you're noticing, and I hope anyone listening is noticing what's going on here. We're engaging in guided metacognition. This is aided introspection.
One of the things that I find beautiful about this is if I ask you, “Did you like the movie?” it's very easy to answer. “Yeah, I liked it. It was entertaining. It comes so fast. You don't even break eye contact with the other person, like I liked it.” It's like bumping your knee against the table, like, “Does that hurt?” Yes. You're just sampling your limbic system. You're just sampling your emotional state.
It's no different for your attitude towards something. If you take a bite of food and I'm like, “Is that any good?” You're like, “Oh, it's great.” Or, “No, it's gross.” It's instantaneous; it's very accessible. If I then ask though, something like, “Where do you put this on a scale?” everyone always looks up and sometimes goes, “Um,” and you can see it happening. We're switching into this metacognitive mode. You're going in there and you're thinking like, “What do I think about that?”
If I'm asking you in a certain way, where I'm asking you to demonstrate your reasoning behind the number, you go even further, because you're trying to just demonstrate some justification, rationalization, or explanation for this estimation you've come up with that's not binary. It's not, “I liked it; I didn't like it.” It's not black or white. It's not zero. It's not one or 10, which is why I make those so extreme.
We start comparing it to things better or worse or other movies, and all this richness starts coming out. This is usually the tip of the iceberg, but we're getting into your actual values. These are values that you would probably have across the board. I can imagine in every situation that you approach that this bait-and-switch thing is very triggering to you for real. And then we could go deeper and deeper as to, why is that? Where does that come from?
The kiss character development was a very important thing. This is not unrelated to the bait-and-switch. If I was going to have a 30-minute conversation about this, The Constant Gardener has nothing but character development. It's just a character-driven movie, but it doesn't get a very good high score.
We can play with it, and your score might change in there or whatever. These are the central tenets for the rhetorical techniques I discuss and how minds change, but you'll notice how in this conversation, I have not told you how I feel about any of these movies. I have not tried to copy and paste any of my own reasoning, opinions, attitudes, or beliefs into the way we're discussing this.
With the exception of your reaction when I said Constant Gardener was a movie I hated, your facial expression was like, “What? How could you disagree with that?” But for the most part, you did a good job of staying—
Yeah. I can tell you, I remember The Constant Gardener. I remember being disappointed by it as well for similar reasons and thinking I should like this more. This movie is not poorly made, but it didn't leave me thinking I'm going to tell people about it. I'm not going to buy that poster and put it on the wall.
This technique is wonderful for a couple of reasons. I love that all of this was in you. It was already in there. It's in there. You may live a life in which you very rarely introspect in this way. You're in the shower thinking about what you've got to do today, but this richness of experience and this ability to articulate where we're coming from, what motivates us, our value structures, and how they affect other things in life, is all in there.
Until it is brought to the surface, oftentimes we run on this autopilot that we can hold opinions. We can hold very strong opinions, but we're not holding them for anything justifiable. We're holding them for something very emotional or very reactional, like something that's just purely performative.
Once you start to introspect, very rarely have I had a conversation with someone on any topic where we did something like this, where the way they felt at the beginning of the conversation was the way they felt after. It at least becomes more nuanced in a way that makes it complex.
We could replace that with something like gun control, honestly. I can say, “How do you feel about gun control? Are you for it or against it?” And you might very quickly go, “I'm for it,” or “I'm against it.” Then I say, “Well, where would you put yourself on a scale? One would be every person in the United States, regardless of their criminal history, gets an assault rifle-style weapon in the mail for free once a month. Then 10 would be if you say the word gun, just say it out loud and a police officer hears it, you go to jail for 10 years. That's just the way the law now works. Where would you put yourself on that scale?”
People will pick a number, and then we can start talking about that number. Why not higher? Why not lower? Then eventually you're telling me, so what justifies this number that you arrived at? And what methods are you using to determine that that's a good reason to hold that level of certainty?
That same discussion would involve no arguing between us in any way. I am there to hold space, be a nonjudgmental listener, and help you articulate something you may not have articulated. People find a rich and nuanced way of seeing an issue that, beforehand, they might not have.
I recommend doing this to yourself all the time. Find things that are important to you. Start with the things that are important to you. You can do this. You can auto-introspect in this way. You can just ask yourself today, and I would recommend starting with a movie because it's a good way to get your sea legs.
It's a non-threatening topic.
Then move on to other things, especially if you have any conspiratorial beliefs. If you currently believe the Earth is flat, please apply this technique to that and see what happens.
Perfect segue, I don't know if it was intentional or not, probably so.
I have a rich psychological background, sir.
We were talking before we started recording about conspiracytest.org and your involvement in that. Let's talk about that.
I did actually forget about that.
I am really curious about the psychology behind conspiracies. Tell me about what conspiracytest.org is.
I'm involved with a couple of different organizations, the Alliance for Decision Education, the School of Thought, and others. There's the Bridging Movement, Braver Angels.
Over the last few years, especially after writing How Minds Change, I became part of several organizations who all have a similar goal, which is how do we improve critical thinking in the United States and beyond? And how do we deal with the absolute avalanche of misinformation targeted, directed-on-purpose misinformation that's going around in addition to the misinformation that naturally occurs in any information ecosystem?
There are all sorts of things with the Alliance for Decision Education. They're creating K-12 programs to get people onboarded, because it's very important. If you're going to be a modern human being, you need media literacy, critical thinking skills, and intellectual humility to just be on TikTok.
I saw a TikTok this week where someone got a picture of a guy with a pipe, and they were like, “This was the actual Popeye. Popeye was a sailor who was a bouncer in a bar.” It went and talked all about it, and then all the comments were like, “Wow, I never knew that.” I'm like, just very quickly, “None of this is true.”
An entire fiction.
To navigate the modern world and to be a person whose vote is informed, or a person who is trying to not cause harm, in fact maybe trying to reduce harm in this world, whether or not I agree with your politics, I'd like you to employ critical-thinking skills, please, be intellectually humble, and be media-literate.
One of those things that I've been part of is the conspiracytest.org. It's a free website you can go to. It's a place you can go and play along with this game that's presented to you. It's all very entertaining, fun, and highly produced, where you eventually get a score that indicates how susceptible you are to conspiratorial thinking.
It's a personality test thing where you learn how likely it is that you would fall for a conspiracy if it's locked in with the things you're interested in, concerned about, or have anxiety about this world.
It's also a fun thing. You can send the link to other people. That's one of the things I like about it, because you get the score at the end you can share. It's a great thing to just throw at a family member, a loved one, a friend, or someone you're talking to in a comment section somewhere. I feel like you might want to go here. It's a fun thing to play with.
It's wild. It starts out where you get a reptilian. There's a famous conspiracy theory who guides you to pick from a variety of different things. You've got QAnon, and you've got the Plandemic, and JFK. You can really pick which one you find yourself most intrigued by—UFOs, that sort of thing—and then play the game all the way through.
These days, I talk a lot about conspiratorial thinking. Part of writing How Minds Change, I was embedded with a number of different conspiratorial communities, most prominently with flat Earthers, but also 9/11 truthers and others.
I think there's a sense out there that conspiracy theories are out of control right now, but I can tell you that the scientists who study this, one of the things they do to communicate is conspiratorial thinking is no more rampant than it's ever been before.
It's just a lapel camera effect taking place right now, where a lot of things that have always been true about us are now very, very visible in a way that they didn't used to be. That's from police behavior to political behavior to the struggles people are having economically. Those things are top of mind right now, and a lot of the reasons they're top of mind is because we're able to see them in a way that before wasn't necessarily something the news covered every night.It's just a lapel camera effect taking place right now, where a lot of things that have always been true about us are now very, very visible in a way that they didn't used to be. -David McRaney Click To Tweet
They also, in many ways, can make these things seem much more prevalent than they are in certain places. It doesn't change the fact that these are issues and problems that need to be addressed, and conspiratorial thinking is one of those things.
One of the things that is new is that we can group up in a way that we never could before. You can have an opinion about The Marvels and form a subreddit about that movie, and then all of a sudden, now you've got a small group of people who are talking about this one movie all the time, and then that group of people can eventually become large enough, they might want to meet, and they're in different cities that they live in, and it just goes from there.
We've seen this in a number of different things. Conspiracy theories are really strong ways to get people to come together into little groups. Those groups sometimes get larger and larger to the point that they want to meet in public, and it goes farther than that.
I can talk about this at any length you'd like. This is one of those things that I have spent a lot of time talking to the experts who study this. The thing a lot of people want to know is if you've got a family member that has fallen into a conspiracy theory, the two questions I get the most are: How did this happen, and then how do I talk to them?
Let's talk about those two questions. How did they go down the hole? If you can, how do you get them out of that hole?
Some of the scientists who study this are at NYU and Eastern ISCO. He's someone who is a great researcher in all this. They call them motivational allures, how a person falls into conspiratorial thinking. One of the major things is just that we're social primates. We're very concerned about what other people think about us, and we're an ultra-social animal, like bees and ants. Human beings aren't just social primates like great apes are, like chimpanzees are, like bonobos.
We have all that. We have status hierarchies, and we have rumors and gossipy things that keep us so that we're glommed together in groups. But we're also ultra social. We build cities, we build nations. This ultra sociality means that we, if we're up against it, will do what it takes for the group to survive, even if it harms us as an individual.
The great Brooke Harrington once told me, the sociologist, that if there was an E = mc2 of social science, it would be SD>PD, which is the fear of social death is greater than the fear of physical death.
If you feel like your reputation or your status is on the line, you will engage in behavior that will protect that at the expense of your own body. You'll put your reputation on the lifeboat and you'll let your body go to the bottom of the ocean if you get put into that situation.
A lot of what we consider our identity is that which identifies us as being part of a particular group. If anything becomes an us-versus-them issue, we will favor us over them to our own detriment. We put ourselves in a position where we do a lot of signaling. We do a lot of, “I just need you to know that I'm a good member of my group.” This is all part of our hyper sociality.
This leads to these motivational allures. One is they're looking for a strong group identity, and they don't have one yet. Or they have a certain identity that they feel is under threat by a rising nascent status quo that puts them into a state of anxiety. That's one motivational lure. Another motivational lure is having a really hardcore prejudice that you feel is justified, and you're looking for other people to support that.
You have an anxiety, a fear, a prejudice or a sense of wavering identity, and you're looking for others who could assist you in not dissipating in a way that makes human beings very frightened. Before the Internet, it was difficult to do this, but we would do it. We'd find ways to do it.
Now it's very easy. You can go to Reddit, you can go to TikTok, you can go to Twitter, you can go to Facebook. You can find people who are worried about the same things you're worried about, who have similar feelings about things. You start talking to them, and there is a culling arising thing that takes place.
It's not so much different from an email scam. If you're like me, you get a hundred scam emails. Some of them go into the spam folder, but some don't. You get those text messages that just say, “Hello.” Those scam emails always seem so obvious. They'll feel like, “Who would fall for such a thing?” But that's on purpose.
Those scammers will send out 16 million emails, and they make them as obvious as possible, because it takes about a year to really get somebody in a good, long scam. At the end of the scam, they're going to ask you to do something, and you give some private information over. This is your world, so I'm sure I’m, like, mansplaining right now.
This is important. The psychology here is similar in that they wanted to be obvious in the beginning so that people who won't fall for the scam don't click on the email, because that will waste their time six months down the line. It's a naturally occurring version that happens when people go to these groups and they start talking about their anxieties. A lot of people do that. They just flirt with it for a minute, and they go, “This seems weird. I don't want to be there.”
But some people don't. There are all sorts of reasons that that might be true. Something might be happening in their personal life. There's something that might have happened to them recently. There could be a longstanding anxiety. There are certain conspiratorial communities that people will fall into them, that this early-stage stuff happens where they're not as skeptical as they might be because they have trauma, they have PTSD, or they have something that happened in their lives earlier that just gets them more attuned to it than other people would be.
At some point, you're hanging out with these people, you're discussing issues, and you're being introduced to new things. You cross a line where whatever allure brought you in, the fact that you're hanging out with people and you feel this social human connection with them becomes the prime motivator.
Once you're switched over to that, all the things I mentioned earlier come into play. The conspiracy becomes almost irrelevant to the fact that you are now part of a community and that you have an in-group. At some point, buy-in requires you to behave, act, and feel a certain way, or you risk being ostracized. At that point, people will often pick to believe some very strange things to stay in there. Once you're deep into it, you're deep into it.The conspiracy becomes almost irrelevant to the fact that you are now part of a community and that you have an in-group. At some point, buy-in requires you to behave, act, and feel a certain way, or you risk being ostracized.… Click To Tweet
When your family member's buddy has fallen into something like that, one of the things you have to have is cognitive empathy for why they fell in, which means when it comes to flat Earthers, which is I keep using this because it's so nice and neutral, people who are in the flat Earth, there are many different schisms in that world, but one of the major ones is of the idea that NASA went to space, and then once the astronauts were in space, they saw the Earth and were like, “Oh, that's weird. It's flat.” Then they're like, “Well, what do we do now? Because this is potentially very dangerous and we need to hide that from the public.” That's a very common belief in that world.
The motivation behind that is a mistrust of the government, a fear of institutions, a skepticism about the military industrial complex. Oftentimes, people have had bad experiences that have led them to have that anxiety, fear, and mistrust. It's not always completely unfounded. There are all sorts of things the government has done.
Read a history book about the United States. There's been some moments. From the Trail of Tears onward, there are all sorts of things that you could say sometimes that is not a misplaced anxiety or fear. But the way they have justified this emotional state is this perfect conspiracy theory that helps them say, “See, I told you so.” You meet other people who are like, “I don't think you're crazy, man. I also think this.” And this is what leads it to this very strong community.
If you want to engage someone about an issue like that, the first thing is you have to have empathy for how they got there and know that what you need to be just figuring out through like a method we used earlier is what is the actual foundation of their desire or the allure of finding people who would share that feeling? Because you want to get there and talk about that. You want to talk about the facts and the evidence behind the conspiracy.
I know it feels like that's what we ought to be talking about, but you're not going to find nearly as much traction there as you will if you're talking about what motivated the person to be less skeptical than they might ought to be, or would be about something else.
It's more about the emotional context which got them there, than the reality context or the facts context. They're not there because of perceived facts. They're there because of the emotional connections that they built with people.
Yeah. Let's imagine you get into one of those arguments with them. Your uncle, your dad, your mom, your aunts, what if they emailed you a bunch of links to YouTube videos about the Earth being flat, a couple of articles, and then they also said, “Here, read this book”? Just imagine your initial reaction to that.
First of all, you're going to be like, “I ain't clicking these links.” But even if you do, you're going to sit there, watch that, and be like, “Hmm.” Your skepticism is activated because you have your own reasons to have placed your trustworthiness in a different way.
You trust things that they don't trust, and that's the actual meat of your disagreement. You're not disagreeing over these facts as much as you're disagreeing over who you should trust and why you should trust these people in this way and the other.
The conversation has to get there before there's any chance of either of you shifting perspective. So you have to get out of the debate frame. That's my major advice because there are all these steps that we could go through.
There are two steps. For the sake of our truncated version, step one is build rapport, which means you need to assure the other person that you're not out to shame them, that you respect them, that you probably share certain goals and certain anxieties and fears about the world, and there are problems in the world that you agree need to be solved. You're cool. You need to establish that up front.
Then you need to get out of the debate frame. A lot of people are good at this. There are politicians who love doing this. You call somebody a name, insult them in some way, and then get them to engage you on that level, and you're fighting a fight that they can win.
This often happens in a back-and-forth with somebody, and you may not even realize you've done it. You've insulted their sense of trustworthiness. You made them feel like they should be ashamed for the way they think, feel, and believe. They're having to defend their identity and defend their own selfhood to you, which is what the discussion ends up being about, and you're not even talking about the conspiracy anymore.
You need to get out of that debate frame, which I like to think of as a face-off. Get out of face-off and switch to shoulder-to-shoulder. This is basically what you're trying to do. This is common across so many different domains. Street epistemology, deep canvassing, motivational interviewing, hostage negotiation, high-level business negotiation. These are all major components.
I can't be your opponent and you can't be my opponent if we expect this to work. I can't try to be trying to win and you lose, and you do the same. What needs to happen is these be a third thing that's our shared opponent, which is the issue that we're trying to solve, the goal we're trying to reach, or the mystery we're trying to solve.
This is a great way to frame it. “I respect you, and I want the best for you. If you're my family member, I love you. Isn't it curious, though, that we disagree about this? I wonder if you would be OK with it? Can I get your consent?”
What if we joined up in a collaborative effort and went shoulder-to-shoulder to try to solve a mystery together? And the mystery is I wonder why we disagree about this. That's a completely different way to have a discussion that will avoid a lot of the pitfalls that lead to dead-end arguing.
Oh, that's really interesting. I like that. OK. I want to go down a rabbit hole, but I want it on the recording. There are things triggering previous interviews. It's super interesting. I find the way that our minds work and the things that we do to rationalize, justify, or explain why we've done something that someone else would think odd. It's really interesting whether it's self-preservation. I guess self-preservation is groupthink, being part of a group. It's so interesting that we do that.
Yeah, it is. One metaphor that works well for me, and if I say like or as, change that to simile, which is if you show a little kid in 2023 when we're recording this, a picture of the Kitty Hawk machine, the first thing that flew that we called an airplane, although there were other people that did things, but for the sake of this description, if you show a kid the picture of that, and you ask them what is it, they'll say an airplane. That's wild. Why? Because airplanes look like airplanes.
Why do airplanes look like airplanes? The first airplane looks like an airplane, as much as a Boeing 747. Why is that? Because to get something to fly on this planet, you have to overcome some challenges, material science, gravity, wind resistance, the thing that creates the energy for it to go has to be a certain weight, and there has to be ratios involved. Once you solve all these challenges, it ends up taking a form that is pretty identifiable, if anybody's ever seen one before.
It took a long time for us to figure it out, but once we did, it looked a little like a bird. It shares some properties of birds, but has some very special properties for it to be a thing that we can get in and fly around. So airplanes look like airplanes. These rhetorical techniques that work, that actually get somewhere, all tend to take a similar form, which really blew my mind.
When I met the deep canvassers, the street epistemology people, and all these other people, they were all doing something similar but they had never met each other. Most of them had never seen any of the science that supported what they were doing, yet they had come up with something that was pretty much if it had steps, it had the same steps, usually in the same order, and that's because you have to overcome certain challenges if you want to avoid the dead end, if you want to avoid the derailment, if you want to avoid entrenching the other person deeper than if they had never met you before.
You're mentioning some of the stuff already. Reactance is one of those things. For anyone listening, if you've ever been a teenager or you've ever met one, you can have a really filthy room like a bedroom, and you could have, in your mind, a neon sign saying, “You need to clean your room. You need to clean your room. You need to clean your room.”
But if you go into the kitchen and your mom says, hey, you need to go clean your room, you will likely go in there, eat a candy bar, throw the wrapper on a pile, and then wallow around, make snow angels in your filth.
Even though you want to do that and you should do that, the fact that someone else is trying to tell you to do it is very triggering, and they call that reactance. Someone's trying to steal your agency. Of course we should be careful about that, because sometimes when people ask you to do things, who knows what they're up to? If you do that in a conversation, you will derail the conversation.
There are a thousand other things like this. Like you were discussing, identity is very important. When a person feels like their identity is under threat, or they feel like you're asking them to do something that would lead to a bad outcome socially for them, there are many, many things you have to overcome in a conversation dynamic to avoid a dead-end result. Because of that, these rhetorical techniques tend to take on a certain form. I love that too. It's amazing. It's just how brains work. It's how our particular brain makes sense of things.
This has been a phenomenal conversation. We have gone longer than either of us planned.
It's totally OK. I burned 10 minutes talking about getting to visit NASA, so that's OK.
I super appreciate your time. The conspiracy test is actually at theconspiracytest.org. I got it wrong, but luckily the one I gave actually redirects there. If people want to find out more about you and the writings that you do, your journalism, where can they find out more?
I guess there are three places right now. You Are Not So Smart is the name of my podcast. It's also the website that has all the backlog for that, youarenotsosmart.com. My personal website, davidmcraney.com has everything else there. All my socials are David McRaney, @davidmcraney.
My most recent book is How Minds Change. If you're interested in a lot of the stuff we were talking about here at the tail end of the conversation, there's a whole book about that stuff. That's a very on-the-ground embedded book. I embedded it with conspiratorial communities, with cults, pseudo-cults, Westboro Baptist Church, the whole thing, and people who left those places.
I have a Substack that is slowly becoming a source of long-form writing about whatever I'm into, and that's just called Disambiguation. But if you go to davidmcraney.com, you'll find all that stuff.
Awesome. David, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
Hey, thanks so much for inviting me. It's been great.