A few days ago I watched a CppCon 2016 presentation by Dan Saks titled “extern c: Talking to C Programmers about C++” and was pleasantly surprised by the information and insights he shared. I wouldn’t have expected this kind of information to be shared at a C++ conference, let alone a talk about C and C++. Even if you’re not into software engineering, keep reading because the concepts discussed below regarding human behavior and psychology apply to many other areas in life. You can watch the presentation on YouTube (embedded below).
The presentation is essentially about Saks’s experiences with trying to convince C programmers to switch to the newer and more modern C++ language. The C++ language is an improved version of the older C language (it’s a superset of C), adding many features that we’ve come to expect from more modern programming languages today, such as type safety, object oriented programming etc. It also has performance benefits, which Saks also mentions during his presentation. But despite the benefits Saks found that it was still very difficult to convince C programmers to acknowledge that C++ was better, and to eventually migrate to using C++.
In fact, Saks found that quite often logic, facts and the truth were simply not sufficient enough to convince people. Instead, people reacted in a very irrational and emotional way, and kept sticking to and defending their beliefs. People’s basic reaction was “show me all the data you want, C++ is still undesirable.” Instead of confronting reality, people instead resorted to making up all kinds of reasons to justify holding onto their beliefs — beliefs which are at odds with logic and the truth.
Now, if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that these are subjects that I discuss quite often in my posts, and personally also have a lot of experience with. Before I give you my take on this, I first want to mention some of the important things that Saks mentioned during his presentation:
- When it comes to persuasion, “If you’re arguing, you’re losing.” — Mike Thomas
- Convincing C programmers to switch to C++ was not a technical problem; it was a people problem.
- The problem was that there was too much misinformation which had festered for too long.
- Drawing parallels with politics, Saks mentioned that for the most part, people don’t make rational decisions based on self-interest. People aren’t rational actors; instead they make emotional decisions (personal and professional) based on their worldview, moral sense and cultural identity.
- In a reference to the movie “Harvey,” Saks mentions a quote by Elwood P. Dowd: “In this world you can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. For years I was smart; I recommend pleasant.” I don’t agree with this but more on that later.
- “… the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” — Jonathan Haidt. The elephant goes which ever way it wants, and the rider’s job is to explain why that was the rational choice. We make gut level decisions and we use our intellect to justify those decisions. This is also known as motivated cognition or post hoc reasoning.
- “The myths began with the Enlightenment, and the first one goes like this: “The truth will set us free. If we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they’ll all reach the right conclusions.” But we know from cognitive science that people do not think like that.” — George Lakoff (Don’t think of an elephant).
- Research (by Dan Kahan et. al.) at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University shows that people base moral, political and philosophical decisions on a pair of competing “worldviews.” Depending on their specific worldview, people may view certain things as threats (and thus fear those things) or beneficial to them. For effective communication, you have to understand their worldview and make sure you address their concerns.
- Based on research by Kahan et. al., Saks mentions that otherwise intelligent people will likely misunderstand data if understanding it challenges their preexisting beliefs.
- “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.” — Jonathan Swift
- People think in frames — mental structures that shape the way they reason. Frames are substructures of the mind, and people are often not consciously aware of them even while using them. The choice of specific language can frame a certain topic differently. Politicians often use this (“tax burden”, “tax relief”). This sounds a lot like doublethink. Using a frame reinforces it. Negating a frame is using that frame. You can’t turn off a frame; you can only replace it with another frame — something that is very hard work. C programmers live in certain frames regarding C++, and it’s a chore to reframe this.
- Effective persuasion is an emotional appeal. An emotional appeal can — and should — be a truthful appeal; it should have a basis in evidence and reason. Politicians, for example, often appeal to people’s emotions without being truthful.
- Facts can backfire. “The backfire effect” was identified by researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Telling misinformed people correct information can actually increase belief in the misinformation. And it doesn’t matter where the corrected information comes from.
- For a “fact” to be believed it must fit an accepted frame.
- Loss aversion (psychology and decision theory): fear of loss is greater than the desire for gain. Proposed change should be framed as avoiding a loss rather than achieving a gain.
- It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. Negating a frame is using that frame. If you say “I am not a crook” (while they think you are), people will actually hear “I am a crook.”
- When trying to persuade people, don’t lead with (your version of) the “facts.” People don’t care about that. Start from their perspective and address their concerns. No goading or belittling.
- Living by example. People are very irrational. To change this we have to begin with ourselves. We have to become more rational ourselves when presented with new information by following a few lines of inquiry: How can we verify this? Is there credible evidence to back this up? Is there a testable hypothesis?
Based on my own research and experience gained in the past few years on these subjects, I agree with Dan Saks when he says that we’re dealing with a people problem. The sad reality today is that people are generally indeed very irrational, as cognitive science shows us.
However, people aren’t irrational by nature. Nature is inherently logical or rational. This is why everything in the universe works according to certain predictable “laws” — the so called “laws of nature.” This is also why “math is the language of the universe” as the saying goes. This is why science works; it’s because there’s a fundamental logic — a fundamental mathematical truth — that underlies all of the universe. And like I explain in my post “Thoughts on Karma and Consciousness,” the fundamental energy that underlies and is responsible for the universe is consciousness. So consciousness is inherently logical.
Since humans are a part of the universe — part of the universal consciousness — humans are also logical or rational by nature. Our minds, by nature, function in a very logical way just like the central processing unit (CPU) in a computer. We want things to be consistent and to make sense. Unlike the CPUs in most current generation computers however, our minds are programmable. Problems start to arise when faulty programming is introduced into our minds that interferes with our basic programming (or firmware) such as our natural instincts. You can actually have beliefs introduced into the mind that block or interfere with our natural tendency to think rationally.
In most societies around the world today, people are being trained to become very irrational. From very early childhood a whole series of conflicting beliefs are being planted and forced into our minds and we’re trained to have to cope with that:
- This is particularly so when the mind is programmed from early childhood — even before a child can develop any kind of defense against this — to unconditionally accept and not question anything it gets from “authority” (or religion for example). This information is forced into our minds, and we’re told to just accept, obey and regurgitate and not to question anything or think for ourselves. We don’t acquire this knowledge by experience or reasoning, and that’s why, like Saks mentioned, it becomes very difficult to get rid of it through reasoning. Our current “education” systems are also to blame for this, as I discuss in more details in my post “Statism: A System for your Enslavement.” Like Dr. Bruce Lipton explains in his book “The Biology of Belief,” children are at a developmental stage between the ages of 2 and 6 where their mind works at a low EEG frequency (Delta and Theta) which makes it highly suggestible and programmable. It’s especially easy to introduce conflicting, irrational and faulty programming into their minds during this stage of their lives. Later in life, anything that goes against this existing programming in the mind is automatically rejected, ignored or “misunderstood” in order to avoid cognitive dissonance — a normal reaction caused by our natural tendency to think rationally. The existing information can even be defended and desperately held onto when it means that accepting alternative information has the potential to disrupt or completely shatter their current worldview (this is when facts can backfire for example). When conflicting information can’t be rejected for practical reasons, people actually override the natural capacity of their mind to think rationally, and partition their mind to hold the conflicting information in separate compartments which themselves remain internally consistent but are conflicting with each other externally. These people are often referred to as psychopaths or hypocrites in everyday life. Depending on the circumstances, they will draw upon that partition in their mind which benefits them at a particular time.
- Another example is that from very early childhood we’re taught to deny one of our most fundamental and important biological instincts — the sexual drives. We’re born with the need for sexual satisfaction, yet society teaches us — and indeed forces us most of the time — to suppress and even repress our sexuality. This is one of the most important seeds for irrational thinking that gets planted into our minds. If you can get a person to actually deny one of their most fundamental and strongest biological drives, you have essentially managed to completely shatter their natural ability for rational thinking. As I discuss in other posts on my blog, such as my article series on “Understanding Women,” this is what causes people — especially women — to become and behave very irrationally. Faulty and conflicting programming (social brainwash) starting from very early childhood causes most women to suppress, and even repress, their natural sexual needs causing them to suffer all the serious consequences that this inevitably leads to, most notably mental problems which lead to mean, irrational, unpredictable and sometimes even violent behavior. This is why women are often difficult to understand; faulty programming creates conflicts and inconsistencies in their minds and rationality suffers as a consequence.
- One last example is that we’re taught from early childhood that lying is bad, but then we’re confronted with the fact that for many years society and even our parents fool us into thinking that Santa Claus is real. So we’re told that lying is bad, but at the same time we’re taught that it’s good and perfectly acceptable in some cases to lie and to mislead other people — even your own family and children. This plants one of the many seeds for irrational/illogical thinking into our consciousness, and as we grow up it becomes part of our subconscious mind and thus our subconscious (emotional) reasoning.
So it’s important to understand that even though the human mind is rational by nature, this functionality can be consciously or subconsciously overridden by faulty programming. It’s like an operating system overriding the functionality of the firmware on a computer where it’s installed on. Or at a higher level, software that overrides the functionality of the host operating system on the same computer. It can cause the computer to function very differently from its original intention and can even cause abnormal or undesired behavior. And if this faulty programming is embedded into a person from very early childhood and gets rooted in their subconscious mind, it becomes very, very difficult for that person to deprogram themselves from it as an adult (I explain why in more detail in my post “The All Seeing Eye”). Like the very brilliant Dr. Bruce Lipton mentions:
The major problem is that people are aware of their conscious beliefs and behaviors, but not of subconscious beliefs and behaviors. Most people don’t even acknowledge that their subconscious mind is at play, when the fact is that the subconscious mind is a million times more powerful than the conscious mind and that we operate 95 to 99 percent of our lives from subconscious programs.
This is the same thing Saks also mentioned when he used the example of the rider on an elephant. The subconscious mind (elephant) is many times more powerful than the conscious mind (rider). The conscious mind is but the tip of the ice berg. If a person’s subconscious mind is programmed with conflicting information, then irrationality becomes their second nature for most of their life.
When people make “emotional decisions” that we — and quite often even they themselves — can’t rationally explain, those decisions are actually being made by their subconscious programming. This is what Saks referred to as “frames” in his presentation. And while it’s true that it’s extremely difficult to impossible to turn off or negate a frame in someone else’s mind, I think that it’s possible for people to get rid of these frames in their own minds; in fact, I think this capability comes to us easily and naturally. The problem is that we’re conditioned from early childhood to become unable to do it, and consequently, it now requires a lot of effort and certain personal skills to do so, and I speak from personal experience. It essentially comes down to deprogramming and reprogramming certain parts of the mind. I go into this more in depth in my post “The All Seeing Eye.”
Where I don’t agree with Saks is when it comes to strategies of how to deal with people who think emotionally or irrationally. For example, Saks mentioned that he was “a hard-ass as a teacher” and he wasn’t sure if that served him well, and that “it doesn’t always work well in life.” It reminded him of the quote in the movie “Harvey,” where Elwood P. Dowd says that you can be smart or pleasant in life, and that after many years of being smart he now recommends being pleasant. Meaning that you can stay firm and keep confronting people with the facts and risk being disliked by them, or you can use all kinds of other tactics to more gently “persuade” and “convince” them while coming across as more likable.
The primary reasons why I can’t agree with this approach is because I absolutely hate manipulating people. And I especially hate mind-manipulation. And when you talk about “persuading” or “convincing” people, this usually amounts to nothing more than mind-manipulation. I discuss this more in depth in my post “The Truth Offends; The Truth Hurts” where I mention:
I absolutely hate watering down or sugar-coating anything I have to say. When done “correctly” it’s essentially a form of mind-manipulation — something I despise and avoid as much as I can. And when it’s not done “correctly” it’s an ineffective way of communication, because it distorts your message and your message can lose much of its impact or meaning by the time it reaches your audience. This can cause a lot of misunderstandings. Not to mention that it’s a complete waste of any mental energy that you have to put into worrying and transforming your message so that it might be perceived in a more positive way by people. In my experience it’s a much better approach for the long term to keep your message clear, frank, direct and to the point. Lean and mean; no beating around the bush.
Let me be quick to add that I’m fully aware of how people usually react with this approach. Like Saks has probably experienced himself over the years, it doesn’t make you a very likable person and as a result you won’t make many friends in the world we currently live in. But the friends you do make will be the kind of people you actually want in your life — people who value logic, truth and personal growth. In an ideal world — one where people aren’t conditioned from early childhood to become very irrational — things would of course be very different.
And the reason why I prefer this approach, is because I know from experience that it’s the best and more sustainable one for the long term. Like I explained:
People might get uncomfortable, maybe even offended, but your message will have been received in absolute clarity, free from any noise and bloat, and will be precisely understood (eventually). And I like to communicate in this way especially if it concerns telling the truth to people and pointing out that they’re wrong, in the hope that they might change and improve themselves. Especially in such cases, sugar-coating or watering down your message will seldom motivate people to change in the right way. Even if you bring it to them as polite and respectful as possible, the truth will often hurt people, it might shock them when they first learn about it, and it might even completely shake up and destroy their worldview. But all of that is needed in order to leave a mark in their subconscious (or unconscious) that will eventually motivate them to change. Consciously they might (try to) shut themselves off from your message, but subconsciously it will continue to keep them busy — you can be absolutely confident of that. What has been seen/heard, cannot be unseen/unheard. You’ll eventually come to notice the effects. And sometimes change is a relatively slow process, so be realistic about your expectations and don’t expect results too soon.
Instead of finding out what frames exist in people’s minds and trying to work around them — which, again, amounts to mind-manipulation and is unethical — it’s better to help people so that they can do it themselves. By bluntly sharing the facts with them, you trigger them to become aware of and to confront the conflicting programming in their minds themselves. Once they identify the problem frames in their minds, they can eventually work to get rid of them. If you work around the problem frames, you keep them in place and as a result they will keep causing problems in the person’s life. They will also keep causing problems in your interaction with that person. Compare this with bugs in a software program; it’s better to fix the bugs instead of using work arounds. Work arounds may work in a particular case, but may not solve all the issues the bugs are causing or have yet to cause in the future.
People who only have their own short-term agendas in mind will choose to identify and work around the problem frames in a person’s mind in order to persuade them and quickly get the results they want. But those who also have the person’s best interests in mind, using true love as their starting point, will instead choose to be honest and upfront, and will present the facts and the truth as objectively as possible without trying to manipulate the person’s mind.
So yes, keep being smart and don’t worry about coming across as pleasant or likable. Keep confronting people with the facts at every opportunity you get, and be consistent and persistent about it. The best you can do to potentially make the facts or the truth more bearable for them is to remain polite and respectful in your communications. I agree with Saks when he says no goading or belittling; just present the facts and the truth bluntly and with extreme honesty.
Also don’t worry about persuading or convincing people. When done right, you’ll never be able to convince people of the facts or the truth; people will have to convince themselves. Again, anything else is mind-manipulation. The burden is not on you, but on them. If you’ve presented people with the facts, when they react emotionally or irrationally to it, that’s their problem, not yours, and you shouldn’t take it personally, as Saks appears to have done. You haven’t failed; it’s they who are failing to deal with reality. Just make sure you do your best in presenting the information as understandable and truthful as possible — that’s all you can really be responsible for.
Being honest may not get you many friends, but it will always get you the right ones. John Lennon
Over the years I’ve had a lot of experience with this and I’ve seen that eventually people do change. But like I said, it’s a slow process and you have to be realistic about it and not expect most people to quickly accept the facts and change their behavior accordingly. Not in the world we currently live in. People’s willingness to accept the facts and to change depends on the kind of information and the impact it will have on their worldview and lives.
In my experience, people who initially reject certain facts, will slowly change their minds over the course of 2 to 4 years, as long as you stay consistent and persistent. However, depending on the information and specific circumstances, it can take a lifetime for some people to deprogram themselves, and some will simply never succeed. It also gets more difficult for them the older they get and the more time the misinformation has had to take root in their subconscious mind.
In the future, once humankind starts to live more in harmony with nature (or the universal order), things will be different. The following quote by Alvin Toffler comes to mind:
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
To be able to unlearn and relearn — to deprogram and reprogram one’s mind — requires that people be very skilled at critical thinking and detecting inconsistencies in their beliefs. Once detected, they must also have the courage to throw out the inconsistent beliefs without mercy. When children are taught to think independently, critically and rationally, the courage to throw out beliefs that prove to be illogical or inconsistent with each other will come naturally, because in fact it is natural.