Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Uniqlo jumps into in-house production with new 'made in Tokyo' line

Keiichi Furukawa

Uniqlo is rolling out Friday its first made-in-Tokyo clothing, a limited release heralding a new design process and business model for operator Fast Retailing.

              These 3D knitting machines from Shima Seiki at Uniqlo's Innovation Factory turn out fabric around the clock

The three new items, which include a 2,990 yen ($27) 3D-knit cotton crewneck sweater, will be available at a Uniqlo flagship store in central Tokyo and online.

Fast Retailing plans to produce just enough to meet customer demand -- a model made possible by the first foray into manufacturing by a company that had relied entirely on outside suppliers to make roughly 1.3 billion pieces of clothing a year.

The centerpiece of this strategy is a building in a manufacturing-heavy area of Shinonome on Tokyo Bay, with no signs outside connecting it to Fast Retailing. In this tidy space, machines from Fast Retailing partner Shima Seiki Manufacturing steadily churn out seamless knit fabric. Operating around the clock, this facility produces 1,000 pieces of fabric per day.

The plant, started up in April, is operated by Innovation Factory, a joint venture with Shima Seiki that was a subsidiary of the knitting machine maker before Fast Retailing boosted its stake late last year to 51% from 49%.

"Having a factory that we lead ourselves will enable closer cooperation between our headquarters in Ariake [in Tokyo] and production," Innovation Factory CEO Tomoya Utsuno said.

The usual development cycle for Fast Retailing products has had issues with disconnect between physically distant teams.

It starts off with planning by a team at the Ariake office, which works out numerical specifications for the new item. Once preparations for mass production get underway, the Ariake team then coordinates with the Innovation Factory, which was previously based in Wakayama, about 500 km west of Tokyo.

But such details as texture cannot be quantified, according to Fast Retailing, and changes would sometimes be needed close to the start of the production run if the item turned out differently from what the development team had envisioned.

And because of the long distance between the Ariake headquarters and the Innovation Factory in Wakayama, staff rarely went so far as to travel there to check prototypes and make adjustments in person.

"Fast Retailing wasn't involved enough, and there were issues with product launches and the like being slow to get off the ground, " Utsuno said.

Since the launch of the Shinonome facility in April, product development personnel from Ariake have visited in person once a week, according to Utsuno. The shorter distance makes it easier to coordinate, improving communication between the teams. Fast Retailing looks to cut the time from product design to preparing for mass production from three months to one month or shorter.

The plan is to make new products from the Innovation Factory available at the Tokyo flagship store for limited runs, letting Fast Retailing gauge demand.

"We'll observe consumer trends, then switch to larger-scale production overseas" if products turn out to be hits, Utsuno said. This will help the company cut down on unnecessary production and unsold inventory.

Chairman, President and CEO Tadashi Yanai has said for some time that the Shinonome facility would be a global "mother factory" for 3D-knit products.

By having the facility coordinate with the research and development division at Fast Retailing's headquarters and share information with suppliers in Vietnam and China, the company will be able to roll out products from Shinonome simultaneously outside Japan as well.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Anthropology can help us understand ourselves, our tribes, companies and communities

Margaret Heffernan

As a teenager, one of my most memorable education experiences was reading about a tribe in North America called the Nacirema. They resorted to odd oral rituals and their women baked their heads in ovens.

Most students were appalled by such barbarity, only for our teacher to reveal that the tribal name spells American backwards. We were reading about ourselves — through the eyes of an anthropologist. It was an unforgettable learning experience, leaving me with an abiding respect for outside perspectives.

I did not become an anthropologist, but Gillian Tett did. The skills she acquired studying the marriage rituals of Tajikistan gave her a way of seeing — lateral vision, asking questions, assuming nothing — that notably yielded rewards when she predicted the financial crisis of 2007-08. In her new book, Tett, an FT journalist, makes a compelling case that “anthro-vision” can help us understand ourselves, our tribes, companies and communities, and to reduce our wilful blindness.

 Tett describes how anthropology has fuelled her journalism. Open-ended curiosity, interpreting markets through their symbols and rituals, illuminated early the dangerous isolation of the financial sector and, later, the growth of ESG investing. Another Tett observation — that the tech sector was starting to look like pre-crash finance in its arrogance, wealth and isolation from reality — was just as important.

Engineers are a tribe much like bankers: isolated by power, money and a language no one else understands. They impose their values on products, which forces us to behave in highly constrained ways, undermining our autonomy.

Quoting the anthropologist Jan English-Lueck, Tett concludes that engineers have merged “useful”, “efficient” and “good” into a single moral concept — but that morality is not comprehensively shared. The techlash has been fuelled by assumptions technologists made — about voters, consumers, students and teachers — without any engagement with those communities. Why not, Tett asks, work with these groups, and understand their values and concerns, rather than against them?

We’ve been sold the myth that with enough hard data, we can know everything. But numbers can only show what is, they don’t reveal why. Soft data is what anthropology reveals: the meaning behind behaviours. In Japan, a KitKat isn’t a relaxing snack (“Have a break”), it’s a good-luck charm. In Malaysia and Singapore, a car isn’t just a machine for travelling safely; it’s also a haven of social safety that people treat quite a lot like home.

Anthropological insights don’t come from surveys but from fieldwork: directly observing and talking to people. Without such understanding, we force-fit meaning on to others, make costly mistakes and miss opportunities for knowledge, innovation and legitimacy.

So-called scientific management — using metrics to assess everything from productivity to employee mood — hasn’t prevented numerous business failures. Focus on returns raised no concerns about some reckless banks pre-2007, but the practice of awarding cash or cabbages to high or low performers would have caught an anthropologist’s eye.

After each such fiasco, culture is deemed the culprit, HR deputed to design surveys and the ensuing change programmes, which mostly fail. But companies are communities and anthropologists, whose study is the social systems of meaning, could bring more pragmatic insight. Meetings don’t carry the same expectations to different people, just as the culture on one floor of a building won’t necessarily be the same as on another. Decades of leadership and teamwork consulting have focused on retraining individuals, whereas unpacking webs of collective meaning could untangle knotted collaboration. The recommendation not to hire for cultural fit is just one of several good and possibility-rich suggestions.

With case studies and examples ranging from Google’s errors to pandemic beards, Tett explains anthropological revelations invisible to computers. I found myself thinking of other, unsolved, cases that might be cracked by thinking like an anthropologist: the toxic Home Office, the flailing Church of England or our failure to design really good education systems. Where data scientists and ideologists assert, anthropologists could reveal.

Inventing words in the hope of creating a brand has become a tiresome fad in business publishing, but “anthro-vision” is a useful way to illuminate much that can’t be seen any other way — and so are philosophy, literature and history. 

In an age obsessed with hard science, it’s becoming painfully obvious that the so-called “soft” subjects — social sciences and the humanities — have the power to reveal what otherwise remains obscure. One of the glories of Anthro-Vision is that it never argues (as many do) that its way of seeing is the only way. It’s a timely call for decision-makers to wean themselves off their dependency on big data and embrace the full complexity of human life.

Saturday, 22 May 2021

"Whites will cling to power far into the future, because it is so entrenched in the system"

Charles Clifton, a member of the executive committee of the NAACP Johnstown District

One of the best of many excellent new books about race in America is Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”

Her main thesis is that racism in America is part of a larger system of caste, with whites on the top and Blacks on the bottom, similar to India’s castes with the Brahmin caste on top and Dalits, or Untouchables, on the bottom.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited India, he was welcomed by Dalits as a fellow Untouchable, a member of America’s lowest caste. He was at first surprised and then saw the justness of this. Even after the civil rights laws of the 1960s, the injustices and inequalities of caste persist.

Wilkerson’s style is highly metaphorical, comparative and historical. She is a fine storyteller, as well as, a thinker. For her, caste is like being locked in a box with little opportunity for escape, or being manipulated as in the film “The Matrix,” or having to play a certain role in an endless play.

Because caste reduces opportunity and therefore disables talent from flourishing, everyone suffers the loss. It spreads its poison, suck as anthrax, freed from its permafrost by climate change to kill reindeer and their herdsmen, one of Wilkerson’s metaphors to indicate the endurance of caste.

In the 183Os, a French visitor to America, Alex de Tocqueville, toured the antebellum South and found that “the surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint.” The disparity between our democratic ideals and evident racism has only hardened and persisted.

Wilkerson found that in India, a Dalit may not contradict or even approach a Brahmin without absolute deference. She found similar expectations of caste in America, often in her own experience, as when a waiter provided intentionally poor service, or when a person of color is assumed because of her color to be one of the kitchen help at a conference instead of the main speaker. Her discussion of swimming pools is enlightening and alarming.

Even into the 1960s, Blacks were excluded from pools, and if a Black person jumped into one, it had to be emptied, cleaned and re-filled before whites could use it. Can you imagine?

Wilkerson makes the point that the racism of caste makes white people act and vote against their own interests.

Poor whites especially need to be above someone, and caste answers this need.

They will go against their own advantage to preserve the caste’s power, even if they have to fill the pool with concrete so that no one can swim. and they will be quick to scapegoat others, especially Blacks and nonwhite immigrants.

Hitler and his generals were great admirers of the American treatment of Blacks, and they are Wilkerson’s third instance of caste. The Nazis wondered why America had not used its very effective methods of controlling Blacks on the Jewish population.

Both slaveowners and Nazis used cruelty and dehumanization as means of control.

The Nazis especially admired American eugenicists, and their eagerness to promote the white “race.” Hitler praised America for this in “Mein Kampf.”

Albert Einstein barely escaped from Hitler’s Germany, and he immediately perceived the unjust treatment of Blacks in America. He often spoke out against it. “He hates race prejudice” said W.E. B. Du Bois, ”because as a Jew he knows what it is.”

At the end of her book, Wilkerson speculates that whites will cling to power far into the future, because it is so entrenched because of the system of caste. She says what is needed is “super-empathy”.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

This is a golden moment for policy thinkers like Minouche Shafik

Minouche Shafik greets me with the kind of upbeat disposition that most Londoners lost months ago. She waves, she smiles, she seems delighted. Aha, I think, the director of the London School of Economics is one of these overachievers who thrive in lockdown — the type who advertise unfathomable morning regimes on LinkedIn. We’ll probably be having a lunch of vitamin powders.

Shafik puts my mind at ease. Yes, this is a golden moment for policy thinkers like her: she has spent the past year finalising her vision for a new social contract, full of ideas that society could emerge stronger from the coronavirus morass. But her other virtuous lockdown intentions — bread-baking, exercise-taking — have collapsed. Her family has tired of her Ottolenghi recipes: “They say, no more!” Worse still, despite living by London Bridge for years, she hasn’t adjusted to the railway noise. “My husband and I have sought out the world’s best ear plugs.” (Beeswax, apparently.)

So Shafik is not a pandemic Pangloss; her optimism is more deep-seated. It’s a belief in progress, in education, and in wise collective action. When she was four, her family moved from Egypt to the US after much of their property was nationalised by General Nasser. Her father told her that education was the one thing that they could never take from you, so she made sure she got a good one — culminating in a doctorate in economics.

“Sometimes when things go terribly wrong, it might take you on a different path which might in the end be better,” she says. “I think I would have had a very conventional life if I had stayed in Egypt, I’ve had a more interesting one as a result.” 

She became the youngest ever vice-president of the World Bank, the top official at the UK’s Department for International Development, deputy managing director of the IMF, and deputy governor of the Bank of England. It was the technocrat’s version of a full house. 

But the Brexit vote and the rise of populism shook her. “I’d seen so much progress myself . . . The paradox for me was, why are people so frustrated and yet we’ve made all this progress?”

It’s almost a cliché in Britain to want to emulate William Beveridge’s 1942 report, which led to the creation of the NHS. Yet Brexit and coronavirus provide a sense of historic opportunity to rethink the state.

Shafik’s conclusion, strengthened by the pandemic, is that society needs to share the risks that today fall on individuals. Our social contracts — the norms around the roles played by the state, individuals and employers — have “broken under the weight of technological and demographic changes”, she writes in her book, What We Owe Each Other.

Citizens should be given an allowance for life-long retraining, and guaranteed a minimum income (though not a universal basic income). Those who care for elderly relatives should be paid.

Noise aside, there are advantages to living by London Bridge. Shafik guides me from the main entrance of the 19th century Borough Market, past the queues, to the pick of the food stalls. We buy falafel wraps, and search for a scrap of concrete to sit on. 

 It’s early spring in London, so the sun fills the sky and delicate birdsong fills our ears. Only kidding, it’s 10°C, the smell is distinctly urban, and a steward soon appears with a loudspeaker. “IN ORDER TO KEEP CONGESTION DOWN, WE ARE ASKING THAT YOU DO NOT EAT OR DRINK IN THIS LOCATION TODAY. PLEASE LEAVE THIS LOCATION.” 

I try to ignore her, but when she insists, I realise my interview could soon be with the police. Shafik and I gather our wraps, and cross London Bridge to the north bank of the Thames and a cluster of deserted benches. 

In her book, Shafik argues that: “We are increasingly living in ‘you’re on your own’ societies, a situation which gets translated into the politics of anger, an epidemic of mental health issues and both young and old fearing for their futures.”

Shafik argues a social safety net is the efficient option. The alternative is wasted talent, “lost Einsteins”. Britain’s welfare state is also less divisive than assumed: it is only one-quarter Robin Hood, transferring wealth from rich to poor. Around three-quarters is Piggy Bank, shifting money over the course of people’s lives.

“In the UK, most people put in roughly as much as they take out. The typical middle-class person may pay more tax but they also tend to live longer, so they benefit more from the NHS and pensions,” she says.

Shafik, 58, tells two stories from her childhood. The first is watching girls playing when she visited her mother’s village in Egypt. “They looked exactly like me: the same kind of hair, the same skin colour. I could easily have been them.” It was a real-life version of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and it made her focus on “the architecture of opportunity”.

The second story is from the US, after her arrival from Egypt. “We weren’t poor but it was humble.” She was bussed to school in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, as districts dealt with desegregation. “I honestly can’t remember how many schools I went to. I think it was 10. You’d just get notified by the school district. It taught me to be very self-sufficient in my learning.”

(This was the late Sixties, so teachers were experimenting too. When her class in Miami studied Inuits, “they turned up the air conditioning so we could experience what it was like to be really cold. It was completely mad!”

At school, Shafik was asked if she was black or white, and she replied: “I’m brown.” She refused to tick a box. Ideologically, she’s the same. She led DfID under both Labour and Conservative ministers. On universal basic income, she is nuanced. Automation will change work, not eliminate it. 

  “In very low-income countries, delivering cash to everyone — especially when most people are poor so what’s the point of targeting — is a good thing. But in a country that has a welfare state and is able to target, you either end up giving people small amounts that don’t make any difference, or you have to raise the tax rate by 20 per cent to cycle all this money through the state, and give it to people who don’t need it.” 

Overall her proposed social contract would require the tax take in the UK to increase by a few percentage points of GDP. That puts her on the left, doesn’t it? “You want to put me in a box, I can feel it!” she objects, with a sharp laugh.

Countries don’t just pick left or right — they make sets of choices, Shafik argues. “Take Singapore. Everyone holds up Singapore as this free-market nirvana. Eighty per cent of the population lives in public housing! And you get assigned so that each building has an ethnic mix!”

 The UK could fund social care through insurance, like Germany and Japan, or state funding, preferred by the left. “But at the moment, we haven’t made any choice and we’re in this horrible position where a lot of elderly people are not being cared for adequately.”

Where does she depart from consensus? “On corporate social responsibility, I think the voluntary approach isn’t good enough . . . We need a carbon tax! It’s so much simpler, it’s so much more efficient.”

I have romped through my wrap: falafel tastes so healthy when you haven’t seen it being fried. Shafik is mid-mouthful when I see a stream of the “velvety” tahini roll down her black coat. I promise that the FT’s hospitality extends to dry cleaning, with the same confidence that Boris Johnson promises that he has a social care plan. 

I ask how Shafik views the prime minister’s plans for “levelling up” the UK. Infrastructure projects are good, she says, but “if you really care about levelling up, you would also look at things like early years. The first 1,000 days for a child — if they don’t get good nutrition and good mental stimulation, they’ll never catch up.” Decentralising spending powers, as Germany does, would also help more than relocating central government offices. “Local people will know where their comparative advantage is.”

Good policy is not necessarily good politics. “Particularly in advanced economies, old people are a problem because they block reforms to things like pension ages,” Shafik says. 

Her first response is to use grand bargains — for example, raise the pension age at the same time you fix social care. But she also wants changes to democracy. “There is a need for renewal. I’d start by looking at digital voting, so you get more participation by young people. Estonia has done it now for years, and it seems to work . . . We have to do something to redress the gerontocracy of our political system . . . I say this because I consider myself an old person!”

Another idea is citizens’ assemblies, as used in Ireland before its abortion referendum. “Before having a Scottish referendum, wouldn’t you want to have a citizens’ assembly where all the evidence was brought forward?”

This goes against Dominic Cummings’ view that the real problems are the civil servants, who aren’t accountable or specialised. “I was bloody specialised! . . . I had to go through many, many parliamentary committees. I was being held to account all the time.” She would encourage the “permeability” of the civil service — “people going in and out” — but keep its promotion by merit: “I don’t believe we need more political appointees.” 

Shafik tidies her rubbish into the bin. Those who have worked with her praise her ability to keep people onside. One compares her to “a really good conjurer — you can’t see how she does it.” How would she describe her management style? “I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. And I do make a big effort to listen.” Later she emails a favourite quote attributed to Taoist thinker Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists . . . [O]f a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” 

Shafik’s book laments the child penalty: in Germany, 10 years after having her first child, a woman’s income will be 61 per cent lower on average than it was before; a man’s will be virtually unaffected. Even in progressive Denmark, the drop in women’s income is 21 per cent. “Isn’t it amazing?”

How did she avoid paying this child penalty, after having twins while working at the World Bank? “I don’t know if I didn’t pay one, because I don’t know what my male colleagues were paid.” When she looked to move jobs, she was told she “could just work part-time because of your husband”.

Her husband, Raffael, is a scientist, pioneering algae as food. (The taste is like sushi wrappers, she says.) Did they agree whose career mattered more? “No . . . Part of the social contract is within the family . . . I do the cooking, he does the laundry, because he’s better at the laundry than I am. He followed me to Washington, I came back to London partly for him.” 

Her preferred metaphor is not the glass ceiling, which suggests you only need to smash it once, but a sticky door. “I found the doors were stickier when I was younger. I had more sexist comments, being talked over . . . The more power you have, the less of a problem it is.” 

Economics remains very male. “The IMF, the Bank of England: mainly economists, very male. When I was at the IMF, it helped that Christine [Lagarde] was there.” The FT reported that Shafik had a difficult time with her boss at the Bank, then governor Mark Carney. Is that why she left after just half her five-year term? “No, no. I got a fantastic offer from the LSE.” She didn’t get this far without diplomacy.

She was tipped to be the Bank’s first female governor last year, but either her politics or her perceived lack of monetary policy experience ruled her out. She insists she didn’t apply. 

The cold is biting, and we walk back over London Bridge. Shafik is also a trustee of the British Museum. Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests raised the issue of returning artefacts taken in the colonial era. Will the Benin Bronzes go back to Nigeria? “I think there are active discussions about how to support the exhibition of Benin’s history in [Nigeria].” But she insists: “The British Museum is a museum of the world for the world. It also lends more than any other museum in the world.” 

Does she query why so many Egyptian works are housed in Bloomsbury? She dead-bats. “Egypt is very blessed to have a lot of treasures. I actually think that people who see the Egyptian collection at the British Museum — it makes them want to go to Egypt.”

At LSE, the problem is donations. Her predecessor-but-one, Howard Davies, resigned after accepting money from a Gaddafi family foundation. Does Shafik say no to shady donors? “Sure.” States or rich individuals? “It can be both.” How easy is it? “It’s very easy . . . You deal with it early, before conversations get advanced. So you don’t ever have to say ‘no’, you don’t pursue.” Even so, in 2019 the university suspended a China programme backed by a pro-Beijing investor, after staff complaints.

Meanwhile students are accused of not supporting free speech. “We’ve had controversial speakers and it’s been fine.” Could Jordan Peterson speak at LSE? “Remind me who he is?” she replies. It’s a long story, I say. 

A few politicians argue too many people are going to university; one 2010 study said that “overproduction” of graduates might produce political unrest in the west. “I don’t buy that . . . The rate of return to education is still incredibly high.” The demand is too: LSE’s admissions for next year are up, despite coronavirus.

What hope is there for young people like her children, whose mental health has been hit hardest by lockdown, and who, if past experience of crashes holds true, face a life-long hit to their earnings? Education, of course. “They’re going to pay our pensions and healthcare bills, and unless they’re super-educated and super-productive, we’re all going to be worse off. We also need to sort out the environment.”

Like all Shafik’s opinions, it comes firmly, but calmly. Is she the last person left who doesn’t do outrage? How does she stay so measured? 

“Policy matters so much,” she laughs. “One of my first jobs, we were working on how could Egypt ever export fresh fruit and vegetables to Europe. It seemed an impossible problem, because Europeans want their fruit and veg in a certain way, and you needed a cold chain, and you had to deliver in these very specific seasonal windows. 

“Before I came here to meet you, I opened up my fridge, because I was checking if I needed anything from the market. The mangetout and the broccoli had come from Egypt. They did it!” 

 She disappears into the crowd, smiling. On my bike ride home, I run into a protest against lockdown. A man wears a T-shirt inviting doctors to stick his vaccine up his backside. And I remember that sometimes it doesn’t matter how good your policies are: politics gets in the way.

Monday, 5 April 2021

We are not quite as rational as we think

Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University

To say that facts are less important than feelings in shaping our beliefs about empirical matters seems new, at least in American politics. In the past we have faced serious challenges — even to the notion of truth itself — but never before have such challenges been so openly embraced as a strategy for the political subordination of reality, which is how I define “post-truth.” Here, “post” is meant to indicate not so much the idea that we are “past” truth in a temporal sense (as in “postwar”) but in the sense that truth has been eclipsed by less important matters like ideology.

One of the deepest roots of post-truth has been with us the longest, for it has been wired into our brains over the history of human evolution: cognitive bias. Psychologists for decades have been performing experiments that show that we are not quite as rational as we think. Some of this work bears directly on how we react in the face of unexpected or uncomfortable truths.

A central concept of human psychology is that we strive to avoid psychic discomfort. It is not a pleasant thing to think badly of oneself. Some psychologists call this “ego defense” (after Freudian theory), but whether we frame it within this paradigm or not, the concept is clear. It just feels better for us to think that we are smart, well-informed, capable people than that we are not. What happens when we are confronted with information that suggests that something we believe is untrue? It creates psychological tension. How could I be an intelligent person yet believe a falsehood? Only the strongest egos can stand up very long under a withering assault of self-criticism: “What a fool I was! The answer was right there in front of me the whole time, but I never bothered to look. I must be an idiot.” So the tension is often resolved by changing one of one’s beliefs.

It matters a great deal, however, which beliefs change. One would like to think that it should always be the belief that was shown to be mistaken. If we are wrong about a question of empirical reality — and we are finally confronted by the evidence — it would seem easiest to bring our beliefs back into harmony by changing the one that we now have good reason to doubt. But this is not always what happens. There are many ways to adjust a belief set, some rational and some not.

Three Classic Findings from Social Psychology

In 1957, Leon Festinger published his pioneering book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” in which he offered the idea that we seek harmony between our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, and experience psychic discomfort when they are out of balance. In seeking resolution, our primary goal is to preserve our sense of self-value.

In a typical experiment, Festinger gave subjects an extremely boring task, for which some were paid $1 and some were paid $20. After completing the task, subjects were requested to tell the person who would perform the task after them that it was enjoyable. Festinger found that subjects who had been paid $1 reported the task to be much more enjoyable than those who had been paid $20. Why? Because their ego was at stake. What kind of person would do a meaningless, useless task for just a dollar unless it was actually enjoyable? To reduce the dissonance, they altered their belief that the task had been boring (whereas those who were paid $20 were under no illusion as to why they had done it). In another experiment, Festinger had subjects hold protest signs for causes they did not actually believe in. Surprise! After doing so, subjects began to feel that the cause was actually a bit more worthy than they had initially thought.

To one degree or another, all of us suffer from cognitive dissonance.

But what happens when we have much more invested than just performing a boring task or holding a sign? What if we have taken a public stand on something, or even devoted our life to it, only to find out later that we’ve been duped? Festinger analyzed just this phenomenon in a book called “The Doomsday Cult,” in which he reported on the activities of a group called The Seekers, who believed that their leader, Dorothy Martin, could transcribe messages from space aliens who were coming to rescue them before the world ended on December 21, 1954. After selling all of their possessions, they waited on top of a mountain, only to find that the aliens never showed up (and of course the world never ended). The cognitive dissonance must have been tremendous. How did they resolve it? Dorothy Martin soon greeted them with a new message: Their faith and prayers had been so powerful that the aliens had decided to call off their plans. The Seekers had saved the world!

From the outside, it is easy to dismiss these as the beliefs of gullible fools, yet in further experimental work by Festinger and others it was shown that — to one degree or another — all of us suffer from cognitive dissonance. When we join a health club that is too far away, we may justify the purchase by telling our friends that the workouts are so intense we only need to go once a week; when we fail to get the grade we’d like in organic chemistry, we tell ourselves that we didn’t really didn’t want to go to medical school anyway. But there is another aspect of cognitive dissonance that should not be underestimated, which is that such “irrational” tendencies tend to be reinforced when we are surrounded by others who believe the same thing we do. If just one person had believed in the “doomsday cult” perhaps he or she would have committed suicide or gone into hiding. But when a mistaken belief is shared by others, sometimes even the most incredible errors can be rationalized.

In his path-breaking 1955 paper “Opinions and Social Pressure,” Solomon Asch demonstrated that there is a social aspect to belief, such that we may discount even the evidence of our own senses if we think that our beliefs are not in harmony with those around us. In short, peer pressure works. Just as we seek to have harmony within our own beliefs, we also seek harmony with the beliefs of those around us.

In his experiment, Asch assembled seven to nine subjects, all of whom but one were “confederates” (i.e., they were “in on” the deception that would occur in the experiment). The one who was not “in on it” was the sole experimental subject, who was always placed at the last seat at the table. The experiment involved showing the subjects a card with a line on it, then another card with three lines on it, one of which was identical in length to the one on the other card. The other two lines on the second card were “substantially different” in length. The experimenter then went around the group and asked each subject to report aloud which of the three lines on the second card were equal in length to the line on the first card. For the first few trials, the confederates reported accurately and the experimental subject of course agreed with them. But then things got interesting. The confederates began to unanimously report that one of the obviously false choices was in fact equal to the length of the line on the first card. By the time the question came to the experimental subject, there was obvious psychic tension. As Asch describes it:

He is placed in a position in which, while he is actually giving the correct answers, he finds himself unexpectedly in a minority of one, opposed by a unanimous and arbitrary majority with respect to a clear and simple fact. Upon him we have brought to bear two opposed forces: the evidence of his senses and the unanimous opinion of a group of his peers.

Before announcing their answer, virtually all dissonance-primed subjects looked surprised, even incredulous. But then a funny thing happened. Thirty-seven percent of them yielded to the majority opinion. They discounted what they could see right in front of them in order to remain in conformity with the group.

Another piece of key experimental work on human irrationality was done in 1960 by Peter Cathcart Wason. In his paper “On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task,” Wason took the first in a number of steps to identify logical and other conceptual mistakes that humans routinely make in reasoning. In this first paper, he introduced (and later named) an idea that nearly everyone in the post-truth debate has likely heard of: confirmation bias.

Wason’s experimental design was elegant. He gave 29 college students a cognitive task whereby they would be called on to “discover a rule” based on empirical evidence. Wason presented the subjects with a three-number series such as 2, 4, 6, and said that their task would be to try to discover the rule that had been used in generating it. Subjects were requested to write down their own set of three numbers, after which the experimenter would say whether their numbers conformed to the rule or not. Subjects could repeat this task as many times as they wished, but were instructed to try to discover the rule in as few trials as possible. No restrictions were placed on the sorts of numbers that could be proposed. When they felt ready, subjects could propose their rule.

The results were shocking. Out of 29 very intelligent subjects, only six of them proposed the correct rule without any previous incorrect guesses. Thirteen proposed one incorrect rule and nine proposed two or more incorrect rules. One subject was unable to propose any rule at all. What happened?

As Wason reports, the subjects who failed at the task seemed unwilling to propose any set of numbers that tested the accuracy of their hypothesized rule and instead proposed only those that would confirm it. For instance, given the series 2, 4, 6, many subjects first wrote down 8, 10, 12, and were told “yes, this follows the rule.” But then some just kept going with even numbers in ascending order by two. Rather than use their chance to see whether their intuitive rule of “increase by intervals of two” was incorrect, they continued to propose only confirming instances. When these subjects announced their rule they were shocked to learn that it was incorrect, even though they had never tested it with any disconfirming instances.

When a mistaken belief is shared by others, sometimes even the most incredible errors can be rationalized.

After this, 13 subjects began to test their hypotheses and eventually arrived at the correct answer, which was “any three numbers in ascending order.” Once they had broken out of their “confirming” mindset, they were willing to entertain the idea that there might be more than one way to get the original series of numbers. This cannot explain, however, the nine subjects who gave two or more incorrect rules, for they were given ample evidence that their proposal was incorrect, but still could not find the right answer. Why didn’t they guess 9, 7, 5? Here Wason speculates that “they might not have known how to attempt to falsify a rule by themselves; or they might have known how to do it, but still found it simpler, more certain or more reassuring to get a straight answer from the experimenter.” In other words, at this point their cognitive bias had a firm hold on them, and they could only flail for the right answer.

All three of these experimental results — (1) cognitive dissonance, (2) social conformity, and (3) confirmation bias — are obviously relevant to post-truth, whereby so many people seem prone to form their beliefs outside the norms of reason and good standards of evidence, in favor of accommodating their own intuitions or those of their peers.

Yet post-truth did not arise in the 1950s or even the 1960s. It awaited the perfect storm of a few other factors like extreme partisan bias and social media “silos” that arose in the early 2000s. And in the meantime, further stunning evidence of cognitive bias — in particular the “backfire effect” and the “Dunning–Kruger effect,” both of which are rooted in the idea that what we hope to be true may color our perception of what actually is true — continued to come to light.

Implications for Post-Truth

In the past, perhaps our cognitive biases were ameliorated by our interactions with others. It is ironic to think that in today’s media deluge, we could perhaps be more isolated from contrary opinion than when our ancestors were forced to live and work among other members of their tribe, village, or community, who had to interact with one another to get information. When we are talking to one another, we can’t help but be exposed to a diversity of views. And there is even empirical work that shows the value that this can have for our reasoning.

In his book “Infotopia,” Cass Sunstein has discussed the idea that when individuals interact they can sometimes reach a result that would have eluded them if each had acted alone. Call this the “whole is more than the sum of its parts” effect. Sunstein calls it the “interactive group effect.”

When we open our ideas up to group scrutiny, this affords us the best chance of finding the right answer.

In one study, J. C. Wason and colleagues brought a group of subjects together to solve a logic puzzle. It was a hard one, and few of the subjects could do it on their own. But when the problem was later turned over to a group to solve, an interesting thing happened. People began to question one another’s reasoning and think of things that were wrong with their hypotheses, to a degree they seemed incapable of doing with their own ideas. As a result, researchers found that in a significant number of cases a group could solve the problem even when none of its members alone could do so. (It is important to note that this was not due to the “smartest person in the room” phenomenon, where one person figured it out and told the group the answer. Also, it was not the mere “wisdom of crowds” effect, which relies on passive majority opinion. The effect was found only when group members interacted with one another.)

For Sunstein, this is key. Groups outperform individuals. And interactive, deliberative groups outperform passive ones. When we open our ideas up to group scrutiny, this affords us the best chance of finding the right answer. And when we are looking for the truth, critical thinking, skepticism, and subjecting our ideas to the scrutiny of others works better than anything else.

Yet these days we have the luxury of choosing our own selective interactions. Whatever our political persuasion, we can live in a “news silo” if we care to. If we don’t like someone’s comments, we can unfriend him or hide him on Facebook. If we want to gorge on conspiracy theories, there is probably a radio station for us. These days more than ever, we can surround ourselves with people who already agree with us. And once we have done this, isn’t there going to be further pressure to trim our opinions to fit the group?

Solomon Asch’s work has already shown that this is possible. If we are a liberal we will probably feel uncomfortable if we agree with most of our friends on immigration, gay marriage, and taxes, but are not so sure about gun control. If so, we will probably pay a social price that may alter our opinions. To the extent that this occurs not as a result of critical interaction but rather a desire not to offend our friends, this is likely not to be a good thing. Call it the dark side of the interactive group effect, which any of us who has ever served on a jury can probably describe: we just feel more comfortable when our views are in step with those of our compatriots. But what happens when our compatriots are wrong? Whether liberal or conservative, none of us has a monopoly on the truth.

I am not here suggesting that we embrace false equivalence, or that the truth probably lies somewhere between political ideologies. The halfway point between truth and error is still error. But I am suggesting that at some level all ideologies are an enemy of the process by which truth is discovered. Perhaps researchers are right that liberals have a greater “need for cognition” than conservatives, but that does not mean liberals should be smug or believe that their political instincts are a proxy for factual evidence. In the work of Festinger, Asch, and others, we can see the dangers of ideological conformity. The result is that we all have a built-in cognitive bias to agree with what others around us believe, even if the evidence before our eyes tells us otherwise. At some level we all value group acceptance, sometimes even over reality itself. But if we care about truth, we must fight against this. Why? Because cognitive biases are the perfect precursor for post-truth.

If we are already motivated to want to believe certain things, it doesn’t take much to tip us over to believing them, especially if others we care about already do so. Our inherent cognitive biases make us ripe for manipulation and exploitation by those who have an agenda to push, especially if they can discredit all other sources of information. Just as there is no escape from cognitive bias, a news silo is no defense against post-truth. For the danger is that at some level they are connected. We are all beholden to our sources of information. But we are especially vulnerable when they tell us exactly what we want to hear.