Source Amnesia, media and guarding against oneself

A while ago I listened to some lectures to learn a bit about neurology. One topic that came up was Source Amnesia. This describes a human tendency to remember things like statements and facts, but not the context in which one heard them and the caveats, explicit or not, that came with the statement.

Here is the same Sam Wang in the NYT.

I had no picture, so why not something a little less heteronormative than the usual random picture choice (From the classy but very NSFW Jess Fink)

“The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength.”

The article, and this one on the same topic go on to describe the problem in light of political rumours (especially the Obama = secret muslim rumours that were present in the then presidential race) and how the patently false can become entrenched in many heads. They also describe the role of repetition in enforcing beliefs, as it is (unconciously) interpreted as evidence that the belief is widespread.

This has many alarming implications, especially for political media coverage and public debate.

It makes any media bias that exists more troubling. I used to be comforted by the fact that while there was little respect for truth or intellectual honesty in Australian media, particularly in the dominant player (News Ltd), I had no reason to expect that most media consumers were any more credulous or passive than I. After all, they report an opinion of media ethics that is very low.  I also think the idea that everyone is is credulous is misanthropic. But it turns out that it doesn’t matter. Skepticism of a source is no use when you forget it. Bullshit oft repeated, whether in the form of dishonest bias or just bad fact checking, is dangerous even when people are sensible and skeptical.

The effects of bad media habits are amplified. Framing any announcement as a conflict (inventing opposition if needed); the industry standard of treating rent seekers and PR spivs as content providers; using weasel words and reverse ferrets to publish statements that are unverified or demonstrably false etc.. All potentially more dangerous than I thought. It doesn’t help that the journalists are prone to the same amnesia, which might be why an opinion can quickly solidify into the kind of groupthink Ken Parish criticized earlier, which can then be transferred to consumers.

I started writing examples on climate change and DDT and asylum seekers and the like, but then realised that I’d best check up on each and every one of them. Just in case That gets to what really bothers me. Since then I’ve been anxious about my own source amnesia. Its discovered a new regard for footnotes, endnotes, references and linking. I always assumed that references were important to show the reader where one was drawing from so they could be assured of their validity and to give credit where credit was due. They were to ensure honestly to whom one was addressing.

Now I find that references are a way to be honest to myself. I want to think I am reaching positions through discussion rather than defending them by debate. To do that though I need to make sure what I think is a fact is supported in some way when I can’t remember where I learned it. The internet can usually help find a source, frequently the source, of a piece of my knowledge so I can reevaluate. But not always

A few weeks ago I wanted to write a post on Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow. I opened with an anecdote about how the sideshow tendency was present but circumvented in times past ([fn1]). I can’t remember where I read it (though I suspect it was in something by Robert Caro), and google did not help. I couldn’t lead with something I may have made up.

But man, intellectual honesty is hard.

[fn1] This is the anecdote (in my words)for those who are interested. It’s plausible despite the fact I can’t source it.

Many decades ago, perhaps in the days of newsreels played to smoky theatres, speakers in the US Congress would face pressures to make sure that they were featured on the news that the public (voters) would see. Then, as now, conflict was deemed more newsworthy than reasoned comment and the politicians realised they had to play to this if they wanted to appear on the news.

However this was before the video, and footage that would appear on the news was literally filmed. This presented an opportunity for a speaker who wanted to appear on the news, but not appear as a choleric demagogue. A speaker would begin, and start to use rhetoric that implied a choleric outburst to come. He would also allow his voice to start building in volume and in violence of tone. The crews in the gallery, anticipating conflict, would begin filming. The speaker would then return to a modest tone and speak the point he wished voters to hear. This could pay off because the crews were limited by their available film stock. If they “wasted” their limited minutes on people not acting like clowns, they were reduced to showing people who did not clown around. They didn’t have the luxury to search for gaffe moments.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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desipis
10 years ago

Interesting post Richard. I’ve been trying to learn a bit about neurology and cognitive science in order to better understand how people learn. I think it’s pretty clear that people in power have been abusing the brute-force association vulnerabilities of the human mind for millennia (just think about religious rituals and chanting, or patriotic anthems and cultural elements). Technology is just allowing them to take it to a new level.

What concerns me, possible more (or not) than specific facts, is the use of the techniques in a broader method to influence peoples general of feelings towards something or someone. People may go to the effort of mentally challenging the specifics of the claim, however the underlying tone isn’t easily combated without an equivalently unjustified opposing tone. For example: “Politician X broke a promise” can be neutralised with an objective observation that “No they didn’t”; however the underlying tone of “Politician X is bad” is only neutralised with a subjective response of “Politician X is good” which a neutral/swing/undecided voter may not think in response. Someone might be aware that all the lies or falsehoods are just that, but repeatedly seeing something in a good or bad light will take its toll regardless.

Hear enough bad lies about Political X and they might start to seem like the poorer candidate even though you can’t quite put your finger on why. Go to the shop and buy That Brand™ of soft drink and you’ll enjoy it, but possibly not because of the contents of the can. It’s one of the reasons I’m deeply cynical of the “rational person” philosophy that underpins many economic and libertarian ideologies.

But man, intellectual honesty is hard.

I think this is one reason I have trouble blogging. I want to be able to back up my opinions and either find out I’m wrong or get sidetracked reading something more interesting.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
10 years ago

“Framing any announcement as a conflict (inventing opposition if needed) …”

I’m glad you mentioned this one. I had at one stage intended to write a post about the media manipulation that resulted in Cate Blanchett’s participation in a pro-climate change ad being portrayed from the outset as an example of hypocrisy on the part of a rich actress.

My first exposure to the story was on the Nine Network News. I wondered what self-interest its current owners might have in that sort of blatant propaganda. You could understand it being a follow-up angle a couple of days later, but for that to be the initial angle from which the story was covered was quite remarkable.

A bit of Googling revealed that the Nine Network is currently owned by an equity trust which is largely owned by Citibank, and Citibank has a quite strongly socially responsible attitude to climate change in general and carbon pricing in particular (a cynic might suggest that this is because large banks can make lots of money from emissions trading schemes).

So why was the Nine Network running this line? Then I discovered that ABC Online had quickly replaced its initial neutral coverage of the story (i.e. the fact that there was an ad campaign in favour of carbon pricing funded by various environmental groups and starring among others Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton) with one running the line that there was a controversy with numerous people condemning Blanchett as a rich and hypocritical actor with nothing in common with ordinary people. Why did the ABC run that line, I wondered?

It turned out after a bit more googling (I’ve subsequently wiped the links) that News Ltd had orchestrated the whole thing. They had contacted Barnaby Joyce (who can always be counted on to instantly provide a newsworthy quote against anything vaguely leftish) for comment (he knew nothing about the ad – the Murdoch journo told him about it) and someone from the Australian Family Association (founded by BA Santamaria, Bill Muehlenberg is closely associated with it, Rupert Murdoch’s mum is a patron). No other objectors were quoted. Nine and the ABC had lazily picked the story up from News Ltd and echoed it. There wasn’t really any controversy or opposition at all, it was totally concocted by the Murdoch media, but has been presented ever since as if that was the way people reacted to the climate change ads. Such is the state of the MSM. I’m starting to convince myself that Mr Denmore is right after all (although I still think it was always pretty much this bad, I’m just able to diagnose it better now using Internet tools like Google).

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Richard, you should try looking up false memories. These are not too hard to create and are also a lot of fun for many reasons. Also, it is of course entirely sensible that we forget the context that we heard things in — Just imagine if you could remember where and when you learnt every word in your lexicon. You’d go crazy. Richard (a name I learnt in Kindergarten for the first time in March whilst having a lesson on colors) went (a word I learnt incidentally from my Dad on a sunny day whilst he was talking to my mother about where he went) to …..

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

I take it that Stephen Colbert’s concept of ‘truthiness’ is a key concept here. You are saying that you know your intro was truthy, but it may not have been true. And in the MSM, you don’t really need to worry too much about it – unless you give a damn that is.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
10 years ago

Ken,

Your sleuthing corroborates what I go on about. This phenomenon in the non-Machiavellian media is an internally generated thing. That is, a ‘controversy’ is a story and so the ABC – which has no brief for or against Cate – changes its story in response to the controversy – as does 9.

In this environment all one needs is a rogue (Machiavellian) media outlet, or preferably a stable of outlets, and you can get it all going.

There’s nothing that can be done about the Machiavellian media, just as there’s nothing that can be done by trying to persuade those who are genuinely maliciously motivated. But the ABC and Citibank are not (note this is not saying are saints or particularly altruistic) ought to be amenable to both persuasion and to some social activism on the issue. It’s a disastrous situation that we’re in if something can’t be done about that.

Fyodor
10 years ago

Your sleuthing corroborates what I go on about. This phenomenon in the non-Machiavellian media is an internally generated thing. That is, a ‘controversy’ is a story and so the ABC – which has no brief for or against Cate – changes its story in response to the controversy – as does 9.

In this environment all one needs is a rogue (Machiavellian) media outlet, or preferably a stable of outlets, and you can get it all going.

There’s nothing that can be done about the Machiavellian media, just as there’s nothing that can be done by trying to persuade those who are genuinely maliciously motivated. But the ABC and Citibank are not (note this is not saying are saints or particularly altruistic) ought to be amenable to both persuasion and to some social activism on the issue. It’s a disastrous situation that we’re in if something can’t be done about that.

Machiavellian media? You really think “if it bleeds, it leads” is Machiavellian?

Cate Blanchett was a tone-deaf choice for an ad campaign that reeked of partisan sanctimony. In the world of infotainment, that’s a juicy target and you’d have to be a particularly foolish or biased journalist to pass on it.

These increasingly shrill allusions to Teh Murdochracy continually discount the very real possibility that the current ALP government is totally clusterfucked and lurches further into fubarity with every new policy misadventure.

Have you blokes considered the alternative perspective that maybe the MSM has got it right?