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#65: Why Good Minds Believe Bad Ideas

#65: Why Good Minds Believe Bad Ideas

Welcome to Mindf*ck Monthly, a newsletter that doesn’t suck. If you’re not already getting these in your inbox each month, well what the fuck?! Sign up below now.

Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you become a slightly less awful human being.

1. The surprising science of goal-setting – In last week’s newsletter, I promised an article about goals. And would I ever break a promise to you? You’re goddamn right I wouldn’t. 

Most articles about goals discuss how to set more effective goals to help you achieve greater success. As you might expect from my take on the subject, I am less concerned with how you pursue success and more concerned with how you choose to define success. 

Read: The Surprising Science of Goal Setting (And How You’re Doing It Wrong) 

In my opinion, goals are most useful for the direction and motivation they give you. The benefit of goals is more emotional than tangible. It is difficult for us to actually know what will be useful or make us happy in the future, therefore strict adherence to the goal itself is less important than the simple fact that it tricks our mind into doing something. 

In fact, overly-strict adherence to your goals can backfire in many ways, especially if you end up choosing goals that don’t actually help you in the long run. But I explain that in the article. Happy reading.

2. Anger makes us believe dumb things – Every once in a while, a small psychological finding emerges that has widespread implications for our understanding of what’s going on in the world. This past week, one such finding was published.

In a clever study involving short films and experimenters intentionally being assholes to subjects, researchers found that when people are made angry, they are more susceptible to believing misinformation. 

There were two interesting details about this finding. One, people were only more likely to believe bullshit that matched their prior beliefs and convictions. Misinformation that was irrelevant is no more likely to be believed. And two, the angry people became far more confident in the truth of the misinformation, making it a kind of pissed off version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect—where we tend to be most certain about things that we know the least about. 

So, what makes this finding a big deal? 

Well, it’s long been known that outrage-inducing content spreads the farthest and fastest of almost all content on social media. You don’t have to spend more than a couple hours on Twitter to figure that out. 

For years now, there has been much hand-wringing and hysterics about how social media creates “echo chambers” where people are only exposed to similar ideas as their own. Yet, research has repeatedly shown this not to be the case. 

But this new finding would suggest that it’s not the algorithms that cause us to form into little tribes of pissed off people—it’s simply biased human cognition. We tend to remember and believe what upsets us, regardless of whether it is true. We tend to be more confident in our beliefs of what upset us, especially if it isn’t true. And then we forget or disregard what isn’t upsetting as though it never existed. 

If what spreads the most tends to be upsetting, well, then it’s easy to see how groups of people become incredibly entrenched in their beliefs, regardless of the evidence and regardless of what the algorithms show them. 

Anger likely causes us to believe things that are self-serving, even if they are not true. Therefore, it makes sense to be the most wary of information which makes you angry.

3. A culture of crybabies and shitlords – Much of my time the past few years has been spent thinking about culture. I mentioned a few months ago in this newsletter that the older I get and the more time I spend in different countries, the more convinced I become that culture has a disproportionate influence on outcomes in society, yet few people speak openly about it.

When I say stuff like that, inevitably dozens of readers ask me to expand and elaborate. And each time, I struggle. Culture is such a vast and abstract thing. It’s like pointing to the ocean and saying it’s why the boat is having problems. It’s true. But it’s so broad that saying it feels kind of useless. 

But here’s a meager attempt, based on ideas set forth above and in some recent newsletters:

  • A culture is defined by the shared values among a group of people. These values are represented and supported by shared narratives.
  • Cultural narratives survive because they are repeated. The more they are repeated and believed, the more fundamental they become to the identity of the group. 
  • When cultural narratives cease to be repeated, they cease to be part of the culture, and the values they represent are dropped from the group’s identity and decision-making. 
  • In this way, culture frames the battles of economics and politics—as culture dictates what is valuable and important to the group and then politics and economics enact those values in the real world. 
  • Technology fundamentally alters culture because technology can unintentionally shape and determine what narratives are broadcast the furthest, loudest, and most frequently. 

The whole problem with social media is that the narratives that spread the furthest and loudest on these platforms tend to be anti-establishment and contrarian. These are the narratives that get repeated the most often, and therefore these become the narratives that come to define our culture. 

But these narratives are hollow. They tear down structures but build nothing back up in their place. They point out the flaws of our experts and institutions and disregard the many things they get right. 

This is why we’ve seen so many grassroots protest movements around the world the past ten years with no real aim or policy ideas—from Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party all the way up to the shitlords and morons invading the US Capitol last week. The narrative is pure victimhood and destruction. There is no countervailing narrative for responsibility and creation. 

This is the sense of growing nihilism that I wrote about in Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. The narratives that expose everything that is wrong in the world are repeated incessantly, while the narratives of everything that is right and going well struggle to find an interested audience. The result is a culture of fragility, where every group somehow simultaneously feels victimized and entitled to impose their narrative onto others. 

And that kind of blows… 

Until next week,

Mark