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How to Stop Getting Suckered By People Who Agree With You

To overcome confirmation bias, become more resistant to pandering.

Key points

  • It's easy to spot the rhetorical pandering in arguments we disagree with than in arguments we agree with.
  • An education in critical thinking doesn't protect us against rhetoric that we want to believe because it affirms us.
  • Better protection comes from learning rhetoric and critical thinking, spin and unspin, AND how to apply both even-handedly.
  • If you can spot the rhetorical pandering in arguments you agree with, you're well on your way to pander-proofing yourself.

"I was duped, an innocent victim of brainwashing! They kept telling me things I wanted to hear, things that I agreed with that turned out to be wrong. They manipulated me! I was gaslit with flattery. It's so unfair! All those wasted years! I don't want to be tricked like that again!"

It’s easy to spot a total jerk who disagrees with you, but what about total jerks who are on your side? For example, would you be able to spot a total jerk politician who spoke movingly in favor of your heart-of-hearts priorities? Would you support them? If so, what’s the difference between you and your opponents who support total jerk politicians?

What makes someone a total jerk? Is it that you disagree with them? That’s the intuitive answer: A butthead is anyone with whom we butt heads. By that definition, all of our opponents are total jerks. What does that get us? Butthead-on-butthead battles – opposing factions each sure their rivals are the real total jerks.

Try this reframing of the question: Would you support a politician who pandered to your every whim? I wouldn’t because it’s pandering, seduction, rhetoric, spin – an attempt to sucker me into believing that they care about what I care about when they don’t. But would I be able to tell that they were pandering to me? If so, how?

Resistance to pandering or rhetoric doesn’t come naturally to any of us. We’ve each got our biases, our gut appetites. When someone figures out what we want, they can pander to us. The hungry get eaten: People can figure out how to make suckers of us by appealing to our appetites.

Rhetoric doesn't persuade neutral minds any more than sexiness persuades neutral loins. We each have our preferences, our biases about what we hope is true. We seek beliefs that provide relief, not grief. No one just wants the facts. We’re ambivalent about the truth. In pursuit of it, there are goldmines and landmines. We want the truth, but we hope it’s affirming. Chances are, the more eagerly we seek an answer to some question answered, the more we hope the answer will be flattering, not discouraging.

That’s confirmation bias, and it’s universal. I’ve argued elsewhere is the imagination equivalent to what goes on with all organisms. Organisms eat food not poison. They take in what they can use to regenerate themselves and protect against what will degenerate them. Apply that to humans and you get confirmation bias, taking in the ideas that regenerate our mojo, not the ideas that degenerate our mojo.

I think of science as a campaign to overcome confirmation bias. It’s not that science is value-neutral. It’s a campaign that values neutrality with obsessive passion, a campaign biased against bias. It’s a human activity and therefore flooded with biases, researchers, at a minimum hoping that their effort will prove of value. It’s like sports that way, each team and player really wanting to win. Still, the rules of science like the rules of sports keep losers in line.

How then do we get beyond our appetites, so we’re rhetoric resistant? The standard answer is critical thinking. Learn to un-spin rhetorical spin.

I don’t think that’s enough given confirmation bias. We’ll get better at un-spinning our opponents’ opinions and as a result, think we’re great at critical thinking. But we’ll tend to go lighter on scrutinizing our own opinions.

We love fact-checking services when they debunk the opinions we disagree with. We don’t love them when they debunk our opinion. Indeed, that’s a problem with the dream that fact-checking services will save humanity from delusion. The delusional aren’t interested in checking their facts. All they have to do is declare fact-checking “fake news” and they can check right out.

In the Renaissance, liberal arts education was grounded in rhetoric and logic. I like that. It’s not just an education in how to un-spin with logic. It’s how to spin with rhetoric and unspin with logic or critical thinking.

I think the best and most challenging way to learn rhetoric and logic is by learning how to spin and unspin evenhandedly. When I’ve taught critical thinking, I’ve had students first write down something they truly believe and then present a persuasive case against their beliefs. I’ve had them pick apart rhetoric that supports what they believe. It’s easy to make a case for what you believe and against what you don’t believe. The opposite is much harder. If you can find the rhetorical flaws in arguments that feed your appetites, you’ll be more pandering-proofed. If you want to be. Many people don’t.