Category Archives: Mind and Cognition

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the Appeal to Authority

Fallacious Argument of the Month - the Appeal to AuthorityEach month, in pursuit of better arguments and improved public discourse, I highlight a different logical fallacy. This month I invite you to consider the irrelevant appeal to authority.

People of a certain generation perhaps recall advertisements for Sanka decaffeinated coffee in which actor Robert Young, known for playing a doctor on a popular seventies television drama, Marcus Welby, M.D., warns against the health risks caffeine poses and recommends Sanka to TV viewers.

In Chapter 6 of his popular work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes the influence this particular ad wielded in shaping the coffee purchasing decisions of its audience:

From the first time I saw it, the most intriguing feature for me in the Robert Young Sanka commercial was its ability to use the influence of the authority principle without ever providing a real authority. The appearance of authority was enough. This tells me something important about unthinking reactions to authority figures. When in a click, whirr mode, we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance.

The well-worn, now comic phrase “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” has its provenance in ads such as this one. But our automatic reaction to authority is no laughing matter.

Clever speakers understand how easy it is to manipulate the public’s deference to perceived experts, using the appeal to authority to disarm our reason in their efforts to persuade us to their point of view. The appeal to authority may assume several forms, including its best known, the irrelevant appeal to authority (invoking an authority figure on a subject on which the authority figure is no expert, such as the Sanka ad). To gird ourselves against such manipulations of our reason, we should perhaps heed the advice of sixties-era protest signs: Question Authority.

By the way, if you’ve enjoyed this series on fallacious arguments and want to learn more about the application of logic in everyday life, there is no better resource than Robert J. Gula’s Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. It’s available in print and also for free downloading in PDF.

What color is a banana? Perception, bias, and identity

Slipping on the banana peel of implicit biasA quote attributed to author Anais Nin declares, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

The truth of these words is apparent in the following anecdotes, which I invite you to consider.

Anecdote 1

When my son was tested for a coveted spot in a private prekindergarten, he was asked, ”What color is a banana?”

”White,” he answered.

”A banana isn’t white!” he was told.

Fortunately, my son was not intimidated. He replied: ”Yes, it is. The peel is yellow, but the banana is white.”

He was accepted.

Anecdote 2:

When people say there’s no real difference between the way men and women in public life approach the issues, I am reminded of a pop quiz my seventh-grade biology teacher thought up, which I flunked. The quiz was simple: match the parts of the human body to the parts of a car. So the lungs were matched with the carburetor, the spark plugs were the nervous system, joints were like shock absorbers – or something. I am sure I still have it wrong.

The point is that almost all of the 13-year-old boys in the class aced the test and the girls – even ones who knew the functions of the human body cold – failed. Most of us had never looked under the hood of a car. We had a different reference for understanding the material, which the teacher (male, of course) never considered.

The first anecdote, originally part of a letter to the editor of the New York Times, appeared in “What is this question about?”, a post by Arnold Zwicky on the popular linguistics blog, Language Log. Zwicky was discussing the role that meaning plays in developing educational tests for children.

Boston Globe editorial page editor Renee Loth recounted the second one in an opinion piece on gender and politics.

The anecdotes may differ as to the events that each describes but the moral is the same.

In the first anecdote, the adult posing the question assumed that the child understood that “banana” signified “unpeeled and ripe but not overly ripe banana”. It was the question that was wrong, not the child’s answer. The question also rested upon a cultural assumption: that children taking such tests are familiar with yellow bananas. Children from other cultures may be familiar with bananas of a different hue. As Zwicky points out,

Note that there are red and purple varieties of banana, and that naturally ripened yellow bananas go from green to greenish yellow to brownish yellow (not a “good” yellow) as they ripen. The bananas of commerce in the U.S. are almost all yellow varieties; in fact, they are almost all artificially ripened Cavendish bananas. The ripening process produces vivid yellow bananas. So unless a child taking the test is accustomed to eating red bananas — say, in a Central American neighborhood — the child will give the expected answer, “yellow”.

In the second anecdote, the test-giver assumed that every student in his biology class shared his frame of reference and that the analogy of the car would be readily accessible to all. In that instance, gender played a significant role in the test scores that resulted. But in other situations, the car analogy would be just as incomprehensible regardless of gender but as a matter of economics and class – for example, among students whose parents don’t own a car or in schools located in neighborhoods where public transit not personal motor vehicles is the primary mode of transportation.

Each of these anecdotes reminds us that who we are shapes how we see the world. We are susceptible to influences of which we are often unaware, affecting our perception and our ability to judge. Until they are pointed out to us, our biases remain hidden from us, like the fruit concealed within the peel.

Just be careful not to slip on them.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: argumentum ad hominem

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the ad hominemWelcome to December’s installment of my ongoing series, Fallacious Argument of the Month.

Driving in my car on my way to a meeting on Friday, I happened to catch a popular NPR news analysis program, On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook was talking with political commentator and Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter on his newly published book, Judaism: A Way of Being.

Gelernter, a proponent of Zionism, provoked strong responses from some callers who disputed his conclusions and offered spirited counterarguments. Toward the end of the program, one Jewish caller criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, pointing to her experiences traveling in Israel and the gulf she perceived there between biblical values and practice. Instead of responding to the issues she raised, Gelernter dismissed her with the epithet invoked all too often in debates over Israel. He condemned her as a self-loathing Jew, sneering that “the most vicious haters of the Jewish community are Jews themselves”.

In this on-air interview Gelernter committed perhaps one of the most common of fallacies: the argumentum ad hominem, which is an attack on the speaker, rather than on the substance of the speaker’s statements, for the purpose of discrediting the speaker and undermining the speaker’s arguments. The ad hominem takes many forms; in this case Gelernter used the technique known as “poisoning the well“. To poison the well, you present negative information about your opponent to damage his credibility in the eyes of your audience. (Incidentally, earning Fallacious Argument bonus points, Gelernter also utilized the false analogy, comparing the caller’s criticisms of Israel to blood libel and Nazism.)

Highly explosive, the ad hominem inflames passions and prejudices. When it detonates, it leaves a scarred chasm that cannot be bridged, making speakers and audience members into bitter partisans, with discourse and civility collateral damage. When the shouting at last dies down, all that’s left to smolder in the rubble is ill will.

For mediators, negotiators: recommended social and brain sciences blogs

Blogs on mind and brain scienceIf you’re fascinated by the role that science plays in exploring and illuminating human behavior and decision making, the internet offers outstanding choices for the discerning reader and dedicated negotiator. I highly recommend the following sites:

Brains on Purpose. Lawyer and mediator Stephanie West Allen discusses the insights neuroscience offers into the resolution of conflict.

Cognitive Daily. This engaging and informative blog reports on the latest research on cognition, and also invites readers to participate in fun weekly studies.

The Frontal Cortex. Popular science writer Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, discusses insights and the latest research from the field of neuroscience.

Neuroethics and Law Blog. This scholarly blog serves as an interdisciplinary forum for discussion of legal and ethical issues involving the mind and brain. I look forward to its weekly ethics and brain sciences news round-up (like this one).

Neurocritic. This blog brings a critical eye to its discussions of neuroscience, devoted to “[d]econstructing the most sensationalistic recent findings in Human Brain Imaging, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Psychopharmacology”.

The Situationist. This blog, which has attracted well-deserved accolades, is an outstanding source for news and discussion on human behavior and the effect of situational forces on legal, political, and social institutions. An essential addition to your blog library.

Predictably Irrational. Dan Ariely continues the conversation he began in his superb book which counters our assumptions about how we reach decisions.

Sociological Images. A site that examines the meaning of images and the messages they convey about gender, race, and identity. It provokes reflection on what these images say about society and culture, while shocking us out of our complacency.

Neuroanthropology. Another blog that offers stimulating discussion across disciplines – anthropology, social science, philosophy, and neuroscience – as it considers the “cultural brain”.

Neuromarketing. The tagline of this blog, written by Roger Dooley, says it all – “where brain science and marketing meet”.

Neurotopia. A quirky and entertaining look at neuroscience. I just can’t resist a blog authored by someone known only as “Evil Monkey”.

Do you have favorite blogs about neuroscience, social psychology, or behavioral economics? If so, please feel free to tell me about them in the comments.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: in pursuit of the red herring

Red herringsEach month I dedicate a post to the discussion of a different fallacious argument. It’s part of my ongoing effort to help the world bicker better.

Here, friends, is this month’s installment.


That diverting entertainment, magic, depends upon distraction to delight and mystify an audience. Magicians play their tricks not primarily with hats and rabbits but instead with our perception, directing our attention elsewhere as they nimbly palm the coin or make the assistant vanish into air.

In the hands of the skilled illusionist, magic is artistry. But in the theatre of argument, misdirection is nothing but a cheap trick. Allow me, reader, to introduce you to November’s Fallacious Argument, the distractingly odorous red herring.

A red herring is a device used in discourse to sidetrack attention from the original subject to another topic, preferably one that has no bearing on the discussion at hand and designed to inflame the emotions of the audience. Although the red herring flourishes wherever enemies of rational discourse may be found, it prefers to spawn during political election seasons. When large issues loom, the red herring is ready to divert attention from energy, health care, or social security to a $400 haircut or a candidate’s wardrobe. Handle with care: its smell is notoriously long-lasting.

(With thanks to Philip J. Loree, Jr., a fierce defender of rational discourse and a highly insightful ADR blogger.)

Do you tell your mediation clients about neuroscience? A poll at Brains on Purpose

mind science and conflict resolutionMediator, lawyer, writer, and all-around Renaissance woman Stephanie West Allen needs your help as she prepares to write an article on neuroscience transparency. What is neuroscience transparency? It’s what conflict resolution professionals tell their clients about neuroscience. You can contribute by taking her survey at her site, Brains on Purpose, a blog which explores the role that brain science can play in the resolution of disputes.

Stephanie raises an interesting question that ADR practitioners no doubt will ask themselves more and more. Increasingly I myself look for ways to apply discoveries from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics to my own work, whether assisting clients to resolve their disputes or teaching people how to negotiate or mediate.

A look in the mirror: seeking self-awareness

Conflict resolution work can be demanding, asking much of those who practice it. Among other qualities, practitioners must ideally bring to the table an openness and curiosity to learn more about how others see and experience the world; respect and compassion; the humility to acknowledge an error and express regret for an unintended outcome; and the willingness to remain alert for their own cognitive errors and biases.

These attributes flow from the capacity for self-awareness — a quality that requires eternal vigilance and constant practice. (I cheerfully admit that I’m a slow but persistent learner myself, hopeful nonetheless that there’s truth in the adage “practice makes perfect”.)

Fortunately the internet, with its almost infinite bounty of resources, offers plenty of opportunity for self-reflective exercise, with online tools, ongoing research studies, and tests to help new and experienced dispute resolvers gain greater self-awareness. Here’s a partial list:

If you’re interested in finding additional ways to both contribute to scientific advancement and continue the voyage of self-discovery, a whole list of current psychological research projects can be found on the web site for the Hanover College Psychology Department.


Michael McIlwrath, Senior Counsel, Litigation for GE Infrastructure – Oil & Gas, and the host of the outstanding ADR podcast series, International Dispute Negotiation, kindly suggested the addition of two other resources for readers:

Thanks so much, Mike!

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the confusion of cause and effect

Fallacious Argument of the Month for OctoberTo do my part to improve argument and discourse everywhere, each month I feature a different fallacious argument.  I launched the series in July with the straw man; discussed the false analogy in August; and in September explored the misused ellipsis.

Today I take great pleasure in introducing you to October’s Fallacious Argument of the Month, the confusion of cause and effect.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A guy walks into a bar, sits down, and orders a beer. As he waits for his beer, he claps his hands together again and again, loudly and insistently. Annoyed, the bartender asks, “Hey, pal, what’s up with the hand clapping?” The guy says, “It scares the elephants away.” “But,” says the bartender, “there aren’t any elephants around here.” The guy replies, “See? It’s working!”

It’s easy enough to snicker at the beer drinker’s logic. But unfortunately this confusion between cause and effect is no laughing matter. It’s a persistently occurring phenomenon. All too often, people readily assume that when Event B follows Event A, it must be because A caused B.

The confusion of cause and effect is often used for political purposes to manipulate public opinion by exploiting prejudice or fear. It has been used to attribute blame for a host of social ills to purported causes that have included feminism, video games, atheism, and the internet. But it is also often the product of careless or exploitative journalism.  For example, when British schoolgirl Natalie Morton died unexpectedly from an undiagnosed malignant tumor shortly after she had received a vaccination to prevent cervical cancer, some media rushed to report that it was the vaccine that killed her, fueling public anxiety.

These false connections flourish best in the presence of closed minds and foregone conclusions.  They persist only because countering them demands hard work – a willingness to discard assumptions and dig deep for the facts.

The right stuff: morality resources, articles, studies, and a course, all online

Find your moral compass through resources, studies, a course all onlineGreat minds – and wits – have considered the difficulties of moral choice. Influential activist and thinker Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (Bon vivant Mae West, who took a more pragmatic view, purportedly said, “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”)

Moment by moment, life presents us with difficult choices and questions to confront. What are we to do in the face of moral dilemma? As moral actors, how do we decide? What guides us? What are the sources of moral values? Religion? Law? Or are they coded into our DNA? How do we apply moral values? Are moral principles universally held, transcending culture? Or are they shifting social constructs, dependent upon the vagaries of time and place?

Inside all of us is the philosopher who delights in wrestling with questions concerning moral decision making – and the devil’s advocate who likes to pose them. The internet holds much to stimulate us, particularly these outstanding resources on morality, moral psychology, and moral decision making:

Cognitive errors to watch for as the mediation profession discusses the important issues

watching out for cognitive errorsMomentum seems to be building for mediator credentialing in the United States.  Change is no doubt coming. What form that may ultimately take remains to be seen — whether public licensing by the state (least likely) or the adoption of credentialing mechanisms by major ADR membership organizations that dominate the national scene (most likely). This is but one of several difficult and divisive issues that the field will grapple with in the years to come.

As we contemplate and debate change, let us hope that we ADR professionals can do what we ask of our clients: to listen with open minds, to ask questions, and to be alert to possibilities.

I appreciate that doing so is easier said than done. I know this from my own humbling experience participating on a committee that wrestled with a possible change in Massachusetts state law that protects mediation communications. From the beginning, the work of that committee grew entangled with the charged issue of mediator qualifications; not surprisingly, stalemate resulted. Let’s just say that mistakes were made (by present company included).

Drawing on the lessons that tough teacher experience has taught me, I would present the following list of the cognitive errors I see as most likely to trip us up as our profession debates the important issues we face. And by all means please suggest your own in the comment section below.

Reactive devaluation. As readers know, reactive devaluation (PDF) is the tendency to devalue or discount a proposal simply because the person who proposed it is someone we don’t much like. We see our clients at the mediation table commit this very human blunder. Not surprisingly, mediators are as human as their clients. Honesty compels us to acknowledge that there will always be people, even within our own field, who rub us the wrong way. That doesn’t, however, mean that we should automatically discredit or devalue their opinions. Even jerks can be right.

Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out or interpret information that confirms what we already believe or to discount information that doesn’t support our world-view. Put your hand up if you’ve never done this. See? No hands in the air. That confirms precisely what I suspected.

Status quo bias. Recently journalist James Surowiecki, in an article for the New Yorker, wondered out loud whether the American public’s resistance to changing the existing health care system results from status quo bias –a tendency to prefer things the way they are.  Such resistance to change is rooted in loss aversion, according to “Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias” (PDF), a paper published by professors Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch, and Richard H. Thaler, which points out that “individuals have a stronger tendency to remain at the status quo, because the disadvantages of leaving it loom larger than advantages.” If you catch yourself saying “because we’ve always done it this way” or championing “the devil we know” over “the devil we don’t”, you may have fallen into the status quo snare.

The influence of authority. In his famous work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini delves into our susceptibility to the manipulations of others, describing six basic categories of weapons of influence. Included among the six is authority, a particularly powerful instrument of persuasion, used to influence everything from consumer purchasing decisions to support for political candidates. In fact, mere symbols of authority trigger our compliance, from impressive-sounding titles to “the well-tailored business suit”.  But if there’s one thing the current economic crisis has taught us, it’s that even the experts can get it wrong. So let’s draw advice from a sixties-era bumper sticker: Question Authority.

Finally, let us not forget the overconfidence effect – our boundless optimism about our own abilities and talents, despite evidence to the contrary. That includes of course our overconfidence in our ability to recognize and avoid cognitive errors.

For now, let us all be supremely overconfident that we will, one way or the other, slip up.