In this week’s spotlight I wish to discuss the value of testimonials. When someone offers an unsolicited testimony with no expectation of reward, what are we to think? Assume a product receives multiple five star reviews, does that mean the product is really as great as the folks reporting claim? If testimonials have any value, how are we to know that the seller is not seeding the testimonials in an effort to inflate the product’s success with customers?
Testimonials and Group Thinking
In my book, Gotcha! The Subordination of Free Will, I discuss the influence testimonials have upon us—the hows and whys, and the sometimes nefarious abuses employed by the merchants behind them. Bottom line, research has repeatedly demonstrated that if the masses believe one way, we are influenced so much by their insistence that we can sometimes deny our own senses. One study demonstrates this very well and it has been repeated numerous times. The study protocol goes like this: recruit the use of 8 confederates who will report as you wish and then select one subject for the experiment. Show the nine people lines that are unequal, but perhaps close or organized in such a way as to give the possible appearance of an optical illusion. Then pose the question, which line is longest? The subject will usually correctly identify the longest line the first time or two, but when all others openly disagree and point to another line, soon the subject will fall in line (pun intended) and choose the shorter line in agreement with the group. Not only that, they will defend their reasoning for doing so if questioned. In other words, ‘what the mob agrees to must be true’ sort of thinking, gains more traction than we might think and much of this is unconsciously orchestrated.
Testimonials are not evidence—period, full stop! The fact is, compelling personal testimonials can often dissuade a person from hearing credible scientific evidence. Psychologists call this problem in belief formation the vividness effect. 1
Now this has nothing to do with intelligence per se’. It is more a matter of critical or rational thinking. As Keith E. Stanovich puts it in his paper, The Development of Rational Thought: A Taxonomy of Heuristics and Biases, “Intelligence tests are good measures of how well a person can hold beliefs in short-term memory and manipulate those beliefs, but they do not assess whether a person has the tendency to form beliefs rationally when presented with evidence. Similarly, intelligence tests are good measures of how efficiently a person processes information that has been provided, but they do not assess whether the person is a critical assessor of information as it is gathered in the natural environment.” 2
We live at a time when the media is becoming the mob and by that I mean, if they say something is true, too many of us simply accept it as fact. The problem is, much of what is reported in the media today is false! Moreover, more and more members of the media are no longer objective journalists working to get us the facts, but rather hard at work trying to sell us their agenda.
The Backfire Effect
Please allow me to ask a question recently posed by Michael Shermer. “Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither! In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. This is called the Backfire Effect and it happens when people perceive their worldview to be under threat by conflicting facts . . . The psychology underneath the backfire effect is called cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable feeling you get when a deeply held belief is contradicted by the facts.” 3
There has probably been no time in the past that requires more rational thinking then today. My suggestion—don’t buy a product, a proposition, or anything else without diligently researching it for yourself and then don’t be afraid to be the one in nine who speaks out with the correct length of line. It would also be good to simply put your own biases and desires on hold and truly listen to the opposite arguments. You may just learn something that changes your mind—I know I have. I think the ability to learn, which may include changing your mind about your own ideas and biases, is really the highest act of intelligence.
My thoughts, what are yours?
As always, thanks for the read.
1. Stanovich, K. E., Toplak, M. E. & West, R. F. 2008. “The Development of Rational Thought: A Taxonomy of Heuristics and Biases.” ScienceDirect, Vol 36, pp 251-285.
3. Shermer, M. 2017. “Fighting The Backfire Effect (Cognitive Dissonance).” Skeptics Magazine. June 4, 2017.