Corey and Steve talk to Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and author of Loserthink. Steve reviews some of Scott’s predictions, including of Trump’s 2016 victory. Scott (who once semi-humorously described himself as “left of Bernie”) describes what he describes as Trump’s unique “skill stack”. Scott highlights Trump’s grasp of the role of psychology in economics, and maintains that honesty requires admitting that we do not know whether many of Trump’s policies are good or bad. Scott explains why he thinks it is mistaken to assume leaders are irrational.
- Scott Adams (Blog and Podcast)
- Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America
- Kihlstrom J. F. (1997). Hypnosis, memory and amnesia. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 352(1362), 1727–1732. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1997.0155
- Hypnosis and Memory (Blog Post)
Steve: Our guest today is Scott Adams. You all know him as the creator of the Dilbert, the cartoon series, which according to Wikipedia, appears online and in 2,000 newspapers worldwide, in 65 countries and 25 languages. Scott is also an author. He has his own podcast show called Coffee with Scott Adams. I hesitate to compare our viewership or listenership with his, but one thing I wanted to say to Corey is that as far as I can tell, Scott releases every day. Is that right? Are you on a daily release schedule?
Scott: I do, weekends and holidays as well.
Steve: I think Corey if we got a little more practicing, we could probably be a little more spontaneous and release more often.
Corey: We’ve had intense discussions about whether to go from every two weeks to once a week. That took a lot of effort on our part.
Scott: Well, the secret is to reduce your need for quality. You can always get the quantity by dialing down on the quality. That’s my experience.
Steve: We’ve been very focused on scheduling guests, but I feel, maybe because I’m a narcissist, that some of our listeners would actually just like shows where Corey and I talk, but we’ve actually done very little of that, so it’s something for us to look into.
Scott: That’s a harder balance because it works better if you’re already famous for something else and people will want to listen to you, but you can experiment.
Steve: Yep. To our audience, Scott is obviously well known as a humorist, but I would say beneath the surface is a very serious thinker. Over the years, I have definitely gained a number of deep insights from listening to Scott or reading his blog and so I’d like to actually get into that, and we’ll also talk about his new book called Loserthink. Let me start with his track record on predictions, which I happen to be aware of because he made some very striking predictions in real-time that turned out to be true. I should note that in his book, he actually asks, he suggests to readers that they track their own predictions to get a sense of their own calibration and also, how often they’re wrong, and how to learn from being wrong, and think more positively about occasionally being wrong.
Steve: The two predictions that I want to discuss with Scott right now are … First of all, let me list them and then we’ll discuss them separately. One of them, which is quite famous was that he was very strongly predicting in 2016 that Trump would win the election and he actually analyzed Trump as I believe, a master of persuasion. I was extremely interested in Scott’s analysis of Trump in that respect, so I want to come back to that in a second, but I just want to also list the second prediction that he made just recently, which I found very striking. When Soleimani, the Iranian general, was assassinated by the United States, the whole world was holding its breath, wondering what was Iran’s response going to be?
Steve: Scott, very boldly and confidently said, “There’s not going to be much of a response because they’re too vulnerable to us. Our military power is so overwhelming that if there really were a serious response, they would be signing their own death warrant.” I remember registering that very carefully and I was watching the media very carefully to see what other people were predicting and their predictions were all over the map. Some people were predicting World War III. I would say the facts completely support Scott’s prediction. That basically, there was a fake counterstrike telegraphed. Nobody was killed, et cetera. Let’s talk about those predictions. Let’s go back to 2016, Scott, and tell us what you were thinking and saying about Trump, in that time period.
Scott: Well, it’s actually better than that. It was actually 2015 when I made my call. By 2016, some people were starting to get on board and they saw some momentum, but in 2015, calling him as the winner of the entire thing, not just the nomination, bordered on crazy talk. What I saw in him was a skill set that I’d never seen before in a public figure, running for politics, anyway, somebody who had all of the persuasion toolkit. Now, I’m a trained hypnotist. I learned hypnosis by going to school for it when I was in my 20s and I’ve been studying persuasion and all of its various forms as part of a hobby and partly to help my writing because if you’re going to write, you need to be persuasive.
Scott: What I saw him coming to the scene, I thought, holy cow, this is not normal, but it’s not normal in a way that people won’t recognize that it’s based on tools and not randomness. A lot of the complaints about President Trump are, “He’s impulsive. He’s unpredictable. He’s chaotic.” If you don’t know the technique, it looks exactly like that, but if you’re schooled in persuasion, you’d say, “Oh, he’s just shaking the box” or, “Oh, he’s just focusing attention” or, “Oh, he’s just doing one thing or another that changes how you think about the world, how you frame things.” Once you see it, it becomes obvious.
Scott: The moment that it was really obvious to me is when he took Jeb Bush out with one nickname and by the way, that was one of my predictions. The day that his nickname came out, the day that he gave it nickname to Bush, is the day that I said would be the last of Jeb Bush. I believe I’m the only person in the world who said that that nickname alone would take the strongest candidate, maybe you’ve seen in a generation before from the Republicans. I mean it seems like Jeb Bush was just going to walk into the job and I said, “No. That nickname is going to take him out” and it did.
Steve: I think you said at the time, perhaps that Trump was like a guy who was bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight.
Scott: Yeah. His tools were the kind that he is uniquely qualified to use. One of them, part of what makes him persuasive, is probably his tolerance to risk, his tolerance to criticism, and his ability to simply do things that everybody else is telling him is the wrong thing to do. You need a certain kind of personality to pull off using the tools he has and that’s why he’s the strongest persuader I’ve seen because he has both the knowledge of the tools, but a willingness to use them in a way that other people would not.
Steve: People forget this now, but at the time, they were calling that slate of competitors in the Republican Party, the strongest group ever assembled in a primary.
Scott: That’s right, before he took out the strongest group of Republicans ever assembled. By the way, even in retrospect, it still looks like that. That was a talented group.
Corey: On what objective measure are they rated the strongest?
Scott: Well, it’s a combination of how the public feels about them, plus their resumes. It’s partly subjective, but they were people with serious backgrounds and experience. They were good in public. They had all the tools. They’ve been governors. They’ve been senators, so on that level, they seemed strong. Then he went on to take out the most presumptive winner of all time. I mean it wasn’t anybody of the serious pundits. People pretty much assumed it was Hillary all the way. Then he went on to consolidate the Republican Party.
Scott: I like to say that he hollowed it out and used it as a suit. He didn’t just change it around the edges. I mean he practically inhabited it and wore it like a uniform. I mean it became about Trump at some point and still is. I think he said, he was claiming 95% support among Republicans. We’re in a world where you don’t really win the other side. The other side is really beyond persuasion, in our modern world, but if you can get 95% of your own team on your side, that’s something, it’s possible, you’ll actually never see it again.
Steve: My perceptions at the time were that prior to this, your political views were not really front and center. I think over time, I’ve heard you described as a libertarian. I think I’ve even heard you endorsing Bill Clinton as having pretty good views, political views, and views on governance, but then because you came out and predicted Trump was going to win and you admired his persuasion abilities, not necessarily all of his political opinions, but his abilities as a candidate, suddenly, everyone lumped you in as a very strong Trump supporter. You’ve taken a lot of heat over this. Is that right?
Scott: Well, I am a very strong Trump supporter in the sense that I say positive things about him, more than negative. Now, I say also plenty of negative stuff. I don’t think he’s done enough on healthcare. I don’t think immigration’s a home run. I think he should not have signed a deal with China without getting fentanyl taken care of, before he even started talking to them. I could go through my half a dozen of complaints, but when it comes to, can he do things that other people couldn’t do? In other words, does he have tools that let him solve problems that a standard politician cannot?
Scott: That’s what makes him special and that’s what I talk about. If you take the example of taking out General Soleimani, I don’t know if anybody else would have done it, and I don’t know if anybody else could have done it in a way that, it looks like, at least temporarily, has stopped the proxy wars and everything else. Part of that is the credibility of the threat and part of that’s his persuasion, and part of it is just his guts. I think he made a call that other presidents we know, at least one of the presidents, decided not to, for different reasons.
Steve: Before we jump to Iran though, I just wanted to not leave Trump for a minute and say though, didn’t the public’s perception of you or the amount of flack that you’ve gotten for …? If I integrate all the flack you’ve ever gotten for all the opinions you’ve ever stated publicly, nothing adds up to one-tenth of what you’ve gotten for your opinions on Trump. Is that fair?
Scott: Well, that’s probably fair, but it also has to do with, how many people are paying attention? More people pay attention to political stuff, but yeah, I’ve had my share of fake news controversies. If you Google me, you’ll find all the things that will make your hair catch on fire. You’ll say, “My God. Did he really say that?” The answer is no, I didn’t. I didn’t say that. You’ll find that I’m a Holocaust denier. Nope, nope. Never been a Holocaust denier. You’ll find that I’ve been a libertarian, as you said. I’ve never really been a libertarian. I once said I was like a libertarian without the crazy parts, but I was just being funny because it’s mostly crazy parts. I’ve taken a lot of heat, but I’m at a point in my career where I’ve made my money. I’m not going to go for … I can take a risk that other people can’t.
Scott: I actually thought that this was a risk that had a patriotic value that’s different than other risks, so I wasn’t randomly going out there and trying to be provocative. I actually thought that this is a … I consider Trump to be like a 100-year flood. Once he’s out of office, however long that is, there’s not really going to be another one right away. Given that his unique skill set could maybe shake loose some problems that couldn’t get shaken loose before, I thought, well, let’s take advantage of this. People are not seeing this as the opportunity it is because it comes with costs. He’s what I call an expensive president, meaning not just how much it costs him for the Secret Service to go on his golf trips or anything, but in terms of our psychology, what it does to our public discourse, how angry people get about stuff. He’s expensive, but he’s also providing things that a regular politician just probably couldn’t do.
Corey: Your attitude towards Trump is still a little bit unclear to me. You admire his skill set. You say he, “Solves problems others couldn’t,” but you didn’t suggest that you actually liked the solutions he offered. It wasn’t particularly clear to me whether you did or not, whether you thought the solutions were correct or not. To be a little more specific, I can imagine someone who actually could not stand Trump saying things that are close to what you’re saying. You might say the guy’s very good at communication. In fact, I have a friend who actually hates Trump, but yet described him as a natural marketer.
Corey: One might say that he accomplishes things others could not accomplish, but it all depends on whether you think those accomplishments are in the public interest. I’m just curious to pin you down a little bit more on your attitude. Set aside your admiration for his capacities, what he does or how he does it, and look at substantive policy. Which policies do you like? Do you think that he accomplished something that you personally think is in the public interest, that other people could not have gotten done?
Scott: One of the things that Trump understands better than, I think any politician that I’ve seen understands is that economics is a psychology game and the economy is a psychology machine. Instead of tweaking stuff like, I don’t know, money supply or whatever, he goes directly at the psychology and part of the way he does that is by a number of activities, which he can claim credibly are helping the economy, but it’s the claim, more than the thing. In other words, when he cuts regulations, he says, “Look, this is going to be great for the economy. I cut all these regulations.” You and I don’t even know what those regulations are, but the psychology of saying, “Oh yeah, regulations probably do restrict some things if we have a few of them,” it feels like we always have too many. Maybe that’s working when he says he’s changed the taxes to stimulate things.
Scott: Maybe we’re not all economists. By the way, I have a degree in economics and an MBA from a good school, so when I see people who understand the economy as a psychology machine, I say, “First of all, that’s different and number two, that’s exactly the right place to be.” The little tweaks he does to the economy may make little or no difference at all. Even the trade deals may not make that big a difference, but the way people feel about it is really influenced by those things and so you see people say, “Well, I’d better invest because the economy is growing. I don’t want to miss this wave.” Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Scott: People think it will be good, so they invest and investing makes it good. He does that better than anybody’s ever done it and possibly again, I hate to say this, but it might be better than anybody will ever do it because he understands that just in a way that I haven’t seen before. That’s one example. Now, when it comes to things like, is any particular trade deal better than another? I have no idea, but neither does the public, so I tend not to take strong views on whether this technical deal is better than this or that. I’ll give you another example. I think he probably did make a difference with the war against ISIS, the territorial war.
Scott: They’ll never go away as an idea, but in terms of territory, I think he made the change that made the difference, which is he allowed the military to be the military, without checking and letting the bad guys get away while they’re in the process of checking if it was okay to attack. That probably made a huge difference. If you have any specific examples, we could talk about them. I have my list of things that I disagree with as well. There isn’t much room in the public discourse, for people who would take a nuanced approach to a politician.
Corey: That, I think we firmly agree on. I think the world’s complicated and individuals are complicated, and some of the policies are good and not good. It’s very hard in the current environment to take a view of somebody that sees some positives and some negatives. I think that’s a real problem with today’s culture, but I still can’t quite tell what you believe, Scott. I see, again you’re describing this very interesting approach towards the economy.
Steve: Why don’t you just ask him if he’s going to vote for Trump again?
Corey: I think he said, somewhere I read, that you actually don’t vote. Is that right?
Scott: I do not vote. The reason is that, especially if you’re talking about it in public, voting will bias you because you want your pick to be right. It’s not that we’re not all biased anyway, but if I can find a cheap and easy way to remove at least one variable of bias, I’ll do it. I don’t think my specific vote is the one that’s going to move the country one way or another, so I don’t think that was a big expense.
Steve: Not in California.
Scott: Yeah, exactly.
Corey: I think your question, Steve, actually comes back to something that Scott noticed, because you said, “Will he vote for Trump again?” It’s not clear Scott ever voted for Trump.
Steve: That’s right.
Scott: I’ve not voted for Trump because I didn’t vote, as I said. Now, I think I can answer the question as clearly as possible. I’ve met President Trump in the Oval Office, in 2018. He was just meeting some supporters. I was one of them. I got to chat with him. I’m not unbiased about him personally. Personally, he’s very likable. I mean he’s got tons of charisma. He was very nice to me, so I am subjectively and absolutely biased to like him personally because of personal contact. What’s wrong with saying some of his policies are good and some of them could be better? What’s missing in my analysis? What is confusing about that?
Corey: Look, you’re a scientist. I’ve listened to you talk about methodology as it were, very abstractly. You like the fact he’s turned economics on its head by focusing on psychology, but I didn’t quite hear you say, “I thought those tax cuts were overall good for economic growth or that the cost-benefit analysis of the increase in the deficit was something that we should bear, going forward.” I never heard you say anything like that. I’ve heard you admire his personal characteristics, his strategy, the guy’s way of thinking about things, but I haven’t heard you come down clearly one way or the other, saying, “I think his policy at the border is a better one than X reasonable policy.” There are many unreasonable policies you could prefer it to. I hear you talking methodologically about Trump, but not as far as substantively, I’d say.
Scott: Let me put some meat on that. That’s actually a very fair question. My larger philosophical approach to the big complicated political stuff is, how would I know? How would I possibly know if that was the best thing to do with taxes? It’s unknowable by its nature. Like I said, I’ve got a degree in economics. I can’t tell. Here’s another question that you think is common sense, but isn’t. Is the national debt too high? Well, I’m worried and that’s on my short list of things that I think Trump has to answer for, as obviously not an ideal situation. It’s either not ideal or it’s a big problem, but it’s certainly not good.
Scott: We can’t say that, but national debt is not like personal debt. In other words, we have all the nukes and we can print money. What does that say about our necessity to pay it back? What’s going to happen when we’re a robot-driven economy? What’s it like in 20 years when people ask for the money back? Do we have to give it back? Does money even mean anything in 20 years? There are a lot of questions about national debt, that even the smartest economists don’t really know what it means because it’s not like any other debt, so is it something to worry about? Yeah. It’s a big thing to worry about, but I don’t know if it’s going to kill us. It’s just imponderable.
Steve: Scott, I wanted to ask, are you familiar with the movie Idiocracy?
Scott: Yes. Long ago, I saw that. Yes.
Steve: If you remember, the president in this future where the average IQ has dropped substantially, is a professional wrestler. I don’t know if you remember this. For me, when Trump first announced, I think I saw it on the news. I was working out at a hotel gym and I thought, oh my God. Idiocracy is here early because here we have this guy, super flamboyant guy who was not a wrestler himself, but he was involved in professional wrestling and I thought, wow. We’re already at this point now where the president is going to be this super flamboyant guy and it’s in a way that natural endpoint of democracy of basically letting the masses decide who the leader is. You end up with a leader like this. Do you agree with what I’m saying or do you disagree with what I’m saying?
Scott: Well, I write in my book, Loserthink, that one of the big errors in analyzing anything, but politics in particular, is that we imagined that analogies mean something, so we say, “Hey. This leader has a mustache. Hitler had a mustache. I see where this is all going.” Your movie example is another one. People look at movies and they look at other people, completely different people’s experience, and say, “Well, that’s going to tell us something or this is an indicator of something.” It really isn’t. One is just a movie and the other is a completely different situation. The short answer is I take nothing from analogies.
Scott: I will say that when you look at President Trump, he has a talent stack, as I like to call it, a set of talents that work well together. The thing that some of us got early, but a lot of the public and the pundits missed completely, when they were mocking him for his reality TV skills, they were really missing the shell because the reality TV skills are probably about 70% of the job of the president. He needs to hold our attention and he needs us to think about what he wants us to think about, instead of what the other side wants you to think about. He needs to entertain you.
Scott: Just think about how educated the public has become about our system since Trump became president. I mean you understand the nuances of everything from how impeachment works to how the budget works, to how the military decision works, in ways I’ve never been exposed to. He’s educating us. He’s entertaining us. He’s putting our focus where we need it. All of those communications and ability to talk to people in the language of the audience, that’s his superpower. That’s not his flaw.
Corey: Who do you think has learned all that stuff? The public or Steve Hsu or you? The public in general, is that much more educated in any of this stuff since Trump, I mean?
Scott: Let’s say the public who’s following the news, which I guess I’d have to make that distinction, but if you follow the news, you’re learning all kinds of things about … For example, I mean I learned just this week that high crimes and misdemeanors could include things that are crime-like. First time I’d ever heard of that. That’s an Alan Dershowitz’s argument. It goes, we’re learning all kinds of things about our system.
Corey: I perceive, again that you’re learning these things because you’re a perceptive guy who seems to absorb information. I just don’t buy that the public is learning a huge amount more under Trump than they did under any other president. I mean is there any evidence for this?
Scott: Well, just that people were paying attention. I mean if you spend five minutes on Twitter, you’ll see people talking about issues at a depth that even exceeds what you see on TV. They’re sharing information and somebody will tweet, “Yes, but what about this context?” Or, “Yes, the same thing happened to …” I would say the social media and the people watching the news, maybe that’s 10% of the country, they’re definitely getting more educated. The others wouldn’t care, either way.
Corey: Well, they are educated. It’s just not clear that the slope of their knowledge is increasing. That’s my question. I think there is an educated segment of the population on Twitter, that’s engaging, but I’m just asking for evidence that these people are more educated than they were six years ago.
Scott: Well, I haven’t done a study on it, but I can tell you anecdotally that the topics that people talk about, at least on social media, are things that clearly, they are learning this year. You could tell who said it, where it came from. The example I gave you, of impeachment involving crimes or crime-like things, came from Alan Dershowitz. That happened this week and you’ll see lots of people talking about it this week, that they have never talked about before.
Steve: I haven’t done a study either, Corey, but I think there are lots of examples of things that happened pretty uniquely during this first term of the Trump presidency, that have illuminated lots of people’s understanding of aspects of government.
Corey: Sure. This is a general phenomenon when new things happen in the public sphere and there’s in-depth discussion. People will learn, but that’s generalization for any time period, just regardless. I’m sure people learned a lot more about African Americans when Obama got elected.
Steve: Well, I think Trump’s presidency is pretty unique in the sense that there’s quite a strong, entrenched resistance. For example, for me, I learned a lot about the judiciary when the judiciary was … When some random judge in some obscure part of the country was interfering with his ability to perform his presidential duties, I learned quite a bit about constitutional law and understanding-
Corey: Sure. When McConnell blocked Obama’s last Supreme Court pick, people learned the power of the Senate. Any phenomenon that leads to public discussion during a presidency will lead to knowledge.
Steve: I think the Trump presidency has been marked by more conflict between different powerful aspects of government.
Corey: Than Obama?
Steve: Obama may have also been a case where there was … Scott didn’t say there wasn’t a lot of learning under Obama either, right?
Scott: Well, yeah. I think there’s more controversy, which gives you more to learn. Take for example the Supreme Court, to use your example. I never knew that there’s nothing preventing the government from having more Supreme Court justices. You could just increase the number, so the next president, if it’s a different party can say, “Hey. The number of justices is going to be 25 and 19 of them are going to be ours.”
Steve: Before we leave Trump as a topic, and I think Trump is an attractor in any conversation, it’s hard to actually get sucked into discussing Trump these days, you could start almost anywhere and you end up talking about Trump, are you making a prediction about this coming election in 2020?
Scott: Well, given the people who are about to run against Trump, if it’s any of the characters that we know about, I don’t see any way that he doesn’t win. It looks like the incumbent advantage is going to apply here, but the field looks unusually weak. I don’t know if that’ll change before the nomination, but at this point, there’s nobody who looks like they could give him a challenge.
Steve: Are you thinking specifically of Bloomberg as somebody who might show up and give Trump a run for his money?
Scott: I don’t think he could. I think he’s far too weak. He doesn’t match up well. He doesn’t match up physically because one of the things that Trump does … Here’s one of those situations where if you want to say this is terrible and he should never do it, he’s a bad role model, I’m not going to argue with you, but I’ll tell you, it works. Mike Bloomberg, who, by the way, I think is exactly my height, when he calls him Mini Mike, it works because at a base animal level, we all want our leaders to be strong, whatever that means.
Scott: Even though height has nothing to do with capability, obviously, Bloomberg is a hyper and successful guy in a lot of different ways, but it works. He just makes us think of him as literally small and that’s just one of many examples in which he would get annihilated, Bloomberg’s age and the fact that he’s just another white billionaire. He’s going to look like he’s not enough of a contrast. Why do we need another one of these? We already got one of those.
Steve: I think Corey agrees with you, right? That this current crop of candidates is unlikely to beat Trump.
Corey: I’m not sure, unlikely to beat Trump, but I do agree with you that they’re unusually weak. In fact, I’m just shocked that in a country of 330 million people, that this is what we ended up with as the democratic possibilities.
Scott: Let me ask you this. If Trump did not exist and they were just running it against a normal candidate, I don’t think the field would look this weak. One of the things that he does is he sets a contrast point and one of the contrasts is just that the largeness of his personality and the influence are just the psychic real estate he takes up. When you think of him, you’re thinking of this supernova. Some hate it. Some love it, but it’s a supernova. Then you say, “All right. Klobuchar” and you’re seeing this little campfire. Now, her campfire might be perfect. She might be exactly who you need for president. Has all the skills, nothing about her capability, but it’s this little tiny flame compared to a supernova, and our uncritical parts of our mind just go, “I want my leader to be a supernova” and you can easily forgive all the details.
Corey: I think that’s a really interesting hypothesis. I hadn’t thought of that, that Trump might be causing the weakness in this field. Look, you’re right. Trump is extremely an unusual character, highly charismatic. Maybe on the order of Obama, he was the same character. It would have been interesting to see them go up against each other because Obama was thought to be a generational figure. It’s just hard. We can go into many details of whether Trump has a low ceiling or not, whether people think they’re going to get the same thing with Biden, but I would agree with you.
Corey: It’s shocking to me that nobody with stronger credentials got through. My theory is that it’s just a function of the polarization in the Democratic Party that partly accounts for this. There’s a large Bernie wing, a large left that’s split now. There’s a legacy of Obama vote that’s going for Biden. For some reason, a lot of these other pretty mainstream people who might pull well, just couldn’t get through the filter.
Scott: If you look at the Democratic candidates, let’s say they look like candidates of old, meaning that they’re a white guy of a certain age and certain look, they all fell off pretty quickly. I think that’s the contrast problem. They just look boring and insubstantial, compared to the supernova.
Corey: Then so did all the Brown people, which is interesting. You lost the white guys who look like the past and you lost all the black Latino candidates also, so you’re left with something that’s puzzling.
Scott: That was probably just an oddity that had to do with the fact that Biden was unusual. He could suck up all the African American support because of his time in the Obama administration. That’s just an unusual situation that was bad for the other candidates.
Corey: I was surprised at how poorly Booker did. Here’s my analogy. If you’re near-sighted and not really familiar with politics, and you look at them from a distance, Booker could seem Obama-ish in some ways, but-
Steve: I disagree with you.
Corey: Listen to my qualifier, near-sighted, not looking at it clearly.
Steve: You have to be deaf?
Corey: Well, Obama had a, it’s almost indescribable, certain subtlety, a certain build to make anyone think that he believed exactly what they believed, a certain way of presenting himself, which is a Rorschach test, a certain way of speaking. You could actually even see some of his early claims about different policies. The left and the center would interpret him as endorsing their view. Booker is just much less of a … He’s much clumsier, much more political.
Corey: A well-spoken guy, but he couldn’t pull off that kind of … I think I’ve quoted this before. I have a good friend who’s a really big fan of Obama. He describes him as an alien. There’s just something extra-terrestrial about Obama that allowed him to basically come into the political system and give people what they wanted, that Booker couldn’t do and maybe in the same way, Trump has pulled that off.
Scott: Let me contrast them because it’s something I’ve thought of as well. I also count Obama as being nearly Trump-like in his persuasion skills. If you’re going to make an All-Star team in history, Obama’s on the team and he’s a starter. Now, one of the things that Obama did that, to his credit, was probably the smartest thing anybody ever did as a politician, he ran for president as what would be the first black president and never made that a point. He just said, “I’m just running for president and you can talk about anything you want, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about.” That made it safe to vote for him.
Scott: All the Republicans were thinking, I like this guy. If even once he had made a major speech and said, “We really need to break this barrier,” maybe he said it in some casual way someplace, but he never made it a campaign point. That electing a black president was something like a goal for the country. He simply existed as a capable person with all the skills, so that was genius and it’s exactly what Hillary Clinton got wrong. Had Hillary Clinton not said directly, “It’s time for a woman president. Elect me because I’m a woman,” she might be president. To me, that was her fatal flaw.
Corey: You’re speaking to the choir here, in case you wonder about identity politics, Steve and me. We have a similar deep allergy to it. I think it’s a cancer.
Scott: Now let’s look at Cory Booker. Now, I have great respect for Cory Booker. He’s one of the smartest people in Congress. Just academically, intellectually, he’s just one of the smartest guys, but there’s something about the way he presents himself that does not register as authentic. That’s how I feel it. You’re seeing that the public is taking this deep preference for the real thing, even if they don’t like it. People will take the real thing they don’t like over the fake thing that sounds good because they don’t believe the fake thing that sounds good is actually going to happen anyway, so that’s why Bernie … By the way, I have mad respect for Bernie Sanders. I don’t want him to be my president, but man, there’s not many people I respect more than him, for being consistent, being authentic. I think he cares about the country. He’s been working hard in his own way. I don’t think he’s got the right answers, but you really have to respect the work, the intentions.
Corey: Can I stop you here, Scott, for one second? Because there’s a quote I read online. You’ve described yourself as left of Bernie. Is that apocryphal?
Scott: I called myself left of Bernie before there was anybody left of Bernie and part of it was a private joke because there wasn’t anything left of Bernie, so it was a way to put myself in unscripted territory where I couldn’t get labeled. Now, there are people left of Bernie, so I might have to retreat from that description, but I’ll give you some examples. Take abortion. Republicans would like to restrict it. Democrats like Bernie would like to have lots of situations where it’s okay. I go further than Bernie and I say, “This is not a conversation that men need to be in. We’re actually detracting from the credibility of whatever the final decision is.” In my opinion, if women collectively, by a majority, want the law to be this or that, I’m going to support that decision.
Scott: They’ve got more skin in the game. Now, if it’s talking about my money or who pays for the child or something, then men, of course, should weigh in. Now, I’m not saying other men shouldn’t vote on abortion or other men shouldn’t weigh in. I’m talking about myself. I personally have nothing to add to the discussion, so I’m just going to follow what women think is the right answer, collectively, once they work it out. Because it’s a life and death situation, even if it’s a decision you don’t like, you want it to be credible. You want the other side to say, “I hate this decision, but the way we got to it is credible” because this is what women need. They have more skin in the game. That’s one example.
Scott: Bernie would probably make marijuana legal. I would too, but I would also go further and make hallucinogens legal. There are a number of places where Bernie goes just so far and I go a little bit further, for a little bit more freedom or a little bit more credibility. Then on the economic stuff, I tend to favor that which we know works, as opposed to that which we suspect might not work. By the way, when your economy is working well, at least by historical terms, that’s not the time you re-engineer the whole economy. You do that when everything’s broken. Right now, everything’s working pretty well, as economies go, historically speaking,
Corey: Hard, from a guy who says that he’s made a lot of money and doesn’t have to worry about his retirement.
Scott: Well, I’m not doing well under the Trump administration, so personally, it’s killing me. My taxes went up because I’m in California, so I don’t get the state’s tax write-off. Because I talk about Trump in public, my earnings probably are down 30 or 40%, compared to what they would be.
Corey: Big picture.
Scott: Well, the big picture is more people are employed and the economy is going up. As someone who has studied economics, if you had to pick one indicator to tell you how things are going, pick employment because if you move somebody from unemployed to employed, that’s a big change. They go from needing your money to providing you money. I would say the unemployment rate is the superstar of the Trump administration.
Steve: I saw it reported recently, in, I think right of center news sources, that, I think for the first time in 30 years, the increase in income to people who are working-class or blue-collar exceeded, in percentage terms, the increase for upper-class people. Of course, didn’t see it widely reported by the other side, so I had to go and check and look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It actually seems to be true, at least according to what I found. Even working-class people are doing well under Trump.
Corey: I mean not always. Let’s say if it’s happened in the past couple of years, you got to wait for these Labor numbers to shake out.
Steve: I think I actually found numbers for the whole Trump administration and then against Obama and other-
Corey: It suddenly started in 2016 or was this beginning under Obama?
Steve: I just saw aggregate numbers for time under Trump.
Scott: I feel like that’s probably an apples and oranges situation because if you look at the stock market, and you assume rich people own stocks, they would have had a far bigger gain than somebody who just-
Corey: Usually, just the income.
Steve: Just income.
Scott: Just income, which is irrelevant to the richest people.
Steve: Before we get to your book, I just wanted to mention one other thing which was very striking to me. I want to tell the audience, I’m not cherry-picking your predictions because I don’t follow you that closely, so I don’t hear all your predictions. It’s just, these are two that I heard and which registered to me, and then I was very impressed that you got it right. The Trump election was one and the other one was Iran’s response to the assassination of, I’m not sure I’m saying his name right, Soleimani. Could you comment a little bit more about that? Because I don’t think people maybe are aware of what you said at the time. People are probably aware of what happened, but go ahead and tell us.
Scott: There’s some background to that. I also correctly called that North Korea and Trump would start getting along.
Steve: Yes. Actually, I remember that. You did, yeah.
Scott: It was a similar kind of concept and it goes like this. When our news tells us that the leader of another country is irrational, it’s always a lie. Now, there might be some leaders. I mean you have Hitler as an obvious example, but they’re rare and so if you take the assumption that the leader of the other country is irrational, you get all the wrong answers because that’s a very rare situation. I assumed that North Korea would be rational and that Iran’s leadership would be rational as well and it certainly wouldn’t have been rational for either of them to start a military war with the United States. If they’re not going to do that, what would they do? What they did is exactly what you would do in that situation.
Scott: If you’re Kim Jong-un, you take a meeting because you finally got a president who says, “Yeah, I’ll meet with you.” You take that meeting and that leads you on at least some optimism that could lead to something. Then with Iran, part of it is, I hate to say, informed by my Dilbert comic experience because if you have experience in big corporations, you know that the person who’s in charge has a lot of, let’s say underlings who would like that job and might be jocking for it. I assumed that General Soleimani, because he controlled the military and also the intelligence services, that he was really the person in charge of the country and that getting rid of him, would actually be a relief to the Supreme Leader because it would actually promote him to the top job which he had on paper, but in reality, whoever has the guns is always in charge and that might have been Soleimani.
Scott: I predicted that he was not as liked by Iran’s own leadership as we imagined and so far, the response is looking a lot like that because what they considered a proportionate response to taking out their top military leader, was to fire some missiles into the desert and call it even. Some of that, of course, is to not have their country destroyed by the US military, but it signals that maybe they weren’t that unhappy about the situation. It just wasn’t the kind of response you’d get from somebody who … If you imagine something like that happening in this country, somebody takes out the leader, what would we do? Well, I mean we wouldn’t stop until we were done, if you know what I mean.
Corey: Scott, I see two claims there. I think they’re interesting, but I think you’re trying to wrap them together and I don’t see them as connected. I see this interesting hypothesis, which is that the Supreme Leader was not a huge fan of the general, for the reasons you laid out. Perhaps the military was in charge. He resented that. I think that’s an interesting analysis. I don’t see the fact that there was no reaction to the strike is actually supporting that theory to an extent. I think your other idea is that it’s a rational response. They don’t want to shoot in war with the US. It fully explains the fact of no response, even if he was in love with this guy. All right. Even if he’s in love with the general, just purely being rational and looking at his country’s best interest, you get no response.
Corey: I think the null hypothesis is he could have liked this guy, could have hated this guy, et cetera, et cetera, but this hypothesis is still interesting. That there’s something going on in power structures where people are envious. There are two claims. That the underlings are envious and that there’s this guy who’s not even really an underling technically, but is, in fact, an overling technically, but so resented this guy. Now, that, I think is worth discussing independently because it’s a fascinating theory of political power. I want to separate it because I think you actually don’t get any support from that, from the fact that there’s zero response. That’s purely right. I had exactly the same intuition. Iran does not want to get destroyed.
Scott: Your logic is correct, which is to say once you believe that they wouldn’t respond because it would be suicide, then you don’t need any second reason, but I believe there’s a second reason in part because the population also did not have a strong response to it. In fact, they were probably unhappy that Soleimani’s people killed, what, maybe, reported, 1500 protestors recently and was using all their money overseas in adventures that the public was not too crazy about. Khamenei’s opinion has to be at least somewhat modified by what the public is thinking and I think you can see the public wasn’t missing the guy as much as we expected or a lot of people expected. There’s that.
Scott: Then the other thing that I can’t defend as easily is that the rhetoric did not seem as extreme as you’d expect. It seemed perfunctory, meaning it seems like they phoned in, “Yeah, you killed that genital. Death to America. There will be repercussions. We slapped you in the face.” Then they do this little missile attack and they call it even? It doesn’t feel like the same kind of rhetoric you get, even from somebody who’s surrendering, even from somebody who says, “We can’t fight. We’ll get killed,” but you just expect more fire in the belly if they really won’t miss this guy. I would say that is a subjective interpretation on my part, that I couldn’t defend, other than it just looked like a weak response verbally, as well as militarily.
Steve: I think it’s clear they couldn’t really have responded directly to us. The other conjecture about how sad they are about his passing, I think we may see based on the extent to which they carry out, either covert attacks like poisoning US personnel or having intermediaries kidnap US personnel. That non-direct military response will either happen or not happen and that might indicate really how mad they are.
Corey: I don’t think it’s going to indicate anything. I think if these guys are rational, they’re not motivated by sadness over losing someone they cared about. They’re looking at the national interests. They’re looking at what the likely response is going to be. Their emotional attachment to this guy, to an extent they don’t have anything. I don’t think people at this level have emotions about this sort of thing, deeply or at least they don’t have emotions that they allow to affect policy.
Steve: I think in the Cold War, if the KGB took out an American operative in a way that was considered non-sporting, I think the CIA would try to take it out on some Russian operatives.
Corey: They did not say this, based on emotion, whether they felt anything about this guy. There was a culture of tit-for-tat responses throughout the Cold War. It’s what you did. I think it’s a whole separate theory. That your emotion, feeling about this guy, whether it’s emotional or it’s, in fact, some sort of power structure argument, it’s quite different. You need to actually talk to these people and get inside, rather than look at external responses to get real evidence about that. I think that power politics and people’s response to attacks is not to be driven by these kinds of inside the belly, even often inside somebody’s head, emotions about, whether they like this person or not, whether they want to move into his job. That’s in my little editorial.
Steve: Well, I think institutions have feelings and so they can be revenge-taking. If a beloved leader of the CIA gets knocked off, you can imagine the CIA putting into play certain things that they wouldn’t otherwise put into play, right?
Corey: You could imagine it, but I don’t see it as compelling evidence.
Scott: This is one of those situations where you have to ask yourself, what is the special variable that President Trump brings to this? One of them is his unpredictability. I think if this had been a standard president, you might see a little bit of proxy action, maybe a terrorist attack somewhere that’s ambiguously tied to Iran, but you can’t really tell. I think they know that an ambiguous proxy attack, even one that they could plausibly deny, is going to cost them all of their refineries. At this point, nobody’s going to take maybe as a no. At this point, Trump would take maybe as a yes. Goodbye, Navy. Goodbye, Air Force. Goodbye refineries and there’s your economy.
Corey: I don’t want to go on too far, but Trump has signaled he doesn’t want war in the Middle East. They may perceive him as the kind of guy who might do those sorts of things, but everything I’ve gathered from Trump is he wants no part of this stuff. He just doesn’t want a shooting war with Iran. He wants to get the US out of that region, to focus on the economy, to focus on other things. I don’t want to predict what Trump would do, but I think there’s compelling reason to think that Trump has about as much interest in avoiding a war as Iranians do.
Scott: Well, let me be specific. Let’s say an embassy is attacked and an American ambassador is killed in a way that we’re pretty sure is Iran, but we’re not 100% sure. What do you think happens to Iran after that?
Corey: I don’t know. There’s a whole range of responses. I think there would be a response, but I don’t feel like I have enough information to make even a prediction with wide confidence intervals.
Steve: Do you think the other side would perceive that Trump might be a little more dangerous in that situation?
Corey: Oh yeah, with no doubt. They think he’s crazy. They perhaps are making the same miscalculation that we’re making. Look, again, people don’t get that high up in any walk of life by being irrational. There’s too many decisions to be made along that path, that can blow yourself up. Already, Trump has blown himself up a number of times and come back from the dead, but in general, people at that level are not irrational. They may be confusing, perhaps intentionally, potentially so sometimes.
Scott: Well, in my opinion, if a US embassy got attacked and an ambassador died, and we thought it was Iran behind it, we’d probably take out their entire economy, which is really one afternoon. All you have to do is take out the refineries and you’re done.
Steve: Let me turn to your book, which is called Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America. Now, let me clarify that I think the way you’re using loserthink is not a description of the way a bunch of losers think, but a manner of thinking, which is counterproductive, that will make you lose. Is that correct?
Scott: That is correct. It’s not about the person. It’s about the technique.
Steve: I really saw it as a kind of manual, which is really about rationality, avoiding common cognitive biases. In a way, actually, as I was looking at it, I was thinking it’s like a book that could have been written by Daniel Kahneman, but actually, it has been written by Scott Adams.
Scott: Well, Kahneman is one of my influences, among many. One of the things that I try to do, that you don’t see too often, is I try to make my books very accessible. If you try to read Kahneman’s book, it’s some work, it’s an effort. If you read my book, it’s more entertaining and you can pick up a lot of the same concepts.
Steve: You have chapters with titles like Think like An Engineer, Think like A Leader, Think like An Entrepreneur or Think like A Scientist, Think like An Economist, et cetera. Let me read. I think this is an actual excerpt, either from the book or a book jacket. “Even the smartest people can slip into loserthink’s seductive grasp. This book will teach you how to spot and avoid it, and will give you scripts to respond when hollow arguments are being brandished against you, whether by well-intentioned friends, strangers on the internet or political pundits.”
Steve: “You’ll also learn how to spot the underlying causes of loserthink, the inability to let ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, and making too much of coincidences. Your bubble of reality doesn’t have to be a prison. This book will show you how to break free and what’s more, to be among the most perceptive and respected thinkers in every conversation.”
Scott: That’s right. That could happen to you.
Scott: The basic idea behind Loserthink is that if you don’t have broad experience across different domains, let’s say economics, business, history, even art, and psychology, you might have some blind spots, but you would not be aware of it because you don’t know what you don’t know. You only know what you know. I first noticed this when interacting on Twitter and people would make comments and criticize me, and arguments against my points. I would look at them and sometimes they would be good arguments that I didn’t agree with, but I’d say, “Huh, that’s a pretty good argument.”
Scott: I click on the profile and it would be an economist, a scientist, an engineer. Then I’d see an argument that just seemed nuts. It just was so crazy. I click on the profile and it would be a musician, a writer, a journalist, an artist. The pattern is just so obvious when you start seeing it that I started calling it out. Now, all my followers on Twitter are seeing it and they think it’s hilarious because it’s so consistent. When you do find an artist … I would consider myself in that category somewhat. I mean I’m barely an artist as a cartoonist, but I have exposure to the other fields, so I’ve worked in engineering. I’ve studied economics and business.
Scott: I’ve had a whole bunch of different jobs in the corporate world. I’m an entrepreneur, et cetera. Earlier when I was talking about Trump as being someone who understands that the economy is a psychology machine, that’s something that a musician wouldn’t necessarily know, so how would a musician decide if this president or any other was doing the right things on economics? It’d be hard to know. There are a lot of blind spots that we all have and I try to fill them in, without going too deeply into any of those domains, just the thinking styles.
Steve: I noticed a couple of examples that you discussed in the book, of things where people might not be thinking very clearly. Let me just throw a couple out there and you can hit on whatever you find interesting. Climate change. Peak oil. USDA food pyramid. Identity politics. Single-payer healthcare. Any of those things you want to riff on?
Scott: Well, let’s take climate change. If you’re not a scientist and all the scientists or the vast majority of them seem to be saying the same thing, you’d say to yourself, “Well, I’m not a scientist, but although scientists seem to be agreeing, and I know science isn’t right every time, but really all those scientists, can they be wrong?” The first thing you should know is that there is a history of all the scientists being wrong. That’s the thing. It happened with the food pyramid, as you mentioned. For decades, our understanding of nutrition was fatally wrong, actually fatally wrong. The recommendations about what to eat were so bad. People probably died because they were eating wrong and didn’t know it or at least more died more early than they would have. Here’s how I’d break down climate change. I would break it into three parts.
Scott: There’s the scientific part, which is do the scientists know that if you had this CO2 to the atmosphere, all else be equal, that it should make the temperature go up? Well, it seems to me, that’s probably something you could test. You could test it in the laboratory. You can test it against history. It’s very testable and reproducible, and all of the indicators seem to be in the same direction if you don’t count the weird conspiracy people that you see on Twitter, but what about the projection models where the scientists say, “All right, our projection is that this is where the direction will be?” Well, now, you’re into territory that is far less credible because almost nobody can make an 80-year projection about anything, much less temperature. A lot of variables are involved and one of the variables is you don’t know what’s going to happen with technology.
Scott: You don’t know if Elon Musk is going to invent a fusion reactor tomorrow and energy is free, and the robots do all of our work. 80 years from now, everything is going to be different, so it’s hard enough to do a scientific projection, but here’s where it gets really crazy. In order to make decisions about what to do, do you do things now or wait and how hard do you go? You have to make a third thing, the economic decision. Now, I’ve done long-term economic forecasts. I used to do it as my corporate job and I can tell you that they’re just guessing. Nobody can do an 80-year economic forecast, for all the reasons I mentioned. What happens in the age of robots? What happens if one of these many startups that’s building machines that can scrub the CO2 out of the air, what happens if one of them makes a really good one?
Scott: At the moment, they work. They already have machines that can do that, so we know we can scrub CO2 out of the air. If we put a trillion dollars at it, we could do it tomorrow. What about the new energy sources? What energy sources are in the pipeline, that we don’t know about? Those are the things that can’t be predicted. If you were to look at the arc of civilization, you would see that fewer people die from weather-related, climate-related problems than at any time in history. If you were just going to bet based on it, well, what does history tell us? It would tell us that even if things got worse in the environment, probably the number of people who suffered from it will continue to drop. The actual odds that we’re all doomed is probably closer to zero than whatever, 100%, you’re hearing from the other side because as humans-
Corey: Scott, can I interrupt you?
Corey: Because I want to be a little more specific about which predictions you’re agreeing or disagreeing with. Now, climate scientists don’t just make blank predictions about warming. They’ll say, “That contingent upon emissions continuing at the current levels for the next 30 years are increasing, say at the current rate of increase over the next year.” Again, you’ve got to take into account the qualifiers that go in for these predictions. I totally agree with you, that technology could be a complete game-changer here, but again, the models assume X level temperature rise, given a certain emissions level and you’re questioning that emissions level. I think it’s unfair to say that the-
Scott: No, I’m not.
Corey: You said there might be a radically new change in technology with Tesla or something else-
Scott: Oh, yes.
Corey: Which will lead to lower emissions. Again, you got to be really specific. I think no one’s going to disagree with you, the blank claim that we are F’d, as it were, at least I wouldn’t personally, in 80 years. That, you can’t make unless you bake in certain other assumptions, say that emissions don’t continue to go down. Again, even at that point, you’ve got to qualify it as to who’s in serious trouble? Living here in the Midwest, I’m not sure that you’re going to get radical problems with two degree rises in East Lansing, Michigan, but Sub-Saharan Africa is a whole different story.
Scott: I would agree with what you just said. Then there’s the policy part, which gets really crazy. We’re watching the Australians debate about whether the fires are because of the arsonists or because the climate is changing, but I don’t see anybody say, “There’s nothing you can do.” If you’re Australia, there’s just nothing you can do. You could get rid of all your oil tomorrow. It wouldn’t make any difference because China and India are still growing and that’s where the CO2 is coming from. I think Australia adds, what, 1.5% of the CO2, to the atmosphere. If they stopped all of it tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any difference.
Corey: I think you’ve said some pretty dramatic things about single-payer healthcare. That there’s a $50 trillion uncertainty in what the outcome would actually be like.
Scott: That’s less an opinion on healthcare than it is about the way people talk about it. I was watching the news and within, I think a 24-hour period, I saw somebody say that healthcare would cost $35 trillion more and somebody else say, “It would be free.” It may maybe even cost less. Now, they’re obviously using different assumptions to make those claims. One, of course, is looking at all healthcare costs and saying, “Well, all healthcare costs as a country will remain similar. It’s just who pays that changes” and the other is acting like it’s brand-new, the $35 trillion change. That’s just the craziness of the way we can’t even get on the same page within $35 trillion of each other before you even talk about what’s a good idea or not.
Corey: I want to give you a compliment, Scott, not just because we’re in the podcast, but I do like the fact that you’re really cognizant of how much unclarity there is in public discussions and how hard it is for an individual grasp this. I think this is something that’s discussed by a lot of people like Kahneman and Tetlock, and really careful people talk about this in very nerdy environments, but there’s just very little discussion, I think, in the public sphere, about it and it’s maddening. It’s very difficult for an individual to parse these things. I’m saying not that I agree with your views in general, but I think I do get a drift, which is you’re really plugging into this complexity that seems not to bother people and it seems not to impede people forming very strong opinions about topics, about which they know very, very little.
Scott: People are very quick to form opinions on things that are so complicated they couldn’t possibly understand it and they do that usually just by joining whatever their team is saying and picking the one thing they understand. If you’re a conservative and somebody says, “Well, look at what all these scientists say,” the conservative skeptics will say, “Yeah, but they’re forgetting to count the sun cycles.” To which I say, “I’m no scientist. I’m no scientist, but I’m going to go out on a limb here.”
Scott: “I will bet my entire, every dime I’ve ever made, that the people who study the warmth of the earth for a living didn’t forget the sun. They didn’t forget the sun. Stop saying it.” Every time I see that I just go, “Oh, really? No. That’s the best opinion you could have on this topic? That all the scientists in the world forgot the sun when they were talking about warmth. That didn’t happen. Please stop saying that.”
Corey: I’ve got this theory, which comes back to a notion of an attractor state, the idea that certain physical systems have a very hard time staying out of certain buckets, as it were. My general theory is humans have a very hard time not forming beliefs. There’s something deeply attractive about beliefs that we can’t resist, and in many cases, the issues are very complicated. We are not particularly well-informed. It’s incredibly hard to maintain this kind of intermediate state, granting that there’s lots of information out there. It’s unclear. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m going to maintain this state of not quite having an opinion. I think it’s the rational thing to do, but it’s obviously something that leads to a lot of discomfort.
Steve: Well, I call this epistemic caution. Basically, your default state should be, I just don’t know the answer. I’m uncertain.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: It’s very tough for people to maintain that state. Nothing else, virtue signaling or knowing what other people want you to say, actually just drives you to form an opinion.
Corey: I think it’s interesting that that’s actually Scott’s day job, what he writes about because I ran into this more strongly, my time in consulting. I was simply shocked by the confidence with which people at the firm that I worked at would assert things.
Steve: Well, they’re incentivized to appear confident.
Corey: In a perverse way because a lot of what they said was wrong and if someone later followed up, they might realize they were wrong and for a reasonable feedback loop, it should cause costs, the organization, but no. There was a relentless effort to appear utterly confident about stuff that they simply had no basis.
Steve: The set of systems where you’re really penalized for being wrong, it’s a very small sliver of all the systems that we live in. It’s actually very rare.
Scott: Even in science. I mean wasn’t there a study that showed something like half of all the reports that got published and were peer-reviewed didn’t hold up?
Corey: Biomedicine. I’m curious, I believe I had a whole series of questions that I think we’re probably not going to get to, about your view of corporate life and how it’s changed over the past 30 years, but just to enter on this topic, one of the themes of Dilbert is appearing very confident about stuff that you know nothing about, and just fake it until you make it, arguably. Now, is this something that you’ve had personal experience with? It’s risen to the top of my view of corporate America, but I’m wondering why it seems to be at the top of yours.
Scott: Well, there’s a social and psychological element to that. Appearing confident is a good look, so if you someday want to be a leader or you want to get promoted, that look of confidence can help you, even if you’re wrong. The other thing is that we’re biologically required to act, even if we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. If you’re sitting on the couch, you’re like, “Well, I don’t know. Should I take a class? Should I go to work? Should I entertain myself?”
Scott: You’re going to choose because you don’t have the option of just sitting on the couch until you starve to death and die. We are creatures who act and when we don’t know what to do and we don’t know what’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t stop us from acting, so we’ll just pick one and we’ll explain it after the fact. That’s what cognitive dissonance is, is when you do something irrational, but then you try to rationalize it after the fact, which by the way, when you learn hypnosis, you learn that that’s the way people are wired. We make up our reasons after we decide.
Steve: We’re almost out of time, but you mentioned hypnosis and I didn’t want to let you get away without asking you the following question. I always want to know, when you hypnotize people and you get them to come on stage and act like a dog, and do all kinds of crazy stuff, what is that person actually feeling? I’ve heard that that person is saying to themselves, “Oh, I could stop doing this at any moment, but I’m just going to play along with Scott because he’s such a nice guy. I’m not really hypnotized” and then they go along with the gag. Is that how it feels?
Scott: Well, stage hypnosis is a little bit of a magic trick, so it’s not directly analogous to actually one-on-one hypnosis and the magic trick works like this. If you have a big group of people, there will be people in that group who actually would not mind going on stage, in front of a big crowd and clucky like a chicken or acting silly. Their personality is such that they would just find it interesting. It wouldn’t bother them. It wouldn’t embarrass them. When you see the people go out there and do things that you wouldn’t do, that’s the magic trick. You say, “I wouldn’t do that.” The reason they’re doing that is some kind of weird … They’ve been brainwashed or hypnotized or something, but like you said, the internal sensation that the people are having is that they could stop at any time, which by the way, is common to all hypnosis.
Scott: You can just get up and walk away anytime you want. There’s no exceptions to that because your conscious mind is always present and always has the override control, but hypnosis gives you a sensation and an experience if it’s done right, which is unique and actually enjoyable. In other words, you have this sensation that part of your experience or your body is not under your control. Let me give you an example. If the hypnotist says, “Your arm is cold” or, “It’s light and it’s floating,” you’ll feel it. You’ll actually feel it, but at the same time, you can say to yourself, “Well, I could just walk away and my arm would feel fine or I could just not listen to him.” It’s optional all the time, but it’s so fun that even the people on stage are saying to themselves, while it’s happening, “This is cool. I know I can stop this at any time I want, but let’s just see where this goes.”
Corey: Have you ever been hypnotized, Steve?
Steve: No, I haven’t, actually.
Corey: I have, actually. I don’t know if … This was when I was much younger. I have back issues and at one point, people thought I was psychosomatic. I turned out not to be, but I was hypnotized and I don’t know whether he simply told me not to remember the events afterwards, but I have no recollection of what went on as I was sitting in this guy’s couch, but he talked to me. I remember the initial initiation of the process and then blank for an hour or so. I wasn’t just asleep because I’m a guy with famous sleep issues and so I don’t fall asleep easily, but it was … I mean who knows what happened? I can’t disagree with your experience because I have no recollection of what it was like during that hour.
Scott: Well, I’ll tell you from my own experience, I have no credible report of anybody who had amnesia after hypnosis. It’s something you see in the movies all the time and people talk about it, but I’ve never seen it. I’ve never produced it. I’ve never experienced it and I’ve never heard of anybody that I’ve talked to personally, who has created that situation in a subject. If I had to guess, despite your sleep issues, a hypnotist could still put you to sleep, maybe accidentally. I don’t think the hypnotist was trying to put you into an actual sleep, but if I had to put a bet down, given the uncertainty, I’d say it’s five to one that you were just asleep.
Corey: Interesting. I’ll have to go back and ask him what he was up to, if he’s still around. I want to come back to your question about people not being able to sit around all the time, deliberating about what to do. Are you familiar with Phineas Gage?
Corey: Phineas Gage, I think he worked on a railroad in the 1860s.
Scott: Oh, that Phineas Gage?
Corey: Exactly, yeah.
Scott: I’m sorry. No. I’ve never heard of him.
Corey: Anyway, this guy was tamping down a railroad tie with a hammer and basically, there was some TNT below, some early precursor of it and he hit it and basically shot a railroad spike up through his head and damaged his amygdala. This was essentially the first ablation, almost clean ablation. He seemed pretty normal after he recovered, but his personality was off in different ways. He became very impulsive, but also, he was unable to make decisions, so he would simply deliberate constantly and could never come to a conclusion about what to do. This was the basis of a book by Antonio Damasio, I think called Descartes’ Error and his theory was, what helps people actually come to decisions is ultimately emotion. It’s based in the amygdala and so this is probably the reason why I think people are pushed to form beliefs in the absence of strong evidence.
Corey: There’s essentially an emotional attraction to a belief and it’s the mediator between emotion and cognition, fundamentally. There’s a certain … Your rational deliberation may leave you in the middle, but your emotions push you and you’re drawn to a particular conclusion. Then you think that conclusion is in fact justified by the evidence when it’s not, but you ablate the amygdala and people stand in the shower for hours, just thinking about what to do during the day, unable to draw conclusions. The key is, I guess if you want to be fully rational, to do a selective ablation of the amygdala and then we can probably avoid some of the problems we’re having in current politics. I’d like your reaction to that.
Scott: The common-sense way to do that is, find ways to take emotion out of your decisions, to the extent that you can do that and one of the ways is, I reckon that one.
Corey: I’m kidding, of course. I just want to … Go ahead.
Scott: My view of the world, and I would say this is the hypnotist view of the world as well, is that we can be rational on simple things we don’t care too much about. You can balance your checkbook. You can find out what time the store is open, but as soon as the emotion comes in, emotion very easily overruns everything and then you make an emotional decision, and you rationalize it after the fact, and you even believe it. When you tell other people, “Oh, the reason I did this is X, Y, and Z,” you believe it when you say it. It’s just that the decision was made emotionally and you don’t quite recognize that. Now, in my case, I embraced that. I remember years ago, in a different relationship, looking for a house and we saw a bunch of houses that we didn’t like.
Scott: Then we saw one and I just turned to her and said, “Well, this is our house.” That was before we didn’t know if it had enough closets space. We didn’t know much about the price, at that point. Sure enough, surprise, surprise, we found all these reasons why it was our house. We decided, sitting in the driveway outside the house before we even saw it and I was quite certain when I saw it. Then later, “Oh, look at all these reasons why it makes sense. What a coincidence. We have all these reasons.” I tend to be fairly aware of the fact that my reasons are a bunch of BS, even to myself.
Corey: I think there’s a philosopher who argued that we’re not so much rational agents as rationalizing agents. Really, we’re attracted to stories and one of the stories we tell ourselves is that the beliefs we have come through deliberate reasoning when they don’t post hoc.
Scott: I have a quote exactly like that, that we’re rationalizing creatures. Yes.
Steve: All right, Scott. Well, we’re out of time, but it’s been incredibly fun to have you onboard and we’d love to have you back.
Scott: Thanks. I had fun too. If you’ve got more questions, I got more answers, whenever you want to.
Steve: All right. Take care.
Corey: Thanks, Scott.
Scott: All right. Take care.