Jul 31, 2017

Expanding the Reality Distortion Field (RDF)

What if most of the things we think are real are actually distorted by manipulators?

My experiences in the infomercial industry first made me think about this. Once I learned the psychological tricks used in direct selling, I realized they weren't restricted to the peddlers of TV products. I began seeing the techniques everywhere. Later, I read books such as Influence and Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini and found proof I wasn't crazy. Professor Cialdini has studied and cataloged these "weapons of influence," which he shows are widely used by "compliance practitioners" of all types.

"The historic focus in moral and political philosophy has been on coercive influence — specifically, if, when, and why it is permissible. Far less attention, however, has been paid to a subtler but perhaps more pervasive type of influence, namely manipulation," write Christian Coons and Michael Weber in Manipulation: Theory and Practice. "Manipulation manifests itself in many aspects of life: in advertising, politics, and in both professional and intimate relations."

In private conversations, I call this my "everything is a scam" theory. I sometimes excoriate my friends and family for becoming "marketing victims." Like Jabba losing it over his lieutenant being Jedi mind-tricked by Luke Skywalker, I want to yell: "You weak-minded fool!" Which leads me to my first point: What's more interesting than the ubiquity of attempts to manipulate is how often and thoroughly those attempts succeed.

People don't just fall victim to short-term mind tricks. They often end up completely mind-controlled to the point where their perception of reality is altered. An example would be anyone who identifies strongly as a member of a political party. Once someone (not in politics) starts talking about 'Republicans this' or 'Democrats that,' it becomes plain their mind is no longer their own. Of course, most of us are victims at some level when it comes to politics. More on this in a moment ...

Recently, I was reminded of a concept that, if expanded, could be used to identify and warn people about this human exploit. There aren't enough hard-core Star Wars geeks for "Jedi mind trick" to catch on, and people probably wouldn't take it seriously, anyway. But as it happens, sci-if has given us another term that is already in the mainstream: the "Reality Distortion Field" (RDF).

According to Wikipedia, the concept was borrowed from an episode of the original Star Trek series (The Menagerie), coined by a guy named Bud Tribble (coincidence?) and expanded by his colleague Andy Hertzfeld. The two executives worked under Steve Jobs at Apple and used the term to describe their leader's uncanny ability to get people "to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence."

Hertzfeld used the RDF term in a mostly positive way to laud Jobs' ability to "distort an audience's sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible." However, internally, the term was sometimes used as a lament. "In his presence, reality is malleable," Tribble once told a co-worker. "He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he's not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules."

The co-worker added: "The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently."

Outside critics and chroniclers have been even harsher. "One way to look at Jobs’ life is that he was a liar and a con man with a gift for design," Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote in a blog post about the RDF. "According to [Walter] Isaacson’s reporting, Jobs had no love for truth ... [He] learned how to lie, cajole, manipulate, and charm until people believed whatever he wanted them to believe."

Adams is on to something. While positive emotions (liking/love, passion, confidence, compassion) are certainly potent field generators, negative emotions (hate, anger, fear, greed) seem likely to generate even more powerful fields.

Over time, the RDF has come to be associated with other charismatic figures in business (Elon Musk) and politics (Bill Clinton, Donald Trump). Writing for Tim Ferris's blog, Michael Ellsberg claims "Clinton is known for an RDF even stronger than Jobs ... Perhaps the strongest in the world."

It seems, then, that the RDF concept is specific to personalities. But I'd like to argue for an expanded definition. Going beyond individuals, it seems to me that groups generate RDFs as well. Just like larger objects in space generate stronger gravitational fields, it would follow that larger groups would tend to generate especially strong distortion fields due to peer pressure, groupthink, echo-chamber effects and other consequences of putting people with shared biases together in a bubble. As Adams has suggested elsewhere, these powerful fields would effectively warp reality around the group, creating shared hallucinations.

Returning to politics, this seems like a good way to explain the current state of affairs. There is reality, and then there is the distorted reality being generated around the groups that are in opposition to each other. The labels "Republican" and "Democrat" don't even begin to identify the many groups and RDFs involved. The fields overlap and also run into each other, creating further distortion in their wake. Most people are firmly caught within these fields and mind-controlled to the point where they can no longer perceive undistorted reality. What's even more frightening is the realization none of us can be entirely sure we're not caught in an RDF when thinking about politics.

A case in point: There once was a group of people who believed that President Barack Obama was not born in the US and that this secret, once exposed, would remove him from office. Although this distorted reality had the clear hallmarks of a hallucination — such deus ex machina plot devices only exist in fiction — many people were captivated by it (including the current president).

To my earlier point, when we consider all of the negative emotions around election losses this should not be surprising. When humans strongly wish something would happen to undo what has been done, we are primed for that wish to be "fulfilled" by manipulators. It doesn't take much, either. A lot of the work is done by our tendency toward confirmation bias and post-rationalization.

The RDF around this particular conspiracy group (so-called "birthers") was dispelled when President Obama proved he was born in Hawaii. Although that case should have taught us something, it hasn't. An even larger and stronger RDF has formed around a new conspiracy group that believes a deus ex machina, in the form of evidence of collusion with Russia, will remove President Donald Trump from office. The motivation of the mind manipulators is even clearer in this case, and yet the RDF persists.

Incontrovertible proof seems to be the only way to dispel an RDF — although time can weaken it. My perception is that fewer and fewer people believed the "birther" conspiracy as time went on because hard evidence did not emerge and counter-manipulators successfully branded it a racist/extremist belief. Then came the coup de grâce of hard counter-evidence. Something similar will no doubt happen with the Russia conspiracy as solid supporting evidence does not materialize and counter-manipulators make the idea sound more and more fringe.

Yet I wonder if increasing awareness of RDFs (i.e. my expanded definition of them) might also help, here and elsewhere. After all, telling someone "you may be caught in an RDF" sounds a lot better than: "You weak-minded fool!"