thinkingx_fast_and_slowI am reading a scary book: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. The premise of the book, amply supported by research, is that we’re not as rational as we believe ourselves to be. We in fact have two mental modes. One is rational and works something like this:

“It’s lunchtime and I’m hungry. I would really like to have five pieces of cake, but I’m overweight and not interested in dying prematurely. Then too, the cake at this restaurant was stale the last time I ate here, and they don’t have cheesecake on the menu, which is my fave. Guess I’ll have a shrimp salad and split a lavender creme brulee.”

blogxorchidWe believe that’s how we make most of our choices, because those are the choices we’re aware of. The trouble is, processing every decision, from what to pay attention to, to what reaction each stimuli merits, would be the work of ten brains plus two, and we’re each only issued the one. That brain has developed all manner of quiet pathways that are busily deciding Stuff for us, all unbeknownst to us, owner of said brains.

Take for example, the exposure effect. This has nothing to do with David Beckham’s naked chest, so git your mind outta the back seat. Way Back in the Jungle Day, we learned to notice anything different in our environment, because different could mean deadly. When that different thing–a newly fallen tree, a peculiar species of orchid, a fish we hadn’t seen before–kept showing up without doing us any harm, we figured it was benign. Benign fixtures became part of what helped us sort out the next oddity from what was trustworthy, and thus familiarity became associated with being good. Or that’s the theory.

blogxfishFast forward to those clever folks with nothing better to do than study human nature… and you get an experiment like so: For thirty days, every day, the morning newspaper on a college campus had a little box in one corner with five strange words in it and no explanation. (The words were real words from an obscure language). After a month, regular subscribers were asked which words they thought were associated with benign concepts, and which ones were probably terms for unpleasant concepts. Overwhelmingly, the more often the word had been published, the more likely it was to be considered a “good” word.

Now do you see why this book is scary? Extrapolate that to Google ads, Facebook ads, campaign coverage… and no, we don’t have to consciously focus on information for our busy little Jungle brains to start recognizing it and deciding (without our awareness) that virtues_450x2-450x675it’s benign.

This is part of the theory behind propaganda, effective advertising, and Montessori schools. Put anything in our environment consistently enough, and if it doesn’t hurt us, our brains are wired to start seeing it as benign. The conclusion I draw for myself: I must ensure that I remain aware of what’s in my environment, so my oh-so-helpful jungle brain doesn’t allow the exposure effect to steer me in directions I don’t want to go.

What’s one thing you’d like to get out of your immediate surroundings? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of The Virtues of Christmas.






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42 comments on “Over-Exposured

  1. Thank you so very much for your thought provoking comments. I agree that when we are continually exposed to things, we start to see them on “auto-pilot”. I am bothered about the continuing escalation of violence, lack of integrity in news media, greater indifference to other people’s suffering and evaporation of empathy and compassion for others. I try to remember that I have “not walked in the other person’s shoes” and give support and encouragement whenever I can. Knowing that I myself am flawed and often need help, I try to be a caring person. I think that I never want to become someone who does not notice other people’s needs and/or problems. Thank you for your books. I always enjoy the complexity and depth of each character, their lives and problems. Have a good week!

    • I feel the same way, Amy. I want always to see the world around me, not walk through it with my head down. I don’t think anybody quite has figured out what we’re supposed to do with the internet so that cavalier disregard isn’t the result of what some people insist is “connection.”

      We live in puzzling time, but people are still people, and still worth caring about.

  2. I would like the political ads to disappear. There are comments on Facebook (have unfollowed a lot of friends), phone calls and on tv.I find the ads and the phone calls intrusive. I find the presidential race has disintegrated into a truely negative personal battle.

    I will be reading and watching baseball for the next few weeks.

    • I hope I will be wrestling a certain Welsh Duke into submission, because my reaction is like yours: Social media has become a cess pit of negativity. That environment is NOT neutral–it’s not simply a different fish–it leaves me anxious, cranky, and reactive. Time to take a break!

  3. There is more than one thing I would like to get rid of, but right now, first and foremost, it would be politics and all of the negativity that goes with it. It’s hard to escape, and believe me, I’m trying. I can see why so many people throw up their hands and don’t want to be part of electing our government officials.

    Not me though. I’m made of sterner stuff. I’ll be in that voting booth Nov. 8th.

    • I’ll be traveling on Election Day, so I’ve already cast my ballot and it was a relief. I wish we had sixty day election seasons like a lot of other democracies. For all the months and months and months of hoopla, I don’t think we’ve heard anybody do a good job of parsing the issues, so what’s all that protracted electioneering about?

      Rhetorical question.

  4. I have a love/hate relationship to Facebook and have rigged it so I never (and I mean never) use it for personal reasons. I only have the FB page so I can post and have one for my chamber choir. I do use the message feature to contact people I am not able to any other way though.

    I have a total of three *friends*–my best friend from high school, her sister and one of my sons–but evenso, I am horrified with Bestie’s sister’s posts half the time. I don’t want to unfriend her BUT now never look to see what she posts. If I look at her posts I get angry…though kittens doing cute things make me laugh.

    I have never been able to see things as benign when they’re not. Maybe it’s a Chicago thing—you can’t tinkle on my my leg and then tell me it’s raining….I won’t believe you. I think that’s been my problem in many of my relationships.

    I agree getting the politics outta here is what I would like most……but for two more weeks, I think we’re stuck!

    • I’m lucky that I live where I can sit out on my front steps, contemplating where I’ll put in my next bed of daffodils. It’s such a pretty time of year here, with the leaves drifting down and the light going all contrasty. I can unplug, and I’m always glad when I do.

      When I jump back on social media, by contrast, it’s usually five minutes before I’m thinking, “This is not helping…”

      Thank goodness for daffodils and contrary Welsh dukes.

  5. The hoopla around the holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Money could be spent in more proactive ways, helping the hopeless, donating to medical research, Doctors without Borders, to cite a few. In the old days you dressed up in odds ‘n ends of clothes, pretending to be a character you read in a book and visited your neighbors for a “treat.” Thanksgiving was a day family came over bringing dishes of food and we supplied the turkey. Christmas was church centered. Yes there were presents under the tree, the ornaments handmade. Oh, well, just wishful thinking.

    • I’m more aware this year than ever, that for every holiday, there’s a group of people left out of the hoopla, unable to afford it, ill, or struggling with bad memories. My mom’s birthday fell on December 30, and every year, she wondered if her family would forget her birthday. Some years, it was clear she simply got half her Christmas presents on Christmas, the other half on her birthday (she had four siblings to compare with), and other years her birthday was indeed, entirely forgotten.

      Needless to say, the holiday hoopla was NOT her fave either.

  6. The marginalization of whole groups of people. I keep looking at our country’s stated values, then at how we as a country behave and allow our government to behave and think “We are better than this.”

    • We have a melting pot myth, you’re right. In fact, most of us probably feel some degree of marginalization most of the time, with a few notable exceptions. I’m encouraged, though, because when those marginalized radically outnumber those around whom social infrastructure is built, change is possible, and even likely. We’ll get there…

  7. Politicians and the media. They decide how we should think. They have figured out that if they say something enough times most people believe it’s true. So many things (people)are trying to brainwash everyone into thinking like them including schools and churches. No one knows how to think for themselves anymore. It’s scarier to stand out of the crowd so most prefer to be sheep (or don’t realize they are).

    • I share your concern regarding the media. When I was learning journalism in the early eighties, fair, balanced, and accurate reporting was the only acceptable standard, and nothing went to press without two, independent confirming sources… or you’d be sued. Then in the mid 1980s, the FCC repealed the rules enforcing that standard, and we’ve been force-fed reality TV instead of ethical journalism ever since.

      How can voters make informed choices when the facts aren’t available to them? When the issues aren’t covered based on impact on the voters, but based on potential for acrimonious polarization and “sticky traffic?” I hope we get this one sorted out soon, because a lot depends on it.

  8. I’m stubborn. I absolutely won’t hit on what blasts me over the head. I’m gonna do it on my own terms. I like to read the news. Those videos of someone reading them for me, that’s what I’d move off my list. I do, if it only gives me a video, I’m apt to skip it and go on to something with Words. I’m rational enough to see opposing views and sometimes accept them, if I clearly see they have merit. I’m a stubborn old broad. Which says something about my author…..

    • I miss Walter Cronkite, and I miss the well informed, civil debates I grew up watching on TV (Buckley/Vidal) which were heavily partisan, but not without areas of agreement, and never ad hominem or divorced from facts.

  9. Meanness – I don’t like it when people are mean to each other – that seems to be a big problem in social media – having that electronic distance seems to signal to some people that they can say whatever they want without consequenses.

  10. I agree with Diane S above. I abhor meanness and it seems to be everywhere these days and accepted as ordinary. I know it may be considered old-fashioned, but what ever happened to common courtesy and respect, especially in public? I find the current state of affairs very depressing and sad. The research cited above is unfortunately very apropos to our current political climate where people seem to believe things that are just not true but have been shouted enough times that I guess the primal brain slots them in without consideration. I hope I can remain aware enough to avoid that.

    • To build on your point: Violent crime has been dropping for decades, but we’re given the impression that the world is getting more violent. Police officers were far more likely to die in the line of duty fifty years ago, but we’re given the sense that officers have never been asked to deal with the level of threat they face now. Today’s youth are more tolerant, less violent, less materialistic, less likely to be promiscuous or abuse substance than we were, and yet, the picture painted of them is a bunch of bums living in mom’s basement.

      The current state of affairs is nowhere near as depressing and sad as we’re supposed to believe it is.

      But that primal brain expects to be barraged with the half-empty evidence, and so that’s what sticks to it. One effect of the resulting anxiety is that we’re less likely to turn off the barrage, because we feel safer knowing how “bad” it is…. GAH.

  11. I think I’m not the only one who would absolutely LOVE to do away with every political advertisement, meme, facebook post, and biased news story. It would be different if people could stick to the issues and news stories could stick to the facts. Oh, that and if we could agree to disagree without branding those with different opinions as evil….

    • I’ve never seen an election like this, with so much baloney for so long, and so little focus on substantive issues. The president of CBS pretty much said, “Yeah, the baloney might be bad for America, but it’s great for our share value.”

      A line from the 1938 version of Robinhood popped into my head. “Sir, you speak treason!” And his response: “Fluently, I hope.”

  12. I’m not sure what else I can delete. It is good to hear I’m not alone in severely limiting Internet time, commercial radio, tv, and the general deluge of negativity. Will add that book to my TBR pile aimed at understanding why somethings are the way they are now…and how to positively influence them.

    PS: Loved Virtues! Hettie’s story is one of my favorites!

  13. Agree with several commenters about the election ad exhaustion. To me, however, the underlying issues are 1) too much money for candidates and their minions to buy airtime, and 2) too many channels that have to fill up space with both blather and ads. I would dearly LOVE to see serious campaign finance reform but it will never happen because them who make the laws are them who benefit from the current system. Oh to have a magic wand. (The other thing I’d like to see eliminated is lobbying of our elected officials but, again, them who benefit are them who make the laws.) So, I change the channel on the TV or turn it off. And I cross my fingers that so many people cannot possibly be as stupid as they appear to be when interviewed.

    I am reconsidering my use of low volume TV as background noise, anyway.

  14. A certain pesky lawsuit that has been hanging over my (extended) family’s head like the sword of Damocles for too many years. It involves so many people that 3 of 5 judges in this benighted county must recuse themselves… And it’s absolutely trivial, but no way out except by court order.

    • You can ALWAYS settle out of court, until the opinion has been entered into the record…
      But litigation is an awful source of stress. If you haven’t been subjected to it, you just can’t grasp how disruptive it is. You’re going along fine, waiting for a court date, or for an expert to send in a report, and then your lawyer calls: “The other side has filed a motion…” Endless monsters can crawl out from under the litigation bed. And the expense. Ye gods, the expense…

      I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this.

  15. Right now, today – political campaign ads. Because they seem so much worse than the ones I remember as a kid. And “reality” TV shows. Can’t pick between them – but they seem to add to the ground-state hostility level, in a nasty, way – that it’s okay to slander and libel if you can “get away” with it, even in the short-term. And that it’s okay to not really do your best, or cooperate with others, or denigrate them.

    On the other hand, it gets me out from in front of the TV, which our dogs definitely approve of, and they’re far more entertaining (and WAY more honest) than any ole politician! Okay, except when it comes to food (they’re ALWAYS starving).

    And hey, I like the view in that back seat! 🙂

    • One of the most pernicious effects of “reality” TV is that it blurs the line between truth and fiction. Most reality TV is rigged as heck for maximum ratings ahare, but it’s presented as “truth.” That’s a dangerous line to play with, and we’ve all but obliterated it.

  16. Political ads! And I’m talking about all the nasty, hateful ones. Hearing certain things, seeing certain things is frightening. Your article is spot on about things we see, hear daily become normal, routine. We become desensitized. Very scary stuff.

    • I’ve decided not to blog next week about “priming,” which is equally scary, but I’ll get around to it sometime. We aren’t as stolidly rational as we think we are, and those who know how to manipulate that Jungle Brain wield way too much power.

  17. I’ve been weeding out the negative influences a little at a time. I don’t watch live TV. I record everything I want to watch and fast forward through the commercials, especially the political ads. I am loving the Hallmark channel. LOL All the anger and hostility this election has engendered worries me. I don’t trust any news sources anymore, I think they are trying to brainwash us all to see danger around every corner. I have friends on Facebook who are ardent supporters of three, yes THREE, candidates, but I just scroll past them. It’s an uphill battle to keep my friends from talking about the problems rather than the good things in their lives. *sigh*