Category Archives: frameworks

The Backfire Effect

You may have noticed that sometimes: you argue with somebody and you come away thinking: “My that backfired!”   Rather than loosening their attachment to their foolish belief they have become more committed.

In years since the effect was named studies have revealed that the effect is common and potent.   They have discovered that some public health advertising campaigns backfire. The target audiences become much less likely to change behavior.  Even bizarrely after the audience admitted that they accepted the facts.

With a public health mindset you can then start to wonder what dosage of facts and information is optimal to change a person’s mind.  Studies that attempted to start to get a handle on that (see links below).  But slight spoiler – it’s really hard! – but not too hot, not too cold.

So what’s going here?  Naturally we all labor to keep a consistent world view.  Whenever new information comes over the transom our minds devote some calories to folding it into that world view.   Let’s call that work skepticism.  It can be defensive, curious, even light hearted  skepticism – smart people take pride in this work.    If the information is at odds with our current world view we are motivated to take the exercise more seriously.  The name for that syndrome is “motivated skepticism.”

It’s not actually that surprising that engaging in the exercise would often strength the existing world view.

That all reminded me of what in back in the 70s the AI community used to call truth maintenance.   Failure to keep the software’s model of truth well maintained was treated as an existential threat to the system.  Because, it’s well known that in simple sets of equations a single mistake doesn’t just lead to bad results; it lets you prove that anything is true.

Here are three podcasts (123) about this.   Part of David McRaney’s the “Your not so smart” series.   David’s turf is around questions of what social science can tell us about discourse, debate, and changing people’s minds.  If you are not into podcasts you can skim the posts enumerated above for an overview and links to other materials.

Think Fast

I enjoyed watching this interview (~ a hour) with Daniel Kahneman.  His book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is delightful and very meaty.  Obviously it’s organizing principle is to partition the way we make decisions into the two classes mentioned in the title.

The interview suffers a bit because they keep insisting on using the term heuristic (as in short cut for figuring something out) to describe both kinds of thinking.

For example say we are asked how much something is worth.  We might quickly recall some number mentioned recently and interpolate an answer from that number – this trick is sometimes called anchoring.  Or we might query Amazon and use that number.  Both are heuristics but the first is often described as a near instantaneous scheme that people use, so quick that they are largely unaware of it.

At first I was confused by the discussion since the list of fast heuristics was short.  I have a long list.  Accumulated over the years, of fast thinking tricks people use.  For example there is consistency: i.e. when faced with a choice we will default to taking the same choice as last time.  I have a list is because so much of popular psychology (and marketing) involves tricking people into making mistakes based on one of these.  You can then making fun of (or profit off) them.

But in pretty quickly it becomes clear that Kahneman’s view is more nuanced than that.

The fun thing he says about that list is that he has grown affectionate for a universal rule of fast thinking, i.e. that when faced with any puzzle we seek to reframe it, very fast, into another puzzle that we already have solved.

Frame that as advice:  Don’t try to answer the question, instead answer a different nearby question.  One your familiar with.

This lazy problem solving heuristics works fine both fast and slow.  You can engage in satisficing slowly, savoring the process.  Go ahead, spin up a long story based on evolution, free markets, the history of the last century, or what ever your into.   Nothing obviously wrong with that.  It is often fun, entertaining, and interesting.  Sadly it’s often lazy too.

Deceptive Status Signals

This essay on deceptive status signals (aka DSS) is delightful for the
collection of tricks people use to look higher status than they really

  • Pulled over for using a cell phone, but it turns out to be a toy.
  • Filling your grocery cart with high-priced goods, and then abandoning it.
  • Driving with the windows closed, signalling that you have air condition.
  • Shirts with no backs.
  • Expired credit cards
  • Packaging for luxury goods
  • Carrying Fast Food packaging
  • Wearing just the cap of a pen in your pocket
  • TV antenna, but no TV
  • Using infant formula
  • Houses with brick fronts, but otherwise made of mud.

If your into it the jargon in this essay is fun. “A related
DSS strategy is the display of a cheap item that is complementary to a
prestigious consumer good.” helps explains the TV antenna, luxury good packaging, …

So, I wonder: could I hack the stream of Ads
appearing in my browser to create a deceptive status signal.

Peter Sandman: Risk Communications

My sister (thanks RH) pointed me to an interview of Peter Sandman on NPR.  Peter says his gig is “Risk Communications.”  Which, to hear him tell it, is the art of managing outrage: turning it up, turning it down, and riding the wave – as appropriate.   He has a spectacularly rich and interesting website.  Many years ago he wrote a book “Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication” which you can pick up on Amazon for only two hundred and fifty bucks; or you can now get it for free on his site(pdf).

outrageWhen explaining what he does Peter most often begins with a curious fact.  People’s outrage about a given hazard is largely independent of the actual danger, only a 4% correlation.  I like to reframe a statistic like that.  It’s not about “people,” it’s about you.  Unless you’re better than most of us then you are aroused about the wrong things, but yeah – I’m sure you are better.

He calls this outrage, not arousal; and he has a list (pdf) of how to fuel the flames:

  • Controlled by Individual/Others
  • Source: Trustworthy/not
  • Process: Responsive/not
  • Voluntary/Coerced
  • Fair/Not
  • Not/Morally-salient
  • Natural/Industrial
  • Familiar/Exotic
  • Not/Memorable
  • Not/Dreaded
  • Knowable/not

You can feed or starve these fires.  Turn it down: “Outrage Management.” Turn it up “Precaution Advocacy.”

He argues, interestingly, that getting people to take an issue seriously usually requires lowering the level of outrage.  Lots of people find that counter intuitive.  I agree that managing the arousal is usually the first step in getting a group to solve a problem.

There is an alternate framing of that: conservation of outrage.  If you accept that people have a natural level of outrage, i.e. it’s part of their personality, then you can begin to see the problem in terms of transferring outrage from one worry account to another.

Recently, This American Life did a piece on climate change.  In one segment they visited Colorado.  The state was on fire.  The weather was bizarre   The crops were dying.  But nobody would even say the word climate change.  At one point the reporter utters the unspeakable and the farmer she is talking to goes ballistic.  But not really about climate change, rather his outrage is about environmentalists, leftists, etc.   Dan Savage mentioned this episode as reminding him how gay men would deny AIDS in the early years.  That in turn reminds me of the vigorous emotional lumber that resists addressing other issues – austerity, income distribution, health care, public transit, etc. etc.  Do people resist these because their outrage is elsewhere?

Experts in a domain to often work hard and carefully to read a conclusions about what needs to be done.   Usually they need to convince some other group to act.  Whenever they, or you, start to engage with that other group the exact same thing happens.  You say “X! and they say Z!;” and you reaction is that “WTF?  X has nothing to do with Z; … well very very little to do with it.”

There are plenty of words for alll this:  arousal, outrage, motivation, “what are those idiots thinking!”

The ideas in Peter’s work are scale free; they are useful from problems big and small.

Generational Forgetting

I see a mention over here of something called “generational forgetting.”  I like this term, and I sometimes talk about the syndrome (I assume) it labels.  The pattern it labels is scale free and once you have recognized it you’ll see it everywhere.  It goes like so:

  1. Problem arises that creates pain.
  2. Solution demands collective action, creation of a complex institution or widespread change in social norms.
  3. Such a solution emerges; via solidarity and institution building (driven by the pain of the problem).
  4. The pain is  dissipated.
  5. The institution and norms switch into a  maintenance  mode (driven by fear of the pain, and  collective  memory).
  6. Time passes, new generation arrives, memory of the pain becomes based in stories rather than  experience.
  7. Norms and institutions decay as they are critiqued and defunded.

This pattern, and it will often be cyclic, is particularly intense around problems requiring collective action.  During step two all the usual conservative talking points will be deployed, and particular variants of them honed.  When we get to step seven, like bitter zombies, they will all rise from the dead hoping to reclaim the day.

There millions of examples of this.  For example if you work in some organization you will probably have little trouble thinking of some social norm inside the organization that appears to require a lot of ongoing persuasion (moral-suasion) to maintain.  The actors who are engaged int hat persuading are doing the work of #5; and if you dig you can usually retrieve horror stories from phase 1.

I’m sad to see that the term “generational forgetting” isn’t actually widely used.  It appears less than ten thousand times in Google search.  It appears to be a term of art used in the back rooms of the social science ivory tower, where the pack in the graduate students.

Trust and Crime

The following framework for thinking about crime, or the breakdown of trust, is excellent:

“Trust is what stands between individual actors and defection (as in the Prisoners’ Dilemma game); between civilisation and anarchy. Trust relates to the risks we must take and the relationships we must establish and maintain to promote sufficiently high rates of cooperation and low rates of defection or cheating for the society to hold together, whether a cycling club or the Roman Empire. Trust can be intimate – as within families – or impersonal, as where I trust the new contractor servicing my gas heating because I trust the certification and monitoring system that causes him to respect safety standards.

The issues to which trust, cooperation and defection pertain are defined as societal dilemmas, pitting actors in conflicting, competing or collaborating relationships. These are often ‘wicked’ issues, and many universal (like the Tragedy of the Commons). Well thought-out examples pepper the book, from price-setting/fixing among sandwich makers or industrial cartels, to bank misbehaviour, overfishing, military desertion, littering, adultery and volume crimes like burglary. These are neatly and consistently presented as tables which (adapted from p131):

  • Identify the dilemma (e.g. Doping in professional sports)
  • Identify the society (All the athletes in the sport)
  • Identify the group interest (A safe and fair sport) and group norm (Don’t take performance-enhancing drugs)
  • Identify the competing interest (Winning and making money) and corresponding defection (Take performance-enhancing drugs)

The analysis continues by describing the trust mechanisms available to the society in question to encourage people and corporations to act in the wider group interest. These come under four categories comprising the fundamental and universal ways whereby societies hold themselves together. The example continues:

  • Moral (e.g. guilt at not winning fair-and-square; shame at failing as role model)
  • Reputational (e.g. keep fans and commercial advertising opportunities by maintaining reputation of a fair player)
  • Institutional (e.g. civil or criminal bans on performance-enhancing drugs)
  • Security (e.g. testing for specific drugs)

The Institutional approach lies at the heart of defining certain behaviours in response to certain societal dilemmas, as  criminal  rather than merely defecting.”

That’s from a book review  of amusingly titled: “Liars and Outliers.”    I guess I’ll need to read the book now; because that applies to a lot of situations.

Big Five

For the list of frameworks, the Big Five Personality Traits

  1. Emotional Stability: positive adjustment,and seldom negative
  2. Extroversion: social, assertive, active, energetic, zeal
  3. Openness to experience: imaginative, nonconforming, unconventional, autonomous
  4. Agreeableness: trusting, compliant, caring, gentle
  5. Conscientiousness: achievement, dependability



Another for my collection of frameworks:

“After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: …”

  • exploring heights,
  • experiencing high speed,
  • handling dangerous tools,
  • being near dangerous elements (like water or fire),
  • rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and
  • wandering alone away from adult supervision.

What!  No mention of listening at keyholes?  Downloading from JStor?  Maybe that’s unique to American children.

The Pitch

I assume they have all read the same book, because they use the same outline, start-up CEOs I mean.  It has two parts.  The opening, and the gonna have a revolution bit.

First the prolog:

  • Open with how grateful you are for the ideas and help the host (and/or the most powerful people in room) provided in starting your firm.  But, don’t explain why.  Leave that a mystery to hook your audience.  Set the hook “i’ll get back to that.”  Note how this reframes the usual thanks to the host for inviting you.  Note you don’t need to know these people, but you should have done your homework and be familiar with their ideas, papers, books, failures and achievements – certainly there is something in there you can use.
  • Introduce your founding myth.  The characters in the founding myth should be drawn from a sacred category, e.g. mom, family, your tribe, citizens, the profession of your audience.  Populism can work.  Customers is kind of a weak form populism.  Nine times out of ten these stories seem to involve a mention of family.  The pain the product resolves is introduced here, as felt by this representative of sacred/worthy group.  This works for a few reasons.  First off banishment from home is the usual kick off of any fairy tale: so this make your audience comfortable.  Secondly it draws our their empathy, everybody cares about mom.  It also makes you out to be a caring person so the audience begins to identify with you.
  • Introduce the broad themes of value generation.  It’s good if at this point you can begin to introduce yourself as the agent of resolving the problem previously introduced.  Your frustration at being unable to aid those in need.  This is becomes the quest in the classic story template.
  • Start to tempt the audience.  Letting them glimpse the solution.  Letting them glimpse an artifact or a prototype at this point can be good, but don’t show it to them!  This creates an appetite; which if can heighten by delay.  This might be a mistake if overplayed, I’ve noticed audiences that stop listening as they attempt to catch a glimpse of the hidden product.
  • Finally notch up the frustration at lack of resolution both for you as hero, and for your homie.

That end’s the prolog.  Now this is a VC funded start-up; so we need a industry game changing story.  That prolog doesn’t provide that.  In a story telling frame you now want to introduce the evil king (current industry structure) and how your firms innovative addition is going be the revolution.  At this point we are shifting out of the fairy tale frame and into revolutionary group forming.  You want to create in the audience a desire to join the revolution.

  • Tell story of current industry structure.  This structure must frustrate, bewilder, and/or anger you – our hero.  Done right you will not need to say it, but your audience will see how the glimpses of a solution you gave before foreshadow the resolution of these issues.  At this point you must have quantitative data; at least charts.  Trend lines, preferably  exponential, illustrating how it is only going to get worse.  A bit of casual social science about why it’s in the culture of the evil kings is good at this point.
  • This, or just after the next step, is a good point to resolve the quesiton of what you learned from your those powerful people in the room, it shouldn’t be the whole answer – it should be an addition to the core.
  • Now you can finally reveal the solution, but though not the demo or the prototype.  You can and probably should be rational, and quantitative.
  • Now double the bet.  Make it clear that the pain your addressing is felt so widely that there is broad demand for a new paradigm.  Clarify why your solution enables it.

That fits most of the stories I’ve heard.  Occasionally  there is another element.  Notice how that story is buyer facing; but it is good if you have additional bit that talks about how you have unique supply side advantages.  The lamest form of this is a single patent or research result.  In the story telling metaphor this is part where our hero picks up his band of uniquely talented buddies – the brother who can swallow the sea, the cat that talks, the cloak of  invisibility.  Weaving these into the story is tricky.  Too much too early and the audience figures out what your doing too soon – which leads to their minds wandering and then they make up objections.  But it’s cool if you can get them into the story early and the mystery of how your going to use that cofounder, or that unusual technology can suddenly become clear as you reveal your answer.  The other reason to get your supply side advantages into the narrative is so you can have charts that show how this revolution is inevitable and timely.

Timely is good because it answers the objection – why hasn’t anybody done this before?  Inevitable is good because it creates urgency to move now; before the revolution/wave – and it’s wealth generating power – breaks.

That framing is another standard framework.  You want to get a population (this industry) to move you build them a golden bridge (your solution) and set fire to their village.  You need to make clear that the problem your solving scales up to being so serious and widespread that the industry is soon going to be on fire.

I was surprised at first that nobody every goes back and explains how their Mom has now been made happy.  But that’s actually obvious, this is a start-up and the story’s not over yet.