Evolution, belief, and manipulation: A discussion with Hugo Mercier

by Robert Gressis


In this dialogue, Hugo Mercier (French National Center for Scientific Research, Not Born Yesterday) and I discuss how human belief and manipulation work, and Hugo’s research about why people aren’t as manipulable as we sometimes think.


01:24 Hugo’s thesis: When it comes to communication, people are not easily manipulated, but hard to manipulate. 07:19 If people aren’t easily manipulated, then how does Hugo explain the success of Hitler, Pol Pot, and Trump? 16:07 Aren’t people easily manipulated by leaders who share their political orientation? 21:00 Do people really believe the crazy things they espouse? 28:36 What is the connection between belief and behavior? 35:45 Sperber and Mercier’s “interactionist” theory of reason 41:00 Twitter as a counterexample to the interactionist theory of reason 48:18 Are people good at arguing? 53:13 Rational rioters and the extraordinary heterogeneity of crowds


4 responses to “Evolution, belief, and manipulation: A discussion with Hugo Mercier”

  1. Maybe there is less manipulation required when you feel the audience is on your side, or if those habits that inhibit thoughtfulness, i.e. compassion and empathy is missing,what is there to care about, only, yourself. Remember too, it was the crowd that sent Jesus to the cross, lets be humble and learn from the past,amen

  2. So, one of the things Mercier has convinced me of is that the following “de-programming” argument isn’t going to work:

    1. A bunch of people in this country voted for Trump.
    2. They voted for Trump because they were brainwashed.
    3. The country will fall apart unless the Trump voters change the way they think.
    4. We can change the way they think by deprogramming them.
    5. Therefore, we should take the steps necessary to deprogram them

    The problem with this argument is that, if Mercier is right, 2 and 4 are false. Getting the cable companies to stop carrying Fox, OAN, and Newsmax, as some Democrats are hinting they want to do, won’t have the effect imagined, because the Trump voters vote for Trump out of sympathy, not ignorance or brainwashing.

    That said, it doesn’t follow that getting rid of Fox, OAN, and Newsmax won’t have positive effects, because, as Mercier seemed to admit: it may not be true that you can brainwash people, but it is true that you can embolden them. You embolden them by telling them what they want to hear, because, by doing this, you let them know that a lot of people think like them.

    So, you can still believe that there are dangerous ideas out there, and that finding some way to eliminate dangerous ideas may reduce their influence. But, it’s still true that even if you radically curtail the way these ideas are expressed, the people sympathetic to them won’t go away — they’ll just feel isolated.

    I’m not saying, of course, that we *should* get rid of Fox, etc. Even if I agreed that didn’t violate a bunch of rights, it still may be a bad idea for purely consequentialistic reasons.

    I’m still thinking on what he said about Twitter. I should probably go track down some research on this.

  3. thanks for the comment, the closed network with lots of minds come to mind, values based on men, a need to reevaluate success, and support for those who by nature, are creative, thereby, needing a little more lateral thinking. The Catholic organisation is under going profound change too, on account of it’s failure to consider the input of creatives, closed networks no life giving inputs. How to form a central core that is based on the need for community, would be helpful. Saw some Trump supporters, i didn’t think it was possible to hypnotize so many people, i believe it’s happened to many, in their inability to listen, amen

  4. newlatesheep

    Oh great guest and conversation, thank you both for this!! I’ll check out the new book and other dialogues.

    It’s somehow sad that evidence need to be provided to prove 2 (Trump voter = brainwashed) false. Shouldn’t be the default position that my political enemies are not brainwashed? That that can’t be the best explanation? Or any position that rests on an argument of the kind:
    P1: H is a good quality
    P2: I possess a fair amount of H
    P3: A lot of people don’t possess a fair amount of H
    C: So I’m better than a lot of people with regards to H
    Which usually has consequences about how I treat that people when H is around.

    If H = ‘being resistant to evil persuasion’, which I think is a good quality, it baffles me that so many people think of themselves as quite resistant to evil persuasion but so easily attribute the behavior of others to evil persuasion.

    I guess you may resort to that when you try to explain an otherwise incomprehensible behavior that seems to be only explained by evil persuasion. Which forces you to assume the previous argument.
    However, in that case, I don’t think is too crazy to always consider first that there may be an alternative explanation to their behavior, other than: they’ve been brainwashed, they’re profoundly ignorant, etc. Maybe the alternative is not an obvious one, but human behavior is complex, so that’s to be expected.

    What I’m missing here? What drives people to so easily accept a position that forces you to assume that you (or your group) possess a special quality?

    I’m not on Twitter, but sometimes I wish I were, only to be able to analyse it better. So much to say there.