Enjoy this interview with Scott Adams, which is one of ten interviews in from the new book Hoaxed: The Truth About Fake News. Scott Adams discusses his newest book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.
Who are you and what are you about?
I am Scott Adams. I’m the creator of the Dilbert comic strip and, for the last two years, I’ve been writing a lot about President Trump’s powers of persuasion. I’m a trained hypnotist and have studied persuasion for decades for my work, and in him I noticed a special set of tools that I’ve been writing about.
It’s interesting you call yourself, “the creator of Dilbert,” because I read your book — it’s a long title, How To Fail At Nearly Everything In Life And Still Win Big — and I’ve been familiar with Dilbert, so when I think of you, I think of you as more of a mindset guy or something else outside of Dilbert.
My brand has changed a little bit, because as I write more about persuasion — and, in particular, as it applies to President Trump — people are starting to know me from that part of my writing and less about the cartoon.
Yes, because I actually recommended — when I read your book on life, essentially — how you really systematized a lot of things that I’ve intuitively sort of recognized and noticed in people. That book kind of took off in the last couple of years.
Yeah. So my book, How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, is about persuasion, in a sense. It’s about how to persuade yourself. It’s about how to reprogram yourself to be more effective. So that was my introduction to the world of persuasion, in terms of the audience’s perception of me.
Yeah, that’s an interesting point…which is that, for example, you talk about mantras in your book. And a mantra is ultimately convincing yourself to believe in yourself.
Affirmations are persuasion. So I guess we would say that fake-, of course, humorous persuasion, too, so making somebody laugh-, I read your article from years ago on what the six elements of humor…
Yeah. So persuasion is in everything. So if you’re communicating, you’re persuading — even if the only thing you’re trying to persuade is that you’re smart, or you want somebody to like you, or think you’re competent. So persuasion is just-, it’s around everything, it’s in everything. And if you don’t recognize it for what it is, you’re missing a big dimension of your-, of your experience.
Now, when you break up persuasion, it seems like a lot of people have weird superstitions about it. Maybe talk about that.
Well, persuasion is scary to people — especially if they think it’s the same as manipulation. Now, I try to-, I try to have a distinction between manipulation and just persuasion based on intent. If your intention is to do something that’s good for you, and bad for someone else, that’s probably manipulation. If it’s in a business context, then both sides are doing it, and you both have commercial grade negotiating skills — well, that’s a little bit fair, because you both know what the game is and you’re both playing. But you certainly wouldn’t want to use persuasion to just do something evil. It’s a tool — and you could do good things with it or evil — just like any other tool.
Is the media trying to persuade us when they share the news?
The media’s persuasion comes in a lot of different forms. One of them is visual. The most persuasive thing is visual. Our visual sense overpowers everything else. So what they choose to show as an image is the message, no matter what the “yak-yak-yak” is that comes over it…no matter what the other words on the screen say. What you remember is what you saw. So if you see the president — let’s say, working with minorities and, you know, them liking him and touching him and and all, being happy — that’s the image that sticks with you. And if you see an image of Melania Trump wearing high heels on the way to a hurricane disaster — of course, it was only the first few steps to the helicopter she wore those heels — but it doesn’t matter what the explanation is. What’s-, what sticks in your head is the picture of the heels. That’s why it was such a big story is there was a picture involved. You take the picture away and there’s no story.
So, with the media, by choosing what image to use, are trying to persuade people about something.
The media is persuading both by visual images, but also by what topics they cover and what they don’t: Who is talking about it, how credible they are, how many times you ask the same question over and over. So you could watch, let’s say, CNN, and then switch back-and-forth between FOX and CNN and you would see the same news. Meaning that the facts would be reported, essentially, the same, but the amount of time they spend talking about one fact, versus the other fact, is completely different. And that’s where all the persuasion is.
Yeah I read a book — I think it’s called, How To [Watch] TV News, or something — by Neil Postman, and a journalist had confessed — this is, I think, a hundred years ago — that if you want to manufacture a crime wave, all you do is start reporting on the crimes that occur every day in any big city.
Yeah, you can-, you can cause some amount of the public to be influenced by just about anything, if you give them enough messages. So, most people are not that influenced by just watching the news, right? They’re already set in their ways and it’s not going to change. But if you’re working on a big population of people over time, and you’re very consistent in your message, you can get five percent of the people to believe anything.
Maybe more than five percent of the people.
Yeah, depending-, depending how good you are — how long you take them and where they started from — you could get more than five percent.
So, the things that people consider important are not the things that are important. They’re the things they’re thinking about. So, whatever you’re thinking about just seems like that’s the big thing because your brain can’t handle everything. You’ve got to-, you’ve got to, you know, filter out the small stuff and decide what you’re focusing on. So, if the media makes you focus on one thing, you’re going to think that’s important, eventually. Even if it isn’t.
Is the media trying to get people to focus on one given subject?
Well, the media right now is sort of split down the middle. People who were sort of left-focused media were anti-Trumpers at this moment than the people who are more pro-Trump. And my observation is that the team that’s out-of-power gets the craziest and has to try the hardest to persuade, because they’re starting from a hole and they’ve got to punch hard. The-, the group that has their person in the White House feels like “business as usual”, and just reports the facts, and that is going to get them further. You know, they’re all, of course, biased on both sides. But the out-of-power side is always going to be the crazy one until the power changes.
One thing I’ve noticed, in media coverage, is that if you have a hundred people — say, at a Trump event — and ninety-nine of them are nice, all the cameras go to one person who maybe isn’t so nice.
The news only cares about the stuff that is visual, that’s violent, is provocative. It’s-it’s the thing that you don’t see. So, there’s no such thing as news about somebody who did the thing that they always do — that they did a little bit better. That’s not news. Somebody’s gotta, you know, break the mold, and the people doing that are the minority. Meaning, if there are a hundred people, one of them might be breaking the law, but they’re going to get all the-, all the camera time.
Do you think that the media created a certain narrative about Trump supporters that maybe wasn’t fair?
I think both sides in the political realm create a cartoon version of the other and try to brand all the people on the other side by that, by the worst few people. So, on the right, the right got branded as a bunch of “KKK racists,” when, in fact, the average Republican is nothing like that. The left is branded as: “You Antifa crazy people with masks,” and, you know, they want to open borders and, you know, get rid of the government. There are very few people on the left who actually would embrace all of that stuff. So it’s really cartoon characters on both sides.
Yeah, I sometimes feel like we’re-, we don’t talk to each other. We talk to the caricature of you that I’m [believing] you really are.
Communication depends primarily — and this is probably the first rule of communication — that it doesn’t matter what someone says. It only matters what you think they were thinking. And if you think somebody is evil, whatever comes out of their mouth is going to sound pretty evil. And if you-, if you think that person is on your side, even if they say something that sounds a little bit evil, you’re going to say, “Uhh, that’s Bob — he doesn’t mean that.”
So [through] our expectations — based, really, on magical thinking in many cases — we imagine we can see what’s in the soul of other people. That’s the most classic mistake you could make, because we’re really terrible at that. I mean, if you’ve ever been in a relationship of any kind, you know that a lot of it is: “Well, I thought you were thinking this, and I figured you were mad, but I couldn’t tell.” You can’t even tell with your loved ones.
We certainly can’t tell with strangers that we’ve never met, [that] we’ve seen on television: “Well, that person has evil in his or her soul and, therefore, I look at their message that way.” So, probably the biggest flaw in our perceptions about other people is that we imagine that we have this clear insight into their soul. You know, they’re, uh, good or bad. And, weirdly, we imagine that these normal people — who would be our friends in any other context — are actually like monsters on the inside. And it’s pretty rare that anybody is actually a monster on the inside.
Yeah, one of the things I actually tell people with my mindset thing is what I call the “STS” method, which is: Stop Telling Stories. Which is, you go to meet somebody, like, “Oh, look at that guy. Oh, but he’s dressed a certain way. Therefore I know what he believes,” and your whole entire interaction is based on this story that you’ve told yourself about this person that you’ve never even met.
There are a couple of things happening with the “branding,” if you will, of Trump supporters. One is that it’s just a normal political process that both sides, you know, brand each other negatively. But, on top of that, we had that surprise election outcome, which was this enormous trigger for cognitive dissonance. It was one-half of the country found out that they weren’t smart. They didn’t understand the world they were living in. They weren’t as clever as they imagined they were. They were just wrong about so much and they found it out, sort of, at the same time, you know, on election night. And that triggers people.
If people have normal brains — so this is not a-, not an insult to any of these people — the normal way the brain works is that when your worldview gets shook like that, you have to rewrite the script in your head to make it make sense. And a lot of people rewrote the script so that they would still be right. And the way they would still be right is, “Ah-ha! Maybe we were wrong about who got elected. We were certainly right that he is a monster and he must be a racist and he will ruin the world.” And then they watch for the evidence of that. And amazingly, they see it, but only they can see it. The other half, they got what they expected, which was President Trump — they voted for him, they wanted him. That’s just what we expected to happen. We were glad they did. They-, they’re more likely to see an unbiased view. Of course, everybody’s biased. There’s no such thing as unbiased in our world.
But, the Trump supporters didn’t get triggered in such a violent way as the people who said, “This man could never be president.” So they really had to rewrite their movie in their heads to make it make sense. And the best way they can do it is to say, “Yeah, we were right — he’s a monster — you’ll see any minute now.” And we wait, and we don’t see it.
Since you were one of the first — if not the first — people who predicted Trump to win, your phone must have been blowing off the hook with the media trying to get you to come explain this, right?
I became suddenly very popular when my prediction of a Trump win happened, because I was one of the-, one of the first people who predicted it. Now, I’m pretty sure a guy named Mike Cernovich predicted that about the same time, or earlier than I did. But, yeah, I became quite popular for getting it right. Now, of course, at the same time, I have to say somebody was going to get it right if it-, if we’re being completely objective. A lot of people had their pet ideas about what would happen and what wouldn’t happen and somebody was going to be right. And this-, and this time I was on the side that was right.
I’d like to think there was a reason for my being right, but I can’t know.
One thing I noticed, though, is that when people go, “Oh, I bet you the media’s calling Scott Adams,” saying, “Come on and explain why Trump really won!” and I didn’t see that latter part happening.
After Trump won, I saw an article on CNN’s website in which they listed — I believe it was twenty-four different reasons, from different publications — that said, “Well here’s the reason this result was a surprise.” And I don’t think any of those results included my best explanation which is: He’s just really persuasive. And he knows the tools and he works the tools well. He understood the public and connected with them.
And I thought that a lot more people would invite me on and say, “Can you explain your theory?” But, as soon as the election was over, people sort of retreated back to the idea that they were smart all along, and that there really was a reason that they were right all along — even though they were totally wrong.
So I did expect a little more attention for being that right for that long. But you know the media has its own-, its own agenda.
Well, that’s why I asked it, because it kind of segues into the whole subject of Fake News, where, if you were real news, you would say, “Wow, son of a gun, this guy had it right so early. Why don’t we have him come on? Maybe his explanation is a good one. Maybe we should have him on our panels.” You wouldn’t think that you would be-, CNN would really want to know the truth and get you to come on and share your version of the truth.
Well, I have been invited on CNN and Fox News, and I’ll probably do a lot of other things in conjunction with a book tour — my book, Win Bigly. But it took awhile. And we’ve-, we’ve lived with our new president for awhile. And so I’ll give my explanation of how it happened. But it’s competing with — maybe, by now — twenty, thirty, fifty different explanations of why it happened the way it did.
I find it fascinating that the people who are wrong on election season are still the people explaining what is happening in the world and what really is going on in Trumpland.
One of the most interesting results of the election was that the people who were wrong about everything from the very beginning — I mean as wrong as you could possibly be — are still on television and acting like, “Well, this time we got it right.” And I think the viewers can’t really tell the difference, because they sounded smart before and they sound smart now. And maybe they figure, “Well, this time they got it right.”
Yeah I’ve seen research that says that people respect certainty more than truth, and they’ll forgive you for being wrong, but they won’t forgive you for being nuanced and being uncertain.
One of the-, one of the elements of persuasion is that a simple explanation is powerful. So, anybody who has a simple explanation usually is the winner of the persuasion contest. So, if you’re certain and you’re simple and you can communicate it easily, and especially if there’s a visual element to it — that always helps — that’s going to be your most persuasive package.
Maybe that’s why people decided on the whole “Russia hacked the election” theme?
The Russia hacking the election story — we’re still waiting for the details to come out. But, as of this moment, it looks like it’s dissolving. And one of the interesting things about that, for me, is that it would be the next time that all the people who were wrong about everything are wrong again. And, once again, an enormous question in which they have to notice that half the country wasn’t wrong. Half the country has been right all the way through the process. And I don’t know how you could ignore that forever — if you’re always on the wrong side of these things — and the other-, the other side is not. And you can measure it, you know. Trump got elected…or he didn’t. You know, it-, it’s measurable.
So, it’s hard for them to be credible going forward, unless they get a few right.
Or people just forget. One of my sort of “awakening” moments in life was when the financial crisis hit. I thought, well surely everybody in the media who said housing can never go down, and there’s no bubble, and Bear Stearns is fine…surely all those people are going to be fired. And not only were they not fired, but nobody even held them accountable and said, “You guys got it all wrong.”
Yeah, it turns out that being wrong is not a big problem…if you’re-, if you’re a talking head pundit, or any kind of a public figure. People are so wrong, so often, that if you started holding it against people every time they were wrong, you just couldn’t-, you couldn’t deal with people at all, because everybody is wrong — a lot. I’m a little more forgiving about the people who were wrong, because I figured it could be me next time. And I’m also-, I have a little bit of humility about all the times I’ve been wrong in the past, and I try to hold that in my head when I’m looking at a current topic, and say, “Okay…” — for something that looks like this, you know, roughly speaking — “…how many times have I been wrong in the past?” And there’s almost always-, there’s some example that I can say, “Okay, I’ve been wrong about this sort of thing before.” So, I try to use that to help my bias. But, you know, we are biased humans and you can’t-, you can’t be unbiased entirely.
Or there is a thing where, if you have any kind of platform, people say, “What’s your opinion on this?” And I’ll say, “Well I don’t have one.” “What do you mean? How can you not have an opinion on…” whatever. “Because I’ve never looked at it.” Why would I know about Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, and the relationship between that — two heads of state? I had no idea.
When people are asking me for my opinion on the big, complicated world affairs like, “What do we do with trade deals and how do we solve North Korea,” and, you know, “What do we do with ISIS? And what about tax rates?” I always have the same answer, which is: I have no idea what is the right answer for those things, but one thing I’m sure of is that the person I’m talking to — they don’t have any idea either. They might have a strong preference. But these things are, by their nature, big and complicated, and our brains are really not designed for it to get the right answer on that stuff all the time. So, I usually default to, “Well, let’s see what the experts say. Make sure it makes a little bit of sense.” But it’s really hard for me to get ahead of any of those big, complicated issues and say, “Here’s the answer. This is simple.” That’s just a huge illusion, that people have any kind of power to-, to know what’s right in complex situations.
How, then, would we know if the media or the news that we’re watching is true?
I probably have less belief in the news than the average person, because my experience is being part of the news. In other words, being a subject of the news. So, during the past couple of years — especially over the course of the election — there were a number of articles about me. So they were about me, personally, or about my views, and I could look at them and I could see that they’re just completely wrong. Now, often you don’t have that opportunity. You can’t look at the news about a world event and say, “Well that’s wrong. That news is just wrong.” But what is about you, and it’s about your inner thoughts, and somebody is reporting what I’m thinking, or even what I’m saying — incorrectly — I know that’s wrong. And when you see how often that happens — really, any feature article about me will have maybe a handful to more complete factual inaccuracies — the regular public never sees how many factual errors there are in ordinary reporting. And I’m an easy story. If you want to know anything about me, just ask, and I will give the-, probably the correct answer, because it’s about me. But even those stories are just riddled with factual errors and, in many cases, fairly obvious bias built into the story to create a narrative around something. So, it’s hard to trust the news when you’re part of the news, and when you see it from the ugly side.
Yeah, there’s even the Geller-Mann Effect, which is: You’re reading the newspaper. You read an article you know something about, and you go, “This is completely wrong.” They got cause-and-effect backwards. And then you turn the page, and now you’re reading something else, and go, “Well, that must be true, though.” And you forget that they completely got something that you understand wrong. Why would you believe the next story you’re reading?
I’ve lost faith in any kind of story that has anything to do with science, because you know that the illusion is that I — the non-scientist — am somehow judging the quality of the science. And I’m not doing that. I’m judging the credibility of the reporting about the science, which is an entirely different thing, and the reporting tends to be terrible. They get cause-and-effect backwards, et cetera. But my favorite example of this-, I want-, let’s call it a “prediction”: For years, we’ve been seeing stories that drinking a small amount of wine is actually good for you. Maybe that’s true. I’m gonna give that a big, “Maybe that could be true.” In my opinion, there’s almost no chance that’s true. That has “fake news” written all over it. It’s probably something like, the people who can drink moderately at all probably have friends, that’s why they’re drinking moderately. If you can do anything moderately, you’re probably a person who’s got your life under control. So there are all these different variables. But no, I don’t believe for a moment that putting alcohol into your body — which is effectively poison — that a little bit of it is good for you. So when I see any other story about a scientific breakthrough or a new scientific correlation, just a big red flag goes up and says, “Probably not…probably not.”
There are multiple layers, too. One is that the scientist doesn’t have an agenda. Even though a few of them have been caught hyping studies in their press releases, and then the press release becomes a basis for a story in scientific reporting.
Yeah, you’ve got so much bias. First, from the scientists themselves, because they’re humans. You know, one of the things that drives me crazy is when people say the scientific method has, you know, driven out the bias, because we get your peer review and you need to repeat the studies. Yes, that’s true. But all the people doing this stuff are all humans and there’s no process that can get rid of all the bias in humans. You know, science is great. I’m a big fan. It does move truth in the right direction over time. But how do you ever know, in this journey of science on any topic, how do you know when it’s at the end, where they actually got the right answer, and that will never change…or you’re halfway there and you’ve got the wrong answer, and someday it will change? You can’t tell, because when you’re in it, it looks the same.
And there’s actually a scientific method to try to control our biases. With journalism, there isn’t even a method.
At least science has a process. You know the scientific method is going to get you closer to truth than maybe anything that humans have invented yet. So, it’s the best we’ve got. Journalists don’t really have anything like that. There’s no-, there’s no big penalty for being wrong about stuff. You know, you can keep your job. And without that standard, people are putting the same amount of credibility on science as they do on somebody reporting a story. Like, to the average person, a person reporting a story is just as credible as the consensus of science, and they should not be.
Have you ever been — and I know you don’t consider yourself a ‘victim’ — but, in the colloquial understanding of the word, have you ever been a victim of Fake News?
I’ve had quite a bit of Fake News lobbed at me, and almost all of it takes the form of assuming that my inner soul is dark and broken and that, you know, I’m sitting in my secret lair, and thinking bad things about women and minorities. The truth, for anyone who knows me personally, could not be further from any of that stuff. So, to actually see the Fake News about yourself, and have it actually affect your life, affect your career, affect what people — [DOG YIPS][Laughter] — apparently, this is a very boring answer. My dog fell asleep in the middle of the interview —
It’s really quite an experience to have Fake News written about you, personally, and it’s happened to me a number of times, usually in the form of somebody is imagining what’s in my dark soul, and they imagine I hate something, or I’m really biased against something, or something happened in my childhood that made me this way. Almost always, that’s completely off-base. And until it happens to you, and you see it repeatedly, you can’t really understand how powerful the Fake News is — how much it changes, you know, real people’s lives and how widespread it is.
What are some of the consequences that you had as a result of Fake News?
The Dilbert audience probably went from something like sixty percent male/forty percent female in the early days, to — after a number of Fake News stories about me — probably ninety-four percent male now. So, women just read things that simply weren’t true — were taken out of context — and said, “Hey, this guy said something bad about us.” In every case that I’m aware of, [it] was taken out of context, or it wasn’t what I actually said, or was some misinterpretation of what I said. But those are real life consequences. So, probably took, I don’t know, thirty percent of my income right off the top — Fake News did.
What was the Fake News?
Well, the Fake News was that I had said negative things about women — which, if you saw them in context, you would understand that they weren’t. But, out of context — whoa! — they sounded terrible. If I had-, if I thought somebody actually thought the things that people said I thought, I would not like that person. But, of course, I didn’t say those things. Or, certainly, I didn’t mean those things. The words are easily taken out of context.
So, in other words, media still has mass influence over people.
People, like me, who live and die by the attention of the public, you know, that’s-, that’s my business model, is I have to make the public happy. But there are other people whose business model involves smearing other people who are in the public eye.
So, every once in a while, I pop up on somebody’s radar screen. Some complete stranger will write a detailed, long piece about me, and I won’t know about it until I read it, and it’ll just be riddled with errors, and I would certainly understand if somebody was learning about me for the first time by one of these articles, that they would have an entirely wrong opinion about what’s going on.
Is that maybe a testament to the influence and the responsibility that journalism should have? It should be more responsible?
That’s sort of like “air is good”. Everybody should be responsible. I don’t know how to answer that question.
Wellit’s a massive obligation. You know that if you get published in The New York Times, you know that you could pretty much ruin a person’s life. That’s a little bit-, we should all be responsible, nice. If I’m rude to the barista at Starbucks, that’s a bad thing — a bad human — but that person’s life is going to go on. But if I write an article about that person, especially in a large publication, that person’s life is never going to be the same.
So that-, the media, and especially the Fake News, can ruin lives fairly easily. And, obviously, the-, the news organizations, they have some responsibility not to do that. But there are-, there is a legitimate case to be made that a lot of the errors are probably accidental or, in many cases, the bias that they put into the articles are based on their own misconceptions. In other words, they-, they have a starting bias and then-, then that’s how they see the world. Confirmation bias kicks in and that’s all they can say. So, some of it is probably honest. You know the result is Fake News. But I think, in a lot of cases, the people writing it don’t know it’s fake. They’re seeing what they see.
I think the only way you can deal with that is — and I’d love to say this — is that whenever there’s an article in which humans are mentioned, like real people, whose lives can be influenced, that there should be some obligation for a response that maybe they wait a day or two. You know, you can’t do everything at the same time, but just give them a dedicated little box at the bottom to say, “What do you think of this article?” that is linked to some of these blogs that they can respond. And I think you’d have a different picture of people if you let them respond to this sort of fake-newsy, biased reporting.
One of the challenges about describing Fake News is the issue that you’ve raised, which is: I’ve talked to people who genuinely believe the things they’re doing. They’re not trying to spread lies; it’s more of a perceptual error, or a bias error. So maybe talk about how your “two movies” kind of metaphor would relate to Fake News. So, in other words, they don’t think it’s Fake News — they actually think it’s true news.
A lot of what we see as Fake News is stuff that’s wrong. But the person who is writing it thinks it’s true. And I refer to this as the “two movies playing on one screen.” So if you took a bunch of anti-Trumpers, and a bunch of Trump supporters, and put them in the same theater and said, “Watch this movie,” and when they left, if that movie was about Trump, they would come out with completely different ideas of what they had just watched, even though they’d watched exactly the same thing. And unless you study persuasion — and it helps to actually be a trained hypnotist, as I am — you don’t realize how powerful is the ability to change somebody’s perception of something they’re looking at with their own eyes, listening to with their own ears, in real time. My best example of this is — to give you an idea of how the “two movie” thing can be real — is there’s something called the “McGurk Effect.” And until you see it — and you could just Google this, just Google “McGurk Effect”, and it will blow your mind, it’s a real short clip — and it shows a person saying, “Bah bah bah” — just B-A-H — “Bah bah bah.” And then they have the person fake their lips like they’re saying the letter “F,” and your ears start hearing “Fah.” And it’s not what’s happening.
So, right in the moment, you can watch your own powers of perception completely rewritten in real time, and you can do it a hundred times and you’ll get the same effect. In other words, you can’t even get over it. Even knowing how it’s done doesn’t help a bit. And so, when you see how powerful is our ability to rewrite or to create a movie in our head, and then live with that movie, you never see the world the same again.
So Fake News is, probably most of it anyway, people who are just living in a different movie and seeing different things and then confirmation bias makes them say, “Yeah, there’s another piece of evidence for my side…yeah, there’s another one…,” even though other people could look at it and just say, “What the hell are you talking about?” You know, “I don’t see it.”
Is there a way to solve the problem of Fake News?
I don’t think there’s any way to solve Fake News in the sense that there will always be people writing things and putting their spin on it. Sometimes they would be bad actors who are doing it intentionally and sometimes they’ll just be under the wrong impression. But neither of those things is easy to fix. The best thing you can do is make sure that the response is connected. You know, on the Internet, there’s no excuse to have the response disconnected from the original article. That should be basic journalism rule. You know, there should be a rule as clear and universal as, you know, “Are you speaking on the record, or off the record?” You know, some kind of rule that says, “If I write an article and you’re the subject of it, we’re going to give you a link at the bottom to your rebuttal.” That would be-, that would be probably as good as you can get.
How do we as humans find out what is true?
I wonder sometimes if there is a truth that is accessible to us, without getting too deep. Let me just make a general statement that I don’t think humans evolved to understand truth and to perceive the reality accurately. Evolution only cared that you reproduced. So, as long as you could reproduce, evolution was happy. Right? That was all you needed to do.
So you could believe that you reincarnated from a seventeenth century monk. I could believe that my prophet flew to heaven on a winged horse. But we both go to the grocery store. We’re standing next to each other. We buy food. We eat. The fact that we’re living in different realities doesn’t matter as much as you’d imagine. And so-, and so when I think, “How do people find truth,” you know, “How did they really know what is really true?” The first thing I have to say is, “I don’t know if it’s a thing.” Like, I don’t know if we can ever know it’s true. We’re just not designed-, we’re not the right instrument for that. Humans are the wrong tool for finding truth. Now, you probably say, “Well, science makes up for that.” And within the limited realm of science — which isn’t most of our experience, you know — you can get closer to the truth over time for sure. But you can never really know if you’re all the way there.
And I think that leads to a misconception a lot of people have about you, which is that, when you say that it isn’t necessarily what is true, but it’s what people believe, that doesn’t mean you advocate lying.
When I talk about persuasion, I talk about it as a tool. Now, a tool can either be good or bad — it just depends how you’re using it. People often say, “Well, then, you’re in favor of manipulation and evil and you don’t care about what’s true and what’s not true.” And, of course, that’s not the case. I care what’s true, because if you walk into-, if you walk in front of a truck, that’s the truth and it’s going to kill you. Right? But in terms of decision-making, people don’t use the truth the way you imagine they would or should. So, that’s the point. In decision-making, we ignore it. It would be great if we didn’t. If you want my opinion, I’d love if only the truth was, you know, the thing that we knew and cared about and that was driving our decisions. It’s just an observation that we don’t.
And we’re more concerned with how we feel than what’s actually true.
I think people decide what is true based largely on how they feel. So, if you feel something is true, it’s hard to talk you out of it. And once you have a feelings-based reality, it’s going to take a lot of persuasion to get somebody off of that.
‘Cause you once said that how we would define ourselves as people would be our preferences.
I’ve said that if you’re trying to figure out what a human is, you know, it’s not your arms or legs, because you can lose those and still be the person. It’s not even how you used to think. It’s not even your DNA, except in a scientific sense. But what kind of defines a person is your-, is your preferences, at the moment. So, the things you would prefer to do, the way you would handle things, the way you see it — that’s sort of who you are.
You were talking about journalists and media, and whether they’re acting in good faith, or why they have a particular bias. How can we tell when someone isn’t acting in good faith, and they are deliberately lying or trying to mislead? Where are the “tells” of someone acting in that way?
It’s always going to be hard to figure out which people in the media are intentionally telling an untruth, or intentionally biased, versus someone who just can’t tell the difference. If you’re looking for clues, one thing I’d look for is to see if they’ve ever crossed to the other side. Have they ever taken the other-, the other position and said, “Well, I’m usually, you know, agreeing with Republicans, but on this, you know, I’m pretty hard on the left.” So, if you don’t see somebody at least occasionally crossing over, you’re going to have to ask yourself, “Why is that?” I mean, you know, that’s kind of rare that you don’t at least find something on the other side that is useful. So, that’s probably the biggest “tell.” You know, can somebody cross over and feel okay about it and make a case on the other side, or were they just always on one side?
Could you talk about framing the narrative, and what that means, and how important that is for persuasion?
In persuasion, there’s a thing called, “framing.” So, it’s-, it’s how you think about a situation — and people can frame things very differently — and skilled persuaders are especially good at it. So, it’s something I’m trained to do, which is, especially, if you’re new to like a new story. Whoever gets there first and says, “Well, here’s my interpretation,” they framed it. They’ve given you a way to think about it. It’s tough to get that out of your head. So, your first impression of how to think about a story is really super sticky. So, going first makes a big difference. I started doing a lot of live streaming on Periscope and, when there’s a big story, I can be live to the world within minutes. I just pick up my phone and I’m on live to the world, and the framing that I put on things — I’m quite aware of the fact that because I’m both persuasive by training and I’m first, that my framing is exceptionally sticky — and I see it sometimes expressed on TV, and I think to myself, “That looks like something I said,” but you can never be sure where influence is carried.
If you were making a documentary on Fake News, and you wanted to persuade people that the mainstream media has engaged in a fair amount of lies and deception and unconscious bias, how would you frame the narrative of the documentary?
One of the things I don’t think you need to convince anybody anymore is that the media is biased. I think there used to be a day, maybe when I was a kid, when people said, “Well, the news is at least trying not to be biased — they’re at least trying.” But now, nobody believes that. What they do believe — which is weirder and maybe worse — is that they believe that only the other side is biased. And that’s a tough one to crack. So, how do you convince somebody that their own side is feeding them garbage and has for a long time? I found that you can even — [DOG COUGHS] — sorry, Fake News does this to my dog. As soon as I say, “CNN,” she starts coughing. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
But, it’s really hard to get people off of their belief that their side is the “right” side. They can certainly see all the bias on the other side. That’s just big and glowing. What I like to do is literally switch back and forth between the major networks. So, going between Fox News and CNN, when there’s breaking news, and watching what they say about it. Now, the facts will be the same. They pretty much have the same facts — but watch what they decide to talk about, what emphasis they put — and watching that is just mind-boggling. If you-, if you rapidly switch back-and-forth, when there’s breaking news, that’s the best time to do it.
Do you think there’s any danger that, now that there’s so many — for instance, you just being able to pop onto Periscope and reach thousands of people — that that will encourage demagoguery and people that will, you know, not be in good faith, but they’re outside the mainstream, you know, gaining a lot of power…do you think there’s a danger?
One of the most important and underreported shifts in much of the world, and especially in the United States, is that we started as a republic. You know, that’s the way we were formed — in which we would elect some smart people, send them off to Washington on their horse, they’d make some good decisions, and then we’d all be happy. But today, social media is the government — we don’t recognize as such — but it’s very unusual now for our elected officials to do something that the majority doesn’t favor, and the majority is expressed through social media. That’s how the majority gets formed. So, today, I think the government is the best persuaders. I mean, the people who know how to use persuasion and are invested in the topic.
If they do a good job persuading, the idea itself travels. So, the politicians end up being recipients of what social media told them is okay to say. And if they get out of that box, they can’t get re-elected, because the whole deal is: you’ve got to be popular. I think in the old days, they could get away with saying, “Well, I know some people don’t like it. But I made a good decision on your behalf.” I don’t think that works anymore. I think social media decides that the consensus — the majority — needs to get what it wants. And so, that’s a big change, and it puts the power in the hands of the people who are persuasive.
Would you offer any critiques of what’s called the “New Media?” So people-, like, people on the left and right, so people like Mike, people like the Young Turks, you know, alternative media outlets…do you think, you know…what kind of critiques would you offer?
Well, today, almost anybody can be in the news business just by turning on their phone or their iPad and live streaming. It doesn’t take much to set up a podcast, so it puts a lot of people in the position of looking like news, but they don’t have necessarily the same sources — the same resources, for the most part — they’re talking about the news that they saw somewhere else. There are some exceptions where a lot of the new media now actually has better sources than the mainstream media. But that’s still the exception.
So, I think the problem is that if you’ve-, you’ve got a podcast, and you’re trying to fill minutes, and you don’t have access to the base source information and you’ve got to talk about something — you’re going to get really speculative. Because you’ve got to fill the time. So, I think that’s the danger — is the speculation — because the speculation starts to look real to the audience if you speculate enough.
Good example is all that Russian stuff with Trump. Most of that, that the audience sees, is a lot of speculation. But there’s so much of it that people literally say — and it makes me laugh when you hear it — “Well, there’s so much smoke. There must be fire.” But the people saying that are making the smoke and they don’t see the fire. So, you know, speculation is…there’s a danger in [that] the new media probably brings more speculation than you would see otherwise.
Could you talk about the way in which, if you sat down for an interview — well, this interview is going to be edited — sat down for a mainstream media interview, and you’re interviewed for two, three, four hours and they cut it down to, like, thirty seconds, a minute, five minutes…that experience versus, you know, going on a Periscope with somebody like Mike and interviewing for an hour and it’s all out there immediately and there’s no filter.
One of the biggest, best, most positive things that’s happening in the world is that when you take the news media out of the, you know, “I’ve got a half an hour to do this,” or, “…five minutes to do this,” and you put it into the world of podcasts and live streaming — where there’s no end, you can just talk as long as you want — you start to break free from the power of the editors to take something you’ve said, carve it up and take it into context and change its meaning. But most of that change happens because of just editing choices — they just want to make it smaller — and it just changes the meaning when you take out the nuance. Some of it probably is just bad actors doing bad things, but I would say for the bigger-, bigger outlets, that’s probably more that they’re just trying to make it fit the time. But it does change the meaning of what the person said. It can make you go from looking smart to stupid, because the thing you said that they put on the air doesn’t make sense without the part that they cut out. That is a big problem. But the new media’s solving that by not having an end to any of their segments. We’ll talk until we’ve told the whole story.
With social media, there’s been a lot of stories about how they censor these new voices that are on the right, especially, and how that maybe ties into the mainstream, who seem to also favor a side. It seems to favor the left side more, right? Maybe that’s a confirmation bias thing as well, but maybe you can speak to that a little bit.
So, the good news is that anybody can have a voice and, if they do a good job, they can build an audience on social media and get their version of the truth out. On the bad side, the people who own the various social media companies tend to be left-leaning, and it’s at least the impression of the people on the right — and I’ll be careful with my words — it’s their impression that they’re being ‘shadowbanned,’ as it’s called. In other words, that their tweets don’t show up where they should. People who are following them become automatically unfollowed. The other story doesn’t show very high up in the feed, and that sort of thing. Now, depending who you talk to, that phenomenon has either been not demonstrated to be true, or totally demonstrated to be true. Right? I will just tell you that my own brother follows me on Twitter, and only me. He has an account that only does that, and he got automatically unfollowed from my account — and also on Periscope — at the same time. Now that-, that wasn’t an accident. So, I don’t know what Twitter’s official explanation for that is, but, you know, I’m pretty sure that something’s happening there. Whether Twitter management is behind it, or it’s something happening in the bowels of the organization — or if it’s just some kind of weird glitch in the algorithm — it does seem to be happening. Now, what I don’t know is if there’s somebody on the left who got unfollowed too, like, I don’t see that. So, I gotta be careful. I have to be careful in saying that I can only see the stuff I can see. That’s the stuff I know, but I don’t want to over-interpret it now.
If it’s true that the right is being consistently shadowbanned, and their messages are being diminished, the funny thing about that is that the most persuasive, powerful, best communicators are also all on the right. So, there’s this weird coincidental balance, where the best persuaders are on the right, and the people who can shadowban them — if it’s happening — are on the left. So, there is a little bit of a balance there, and maybe that’s good. You know, maybe the world is better with a little bit of balance. I think we’re rapidly heading toward a place where the big social media companies will just have to be regulated, because the public will-, will simply rely on them too much. They’ll be too important to the outcomes of society. And if society doesn’t trust them, that’s a big problem. So I don’t think you want to regulate totally in that way. But here’s my prediction: I think that at least-, at least the algorithm — the code that says what is displayed where — probably will have to get audited by the government on a regular basis, or somebody that they, you know, select to do that. I think that has to happen, actually.
Why do you call people on the right better at persuasion? What makes them better at persuasion? How would you rate the mainstream media’s ability to persuade?
For some reason, the people on the right are better Persuaders. And if-, if you ask me, “Why is that?” I actually don’t know. It’s actually sort of a question that-, it’s an open question to me. It’s simply an observation that — at least during the entire Trump cycle — the people who understood persuasion, they knew its ways, they-, they tended to be on the right. Now, could be that because Trump is so persuasive himself, that he attracted voices that understood that, and that those voices were more credible, because they kept being right and that probably raised your profile. So, there’s probably an observational thing to it — meaning that I may notice the voices on the right because of Trump, and because they got more attention. But during the campaign, the Clinton campaign was absolutely terrible at persuasion until the final summer before the election — when Bernie dropped out — and then, suddenly — and I’m guessing that probably there were some advisers working for Bernie who went over to the Clinton team then — they went full weapons-grade after that, and their persuasion got first-rate. So, until then, the right just owned the persuasion. But, by the summer of 2016, the left was full weapons-grade.
How much do you think facts matter when it comes to persuasion?
A lot of people ask me how important facts are when it comes to persuasion. Now, if you have the facts, and they can be verified and people can check, they’re very persuasive. But it turns out that, in many cases, we don’t have the facts and, in many more cases, the facts are less persuasive than a well-crafted non-fact. Now, I want to be very careful: I’m not in favor of lying. I love a world where people don’t have to lie — that it’s not necessary. I’m simply making a statement that people can lie and still be persuasive.
Now, how ethical that is has a lot to do with, you know, what’s the-, what’s the outcome, and do the ends justify the means? I would say in some cases, yes, I would lie to a terrorist to save your life. But I wouldn’t lie to my best friend to save a dollar. Right? So, it really does matter what is the topic. And if they’re on the extremes. I think you could go either way.
Do you consider spinning-, do you think that’s lying? Would you distinguish those?
I think there’s a difference between being “factually inaccurate” and “spinning.” But the outcome can be very similar. In other words, in both cases you may have influenced toward an outcome. So, I’m not sure that spinning is more honest or ethical, or honorable. But they’re different. That’s the only thing you can say about them.
Going back to the “two movies/one screen” analogy…I don’t know what we can do to make people look at the same movie and come out and, “Oh, everyone’s talking about the same movie,” but how do we get them to at least come out of the theater and talk to each other about what they saw and not hate each other?
It’s really hard to solve for the fact that people are in the same theater, but watching two movies on the same screen, because they’re so invested in their movie that even if you showed them solid evidence that their movie was wrong, they would say, “Well, your evidence is wrong.” Or, “Well, I’ll change my movie a little bit, but it’s still basically the same movie.”
So, the only thing you can do is work on them over time with lots of evidence. So, if somebody thinks, “Hey, this Russia thing is real!” all you need is a bunch of outcomes that show it’s not. One probably isn’t enough. Several is probably good. But, beyond that, sometimes you need what I call a “fake because” — in other words, people sometimes just need a reason to go to the other side. A reason to change their mind. And the reason — and this is the weird part, and this is well understood in the field of persuasion — the reason doesn’t have to be real. Sometimes people are just ready. You know, it’s the weight of things that have happened before, but they still need a trigger. They need a thing to tell their siblings. It’s like, “Here’s why I changed my mind. It was this thing.”
Hurricane Harvey might be that thing, because it just took us all out of our old movies and said, “All right. I don’t care what the movie was on your screen or mine. Right now we’re worried about the people, you know, who are damaged by Harvey. We’re on the same side. We don’t care about race or anything — we don’t care. We’re just-, we’re on the same team.” So, something like that can just shake what you were thinking. It just gives you an excuse to say, “Well, you know, I thought maybe Trump was a monster, but he handled that Harvey thing well. He had enough empathy.” I’m just saying that hypothetically, this can happen. And that might be the “because” that they needed to switch.
How do we as human beings develop confirmation bias, and is that something that is maybe understood by mainstream forces, and maybe they use that to get an early [in] with people?
So, when I talk about confirmation bias, I think people reflexively say, “How can I get rid of that? How can I have less of that?” The bad news is that I don’t think confirmation bias is a bug in our software. Confirmation bias is the software. We’re designed by evolution that way. And what I mean by “designed” is that: Imagine if your brain had to reinterpret your whole environment every time you get new information. It’s just more efficient to say, “Well, I was right before. I’m still right,” because you don’t want to re-, you know, re-juggle your entire world view every few minutes — as new information is coming in — and people like to stick with what they got. It’s just easier to use less-, less resources, you know, fewer resources. It’s probably just how we evolved. And so, I don’t think you can get rid of it. You can, however, learn to notice if there’s a trigger. So, if you’re in a situation where somebody has a trigger, and you don’t, the odds are — if you’ve identified the trigger correctly — that you’re more likely closer to the truth. But, you can never know.
But why is one person-, why do they grow up, you know…one person may be liberal, one person may be more libertarian, or something like that. Where does that begin? How does it develop?
There’s some science that suggests there might be some kind of genetic bias toward being conservative or liberal, and I’m going to say that sounds right to me. So without-, without blessing the science, I’ll just say that it “smells right to me.” But, beyond that, you’ve got the social pressure. You’ve got the, “How old are you?” that probably makes a big difference. And you’ve got, “What are your friends saying?”, you know, “What are you seeing on social media?” So, it’s a whole bunch of things. But, I think, a little bit genetic, and a whole bunch of social.
We’re asking this, you know, before you go on your book tour. So, I was just gonna ask what you anticipate the media’s response and reaction to you will be as you go on that tour?
So, when I go on my book tour for Win Bigly, I can tell you with fair certainty what’s going to happen: The people who are inclined to like me are going to say, “This is the best book you’ve ever written, Scott.” The people who are pretty sure they hate me, because I’ve said things that they didn’t like in politics — or any other thing I’ve said — are going to interpret the book as something I didn’t mean and didn’t say. So, in other words, most of the criticisms will not be about what’s in the book. I would say — I’ll go even further: Close to one hundred percent, but at least ninety percent, of the criticisms which I will inevitably get, will be based on somebody’s belief of what’s in my soul — that they imagine they could read my mind — or something I didn’t say that they think is implied. Or some weight they think I’ve given to something that I really haven’t — maybe I just didn’t talk about it — so, almost all of the critics will be criticizing, essentially, a hallucination of what they think they saw. And I say something like that, and I’m completely aware that anybody who is not trained in persuasion hearing this will say, “Oh that’s convenient, you author, you, that’s sort of an author thing to say, you know, to protect you when you get criticized.” And I have no defense against that. I’m just telling you that any person trained in persuasion would agree that if they can’t find something wrong with it, they will imagine there’s something wrong with it. And that will be good enough.
There’s a thing on Twitter that people say, and they’ll quote a tweet and say “the mask slips” when someone tweets something inflammatory. How do we know when it’s “someone’s mask is slipping” or whether, perhaps, they just do something out of character, for instance? Is there persuasion or confirmation bias coming into play with that?
Well, sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re seeing somebody acting out of character or they have, you know, let the “mask slip” and you’re peering into their soul. My caution to that is: You’re not good at peering into souls. You just think you are. Everybody thinks they’re good at it. Everybody’s wrong. We’re all terrible at it. So, until you’ve seen, like, a body of evidence that somebody has changed their view in some way, or it is revealing a new view, you need to wait for a few data points. You know, the first data point that looks like it’s out-of-bounds is almost certainly nothing. You know, you need a few.
You can read Win Bigly here.
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