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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/13/12

How's That Workin' for Ya?

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Of Stories and How We Think

It's a mistake to assume that we humans form our opinions deductively using logic. We are not intrinsically rational and that's actually a good thing most of the time.  Few of our choices and decisions are made on complete information. We act intuitively on beliefs, and it allows us to function pretty well.

Psychologist James Alcock describes what he calls a belief engine: "...our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, an engine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true and what is not. This belief engine selects information from the environment, shapes it, combines it with information from memory, and produces beliefs that are generally consistent with beliefs already held."

We continuously and rapidly form beliefs about the everyday world around us and we act upon them. They can be grand or mundane. I sense that good cup of coffee helps me to write better. I just believe that under the influence of caffeine I work faster and with more focus.  I don't have any empirical data on that. In the belief that no one will be speeding the opposite direction in my lane, I confidently drive my car over hills and around corners. My perception of risk is based in belief and past experience, not fact and reason.  

Humans express more complex beliefs as stories: narratives that describe how the world around us works. Our propensity to do this probably dates to humanity's earliest communication skills. Cave drawings, gestures, and primitive language gave us the symbols to share beliefs and stories about the world.

We communicate our values and culture through stories. Obvious examples include fairy tales, myths, folk tales, ballads, ceremonial dances.  The worlds religions revere sacred scriptures which record parables, myths, and historical accounts of exemplary events.  Scholarly histories and biographies report and interpret the significant events of our societies, and the lives of those who influenced them.  It's all story.

We as individuals assimilate stories for these many sources, but we also construct our own personal narrative. We create a structure of knowing things that is mostly subjective perception, and partly objective fact. These personal narratives about the world are uniquely our own take about what is so in the world.  Most are useful, but some are dysfunctional. The operative question is always, "How's that working for you?"  Utility is the test of a good story.

At macro scale, our social groups invent shared stories and institutionalize them as unassailable truth. Examples include the words of the US Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self evident ..." and the ancient Nicene creed which is recited in unison as a part of the liturgy of many Christian churches, " I believe in one God ...."  These shared perceptions of reality are the social glue that bonds groups, societies, and nations.


Science is often thought of as the bastion of rational thought, yet innovation rarely starts with facts and a purely deductive process.  Most often new insight begins with a perplexing problem or question that gives rise to an idea. The scientist speculates connecting the dots, as it were, and then devises tests and experiments that will establish objectively what he or she conceived intuitively. Einstein imagined a boy riding on a beam of light. The mathematical support and the formal presentation of the theory of relativity followed. Elaborate technology and precise astronomical observations ultimately provided the objective evidence for what had started as only an idea.  The mathematics of quantum physics borrows from poetic notions of mathematical symmetry to predict new particles. Then researchers conduct experiments to verify their actual existence.

When one accepts that much of human understanding of the world is story driven, many individual behaviors  and the great majority of social behaviors are understandable.  If we change the story, we change the behavior. Our perceptions are remembered, interpreted and communicated as stories, and our actions are directed by those stories.

The goal of political advertising, all of which is crafted using propaganda techniques, is to change the story that guides voting behaviors.  We vote on the story we believe about the political world.  In 1976 a new word came into our lexicon: meme.  It means an idea, belief or perception that  spreads through a culture and becomes widely accepted as true.  Familiar examples include: "Tax and spend Democrat," "Government is the problem, not the solution," "Republican one-percenter," and "do-nothing congress."

Once a meme is successfully launched it spreads like a virus. It propagates rapidly through the ranks of believers because it evokes and corroborates beliefs they already accept and hold. Reinforced by social agreement, the perception the meme represents needs little objective evidence. It becomes common knowledge and seems self-evident bypassing skeptical critical thinking.

That's the scary part because a story is so easily fabricated and once established as a meme, it is very difficult to correct if it's wrong. Consider John Kerry and the swift-boaters. The meme that his status as a wartime hero was unearned put his character into question. The meme was a product of political propaganda; subsequently the term "swift-boated"  became a buzz-word to describe character assassination.

Basic strategy in political races is to create an us vs. them perception. The adversarial environment bolsters the natural human tendency to form cults of agreement around the beliefs that define and unite each side.  Insiders with contrary ideas must buck the powerful social pressures to go along and get along. Heretics risk being shunned no matter how compelling their arguments.

A meme that plays to commonly held fears or prejudices easily spreads to others outside the partisan boundary. Contemporary examples include, "Obama is not a natural US Citizen," "Obama is a socialist," and "Obama is a Muslim."  The unexamined assumption is that any widely held belief must have some substance behind it.  One highly successful GOP meme was the notion that Iraq and Saddam Hussein somehow backed the 9/11 World Trade Center attack.

How does one recognize when such manipulation is happening and can it be stopped? Contrary facts are not necessarily helpful because media propaganda is not subject to rebuttal.  Though news commentators often dispute the misleading story, the sheer frequency and broad distribution of the offending ad overwhelm the once-and-done news item.  Since the Citizens United decision we can expect many very well funded propaganda attacks. Our film and advertising industries have perfected the high impact, visually compelling 30 and 60 second spot.

Couple that with the viral nature of a meme and rebuttal is near impossible.  Because beliefs and memes are pre-rational, it is highly likely that the memes these ads seek to create will be successful. Do you remember Willy Horton?

When I was contemplating this essay my first thought was to learn better how to discern propaganda. Maybe if we all were trained to recognize it -- a formidable task and probably nobody would listen.  Hell, fifty years ago when I was in high school civics we studied these things and how much good did that do?  The propaganda sneaks past my defenses because it shows up in conversations with friends, on the TV that is playing in the bar, or in the "fair and balanced" commentary on the evening news. How do you fight that?

I now think the answer lies in the seeing the big picture: discerning the story that motivates the opposing parties.  How does the meme we are hearing relate to the big picture? We look at the past dozen years. We look past the rhetoric to the actions of the parties.  Though we are choosing between two men who are running for President of the US, we are really deciding on which of two clearly differentiated philosophies of governance promises the best future for our children and grandchildren. The swift-boat items are distractions.  What is the story that each candidate's followers share?

The GOP is driven by the belief that market forces produce economic prosperity if left unfettered. They claim that we govern too much and we spend too much on social programs and not enough on military. They also believe that the path to fiscal responsibility is lower, less progressive taxes and curtailed total spending. They fear centralized government overreaching and overburdening the economic engine.

The Democrats are driven by the belief that we can engineer national prosperity by providing generous economic safety nets, progressive taxes, subsidized jobs and education. They say we should balance the budget by reducing military spending and increasing taxation on the richest 10% of our society. They cherish the hope of a society that cares for poor and old, and they fear centralized government that subsidizes business and empowers the oligarchy to the detriment of environmental sustainability and the well-being of the lower two-thirds of the economic spectrum.

How did/does the GOP story work for you?  How did/does the Dem story work for you?  Decide and then choose. And keep in mind that "no decision" grants more influence to those, like me, who do decide and  vote.

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Richmond Shreve is a retired business executive whose careers began in electronics (USN) and broadcasting in the 1960s. Over the years he has maintained a hobby interest in amateur radio, and the audio-visual arts while working in sales and (more...)

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