Less Fireworks, More Campfires: Avoiding the Trumpian Feedback Loop

RECENTLY, the American Psychological Association issued a press release summarizing the results from a two-part study examining stress in America.  Their findings indicate that two-thirds of Americans are stressed about the future of the country. Not surprisingly, stress experienced as a result of the 2016 presidential election was disproportionately experienced by Democrats (72%) versus Republicans (26%). The disparity in political leanings appears to be at odds with the shared sentiment from both sides that the future of the country is somehow off-track. Put another way, the only thing Americans agree on is that we don’t like where we’re going and we have radically different ideas of what to do to fix it.

Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew Research Center, writes that “political polarization is the defining feature of early 21st century American politics.” As part of his report, Doherty highlights that over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who consistently define themselves as either liberal or conservative has doubled. So too has the level of antipathy felt by both sides toward the other. The study goes on to detail how political positions are also correlated with lifestyle preferences:

Three-quarters of consistent conservatives say they would opt to live in a community where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,” while 77% of consistent liberals prefer smaller houses closer to amenities. Nearly four times as many liberals as conservatives say it is important that their community has racial and ethnic diversity; about three times as many conservatives as liberals say it is important that many in the community share their religious faith.

Thus, whereas liberals are seeking a socioeconomically heterogenous and geographically condensed experience, conservatives desire a more religiously homogenous and isolated lifestyle, on average. However, in an increasingly isolated society, most Americans get their news, and thus have political opinions shaped, not through conversations with others, but rather by television and the internet. And many such outlets have drifted from centrist positions over time. As Dan Pfieffer described in his article “Non-Stop News” in The New Yorker, “Forty per cent of Americans…get their national and international news from cable; with the collapse of mass audiences for broadcast television, networks like Fox News and MSNBC have sought niche markets, in the process shedding all but the pretense of impartiality.”

It is well known that Fox News and MSNBC are among the most popular of extreme outlets on the political spectrum. But what objective measures exist to assess either’s impartiality?

A 2014 analysis published by Pew found that despite Fox News being very tough on then Democratic candidate Obama in 2012, MSNBC was actually tougher on Republican candidate Romney. Whereas 46% of Fox News stories on Obama were negative, 71% of MSNBC’s stories about Romney were deemed to have a non-positive tone. However, Fox News possessed the largest ideological skew, with 60% of viewers describing themselves as conservative – representing a higher percentage of viewers identifying with a political movement of any major news outlet. CNN, by contrast, had a more evenly distributed viewership (32% conservative, 30% moderates and 30% liberals). But these data were published three long years ago, before President Trump declared CNN “fake news” and the “enemy of the American People.” (Demographics for CNN viewership since the election have not been published and we are left to wonder how powerful the President’s opinion is on this topic.)

In the analysis, Pew also detailed that Fox news is more expensive, both in production costs and to the consumer, but had a higher viewership than MSNBC and CNN.

So what are viewers getting for that extra expense? Researchers at Fairleigh Dickinson University attempted to answer that question by surveying nearly 1200 people nationwideto assess how well the major news outletsaccurately educate the viewer on domestic and international affairs. Respondents were asked about what news sources they consumed the previous week and then were asked a series of questions about current political and economic events in the U.S. and abroad:

“Of course, knowledge of current events is predicted not just by watching news, but also by factors like ideology, education, age and gender,” said Dan Cassino, political scientist and poll analyst. “Based on these results, people who don’t watch any news at all are expected to answer correctly on average 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, just by guessing or relying on existing basic knowledge.” However, the study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly. The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well.

Results for questions about international current events were similar. People who didn’t have any reported exposure to news sources were expected to answer 1.28 questions correctly, a figure which rose to 1.97 for people just listening to NPR…and 1.52 people watching Sunday morning shows. By contrast, people who reported watching just Fox News were expected to answer just 1.08 questions correctly.

The conclusion of the study was that ideological news sources are simply echo chambers, speaking only to audiences with solitary mindsets. And with specific respect to Fox News, those using it as their onlysource of news were less accurately informed than those watching no news at all.

Thus, a large proportion of Americans simply tune in to left- and right-winged news outlets to have their opinions reinforced, rather than challenged. What results can be thought of as a positive feedback loop. For those unfamiliar with the concept of positive feedback loops, think back to high school when your principal stood up to the microphone in assembly to make an announcement. The sound of her voice resonated from the PA system, which was then picked up by the microphone again resulting in a deafening high-pitched squeal. Point being, positive feedback loops can be unpleasant, if not a little dangerous.

So, what happens when someone like Donald Trump enters the echo-chamber of positive feedback looping? For starters, let us assess how much of what Trump says is considered true. Based on the PolitiFact scorecard, only 4% of his statements can be labeled as factually accurate. Everything else is some shade less than that, ranging from “mostly true” to downright “Pants on Fire” lies. I contend that it doesn’t matter. I don’t mean to sound glib about this point. It should matter that our president has made a regular practice of lying to the American public. But it is not surprising. Trump has spent his life fabricating his own reality. Whomever thought he would undergo some truth-telling epiphany once he assumed the position of President was woefully naïve. Further, I submit that now Trump holds an occupation less familiar to him, the frequency of his inaccurate statements and lies will only increase.

The reason is due to something I have previously written about, called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Described by Dr. David Dunning, the effect defines what happens when one is ignorant of one’s own ignorance:

… poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes…

In this fashion, Trump himself is a meta-ignorant positive feedback loop of overconfidence, painfully unaware that he is supremely ill-equipped. There are innumerable examples of Trump exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger effect now assembled in convenient YouTube compilations for reference. But what may be more significant than understanding Trump, is understanding those who unquestioningly support him. For only then can we prevent the ‘Trump’ phenomenon from happening again.

I am not speaking of Republican law makers, the group of sycophants who openly criticized and distanced themselves from Trump early on, but who now ride his train not because they trust the engineer, but rather because they like the direction the tracks are pointed. I’m speaking of the American public. Dr. Dunning discusses the impact of the effect named after him and how it relates to Americans who voted for and support Donald Trump:

In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable but perhaps not so worrisome if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.

And taken a step further, if the average American does attempt to enhance their civic knowledge, but limits themselves to a single, ideological news outlet, like Fox News, the information they receive is no better than if they were to watch no news at all. In fact, it could be worse as the Trump supporter moves from listening to a feedback loop to stepping inside of one. So, what is the solution?

In 2012, Brown University researchers Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbech penned an essay addressing this very topic.  In it, they discuss the “illusion of explanatory depth,” an idea explored by psychologist Frank Keil from Yale University. This concept is essentially a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect which describes how most people think they understand how complex systems work even when their true understanding is only superficial. As explained by Keil, it is not until we are asked to explain the system that we realize we actually don’t know what we’re talking about. When applied to politics, Sloman and Fernbech found that people with strong views about policies that they are ignorant about become much more moderate in their opinions when asked to actually explain the policies. Thus, extreme views on political policy are tempered by a recognition that we don’t have a full understanding of the policy in question. This can apply to both us as voters, but also our elected politicians. For example, it is far easier for Trump to sign an executive order banning immigration and refugee assistance than for him to examine the issues in depth, listen to dissenting voices and recognize that it is a complex topic that requires nuance and care to appropriately address.

Asking someone to explain and argue for their understanding of a policy requires dialogue, debate and discourse, of which there is a great dearth currently in American politics. Too many news outlets would prefer to have six guest panelists scream at one another than have them calmly debate policy. But the reason they prefer to show the screaming match is because the public prefers to watch it. In our ingestion of politics from news outlets, we have become a society of moths drawn to the flame, but sadly are more attracted to fireworks which offer little substance, rather than to campfires which are a lot more useful.

Thus, the challenge for each of us is to step out of the positive feedback loops and our comfort zones. We should identify intellectuals on the other side of the spectrum and read thoughts and opinions that run counter to our own. We should challenge ourselves with a diverse and varied selection of opinions, rather than those from a solitary source. Based on all available evidence, the more educated we become, the more willing we are to admit that we have a lot yet to learn and the less extreme our opinions get.

Derek B. Fox

About Derek B. Fox

Derek Fox is an Associate Professor of Veterinary Surgery at the University of Missouri. He specializes in canine orthopedics and sports medicine. When not working, he enjoys cycling and running.
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