Sunday, August 8, 2021

Tali Sharot - The Influential Mind

 Tali Sharot’s “The Influential Mind” is a curious and interesting position that engages the reader on many levels. Written in an approachable style that evokes science columns from magazines like “Rolling Stone” or “Vice”, the book quite casually, and without overloading the readers with data, summarizes findings of research that deals with the problem of cognitive influence. 

From staple investigations that every Psychology students knows all-too-well, like Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment, through the author’s own work completed with her students all the way to anecdotal data, readers are being fed carefully carved pieces of information along with a side of interpretation. Through this process, Sharot evades the pitfalls of sounding pretentious when talking about subjects with such heavy implications.

In the prologue, we are given the key to the secrets of influence and manipulation — human brains have not yet evolutionary caught up to the amount of information we feed them nowadays. The world has changed almost completely within the last 60 years, which is a laughable amount of time from the evolutionary perspective. Humankind en masse became a sitting duck at the mercy of politicians and corporations with enough power and money to utilize the scientific findings for their own benefit, shielding them behind muddy intellectual property rights.

Sharot uses her own example of watching the 2015 Republican Primary debate and falling at some point for an emotional and anecdotal example brought up by Donald Trump, probably carefully chosen by a group of aides that read countless focus group results. It portrays that when applied properly, a tactic like that can confuse even someone who literally knows the facts (in this case, links between vaccines and autism). Now think about all of those emotional posts that flood the walls of Facebook every single day. Sharot makes it painfully clear that the information-warfare is real, and we are all at risk.

The chapters in the book focus on an array of elements that can influence the ways in which we think. This allows the author to paint a coherent picture and highlight the individual pieces at the same time. There is not just one method to sway us one way or another, and the possible combinations are of wide variety.

In the first two parts, the author explains how rigid and stale our thinking patterns can become, since our prior beliefs heavily influence any decision we make. Constantly slipping into old habits and using heuristics to make decisions strengthens certain pathways in our brains and make it hard to deviate from them. Approaching problems with a fresh mind becomes harder and harder. Confirmation bias kicks in, and we are only looking for the news sources and friends that agree with us. Sounds familiar in today’s world, right?

It will take a great load of emotions attached to the information to derail the train of electrical impulses from its favorite neuron track. With examples of famous political speeches but also everyday most mundane situations, the author presents how emotions — our own or others — can quickly change the way we think without ever realizing it. Sharot highlights the role of amygdala, our emotional center buried deep within our “old brain”. Modern imaging techniques allow us to see that activity in this structure tightly corresponds with the way we think and make decisions, and learning how to, at least to a certain point, control the amygdala, can be greatly beneficial to the general quality of life.

The next two chapters explore issues of incentives and agency. Through evolution, brains became sensitive to rewards and a sense of choice (even if only illusionary). What once was a survival mechanism that perpetuated feeling positive after providing bodies with nutrients and fuel required to live and reproduce, today, in the world of abundance, is a leftover backdoor to our consciousness that allows bad actors to sew the seeds of manipulation.

Sharot sums up for the readers another batch of experiments — the famous Marshmallow Test or a mind-boggling hand washing study performed in one of the American ICU’s among them, to present just how much we like to feel good about ourselves, and how much we like to be, or at least feel, in control.

From the neuroscience standpoint, the role of Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that fuels not only our movement, but is also abundant in the brain’s reward circuits, gets highlighted. It makes us feel good, and when we feel good, we are more likely to say yes to something.

In the second part of the book, Sharot focuses more on external factors, mostly other people. The influence that curiosity about others and their behaviors can have on us is profound. After reading this book, it is really hard to even think about ourselves as individuals. Our mood, demeanor, the way we speak and carry ourselves influence everyone around, and is influenced by everyone around at the same time! As presented by the author, this mechanism is not exclusive to humans. We learn that the Adelie penguins, so familiar to us from the pages of “Endurance”, engage in a similar battle of wills to see who will blink first in a mix of Russian roulette and chicken that they seem to play when it comes to having their meal with the predatory seals in their vicinity. It is like a constant equation running, with variables changing every second that can alter the result dramatically within milliseconds. But the factors do not have to come from interacting with another physical being — Sharot explains how living in a state of elevated stress, so common in today's world, can affect the way we think. The stress hormone, cortisol, can degenerate the tissue in the brain, lowering the cognitive skills and causing permanent damage.

All in all, I would recommend this book to everyone. Thanks to its casual style, it is easy to read and understand. And the clue is critical to realize, now more than ever, as we really might be witnessing the tear in the fabric of humanity growing beyond repair. Understanding these basic facts about how much of what we feel is influenced by other, often hidden, factors could be a great way to “get our heads out of the sand” before it is truly too late. Burying ourselves in the trenches of confirmation bias is not a solution, and the faster we realize that the better.

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