Based on my previous thoughts about the decline of Absolute Truth , it’s not surprising that I wanted to read a book that is subtitled “Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society”. Manjoo observes that we, the body politic, used to agree on what was happening and the problems we were facing, but had different ideas about how to address those problems. Now we can’t even agree on what reality is. He wrote this book to try to answer the question “How can so many people who live in the same place see the world so differently?”
Manjoo cites several great experiments throughout the book that demonstrate the human psychology contributing to this divergence of “realities”. One is an experiment by Brock and Balloun to demonstrate selective exposure, which “set out to determine what happens when people are presented with information that contradicts their core beliefs”. They played audio tapes of speeches on various topics, but the tapes were recorded with a lot of static. The test subjects could eliminate the static for a few seconds by pressing the button. By correlating when subjects pressed the button with the subject of the speech, the experimenters noticed that people only wanted to hear information they matched their worldview already. The application of this idea of selective exposure in a media ecology with divergent viewpoints is obvious, as Republicans tend to listen to Fox News, and Democrats to NPR. We choose media that reinforces our existing biases, and therefore the biases become stronger, driving us further away from each other and reducing our ability to have a common dialogue.
Similarly, another experiment by Hastorf and Cantril demonstrates the power of selective perception. As Manjoo puts it, “Selective perception says that even when two people of opposing ideologies overcome their tendency toward selective exposure and choose to watch the same thing, they may still end up being pushed apart from each other…. each of them will have seen, heard, felt, and understood the “thing” vastly differently from the others who have experienced it.” Hastorf and Cantril illustrated this by showing a clip of a football game between Princeton and Dartmouth to students of the respective schools and asked them to “objectively” mark down any infractions they saw. From the same clip, the students got very different results, as Dartmouth students saw the Princeton team cheating on every play, and vice versa. Even when we see the same thing, we only notice and remember the things that fit into our existing worldview, and fill in the blanks accordingly.
So now take these two tendencies to only accept media inputs that match our biases and see only what makes sense to us, and combine them with our growing ability to locate ourselves with our communities of choice, and it’s unsurprising that we choose communities that think the same way that we do and reinforce our beliefs. After the last presidential election, a friend and I were discussing the result, and he said “Do you know any Republicans? I can’t think of any that I know.” which is an astonishing claim in a country where half the country had just voted Republican. But he lived in Boston, and I lived in the Bay Area, and those communities are decidedly liberal. We had self-sorted into communities which matched our ideologies, shielding us from having to deal with conservative viewpoints. It’s much easier to deal with the straw men put up by liberal media than it is to deal with other real people who might make good points, a phenomenon Manjoo calls “weak dissonance” – we like being able to easily refute points with which we disagree.
These trends also play into the polarization of media. We want media that is “objective”, but alas, we don’t share a definition of what “objective” is. Manjoo calls this biased assimilation:
“… each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective, the product of a dispassionate, realistic accounting of the world. This is naive realism, though, because we are incapable of recognizing the biases that operate upon us. … You think there are more facts and better facts on your side than on the other side. The very act of giving [the other side] equal weight seems like bias. Like inappropriate evenhandedness. … we all want objectivity, but we disagree about what objectivity is.”
Given that tendency to want “objective” news that caters to our existing opinions, and given a market economy where media channels are supported by viewership, it’s obvious why news outlets have become more polarized to satisfy audiences in a culture of niches.
I liked this book. It takes several real-world examples from across the political spectrum, from Swift Boat Veterans to the Democrats who thought the 2004 election was stolen to 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and describes psychology experiments that illustrate the underlying principles that drive such behavior. Ironically, part of the reason I liked the book is that it played into my own pre-existing biases about the fragility of Truth. Regardless, it’s a quick read that provides some insight into the world of splintering reality that we live in.