First, a quick little thought experiment with words and pictures. I’m going to put up two pictures, and a quote in between. I’m quoting both of them directly — they’ve both said exactly the same thing.
“Blue skies today are green skies tomorrow.“
Quickly: Could the skies be green tomorrow?
If you’re like most people, you’re either trying to read this while glancing up to get one last look at dem eyes, or you’re saying to yourself “Well, yeah…the skies COULD be green tomorrow, if they meant it this way…”
“That might make sense…let me think about it...”
Congratulations — you just met a little mental shortcut called the “Keats Heuristic,” or “the aesthetic of truth.”
Confession time: Neither ultra-hunk Chris Hemsworth nor adult actress Lanny Barbie ever made that statement. I know they didn’t, because I just made it up 30 seconds ago as an example of a statement that could never, under any circumstances, or under any interpretation, possibly be true. And of course, intellectually, you know that: The skies can’t be green. But your first inclination was probably to either believe it outright, or to at least give the benefit of the doubt that there might be some logic to the statement — right before you attempted to justify your initial belief.
There isn’t any logic to it, though. I promise. It’s complete BS…just a dirty trick.
(You’ve probably just now stopped trying to justify, too. Mostly because you’re far enough down at this point that you’re not looking directly at the pictures.)
But it worked on most people because I used the Keats Heuristic.
How the Aesthetic of Truth works
“Heuristics” is the study of mental shortcuts, experience-based techniques for problem solving that our brains use to quickly process the massive amount of data that comes through. We use them constantly, and the older we get, the more we tend to rely on them. A heuristic is a mental calculation, in this case a cognitive bias (and there are hundreds of different kinds) that says “If this thing was associated with that before, it will be the next time.“
There’s nothing wrong with having these cognitive biases; many are essential parts of our day-to-day lives. They are useful…when they’re right. And that’s the problem; a lot of the times, they aren’t. Heuristic shortcuts are repsonsible for the vast majority of our most basic logical fallacies, mostly because they, by definition, eliminate logic from the loop of decision making.
“Keats Heuristic” is shorthand for something called the “rhyme as reason effect.” It was named for the poet John Keats, who made one of the most fantastically ironic statements of all time:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty.
That is all ye know on Earth,
and all ye need to know.
Now, back in 1819, Keats couldn’t have known what we do now about neurology, heuristics or psychology. But he did hit on one fascinating point of human psychology:
People will believe almost anything if it’s pretty.
What makes Keats’ statement so ironic, of course, is that in the poem he presents it as objective reality, but outside the realm of the human mind, it isn’t true. But, because the statement “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is itself aesthetically pleasing, the initial reaction is to believe it. Thus, it superficially proves its own premise, while at the same time more profoundly disproving it.
But it takes an extra cognitive step before you get to the belief of disproof, and most people don’t want to take it. Why? Because being wrong sucks, and admitting the possibility that you just got suckered sucks even worse.
Our brains are learning machines; they reward us with natural heroin (dopamine) for being right, and slap us when we’re wrong. And the simple reality is that nobody likes to crash from the sweet dopamine heights of pretty words or pretty faces directly into the rancorous sub-basement of “SUCKER.”
Extrapolate that to your life experiences or prior relationships as you will.
Prime Targets — Old People and Lazy Thinkers
There are two primary targets for those who would use cognitive biases for manipulation: old people, and lazy thinkers.
Old People are far more prone to these kinds of manipulations because, as you’ll recall, cognitive biases are experience-based. They’re, for the most part, not programmed in at birth. It takes time for you to have experiences, and for your brain to makes the cause-and-effect shortcuts from those experiences.
Little kids are intensely logical. MADDENINGLY logical. Because they lack a lot of the experiences required to build more advanced mental shortcuts, they have to question, and figure everything out as they go. Try a few of these heuristic tricks on a kid sometime — you’ll find most of them don’t work. But they do work fantastically on old people, because they’re the other way around. The older you get, the less likely you are to question something, and the more likely you are to use an experienced-based heuristic to arrive at an answer.
So, if you’re targeting old people, all you need to do is speak to the shortcuts they already have. You’ve heard the expression “he’s set in his ways?” That has everything to do with what experienced-based mental shortcuts that person has developed over the years.
But why do we develop them in the first place?
Because we’re lazy.
The brain is an amazingly gluttonous thing; while it only makes up about 5 to 8 percent of your body’s total mass (about 3 percent in my case), it consumes a crushing 20 to 25 percent of all the energy you take in. At least as far as I know, we’re the only animal in nature for which that’s true. And our bodies treat the brain like it would any other organ, shutting as much as possible of it down when those parts aren’t required. All in the name of conserving energy.
Right now, you’re probably sitting down, your heart is beating about 50 beats a minute, and you’re breathing about once every three seconds. You’re probably not running the 40-yard dash while reading this. Because you’re a lazy mammal. Nature has programmed you to conserve energy when it’s not needed, and send energy where it is needed. Right now, your brain needs energy, so you’re not jogging.
Of course, there’s a possibility you are. But not everybody prioritizes energy the same way.
Enter: Lazy Thinkers.
I normally don’t like to call our friends on the far right “stupid.” Because, honestly, a lot of them aren’t “stupid” in the sense that they’re excessively limited in their capacity for logic. What they are is LAZY. It’s not that they can’t use logic and reason, it’s that they choose not to. In terms of energy consumption, thinking is work…and they choose not to unnecessarily work for the same reason you choose to use the remote instead of getting off your ass to change the TV channel. You see it as unnecessary and pointless work.
You might say “Why should I do that when experience has taught me that the remote is faster and works just as well?”
Apply the same concept to thought.
People think to figure stuff out. We think because we need answers. Not all of us care if those answers are necessarily right, any more than you care how the channel gets changed. Those people only care that they have answers, because once they have an answer, they can stop thinking and conserve energy.
This is exactly the reason behind the Right’s love of reality denial and hatred of objective fact. It short-circuits their remote controls; it tells them that the shortcuts they’ve been using aren’t working, and that additional thought is required. And if that thought is big enough or, Heaven forbid, an unanswerable question — that’s when you get climate change denial, religious fundamentalism and bigotry.
All because of lazy thinking.
Of course, if you think lazy long enough, you’ll develop lots of custom-made shortcuts designed to get you out of thinking about anything, ever. That’s when you become an old fart who’s set in his ways.
But you’re probably not. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not a lazy thinker. Unless you’re a troll. That makes you less susceptible to heuristic manipulation — but it doesn’t make you immune to it.
How you (Probably) Fell for it
Which brings us back to the original question: Why did you (probably) fall for my little trick earlier? Answer: It was a one-two punch of Keats Heuristic.
- Pretty faces. Cause…DAY-um.
- Aesthetically pleasing words.
Finding the pictures was easy. If I’m honest, perusing those Image Search results wasn’t exactly the worst part of my day. The words, though…that was a slightly finer process.
Some personal history: I started out writing poetry and music. The first thing I clearly remember writing, at six years old, was a poetic lament to my dead turtle, Spike. Yeah, I know. Shaddap. I was six.
Until I started writing professionally at 27, I wrote almost nothing but poetry and music. All that time, I studied assonance, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm and meter. Later, I bought a copy of Mel Helitzer’s “Comedy Writing Secrets,” where I learned all about semantic reversals, the Rule of Three and saving punchlines for the end. I really wanted to write freelance, so I studied and honed my craft like any other aspiring whore.
Because of all that, I still slip into iambic pentameter (sometimes haiku) from time to time. I go out of my way to invoke assonance, alliteration and in-line rhyme whenever there’s an important point to be made. Why?
Because I know you’re more likely to believe it if it’s pretty.
I know that once I have that initial belief, your faith in the initial premise, you’re going to do all the work for me afterward. Once you believe something because it’s pretty, you’ll want to KEEP believing it, and anything else that follows. All so you can avoid unpleasantly questioning your initial belief. If I say something in just the right way, I know 80 percent of people will believe that and most of what follows without a scrap of evidence.
The right words trump the right ideas.
(Fun Fact: You’ve noticed the in-line rhyme and repetition in “Blue skies today are green skies tomorrow.” But those are red herrings. If you want to create an equivalency statement, it’s all about format and meter. “Blue skies today are” and “green skies tomorrow” are both five syllables, have the same in-line rhyme (skies to-) in the middle, and the same hard “R” sound at the end. Far as your brain is concerned, it’s reading the same statement twice — thus equating the true “blue” and the false “green.”)
Abusing Power with Poetry and Comedy
You’re probably thinking at this point “Why, you manipulative DICK. Why should I trust anything you say ever again?”
That’s a fair question. My answer: Why did you before?
If you were completely logical, you wouldn’t believe anything I say. At least, not without thinking about it afterward. Which I’d hope and expect you would. I use the Aesthetic of Truth because as a tool for effective communication; because in this world, the benefit of the doubt, first impressions, count. I’m well aware that knowing how to use this stuff is a kind of power, and I can only ask you believe that my one, inviolable ethic is never to abuse it by saying something I don’t know for certain to be true.
But…not everybody out there feels the same way.
Maybe you’ve heard some of these before:
- If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
- Might makes right.
- Marry in white, you’ve chosen right.
- They’re not taxes, they’re axes.
- Woes unite foes.
- Beer before liquor, never been sicker.
- Bigger isn’t better.
- Big government is grand, when you don’t feel its hand.
Can you prove any of these? Are some of them even provable? Yet, people repeat these every day, and plenty of people have bought them for no other reason than the fact that they’re aesthetically pleasing.
Then, there’s humor. Semantic reversal, the THREES rule, brevity, saving the punchline; everybody appreciates interesting visuals, irony, witty phrasing, and a well-structured and well-delivered joke. Humorists have known for a long time that if you put them in stitches, they’re going to listen. It’s another facet of the Keats Heuristic, and it’s why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are two of the most trusted names in fake journalism. A few more pointed examples:
- Liberals love America like O.J. loved Nicole.
- Ann Coulter: “I’m more of a man than any liberal.”
- A building has integrity just like a man — and just as seldom.
- Ayn Rand: “To say I love you, one must first be able to say ‘I.'”
- Buck up or stay in the truck.
- Folks this government isn’t too big to fail; it’s too big to succeed.
- The zoo has an African lion, and the White House has a lyin African.
Of course, the political Right isn’t the only side to (attempt to) use humor; Obama himself has been known to deliver a few zingers from time to time. That’s just Speechwriting 101. And it’s fine, as long as the speaker is telling the truth — but this heuristic is easily abused by people who know that their audiences are either too intellectually lazy to question their first impressions, or who are so old that they don’t care.
And, who are these abusers of power?
I’d say that brings us neatly back around to Chris and Lanny, wouldn’t you?
Sex Sells Stupid
Depending on who you ask, the “sex sells” advertising precept is either a root cause of the Keats Heuristic, or an effect of it. It’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg argument. But we do know that sexual stimuli has an amazing way of dropping peoples’ (particularly mens’) functioning IQs like rocks into a black hole.
And we also know that Fox, and most other conservative media outlets, have this kind of — let’s say — “oddly consistent” pattern when it comes to hiring talking heads for airtime. The same goes for conservative female politicians who, while they might be older, are generally of a certain type for their age. Sarah Palin did have a porn movie made in her honor — I don’t recall if Bernie Sanders ever did.
So, I’ll leave you with this, and a question that (I promise) I won’t try to manipulate you into answering.
Given everything you’ve just read…the Keats Heuristic, how people (particularly those who are mentally lazy or old) are manipulated by aesthetics…do you see that certain pattern emerging among many of the Right’s “serious journalists? These ladies might not be the meat of the meal; that’s the verbal aesthetic, scripted and often delivered by others. But let’s get real…restaurants don’t put the roast pork in their display cases.
Because everyone comes for the right slice of cherry pie.
(Bearing in mind I’m a dude, and not qualified to judge male beauty beyond Thor.)
The thought experiment is now over.
What? You thought is ended way back there? With Chris and my girlfriend, Lanny? Oh no, dear reader…you’ve been participating in the REAL experiment all the way through. But before we draw our conclusions, first, two quick questions:
- Did you see a single reference in it for anything other than the cognitive biases? Just ONE reference?
- How much of this article did you believe, and why?
For all you know, I could have made every bit of it up, and used 20 or 30 of the cognitive biases on that list to manipulate you into believing me. Are you positive that I don’t know every one of them? Sure, the point seemed logical enough…but then again, 15 minutes ago, you were probably willing to believe the sky was green.
How sure are you that I didn’t manipulate you with the Availability Cascade, Choice-Supportive Bias, the Empathy Gap, Illusory Correlation Observation Expectancy or any of 50 others I might or might not have used? I could have been lying about everything. Maybe, just maybe I dropped in three little lies, just to make a point at the end of this article. Stuff you never would have believed if I hadn’t used your shortcuts — just like that giant Marketing Department called “Conservative Media.”
It’s not like you weren’t warned; I did say “If I say something in just the right way, I know 80 percent of people will believe that and most of what follows without a scrap of evidence.”
Why did you believe anything after that? Because I shared a few personal details and said “trust me?”
How sure are you, exactly, that the truth is really the truth?
You can’t be.
But here’s one truth you can be sure of:
The experiment never, ever ends.