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  • feedwordpress 11:30:14 on 2018-09-29 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Green Groceries, Party Presents, and Reluctant Reviews 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

    ___________________________________________________

    Hi Dan.

    My wife is pretty involved with green initiatives—in particular, reducing plastic waste. She tries to get bars and restaurants to stop offering plastic straws, she purchases products that do not use plastic packages, and once a month we volunteer to clean up trash in public spaces. So I’m baffled that she doesn’t have the same reaction to wasting food. When it’s her turn to go grocery shopping, she always brings home such an excess of fruits and vegetables that many of them rot before we have a chance to eat them. We’ve had many conversations about this, but nothing has worked so far. What can I do?

    —Diégo 

    It is often the case that when we care a lot about one thing, we focus on it to the exclusion of other priorities. So don’t take your wife’s behavior too personally, and don’t try repeatedly to educate her about it. Instead, why don’t you simply help by making a shopping list? When we go shopping with a shopping list we are likely to stick to it. If you write down the specific amount of needed fruits and vegetables, the odds are that the waste problem will be solved.

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    Hi, Dan.

    My son Joey is turning one year old, and we’re throwing a birthday party for him. People usually give toys on such occasions, but I’d like to ask them to give him money instead. How can I do this without seeming rude?

    —Felipe 

    It’s always tricky to use a social occasion to ask people for money. To sweeten the pill, I would ask people to donate toward a specific goal. For example, what if you told your guests that you want to open a college savings account for Joey? You could ask them not just to give money but also to write down advice for him to read when he goes to college. Ask your guests to write their messages in a book that you can give to Joey when he turns 18.

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    Dear Dan,

    I have several friends who have self-published books on Amazon. After reading the books, I am usually aghast at the poor quality of the writing, and sometimes there is even a gross twisting of the truth in the retelling of a life experience that I have seen firsthand. Even so, I try to say something positive—without getting into too many details—but then my friends ask me to submit an online review, to go along with all the other five-star reviews they somehow managed to get. I care about my friends, but I also don’t want to give a false recommendation. How would you handle this conflict?

    —Jerry 

    Life is full of situations where we are asked to trade our integrity for other interests, such as sparing the feelings of a friend. But once we start giving up our integrity, it is a slippery slope: We are likely to do it more and more until at some point we stop feeling bad about it. What does this mean in your case? Writing a positive review of a book you don’t like may seem like a one-time sacrifice of honesty for the sake of friendship. But given that your long-term integrity is also on the line, I would not give it up. Gently decline your friend’s request for a review—but do keep on investing in your friendship.

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:30:02 on 2018-09-15 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Blueberry Buffets, Compliment Condiments, and Historical Habits 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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    Dear Dan,

    I have a farm where people come to pick blueberries, and I charge $3 per pound. The problem is that people think it is an open buffet and eat a lot of blueberries while in the field, and then they come back to the payment station with just $3 worth of blueberries. Without being rude, how can I let them know that they are stealing?

    —Michelle 

    I must admit that when I’ve picked blueberries I too ate a few in the process. It’s just so tempting that I think it’s inhuman to ask people not to eat any. So if we accept that people will eat some blueberries in the process of picking, maybe the best approach is to charge an entrance fee to cover the cost of the snacking. But make sure to call it an entrance fee and not a snacking fee—otherwise people will try to maximize their benefit by eating even more blueberries.

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    Dear Dan,

    Conventional wisdom says that when providing criticism, you should use a “compliment sandwich,” that is, say something nice, give the critique and then end with something nice again. Have there been any studies regarding the effectiveness of this practice? It seems to me that the person may just hear and remember the positive parts, and that the impact of the criticism would be lost.

    —Andrew 

    “Compliment sandwiches” certainly feel less painful than sheer critiques—but they don’t seem to be particularly effective. According to a study by Jay Parkes, Sara Abercrombie and Teresita McCarty, published in 2013 in the journal Advances in Health Sciences Education, people who received “compliment sandwiches” were more likely to believe that the feedback would improve their performance. But they didn’t actually do any better than those who received more straightforward criticism. The good news is that the sandwich method did not get them to perform any worse either—it just made no difference. It is really hard to change people’s behavior, and a single piece of feedback is not going to do much, no matter how it is phrased.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    I teach computer science 101, and I’ve recently started thinking of ways to get students to begin their work earlier in the semester. Research has shown that if they start earlier, they are likely to put more time into their project and get a better grade. I wonder if it would be useful to send a daily email reminder asking the students to start working on their project today. What do you think?

    —Kristin 

    A daily reminder is a good start, and it should certainly help the students to get going. But it would be even more powerful to give concrete instructions and make use of social comparison. What if the email didn’t just ask them to work on their project today but specifically told them to spend 30 minutes on it? You could also tell them something about the work habits of students who do well in the class—for example, “Historically, the students who got an A in this class started working on their projects early and worked on them consistently throughout the semester.”

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

     
  • feedwordpress 14:38:07 on 2018-09-04 Permalink
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    A Phone Favor 

    Hi,

    I would like to ask you for a favor.

    I am interested in how people set up their phones. To try to understand this, I have set up a short study (about 10 minutes long).

    If you are willing to participate, please click the following link. If you find this study interesting, please also send it to to some friends!

    Note that the study is set up as if you were setting up a new Android phone, but it is designed to get input from both Apple and Android users.

    Many thanks,

    Dan

    And the link is:

    https://danarielylabs.com/MyNewAndroid

     
  • feedwordpress 11:30:18 on 2018-09-02 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Invasive Inquiry, Circumcision Conversation, and Admirable Advice 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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    Dear Dan,

    I’m a single woman in my mid 30s. I get invited to a lot of cocktail parties, which I don’t particularly enjoy, but I feel I have to go. To make things worse, during these parties people who I know only superficially often feel free to ask me why I am so wonderful and yet unmarried. I have some real answers to this question (I didn’t find the right person, I’m very excited about my career right now), but mostly I’m annoyed that they have the audacity to ask me such a personal and complex question as a form of small talk. How would you deal with this situation?

    —Jax 

    It is indeed odd that while so many topics are considered taboo for standard small-talk—how much do you earn? what are your sexual preferences?—others that should be considered just as personal, like marital status, are considered fair game. With this in mind, I think that your job is not to answer the question but to demonstrate to the people asking it how inappropriate it is.

    I’d suggest that you respond by saying: “That’s a very personal question. Before we talk about me, can you tell me what aspects of your life you wish were different?” It might be difficult to say this in the beginning, but my guess is that if you stick to it for a few cocktail parties, it will become second nature. A side benefit of this approach is that you might get invited to these parties less often.

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    Dear Dan,

    I am Jewish, and my wife is agnostic. We are both economists and big fans of your work. Our first son was circumcised as a newborn. We are now waiting for our second boy, and we are not sure what to do. My wife prefers not to have him circumcised, and I prefer to have it done for ritual reasons. Any hint how to approach this decision?

    —Michael 

    On this question, there is a long list of very different pros and cons. Against circumcision is the argument that sexual pleasure is said to be greater for the uncircumcised—though this is difficult to measure. On the other hand, some authorities say that a circumcised penis is easier to clean, and there is data that suggests circumcision reduces the odds of contracting HIV. In the end, of course, only you can decide how important the religious aspect of circumcision is to you. But since your first son was circumcised according to your preference, it would seem fair for your wife to make the decision for your second child.

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    Dear Dan,

    What was the best advice you ever got?

    —Alison 

    It was when I was a Ph.D. student interviewing for my first academic job. I had a few offers, and one of my advisers suggested that I pick the department most different from where I had studied, in order to force myself to learn new things. I did, and I learned a lot over the next 10 years. Generally, I think it is good advice to think about such choices not as the immediate next step but in terms of how they will help us to develop in the long run.

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:30:39 on 2018-08-18 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Pickleball Problems, Calorie Compensation, and Friend Finding 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    I play the paddle sport pickleball on outdoor courts at our local city park. During the season, the members of our association have to clean up the courts at the end of each day, which takes about 15 minutes.

    As you might expect, few people volunteer regularly, and pleas for more help fall on deaf ears. I recently suggested to the group’s executive board that we should pay members who help clean up, but my idea was shot down. The reasoning was that we are a volunteer organization and should not pay for such services. How can we get more people to pitch in?

    —John 

    Paying a few members to clean the courts is always an option. But if you start paying for cleaning, it will change how those who clean and those who don’t treat each other. So I would try other methods first.
    One effective approach is to use social shaming. What if the pickleball association posted the names of all the members on a large poster board and used markings to show how often each person cleaned the courts? What if, next to the names of the people who did not help even once, there was a large question mark? My guess is that the desire to appear to be a team player rather than a freeloader could motivate many more people to contribute to the cleaning effort.

    ___________________________________________________

    Hi Dan,

    I am a doctor specializing in obesity management, and one of the challenges we face in my practice is something called the “Last Supper” effect. We find that patients who know they are about to undergo weight loss surgery tend to binge during the two weeks prior to the procedure, gaining anywhere from five to 20 pounds. Do you have any suggestions for how we might be able to change this pattern?

    —Adrian 

    My colleagues and I carried out research at our lab at Duke University that might shed some light on this question. We asked one group of participants to indulge in food and compensate for it by reducing their calorie consumption later. Meanwhile, we asked another group to create an “indulgence bank,” going on a diet first and indulging only after they “saved” enough calories to compensate.

    It turns out that when people indulged first, they didn’t compensate enough and ended up gaining weight. But when they saved calories by dieting first, they realized how much hard work it was and didn’t want to “spend” all their savings by eating more.

    With this in mind, I would ask patients to start two months before the weight-loss procedure and spend the first six weeks creating an indulgence bank by reducing their calorie intake. Then they can “celebrate” by eating freely during the last two weeks before the procedure. My guess is that they will celebrate a bit, but not too much.

    ___________________________________________________

    Hello, Dan.

    I recently retired, and since many of my friends were from my workplace, I feel lonely and deprived of connections. Any advice?

    —Warren 

    It’s a bit awkward to advertise “friends needed,” and if you tried, you could attract some shady characters. Instead, I’d suggest that you pick an activity that is likely to attract the kind of people you want to be friends with: the Sierra Club, or bird watching, or maybe pickleball. Odds are that you will find your next friends there. And don’t worry if you don’t like the activities very much: The other people are probably there for the same reason—to make friends.

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:30:48 on 2018-08-04 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Missing Morality, Caring Critiques, and Remodeling Resources 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    I recently lost my wallet while shopping at the mall. Within moments, I heard an announcement from the information desk calling me to pick it up. Relief! But once I got it back, I realized that the person who returned it had stolen all the money and returned only my driver’s license and credit card. Here’s what I don’t get: How could a person doing such a kind act also do something so immoral?

    —Jessie 

    The basic principle operating here is what psychologists call “moral licensing.” Sometimes when we do a good deed, such as returning someone’s wallet, we feel an immediate boost to our self-image: We just proved to ourselves that we are good people. Sadly, that also makes us less concerned with the moral implications of our next actions. After all, if we are such good, moral people, don’t we deserve to act a bit selfishly?

    Moral licensing operates across many areas of life. After we recycle our trash from lunch, we’re more likely to buy non-green products. After we go to the gym, we’re more likely to order a double cheeseburger. This is probably why the person who found your wallet and decided to return it felt justified taking your cash.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    A thought occurred to me during recent coverage of the rescue of the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave. It seemed that no expense was spared in bringing out the 12 boys and their coach alive. The same urgency in saving lives, regardless of the cost, occurred during the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010.

    But there are plenty of ways that, for a fraction of the cost, we as a society could save and improve the lives of far more people—for example, by spending more on public health measures. I’m not criticizing the rescue of the soccer players or miners—both incidents were causes for celebration, examples of the triumph of human ingenuity and endurance against the forces of nature. But what makes us care so much about these episodes and so little about other issues?

    —Stanley 

    You are correct in your observation. We’re much more motivated to take drastic measures to help others when we see suffering on a specific human face, rather than in abstract numbers. This is what’s known as the “identifiable victim effect.” Think of moments when people have been galvanized around major issues. They often come right after a vivid story about a particular person or a harrowing image made the news.

    Consider, for example, the recent stories about immigrant children separated from their parents at the border, which has made the issue of immigration more urgent across the political spectrum. Most of us were aware of immigration problems before, but when the harm became more individual and visible, it seemed intolerable. We should be aware of this effect and, as you say, shouldn’t necessarily let it dictate where we focus our effort and resources.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    I recently decided to remodel my bathroom myself instead of hiring a contractor to do it, which would have cost $65,000. I did it myself for $25,000 in materials and some hired help. It took up my weekends for nine months, time that I otherwise would have spent in advancing my career. I enjoy the hands-on work, but would I have been better off focusing on my job and trying to earn more money? Was the bathroom worth it?

    —Will 

    While it’s certainly more time-efficient to hire a contractor, and you could have used the time to further your career, it sounds like you got a lot of satisfaction out of remodeling the bathroom yourself. Several colleagues and I conducted research a few year ago on what we called the “Ikea effect.” It turns out that when we assemble something ourselves, we end up taking a lot of pride in it, and for a long time. So I wouldn’t just think about money and time. Think also about the pleasure of inviting friends to your home, showing them your bathroom and taking pride in your craftsmanship.

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:30:05 on 2018-07-21 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Exercise Equations, Pricy Pals, and Happier Holidays 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    I’m currently in physical therapy for a knee injury, but I haven’t been improving much lately. The main reason is that I’ve been slacking off with my exercises at home, which my physical therapist says are crucial for the treatment to be effective. I know I could be recovering much faster if I actually followed through with my exercises, but doing them is just miserable. What can I do?

    —Jordan 

    Because physical therapy is often tedious and uncomfortable, the mood to do your exercises will probably not strike you very frequently, if at all. What I would do is add something to the exercises that changes your motivation equation. For example, you could make a rule that your whole family can only watch their favorite TV show after you’ve completed your exercises. This way, the pressure of not wanting to disappoint everyone in your family will add to your motivation; and if you slack off, your family will nag you to get your exercises done. This approach can be thought of as “doing the right thing for the wrong reason”–in this case, doing your physical therapy in order to watch TV and not annoy your family. It is a great way to engineer our motivation to get us to do things that are no fun in themselves.

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    Hi Dan,

    Recently, I retired on a small income. I have an old friend who visits regularly, and who is very well off. She often stays with me for a week or more, but rarely offers to cover any of the expenses connected with her visit, such as food or gas. She doesn’t take me out to dinner and seldom brings a gift. To make things worse, when we go shopping together she buys expensive things for herself, making the income difference between us even more obvious and painful.

    I can get over the difference in wealth, but it is hard for me not to care that she doesn’t help out with expenses. How can I suggest that she chip in and still keep her as a good friend?

    —Francis 

    Since your friend is used to a pattern where you are paying for everything, she probably no longer thinks much about it. In general, we are all very good at taking things for granted. To break this pattern, I would sit with her over a glass of wine and tell her that while you love her visits, since you retired you feel a bit financially stressed. Tell her that you don’t want her to visit less often, but that you would like to alternate who pays for groceries and for going out.

    I suggest alternating rather than splitting the bills because splitting requires an ongoing accounting, which is uncomfortable and can put an extra strain on the relationship. With this kind of an arrangement, the expenses won’t necessarily be divided equally, but it will help you avoid awkwardness during each and every transaction. My guess is that your friend will be delighted to share in the expenses, and you’ll wonder why you felt it was so difficult to bring this topic up in the first place.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    Summer is here and I am wondering: what is the secret to a good vacation?

    —Moran 

    The first secret is not to call it a vacation. To vacate a place is to leave it, but the point of taking time off is not just to leave our lives behind. It is to approach something new and different. That’s why I think the British have it right: they call this time a holiday, which is a much more fitting name for an exciting experience. And since the words we use matter to how we think and act, my advice is: plan to have a holiday!

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:30:57 on 2018-07-07 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Real Randomness, Complex Conversation, and Linen Loss 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    On a recent trip to Las Vegas, my wife wanted to observe how roulette is played. In addition to the real game with a real wheel, we saw video versions of the game that you could bet on. It looked to us like the real version was less random than the video version, which must depend on algorithms to mimic the roulette wheel. Could this difference in randomness be true?

    —Mark 

    I haven’t made a study of real roulette games versus virtual ones in Las Vegas, but I have to think that you’re imagining the difference. We have a very hard time perceiving randomness and tend to see links between events even when there are none. We blame the gain of a pound overnight on eating things that couldn’t have enough calories to cause such a weight increase, and we believe TV shows and web sites that explain with supposed certainty why a certain share price on the stock market went up or down that day, even though it’s often just random variation.

    It’s the same with roulette. My guess is that with the physical wheel, you had more factors to pay attention to: the person turning the wheel, their movements, the action around the table. I suspect that it all made you think the real game was somehow less pure, less random.

    ___________________________________________________

    Hi there.

    My girlfriend and I get along well but feel our relationship is very superficial. The truth is that we both have trouble speaking about ourselves or our feelings, so we almost never have deep conversations. But our mundane discussions don’t provide any real closeness, and they just help us pass the time in a sort of pleasant way. More troubling are times when one of us is going through some difficulty and doesn’t bring it up—and as a result gets no help solving the problem. We’ve both realized this and want to get better. How could we establish a mechanism to push us to have regular “deep” conversations?

    —Miguel 

    You’re experiencing what I’d call the small-talk syndrome. Making meaningless small talk is the easiest way to keep on having a conversation. Everyone can participate, and no one will be offended because nothing complex or controversial will be discussed.

    But a deep relationship, which demands more intimate connections and often brings important challenges, needs more. I would suggest that you create a few rules for conversations. For example, ban small talk from Friday-night dinner: Only complex topics are allowed.

    If you need some inspiration, Kristen Berman at Irrational Labs (a nonprofit behavioral consulting company that I co-founded with her) has made a deck of questions for such situations, including “What was the last lie that you told?” and “What gives you energy?” If you follow this plan for a few months, I suspect that making “big talk” will become much more natural and easy for both of you.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    I belong to a sports club that loses many towels because members take them home. The towels are cheaply made, so it’s doubtful that my club’s affluent members really need them for their homes. What can be done to stop the losses?

    —Freddie 

    Put a permanent tag on each towel and write $20 in a large font. This will remind members that the towels have value and that taking them is stealing.

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:30:41 on 2018-06-23 Permalink
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    Ask Ariely: On Encouraging Exercise, Activating Altruism, and Debating Dishes 

    Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    I hate exercise and always have, but I’ve recently started going to a spinning class, which I hate less than other forms of exercise. At the end I usually feel pretty good, but getting there is still a struggle. How can I motivate myself to go?

    —Amy 

    Clearly your future self wants to exercise, so why not help yourself along? You could arrange to work out with a good friend, which would provide encouragement and social pressure. And when she’s not available, you could make a deal with her: You have to text her a new photo of yourself sweating at the end of the class or else pay her $20. My guess is that the social pressure coupled with the financial incentive will compel your future self to exercise.

    If neither of these approaches works, try setting up a regular meeting with an especially annoying colleague just before your scheduled spinning class. That way, you’ll be eager to get out the door, and after the meeting, the cycling will feel like a joy.

    ___________________________________________________

    Hello!

    What makes people show up at charity events and donate? Do they just want to promote themselves as virtuous, or are they genuinely altruistic?

    —Alexandra 

    Many factors come into play at charity events. If you attend, you’re signaling that you’re part of a group and committed to its cause. But the social signaling doesn’t stop there. Numerous studies have shown that the more public people’s charitable behavior is, the more they donate. In a 1984 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Joel Brockner and his colleagues showed that people were more willing to donate to a charity when they were solicited in person compared with a phone call. So altruism no doubt motivates many donors—but social factors can boost their giving.

    ___________________________________________________

    Dear Dan,

    My wife and I alternate who loads and unloads the dishwasher. If she’s the loader and I’m the unloader, I often notice that she has placed certain items facing away from the water jets. My own research suggests that this isn’t the most effective way to get things clean. I haven’t seen a lot of residual bits of food on our dinnerware, but my wife’s habit still bothers me. Should I make some comment about dishwasher arrangements, hoping to give her a learning opportunity, or maybe suggest that we read the instruction manual together? Or should I just forget about it and let the crumbs fall as they may? We are otherwise happily married.

    —Michael 

    If loading the dishwasher were the only issue in your relationship (now or in the future), I would recommend an evening with the instruction manual and other sources on optimal dishwasher use. But it’s probably not going to be the only small annoyance in your marriage—minor irritations are a natural part of a healthy relationship. So I suggest that you consider this an opportunity for personal growth. Since your wife’s method doesn’t seem to lead to dirtier dinnerware, why not let it be? Letting go is an important skill—and you have in this everyday chore a great opportunity to practice it.

    See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

     
  • feedwordpress 01:26:51 on 2018-06-21 Permalink
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    The Messy Fourth Estate 

    (This post was originally posted on Medium.)

    For the second time in a week, my phone buzzed with a New York Times alert, notifying me that another celebrity had died by suicide. My heart sank. I tuned into the Crisis Text Line Slack channel to see how many people were waiting for a counselor’s help. Volunteer crisis counselors were pouring in, but the queue kept growing.

    Celebrity suicides trigger people who are already on edge to wonder whether or not they too should seek death. Since the Werther effect study, in 1974, countless studies have conclusively and repeatedly shown that how the news media reports on suicide matters. The World Health Organization has adetailed set of recommendations for journalists and news media organizations on how to responsibly report on suicide so as to not trigger copycats. Yet in the past few years, few news organizations have bothered to abide by them, even as recent data shows that the reporting on Robin Williams’ death triggered an additional 10 percent increase in suicide and a 32 percent increase in people copying his method of death. The recommendations aren’t hard to follow — they focus on how to convey important information without adding to the problem.

    Crisis counselors at the Crisis Text Line are on the front lines. As a board member, I’m in awe of their commitment and their willingness to help those who desperately need support and can’t find it anywhere else. But it pains me to watch as elite media amplifiers make counselors’ lives more difficult under the guise of reporting the news or entertaining the public.

    Through data, we can see the pain triggered by 13 Reasons Why and the New York Times. We see how salacious reporting on method prompts people to consider that pathway of self-injury. Our volunteer counselors are desperately trying to keep people alive and get them help, while for-profit companies reap in dollars and clicks. If we’re lucky, the outlets triggering unstable people write off their guilt by providing a link to our services, with no consideration of how much pain they’ve caused or the costs we must endure.

    I want to believe in journalism. But my faith is waning.

    I want to believe in journalism. I want to believe in the idealized mandate of the fourth estateI want to trust that editors and journalists are doing their best to responsibly inform the public and help create a more perfect union.But my faith is waning.

    Many Americans — especially conservative Americans — do not trust contemporary news organizations. This “crisis” is well-trod territory, but the focus on fact-checking, media literacy, and business models tends to obscure three features of the contemporary information landscape that I think are poorly understood:

    1. Differences in worldview are being weaponized to polarize society.
    2. We cannot trust organizations, institutions, or professions when they’re abstracted away from us.
    3. Economic structures built on value extraction cannot enable healthy information ecosystems.

    Let me begin by apologizing for the heady article, but the issues that we’re grappling with are too heady for a hot take. Please read this to challenge me, debate me, offer data to show that I’m wrong. I think we’ve got an ugly fight in front of us, and I think we need to get more sophisticated about our thinking, especially in a world where foreign policy is being boiled down to 140 characters.

    1. Your Worldview Is Being Weaponized

    I was a teenager when I showed up at a church wearing jeans and a T-shirt to see my friend perform in her choir. The pastor told me that I was not welcomebecause this was a house of God, and we must dress in a manner that honors Him. Not good at following rules, I responded flatly, “God made me naked. Should I strip now?” Needless to say, I did not get to see my friend sing.

    Faith is an anchor for many people in the United States, but the norms that surround religious institutions are man-made, designed to help people make sense of the world in which we operate. Many religions encourage interrogation and questioning, but only within a well-established framework.Children learn those boundaries, just as they learn what is acceptable insecular society. They learn that talking about race is taboo and that questioning the existence of God may leave them ostracized.

    Like many teenagers before and after me, I was obsessed with taboos and forbidden knowledge. I sought out the music Tipper Gore hated, read the books my school banned, and tried to get answers to any question that made adults gasp. Anonymously, I spent late nights engaged in conversations on Usenet, determined to push boundaries and make sense of adult hypocrisy.

    Following a template learned in Model UN, I took on strong positions in order to debate and learn. Having already lost faith in the religious leaders in my community, I saw no reason to respect the dogma of any institution. And because I made a hobby out of proving teachers wrong, I had little patience for the so-called experts in my hometown. I was intellectually ravenous, but utterly impatient with, if not outright cruel to the adults around me. I rebelled against hierarchy and was determined to carve my own path at any cost.

    have an amazing amount of empathy for those who do not trust the institutions that elders have told them they must respect. Rage against the machine. We don’t need no education, no thought control. I’m also fully aware that you don’t garner trust in institutions through coercion or rational discussion. Instead, trust often emerges from extreme situations.

    Many people have a moment where they wake up and feel like the world doesn’t really work like they once thought or like they were once told. That moment of cognitive reckoning is overwhelming. It can be triggered by any number of things — a breakup, a death, depression, a humiliating experience.Everything comes undone, and you feel like you’re in the middle of a tornado, unable to find the ground. This is the basis of countless literary classics, the crux of humanity. But it’s also a pivotal feature in how a society comes together to function.

    Everyone needs solid ground, so that when your world has just been destabilized, what comes next matters. Who is the friend that picks you up and helps you put together the pieces? What institution — or its representatives — steps in to help you organize your thinking? What information do you grab onto in order to make sense of your experiences?

    Contemporary propaganda isn’t about convincing someone to believe something, but convincing them to doubt what they think they know.

    Countless organizations and movements exist to pick you up during your personal tornado and provide structure and a framework. Take a look at how Alcoholics Anonymous works. Other institutions and social bodies know how to trigger that instability and then help you find groundCheck out the dynamics underpinning military basic training. Organizations, movements, and institutions that can manipulate psychological tendencies toward a sociological end have significant power. Religious organizations, social movements, and educational institutions all play this role, whether or not they want to understand themselves as doing so.

    Because there is power in defining a framework for people, there is good reason to be wary of any body that pulls people in when they are most vulnerable. Of course, that power is not inherently malevolentThere is fundamental goodness in providing structures to help those who are hurting make sense of the world around them. Where there be dragons is when these processes are weaponized, when these processes are designed to produce societal hatred alongside personal stability. After all, one of the fastest ways to bond people and help them find purpose is to offer up an enemy.

    And here’s where we’re in a sticky spot right now. Many large institutions — government, the church, educational institutions, news organizations — are brazenly asserting their moral authority without grappling with their own shit.They’re ignoring those among them who are using hate as a tool, and they’re ignoring their own best practices and ethics, all to help feed a bottom line. Each of these institutions justifies itself by blaming someone or something to explain why they’re not actually that powerful, why they’re actually the victim. And so they’re all poised to be weaponized in a cultural war rooted in how we stabilize American insecurity.And if we’re completely honest with ourselves, what we’re really up against is how we collectively come to terms with a dying empire. But that’s a longer tangent.

    Any teacher knows that it only takes a few students to completely disrupt a classroom. Forest fires spark easily under certain conditions, and the ripple effects are huge. As a child, when I raged against everyone and everything, it was my mother who held me into the night. When I was a teenager chatting my nights away on Usenet, the two people who most memorably picked me up and helped me find stable ground were a deployed soldier and a transgender woman, both of whom held me as I asked insane questions. They absorbed the impact and showed me a different way of thinking. They taught me the power of strangers counseling someone in crisis. As a college freshman, when I was spinning out of control, a computer science professor kept me solid and taught me how profoundly important a true mentor could be. Everyone needs someone to hold them when their world spins, whether that person be a friend, family, mentor, or stranger.

    Fifteen years ago, when parents and the news media were panicking about online bullying, I saw a different risk. I saw countless kids crying out online in pain only to be ignored by those who preferred to prevent teachers from engaging with students online or to create laws punishing online bullies. We saw the suicides triggered as youth tried to make “It Gets Better” videos to find community, only to be further harassed at school. We saw teens studying the acts of Columbine shooters, seeking out community among those with hateful agendas and relishing the power of lashing out at those they perceived to be benefiting at their expense. But it all just seemed like a peculiar online phenomenon, proof that the internet was cruel. Too few of us tried to hold those youth who were unquestionably in pain.

    Teens who are coming of age today are already ripe for instability. Their parents are stressed; even if they have jobs, nothing feels certain or stable. There doesn’t seem to be a path toward economic stability that doesn’t involve college, but there doesn’t seem to be a path toward college that doesn’t involve mind-bending debt. Opioids seem like a reasonable way to numb the pain in far too many communities. School doesn’t seem like a safe place, so teenagers look around and whisper among friends about who they believe to be the most likely shooter in their community. As Stephanie Georgopulos notesthe idea that any institution can offer security seems like a farce.

    When I look around at who’s “holding” these youth, I can’t help but notice the presence of people with a hateful agenda. And they terrify me, in no small part because I remember an earlier incarnation.

    In 1995, when I was trying to make sense of my sexuality, I turned to various online forums and asked a lot of idiotic questions. I was adopted by the aforementioned transgender woman and numerous other folks who heard me out, gave me pointers, and helped me think through what I felt. In 2001, when I tried to figure out what the next generation did, I realized thatstruggling youth were more likely to encounter a Christian gay “conversion therapy” group than a supportive queer peer. Queer folks were sick of being attacked by anti-LGBT groups, and so they had created safe spaces on private mailing lists that were hard for lost queer youth to find. And so it was that in their darkest hours, these youth were getting picked up by those with a hurtful agenda.

    Teens who are trying to make sense of social issues aren’t finding progressive activists. They’re finding the so-called alt-right.

    Fast-forward 15 years, and teens who are trying to make sense of social issues aren’t finding progressive activists willing to pick them up. They’re finding the so-called alt-right. I can’t tell you how many youth we’ve seen asking questions like I asked being rejected by people identifying with progressive social movements, only to find camaraderie among hate groupsWhat’s most striking is how many people with extreme ideas are willing to spend time engaging with folks who are in the tornado.

    Spend time reading the comments below the YouTube videos of youth struggling to make sense of the world around them. You’ll quickly find comments by people who spend time in the manosphere or subscribe to white supremacist thinking. They are diving in and talking to these youth, offering a framework to make sense of the world, one rooted in deeply hateful ideas.These self-fashioned self-help actors are grooming people to see that their pain and confusion isn’t their fault, but the fault of feminists, immigrants, people of color. They’re helping them believe that the institutions they already distrust — the news media, Hollywood, government, school, even the church — are actually working to oppress them.

    Most people who encounter these ideas won’t embrace them, but some will. Still, even those who don’t will never let go of the doubt that has been instilled in the institutions around them. It just takes a spark.

    So how do we collectively make sense of the world around us? There isn’t one universal way of thinking, but even the act of constructing knowledge is becoming polarized. Responding to the uproar in the news media over “alternative facts,” Cory Doctorow noted:

    We’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology. The “establishment” version of epistemology is, “We use evidence to arrive at the truth, vetted by independent verification (but trust us when we tell you that it’s all been independently verified by people who were properly skeptical and not the bosom buddies of the people they were supposed to be fact-checking).

    The “alternative facts” epistemological method goes like this: “The ‘independent’ experts who were supposed to be verifying the ‘evidence-based’ truth were actually in bed with the people they were supposed to be fact-checking. In the end, it’s all a matter of faith, then: you either have faith that ‘their’ experts are being truthful, or you have faith that we are. Ask your gut, what version feels more truthful?”

    Doctorow creates these oppositional positions to make a point and to highlight that there is a war over epistemology, or the way in which we produce knowledge.

    The reality is much messier, because what’s at stake isn’t simply about resolving two competing worldviews. Rather, what’s at stake is how there is no universal way of knowing, and we have reached a stage in our political climate where there is more power in seeding doubt, destabilizing knowledge, and encouraging others to distrust other systems of knowledge production.

    Contemporary propaganda isn’t about convincing someone to believe something, but convincing them to doubt what they think they know. Andonce people’s assumptions have come undone, who is going to pick them up and help them create a coherent worldview?

    2. You Can’t Trust Abstractions

    Deeply committed to democratic governance, George Washington believed that a representative government could only work if the public knew their representatives. As a result, our Constitution states that each member of the House should represent no more than 30,000 constituents. When we stopped adding additional representatives to the House in 1913 (frozen at 435), each member represented roughly 225,000 constituents. Today, the ratio of congresspeople to constituents is more than 700,000:1Most people will never meet their representative, and few feel as though Washington truly represents their interests. The democracy that we have is representational only in ideal, not in practice.

    As our Founding Fathers knew, it’s hard to trust an institution when it feels inaccessible and abstract. All around us, institutions are increasingly divorced from the community in which they operate, with often devastating costs.Thanks to new models of law enforcement, police officers don’t typically come from the community they serve. In many poor communities, teachers also don’t come from the community in which they teach. The volunteer U.S. military hardly draws from all communities, and those who don’t know a solider are less likely to trust or respect the military.

    Journalism can only function as the fourth estate when it serves as a tool to voice the concerns of the people and to inform those people of the issues that matter. Throughout the 20th century, communities of color challenged mainstream media’s limitations and highlighted that few newsrooms represented the diverse backgrounds of their audiences. As such, we saw the rise of ethnic media and a challenge to newsrooms to be smarter about their coverage. But let’s be real — even as news organizations articulate a commitment to the concerns of everyone, newsrooms have done a dreadful job of becoming more representativeOver the past decade, we’ve seen racial justice activists challenge newsrooms for their failure to cover Ferguson, Standing Rock, and other stories that affect communities of color.

    Meanwhile, local journalism has nearly died. The success of local journalismdidn’t just matter because those media outlets reported the news, but because it meant that many more people were likely to know journalists. It’s easier to trust an institution when it has a human face that you know and respect. Andas fewer and fewer people know journalists, they trust the institution less and less. Meanwhile, the rise of social media, blogging, and new forms of talk radio has meant that countless individuals have stepped in to cover issues not being covered by mainstream news, often using a style and voice that is quite unlike that deployed by mainstream news media.

    We’ve also seen the rise of celebrity news hosts. These hosts help push the boundaries of parasocial interactions, allowing the audience to feel deep affinity toward these individuals, as though they are true friends. Tabloid papers have long capitalized on people’s desire to feel close to celebrities by helping people feel like they know the royal family or the Kardashians. Talking heads capitalize on this, in no small part by how they communicate with their audiences. So, when people watch Rachel Maddow or listen to Alex Jones, they feel more connected to the message than they would when reading a news article. They begin to trust these people as though they are neighbors. They feel real.

    No amount of drop-in journalism will make up for the loss of journalists within the fabric of local communities.

    People want to be informed, but who they trust to inform them is rooted in social networks, not institutions. The trust of institutions stems from trust in people. The loss of the local paper means a loss of trusted journalists and a connection to the practices of the newsroom. As always, people turn to their social networks to get information, but what flows through those social networks is less and less likely to be mainstream news. But here’s where you also get an epistemological divide.

    As Francesca Tripodi points out, many conservative Christians have developed a media literacy practice that emphasizes the “original” text rather than an intermediary. Tripodi points out that the same type of scriptural inference that Christians apply in Bible study is often also applied to reading the Constitution, tax reform bills, and Google results. This approach is radically different than the approach others take when they rely on intermediaries to interpret news for them.

    As the institutional construction of news media becomes more and more proximately divorced from the vast majority of people in the United States, we can and should expect trust in news to decline. No amount of fact-checking will make up for a widespread feeling that coverage is biased. No amount of articulated ethical commitments will make up for the feeling that you are being fed clickbait headlines.

    No amount of drop-in journalism will make up for the loss of journalists within the fabric of local communities. And while the population who believes that CNN and the New York Times are “fake news” are not demographically representative, the questionable tactics that news organizations use are bound to increase distrust among those who still have faith in them.

    3. The Fourth Estate and Financialization Are Incompatible

    If you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably deeply invested in scholarship or journalism. And, unless you’re one of my friends, you’re probably bursting at the seams to tell me that the reason journalism is all screwed up is because the internet screwed news media’s business model. So I want to ask a favor: Quiet that voice in your head, take a deep breath, and let me offer an alternative perspective.

    There are many types of capitalism. After all, the only thing that defines capitalism is the private control of industry (as opposed to government control). Most Americans have been socialized into believing that all forms of capitalism are inherently good (which, by the way, was a propaganda project). But few are encouraged to untangle the different types of capitalism and different dynamics that unfold depending on which structure is operating.

    I grew up in mom-and-pop America, where many people dreamed of becoming small business owners. The model was simple: Go to the bank and get a loan to open a store or a company. Pay back that loan at a reasonable interest rate — knowing that the bank was making money — until eventually you owned the company outright. Build up assets, grow your company, and create something of value that you could pass on to your children.

    In the 1980s, franchises became all the rage. Wannabe entrepreneurs saw a less risky path to owning their own business. Rather than having to figure it out alone, you could open a franchise with a known brand and a clear process for running the business. In return, you had to pay some overhead to the parent company. Sure, there were rules to follow and you could only buy supplies from known suppliers and you didn’t actually have full control, but it kinda felt like you did. Like being an Uber driver, it was the illusion of entrepreneurship that was so appealing. And most new franchise owners didn’t know any better, nor were they able to read the writing on the wall when the water all around them started boiling their froggy self. I watched my mother nearly drown, and the scars are still visible all over her body.

    I will never forget the U.S. Savings & Loan crisis, not because I understood it, but because it was when I first realized that my Richard Scarry impression of how banks worked was way wrong. Only two decades later did I learn to seethe FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) as extractive ones.They aren’t there to help mom-and-pop companies build responsible businesses, but to extract value from their naiveté. Like today’s post-college youth are learning, loans aren’t there to help you be smart, but to bend your will.

    It doesn’t take a quasi-documentary to realize thatMcDonald’s is not a fast-food franchise; it’s a real estate business that uses a franchise structure to extract capital from naive entrepreneurs. Go talk to a wannabe restaurant owner in New York City and ask them what it takes to start a business these days. You can’t even get a bank loan or lease in 2018 without significant investor backing, which means that the system isn’t set up for you to build a business and pay back the bank, pay a reasonable rent, and develop a valuable asset.You are simply a pawn in a financialized game between your investors, the real estate companies, the insurance companies, and the bank, all of which want to extract as much value from your effort as possible. You’re just another brick in the wall.

    Now let’s look at the local news ecosystem. Starting in the 1980s, savvy investors realized that many local newspapers owned prime real estate in the center of key towns. These prized assets would make for great condos and office rentals. Throughout the country, local news shops started getting eaten up by private equity and hedge funds — or consolidated by organizations controlled by the same forces. Media conglomerates sold off their newsrooms as they felt increased pressure to increase profits quarter over quarter.

    Building a sustainable news business was hard enough when the news had a wealthy patron who valued the goals of the enterprise. But the finance industry doesn’t care about sustaining the news business; it wants a return on investment. And the extractive financiers who targeted the news business weren’t looking to keep the news alive. They wanted to extract as much value from those business as possible. Taking a page out of McDonald’s, they forced the newsrooms to sell their real estate. Often, news organizations had to rent from new landlords who wanted obscene sums, often forcing them to move out of their buildings. News outlets were forced to reduce staff, reproduce more junk content, sell more ads, and find countless ways to cut costs. Of course the news suffered — the goal was to push news outlets into bankruptcy or sell, especially if the companies had pensions or other costs that couldn’t be excised.

    Yes, the fragmentation of the advertising industry due to the internet hastened this process. And let’s also be clear that business models in the news business have never been cleanBut no amount of innovative new business models will make up for the fact that you can’t sustain responsible journalism within a business structure that requires newsrooms to make more money quarter over quarter to appease investors. This does not mean that you can’t build a sustainable news business, but if the news is beholden to investors trying to extract value, it’s going to impossible. And if news companies have no assets to rely on (such as their now-sold real estate), they are fundamentally unstable and likely to engage in unhealthy business practices out of economic desperation.

    Untangling our country from this current version of capitalism is going to be as difficult as curbing our addiction to fossil fuels. I’m not sure it can be done, but as long as we look at companies and blame their business models without looking at the infrastructure in which they are embedded, we won’t even begin taking the first steps. Fundamentally, both the New York Times and Facebook are public companies, beholden to investors and desperate to increase their market cap. Employees in both organizations believe themselves to be doing something important for society.

    Of course, journalists don’t get paid well, while Facebook’s employees can easily threaten to walk out if the stock doesn’t keep rising, since they’re also investors. But we also need to recognize that the vast majority of Americans have a stake in the stock market. Pension plans, endowments, and retirement plans all depend on stocks going up — and those public companies depend on big investors investing in them. Financial managers don’t invest in news organizations that are happy to be stable break-even businesses. Heck, even Facebook is in deep trouble if it can’t continue to increase ROI, whether through attracting new customers (advertisers and users), increasing revenue per user, or diversifying its businesses. At some point, it too will get desperate, because no business can increase ROI forever.

    ROI capitalism isn’t the only version of capitalism out there. We take it for granted and tacitly accept its weaknesses by creating binaries, as though the only alternative is Cold War Soviet Union–styled communism. We’re all frogs in an ocean that’s quickly getting warmer. Two degrees will affect a lot more than oceanfront properties.

    Reclaiming Trust

    In my mind, we have a hard road ahead of us if we actually want to rebuild trust in American society and its key institutions (which, TBH, I’m not sure is everyone’s goal). There are three key higher-order next steps, all of which are at the scale of the New Deal.

    1. Create a sustainable business structure for information intermediaries (like news organizations) that allows them to be profitable without the pressure of ROI. In the case of local journalism, this could involve subsidized rent, restrictions on types of investors or takeovers, or a smartly structured double bottom-line model. But the focus should be on strategically building news organizations as a national project to meet the needs of the fourth estateIt means moving away from a journalism model that is built on competition for scarce resources (ads, attention) to one that’s incentivized by societal benefits.
    2. Actively and strategically rebuild the social networks of America.Create programs beyond the military that incentivize people from different walks of life to come together and achieve something great for this country. This could be connected to job training programs or rooted in community service, but it cannot be done through the government alone or, perhaps, at all. We need the private sector, religious organizations, and educational institutions to come together and commit to designing programs that knit together America while also providing the tools of opportunity.
    3. Find new ways of holding those who are struggling. We don’t have a social safety net in America. For many, the church provides the only accessible net when folks are lost and struggling, but we need a lot more.We need to work together to build networks that can catch people when they’re falling. We’ve relied on volunteer labor for a long time in this domain—women, churches, volunteer civic organizations—but our current social configuration makes this extraordinarily difficult. We’re in the middle of an opiate crisis for a reason. We need to think smartly about how these structures or networks can be built and sustained so that we can collectively reach out to those who are falling through the cracks.

    Fundamentally, we need to stop triggering one another because we’re facing our own perceived pain. This means we need to build large-scale cultural resilience. While we may be teaching our children “social-emotional learning”in the classroom, we also need to start taking responsibility at scale.Individually, we need to step back and empathize with others’ worldviews and reach out to support those who are struggling. But our institutions also have important work to do.

    At the end of the day, if journalistic ethics means anythingnewsrooms cannot justify creating spectacle out of their reporting on suicide or other topics just because they feel pressure to create clicks. They have the privilege of choosing what to amplify, and they should focus on what is beneficial. If they can’t operate by those values, they don’t deserve our trust. While I strongly believe that technology companies have a lot of important work to do to be socially beneficial, I hold news organizations to a higher standard because of their own articulated commitments and expectations that they serve as the fourth estateAnd if they can’t operationalize ethical practices, I fear the society that must be knitted together to self-govern is bound to fragment even further.

    Trust cannot be demanded. It’s only earned by being there at critical junctures when people are in crisis and need help. You don’t earn trust when things are going well; you earn trust by being a rock during a tornado. The winds are blowing really hard right now. Look around. Who is helping us find solid ground?

     
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