Bryan Caplan  

The Mellow Heuristic

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No one protested me when I spoke at Oberlin College last week.  (Topic: The Myth of the Rational Voter).  A few days later, however, Oberlin showed factual feminist Christina Hoff Sommers a rather different face:

The entrance to the classroom where Sommers spoke was surrounded by flyers accusing her of supporting rapists. "F*** anti-feminists," read one sign.

The students responsible for the safe space were more polite, although they did joke about biting people they disagreed with and promised to zealously guard their precious space from "toxic, dangerous, and/or violent" people--anyone who didn't share their perspective, in other words. (Video of that here, courtesy of Nick Mascari, Third Base Politics).

Sommers told Reason that the most bizarre form of protest was the students who sat in the front row during her talk with their mouths taped shut.

"They just stared," she said.

Others did more than stare; they interrupted and booed whenever Sommers said something that irked them. At one point, a philosophy professor in the audience stood up and called for civility. They mocked him and yelled at him to sit down, according to Sommers.

I know a lot about the science of gender, so the crowd's poor behavior has little effect on my views.  But I must confess: If I knew less, this would be a perfect time to apply what I call the Mellow Heuristic.  The Mellow Heuristic is a rule of thumb for adjudicating intellectual disputes when directly relevant information is scarce.  The rule has two steps. 

Step 1: Look at how emotional each side is. 

Step 2: Assume the less emotional side is right and the more emotional side is wrong.

Why should we believe the Mellow Heuristic tracks truth?  Most obviously, because emotionality drowns out clear thinking, and clear thinking tends to lead to truth.  The more emotional people are, the less clear thinking they do, so the less likely they are to be right. 

Furthermore, people who hope to persuade others normally highlight their strongest evidence.  So if advocates of a view spend most of their time emoting on you, it is reasonable to infer that they lack better evidence.  And sides with low-quality evidence are also less likely to be right.

Like all heuristics, the Mellow Heuristic is imperfect.  If Hannibal Lecter debated one of his traumatized victims, the Mellow Heuristic would probably conclude that Lecter was in the right.  But it's a good heuristic nonetheless.  On average, the calm are really are more reliable than the agitated. 

On some level, you already know this.  That's why you tell yourself, "Calm down" when the costs of error are high.  If you don't trust yourself to reach the truth when you're upset, why would you trust strangers who aren't even trying to keep their emotions in check?




COMMENTS (23 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

This seems to depend hugely on the personalities involved. A professional with experience speaking is always going to be more mellow than an audience of college students unless the whole point of the speech is to arouse emotion (e.g., a political speech).

Anticipation of the popularity of a view also comes into play here. People are restrained when they're aware that they're the controversial view. People who don't think they'll be challenged have less incentive to restrain themselves.

I'd think this heuristic will select for professional personality and controversial views

Left unselected would be unprofessional personalities and professional personalities with uncontroversial views.

Mori Kopel writes:

Unless you feel that Lebowski and Spicoli are particularly convincing fellows you may mean calm rather than mellow.

Jackson writes:

Calm seems adequately synonymous with mellow.

I was thinking of two scenarios.
The first is where you visit your physician and after a series of test, the doctor informs you in a shrill and loud voice:

"We know something is wrong, don't you get it? You can do something about it and fix the problem. What is the matter with you?! You don't have much time and I'm not responsible for your bad judgment!"

You would likely look for another doctor, perhaps even penning a note of concern to the AMA.

Now imagine some highly credentialed scientist giving the same lecture about global warming. I fear many would listen and be concerned about the issue.

So, do credentials trump the calm and mellow delivery? The doctor has credentials. Perhaps what we want to hear can be stated in an irrational tone, and we might be willing to accept the message, failing any rational and mellow speaker articulating our concern. (e.g. Pre-war Nazi Germany.)

It seems to me that people use the mode of interaction which best serves their aims. A person with confidence in reason and data will use those, if possible.

But statists who aim to win elections usually do well to sidestep a reason-and-data argument; instead they move on to emotional symbols, or to stereotype and dismiss their opponents. And, since I claim I can be "liberal" in the historical meaning of that word, I would say that statists are right to use emotions and stereotyping to advance their aims in information-constrained majority-rule choices; that is what works for them.

Hazel Meade writes:

This doesn't always work. I know some people who can tell flat out lies in a calm voice, either because they sincerely think the lies are true, or because they know that it is far too time consuming for you to refute the lies in the limited time span of whatever debate forum your in (and in the limited attention span of the audience).
The latter is a tactic I find infuriating - tell some massive whopper, and force your opponent to choose between letting the massive whopper go unchalleneged or wasting all his time explaining why it is false.

Jameson writes:
If you don't trust yourself to reach the truth when you're upset, why would you trust strangers who aren't even trying to keep their emotions in check?
Well, now you're just confusing reaching the truth and presenting the truth. Of course I want to be calm when I'm trying to discover the truth. But if I'm trying to defend the truth, and there are high stakes involved, then sometimes high emotion would not only be natural, but very much called for.

Also, I question what you mean by "calm" here. Certainly politicians will lose tactically if they lose their "cool." On the other hand, if they appear genuinely dispassionate, they're sunk. Thus a politician, in order to defend certain ideas, absolutely must demonstrate the right amount of passion under the right amount of control.

Maybe I should throw this example out there. I watched you lose that IQ squared debate on "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere." You did appear pretty dispassionate. You also didn't appear very convincing. I wonder if there's a relationship?

Jeff writes:

I think that's a pretty common sense idea. On a sidenote, in this particular situation, I think this qualifies as another of those "narcissism of small differences" situations you mentioned a while back. CHS is a feminist, the Oberlin students are feminists, but CHS has some heterodox views on a handful of issues that feminists feel very strongly about, and that makes her a target, an enemy. Your ideas, on the other hand, are probably too alien to the average Oberlin student to qualify you as anything other than a stranger in a strange land. A guest to be given a polite, respectful hearing, maybe.

Exception that covers Hannibal Lecter and other monsters: if the mellow guy has personally harmed the emotional people, or is likely to cause harm to them in the future, the emotional people are excused.

Richard writes:

There are some calm holocaust deniers out there, and they meet protests that are often very emotional.

Usually, the "mellow" ones are those with unpopular views, otherwise they wouldn't be able to effectively make their case since they're already disliked. Being in a majority and having the support of those power encourages people to act out, whether right or wrong.

sam writes:

In the case of you vs. CHS, reference Scott Alexander's "I can tolerate anything but the outgroup".

The outgroup of radical Sunnis is moderate Sunnis.

The outgroup of radical feminists is moderate feminists. You're not even on their radar.

Mark Neyer writes:

this heuristic is seriously flawed, and represents the kind of entitled thinking that only someone who feels relatively enfranchised can demonstrate.

i am well aware that people use it. i long ago came to the conclusion that this was 'another dumb heuristic that people without realizing they do it', so it's fascinating to see someone use a single case to justify this dumb heuristic.

as other commenters have pointed out, there is a marked difference between 'determining' the truth, and 'communicating' the truth.

i get very upset when i argue with people about the drug wars, for example. i suffered as a drug addict, and i think the whole situation we have now is absurd and the problem would have been substantially less if drugs were legal. i think the killings are horribly wrong and they give the government way too much power. most people reading this blog, i assume, would agree with me.

and yet i get super angry when i try to share this rational evidence, the reasons reached calmly, with people who flat out reject all evidence that goes against their belief.

i don't think the people in this example are right to behave the way they are, i'm not defending that at all. but this heuristic is wrong and it needs to be stopped. until you can consider an argument _regardless_ of the emotionality behind it, you should just drop this heuristic. i'm sure some people got pretty angry trying to argue against slavery, but that doesn't make them wrong.

this entire post, this support of a heuristic based upon emotional structure of an idea's expression, rather than its own merits, is pretty damn dismissive of people with mood disorders, difficulty communicating abstract ideas, and people who really care about the truth being heard. i've learned to calm down, of course, and i work on that, but in the mean time we'll have a society run by sociopaths if we always dismiss people who are angry because they care.


imagine how angry this guy must have been:

Lee DeForest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public … has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company …” — a U.S. District Attorney, prosecuting American inventor Lee DeForest for selling stock fraudulently through the mail for his Radio Telephone Company in 1913.


Please, if you value rational discourse and calm discussion, you need to be able to calmly discuss things with people who are angry. Otherwise you are the bigger fool, for advocating an illogical heuristic and defending it, calmly and logically.

Massimo writes:

Emotional calm is almost always on the side with power. This rule supports those calmly seated in power and opposes rebellion or protest. And this is usually, but definitely not always, right. The student upset at school or the protesters angry at the police, are almost always the more emotional party, and they are usually but not always wrong.

For decades, Nelson Mandela was more emotional than the ruling Afrikaners. Mandela was filled with ethnic hatred, carrying out bombings, murders, planning full scale war, disgust with the Afrikaner language, etc. Mandela was released from prison to immediate fame and power and quickly became the new permanent ruler of his former enemies, enacted extreme affirmative action laws and race quotas to balance out past injustice, and became the more calm one. I imagine if you take almost any super emotional person with a poor argument and give them some extreme ultimate power over their adversary, they will switch to the more calm and diplomatic.

Caplan is referencing the mass immigration movement. The elites and the academics orchestrating mass immigration, have power on their side and are calm. The Europeans and Israelis who realize that the very basic premise of Israel being a Jewish state or Italy being an extended tribal nation state of ethnic Italians is under very direct threat tend to be more emotional. I think they are very right to be panicked and emotional and the anti mass immigration side is somewhat "more right" in that debate.

BTW, the very title of the IQ^2 debate "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere" is biased. It's not wrong, but it's clearly a purposefully slanted title designed to favor the idea of dissolution of the idea of an ethnic nation state identity like that of Italy or France.

Jon Murphy writes:

I keep going back and forth on this in my head.

On the one hand, Prof. Caplan makes an excellent point. Emotion does often drown out clear thinking and it may be a refuge of the unsupported.

On the other, I think Daniel Kuehn makes an excellent point. A professional speaker is far more likely to remain calm vs a crowd. I'm quite sure if I ever debated Paul Krugman I would do a poorer job controlling myself than he would, despite my confidence in my argument, simply because he's been presenting and teaching since before I was born.

All that said, I do think this is a good rule of thumb. I'm going to start applying it more in my life, especially when someone says something I agree with in an effort to temper my own confirmation bias.

Jim Glass writes:

One of the first great practical lessons I learned as a young puppy lawyer way back in the last century was: When the facts are on your side be calm and collected and clear about them, and let them do the convincing for you. Don't be distracted into arguing anything with the other side, just let the facts talk for themselves. When the facts are against you cry outrage, plead for justice and argue everything you can to get people thinking with their emotions (or not thinking with them, as the case may be.)

It works -- and keeping this in mind while watching the other side's presentation can reveal what it really thinks of its own case, which is always useful.

A professional speaker is far more likely to remain calm vs a crowd.

Oh, not at all. The professional speaker will be self-controlled in front of an audience -- big difference -- and then make a presentation appearing somewhere on the scale from logical to emotional to frenzied as is calculated to produce the best effect.

Jon Murphy writes:

The professional speaker will be self-controlled in front of an audience -- big difference -- and then make a presentation appearing somewhere on the scale from logical to emotional to frenzied as is calculated to produce the best effect.

That's a good point

ThomasH writes:

I think this "Mellow Heuristic" had a lot to do with my re-labeling myself a Liberal rather than a "Conservative." Is Obama a foreign-born Muslim Socialist? Easy, just listen to the volume. Ditto on whether climate change is a hoax, whether firms should be able to decide on their employees' contraception coverage, whether SSM should be allowed, the Gummit wants to disarm the American People.

Lee Waaks writes:

The protesters may be highly disruptive and angry but their intellectual mentors (whomever they may be) could (and would) likely display great calm and poise in a debate (and often do). For example, the Marxist Herbert Marcuse praised the violent Sixties radicals but I understand that he, himself, was quite genteel. If the radical left (or right) protesters are influenced by the mellow writings, lectures, etc of various radical writers, does that change anything? What is the right comportment for fighting evil?

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Most obviously, because emotionality drowns out clear thinking"

I have much doubt about that premise (my impression is that emotionality and clear thinking are orthogonal, not opposites)

NZ writes:

Bryan offers several reasons why it's wiser to defer to the less emotional debate participant, but these reasons have unnecessary moving parts.

Instead, consider that the emotionality with which one argues is simply tied to the emotionality of one's ideas and beliefs.

If your ideas and beliefs are based on emotion, as feminists' are, then they are not likely to make sense in the real world. If they are reasoned from observation about the real world, then they will fare better once they leave your head.

NZ writes:

PS. The only way to persuade other people of emotionally-derived ideas and beliefs is to use an emotional style of argument, which will attract other emotional thinkers.

LD Bottorff writes:

The Mellow Heuristic is a rule of thumb for adjudicating intellectual disputes when directly relevant information is scarce.
We should base our analysis on information when we have it and when it is trustworthy. The Mellow Heuristic is just used when we don't.

J Mann writes:

This feels like it begs the question. Supporters of the enlightenment ideal of reasoned debate will tend to trust the calmer party in a debate, although not if they have suffient other reasons to distrust that party. Supporters of the modern idea of narrative will tend to trust the most oppressed party, and level of commitment tends to signal autheniticity of experience, with some obvious exceptions like the other side in gamergate.

In a neutral case - let's say that we were at a meeting to finalize plans on a spaceship, and o e side calmly explained that the spaceship would only work if it had self sealing stembolts, while the other side screamed that they were being oppressed, that the calm side were murderers, and that only manually sealing stembolts would get the crew to alpha centauri, I would not be confident going either direction without more info.

Ben Kennedy writes:

I think Bryan may be just trying to have a little fun with you guys

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