Signaling vs. Truth-Seeking

Premise #1: The things that we humans say are always a product of the fact that human discourse always points both outward and inward at the same time. Outward-facing discourse is about the things in the world, outside of our selves, as they are. Inward-facing discourse is about positioning ourselves relative to those things—it is about signaling our attitudes and loyalties. This is deeply, deeply ingrained into our brains. Throughout our entire evolutionary history, even to this day, success in life has always depended both on (1) ascertaining and sharing useful information about the world and (2) forming alliances, building loyalties, and maintaining the favor of the in-group—saying, “I am with you, I am on your side, I am not with them—let’s work together.”

Examples: People say things like, “I’ve always loved Beethoven’s sacred choral works—not that I’m religious or anything.” Or, “Not to sound like an angry feminist, but did that study really account for the effects of acculturation?” Or, “As a straight man, I see no reason why gay men are any less qualified for open military service than I.” All of these statements decompose into two separate propositions, one facing inward and the other facing outward: “I like Beethoven’s sacred choral work. But please don’t get the idea I’m some thumper!” “I think the behavioral sciences today tend to understate the role of culture in constructing gender differences. But I shave my legs, just so you know!” “I support gay rights. But I’m not gay, just so you know!” In each case, the speaker wants to make an outward-facing claim about aesthetics or science, but her/his anxieties about being identified with that group compel her/him to make an inward-facing, self-positioning declaration.

An intelligent extraterrestrial or computer would be baffled by why people do these things. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is undebatably gorgeous; not believing that the Latin words that accompany the music were divinely inspired does not detract one bit. The question of what is the truth regarding the perennial nature/nurture debates hinges on objective reasoning; it does not hinge on your personal identification as an angry feminist, a placid feminist, or no feminist at all. DADT was an unjust and stupid policy, objectively; your eagerness to advertise your straightness while saying so is rather ironic.

But we people, unlike intelligent computers and extra-terrestrials, understand exactly why we do these things: We know that people will make assumptions about what groups we belong to on the basis of what we say, and being identified with an out-group is extremely, extremely costly.

Premise#1, restated: People’s social anxieties, particularly their need to signal loyalty to favored groups and avoid signaling sympathy to out-groups, constrain their ability to plainly and directly state plain, factual truths about the world.

Premise #2: Journalists and intellectuals are supposed to have a moral obligation to state plain, factual truths about the world. This is the role they play in a democratic society—providing objective information and ideas which voters can use to cast informed ballots.

Premise #3: Most people are neither wholly bad, nor wholly good. Let us suppose that on a scale of 0-100, with 0 representing the Zoroastrian god of darkness, and 100 representing the Zoroastrian god of light, nobody in the world scores below 10 or above 90, and surpassingly few score below 20 or above 80.

Hypothesis: In assessing the goodness or badness of public figures, the producers and disseminators of information in our society (journalists and intellectuals) will be incapable of fulfilling their moral obligation to be objective, because their readers’ assumption that human discourse is inward-facing will make it very socially difficult for journalists and intellectuals to say unflattering truths about favored groups or people or talismans of the in-group, or flattering truths about disfavored movements or people or talismans of the out-group.

Examples: Take, as an example of an obnoxious person on the Right Rick Santorum. Take as an example of an obnoxious movement on the Left the Occupy Wall Street movement. Let us suppose that on our Zoroastrian scale, Rick Santorum is a 15—he does or says 15 good things for every 85 bad things. This would make him an extraordinarily bad man, indeed. An accurate and objective media, therefore, would report and disseminate 15 incidents of Rick Santorum being good for every 85 incidents of Rick Santorum being bad, allowing the informed public to ascertain the truth that Rick Santorum is 85% bad. However, because Rick Santorum is 85% bad—and particularly bad in the ways that most offend the professional classes—he is an especially unsympathetic figure in journalists’ and intellectuals’ social circles. It would not be going too far to say that he is or was the talisman of the out-group. So, if a journalist were to uncover (or any intellectual were to think) a good thing about Rick Santorum (one of the 15%), reporting this good thing would place her under under suspicion of sympathizing with Rick Santorum, causing her to lose caste and face social exclusion. So any journalist of less-than-extraordinary moral fiber will decline to report this good thing. As a result, 100% of Rick Santorum’s bad doings will be reported, and about 0% of his good ones. The informed public will conclude that Rick Santorum is 100% bad and 0% good. They will then wonder at the people who have voted for him after hearing his primary stump speeches, and conclude that there is only one plausible explanation—those people love and support some really horrible things and must be really bad themselves. (It is possible, of course, that those people heard some of the good 15% directly, during the stump speech.)

Let us suppose that on our Zoroastrian scale, Occupy Wall Street is a 30—it mostly functions as a kind of camp for aggrieved losers with incoherent political resentments, but it also contains a very pressing and legitimate demand for an intelligent policy response to exploding income inequality and middle-class income stagnation. But because Occupy is on the whole a 30—and because its main underlying sentiment is hostility to elites—then it is held as an unsympathetic group by the media. A young CNBC reporter who discovers a really great thing about Occupy will be held under suspicion by his superiors; one who discovers a bad thing about them will flatter the prejudices of his superiors. So CNBC will do a much better job discovering the bad things about Occupy than the good.

Conclusion: We do not get the truth from the media, because the media are the product of humans who have lots of social anxieties about signaling loyalty to the groups with whom they identify. This reduces the reliability of the information that voters use to make decisions. It also causes geographically and professionally isolated social groups in the United States to misunderstand and hate each other. This is bad for the prospects of our democracy.


Closing assertion: There are some extraordinarily basic truths about the world that are well known by academic political scientists, but which are never presented in the media. Consequently, informed, intelligent people have some risibly opposite-of-truth beliefs about the world. (I will not name specifics in this particular blog post, because doing so would socially and politically position me in a way that would alienate some readers, causing them to discount the main, critical point of this post, which I genuinely hope everyone could take to heart.)


4 thoughts on “Signaling vs. Truth-Seeking

  1. Your take is actually more idealistic (though no less discerning– in fact, more discerning) than most people’s explanations of the phenomenon of media bias. There is, of course, also the issue of sensationalism: if a journalist finds out that woman was raped in an Occupy camp, or that it seems like Rick Santorum fumble-swallowed a demonstration of racial prejudice, the story will be replayed on CNN about every five minutes (I exaggerate, only slightly).

    So, to integrate my pennysworth with your dollar: a story that relates a deed that received a 15 on the Zoroastrian Goodness Scale (ZGS) is also more INTERESTING than a story that received a 60. If Rick Santorum is, overall, human being whose deeds average 15 ZGS, but today he commits acts rated both 15 and 60 ZGS, the media will choose to report the former, because more shocked people will stay tuned for more after the preview/ read the text that follows the headline/ link it on Facebook.

    One thing the title of your post seems to suggest, but that the body of it doesn’t emphasize as much, is that in your take this bias can be boiled down to the level of individual journalists hoping to “signal” to their employers their lack of bias/where their bias lies. Any thoughts on that? Or does your title say more about news source attempts at signalling their biases to their readership?

  2. Matt, all the psych and econ concepts didn’t seem to add anything more than what people already know about media bias!

  3. Great post. You are right on the mark. There is so much more common ground than people are willing to admit for just the reasons you cite. And it seems to me that the middle ground is where progress is possible. Thanks for the post!

  4. I mostly agree with this, as can probably surmise from my past comments.

    But yet again, I feel compelled to come to the defense of my beloved extremists in the your language of technocratic moderation. Suppose Occupy’s policy goals (insofar as they actually exist) are indeed 70% pernicious. That means those policy goals should not be implemented, and it is the media’s responsibility to make sure they aren’t.

    But people are highly selective in evaluating information. Here’s what they don’t think: “this story highlighted 3 good things about Occupy’s policy goals and 7 bad things. Clearly, this should cause me to revise my Bayesian priors about Occupy in the direction of non-support!”

    Here’s what they do “think” (i.e. here’s the subconscious process that happens): “Do I like/agree with Occupy? Do my friends?”

    If the answer is yes, they reason thus: “Well, yeah, this article raises some problems with Occupy, and maybe some of those are valid, though others are clearly just the product of the Mainstream Media being in the pocket of the Corporate Powerocracy and its Pernicious Capital and Capital Letters. That said, look! Even these media corporate shills are forced to admit that Occupy’s got a point! Clearly I should keep supporting Occupy’s righteous quest even as the MSM and the CPaiPCaCL do their darnedest to bring it down”

    The upshot of this is that if the media wish to persuade people not to support Occupy, it may be the correct strategy—and perhaps, though this makes me rather queasy, even the responsible strategy—to paint a thoroughly negative portrait of Occupy. Any positive points about Occupy (or, conversely, Santorum) just give people the opportunity to rationalize their support.

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