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Devoodooifying Psychology

[Epistemic status: very low. Total conjecture based on insufficient evidence.]

“Voodoo death” refers to supposed cases where people died after being cursed by witch doctors. The theory goes that even though witch doctors don’t have real magic, if their victims come from a culture that believes in witchdoctory then they’ll be so scared that they gradually waste away out of fear and die anyway.

For a while psychologists believed that this absolutely happened, a testament to the powers of the mind. Maybe it was because of toxic levels of the stress hormone adrenaline or something.

Now there’s some more controversy. A lot of these cases turned out to be primitive tribesmen who said it totally happened to a friend of a friend of a cousin or something. In others, witch doctors placed curses on people who already had some kind of serious disease, then took credit. In still others, the curse victim became so upset that they stopped eating or drinking and died of dehydration – which, while technically a death, doesn’t really testify to the powers of the mind so much as the power of blood osmolality. And after some more thought, everyone agreed the adrenaline theory probably didn’t apply since adrenaline spikes kill suddenly but voodoo victims waste away over the space of weeks.

So now voodoo death looks a lot more complicated than a simple progression of curse -> adrenaline -> you were killed by your own mind. Lester gives a relatively sympathetic view of the evidence here, but even he can only find two good cases – one of which involved a patient who died of preexisting asthma, the other of which did not involve voodoo at all.

I find this interesting because so much of psychology seems basically voodoo-ish.

Take the placebo effect. This is basically the voodoo effect in reverse. Instead of a witch doctor saying you’ll get worse, and you do, a regular doctor tells you you’ll get better, and you do. For a while, people were claiming all sorts of amazing effects for placebo – placebo can activate the immune system to fight infections, placebo can slow the growth of cancer, placebo can make bedridden invalids start dancing jigs. But the best studies now suggest that the placebo effect is probably very weak and limited to controlling pain. The vaunted power of mind over body, of belief over reality, doesn’t look nearly as impressive as we thought.

Or take stereotype threat. Again, this is sort of a voodoo curse. If people make you think you’re going to do bad on a test, then you’ll do bad on the test. Again, widely believed, held up as an example of the power of perception. Again, doesn’t replicate well in large studies, has a very suspicious funnel plot, and is starting to inspire doubt even among top researchers in the area.

Or take self-esteem. Again, a reverse voodoo curse. By believing that you’re a good person and likely to do well, good things will happen to you. Again, very popular in the ’90s, but it hasn’t aged well. Similarly, self affirmations failed to replicate results showing their effectiveness.

This is all oversimplified; there are still lots of unrebutted studies supporting all of these things. Maybe some of the studies that seem to debunk them have themselves been debunked, and I don’t know about it. Still, it seems to me that things that sound like voodoo – that is, which argue that our optimistic or pessimistic beliefs about how well we will do can mysteriously and directly affect how well we will do – are faring unusually badly as psychologists get better at trying to replicate things.

(This kind of thing is why I’m so skeptical of growth mindset, despite so little hard data supporting my skepticism)

This isn’t to say that nothing like this is true. At the very least, my belief that I can’t swim the English Channel makes me not try to swim the English Channel, and so if that belief is wrong it’s voodoo-ish-ly making me fail at Channel-swimming. But this is a lot less mysterious than the thing where you repeat “I will do well at school” every day and so do better at school.

Let me introduce a second category of things.

First, the name preference effect. This is where you’re positively predisposed to things that sound like your name. For example, people named Dennis are more likely to become dentists, people named Bob are more likely to be bakers or butchers or barristers, and people with three letters in their name are more likely to live in Three Forks. People believed this for years until finally somebody did a statistical reanalysis and found that it was totally false.

Second, unconscious social priming. Supposedly people who heard the word “retirement” walked more slowly for a while afterwards, because “retirement” primed their thoughts of old people, and old people primed their thoughts of being slow, and so for a while they themselves behaved like an old person. This sort of thing inspired an entire field of psychology showing similar results (like the infamous study showing that an earthquake increased divorce rates by priming thoughts of instability), but it very much failed to replicate and is now the archetypal example of a formerly-accepted finding now believed to be false. Dr. Primestein’s work in this area is also a must-read.

Third, and from just last month: Artificial surveillance cues do not increase generosity: two meta-analyses. You know how if there was a picture of eyes or something, people would be nicer and more law-abiding, because deep down they felt like they were being watched? Yeah, turns out that’s not true.

And again, don’t trust me too much – there are a lot of studies I could have mentioned here, and three don’t necessarily make a pattern. But if I’m right that these are representative examples, then they seem to share a pattern. I’m not sure they all technically qualify as “social priming” (though they might, and that field has already been pointed out as particularly bad) but they all have the same feeling of tiny cues that you don’t think about causing big unconscious changes to behavior. This seems to be another category that is faring unusually badly.

Implicit association tests probably don’t work (1, 2, 3, 4). That is, people who have “implicit racial biases” according to the tests are not more racist in everyday life than people who don’t. If this were true – and if it reflected a general failure of implicit racial biases to affect explicit actions – it’s hard to overestimate how much it would change psychology. We wouldn’t have to worry about how the wrong character on TV would accidentally bias people toward having certain stereotypes. We wouldn’t have to worry about subconscious racism affecting hiring decisions even among people who are trying hard to be fair and neutral.

Does this fall into the previous patterns? It’s not exactly about self-fulfilling prophecies, or tiny stimuli having oversized effects on behavior. But it seems to have a certain kinship with them.

And a few days ago, a friend posted a quote on Tumblr:

There is no sovereign sanctuary within ourseles which represents our real nature. There is nobody at home in the internal fortress. Everything we cherish as our ego, everything we believe in, is just what we have cobbled together out of the accident of our birth and subsequent experiences. With drugs, brainwashing, and other techniques of extreme persuasion, we can quite readily make a man a devotee of a different ideology, the patriot of a different country, or the follower of a different religion

I was only too happy to be able to reply with Gwern’s research on how “brainwashing” mostly doesn’t work. Does this suggest the post is wrong about the lack of a “real nature”? Does this relate to any of the previous patterns?

A single thread seems to run through all of these examples: a shift away from the power of the unconscious. The unconscious doesn’t make you succeed or fail proportionately to your belief in yourself. The unconscious doesn’t change your behavior because of insignificant environmental cues. The unconscious doesn’t make you racially discriminate despite your own better nature. The conscious mind is strong enough to hold onto its preferred beliefs despite brainwashing techniques intended to force it otherwise.

So maybe we should update in general towards less of a role for the unconscious mind?

I remember my first freshman psychology class. After studying learned helplessness, I realized that was what I was feeling: study after study of crazy things, everything depended on your beliefs, the first letter of your name could affect your life outcome, stuff like that. The end result was a lot like in the quote above – nobody has any control over their lives, we’re all at the mercy of vast unconscious forces, society’s hidden assumptions and bases are vital in shaping our future. What if all of that was wrong? What if people mostly make decisions based on reasonable factors, succeed or fail based on things like ability or random luck, and social assumptions are relatively powerless beyond a common sense level? Wouldn’t that be great?

But maybe this is going too far. Once again, all I have is a few data points, curated by my own biases. Certainly not all of the studies showing creepy unconscious effects have been disproven; probably fewer than 10% of them have. Certainly not all the studies that have been disproven show creepy unconscious effects – ego depletion is a very mechanistic biological idea, but it’s done no better than priming. You have to kind of squint to see the pattern, then take it on faith that it’s real and that it continues throughout all the data that haven’t been checked.

And how do you tell the baby from the bathwater here? Some results – like cognitive biases, sales techniques or eyewitness unreliability – sort of fall under the heading of “power of unconscious effects”, but seem subtly different – maybe because of a less agentic unconscious? I don’t know. But I would be surprised if those followed the same pattern.

(on the other hand, a first draft included the Asch conformity experiments in that list, but apparently those never said what I thought they did)

Of course, this post is really about Freudian psychology. When I presented a Freudian friend with information on the general irrelevance of childhood factors and family composition, he countered by saying that the only thing that could really harm his belief in psychoanalysis was to learn that the unconscious wasn’t very powerful.

I don’t think we’re anywhere close to there yet. And I don’t think it’s meaningful to “deny the unconscious” – the unconscious is everything that happens except for conscious stuff, and that seems like a lot. But maybe our concept of the unconscious, or certain things that we attributed to the unconscious, was overly broad. And I think there’s an interesting project in trying to make explicit exactly what that means and what sort of smaller concepts we can get away with.

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291 Responses to Devoodooifying Psychology

  1. Anonymous says:

    Of course, this post is really about Freudian psychology. When I presented a Freudian friend with information on the general irrelevance of childhood factors and family composition, he countered by saying that the only thing that could really harm his belief in psychoanalysis was to learn that the unconscious wasn’t very powerful.

    What kind of half-assed Freudianism is that?

    A real Freudian would only disbelieve Fredudianism if his mother came to him in a dream and told him that he didn’t believe it.

  2. Adam says:

    There is a long tradition in business and motivational speaking of belief in the power of autosuggestion, that is, effectively talking yourself into succeeding at life, sort of a reverse stereotype threat. I believe the classic example is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, but there is a huge cottage industry devoted to selling people this idea.

    I’m personally suspicious of anyone selling a belief and wonder if any of this has ever been studied. Seems nearly impossible to attribute business success to specific behavioral causes. There doesn’t seem to be much extremely successful business people really have in common other than they’re either really persistent or really lucky, and this flies in the face of all the evidence suggesting innate talent is the major contributor to success at pretty much anything. I don’t personally care, since I just got really lucky and the world happens to monetarily value things I’m good at without really trying all that hard, but it still fascinates me.

    • Garrett says:

      One area that it may have an impact on is perseverance. There are many aspects in life (including school, work, etc.) where persevering in the face of failure can result in success. So changing something about how we approach a situation such that we are able to get back to work.
      To take Scott’s example: simply saying that “I will do well at school today” won’t change anything. But if you shift your view such that when you face adversity you don’t quit and go home (because you know you will do well at school today), you may keep going and thus end up doing well at school today.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I think there’s a sense in which it’s more depressing to think “positive thinking” can’t help much, because that basically means you’re down to your inborn talent and luck. Whereas if by simply “believing in yourself” you can increase your chances of success, well, then, that’s something you can do, you know, other than just work harder. I think this is why it’s such a marketable idea, whereas no one sells self-help books titled “your life outcomes are largely determined by your genes and luck.”

        But if “believing in yourself” can make you work harder, which it seems like it could, and if working harder is correlated to succeeding, which it seems like it would be, it seems like “believing in yourself” should help, unless the problem is that you aren’t believing your own hype (that is, affirmations, for example, don’t truly convince you that your chances of success are greater than you otherwise would have felt).

    • lemmy caution says:

      My bet is that the autosuggestion stuff works at least short term. Sales is depressing since you get a lot of rejection. If you are not naturally optimistic or a people person it will drag you down.

  3. Joao Eira says:

    “Empirical assessment of published effect sizes and power in the recent cognitive neuroscience and psychology literature” – http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2016/08/25/071530

  4. BFOTY says:

    the curse victim became so upset that they stopped eating or drinking and died of dehydration – which, while technically a death, doesn’t really testify to the powers of the mind

    How does it not? We can’t even reliably make people stick to energy restricted diets or whatever. I would expect dehydrating yourself to death to be a least as hard, likely harder.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Isn’t there something to people becoming depressed and eating less food? Or is that made up, too?

      I know that when my body tells me to eat more food, it does it by telling me all the happy things that I’ll be able to do with more energy; or that something really bad will happen if I don’t. If I’m depressed, all that stuff won’t work.

      • Guy says:

        Really? My body just yells “hunger!” until I apply food.

      • Cadie says:

        It’s one of those things that depends. Some depressed people eat less, some eat more, some hardly change the amount at all. Less food is associated with melancholic/typical depression and more food with atypical depression, but there are a lot of exceptions and it’s not always a clear distinction anyway.

  5. Helldalgo says:

    Scott, you’re breaking my heart here. I find out in rapid succession that name preference, priming, AND artificial surveillance don’t work?

  6. Douglas Knight says:

    the only thing that could really harm his belief in psychoanalysis was to learn that the unconscious wasn’t very powerful.

    That may be an accurate description of the future path of his beliefs, but it is irrational. The claim that the unconscious is powerful is a broad class of beliefs. The claim that Freudian psychoanalysis grants access to the (powerful) unconscious is narrow.

  7. Dan Simon says:

    I don’t see the jump from the weakness of priming effects to the lack of subconscious influence. All it suggests to me is that the subconscious is as stable and slow to evolve as the conscious, and therefore is relatively unaffected by minor environmental pokes.

    I think of the “subconscious” as mostly a large collection of implicit beliefs, feelings and patterns of thought learned gradually over time from birth, heavily shaped by congenital influences. If you had access to it, you wouldn’t find a bunch of Freudian dreams/fantasies/nightmares, but rather a lot of mundane ideas and associations too boring to think about consciously–except that some of them are undoubtedly wrong, perhaps even obviously so, and therefore worth re-examining, if one could notice that one believed them.

    • Ruben says:

      +1 for this. The only thing you list that really gets at this is the IAT. And this being Brian Nosek’s work I’m a little bit more optimistic.
      The unconscious might still be quite powerful, as heritable as everything else, as hard to change as everything else, and harder to measure. And extremely self-aware psychologists might underestimate how much is unconscious in others. However, not everything that’s not explicitly reported necessarily is unconscious it might be self- censored.

  8. Ton says:

    Ah yes, Dr. Primestein wrote the primer that debunks priming. The ultimate meta-prime.

    • Guy says:

      According to Scott, one of prime importance.

    • Julie K says:

      There are a lot of obvious jokes on the linked site. I suspect “Primestein” is not his real name.

      • Taradino C. says:

        It’s a common misconception. Primestein is the writer who came up with the idea for the joke article. The fictional doctor in whose voice the article was written is Primestein’s monster.

    • Subbak says:

      Their work was a cornerstone in priming research.

  9. Alyssa Vance says:

    Wow. Is there anything in academic psychology which we can have confidence won’t be debunked?

    • Ninmesara says:

      I don’t know. Since I started to read Scott’s blog I mostly stick to my priors now. I’m unsure whether this is a good thing or not.

    • Adam says:

      Honestly, my major takeaway from reading Scott for the past few years is don’t believe anything at all published in a social science or medical journal. I still trust my own doctors for whatever reason, but I’m probably just lucky when a treatment happens to work on me and most of them haven’t. I don’t think I have any remaining strong beliefs about how the human brain or body works. Our best understanding seems to be tiny oscillations around a uniform prior, with nothing worth committing to and defending.

    • LCF says:

      Not in advance. With a couple centuries of hindsight however, feel free to mock those dumb people from the past who believed silly things.
      Also, it works with all fields, not just psychology.

      • R.E. says:

        Also, it works with all fields, not just psychology.

        Newton’s laws were good enough to put people on the moon. Degrees of wrong and all that.

    • Michael Watts says:

      IQ research is doing well.

      • R.E. says:

        You wouldn’t know that from the media though. To the mainstream media it’s all himmnicanes and power pose.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Of course not. The indisputable parts are debunked the most often.

    • Anon. says:

      The Kahneman/Tversky/Thaler cluster seems fairly robust.

      • Julie K says:

        I learned about the “being watched by pictures of eyes” from Kahneman.

        • Anon. says:

          Sure, but that’s not his research. I was thinking prospect theory (endowment effect, loss aversion, etc), mental accounting, availability heuristic.

      • Mazirian says:

        Here’s an article about rereading Kahneman’s book in the light of the replication crisis.

    • Earthly Knight says:

      Is there anything in academic psychology which we can have confidence won’t be debunked?

      Yes, research on sensation. This key difference is between sciences which study a well-understood mechanism whose parameters can be independently verified and sciences which can do nothing but speculate about the contents of a black box on the basis of meager observed correlations.

      • Psychophysicist says:

        But sensation and perception and motor control, despite being the oldest branches of psychology-as-a-science, and having come through the Replication Crisis performing much better of any other branches of psychology, just have no traction when it comes to telling people what’s really wrong with them. Might as well be invisible to the average psychiatrist blogger.

      • R.E. says:

        Or to me, with all my physics biases: between real science, and p-value “science”.

    • sohois says:

      Well if that is the case, we can surely be quite confident that the debunking studies will in turn be debunked sometime later and we can go back to believing all this stuff

    • Lee Wang says:

      I know how this sounds but I never believed any of this stuff and I keep being surprised at how many people take this seriously.

      The most important reason that you should be extremely skeptical to these kinds of results -and this is a pet peeve of mine- have nothing to do with how the various studies never replicate. There are so many ways experiments can be botched (deliberately or not), that overwhelming importance should be attached to sound theoretical underpinnings.

      All these ideas about subtle things strongly influencing your behaviour through the unconscious sound really dumb. There are several very large problems with these kinds of psychological effects unrelated to the fact that the studies never seem to replicate.

      1. Psychologists are largely incompetent. The kind of really basic statistics errors that are made in at even at prestigious institutions like Harvard would make a physicist the laughing stock of her profession. Historically psychology has been one deranged fad after another. In my own (limited) experience very few people with a serious intellectual inclination have gone on to study psychology, while the study itself is laughably easy. Psychologists I’ve never seemed bright to me. Now of course this might simply be my limited experience; and I’m sure that there are intelligent and competent psychologists.
      (Of course there is also more empirical evidence than the anecdotal evidence I muster; if one graphs IQ versus intended direction of study, psychology does extremely poor.)

      2. The posited psychological phenomena seem ‘too cool’; the kind of cool fact you can tell at a party. In most cases that ‘fact’ is actually fiction. Freudian psychoanalysis is a particularly gregarious example: it has something to do with dreams and SEX and how all your problems are really caused by your desire to fuck your mom. It’s the kind of thing people say to sounds interesting; the kind of things people tell to get laid (and Freud did!). It’s also

      3. A lot of these things really sound like voodoo or various religious/magic practices which should make you inherently skeptical.
      Greg Cochran likes to joke that stereotype threat is really belief in the evil eye. Yes modern psychology does not invoke things like spirits/magic/gods but the way things are supposed to work seem to be broadly the same. The effect is extremely capricious, can often be influenced by simply believing and might often be averted by a simple everyday actions(let’s say painting eyes for social control or warding away spirits).

      4. Psychology is of course not a new discipline, it does not require a lot of technical expertise or large machines. Most of modern progress is simply applications of statistics/large sample sizes. Moreover unlike say astronomy or deep-sea biology the body of facts of psychology is directly perceivable by everyday people. Hence if there were real effects that are particularly strong we would weakly expect various ancient or early modern thinkers from various different times and backgrounds to consistently name certain psychologial effects. For instance a lot was known about statics in various places and times long before people knew Newtonian mechanics. But this does not seem to be the case.

      5. The claimed strength of the effect sizes are often very large. Telling yourself you will succeed at a test might increase your grade by 30% according to some of these studies. If this is really true why does it never seem to be used by actual successful people or businesses. Why was hypnosis never used to overthrow a government or escape from prison or any kinds of criminal acts. (Rasputin doesn’t count, most of the stories about him are made up or extremely unreliable).
      Again there have been various claims that brainwashing has been used by modern governments but the idea of brainwashing does not require modern advances and could conceivably be discovered and utilized by historical societies. Why wasn’t brain washing used by say, Qing dynasty scholar-officials to institute an unstoppable army of zealots and cement imperial control?

      6. A problem with a lot of psychology that rely on strong environmental effects is the intrinsic instability they would imply about human nature. As an example psychological effects that rely on your belief in it are very instable. If believing in being dumb makes you dumber than that reinforces your believe in being dumb etc. (of course it might have diminishing effects but this makes the theory more complicated: how strong is the diminishing effect, why is there a diminishing effect, how does it work etc) If eyes make you more law-abiding, yellow rooms foster conflict, the name ‘Dennis’ makes you want to become a dentist. What happens if you walk through a series of rooms having these features: do you change from amicable and prosocial to finding faults in minor grievances to suddenly really wanting to become a dentist?

      7. Most of these theories do not really propose a real robust model. Most theories/models are necessary simple. Psychometrics posits a single number that measures intellectual ability. Now this might be wrong, and indeed I’m somewhat surprised that the myriad of seemingly different intellectual abilities can be be largely subsumed by a single number but it is simple. But it is a simple theory that posits a simple, unidirectional and quantifiable effect. Compare unconscious social priming: priming people with the word ‘retirement’ makes people slower because it makes people think of old people. But why doesn’t it make people walk faster because most of them are young and they constrast themselves with old people or they’re scared of death or retirement makes them conscious of the importance of having money later and so they really should be going right now etc. The point is that these aren’t really models but just-so stories.

      8. The theory of evolution is the most powerful theory ever devised concerning all living systems, so one should always ask how a purported phenomenon dealing with people or life in general would fit in evolution. In this case if large numbers of people were really susceptible to strong hypnosis that would on the face of it be an extreme fitness cost. If placebo really cured cancer why isn’t your body always on super-placebo mode where it can cure cancer? There are of course several ways in how we can account for these probleims in the theory of evolution but I rarely seem to hear these problems being adressed. In general WHY would these effects actually exist?

      9. Most of the things (psychometrics, twin studies) we do know about the mind seem to support nature over environment. Most of the purported effects are shared-environmental and support modern political sensibilities (i.e. Implicit racial biases).

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s also

        I hate cliffhangers.

        (Seriously, you might want to proofread that.)

        • Lee Wang says:

          You’re are right of course. I had already spent two hours composing the post that I felt it was best to be done with it. I’m unfortunately unable to correct the various errors and typo’s now.. I think?

          • Aapje says:

            Yes, you forever have to live in shame now (just kidding, good post).

          • Lee Wang says:

            To popular demand I made a proof-read version. Does anybody know if there is a way to edit posts after an hour has passed?

            I know how this sounds, but I never believed any of this stuff—and I keep being surprised how many people take this seriously.

            The most important reason that you should be extremely skeptical about these kinds of results have nothing to do with their shaky empirics. Experiments can be botched in so many ways (deliberately or not) that overwhelming importance should be attached to sound theoretical underpinnings.

            All these ideas about subtle things strongly influencing your behavior through the unconscious sound really dumb. Several very large problems with these kinds of psychological effects exist completely unrelated to the fact that the studies never seem to replicate.

            1. Psychologists are largely incompetent. The kind of really basic statistics errors that psychologist regularly make—even at prestigious institutions like Harvard—would make a physicist the laughing stock of her profession. Historically, psychology has been one deranged fad after another. In my own experience, very few people with a serious intellectual inclination have gone on to study psychology, while the study itself is laughably easy.
            This might simply be my limited experience. But there is also more scientific evidence: if one graphs IQ versus intended direction of study, psychology does particularly poorly.

            2. The posited psychological phenomena seem ‘too cool’; the kind of cool fact you can use to impress someone at a party. Freudian psychoanalysis is a particularly egregious example: it has something to do with dreams and SEX and how all your problems are really caused by your desire to fuck your mom. It’s the kind of thing people say to sounds interesting; the kind of things people tell to get laid (and Freud actually did!). It’s a priori highly unlikely that cool facts are the same as true facts.

            3. As pointed out by Scott Alexander, a lot of these things really sound like voodoo or various religious/magic practices, which should make you inherently skeptical.
            Greg Cochran likes to joke that stereotype threat is belief in the evil eye. Yes, modern psychology does not invoke things like spirits/magic/gods, but the way things are supposed to work is remarkably close to how voodoo is supposed to work. The effect is extremely capricious; can be influenced by simple belief; and might often be averted by a simple everyday actions (for example, painting eyes for social control or warding off spirits).

            4. Psychology is of course not a new discipline, it does not require a lot of technical expertise or large machines. Most modern progress is simple applications of statistics and large sample sizes. Unlike, say, astronomy or deep-sea biology the body of facts of psychology is directly perceivable by everyday people. If there were real and strong effects we would weakly expect various ancient or early modern thinkers to consistently name certain psychological effects. For instance, a lot was known about statics in several places and times long before people knew Newtonian mechanics. But this does not seem to be the case.

            5. The claimed strength of the effect are often very large. Telling yourself you will succeed at a test might increase your grade by 30% according to some of these studies. If this is really true, why do actual successful people or organizations never use them? Why was hypnosis never used to overthrow governments, prison escapes or ‘curing’ unrequited love? (Rasputin doesn’t count, most stories about him are apocryphal).
            There have been various claims that modern governments use brainwashing, but the practice does not require modern scientific advances. Past societies could have conceivably discovered and utilized brainwashing. Why didn’t, say, Qing dynasty scholar-officials use brainwashing to institute an army of unquestionably obedient zealots to cement imperial control?

            6. A problem with a lot of psychology that relies on strong environmental effects is the intrinsic instability it would imply about human nature. As an example psychological effects that rely on your belief in it are very unstable. If believing in being dumb makes you dumber than that reinforces your belief in being dumb etc. (There might be diminishing effects. This makes the theory more complicated: how strong is the diminishing effect? Why is there a diminishing effect? How does it work etc.?)
            If eyes make you more law abiding; yellow rooms foster conflict; the name ‘Dennis’ makes you want to become a dentist, what happens if you walk through a series of rooms having these features? Do you change from amicable and pro-social to finding faults in minor grievances to suddenly-really-wanting-to-become-a-dentist? What happens if you put all these features in the same room? Do they cancel each other out? Are you slightly more likely to become a self-righteous dentist? Which brings us to the next point.

            7. Most of these theories do not really propose a model. Most useful models are necessarily simple. Psychometrics posits a single number that measures intellectual ability. Now this might be wrong, and indeed I’m somewhat surprised that the myriad of seemingly different intellectual abilities can be be largely subsumed by a single number. But it is a simple theory that posits an unidirectional and quantifiable effect that can be unequivocally tested. Compare unconscious social priming: priming people with the word ‘retirement’ makes people slower because it makes people think of old people. But why doesn’t it make people walk faster because they contrast themselves with old people? Or the word ‘retirement’ reminds them of their own mortality and they are motivated to vivaciously living each moment? Or perhaps retirement makes them conscious that having lots of money later is important–so they really should be going right now. The point is that these aren’t really models but just-so stories.

            8. The Theory of Evolution is the most powerful theory ever devised concerning all living systems, so one should always ask how a purported phenomenon dealing with people would fit in evolution. If large numbers of people were really susceptible to strong hypnosis that would on the face of it be an extreme fitness cost. If placebo really cured cancer why isn’t your body always on super-placebo mode where it can cure cancer? There are several ways how we can account for these problems in evolutionary theory but I rarely see these problems being addressed. In general, WHY would these effects actually exist?

            9. Most things we do know about the mind (psychometrics, twin studies) seem to support nature over environment. Most purported effects are shared-environmental and support modern political sensibilities (i.e. Implicit racial biases).

      • Marcel Müller says:

        Yes, yes, yes and a ten thousand times yes.

        Also:

        And how do you tell the baby from the bathwater here? Some results – like cognitive biases, sales techniques or eyewitness unreliability – sort of fall under the heading of “power of unconscious effects”, but seem subtly different – maybe because of a less agentic unconscious? I don’t know. But I would be surprised if those followed the same pattern.

        I suspect there is probably no baby there, at most a few bacteria or something. Cognitive biases, sales techniques or eyewitness unreliability are imho something else entirely.

        Cognitive biases are useful heuristics, which sometimes produce glitchy results.

        FITD technique works, because you have to violate certain social rules, basically be rude to the salesman to avoid compliance, which well adjusted humans are strongly conditioned against.

        And eyewitness unreliability is a result of the fact that our brain does not store a video file of our past but uses some highly lossy compression and recovers missing data by inferring a likely coherent story fitting to the remaining data.

        These effects (though they might still well be not true) are something completely different than Freudian subconscious bs., (a strong effect from) priming and similar things.

        Also palcebo: I suspect this is mostly a reporting artefact. At least for me, pain both acute and subacute is highly variable over time (even over minute timescales) to the point that from my pain data alone I couldn’t event tell when / if I took some over the counter painkiller (e.g. Ibuprofen 800), because the drop in pain intensity is lost in the noise. Now I can easily imagine (especially if I had not already reflected on this) to report somewhat less pain, because I got pain medication – or placebo – and expect to have less pain without actually experiencing less pain. Has anyone looked into this idea?

        • Aapje says:

          I agree that placebo effects are probably in large part due to the quid-pro-quo that is built into the human mind (the charities that send a small amount of money, expecting you to return the favor with more money, take advantage of this shamelessly. It’s a common tactic in sales in general, giving away little trinkets to get a sale).

          So if someone gives you a pill that is supposed to heal you, you know that they want the pill to work. So a social quid-pro-quo is to report that you are better and the subconscious desire to offer the quid, will lead people to bias their self-assessment.

      • Erol Can Akbaba says:

        I bookmark many SSC posts for being excellent, this was the first comment I bookmarked in an SSC post.

        Thanks for the two hours spent on it.

      • R.E. says:

        I would also like to add regarding your point 1, Feyman’s example of the rat labyrinth experiments in his cargo cult science essay. How you need to make sure the rats choose the third door on the left because they have been trained to do so, not because they can tell from ambient clues where they are in the labyrinth. Basically, the importance of making sure that you are measuring what you think you are measuring.

        Also, and I realize that is kind of unfair, but comparing to the best precision experiments in physics, psychology just seems like kids playing around. To detect gravitational waves, LIGO had to pump the laser arms to a world-class vacuum because air molecules bouncing off mirrors weighing several tons mounted to an advanced suspension system is too much noise in their system. We have undergraduates growing carbon nanotubes for their theses. Meanwhile in psychology, it seems like sending out an unvalidated questionnaire on the internet (no sampling bias there!) counts as a thesis project. Again, I realize this isn’t really picking on someone your own size, but still.

    • Gordon says:

      I’m a fan of the Lindy effect having first read about it in Taleb’s Antifragile.

      The longer an idea or technology has been around, the more confidence we can have that it will continue.

      Is it fair to say academic physics has been around a lot longer than academic psychology? If so it follows that the vast majority of the physics we know isn’t going to be disproved anytime soon (the new theories aren’t as popular as new psychology theories to the media – so we don’t hear about those) so in comparison to other sciences the average age of an idea from psychology tends to be much younger and thus its likelihood of being disproved much higher.

    • TomFL says:

      I think many people may go through similar stages that I have.

      1. Wondering how the world works
      2. Learning science
      3. Worshipping at the altar of science
      4. Working in science for a long period
      5. Creeping doubts on the integrity of specific science disciplines
      6. Disgust with media/activists successfully using the cloak of science for agendas
      7. Feeling sorry for people in stage 3.

      • Aapje says:

        Indeed. Me in the past:

        “Yay, a scientific study, lets see what this teaches me”

        Me now:

        “Oh dear, a scientific study, lets see if I can spot some overt errors.”

    • Deiseach says:

      Is there anything in academic psychology which we can have confidence won’t be debunked?

      Debunking studies 🙂

      • Aapje says:

        Some debunking studies have been debunked.

        • Deiseach says:

          Which just shows that debunking studies, whether original studies or the debunking studies which debunked those studies, will continue not to be debunked

          Who debunks the debunkers? 🙂

    • Gravitas Shortfall says:

      Strict behaviorist experiments?

  10. I think the influence of ideology is still real, even if the influence of unconscious on the body is not.

    World War II and the Cold War provided powerful examples of the effect of propaganda (and now we have ISIS). Individuals are soaked in a culture of grievance, paranoia, and anger than they are more likely to embrace extreme measures. This isn’t so much the power of the unconscious so much as the power of emotion and the power of perception. But perhaps baby boomer researchers overgeneralized the effect of propaganda, not understanding that it is limited to mostly conscious persuasion.

    Similarly liberals have been warning for years that the speech of right-wingers has a subtext for a deeply felt hateful ideology. And if wasn’t clear before that they were right, it is certainly clear now that we have Trump. One could say that the theory of dog-whistling has predictive power. But how subconscious can ideological messaging be and still work? And with Trump supporters drinking themselves to death, its hard to say the mind is totally separate from the health of the body.

    • AspiringRationalist says:

      One could say that the theory of dog-whistling has predictive power. But how subconscious can ideological messaging be and still work?

      Dog whistle rhetoric isn’t meant to be subconscious. It’s saying things that a certain sort of person (generally those who agree with the speaker) will understand consciously and that other people simple won’t notice, consciously or otherwise.

      • Dog whistling or not, I meant to imply ideological messaging could be partly subconscious and still work. People argue over the ideological meaning of things, which means that there are at least some cases that are ambiguous. It makes sense that those ambiguous cases are not all or nothing, that the ideology partially works depending on how overt it is.

        What is obvious to one person is not obvious to another. Here are clueless Republican politicians talking about black issues poorly:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C45uIYs6bvE
        Does this count as a racist ideology? Or just ignorance about race? It seems clear to me that the framing of black people in these comments has some effect, even when its not completely overt.

        Here’s Tropes vs. Women, which has been the subject of many an Internet flamewar:
        https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=tropes+vs+women+in+video+games
        Does the fact that people disagree indicate that these are ambiguous cases? Or does it merely indicate some people understand ideology and others do not?

        But for Slavoj Zizek, the movie Kung Fu Panda is quite obvious in its militaristic cynical ideological messaging:
        http://www.vulture.com/2008/09/what_did_slavoj_zizek_think_of.html
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MVOKesg4wc#t=4m26s
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCD3hg6OEQw
        This seems like a reductio ad absurdum, but I don’t think it would be absurd to say GI Joe has some messaging about what it means to be an American. If I think about the ideology of all movies, I see a continuum. Where would one draw the line?

      • Mary says:

        That’s the theory of dog whistling. I’ve never seen much evidence for the practice, since there are lots of accusations that show that the other people “notice” it just fine — with notice in quotes because they often see figments of their own imagination in most paranoiac fashion.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Mary, if dog whistling works you’ll rarely see it. If you’re in the targeted group, you understand the message just fine. If you’re not, you don’t. Only if you happen to understand the message and realize that others won’t will you recognize it as a dog whistle.

        The technique doesn’t rely on anything in Scott’s post, though; it merely relies on there being multiple groups with different background knowledge and/or jargon.

    • Anonymous says:

      Here’s some actual examples of the influence of ideology and propaganda – progressives deny racial differences so when one group lags behind (obviously due to IQ and lower impulse control) – they ascribe it to a giant racist conspiracy. That free-floating animus is then translated into riots and murders when, predictably, the lower IQ, more violently impulsive group gets themselves killed by acting violently and stupidly impulsive when dealing with the police.

      Then progressives double down and the message goes out to police – “don’t work too hard, just let blacks do whatever they want because if you get into a confrontation you either wind up dead or a pariah” – result – murder rate in cities goes up more than 15% in a year.

      All because they’re worried that the black voter turnout will be lower for Hillary than it was for Obama. Meanwhile, the “culture of hate” that Trump supposedly embodies produces Pepe memes and mockery but that’s the real problem. Real people dead, neighborhoods abandoned, lives ruined vs progs getting humiliated by people actually opposing them. Quite a comparison.

    • TPC says:

      Your comment is not exactly an argument that brainwashing is ineffective.

      “Cults have high turnover, so brainwashing is ineffective” is not a great argument in the first place though. Massive shifts in social norms in extremely short time windows (the situation we have now) would have to then be posited as logical outcomes of, say, technology or something.

      • Guy says:

        If you change how people interact, yo7 shift the norms of the interaction. This seems pretty self-evident to me; compare usenet to a typical blog to twitter.

        (To be clear, I think that the norms of any particular public medium of discourse are determined by semi-random choices on the part of the initial adopters, which may then filter back to other media used by the same people)

    • Julie K says:

      Does ISIS propaganda really transform a peaceful person into a violent extremist? Or is it that if you expose a large group of people to ISIS propaganda, a small percentage of them – who already had a certain inclination towards violence – will be inspired to act?

      • Ninmesara says:

        I believe the latter, even thogh I have no data to back me up.

      • From what I can gather, ISIS converts don’t have a history of violence. They were pretty much normal people, and I’ve come to believe that normal = suggestible.

      • I am hypothesizing the opposite actually. My model for an ISIS convert is someone who is some sense pre-radicalized. Perhaps they are really into Islam and then decide to get into violent Islam. Or perhaps they are really into violence and then decide to get into violent Islam. Most people are not the least bit receptive to ISIS’s message. But whoever these pre-radicalized people are, they were perhaps consuming media that didn’t strike us as immediately extremist as ISIS propaganda does. To me, this would seem to indicate the existence of some subtle propaganda.

      • Aapje says:

        There is evidence that the ISIS recruits are disproportionately criminal and generally motivated more by a dissatisfaction with their pre-ISIS lives, rather than simply getting ‘turned’ by the ideology:

        http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/isis-criminals-converts/426822/

        In general, you also see that every society has a group of people that chooses a path of senseless violence, regardless of the ideology. In Western societies, that is often hooliganism, but if there are (sub)culturally sanctioned ways to do so, those often get chosen.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          The book “Remnants of War” has a fascinating re-interpretation of the Balkans Wars of the 1990s. Rather than reflecting widespread fanatical ethnic hatreds, the author suggests that draft dodging was so common in Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s that politicians, unable to raise conventional armies, wound up making deals with pre-existing gangs of the minority of guys who really like violence, such as prison gangs and soccer hooligans, to do the fighting for the nascent states, while the mass of young men stayed home. The gangs could keep whatever they stole as long as they terrified the other side.

          ISIS seems to have a strategy of recruiting the worst guys who are Sunni Muslims from anywhere in the world.

          In general, 21st Century states have a hard time fielding old fashioned giant armies for old fashioned battles on open fields. The weapons are too lethal and guys have a better idea from the media of how horrible war is. I’m trying to think of the last old-fashioned battles in open terrain between well-matched large armies, like the impressive fights in the Sinai in 1973. Maybe Eritrea vs. Ethiopia a decade or two ago? Eritrean nationalism was interestingly old-fashioned. But now Eritrea is bleeding young draft-dodgers because who wants to do that anymore?

          Nobody wants to engage anymore in a fair fight like Gettysburg, so the 21st century strategy is to recruit bullies to inflict atrocities upon civilians who can’t fight back.

        • The article say that jihadists are disproportionately criminal, but that’s still 24% of jihadists with criminal backgrounds, leaving the remaining 76% to be explained.

          As for ancient hatreds, I recommend Theodore Sturgeon’s story “Mr. Costello, Hero”, based on the premise that sociopaths create divisions, rather than real conflicts boiling up spontaneously.

          I recommend tracking down a print copy– the audio version which is available online is substantially different.

          • Agronomous says:

            Well, if “criminal background” means “convicted criminal”, then 24% may be a significant underestimate. For a crime with only a 10% chance of getting caught, you might find only [insert math here] 27% of those who’ve committed the crime 3 times have been caught; a smaller proportion will have been tried, and (except in Japan) an even smaller one convicted. This is also going to depend on how good law enforcement is in the subject’s country, how resistant to bribery the judicial system is, and how politically connected the subject and any criminal organization he may be affiliated with are.

            You could say that the explanation for most of the remaining 76% is “competent, lucky, or connected.”

            Second, and more important: Yes! “Mr. Costello, Hero” is an excellent story! I just re-read it within the last year. If you’re still looking for it, the Sturgeon collection A Touch of Strange is available on various bookselling sites. (My copy is from my late great-uncle’s collection of 1950s and 1960s scifi paperbacks.)

            It kind of blew my mind to find out that they made a radio version of it—sixty years ago!

    • Julie K says:

      Similarly liberals have been warning for years that the speech of right-wingers has a subtext for a deeply felt hateful ideology. And if wasn’t clear before that they were right, it is certainly clear now that we have Trump.

      You seem to be assuming that all the commenters here share your political views. What is “clear” to you is not necessarily clear to everyone.

    • S_J says:

      Similarly liberals have been warning for years that the speech of right-wingers has a subtext for a deeply felt hateful ideology.

      I’m told that Barry Goldwater was described as a Nazi.

      Until Nixon ran, then Goldwater was an esteemed elder statesman, compare the hateful and tricky Nixon.

      Nixon suddenly lost his hateful aura when Reagan ran for President. He was still Tricky Dick, but a politician who knew how to get things done.

      Again, these are things I’m told.

      All I know is that G.H.W. Bush was described as evil. But he then became a fond memory of the Good Old Republicans when Dole ran against Clinton’s re-election.

      And G.W. Bush was a stupid-chimp-or-evil-genius. Until McCain ran for President, and Bush was a smart-and-respectable politician.

      McCain was called evil and senile, until Romney ran for President. Then he became a fond memory of the Good Old Days.

      Romney was a racist evil jerk who gave his employees cancer–or something–until the current election season.

      Until this past year, when various commentators mention Romney as example of what a Good Republican should be.

      So, are you saying that many years of calling Republicans hateful has finally turned them into hateful people?

      Or are you saying that the boy cried “Wolf!” a few too many times, and people don’t believe him when an actual wolf shows up?

      • qwints says:

        I really don’t remember liberals saying anything good about W during the 2008 campaign – if anything, I remember McCain being praised in 2004 them being vilified in 2008 (the Daily Show’s treatment of McCain over that time period is worthy of study). Other than that, very accurate.

      • Garrett says:

        You forgot to mention racist. They’re all racist, don’tcha know?

      • Murphy says:

        And G.W. Bush was a stupid-chimp-or-evil-genius. Until McCain ran for President, and Bush was a smart-and-respectable politician.

        ok, that never happened. People still laugh at G.W.Bush as an idiot.

        you forgot Palin, who possibly played a non-trivial part in McCain’s loss. She was viewed as nutty then and continues to be viewed as nutty.

        I think you’re incorrect. People maintain their negative views of the politicians but the politicians become less threatening once they retire or die.

        • onyomi says:

          The most egregious example is the recent attempt to claim that they respected Romney in 2012.

          • Gravitas Shortfall says:

            Few liberals respected Romney, but we were relieved that Republicans had nominated a non-crazy person. Romney just SEEMS reasonable compared to Trump.

      • Julie K says:

        Don’t forget that Trump is Voldemort.

      • OTOH, it was only the Left who complained that Romney was too extremist. Now it’s large parts of the Right who are complaining that Trump is too extremist.

      • The Nybbler says:

        I don’t know if Goldwater was called a Nazi. He was said to be a nutcase who would start WWIII (sound familiar?), and thus possibly became the first politician defeated by what we’d now call a meme (“Daisy, Daisy”).

      • I am neither saying Democrats turned Republicans into hateful people nor that they have been crying wolf.

        I’m saying that Democrats saw Trump coming a long way off – and how did they know that when Republicans seemed flabbergasted?

        Democrats knew someone like Trump – more overt in his racist hateful ideology* – was coming along because they were able to observe the subtle signs of racist hateful ideology in his predecessors. This would seem to provide indirect evidence that such subtle signs exist.

        * Okay let’s call it “dramatically politically incorrect” for those who don’t think of Trump as a racist hateful person. Trump is more overtly dramatic in a way that sends liberals into unprecedented fits.

        • The Nybbler says:

          When you’ve been pointing at every animal that comes along and yelling “wolf”, it’s not really very credible to believe that you “knew” the wolf was coming along just because when it does, you point to it and yell “wolf”.

          This is akin to the quip about the economist who predicted 10 of the last 3 recessions.

          • The difference between what liberals have been doing the last several elections and what they have been doing for this election is very clear to me. And I think its very clear to other liberals, that the Republican part has been executing a steady march in the direction that we have warned about. And I thought it would be clear to non-liberals that Trump is very different from his predecessors and closer to the reality of the monster that liberals have been warning about. But apparently to the outside it just looks like crying wolf. Clearly I cannot take any of this for granted with this audience. It was supposed to be an easy example.

            The whole thing is incidental to my point. Could someone have seen fascism in Germany coming? Could someone seen Wahhabism coming? Could someone have seen Communism coming? What does dangerous ideology look like before it is here? I presume that ideology starts out subtle, so subtle that people disagree about whether or not it even counts as ideology. But clearly over time it can have an effect that no one will dispute. The existence of subtle ideology runs contrary to the idea that nothing subconscious matters.

          • Someone who cries wolf several times and gets it wrong until the real wolf show up has a better grasp of reality than someone who says there are no wolves in the region.

          • Randy M says:

            Isomorphic to your comment: Someone who says Jews are greedy and gets it right once, better understands reality than someone who says Jews are no greedier than gentiles.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz
            Well, that depends on what you mean by “grasp of reality”. I’m not sure that mere coincident agreement with one aspect of reality is really a “grasp of reality”. That is, if you see a wolf because you always see a wolf, not because you are correctly perceiving a wolf, does it matter to your grasp of reality that the wolf is there this time? I guess that’s a metaphysical question.

          • “And I thought it would be clear to non-liberals that Trump is very different from his predecessors and closer to the reality of the monster that liberals have been warning about.”

            Liberals haven’t been saying “Goldwater and Reagan and Bush and Romney are not racist warmongers, but eventually the Republican party is going to nominate someone who is.” If they had, they might be able to claim to be perceptive. They have been claiming that each Republican candidate has a set of bad characteristics, some of which Trump arguably has. Since, as you say, he is very different from his predecessors, that suggests that they did not have those characteristics, hence that the liberals who claimed they did were wrong.

            I don’t see how you can have it both ways, claiming both that Trump is very different from his predecessors and that his predecessors were really the same as Trump.

          • Maware says:

            Liberals haven’t predicted him, they just have a narrative and Trump fits it better than any other candidate. The reasons are complex, and have a lot to do with the divide between elite and rank and file republicans, the weakening of the religious right as the third leg of the GOP stool, the lack of Republican response to the new information economy, and more. It has very little to do with the liberal idea of latent republican fascism or what have you.

          • Kind of Anonymous says:

            @Jeffrey:

            What does dangerous ideology look like before it is here?

            If the allegation is that Republicans are leaning towards an overtly racist ideology, we can just look back at the majority of American history. We know what this looks like: explicit calls for segregation, disenfranchisement, and deportation of American citizens based on race. So far we’re only seeing one out of three and it’s not coming from Republicans.

          • Patrick says:

            I didn’t predict Trump per se, but I predicted Michelle Bachmann.

            It was trivially easy. Here’s my reasoning in it’s entirety.

            “Hmm. Right now it’s the 90s and a Rush Limbaugh is saying some really dumb stuff. He’s got this sly way of saying things he can later argue weren’t technically lies, even though his typical listener gleaned false information from them. Younger Republicans (in political terms younger is 20s and 30s) who are moving up the ranks of the Republican Party are effectively being raised on this. This is what they’re going to see as normal. And he’s not the only one doing this- there are whole cottage industries of it. I bet we’ll be seeing Republicans in a decade or so who repeat the false I go version of right wing info-tainment talking points, without understanding that the false version is for the rubes, and you’re supposed to pivot to the technical version when liberals can hear you.”

            And right on time we got “separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution.” The version for the rubes is that the Constitution doesn’t prohibit Christianization of government; the version for use in public is to claim that liberals are so dumb they think the literal words “separation of church and state” are in the Constitution. Bachman knew the rube version and didn’t know to pivot. This was the first and most public pwning Bachman received, and it happened right on time and exactly by the predicted mechanism.

          • “And right on time we got “separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution.” The version for the rubes is that the Constitution doesn’t prohibit Christianization of government; the version for use in public is to claim that liberals are so dumb they think the literal words “separation of church and state” are in the Constitution. ”

            The relevant wording:

            “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”

            Established religions were a familiar thing at the time, since England had one as had some of the colonies. Having a tablet with the ten commandments on it in a courthouse or letting someone set up a cross in a public place is well short of what establishment meant and neither act prohibits the free exercise of religion.

            Separation of church and state, as currently interpreted by the courts, goes well beyond what is actually in the Constitution.

      • Sly says:

        Most of this is probably objectively false revisionist history (at least the ones that I can remember).

        W was hated when McCain ran, and a big part of why he lost of course. Palin was the one who was more derided, and McCain got a lot of flak for going against his previous positions and style. Many liberals would say things like, “I actually liked McCain *before* he changed his stances to cater to the right wing”. This is consistent.

        Romney’s main critiques were not racism, but being a ultra rich elite, and again during these time McCain and W were still not liked by liberals.

        In general your narrative does not make much sense. Liberals still don’t actually like anyone you mentioned, they just point out that Trump is more extreme than the Romneys of the past (a claim almost trivial in it’s obvious truth).

    • TomFL says:

      Curious that you bring up both the reality of ISIS propaganda and then comment on the alleged Trump supporters hateful ideology whose primary evidence is that they support restricting immigration of those potentially under the influence of ISIS propaganda. Cause. Effect. The anti dog whistle is the refusal to say the words Islamic extremist which reflects some bizarre belief that words equal reality.

    • I did assume everyone was against Trump! If that’s not to your liking, let’s assume that we are worried about Progressivist anti-Trump propaganda. It doesn’t matter.

      Most people have some model of effectiveness of extremist propaganda. My model reveals something interesting. Propaganda can’t go from zero to full Stalin, because the public will reject it. Extremist propaganda must build up support gradually, mixing only a subtle bit of extremism in otherwise ordinary political speech. Once that content absorbed, it can be pushed further and further. Eventually there is a group of people fully radicalized, ready to take actions that other uninfluenced individuals would never consider.

      Let’s suppose it is true that extremist ideology proceeds in a sequence of small steps. This raises the question of what is the minimal unit of ideological extremism, where that ideological extremism is still effective at moving its audience. Commenters on the left and right will disagree on what constitutes a step towards ideological extremism, but this actually goes to my point. Only over a large passage of time or in its most obvious form will everyone agree on what constitutes extremism. Ideological extremism must then be able to exist at the limits of human perception, only clearly perceptible after accumulation. That would then mean there is some real notion of subconscious ideological messaging. Everyone agrees there is such a thing as obvious ideological messaging, but what how subtle can it be and still work?

    • S_J says:

      Now I feel like I need to retract my original response to this paragraph.

      Similarly liberals have been warning for years that the speech of right-wingers has a subtext for a deeply felt hateful ideology. And if wasn’t clear before that they were right, it is certainly clear now…

      However, my reason for doing so is that the above statement has the same epistemic status as the statement

      Conservatives have been warning for years that the speech/actions of left-wingers in support of government welfare has the effect of creating a permanent underclass of poor-and-on-welfare who will always vote for one political party. It ought to be clear now…

      In short, both statements
      (A) Can be supported in part, and denied in part, by the major sides of the political spectrum.
      (B) Appear to act as tribal shibboleths, in which members of one tribe defend their actions to each other while ascribing evil intent to the other tribe.

      I will, however, still ask: are you asserting that the Voodoo Psychology method of continually calling right-wingers hateful has turned them into a hateful group?

      Or are you saying that there is some other force at work?

  11. Ninmesara says:

    Is there any literature that tries to explain the existence of cognitive biases? Something in the spirit of Gwern’s essay in which he argues that the Sunken Cost fallacy isn’t usually a problem in real life (it is much more of a problem in simplified made up situations).

    I can’t include the link because this post has been deleting all my comments that include links. I have self reported this comment to make Scott aware of these technical issues.

    • Adam says:

      Not a problem in real life? It seems like a major contributor to people staying in failed and abusive marriages, people refusing to change careers even as their industry vanishes, countries engaged in war refusing to pull out years and sometimes decades after it is obvious they aren’t going to achieve what they wanted to.

      • Ninmesara says:

        Sometimes you refuse to pull out and you win. Sometimes you refuse to pull out and you lose (gwern mentions this). Sometimes you have to quit, sometimes you have to keep going. The choice is never obvious except in hindsight.

        Sometimes failed marriages start working again. Again, sometimes they don’t. Are you sure Sunken Costs are the main factor that keeps people from divorcing? Why not money problems (single breadwinner) or the fear of public shaming? Or sepaking of abusive marriages, is Stockholm syndrome caused by the Sunken Cost fallacy? The answers might be yes to all these questions, but I think that’s something you have to prove before blaming sunken costs.

        • “Sometimes you refuse to pull out and you win. Sometimes you refuse to pull out and you lose (gwern mentions this). Sometimes you have to quit, sometimes you have to keep going. The choice is never obvious except in hindsight.”

          This is my criticism of Growth Mindset. I can believe that it gets you better outcomes if all you’re testing for is “how well does the subject do X task?” but in real life the fact that I have zero aptitude at painting means that despite my ability to improve I should try to find a career doing something else. Checking out and not putting in any work can be rational.

          Same thing with “depressive realism.” The “realism” part is just a bias towards pessimism and hopelessness which makes you more likely to correctly recognize that the situation is hopeless, but less likely to recognize when it isn’t hopeless. OF COURSE it’ll look like “realism” when you only test one side of it.

          (Both of the above make me wonder how much of stuff like CBT only works when your negative beliefs about reality are, in fact, wrong. I believe Scott’s written about this before.)

          • Deiseach says:

            how much of stuff like CBT only works when your negative beliefs about reality are, in fact, wrong

            I would say quite an amount. The point is that severe depression makes you engage in a lot of negative habits and one of those is exaggerating the bad points of a situation and forgetting or ignoring the good points.

            So having a second person to help you go through things and show you how “This is your subjective interpretation but the objective facts are different” does help.

            Unless the objective facts do show that the situation is bad and there’s not much hope of change or the change is as bad as staying in the same situation, then CBT can do little or nothing for you.

        • Adam says:

          It doesn’t have to always be the cause of these things to sometimes be the cause of these things.

      • Mary says:

        One notes that people who did not succumb to the Sunken Cost Fallacy were probably much more likely to die. People are prone enough to refrain from necessary things that a fallacy that keeps ’em moving will help them stay alive.

        • Adam says:

          Sure, that’s the whole point of cognitive biases. They’re useful heuristics that work most of the time, at least for instrumental if not epistemic values of “work.”

        • Ghatanathoah says:

          I can definitely attest to using the Sunk Cost Fallacy to motivate myself. I have sometimes spurred myself to finish doing something by reminding myself how much time I have already invested in it.

    • alaska3636 says:

      I have been listening to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It always amuses me when his experiments elicit some hitherto unknown “truth” about humans. It never seems to occur to him that people answering polls, or participating in lab experiments were simply participating in polls and labs experiments and not, in fact, expressing their component of the statistical truth of the human experience.

      • Ninmesara says:

        So your take is that many biases are appropriate except in the tightly controled conditions of a lab experiment, right?

        • alaska3636 says:

          As people above have pointed out, it is likely that “cognitive biases” are simply heuristics that manifest odd outcomes in certain situations like the “tightly controlled conditions of a lab experiment”.

          Do people really think that social experiments can be subject to “tightly controlled conditions”? Isn’t that just an historicist view of the past actions (i.e. pattern matching without any underlying (predictive) theory)?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The whole point of the field of heuristics and biases is that heuristics exist because they are useful and systematic biases are downsides that are worth it on average. Gigerenzer has an ongoing feud with Kahneman in which Gigerenzer emphasizes the heuristics and Kahneman emphasizes the biases and they utterly fail to exhibit any disagreement.

      (Here’s your link to Gwern’s essay.)

      • Ninmesara says:

        Is there any good external comparison between both viewpoints, or should I read both authors and compare them myself?

    • Jiro says:

      Sunk cost link (I don’t know if this is by Gwern, but it does try to debunk the sunk cost fallacy):
      http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2012/08/proxy-measures-sunk-costs-and.html

    • Richard says:

      My consulting gig consists largely of coming in and mercilessly pulling the plug on doomed projects that have sunk tens of millions of USD beyond where they should have been terminated.

      Convincing me that the sunk cost fallacy does not exist pretty much implies convincing me that my paycheque does not exist.

      (A common problem is a project starting out with a brilliant new idea/technology and then making such a slow job of it that Google or someone is providing a better service for free long before the project is done.)

      • Ninmesara says:

        This reminds me of Gwern’s example of the game of Go. Are you sure people in charge of those projects realize they are doomed? Maybe they don’t pull the plug because they think they still have a good chance to make it.

        • Randy M says:

          Sunk cost isn’t about persevering when you believe you have no chance. It is about persevering when you falsely believe to have a chance because motivated reasoning has clouded your judgement to avoid admitting to past mistakes.
          Or am I wrong?

          • Sunk cost is “I’ve already invested so much into this project so I might as well keep on investing more.”

            Anyone who sits through a bad movie is exhibiting sunk cost fallacy. Anyone who shovels food into his mouth past satiation because, by golly, he spent $20 on this damn meal, is exhibiting sunk cost fallacy.

            I think most people do not have much sunk cost fallacy when it comes to direct monetary outlays.

            Now as for the mechanism? Well, Wiki…

            Their hypothesis was confirmed: after making a $2.00 commitment, people became more confident their bet would pay off.

            I am not sure how to internalize this, except as a probability error, rather than a rational error.

      • Neanderthal From Mordor says:

        What part is sunken costs fallacy and what part is people defending their turf or refusing to take responsibility for a failure?

      • Marcel Müller says:

        Nope, convincing you that your paycheck would not have existed in the ancestral environment is quite sufficient and you do a large part of the convincing yourself (Google did not exist).

        Also you might not actually provide customers with value but just convince them that you do so or provide signaling or PR value (not claiming this).

    • I have an old article that tries to explain apparently irrational behavior on evolutionary grounds. I’m not sure if that fits what you are looking for.

    • Gigerenzers “fast and frugal” approach is the main altetnative to the entirely negative view of biases. It’s little known in the less wrong sphere, which therefore has biases of its own.

    • Salem says:

      Another word for the Sunk Cost Fallacy is the Sunk Cost Precomittment Mechanism.

      • Jiro says:

        That can’t be true, because if it was, sunk costs might be rational, and we all know that sunk costs are a fallacy.

        (More than one kind of “irrationality” can be explained as precommitment. My usual example is that people who go to stores with cheaper prices even if they cost more in gas to reach have precommitted to buying at stores with lower prices, which works to get stores to lower prices only if the precommitment is real.)

    • LPSP says:

      I’m not sure what’s special to cognitive biases that needs explaining. Most animals have extremely limited consciousnesses and so literally run off cognitive bias. Borderline-reflexing innate thought patterns trigger quickly in response to a generalised stimulus, all of which is shaped by the environment in which the individual’s ancestor survived in long enough to reproduce. Humans are still riddled with them, sometimes as vestigials with varying degrees of positive and negative repercussion, othertimes as facets of the majority of our race that would’ve been seen as entirely positive not too long ago.

      Sunk-cost is essentially the root cause of the “never give up hope!” theme you see in popular movies. Many people alive today’s ancestors only survived and bred because of an in-built, a-rational biological imperative to perservere on their current course of action. Now it may or may not prove problematic in navigating complex, tricky and rapidly-changing environments where no one behaviour, routine or strategy is monodominant or even useful for long. You can go through all the stock cog biases as such.

  12. LCF says:

    If you need to shut down a Freudian, tell of how they failed to manage autism.
    Autism is a complex behaviour, with genetic causes. When they started trying to treat it, they decided the child was emotionally stunted because the mother did not love it enough, and worked around that assumption.
    Let’s disregard all loving mothers of autist children and distant mothers of otherwise regular children. We’re not doing Science, we’re busy doing dogm- er, psychanalysis.

    • I wonder if the aftermath of accusations like this are what created the demand for Autism Speaks.

    • Vaniver says:

      So, my non-expert impression is that the Freudians are actually getting a worse rap than they deserve, here. There were actual systematic differences between parents of autistic children and parents of non-autistic children. (This is what you would expect if it’s genetic in normal ways, where someone who is on the spectrum or close to it is more likely to have an autistic child.) Parent groups formed, in part because they decided that they didn’t like being blamed, and shifted the focus of treatment.

      I personally expect that genetic factors are more likely to affect development than parenting-related factors, because that’s true across the board, but stuff about how people relate to other people is one of the things where we do expect parenting to make a difference. Whether or not a parent is “loving” is not useful as a descriptor until it’s broken down into a lot of component parts; you could imagine a case where the parents behave identically except parents of autistic children spend less time holding eye contact with their babies, and this has an effect.

  13. MawBTS says:

    But the best studies now suggest that the placebo effect is probably very weak and limited to controlling pain. The vaunted power of mind over body, of belief over reality, doesn’t look nearly as impressive as we thought.

    Isn’t the placebo effect now thought to mostly be regression to the mean?

    Most illnesses have periods where you feel worse and feel better. Since people are likely to take medicine when they feel worse than usual, you’d expect them to feel better after taking medicine even if it has zero effectiveness.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      A lot of people believe that the placebo effect is the reason for the placebo arm, but they are wrong. The effect in the placebo arm is regression to the mean, but that is not the placebo effect. Just because someone called it the placebo effect doesn’t make it so. Correcting their error tells you nothing about the actual placebo effect, which can only be measured by comparing no treatment to placebo treatment.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes; the claim is that the placebo effect is mostly just regression to the mean, except in pain where it seems to be a separate thing.

  14. alaska3636 says:

    “What if all of that was wrong? What if people mostly make decisions based on reasonable factors, succeed or fail based on things like ability or random luck, and social assumptions are relatively powerless beyond a common sense level? Wouldn’t that be great?”

    This is the basic premise of Mises’ praxeology. He does not downplay the importance of psychology in the human experience (what he referred to as thymology); rather, psychology determines values and actions determine success or failure (profit and loss) in pursuit of those values.

    One problem people face with therapy is that self-awareness has a component of self-acceptance: if you do not know who you are, how do you choose which things to strive for? For example: people who seek money only to be left feeling hollow and other cliches human experiences apply.

    In my opinion, people succeed in life based on comparative advantage and luck. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses goes a long way towards making decisions that will create an environment of personal ease. Luck is the stochastic variable that gives high-achievers the hard time: how can that guy be my boss when I’m so much smarter/more capable/etc.

    Like I have said before, I would be very interested in what you (Scott) make of the epistemology of Ludwig von Mises.

  15. Garrett says:

    With regards to the implicit association tests, is it possible that we might be measuring something literally involving color? I’ve found that in typical photographs, light-skinned people seem to have a similar brightness/contrast level to the background whereas darker-skinned people are much darker. This means that the dynamic range available for skin textures is lower for darker-skinned people than lighter-skinned people. It would then be harder to see the fine facial muscle movements which we read for emotion and thus less automatically trustworthy or imbuing a sense of apprehension.
    So instead of measuring racism you’re measuring how easily somebody is able to read your body language and emotional state.

    • Anonymous says:

      Ancestry cues in facial morphology give clues as to the trustworthiness of the person owning the face.

      Beginning with the assumption that it doesn’t is just one of the problems with implicit association tests.

    • bistromath says:

      It could also be because photographs were never designed for people with dark skin, making them look much worse in a variety of ways.

      http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/04/16/303721251/light-and-dark-the-racial-biases-that-remain-in-photography

      • Garrett says:

        I am aware of that. I’m also not certain it matters as much once you start getting into broader nature photography.

        However, if I take a step back and look at my surroundings on a day-to-day basis, there aren’t many things which I find have as low contrast as dark-skinned people. Asphalt is one, but we don’t tend to view people, especially their faces, against a background of asphalt. In my area, things like tree trunks are brighter. So are telephone poles, most house siding, grass, and sky. Cars are about 50/50. Shadows may be darker. That is, dark-skinned people are generally darker/lower contrast than most other things in my field of vision at a comparable height.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Probably not; there are a bunch of different IATs, not all of which involve race, and they all seem to work the same way (for example, last night I was at the Exploratorium, and they have a women/cooperation vs. male/competition IAT that seems to “work”)

      • Vaniver says:

        In order to test this hypothesis specifically, I think you would want something like a cat/dog IAT, where you can also vary coat color significantly (either during the test or between subjects) to see if color contrast is part of the effect.

  16. Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

    My reaction to this SSC essay is informed by two circumstances that perhaps many SSC readers share:

    • A pledge to my spouse to seek out, never the weak, dubious, self-serving, short-sighted elements of a person or community, but rather the elements that are strongest, most nearly certain, most universal, and most far-sighted.

    • Sustained discourse with people close to me, who are grappling with extraordinarily difficult medical conditions and/or extraordinarily difficult medical training residencies (to respect individual privacy, details are not given).

    Perhaps the thinking of many SSC readers is informed by similar circumstances … if not, as lives goes on, it likely will be.

    In the light of these illuminating practices and experiences, it appears (to me) that the crucially universal elements of psychotherapy in general, and Freudian psychotherapy in particular, are presented rather clearly in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A piece of advice” (1960), and are encapsulated accurately by the USMC maxim “Fake it ’till you feel it”.

    — An Unsong Interpolation —

    Here is an Unsong-relevant Isaac Bashevis Singer interview:

    Grace Farrell Lee  “Do you really believe in demons?”

    Isaac Bashevis Singer  “I believe in them. I am even afraid of them. When my wife goes out of town to visit a relative and I am alone in the apartment, I leave the light burning because 1 am afraid of the demons.”

    “If you are afraid of something, then you must believe in it.”

    “Furthermore, it is my deepest conviction that all demons speak Yiddish and all imps speak Hebrew.”

    Grace Farrell Lee  “Who speaks Aramaic?”

    Isaac Bashevis Singer  “Aha! The angels. It is written so in the … in the Talmud.”

    Since there are no accidents, there can be no doubt of the conclusions that we are destined to infer from Singer’s remarks, namely: (1) the language of Freudian psychotherapy is “Yiddish”; (2) the language of behavioral psychotherapy is “Hebrew”, and (3) the language of cognitive parcellation (as grounded in the neuroanatomic, neurofunctional, and neurophysiologic literature) is the “Aramaic” language of the angels … whose healing capacities we heretical humans are seeking first to understand (scientifically), and then to ursurp (medically, socially, and even morally).

    Needless to say, the 21st century’s healing journey is unlikely to be quick, simple, easy, orthodox, predictable, or safe. So let’s not be too insistent in deprecating, or hasty in discarding, the works of pioneers like Freud and Singer!  🙂

    • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

      PS  Everyone is allowed to smile at passé Freudian accounts of women’s sexuality, evidence-based psychiatry, and Hollywood movies. 🙂

      For the humbling reason that present-day psychiatric doctrines plausibly will appear to future generations as comparably risable. Ouch.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      David Cronenberg’s 2011 movie A Dangerous Analysis about Freud and Jung mostly seems to reach the conclusion at the end that Freudianism was basically A Jewish Thing.

      My historical impression of why the educated West went nuts over Freudianism from about 1900 to 1960 or 1970 is that by 1900 there were a huge number of brilliant younger Jews with modern educations, but they didn’t yet have enough Jewish genius role models to look back to. Since there had barely been any secular Jews before the Jewish Enlightenment in the later 18th Century, there was more demand by 1900 for secular-but-ethnically-Jewish geniuses than there was yet supply.

      There was Marx, sure, but what if you were a comfortable bourgeois and didn’t want to blow up the world?

      So Freud filled a market niche: the brilliant secular rabbi who subtly discombobulated the Gentiles, but who was also a conservative who wasn’t preaching To the Barricades like Marx had.

      The main problem was that Freudianism was kind of silly as a science. But by the standards of 20th Century ideologies, it wasn’t terribly destructive: Freudians used up time and money, but they didn’t, say, shoot large numbers of people like so many other 20th Century ideologues did.

      Eventually, however, the supply of historic Jewish geniuses for younger Jews to admire (e.g., Einstein, Feynman, Friedman, Chomsky, etc.) caught up to demand, so Freudianism was quietly dropped. We’re not encouraged to wonder too much about: “What was that all about anyway?” but were not required to believe in it anymore either.

    • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

      Steve Sailer asserts [citing Hollywood movies as evidence] “Freudianism was basically A Jewish Thing” [subsequent psychohistorical conspiracy theorizing redacted].

      With a view toward assessing the hypothesis that “Freudianism was basically A Jewish Thing”, SSC readers are invited to search PubMed for 21st century publications relating to three classes of cognitive theories:

      (1) “Reichian” theories:  one publication
      (2) “Nietzschean” theories:  fourteen publications
      (3) “Freudian” theories:  299 publications

      We see that what’s striking about Freudian psychology isn’t its Judaic eponymy, but rather that more than a century after its birth, it is still the subject of serious scientific inquiry.

      Reichian psychology, not so much! 🙂

      That Nietzschean ideas were discussed at all in the medical literature was surprising (to me) … and it turns out that these articles chiefly concern the ideas of the *right subculture to which H. Clinton has recently drawn the public’s attention.

      E.g., John Paley’s “Caring as a slave morality: Nietzschean themes in nursing ethics” (PMID:12230525, 2002) asserts

      Sceptical arguments about ‘caring’ can be divided into three categories. First, it is suggested that, while caring is no doubt an admirable thing in itself, it is just one ideal among others. Secondly, it is claimed that caring is not really a virtue at all, and that it should be regarded as more of a vice, because it promotes favouritism, injustice, and self-deception. Thirdly, there is a worry that caring is not politically realistic, and that its advocates underestimate the powerful organizational and social structures which conspire to subvert nursing.

      This paper outlines a fourth, and more radical, type of scepticism. [in which] the values associated with caring are the expression of a profound resentment, harboured by the slaves (weak, powerless, timorous) against the nobles (strong, powerful, self-confident).

      Caring represents an inversion, a sort of ‘fantasy revenge’, in which the nobles can be portrayed as ‘evil’, while the slaves portray their own weakness as ‘good’. Taking its cue from Nietzsche, the paper shows that the Genealogy narrative can be transposed into a modern health care context, with nurses as the ‘slaves’ and the medical profession as the ‘nobles’.

      SSC true-believers in nominative determinism will be thrilled by Francis L. Rapport’s response to Paley, “Nursing as a human science: a celebration” (Journal of Advanced Nursing, 2002)

      If nurses are to be more scientific it should be through their own unique discourse […] To this end, I would strongly recommend the expansion of the notion of science to include the psychological, anthropological, phenomenological and even the social science of the ‘science of nursing’. To become a science of rehabilitation and recovery maybe, but let it be one that is phenomenologically, socially, psychologically and analytically researched so that nurses can look to a future boundless in its capacity for scientific vision.

      More broadly, starting from Paley’s article, PubMed readily supplies hundreds of articles on evolving medical ideas and capacities relating to “caring”.

      This literature shows us why Trumpian ideologies are poorly received among STEM-workers in general, and among nurses in particular. It’s because the same ideas that the *right trumpets as fresh and heretical, were discussed decades ago in the medical literature, and have already been examined, extended, and substantially integrated into evolving STEM-culture and evolving STEM-practice! 🙂

      In light of the burgeoning literature of ‘caring’, and the advances in scientific, medical and moral understanding that this literature reflects, isn’t it true, that the great challenge that the *-right presently faces is not to ‘win’ any kind of election or public debate, but rather to catch up to accelerating advances in progressive thinking: ideas that have been discussed in the medical literature for several decades?

      From this perspective, isn’t the slogan “SJWs always lie” a dog-whistle for “You needn’t read the scarily progressive literature of medicine, or any other STEM-discipline … as a matter of fact, you needn’t even be aware that this STEM-literature exists.”?

      Conversely, for young *right-rejecting science-accepting STEM-professionals especially, isn’t the 21st century’s evolving, accelerating, broadening, deepening, STEM-driven progressivism going to be fun? 🙂

  17. I had the impression that biases tended to be more like shortcomings of heuristics rather than a product of the “unconscious.” But maybe I’m wrong.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think biases are as “unconscious” as eg Bargh’s priming or the name-letter effect, both of which are kind of mechanically produced by the brain as a byproduct of otherwise useful systems.

  18. Sam says:

    So what you’re saying is, many of the interesting but counterintuitive effects described by psychology have been later debunked? Sounds to me exactly like publication bias; outlier results with these surprising effects are the first to be published, and only after the claim is out there are the more typical null results publishable.

    Why would this happen to voodoo-like effects in psychology more than other fields? I can’t speak for all of these studies, but perhaps these studies are especially hard to truly blind, making it clear to participants at least in the experimental group what sort of results the researchers are expecting, and the group deciding either to oblige or not based on correlated factors like the affect of the experimenter. The ultimate result being a greater variance in the effect sizes measured, leading to lower p-values and more false positives.

  19. Jaskologist says:

    society’s hidden assumptions and bases are vital in shaping our future. What if all of that was wrong? What if people mostly make decisions based on reasonable factors, succeed or fail based on things like ability or random luck, and social assumptions are relatively powerless beyond a common sense level? Wouldn’t that be great?

    What if we’re not very influenced by our unconscious but we still don’t make decisions based on reasonable factors?

    • onyomi says:

      This seems to relate to some of the things we were discussing in this thread on hypnosis. Specifically, the idea that hypnosis is always a very quiescent, mentally hazy state entered into gradually may be completely wrong, at least with certain instances of what is commonly called “hypnosis.”

  20. onyomi says:

    How well does this gel with all the trendy Malcolm Gladwell-type stuff suggesting all kinds of important decisions and judgments get formed very rapidly at a mostly unconscious level? And the Nassim Taleb-type stuff praising the power of intuition?

    • hnau says:

      My, um, initial reaction to this post was “Everything that Malcolm Gladwell taught me was a lie!”

      On the other hand, I don’t think the arguments here apply to the claims that Blink makes for snap judgments. The example I remember is the tennis coach who watched so many serves that he knew when someone was going to double-fault. That seems more like real learning happening at an unconscious level, not just “positive thinking”– more like the cognitive equivalent of muscle memory. I don’t remember what Taleb said about intuition, but I imagine it’s similar.

      I guess one could make a distinction between unconscious beliefs (which seems to cover most of the examples in the post) and unconscious skills (which seems to cover most of what Gladwell and Taleb would claim for intuition).

      • onyomi says:

        “I guess one could make a distinction between unconscious beliefs (which seems to cover most of the examples in the post) and unconscious skills (which seems to cover most of what Gladwell and Taleb would claim for intuition).”

        That distinction might help since, in a sense, I feel like “beliefs” are almost inherently conscious. The subconscious, it seems to me, doesn’t have “beliefs” so much as learned patterns of behavior–and I include the prompting of certain modes of thought within “behavior.”

        The problem comes in, I imagine, when learned behaviors stop being adaptive, though they might once have been. That is, if it is possible to have a subconscious skill to recognize a good tennis serve before it’s hit, it might also be possible to develop the “skill” of unconsciously tensing up your jaw muscles whenever you hear unpleasant news (and before you know it you have TMJ).

  21. TomA says:

    All living things are creatures of habit. Non-genetic habits are predominantly formed during early development and typically exist below the level of conscious awareness. When they kick-in and manifest, others tend to appraise these behaviors as an inner nature. Looking for societal-level behavior patterns is tantamount to researching systemic social or cultural stimuli for a given time period and age cohort.

  22. ZorbaTHut says:

    Is it possible that some of these things used to work, but no longer do?

    I mean, I could teleport back in time a few decades and do a study on the acceptance of gay marriage, then come back to the present and do another study and be shocked that apparently my old study was wrong. But in reality it’s just that people are now more accepting of gay marriage.

    Maybe people are becoming less vulnerable to all these little brain hacks? Every time one gets discovered, it’s spread, people try to exploit it, and maybe the combination of knowledge and overexposure means that we quickly end up with – if you’ll excuse the term – memetic antibodies.

    • inpressor says:

      I was thinking something similar, and in reference to the recent spreview of PihKal-what if people really are the tip of an iceberg of complicated feelings about their mother, until an observer points this out to them? Then maybe there are still mysterious aspects to our modern psychologies, left to be discovered over the next years and then debunked once they’ve soaked into the culture.

    • Ninmesara says:

      This highlights the need to be extra careful in separating the universal characteristics of all humans and culture-specific phenomena. If a certain finding only applies to a cerrtain culture, psychologists should be clear about it and try to test for it.

    • Murphy says:

      I’m not so sure, social engineering tricks from decades ago continue to work. Cons from decades ago often continue to work. Propaganda techniques generations old continue to work. Users continue to run any executable that promises to show them a celebrities tits and people continue to get suckered by obvious scams.

      Sometimes experiments were just badly run.

    • onyomi says:

      I think also there’s the issue, mentioned on SSC before by I forget who, that sometimes the best course of action is to confidently do nothing or confidently continue doing whatever you were doing before, even in the face of failure and negative feedback. But people are bad at confidently doing nothing when there seems to be a problem, so sometimes the best thing to do is something you think will help but which will actually do nothing, like a rain dance.

      But rain dances are out nowadays so we have to look for new things faster than they get debunked.

  23. Dan says:

    Similarly, self-affirmations – where you say things like “I am definitely going to do well in school today” again and again and then it becomes true – but a new study has failed to replicate results showing their effectiveness.

    That is not what self-affirmations are in the current field of psychology. Self-affirmations are where you spend 15 minutes writing about how your friends (or something else that you value) are important to you. Once you’re grounded in your values, then you feel less threatened by smaller things, and do better at things where you were previously limited by feeling threatened or defensive. Or so the story goes.

    In most studies on self-affirmation, the thing that people do better at is having less motivated cognition over the next 20 minutes. Maybe you’re more likely to think that someone who disagrees with you has made a good point. In some studies (including the one that failed to replicate in the linked study), the thing that people allegedly do better at is getting better grades at school over the next few months.

    • Jay L. Gischer says:

      And this criticism is squarely in the territory I have been in when looking at other of these “failure to replicate” criticisms. It often appears that the people attempting to replicate didn’t actually understand the phenomenon that they were trying to replicate, and instead attempted to replicate a caricature of it.

      For instance, on “failure to replicate” of stereotype threat. I read a posting (not a paper) by a scientist who had failed to replicate it. But his informal post gave me the impression that he didn’t understand all the factors (clearly outlined by Steele in “Whistling Vivaldi”) needed to replicate it. So, in short, sloppy work is sloppy.

      • Dan says:

        From my glance at it, the linked self-affirmation replication study (which found no effect) looks fine. The problem is with how it’s being discussed.

        Short-term motivated cognition and defensiveness is the core area that self-affirmation research has investigated, but self-affirmation researchers have in fact ventured beyond that territory. There was a study which found improved grades over the course of the schoolyear from a self-affirmation intervention, which received a lot of attention and acclaim for demonstrating meaningful real-world effects. Replicating that research design to see if those results hold up is a valuable contribution. But it doesn’t tell us much about the core area of results involving short-term motivated cognition.

  24. ryan says:

    I used to believe that it began to get cool in the fall, and ultimately very cold in the winter, because so many millions of people expected it would, and the expectation created the phenomenon, mind over terra.

    But ultimately, I realized there was a simple physical explanation – all those millions were putting jackets and ultimately coats on, which held their body heat in, allowing the external air to get colder.

    • Guy says:

      Feh. Nobody can predict the weather. I just wear shorts all the time, because I don’t negotiate with terrorists or inanimate quasi-objects.

  25. mememaster says:

    Who posted that quote on tumblr and where is it from ?

  26. Rusty says:

    Where does all this leave the theory that women and men grow up with traditionally female outlooks largely due to minute cues provided by parents e.g. giving a boy blue clothes and a girl pink ones etc? It always seemed bogus to me – try getting a child to do something they actively don’t want to do – but I am not aware if this theory is now felt to be more or less true or if it has been debunked.

    • I’ve heard a claim (sorry no cite) that as toddlers, boys are allowed to explore more than girls. If this is true, it’s not subtle cues based on clothing colors, even though the clothes might affect adult behavior. It’s a real difference in upbringing which might have long term effects.

      • Vaniver says:

        I remember seeing a study on slope inclines, where male and female toddlers were about equally good at climbing them and parents were much less confident in their female toddlers’ ability to climb them. But I don’t remember seeing anyone fitting toddlers with fitbits or something to track the actual amount of exploration they do.

    • Jugemu Chousuke says:

      In the last few years I’ve seen even some quite liberal/SJW-friendly sources admit that there are significant inborn male-female differences in interests and behaviour. The evidence for this from experiments on children, babies, and even non-human apes is very strong. (And since any publication bias would probably run in the direction of finding no difference*, I find this more believable than the average social science.)

      * Well, I suppose it depends if the bias in favour of non-null results is stronger or weaker than the bias in favour of politically-correct results.

    • Murphy says:

      Not so sure on that. Kids are pretty actively and verifiable learning how they’re supposed to look, act and behave from watching the people around them and most of it isn’t particularly subtle.

      Some kids don’t want to put on clothes but look at them a few years later and they’ll be desperately trying to keep up with their friends fashions.

      My sister is convinced that her daughter just magically has all these habits, ways of talking and mannerisms but as she was growing up you could see my niece looking up and copying my sister. Most of the things she does are simply carbon copies of my sisters own behavior. parents can be weirdly blind to their own behavior and how their kids are reacting to it.

      I’m of the belief that boys and girls are going to end up behaving pretty differently on average even in a perfectly sterile setting but the color thing genuinely does appear to be a cultural thing since it changes with the generations.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      There are some great case studies of intersex people who for some reason were raised as the sex opposite the one they genetically were, without realizing it. Most of them tended to become some variety of gender nonconforming or even “transgender” to transition back to the sex they were genetically, with some variant of “I KNEW IT ALL ALONG” when they were told about their genetic sex.

      On the other hand, some things have to be cultural because they’ve been different in other times and places; for example, I’m pretty sure boys = short hair and girls = long hair wasn’t a thing in a lot of cultures (eg traditional Asian ones).

      My guess is that the girl/boy “switch” is biological (thus transgender people), but that the switch activates something like “and therefore, conform to your local girl/boy cultural identifiers”. These identifiers are probably a combination of biologically plausible (eg men are always going to be more likely to be soldiers) and random.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “I’m pretty sure boys = short hair and girls = long hair wasn’t a thing in a lot of cultures (eg traditional Asian ones).”

        There are cultures where women have longer hair than men and cultures where everybody has long hair. But the only cultures I can think of where long hair is masculine and short hair is feminine are African ones where everybody has pretty short hair by nature: e.g., Masai and Rastafarians.

        I’ve read that hair grows about 40% longer in white women than white men, which might account for the usual cultural pattern, but I’ve never seen that confirmed.

    • John Marius says:

      “giving a boy blue clothes and a girl pink ones” A hundred years ago girls got blue clothes and boys red ones.

      Anyway what difference does it make whether something is biological or cultural? Shouldn’t it be the default assumption that the culture is the way it is for a reason, that if our culture encourages different things in boys and girls that’s because that’s what’s good for them?

      • Han says:

        It clearly makes a world of difference as biology is far less flexible and liable to change in the short term than culture. (though epigenetics is a fascinating field). You’ll miss a lot of things if you equate the two. Some of the things that our biology is programmed for are harmful to us (aging and death, say) and some of the things that my local culture expects of me are also harmful (female genital mutilation). But culture is easier to change than biology! If nothing else you can to an extent determined by (wealth, nationality, other factors) just move to another culture that better suits you. Cultures also can and do change from within. Your comment suggests at best a Candide – like optimism about the state of your own culture and its adaptation to maximise human happiness. Should we really default to the assumption that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds when it comes to our culture’s treatment of boys and girls? We were wrong before, after all (corsets, etc)

  27. Joel says:

    This reminds me of street magicians and others who by the power of “suggestion” influence peoples decisions so as to make some previous prediction true. I’ve always been sure that this is just a cover up to keep people from thinking about the slight of hand, clever assistants or hidden machinery that actually achieved the effect. But a lot of people believe “suggestion” is real! Anyone with a source that confirms this?

    • qwints says:

      Darren Brown style effects aren’t caused by what he says they are, but suggestion plays a huge role in magic.

    • onyomi says:

      I think misdirection is the key factor, not suggestion. That experiment where the man in a gorilla suit walks through a bunch of people playing basketball but most people don’t notice him if they’re asked to focus on something like the number of passes being thrown, shows the power of this.

      • Joel says:

        Sure, but I’m talking about the kind of effect where they print “Africa” on a truck that drives by, and thereby “suggesting” to someone that they choose a giraffe from a toy store, which they of course accurately predicted. Surely what they really did was to change their prediction in an unnoticeable way after they saw what the person chose? And the “suggestion” explanation’s sole purpose is to keep people from trying to figure out how? Unless of course they did the trick with 500 people and only air the one case where it worked.

    • LPSP says:

      Suggestion is real in the sense that the audience is complicit in accepting and facillitating the explanation, for incentivess which they don’t confront in themselves. A good magician knows how to appeal to his mark better than they do, so his suggestions – combined with the act of authority and mysticism – seem to magically compel them.

      So the overall phenomena of a magician A) selecting a certain sort of mark, B) establishing himself in a magical command role, preferably with a gagging audience to add a social-appeasement factor and C) making suggestions that the mark accepts, is true. But the causative mechanism magicians suggest is unconnected to that, and the claim forms a motte and bailey strategy (or maybe a reverse strawman? not sure which term fits better)

  28. no says:

    > society’s hidden assumptions and bases

    I assume this refers to hidden biases. Otherwise I am really out of the loop on this hidden bases thing

  29. Mazirian says:

    Scott, you should read and do a review of Lee Jussim’s Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy which covers similar territory to this post. I’m reading it at the moment and think it deserves more attention.

  30. Peter Gerdes says:

    In what sense do things like cognitive biases or witness unreliability involve something one would deem “the unconscious”.

    True, they are observations *about* conscious behavior which we were not previously aware of but that doesn’t mean an unconsciousness is involved. If I forget my wife’s birthday every year but don’t realize I forget it that is a pattern in my conscious behavior which I am unaware of but if the explanation of this pattern is just “I have a poor memory, don’t use a calendar app and birthdays come about once a year” no unconscious is involved in that explanation.

    Things like cognitive biases seem mere observations about the function of conscious decisions and don’t involve any unconscious at all (except in the trivial sense that everything does since the underlying brain processes can never be fully available to us).

  31. The “reverse placebo” effect is sometimes referred to as the “nosebo” effect. I remember that the magazine “New Scientist” had an article about it a few years ago, it also gave some other examples though I don’t know how legitimate these are. See https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327247-100-13-more-things-the-nocebo-effect/ for a summary.

    • Davide says:

      I wonder if there have ever been serious plans to weaponize the nocebo effect.

      Psychological warfare already exists, of course, but it’s meant to damage the enemy morale, rather than their bodies through their minds.

  32. Scott, man, do I feel like you in this one! I was so baffled (rather, Baffled!!!! with a bunch of exclamation signs) that people gave any credence to Psychobabble in general, and Psychoanalysis in particular that I ended up devoting seven years of my life and writing a doctoral dissertation about it (which, come to think about it, tells much more about me than about the influence of Freud in the overall culture 🙂

    I hope it doesn’t bother you I frequently include links to my own garbled posts about issues you cover unfailingly more succintly and more brilliantly, but I expanded on my discomfort with much of Psychology in these two entries: http://purebarbell.blogspot.com.es/2015/08/the-problem-of-irreproducibility-and.html
    http://purebarbell.blogspot.com.es/2016/02/elements-for-critique-of-desiderative.html

    In a nutshell, giving the unconscious an oversized influence is part of our society’s dominant reason, whose justification is not its epistemic validity, but the way it directs its members to produce uncritically more material goods. Societies that end up being more successful at such production have bigger, better armies and end up crushing societies that are not as good at it. Hence Psychology, and Psychoanalysis within it…

  33. I’ve wondered about stereotype threat (just being reminded that you’re part of a group with prejudice against it) not being much of anything, but it’s still quite possible that attacks based on stereotypes (blatant insults, physical attack, that sort of thing) might really be disruptive for a lot of people. I’m not sure if there’s an ethical way to structure the experiments, though.

    Also, there was an experiment where even a very mild level of exclusion was rough on people. Anyone know whether that one held up? Sorry to not have details, I think it was something about a video game where a ball was passed to the experimental subject or not.

    • TomFL says:

      Perhaps a study on liberal attacks based on stereotypes of Trump supporters is warranted, one could gather enough data on the attacks for a large scale study in less than a week. Blatant insults, physical attacks, it’s all there. The social sciences big magnifying glass shall never be pointed inward. Many psychological traits may be debatable, but cognitive dissonance isn’t one of them.

  34. The Obsolete Man says:


    Of course, this post is really about Freudian psychology. When I presented a Freudian friend with information on the general irrelevance of childhood factors and family composition, he countered by saying that the only thing that could really harm his belief in psychoanalysis was to learn that the unconscious wasn’t very powerful.

    But on the pihkal thread you said:

    I’m also not completely convinced that it’s all just random firing of neurons and there’s nothing to it. The psychedelic state seems intelligent, in that it’s able to deploy coherent narratives and speech and ideas that the subject doesn’t consciously come up with. For example, someone may talk to a god-figure who answers their questions in ways that surprise them and seems to have more insight than they do themselves. Without speculating that it’s a real god-figure, it still suggests some pretty weird things about the conscious vs. the unconscious mind.

    So, is the unconscious really powerful, but not in the Freudian sense? Can you elaborate?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, these are two opposite things, both of which seem to have some evidence.

      But the unconscious definitely seems to have enough “power” to make dreams a thing. That doesn’t seem too different from the psychedelic state, some aspects of which seem like just superpowered “dreaming”.

  35. Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

    When I first read about the nocebo effect, I immediately thought of voodoo.

  36. pd says:

    What if the initial studies -> later failed replications are actually noticing the diminishing returns on advertising strategies?

    An ad works pretty well the first time you do it, because people are not ready for or familiar with the subtle techniques of selling the product. But eventually we get jaded and the ads have less and less effect.

    Something like that might be happeing with the studies, mutatis mutandis.

  37. moridinamael says:

    In a discussion about the effectiveness of various martial arts, someone suggested, “Just learn what works against trained killers.”

    And who are you going to trust about the efficacy of recumbent tai chi versus Brazillian jiu-jitsu — a special forces assassin, or a guy who makes his living teaching children recumbent tai chi?

    In that light, sales techniques are the subset of psychological technology that actually work in the wild. If there were other techniques that could be shown to work, salespeople and marketers would use them.

    Consider all other findings in psychology to be angels-dancing-on-pins sophistry.

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      A quote from Fezzik, from The Princess Bride comes to mind.

      Ordering things from best to worst is silly. How often do people face “trained killers?” For most city dwellers the most useful type of martial art is one that’s handy against muggers or rapists (the former is usually a small to moderate group of people who are not generally super well trained, the latter is one guy or a few).

      I don’t think B j-j would be super useful in this context. Arguably actual martial arts would be low on the scale of “useful things” in this context.

      • moridinamael says:

        Ordering from best to worst is only silly if you believe there is a tight clustering of efficacy across relevant domains. You also have to compare apples to apples.

        In a mugging scenario, even an martial arts master is going to either run away or hand over his money. If a martial arts master is attacked by an untrained assailant, it probably doesn’t matter what discipline that master holds belts in, because punches to the face and simple joint locks are part of the repertoire of almost all martial arts.

        If you put two masters of different arts against each other in an octagon, one will tend to win consistently over the other. The whole existence of MMA is built on the evolution of a style that works best in a no-holds-barred scenario. But you could rightly point out that this situation will occur in the wild 0% of the time.

        A bouncer is going to find jiu-jitsu useful because it allows them to dominate people physically without striking. My late taekwondo master, in his job as a bouncer, preferred to use rear naked chokes and other grappling techniques rather than anything from the repertoire of TKD.

        Law enforcement in general prefer to use grappling arts for the same reason. Controlling and subduing an opponent without maiming or killing them is a priority.

        The advice, though, was meant to indicate that if you find an art that works against trained killers, then you’ve found something that probably isn’t bullshit. Aikido doesn’t work against trained killers, and this is Bayesian evidence against the general efficacy of aikido.

        • Jay L. Gischer says:

          This is way afield, but the octogon has lots of rules. It is nowhere remotely an “in the wild” situation. It can’t be. For Pete’s sake, they wear gloves on their hands.

          Which is not me saying that they are wimps. They are not. This is me saying that the people who chase “in the wild” are chasing ghosts. There are people who train to deal with real-life situations, those people are people like soldiers, police officers, and prison guards. They learn things that work well against the kinds of situations that they run in to.

          And if that’s what you’re looking for, that kind of training is useful.

          As it happens, I study (non-recumbent?) tai chi, and teach (non-brazilian) ju-jitsu to children. I focus on skills and attitudes that I think will help them in the lives that they are likely to have. That said, I think that a different style of training with the same body of technique could work quite well in a police or military context.

          Most people are not going to run in to that sort of thing in their lives, but they sometimes have some emotional need to train as if they will. I wonder if it isn’t because they have experienced that sort of thing in their youth, and they are trying to win the last battle.

          • Adam says:

            At least some of what we learned in military hand-to-hand combat training was techniques likely to work given that you’re wearing body armor and a helmet, which is definitely not a situation some random person on the street is ever likely to face.

          • Anonymous says:

            Adam, jiu-jitsu was the same, at least originally. It was for disarmed and dismounted samurai to use against other armored samurai. That’s why it emphasizes leverage and not strikes, except strikes to the neck.

          • Anon39 says:

            Hand to hand combat training in the military is more about training the “violence of action” mindset than any real efficacy. As far as martial arts goes, MMA is the closest we will see to testing for efficacy. East Asian martial arts, at least for hand to hand combat, is useless. The real trump card of course is to have a gun.

      • Harambe's Ghost says:

        1. A substantial fixed fraction of Internet discussions, say 1/8 or so, will turn into “my dad can beat up your dad” and this one appears to be well on its way.

        2. My own contribution: the most relevant thing is not the details of your particular style but how comfortable you are with violence in general–whether you lose your head when things get rowdy or can quickly begin to act off muscle memory. To that end, a useful style should involve a lot of actual violent contact, with appropriate protective gear and at appropriately moderated intensities, but aside from that the differences aren’t too important. This is why football linemen and the rugby front row can be quite a handful in a scrap without ever training martial arts as such.

        Even a small, inept street-fighter has a tremendous advantage over the average middle-class American, who hasn’t had a fight since puberty. It is a simple matter of accumulated experience, of having been hit or stomped often enough to forget the ugly panic that nice people associate with a serious fight….
        The difference between survival and wipe-out in a physical crisis is nearly always a matter of conditioned reflexes. A bartender with scar tissue all over his knuckles will hit harder and faster than a karate-trained novice who has never been bloodied.

      • wysinwyg says:

        A good pair of sneakers will be a better bet in the case of muggings. If the attacker already has hands on the victim, though, I think some training in BJJ would actually be pretty useful.

  38. Quixote says:

    Name preference is false? If so how come the definitive work on priming is published by Dr. Primestein?

  39. Random Anon says:

    “After studying learned helplessness, I realized that was what I was feeling”

    If all these other things are false, then how can learned helplessness be true? Isn’t learned helplessness voodoo in the same way?

    I often think of this random sentence from Theodore Dalrymple’s Wikipedia: “In his writing, Daniels frequently argues that the socially liberal and progressive views prevalent within Western intellectual circles minimise the responsibility of individuals for their own actions and undermine traditional mores, contributing to the formation within prosperous countries of an underclass afflicted by endemic violence…” I feel like, well, if progressivism led to that, then that certainly proves individuals aren’t responsible for their own actions. I realize his argument is not about free will per se, and others wrote that summary. I just like that sentence.

    • Adam says:

      As far as I know, learned helplessness has replicated pretty well for about 50 years now, both in humans and in animals, though that says nothing of the theory that it’s responsible for certain types of mental illness.

      • RandomAnon says:

        I meant more like Scott’s in particular here — if he felt real learned helplessness that affected his life and actions based on repeated fictions (false results of studies), that seems voodoo-y. (But I suppose it’s not of significance since it’s not like he says his life was ruined by this learned helplessness.)

      • Seth Finkelstein says:

        I’ve always wanted to talk to someone who was expert in real animal “learned helplessness” experiments. My reading of those experiments was that they struck me as really bizarre psychological inferences jumping off from fairly simple results. Basically, when threatened with an unknown danger, a dog runs through a bunch of heuristics to figure out what to do (run? fight? defend? etc). These heuristics are stateful. The experimenter, an extremely powerful being, is able to put the dog in situation so that its heuristics about what to do when threatened with danger give the wrong result. The experimenter then basically proclaims the dog stupid, because those heuristics about what do, which would usually work in the vast majority of real-life situations (after all, it’s not an extinct species), are giving the wrong answer in this highly artificial situation created by the experimenter. Essentially, the dog is being tricked, and then declared dumb for not knowing it’s being tricked.

  40. Jay L. Gischer says:

    Still reading, but I’d like to address this:

    Implicit association tests probably don’t work (1, 2, 3, 4). That is, people who have “implicit racial biases” according to the tests are not more racist in everyday life than people who don’t.

    My thought is, “of course not”. That’s never been the point of it, as far as I’m concerned. Stereotypes are what you know when you don’t know anything. And during “everyday life” you are mostly dealing with things you know already. These things become much more powerful when dealing with unfamiliar situations or people, and when formulating policy as an abstraction.

    • Randy M says:

      Have they ever been shown to have an effect even then, though? Or is it all conjecture based on a nifty flash game?

      • Jay L. Gischer says:

        I have taken these tests, and seen that I am influenced. I’m not playing the “holier than thou” card, believe me. I was a little shocked and unhappy about the result but the method seemed sound.

        (As an aside that I find amusing, another test had me associating pictures of George W. Bush (who was president then, and whom I did not like much at all) with ideas like “honest” and “trustworthy” more than pictures of Thomas Jefferson. This had far more to do with how they looked, rather than who they were, there wasn’t enough time to identify them.)

        Given that information about how my amygdala works, I consciously slow down my response when I meet black people. Just take my time, don’t necessarily trust my first impression. This has been very rewarding to me personally, I’ve met a lot of very interesting people because of this.

        In that sense, yeah, it makes a big difference.

        I wonder, though if we don’t somehow have the idea that the unconscious self is the “true” self.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Now, hold on.

          I have taken these tests, and seen that I am influenced.

          What you’ve seen is that the tests say you’re influenced. Well and good. But Randy M was asking whether the tests’ results indeed predict behavior, as you put it, “when dealing with unfamiliar situations or people, and when formulating policy as an abstraction”. Just taking the tests and having them tell you that you’re influenced by unconscious racism is obviously not enough to answer the question.

          —-

          Now, a tangent — and please don’t take this personally, Jay, as I am really more making a larger point than trying to pick on you.

          I’m not playing the “holier than thou” card, believe me. I was a little shocked and unhappy about the result but the method seemed sound.

          Apologies, but that is “playing the ‘holier than thou’ card”. “We are all sinners, and I am wise, humble, and enlightened enough to recognize and admit that I too am a sinner and imperfect; may you also someday achieve such enlightened humility” is a classic in the “holier than thou” genre.

          • Jay L. Gischer says:

            Point 2 is fair. Sigh. I feel so many people are reacting Implicit Associations in a mode that is a bit like “This test says I’m evil, and I’m not!” I’d like to sideline that discussion. I’m not here to make people feel bad, they generally do a really good job of that themselves. I was splashing around trying to find some approach, but as you point out, that one didn’t work.

            But to address point 1: I have been influenced in a way that the test can measure, in a way that is reproducible. The position “I have not been influenced” is not tenable. It is not at all the same as the position of “I am not a bigot”.

            I have been influenced. I’ve come to realize that of course I’ve been influenced. If you grow up watching Lawrence Welk with your Dad, and the only black guy on the show tap dances, you’ve been influenced. If the only black people you see on the news are the ones with burning ghettos in the background, you’ve been influenced.

            Some of that influence is due to avowed, conscious, white supremacist ideology. The larger part of it is just due to history, and the way human nature works.

            The thing I want you to take away is that there was something to be gained for me, a white guy, from undertaking the exercise of “slow down, look closer”. I’d call it the “visit a black barbershop” program, but I’ve never been to a black barbershop. I want you to know this could make your life better.

            And if there’s something I could gain, it kind of means that the influence wasn’t just limited to my response on the test, doesn’t it?

          • Jiro says:

            I feel so many people are reacting Implicit Associations in a mode that is a bit like “This test says I’m evil, and I’m not!”

            It’s motte and bailey between “the test is just measuring a statistic” and “the test shows you are evil”. And people notice this. That’s why they react that way.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            I have been influenced in a way that the test can measure, in a way that is reproducible. The position “I have not been influenced” is not tenable. It is not at all the same as the position of “I am not a bigot”.

            Well, the test is measuring something. (Probably. That actually does need to be checked; some tests don’t actually measure anything at all. But let’s skip this point for now, and assume reliability, at least.) Whether what’s it’s measuring is some sort of “influence”, or what that influence might be of, or what are its effects in literally any context other than the test itself… we have literally no idea. The test doesn’t tell us that.

            The position “I have not been influenced” is not tenable. It is not at all the same as the position of “I am not a bigot”.

            Ok, for one thing, you can’t just use the word “influenced” like a one-place predicate. You have to say influenced by what, and in what what way. I understand that you’re using it as shorthand here, but please let’s get clear what specifically it’s shorthand for.

            That being said, “am I a bigot” is in fact the interesting and consequential question. That’s a) what everyone is actually interested in (quite rightly), and b) what everyone is actually implying when they talk about these sorts of things. (For a treatment of this latter point that puts it in a particularly sinister light, see this SSC post.)

            (posting a separate set of points, somewhat orthogonal to these, in a separate comment…)

          • Said Achmiz says:

            (the promised other points)

            The thing I want you to take away is that there was something to be gained for me, a white guy, from undertaking the exercise of “slow down, look closer”. … I want you to know this could make your life better.

            So, if you say that you gained something from meditating on your IAT results, well and good. It is not my place to doubt your word on this. Declaring that I have something to gain by this, however, seems to me to be a bit presumptuous. You do not know anything about me or my life, after all, isn’t that so? (Heck, for all you know, I could be black. I’m not — but did you know this?)

            I understand that you meant no offense by your comment, and I take none. My point is this: you’re suggesting that the IAT is beneficial because it can make people face their various biases, which they have. But what makes you think people have such things? The IAT does nothing to establish this. You say you did or do, and that you’ve been able to conquer them to whatever degree, and become a better person; this is commendable. But are you not simply generalizing from one example?

            I’d call it the “visit a black barbershop” program, but I’ve never been to a black barbershop.

            I can’t help but find this comment to be rather telling.

          • wysinwyg says:

            It’s motte and bailey between “the test is just measuring a statistic” and “the test shows you are evil”. And people notice this. That’s why they react that way.

            Seems like you are making assumptions about the intentions of a lot of different people (including the assumption that they have the same or broadly similar intentions).

        • Anon For Obivous Reasons says:

          Hilariously, I had the exact inverse experience.

          I took the test and scored no evidence of racial bias, even posting a tiny bias in favour of blacks and hispanics. This stuck me as really strange given that a) I’m largely on board with most HBD literature, b) I’m seriously annoyed with the behaviour of the local native companies in my industry, and c) having traveled extensively in Asia, think that the entire populace of certain countries can line up to suck both my balls (I’m looking at you, Vietnam).

          Though I’ve never had trouble getting along with members of minority groups who aren’t assholes, I still thought that having a dim view of the groups themselves would push me over the line. (It should also be stated that I’m not particularly proud to hold these beliefs, and am always a little dismayed when new experiences reinforce them.)

          I honestly can’t see a use for these tests if not to catch people like me.

          • Anon For Equally Obvious Reasons says:

            I haven’t taken the test, but I suspect I’d be in the same camp as you. When it comes to casual conversation, and company, I far prefer black people. I generally despise idle chit chat at work, yet somehow frequently wind up in the offices of black coworkers sometimes conversing for up to an hour. The same thing will happen at parties. When I moved around a bit after highschool, my best, and basically only friend in each of the states I lived in was black. I don’t make a concerted effort to to bring these events about. I’ll just be forced into talking to someone for some random social reason or another, suddenly realize a lot of time has gone by, and I’m actually enjoying myself.

            On the other hand, like you, I’m persuaded by the HBD literature, and secretly believe it has a lot more to do with the crime rates in American cities than anyone is willing to admit. I frequently see my black acquaintances posting BLM videos on their timelines or condoning rioting, and I sneer and think how ignorant and immoral they are as a group. Respect for people as individuals demands I reign those thoughts in, but they’re there.

          • Harambe's Ghost says:

            Me, too.

            I think a lot of it comes down to hand speed.

  41. Adam says:

    Assuming that we’re trying to say “there is no such thing as an unconscious”, how do we describe the process of a person being unaware of what they are feeling? It seems like I’ve seen this a whole lot.

    Additionally, how do reconcile implicit and explicit memory systems / amygdal vs hypocampus?

  42. Jay L. Gischer says:

    Scott, you seem to be claiming that there is no such thing as an unconscious. This seems really unsupported by both experimental data and experience with life. In the dojo, I have a pretty much weekly experience of watching someone behave in a way that they think they aren’t behaving. I would laugh when I see it, but I don’t want them to feel mocked.

    And, I think it’s really important to highlight that there isn’t some organized thing living in your head called The Unconscious that better represents you than your conscious self and what you actually do to interact with the world. There isn’t a hidden True Self.

    This comes up a lot in many contexts. If I have an erection, that doesn’t mean I’m consenting to sex, or even interested in sex. It just means my body reacted to some stimulus, perhaps visual, perhaps social, perhaps tactlle. Sometimes it happens in situations where sex is really, really inappropriate. That reaction doesn’t make me a pervert and an outcast. It doesn’t reveal my True Self. It’s just another part, which my ego can try to organize and manage, and my social self can hide or disavow or whatever.

    Likewise, if I take the Harvard Association test of Implicit Bias, and find I have an implicit bias, that doesn’t mean I’m a bigot. It means that the culture has had an effect on my thought (pre-thought?) processes in a particular way. Knowing that, I have been able to enrich myself (as described in another comment here) by being a bit skeptical of my first response, that often happens so fast its invisible. Take a little more time, see what this person might really be like, take a bit of a chance to talk to them. This has expanded my world, and enriched my life.

  43. J says:

    What does this mean for Robin Hanson’s claims that most of what we do is just signaling and posturing?

  44. Richard Kennaway says:

    What do people mean by “the unconscious” or “the subconscious”? Is talking about it like talking about non-apples?

    There’s our mental experience, which is what “consciousness” means, and there’s all the other unobserved, unknown stuff that must be going on to bridge the gap between consciousness and non-conscious matter. Does it make sense to refer to this as if it were a thing, and to confabulate theories of how “it” works?

  45. Jill says:

    “The conscious mind is strong enough to hold onto its preferred beliefs despite brainwashing techniques intended to force it otherwise.”

    If that is true, then I wonder why advertisers spent nearly 600 billion worldwide in 2015, to brainwash people into buying things they didn’t need. And I wonder why everyone we know has spent tons of money buying goods and services that was advertised to them, that it turned out they didn’t need, and they wish they hadn’t bought.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Perhaps because advertising

      1) Doesn’t try to go against the conscious mind’s preferred beliefs

      2) Acts largely on a conscious level.

      Note that “subliminal advertising” does not work.

      • Randy M says:

        You really need the three pronged approach of liminal, subliminal, and superliminal.

      • Jill says:

        Since much of advertising research is proprietary and not available to the public, we can’t know if that #1 and #2 are true. But I would be very surprised if they were. But advertisers do certainly try when possible, to go along with the person’s preferred beliefs– but their unconscious preferred beliefs as often as their conscious ones.

        A lot of selling is done on the emotional level. One particular political candidate has sold himself in numerous different ways, changing his mind constantly. And his supporters don’t seem to mind at all. Whatever his supporters’ preferred beliefs are, he has contradicted those numerous times by now. Because all he is selling, in selling himself, is selling one big angry emotional Eff You to the political establishment.

        • Randy M says:

          Your description, which I assume is of Trump based on previous comments, also fits very well the current potus.

          • wysinwyg says:

            Obama is an eff you to the political establishment? He seems especially representative of the political establishment to me…

          • Randy M says:

            sure, 8 years later. When running, it was “Hope and change” “need transparency in government” “we are the change we’ve been waiting for” and so on. Don’t forget, he was a one-term senator at the time, not exactly the most entrenched of establishment.

          • wysinwyg says:

            Sure, but his positions were also pretty consistent when he was running (relative to those of Trump) and most of his deviation from those positions has occurred during those same 8 years that I’m supposed to be ignoring now w/r/t how establishment he is. Unless I’m missing something.

            In other words, it seems like you’re trying to have it both ways. It seems like you may be engaging in the same sort of motivated reasoning you are ostensibly criticizing.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The basic message of advertising is “Buy my product or service”. This, in general, does not go against the conscious mind’s preferred beliefs. And while much selling is certainly done at the emotional level, this is not the same as the subconscious level.

          • wysinwyg says:

            Aren’t you moving the goalposts from “generates a positive preference” to “does not violate a negative preference”? Advertising may not convince me to buy an iPhone if I’m dead-set against it in the first place, but that’s a very different sort of claim than the one that advertising makes me more likely to buy one than I would be in the absence of that advertising (let’s assume I know all about iPhones so the informational aspect of the advertising is irrelevant).

            And while much selling is certainly done at the emotional level, this is not the same as the subconscious level.

            Since we’re not working from a stated definition of “subconscious”, I don’t know that it’s fair to just assume this. Many people might use “subconscious” in a way that include certain types of emotional processing.

    • “If that is true, then I wonder why advertisers spent nearly 600 billion worldwide in 2015, to brainwash people into buying things they didn’t need.”

      I wonder why you assume that the purpose of all of that expenditure was to brainwash people into buying things they didn’t need. I can think of a number of other explanations:

      1. Information. I wouldn’t know that a local grocery chain had a low price on something I was thinking of stocking up on if they didn’t advertise it.

      2. Sunk costs as a commitment strategy. I want to buy a product from a company that plans to be around for a long time, since that gives them an incentive to produce products that will raise rather than lower their reputation, improving future sales. The fact that a company had a large advertising campaign is at least some evidence that they are not planning to disappear in the near future.

      3. Enhancing the value of a product by helping consumers use the product to feel good about themselves. If the ads for Marlboro cigarettes link smoking Marlboros with being a cowboy and people like imagining themselves as cowboys, that increases the value of the cigarette to people.

      With a little effort you can probably think of other explanations.

      “And I wonder why everyone we know has spent tons of money buying goods and services that was advertised to them, that it turned out they didn’t need, and they wish they hadn’t bought.”

      Off hand, I cannot think of anything I have bought that fits that description.

      • Smoking a Marlboro will not make you a cowboy, nor will driving a pick-up truck turn you into a Real Man (TM).

        Nor will buying a cookbook turn you into Martha Stewart.

        I think this is the effect Jill is describing. It does seem to be in a different ball-park than “the eyes make you more honest.”

        Also, these effects work (at least on me) even KNOWING that it’s bullshit. Which is frightening.

        • Montfort says:

          Smoking Marlboros does not make you a cowboy, but if Marlboro does a good job marketing their cigarettes, it will mark you as someone who aspires to be like a real cowboy in some way, letting you signal your cowboy qualities to everyone.

          In contrast, if cigarette companies all just marketed based on flavor or price (or didn’t market at all), it would be harder for you to tell everyone “I see myself as a real cowboy.”

          In this model (which describes some but not all advertising, see also Friedman’s post for other kinds), there is no “brainwashing” and the conscious mind maintains its own values – Alex has always thought cowboys were cool, and now can show off their cowboy attitude by smoking Marlboros instead of Virginia Slims. And if Marlboro re-brands itself as an astronaut cigarette, Alex can switch to American Spirit.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Marlboros were originally marketed as a classy cigarette for society ladies with the pitch that they were “mild as May.” I imagine the name drew upon associations with the American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt who had married the Duke of Marlboro (the cousin of Winston Churchill), and then her dad paid to have their fabulous Blenheim Palace restored.

            But in 1954 Chicago advertising genius Leo Burnett came up with a whole new strategy of marketing Marlboros as cigarette for guys who identify with cowboys and other icons of masculinity. It’s one of the more famous tales in marketing and advertising history.

            Interestingly, Burnett’s pitch to Philip Morris in the 1950s mentioned Freud but also claimed to be based on “horse sense.”

            It took about a decade, however, for the marketers to ditch the non-cowboy models for Marlboros and make their ads all cowboys.

            My question is: what could you see if you replicate from this? It all seems extremely historically contingent.

            If anything, I guess we could test how often reversing a brand’s connotations from feminine to masculine works in attracting men to the brand? My guess is it seldom works, for reasons similar to why once first names go feminine then don’t go back. Boys worry about getting girl cooties from girl stuff more than vice-versa.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            But why was Marlboro advertising so insanely successful? I can recall back in the 1980s that Marlboros were sometimes ranked ahead of Coke as the most valuable brand in the world.

            There are no shortages of theories. There are all sorts of people in the marketing advice business, and many of them have offered plausible sounding theories to account for Marlboro.

            But how do we try to replicate it? First of all, we don’t know what exactly was the key element in Marlboro’s brand’s success. And second we can’t go back in time to before the era when Marlboro cowboy ads come along. Nowadays, Marlboro’s distinctive marketing can summon up connotations of lung cancer.

      • Deiseach says:

        “And I wonder why everyone we know has spent tons of money buying goods and services that was advertised to them, that it turned out they didn’t need, and they wish they hadn’t bought.”

        Dorothy Sayers’ 1933 novel “Murder Must Advertise” has a weak and frankly tedious murder mystery plot (unusually for her) but the real interest of the novel is the advertising agency setting, based on her real experiences in one:

        That gentleman was closeted with Mr. Armstrong when the call came through. Whifflets were causing trouble. The sales of Whifflets had been considerably affected by the publicity methods of a rival brand, Puffin Cigarettes. The manufacturers of Puffins had had a brain-wave. They were giving away aeroplanes. In every packet of Puffins they enclosed a coupon, bearing the name of a component part of a popular little touring ‘plane, suitable for amateur use. When you had collected your complete set of parts (numbering one hundred) you sent up your coupons, together with a brief essay on the importance of air-mindedness for British boys. The writer of the best essay each day became the recipient of a private ‘plane, and a course of free instruction enabling him or her to take out an air-pilot’s certificate. This happy scheme was supported by heavy advertising of a modern and stimulating kind: “The Future is with the Air-Minded” — “The Highest Flight in Modern Cigarette Manufacture” — “Puff Puffins, and Reach the Height of your Ambition” — and so forth. If you were incapacitated, by reason of age or infirmity, from enjoying the ownership of an aeroplane, you received instead a number of shares in the new issue of the Aeroplane Company involved. The scheme had the support of several notable airmen, whose faces, adorned with flying helmets, stared and grinned from every page of the press in conjunction with their considered opinions that Puffins were doing a valuable work in helping to establish British Supremacy in the Air.

        Whifflets were upset. They demanded, with some annoyance, why Pym’s had not had this brilliant idea first. They clamoured for an aeroplane scheme of their own, with a larger plane and a hangar to keep it in. Mr. Armstrong pointed out to them that the sole result of this would be to confuse the public mind between Whifflets and Puffins, which were already quite sufficiently similar in quality and appearance to confuse anybody.

        “They’re all alike,” he said to Bredon, not meaning the cigarettes, but the manufacturers. “They follow each other like sheep. If Whifflets use large heads of film-stars, Puffin’s want to come out with still larger heads of still more important stars. If Gasperettes give away timepieces, Puffins follow on with grandfather clocks and Whifflets with chronometers. If Whifflets announce that they don’t damage the lungs, Puffins claim that they strengthen the pulmonary system and Gasperettes quote doctors who recommend them in cases of tuberculosis. They will try to snatch each other’s thunder — and what happens? The public smoke them all in turn, just as they did before.”

        “Isn’t that a good thing for trade?” asked Mr. Bredon, innocently. “If one of them got all the sales, the others would go bankrupt.”

        “Oh, no, they wouldn’t,” said Mr. Armstrong. “They’d merely amalgamate. But it would be bad for us, because then they’d all use the same agency.”

        “Well, what about it, then?” queried Bredon.

        “We’ve got to cope. We must head them off aeroplanes. For one thing, the boom won’t last. The country isn’t ready to be cluttered up with aeroplanes, and fathers of families are beginning to complain about it. Even today, few fathers care about having private aeroplanes delivered to their daughters in quiet suburban areas. What we want is a new scheme, on similar lines but with more family appeal. But it must boost Britain. We’ve got to have the patriotic note.”

        It was in that moment, and while Chief-Inspector Parker was arguing over the line with the office telephonist, that Mr. Death Bredon conceived that magnificent idea that everybody remembers and talks about today — the scheme that achieved renown as “Whiffling Round Britain” — the scheme that sent up the sales of Whifflets by five hundred per cent in three months and brought so much prosperity to British Hotel-keepers and Road and Rail Transport. It is not necessary to go into details. You have probably Whiffled yourself. You recollect how it was done. You collected coupons for everything — railway fares, charabancs, hotel-bills, theatre-tickets — every imaginable item in a holiday programme. When you had collected enough to cover the period of time you wished to spend in travelling, you took your coupons with you (no sending up to Whifflets, nothing to post or fill in) and started on your tour. At the railway station you presented coupons entitling you to so many miles of first-class travel and received your ticket to the selected town. You sought your hotel (practically all the hotels in Britain fell eagerly in with the scheme) and there presented coupons entitling you to so many nights’ board and lodging on special Whifflet terms. For your charabanc outings, your sea-bathing, your amusements, you paid in Whifflet coupons. It was all exceedingly simple and trouble-free. And it made for that happy gregariousness which is the joy of the travelling middle-class. When you asked for your packet of Whifflets in the bar, your next-door neighbour was almost sure to ask, “Are you Whiffling too?” Whiffling parties arranged to Whiffle together, and exchanged Whifflet coupons on the spot. The great Whifflers’ Club practically founded itself, and Whifflers who had formed attachments while Whiffling in company, secured special Whifflet coupons entitling them to a Whifflet wedding with a Whifflet cake and their photographs in the papers. When this had happened several times, arrangements were made by which Whiffler couples could collect for a Whifflet house, whose Whifflet furniture included a handsome presentation smoking cabinet, free from advertising matter and crammed with unnecessary gadgets. After this, it was only a step to a Whifflet Baby. In fact, the Whifflet Campaign is and remains the outstanding example of Thinking Big in Advertising. The only thing that you cannot get by Whiffling is a coffin; it is not admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article.

  46. Nick says:

    One thing about the impact of names that this post makes me wonder about is something I saw (can’t remember where, Freakonomics maybe) where all else equal black people get worse outcomes in the labor market, but that this effect seems only to apply to black people with black names. Now I wonder about that kind of study’s replicability.

  47. Jill says:

    People who are big on rationality, do want for the subconscious to be far less powerful. But such folks seem to make their choices based on emotional reasons or needs, and then to justify them with rationality after the fact, just like everyone else.

    If people were making rational choices, and didn’t ever sabotage themselves, and didn’t have trouble making rational sense of their own behaviors, no one would go to psychotherapists to begin with. But they do.

    Scott, I wonder, if the unconscious was proven to not be very powerful, what would that do for you? Make you right and the Freudians wrong, of course, which might be satisfying? And make you more comfortable being the kind of therapist you are, which is obviously not Freudian? Or maybe you will be more comfortable in being like most psychiatrists, who only give out pills and bits of common sense advice, to patients who have appointments once a month or less. You really don’t need to justify doing that, though. Most psychiatrists do that, without feeling any need for justification whatsoever. Many tell their patients that they don’t believe in psychotherapy, without even looking at the research at all.

    I’m not necessarily expecting you to answer these questions, at least not to me. But maybe you might want to think about them yourself.

    Freudian psychotherapy has a strong placebo effect on the therapist– not so much on the patient. So Freudian therapists would never admit the unconscious wasn’t powerful, even if there were solid evidence that it wasn’t. If you are planning on convincing your Freudian friends to see things your way, that’s about as likely as your convincing all the commenters on this site to start voting Democrat from now on. Beliefs in therapeutic schools of thought are like religions, and politics. Usually not subject to change.

    I believe that the subconscious has tremendous power, but not in the ways that strict Freudian therapists think. I find them rather rigid. There are lots of other schools of psychology that view the subconscious as powerful too, in various ways.

    • J says:

      I care much more about what’s actually true than what anyone wants to be true. And I read this blog because Scott tries to find out what’s true rather than just telling us what he wishes.

      • Jill says:

        Do you? Does he? I find more evidence for the opposite propositions– that people care so much about what they want to be true, that it is often hard for them to even see what really is true. I would be surprised if you had never experienced that.

        Sometimes Scott tries to find out what’s true, rather than just telling us what he wishes. But like most other people who think they are scientifically oriented, he looks for studies that support his point of view– although he admits that he does this and that he may be ignoring others that do not support his point of view. Admitting it is the unusual part here.

        Humans are beings capable of infinite self delusion.

        Our news media situation pretty much proves that most of us are this way, at least in the U.S. News media are able to make a living by being very polarized– by feeding viewers/listeners/readers ONLY the facts that are consistent with their own particular political narrative and never any facts or perspectives that would seem to disconfirm their customers’ preconceived political narrative. That’s the standard way of covering news nowadays.

        • J says:

          Nah, the idea that people are unconsciously biased was recently debunked. Check it out: http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/08/25/devoodooifying-psychology

        • “News media are able to make a living by being very polarized– by feeding viewers/listeners/readers ONLY the facts that are consistent with their own particular political narrative ”

          I’m curious as to what conclusions you reach from this observation with regard to yourself.

          Since, by your account, you are being fed only facts consistent with your particular political narrative, do you conclude that you should have very little confidence in your political beliefs–that it’s entirely possible that AGW isn’t a problem, racial discrimination isn’t the reason blacks have lower incomes than whites, … ?

          Or do you think that you, unlike almost everyone else, have found a way of avoiding the implications of your description of the media? Do you, for instance, make an effort to read media sources aimed at other parts of the political spectrum and check up on the facts that they, and the media targeted at you, assert?

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Do you, for instance, make an effort to read media sources aimed at other parts of the political spectrum

            She has occasionally claimed to do so. I don’t remember any pointers to articles that exemplify that, but I might have missed them or forgotten them.

            One thing I like about Scott is that he does read things he disagrees with, and sometimes has long posts about why he disagrees with them. Of course, it’s hard to do that in a blog comment (as opposed to a top-level blog posting) without being tiresome. I don’t think I’ve ever done that myself, for instance, but this realization spurs me to look for opportunities. (Batten down the hatches for tiresomeness.)

        • houseboatonstyxb says:

          @ Jill
          at least in the U.S. News media are able to make a living by being very polarized– by feeding viewers/listeners/readers ONLY the facts that are consistent with their own particular political narrative and never any facts or perspectives that would seem to disconfirm their customers’ preconceived political narrative.

          I blame the Internet. 😉 When it was only ABC, CBS, and NBC, who could afford to offer free, easy, national and world news — and only if the network reached a very large number of viewers — there was more incentive to be firstest with the mostest of, yanno, actual news. Get it first, but first get it right.

          The big networks couldn’t afford much partisan ship or they would lose the big centrist majority of viewers (plus the calm and open-minded of all sides). Accuracy was a big point they could compete on, and quality counted more also.

          Now, with easier setup of new news sources, the easier thing to compete on is how partisan they can be.

          What I don’t know is, what has become of the old centrist majority. What are they viewing (or reading!) now? And, I suppose, how many of us are left?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Ideological and other sorting of parties does a fair amount of damage to centrism, both real and imagined, I would think.

            Some people thought they were centrists because the found both Republicans and Democrats they agreed with, but now find all of the people they agreed with in one of the parties have disappeared.

            Some people who would have been centrists, but also died in the wool Republicans or Democrats, have found that they value party unity more than ideological centrism, and have followed their party to the right or left.

          • The Nybbler says:

            It’s not the Internet’s fault. The big three were always establishment left. Then along came Fox News appealing to the right, and that’s what tore it all apart.

    • Selerax says:

      Scott did his homework and supported his argument with data.

      IMO, if you want to make an effective counterpoint, you need to do the same.

    • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

      When we seek in PUBMED to find the peer-reviewed articles on Freudian psychology that “are the strongest, most nearly certain, most universal, and most far-sighted” (per a previous comment), we find no shortage of articles that provide strong support to Jill’s opinions.

      Very many (almost all?) SSC readers will be in sympathy with “Psychoanalysis in crisis: the danger of ideology” (PMID:26080096, 2015)

      Psychoanalysis is in crisis. Its prestige with the public has plummeted, as well as its economic viability and even its population. There are fewer analytic candidates and fewer patients, less insurance coverage, less presence in departments of psychiatry, and less prestige among the traditional academic disciplines. Analysts are getting older, and there are fewer and fewer young ones to replace us. A once-fascinated public now distrusts analysts as unscientific, deluded, authoritarian, reactionary, arrogant, sexist, and/or passé.

      This paper examines some causes of this decline within psychoanalysis itself as well as possibilities for reform. The status of psychoanalysis as a science is in question, although Freud considered it as an empirical science, and modified his theories to fit new facts. In reality, however, transmission of psychoanalytic knowledge in the training analyst system has led to its perpetuation as an ideology, rather than a science, and to the formation of oligarchies in the structure of psychoanalytic organizations and some institutes.

      Psychoanalysis is nothing if not an exploratory endeavor, and it thrives in an open environment. Psychoanalytic theory becomes ideology when exploration, testing, and challenge are suppressed. There are many analysts for whom psychoanalysis is neither ideology or theology, but an intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding human and humane endeavor, where convention is enlivened by creative challenge, and innovation is disciplined by tradition. In that form, it is too valuable to lose.

      It is time for us to step back and reclaim our citizenship in the larger intellectual world of curiosity, creativity, and freedom.

      It’s commendable that psychoanalytic community is embracing such unflinching self-criticism, isn’t it?

      The scientific and historical foundations for this foreseen reinvigoration of psychoanalysis are surveyed in “Freud and the Human Connectome” (PMID:27252038, 2016):

      More than a century ago, Freud envisioned a psychological science that would elucidate the biological underpinnings of mental phenomena, both conscious and unconscious. Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology had the ‘intention to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction’

      Freud’s eagerness to elucidate the biological underpinnings of mental processes was also evident by his drawings, depicting neurons and deterministic relationships among perceptions, unconscious drives, and behaviours.

      There’s no shortage of optimism; see for example “Freud’s ‘Project’: the Mind-Brain connection revisited” (PMID:26938800, 2016)

      Freud’s “Project for a Scientific Psychology” (1895) reflected his attempt to explain psychic phenomena in neurobiological terms. The recent discovery of the neuron motivated him to embark on this endeavor. His basic hypothesis was that neurons were vehicles for the conduction of “currents” or “excitations,” and that they were connected to one another.

      Using this model, Freud attempted to describe a number of mental phenomena, including: consciousness, perception, affect, self, cognition, dreaming, memory, and symptom formation. However, he was unable to complete his exploration of these mental processes because he lacked the information and technology that became available over the following century.

      Subsequent discoveries, including fMRIs, PET scans, EEGs, synapses, neural networks, genetic factors, neurotransmitters, and discrete brain circuits facilitated a significant expansion of our knowledge of mind-brain phenomena. As a result, effective pharmacological treatments have been developed for schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders. Moreover, changes in brain function can be measured that reflect successful pharmacologic and psychotherapeutic treatment. Despite these advances, there remain limitations in our understanding of the relationship between mind and brain functions. More than a century after Freud began the “Project,” the neurobiology underlying the phenomena of consciousness, unconsciousness, qualities of subjective feelings, thoughts, and memories is still not fully understood.

      Can we expect to reach a more comprehensive integration of mind and its neurobiological substrate a century from now? The purpose of this article is to update our knowledge of the neurobiology associated with the specific mental functions that Freud examined in the “Project,” and to pose questions concerning mind-brain phenomena that will hopefully be answered in the future.

      In light of this accelerating flood of scientifically vigorous, socially forward-looking, and culturally creative psychoanalytic literature, the sterile rationalist ideology that human cognition is (or ever could be) exclusively a process of deductive ratiocination stands revealed as limited and weak, isn’t it?

      Whereas the cognitive universe of the 21st century’s continuation of “Freud’s Project” is vast indeed! 🙂

      Think about it: is the rationality community any less in crisis than the psychoanalytic community, for reasons that are essentially identical? The world wonders!

  48. Jill says:

    Psychedelics seem to affect the unconscious a lot, often changing the personality in ways that the person did not consciously try to change it at all. The unconscious is said to be the “iceberg”– the by far largest part of the mind– and the conscious is said to be like the tiny part of the iceberg that we can see above the surface of the ocean. And many psychedelic experiences seem to their experiencers to confirm that.

    Interesting article here about the Beatles and psychedelics. LSD changed their music, and their lives.

    http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/beatles-revolver-how-lsd-opened-the-door-to-a-masterpiece-w436062

  49. Jill says:

    Beatles song where they made sound effects that were similar in some ways to their experiences taking LSD.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etN0h_e5rvI

  50. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if this situation can be improved with changes to graduate psychology training. Make graduate students run replication studies of published studies as part of their training as researchers. Publicize the findings in the same journals as the original studies were published.

  51. Steve Sailer says:

    “Second, unconscious social priming. Supposedly people who heard the word “retirement” walked more slowly for a while afterwards, because “retirement” primed their thoughts of old people, and old people primed their thoughts of being slow, and so for a while they themselves behaved like an old person.”

    I believe in priming.

    Christopher Nolan’s movie “Memento” primed to be believe as I came out of the theater that I’d never be able to remember where I parked my car. The Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” primed me for that night and the next night to worry as I walked down quiet streets that an unstoppable assassin was lurking in the darkness. Michel Gondry’s and Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” primed me as I walked to my car to feel like I had contracted with a low rent small business to have my memories erased.

    So priming exists, but it’s an art rather than a science.

    Art doesn’t necessarily replicate. Art wears off. Art gets old and familiar and loses its impact. Sometimes art doesn’t work initially: the audience isn’t ready for it yet.

    • LPSP says:

      I’m not sure you can call states so conscious “primed”.

      • wysinwyg says:

        That’s one way to look at it. Another is that conscious examinations of any of those effects would reveal a lack of plausible causal mechanisms (watching a movie about an amnesiac does not typically cause amnesia), and so the effect must be unconscious.

        I suspect the real problem is a lack of a hard boundary between “conscious” and “unconscious” phenomena. Perhaps the graph of “mental phenomena” in “thingspace” can be roughly separated into conscious and unconscious modes, but there is a lot of overlap and thus a lot of scope for lumping various phenomena one way or the other. That would explain a lot about this discussion.

        • LPSP says:

          Maybe I’m being dopey as of typing this, but I can’t figure for the devil of me how this comment relates to mine. If Steve consciously decides that he will forget his car’s location after watching Memento, it’s a choice. Steve is following an incentive of his that he wouldn’t have noticed without first watching the movie. That’s not priming, that’s how hypnosis works. An authority figure compels a mark to do things they didn’t know they’d be amenable to do.

          Humans are not born knowing their utility function or incentives, and given that many humans are born without curiousity they may never know unless the world goes out of its way to make them know. But unacknowledged, or even willfully buried, incentives continue to influence people nevertheless. Consciousness is just knowing and accepting these incentives as a part of your identity.

          Maybe “priming” exists, then, in the form of stimulus with the accidental property of very obviously compelling some unknown motive, like a code word used to awaken a sleeper agent. Only there is no Mother Russia, only Mother Nature, cruelly playing pranks on people’s psyche.

          • wysinwyg says:

            If Steve consciously decides that he will forget his car’s location after watching Memento, it’s a choice. Steve is following an incentive of his that he wouldn’t have noticed without first watching the movie.

            Fascinating. Your mental landscape must look a lot different from mine:
            -“Forgetting” is not the sort of thing I’m able to choose to do or not do*. Either I’m able to remember something or I’m not; volition and willpower have essentially nothing to do with it. It’s more akin to noticing or not noticing something. Like thinking about the white bear in the corner, willing oneself not to (consciously) notice something seems like a paradox to me.
            -Describing Steve’s state of mind as an “incentive” here doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. What does Steve gain from following this “incentive”? If nothing, why would he follow it?
            -It seems obvious that there was at least some chance that Steve would forget where he parked had he watched a different film that has nothing at all to do with memory. But your causal story seems to make this just about impossible. If every act of forgetfulness is actually a conscious choice, why does anyone ever forget anything? And if that’s the case, why do we so rarely remember that we are forgetting?

            *Well, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I can tell myself “forget about it”, but I think that’s a little different from forgetting I left my keys in the doorknob.

            But unacknowledged, or even willfully buried, incentives continue to influence people nevertheless. Consciousness is just knowing and accepting these incentives as a part of your identity.

            In what sense can unacknowledged or willfully buried incentives count as “consciousness”? And you don’t think it’s possible to be consciously aware of the fact of a subconscious effect without it also still having a subconscious effect? E.g., I can consciously be aware that advertising impacts my buying patterns without necessarily being any less susceptible to subconscious effects advertising (as a logical possibility, at least).

          • LPSP says:

            Landscape is a funny word to use for what is akin to a set of internal organs.

            Of course you can decide to forget something. Forgetting is not remembering, and remembering is an act. Maybe you happen to have a strong incentive to always remember anything and everything wherever possible – or at least you believe you do. Regardless, Steve clearly does not, whether he knew it before or after he watched Memento.

            “willing oneself not to (consciously) notice something seems like a paradox to me.”
            (for some reason I can’t use the normal quotes and italics system so “” will have to do)
            That’s because you are unaware of other’s incentives. Many people not only lack curiosity as a primary driver, but have many other motives that compel them to be wilfully ignorant and drive things from their minds. Odds are, unless the acquisition of more knowledge is completely monodominant to your psyche, there’d be a set of circumstances under which you’d be willing to put a stimulus out of your mind and never remember it as well.

            “What does Steve gain from following this “incentive”?”
            I’m sorry, do I look like Steve? You’d have to ask him. He probably doesn’t know either.

            “If every act of forgetfulness is actually a conscious choice”
            Definitely didn’t say this.

            “In what sense can unacknowledged or willfully buried incentives count as “consciousness”?”

            They can’t, which is why I said that acknowledging them and incorporating them into one’s identity is… how they become conscious.

            “E.g., I can consciously be aware that advertising impacts my buying patterns without necessarily being any less susceptible to subconscious effects advertising (as a logical possibility, at least).”

            Of course yes. The question is, do you actually admit that you like it? That it’s you, and not the advertising, that makes you want to buy the well-marketed brand over the identical cheaper product?

  52. Anonymous says:

    As someone who has been subjected to something like brainwashing, I feel compelled to chime in in dissent. I understand that people will be inclined to disregard a sample size of one, and I won’t be returning to elaborate on any of this, but I’m going to briefly share my experiences.

    There as at least one drug that can be administered, and it was given to me surreptitiously in a beer, that will make a subject highly suggestible for days and weeks. It is strongest shortly after digestion and gradually wears off, but the effects, for me, persisted for more than a decade. I was given this while in the military, just before the start of the second Gulf War. The initial effect is to cause the person to do whatever is asked, the loss of free will, essentially. Over time, days to weeks, this wears off, but the person’s thinking will be altered for many years such that she/he will find themselves responding in ways that are out of character. It becomes clear after the mind has cleared that ideas and beliefs have been planted during that initial period that influence the person todo and say things that they otherwise would not. It’s true that the individual won’t believe differently, but the effect is very much the same in those moments when the person says or does things they never would otherwise.

    I realize that this might not be convincing and that I’m maybe not expressing what happened to me in the most effective way. My purpose, though, is simply to tell my story the best I can, if imperfectly. This happened to me. It destroyed my life.

    • Your account would be more convincing if you named the drug, since then readers could check other sources of information to see if it has the effect you describe.

  53. LPSP says:

    Some results – like cognitive biases, sales techniques or eyewitness unreliability – sort of fall under the heading of “power of unconscious effects”, but seem subtly different – maybe because of a less agentic unconscious?

    The appeal to internal incentives is the crucial thread here. Things like hypnosis, and the broader category of mysticism and demagoguery that contains it, all work by appealing to inherent compulsions that the target – or if we’re being real, the mark – has not observed and confronted in themselves, whether by deliberate avoidance and denial or sheer naivete. People want to feel like they can get better with only a little intervention and a nod-n-a-wink from the man in the white coat, so sugar pills work.

    For each voodooism presented in the post, ask yourselves which demographic would be most incentivised to “just go along” with the effect. Which would be most open to the suggestion that “reading lots of books is why I don’t do anything”, or “my body is weak because of an evil old person the town across”?

    • wysinwyg says:

      Things like hypnosis, and the broader category of mysticism and demagoguery that contains it, all work by appealing to inherent compulsions that the target – or if we’re being real, the mark – has not observed and confronted in themselves, whether by deliberate avoidance and denial or sheer naivete.

      I wonder how this translates into the premise that essentially all mental phenomena operate at the conscious level. Is it possible that people have compulsions that they “have not observed and confronted in themselves” if essentially all mental phenomena are conscious in nature?

      • LPSP says:

        It completely does not. The term “conscious level” carries no meaning, as consciousness is an act, specifically self-consideration and observation.

        If we were to describe acts which take places in environments that permit visibility (ie most environments) as occuring on the “visualised level”, and those that take place in darkness by whatever means as on the “unvisualised level”, it would be apt to use conscious and unconscious that way. But we don’t because it sounds confusing and muddles the concept of visual perception. Similarly, taking about conscious and unconscious levels muddles the concept of thought.

        Organisms act whether they know they are going to do so or not. Conscious acts are ones that we recognise with our inward-seeking capacity, the same way visible acts are those we recognise with our eyes. That a lot of people perform actions of which they have little consciousness just means most people either lack the means to introspect, or lack the incentive to do so, or have strong incentives against it. I’d definitely bet more money on those last two possibilities.

  54. PsychBrief says:

    Really good post, I think for a while I went too far in my belief about the power of the unconscious mind to shape our behaviour. I agree that we should try and specify the unconscious more, make it more precise. You mention stereotype threat so you might be interested in my post on the subject: https://psychbrief.com/2015/12/21/thats-not-quite-right-stereotype-threat/

  55. Carl Shulman says:

    Regarding growth mindset, there is now a larger pre-registered replication by the PERTS group (although they only report some of the things they pre-registered in the paper, they do replicate the positive findings from the previous paper) reporting the intervention improving short-term GPA and course failure for students with previously low GPAs with little indication of improvement among students with previously high GPAs.

    http://web.stanford.edu/~paunesku/articles/yeager_2016-national-pilot.pdf

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Where by “growth mindset” you mean “Dweck”? The paper Scott wrote about before was a refutation of the growth mindset hypothesis. It demonstrated that the putative growth mindset intervention had no effect on growth mindset, but maybe worked through an effect on another mindset. Is this the same intervention? Than replicating its effect is not evidence for the claim that growth mindset is a useful construct.

  56. I am far more convinced (from experience of myself and of others) that ego depletion is real than anything concerning any or all of these studies. So if ego depletion is “disproven” by them, that suggests to me that your method of disproving is flawed from the start. So it is very possible that some of the others are correct as well.

    • LPSP says:

      Ego depletion is most Occam’s Razor-ly explained that certain people claim to have a high ego for the sake of social acceptance, appeasing a percieved majority or authority or maintaining status, and so put on a relatively egotistical act. Like all performances, this becomes draining over time. The people in question are deeply in denial, and so seem to find that their egos are literally wearing thin. In reality, individuals with large egos keep on chugging because to them, egoism is it’s own reward. If they’re tired, they cut back on other things to allow for their ego to bloom.

      On the whole, the phenomenon is real, but the theory people have attached to it strikes me as spurious.

      • onyomi says:

        Wait, what? I thought ego depletion was just about willpower?

        • Yes, I was talking about willpower, not about being egotistical or whatever.

        • LPSP says:

          The fact that the terminology around ego depletion is confusing is another strike against it. In a sense, this is a potayto-potahto situation – individuals who tell themselves that “this is who I am and I want to do this!” for the sake of acceptance/appeasement suddenly find their iron-clad will eroding after a while because it’s difficult to keep up the act – especially to themselves.

          • I have never ever heard anyone besides yourself speak of ego depletion in that way. That is a strike against your understanding of ego depletion, not against the concept.

          • LPSP says:

            You haven’t heard anyone talk of ego depletion in terms of losing self-commitment? Sounds like a strike against your awareness to me.

          • Originally mentioned ego depletion in the context of having a “high ego” which is quite different from self commitment.

            That said, you may be unaware of the fact that ego depletion happens even with respect to private commitments that no one else knows about. E.g. you tell yourself that you will do something in private every evening, without telling or promising anyone, and without the possibility of anyone even finding out whether you are doing it or not. Then you come home work tired every evening and don’t feel like doing it, so you don’t.

            That has nothing whatsoever to do with approval from people, since it is not affected by it. It simply means that you don’t always carry out the things that you planned, because you are too tired to exercise your will in that way. This is ego depletion, and it is a manifest fact of experience.

  57. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Does placebo work for subjective outcomes other than pain? I’d at least expect it to have some effect on, say, fatigue.

  58. Vilgot Huhn says:

    “Implicit association tests probably don’t work (1, 2, 3, 4). That is, people who have “implicit racial biases” according to the tests are not more racist in everyday life than people who don’t.”

    I believe this is an exaggeration. Linked meta-analysis describe IAT as poor predictors of racial discrimination; which is a different thing from not predictors. See this article from team IAT (Greenwald, Nosek, Banaji) comparing one of the meta-analyses you linked and their earlier meta-analysis. Differences in effect size appear to mostly be about different inclusion-criteria, that is team IAT excluded studies where there was no theoretical reason to expect a correlation between IAT-score and outcome. They argue that both inclusion critera are valid but provide answers to slightly different questions, so to speak.

    Importantly they agree that the IAT doesn’t work in one sense, being that it shouldn’t be used to “diagnose” racism:

    IAT measures have two properties that render them problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination. Those two properties are modest test–retest reliability (for the IAT, typically between r = .5 and r = .6; cf., Nosek et al., 2007) and small to moderate predictive validity effect sizes. Therefore, attempts to diagnostically use such measures for individuals risk undesirably high rates of erroneous classifications

    But this doesn’t mean that implicit racism isn’t a thing that’s relevant at a societal level. People with implicit biases do act more racist in their everyday life. Both meta-analyses show this, they just frame it differently (though to be fair I’ve only read the one I’m linking, sorry, I don’t have time today). To me it’s unclear how differentiated this is from the biases people are explicitly aware of, but the subconscious doesn’t have to be completely inaccessible to introspection be relevant/interesting, it just has to be automatic.

    • Gravitas Shortfall says:

      Exactly – high IAT scores don’t necessarily translate to discrimination, and that IAT scores don’t predict discrimination is entirely consistent with current thinking about stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

      The IAT is a tool for education first and foremost, in my opinion.

  59. Lila says:

    The idea that small environmental stimuli can have big effects on people’s lives is a priori implausible… but so is the idea of genetic factors having big effects on behavior. Typical genome-wide association studies (GWAS) look for changes of individual letters in the genome. Many of these changes occur in non-protein-coding regions of the genome. In regulatory regions, a single letter change might lead to slightly reduced binding of a particular regulatory protein, leading to reduced production of another protein. In other regions of the genome, we have no idea what (if anything) results from changes to the DNA sequence. More straightforward effects result from changes to protein-coding regions (i.e. genes). A single letter change may have no effect, it may change a single amino acid in a protein, it may change multiple amino acids, or it may truncate the protein. Different amino acids have different chemical properties, so a change in amino acid will lead to a slightly different structure for the protein. This will change how the protein catalyzes chemical reactions. Now you tell me how that leads to increased generosity.

    This isn’t to say that genetic associations are wrong (I think that many GWAS results are spurious, but most diseases have a large genetic component). But a priori they’re no less implausible than earthquakes leading to divorce.