A hypothesis has been rattling around in my head for a while, and if any social psychologists (or anybody) reading this know of actual data that might support it, please let me know.
Humans are social animals, and as such we tend to take our social and emotional cues from people around us. This “cue-ing” is so much a part of being human that most of the time we don’t notice it. My hypothesis is that our brains — the non-cognitive parts — often cannot distinguish between “real” people and people in electronic mass media, especially television and radio. Thus, people who spend at least part of every day plugged into television or radio are taking emotional cues from whatever they are watching.
Earlier this week we spent some time discussing the antiwar movement. Many people here and elsewhere express frustration that so much of the American public seems apathetic about the war. Although a solid majority (65 percent, according to the latest Bloomberg poll) of Americans are opposed to the war, the only way you’d know that is by reading polls.
By the same token, I’ve spent part of nearly every day for more than four years documenting the nonsense coming out of Washington. Sometimes I think the only reasonable reaction to the Bush Administration is to dash about with my hair on fire, yet I sit here, blogging. And outside my window the sun is shining and squirrels are frisking about in the bare tree limbs, and I know if I were to turn on the TV there’d be the usual inane talk shows and reruns. This time of day even the news shows are mostly populated by attractive and well-groomed young people who are ever calm and cheerful as they report on the many ways the world is going to hell.
So, even people who have some grasp of current events are not all that worked up about them. The emotional cues they’re getting from television say that nothing extraordinary is going on, beyond Muslim congressmen taking the oath of office on a Q’ran.
In my earlier post I expressed doubt that the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era really had much of a measurable effect in ending the war. I think news media had a much bigger impact on eroding public support for the war. In those days nearly the entire nation tuned into one of the early evening news shows broadcast by one of the three major networks, because that was pretty much all that was on. And every evening people saw real carnage and miserable young soldiers, and the reporters who covered the war spoke in grim and serious tones. The emotional cue was, “This is really bad. Be worried.”
Now, even those people who opt to watch television news instead of whatever else is on the 300 cable channels don’t see that much of Iraq. Instead, they see “pundits” and politicians, comfortably seated, dispassionately discussing this policy or that policy and whether it will impact the 2008 presidential elections. As if what’s going on is all perfectly normal.
The exception to the dispassion is on the Right. You know the unwritten rule — righties can scream until they turn purple and pound tables and hyperventilate and say any outrageous thing that pops into their heads and that’s OK. The second a “leftie” expresses mild disgruntlement he’s out of control. I think this works both for and against the Right. People inclined to buy the swill they’re selling are passionate about it. Whatever critical thinking skills they might have had are overrun by emotions.
On the other hand, displays of really strong emotion — rage, screaming, hysteria — can frighten people away as much as draw them in. This might seem to contradict my emotional cue theory, but I don’t think it does. I think we might have an instinct — at the very least, strong cultural conditioning — that causes us to steer clear of someone whose strong emotions seem grossly out of place.
For example, if you are walking down the street on a lovely day and find someone screaming in rage for no apparent reason, you would most likely walk way around that person, wouldn’t you? If not call the cops? This makes some sense as a survival instinct, because such a person might be dangerous. Now, it could be that the screaming person has good reason to scream, but if you don’t know anything about this person you are likely to assume he’s nuts. Yes, admit it; you are. I know the social psychologists have piled up a ton of p values and chi squares to prove this.
As I wrote here, I think their apparent hysteria is one reason a majority of Americans stampeded away from the Fetus People during the Terri Schiavo death watch.
However, when there is an apparent reason for strong emotion, like bodies floating in New Orleans flood waters, a little shouting and strong language from news reporters is not only warranted; it underscores the severity of the event. If the newsies had covered post-Katrina New Orleans with the same business-as-usual tone they adopt for everything else, I’m willing to bet many viewers would have been soothed into thinking that bodies floating in flood water is no big deal. Happens all the time.
I say that what went on yesterday in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was the equivalent of bodies floating in flood water. These events deserve more than dispassionate explanation. The emotional cue we should be getting is “This is really bad. Be worried.”
I’m free associating this morning and possibly not making sense. More free association in the comments is welcome.