In today’s polarized hellscape, particularly when viewed through the funhouse mirror of social media, interacting with people whose opinions and worldview differ from ours is a challenge. Persuading them to bridge that difference is even more so. To that end there exists a Rosetta Stone of sorts through which most of the key insights of social psychology can be understood. Two fundamental aspects of how the brain and conscious thought works explain most of what baffles and frustrates us when interacting with others.
The first psychologists label “the bandwidth problem,” and the second is known as“the energy problem”. Both describe how the brain sorts and utilizes its resources. These principles and their applications deserve a fuller explanation than is possible here, but it is hoped that this primer will provide insights that can be deepened with experience and self-guided study.
The bandwidth problem covers the fact that the conscious mind can only focus on one topic at a time. The rest of the brain’s machinery is engaged in automatic processes and shortcuts. What we call multitasking is actually rapid task switching, and each new task requires us to disengage from the previous one. The more practiced the routine, the more actions can be outsourced to these automatic processes. When operating on a routine basis, it is always easier to utilize existing automatic shortcuts than to create new ones. A well practiced guitar player of many years experience requires far less concentration and mental energy to play music than a novice, and can thus concentrate on singing lyrics instead. This mental mechanism of off-loading familiar concepts to the back of our minds helps us learn new tasks more rapidly when we have an existing frame of reference. The experienced guitar player will have a far easier time mastering the violin or other string instrument than someone starting from scratch.
When we talk on the phone while washing dishes, the automatic processes engage in practiced motions, and the brain checks in for microseconds at a time to course correct and ensure we are doing the thing correctly. We are not in fact concentrating on both tasks at the same time or devoting equal attention to them. For the most part, these automatic processes occur without conscious thought. Due to the limitations of conscious bandwidth, we would not be able to survive without them.
The energy problem is perhaps the more important limitation on the conscious mind. Our higher brain functions are unique in the animal kingdom. These sophisticated functions allow us to develop language, identity, self awareness, and to exercise our own free will. But no gift comes without a price. These functions are far more resource-intensive than the more basic animal functions. We have a fixed supply of energy resources and higher cognitive functions use them up at a faster rate than they can be replenished. The brain, therefore, has a great number of automatic processes designed to conserve energy. They are actions and sentiments so basic to us that we don’t even notice them. Trust, assumption, and belief are all examples of natural energy conserving processes.
Open mindedness tends to cost more energy, and removes the brain’s ability to rely on automatic processes. It’s one reason why we are frequently awkward when trying out new things. For automatic shortcuts to take over, thoughts need to be practiced and consolidated. This is also a big reason why when our mental fuel is running low, we become “crabby” or “irritable” which usually results in a degree of closed mindedness and stubbornness. This is a factor of the brain becoming more reliant on prejudices and instincts and less on higher discernment. Overspending those resources further can result in more serious consequences, including paranoia, psychosis, and PTSD. Paradoxically, skepticism is a resource-intensive higher brain function. The default setting of the brain is credulity. When exhausted, we may be less ready to accept higher order information. We become far more vulnerable to manipulation by emotional appeal and far more likely to believe urban legends and other fodder for the snopes.com website.
The way bandwidth and energy interact with more primitive brain functions yields some interesting results. Strong flashes of emotion, for example, crowd out cognitive bandwidth and can create a temporary effect very similar to energy depletion in terms of closing the mind to new information or idea receptivity. Low cognitive energy also makes one more susceptible to such strong emotional responses. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt was made famous by showing a connection between exposure to disagreeable political opinions and a strong physical disgust response. This suggests classical conditioning, similar to the famous experiments with Pavlov’s dog who was trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. These are simple associations between certain narrative framing triggers and a visceral emotional response, conditioned by repetitive pairing of stimulus and response. In the real world this is often reinforced by peer groups and frequently also by television and social media.
For a persuader, this means you are treading a field of verbal landmines, and you don’t know where any of them are buried. Use the wrong word or turn of phrase, and a landmine may be triggered that will provoke a pre-conditioned emotional response. Until the brain is cleared of that emotion, the person will not be receptive to new information. Attempting to force the issue is likely to escalate the problem.
The full implications of just these two aspects of how our minds work could occupy many hours of discussion and still barely scratch the surface. Nevertheless, from a practical standpoint, we can start with a few simple suggestions to apply what we’ve learned so far in ways that should improve persuasive outcomes as well as decrease drama and frustration of the interaction.
One should start by re-defining the goals and terms of victory in persuasive engagements. The goal should be to create a shared understanding of reality. The goal is to open a closed mind with respect to incorrect assumptions and present an opportunity to replace those with correct information. Disarming landmines and creating rapport for a constructive dialogue is a victory. Getting a person to reassess an assumption and consider new information is a victory. When the people you are engaging have replaced incorrect assumptions with correct ones, we must trust them to do the right thing with it. They may or may not become enthusiastic progressives, but shared assumptions will make constructive dialogue on these subjects possible. We are not propagandists or missionaries or used car salesmen, and we do not need to be. A great deal of progress can be achieved based on shared understanding while respecting differences in personal values and priorities.
Pushing a person too far past their comfort zone can trigger anxiety and other strong emotional responses that can backfire and erase all persuasive progress. A great deal of these automatic energy and bandwidth conservation processes become integrated into a person’s identity.and sense of self. They are anchors to a sense of reality itself. Earlier it was noted that concepts like trust serve as mechanisms for energy conservation. When we trust, we are outsourcing the resource-intensive process of skepticism. Some decisions on where to place our trust are more deeply tied to our identity than others. We all have our favorite journalists, pundits, intellectuals, even family members, friends and so on who we rely on for what we believe to be accurate sources of information. On a subconscious level our default setting is to assume what comes from trusted sources to be correct. We have outsourced the resource drain of skepticism to these sources. The same process occurs on a deeper level with the kind of trust we give to a spouse or lifelong friend. Anyone who has ever been betrayed by either knows what it feels like to have a core identity value undermined. Emotional trauma, anxiety, depression, even PTSD can result. Too heavy-handed an assault on core identity values will not only close off the possibility of further discourse, but can cause the person to act as though you’ve hit them because, in a sense, you have. MRI and PET studies show that the same parts of the brain light up for emotional pain as for physical pain.
Try to keep a light touch and focus on discrete assumptions. Look for signs a person is getting agitated or defensive and back off when necessary. Think of it as an indication you’re stepping too close to a landmine. Avoid commonly used catchphrases and loaded terminology frequently used in political discourse. Many turns of phrase and catchphrases have been wired with psychological explosives by pundits and politicians and PR firms alike. Even without the loading of the language, assertions and heavy-handed phrasing are more likely to be interpreted as a threat and trigger a defensive emotional response that will close off receptivity, bringing the persuasive effort to a screeching halt. Emphasize more neutral phrasing and directed questioning.
A gentle touch establishes trust, which is the most direct path to your goal. Trust and rapport are best established the old fashioned way…by earning it. Not trying to get anyone to buy something they don’t want or need, or to part with anything valuable is a good start. Establishing that we aren’t here to judge and condescend is a good start. For example one could say that we all have assumptions in life we’ve never bothered to question because we’ve never had a reason to. Follow that with a directed question as to whether the person has stopped to really interrogate the assumption in question. Gently suggest they consider whether said assumption makes sense in light of other facts they already know. Then ask them to take some time and think about what the new information means to them. Let them talk it out. It may lead them to seek out other complementary pieces of information. Look for signs they’ve absorbed as much as they’re going to in one sitting, and give them time to mull it over. Make sure they know you’ve got plenty more info where that came from if they want to talk again. There is considerable flexibility to play with the format. A number of excellent suggestions for such approaches can be found in the book Getting To Yes by Ury and Fisher.
The next consideration is how to maximize the new information a person can absorb without experiencing cognitive burden that will drain energy and overload bandwidth too quickly. This involves creativity of the sort best achieved with a thorough and confident understanding of the subject matter. You have to be able to break down elements into easily digestible packets. Knowing how to talk to people and get them to actually hear and understand is part of the job. If we’re being honest with ourselves, MMT and other abstract concepts we are describing are not the kind of thing the average person can swallow whole without choking. This is particularly true when you consider the number of incorrect concepts we all had to unlearn to get here. As was discussed above, unlearning a false belief is a resource-intensive process in its own right. Even though unlearning requires replacing the idea with something else, you are still only getting half the new information per unit of energy in the best of circumstances. This means it is doubly important to avoid energy drag.
To avoid drag, keep the conversation as organic as possible. It has to flow logically and naturally. Anything perceived as artificial, such as a heavy-handed or abrupt subject transition, creates a feeling of dissonance and discomfort that drains cognitive resources and decreases receptivity. When we tell someone a core assumption is wrong, it derails their automatic bandwidth and energy-saving processes and puts them in an awkward place where their intellectual footing is unsure. The more you guide them along a path of familiar assumptions, the more readily they will accept the information, and the fewer cognitive resources they will expend in doing so.
Focus on the subject under discussion and make sure the person understands what you’re talking about before moving onto a related topic. Avoid getting too abstract. Anchor ideas to the concrete, something you know the person understands. Stephanie Kelton uses monopoly money and chore coupon stories to illustrate how fiat currency works. That is why so many non-economists can grasp the concepts being explained without having to read loads of dense, dry books. They get firm footing on one rung of the ladder before reaching for the next. They do this because it is always easier to use the existing architecture of automatic mental shortcuts than to create entirely new ones. That’s all a frame of reference really is. Establish that frame of reference, and half of your work is already done.
The most important thing for communicators, persuaders and advocates to do with this knowledge of brain mechanics is simply to keep the dynamics in mind and think about how they may apply to the behavior of people you encounter. This understanding can help us build empathy and opens lines of communication even to people whose views seem diametrically opposed to ours. It can de-mystify incongruities that puzzle us, such as how otherwise highly intelligent people can sometimes believe what we perceive to be stupid things. It can help us spot behavioral and ideological inconsistencies that can help us better focus our arguments on areas where they might be more effective. As with any other energy and bandwidth conserving process, practice will make this approach second nature and allow us to develop a more potent set of persuasive tools for educating people about MMT and its implications.