“If It Bleeds, It Leads”

There is a saying among journalists, or whoever it is that decides what a story is- “if it bleeds, it leads.” Meaning, of course, that if the subject is in dire trouble then that’s the story they’ll run. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that such stories were at one time sensational, but in a population of any significant size someone gets brutally murdered every day. However, should the press devote so much time and energy into covering all the crime, car accidents, and injury they can grab? Why do they try, and why does it work for them?

Here’s my point- and it’s going to seem callous. Why should we care? Seriously, think about it. Most of the time you don’t remember you watched the story about that three-car pileup with seven killed, less than twenty minutes later. You feel nothing for little Jimmy whose house had a tree fall on it, and you won’t ever meet or sympathize with any of the subjects. What you get is a premasticated mash of feel-good sympathy from a reporter who is basically specially trained to provide it. So why do you watch it? Consider carefully your own motivations. Without knowing you, I’d be willing to bet it’s because on some level you think you’re a nice, compassionate, empathetic person. Learning of others’ suffering gives you a secondary kick of feeling good about yourself for being so nice as to listen to their story, or perhaps to”connect with them” or maybe it’s to connect to your community- some form of connection. Or, if you’re of a different slant of mind, it gives you a secondary kick to revel in others’ suffering. This is more common than you’d think- the “thank goodness it’s not me” reaction is very common. Between these two mindsets, virtually all of the regular populace is captivated by blood and crime journalism. All the news media are interested in is obtaining and retaining viewers, by any means necessary. And due to the evolutionary nature of economic competition, companies tend to evolve to exploit any niche available. The news media that were more effective at getting and keeping viewers survived, and the others went out of business.

So we arrive at an industry bent to exploit your psychological weaknesses and the recesses of your id. You don’t overcome this because of the very issue I just raised- when I ask in public “why do we care?” everyone else goes “what’s wrong with you? Don’t you care for your fellow man?” Unfortunately, for far too many people being perceived as X indicates to them that they are an X which then causes them to act like an X. So they essentially don’t have the power to control their own behavior, and forces them onto a path inscribed by the architects of diffuse social structure- the media- and held in place by social pressures created by the selfsame groups. We end up with a self-reinforcing loop- the self-licking ice cream cone. Nobody likes it, but they think everyone else does, stopping them from trying to change it. The reason why the system doesn’t change is because nobody can bring themselves to break out of that path-of-least-resistance conformity loop. I think I just coined a great term: “conformity loop”. Conformist behavior is itself a powerful instigator of conformity in a third party. The more people who are conforming, the more pressure the group could exert should it be called upon. Ultimately this reduces to the coercive, direct threat of punishment. Which invariably reduces to violence somewhere along the road. Stripping the complex muddy subtleties from the situation, basically you’re being conformist because you’re scared that, somehow, physical harm will come to you if you don’t. Apparently an evolutionary artifact from the hunter-gatherer days when being ostracized was a death sentence. Or, where the rest of the group could easily turn on you and kill you- a threat for no other reason than that there’s one of you and lots of them.  If this paragraph was a little dense, this monkey experiment should make it a bit clearer.

Of course, the only way out is for sufficient numbers of their viewing audience to get over their baser drives and ensure that the most profitable strategy for their news media is to provide the news that they want to watch. Most viewers, however, tend to adopt the attitude of a bottom feeder, eating whatever happens to be thrown out for them. Such willful powerlessness can be seductive- but resist, dammit! The route of having others handle your affairs for you is indeed easier, but I guarantee you won’t like where it leads. Take your institutions by the horns- the government, the companies you buy from, the media, even your peer groups, and recognize that they are supposed to provide value to you. Groups will tend to exert pressure in predictable ways to further their own interests. If you can determine their motives and their choices you can predict their actions and their evolution. You can then take steps in your own way to make those entities’ choices end in a course more beneficial to you and everyone else. Note that I am using groups as “entities” as semantic shorthand, keeping in mind that there is no actual thing called a government or a media corporation. This is significant because when someone says “the government wants you to do X” they are saying something very different from “everyone in the government wants you to do X” or even “person A in the government wants you to do X”. This is just like the monkey experiment- would you be correct in saying that any one of the other monkeys didn’t want any of them to reach the banana (let’s say it’s a whole bunch of bananas- a pittance compared to the potential of humankind)? What about the sum of the monkeys? They could all just decide to get the bananas and nothing would happen. Why not? What’s stopping them?

I have mentioned the predictability of agents based on incentives before, but I haven’t covered it in any significant detail. It’s a vitally important idea because when used properly as a predictive tool, it’s never wrong. It should be wrong, but currently it’s not because modern homo sapiens is a rather herdish creature. Basically the idea is that a group of people is always bound to follow the basic incentives of the group despite conflicts within any one of the individuals. An individual’s actions are subject to a certain degree of chaotic subjectivity- their ethical code or religion or whatever may be against specific actions, maybe a certain person reminds them of someone they knew, whatever. However, when you have a group of significant size then each individual is faced with a Prisoner’s Dilemma multiplied by every person in the group. If they were to not confess, they are not just wagering that the one other prisoner will not confess, they are wagering that every person in the group will not confess. Worse, they have a history of observed behavior. So in the cage, each one of the monkeys could decide to go for the banana. However, in order to be successful, every one of the other monkeys would have to make the same decision at the same time. OK, at least one of the other monkeys would have to. Two out of five is a sufficiently significant minority. But it can’t happen. The answer is to keep on reaching for that damn banana bunch over and over again, until eventually the others figure out that that all they have to do if they want to feast on banana is chill the fuck out. The stupid monkeys.

Here’s an interesting thought for you. Whenever I say “most people” in a positive light, you include yourself in that group because you consider yourself fairly normal. But when I say “most people” in a negative light, you exclude yourself from that group because you consider yourself special.

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