Monday, October 17, 2016

Vicious Cycle of Outrage

Who bothers to fact-check? “The catchy, click-bait headline confirmed what I already thought of that other political party, I’ll share it,” subconsciously rationalize too many social network users, unwittingly embracing their own confirmation bias.

On it goes, spreading ill-will like a virus from person-to-person, fed by the cortisol being pumped out by those busy, indignation-activated adrenal glands.

So much negativity.

“Today’s world is such a horrible place, gun deaths, ISIS, terrorism,” the US has even been likened to “a war zone,” by some of the more alarmist types. But is it?

Clearly bad news makes news. Stories about good deeds and calm neighborhoods don’t sell.

But let's stop and take a breath.

Stephen Pinker clearly elucidated in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, that the world today is much less violent than it has ever been, even the United States.

Likewise, who can deny that our moral evolution has made things repugnant today that were accepted as normal in the not so distant past:  slavery, public torture and executions, and the subjugation of women, to name just a few of the most obvious. Even animals rights is a thing now; not so when those of my generation were growing up in the 1960’s.

Perhaps even greater than the threat of violence today is the encroaching psychological danger that much of humanity is embracing with joy:  the ever-increasing availability of information and its ability to surreptitiously transform our mindsets. The mind-boggling numbers of television channels, the nearly ubiquitous internet connectivity, the countless radio shows and podcasts - even clothing and bags are emblazoned with brand names - all feeding us with information.

Having the wealth of man's knowledge at our fingertips is a marvelous thing, but the downside is that news outlets, both spurious and legitimate, have a tremendous influence on us via an availability cascade of stories and memes that give us a very distorted sense of reality, danger, and truth. Obviously, the most effective memes and the most attention-getting, share-worthy stories are those that arouse emotion. This incentivizes people to write articles and headlines using more and more emotion-laden terms, in an ever escalating battle of one-upmanship. From hyperbolic memes complete with spelling errors to actual news articles, the more emotion their creators can arouse in their readers, the more widely their piece is apt to be read and shared. Are we nearing a crescendo in this vicious cycle?

One of the daily challenges of the modern world is to be aware of the power of availability to influence us. We naturally deem things that are easily called to mind as being of more weight and importance, especially those that are emotion-laden, but being readily called to mind does not speak to their value. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, his groundbreaking book on behavioral economics, "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

Is it too much to wish that reporters today would take an evidence-based approach in their writing? Surely that would be a positive step towards bringing the world a bit closer to the safe haven of kindness and hope that the majority of humanity strives to embrace.

Written June 2016

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