Saturday, February 14, 2015

To Sound Smart, Go Negative

A relevant and disappointing article surfaced in WIRED recently - "A Sad Fact of Life: It’s Actually Smart to Be Mean Online"

Some excerpts:
She took a group of 55 students, roughly half men, half women, and showed them excerpts from two book reviews printed in an issue of The New York Times. The same reviewer wrote both, but Amabile anonymized them and tweaked the language to produce two versions of each—one positive, one negative. Then she asked the students to evaluate the reviewer's intelligence.
The verdict was clear: The students thought the negative author was smarter than the positive one—“by a lot,” Amabile tells me. Most said the nastier critic was “more competent.” Granted, being negative wasn't all upside—they also rated the harsh reviewer as “less warm and more cruel, not as nice,” she says. “But definitely smarter.”
Other studies show that when we seek to impress someone with our massive gray matter, we spout sour and negative opinions. In a follow-up experiment, Bryan Gibson, a psychologist at Central Michigan University, took a group of 117 students (about two-thirds female) and had them watch a short movie and write a review that they would then show to a partner. Gibson's team told some of the reviewers to try to make their partner feel warmly toward them; others were told to try to appear smart. You guessed it: Those who were trying to seem brainy went significantly more negative than those trying to be endearing.

There we have it.

Perhaps there is a physical reality that means it is more effort to be lucid and critical, so it would not be so bizarre that we find negativity to be more intelligent. More effort, more thinking must be involved. Right?

The downside is that on the internet, it's easy to have the appearance of credibility. If the reader is willing to share a few assumptions, it's simple enough to string sentences together in a semi-logical way and successfully preach to one choir or another. One does not even need to wear pants while assailing the world with their insight.

And there is no end to the issues that we should be concerned about. Climate change, vaccination rates, pollution, war, economic problems... a safe default is to be concerned all the time about all the things.

Except the train of all things terrible must eventually stop. Nothing can be perfect, but life in many aspects can be quite acceptable. Not every day in one's life can be an ordeal of harassment and destruction of one's civil rights.

Sadly, nobody wants to read about how great one's day was. Content creators have incentives to make every day the worst day. Moreover, "activists" face incentives to create drama and outrage out of ambiguous situations.  As Scott Alexander explains, animal rights groups like PETA will be attracted to create fireworks out of trivialities (pet ownership, perhaps?) rather than fix issues everyone seems to agree with. Similarly, contemporary "feminist" journalism may be condemned to always champion confusing antiheroes simply to court controversy.

There's writing polemic, pushing boundaries, and thinking critically - and then there is pseudo-intellectual trolling and activist delusions of grandeur.

It's fun to participate in all of the above, but maybe the lot of it is thoroughly stupid.

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