Saturday, April 1, 2017

Confidence Man

The word “con-man” comes from the success of a huckster whose aggressive over-confidence allows him or her to fraudulently convince their victims to relinquish their money for a false cause or purchase. Unlike passive hacking or stealthy theft, the con-man is overt, powerful and persuasive. Con-men (and that term does include women) are successful in significant part because it seems that human brains are apparently predisposed to react positively to confident people.

Here’s the way the scientists, who investigated this human trait, put it: “[Our] study finds that using cues of the reliability of other peoples' knowledge to enhance expectation of personal success generates value correlates that are anatomically distinct from those concurrently computed from direct, personal experience. Independent Neural Computation of Value from Other People's Confidence, published in the December9, 2016 JNeuroSci (The Journal of Neuroscience). Huh? Simply, people tend to believe, like and follow people who exude confidence, whether these self-assured folks are right or wrong. The research resulted from work led by the University of Sussex, Aarhus University, University College London and Princeton University.

Here’s how a report from the University of Sussex (December 13, 2016) described the research: “Scientists have uncovered that the added influence of confident people may be down to our biology… By studying brain activity, academics discerned that human brains are geared for placing added value on opinions of confident people…

“The scientists examined the active brains of 23 healthy volunteers and found that expectations of success could be influenced by three key elements: personal experience, learning what the majority people believe and, most importantly, learning what confident people believe. 

“The first two had widespread effects on the brain’s reward system, which predicts how satisfied we will be when we choose something. Opinions of confident people, however, had an additional effect on this reward system – and only in a part of the brain that appeared late in our evolution.

“Discussing the research, [Sussex psychologist] Dr. [Daniel] Campbell-Meiklejohn said: ‘This additional effect seems likely to be the mechanism by which the confidence of others can give us reassurance in our actions. Our findings suggest that social transmission of beliefs and preferences is not as straightforward as copying the person next to you. Other elements are clearly at play during the decision-making process.’

“The researchers observed that this extra activity occurs next door to a brain area that helps us consider what others are thinking. This is important for the next step, which is to figure out what the brain is actually doing when we observe confident people.

“‘We can now consider that this part of the brain may be inferring, correctly or incorrectly, the quality of the confident person’s information before deciding whether or not to let that person change our beliefs,’ adds Dr Campbell-Meiklejohn.

“‘In today’s political climate in particular, we should be aware that when facts aren’t clear, we may be biologically tuned to allow seemingly confident people to hold more sway on our own beliefs.’”

Combine this proclivity to follow the ostensibly self-confident with living in an extremely complex society, where educational standards are plummeting and where significant social and economic changes threaten to leave masses of people behind, abandoned by progress, globalization and automation. Doesn’t take too much in the way of false promises to let a strong, self-confident person to sway their vote… whether he is right or wrong… whether his actions are likely to leave that constituency worse off by far than had they accepted the truth in the first place. Look around you and tell me what you see and hear.

I’m Peter Dekom, and history is often the story of over-confident leaders leading their nations to destruction with false beliefs and incomprehensibly incorrect solutions.

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