When the President changes our country so drastically, will we have a new concept of what’s normal? If our social media feeds consist of people who think just like us, how can we expect social change? And why do we always assume the future will be better than the past? In the latest episode of the Interesting People in Interesting Times podcast, Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game, explains what Trump’s lies do to your brain, why we fall for the same tricks every time, and how humanity is hardwired for hope–and why that’s problematic.
Konnikova discusses the idea of changing norms: how we behave as a society, where we get our ideas about how to act, and how fixed vs. malleable they are. She explains that what drives all human behavior is simple. We would much rather be liked, than we would to be right. “Throughout history, human beings want to go with the majority, rather than be the lone person doing the morally right thing to do,” she says.
While social norms can change very quickly — and especially so, when driven by someone in a position of authority — biases, on the other hand, are deeply set. And believe it or not, the most problematic bias we have as a society is our optimism. Humanity is hardwired for hope, and that’s what keeps getting us into trouble.
“Look at the Mueller investigations,” Konnikova says. “[Our reaction to that is] ‘Oh, well, this time, something’s actually going to stick.’ You could see it happening even before the election. People saying Donald Trump is never going to win the nomination. After that, it was: ‘Oh, he’s never going to accept.’ Then it was ‘Oh, but he’s not actually going to win.’ [Then it became] ‘he’s not going to accept the presidency.’ And now ‘he’s going to be impeached.’ This is all a complete delusion. We’re all still hopelessly optimistic. The fact that we think tomorrow is going to be better than today is what gets us out of bed. Unfortunately, it’s also what’s going to keep Trump in office.”
Speaking of what’s going to keep Trump in office, Konnikova talks about Facebook and the bubble of distraction that technology builds around us. She describes the concept of cognitive load: your brain can only handle so much, and when you can’t sift through everything, you start to just accept it. “Companies like Facebook have a responsibility to recognize that their platforms are incredibly powerful. Who reads my feed? People who agree with me. So with something like gun control, [if we want to drive change] we need to get leaders within key communities — Republicans, members of the NRA, gun owners, to speak out. We can’t keep talking to one another and think we’re making a difference.”
“The genius of Trump’s approach is that he figures out the version of the world that would make you happy. We’re losing jobs? I’ll give you jobs. You feel that the country is about people who are the liberal elite? Well, I’m not the liberal elite, I’m about you. So he looks everyone in the eye and he tells them their version of the world [is the right one.] That’s what the best con artists do. And what are you going to do when someone tells you the world is exactly how you suspected? You’re going to say “There you go, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying all these years.”
One of the ways in which Trump is able to do what he does is through sheer repetition. When you say something that’s false over and over and over, people start thinking it’s actually true, because the brain gets used to it. “Humans are lazy,” Konnikova adds. “We like the status quo. It’s nice to be told ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it handled. It will all be fine.”
Interesting People in Interesting Times is a podcast hosted by Tom Goodwin and Adriana Stan. This episode was recorded last month at Soho House New York.