Bryan Caplan  

Are We Stubborn or Manipulable?

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It just occurred to me that there's a serious tension between two common psychological observations:

1. People are mentally stubborn, explaining the ubiquity of long-lasting disagreement.

2. People are easy to manipulate because they are extremely vulnerable to "mental contamination."

You might try to resolve this tension by saying that we're caught in a mighty tug-of-war between opposing manipulators.  We seem "stubborn" as a result of the fact that the forces that control our beliefs typically cancel each other out by pulling in opposite directions.  But on this theory, we should still be highly responsive to a little extra manipulation.  Adding one more slippery argument to the scales of a single mind ought to make a big difference.  Does it?  Not in my experience.

Overall, it seems like stubbornness is the rule of mental life, and vulnerability to manipulation just a marginal, oversold exception.  Am I right?  If I'm wrong, your own position implies that I should be easy to convince...

P.S. Merry Christmas!  And if your Christmas dinner conversation seems a little dull, try bringing up an old EconLog post to liven things up. :-)

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
B.B. writes:

We are easily manipulable when we are young, but stubbornly set in our ways ounce older.

Vincent Cate writes:

Children believing their parents or community leaders when they said "you should not play by the cliff" or "don't swim with the parana" was a successful adaptation for most of human evolution. However, this feature of humans has been exploited by the mind viruses called "religion" and "nationalism" so that it now must be counted as a "bug" and not a "feature". If it does have a net negative survival value, as I think, then evolution is reducing the bug. I think that on average humans today find it easier to believe their parents are wrong about religion than those of 500 years ago.

Andy Wood writes:

You once said:

Brainwashing works to a fair extent.

How does that fit in to this discussion?

Arnie writes:

Point #1 is strong.
Point #2 I would prefer to describe as "social conformity bias". Humans don't really like to be different, and will take the wrong side in an argument if it serves their social needs to be accepted. Do economists frequent cocktail parties? Since they need to fit in less than most, they are more rational than most, so the invites are probably rare. Imagine Caplan and Krugman chatting up the barmaid. Head for the exits!

Great final point, Bryan. I won't try to convince you.

B.B. has large anecdotal evidence on his side, though I have also seen that some (not all) of the very old are the least stubborn of all the age groups.

blink writes:

This tension seems like a good puzzle. Perhaps, they operate on different levels, though -- "conscious" and "unconscious" for lack of better terms. We may be stubborn consciously -- in arguments, etc. -- but find that our opinions and beliefs actually change frequently via unconscious processes. It may be that our stubbornness is a defense mechanism against our manipulability when we let our guard down.

Robin Hanson writes:

Good point Bryan. I'd say we are stubborn and hard for amateurs to manipulate, but that organized professionals can manipulate us when circumstances allow them to study a situation far more than we can.

Chris writes:

I would say that we are set in certain belief systems and desires (i.e. stubborn) and that the more these mental constructs form part of our identity, the slower we are to change them. The ability of a person/party/ideology to apeal to these basic desires/beliefs determines its effectiveness in manipulating us.

I guess I dont really see a tension at all. In my understanding, its extraordinarily difficult to manipulate or influence someone when the ideas being communicated conflict with basic values or beliefs, but insanely easy when they don't.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Isn't it important to think of priming effects? In the average situation, people rely on hard beliefs. But don't people take cues that allow them to be manipulated?


- Reporters act tough with regular folks, but roll over then powerful politicians talk.

- When we are threatened with violence, we are fooled by authority figures.

- Attractive people of the opposite sex manipulate us; attractiveness switches cognition from fact processing to reproduction.

- In-group vs. out-group: We are more open to false ideas by in group members.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Bryan, this is really a good case for thinking from a sociological perspective. People have peer groups that cue their attitudes and dispositions. People don't just process information in context free ways.

1. Rocks tend to roll downhill.

2. If pushed, rocks will roll downhill for sure.

I don't see a tension here.

Seth writes:

Similar to Chris, I think our response has much to do with our existing mental models.

We're stubborn to accept things that run counter to our mental models and much more willing to accept/not question/not think too deeply about/not do our due diligence on/repeat things that reaffirm our mental models.

What seems to help me (but doesn't always work) is that I try to remind myself that I could be wrong.

Evan writes:
Humans don't really like to be different, and will take the wrong side in an argument if it serves their social needs to be accepted.
I've noticed that after I've spent a lot of time around a group of people, I will find arguments in favor of their values more convincing and reasonable. Is it because of my desire to conform, or simply that I've had greater exposure to those arguments, so they come to mind more readily?
jb writes:

We are stubborn about what we know and about what we believe.

We are more manipulable about things we are uncertain about.

Lars P writes:

My starting assumption would be that the too stubborn and the too easily led mostly are separate populations.

Les writes:

"Everyone complains of his memory, and no one complains of his judgment."
— François de La Rochefoucauld

"Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary by sense."
— François de La Rochefoucauld

"We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others."
— François de La Rochefoucauld

Joe Cushing writes:

I just had a long written debate in facebook comments. I took the position that markets regulate better than governments do. The other side was that we need government to regulate because, under free markets, only the manager and investment class profits from business. The conversation was started with me responding to the other person's line that we can all agree that laissez faire has been a disaster. I could not convince the other side that there has been no laissez faire so the whole argument for las to regulate was based on a false belief. I got nowhere. I've never been able to convince anyone on issues like this.

steve writes:

People are always arguing over black or white, when most of the world exists in grays.

Matt Skene writes:

If you think of beliefs as commodities, this isn't surprising. Forming a belief when you have no opinion doesn't usually cost you anything, so if someone can sell it to you, then you are likely to see forming a new belief as a net gain, even if you do so for what are actually bad reasons. Once you have a belief, however, you usually see it as valuable, and you almost certainly will see changing it as a cost (even if it's just the cost of admitting you were wrong). Since going back to agnosticism usually doesn't get you anything, and since switching sides usually doesn't get you more than you had, people are naturally resistant to giving up the beliefs they already have. So, people with no opinion should be easy to manipulate, and people who already have opinions should be stubborn and hard to convince. I think that's what we actually find.

Ray writes:

Two points:

1) People are individuals. Those who are stubborn may not be those who are easily mentally manipulated. The word "we" can be intellectually sloppy at times.

2) It's possible that "mental contamination" is what a stubborn person calls it when his mind is changed by someone else's argument.

In other words, the tendency to use terms such as "mental contamination" is an aspect of being stubborn.

Hyena writes:

Both: people have broad areas of stubbornness but are manipulable within them.

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