Greeting Altercators, Reed here. Eric’s off today for Rosh Hashanah, but his latest column for The Nation on Obama’s by now all too familiar willingness to abandon liberal principles (at his own electoral peril), can be found here.
Too Bad to be False
by Reed Richardson
Psychologists have long identified a human phenomenon known as the negativity bias. Broadly defined, it essentially means that we humans are intrinsically hard-wired to give more credence to negative rather than positive information. (Although, as we age, this bias does seem to subside.) One constant result of this bias, psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo notes in his book “The Watercooler Effect,” is that we will always suffer from a larger universe of negative rather than positive—what he labels “dread” and “wish”—rumors floating around us.
This past week was nothing if not further proof that this negativity bias also impacts the all too human practitioners within our “objective” press, and distorts our political discourse in the process. For Exhibit A, look no further than the media tempest kicked up by the $16 muffin myth. The latest in a long line of allegedly outrageous examples of wasteful government spending, this story was little more than a case of imprecise invoicing and, once it was actually examined for veracity, it fell apart faster than dry cornbread.
That, from the beginning, the story sounded dubious didn’t really matter. Spurred on by our innate bias toward bad news, the supposed luxury-priced muffins’ unmistakable symbolism perfectly dovetailed with a popular (conservative) meme and so the story, along with the predictable bloviating from right-wing pundits and Republican politicians, rapidly propagated itself across the airwaves and headlines. The truth finally did get out, but as Mark Twain noted, it will never catch up. And in the interim, these muffins got served up often enough that their tale no doubt burrowed into the subconscious of plenty of unemployed and poverty-stricken Americans who are already none too happy with a federal government that can’t seem address the real problems plaguing the country.
Granted, this story wasn’t some anonymously sourced backroom whisper—the anecdote did, after all, come out of this report from the Justice Department’s own Inspector General’s office. But since when has the press been so willing to abdicate its role as skeptical critic of claims by the government, whether they be good or bad? OK, dumb question. But the accretion of sloppy news reporting like this erodes the public’s confidence in both the press and in government. In this case, the press gets pilloried, and rightly so, for once again hyping a story that turns out to be grossly exaggerated and, even worse, easily identified as such. But the target of this negative story doesn’t get off scot-free either. That’s because of another psychological phenomenon that DiFonzo discusses in his book: