Tag Archives: magical thinking

A Theory of the Flourishing of Ignorance

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”            –Alice in Wonderland

Any thoughtful person looking at our peculiar times can’t help but wonder why the willful acceptance of misinformation is so pervasive. In an era when the ease of researching anything is easy, and credible news sources are just a click away, it is a puzzle to understand why so many are flying blind with their own preferred fantasies.  Most of us know the common markers of self deception heard all around us: covid vaccines are very dangerous; “the government” is using them to take away our freedoms; progressives are Nazis or “communists;” there is a concerted “war on Christmas;” voter fraud is widespread; university teachers indoctrinate their students; and that was just a “party” in the Capitol on January 6, not an insurrection.  These kinds of fictions keep surfacing. Nearly all of these claims are provably false, using accepted means for verifying facts and applying common tests of source credibility.  How do people stay in their own bubble?

It’s Now Easy to Live in an Information Desert 

An admittedly oversimplified but compelling explanation hints at part of the cause.  In a nutshell, we no longer give sufficient time to comprehensive news sources that were common even fifteen years ago. Instead, we cherry-pick news about just a few stories, choosing sources more for conformation than information.  A result is that we are poorly informed or unaware of what the best evidence shows in a given instance.

The reason this is so easily was made clear to me on a recent trip where, for days, my only source of news was television. None of the three hotels where I stayed had a newspaper available.  And their WI-FI access was predictably spotty. Typically, even good television news shows cover only a few stories.  Frequently, as with the collapse of the condominium on Collins Avenue in South Florida, one story dominates. Cable news especially has a hard time juggling a complex news agenda, even though they have capable reporters that are ready for calls from producers that often never come. A single story formula tagged as “breaking news” seems to be a ratings winner.

A good newspaper forces closed minds to open, at least a little.

This matters, because cable and internet news has largely replaced much more diverse city newspapers that still existed until a few years ago. Newspapers carried various stories from the AP, perhaps Reuters or and AFP, as well as the paper’s local reporters and other specialized news services.  Even a middling city paper offered a daily window on the world.  And a very good one, like the New York Times, forces closed minds to open.  For example, on the day I started writing this, just the first page of the Times featured 18 different news items, including a photo story of an ICU staff trying out a new treatment to save a dying covid patient. The image of medical staff hovering over a patient suggested a valiant effort to find a medical off-ramp just short of death. True, readers still chose what they wanted to read. But its hard to miss conclusive and myth-busing headlines.  What would that front-page picture say to an anti-vaxxer?

In addition, news consumers are not tied to the linear and and narrower stories of cable and broadcast news outlets. Video edits for the viewer, one story doled out at a time at the pathetic oral rate of about 200 words a minute. By contrast, print lets the reader decide from a much broader palette of stories. In addition, Americans were once better informed partly because news services and many newspapers had a financial interest in doing straight news.  Commentary may work for the increasing tribal cable networks, but not for a news service like the Associated Press, which needs neutrality to satisfy its very different subscribers.

Misinformation by the Truckload

It’s now an old and sad story that news readership is on life support.  Some papers have survived, but with far fewer reporters.  Whether it is the Allentown Daily Call or the New York Daily News, staffs that remain now sit in a sea of empty desks.  The rationale of the earnings-driven owners is that younger Americans aren’t newspaper readers, which is sadly true. But it is a mistake to assume that younger Americans have thrown in the towel on credible news stories.  And yet the major internet giants like Google aren’t much help. They aren’t journalists, and they aren’t very good at aggregating stories for the collective good. Their selections are mostly governed by algorithms rather than solid reporting.  In truth, neither CNN’s Jeff Zucker or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would cut it in the journalistic worlds once occupied by Fred Friendly, David Halberstam, Janet Malcolm, David Carr or Ben Bradlee.  These latter-day giants would have seen through the charade of one-note news, as well as the price it exacts from an increasingly distracted public.

Why We Cling to Magical Thinking

With group fantasies, the world always makes sense.  Without them we would have to live closer to the uncertainties of incomplete insight.

These times remind us that millions of Americans have easily succumbed to magical thinking, to the embarrassment of much of the nation.  Magical thinking happens when a view is reinforced more by others than hard fact. This happens in every conceivable realm of American life: medicine and vaccines, allegations of “voter fraud,” rumors about celebrities, and—of course—our national politics.

There is a clear and convincing explanation for this collective response to not notice the obvious. We can continue to call the determination to believe a falsehood “magical thinking.” But a better term is “fantasy chaining.”  Let me explain.

Years ago, social scientist Robert Bales noted that groups of people put together in a room to solve a problem often reach a moment when there is a convergence of views around a preferred narrative. In many cases folks in the group didn’t have the facts or knowledge to make a judgement, but they had the support of other like-minded people around them. Think of a jury reaching a judgment on a case based on a shared prejudice. From this and other observations, Bales developed the idea of Interaction Process Analysis to track this convergence of opinions, building in part on the work of Sigmund Freud work in The Interpretation of Dreams.  It was good, but not quite clear enough. And any theory resting on Freudian assumption needs a lot more grounding.

Years later communication theorist Ernest Boorman at the University of Minnesota refined Bales’ ideas into a theory Fantasy Theme Analysis. His work created a convincing model that was finally up to speed and amazingly predictive.

Basically, Boorman acknowledged that—in the absence of good information—we tend to rely on members of our reference group and our natural compulsion to spin narratives that allow us to move us from tentative claims like “I suspect” to the certainties of “I know.”  That’s what a fantasy theme makes possible. He also noted the obvious: that it is easy for group fantasies to “chain out” to others with similar views.

Fantasy theme analysis helps us understand the contagion that happens when incomplete information combines with our hard-wired impulses to see the world in sets of self-contained stories. Each comes with with actors, motivations, preferred narratives, and final outcomes. We hate incomplete narratives, as when there is an airplane accident caused by bad weather.  So we are happy to construct our own secondary narratives, regardless of what solid evidence might oblige us to believe. We want to have human agents in the picture and at least partly responsible.

Here’s another example I have used in a text and my classes. I was sitting in my office one day in the 80s with a copy of the New York Times opened up on my desk. A colleague dropped by and, at the same time, we both noticed the paper’s front-page picture of the new Soviet version of a space shuttle. The Buran space craft looked exactly like the American version. Same wing shape. Same color. Same size. And without missing a beat we both blurted out the view that “they must have stolen the American design.” End of story. We “knew” it and we were ready to fill in the blanks. The similarity of the shape was enough to accept the fantasy of a theft of our plans.  All the while, we pretty much ignored the physics of space flight, which mandates similar design parameters for any earth-to-space vehicle.

With group fantasies, the world always makes sense.  Without them, we would have to live with the continuous uncertainties mandated by incomplete information. In my field there is a Latin phrase to describe humans as homo narrans: the species that tells stories. That is our priority. Truth is far back in the pack. Tacts are optional and often downright inconvenient for humans. It feels better and it is much easier to bolster each other’s fantasies.

In time, and the sooner the better, more Americans will rejoin the reality-based world.

Top Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/photos/background”>Background photo created by valeria_aksakova – www.freepik.com</a>