from the world's big
Why you believe lies the more often you hear them
Here's why your brain’s biases are a win for fake news, and a pay day for Facebook.
Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, where he writes about economics and the media. He is a regular contributor to NPR's Here and Now and appears frequently on television, including CBS and MSNBC. He was named to both Inc. magazine's and Forbes's 30 Under 30 lists. He lives in New York City.
Derek Thompson: Two of the favorite terms that I learned in writing this book are fluency and disfluency, and these terms relate to the idea that we have feelings about our thoughts. And that sounds hippie-dippy, but some thoughts feel easy. It feels easy to listen to a song for the 50th time. It feels easy to watch a rerun or easy to read an article that we already agree with. Those are fluent thoughts; those are thoughts that feel good and easy.
But there are also all sorts of experiences, all sorts of types of thinking, that feel difficult and that’s what we call disfluency. So being lost in a foreign country and trying to figure out what all of the signs mean: that is disfluent. Reading an article that is trying to express a position that you consider morally abhorrent: that is disfluent too.
But what’s most fascinating about fluency and disfluency is how they exist together. So imagine that you’re in that foreign country and you’re trying to read all of the signs, and it’s in some Slavic language that you don’t speak and you feel lost and anxious and your brain is hurting with all of these sort of thoughts that are going through it.
And suddenly you turn around and you see an old friend from high school that you immediately recognize and who knows that foreign language. That is an “ah-ha” moment. That is a moment where you transition from disfluent thinking to fluent thinking. And there are all sorts of studies that have said that we love these “ah-ha” moments. We love them in art. We love figuring out art. We love them in storytelling. We love the disfluency of not knowing who the murderer is, and then that moment when—ding!—we got it, we know who the murderer is.
We even love it, I think, in ordinary political opinion writing when someone takes a complex subject and expresses it in such a beautifully clarifying way, it’s like solving a crossword puzzle for politics; we have—click—an “ah-ha” moment.
And I truly think that people are looking for "ah-ha" moments across the cultural landscape. I think that "ah-ha" moments are a large part of what we want from storytelling, what we want from a great education, what we want from a great article or a great book. We are looking for both fluency and disfluency yielding to each other so that we can feel those transition moments that are invigorating and that make us feel like the act of thinking is worth it.
One of the oldest findings in psychology history is called the mere exposure effect. And the mere exposure effect says that the mere exposure of any stimulus to you biases you toward that stimulus. So children who grow up eating more spicy foods tend to like more spicy foods. People who grow up with their parents listening to more jazz end up liking more jazz timbres and more jazz styles.
We have a bias toward familiarity, and I think that this is true both for insignificant tastes—like for food and music—and for profound e.g. political tastes. There’s some evidence that children who grow up in multicultural neighborhoods tend to be much less racist or have much less racial opinions than children who grow up in more monochromatic neighborhoods. Again, this is a bias toward familiarity.
And I think it’s very important to think about familiarity bias as a news consumer, because there’s lots of evidence that shows that the mere repetition, the mere exposure of news to us biases us toward thinking that that news item is true.
This is often how fake news works or how urban legends can start: you hear the piece of gossip once and you dismiss it as mere gossip; you hear it twice, okay maybe now it’s stuck in your head; you hear it from four different people at four different times, suddenly that gossip becomes truth because once it becomes fluent, once it becomes memorable, you tend to conflate fluency or familiarity and veracity or fact.
There was one study that essentially looked at this with scientific facts. They told a bunch of older and younger people that shark cartilage was good for arthritis, and they labeled this fact as false for most of the people that they were showing the fact to. And immediately after the study they asked people: is shark cartilage good for arthritis? And both young and old participants said, “No, we know that it’s not good for arthritis. That fact was listed as false when we saw it in the study.”
But several weeks later they called back the participants and they asked them, old and young, is shark cartilage good for arthritis? The young participants remembered the that the fact was listed as false, but the older participants, who had worse implicit memory, were more likely to say, “Well that sounds familiar, and therefore I think it’s true.”
And so this is one of the big reasons why it’s difficult to myth-bust on television or myth-bust in journalism, because sometimes the mere repetition of that myth biases audiences toward thinking that it’s true, because we have a familiarity bias. We cannot help ourselves from conflating that which is familiar from that which we think is more likely to be true.
Facebook and Google absolutely have a responsibility to combat this bias, but I don’t know what they can do right now on the technology side. I think that they can hire people. They can hire human beings to go through the news and figure out what is clearly a hoax, what is clearly propaganda, what is clearly meant merely to inflame and not to deliver truth, and they can ban those accounts and ban the people who are responsible for them—even though in many ways that is sort of anathema to Facebook’s fundamental message, which is that 'we are here to unite the world and create a global newspaper for all sorts of opinions and all sorts of content.'
I think that Facebook has accidentally become a media company. They did not, I think, set out to become a media company, but right now for many people they are clearly the global newspaper and the largest distributor of information and content in the history of the world. That is a technology that we’ve never seen before, and so it introduces problems that we’re not familiar with and we’re still grappling with exactly how to answer them.
But I do think that fundamentally the solutions to the problem of fake news on Facebook and other social media sites comes down to human ethics, it comes down to humans—only humans can fix this problem; we don’t have algorithms that can go through and separate fact from fiction. And it comes down to ethics.
The reason that there is fake news out of there is because there are unethical people who are essentially attention merchants. They are not journalists; they don’t want to demonstrate the truth, they don’t want to distribute the truth; they want to make money or they want to inflame people’s emotions.
And it’s difficult to deal with the problem of lack of ethics with anything other than a system of ethics, which right now I don’t think Facebook has fully written into its algorithm.
But one thing that I think about in thinking about Facebook’s news problem right now is back to the invention of the penny press in the early 19th century.
For a long time newspapers were expensive, at six pennies a piece, and then Benjamin Day comes around and he introduces the idea of a penny press. He cuts the price of the newspaper from six pennies to one, he amasses this huge readership and then he sells that readership to advertisers. He invents the dual-revenue business model of news that we still have today, that The Atlantic has, The New York Times has.
But within a few months of starting this newspaper he realized what every other industry in entertainment has also realized, which is that fiction typically outsells nonfiction. Fiction does better in the movie theaters, fiction does better for books, and fiction did better for Benjamin Day when in the 1830s he introduced a huge moon hoax to the American audience, where he told them that there were bat-men living on the moon copulating with each other, in a 17,000 word feature that got enormous readership for his penny press newspaper.
The solution to that problem, the solution to the problem of unethical penny press newspapers, did not come from Benjamin Day; it came from The New York Times. It came from an ethical organization saying: we want journalists from top to bottom who are going to use this dual-revenue business model in order to sell not hoaxes, but news.
And so today, just as 150 years ago, I think that the answer to a problem of a lack of human ethics in information markets is the introduction of more humans and more ethics into information markets.
Even if you think of yourself as a human lie detector, there are some untruths that will sneak under the hood. For that, you can thank your brain, and it's absolute adoration for all things familiar, says Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic. One of the oldest findings in psychology history is the 'mere exposure effect', in which merely being exposed to something makes you biased toward it—parents influence their children by playing certain music around the house that they will love their whole lives, or they instill a political preference in them from an early age. You are drawn to what you know, and that bias really matters when it comes to digital media and the fake news phenomenon. Once something becomes memorable, we tend to conflate familiarity with fact. "This is one of the big reasons why it’s difficult to myth-bust on television or myth-bust in journalism, because sometimes the mere repetition of that myth biases audiences toward thinking that it’s true..." says Thompson. "The mere exposure of news to us biases us toward thinking that that news item is true." Facebook has an enormous ethical responsibility in this, he says, because it is the world's largest and most influential news outlet—whether it intended to be or not. Thompson believes there is no algorithmic fix for fake news that spreads via Facebook, only a human one: "The answer to a problem of a lack of human ethics in information markets is the introduction of more humans and more ethics," he says. Derek Thompson's latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- A new study suggests that the social circles provided by regular church going make raising kids easier.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.
Be fruitful and multiply<p>Scientists in the United Kingdom collected data on more than 13,000 mothers and their children. Most of them were religious, but 12 percent were not. The data included information on their church habits, social networks, number of children, and the scores those children achieved on a standardized test.</p><p>In line with previous findings that religious women have more children than secular women in industrialized countries, a connection between at least monthly church attendance and fertility was confirmed. However, religious parents showed they could avoid the pitfalls that having more children can bring. </p><p>Typically, more children in a family leads to reduced cognitive ability and height in each <a href="https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/37/6/1408/729795" target="_blank">child</a>. Some studies find that children do less well in school for each <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13524-016-0471-0" target="_blank">additional sibling they have</a>. This makes a kind of intuitive sense, as parents with more children would have to divide their time, energy, and resources among more people as families expand. One would expect that the larger families would also lead to things like lower test scores. </p><p>Despite the expectation, the children of religious parents didn't have lower scores on standardized tests. There were small positive relationships between the size of the mother's social network, the number of co-religionists helping out, and the children's test scores. However, this association was small, didn't show up in all of the testings, and was unrelated to other variables. </p> These effects might be explained by the size and helpfulness of the social networks around the more religious. Women who went to church at least once a month had more extensive social networks than those who never go or who attend yearly. These social networks of co-religious people mean that there are more people to turn to for help with child-rearing, a point also demonstrated in the data. The amount of aid women got from their fellow churchgoers was also associated with a higher fertility rate. <br> <br> Conversely, an extensive social network was associated with fewer children for secular women. This finding is in line with <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1207/s15327957pspr0904_5" target="_blank">previous studies</a> and suggests that the social networks comprised of co-religious individuals differ from those found elsewhere.
So, how quickly should I join a local religious group?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="6RrmYM8M" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9eb4740a7d1e10108a75fd2ed627a90f"> <div id="botr_6RrmYM8M_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/6RrmYM8M-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The study is not without its faults, and more investigations into the relationship between fertility, childcare, ritual, and social networks are needed.</p><p>These findings all show correlation, not causation. Though it might be said the results point towards causation, various alternative interpretations of the data are apparent. The authors note that most religions are explicitly pro-natal. It is possible that religious women have internalized these values and simply choose to have more children than secular women do.</p><p>This idea is similar to a potential interpretation of why large social networks have the opposite effect for secular women. The authors suggest that, in some cases, these more extensive social networks are associated with work and exert an anti-natal influence. Again, the people who build such networks may be people unlikely to have large families under any circumstances.</p><p>However, the researchers' hypothesis endured. The help religious women get from their church-based social networks allows them to have larger families than those who lack these support systems. In some instances, these support systems also prevent the adverse effects of larger families. </p>
The community religion offers<p>As we've mentioned <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/what-is-secular-humanism" target="_blank">before</a>, religion offers a community, and a community provides social capital. As religion continues to decline in the West, the social bonds of faith communities that used to tie social communities together begin to decay. However, as has been noted by a variety of observers for the last few decades, fewer and fewer new organizations appear ready to replace religion as a source of community in our lives.</p><p>While many different organizations might offer social support that religion once provided the whole of western society, this study shows that different social circles can differently affect the people in them. This finding must be considered by those trying to find new communities to join or the authors of future research. </p><p>The community offered by religious groups provides real benefits to those who join them. As this study shows, having the support network religious community offers allows some parents to avoid pitfalls that bedevil those lacking similar support. It suggests that previous studies demonstrating that group ritual offers benefits like increased amounts of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797612472910" target="_blank">group trust</a> and <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1069397103037002003" target="_blank">cooperation</a> are onto something and that those benefits have a variety of applications. </p><p>While this study is not without its blind spots, it offers a strong starting point for further investigations into the nature of ritual in our modern lives and how local support networks remain vital in our increasingly globalized world. </p>
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
Can an orgasm a day really keep the doctor away?
- Achieving orgasm through masturbation provides a rush of feel-good hormones (such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) and can re-balance our levels of cortisol (a stress-inducing hormone). This helps our immune system function at a higher level.
- The surge in "feel-good" hormones also promotes a more relaxed and calm state of being, making it easier to achieve restful sleep, which is a critical part in maintaining a high-functioning immune system.
- Just as bad habits can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system which can prevent you from becoming sick.
How masturbation affects your brain...<p>Orgasms are a very common human phenomenon. The physical and mental health benefits have been researched frequently as a result, and yet, there is still so much to be learned about how our bodies and brains react to the chemicals and hormones released during and after experiencing this type of sexual release.</p><p>"The amount of speculation versus actual data on both the function and value of orgasm is remarkable" explains Julia Heiman, director of the <a href="https://kinseyinstitute.org/" target="_blank">Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction</a>.</p><p>Masturbation causes a rush of <a href="https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine" target="_blank">dopamine</a>, which is a chemical that is associated with our ability to feel pleasure. Along with the rush of dopamine that is released during an orgasm, there is also a release of a hormone called <a href="https://www.livescience.com/42198-what-is-oxytocin.html" target="_blank">oxytocin</a>, which is commonly referred to as the "love hormone."<br></p><p>This concoction of chemicals does more than just boost our mood, it also can play a key role in decreasing stress and promoting relaxation. Oxytocin decreases <a href="https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol" target="_blank">cortisol</a>, which is a stress hormone that is usually present (in high volumes) during times of anxiety, fear, panic, or distress. </p><p>According to BDSM and fetish researcher <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/dr-gloria-brame-colbert-ga/278388" target="_blank">Dr. Gloria Brame</a>, an orgasm is the biggest non-drug induced blast of dopamine that we can experience. </p><p>By boosting the oxytocin and dopamine levels and subsequently decreasing our cortisol levels, the brain is placed in a more relaxed, euphoric, and calm state. </p>
Masturbation boosts your immune system and raises your white blood cell count.<p>How do those effects on the brain from reaching orgasm translate to boosting our immune system and making our body healthier?</p><p>The increase of oxytocin and dopamine that causes a decrease in cortisol levels can help boost our immune system because cortisol (well-known for being a stress-inducing hormone) actually helps maintain your immune system if released in small doses. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.health24.com/Sex/Great-sex/incredible-health-benefits-to-masturbating-20181030-2" target="_blank">Dr. Jennifer Landa</a>, a hormone-therapy specialist, masturbation can produce the right kind of environment for a strengthened immune system to thrive. </p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15316239" target="_blank">A study</a> conducted by the Department of Medical Psychology at the University Clinic of Essen (in Germany) showed similar results. A group of 11 volunteers were asked to participate in a study that would look at the effects of orgasm through masturbation on the white blood cell count and immune system.</p><p>During this experiment, the white blood cell count of each participant was analyzed through measures that were taken 5 minutes before and 45 minutes after reaching a self-induced orgasm. </p><p>The results confirmed that sexual arousal and orgasm increased the number of white blood cells, particularly the natural killer cells that help fight off infections. </p><p>The findings confirm that our immune system is positively affected by sexual arousal and self-induced orgasm and promote even more research into the positive impacts of sexual arousal and orgasm. </p>
Masturbation can ease and prevent pain, which allows you to achieve the restful sleep that helps your immune system stay strong and healthy.<p>The benefits of masturbation have long been debated, but the more research that is done on the topic the more we understand that there are many positive reactions that happen in our bodies and brains when we orgasm.</p><p>Orgasms can help prevent or mitigate pain, which boosts the immune system, preventing cold and flu symptoms. </p><p>According to neurologist and headache specialist Stefan Evers, about one in three patients experience relief from migraine attacks by experiencing sexual activity or orgasm. Evers and his team <a href="https://www.livescience.com/27642-sex-relieves-migraine-pain.html" target="_blank">conducted an experiment</a> with 800 migraine patients and 200 patients who suffered from cluster-headaches to see how their experiences with sexual activity impacted their pain levels. </p><p>The study showed that 60% of migraine sufferers experienced pain relief after participating in sexual activity that resulted in orgasm. Of the cluster-headache sufferers, about 50% said their headaches actually worsened after sexual arousal and orgasm. </p><p>Evers suggested in his findings that the people who did not experience pain relief from migraines of headaches during their sexual activity did not release as large amounts of endorphins as those who did experience pain relief. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.sharecare.com/health/chronic-pain/chronic-pain-affect-immune-system" target="_blank">rheumatologist Dr. Harris McIlwain</a>, people who suffer from chronic pain have immune systems that are simply not functioning at full capacity - therefore, alleviating pain (through orgasm, as an example) can help boost the immune system. </p><p>Orgasms can also promote relaxation and make it easier to fall asleep. Serotonin, oxytocin, and norepinephrine are all hormones that are released during sexual arousal and orgasm, and all three are known for counteracting stress hormones and promoting relaxation, which makes it much easier for you to fall asleep.</p><p>There are <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1233384" target="_blank">several studies</a> showing that serotonin and norepinephrine help our body cycle through REM and deep non-REM sleeping cycles. During these sleep cycles, the immune system releases proteins called <a href="https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-sleep-affects-your-immunity" target="_blank"><span id="selection-marker-1" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span>cytokines<span id="selection-marker-2" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span></a>, which target infection and inflammation. This is a critical part of our immune response. Cytokines are both produced and released throughout our bodies while we sleep, which proves the importance of a good sleep schedule to a healthy immune system.</p>
Masturbation promotes a high-functioning immune system; a healthy immune system prevents cold and flu.<p>The immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against infections and diseases by stopped threats like bacteria and viruses from entering your system. While there are many things we need to do to keep our immune systems functioning at optimal levels, masturbation (or other means of achieving orgasm) has proven to have positive effects on the immune system as a whole.</p><p>Just as bad habits (such as an inconsistent sleep schedule or harmful chemicals in your body) can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system. </p>
The word "learning" opens up space for more people, places, and ideas.
- The terms 'education' and 'learning' are often used interchangeably, but there is a cultural connotation to the former that can be limiting. Education naturally links to schooling, which is only one form of learning.
- Gregg Behr, founder and co-chair of Remake Learning, believes that this small word shift opens up the possibilities in terms of how and where learning can happen. It also becomes a more inclusive practice, welcoming in a larger, more diverse group of thinkers.
- Post-COVID, the way we think about what learning looks like will inevitably change, so it's crucial to adjust and begin building the necessary support systems today.