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
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
new 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
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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