Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scam Psychology: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

Ever heard of "illusion of asymmetric insight"? No? Me neither, at least not until about a week ago, when I heard it on the "You're not so smart" podcast.

The premise is quite simple: let's say A and B have a difference of opinion on a certain issue. However, A thinks that he understands B's position better than B understands A's position. Sometimes, A thinks he understands B's position than B understands his own position.

The reverse is also true: A believe he knows his own position far better than any one ever could, certainly more than B's understanding of A's position, at least in A's own mind.

The problem is more often than not, this is an illusion, not reality.

Cover of
Cover of Lord of the Flies, Educational Edition
Lord of the Flies

In 1954, a group of psychologists, posing as camp counselors, got 11 and 12-year old boys into a camp... on separate ends of the camp. The two groups don't even know each other exists as they arrived on separate buses via separate routes. As psychologists predicted, a social order quickly emerged, with leaders taking charge and the rest will serve the order in whatever roles needed. The two groups are nearly identical... except they are on separate ends of the camp.

So what happened when they met? Well, you can read the short account by David McRaney of "You are not so smart". Let's just say, one of the things each group obsessed on is trying to find differences between the two groups... and used that difference to "prove" (to themselves) that their own way is superior and the other group is inferior, even though such differences are trivial.

And the experiment almost got out of hand when... let's just say... knives were involved.

Us vs. Them

If you feel that you belong to a "tribe" (or any sort of social group), it is natural for you to feel that any sort of opinion that runs counter to the tribe's beliefs must be false. Somehow, you simply won't consider that perhaps it is your tribe that is holding the false belief. This is known as "illusion of naive realism"... That your own beliefs (and those of your tribe) are true and accurate, and thus, any other beliefs that conflict must be wrong... by default. In a battle between we vs. they, we are always right, and they are always wrong. And you start by calling the other side a derogatory name.

The name calling is most evident in the military, when almost every enemy gets a derogatory nickname. Germans are "Krauts" or "Huns" (WW1 and WW2), Chinese were "Chinks" (Korean War), Vietnamese were "Gooks"  (Vietnam War), and now, Taliban and insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan are towel heads, ragheads, or camel jockeys.

This is also applicable to commerce. People in network marketing are rather fond of referring to critics and skeptics of network marketing as "dreamstealers", as if that invalidates all the data presented by the critics and skeptics in support of their viewpoint. All that "counter-data" were dismissed as "negativity", something to be avoided. They are also quick to imagine various "motivations" for the critics, with "jealousy" often on top of their list.

They don't seem to understand that perhaps their own understanding of their own industry is incomplete and perhaps their critics understand their own industry better than they do. In their mind, only they, the true believers, are qualified to understand network marketing (or whatever their core beliefs are) and anybody else that do not agree must be wrong by default, because they simply "do not understand" the truth (as they "true believers" know it).

How do I know I have it?

Technically, you don't, so you have to ASSUME you have it, and then proceed to support every bit of your own argument with proper evidence and logic, so you actually UNDERSTAND your own argument, and you never PRESUME you to know your opponent's issues without using THEIR evidence.

What can I do about it? 

First, know your own side. Make sure you can argue your own side properly. You can't argue effectively if you don't even know your own side.

A lot of the old adages advocate "think about it from the other side", or "walk in the other man's shoes", and they are correct. Looking at the same situation, dispassionately from the other side will often reveal more insights about the situation. Furthermore, if you simply "assume" that the other side does not understand you, or that you know more about your own position or issues, you are in danger of being proven wrong, over and over.

It is how you deal with being proven wrong that matters.

If you withdrawn and sulk, moaning "they just don't understand!" even though the other side had proven their view with proper evidence and logic, then you have learned nothing. And you are being close-minded. You are probably busy imagining that you knew your opponents to be close-minded idiotic individuals who can't form coherent thoughts... if they only think the way you do... Then you are indeed under the illusion of asymmetric insight... You actually believed that you know more about them than they do about you.

If you understood the other side's argument, found it to be of sound logic, and/or found your own argument lacking (in either evidence or logic), and you proceed to modify your own belief system to accommodate the new facts and logic, then you are being truly open minded.


For some people, denial is almost reflexive... They just CANNOT be wrong, even when evidence is starring them in the face. They are often under the illusion of asymmetric insight. And this feeds into various other cognitive biases such as groupthink / mob mentality, wishful thinking, black and white thinking (us vs. them), and conspiracy minded.

Recognizing the problem is the first way to limit the damage this illusion of asymmetric insight can do to your decision process. Then you have to consciously look at it without your own prejudices, and see if you have enough information to change your mind.

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