Bobby Duffy is the author of the new book Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding. He is director of the Policy Institute at King's College London, and he lives in London.
Q: You begin the book with a discussion of whether the Great Wall of China is visible from space. Why did you start there, and how does that question, as you write, "highlight why there might be this gap between perception and reality"?
A: It’s a great way to get people to see the wider causes and implications of even simple misperceptions – partly because we know from surveys that about 50 percent of people wrongly think it is visible from outer space. And I confirm those sort of figures in just about every talk I do, with a huge range of audiences.
The point is not to make people feel stupid in any way, it’s to highlight how even this shows the four to five key points from the book and why we get things wrong and the implications.
First, we tend not to think about this sort of question very deeply, because it’s quite trivial. But we don’t give lots of day-to-day decisions a lot of thought either; that would be exhausting. Instead we use what Daniel Kahneman calls fast thinking, where we’re not engaging in careful consideration.
We also struggle with scales as humans, often mixing them up. So the Great Wall of China is extremely big, in fact it is one of the largest man-made structures on earth, but it’s its length that gives it that scale, and that doesn’t make it visible from outer space.
We also suffer from illusory truth bias, which means we’re more likely to believe and accept something when we hear it repeated several times. We’ll have heard this “fact” in many circumstances, and not thought much of it, but its repetition alone helps make it seem more real.
But it’s also more emotional than it might seem for such a trivial fact – we want it to be real, because it’s just a cool and unusual fact that we can make something visible from space.
This is a key point of the book – that our views of reality are more affected by our emotions and identity than we often realise or would like to admit.
But finally, when I tell audiences I’ve looked into it, and the best evidence is that it’s not visible from outer space, they (usually!) believe me.
Again, this is an important point – people do change their minds with new information, and we need to hold on to that fact, that we’re not all completely set in our ways.
Q: In the book, you discuss Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What do those events say about why people misinterpret what's going on?
A: Well, I think they tell us more about how political actors and communications play on the causes of our misperceptions to make a connection with people.
So in the UK, Boris Johnson made a big play about how the EU is banning bendy bananas! This wasn’t really true, not in the sense it was presented, but it was very effective – because it’s such a vivid story, but also implies that if the EU are meddling with our bright yellow potassium rich food, what else are they interfering in?
And in the US, on the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump repeatedly said that – incorrectly – unemployment was above 30 percent in the US, and that crime was much higher than decades ago. But his messages were less about the facts, more about showing he understood people’s sense of decline.
These plays on key biases – that we naturally focus more on negative information and we think things were better in the past than they really were.
Our focus on the negative is a deep evolutionary trait, as in our cave people past, negative information was often threat information, like a warning of a lurking sabre tooth tiger – and people who didn’t take notice were edited out of the gene pool.
We’re the end of a long line of humans who did very well by focusing on the negative.
Q: What are some answers to this ongoing problem of human misunderstanding?
A: The key point of the point of the book is that we go wrong because of both “how we think” and “what we’re told.”
This isn’t just about our biases on the one hand or fake news or misleading politicians on the other hand – it’s about how the two interact. One plays off the other, and that points to what we can do.
The main point is that we can’t just teach people critical or news literacy and expect them to cope better. And it doesn’t mean we can just get the social media platforms to clean up their act and for that to solve it.
What we need are actions that deal with both sides of this “system of delusion”: do better at bringing our skills up to meet the hugely different information environment we’re in now, and regulate and control how people can abuse this system more effectively, focusing on key decision points, such as round elections.
We’re not even applying the same standards to online campaigning that we do to offline campaigning in many countries, and that’s a big gap, considering how important and effective online campaigning has become.
Q: What do you see looking ahead, given rapid technological advances?
A: It’s a really good question. There is a worrying combination of three technologies that could come together.
First we have greater ability to micro-target people online, based on a huge amount of data that is known about our behaviours and attitudes.
Second, AI has allowed communicators to create and test huge numbers of variations of messages to see which is most effective. So, for example, it was common for 100,000 tiny variations of message to be tested every day in the 2016 campaign, using the speed and processing power of AI to do something that just would not be possible by humans.
And finally, the deepfake capabilities, of being able to realistically fake videos, have come on hugely in recent years. The risk here is not so much fake videos of presidents or prime ministers starting wars, but how the tech can be used in campaigns.
Taking these three together, this means that we could have personalized messages targeted to tight groups of individuals, where the president or PM is saying something entirely different to you from what he or she is saying to me.
This means we lose our common understanding of political positions and discourse, where it is all hidden, which is scary.
But much more important than any of these individual applications is the more general point that tech is always evolving beyond our ability to regulate or control it.
This is the real issue – that the accelerating pace of change means we’re always behind the curve. While we’re still worrying about how to deal with deepfakes, something else pops up.
It means we have to shift our approach to be less about the individual capabilities and more about the principles we want to hold up. Then future innovations need to be tested against whether they fit with these principles.
That’s difficult to do, but vital if we’re not always going to be legislating for old threats.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve got two main themes.
The first is generational differences, which is the subject of my next book. I’m looking to separate myth from reality on this too – as there is a lot of nonsense talked about generational differences, but this obscures the very real changes that are going on underneath.
And in my “day job” I’m focusing on the growing threat of polarization in the UK, and how we need to understand that better to again not jump to the wrong conclusions. We think we’re more divided than ever, but actually there is a lot that brings us together, and we need to focus on supporting that, not talking up division.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb