Why this Meme Exploded

[cross-posted on Friendly Atheist]

Somehow, it went viral. In just 24 hours, the Secular Student Alliance (my organization)’s Facebook page exploded from 6,500 supporters’ “likes” to 18,000. I found myself thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” And then thinking, “Hmm… how can we do it again?”

The whole thing started with Kenny Flagg, one of our group leaders with the Freethinkers of UND. After noticing that the SSA’s Facebook presence was much smaller than Campus Crusade for Christ’s, he wanted to make a difference. He “grabbed both profile pictures for the groups, added the stats from each page, and threw in a quick meme for good measure.” Then he posted it on Reddit. That was it. Take a look – would you would expect it to inspire a frenzy of activity?


Yes, this is the image that launched a thousand clicks. Well, several thousand, actually.

I had to figure out why a simple picture like this inspired such a big reaction. The more I thought about it, the more psychology and rhetorical communication techniques I saw present. Kenny:

  1. Demonstrated insider status
  2. Invoked tribal/patriotic feelings, and
  3. Gave people direction.

Well look at that. In classic style, he hit the three branches of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

Kenny’s Insider Status (Ethos)

Kenny was a perfect person for the task. If my coworkers or I had been the ones to post, we would seem self-serving. Kenny, not being an SSA employee, comes across as a more objective voice. Do you trust the used car salesman or the blue book to tell you a car’s value? We tend to trust people more if they share our interest – and we trust them less if we suspect they’re looking out for themselves.

A great way to gain people’s trust is by proving that you’re a member of their community. Sharing group identity acts as a proxy for sharing values. The “Challenge accepted” meme accomplished that beautifully. It’s like using slang – it reinforces your status as an insider. Redditors heard the message: “I’m one of you.” He put that to good use.

Our Tribal Emotions (Pathos)

After establishing his credibility as an insider, Kenny appealed to an incredibly powerful emotion to get them to act: group loyalty. When groups of people get compared to their rivals, it creates an us-versus-them mentality. The competition angle rallied atheists on Reddit into a stronger, more unified group.

And the more atheist redditors rallied together, the stronger the social proof dynamic became. When we’re in a group, we tend to watch other people for cues about how to behave. As redditors saw other people commenting, upvoting the post, and liking the SSA’s page, it influenced their behavior. People got the impression: “This is what it atheists on Reddit are doing.” As part of that group, they felt moved to behave the same way.

Kenny’s post inspired group pride, anger at cultural opponents, and the desire to fit in – emotions that motivate us to act. But that motivation needed direction.

Giving a Direction (Logos)

Have you ever felt that you wanted to make a difference, but just didn’t know how to do it? Without direction, all that energy just sputters out. Telling people to “eat healthier” is overwhelming and vague, but saying “switch to 1% milk” is specific and helpful.

Kenny gave everyone a simple, concrete task: go click “like” on the Secular Student Alliance’s page. He had everyone share his big vision: to get the Secular Student Alliance as many “likes” as the Campus Crusade for Christ page. He even provided a link to the SSA’s Facebook page. The direction was clear.

It all fit together.

Can we do this again?

We never know for sure whether a meme will explode.

But we’ll be more likely to go viral if we pay attention to what works. If you’re interested, I recommend Chip and Dan Heath’s books Made to Stick and Switch. Kenny managed to use psychology techniques without meaning to, but we can be more deliberate with our efforts. (Be careful fostering us-versus-them feelings. Competition is all well and good, but actual hostility is dangerous.)

There might seem like a lot of it boils down to luck. But as Richard Wiseman found, capitalizing on “luck” is really a skill. The Secular Student Alliance prepared by generating student leaders who were enthusiastic to help us out. When we spotted the opportunity we posted like madmen, and even  hosted an “Ask Us Anything” to interact with the community. And yes, Kenny did a fantastic job.

For such a quick image, it had a lot going for it. It’s not exactly Cicero orating in the Roman Senate, but it was damn good rhetoric in its own way. Forget a thousand words, that picture was worth 12,000 Facebook fans.

Overcoming The Curse of Knowledge

[crossposted at LessWrong]

What is the Curse of Knowledge, and how does it apply to science education, persuasion, and communication? No, it’s not a reference to the Garden of Eden story. I’m referring to a particular psychological phenomenon that can make our messages backfire if we’re not careful.

Communication isn’t a solo activity; it involves both you and the audience. Writing a diary entry is a great way to sort out thoughts, but if you want to be informative and persuasive to others, you need to figure out what they’ll understand and be persuaded by. A common habit is to use ourselves as a mental model – assuming that everyone else will laugh at what we find funny, agree with what we find convincing, and interpret words the way we use them. The model works to an extent – especially with people similar to us – but other times our efforts fall flat. You can present the best argument you’ve ever heard, only to have it fall on dumb – sorry, deaf – ears.

That’s not necessarily your fault – maybe they’re just dense! Maybe the argument is brilliant! But if we want to communicate successfully, pointing fingers and assigning blame is irrelevant. What matters is getting our point across, and we can’t do it if we’re stuck in our head, unable to see things from our audience’s perspective. We need to figure out what words will work.

Unfortunately, that’s where the Curse of Knowledge comes in. In 1990, Elizabeth Newton did a fascinating psychology experiment: She paired participants into teams of two: one tapper and one listener. The tappers picked one of 25 well-known songs and would tap out the rhythm on a table. Their partner – the designated listener – was asked to guess the song. How do you think they did?

Not well. Of the 120 songs tapped out on the table, the listeners only guessed 3 of them correctly – a measly 2.5 percent. But get this: before the listeners gave their answer, the tappers were asked to predict how likely their partner was to get it right. Their guess? Tappers thought their partners would get the song 50 percent of the time. You know, only overconfident by a factor of 20. What made the tappers so far off?

They lost perspective because they were “cursed” with the additional knowledge of the song title. Chip and Dan Heath use the story in their book Made to Stick to introduce the term:

“The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult or us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

So it goes with communicating complex information. Because we have all the background knowledge and understanding, we’re overconfident that what we’re saying is clear to everyone else. WE know what we mean! Why don’t they get it? It’s tough to remember that other people won’t make the same inferences, have the same word-meaning connections, or share our associations.

It’s particularly important in science education. The more time a person spends in a field, the more the field’s obscure language becomes second nature. Without special attention, audiences might not understand the words being used – or worse yet, they might get the wrong impression.

Over at the American Geophysical Union blog, Callan Bentley gives a fantastic list of Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.

What great examples! Even though the scientific terms are technically correct in context, they’re obviously the wrong ones to use when talking to the public about climate change. An inattentive scientist could know all the material but leave the audience walking away with the wrong message.

We need to spend the effort to phrase ideas in a way the audience will understand. Is that the same as “dumbing down” a message? After all, complicated ideas require complicated words and nuanced answers, right? Well, no. A real expert on a topic can give a simple distillation of material, identifying the core of the issue. Bentley did an outstanding job rephrasing technical, scientific terms in a way that conveys the intended message to the public.

That’s not dumbing things down, it’s showing a mastery of the concepts. And he was able to do it by overcoming the “curse of knowledge,” seeing the issue from other people’s perspective. Kudos to him – it’s an essential part of science education, and something I really admire.

Being a Dick is not Binary

(crossposted at Friendly Atheist)

“Should we be offensive?” is a common question in the secular movement. It’s also the wrong question.

The title of this post comes from Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” talk at TAM 8, which sparked conversation about the wisdom of offending people in the cause of critical thinking. Though it generated the most attention, it’s not the first time we’ve asked these questions: Should we condemn people for opposing LGBT rights? Mock people for believing in creationism? Call religion a delusion? Sometimes it seems like everything we do offends people – even the simple act of advertising our existence offended Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

In the face of that, it’s almost liberating, isn’t it? If everything we do is offensive, it doesn’t matter anymore – we can stop worrying about it. In fact, I used to argue that myself! When confronted with accusations that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was offensive, I’d point to the bus ads and billboards and say, “People get offended at the most mundane things. We can’t let that hold us back.”

But offensiveness not a simple yes-or-no issue. Like Julia wrote a few months ago, it’s tempting to treat belief as a black and white matter. It’s not – we can hold beliefs with differing degrees of confidence, and if we treat it otherwise we lose a lot of power to make distinctions, see nuance, and chart the best course of action. It’s the same with asking whether or not to be offensive. We need to add nuance.

At the first level, it’s probably more helpful to phrase the question “How many people are my actions likely to offend?” Not all offensive statements are equal. Sure, saying “People can be good without god” offends people, but not as many people as “Religion is a myth.”

We can go further. Asking how many people we expect to offend still treats the issue as a binary: they’re either offended or they’re not. A better phrasing would be “How offended will people be?” Billboards reading “Religion is a myth” and “Jesus was a bastard” would both upset a lot of people – but not to the same extent.

But even this isn’t what we want to be asking. To take the final step, we need to dissolve the question away into what we actually want to know. Each time we ask “Should we be a dick in this situation?” we’re really wondering a lot of things, like:

  • Do we like the short-term and long-term reactions this will elicit?
  • Would it attract attention for our message?
  • Would it reduce the chance of persuading the target?
  • Would it help push the boundaries of the national conversation?
  • Would it damage a helpful relationship?

There isn’t an inherent property “being offensive” or “being a dick” – that’s just a heuristic, and it’s not very precise. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say just a heuristic – labeling a message as ‘offensive’ is a helpful way to talk about expected reactions. But we need to be able to step back and refocus our attention when the heuristic causes confusion.

And the heuristic IS causing confusion. Treating it as a single, inherent property leads people to miss the strategic benefits – and drawbacks – of getting people upset in different ways and contexts. Treating it as a binary question leads people to wield anger indiscriminately rather than tactically.

What we should be asking ourselves, when choosing a message, is this: “How offended do we want people to be, and offended how?”

For example, I still stand behind my support of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day – it did cause a lot of offense, but it offended people in the right way: by intentionally disregarding the Islamic demand that we respect their prophet. That was the goal – shocking people into paying more attention to a dogma which wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t support using mockery in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist. When we’re trying to educate someone, a small amount of offense is useful to catch their attention – say, by openly disagreeing. But mockery is a different kind of offense, one that reduces our chances of convincing them.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about whether or not to offend people.  But we can be so much more precise thinking about it in terms of anger, surprise, disrespect, disagreement.

They say the devil’s in the details – so we should feel right at home.

Ender Wiggin, Harry Potter, and Kurt Godel

I love finding real-life connections to my favorite fictional characters. One of the consistent criticisms I hear about Ender’s Game is that people have trouble buying into the notion that children as young as six can be so intelligent, rational, and independent. That’s also a knock against Harry in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which was clearly influenced by Ender’s Game) – he just doesn’t fit with how we expect eleven-year olds to behave. But if we accept the premise of a hyper-intelligent child, would the other traits follow?

I was reading Rebecca Goldstein’s book Incompleteness on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, and young Kurt might fit the bill. Gödel was an extremely intelligent child, far more intelligent than his parents. Goldstein thinks he made this realization as early as five, and it had a big impact on his character:

It would be comforting, in the presence of such a shattering conclusion… to derive the following additional conclusion: There are always logical explanations and I am exactly the sort of person who can discover such explanations. The grownups around me may be a sorry lot, but luckily I don’t need to depend on them. I can figure out everything for myself. The world is thoroughly logical and so is my mind – a perfect fit.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Ender’s Game, but that sounded pretty familiar – the grown ups weren’t able (his parents) or willing (the teachers) to protect him, so he had to find ways to solve problems himself.

I’ve read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality much more recently, and he might be a closer fit. In this version, Harry is extremely intelligent and raised by parents who love him, but are – frankly – unable to keep up. This particular passage caught my eye:

Harry nodded. “I still don’t know whether the Headmaster was joking or… the thing is, he was right in a way. I had loving parents, but I never felt like I could trust their decisions, they weren’t sane enough. I always knew that if I didn’t think things through myself, I might get hurt… Even if it’s sad, I think that’s part of the environment that creates what Dumbledore calls a hero – people who don’t have anyone else to shove final responsibility onto, and that’s why they form the mental habit of tracking everything themselves.”

Situations like Kurt Gödel’s are rare, but that’s the point of fiction. Given his example, perhaps it’s not SO big of a stretch that children who surpass their parents at such a young age would turn into an Ender Wiggin or “rational” Harry Potter.

At the very least, perhaps this connection will help people suspend their disbelief a little bit, and go read either of these fantastic works of fiction.

Reflections on pain, from the burn unit

Deep frying: even more hazardous to your health than I realized.

Yesterday marked the end of my 18-day stay in New York Presbyterian Hospital’s burn unit, where I landed after accidentally overturning a pot of hot cooking oil onto myself. I ended up with second- and third- degree burns over much of my legs, but after skin graft surgery and some physical therapy, I can walk again, albeit unsteadily, and I have skin on my legs again, albeit ugly skin.

I learned a lot during my hospital stay. Unfortunately, nearly all of that hard-earned knowledge was in very specific topics – the ideal cocktail of pills, the least-uncomfortable position to sleep in, etc. – which will neither be applicable in other contexts nor interesting to other people. But I did leave with one realization about pain, and how we experience it.

I wasn’t in constant pain for the entire 18 days, by any means, but every day featured at least a few painful experiences, from the minor (frequent shots) to the major (scraping the dead skin off the burns). I tried a handful of methods to deal with it. Deep breathing helped a bit, as did pulling my own hair. One friend suggested I try imagining myself existing at a point halfway across the room; that helped a little, but only because our philosophical argument over whether it was even possible to pull off such a mental stunt briefly distracted me from my throbbing legs.

But the one thing that did seem to dramatically affect my pain level was my belief about what was causing the pain. At one point, I was lying on my side and a nurse was pulling a bandage off of one of my burns; I couldn’t see what she was doing, but it felt like the bandage was sticking to the wound, and it was agonizing. But then she said: “Now, keep in mind, I’m just taking off the edges of the bandage here, so this is all normal skin. It just hurts because it’s like pulling tape off your skin.” And once she said that — once I started picturing tape being pulled off of normal, intact skin rather than an open wound — the pain didn’t bother me nearly as much. It really drove home to me how much of my experience of pain is psychological; if I believe the cause of the pain is something frightening or upsetting, then the pain seems much worse.

And in fact, I’d had a similar thought a few months ago, which I’d then forgotten about until the burn experience called it back to mind. I’d been carrying a heavy shopping bag on my shoulder one day, and the weight of the bag’s straps was cutting into the skin on my shoulder. But I barely noticed it. And then it occurred to me that if I had been experiencing that exact same sensation on my shoulder, in the absence of a shopping bag, it would have seemed quite painful. The fact that I knew the sensation was caused by something mundane and harmless reduced the pain so much it didn’t even register in my mind as a negative experience.

Of course, I probably can’t successfully lie to myself about what’s causing me pain, so there’s a limit to how directly useful this observation can be for managing pain in the future. But it was indirectly useful for me, because it proved to me something I’d heard but never quite believed: that the unpleasantness of pain is substantially (entirely?) psychologically constructed. A bit of subsequent reading led me to some fascinating science that underlines that conclusion – for example, the fact that the physical sensation of pain is processed by one region of the brain while the unpleasantness of that sensation is processed by another region. And the existence of a condition called pain asymbolia, in which people with certain kinds of brain damage say they’re able to feel pain but that they don’t find it the slightest bit unpleasant.

The relationship between pain and unpleasantness is a philosophically interesting one, in fact. Unpleasantness is usually considered to be built into the very definition of pain, so it’s quite confusing to talk about experiencing different levels of unpleasantness from the same level of pain. And it’s even more confusing to talk about experiencing no unpleasantness from pain, as people with pain asymbolia do. The idea feels almost as incoherent as that of being happy but not enjoying it, or doubling a number without making it any bigger.

But observing my own experiences of pain a bit more closely has made it a little easier for me to wrap my mind around the idea. I really did feel, when the nurse informed me that she was pulling the bandage off of intact skin rather than burned skin, like the pain was the same but the unpleasantness was lessened. It’s harder to imagine pain with no unpleasantness, but perhaps my shopping bag example sheds a little light: I felt the sensation of something cutting into my shoulder, but it didn’t bother me. So maybe someone with pain asymbolia would experience a cutting sensation as if they’re just carrying a heavy shopping bag, with no “Warning!” and “This is awful!” alarms going off in their mind.

I’ll have to think more about the relationship between pain and the experience of pain, because it’s still confusing to me, but at least I can feel like I got some new philosophical food for thought out of my 18 days at NY Presbyterian. Not to mention the very practical, un-philosophical lesson: don’t leave your giant pots of oil near the edge of the stove.

(ETA: I completely forgot, while writing this, that Jesse had touched on this very subject last month! Wow, Jesse — in retrospect, that’s an eerily prescient post.)

The Social Psychology of Burning Man

(Cross-posted at Scientific American’s Guest Blog.)

I just finished shaking the last of the desert dust out of the bags I brought to this year’s Burning Man, an annual week-long event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that takes its name from the burning of a giant effigy at the end of the week.  According to popular perception, Burning Man is a non-stop rave thrown by a bunch of drugged-out naked hippies. That’s not entirely false, admittedly, but it’s only a small piece of the picture.

Burning Man is also a large-scale social experiment. The 50,000 people who converge on the desert each year create a temporary but legitimate city – roughly the size of Santa Cruz, CA or Flagstaff, AZ — with its own street grid, laws, and social mores. In the process, they attempt to do away with several of the most fundamental institutions underlying modern civilization. Clothing, for example, is optional at Burning Man, and many people opt out of it.

Money, on the other hand, is not optional: it’s explicitly banned. People exchange goods and services constantly, but money never changes hands, except in one specially designated central tent which sells coffee and tea. I’ve heard Burning Man sometimes described as a “barter economy,” but that’s not quite right. It’s more of a “gift economy,” in which people give strangers food, drinks, clothing, massages, bike repairs, rides back to camp, and more, all without any expectation of reciprocation. Many attendees also invest a great deal of their own time and money beforehand to make other people’s experiences at Burning Man more beautiful, interesting, and comfortable, setting up tents or couches for public use or crafting elaborate art installations out in the desert for others to discover.

Read the rest at Scientific American.

Pain Research: Not Minding That It Hurts

How well can we adapt to pain in the long run? Since pain is such a source of disutility, it’s important for us to learn as much as we can about managing or reducing its impact on our lives. One researcher studying the issue is Dan Ariely, who has a rare perspective after suffering major burns at a young age. He describes some fascinating findings at the beginning of one of his TED Talks (before moving on to his research on cheating), but he devotes a whole chapter to adaptation in his recent book, The Upside of Irrationality.

I haven’t read the book quite yet, but Ariely has posted videos of himself discussing the first few chapters:



Besides being flat-out interesting, pain research could have public policy implications. The current laws tightly regulate the most effective drugs at treating chronic pain, and often discourage doctors (read: scare doctors away) from prescribing them. Earlier this year, Matt Yglesias referenced this kind of research to evaluate some of the costs and benefits of the war on drugs.

This is terrible. One of the most interesting findings from the happiness research literature is that human beings are remarkably good at adapting to all kinds of misfortunes. Chronic pain, however, is an exception. People either get effective treatment for their pain, or else they’re miserable. Adaptation is fairly minimum. The upshot is that from a real human welfare perspective, we ought to put a lot of weight on making sure that people with chronic pain get the best treatment possible. Minimizing addiction is a fine public policy goal, but the priority should be on making sure that people with legitimate needs can get medicine.

Policy decisions require us to weigh the interests of different segments of the population. If we’ve been underestimating the suffering of those in chronic pain, it might be best if we made a shift toward supporting them more and found other ways to offset our worries about addiction.

Another one of Ariely’s suggestions interested me – that events can change the associations we have with pain. I hadn’t given much thought to the dual nature of pain as a physical sensation and an emotional reaction to the sensation. I had always viewed it as a useful but necessarily unpleasant signal that someone is wrong with our bodies. Sure, it’s no fun to experience, but we need to know that we’re putting weight on a fractured bone, right? However, if it’s possible to have that physical alert without the mental anguish, we could get the best (well, the slightly better) of both worlds: notification of problems but not the accompanying distress. As Peter O’Toole said in Lawrence of Arabia: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

There would be downsides, of course. Pain isn’t just an immediate reaction, it helps shape our future behavior. The emotional component to pain might be important in training ourselves to avoid harmful situations. If we “don’t mind that it hurts” we would probably be more prone to do stupid things.

At the moment, it’s fairly theoretical to me anyway. If we need to go through acute injuries to get to the tolerance Ariely has, count me out – it’s not worth it to me. But we need to understand suffering in order to reduce it, and research like Ariely’s will help.

(Sidenote: I hear Julia will have a chance to meet Dan Ariely at Burning Man this weekend. I couldn’t go because I’ll be on a business trip to Dragon*Con [I know, no sympathy for me] but I hope she has a fantastic time! I’m not envious or bitter at all… )

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