You Won’t Believe Why People Can’t Stop Themselves From Writing Breathless Vacuous Headlines

clicks_viaTimFranklinActually, you probably will believe why, because those punchy gasping headlines are usually wrong. They exaggerate, misrepresent, and often flat-out contradict the content. When there is content, which there often isn’t, because most of the time it is just a dressed up meme or an embedded YouTube video dumped between fifteen ads and a couple paragraphs of partisan nonsense.

But maybe I do have something new to tell you: the click-bait writers aren’t the problem. The problem is us. And that includes you.

Yes, you. You are the problem.

Well, probably not “you” who are reading this. But if you shared something with a crap headline recently, maybe you are! See, there’s plenty of crap content and crap headlines. Every time we share something sloppy, we are giving it tacit approval. Every time we click on something with a crap headline, we are putting our stamp of approval on that nonsense.

I get it. It goes to the lizard brain. It’s easy to get caught up in “this thing that JUST happened [well maybe kinda not really]” or tease ourselves with that thing that “you won’t believe!!!!!.! [although you already do or you wouldn’t be looking at this anymore]” because hey, excitement is fun and cheap and the world sucks.

Unfortunately, it’s not just for enjoyment. It’s becoming the way we learn about the rest of society. We can easily find ourselves hate-clicking pieces about “Trump’s latest plan to create fascist America!” or “The sneaky way liberals are trying to distract you from real America’s problems!” We’re the ones gasping, having the vapors, and fainting over another meaningless tweet. We’re the ones frothing on the keyboard and hitting “like” and “share” before our rational brain has even caught up to the consequences.

It’s like eating candy, only a little more so—because after a few years of it, it’s becoming hard to find real information hiding in all the junk food. Not because filter bubbles and fake news, just because we indulge our urges too much, and that’s how markets work.

And that’s how markets fail. They meet our base desires, even when those base desires are bad for us. They fill our wants, but not our needs. What we need is good, thought-provoking information about what is true and how other people think about it. But what we want is to be endlessly distracted by things that are unchallenging, either because we already agree with what they mean, or because they mean nothing at all. We want to be high on the emotion, but then move on with no consequences.

There is, however, a consequence. The consequence is not only that we are bad at telling what is true, because we do not exercise the skill. The consequence is not only that we are outraged and distracted simultaneously by sickening caricatures of real events.

The consequence is that we are creating more of them. We are not just falling for the exaggerated version of reality, we are seeking it out. We want it, and we don’t restrain ourselves.

We hold the moral ideal that truth will come out on top eventually. But truth and lies don’t have power—we do. There is no absolute value in the truth, just a question of what we ask for.

The headline I put on this piece is actually pretty accurate.

You won’t believe it: because you’re the problem.

The lies are what we click on: so we’re the ones writing them.

And we can’t stop ourselves.

Because we like to be breathlessly outraged, and we care more about feeling right than being right.


Image Credit: Tim Franklin Photography

Under What Conditions?

bush_library_oval_office_replicaI do not support Donald Trump. But what if I did? He legitimately won the election under our democratic system; only a quarter of the country voted for him, but that is the system we have. His rhetoric is divisive and untethered from evidence, but that is the rhetoric we decided was acceptable. The choices he makes, whether we like it or not, will shape our country and possibly the world for many years to come.

One thing I am sure of is that being politically divided and unwilling to change our views is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. It’s easy to use division to justify more. But I don’t want to do that. I want to have solidly-evidenced political positions.

I don’t plan to say “oh, give him a chance,” because our country already decided to give him that on November 8th, and because I do not personally expect him to become any more respectful or honest as president than he was in the year preceding the election. Nor do I intend to shut up about what I disagree with, because critiquing the government is patriotic and quashing dissent is undemocratic.

So he’d have my critique even if he already had my support. But what would he have to do to get my support? Under what conditions would I say “Well, I didn’t expect it, but he’s doing a good job”? If my opposition to Trump is partisan, there will be no such conditions. But if my opposition to Trump is based on his policies and actions, I should be able to say under what conditions I would change my mind.

Here they are:

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Hypocrisy is Easy

two-ways_vaisamuelyooCan you believe what the other side said this week? They’re such hypocrites—they say one thing when it applies to everyone else, and another thing entirely when it applies to them. It makes me so mad when people don’t hold to their own fundamental principals—I think the best response would be to create a snarky meme showing that and share it widely, divorced from the original context.

Well, sometimes I think that. Sometimes I just see the snarky meme from someone else and get that little rush of agreement. You know the one: the one that makes you feel good about being right, and just, and having enemies. And not just any enemies—the best enemies. They go out of their way to be spineless fools whose simpering evilness is so clear in their fundamental lack of a coherent worldview that it would be foolish to even listen to them.


So bear with me for a minute here.

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Without Evidence

newspapers_viabinoriranasingheIt is conventional to give people the benefit of the doubt—to err, when possible, on the side of uncertainty and not to presume the unlikely is untrue. But it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances, and it is quite another to give an outsized benefit with very little doubt indeed. That, in essence, is origin of false balance.

Worse, of late the media has taken to determining what subjects are in doubt not by what evidence is available, but instead by how forcefully people argue for one side or another. A forceful but untrue statement often triggers a confused and muddled response from journalists, who, by dint of their profession, know both that the statement is painfully untrue and that to contradict it outright is painfully taboo.

Journalistic conventions, intended to ensure fair treatment regardless of personal inclination, fail abysmally when public figures refuse to play by the rules.

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The Novel and the New

notnow_viaellaOver the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.

If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.

But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.

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Intuitive Lies

onfire_viasusannenilssonPolitics has always mobilized the most intuitive kind of lies—the kind that we don’t bother to look at very deeply because they confirm our existing prejudices. Politicians are masters of the lie that feels true, even when all the facts run counter. And we buy those lies, and repeat them, and believe them, not because they have any isolated value, but because they bolster our view of the world.

Yet even knowing that, this election seems to me to be built on uniquely straightforward misinformation.

So I have been paying more attention to this election than some in the past, but not because I am disillusioned or disgusted with the choices, or frustrated by my vote not counting the way I’d like. Instead, it is because I think this election is historic, I very much want to see how we deal with it as a society.

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Skewing the Tribe

imposter_viaalexbellConformity is one of those tricky things: we like to give it the side-eye, but we also like to practice it, often without even knowing we’re doing it. We enjoy the feeling of being “right” with everyone else. The trouble is, it’s really hard to think differently than the rest of a group—so the feeling of being “right” isn’t really a feeling of being right at all. It’s just a feeling of being the same.

There is a series of psychological experiments that speak to the question of conformity. Collectively, these are known as the Asch Paradigm, and the most oft-repeated result of these studies is that, given enough peer pressure, a large number of people will give obviously wrong answers to questions. For example, when asked a simple question like “which of these three lines is the same length as this fourth line?” people were much more likely to pick one that was obviously longer or shorter if a group of other people confidently chose the wrong line first. In other words, seeing other people give the wrong answer with confidence made them change their own answer—and even doubt their own judgment.

You can tell this as a story about how we succumb to the pressure of the group and espouse ideas that are wrong. But I think it is more interesting as a story about how we impose conformity on others—about how confident we are in our views, especially in groups, and how viciously we ostracize people who propose something different.

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