Reality Vs Meta-Reality

“I know what I like, and I like what I know;”
Genesis

I watched the Grammys on Sunday night. And as it turned out, I didn’t know what I liked. And I thought I liked what I knew. But by the time I wrote this column (on Monday after the Grammys) I had changed my mind.

And it was all because of the increasing gap between what is real, and what is meta-real.

Real is what we perceive with our senses at the time it happens. Meta-real is how we reshape reality after the fact and then preserve it for future reference. And thanks to social media, the meta-real is a booming business.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman first explored this with his work on the experiencing self and the remembering self. In a stripped-down example, imagine two scenarios. Scenario 1 has your hand immersed for 60 seconds in ice cold water that causes a moderate amount of pain. Scenario 2 has your hand immersed for 90 seconds. The first 60 seconds you’re immersed in water at the same temperature as Scenario 1, but then you leave you hand immersed for an additional 30 seconds while the water is slowly warmed by 1 degree.

After going through both scenarios and being told you have to repeat one of them, which would you choose? Logically speaking, you should choose 1. While uncomfortable, you have the benefit of avoiding an extra 30 seconds of a slightly less painful experience. But for those that went through it, that’s not what happened. Eighty percent who noticed that the water got a bit warmer chose to redo Scenario 2.

It turns out that we have two mental biases that kick in when we remember something we experienced:

  1. Duration doesn’t count
  2. Only the peak (best or worst moment) and the end of the experience are registered.

This applies to a lot more than just cold-water experiments. It also holds true for vacations, medical procedures, movies and even the Grammys. Not only that, there is an additional layer of meta-analysis that shifts us even further from the reality we actually experienced.

After I watched the Grammys, I had my own opinion of which performances I liked and those I didn’t care for. But that opinion was a work in progress. On Monday morning, I searched for “Best moments of Grammys 2019.” Rather quickly, my opinion changed to conform with what I was reading. And those summaries were in turn based on an aggregate of opinions gleaned from social media. It was Wisdom of Crowds – applied retroactively.

The fact is that we don’t trust our own opinions. This is hardwired in us. Conformity is something the majority of us look for. We don’t want to be the only one in the room with a differing opinion. Social psychologist Solomon Asch proved this almost 70 years ago. The difference is that in the Asch experiment, conformity happened in the moment. Now, thanks to our digital environment where opinions on anything can be found at any time, conformity happens after the fact. We “sandbox” our own opinions, waiting until we can see if they match the social media consensus. For almost any event you can name, there is now a market for opinion aggregation and analysis. We take this “meta” data and reshape our own reality to match.

It’s not just the malleability of our reality that is at stake here. Our memories serve as guides for the future. They color the actions we take and the people we become. We evolved as conformists because that was a much surer bet for our survival than relying on our own experiences alone.  But might this be a case of a good thing taken too far? Are we losing too much confidence in the validity of our own thoughts and opinions?

I’m pretty sure doesn’t matter what Gord Hotchkiss thinks about the Grammys of 2019. But I fear there’s much more at stake here.

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