Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Convenient "Truth" - Our capacity for big (sometimes bad) conclusions on scant if any evidence

Nov 2016

There was a moment on Friday afternoon of sheer panic for me. I had felt compelled to check my Inbox one more time before I took Friday night off to spend with family. And there was the news bulletin and those words that leapt off the page.... possible explosion... fire... local suburban... Commonwealth Bank.

You see my son commenced a job a few weeks ago in a management role with a local suburban Commonwealth Bank... but thankfully it was not Springvale and after 20 agonising seconds, I had every reason to believe he was safe. Then of course my mind turned, as I'm sure yours did, to the horror for those injured, the possible motive and mental health condition of the person who did it, what we did or didn't know about him and perhaps I've read too many Tom Clancy novels but whether or not this terrible incident was part of an orchestrated attack with more to come, a revenge attack from a former disgruntled employee or the desperate even impulsive act of a very unwell person. I want to say I knew nothing at the time of his nationality or background; only his gender and approximate age.

What I didn't think about was the divisive and ugly polemic the incident sparked in the social and print media regarding positions on refugees, detention on Christmas Island, immigration policy, welfare fraud, bridging visas, gambling and the impact of need/greed on behaviour and gross disturbing generalisations of people about race and religion. I doubt whether or not those whose comments raged in the media knew enough about the alleged perpetrator and his story at that time to make informed comment (just as I don't).

Of course we want to make sense of the world. But let's also accept we hear what we want to hear. We spout those opportunistic fragments, yes, fragments of evidence, opinions dressed up as fact, selective information (ours or that provided to us) which may not really be facts or evidence when under investigation. Why? To support our positions, to explain our fears, to justify outlandish claims and more scarily, radical courses of action.

Donald Trump while addressing Middle America cited disturbing "facts" about the Muslim population. He seemingly spoke to the fear in white Americans living in parts of the U.S. with high immigrant populations. In Trump's speech, supposedly more than half the Muslims surveyed in a particular poll wanted the choice to be governed by Sharia Law and a quarter thought violence against Americans was justified in the name of Global Jihad. President-Elect Trump on the campaign trail cited the "very highly respected people, who I know actually" at the Centre for Security Policy to assert some of his claims. The Washington Post said the conduct of the poll was "shoddy" and most of the claims made over and over again in various forums have been repudiated. Incidentally, the Centre for Security Policy has also been described as a right wing extremist think tank at best and a hate group at worst. In any case Trump's main points were straight out of their talking point playbook; a playbook they seem most happy to share with anyone who wanted to listen and better still, share their message.

As I've observed before, we know we would be overloaded with stimuli if we didn't have a filtering system. Our Reticular Activating System (RAS) is adaptive but what that means when fear in our gut transcends level heading critical thinking is the types of comments we heard in the wake of the Commbank incident.

It is the same thinking that people undergoing organisational change latch onto when they try to convince others that jobs will surely be lost even after repeated public assurances they won't be and no evidence to back up the claims.

With clearly no approval from an Ethics Committee, Facebook conducted a study in 2014 to examine the impact of positivity or negativity of people's Facebook wall by manipulating the content posted for unsuspecting Facebook users and then trying to determine if that influenced the content subsequently posted by those users. The study sought to test whether or not emotional contagion could occur in the context of text-based inputs and the effect was striking. Whilst Facebook received enormous backlash from those who alleged they had never given informed consent for Facebook to manipulate their wall, the influence of emotional content on thoughts, feelings and behaviour is as fascinating as it is disturbing.

A study done in 2001 at Stanford University posits that we tend to remember and be more influenced by bad news/feedback/experience than good. Professor Roy Baumeister in his journal article "Bad is stronger than good" (see link below) explains this phenomenon which he argues is pervasive and well-accepted in general psychology (thus I guess I'm asking you to give it credence). What's more, the residual impact of the bad lasts longer than the positive. Additional findings were that bad experiences are recollected more strongly, in more vivid detail and that people expressing negative thoughts and views are regarded as smarter than those who go positive. From an evolutionary point of view, all of this again may be adaptive as those of us who focused on perceiving and eliminating threats were less likely to get eaten for breakfast when the sabre tooth tiger wandered into the cave.

We want to be able to filter that which is irrelevant but how important for us to apply cognitive discipline and discern fact from convenient fiction; transcending those primitive mechanisms designed to ensure the survival of the species from irrational F.E.A.R (False Evidence Appearing Real).

If we need multiple positive inputs to counteract the amplified and lingering effects of the negative, let's actively seek the contrary evidence to the convenient and dastardly stereotype.

Let's engage in random acts of kindness that counterbalance cruel and random acts of violence.

If we are to be hypervigilant about anything, let it be a heightened sensitivity to our proneness to bias and distortion; that which, at its most destructive, provides an impetus for inhumane and reckless action including trolling, victimisation and racial vilification.

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