One of the most remarkable books I have read in recent years is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a psychologist, and a good one – he won the Nobel prize in economics – and this book is a layman’s summary of his and colleague Amos Tversky’s findings over five decades of research. The book is very broad but is mostly about how we make decisions, how the scrappiness of those decisions is hidden from ourselves, and how the illusion of control and understanding thus created allows us to function in an arbitrary world.
I rate it as necessary reading for everyone, but there are some particular lessons for journalists and for Share Wars.
Firstly, there is the emphasis our minds put on the normal, and the alacrity with which we detect deviations from the normal. Within two-tenths of a second of hearing the odd word in a sentence such as “Earth revolves around the trouble every year” the brains of listeners show distinctive patterns of activity. This pattern and the speed of detection is repeated when listeners hear a male voice talk about being pregnant, or an upper class voice talk about having a large tattoo. Something about these contextually unusual statements trips a wire in the brain much faster than conscious thought can be mustered.
This skill at detecting abnormality is explained by looking into a psychological division central to the book: what Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, effortless, loss-averse and unconscious. System 2 is plodding, hard to use, logical and conscious. Most of the time when we believe we are “being rational” we are merely justifying decisions passed on to System 2 by the quick-and-dirty System 1.
Kahneman says that System 1 primarily works by building a model of “normal”:
The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model or your personal world, which represents what is normal in it.
This statement goes to the heart of how Kahneman’s findings are relevant to Share Wars. System 1, to a large extent, rules our world. Political leaders are elected because of how they look. Decisions concerning money are driven by an exaggerated fear of loss or, conversely, recklessness. The intuitions that we use to make important life decisions come straight from System 1, with all its bias, prejudice, laziness and irrationality.
If the base function of the crucial System 1 is to maintain a model of normality and to detect deviations from that model, it explains why the Share Wars project has found that “deviation” is one of the key drivers of sharing.
Anything that that stands out from the standard model of our world – a standard model that is surprisingly homogenous within a culture – is an object of surprise and interest.* So we pay attention to the fat lady who wants to get fatter, the mother who rejects her child and the rich man who gives away all his money.
The operations of System 1 and the need to maintain a model of “normal” explain much of what works in mainstream news and offers an interesting challenge to conventional ideas about newsworthiness. The standard theories of what works in news – which usually include a range of attributes like proximity, timeliness, and the involvement of elites – assume a kind of rationality, or at least consistency, on the part of the consumer. But most of the time we are not rational or consistent. Thinking, Fast and Slow demonstrates that beyond doubt.
Deviance works in popular news. Other things that work in news and are also System 1 favourites: animals and threats. Like variations from the norm, they have been shown in experiments to be recognised with blinding speed. Kahneman talks about how our brain prioritises the transmission of bad news – news with important implications for the wellbeing of the recipient. Presumably the recognition and appreciation of animals has similarly deep roots.
The measure of a good theory is not how well it explains things we already know, but whether it can tell us something we don’t know. What does the System 1 theory of popular news predict? Can we use the theory to create new kinds of stories that will become hugely shareable?
I feel I need to do a lot more reading of the psychological literature, in conjunction with analysing the data the Share Wars engine is accumulating, before I can come up with anything worthwhile. My inclination is to look to the personal; everything Kahneman and his cronies talk about relates to people, and the preference we have for familiar people is remarkable (Kahneman notes that seeing a face once for a few fractions of a second will prejudice us favourably towards that person if we subsequently view them in a line-up of strangers).
If you follow the argument through, one of the mainstays of popular journalism should be news about people you know. At the moment we have to make do with a simulacrum – news about people we pretend to know, or as they are usually called, celebrities. Neighbourhood gossip could well be the foundation of a future media empire. It certainly seems to be working for Facebook.
* It is worth noting here that this theory is not at odds with previous Share Wars thinking on surprise as an indicator of the presence of information. Kahneman’s “model of normal” is simply another way of talking about a pattern, deviation from which constitutes new information in the system.