Illustration for article titled This creepy psychological technique will sabotage anyones self-esteem

Want to change someone's mind while pretending to encourage them? All you need to do is set a high standard for something and give them a little time. Even if they reach your standards, they've already self-sabotaged.


Welcome to another little guide to practical evil. Today, we'll show you how the "availability heuristic" can be used to destroy someone's life. A heuristic is a sort of mental rule of thumb that people use when they don't have time or desire to do exhaustive research. The availability heuristic shows that, lacking complete information, people will form an opinion based on information that comes easily to mind. For example, if there are a lot of financial scandals making headlines, people will say that there's an uptick of white-collar crime, even if the overall rate is the same. Ask if there are more words that have "w" as the first letter or "h" as the second letter, they'll say there are more words with w as the first letter because we're better at retrieving words based on their first letter than their second letter. It's the mental difficulty, or ease, that determines their opinion.

Naturally, psychologists figured out a way to turn this heuristic to evil. A team led by psychologist Norbert Schwarz decided to crush people's self-confidence by asking them to list a few example of themselves being assertive, and then asking them to rate whether or not they were an assertive person. It turned out the difference in whether a person thought they were assertive or passive lay in the amount of examples requested of them. Those who were asked to list six examples did so easily and generally thought they were assertive. Those who were asked to list twelve examples had to struggle, but eventually came up with twelve examples. They had twice the number of reasons to think of themselves as assertive, and but they considered themselves relatively meek. It wasn't the number of examples that they based their self-estimate on, it was the struggle to think of examples.


It turns out that this mind trickery works when people are evaluating anything. Ask a person to think of a lot of reasons to change jobs, propose to their significant other, or buy a house. Although they'll complete the list, they'll be less likely to think it's a good idea than someone who came up with only a few reasons but came up with them easily. People will think that if they have that much trouble thinking up reasons, it can't be a good idea. And bingo - instant villainous mind control.

[Via Ease of Retrieval as Information: Another Look at the Availability Heuristic]

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