“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grand-children’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” – The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – Carl Sagan (1995)
More than two decades on this quote perfectly captures how the narrative machine has evolved. Like other great thinkers Sagan could foresee many of the problems that society would face. Sagan went on to warn that the ignorance that dominates modern society would even be celebrated:
“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
Any information that you consume will have some influence on you, at the very least by forcing a reaction. Our capacity for independent thought is much lower than we imagine. The French sociologist Jacques Ellul argued that it is only the disconnected who are immune to propaganda, while those who insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate.
The challenge for us all is to recognise that this is becoming normal. It is normal to outsource your perspective of the world to a news media corporation or the crowd on Twitter. It is normal to outsource your journey home to an algorithm. It is normal to let others suggest what we should be reading, listening and watching. Very soon we will not be able to imagine anything different.
In the book Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet and Pooh spot some tracks in the snow. They follow them all the way round the small wood and the tracks are joined by two more sets of tracks. Excited, the pair are convinced the tracks must belong to an imaginary character called the Woozle.
“This…whatever-it-was…has now been joined by another…whatever-it-is… and they are now proceeding in company. Would you mind coming with me, Piglet, in case they turn out to be Hostile Animals?” said Winnie the Pooh.
This is a surprise – there must be several Woozles. They follow the tracks around the small wood until they’re joined by more tracks. Now Piglet and Pooh are getting really excited. They follow the tracks round the small wood, and they’re joined by even more tracks.
The tracks keep multiplying until Christopher Robin explains to them that they have been following their own tracks in circles around a tree – the Woozle doesn’t actually exist.
“Yes,” said Winnie the Pooh.
“I see now,” said Winnie the Pooh.
“I have been Foolish and Deluded,” said he, “and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”
This phenomenon is known in the media as “the Woozle effect”. Instead of looking for the facts, we look for agreement. One journalist might find an article online and report its findings as fact. Another later checks to see what other journalists have reported, and finds two articles reporting the same findings. This is starting to get exciting. Then a third journalist spots the tracks. The story about the [insert celebrity scandal, insider trading, Woozle] must be true.
Instead of going back to the beginning and building up a picture for ourselves, we simply start with whatever the majority think right now and build on that. Today’s narrative anchors our perspective of the truth.
The media doesn’t just give us the facts (the “who, what, when and where”), it also gives us its opinion (the “why”). Why something or another is important. Why you should feel a certain way. Why you should act a certain way. Why someone said what they said. According to the blog Epsilon Theory, the name for the press telling you how to think about issues is fiat news. Fiat news is about the presentation of opinions as facts, regardless of whether they consistently favour one group or another.
The danger of course is that if all we’re doing is watching the crowd, watching each other and interpreting it as fact then we are not really living in the real world. Instead, we are living in a world where reality can be conjured up, Woozles and everything else. Remember, as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius famously said, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
It takes hard work to have an opinion
What should you do then? Well, the first step is to avoid outsourcing your thinking as much as possible, and to do that you need to develop your own opinions, which of course is hard work. No one illustrates how hard this is, but yet how vital a skill this is than billionaire investor Charlie Munger:
“The ability to destroy your ideas rapidly instead of slowly when the occasion is right is one of the most valuable things. You have to work hard on it. Ask yourself what are the arguments on the other side. It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents. This is a great mental discipline.”
The difference between the people who do the work and the people who just reel off memorised opinion is huge. When you do the work, you can answer the next question – you can apply that knowledge to problems you haven’t seen before.
Unfortunately most of us read the headline, and not much else. According to a study published in 2014 by the US Media Insight Project roughly 6 out of every 10 people questioned did not delve any deeper into a news article than just skimming the headlines.
A bandwagon effect can develop on Twitter and other forms of social media in which likes and retweets are seen as ‘social proof’. The crowd thinks that this is worthy of your attention. Social proof is powerful in lots of different arenas in life, and in the most part can save us a lot of time. If everyone else says this is true then they must know something that you don’t. Don’t they?
The problem is that social proof (our belief in the collective wisdom of the crowd) tends to be greatest when we are at our most uncertain. The crowd isn’t always correct though. Like a herd of panicked buffalo, heads down driving each other off of a cliff sometimes it pays to look up, and check.
Challenge your beliefs
For most people, most of the time, thinking becomes conjecture and hypothesis. But to really think you must leave any beliefs and preconceived notions behind. According to Jim O’Shaughnessy, author of What Works On Wall Street, it is often our most deep seated beliefs that we find hardest to challenge. These beliefs often run right through our thinking. We become shackled by the narratives we were told as children; those of our parents, our teachers and other prominent people in our lives. In short, we fail to question them. Instead we accept them as fact:
“We are all socialized from birth with a million spoken and unspoken rules of society. Our family, our friends, our schools and our religious affiliations silently but efficiently fill us with notions and beliefs that we almost never question. There’s no great conspiracy here, it’s just the way society has always functioned. The point is, many of us believe things that we’ve never questioned or even considered questioning. And, like a computer operating system that is badly programmed, keeps leading us to suboptimal choices and results.”
Unfortunately, we seldom change our default settings, leaving us with antiquated ways of thinking:
“We come out of the womb with the software fully installed. It’s always puzzled me that so many just accept the default settings. Some of them are very good and keep us safe in dangerous situations, but the advance of society/technology has left us with antiquated software.”
The risk O’Shaughnessy identifies is that if we don’t challenge our default ways of thinking then we become a pawn for others to manipulate. Their narrative starts to supplant our own:
“If we don’t confront and challenge our obsolete programmed beliefs, we may find ourselves surrendering our agency to others, be they family, friends, governments or social organizations. Once we surrender agency, it becomes an easy step to see everything that happens to us as due to fate or some other entity outside our self. This is the hallmark of a victim mentality and robs you of controlling your own fate. But how many of us truly challenge our embedded beliefs?”
Beliefs are stubborn beasts and can grow like weeds, entangling our thought processes for decades. In order to take back your thinking you must root out those that have become articles of faith, yet rest on shaky foundations.
This article is an extract from my book, “Pay Attention: 101 Ways To Tame The Narrative Machine, Be a Smarter Media Consumer and Stop Outsourcing Your Thinking”