How to deal with mean people: use their brains against them

This morning I read this great post from James Altrucher in which he describes dealing with crappy people. 

He's entertaining, as always, but also struck a chord with me because I got into it recently on an internet forum. Some people said some crappy, wrong, mean things about my new baby, Blogmutt. I let them get to me. James describes exactly what happened to me:

I got into the mud and played with pigs.

As I mentioned in the article, “How to Deal with Crappy People” and “The Crappy People FAQ”when you get into the mud with pigs, you get dirty and the pigs get happy.

So I got very dirty. What does that mean? Did I really get mud on me?

No, I got a ton of bad energy on me. All over the Internet people spew their negativity. I want to be positive. You can’t be positive if you are around negative people all the time.

But I also realized something even more interesting about the way that I made the mean people act crappy. I pretty much told them to do it. Here's how:

I started off this particular forum saying something like, "You may hate this idea, but let's talk about it." It's an idea I have to admit that I completely stole that from Scott Adams, the Dilbert guy, when he wrote about ways to tax the rich. That technique works really well in person, or in the pages of the Wall St. Journal if written by a fabulously witty guy.

It does not work well on the internet because it basically invites people to hate the idea and the one who presented the idea.

So in my particular case the internet commenters took that as an invitation, and started attacking. I got into the mud and started defending. Mud everywhere. Ugly.

I then took what I thought was a good healthy step back, and said that the forum was degrading in a way that was much like the scene from West Wing when Josh Lyman gets attacked.


I pointed out that the clip makes the people on the internet look bad, but it made Josh look even worse, and so I apologized for my part in the debate going downhill, and thought that after that brilliant move the folks on this forum would realize their own modest mistakes and we could elevate the conversation.


Instead the worst offenders on that particular forum started acting MORE like the "mumu-wearing Parliament-chain-smoking leader" and tried to enact more control and make everyone more riled up.

The really amazing thing was that I still didn't learn the lesson. 

I kept mucking about in the mud. I tried to walk away, disengage some, and I did, but it kept bubbling up and after a couple of weeks, in a weak moment, I went in and described the mud-slingers as acting like Charlie Sheen. I said that they had gone completely round the bend, and then declared themselves "Winning!"

I don't know why I thought that would help. It didn't. It only made them act that much more bizarre.


Then, finally, I figured it out, and it kills me that I didn't figure it out earlier.

I was telling them what to do.

I was implanting instructions for how to behave into their brains, and didn't even know that I was doing it.

I should have, and here's why:

In a previous life, I was a writer and then for a time I was a writing consultant. Also, I've been fascinated by the modern advances in understanding how the brain works.

Those two things came together when I would use a part of the two-day intensive class that I taught about writing, and talk about the idea of anchoring.

In short, it's absurdly easy to get someone to latch on to a concept. You just have to implant it, and it's not all that hard to do it.

Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide has this example: Take any group of people and divide them in half. Give half a piece of paper that says, "About how many people live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? Just for reference, the population of Chicago is about 3 million." Then give the other half a piece of paper that says, "About how many people live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? Just for reference, the population of Green Bay is about 100,000."

You can use those exact words. I just copied that off the handout that I used when I did this with a conference room full of people.

What happens is that the Chicago group will have an answer that averages around 1 million, and the Green Bay group will have an answer that averages around 300,000. (Correct answer, by the way, is about 600,000.)

This really works. It's shocking. It works even if you ask people immediately before if they think it will work on them and they answer no.

(By the way, I even did this for a group of employees of the US Census Bureau -- in the headquarters building in Suitland, Maryland -- with the exact same results I got everywhere else I tried it.)

So now my trick with internet forums is very simple. "Thanks for your insightful opinions!" 

And if you'd like to comment on this post, well, you can't. Sorry. I just don't have time to engage "the internet" here, but you are welcome to make some insightful opinions on Twitter or Facebook or whatever. I'm sure they will add a positive contribution to the conversation.

(See what I did there?)

Must Pop Topics! (Or, Why I Can Write Lots About Google Wave, and Not Much About the Rest of the World)

There's a game I just discovered from the excellent game collection over at Good Experience called Must Pop Words.

The idea is that a bunch of letters in balls float down to the bottom of a window, and you have to type words from those letters. At first they float slowly, and then they speed up. If you get to 50 balls, you lose. As Mark Hurst describes it, it's a combination of Tetris and Boggle.

The interesting thing is that I do much better when there are only a few balls, around seven or so. Once I get up to 35 or more balls it gets really hard. You would think it would be the opposite because there are geometrically more words that would be available with 35 letters.

I just finished reading How We Decide, the excellent book that draws in all the latest in neuroscience to help understand how the brain works, especially when it comes to making decisions.

One of the experiments that the author reviewed had to do with choosing a car. I don't have it in front of me, so I'm probably going to butcher this, but I think it went like this: 

Some subjects were asked to pick the best car, and they were given four variables for each of four cars. Some of them were asked to study the grid, and then announce what they thought was the best car. Some others were distracted after studying the list, and then were asked in the midst of distraction for the best choice, just using "gut instinct." 

The group that was not distracted picked the best car based on the four variables. Makes sense.

Then, a different group was asked to study a list of four cars, but for this group there were 16 variables. Again one part of this group was asked to study the list and then without distraction they were asked to announce their pick of the best car. The other part of this group was distracted, and then had to pick using a "gut instinct." Here the results flipped. The ones who got to study picked wrong; it's just impossible to keep 16x4 things in the rational part of your head all at the same time.

The emotional part of your brain -- the one that makes the "gut instinct" kind of decisions -- can keep track in some way so the people in this section way more often picked the car that had the largest number of better variables.

Picking a car, however, is way different from trying to form a word. Our emotional brain can make good decisions, but it can't pick words out of letters. I think that is why I stumble in that game when I have more good choices.

Now, why am I writing about this game?

Because it's interesting, to be sure, but also because of something I've been experiencing this week.

In my spare time I'm writing for I started with one topic: New Technology. Then I wrote so many articles in that section about Google Wave, that with the help and encouragement of an old friend over at, I ended up starting a whole section devoted to Google Wave News.

Writing about Google Wave I have been unusually prolific, especially since I do most of my writing before breakfast.

But about "New Technology" my production has slipped. A lot.

I think it's because it's like the ball thing. With Wave there is plenty to write about, but really the choices are somewhat limited for a newfangled kind of a communication tool that's been used by, maybe, 0.000001 percent of the world's population.

"New Technology" just has so many possibilities, it's nearly impossible to choose with a rational brain. So, I'll do my best, but the best decisions may be the emotional ones and not the rational ones.