The Corpus Callosum

Coturnix href="http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2006/07/the_perils_of_polls.php">picked
up on an href="http://www.newsobserver.com/662/story/462624.html">interesting
study, which shows that “Simply asking college students who
are inclined to take drugs about their illegal-drug use in a survey may
increase the behavior.”  It is a finding that makes
researchers nervous, presumably because they do not want to encourage
such behavior.

It turns out that the effect was only seen in those persons who already
were inclined to use drugs.  It seems doubtful that
participating in the survey actually resulted in any new cases of drug
abuse or dependence disorders, even if it did prompt some instances of
drug use.

The comment thread picks up on the theme of how participation in polls
can influence behavior.  The title of this post was taken from
a comment by Hamsterbaffle, referring to the idea that it is difficult
to observe a person, or social system, without changing the behavior of
the person or society.  That generally is an unwanted,
unintended consequence.

However, in some cases, this is a deliberate intention of the people
running the poll.  Eric gave an example of a href="http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/03/21/the_anatomy_of_a_smear_campaign/">supposed
poll that was used to tarnish the reputation of John McCain,
by asking leading questions.

The bottom line is that we all need to be vigilant
of the myriad ways that unscrupulous people can manipulate others.
 

It is an interesting exercise in mindfulness, to go through a day,
introspectively, tying to notice all the things that people do to try
to influence you.  Often, this is done by subtle suggestion
that prompts you to draw an unfounded conclusion of some sort.

It is equally interesting to observe yourself, trying to notice all the
times that you try to influence others, without making it clear that
there is something you want.

In this case, I want the readers of ScienceBlogs to learn to be more
perceptive of manipulation.  I also want people to make an
effort to be less manipulative themselves.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    July 22, 2006

    Are you trying to manipulate me with this post? LOL

  2. #2 Bribes
    July 22, 2006

    I agree.

    But what’s the goal of all this mindfulness? For me, my goal is to detect misleading or manipulative information and put it under critical analysis. This lowers the chances that such information will influence me.

    But, as a general matter, how does someone sort out false or misleading information from legitimate information? What if a person is bombarded by false or misleading information, and eventually decides that the false information is the norm by which to measure any other information? How does an individual with finite information resources decide?

    Being mindful just of the individual pieces of information coming is great, but the larger stream of data must be examined as well.

    Take climate science as an example. In the newspapers, it’s a 50/50 game of “Does this exist?” In the scientific literature, not so much. So which perspective is the manipulative one? How does a person relying solely on the papers to decide this question decide which side is right/wrong?

    Thoughts?

  3. #3 tmax
    July 22, 2006

    You’ve summarized the great existential question, Bribes, and shown how very short a distance it is from here to there. From “Does my spouse cheat on me?” to “Does Hezbollah have any moral foundation?”, knowing how to answer every ponderable we face is dependent on your question.

    Small wonder most humans essentially throw up their hands and pick a God to believe in. Then it doesn’t matter what information you’re given; you first choose the answer you want and then pick the evidence that supports it.

    Atheists and scientists have it a bit tougher. Which explains why they’ve come up with the right answer. Learn as much information as you can about it and then just… decide. Go with your gut. Yes, that will sometimes lead people horribly astray, true, but it is the only way to tilt the odds in their favor. 51/49 isn’t much, but it is still better than 50/50.

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