Stories Built for Survival
How the digital ecosystem strengthens tribal narratives
This week I had two epiphanies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that each of them added an item to my already long list of ways social media can intensify political polarization.
Both epiphanies came while I was listening to a podcast hosted by Julia Galef, a prominent figure in the “rationalist” community (and a past guest on The Wright Show). Her guest was Philip Tetlock, who is famous for studying a particular form of rational thought: trying to figure out how the future is likely to unfold. His book Superforecasting summarizes his pathbreaking work on the ingredients of accurate prediction.
My first epiphany came when Tetlock said something that I’d long known but whose implications I hadn’t fully grasped. He noted that, once people have taken a position publicly, they have trouble abandoning it, even if evidence against it accumulates.
Tetlock attributed this finding to the psychologist Leon Festinger (famous for the concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’) and described its upshot this way: “People who make public commitments to a position are going to be motivated to bolster it. They’re going to become better and better at generating reasons why they’re right and their would-be critics are wrong.”
Thirty years ago, the number of people who made public commitments to a position was small. After all, to do that you needed access to a scarce resource—like the pages of a physical magazine or a few minutes of radio time.
As a journalist who sometimes wrote opinion pieces, I was one of these people. So I became familiar with the psychological dynamics Tetlock describes. I still remember the feeling I’d get if someone wrote a letter to The New Republic pointing to evidence that seemed to undermine an argument I’d made—or maybe claiming that some data my argument relied heavily on was wrong.
It was a feeling of vulnerability—as if I was up on a stage in front of a bunch of people and in danger of being embarrassed. And this feeling, as Tetlock suggests, triggered a damage-control cognitive algorithm: I’d search for some reason to doubt the evidence cited by the letter writer—and, if that failed, I’d set about finding ways to argue that the evidence didn’t really undermine my position, all things considered. (I suddenly became very good at considering things.)
These days there are way more people who can have that on-stage feeling, because there are way more people who are on stage. They’re on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or somewhere else where they make public declarations.
They don’t all have big followings, so they may not feel as exposed as I felt when I wrote for magazines. Still, they take stands that become matters of public record. At any moment, lots of people can happen upon their views and give them feedback—including very negative feedback. To say something on Twitter is to be on stage in a way that wasn’t possible for most people three decades ago.
In short: One consequence of social media may be to make more people more deeply committed to their opinions—more stubbornly averse to modifying their views in light of new evidence, more firmly convinced of the wrongness of the other tribe’s views. Not exactly a recipe for productive and harmonious national discourse!
The other epiphany I had grows out of one of the things Tetlock discovered by holding prediction tournaments—by asking people in the business of predicting (financial analysts, pundits, etc.) to make specific predictions that could then be compared to the way reality actually unfolded.
As Galef summarized this discovery: “You found an inverse correlation between fame and accuracy. So the more famous an expert was, the less accurate he was. Why would that be?”
Tetlock’s answer was that reality is complex, and complex stories are hard to sell. “Experts who interweave lots of buts and howevers and althoughs into their speech are less charismatic and compelling than experts who are telling an emphatic causal story pointing in one clear direction.”
To me this was another good news/bad news story.