I just finished "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Robert Cialdini. First of all, let me share a pro tip about people who promise to help you detect bullshit—they are very often peddling bullshit. (Did you just rightly reflect on whether I was guilty of that? I trust you did.) In general taking advice from people in advertising is a very bad idea. It reminds me of people who marry movie stars and then complain when it falls apart, "It was all a lie." Duh. Movie stars and "compliance practitioners", to use the book’s preferred euphemism, are professional liars. It’s ok to be fooled, but not surprised at being fooled.

This book was recommended by a certain popular blogger who doesn’t need any more attention. This book strangely had the longest queue of anything I’ve ever reserved from the library. It was suggested that themes in this book could help explain Donald Trump’s bizarre lack of complete failure. I’m still not sure about that and this book certainly wasn’t any kind of manual for converting an internet troll into the president. Basically it was more of an insightful collection of cognitive biases that, had I seen it when the book came out in the 1980s, would have been mind-blowing. But now that such things are enumerated and quite well known it’s rather less exciting. Especially for people who do a lot of contemporary reading on these topics.

Still there were some interesting tidbits. One thing he talked about is how marketers manipulate a sense of scarcity. It turns out we’re prepared to make all kinds of bad decisions when we think the choice may be cut off soon. I’m reminded of Amazon’s "Only 3 left in stock! Order now!" My practice has always been to discount such items. My thinking is that product A is rushing me to make a decision and product B isn’t which is a dimension of B’s superiority. Obviously whenever there is time pressure to part with your money, you absolutely should never do it. Believe me, that great deal will come up again no matter what the salesperson says.

Perhaps the most interesting examples in the book for me related to something called "social proof". This is basically a mental shortcut that takes for granted that if a lot of people like you are doing something, it’s probably the right thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m sure it has served people well to lighten cognitive loads. The catch here is that it only works with people who seem like you. I think my immigrant background serves me well here. Or perhaps it devastatingly precludes what normal people would consider success. Not having a hometown or a proper nationality, I don’t think of anyone as being like me. I’m a weirdo. Back when computer people were weird, I used to think that computer nerds were like me but I’ve definitely been cast adrift from that group too. Interestingly, when I first decided to become as good at programming as I possibly could, I explicitly used the heuristic of social proof. Since I did not have any peers around me to emulate, I deliberately chose to do things in the style of famous computer scientists and C programmers and take on faith that it would work out. Usually it did (Linux, Vim), although sometimes not so well (Tcl, Metafont), but it explains my old timey comfort with hardware efficiency and absolute control.

The idea of "social proof" seems most noticeable to me when travelling. When you get away from people who look, dress, and speak like you, it is much easier to scrutinize everything and really think through why people are doing what they are doing. Sometimes you can catch them doing utterly ridiculous things because all of their neighbors are doing it too. But just as often you will see how ridiculous some of the things are that you and your neighbors do. I have long said that it would be a far better education to send a young person on a grand world hitch-hiking tour than to a university’s annealing furnace of social conformity. I’m sticking with that.

This book was also an interesting product of its times. There are subtle anachronisms that I realize younger people wouldn’t even understand. His cute metaphor for automatic mental responses is that of playing a tape and he uses the phrase "click whirr" which must have been quite fashionable at the height of the Walkman era. He did have a fascinating example of an MCI (remember them?) marketing campaign that had people rat out their friends and if the friends signed up everyone would get a treat. I was struck by how absolutely similar this MCI "Call Circle" thing was to Facebook’s tactics. This recurrence of predation might lead one to believe that we just never learn, but I feel that contemplating how we are so easily victimized by our psychological blind spots has actually made us a tiny bit wiser. I am optimistic that we are getting better at being the thinking apes.