Fooling Ourselves With Tips and Listicles

A list of tips on "how to do X" is a standard modern mass media staple. If one of these articles happens to come to you (usually via social media), it will likely have three predictable characteristics: it was SEO-optimized, it's a listicle-style article with a clickbait-y title, and it should take roughly three to four minutes to read.

It might even contain useful advice.

People process articles like these in cognitively intriguing ways. For example, one can read a list of 12 Obscenely Easy Tips to Save Money! with a skim-til-offended mindset. And as soon as you stumble onto a tip that strikes you as dumb (cut my own hair? ZOMG only a total loser would do that), you can mentally dismiss the article. Even the entire domain.

What's happening here, cognitively speaking, is the reader reacted by doubling down on her existing belief set. She was waiting, just waiting, for any tip that seemed even the slightest bit stupid. And since some money-saving tips actually are dumb, it should be unsurprising that she found one. The exercise of reading the article--with her specific mindset--reinforces all her worst suspicions about frugality.

What's also astounding is how this reader can actually say she read something "from the other side" and yet, somehow, she still finds evidence confirming her existing beliefs! (See how dumb frugality tips are? Sheesh.) This reader achieved a rare cognitive twofer: she both increased her epistemic arrogance and got slightly dumber at the same time. [Note: this never happens with politics.]

Now, let's consider another example. What if you like frugality (or whatever subject the listicle of "X Easy Tips" happens to cover) and you actually want to put the ideas to work?

Believe it or not, for you, there's an even more dangerous way to read articles like this, especially if it also involves talking about the topic with peers or friends. As much as we wish it weren't true, our brains confuse reading and talking about a domain with practicing that domain.

This deeply unfortunate phenomenon happens in all areas of personal development: losing weight, fitness, cooking at home, writing a novel, decluttering, investing, starting a business, the list goes on. We finish the article--"6 Staggering Advantages of ETFs" let's say--and then we demonstrate our rapidly growing knowledge by regurgitating it in a conversation with a friend. (I've been reading up a lot lately on investing, I'm really leaning towards ETFs rather than index funds. What about you?)

What happens next is fascinating. Our brains get a quick mini-squirt of dopamine and we achieve what psychologists call "a sense of completion." Which means we vaguely feel like we've done something to change our life situation even though we've actually done nothing and taken no action whatsoever.

Pretty soon we'll forget all about the whole thing, and we'll move on to some other listicle-friendly domain. ("8 Awesome Ways to Lose Weight That Big Food Doesn't Want You To Know About!")

It all makes me wonder sometimes whether there's an entirely inverse relationship between how much people read and talk about doing things and to what extent they actually do them.

READ NEXT: Tips Vs. Strategies
And: Epistemic Arrogance

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Lauren said...

I think the inverse relatirelati between thought and action is often true, but I am also remonded of something Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said: "what you read when you don't have to determines who you are when you can't help it"

Lauren said...

Tech trouble, sorry for the typos