Defend Truth


Black men pushing trolleys

Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

Spin and verbiage trump our own ideas of rational thought. Here’s why.

A few years ago a friend of mine went to pick his Finnish girlfriend up from OR Tambo. The girlfriend was archetypically Nordic. Tall, blonde. Said friend was of the hip-hop variety. Thin, black, holes in his jeans. Having collected her luggage, they walked together to the car, with him pushing the trolley. Suddenly an angry airport official burst onto them. ‘Look,’ he shouted at the hip hopper. “We’ve told you people a hundred times before! You can’t push the trolleys if you don’t wear the bib!”

We all laugh at these priceless South African stories because they evoke our collective social awkwardness. But there’s also frequently an assumption that the cognitive confusion has come about because the person concerned is under pressure. They ‘didn’t stop to think’ is the way we phrase it. Research shows, however, that even when we slow down and seriously apply our brains, we make very similar errors.

In 2011 Daniel Kahneman released Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman (together with various colleagues) has spent his time on the planet lining up the ideas we hold about our own decision-making against the reality revealed by research.

Amidst a plethora of insights, the notion that humans instinctively favour metaphors and charecterisation over hard fact is intriguing. In the simplest possible terms, we always go for the story. When presented with a set of information that contains metaphorical descriptions and suggestions along with verifiable facts, our brains latch onto the metaphors and the characterisation, skipping lightly over the rest. Stereotypical images, ideas and narrative tropes supply the primary source material from which we take actions and form opinions – even when we believe we’re acting on the basis of ‘analysis’.

Another example: my wife was in a government department recently to challenge our (hopelessly inflated) property valuation. A space exists on the form for the applicant to suggest an alternative value for the property. An elderly white lady arrived at the official’s desk to be guided, one-on-one, through the process. “Please ma’am, you have to put a value down here.” The official pointed at the appropriate space on the form.

“Well, ok,” the old lady replied angrily, “but I can’t afford more than R200!” She thought the official was demanding a bribe. Significantly, there was no rush in this scenario – yet her brain instinctively jumped to a stereotypical conclusion about what was going on.

Kahneman explains it like this. The brain can be viewed as being divided into two ‘systems’. He calls them System 1 and System 2.

System 1 processes images and information and scenarios within nanoseconds, and draws an instinctive conclusion. It then passes this conclusion on to System 2 – the part of our brain able to slow down, bring out the heavy machinery and do some careful thinking. System 2 allows us to successfully negotiate the immense challenges of science and maths. It has significant power, and its job is to analyse and approve or reject the outputs of System 1.

So far, so good. One can see oneself going through this sort of interplay between the two systems all day long.

The key insight Kahneman offers, however, is that System 2 is in fact as lazy as hell. Just because it has deep analytical powers, doesn’t mean they are automatically brought into play. Quite the opposite, in fact. System 2’s inherent indolence means that it will rubber stamp any conclusion reached by System 1 that it deems plausible. So, in both examples above, System 2 will have done a lightning check on the scenario presented by System 1, deemed it fair enough, and said ‘go ahead’.

The reality that we are at our deepest analytical level naturally indolent explains a great deal about how we interact with each other – socially, politically, economically. It is one reason why narrative professionals hold so much influence in global society. Management consultants. Advertising and marketing folk. Journos, thought leaders and scenario planners. These are the people who disproportionately shape ‘popular opinion’. Sure, engineers build bridges and scientists build rocket ships, and both professions are influential in that they actually get stuff done, but it’s the narrative that really sticks in our collective mind – even when we believe we’re focused on the hard facts.

Within this context, two more insights:

1) Humans are cognitively geared to give themselves the benefit of the doubt. This is known as Self Serving Bias. When it comes to the validity and/or success of our own decisions, we veer dramatically to the positive interpretation, leaving the ugly facts behind. We can judge others objectively – sometimes – in terms of intent vs. performance, but not ourselves.

2) We believe we put opinions together based on the data at hand, but the research shows an important technical deviation from that belief. Often what we really do, unless we have found a way to slow System 2 down and grind away seriously at the numbers, is pull down the most readily available images stored in our memory banks to form an opinion. When we’re polled as to whether we believe such and such trend is or isn’t on the rise, for example, the number of recent media mentions of the trend is an extremely powerful anchoring force.

Now, anyone who has spent serious time in the belly of the communication beast can be forgiven for thinking that their work is all irrelevant bullshit. This is an oft-repeated notion for those who work at the creative back end of the media sausage machine, based on the reality that very often (most often?) our job is to make it all up. Whether it’s a brand activation, a crisis management approach, a reaction to a media scandal or a blue sky visionary thing for a new toilet paper brand, someone must head into a dark corner and hit the verbiage loom – hard – until a viable story is created. Because this process is so detached from what we perceive as hard fact, or ‘reality’, we tend to think that the narrative spin cycle is secondary to a deeper truth.

Kahneman’s work illustrates that the metaphor is a primary, not secondary, cognitive force in society. The bullshit we sling around (in the media, at press conferences, within ‘social dialogue’) is what is primarily being absorbed and processed. Metaphor first, fact second (if at all).

So: when it comes to the conflict between capital and labour, the mechanics of the business model that forces lay-offs is central, from management’s point of view, to everything. But what could be defining the interaction from labour’s point of view is the imagery of corporate power and success – imagery that stretches back hundreds of years. Bosses drive huge cars and have many houses. Workers live in shacks. This binary image really matters. Equally, when viewed from the executive perspective, the worker’s technical reality (an inability to pay for food, transport and housing) can easily be over-powered by imagery of the panga toyi-toyi.

So: government sees itself as doing its best in difficult circumstances. But the public sees large (and always getting larger) government asses being ferried around in enormous vehicles with bombastic blue lights.

So: the Tweeting elite see themselves as practically positive contributors to the development of a growing middle class. The labourer perched on the back of a bakkie driving through the Greenside restaurant belt could well, however, be seeing a brazen feasting on colonial spoils.

We all assume the ‘other side’ somehow lacks the ability to access a factual truth we have understood – but Kahneman’s life work points to the fact that we are not nearly concerned enough about the stereotypical images and metaphors we present to the world ourselves. There’s a deep and important paradox at play: we think the politicians are pigs in those huge cars. But we drive this 4 x 4 because it’s the only way to get the family to the coast in safety.

I find it a bit terrifying to think that the work of the ad bunnies, the journos, the spin-doctors, the management consults, the politicians and the motivational speakers matters more than I thought – not less. The world is a more philosophically comfortable place when one assumes that crucial influence rests in the hands of a noted, noble leader (supported by a team of inherently analytical technocrats) rather than Mac Maharaj or Alastair Campbell.

The solution? More thoughtful honesty in the development of business / government narratives and imagery, and less narrative detachment from the CFOs, administrators and policy wonks. Which sounds easy enough. But it’s not. We’ve built a global economy over many hundreds of years on this very detachment. And if shareholder value/ profit is the only objective, it works just fine. To switch it all off now… well, that would require some kind of weird global crisis of conscience. Which sounds like wacky bunny hugger stuff, and will continue to do so, until… well, until. DM


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