If you’re like me, you spend a significant amount of your day, week, month, life on social media. It’s entertaining, distracting, and, oddly, satisfying giving you a sense of accomplishment when you’ve really done nothing at all… or have you?
One of the things that social media does is expose you to other people’s ideas, opinions, and interests, and science says that other people’s ideas, opinions, and insterests shape our ideas, opinions, and interests. Remember the thing your mom used to harangue you with, “If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you?” And George Carlin’s retort, “Yeah, because I’d be a fool not to.” And, the saying, “A 1,000 Chinese people can’t be wrong”? They are all getting at the same thing: if a majority of people in your awareness are doing something or believing something, then it must be right. Just as we learned from our deep dive into Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissoance last September.
We can’t know everything. Individually we are pathetic and week — sorry John McClane, it’s true. Any self-respecting bear, leopard, or tiger could take us in a moment and, science fact, as this YouGov poll suggests, most people seem to realize it. But, put us together in a group, and we’ll push any and all species to the brink of extinction, including ourselves, and we’ll commit unspeakable atrocities against one another along the way! So, hah! Take that John McClane! Did your rugged-individualist-rogue-breaking-all-the-rules-because-you-know-you’re-right self ever drive even one species to extinction? Hunh? Nooooo! Well, humanity as a collective whole has nearly destroyed the life supporting capacity of the entire planet! How’s that for collectivist action beating individualists? Take that! In your face!
This ability to work together to combine our skills and knowledge to accomplish gigantic tasks is known as collective intelligence. We on the left like to think that it is only the gaslighting groupthinking rank and vile MAGA Nation-types and back-bencher political hacks that are vulnerable to all of the cognitive dissonance that collective intelligence leaves us vulnerable to, but we ain’t. We on the left are as susceptible to it as any human ever born. We just don’t seem to plunge so whole hog into it as the other side does.
That’s why it is troubling to see Tweets like these showing up in all my social media timelines:
I can hear all my liberal social media yelping about how we know it’s true, and Trump and friends are guilty, and they oughta be in jail. Didn’t Mueller already say that Trump obstructed justice? Isn’t Trump Individual Number 1? Isn’t that enough to indict him? Arrest him? Prosecute him? Convict him? Throw him in jail? we know it’s true!
Now, hold on there, Charlie. How do you know it’s true? (a) Mueller did kinda sorta say it in testimony before Congress. That’s true. (b) Michael Cohen’s indictment did name Trump as a co-conspirator. But, (c) that’s not the same thing as building a case against someone.
That feeling of certainty and our resulting impatience when the obvious next step isn’t immediately forthcoming is actually dangerous. It causes fatigue, despair, and feuls discouragement. We can become so jaded that we stop participating in the system.
There are four psychological phenomena that drive this knowing: the like-want system, the mere exposure effect, and flashbulb memory or emotion-strengthened memory We’ll take a brief look at each.
The like-want system kicks in when we do something that is immediately followed by a “reward,” or something we like, like when you smile at someone, and they smile back, let’s say. It makes it much more likely that the behavior that is associated with the reward will be repeated.
Both systems rely on dopamine — a chemical molecule called a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to work together in a circuit — which is released when stimulated. The output of the system is that feeling of wanting more. Anytime you’re doing something like playing an electronic game or scrolling social media or watching a show and you want just one more, you know the want system is involved. It put the binge in binge watching. Never mind that you can no longer remember many details of the program or remember what happened in each episode.
The Like and Want of Social Media
Social media rewards us with follows, likes, shares, and comments. When we get some, we want more of them. There is a whole science built up around it called persuasive design. If you can get an activity to activate the like-want system, you can get people to do a thing for just about ever. It’s what Fox News uses to keep your favorite drunk uncle watching, believing, and acting on their propaganda.
The like-reward system drives most social media influencers. They want those follows, likes, shares, comments. Ever see those posts that says something like, share if you want Trump to be indicted! Trolling for shares. I want to follow you if you hate Matt Gaetz! Trolling for follows. It causes some of them to make claims that maybe they shouldn’t.
There was a fad of social media types predicting that subpoenas would drop on Trump and others. And, just like with Jean Dixon, when someone hit it even though they made dozens of predictions and maybe only one came true, many people thought it was proof that they knew something! When one influencer made a prediction, it set off a cascade of predictions among all the influencers. It works the same for the punditing heads on all the punditing TV shows, too.
Mere Exposure Effect
We evolved to believe our senses. When you think about it, of course we did. Why would you disbelieve your senses on the hunter-gather savannahs of our forebears? The people who dithered when the charging rogue elephant was crashing through the bush died, and their genes were removed from the gene pool. If you were wrong about the elephant, who cares? You ran away for nothing. But, if you were right, you saved your life.
When we see something, we believe it. It is why CGI and deep fakes are so effective. This is also true for the things we hear. Reading is just an extension of hearing; it relies on the same brain hardware with a few visual components roped in to help out. So, when we encounter a claim a second time, we tend to think it’s true even if it’s been discredited. It’s the reason the propagandists say that if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it.
Mere Exposure to Social Media
If everyone around you believes something is true, we conclude that it is true. So, think about it. We live in a world where we have social media influencers who are being driven into a competative frenzy to get followers, likes, shares, and comments by their liking-wanting system so they make outrageous falacitious predictions about who is going to be indicted and when. We see them, and the next time we see them, we are all the more convinced they’re true because the mere expsure effect has painted them with a thin veneer of truthiness (sorry Stephen Corbert).
Emotional Memory or Flashbulb Memory
Science tells us that our strongest memories are those that are associated with an emotion. That’s why PTSD is such a debilitating condition. It is essentially a memory that is associated with a strong fear reaction. Again, our hunter-gather savannah-dwelling ancestors really needed those strong emotion-based memories. If fishing in a log-strewn river resulted in a crocodile, all you’d need is to see a log floating in the river, and BAM! you are terrified thinking that a croc or hippo is going to come outta that river and try and eat you! It helped save your life by making memories of life-threatening events readily available.
We call those memories flashbulb memories. When an event is personally significant and sufficiently emotional, it produces a strong memory of the event. One that we are likely to brood and ruminate over and discuss when we get a chance. Recalling a memory makes it stronger, so all that brooding, ruminating, and discussion just makes the memory of the emotional relevant event all the stronger.
What happened on 7 January 2021? We was all talking about the 6 January Insurrection, right? Hell, we’re still talking about it. It is a flashbulb memory. It was personally significant — the violent overthrow of our government — and it produced a strong emotion — fear. We’ve talked about it frequently since then.
The Emotional Memories of Social Media
Predictions of subpoenas are about the same. They are personally relevant and emotional, so we remember them much more easily and are inclined to talk about it or at least jump on the social media bandwagon commenting on it, too.
With all the rash talk of subpeonas about to drop, we all have strong emotional reactions, so those memories are easily accessed. When they don’t happen, we are disappointed. The danger in being disappointed is that it leaves us jaded and disaffected. We begin to believe that the system is not working, our participation doesn’t matter, and we are less likely to vote, participate in campaigns or GotV drives, or donate money to small dollar campaigns.
Instead of Being Discouraged
Instead we must remind ourselves that we live in a huge vastly complex society, and we must rely on the experts and professionals to make good sound judgments based on our social norms, laws, and traditions. If there is a lesson from all of this, it isn’t that Garland and the DoJ are ignoring everything and violating our trust, it is that the Executive Branch has encroached on the Legislative Branch’s powers and needs to be reigned in. That means more activism and contacting the White House to demand that some of the bloated powers of the executive be rescended and left to Congress.
Lastly, there is such a strong tempation to act on what i know to be true!!! to go all John McClane and break all the rules in order to achieve “justice,” but that is exactly what folks thought they were doing during the 6 January Insurrection. Locking people up without due process is what happens in an authoritarian regime not in a democracy.
So, let’s call our members of Congress and the White House frequently and often to let them know what we think about the day’s events and what they should be doing about it. Let’s try and remember what is at stake and what is involved in maintaining a successful healthy democracy. And let’s try and curtail our worst instincts and impulses. We don’t want to become like the MAGA Nation.
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Categories: Social Psychology