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The Tells (for cognitive dissonance)

The Tells (for cognitive dissonance)

    Today I offer you a new and probably different filter for interpreting your reality. You can try the filter in the same way you would try on a new pair of sunglasses. See for yourself if the new filter fits the data better than your old one. This is for entertainment only. Science is probably at a different URL.

    What follows is a description of some of the tells for cognitive dissonance. If any of what follows is accurate, it might set you on a path that changes your life in delightful ways. Or maybe reading this post will do nothing but leave you with less time to interact with other people. Either way, you’re welcome.

    This might be a lucky day for you.

    Pay attention.

    Cognitive dissonance, as I use the term in this post, refers to a situation in which a person is presented with facts that contradict that person’s self-image, causing said person to say things that sound 100% reasonable to the speaker while sounding like nonsense to others.

    When I say nonsense, I do not mean a normal difference of opinion based on different values or different information. I mean serious head-scratching WTF stuff.

    A tell, in this context, means an involuntary action that reveals a person’s inner thoughts in an unguarded moment. In the context of a poker game, a tell might signal a bluff. In the context of police work, a tell might signify a lie. In the context of hypnosis, a tell signifies a switch from rational thinking to irrational thinking. 

    A tell in this context can mean you guessed the admin password for a human being. The tell is your feedback that the words you used got translated into a physical response. That is the hypnotist’s equivalent of A-B testing. The hypnotist tries an approach and watches for the subject’s physical reaction. 

    Recognizing tells takes practice. The more tells you spot in your lifetime, the easier it is to find more. Your mind gets tuned to them. You recognize the pattern. You see them coming before they even happen, based on the trigger event. 

    Complicating all of this is the fact that each tell has a false-positive explanation that will always sound plausible. The best way to estimate the odds of a tell being the real thing is by its proximity to a known trigger. If someone exhibits a tell symptom without a trigger, it probably just means you are talking to an idiot. And that happens less than you probably assume it does. All the rest of your “idiot” encounters are smart people experiencing cognitive dissonance and not realizing it.

    And now for the list of tells.

    Speechless Moment. This one can only be detected when you are in the same room. When a person that is otherwise witty and verbal becomes temporarily tongue-tied, it means they are having a strong physical response to your suggestion. Use this method in your love life to identify a person’s sexual preferences in casual conversation.


    Love Interest: “Sorry I am late.”

    You: “You need a good spanking.” (Said with a knowing grin, for effect.)

    Love Interest: [silence that last over 5 seconds]

    Interpretation: A sudden “struck dumb” silence means you reached into your love interest’s subconscious and found a powerful hidden craving. 

    False-positive: That’s a messed-up thing to say to a nice girl you barely know. She is wondering how to end the date early.

    Lone Penguin: The Lone Penguin is the person you see on the Internet imploring others to stop listening to person X. The usual phrasing looks like “Why is anyone listening to that terrible person X?”

    The tell is that the Lone Penguin will offer no data or reasoning to back up the emotion. At most, the Lone Penguin will offer a link to a story in which a journalist got something wrong or out of context.


    Economist: Here is my data showing that capitalism is the best system for everyone, even the poor. (This is just an example.)

    Aged Hippy: “Why are we listening to this fascist? He said in an interview ten years ago that his favorite color is blue.”

    Interpretation: The Lone Penguin hates person X because the argument made by person X is persuasive, and that violates the Lone Penguin’s identity as a person who always disagrees with person X and similar lines of thinking. 

    False-positive: Person X really is a total turd with no redeeming points of view. The Lone Penguin is actually just a person with good judgement.

    Personal Attack: A personal attack without reason is among the strongest tells. That means the person being attacked has been so persuasive that it is shaking someone else’s self-image.


    Politician: My policies will stimulate the economy. Here is the data proving that this plan worked in every country where it became law.

    Citizen: That guy is a reactionary asshole

    Interpretation: The politician’s argument is so strong that it violates the citizen’s identity as someone that is always on the other side of that particular argument. How can the citizen maintain his old self-image and still feel rational? Cognitive dissonance is triggered and anger comes out.

    False-positive: The politician really is a reactionary asshole with a bad plan.

    Godwin’s Law Comes Early: Named for its creator, Mike Godwin, this observation says that every online conversation will eventually invoke Hitler’s name if you wait long enough. For our purposes, the tell is that Hitler’s name comes up too soon.


    Politician: I favor a tiny change in gun laws that will have no impact on legal gun ownership but might keep some guns out of the hands of criminals.

    Citizen: That’s what Hitler said.

    Interpretation: If you skip directly to Hitler without passing “why” you are probably experiencing cognitive dissonance.

    False Positive: Sometimes a genocidal dictator does invade a neighboring country.

    Too Many Explanations: When you see pundits or citizens offering a wide variety of explanations for an observation, it probably means no one has any idea what the real reason is. If people were rational they would say they don’t know the reason. But if cognitive dissonance sets in, people will imagine reasons and convince themselves they are real.


    Pundit 1: He leads in the polls because he is an outsider.

    Pundit 2: He leads in the polls because he says what people are thinking.

    Pundit 3: He leads in the polls because the press likes a clown. He will fail later.

    Pundit 4: He leads in the polls because people like his immigration plan.

    Pundit 5: He leads in the polls because serious voters are not paying attention yet.

    Pundit 6: He leads in the polls because people think he can win and people like to win.

    Interpretation: When everyone has their own explanation, nearly all of them are in cognitive dissonance. 

    False-positive: Sometimes things do have more than one explanation. 

    Slippery Slope: Any reference to a slippery slope is a tell for cognitive dissonance because there is no logical argument that involves a slippery slope unless kids are involved. When reason fails, you go for a Hitler analogy or a slippery slope defense. They are roughly equal in absurdity.


    Politician: I favor doctor-assisted suicide.

    Citizen: That is a slippery slope to a cannibal society.

    Interpretaton: I agree with your reasoning but it scares me because it makes me imagine something similar happening in a bad way.

    False-negative: You have encountered a rare situation in which the slippery slope is a real thing. For example, allowing your kid to eat candy before dinner just one time is definitely a slippery slope.

    Jokeless laugh: When I was training to be a hypnotist, our instructor taught us that a subject will often laugh at something you say, or a background sound, that would normally have no humor trigger. The real trigger is that the subject is feeling the hypnotist’s words translate into bodily reactions and it causes an involuntary giggle.

    Case in point, I often find myself doubled up in laughter when I read quotes from Donald Trump. I feel the persuasion working at the same time I recognize his tricks for pulling it off. That feeling of absurdity (my mind is being changed without the benefit of reason) triggers a laugh response when there is no joke in the vicinity.


    Hypnotist: Your arm feels weightless. It will start to float.

    Subject: Hee hee! That lawnmower outside made a funny noise.

    Interpretation: The subject felt her arm getting lighter, which makes no sense in her old view of how things work, and it triggered a laugh response.

    False-positive: The lawn mower is actually funny for some reason.

    Nonsense Rebuttal: When you hear an irrational response to your rational argument, it probably means the argument was sound but it violated someone’s sense of identity. Here I am talking about the truly illogical responses you see on the Internet all the time, not routine disagreements over data and priorities.


    Other Guy: Locking up criminals forever does not reduce crime.

    Me: That could only be true if for some reason law-abiding people decide to become criminals at a higher rate because the real ones are in jail.

    Other Guy: It is a slippery slope.

    Me: WTF?

    I am sure I am leaving out lots of tells. And you will be quick to point out that the tells conveniently form a narrative that lets me be right all the time while viewing everyone else as being in a state of cognitive dissonance.

    You have a good point there.

    Why do I think I can spot tells more often than chance would predict? The best answer I can offer is that I think I can. My experiences are anecdotal, not measured. You are invited to be skeptical about this and all the rest of my blogging on the topic of hypnosis.

    In a past post I teased you that there are some topics that can’t be communicated because of their nature. This is one of them. The rational people reading this blog should be skeptical that, for example, Trump can dominate the country using little more than good business sense and linguistic engineering. To me, that seems like an easy accomplishment for Trump, given his skill level. 

    Trump’s “inexplicable” success so far opens the door just enough for me to discuss this topic. If you watch him march to the White House while the pundits disagree why this “magic” is happening, my credibility on this topic will increase to the point where  I can communicate with you and you will listen. There is lots more to tell.

    If Trump stumbles, for any reason, the door will close and no one will think his skills at persuasion were a big thing. Most of you expect that to happen. And stumbling seems common enough that we can’t rule it out. Nate Silver, who is right more than most people, gives Trump a 2% chance of success.

    But if Trump goes all the way, and the Master Wizard hypothesis fits the data best, everything you know about the world will change. I know how that will feel because a similar thing happened to me in my twenties.

    You think the Trump spectacle is about politics, or money, or the usual media circus. And perhaps it is. But if he wins, it could mark a fundamental change in how humans view their place in the world. Once you see yourself as a Moist Robot, subject to programming by Master Wizards and prophets, you can never unsee it.

    Let me give you a concrete way to make these tells useful.

    If you get into a debate, and you suspect the other person has abandoned reason for cognitive dissonance, what do you do?

    Most of you would try harder to be more rational and to provide better data. But the hypnotist sees a different problem. To the hypnotist, the problem is not the argument but the the person’s self-image. So the hypnotist might, for example, use the Big Picture move to adjust a person’s self-image until the argument starts to fit.


    Arguer: Your plan is terrible because [absurd reason].

    Hypnotist: You might be right. But if we are smart we will try the plan that teaches us something even if it doesn’t work. Then we will be in better shape to test the next iteration. Let’s view it as a process.

    [Here the hypnotist elevates the discussion from the weeds to the Big Picture of how one finds certainty in an uncertain world. The arguer recognizes this as bigger thinking than the argument in the weeds. He does not want to be the weeds guy. He immediately adjusts his self-image from weeds-guy to big thinker. Once his self-image matches your plan, he is free to agree. That typically takes the form of over-agreeing, or amplifying the Big Picture to demonstrate allegiance to it. As in…]

    Arguer: Yes, of course we need a system to rapidly test all the plans. Duh. I tried to tell you that yesterday but I got busy. And I guess we can try yours first, since you already have the details worked out.

    Summary: If someone disagrees with you based on facts, provide better facts. But if someone disagrees because of cognitive dissonance, change who that person believes they are. The Big Picture move is just one way to do that.

    Trump isn’t trying to change your mind on the facts. He knows voters are in cognitive dissonance half the time or more. Trump is changing who we are, until our self-images match his argument. 

    Don’t believe me? Wait until you see how many people that now oppose Trump’s immigration plan suddenly turn into people who understand we need a wall because good fences make good neighbors.

    And you’re a good neighbor, right? 

    That’s just one way Trump could win you over by keeping his argument the same and modifying your self-image.

    If Trump does not win the White House, for any reason, I invite you to discard the Master Wizard hypothesis I have proposed in this blog space. I would do the same in your situation.

    But if he wins it all… and no one can agree why…

    Before you ask, I am working on a book list that would give you a wider exposure to this way of thinking, from different and more scientific perspectives. I’m waiting for a book that I have seen in draft form that will be a must-read when it has a final title and cover. It includes science and stuff. Give me two weeks.


    For more on the Moist Robot hypothesis, see my book that has been enjoyed by dozens of attractive people so far, so it must be good.


    In Top Tech Blog, And how about a robot that can lay bricks? That’s what we need. Send those robots to the desert to build us affordable housing, solar energy farms, and the rest.

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