Gratifying Narrative Syndrome

As human beings, we chronically suffer from what I call “Gratifying Narrative Syndrome,” or a desire to confirm narratives that we find emotionally or psychologically gratifying.

You see these all the time – stories and paradigms that click with us for some reason, and that we very much want to be true. To this end, we interpret evidence in support of them and discount evidence that contradicts them.

  • To lose weight, eat many smaller meals. (Nope)
  • Lowering taxes will actually increase tax revenue. (Uh uh)
  • You need to drink eight glasses of water a day. (A myth)
  • Organic food is better for you. (No evidence)
  • The United States gives large amounts of money away in foreign aid. (Maybe in absolute terms, but not relative to the budget)

This is clearly confirmation bias at work.

Confirmation bias, also called myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.

Politics and health are two great sources for this, because they both involve hard truths that we just don’t want to admit are true. We’re emotionally seeking some exception to the rules that we don’t like, so we hold out hope there’s a hidden secret. When we see or hear something which confirms it, we seize it and hang on for dear life.

(Yes, we’re actually always looking for that “one weird trick” that the banner ads promise us. We love this, because we love the idea that a thorny problem can be unlocked by a secret key.)

Additionally, sometimes these narratives subconsciously confirm other paradigms that we hold dear. Thinking that the U.S. gives away a lot of money in foreign aid (in truth, it’s less than 1% of the budget) might secretly make us happy because we like to remain convinced of our relevance to world politics, or that other countries couldn’t function without us, or perhaps that our budget woes are because we’re benevolent to other countries through some form of the Christian work ethic. Story A confirms Story B. If A isn’t true, then neither is B, and we don’t want this.

Another factor: we just love contrived stories that neatly explain something in an interesting way.  The world is full of questions, so we take comfort in the idea that there are explanations for them all. Consider this explanation for the phrase “rule of thumb”:

The expression “rule of thumb” did not originate from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and there is no evidence that such a law ever existed.

This story does several things: (1) it neatly explains a phrase that never really made sense to us, (2) it stokes our sense of moral outrage, and (3) it’s interesting in a morbidly curious way.  We imagine telling this story at dinner parties and people nodding in agreement as we have just sagely confirmed a Gratifying Narrative for them.

That quote on the “Rule of Thumb” is from an entire Wikipedia page on common misconceptions. Go read that and see how many you’re heard and that you thought were true.  And then ask yourself why you thought they were true. If you trace back, it’s probably because someone else told you, it sounded reasonable and interesting or perhaps it helped confirm some other mental paradigm you were holding onto, so you labeled it as accurate and didn’t seek any confirmation lest the boat get rocked.

I’m suddenly wondering is Gratifying Narratives are viral. Do they seek out their own survival by being interesting enough to pass on? Do they need to be contagious to survive?  This is the classic definition of a meme, as coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.

Is this why we seek to confirm Gratifying Narratives?  Do we secretly want to ensure their survival?

Clearly, that gets a little far-fetched. I think the truth lies somewhere nearer what Doris Graber described in Processing the News. In order to make sense of the world, we’re essentially assembling a large puzzle. Every new piece of information is a new piece in that puzzle. When we can fit that piece into a larger framework somewhere, it goes in with a gratifying “click.”

We love that click. We seek it out, and we avoid any inconvenient details that prevent it from happening.

The Rich and Their Effect on the Cost of Living

I’m not an economist, but I’m fairly confident in a couple of economic principles. 

  • Inflation tells is that when there’s more money chasing the same amount of goods, prices will go up.
  • Supply and demand tells us that when demand increases, prices will also go up.

I read an article (How the ‘creative class’ is dividing U.S. cities) that I think illustrates an end result of that: the relatively well-heeled “knowledge workers” are demanding more and more residential living in the downtown core, which is raising rents and pushing the lower class out of downtown.

The housing options of the disadvantaged are invariably defined by what’s left over. If the wealthy want to live on the waterfront, the poor are driven inland. If high-paid professionals want to live close to the subway — picture the popular orange-line corridor in Arlington — then low-paid cashiers are pushed farther from transit. If upper-class college graduates want to live downtown, as is increasingly the case in many big cities, the poor are priced out to the periphery.

I recently saw this same thing in Sioux Falls.  Across from the only downtown grocery store, several low-rent homes were torn down to build new loft apartments.  I assume those homes had people living in them – eyesores that they were, the houses still fit the economic needs of someone.  I further assume those people can’t afford the apartments which replaced their homes, and that they were therefore evicted and pushed somewhere else.  (As of this writing, you can still see the homes on Google Maps.)

I think there’s a secondary concept at work here – the existence of people with far more wealth ends up indirectly draining the finances of the lower-class.

The fact that someone can afford $2,000/month in rent means there’s a  market for that type of apartment, and its existence will eventually come at the expense of more affordable housing and bring average rents up.  The willingness of the upper class to pay large sums of money for things has the tendency to drag costs up overall – they inject more money into the system and increase demand.

This isn’t a problem if the people below them on the wealth ladder are moving up too – inflation raises costs overall, for everyone. The real problem comes when the the cliché becomes true – “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” When this happens, the rich getting richer drag costs up with them. Even if the poor stay where they’re at, their costs go up. If they’re not advancing economically, they’re worse off by just staying in place.

Put another way, Bob the Banker’s willingness to drop $1 million on a house has a negative, trickle-down effect on finances of Mike the Meatpacker. Mike’s rent edges up in response to the demand and the excess money injected into the local economy by Bob. If Mike doesn’t get a raise, he has a problem.

(But Mike might get a raise. Bob’s money goes into the local economy, and – if trickle-down economics is true – that means there’s more money floating around to pay Mike. Yay, capitalism!)

Assuming Mike gets screwed, is this Bob’s fault?  Not really. He’s not doing this intentionally, and his role in this drama is just as accidental as Mike’s.

And what’s the solution?  I honestly have no idea.

The Myth of Water Consumption

I enjoyed this article about the myth of water intake: You Don’t Need 8 Glasses Of Water A Day. This idea has been floating around for decades: you must drink more water – specifically eight glasses per day.

This threshold appears to be a long-standing medical myth. It’s not even clear where it started. The best answer I can find[…] is that the source was a 1945 publication by the National Food and Nutrition Board, a government advisory agency, that stated this: “A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 liters daily in most instances. … Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.” The theory is that people read this, ignored the last sentence, and the eight glasses a day (about 2.5 liters)recommendation was born.

The article goes on to cite study after study which found no effect of drinking more water. A few studies suggest some value, but the threshold is much lower than eight glasses, and it’s a level most people just get accidentally.

A meta-study at Dartmouth found the same thing: “Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.” Really? Is there scientific evidence for “8×8”? (PDF; the “8×8” in the title refers to the common exhortation to consume eight 8-oz. glasses of water per day)

No scientific studies were found in support of 8 x8.

I’ve always thought this was silly. I’ve never even been close to that amount in pure water (though I used to drink eight cans of Diet Coke a day), and I’ve been fine. The idea that we’re all walking around chronically dehydrated is kind of comical, really.

How about increasing fluid intake to get over a cold?  Nope. Consider:  “Drink plenty of fluids”: a systematic review of evidence for this recommendation in acute respiratory infections

We found data to suggest that giving increased fluids to patients with respiratory infections may cause harm. To date there are no randomised controlled trials to provide definitive evidence […]

All is not lost, however. There may be some value in protecting the kidneys from infection: Fluid and nutrient intake and risk of chronic kidney disease

Higher intakes of fluid appear to protect against CKD. CKD may be preventable at a population level with low-cost increased fluid intake.

But what’s important to note is that we get a lot of fluids in solid food. An Australian study (What drove us to drink 2 litres of water per day?; sadly, behind a paywall) indicated that we get a lot of fluids accidentally. A baked potato, for instance, is apparently 75% water. Women get 2.4 litres of water and men get 3.2 litres, just from eating normally.

Downtown Belongs to Us All

I finished Jeff Speck’s book Walkable City last week.  In the very last section, he discuss why he thinks downtown is the place to begin any attempt to make a city more walkable.  I loved his answer:

The answer to this question is simple. The downtown is the only part of the city that belongs to everybody. It doesn’t matter where you may find your home; the downtown is yours too. Investing in the downtown of a city is the only place-based way to benefit all of its citizens at once.

When I’m in your neighborhood, I’m a foreigner.  It’s your neighborhood, not mine.

But when I’m downtown, it belongs to the city itself. Downtown is the soul of a city – due to a lack of residential focus and its proximity and history with the city, it is no one’s neighborhood. Downtown belongs to us all.

The Validity of The Lesser of Two Evils

This article has reinforced a paradigm that I think gets ignored too often by the environmentally conscious: when considering an optional you find lacking, always consider the alternative or the default, and weigh the option against that. Because, no matter how much you don’t like what’s being offered, the alternative or status quo might be worse.

A researcher did a meta-study on what might happen if we replaced fossil fuels with nuclear power:

They next estimated the total number of deaths that could be prevented through nuclear power over the next four decades using available estimates of future nuclear use. Replacing all forecasted nuclear power use until 2050 with natural gas would cause an additional 420,000 deaths, whereas swapping it with coal, which produces significantly more pollution than gas, would mean about 7 million additional deaths.

The inverse is this: current fossil fuel usage causes a lot of deaths.  The status quo is deadly. Air pollution kills.

Anti-nuclear activists will point to deaths caused by nuclear power, which total several thousand over 50+ years (though it’s tough to estimate because the two deadliest accidents were Soviet, and they don’t talk much about fatalities). Even looking at the numbers pessimistically, it’s perhaps a few hundred per year (which is skewed horribly by the two Soviet accidents, which easily account for 90% of total fatalities).

In looking at this, you have to consider the alternative: fossil fuels.  Yes, alternative energy is great, and solar is coming along nicely, but if nuclear goes away, all that capacity is not getting absorbed by wind power, I promise you.  Which means that the alternative to nuclear power is not pure as the driven snow, and is no-doubt worse no matter how you’re looking at it.

Another example: corporate farming is undesirable for many reasons. But organic farming is not perfect due to lower crop yields and lack of scalability. As bad as corporate farming is, it generates a lot of food which feeds a lot of people. If we switch the whole world to organic farming, millions of people will likely starve as a result – people who don’t shop at Whole Foods and who likely aren’t on this continent.  I don’t love pesticides, but I love them immeasurably more than starving children.

When considering something you don’t like, it’s always easy to whitewash the alternative. If you don’t take Option A, you’ve constructed a strawman of Option B in your heads which is perfect and wonderful and righteous. I don’t think this is valid. You need to consider Option B in light of reality, and it likely has warts.

“The lesser of two evils” is a valid perspective.  If it improves on the status quo, however imperfectly, perhaps that’s the best you can hope for.

Defining It

When I was in my first political science class at Augie, I remember the first paragraph of the text tried to define “politics.”  It went something like this:

Politics is what happens when people are forced to live together.

This is true, but the base definition is even deeper. I’m convinced that politics is fundamentally about shared resources. Politics only happens when two or more people are forced to share one or more things.

Consider two people living on opposite sides of a mountain. They’re each aware of their neighbor, but they never go past the mountain and never have any contact with the other.  There are no politics in this situation.  The two lives never come into contact, and they’re bound together by nothing (except a mountain…)

Now consider a patch of ground at the top of the mountain that gets sunlight year-round.  Both people discover this and the same time, and think it would be great to grow things in this meadow.  Thus, they now have to share a resource, and they’re thus introduced to politics: the science of shared resources.

Thus, we can probably amend our definition of politics to:

Politics are the rules we put around the sharing of resources.

And we share resources every day. You and I drive on the same roads.  We are defended by the same military.  We contribute taxes to the same pool of money from which the government runs.

You and I are entangled by multiple external forces. Politics are the rules we put around this.

If we assume (perhaps grossly naively) that the world strives to be fair, then perhaps we can further narrow our definition to this:

Politics is the pursuit of fairness in the sharing of resources.

The problem is, who decides “fairness”?  You may define fairness as a 50/50 split between our neighbors on the mountain, while others may say that fate made one of the farmers more talented, so he should bear more of the load, which runs us smack into issues of political worldview.

And this is where everything falls apart…

RIP Phil Hartman

I loved this profile of Phil Hartman written by Jack Handey, who was an SNL writer for decades (and the source of the infamous, “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey”).

He could do any accent. He could play menacing or frightened.

He could basically do it all. You’d hand him the ball and he’d punch it over the goal line. If he couldn’t, the ball you handed him was probably slippery or flat.

I believe Phil Hartman was one of the greatest comedians of his era, and like a future Hall of Famer cut down by injury, we’ll never know what kind of legacy he could have built with a lifetime body of work.

I searched around for some clips and found a huge treasure trove at Yahoo.

The Attraction of Random T-Shirts

I’ve always loved this cartoon about the making of a t-shirt. Scientists are shown using random methods to pick out elements – a specific place (“San Jose”), a generic place (“Disco Club”), a year (“1983”), and a number (“3”).  The result is this:

And this is so true.  I see this all the time. Why?

At the risk of over-analysis —

Does the combination of elements invoke some kind of mental response from us?  Do we envision this person playing flag football, sponsored by a local dance club in the Bay Area somewhere in the early 80s?

Perhaps we buy into that perception thinking that we can be a part of some inside joke or secret that we don’t even understand? If we saw someone wearing this shirt, we’d evaluate it on the visual appearance, certainly, but also on the idea that it meant something to someone, somewhere. And perhaps we find comfort in that?

Do we think that the person wearing it knows what it means, and there’s exclusivity in that? Do we hope that people we think we know what it means, and thus think we have some magic insight on the world that they don’t?

Or is it just nostalgia? Do we think that this combination of elements meant something at one time – meaning it had value when taken literally – and it doesn’t anymore, so this is a celebration of a time gone guy, like an antique radio or can of New Coke?

The U.S. Economy is Complex and Slow-Moving

I saw two animated statistical graphics recently that reinforced and sharpened a belief that I’ve had lurking in my head for years.

Links to the graphics are below (I would embed, but they’d both be useless unless full-size):

Both are fascinating to watch – each has colors which indicate a value, and they change over time as the years and corresponding presidential administrations tick by.

It’s fun to look at certain color combinations, consider the president who was in office at the time, and think, “Well,he obviously did a great (or crappy) job.”  Look at the unemployment rate during Clinton’s administration, for instance – at one point, the entire country turns some shade of blue (which is good).  It’s good during Bush II’s term as well, right up until the recession hits in 2007.

What it reinforced to me is this: it’s disingenuous to correspond the welfare of the country at a specific time to the sitting president.

Everyone wants to do this, of course, because we love to play right and wrong, especially when we’re taking sides. “Things suck right now, so it much be the fault of our current president.” Or “Things were awesome back in [insert random year here] because that president was great.”

I don’t think this works. The cause and effect chain of the U.S. economy is just too great and too delayed for the direct correlation that we’re trying to pretend is so simple and obvious.

When considered as a complex system, the U.S. economy is likely the second most complex in the world (the first being the Earth biome). The number of potential inputs, processes, and outputs is so great as to prevent simple correlation. Doing Thing A might result in Thing B years later, or it might result in Thing C immediately, or it might result in Things D-Z three decades from now.  We pretend that this is easy to predict, but I suspect we’re kidding ourselves because the truth is scary: often, we just don’t know.

The U.S. economy defies granular projection. We can make gross projections (“if we raise interest rates, the stock market goes down”), but finer-grained forecasts get far-fetched, and even more so when we’re tying to project an output multiple steps removed from the input:

If we lower tax rate A, it will increase investment of type B, which will improve businesses of type C, which will employ of people of type D in region E, which will require training of type F, which will improve the market for higher education of type G.

A direct correlation from A-G is absurd. The only people who can say this with a straight face are people who stand to make money from it.

Furthermore, some “projections” are only accurate in hindsight.  Forty years from now, we might look back at Decision X and say, “well of course we got Outcome Y, what were we thinking?”  This is clear only because Outcome Y is removed from Decision X by those four decades. The U.S. economy doesn’t turn on a dime.  We can make a change and not have that change actually do anything for a long time, and in the meantime it might have created 10 different side effects that we never saw coming.

So, is four or eight years of a presidential administration enough time for a president to enact policies that have a measurable, culpable, and significant effect on the U.S. economy?  If a president does something in his first year in office, will it have had a big enough effect by the time he leaves for us to draw absolute judgment?  And will this judgment hold?  Looking back fifty years from now, will we draw the same judgment?

I doubt it, yet we do this all the time.  The economy boomed during Clinton. Was that his doing?  Or was he just benefiting from a natural delay before the wise policies of Bush I took effect?  The recession hit hard during Obama’s term. Was this his fault, or was it the sins of Bush II coming due?

(I especially hate it when one side tries to spin it both ways. The Right has often said that Obama should stop blaming his predecessor and accept the Great Recession as his own problem. Yet they’re quick to say that Clinton simply rode the wonderful economic wave created by Bush I and Reagan. You can’t have it both ways.)

I absolutely think the president can have a dramatic effect on the U.S economy. I’m just not sure it will happen while he’s sitting in office.  We like to pretend it does, but to think that the U.S. economy is this nimble and immediate is just naïve.

What is Newsworthy?

In college, I took Journalism 101 (actually 110; Augie’s numbering scheme is weird), which I just loved. I maintain it was the best class I took in college, and the one that has provided me more practical value than anything else I took.

In it, I learned about the gatekeeper effect, which is the idea that the media – newspapers, TV, radio, etc. – are the gatekeepers to the collective news consciousness. They have a huge impact on a population just by deciding what to publish and what not to publish.

To form an opinion about something, we have to be exposed to it, and the mainstream media (to use a pejorative term) largely controls this. I’m not going to find out about the police shooting someone in Ferguson, Missouri unless the media tells me about it. If the media deems it non-newsworthy, then an entire movement might never start.

I just finished Doris Graber’s classic “Processing the News”, in which she conducted an experiment in 1976 to determine how people process the news. She determined many things, not the least of which was the fact that someone’s access and exposure to the news was one of the largest influences on how they feel about it. And the gatekeeper effect bears heavily on your access.

This all boils down to what we consider to be “newsworthy.” How does the media decide whether or not to “reveal” something to the general population by covering it?

To this end, I enjoyed this article which listed all the things a media outlet might consider when decided whether or not to run a story. Things like:

  • Insufficient or unsubstantiated information regarding a story
  • How much coverage is the story currently getting from competitors or is it an exclusive
  • Competing stories
  • Fast and slow news days
  • Budget and time constraints
  • Instinct that a story will not be well received or is incomplete
  • Influence from a publisher or advertiser (e.g. – the conservative bent of Fox News, the claimed liberal bent of dozens of outlets)
  • Proximity
  • Prominence
  • Usefulness
  • Future impact
  • The underdog (“Who doesn’t like the little guys coming from behind and winning?”)

(Note: no mention of Missing White Woman Syndrome.)

The number of different variables and combinations is enormous. In summary:

Newsworthiness is not as straight forward as when, where, what, why, who, how. Ultimately, journalism holds itself to a well-tested criterion of news values to determine a story’s newsworthiness.