If your social media feed is like mine, it was burning up this Monday with the slap heard around the world. Was Will Smith displaying toxic masculinity? Was “it was a joke” sufficient defence for Chris Rock’s staggering lack of ability to read the room? Was Smith’s acceptance speech legendary or just really, really lame?
More than a few people just sighed and chalked it up as another scandal up for the beleaguered awards show. This was one post I saw from a friend on Facebook, “People smiling and applauding as if an assault never happened is probably Hollywood in a nutshell.”
Whatever your opinion, the world was fascinated by what happened. The slap trended number one on Twitter through Sunday night and Monday morning. On CNN, the top trending stories on Monday morning were all about the “slap.” You would have thought that there was nothing happening in the world that was more important than one person slapping another. Not the world teetering on the edge of a potential world war. Not a global economy that can’t seem to get itself in gear. Not a worldwide pandemic that just won’t go away and has just pushed Shanghai – a city of 30 million – back into a total lock down.
And the spectre of an onrushing climactic disaster? Nary a peep in Monday’s news cycle.
We commonly acknowledge – when we do take the time to stop and think about it – that our news cycles have about the same attention span as a 4-year-old on Christmas morning. No matter what we have in our hands, there’s always something brighter and shinier waiting for us under the tree. We typically attribute this to the declining state of journalism. But we – the consumers of news – are the ones that continually ignore the stories that matter in favour of gossipy tidbits.
This is just the latest example of that. It is nothing more than human nature. But there is a troubling trend here that is being accelerated by the impact of social media. This is definitely something we should pay attention to.
The Confounding Nature of Complexity
Just last week, I talked about something psychologists call a locus of control. Essentially it is defined by the amount of control you feel you have over your life. In times of stress, unpredictability or upheaval, our own perceived span of control tends to narrow to the things we have confidence we can manage. Our ability to cope draws inward, essentially circling the wagons around the last vestiges of our capability to direct our own circumstances.
I believe the same is true with our ability to focus attention. The more complex the world gets, the more we tend to focus on things that we can easily wrap our minds around. It has been shown repeatedly that anxiety impacts the ability of our brain to focus on things. A study from Finland’s Abo Akademi University showed that anxiety reduces the ability of the brain to focus on tasks. It eats away at our working memory, leaving us with a reduced capacity to integrate concepts and work things out. Complex, unpredictable situations natural raise our level of anxiety, leading us to retreat to things we don’t have to work too hard to understand.
The irony here is the more we are aware of complex and threatening news stories, the more we go right past them to things like the Smith-Rock story. It’s like catnip to a brain that’s trying to retreat from the real news because we can’t cope with it.
This isn’t necessarily the fault of journalism, it’s more a limitation of our own brains. On Monday morning, CNN offered plenty of coverage dealing with the new airstrikes in Ukraine, Biden’s inflammatory remarks about Putin, Trump’s attempts to block Congress from counting votes and the restriction of LGBTQ awareness in the classrooms of Florida. But none of those stories were trending. What was trending were three stories about Rock and Smith, one about the Oscar winners and another about a 1600-pound shark. That’s what we were collectively reading.
It’s not just that the news is too complex for us to handle that made the Rock/Smith story so compelling. Our built-in social instincts also made it irresistible.
Evolution has equipped us with a highly attuned social antennae. Humans are herders and when you travel in a herd, your ability to survive is highly dependent on picking up signals from your fellow herders. We have highly evolved instincts to help us determine who we can trust and who we should protect ourselves from. We are quick to judge others, and even quicker to gossip about behavior that steps over those invisible boundaries we call social norms.
For generations, these instincts were essential when we had keep tabs on the people closest to us. But with the rise of celebrity culture in the last century, we now apply those same instincts to people we think we know. We pass judgement on the faces we see on TV and in social media. We have a voracious appetite for gossip about the super-rich and the super famous.
Those foibles may be ours and ours alone, but they not helped by the fact that certain celebrities – namely one Mr. Smith – feels compelled to share way too much about himself with the public at large. Witness his long and tear-laden acceptance speech. Even though I have only a passing interest in the comings and goings of Will and Jada, I know more about their sex lives than that of my closest friends. The social norm that restricts bedroom talk amongst our friends and family is not there with the celebrities we follow. We salivate over salacious details.
No Foul, No Harm?
That’s the one-two punch (sorry, I had to go there) that made the little Oscar ruckus such a hot news item. But what’s the harm? It’s just a momentary distraction for the never-ending shit-storm that defines our daily existence, right?
The more we continually take the path of least resistance in our pursuit of information, the harder it becomes for us to process the complex concepts that make up our reality. When that happens, we tend to attribute too much importance and meaning to these easily digestible nuggets of gossip. As we try to understand complex situations (which covers pretty much everything of importance in our world today) we start relying too much on cognitive short cuts like availability bias and representative bias. In the first case, we apply whatever information we have at hand to every situation and in the second we resort to substituting stereotypes and easy labels in place of trying to understand the reality of an individual or group.
Ironically, it’s exactly this tendency towards cognitive laziness that was skewered in one of Sunday night’s nominated features, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up.
Of course, it was ignored. As Will Smith said, sometimes, “art imitates life.”