Are We Right about How Effective Mockery Is?

Cross­posted from Figur­ing Figur­ing.

I did a sec­ond sur­vey that fixed some of the flaws of the first sur­vey. The re­sults from the sec­ond sur­vey sig­nifi­cantly color the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the re­sults from the first sur­vey given in the first “Con­clu­sion and Dis­cus­sion” sec­tion. Please con­tinue read­ing past the sec­tion ti­tled “Se­cond Sur­vey” to get a full pic­ture of the re­sults from all sur­veys.

Intro

A cou­ple days ago a friend of mine on face­book asked about ar­gu­ments in fa­vor of mock­ery. They pointed out that they had no­ticed a lot of face­book posts mock­ing peo­ple for not wear­ing masks in the covid-19 era, and won­dered whether this was an effec­tive way to change peo­ple’s be­hav­iors.

I said in the com­ment sec­tion of that post that I would make a sur­vey that worked as fol­lows. Roughly half of the sur­vey tak­ers would be ran­domly as­signed to an­swer the fol­low­ing ques­tions:

  1. Do you think that mock­ery is an effec­tive way to change peo­ple’s minds?

  2. Do you think that mock­ery is an effec­tive way to change peo­ple’s be­hav­iors?

The other half would be ran­domly as­signed to an­swer these ques­tions:

  1. Has be­ing mocked ever caused you to change your mind about some­thing?

  2. Has be­ing mocked ever caused you to change your habits or be­hav­iors?

No sur­vey re­spon­dent was per­mit­ted to see all four ques­tions. The pos­si­ble an­swers to each ques­tion were “Yes”, “No”, and “Not sure”.

I made this sur­vey us­ing Guid­edTrack. I posted it on my face­book wall, and also posted it to Positly and paid peo­ple to par­ti­ci­pate.

A to­tal of 145 peo­ple re­sponded to any of the ques­tions on positly. 74 were asked the first set of ques­tions, and 71 were asked the sec­ond set of ques­tions. A to­tal of 66 peo­ple re­sponded to any of the ques­tions on face­book. 31 were asked the first set of ques­tions, and 35 were asked the sec­ond set of ques­tions.

Be­fore I go on to tell you the re­sults of the sur­vey and the pre­dic­tions me and some of my friends made, you might want to make your own pre­dic­tions. I sug­gest you quickly scrib­ble them down. Some par­tic­u­lar ques­tions you might want to make pre­dic­tions about:

  • Did more peo­ple an­swer yes to the first set of ques­tions than the sec­ond set of ques­tions, or is the re­verse true, or were they about the same?

  • Were face­book re­spon­dents (pre­sum­ably peo­ple who are friends, or friends of friends of mind on face­book) more or less likely to say yes to the first set of ques­tions?

  • Were face­book re­spon­dents more or less likely to say yes to the sec­ond set of ques­tions?

  • What did I pre­dict about the pre­vi­ous two ques­tions?

There may be other fun ques­tions to pre­dict, and I’d be cu­ri­ous to hear how you did in the com­ments. Pre­dic­tions from me and my friends com­ing up, so make sure you make your pre­dic­tions be­fore­hand. Again, I sug­gest that you write them down. You may also want to write down your rea­son­ing be­fore­hand.

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Predictions

Ok, last chance to make pre­dic­tions be­fore you hear some spoilers…

Alright.

I pre­dicted that many more peo­ple would an­swer yes to the first set of ques­tions (ie, the ques­tions about whether mock­ery is effec­tive) than to the sec­ond set of ques­tions. I also pre­dicted more peo­ple would say no to the sec­ond set of ques­tions than to the first.

I’m not sure ex­actly what my the­ory was when I made that pre­dic­tion—I made the pre­dic­tion in the same com­ment that I sug­gested the sur­vey, but I came up with two post hoc hy­pothe­ses that might ex­plain the re­sult I pre­dicted. I do know that part of the rea­son I made that pre­dic­tion is that mock­ery is fun, but ad­mit­ting that fun is the main rea­son we do it rather than be­cause of its pos­i­tive effects on other peo­ple’s be­hav­ior feels kind of icky. So we use its effec­tive­ness as an ex­cuse.

One hy­poth­e­sis is that we over­es­ti­mate the effec­tive­ness of mock­ery. This would make sense of the pre­dicted re­sult be­cause it would be ev­i­dence that we all think mock­ery works on oth­ers, but none of us thinks it works on us.

The sec­ond hy­poth­e­sis I made up to ex­plain this pre­dicted re­sult was that while we know that mock­ery works on other peo­ple, we are hes­i­tant to ad­mit that it works on us, be­cause that is a bit em­bar­rass­ing. Per­haps peo­ple are also not that great at tel­ling what ac­tu­ally caused them to change their minds or be­hav­iors.

Th­ese hy­pothe­ses are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive.

In a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion, my friend pre­dicted us­ing similar rea­son­ing that ac­tu­ally peo­ple would tend to an­swer the sec­ond set of ques­tions (ie, those about how of­ten we change our own minds as a re­sult of mock­ery) af­fir­ma­tively. Say­ing that you think mock­ery is effec­tive feels kind of icky, but say­ing that you think you have never had your mind or be­hav­ior changed be­cause of mock­ery seems kind of ar­ro­gant.

See­ing how such similar rea­son­ing could be used to pre­dict a to­tally differ­ent re­sult made me feel a bit ner­vous.

Another friend of mine pre­dicted that my face­book friends would be less likely to change their minds be­cause of mock­ery than ran­domly se­lected sur­vey par­ti­ci­pants. Positly users aren’t quite ran­domly se­lected, but they’re closer to ran­domly se­lected than what­ever peo­ple hap­pened to come across my face­book post.

Results

Sure enough, I was to­tally wrong.

Twice as many Positly re­spon­dents said that mock­ery has worked on them as said that mock­ery is effec­tive. Positly re­spon­dents were slightly more likely to say that mock­ery is effec­tive for chang­ing be­hav­ior than for chang­ing peo­ple’s minds, both for them­selves and for oth­ers.

I think this is strong ev­i­dence against the hy­pothe­ses I sug­gested, and some ev­i­dence in fa­vor of the hy­poth­e­sis my friend sug­gested in con­ver­sa­tion.

My face­book ac­quain­tances were slightly less dis­pro­por­tionate. Only 1.2 times as many re­spon­dents said that mock­ery is effec­tive on them­selves as said that mock­ery is effec­tive on oth­ers when it comes to be­hav­ior. How­ever, when it comes to chang­ing minds, still about twice as many said that mock­ery has worked on them as said that mock­ery is effec­tive on oth­ers.

I was sur­prised by this, as I tend to think of my­self as prefer­ring peo­ple who do not use mock­ery, and not us­ing mock­ery while also think­ing it is effec­tive is a hard pair of things for hu­mans to do si­mul­ta­neously.

Of the 35 face­book re­spon­dents that were asked the sec­ond set of ques­tions, 37% said they had changed their mind be­cause of mock­ery, 59% of Positly re­spon­dents said the same. This seems like de­cent ev­i­dence to me that my friend was right about my face­book ac­quain­tances be­ing less likely to change their minds be­cause of mock­ery.

No re­spon­dent said that mock­ery was effec­tive for chang­ing their own, or other peo­ple’s minds and also an­swered that it was not effec­tive for chang­ing their own, or other peo­ple’s be­hav­iors.

Other Responses

Here is a list of some of the things that peo­ple said they changed be­cause of mock­ery. This was an op­tional part of the sur­vey. Slightly ed­ited for brevity, to pro­tect anonymity, and avoid re­peats.

  • Eco­nomic beliefs

  • Work­ing out habits

  • Avoid­ing peo­ple who mock them

  • Writ­ing about top­ics on fb

  • My own appearance

  • How good other peo­ple are

  • Pick­ing my nose in public

  • Cry­ing in public

  • Ba­sic cul­tural rules, like where to sit, how to join a con­ver­sa­tion, etc.

  • Philo­soph­i­cal or eth­i­cal beliefs

  • In­di­vi­d­u­al­ism as an eth­i­cal stance

  • Fashion

  • Music

  • Us­ing an old fash­ioned word

  • Beliefs about what is so­cially acceptable

  • Con­ver­sa­tional habits

  • Wear­ing briefs in­stead of box­ers

  • Stopped whistling

  • Stopped/​started wear­ing shorts

  • Eat­ing habits

  • Lost weight

  • Stopped play­ing sports

  • Be­ing late

  • Hairstyle

  • Stopped watch­ing anime

  • Mocked for be­ing autis­tic, so changed the way I in­ter­act with peo­ple.

  • Started wear­ing make up.

  • Mocked for be­ing out­go­ing, be­came less out­go­ing and con­fi­dent.

  • Started lik­ing Trump

  • Left Mor­mon re­li­gion

  • Started think­ing more be­fore speaking

  • Started brush­ing teeth more

  • Stopped be­ing conservative

Here is a list of some of the things that peo­ple said mock­ery was effec­tive for chang­ing in other peo­ple. This was also an op­tional part of the sur­vey. The en­tries in this list have been ed­ited as in the pre­vi­ous list.

  • Weird opinions

  • The way peo­ple think

  • The way oth­ers dress

  • Haircuts

  • Mask wearing

  • How of­ten some­one complains

  • Mak­ing some­one hide their opinions

  • Arrogance

  • Get­ting peo­ple to stop do­ing things around you

  • Get­ting some­one to stop writ­ing things in public

I think these lists are similar enough in con­tent to rule out an­other ex­pla­na­tion of this data. You might have thought that peo­ple think mock­ing peo­ple is an effec­tive way to get other peo­ple to change cer­tain kinds of things, but when they think about what sorts of things they have changed them­selves be­cause of mock­ery, the two cat­e­gories do not have much of an in­ter­sec­tion. Th­ese lists make that seem un­likely to me.

Dis­cus­sion and Con­clu­sion (1)

Th­ese re­sults seem like some ev­i­dence to me that peo­ple in gen­eral un­der­es­ti­mate the effec­tive­ness of mock­ery for get­ting oth­ers to change their minds. This is of course not nec­es­sar­ily an ar­gu­ment for us­ing more mock­ery. I, for one, take the re­sults of this sur­vey to be a fur­ther rea­son that we should not mock peo­ple.

If you thought mock­ery was just some harm­less fun you can have with your in group, as I sort of did, you might have thought that the costs to those be­ing mocked are ac­tu­ally not that great. But it seems like mock­ery can make some­one leave their re­li­gion, stop writ­ing in pub­lic, change their poli­ti­cal prefer­ences, etc. I would strongly pre­fer for peo­ple to make de­ci­sions about those sorts of things us­ing ob­ject level rea­son­ing rather than rea­son­ing about what will cause them to be mocked less. I will now much more than be­fore see mock­ery as de­liber­ate en­emy ac­tion de­signed to in­ter­rupt other peo­ple’s cog­ni­tion—not some­thing to be taken as a joke, es­pe­cially not in the con­text of con­ver­sa­tions about im­por­tant top­ics.

Se­cond Sur­vey

This sec­tion was writ­ten af­ter get­ting the data for my sec­ond sur­vey which was in­spired by some crit­i­cisms of the ques­tions in the first. Every­thing above was writ­ten be­fore get­ting that data.

On the other hand, the ques­tions I asked peo­ple in the origi­nal sur­vey were not ex­actly analo­gous to each other. Firstly, peo­ple might have an­swered the first set of ques­tions con­sid­er­ing that al­though mock­ery is rarely effec­tive for chang­ing the be­hav­iors or be­liefs of those be­ing mocked, it might work on by­stan­ders who watch the mock­ing hap­pen. Se­condly, peo­ple an­swer­ing the sec­ond set of ques­tions with a “yes” might be think­ing that “yes, mock­ery has ever caused me to change my mind” but that does not mean it is very effec­tive.

To cor­rect for this, I made a sec­ond sur­vey. Half of re­spon­dents were asked the fol­low­ing two ques­tions:

  1. How of­ten has mock­ery worked as a means of get­ting you to change your mind about some­thing?

  2. How of­ten has mock­ery worked as a means of get­ting you to change your habits or be­hav­ior?

The other half were asked the fol­low­ing two ques­tions:

  1. How of­ten does mock­ery work as a means of get­ting some­one to change their mind about some­thing?

  2. How of­ten does mock­ery work as a means of get­ting some­one to change their habits or be­hav­ior?

The pos­si­ble re­sponses were: “very of­ten” , “of­ten”, “some­times”, “rarely”, and “al­most never”.

The sur­vey was pub­lished on positly.

I will give you some room to make pre­dic­tions be­fore show­ing the re­sults.

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Se­cond Sur­vey Results

There were a to­tal of 115 re­spon­dents. 57 were asked the first set of ques­tions, 58 were asked the sec­ond set of ques­tions. Here are the re­sults com­pared across groups.

Map­ping “very of­ten” to 4, “of­ten” to 3, “some­times” to 2, “rarely” to 1, and “al­most never” to 0, this gives a mean re­sponse for group 1 ques­tion 1 of 1.4562, and a mean re­sponse for group 2 ques­tion 1 of 1.5345, mean­ing that re­spon­dents over­all thought that mock­ery was slightly more effec­tive on oth­ers than on them­selves.

Us­ing the same map­ping, the av­er­age re­sponse for group 1 ques­tion 2 was 1.5789, and the av­er­age re­sponse for group 2 was 1.6667. Again, re­spon­dents over­all thought that mock­ery was slightly more effec­tive on oth­ers than on them­selves.

Dis­cus­sion and Con­clu­sion(2)

Th­ese re­sults con­tra­dict my origi­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the first sur­vey’s data. The sec­ond sur­vey sug­gests that peo­ple are in gen­eral pretty well cal­ibrated about the effec­tive­ness of mock­ery, or per­haps slightly un­der­es­ti­mate it. I con­clude that much of the effect ob­served in the re­sults of sur­vey one’s data was caused by the two effects dis­cussed at the be­gin­ning of the “Se­cond Sur­vey” sec­tion and not the re­sult of peo­ple gen­uinely un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the effec­tive­ness of mock­ery.

How­ever, I think I am still go­ing to take mock­ery more se­ri­ously than I did be­fore, mostly be­cause I still think this sur­vey showed me that mock­ery is more effec­tive than I thought it was. The list of per­sonal ex­am­ples peo­ple gave were fairly chilling. I also imag­ine peo­ple cave to mock­ery a lot more than they are able to no­tice or will­ing to ad­mit on a sur­vey. Fur­ther­more, I don’t think it was a co­in­ci­dence that it was mostly me and my weirdest friends who (in­cor­rectly) pre­dicted that peo­ple would say that mock­ery is much more effec­tive on oth­ers than it is on them­selves. Prob­a­bly, we weirdos have grown numb to mock­ery’s sting, and fallen out of touch with what it feels like to be mocked for most peo­ple.

I Would like to Thank

Ozzie Gooen for in­spiring me to make these sur­veys with his face­book post.

Frank Bel­lamy and Ju­lia Kris Dzweiria for point­ing out the as­symetry of the ques­tions in the origi­nal sur­vey.

Beth Kessler and Aryeh Englan­der for use­ful dis­cus­sion.

And Spencer Green­berg as well as the whole of the Positly and Guid­ed­track teams for mak­ing it much eas­ier to run sur­veys like these.