hidden persuaders (cognitive biases, fallacies, and illusions)
A term used by Geoffrey Dean and Ivan Kelly (2003) to
describe affective, perceptual, and cognitive biases or illusions that lead to erroneous beliefs. Examples of hidden persuaders
abound. Some of the more important ones are:
ad hoc hypothesis
bias blind spot
Clever Hans phenomenon
continued influence effect
illusion of control
illusion of justice
illusion of skill
illusion of understanding
perfect solution fallacy
post hoc reasoning
testimonials (anecdotal evidence)
"Technically these hidden persuaders can be described as
‘statistical artifacts and inferential biases’ (Dean and Kelly 2003: 180)."
Dean and Kelly argue that hidden persuaders explain why many astrologers
continue to believe in the validity of astrology
despite overwhelming evidence that astrology is bunk. Psychologist Terence Hines, who has explored many varieties of hidden
persuaders (Hines 2003), blames them for the continued use by psychologists
of such instruments as the
Rorschach test, despite overwhelming evidence
that the test is invalid and useless:
Psychologists continue to believe in the Rorschach for the same reasons
that Tarot card readers believe in Tarot cards,
that palm readers believe in palm reading, and
that astrologers believe in astrology: the well-known cognitive illusions
that foster false belief. These include reliance on anecdotal evidence,
selective memory for seeming successes, and reinforcement from colleagues.
The hidden persuaders originate in quite useful adaptations. Seeing
patterns, especially causal patterns, is quite beneficial to our species.
Recognizing how data support our beliefs and having others share those
beliefs are also beneficial. Drawing inferences quickly may mean the
difference between life and death. Having hope, reducing tension caused by
conflicting ideas, and even deceiving ourselves can be psychologically
advantageous. But all of these positive tendencies can become perverted and
lead us into error if
we are not careful. Many skeptics have noted that the hidden persuaders sometimes seem to affect people in
proportion to their intelligence: the smarter one is the easier it is to
develop false beliefs. There are several reasons for this: (1) the hidden
persuaders affect everybody to some degree; (2) the smarter one is the
easier it is to see patterns, fit data to a hypothesis,
and draw inferences; (3) the smarter one is the easier it is to rationalize,
i.e., explain away strong evidence contrary to one's belief; and (4) smart people are often arrogant and
incorrectly think that they cannot be deceived by others, the data, or
Hidden Persuaders (1957) is also the title of a book by Vance Packard.
He chronicled the many methods, some pretty open and obvious, that
advertisers use in their quest to manipulate the thoughts and actions of
consumers. Packard attempted to expose corporate propaganda as a kind of mind
control operation, especially in its use of subliminal messaging. What Dean and Kelly describe
are the many ways in which we sell ourselves on ideas by putting up
conceptual and perceptual blocks to thinking clearly and fairly about
See also Daniel Kahaneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow for the latest analysis of scientific studies on cognitive biases. See also the archive of links to blog posts on hidden persuaders at Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking.
books and articles
Adams, James L. Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas 3rd
ed. (Perseus Press, 1990).
Alcock, J. (1995) "The
Belief Engine," Skeptical Inquirer. 19(3): 255-263.
Alcock, James E. Science and Supernature : a Critical Appraisal of
Parapsychology (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).
Ariely, Dan. (2008).
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (HarperCollins).
Snake Oil Science: The Truth
about Complementary and Alternative Medicine
M. Neil & Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to
Critical Thinking (Prentice Hall, 1997).
Burton, Robert. 2008. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When
You're Not. St. Martin's Press.
Carroll, Robert Todd. Becoming a Critical Thinker - A Guide for the New
Millennium (Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2000).
Chabris, Christopher and Daniel
The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us.
T. Edward. Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to
Fallacy-Free Arguments 4th edition (Wadsworth Pub Co, 2001).
Dawes, Robyn M. Everyday Irrationality: How Pseudo-Scientists, Lunatics,
and the Rest of Us Systematically Fail to Think Rationally (Westview
Geoffrey and Ivan Kelly. "Is Astrology Relevant to Consciousness and Psi?
Journal of Consciousness Studies. Volume 10, No. 6-7, June-July 2003.
Dean, Geoffrey, Ivan W. Kelly, and Arthur Mather. "Undeceiving Ourselves,"
The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, eds. Michael Shermer
and Pat Linse (ABC-CLIO 2002).
Frazier, Kendrick, ed. Paranormal Borderlands of Science (Amherst,
N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).
Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York:
Dover Publications, Inc., 1957),
Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus
(Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981).
Giere, Ronald, Understanding Scientific Reasoning, 4th ed, (New
York, Holt Rinehart, Winston: 1998).
Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of
Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993).
Groopman, Jerome. M.D. 2007. How Doctors Think. Houghton Mifflin.
My review of this book is
Hall, Harriet A. "Wired to the Kitchen Sink - Studying Weird Claims for Fun
and Profit," Skeptical Inquirer. May/June 2003.
Hines, Terence. "A Clear, Sharp View of the Fuzzy Inkblot
Test," Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2003. (A review of
What's Wrong with the Rorschach? by James M. Wood, M. Teresa
Nezworski, Scott O. Lilienfeld, and Howard N. Garb (Jossey-Bass 2003).
Hines, Terence. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books,
Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry : a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical
Research (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).
Hyman Ray. "Why and When Are Smart People Stupid?" in
Kahneman, Daniel. Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. eds. 1982.
Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases Cambridge University
Howard. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday
Life, 8th edition (Wadsworth, 1997).
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kindle 2011) . Book review.
Kida, Thomas. 2006. Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic
Mistakes We Make in Thinking. Prometheus.
Kourany, Janet A. Scientific
Knowledge: Basic Issues in the Philosophy of Science, 2nd edition (Belmont:
Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1998).
Levine, Robert. 2003. The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and
Sold. John Wiley & Sons.
Brooke Noel. Critical Thinking
(Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000).
Neher, Andrew. The Psychology of Transcendence
Park, Robert L. Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud
(Oxford University Press, 2000).
Pickover, Clifford A. The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits : A True Medical
Mystery (Prometheus, 2000).
Randi, James. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982).
Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo,
NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark
(New York: Random House, 1995).
Schick, Jr., Theodore and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things
5th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2001),
Seckel, Al. (2006). Incredible Visual Illusions. Arcturus Publishing,
Shermer, Michael. The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense
(Oxford University Press, 2001).
Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience,
Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time 2nd revised edition
(Owl Books 2002).
Shermer, Michael. "Why Smart People Believe Weird Things," Skeptic. Vol.
10 No. 2, 2003, pp. 62-73.
Skinner, B. F.
'Superstition' in the Pigeon. Indiana University First published in Journal
of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
Stanovich, Keith E., How to Think Straight About Psychology, 5th
edition (Addison-Wesley, 1997).
Stenger, Victor J. Physics and Psychics: the Search for a World Beyond
the Senses (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).
Sternberg, Robert J. ed. Why Smart people Can Be So Stupid. (Yale
University Press 2002).
Sutherland, Stuart. (2007).
Irrationality. 2rev edition (Pinter & Martin Ltd).
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas.
2007. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House.
Van Hecke, Madeleine L. (2007). Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb
Vaughn, Lewis. 2007. The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Reasoning
About Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims. 2nd. ed. Oxford University
Vyse, Stuart A. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition
(Oxford University Press 2000).
Wiseman, Richard. Deception & Self-Deception: Investigating Psychics
(Prometheus Books, 1997).
Leonard & Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study
of Magical Thinking (Lawrence Erlbaum Association, 1990).
Unnatural Acts: A follow-up to my book Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism and Science Exposed! The blog offers irregular postings about biases, fallacies, and illusions.
A Visual Study Guide to Cognitive Biases Eric Fernandez
You're Not So Smart