How Trump screws with your mind
Emily Dreyfuss, Wired magazine editor, has a couple of illuminating articles on how President Trump screws with your mind for his own benefit. He’s not the only one to do so, so it’s in your interest to find out how and what to do about it.
Emily Dreyfuss | 02.18.17 | Wired
Americans born in the United States are more murderous than undocumented immigrants. Fighting words, I know. But why? After all, that’s just what the numbers say.
Still, be honest: you wouldn’t linger over a story with that headline. It’s “dog bites man.” It’s the norm. And norms aren’t news. Instead, you’ll see two dozen reporters flock to a single burning trash can during an Inauguration protest. The aberrant occurrence is the story you’ll read and the picture you’ll see. It’s news because it’s new.
The problem here is not just that this singling out creates a distorted, fish-eye lens version of what’s really happening. It’s that the human psyche is predisposed to take an aberration—what linguist George Lakoff has called the “salient exemplar”—and conflate it with the norm. This cognitive bias itself isn’t new. But in a media environment driven by clicks, where politicians can bypass journalistic filters entirely to deliver themselves straight to citizens, it’s newly exploitable.
You know who else isn’t as likely to commit murders in the US as native-born citizens? Refugees. Or immigrants from the seven countries singled out in President Trump’s shot-down travel ban. Or for that matter, immigrants at all. According to numerous studies, increased immigration correlates with lower violent crime rates in a community. Yet next week, Trump is promising a revised travel ban in the name of safety.
In the past, the president has also promised to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. What he hasn’t promised to publish is a list of crimes committed by Americans. That’s not news. But his list is likely to create the false impression that undocumented immigrants are especially prone to commit violent crimes—an impression in which the human brain is complicit.
Taking Advantage of Bias
Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley linguist and well-known Democratic activist, cites Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” as the signature “salient exemplar.” Reagan’s straw woman—a minority mother who uses her government money on fancy bling rather than on food for her family—became an effective rhetorical bludgeon to curb public assistance programs even though the vast majority of recipients didn’t abuse the system in that way. The image became iconic, even though it was the exception rather than the rule.
Psychologists call this bias the “availability heuristic,” an effect Trump has sought to exploit since the launch of his presidential campaign, when he referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists.
“It basically works the way memory works: you judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind,” says Northeastern University psychologist John Coley. “Creating a vivid, salient image like that is a great way to make it memorable.”
This is the same bias that makes you fear swimming in the ocean lest you get attacked by a shark, despite shark attacks being far less common than, say, death by coconut. When something is memorable, it tends to be the thing you think of first, and then it has an outsize influence on your understanding of the world. After the movie Jaws came out, a generation of people was afraid to swim in the sea—not because shark attacks were more likely but because all those movie viewers could more readily imagine them. (Disclosure.)
Psychologists stress that your brain has to work this way, to a certain extent—otherwise you’d have a very hard time differentiating and prioritizing the avalanche of inputs you receive throughout your life. “It’s not a cognitive malfunction,” says Coley. “But it can be purposefully exploited.” When Trump uses a salient exemplar that will lodge in your brain, he’s manipulating your brain’s natural way of sorting information.
But if you can’t totally eliminate your brain’s predisposition, you can at least work against the potential for bias it creates by understanding that it exists. Journalists in particular need to be mindful because exploiters of this bias, such as the president, are taking advantage not just of the way the human brain works but the way journalism works. The daily news at its worst becomes a catalog of salacious salient exemplars that only serve to distort the reality journalism in its most ideal version aspires to reflect. “We haven’t done as good a job of actually explaining how things function at a higher level, the success stories,” says Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. This failing aided Trump during the campaign, Lipinski says. By focusing on negative stories, the news helped to paint a picture of an America in need of “being made great again.”
Recently, Trump told an audience of senior military commanders at CENTCOM that the “very, very dishonest media” didn’t report on terrorism. The implication was that journalists bury important news about terrorism because of some alternate agenda. Later that day, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer released a list of terrorist acts the president felt that journalists didn’t spend enough time covering. Journalists pounced: Hey, we reported on ALL OF THOSE! We won Pulitzers for our reporting! Here are a bazillion front page headlines proving it!
In doing so, journalists took the bait. The stories about their stories fed the narrative that terrorism is everywhere (it’s not). Instead, reporters need to get smarter about covering the non-aberrant, to show that commonplace does not equal mundane. It may not be rare, but it’s reality.
Emily Dreyfuss | 02.11.17 | Wired
You only use 10 percent of your brain. Eating carrots improves your eyesight. Vitamin C cures the common cold. Crime in the United States is at an all-time high.
None of those things are true.
But the facts don’t actually matter: People repeat them so often that you believe them. Welcome to the “illusory truth effect,” a glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth. Marketers and politicians are masters of manipulating this particular cognitive bias—which perhaps you have become more familiar with lately.
President Trump is a “great businessman,” he says over and over again. Some evidence suggests that might not be true. Or look at just this week, when the president signed three executive orders designed to stop what he describes—over and over again—as high levels of violence against law enforcement in America. Sounds important, right? But such crimes are at their lowest rates in decades, as are most violent crimes in the US. Not exactly, as the president would have it, “American carnage.”
The effect is more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information. So … 2017, basically.
“President Trump intends to build task forces to investigate and stop national trends that don’t exist,” says Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He’s right that the trends aren’t real, of course. But some number of people still believe it. Every time the president tweets or says something untrue, fact-checkers race to point out the falsehood—to little effect. A Pew Research poll last fall found 57 percent of presidential election voters believed crime across the US had gotten worse since 2008, despite FBI data showing it had fallen by about 20 percent.
So what’s going on here? “Repetition makes things seem more plausible,” says Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto whose research team first noticed the effect in the 1970s. “And the effect is likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.” So … 2017, basically.
Remember those “Head On! Apply Directly to the Forehead!” commercials? That’s the illusory truth effect in action. The ads repeated the phrase so much so that people found themselves at the drugstore staring at a glue-stick-like contraption thinking, “Apply directly to MY forehead!” The question of whether it actually alleviates pain gets smothered by a combination of tagline bludgeoning and tension headache.
Repetition is what makes fake news work, too, as researchers at Central Washington University pointed out in a study way back in 2012 before the term was everywhere. It’s also a staple of political propaganda. It’s why flacks feed politicians and CEOs sound bites that they can say over and over again. Not to go all Godwin’s Law on you, but even Adolf Hitler knew about the technique. “Slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea,” he wrote in Mein Kampf.
The effect works because when people attempt to assess truth they rely on two things: whether the information jibes with their understanding, and whether it feels familiar. The first condition is logical: People compare new information with what they already know to be true and consider the credibility of both sources. But researchers have found that familiarity can trump rationality—so much so that hearing over and over again that a certain fact is wrong can have a paradoxical effect. It’s so familiar that it starts to feel right.
“When you see the fact for the second time it’s much easer to process—you read it more quickly, you understand it more fluently,” says Vanderbilt University psychologist Lisa Fazio. “Our brain interprets that fluency as a signal for something being true”—Whether it’s true or not. In other words, rationality can be hard. It takes work. Your busy brain is often more comfortable running on feeling.
You are busy, too, so let me get back to Trump’s latest executive orders, which are mostly symbolic. They certify that the government will do what it can to keep law enforcement officers safe. They contain vague language that civil rights advocates worry could lead to the criminalization of protest. But while perhaps unnecessary, the orders are hardly pointless—they reinforce the idea that America is unsafe, that law enforcement officers are at risk, that the country needs a strong “law and order” president. Data be damned.
As with any cognitive bias, the best way not to fall prey to it is to know it exists. If you read something that just feels right, but you don’t know why, take notice. Look into it. Check the data. If that sounds like too much work, well, facts are fun.
Facts are fun.
Facts are fun.
Facts are fun.
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