3 books from Tom Stafford

17.19, Wednesday 8 Jul 2020 Link to this post

Tom Stafford and I wrote Mind Hacks together, back in the day. (Boasting moment: Mind Hacks ended up getting translated into Japanese, Korean, Greek, Polish, Italian, and Finnish, which still astounds me. Hey, well done us!)

I’ve been reading his newsletter, Reasonable People, which is all about the psychology of persuasion and rational argument. Subscribe/read it here. And I feel this topic is super relevant rn given the polarisation of opinion on many axes in society, and the paradox that

  • the drip-drip of extremist messages seems to be radicalising regular people very effectively, so minds are definitely amenable to change over time;
  • YET try to get people to change or even moderate their position on something like left/right, gun/no-guns, Leave/Remain, or something even more emotive, and minds seem more fixed than ever.

Which means I feel like I understand nothing, so I want to learn more.

What I did is ask Tom for a reading list: 3 books to give me a grounding in the psychology of persuasion.

I’ll ask him to introduce himself first…


Hey Tom, tell us what you do?

I work as a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield. That mostly means I teach and research the basic mechanisms of learning and decision making, using experiments or analysing large observational data sets. I’ve got a side gig in trying to write about how psychology works, as a discipline, for a general audience. Recently I’ve been writing about the science of persuasion, argument and rationality for my newsletter.

Find Tom on Twitter as @tomstafford.

Read on for his three books…

#1. Influence: Science and Practice, Robert Cialdini

There’s a tendency in psychology research to emphasise the quirks – the extraneous or small factors which influence us when they shouldn’t. I had an epiphany when I realised that the engine of this type of research is actually baked into the model of science which we follow: hold everything constant except one factor, run experiments to test how variation of that factor affects the outcome. For experiments on persuasion this means making the effect of rational argument - which is the same in all experimental conditions - invisible, and highlighting the effect of non-rational factors. This book is a great example of where that whole programme of research can lead you.

Influence: Science and Practice: Google Books / Wikipedia

#2. The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer

A counter-blast to the tradition in psychology which de-emphasises rationality. Includes an intoxicating account of how reason, once established, has its own internal dynamic – ideas generate new ideas; we’re driven to some conclusions regardless of what we originally intended or wanted. We adopt reason as a tool but, Singer argues, “Reason is no mere slave”.

The Expanding Circle: Google Books / Wikipedia

#3. The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

This is the book which really started me on my current trip thinking about rationality. It is an apex example of how you do philosophy incorporating insights from evolution and experimental psychology, and it triggered a gestalt switch in how I thought about reasoning. Reading it made me realise how I’d been following the tradition in psychology which emphasised irrational factors over the rational, and which pushed the view that these quirks, biases and limitations are an overwhelming problem for our self-image as rational individuals. Mercier & Sperber don’t argue these irrational factors away, they show that there’s another, better, way of looking at them, one which considers reason as a property of interactions between individuals. Not only does this give you a whole, new, and productive, way of looking at the old evidence, it also create more space for optimism about our human capacity reasonableness.

The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding: Google Books


Can I just say that I am in love with the term gestalt switch.

Cheers Tom!

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