I try to avoid watching television news, and when I see it I tend to look at it from an anthropological perspective -- as in, "why are people attracted to this?" And "what is the real purpose of it?"
One of the popular motifs, especially in political seasons, is the "shaming of the supporters of the opposition" story. To construct one of these stories, the reporters go interview a number of people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the one that is preferred by the "news" outlet. They find some individual or individuals, usually quite ordinary people, who sound the least intelligent and informed on camera. Then they broadcast a story as to how "stupid" the supporters of x candidate or position seem to be, as if whomever they have discovered is necessarily representative of the candidate or the position.
Here are two examples. First, a Shaming Story on a supporter of presidential candidate Donald Trump:
Next, a Shaming Story on protesters opposed to presidential candidate Donald Trump:
What is notable about both of these stories is that they are not designed to be informative about the candidate at issue, but instead designed to engage the viewer in denigrating the people being interviewed and to "pile on" as much as possible. It's certainly not news we are looking at here. So what's the point and what's the attraction?
Let's consider the view through the Lenses of Wisdom:
Looking at this shaming theater through the Prospecting Lens, we see it is designed to suppress rational System 2 thinking, and instead trigger and support a number of the System 1 heuristics through the emotional response of disgust with what the viewer is seeing. These psychological mechanisms include:
REPRESENTATIVENESS. Similar to profiling or stereotyping, “representativeness” is the intuitive leap to make judgments based on how similar something is to something we like without taking into consideration other factors: probability (likelihood), statistics (base rate), or sampling sizes. Baseball scouts used to recruit players based on how close their appearance resembled other good players. Once players were recruited based on actual statistics the level of gamesmanship improved. Just because we like the design of a book cover doesn’t mean we’ll like the contents. You can’t judge a book by its cover. A start-up restaurant has a low chance of survival regardless of how much you like their food. Many well run companies keep their facilities neat and tidy but a well kept lawn is no guarantee that the occupants inside are organized. To discipline our lazy intuition we must make judgments based on probability and base rates, and question our analysis of the evidence used to come up with our assumption in the first place.
Here, the people being interviewed are supposed to be representative of all supporters or opposers of the candidate, and even the candidate himself. The reporters try to create the illusion that they are all the same.
THE AVAILABILITY HEURISTIC and AVAILABILITY CASCADES. When asked to estimate numbers like the frequency of divorces in Hollywood, the number of dangerous plants, or the number of deaths by plane crash, the ease with which we retrieve an answer influences the size of our answer. We’re prone to give bigger answers to questions that are easier to retrieve. And answers are easier to retrieve when we have had an emotional personal experience.
Similarly, when news stories pile up our statistical senses get warped. A recent plane crash makes us think air travel is more dangerous than car travel. The more we fear air travel the more eager news reporters are to sensationalize plane crashes. A negative feedback loop is set in motion, a cascade of fear. Over reacting to a minor problem simply because we hear a disproportionate number of negative news stories than positive ones.
The reporters are clever in that they have edited out anyone who might come across as articulate and substantive. They want to reassure you that the people who hold opposing views are ignorant and therefore can be discounted and ridiculed.
COGNITIVE EASE. Things that are easier to compute, more familiar, and easier to read seem more true than things that require hard thought, are novel, or are hard to see. “Predictable illusions inevitably occur if a judgment is based on the impression of cognitive ease or strain." “How do you know that a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease." Because things that are familiar seem more true teachers, advertisers, marketers, authoritarian tyrants, and even cult leaders repeat their message endlessly. Potential for error? If we hear a lie often enough we tend to believe it.
This is actually one of the dangers of watching too much of this type of programming -- because it is programming. The more one watches it, the less one thinks critically about the subject matter, because it is designed to support a pre-existing set of beliefs. In this manner, cognitive ease and television news contribute to social discord among competing audiences who will watch one of the preferred channels and not the other.
COHERENT STORIES (ASSOCIATIVE COHERENCE). To make sense of the world we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. We make associations between events, circumstances, and regular occurrences. The more these events fit into our stories the more normal they seem. “Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities." Potential for error? We posit intention and agency where none exists, we confuse causality with correlation, and we make more out of coincidences than is statistically warranted.
The Shaming Stories are designed to be coherent with pre-existing beliefs that only the ignorant or the stupid could support or oppose the favored or disfavored candidate.
CONFIRMATION BIAS and THE HALO EFFECT. Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search for and find confirming evidence for a belief while overlooking counter examples. The Halo Effect is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person—including things you have not observed.
The Shaming Stories are designed to confirm what the viewer already believes -- that the persons on the other side of the issue or candidate simply do not have valid opinions and that since they appear to be stupid in the stories, everything about them and their candidate or issues can be automatically rejected.
Looking through the Mimetic Lens, we can get a little closer to understanding the true purpose of these stories (besides selling commercial time).
First, the two narratives behind the stories, and views to which each of the stories is ultimately trying to appeal represent, are Mimetic Rivals. They are both vying for the same object, which is first public acceptance and then political power. The media outlets who sponsor the stories have also found it useful to "take sides" and present their own sides' views are valid and legitimate, while de-legitimatizing the opposing side.
Second, the mechanisms themselves are in fact the ancient scapegoating mechanisms intended to elicit an emotional crowd response. The reporter's job here is to select scapegoats at random, show that they are "guilty" of ignorance or stupidity and then inflame the audience into reacting emotionally by yelling at their televisions, commenting indignantly to their fellow viewers, and/ or cementing their beliefs about the rectitude of their own positions in the face of the opposition being "exposed."
Consistent with good scapegoating theater, there is no attempt to show the scapegoats in any sympathetic light, even though they are just ordinary people for the most part. In fact, the central idea is to dehumanize them so that the audience feels empowered to jeer them and express disgust. In days gone by, the next step might be to throw rotten vegetables at them. (In the second video, they do this verbally after the clips.)
The whole exercise is a very primitive one, yet still quite appealing when dressed up with the faux intellectualism and "analysis" of the purveyors of it. In any event, it attracts the eyeballs, which sells the soap, which pays the salaries of the show's creators. The entire advertising industry works on appealing to these principles.
Finally, looking through the Fractal Lens, we see just that this construction is completely artificial and that there is no real news here -- only theater designed to elicit a reaction.
A real-world sampling of data would yield a spectrum of results, from the people that are depicted to those that are articulate and persuasive for the candidates and causes they represent and prefer. It would not be very dramatic or emotionally interesting. That you do not see a distribution of data, but only the same data points over and over again should clue you in that the data has been cherry-picked to depict certain viewpoints and support certain narratives.
To put it more bluntly, these Shaming Stories are worthless and are simply a waste of time, because they pretend to be informative but are anything but. Do yourself a favor the next time you see one -- TURN IT OFF; lest you find your own mind poisoned and your rational thought processes slowing to a halt in favor of convenient and attractive narratives that elicit emotional responses.
This clip provides a comedic representation of both the Shaming Mechanism in action AND the inherent dangers to your mind in taking part in too much of this nonsense. Note, however, that in the movie, the scapegoat is portrayed as a victim/protagonist, unlike the interviewees in the clips above, who are only scapegoats to be denigrated.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.