Influence and discernment

In General by Dr. Keith Witt


My friend Corey deVos recently sent me a briefing on motivated reasoning whose primary author was Dr. Dora-Olivia Vicol (

The briefing detailed three forms of social manipulation that could cause people to believe material that had verifiable data disproving it. These were:

  • Repetition and the illusory truth effect—the more a claim is repeated the more credible it seems—the more it feels true.
  • Fluency and the credibility of information that “looks” right—the data is easy to understand and process. The source feels likable and trustworthy. The font size, grammar, work complexity, and pictures support and amplify the material.
  • Motivated reasoning—the material aligns with our ideas, biases, and worldviews so we want to believe it. Motivated reasoning is involved in both fast and slow processing, but slow processing gives us a chance to engage in true critical thinking, which requires slow processing. For example, people low on analytical reasoning (slow processing) are more biased in politics.

Dr. Vicol also presented research findings of who is more vulnerable to believe false data, who is more likely to forward false data, and how false data is challenged (or not) on social media. Some of findings were:

  • Older (60 plus) and less educated people find it harder to discern fact from fiction.
  • Older people find it harder to remember source of information.
  • Everyone is more distracted on social media and less likely to remember sources.
  • All people tend to share info with higher emotional charge. People share positive material more than negative, but anything less than a 4 to 1 positive to negative ratio registers more due to human negativity bias.
  • Very few people challenge info they believe is false on social media.
  • Young people more likely to share emotionally charged content they know is wrong.
  • Very few people challenge info they believe is wrong on social media.

One of Dr. Vicols’s major sources was the pew research centre looking at data from U.S, Kenya, Nigeria, S. Africa, Buenos Aires.

Other forms of influence with high potential for social manipulation

Robert Cialdini—the six weapons of influence:

  1. Reciprocation. A genetic mandate to feel obligated to someone who we feel has done us a service.
  2. Commitment and consistency. Once one stakes out a position, there is a tendency to defend it and be consistent with it.
  3. Social proof—like canned laughter, or a political rally—where the social context supports the position.
  4. Liking—we tend to believe people we find likable.
  5. Authority—we tend to defer to those we view as high on social hierarchies we admire or aspire to.
  6. Scarcity--the more scarce something is, the more valued it is.

Jonathan Haidt’s six moral foundations can be used to influence for one position and against another:

  • Care/harm. Show evidence of me caring, and others harming.
  • Fairness/cheating. Suggest my position is fair, while the opposition lies and cheats.
  • Loyalty/betrayal. Suggest my position is loyal to some cultural commitment or value, while the other is betraying some value/commitment to a leader, value, or shared membership.
  • Authority/subversion. Suggest accepted authority supports my position while yours subverts accepted authority.
  • Sanctity/profane. Suggest my position is supported by the divine, while the other position corrupts and profanes a sacred object or value.
  • Liberty/oppression. Suggest my position supports freedom in my group, while the other position wants to oppress and control me or my group.

Negativity bias is used to influence and manipulate

John Tierney and Roy Baumeister—The Power of Bad.

We privilege bad news, negative experiences, and perceived dangers. The perception of threat resonates more strongly that the promise of rewards.

A great example of negativity bias are the historic waves of Hell-based Christian revivals from Martin Luther to the present. As a Christian sect became more intellectual, less condemning and violent, and more inclusive, it became less attractive to amber congregations. In the face of more inclusive, intellectual, non-violent, and highly educated clergy, church participation diminished, while disinterest or contempt for the church hierarchies increased. A charismatic preacher would begin to give fire-and-brimstone, we-are-all-sinners on the edge of damnation sermons, and become wildly popular. This led to revivals of Hell-based teachings, creating new, more violent and exclusive new sects (we are saved and threatened by the non-saved). This pattern continues to this day.

We can influence opinion by applying the principles of negativity bias to messaging. For instance, we tend to define a person’s character way more by one bad act than a lifetime of good acts. Spread one credible vile lie about an individual and their whole message and body of work tends to be dismissed by believers.

Social sequencing

We tend to respond better or worse—and be influenced more or less—by different sequences of social engagements. For example, first impressions stick, and the last interaction in a sequence more heavily defines the whole social encounter.


A major multibillion dollar independent fact checking service.

  • Such a NGO could be created by billionaires and maintain a free site like Wikipedia.
  • It would fact check current data and provide statistics on how often someone is wrong, lies, or has been corrupted (with financial or personal incentives).
  • It would have the highest veracity standard and most transparent processes in the world.

Evolution of consciousness. Support the Spiral

<p">As we wake up, one person at a time, and ascend the spiral on social lines, moral lines, self-lines, and the integration-of-defenses line, we have wider embrace, more compassionate understanding, and more critical thinking.

Post-issue relationships support compassionate understanding

In a post-issue relationship, each problem is an opportunity to grow and love. A post-issue relationship still has problems, resentments, doubts, and selfish or thoughtless injuries, but there is always an adjustment to love in response to pain or distortion. We exist in intersubjective and intrasubjective energetic containers which we constantly cocreate with the world. There’s a luminous quality of a container where you are never caught in distress with your partner or yourself for longer than seconds or minutes. Post-issue intersubjectivity with others is a lower left sweet spot, just as post-issue intrasubjectivity is an upper left sweet spot.

Whether a therapist is working with an individual, couple, family, or group, the organizing principle of the work, whether consciously or unconsciously, is guiding them towards cocreating stable post-issue relationships. Post-issue relationships excel at system 2 critical thinking and continually evolve system 1 reflexive responses to be more suspicious of violent or manipulative impulses and influences.

Healthy motivated reasoning?

In Integral, which is all about multiple perspectives, we naturally look for what’s beautiful, good, and true about anything, and that includes motivated reasoning and our human biases to lean into emotionally charged stories and resist contradicting evidence. What does healthy motivated reasoning look like? We find it in post-issue relationships—where faith in each other, and faith in the process of seeking beauty, truth, and goodness.

In intimacy, a post-issue relationship is two people assuming good about each other—and wanting to always err on the positive with each other. The contract is:

“Even in the face of what looks like contradicting evidence, I will hold you as an extraordinary person trying to do right and love me. If I see evidence of you being false, cruel, or uncaring, I will assume I have a distorted perspective and you have some pain that I want to help you with.”

This kind of motivated reasoning is highly adaptive and effective at finding the beautiful, good, and true in any area. That being said, every worldview has blindspots that intimate partners can share. Normalizing objectification, double standard moral discernments, and having no cognitive dissonance around conflicting positions creates room for post-issue couples to be manipulated in all the ways we’ve examined.

What if one person can’t maintain a loving container and are captured in a negative or rigid story?

The person in the room with the deepest consciousness has the most responsibility in the group’s intersubjectivity. If we can’t relate with another through radical openness and radical acceptance, we can handle him or her to serve the highest good. This always involves, at least partially, curiosity about, “What does this person have to teach me? I need to find what is beautiful, good, and true in his or her position.”

Technically, one great way to do this is to:

  • Listen and validate until the other feels heard, and you’ve found some wisdom in his or her position.
  • Look for insight and forward movement you can both support.
  • Advocate for steps forward while maintaining the intersubjective container of kindness, respect, and radical acceptance in the face of passive aggressive or ideological disapproval and attack.

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