Am I Predicting or Influencing?

People keep asking me whether I predicted the Trump presidency or influenced it. There’s no way to know. 

Or is there?

The Google search trend for “cognitive dissonance” is up. But that could be a coincidence.


In case you have been missing Robots Read News, here’s a new one.


Do you find it mind-boggling that service providers can’t tell you exactly when they will arrive at your home or office? My startup’s Whenhub app would fix a lot of that. 


Sam Harris Induces Cognitive Dissonance in Ben Affleck

Ignoring the politics of it for the moment, check out this video of Sam Harris debating Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s Real Time show. I’ll teach you how to spot cognitive dissonance in the clip.

Watch for the moment Ben has to hallucinate Sam’s opinion from the reasonable position that many Muslims worldwide have non-liberal views to an hallucination about “All Muslims are bad.” Sam and Bill both clarify their viewpoints, with data, but Ben is struck deaf to it. All he can hear is the absurd absolute “all.” He is literally hallucinating.

I mean that literally. If you asked him after the show what happened, his memory would be sketchy. Ben is both smart and well-informed, relative to the general population and Hollywood in particular. If you think he’s being dumb here, you’re wrong. It just looks that way. This is a literal hallucination.

Cool, right?

The tells for cognitive dissonance in this case:

1. Smart person (Affleck) unexpectedly encounters a far smarter person (Harris). Apparently Ben didn’t read Harris’ bio before engaging. Oops.

2. Harris uses data to make Ben’s argument fall apart. Ben is smart, and knowledgeable, and his ego does not recognize that he could be annihilated on television in this way. This is the trigger for cognitive dissonance. His ego spontaneously generates a literal hallucination to protect his self-image.

3. The hallucination involves turning Harris’ reasonable statement that is backed with data into an absurd absolute about “all Muslims.” Nothing can talk Affleck out of this misinterpretation. He is in full hallucination mode.

4. Look for the outsized emotional reaction. You see lots of people arguing the same side that Ben argues, but rarely do you see that level of anger except in street protests where the average energy is higher. The exaggerated emotional outburst in the wrong context is a clear tell.

When you see that reaction in your debate opponent, you won the debate – hard – but you didn’t change anyone’s mind. Cognitive dissonance swooped in to to derail any actual mind-changing.

This is one of the best examples you will ever find. Recognize the pattern. You usually notice the “absurd absolute” tell first. Then look backwards for the trigger. It means someone lost a debate on the chessboard of reason, so they overturned the board.

My opinion on their topic of debate (Islam) is not included in this post. If you think you saw it…

Scott Adams

Co-founder of WhenHub, because you need to know when stuff happens.

Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, because you need a great book for your upcoming flight.

Tells for Cognitive Dissonance (with some Trump flavoring)

When a skilled persuader exerts influence on a large group, people will generally react in one of three ways.

20% Will be heavily influenced right away, and be happy about it.

60% Will be mildly influenced, over time, with repetition.

20% Will be unusually angry, comparing the persuader to evil dictators and the like.

Under the Master Wizard Hypothesis, the folks who are the angriest are having a reaction to the persuasion that violates their self-image, throwing them into cognitive dissonance. The 20% who are easily influenced without anger had no skin in the game, in the sense that they had not yet picked sides.

The tells for Cognitive Dissonance are many. Here are some I haven’t before mentioned.

Tell 1: Wow

When a pundit or stranger on the Internet starts a comment with “Wow,” as if shocked by an opinion, that is a tell for cognitive dissonance. That is anger disconnected from reason. People who have reasons for disagreeing offer them right away, because doing so is the strongest counter-argument. “Wow” usually indicates you are feeling persuasion that violates your self-image as a person with smart opinions.

The “wow” tell is a specific example of…

Tell 2: No specific criticism

When you see objections without reasons, as in “That is the dumbest idea of all time” it is a tell for cognitive dissonance. To be fair, some things are legitimately dumb. So this tell is less conclusive than “wow,” as far as I can tell.

Tell 3: So you’re saying…

When someone restates your persuasive and reasonable point as an absurd point in order to refute it, that’s a tell for cognitive dissonance. Look for a wrongly-restated argument that looks so wrong you think it must be intentional. But it is not always intentional. Often it is cognitive dissonance. 

Tell 4: Analogy Arguments

Analogies are useful for explaining new ideas the first time. But in the realm of debate, they can only make things worse because analogies are messy and subject to interpretation. Rarely does one rely on an analogy as the main argument when reason and data would do the trick.

The classic example is a Hitler analogy (Godwin’s Law). But any absurd analogy is an equally good tell.

Tell 5: Peering Into the Soul of a Stranger

When you hear someone say they can look into a persuader’s soul and see the evil intent – without the benefit of any actual evidence in the real world – that is almost always cognitive dissonance. That usually takes the form of accusations about sexism, racism, narcissism, and greed. Those are all inner thoughts.

You might be saying to yourself that what I call cognitive dissonance is plain old stupidity. I suppose it falls under the wide umbrella of stupidity, but it is a special flavor. Regular stupidity stays with you all the time. But the cognitive dissonance type is only activated when your self-image is violated by a persuasive argument.

With that in mind, consider the reactions to Donald Trump’s plans to secure the borders of the country, which is obviously the job of a president. You can dislike Trump’s stated plan (as I do) but when you see folks compare Trump to famous dictators and evil actors, that is usually a tell for dissonance.

Not convinced? 

If you have a friend who opposes a secure border with Mexico, ask that friend for some details of his plan that allows anyone to come in. How’s that plan work? That’s when he might say, “Wow. That’s the sort of question Hitler asked.”

Protecting the United States from foreign threats, both military and economic, is literally the job description of the President. You can hate the wall, and you can hate Trump’s deportation plan (as I do) but it is hard to argue that the president should ignore the office’s primary responsibility of protecting the country from military and economic threats. 

I remind you I am not smart enough to know who would be a good president. I think it all depends what kind of surprises the future holds, and I am not psychic. 

And about Trump’s deportation plan, if Trump is consistent with decades of Trumpness, that is just an opening offer. He doesn’t expect to deport those folks. But a good negotiator doesn’t START by conceding.

Ask yourself which is more likely: 1) An experience business person believes he can deport 11 million illegal immigrants and everything will work out fine, or 2) The most famous negotiator on the planet, who negotiates everything, all the time, is making an opening offer he expects to negotiate away.