‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation


Max Fisher at the New York Times: “There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.

All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.

We are in an era of endemic misinformation — and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”

Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping — a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup….(More)”.

Why Aren’t Text Message Interventions Designed to Boost College Success Working at Scale?


Article by Ben Castleman: “I like to think of it as my Mark Zuckerberg moment: I was a graduate student and it was a sweltering summer evening in Cambridge. Text messages were slated to go out to recent high school graduates in Massachusetts and Texas. Knowing that thousands of phones would soon start chirping and vibrating with information about college, I refreshed my screen every 30 seconds, waiting to see engagement statistics on how students would respond. Within a few minutes there were dozens of new responses from students wanting to connect with an advisor to discuss their college plans.

We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of that first text-based advising campaign to reduce summer melt—when students have been accepted to and plan to attend college upon graduating high school, but do not start college in the fall. The now-ubiquity of businesses sending texts makes it hard to remember how innovative texting as a channel was; back in the early 2010s, text was primarily used for social and conversational communication. Maybe the occasional doctor’s office or airline would send a text reminder, but SMS was not broadly used as a channel by schools or colleges.

Those novel text nudges appeared successful. Results from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that I conducted with Lindsay Page showed that students who received the texts reminding them of pre-enrollment tasks and connecting them with advisors enrolled in college at higher rates. We had the opportunity to replicate our summer melt work two summers later in additional cities and with engagement from the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences team and found similar impacts.

This evidence emerged as the Obama administration made higher ed policy a greater focus in the second term, with a particular emphasis on expanding college opportunity for underrepresented students. Similar text campaigns expanded rapidly and broadly—most notably former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Up Next campaign—in part because they check numerous boxes for policymakers and funders: Texts are inexpensive to send; text campaigns are relatively easy to implement; and there was evidence of their effectiveness at expanding college access….(More)”.

The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups


Book by William J. Bernstein: “…Inspired by Charles Mackay’s 19th-century classic Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Bernstein engages with mass delusion with the same curiosity and passion, but armed with the latest scientific research that explains the biological, evolutionary, and psychosocial roots of human irrationality. Bernstein tells the stories of dramatic religious and financial mania in western society over the last 500 years—from the Anabaptist Madness that afflicted the Low Countries in the 1530s to the dangerous End-Times beliefs that animate ISIS and pervade today’s polarized America; and from the South Sea Bubble to the Enron scandal and dot com bubbles of recent years. Through Bernstein’s supple prose, the participants are as colorful as their motivation, invariably “the desire to improve one’s well-being in this life or the next.”

As revealing about human nature as they are historically significant, Bernstein’s chronicles reveal the huge cost and alarming implications of mass mania: for example, belief in dispensationalist End-Times has over decades profoundly affected U.S. Middle East policy. Bernstein observes that if we can absorb the history and biology of mass delusion, we can recognize it more readily in our own time, and avoid its frequently dire impact….(More)”.

Foundations of complexity economics


Article by W. Brian Arthur: “Conventional, neoclassical economics assumes perfectly rational agents (firms, consumers, investors) who face well-defined problems and arrive at optimal behaviour consistent with — in equilibrium with — the overall outcome caused by this behaviour. This rational, equilibrium system produces an elegant economics, but is restrictive and often unrealistic. Complexity economics relaxes these assumptions. It assumes that agents differ, that they have imperfect information about other agents and must, therefore, try to make sense of the situation they face. Agents explore, react and constantly change their actions and strategies in response to the outcome they mutually create. The resulting outcome may not be in equilibrium and may display patterns and emergent phenomena not visible to equilibrium analysis. The economy becomes something not given and existing but constantly forming from a developing set of actions, strategies and beliefs — something not mechanistic, static, timeless and perfect but organic, always creating itself, alive and full of messy vitality….(More)”.

Why Trust Matters: An Economist’s Guide to the Ties That Bind Us


Book by Benjamin Ho: “Have economists neglected trust? The economy is fundamentally a network of relationships built on mutual expectations. More than that, trust is the glue that holds civilization together. Every time we interact with another person—to make a purchase, work on a project, or share a living space—we rely on trust. Institutions and relationships function because people place confidence in them. Retailers seek to become trusted brands; employers put their trust in their employees; and democracy works only when we trust our government.

Benjamin Ho reveals the surprising importance of trust to how we understand our day-to-day economic lives. Starting with the earliest societies and proceeding through the evolution of the modern economy, he explores its role across an astonishing range of institutions and practices. From contracts and banking to blockchain and the sharing economy to health care and climate change, Ho shows how trust shapes the workings of the world. He provides an accessible account of how economists have applied the mathematical tools of game theory and the experimental methods of behavioral economics to bring rigor to understanding trust. Bringing together insights from decades of research in an approachable format, Why Trust Matters shows how a concept that we rarely associate with the discipline of economics is central to the social systems that govern our lives….(More)”.

Averting Catastrophe


Book by Cass Sunstein on “Decision Theory for COVID-19, Climate Change, and Potential Disasters of All Kinds…The world is increasingly confronted with new challenges related to climate change, globalization, disease, and technology. Governments are faced with having to decide how much risk is worth taking, how much destruction and death can be tolerated, and how much money should be invested in the hopes of avoiding catastrophe. Lacking full information, should decision-makers focus on avoiding the most catastrophic outcomes? When should extreme measures be taken to prevent as much destruction as possible?

Averting Catastrophe explores how governments ought to make decisions in times of imminent disaster. Cass R. Sunstein argues that using the “maximin rule,” which calls for choosing the approach that eliminates the worst of the worst-case scenarios, may be necessary when public officials lack important information, and when the worst-case scenario is too disastrous to contemplate. He underscores this argument by emphasizing the reality of “Knightian uncertainty,” found in circumstances in which it is not possible to assign probabilities to various outcomes. Sunstein brings foundational issues in decision theory in close contact with real problems in regulation, law, and daily life, and considers other potential future risks. At once an approachable introduction to decision-theory and a provocative argument for how governments ought to handle risk, Averting Catastrophe offers a definitive path forward in a world rife with uncertainty….(More)”.

Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy


Diana Kwon in Scientific American: “For generations, the standard way to learn how to ride a bicycle was with training wheels or a tricycle. But in recent years, many parents have opted to train their kids with balance bikes, pedalless two-wheelers that enable children to develop the coordination needed for bicycling—a skill that is not as easily acquired with an extra set of wheels.

Given the benefits of balance bikes, why did it take so long for them to replace training wheels? There are plenty of other examples in which overlooked solutions that involve subtraction turn out to be better alternatives. In some European cities, for example, urban planners have gotten rid of traffic lights and road signs to make streets safer—an idea that runs counter to conventional traffic design.

Leidy Klotz, an engineer at the University of Virginia, noticed that minimalist designs, in which elements are removed from an existing model, were uncommon. So he reached out to Gabrielle Adams, a social psychologist at the university, to try to figure out why this was the case. The two researchers hypothesized that there might be a psychological explanation: when faced with a problem, people tend to select solutions that involve adding new elements rather than taking existing components away….

These findings, which were published today in Nature, suggest that “additive solutions have sort of a privileged status—they tend to come to mind quickly and easily,” says Benjamin Converse, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the study. “Subtractive solutions are not necessarily harder to consider, but they take more effort to find.”…(More)”.

Dark patterns, the tricks websites use to make you say yes, explained


Article by Sara Morrison: “If you’re an Instagram user, you may have recently seen a pop-up asking if you want the service to “use your app and website activity” to “provide a better ads experience.” At the bottom there are two boxes: In a slightly darker shade of black than the pop-up background, you can choose to “Make ads less personalized.” A bright blue box urges users to “Make ads more personalized.”

This is an example of a dark pattern: design that manipulates or heavily influences users to make certain choices. Instagram uses terms like “activity” and “personalized” instead of “tracking” and “targeting,” so the user may not realize what they’re actually giving the app permission to do. Most people don’t want Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, to know everything they do and everywhere they go. But a “better experience” sounds like a good thing, so Instagram makes the option it wants users to select more prominent and attractive than the one it hopes they’ll avoid.

There’s now a growing movement to ban dark patterns, and that may well lead to consumer protection laws and action as the Biden administration’s technology policies and initiatives take shape. California is currently tackling dark patterns in its evolving privacy laws, and Washington state’s latest privacy bill includes a provision about dark patterns.

“When you look at the way dark patterns are employed across digital engagement, generally, [the internet allows them to be] substantially exacerbated and made less visible to consumers,” Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), told Recode. “Understanding the effect of that is really important to us as we craft our strategy for the digital economy.”

Dark patterns have for years been tricking internet users into giving up their data, money, and time. But if some advocates and regulators get their way, they may not be able to do that for much longer…(More)”.

Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives


Book by Michael Heller and James Salzman: “A hidden set of rules governs who owns what–explaining everything from whether you can recline your airplane seat to why HBO lets you borrow a password illegally–and in this lively and entertaining guide, two acclaimed law professors reveal how things become “mine.”

“Mine” is one of the first words babies learn. By the time we grow up, the idea of ownership seems natural, whether buying a cup of coffee or a house. But who controls the space behind your airplane seat: you reclining or the squished laptop user behind? Why is plagiarism wrong, but it’s okay to knock-off a recipe or a dress design? And after a snowstorm, why does a chair in the street hold your parking space in Chicago, but in New York you lose the space and the chair?

Mine! explains these puzzles and many more. Surprisingly, there are just six simple stories that everyone uses to claim everything. Owners choose the story that steers us to do what they want. But we can always pick a different story. This is true not just for airplane seats, but also for battles over digital privacy, climate change, and wealth inequality. As Michael Heller and James Salzman show–in the spirited style of Freakonomics, Nudge, and Predictably Irrational–ownership is always up for grabs.

With stories that are eye-opening, mind-bending, and sometimes infuriating, Mine! reveals the rules of ownership that secretly control our lives….(More)”.

Opinion Fetishism: Can we escape the reductio ad tweetum?


Essay by Alexander Stern: “Something once expressed, however absurd, fortuitous or wrong it may be, because it has been once said, so tyrannizes the sayer as his property that he can never have done with it.” 

So observes the German social theorist Theodor Adorno in his 1951 book Minima Moralia. Although he is reflecting on the transformations of individuality and interpersonal relations in the industrial society of the late 1940s, Adorno sounds almost as though he is discussing Twitter, particularly the way tweets are taken as immutable expressions of a person’s essential being. Thoughts tweeted in the distant past are exhumed to torment people who have risen to prominence. People engage in ritual apologies for innocuous tweets that offend overly delicate sensibilities. Some insufficiently prudent souls even end up losing jobs for tweets that are hardly controversial. 

While all of this seems to be very much of our time, one of the many unhappy products of our highly mediated lives, the provenance of Adorno’s observation suggests that the distance between what we say and who we are—between ideas and identity—has been shrinking for a long time. The consequence of that shrinkage is not just that it can dehumanize. It also distorts democratic discourse, turning it into a war of all against all. Without the distance between self and thought, self and utterance, we are unable to entertain, probe, or debate ideas. We are unable to change our minds or to persuade others. We are not even in a position to form our views in thoughtful, disinterested ways. But there may yet be a way out. Precisely by codifying and accelerating the collapse of the distinction between ideas and identity, Twitter might ironically be alerting us to the absurdity and shallowness of intellectual life practiced on its terms. 

How exactly did we come to this pass? The simple answer, for Adorno, was that utterances—and those who utter them—have taken on a commodity character, in Karl Marx’s sense of the term. Commercial products, Marx thought, began to evince a strange quality under industrial production. They no longer appeared to be the result of a social process mixing labor and material but took on a fetishized glow that hid the specifics of their production and endowed their mere materiality with a quasi-mystical sheen—the kind that makes teenagers covet Air Jordans, for example. The amplification of this fetish character is, indeed, the explicit aim of contemporary branding….(More)”.