When lies aren’t lies

Note: this was originally a digression in my last post, Relevancy and Truth, but I decided it worked better as a standalone piece.


When someone asks your opinion about a topic, do you always answer with completely unvarnished honesty? Do you always give the answer you know or believe to be true?

The answer is no, of course you don’t. We all filter our self-expression through the lenses of what we believe others expect from us and how we think our responses will be received. This distorting effect is widely understood, from research psychology and behavioral economics to opinion polling. In short, people routinely voice opinions they know to be either false, or at least uncertain.

This is not exactly “lying.” It’s not deception; if anything, it’s more like self-deception. It gets to the core of how humans think and present themselves, and I think it’s more important than ever in understanding the mass psychology of the social web.

Polls are self-expression

What people say and what they actually believe or do are often meaningfully different. Opinion polling is a great example.

Polling word choices and “primers” like partisan labels have big, well-understood distorting effects on responses people give. As they say, partisan tribalism rules everything around us, and once you cast a question in that light, most people will provide responses that go along with their chosen herd, even if they actually know those answers to be wrong. There are many good examples among the “shocking” opinion poll results that get reported. Polling from 2016 suggested that 16% of Trump voters believed that “whites are a superior race” and 40% support “shutting down mosques in the U.S.,” among a long list of similarly horrible things. Famously, only 15% of self-identified “conservative Republicans” believe that climate change is happening due to human activity.

Note that answering a pollster’s questionnaire is “costless,” in that there is no personal penalty for being wrong about a fact. When you give respondents “skin in the game,” results can change dramatically. A quick, fun example: in the recent Mayfield-McGregor boxing match, Vegas bookies reported that 95% of bets were on McGregor to win – yet 80% of the money (and later, more) was on Mayfield, who, as widely predicted, won convincingly. Behavioral economics shows over and over how people make very different predictions when they stand to gain personally from a result.

So here’s a claim I have little hard evidence for, but believe anyway: I don’t really believe polls like the ones above. I think large majorities of American adults, including Republicans, actually believe anthropogenic climate change is real. Similarly, I suspect that most evangelicals, who repeatedly insist in polling that the Earth is 5,000 years old and evolution is a myth, don’t truly believe in either idea; and nor did most Republican voters believe that President Obama was a Kenyan Muslim or that Clinton was guilty of treason and had people murdered or any of that other druck.

Rather, each of these are utter tribal expressions whose incorrectness is both costless to the respondent and impossible to “prove” away – since you can’t “prove” a negative, or use evidence to dispel a conspiracy theory. It’s exactly the same reason why then-candidate Trump was willing to offer $5 million for “proof” that President Obama was born in the United States. It cost him nothing – except perhaps credibility or shame, which he didn’t exactly have in spades to begin with – and aligned him with his tribe of choice, who found in this celebrity’s audacity social permission to air their own garbage ideas, no matter how offensive. Of course Trump believes, now and then, that President Obama was born in America. It doesn’t matter. The posturing was done.

Before you object – sure, there are hardcore minorities who believe these things. There are also some people who truly, honestly believe in a flat earth and that dolphins are leading humans into the Age of Aquarius. But I think the number of true believers is tiny, and mostly suffering from some form of mental illness. Most of those who align themselves with stupid theories like these do so because it costs them nothing personally and serves a need for self-expression that they lacked before. Sticking with the climate change example, many respondents who say they don’t believe in it probably actually do, intellectually; it’s just that their affirmation or rejection is pretty meaningless in the context of a poll, except to provide a vehicle for expression of one’s tribal identity.

Constructions of identity online

The consequences of this view on the social web are pretty profound. Social platforms are all about self-presentation, which elevates tribal signals to new heights. Those signals are extremely valuable for ad targeting, of course, which seeks to amplify and emphasize how those signals supposedly make the recipient different, unique and special. Unfortunately, in this way, the social web doesn’t bring us closer together; rather, it recasts minor differences as huge ones, from which distrust and distaste are encouraged. Ad retargeting was invented to sell you toothpaste and pants, and was then adapted to sell political causes, which has calcified previously porous group identifications into chasms of misunderstanding.

So you join a men’s exercise group on Facebook, and start getting information about conservative Christian prayer groups, tips on being a “real man” and political ads, and you slowly drift into MRA territory without ever meaning to. Or you subscribe to a magazine and start seeing lifestyle ads about foreign travel, fashionable books and trappings of a lifestyle that appeals to you, but you don’t know why. Every choice you make is another step into a tribe that’s been predefined by the crowds and then built up and monetized by advertisers.

This is how people get radicalized online. It happens everywhere – the young woman who goes from run-of-the-mill vegetarian to militant anti-vaxxer, the retired Boomer whose hours on Facebook and Fox News makes him a dittohead, the man who rails against women online. Tribalism shifts our perceptions of reality and ourselves, and how we present those things to others. It’s how otherwise perfectly intelligent, compassionate people wind up saying they “don’t believe” in climate change and that the South should’ve won the Civil War. It abstracts these questions away from their real-world context and into a realm of symbolic, shadow-boxing posturing.

I don’t think there’s a way to combat this with facts; only narrative, if even that. This article from Andrew Sullivan has had me thinking about how the social web has built a new dimension to our human tendency to self-segregate by arbitrary labels. But I think one place to begin the deconstruction of rising tribalism is to understand how it works, and more importantly, to recognize that what people say is often different from what they mean. That, and to live more in the real world. At least, I hope.

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