Resisting Arguments and Magical Thinking

Last week we explored how we form beliefs. The main takeaways were:

  • we adopt ideas before we reason about them
  • most of our beliefs are derived from others

There is nothing inherently wrong with these mechanisms. They are adaptive. The problem arises when our standards for adopting a belief are poorly matched to how we apply a belief. If that sounds abstract, don’t worry, I am going to tackle it in an upcoming letter. For now, just realize that we form beliefs the way we do for economical reasons, but that efficiency can mask deep pitfalls.

This week we will see how beliefs stay so firmly lodged. I have bad news. This also happens for sound reasons which is unfortunate when the beliefs are wrong and counterproductive (some wrong beliefs are totally benign…like thinking seahorses are mythical).

Let’s explore 2 ways in which we adhere to false beliefs, why they should be forgiven, and what the remedy is.
Failure mode #1: Not Letting New Information In

We all know about confirmation bias. It is our nature to reject contrary evidence. We prefer to protect our egos. We are “cognitive misers” so we like to avoid inconvenient information because thinking hard consumes calories. News flash: humans are insecure and lazy.

  • Why should we forgive this failure?

    Here’s a more charitable reason for why we shoot down foreign concepts. Scott Alexander calls it “epistemic learned helplessness”.

    He writes:

    A friend recently complained about how many people lack the basic skill of believing arguments. That is, if you have a valid argument for something, then you should accept the conclusion…And I nodded my head, because it sounded reasonable enough, and it wasn’t until a few hours later that I thought about it again and went “Wait, no, that would be a terrible idea.”

    He goes on to explain that people’s dominant strategy is to ignore many smart-sounding arguments. You will recognize his hair-pulling examples of nodding along with clever reasoning, be swayed 180 degrees by equally clever rebuttals, only to come back to agreeing with the original argument ashamed to have doubted it in the first place (Link with my highlights)

    Without this helplessness, most people’s lives would turn into a silver pinball ricocheting at the flippers of copywriters and TED talk sophists.

  • The remedy

    Get smarter. That’s kind of it. Hopefully reading Moontower helps, I don’t know what else to say.

    Slatestar continues:

    I’m also glad epistemic learned helplessness exists. It seems like a pretty useful social safety valve most of the time…you have to be really smart in order for taking ideas seriously not to be immediately disastrous. You have to be really smart not to have been talked into enough terrible arguments to develop epistemic learned helplessness.

Failure mode #2. Doubling Down On Wrong Beliefs

This is what is journalistically referred to as “mental gymnastics”. Look around and you will see people so limber they are suspended in a floating Siddhasana pose channeling Dhalsim. Which is convenient, since this is the best posture for indulging “magical thinking”. This failure mode is embodied by a runaway uncritical acceptance of confirming information.

This video is about 45 minutes but it’s a wild trip into who, why and how of magical thinking in the US today. It’s well-edited, moves fast, and leaves quite an impression. (Link)


  • Why should we forgive this failure?

    Magical thinking is double-edged. It is only through the power of beliefs, often false beliefs, that we can fight through utter despair and hopelessness. “There’s no atheists in foxholes”. Or if you prefer the more secular Lucasfilms interpretation, “Never tell me the odds”.

    My favorite example of this is what Tali Sharot calls optimism bias. It’s an adaptive use of magical thinking that seems integral to our collective progress. It’s not possible or desirable to wish magical thinking away altogether.

  • The remedy

    I’m not going to make any friends saying this but here it goes. Logic and rationality are reasonable antidotes to magical thinking — but only if the subject is relatively young. I need to believe teens can be saved and hopefully people in their 20s, maybe even 30s. But, if epistemic learned helplessness is so cemented in a subject that has went down the QAnon rabbit hole, then logic is not going to cut it. Just remember this Jordan Ellenburg quote:

    “If you do happen to find yourself partially believing a crazy theory, don’t worry — probably the evidence you encounter will be inconsistent with it, driving down your degree of belief in the craziness until your beliefs come in line with everyone else’s. Unless that is, the crazy theory is designed to survive the winnowing process. That’s how conspiracy theories work.”

    Look, a person inoculated against sound reasoning is a tough customer for conversion. Some people will believe reason never did them any good, and trying to convince them otherwise without invoking logic is like trying to describe “green” to a blind person.

    So if logic is futile, how do we combat magical thinking?

    We recognize that magical thinking is a natural response to desperation. The prevalence of magical thinking is an irregular pulse of a patient’s vitals. If it’s quickening, the patient is scared. The answer is to address the underlying causes of the fear.

    It’s a cop-out answer to say fix the world and magical thinking will decline. But if you think magical thinkers are ready to hear why they’re wrong then you never tried to reason with a hungry bear. Your choices are to either stop hunting the bear’s food or adopt the prepper’s mindset — you don’t need to outrun the bear, just someone else.


We cling to false beliefs by:

  • resisting arguments. This is often a valid defense. But even white blood cells make mistakes.
  • diving into comforting or confirming fantasies. Pressure thins the line between being stupid and coping. Address the source of distress not the fantasy.

If interested in more on beliefs and illusion see my post Illusions, Empathy, and The Hackability of Perception (Link)

Here are a few Twitter threads pointing to signs and causes of desperation:

  • Let’s play a game. in one tweet only (no threading or linking!) how would you describe the crux of the problem of American society in 2020? (thread by @danlistensto)
  • Here’s a sign of the state of the US that doesn’t seem to be getting covered much: The country is sold out of handgun ammo. Every website is sold out, the ranges in Austin are sold out, a guy at Cabela’s said each restocking shipment sells out in < 1 hour. Absolutely wild. (thread by @nateliason)
  • Majority (now 52%) of 18-29 year olds living with their parent(s). (chart via @ROIChristie)
  • Interesting and somewhat disturbing. The % of people earning more than their parents has collapsed. (chart via @jsblokland)

2 thoughts on “Resisting Arguments and Magical Thinking

  1. Always in terms of investing/trading: what activities are in the “get smarter” bucket? Once I am “smarter” will I improve investing/trading performance? how do you determine/define “wrong beliefs”?

    You’re picking at scabs with the links to % living with parents & % earning less than parents.

    1. Smarter is pretty context dependent imo. So if you are making money (adjusted well for risk), and it’s reliably alpha then you could say you are getting “smarter” in that domain.

      How to do that? That’s a hard question. I think it’s basically combining reliable general concepts from others and with your own creativity. I don’t think there’s a do X and you will figure it out. Most people simply won’t despite devoting a lot of time to it. And others might have it and lose it. My best advice would probably to tackle a narrow niche.

      But ultimately the best advice I can give is get a job working for people who know how to trade/invest.

      Wrong beliefs would just be conclusion that are not justified by the evidence. (Not addressing any cosmic notions of right/wrong to be clear).
      Many beliefs are partially right but held as if they are wholly right. Dangerous ground. Having a low confidence belief is less concerning since you might give testing it a fair shake.

      I’ll share some stuff on epistemology in an upcoming letter to address the rest.

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