Good Rumors, Bad News, and Cognitive Distortions.
In the book The Psychology of Rumor, Gordon Allport describes the three stages of distortion which convert an interesting story into something sensational and viral:
It could easily be called “polishing”. “Leveling” is the process of eliminating the nuance and omitting critical details which make the story obtuse or complex.
Sharpening is taking the compelling and dramatic parts of a story and enhancing those elements. Exaggerate numbers. Things that were originally thought are now spoken. This is the natural and often unintentional process of story tellers observing what elements of a story catch attention, causing storytellers to underscore (sharpen) these elements in retelling.
Assimilation is the distortion of context. Storytellers assimilate their story by enhancing relevance to the listener.
Leveling, Sharpening, and Assimilation
Think about your favorite story. What is a popular myth about that you’ve cultivated about yourself or an event through retelling that story dozens or hundreds of times?
Can you recognize how you have done this to your original story over time?
Have you collaboratively distorted a story with a friend or spouse? You know what I mean: You began to omit some of the boring or confusing parts… You both dramatize the action--maybe hoping to flatter the other teller? And then you begin to connect that story to some lasting effect… maybe you connect that story to some policy in your peer group or community?
Once you begin to realize how you have done this, you might begin to recognize these acts of distortion when committed by individuals or institutions.
Recognizing these distortions is an essential skill in our new era of social media and 24 hour news.
It’s understandable that we would like to make our stories more digestible. And sometimes these adjustments play an important role in getting people to pay attention to important issues…
But, these distortions are not always so benign.
Intentional or compulsive distortion is rampant, amongst public figures, reporters, and even scientists (John Oliver describes here).
Now, this does not make science invalid, but it does underscore the importance of critical thinking and fact checking in a world saturated with so called “information”.
As prescribed in The Egg Code:
Always find at least two sources-- FOR EVERYTHING.