Facts Don’t Matter – How Friends and Evolution Work Against Them


If you haven’t seen the movie Inception, Cobb (the main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at breaking into people’s minds to steal their deepest secrets. He is also the only person capable of not just learning what’s in the minds of his subjects, but in extreme cases he can break into a person’s mind and plant ideas – thoughts that they think they have thought up of their own volition and processes. Such is the primary plot of Inception. Cobb breaks in and plants ideas and then runs off with the target being none the wiser to how the thought got there or why they have this new view of the world.

From the trailer of the 2000 Hollywood movie Inception, we get this summative exchange between Cobb and Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) where Cobb is explaining how/why inception works:

Cobb: Create the world of the dream. You bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their secrets.
Ariadne: Then you break in and steal it.
Cobb: It’s not, strictly speaking, legal. …It’s called Inception. … Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange.

The dream world is not completely disconnected from reality. We bring elements back and forth over the border of each.

Leo, Mind Control, and Social Networks

Inception is, in its character, the same as Aritstotle’s enthymeme, or a truncated syllogism. In laymen’s terms, an enthymeme conceals the premise or the conclusion in an argument. It’s akin to asking why you stopped kicking your dog. Regardless of how you answer, in the listeners’ minds the premise/conclusion has already been proven – this guy is an animal abuser (and probably a mass murderer to boot!). You are planting the beginning of a thought into the minds of the audience [incepting], a thought that the audience then fills in based on either the immediate context or what they may already be inclined to believe about the topic at hand. There is an ethics to discourse, and many an ethicist would argue that this type of rhetoric is not so nice. But that’s not to say that all inception nor all enthymeme is bad.

Inception happens all the time. Enthymemes float in and through our ears nearly every waking moment of our lives. But so what? What’s this got to do with me? And what does this have to do with facts? Well, enthymemes and inception cuts both ways: it leads a listener to believe something, and it can also obfuscate a logical conclusion. It’s important to be able to identify what strategies people are using (and to be able to ethically use these strategies yourself).

Most of us don’t know “the facts” of most topics. In fact, most of us are passionate about causes, issues, movements about which we know very few details (see above). We are social creatures and we hop on whatever bandwagon the cool kids (or at least the kids we like) are riding on. This is as true for someone buying computer hardware as it is for political movements. The “facts” of computer hardware superiority or political hot button topic are formed not by diligent pursuit of truth but by social convenience.

So if you’re trying to persuade somebody based on “facts” – especially if your interlocutor has a proclivity for “alternatives” – you will not move them. You cannot. Why? Because when you attack their facts you are attacking their beliefs, their worldview…you are attacking their social connections, their friends, family, and favorite news source.

There is a name for this phenomenon, Cultural Cognition (see also here). This concept comes from an enormous body of scholarly/legal work that examines why people believe what they believe. Cultural Cognition proposes that “People endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments.” On the surface Cultural Cognition explains group think based on peer group affinity. Go a level deeper and Cultural Cognition offers an explanation for why a devout Christian might deny climate change or evolution (because to accept that either man is controlling God’s creation or that God did not take a rib from Adam to make Eve is world-shattering). It also explains why a devoted egalitarian or socialist might deny economic benefits of a pipeline (because to accept the pipeline as good means subjugating the rights of indigenous peoples goes against their moral code and is world-shattering).

Again to this question of So What? I’m not Cobb. You’re not Ariadne (are you?!). We’re not building dream worlds and going in and stealing or incepting things in other people’s resting brains. Most of us do not effectively engage across the aisle very effectively. And part of the reason why is because our “engagement” often devolves into an attack on the others worldview, their peer group even. An elegant salesperson isn’t pitching you her product. She’s engaging you in a conversation in which you share a mutually beneficial outcome by understanding what you’re trying to accomplish.

What happens if we start approaching all of our conversations with this simple question of So What? What are the implications? And what happens if we have the discipline to compel meaningful answers – even if that answer is “I don’t know”?

The Facts of Selling

How do you sell someone on something? How does someone sell you? How do you get mind share with someone? Or how does someone get mind share with you? Though we don’t like to admit it, chances are our affinity group “persuades” us to believe certain things. Hopefully, if our ability to reason has evolved enough, we are able to accept certain objective truths…and sniff out whatever remains.

Decades of research reveal that it is via our peer groups (or our deeply held world view) that facts can become untwined from objective truths and become the core of one’s subjective beliefs. And thus are born “alternative facts”. But how do realities of people existing in the same world, country, state, town become as like as apples and unicorns?

I’ll tell you: Leonardo DiCaprio, that’s how! Joking aside. Seriously, who cares if some of us live by facts and others live by the gut feelings of our friends? Well, there are implications.

Implications as Action (Asking “So What?”)

The implications for this reality wherein facts are no longer objective truth is widespread whether you’re in sales, marketing, education, government, policy, law, or simply trying to have a holiday meal with your maddening conservative/liberal grandpa or niece. Why might this conversation be maddening? Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is just one reason. But since it is as old as humankind it’s a good one to start with. It evolved with our very ability to reason. Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the New Yorker about the history of confirmation bias in her article, Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. In reporting on the findings of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, she retells the following:

Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

[Reason evolved to] prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

Facts actually do NOT matter to many people. In part because reason often fails us. And in part because we’re all primarily worried about fitting into a peer group and not looking like the jackass.

As Mercier and Sperber write, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.” I suppose that’s a cognitive scientist’s way of hurling a very mild, if too-generic-to-bite, burn at those who are unmoved by facts. But what are the implications of fact refusal?

Whether you call it Confirmation Bias, Cultural Cognition, or something else, the implications of our lack of detailed knowledge, the implications of not knowing facts beyond the headlines, are that we end up with climate change deniers; we end up with people who believe all Muslims are violent; we end up with people who believe immigrants are destroying our country, and we end up with people who believe that Donald Trump can take our country further into the 21st century (or take us back to the 20th century depending on if you’re a coal miner or isolationist or …).

These are global impacts to fact refusal. But there are more local impacts to these ways of the mind as well. Think about your ability to effectively market your services or sell a product or convince your brother-in-law that the odds of being killed by a refugee terrorist are 1 in 6.3billion. You may be a newcomer going up against an incumbent with your product or service in the marketplace. How do you “incept” into a buyer’s mind the notion that your product is better? How do you persuade your brother-in-law that his life is not in danger by the hands of a Syrian immigrant?

Where to start?

One way to start is to pose simple questions to help walk your target through the product (or topic) at hand by asking them to think about implications.

  • What, Mr. Customer, are you trying to do?
  • How are you doing things now?
  • What are your plans for doing things differently to achieve your goal?
  • So what? What are the implications if you do/don’t pursue your objective right now?

We are all sales people – whether we’re hawking medical devices, software, cars, insurance, books, a candidate, a cause…

To incept our customer first we must get into their heads first by listening. Once you’re able to listen then you have a place to work from. Work towards getting them to be open to the idea that maybe they don’t have all the facts. And work towards getting yourself to understand the position from which they are coming. In other words, work on having a dialogue (not a monologue).

Think about the next Sunday dinner you have with that obstinate liberal/conservative ideologue and how you can have a mutually thoughtful conversation about [insert controversial topic]. Think about asking:

  • What are you trying to accomplish/prevent with (insert policy)?
  • How are you/we doing things now?
  • What are the plans for doing things differently?
  • So what? What are the implications of moving ahead/not moving ahead with your side’s policy/legislation/etc.?

Don’t let them off the hook. And don’t cheat by letting yourself off the hook. Listen. Stay on topic. If you’re selling software you and your target customer aren’t going to all of a sudden start talking about Pop-Tarts or diversity in the workplace or which news source reported what. You’re going to talk about the problem the customer is trying to solve and how together you think you can solve it. Stay on point.

Why stay on point? Because, as Kolbert explains, “people believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people.” Don’t let them rely on the fact that other people believe X. Why do THEY believe X? Chances are we believe something because others believe something. This is a result of our human nature to collaborate:

So well do we collaborate, [cognitive scientists Stephen] Sloman and [Philip] Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins. … “One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor,” they write, is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge” and “those of other members” of the group. … This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress.

Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views.

Our passion for a topic is independent of our actual knowledge of the topic. How confounding! But if I have two friends who believe something, or know of two other successful companies who have subscribed to the service you’re selling against, guess what…these peer connections are going to dominate whatever facts you come at me with. The common thread across beliefs is social network. Getting passed that is a tall task. An effective way to sidestep the peer group is by making the taxing mental investment to work through the implications of a policy proposal as opposed to pontificating on the matter. Such will do more good at uncovering the fallacies of our respective thinking than simply trying to sell someone on taking a new position based on reasoned, factual argumentation.

Perhaps don’t try to prove that you know everything about a topic. But rather help someone else (including yourself) realize how much more there is for them to know, especially in relation to the implications.

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