I’ve just finished reading Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, an interesting overview of all the ways the human brain isn’t rational. Keen followers of Daniel Kahneman’s work won’t find much they don’t already know, but Mlodinow is a breezy writer, and the book is easy to follow. (I’ve written about Kahneman here).
More importantly, he highlights a couple of points that have more direct relevance to journalism, and they’re worth pointing out.
The first is the importance of presentation – not just the need to write compelling stories packaged with great photos, videos and graphics; at a much more basic level, we need to focus on how easy or hard our stories/packages/data visualizations/etc are to physically read. (My design and layout friends will love this.)
He describes an experiment where subjects were given a recipe in both an easy-to-read and a harder-to-read font, and asked to rate the difficulty of preparing the dish and how likely it was that they would try making it at home. Those who read it in the difficult font rated it as requiring more effort and skill than the others, and were less likely to try making the dish at home. Nor is this effect confined to cooking; experimenters have found the same result when they tried it with a one-page description of an exercise routine.
Which is to say that easier-to-read fonts don’t just make stories easier to read; they actually make the information in them easier to understand and assimilate.
Psychologists call this the “fluency effect.” If the form of information is difficult to assimilate, that affects our judgments about the substance of that information.
That sounds scary in some way – surely “rose” written in Helvetica seems as sweet as in Comic Sans? But apparently not – all of which speaks to the importance of design, layout and user experience, which is often relegated to the nice-to-have category by a lot of journalists, when in fact it may well be in the critical-if-you-want-your-story-understood category. (So listen to your designers and graphics people!)
Similarly, it matters how things are described as well – which recalls the point Kahnemann makes about the importance of good storytelling. Subjects who tasted food described in more flowery terms rated it tastier than when they were told what they were eating in more prosaic terms.
If someone were to ask you about your taste in fine dining and you were to say, “I lean towards food served with vivid adjectives,” you’d probably get a pretty strange look; yet a food’s description turns out to be an important factor in how it tastes.
That’s not to say – I hope – that we lard up copy with useless adjectives; but it does mean that vivid images in stories help people understand and remember them. (Interestingly, Mlodinow also points out that IPOs of companies with easy-to-pronounce names and ticker symbols do better than firms with unpronounceable names.)
The other issue that Mlodinow delves into is the about the frailty of human memory. We all know that we can’t remember everything; but we generally believe that what we do remember is accurate. In fact, while we’re not terrible at understanding broadly how an event transpired, we often invent details to fill in the gaps in our memory with what we think could or should have happened. We do this unconsciously, and generally don’t realize our brain is filled with what are essentially false memories.
An example of this is former White House Counsel John Dean’s vivid testimony about conversations with Richard Nixon; while he described discussions in meticulous detail, his recollections turned out, once Nixon’s secret tapes were uncovered, to be wildly inaccurate.
But if much memory is fallible, what does that mean for journalists, who spend much of their time asking people what they recall of events and issues? That’s a fairly basic part of our job description – and often the only way of getting information. What if much of that information is flawed?
That’s one reason for the old admonition that if-your-mother-tells-you-she-loves-you-check-it-out-with-a-second-source; one person might misremember a fact, but if two say the same thing happened, there’s a better chance it’s true. Still, it does speak to the importance of augmenting “source-based” reporting with document-, record- or data-based information. That’s not to say documents or data are flawless; they’re not, by a long shot. But they’re more often than not written at or near the time of an event, and have the advantage of not evolving over time, as our memories do.
More than that, pushing ourselves to focus more on things like data and documents forces us to focus more on the information at hand rather than the people who tell us things. Because we’re also often affected, unconsciously, by who tells us things as much as what they tell us.
Research shows, for example, that better-looking people, in general, get more lenient sentences for minor crimes than their less-attractive counterparts. But the good news is that when they’re accused of more serious crimes, that gap in sentencing diminishes – showing, hopefully, that our conscious mind takes more effort to weigh the facts when we think our judgment really matters.
The moral of the story is that if we want to overcome unconscious bias, it requires effort.
And in journalism, of course, we should always be putting in that effort.